Archive for the ‘Writing Issues’ Category

Thoughts About Thoughts

It has been ages since I last posted. Please forgive my negligence. I am smack in the middle of what may be my toughest year of school yet. I will return in the spring, once I have regained control of
my thoughts.

For now, please enjoy my favorite bits of advise, from some really smart people, about the relationship between thoughts and writing.

Exact Thought = Precise Sentence:

“When once a thing conceived is in the wit,
The words present themselves to utter it.” -Horace

“It is not my words I polish, but my ideas.” -Joubert

“When things once are in the mind, the words offer themselves readily.” -Seneca

“Until you can put you theme in one sentence, you haven’t it in hand well enough to write
a novel.” -John Steinbeck

“Most men think indistinctly, and therefore speak without exactness.” -Samuel Johnson

“To improve one’s writing is to improve one’s thoughts–nothing else!” -Nietsche

“The great thing is we can always work on our writing, because we can work on our thoughts all the time, even when we’re not actually writing.” -John Schwiebert (my professor)

“Close your eyes and you will see.” -Joubert

“[There’s a way in which our senses can actually close us off to a deeper reality.] There is nothing more evident than that which cannot be seen by the eyes, and nothing more palpable than that which cannot be perceived by the senses. Wherefore the moral man watches diligently over his secret thoughts.” -Tseze (Chinese philosopher)

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Ad for the Commonplace Book

Attention: All writers.
Announcing a “must-have” item now available to stimulate thoughts and generate the flow of ideas. It’s been available for centuries, but I was only recently introduced to this fabulous item. And frankly, I can’t believe I’ve lived so long without it! Now that I’m paying attention, I find that a substantial majority of well-respected writers I’ve encountered in the last few months—modern, classical, or ancient and from all economical situations—keep/kept this item or it’s equivalent with them at all times.


Commonplace Book
The “must-have” for any writer or conscious thinker is the commonplace book—a pocket-sized (or purse-sized) notebook carried with you at all times in order to record what is uppermost on your mind at any given moment.

See if this sounds familiar: you’re driving down the road, or in the dentist’s chair, or suddenly awakened in the night with a brilliant, or at least interesting, idea, but you’ve no place to jot it down! By the time you get your hands on paper and pen, the thought has long since faded into the far recesses of your mind. Lost forever.

Don’t ya hate that?!

The commonplace book defeats the above scenario. That never has to happen again! The moment a thought hits, you whip it out, and write it down. Voile! The thought is saved from certain death. (Although, if you’re driving, I recommend taking the time to pull off the road before recording your thought.)

How To
A few things to keep in mind while getting used to your commonplace book:

  • The thought itself is important and should not be prejudged for quality.
  • The trigger and the idea it promotes don’t necessarily have to reflect one another.
  • Trust your instincts. Editing as you write may destroy the beauty of the original thought. So write it first, that way it’s safely preserved, and then hack it to pieces.

Also, among your jotted thoughts, please include thoughts from the following categories:

  • Dumb
  • Stupid
  • Obvious
  • Irrelevant

Any thoughts from the above may be, or lead to, your best ideas. In particular, obvious thoughts actually hold a fair amount of value, because they usually resonate well with the masses.

Give it a try. If you’re not in the habit already, pick up an inexpensive, small notebook the next time you’re at the store, and see if this works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Write Back: Defense for Information Overload

I used to consider writing a proactive activity requiring time and motivation. But my current lit professor has effectively broadened my view. Writing is also a defensive tool meant to help us sift through and respond to the information onslaught of our sometimes chaotic world.

Information Overload
Not too long ago, people were starved for information and would go to great lengths to gather it. Self-education on any given topic was not easy. Informal research used to be a somewhat painful process filled with digging and dead-ends. But that is no longer the norm.

We used to chase information, but now information chases us. A few keystrokes bring up gazillions of pages filled with opinions and facts on every topic imaginable. Television, radio, magazines, newspapers, email, blogs, automated phone messages. Billboards and other signs along the roadways demand attention with flashing lights and even sirens. Fliers in the mail, and on my car, and inside my screen door; they’re totally inescapable! Community leaders, politicians, protesters, and even that poor sap dressed up like the statue of liberty, dancing around on the busiest street corner in your neighborhood is trying to shove some tidbit down your throat about pizza or taxes or whatever.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have information so readily available. However, it’s safe to say that the amount of information swirling around can be overwhelming. And if we’re not careful, it’s easy to drown in the current. I’ve been there a few times, and I’m sure you’ll concur. So what are we to do?

