Posts Tagged ‘write’

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.

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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.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: It’s All About Quantity

Today’s nugget was gleaned from a literature class I am currently taking. My teacher presented the following quote from Jules Renard in class. My response is below.

“Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter how lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to puck up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up. The strong do not hesitate. They settle down, they seat, they go on to the end. They exhaust the ink, they use of the paper…In literature, there are only oxen.”

There is a lot of hope in this statement. It puts our fates back in our hands and gives us the ability to proceed. We don’t have to depend on something innate, beyond our control, to determine whether we can or cannot write. It’s so obvious that I’ve never thought about it before, but it is true: anyone can compose any sentence. No magical power is required to do so.

In this statement Renard claims the key to producing great work is to produce tons of work, and then, I presume, to pick out what is best. Hopefully, if there is enough work to choose from, then some of it will be very good. And it goes without saying—but I will say it anyway—that all of that work will be great practice to improve the work as the writer goes along.

It makes me think of J.K Rowling who managed to write a story that has resonated through this decade and touched all varieties of people like no other in my lifetime. But she patiently plodded along, like an ox, and wrote for years before she ever produced the first book. She wrote thousands and thousands of words that never went into her books, carefully laying foundations, getting to know her characters, and honing her craft until she could choose the very best bits of text to go into her books.

This advice from an expert novelist and playwright has caused me to renew my dedication and keep moving forward. And hopefully some day I too, will offer the same advice to those who want to know how I did it.

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: How I Craft a Book Review

If you’d like some advice about how to write a very formal and scholarly critique of a book, you won’t find it here. Please visit Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for a great article about that kind of book-reviewing. This is about the informal world of book-review blogging, and what I look for and aim to provide in a book-review.

So, to start: do you or don’t you take notes while you read? I don’t. I prefer to be absorbed into the story, and I can’t do that if I am constantly assessing whether the text or character or what-have-you is ‘jot-worthy’ or not.

I read the book, at whatever pace it demands, and then put it all–my thoughts included– on the shelf for a few days. After that I make a note of anything that still stands out to me: writing style, character development, a certain moment, a plot twist, anything. I figure if I’m still thinking about something after a few days, then it’s probably worth discussing in my review.

If nothing stands out, but I must write a review then my best bet is to go through a list of questions like this one from the Los Angeles Valley College Library and hope it gets the wheels turning in my brain.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I don’t use a template for book-reviews. I shape each article individually. But while I’m shaping, I keep a few do’s and don’t’s in mind:

Don’t:

  • Stress about a comprehensive synopsis. Readers will go to Goodreads or Amazon for that. Most books already have dozens of synopses out there. Your personal opinions and perspective is the unique thing you can offer readers.
  • Be afraid to talk about plot twists, ending, or other surprise points. But be considerate, and warn those who haven’t read the book yet to stop reading your review if you are about to give away something important.
  • Think that a negative review will damage a book’s sales. Often times a negative review breeds more curiosity. If you want to deter readers from buying than don’t mention the book at all.

Do:

  • Read the entire book before you review it! This should be obvious, but for reasons unknown, some people don’t. You cannot pass fair judgment if you haven’t considered all the evidence. And as The Bloggers’ Bulletin suggests, you could end up with a foot planted squarely in your mouth if you make a factual error.
  • Mention the book title and author’s name in the first paragraph of your review. As Scholastic points out, no one likes to dig for that.
  • Express your opinions. As your reader that’s what I want from you. But if you’re reviewing a book about Mexican food, and if–due to a traumatic childhood incident involving avocados–you have an atypical aversion to Guacamole, it would be cool if you disclose that and acknowledge that your opinion may be colored accordingly.
  • Draw your conclusions and then explain why. The ‘why’ part lends credibility to your opinions and persuades your readers. Without the ‘why’ your review is just another rant.
  • Consider the author’s purpose in writing the book. University of Northern Carolina’s online writing center offers a great example of how skewed a review can end up, if the reviewer judges solely from their expectations and ignores the author’s intentions.

I usually sum-up by recommending the book to those that might find value in it, whether it’s a very wide audience made up of anyone who’s ever ridden in a car or a smaller crowd of moto-cross-loving grandmothers of Siamese twins.

So what about you? Do you take notes when you read? Do prefer the scholarly book-critique, or the casual, opinion-laden book-review?

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
    .

Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Post-Haste

The internet is full of blogs that started off well, but for whatever reason the author lost steam and abandoned the project. I believe this happens most often when the novelty wears off, and writing the blog ceases to be a source of entertainment. Totally understandable.

When the initial energy and excitement is gone, hard work is mostly all that’s left. And while there are rewards, few people are thrilled about spending 6 or more hours at the computer on a 500 word post. So what’s the trick? How do we maximize our time at the keyboard and maintain positive blogging energy?

Here’s my “best of” list from some smart people who know how to write fast:

  • Set the stage. Michelle V. Rafter says, “Write when you’re on.” She claims 5am is her freshest time of day and reserves it for writing. She ‘un-plugs’ (internet, T.V., etc.) and removes all possible distractions.
  • Focus your topic. Jim Estill starts with a list of points to cover; marinades them for a few days, gathering ideas and honing the focus of his piece; and then tosses the items that don’t fit. (BTW Jim’s article was fantastic, definitely worth your time.)
  • Answer a question. Gill E. Wagner says turning your subject into a question to answer identifies what you need and don’t need to cover.
  • Pick your format ahead of time. Alisa Bowman recommends spending your time on writing rather than format. Her article identifies 5 common blog-post formats.
  • Write first; then edit. Get everything out of your head before you make changes. Breaking up the flow of your ideas requires you to spend time collecting them again.
  • The shorter the post, the better. Internet audiences are known for their limited attention span. The blogosphere has no use for fluff and filler. Write about what’s interesting and avoid everything else.

Can you do it now? Go pound away for a solid 30 minutes, and then move on with your day already!