Monday, December 21, 2009

Educational Wordiness

Is it ironic education programs throughout the country try to teach kids from the earliest age how to be effective writers. Then education destroys what they teach by assigning a page requirement for papers. Yes, I understand if it wasn’t for the page requirement some kids would only write half a page. It does serve a purpose, but it pollutes the greater purpose—better writing.

The more I read, the more I realize people learn bad writing skills working to meet page length requirements. You can have a brilliant paper written in seven pages that meets are requirements of the assignment except that it is three pages short. The paper soon collects filler as writers begin looking for ways to add three pages to the paper. Words like ‘during’ become ‘throughout the time period.’ The content begins to suffer thanks to wordiness.

The problem is, writers become so conditioned to writing for length that it carries over to their professional writing. I look over many reports every week, and I see three and four word phrases for what could simply be replaced with a single word. I have to think the education system is partially to blame. Perhaps educators should focus on content and not length by enforcing expectations and creating goals for the paper that go beyond it needs to be ten pages.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How to Embed a PDF into Your Web Pages

Technical writers use many different software programs and files types. Sometimes they integrate and sometimes they don’t. As someone who creates Web sites and writes white papers, I often need to post the white paper on the Internet.

Converting a white paper to HTML often creates formatting issues, and creating a hyperlink to the PDF means they are going to leave your Web site for all practical purposes. If they leave your Web site, you could be losing a new client.

I like to embed PDFs into the Web site’s HTML, and it’s simple to do. All it takes is the following code:


MyDocument.pdf


Simply adjust the width and height values so it fits neatly into your Web page. Of course, you will need to change the PDF file name from MyDocument to the name of your PDF.

You can also use the ‘embed’ tag to embed the PDF:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Christmas Viral Marketing Video

Let’s face it, marketing has we have known it will soon be a forgotten art. Within the next five years, we will see the transition of advertising taken from text on a page to scripts on the TV to viral efforts destined to bring customers to your Web site and create brand recognition. It’s a proven fact commercials on NBC, who are celebrating NBC Green Week this week, and other networks are allotted times to get up off the couch and accomplish something time in most homes. You know, pee breaks!

To win business these days, you have to have a powerful social media presence. If you really want to win business, you need something that goes viral. The Great Office War is a perfect example of a video that has gone viral. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my idea, which is sad because there are Nerf guns all over the office I work in. It’s nothing to come under attack by a foam bullet at our office, so it would have been a perfect video to go viral to get our company noticed.

Last Christmas, Office Max was the winner in the Christmas viral marketing campaign with ElfYourself. Their Web site went crazy after they give it the ability to place your face on an elf and make it dance around. It’s really the simple ideas that are the best, but coming up with those simple ideas seems hard these days in a post-modern sort of way. Dancing computer images were nothing new—remember the creepy dancing baby?

So the challenge was given to my team today to come up with the next big viral marketing campaign. No pressure there! Where do you even begin? Plus Christmas is just over five weeks away. Talk about limited production time!

This is one of the joys of being a technical writer. You always get other stuff thrown at you—stuff you didn’t prepare for in school and must learn on the job. It does keep things interesting.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Technical Sales Forces Could Benefit from a Technical Writer

Sales teams across the nation face challenges dealing with selling advanced technology. Many times sales reps are placed into technology sales without a proper understanding of the technology they sell. They are trained to solve pains, not necessarily trained to explain advanced technical concepts.

Sales teams could benefit with a technical writer on staff. Many times during the sales process, customers need documentation. Obviously sales proposals and hardware and software requirements are a given. They often fail to reinforce the solution to the client’s pain.

Sales reps can give generic information in the form of brochures or CD ROMs with basic video presentations, but they fall short of addressing the pains and explaining the details of the intricate solution. A technical writer can bridge the gap between technology sales rep and technology consumer.

Sales reps are paid to close deals. They need to be on the phone finding leads, finding needs, developing opportunities, and closing deals. If they spend time developing customized technical documentation for the potential client, they are losing time developing new business.