Write back.


Defensive Writing

When my professor first suggested this, I was quite flabbergasted. With all the time it takes to work through the information presented on any given day, I couldn’t believe he was suggesting that we take even more time to create more information. I was concerned that he was only adding to the stress of my life.

But I dutifully began to record my thoughts as they came. And surprisingly, I found that it did not add information overload, it helped decrease information overload. Responding to information and recording our responses allows us to sift and process information, then set it aside until we need it again. It frees up space in our brain for the next onslaught. It’s like constantly emptying our “in-box.”

This concept makes me think of… laundry. No, seriously! Pretend it’s washday and the dryer has finished a batch. If we attempt to just hold in our arms all the clean, dry laundry as it comes out, we will soon be dropping things, which will lead to the loss and destruction of our clean, dry laundry. Plus we will be ill prepared to handle the next batch and soon completely overwhelmed. But if we fold those clothes and put them away—or process them—our arms will be empty and ready for the next batch.


Using Information

Information by itself is useless. Information merely gathered is only helpful to the gather-er. But when we respond to information, we create a dialogue that benefits all within earshot, especially ourselves. Information is usually intended to be helpful, but that can only happen if it is sifted, processed, and responded to.

So now that you’ve been curious enough to read my information, give it a try. Leave me a comment, or open up a new word file and jot down your response.

The Distinction

Today’s guest post is from Ian over at Writing Fantasy who never fails to turn the wheels in my head every time he speaks. Someday I will ask him about what it must be like to live life with a 45lb. brain on your shoulders.

I prefer to write Fantasy, but I enjoy Sci Fi as well. Now Sci Fi is not the same thing as Fantasy. The distinction is small, and in some stories it’s blurred, but it’s there.

The best and most succinct explanation of the difference that I’ve ever heard is this:

“Sci Fi is what could be but isn’t.
Fantasy is what can’t be but is.”

I believe it was Orson Scott Card who said this but I can’t prove it. If anyone knows if it was indeed Mr. Card, or if you know who did say it, please let me know. If I happen to be lucky enough to have made it up without realizing it then I claim it as mine, but I doubt I did.

The difference is Sci Fi uses science to explain its impossibilities and Fantasy uses magic. The two genres have more in common then then not. And yet I’ve heard of infighting amongst the geeks and nerd ranks. Contention rages about the validity of Sci Fi over Fantasy or vice versa. Arguments that one is better than the other abound.

Brothers and sisters (assuming there are any girl geeks out there, I’ve yet to find any) please put this bad blood which runs between our two great genres aside. They are both capable of greatness and culpable of … ungreatness. But there are those who would deride us all of our place in the world. Those who view both genres as dross. The enemy is out there, let us not do their work for them. Besides if Sci Fi and Fantasy really were to clash one with the other I think we all know who would win.

Huh… I didn’t expect that. Although it may look bad now, this knight is totally gonna kick this space ranger’s butt. Trust me, because in Fantasy we got magic.

for more of Ian, be sure to stop by Writing Fantasy.

Don’t Just Ban Comic Sans, Replace It

There is a war raging. One side is fighting to obliterate a beloved champion of the people. The typography world has long been disgusted and outraged by the general popularity and overuse of the typeface Comic Sans. Their aim is to “eradicate this font from the face of the earth.”

Comic Sans is bubbly, silly, and wasn’t even well thought-out, apparently. According to Wikipedia, Microsoft designer, Vincent Connare was working on program with cartoon characters that spoke in Times New Roman and recognized the need for a more informal typeface.

After combing the Word typeface catalog, he found nothing appropriate, and quickly designed his version of comic book lettering. Comic Sans shot off like a rocket among Microsoft users. (Ironically Connare now sympathizes with the haters.)

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that typeface designers haven’t already jumped on this. I believe most word-processing software now include Comic Sans in their typeface catalogues. They pay Microsoft royalties in order to do so. There’s obvious market interest on this point.

