Episode 7: Let’s Get Technical

This may seem like a shock at first: technical writing does not mean dull writing. Too often journals and technical sites assume that their readers are more interested in the astounding, earth-shattering results, equations, and pontifications than in the clarity of the prose. But writing communication (that is, getting the point across in written words) depends upon how effectively the point is made. Advanced subject matter does not alter this point.

Defined: Put simply, technical writing refers to non-fiction that requires prior knowledge on the given subject. A technical paper, then, assumes that the reader is familiar enough with the topic at hand to eschew most introductions, definitions, and background. There’s no need to remind a microbiologist how proteins fold when discussing research, for example.

Elements: Although every field may be different, here are four common elements you will often find in technical writing: one neutral, two effective, and one needing to go.

  • Placement: Technical writing tends to exist within particular confines. You wouldn’t expect to find a journal article on the back of cereal box. Instead, when one picks up a science journal or a CIO whitepaper, one expects to read something more tailored for a knowledgeable audience.
  • Lingo: Some may blanch at calling their particular vernacular “lingo,” but technical writing generally uses undefined wording that other “experts” should recognize. In fact, this type of language can aid in brevity and clarity if the audience expects it.
  • Charts or graphs: This is not always guaranteed, but most technical writing will contain data points that are better represented visually. This, too, is useful.
  • Noun strings: And here we run into the problem. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of technical writing is the use of long noun strings that generally don’t convey much of anything. Let’s focus on these.

A noun string is, just like it sounds, a long jumble of nouns in a row. I’ll demonstrate.

A rare hydrogen-chloride shortfall vacuum event was observed.

Sounds impressive, eh? But I assure you that it is totally fabricated. We have grown accustomed to thinking of noun strings as “technical,” when, in fact, they are difficult for most readers to process. One noun we can process; two nouns perhaps. But “software interface bypass manifold transconducer” pushes the limits. Such language is what makes technical writing boring and tedious, even to the target audience.

Noun-string surgery is usually relatively painless. Instead of compacting nouns together, simply tease them apart. Instead of “transcendence versification poetry moment” use “a verse that demonstrates transcendence.” This may make the sentence a bit longer (and perhaps not as “impressive”), but the benefit to the flow and clarity is well worth the effort.

The second issue with the sentence above is the use of the passive (“was observed”). I am certainly not a dogmatist on verbs, but passive constructions do tend to grow tiresome if overused (we’ll look at these next week). Technical writers often feel the need for either false modesty or clinical distance from the research. Unfortunately for them, passive constructions used by them can cause trash receptacle deposition behavior models by the reader. And, please, don’t tell them I said that—or use that sentence.

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Episode 6: Taking on the Web

Most of you will not finish this post. Of the ones who do, many will simply skim through the paragraphs and note key words and phrases. What sets the Internet apart as a means of communication is that most of it is disposable—even more than magazines and newspapers. The web is, after all, a nearly overwhelming blend of visual style, images, media, and text. And there’s too much for any one person to devour.

Despite these challenges, the Internet also allows for creative expression that no other venue can. With printed text, there’s little room for dynamic elements (not to mention, no chance to make changes after publication). With TV, text is at a minimum, and as of right now, there’s no interactivity (save only those of you with Wiis). But the Internet allows for the visual flair and the copy.

So, what elements matter to Internet readers?

Drive-by reading: If you are familiar with analytics software, you know that time on any Internet page is low. Internet readers want to know the big five w’s immediately (who, what, when, where, and why) and also why it matters. The best Internet writing captures all of that in the first two or three sentences. You can certainly develop the idea more thoroughly later, but if you haven’t made your point in the first few sentences, the reader will be gone.

Let’s look at an example:

One man is in the hospital and two others are in jail after trying to climb the world’s largest ball of twine. The men were reportedly responding to a frat-house dare. [The idea, of course, is to make the reader want to know what happened and what the dare was.]

Give me pop: Visual elements are key. If you don’t read the rest of this section, get that point. Internet readers want easy-to-digest morsels to take with them, including headers, paragraph breaks, lists, tables, and images. Obviously that can be overdone (if everything is a list, for example), but if a reader sees a large block of text on the screen, you can be sure they will skim it or skip it. The reading pattern tends to be this: 1) read the title and the intro, 2) skim the rest of the article, and 3) zoom in on any parts that are interesting or read the whole thing if it matters to the reader.