A technical writer provides a sense of consultation to the deal. Technical writers can develop materials that will reinforce how the pain will removed for the client by explaining in writing with images why the specifics of how the product will work in a client’s business. Think of it as a personalized addition to the sales reps presentation.

It’s a simple process really. A technical sales rep gets past the demo stage and writes up the proposal. As the proposal is written, they provide basic details of the sales scenario to the tech writer. The technical writing then creates a custom report that’s personalized featuring the technical solution an layman’s terms. The entire solution is explained by solving the pain in the report while describing the implementation processes so they are at ease with the decision to complete the deal.
A technical writer can be a valuable tool for any sales force.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bad Typing Habits: Two Errors for Every 300 Keystrokes

As a writer, especially a technical writer, I am aware about my bad typing habits. I am not a bad typist, the problem is I am a fast typist who thinks ahead of what I am typing. When I edit my material, I often find I leave out words, which confuses the meaning of what I type. I know I it’s a problem that many writers face when they type out their work.

Obviously, there is no cure for the bad habits with the exception of slowing down. Slow down your typing, and slow down thinking ahead of yourself. That’s hard to do, especially when you have an amazing thought that you want to express in your writing. The fear of losing the thought for accuracy scares most writers, especially those who are perfectionist with their thoughts.

The only solution is good editing. If you are like me, you are constantly writing during the day. When you add the additional blogging activities to your day, where does one find time to edit? I know my blogs often suffer from my lack of time and desire to get the information on the net so it can be read. I guess many of us compromise on some work and pay attention to the more important jobs all so we can fit everything in and meet deadlines. It’s really an unacceptable compromise.

I was reading a report at work that we are using for a new product. It claims that for every 300 keystrokes the average typist makes, there are two errors made. When you are typing a 1500 word article, that could easily mean there are 25 errors in the work. Ouch!

I don’t have to tell you, for many of us with English degrees on the wall, that’s just not acceptable; although, it’s really not a direct reflection on how well you use the English language. Typing is hard. It’s hard because we acquire bad habits. I have been typing now for 23 years. Imagine how hard that can be to fix after being conditioning those habits for years. Therefore, technical writers need to enforce their editing skills. You must find time to edit. If you don’t, you will embarrass yourself.

I recommend electronic editing through a software program called StyleWriter. It runs a quick pass through of your document and asks you to look at problem areas. Then print out your documents, get a pencil out, and manually edit your document. My editing instructor from college would be proud of me for making this suggestion. You will be surprised what you find. Remember that’s two errors for every 300 keystrokes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beware the Cubicle Idiot


As a fresh writer coming into a new job, you have to be aware of the ego trap. Ego trap you ask? The ego trap is the most annoying employee in the company that thinks they are the company. Without them the company would fall apart. It is important to figure out who this person is in case the day comes they ever ask you what you think of their writing.

In my first job after graduating from college with my technical writing degree, that first ego was named Dan. I started the job in the cold days of a Chicago January. The earth has been frozen for a number of months when you live that far north, and there’s little to talk about, especially if the Bears miss the playoffs.

Dan sat in the cubicle next to mine. Nearly every minute of every day of every workday, I had to listen to Dan greet potential clients. When they asked him how he was doing, I had to hear the same one-liners about Chicago’s frozen tundra. I would have hung up had I been on the other line.
One morning between frozen tundra phone calls, his beady eyes popped over my cubicle like a scene out of the office. He spoke.

“I just wrote this marketing letter to my doctors for the latest software special. I was wondering if you would take a look at it and make sure it’s okay.”

I just took the bait to enter the ego trap.

He handed me three pages of a sales letter. I sat in my cubicle listening to the frozen tundra bit reading his long-winded, large worded letter. I shook my head knowing this was going to hit the trashcan.

I asked him to send me the Word document version. I ran it through Style Writer. Style Writer gave it one of the lowest scores I have seen to date. Geez!

For the next hour, I sat editing the letter. It shrunk from three pages to just less than a total page. I sent it back to Dan proud of my work.

Within minutes, his beady eyes popped over the cubicle wall. “What’s wrong? You didn’t like my letter?”

I explained to him that I transferred it from passive voice to active voice while trying to fit it on one page. He began to explain that his wife worked in marketing and his letter was text book. I left it at well, throw out my changes.