So why do the haters object so violently? After perusing BanComicSans.com (which was truly an entertaining way to burn an afternoon, by the way. I definitely recommend it.) I gather they object on several points. First, fonts are supposed to convey meaning, and Comic Sans projects nothing but lightheartedness.

What can I say? Duh. Hence the value.

Second, Comic Sans holds no respect for tradition. It was created without regard to rules and guidelines that have long since been “established standards of this craft.”

I’m all for preserving and respecting the traditions set by the stone-carvers and typesetters that worked so hard at their craft. They deserve it. And that history is still relevant to the work that goes into a typeface design today. However, in the marketplace, value should be somewhat dictated by the consumer. Surely someone in the typography profession is smart enough to address and merge these two points.

BanComicSans.com also points to the constant inappropriate use of the font. Warning signs, angry letters, hospital department ads have all been given a naïve spin, because their designers should have made better decisions.

I once heard the use of Comic Sans compared to wearing a clown suit to a black-tie affair, and I agree, there are tons of situations where Comic Sans is wildly inappropriate. But what about my three-year-old’s birthday party? I’d much rather show up in a clown suit than an evening gown. Likewise I’d feel just as silly displaying party banners printed in Bookman Oldstyle or some such.

It is also true that Comic Sans is used to death these days. I even avoid its use, because mainstream popularity has pushed it to the point of cliché. But I continually search unsatisfactorily for a replacement.

So, attention typography world: there is a need to fill here! If you don’t like Comic Sans, fine. Get rid of it. But please provide us the product we are asking for. Give us something appropriate already!

Your turn beloved reader. Where do you weigh in?

Movie Vs. Book

Blame it on a recent disappointing experience, but I wish to weigh in on the common debate between a great book and it’s movie counterpart.

After reading a number of comparisons between books and movies, one idea stands out. The phrase oft repeated is something like, “I didn’t think the movie was true to the book.” or, “They did a great job. They really stayed true to the book.” The concept of ‘staying true’ seams to not be about exact duplication. The key is to recreate the heart of the story contained in the book. It’s not enough for a movie to imitate events. A movie must maintain the same intensity and quality in relationships, character development, tension, suspense, and all other facets of the story. But the how seams to be less important.

For proof, check out Jane Auten’s Sense and Sensibility. Emma Thompson–who wrote the screenplay– said that the dialogue in the book would not give depth to the characters in live action. The character development in the book is found mostly in the narrative sections. In order to ‘stay true’ to the characters of the book, Emma Thompson invented most of the dialogue of the movie. But she did it so well that even avid Jane Austen fans bought it.

Eric Van Lustbader’s trilogy about Jason Bourne offers a more dramatic example of this point. Both the book and the movie appeal to the same audience, and many comparisons claim that the movies remained true to the ideas in the books, but the story lines and events are not at all the same. I believe this is as it should be. Because the books were written several decades ago, simply recreating them–with their outdated technology and politics–would have been futile. The heart of the Jason Bourne story lies in his ability to use modern technology and his cutting edge knowledge to fight corrupt politics. So even though the events are very different, most reviewers are happy with both.

So if a movie is so different from the book, why keep same name? Why not acknowledge it as an entirely different story? The answer is to draw the crowd. The largest initial movie audience will be readers of book. That’s also why it’s so important to appeal to that group!

In my view, Ella Enchanted conversion to the screen was a colossal failure on this point. Gail Carson Levine’s novel is a charming YA fantasy novel about a adolescent girl who must dig deep for the inner strength she didn’t know she possessed. Tommy O’Haver’s movie is also charming, but it’s a spoof on fairy tales centered around a sassy but lovable teenager. Two cute stories, but as a fan of the book, the movie was a total let down. This movie might have done well if it had been marketed as its own product. But as the movie version of the book I loved so well, it didn’t stay ‘true.’

Where do you weigh in? Should a movie stick with the storyline of the book, or is it okay to go another direction? What books-turned-movies do you like/hate?

Single Sourcing with Rhetoric

The following is a white paper I wrote with Sharla Winterbottom of WinterWrite and Stacy Parker. We’re all considering careers somewhere in the world of technical communication, so we’re deeply interested by the ongoing battle between writing for an audience and single sourcing. Some “experts” are claiming single sourcing is the apocalypse of technical writing, and we should cling to the old ways as long as possible. Some say it’s the dawn of the second coming, a jumping off point for a whole new era of technical writing. Sharla, Stacy, and I believe the answer, as it usually does, lies somewhere between the two extremes.