Make me go: If the readers are interested, you should give them places to go. Handle links with care, but certainly use them to add value to your writing. Obviously, there are certain company style guides that will tell you appropriate usage, and the type of writing matters as well. But in-text links on long articles can be distracting and can cause readers to leave before they’re finished. Your safest bet is to provide links at the end in a list format or on the sides.

Skimpy: Even though many readers will simply scan over your writing, there are some who will not. And a writer’s ethical responsibility is to provide the best content possible throughout for the ones who will slog through it all. Of course, that’s not to say that throwing in a little “lorem ipsum” in the middle of an article somewhere wouldn’t make for an interesting excercise to see who notices.

Episode 5: Think Like an Editor

In many ways writing is the art of ordering words, images, paragraphs, and chapters in a way that conveys a particular message. Yes, creativity is key—but creativity alone does not always equal publication or effective writing. Words can be spontaneous, but published words take much more work to make them seem effortless. This is the great paradox: crafting your poetry and prose so much that the reader doesn’t think about them.

Being on both sides of the writer/editor divide, I find that I am most efficient and successful when I think like an editor before I submit the work. This allows me to be a bit more—well—callous in my self-assessments of what I’ve produced. I can slice and dice with less regret and more satisfaction.

So, how does and editor think? Let’s take a look.

Rule 1: An editor doesn’t care what your favorite scene/line is.

We all have them: that sentence or paragraph that “perfectly” captures what we mean; that poetic line that will forever be immortalized in literary history. And if you’ve dealt with editors before, you might have been horrified to find that they slashed right through that little bit of perfection without a second thought. Can they not see the amazing cleverness and creativity your cunning quote conveys?

Truth be told, our favorite lines or paragraphs are rarely as great as we think they are—and often, in fact, are interlopers into the flow or stilted. I think you will find that those gems you favor are often overworked and over polished. Some may make the cut, but my advice as an editor is to avoid “favorites” if possible. Editors look at the overall picture—a nice sentence can make your writing stand out, but put your energy into making the whole work great.

Rule 2: An editor hates to see the same problems over and over.

Editors know the writers they often work with. Over time, they learn what to expect from certain writers before they even begin editing. Is it bad to pre-judge? Yes, but editors (like anyone) usually have limited time—and knowing a writer’s strengths and weaknesses can speed up the process.

But some writers surprise, and they do this by looking at editorial suggestions from earlier drafts and trying to catch their habitual problems before they submit their work. This might include grammatical problems, but many word processors can catch the glaring issues. The biggest culprits here are word choice, logic and flow, and stylistic concerns. We all have certain things that we do over and over; knowing yours can benefit you a great deal.

Rule 3: An editor wants to be engaged.

Editors are human (though some would dispute this, I think), and as humans, they like to read works that engage, captivate, inspire, and intrigue them. One of the first questions I ask when editing a work is this: so what? This may sound cynical, but the reason I ask this is because I want to know what the writer is doing. Obviously, this is much more important in news, Internet, and journal articles, but fiction and poetry can also benefit from being clear in intent. Read over what you’ve written and imagine that the person reading it wants to know the reason they should read it.

Episode 4: Tools of the Trade

There are as many methods for constructing long fiction, it seems, as there are writers. What I present for your consideration here is how I do it. Take what you will, mix it all up with what others prefer, and see what suits you best. For example, I do all of my work in Google Docs so that I can access the information anywhere, but there are dozens of writing programs, websites, and books that may work better for you.

Environment: This may not seem like an important aspect, but I have found that my concentration suffers if my surroundings are not ideal. Yes, I am probably picky, but I like the area to be quiet, a good temperature, and with no radio or TV within 500 feet. Inside or outside doesn’t seem to matter.

Basic plot: Prior to writing my outline, my first step is to write a very general plot premise. This might include only the basics of what I think will happen. Perhaps like this:

  • Charles finds mysterious chalice.
  • Chalice gives him strange insight.
  • Charles finds himself in at the center of an international struggle for power.
  • Chalice is stolen.
  • Charles gets it back, saves humanity, celebrates, gets married, etc.

Characterization: Once I have my basic overview, I work on the characters I think will be in the story. In fact, this is probably the most tedious part of my writing, since I tend to be very thorough, but the benefits are too great to be ignored. Obviously, this gives me consistency with appearance; however, the greatest help is in the background, characteristics, and anti-stereotyping aspects. It is much easier to rely on stereotypes when you’re writing if you don’t have your characters laid out first. Also, I tend to have two or three character drafts before I start writing in earnest.