A week later I bought my first new PT Cruiser. I did my best to arrive after Dan so I didn’t have to park next to his rusted out, multi-colored Dodge Neon that was a collection of junk yard parts on what used to be a purple car. One day I arrived before Dan as I sat talking to my girlfriend on the phone.

Dan pulled the Dodge Neon as close to my new car as possible. He flung his door open. It hit my car violently shaking it. He looked for my attention, and when my eyes met his, he flung his cigarette into the black snow.

Over the next few weeks, I began to discover more nicks and scratches on my car. Deep down inside I knew. I began parking my car behind a parallel building down the street and began walking to work.

Even that wasn’t enough to stop Dan. I always took my lunch later in the day. I hated where I worked, and a combination of things kept making it worse—including the boss’s Chinese girlfriend began working and we had an instant language barrier and a difference of opinion on design. My designs that once impressed quickly fell on their face when she came along. Officially, she wasn’t his girlfriend, but I saw them walking in the park holding hands the same day I met his wife. Since time always passed faster before I took lunch, I always put it off.

One morning, I was running late, so I parked in the parking lot. As I left to grab lunch, I noticed Dan was in the parking lot watching me leave. I thought little of it. I pulled into Wendy’s a few blocks away and went inside to have lunch for 30 fast minutes.

As I stood in line, the site of a purple junk Dodge Neon doing a u-turn caught the corner of my eye. I watched Dan drive into the Wendy’s parking lot the wrong way, and he was steering his junk car towards the bumper of my new PT Cruiser. He was looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him. My eyes met his, and he steered out and away from my car. I finally went to my manager and reported him.

From that moment on, Dan stopped messing with my car to my knowledge. Of course, I put in my two-weeks’ notice at this time, and the owner had asked me to stay on and work from home. I agreed to knowing it would be easier to look for a new job. I started working from home in April.

A few weeks later, a corporate e-mail was sent letting employees Dan would no longer be working there. It turns out he went into the owners office and presented him with a list of OSHA regulations he felt the company violated. He told the owner he would return to work once they fixed the infractions.

I learned a valuable lesson about the ego trap. Sometimes it’s better to tell someone their writing is simply amazing knowing they will fail rather than try to help out. I was in sales for over ten years by the way, so what I gave him was good advice. He didn’t want good advice. He wanted to be told he was the best employee in the history of best employees.

Is this a Joke?: Tehcnical Writing Getting Very Technical


I found this blog entry on the Internet a few months ago. I hope it's a joke, because this person shouldn't be considered a technical writer otherwise. (Click on image to enlarge if you can't read it from this page.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Using Copy Fill in Microsoft Word to Create Random Text

As a designer, I often create the layout before writing the text. At one time, I just typed random letters while hitting the space bar every so often to fill an area with text. This is a waste of time.
Microsoft Word has a convenient feature to create random text call ‘copy fill.’ Copy fill allows you to generate text so you can see what your page layout looks like with text.

To generate copy fill:

1. Open up Microsoft Word
2. Type the following code in the new Word document: =rand(x,x)

a. Substitute the first x with the number of paragraphs you want to generate
b. Substitute the second x with the number sentences you want in each paragraph
3. Hit Enter

Simply cut or copy the copy fill and paste it into your layout.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Frustrated By RoboHelp's Lack of Modernization and Compatibility

I am a frustrated technical writer. I have been given a huge assignment to develop documentation for another company that we are working with. I am creating the documentation in RoboHelp. For all practical purposes, I use RoboHelp for electronic help guide documentation. Our client wants it printed out.


RoboHelp has an option to print documentation through Microsoft Word, but it's not compatible with the latest version of Word -- you know the Word with the strange ribbon you either really love or really hate? So now I am in a jam unless I come up with a Microsoft Word 2003 version, which is compatible with my version of RoboHelp.


I love Adobe products, but I feel their acquisition of RoboHelp has hurt the product.The only thing they have done that makes any sense with the product is bundle it in a package called the Technical Communications Suite. I think I am going to start looking for and learning another help authoring tool. I find that to be a shame because a company like Adobe has the resources to take a good product and make it great.They have not done that with RoboHelp.