I’m publishing this here, because I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Where do you weigh in?

Single Sourcing with Rhetoric
White Paper

The field of technical writing has evolved greatly since its humble beginnings. Technical writing today consists of skill, in-depth subject knowledge, and most importantly, rhetoric—the ability to use language effectively to inform and persuade an audience. Technical writers have adjusted and embraced the changes that have shaped today’s technical writing, especially the changes in consumers’ demands for more “user-friendly” writing. Not only do consumers expect accuracy in typical instruction manuals and everyday documents, but with the increase in web sites and online help features, user interaction with information is more important than ever. New technologies appear daily that affect technical writing and the needs of audiences.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Single Sourcing

One of the more recent changes in the field is the advent of single sourcing, which is writing information in pieces, or modules, that are saved and labeled accordingly with XML (extensible markup language) tags in order to be reused in multiple documents. The needs for consistency, clarity, and efficiency in technical writing can be met by single sourcing, which is a form of content management or managing and maintaining information. Many companies have already employed single sourcing and XML as content management solutions because of the benefits they bring:

  • Writing modules of information for multiple projects one time
  • Reusing modules in multiple places and formats
  • Easily editing only one main document when making necessary changes
  • Cutting costs because of reduced work

Given these benefits, it’s easy to see why many companies would want to single source as much of their content as possible.

However, some feel that writing reusable modules of information can leave rhetoric behind, because to reuse modules in multiple places, single sourced content must be written in a very general manner. Rhetoric that is specific to certain instances or situations would need to be taken out if it does not apply in all the instances where the content is being reused. Because the writing has to be so general, many technical writers feel that single sourcing strips away rhetorical benefits necessary to communicate effectively with a specific audience. Jeffrey Bacha states that “Single sourcing and content management strategies…not only threaten to return technical communication to product centered communication practices, they may also be establishing the elimination of audience awareness from the creation of technical documentation”(147).

Another concern with single sourcing is repetition. In order for each module of information to stand alone, concept explanations and term definitions are repeated over and over. This works well when the information modules are plugged into “frequently asked questions” or an online help format. The reader doesn’t have to search further to understand the terms and concepts used. However, when the information modules are organized into a textbook, manual, or other linear style document, the repetition of definitions and explanations can frustrate the reader.

Blending Single Sourcing and Rhetoric

Erin Joyce points out that content management systems cannot stand entirely alone: “Today, more than 60 percent of companies that have deployed Web content management solutions still find themselves manually updating their sites” (2003).

In order to address the repetition and lack of audience problems, single sourcing should employ the rhetoric that keeps audience needs in mind. Projects should be started with a single source approach. Standardizing sections of information that are in constant use creates consistency and efficiency within a company. In order to deal with repetition the technical writer can use XML tags to identify definitions and explanations within each information module. Then each time these modules are inserted into a document or project, a technical writer can edit for user-friendly transitions and rhetoric. When information modules are organized into a linear style document, the tagging system should simplify the process of pulling out unnecessarily repeated definitions and explanations.

Benefits of a combined approach include the following:

  • Companies save time and benefit by consistency of information.
  • Consumers appreciate that information is clear, pleasant to read, and avoids the automated feel of straight single-sourced format which can repeat too much and lack rhetoric.
  • Technical writers still get to craft information with a specific audience in mind and avoid falling to a status somewhere just above automaton.

Rather than letting the changes and technology adversely affect the field of technical writing, writers need to adjust to these changes and make them work successfully. By keeping the essential audience-centered aspects in technical writing along with single sourcing, writers will be able to continue the evolving nature of the field. By adjusting single sourcing to accommodate audience needs, technical writers can enjoy the best of both worlds—the new benefits offered by single sourcing and the time-tested successes of rhetoric.

REFERENCES

  • Bacha, Jeffrey. “Single Sourcing and the Return to Positivism: The Threat of Plain-Style, Arhetorical Technical Communication Practices.” Content Management: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice. Eds. George Pullma and Baotong Gu. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., 2009. 143-159.
  • Joyce, E. “Study: Content Management Tools Fail.” (2003). 17 February 2010
    .