Settings: This one is more optional, but one thing that helps me focus is to establish the main settings for the novel. In general, I may only describe three or four locales, but knowing what the characters see and why they care about the place is good—even if you don’t include it in the work itself. On this, I usually have two drafts.

Things to remember: Some writing software takes care of this for you, but since I don’t want to shell out money for something I can do myself, I keep my own cheat sheet. When I’m doing the prep work and writing the novel itself and something important pops up (e.g., the character was in the military or he took a camera with him on his trip), I make sure to keep that handy. This helps eliminate inconsistencies and general bloopers.

Research: Even when writing fiction (or especially, depending on your point of view), research is usually imperative. In fact, research lends itself to plot ideas, character traits, and authenticity. It depends on the type of novel or story as to how much research I do, but the Internet and the library make this less painful than it might seem. And—I admit it—I’m a research geek, so I enjoy this part.

Take these ideas or don’t—just look for the method that works for you.

Monday Stretch: Out of Line

If you’ve read Episode 3, you knew this would happen. Let’s practice that dreaded outline.

Purpose: To recognize the utility and functionality of an outline

Setting: Two travelers are stranded in the mountains after they lost their way while taking a “detour.” You can throw in some interesting twists: being stalked by someone or something, one of the travelers isn’t real, etc.

Assignment: Using either a mind map or a basic outline, whip up a practice outline for a short story (or novel for the brave). Be sure to include some biographical information about the characters and the main plot points. Try to envision what’s happening as you plot the story.

Questions:

  1. Did the outline help you “tease out” more interesting events from the story?
  2. Can you think of other ways that you could develop the story before you start writing it?

Bonus credit: Using your outline, write the story. How close was your story to the original outline? Did you have to make changes as you went?

Episode 3: Out of Line

Some people think they are evil things that suck the creativity right out of the work. Writing, after all, is the spontaneous overflow of felt emotion, the stream-of-consciousness, muse-inspired, spur-of-the-moment wit—or so the theory goes. What is this wickedness that I speak of? The dreaded outline.

I am being a bit melodramatic, but I have seen far too many writers (and self-help books and literary pontificators) banish the outline out of hand. And I, too, used to think the same way . . . until I started writing longer fiction. You never become so acquainted with contradictions, character inconsistencies, and deadends until you try to sustain a narrative for more than 30 pages.

Let’s get the objections out of the way. First, not every writer has used outlines, and some have been quite famous—but that isn’t to say that they wouldn’t have been even better if they had (or that we should follow the example that person set). Second, not every work requires an outline—though most would benefit from having one. And finally, the outline does not necessarily limit what you can do with your work.

Outlines are often seen as straitjackets, but they don’t have to be. Writers often want to jump into their ideas head first, and this is understandable—the immediacy of the idea makes it exciting. But this is exactly the reason for relying on an outline.

A good outline serves two main purposes: to test the idea and to refine the idea. How does it test the idea? Well, let’s imagine that you’ve just had an epiphany about what would make the next great novel. You’re ready to hop on Google Docs and get it down. Ah, but the wise writer takes time to work up an initial outline. About halfway through, you see that it’s just not flowing the way you’d like. So, you let the idea percolate for a while longer, come back later, and either make a new outline or drop the idea altogether.

That’s what outlines do. They help you see if your idea is appropriate for the frame you’ve given it (i.e., novel, short story, novella, etc.) or if you want to pursue it. I find it much more discouraging to get 7 or 8 pages into a work and decide that the idea doesn’t work like I want than to abandon it after outlining it. This isn’t to say you can’t write a “test” scene, but outlines make the job of “idea management” much easier.

The other main purpose of the outline is to refine what you’ve got. There is virtually no idea that isn’t benefited from being developed further before the writing begins. The outline will help you see ways that your idea can have more subtle nuances carried throughout the work.

As far as style of outline, there is no one superlative method. Use the style that works for you: whether it’s the classic Roman numeral type or a mind map. Just pick what you’re comfortable with, let it sit for a few days, and then don’t be afraid to revise it.

I, too, would prefer to jump into the writing part without the work part. But an outline is a creative expression—just as much as the story itself.