I know it's not the sexiest product on the market -- after all, a software's help guide usually goes ignored. Many of us still have to spend hours behind a monitor using it, so it would be nice to see some modernization occur with RoboHelp and increased compatibility.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Strategies for Social Media and Web Copy

Strategies for Social Media and Web Copy
For Web copy to be successful, it has to lead a reader through the content with a goal. The goal is simply what do we want the reader to do once they have read the copy. If you spend time to share valuable information but fail to lead them to the next step, you are losing a potential customer. In other words like a salesman, you have to close. You will measure the success of your copy by the number of conversions.

This is a collection of successful strategies that should be applied to Web pages, blogs, Facebook fan pages, and other social media content to help improve your conversion rates. These rules have been taken from successful multi-million dollar marketers like Joe Sugarman and Maria Veloso.


Keep it simple
People who visit Web sites don’t read—they scan. In most cases, you have 15 to 30 seconds to gain their interest and provide a reason why they should stay at your site and turn their scanning into a comprehensive read.
· Keep sentence structure simple.
· Don’t be wordy.
· Get to point—provide a pain and a solution (multiple pains and confusions can cause confusion).
· Don’t waste time placing information that can be left out without changing the meaning of the copy.
· Write at a seventh grade level knowing that everyone who visits your site doesn’t have a degree in English literature. (Microsoft Word’s spell checker has a tool which you can turn on that grades the reading level of your document. Shoot for a Flesch grade level score of 7.0 to 8.0.)
-Write conversationally.
-Don’t be afraid to throw out some grammar rules, but not so many that you appear incompetent.
-Use contractions, they are less formal and tend to relax language.
-Write like you talk.

Headlines
The headline may be the most important part of your copy. It must capture the attention of people who search for answers in search engines like Google. It can be fun, but it also needs to ensure the reader that if they read on, they are going to be introduced to a solution.
· Headlines should be short.
· Should draw reader to the subheadline.
· A headline should help define the content.
· Write out a list of possible headlines and then choose the best.
· Use an editorial approach to create your headline.
-Sales approaches come across as pushy and you want it to be conversational, not pushy.
· Does the headline work with the subheadline, paragraph headings, and content to get the viewer past the five second test and convinces them to read on?

Subheadlines
The subheadline is almost as important as the headline, but it has a different job.
· It provides the opportunity to expand the headline.
· Gives more information about the content.

Photo or drawing
One of the types of learners uses visual cues like pictures to acquire knowledge. Pictures are an important part of social media. Always include a caption with your picture, as it is nearly always read.

Copy rules

The idea of copy is to keep on a slippery slope. It’s important to maintain the readers’ interest and lead them to the end of the copy. The end of the copy should instruct the reader what they should do next, so think of copy as writing a sales process. You must interest the reader and in the end you must close the reader.


Therefore an important discussion must take place prior to writing the copy. What is the goal of the copy? What must the reader to do to measure success?


The first sentence
The appearance of text on the page can make the difference of a potential customer reading on or leaving. Once again simple is better. Paragraph block should be smaller because they are less intimidating. Large blocks of text represent time and complication.


Sugarman recommends writing a short sentence to start the actual copy. The sentence should be a point and immediately generate interest to get the reader to proceed to the second sentence. The second sentence builds to the third sentence and so on from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.


Paragraph headings
Like I mentioned earlier, Web users don’t read, they scan. Give your visitors visual cues in which they can quickly find the information they need on the page. Headings also break copy into chunks so the copy looks less intimidating.


Bullets
Earlier, I looked at why you should have an image and a caption included with your copy. There are people who learn visually. Bullets are another tool that reach out to different learning types. They quickly bring out the main points and summarize content.


Pain, solution, action
In keeping content consistent with the Sandler sales technique, pain must be addressed. Pains are the first part of the slippery slope needed to be successful with Web copy. It’s important to focus mainly on one pain to avoid confusion and information overload. Remember if someone found your content via the Web, they were probably looking for a solution to a single pain. Focus on that pain and let the pain lead the reader to the solution.


The solution should create enough interest without giving up entirely what your product does. Remember, the idea with any product is not to give up all the pizzazz up in one paragraph because there will be other products who solve the same pains. When final negotiations begin, you will need some pleasant surprises which sell your product through additional pains which may arise. This pizzazz can be presented later and should depend on the goal of the original copy.
Finally there is the action. What do you want the reader to do once they are finished reading the copy? This is what is called the close in the sales world. Copy needs to close as well. It may be as simple as leaving a comment in a comment form for feedback. If you have a product or idea to sell, you will ask them leave information about themselves so they can be contacted by a sales rep. You might ask them to order online. Regardless of what it is, the reader must be instructed what to do at the end of the content.


There are many different response devices for use on the Web—coupon, toll-free numbers, opt in, offer, ordering information, information request forms, or release of a publication or information in exchange of lead information. It may be to contact someone and express support or feedback.


Remember, we are all sales people in life. When you write, you want people to buy into what you write by considering the points you make. Take advantage of what you know about the sales process and place it in your copy while relaxing the tone to be conversational—not pushy.


Keywords
Finally, there has to be a good distribution of keywords in your content. Keywords should be conservatively used in the headline, subheadlines, and content so the pages get indexed for searches. Don’t overuse keywords as they will complicate the writing and violate search engine algorithms, which could hurt your search chances. Keywords should be used sparingly, but don’t forget to use them. They are key to attracting people to your copy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Best Advice for Writing Web Copy

When you read this blog, more than likely you aren't going to read it. You will skim through it looking for key information. Over the years, Web users have become conditioned to skim for information in copy; therefore, trying to be the Hemingway of Web copy isn't going to get you far.

The key to successful Web copy is to provide information that solves issues people seek your site for. Think of those problems, and write solutions of how your product and services will solve those problems. Make the solutions easy to find. I recommend bullets.

If you keep the information obscure hoping a client will call you, chances are they are moving on to your competitor. So remember these key steps.

  • Find the pains
  • Provide solutions for the pains
  • Include what the next step is for beginning the solution

Remember large paragraphs and pages of information my scare off a potential client. Chunk your information, and be sure it doesn't intimidate.

Friday, May 1, 2009

An Amazing Solution for Duplicate Data Entry Problems

Computers and software work together to provide you with the efficiencies you demand. Far too many times software doesn’t integrate with other software leaving you dependent on primitive tools like the Windows Clipboard or reentering data yourself into another application.

Organizations often face pulling information from multiple sources and entering it as data in their own management systems. As users reenter data into their management system, they often make typing errors that can slow down your processes and cause confusion within the organization. Current tools in Windows allow users to copy one field at a time and paste it to another field one at a time with many mouse clicks. The process eats valuable time.

Keying your data into another data source also takes up time, but the real problem is accuracy. Reentering data yourself creates typing errors which can create confusion in your database.
A study performed by the Department of Defense during the 1980s discovered that errors for key-entry of data amounted to 1 in every 300 characters. That means if one of your staff member was retyping the information on this page, they would have already made three mistakes. What if anyone of those mistakes cost you business?

Another company discovered that by reducing duplicate data entry, they were able to save themselves 17,000 hours for a cost savings of $320,000 a year. Another study found that data error rates of 2% are common, so if your staff are keying in 1,000 pieces of information every day, each member produces 20 errors. If you’d rather look at it by time, let’s say you have people performing data entry for 8 hours every day. These errors need an added 10 minutes a day -- nearly one hour a week, or 52 hours a year – for each full-time data entry person to fix. That is assuming you catch the errors.

A new type of software screenscrapes your computer screen for data from multiple applications including Office, Web, forms, and management applications and places them on a super clipboard. The data is easily drag and dropped from the clipboard to the application you are working in. It’s simple and accurate.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Freelance Writers, Web Designers, and Employees May Save Your Small Business From Obamanomics

Obama's stimulus plan puts a lot of extra pressure on small businesses. Obviously 'going Galt' (Atlas Shrugs) isn't practical for every entrepreneur out there. If you think, you can get through this without sacrificing your hard work to Obamanomics. Freelance writers, Web designers, and marketing staff save you from Obama's new unemployment taxes and risks.

There are two provisions in the unemployment stimulus that threatens your small business and probably makes you reconsider hiring. These provisions are going to take some serious coin out of your pocket as they increase your cost to hire new employees.

Small business owners may have to cover part-time employees with unemployment benefits. Many employees are unaware your employer has to pay an unemployment tax when they hire you full-time.

Small businesses may be forced to pay benefits to employees who leave their jobs including for illnesses or disability of a family member.

The best way around this is to give Obama a dose of his own medicine. Consider hiring freelance and 1099 employees. Not only will you save the costs of the extra unemployment taxes under Obama's plan, but you escape paying Social Security taxes for each employee, as well as benefits.
Now, I know I will take some heat from the Obama supporters for promoting this, but Obama's policies aren't small business friendly. In fact, it's predicted there will be a 14% decline in small businesses once these changes take affect. Why would you want Obama to destroy everything you work so hard for so he can pass around free handouts?

In today's economic climate, many people will be happy for the work. They will be responsible for paying their own taxes, which will save you accounting costs. When the economy does turn, and we can throw these bums out of office, you can always offer full-time positions later.
This is a survival of the fittest type of economy, and it's apparent small businesses are going to have to take drastic measures to come out on top.

If you have freelance work, please visit my technical writing and Web design page for more information about my services.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Avoid the Noise

I can't begin to tell you how frustrating some Web sites are. In the attempt to make them cute, you sometimes make them miserable to come to. Here's what I mean:

If you post something on your site for someone to read, keep the distractions to the minimum. A white background with black letters is the easiest on the eyes. If a site has a black background with pink font, I'm leaving. Your writing should be more important than the appearance of your site. Make it easy for the reader to enjoy.

Adding background music and assuming your reader enjoys the same music that you like is a huge mistake. Number one, if I don't like the music, I am going to turn it down or leave. Number two, it may interfere with load time which may cause me to lose interest. Number three, it's interfering with my comprehension of what you just wrote, and I am not taking as much from your site as I should.

If your Web site is about content, avoid the noise.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Technical Writer to Marketing Writer: A Unique Change

My stiff structured technical style faced a challenge the last few weeks at work. Forget all the rules I learned, I am not writing copy as well. Advertising writing is a 180 degree turn from technical writing. It involves sloppiness, conversational tone, and a lack of respect to punctuation.

It's a fast trip from logos to pathos. It sounds easy, right? It's not.

Writing to stir emotions is tough, especially dealing with complex themes. I go from writing one set of instructions to writing five or six themes. So far the results aren't bad, but I'm haven't found my comfort either. It makes me nervous to have so many eyes looking over something I am not comfortable with.

The terminology is new for me as well. In today's economy, I am not complaining. I am happy to have the opportunity to learn something new. For now, it's like wearing an itchy sweater.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Diversify

A technical writer is often a luxury, and during time when the economy lowers itself into recession, technical writers are often the first on the chopping block. It's important to diversify your skills and train to make yourself valuable to your company. Volunteer for marketing jobs, Web design, graphic design, and any other skills you have to help prevent an unemployment check during these times. Of course this is true with most jobs, but a technical writer is one of the easiest positions to let go.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Be Sure to be Consistent if You Can't Find the Rule

Often times, writers face unclear rules about words. Let’s take a look at the word backup. Sometimes you see it written as back up and sometimes back-up. If you can’t find the rules to the correct usage of the word, be sure to be consistent with your use. If you write back up, then use back up for the remaining parts of the document.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Clearly Written Instructions

As a technical writer, I struggle understanding what my clients and associates often write instructing me what to do. I believe they try to save time without thinking out clear instructions, so I spend needless time on the phone trying to get out of them what they could have presented clearly in an e-mail. When you want something done, it's essential you write your directions clearly.

  • State your objective. Tell what you want done and set a deadline.
  • Use bullets to list important information that should be included in the work.
  • Use numbers for steps that need to be taken to complete the work.
  • Once you deliver a clear explanation to the person you are hiring, the remaining portion of the process will be much smoother.