Archive for October, 2008


ASTC (NSW) Conference 2008: Day 1

October 31, 2008

We had a wide variety of speakers and topics for the first day of the ASTC (NSW) conference. Here’s my summary…

Culture in Transition: Making a Difference Through Certification (John Maizels)

John Maizels represented Media Industry Technologist Certification Limited (MITC), and spoke from Los Angeles (via Skype) on how the Australian Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers had gone about addressing the need for industry certification, some of the issues facing their industry, and some of the issues they faced in getting certification program up and running. Many of the issues they faced are similar to those the technical communication community faces — two of which were an aging workforce and many freelancers who don’t have time to mentor newer entrants to the profession.

He defined ‘certification’ as recognition of attributes, whereas ‘accreditation’ was by permission and based on a defined skill set. The steps MITC took to create a certification system were:

  1. Understand the system as it is now.
  2. Look for an artificial vacuum — a defining situation that encourages people to want to be part of the new system.
  3. Define your market by ‘domains’ (areas of work; what will you certify?).
  4. Define your levels (MITC have four levels — associate, practitioner, senior practitioner, and master practitioner).
  5. Define the form of the assessment.
  6. Put together teams to create the assessment.
  7. Create a mountain of procedures — sufficient for 100+ years! Need to plan for 100 years and probably keep records that long, so the process and the decisions must be clearly documented.

His other advice was to keep it as simple as possible, keep the domains as broad as possible, start small and don’t attempt to do everything at once.

The areas of assessment for MITC were: qualifications, knowledge, capability, experience, leadership (business focus, developing others), and contribution.

The MITC certification is for 5 years, and then a person must be recertified.

The ‘lessons learned’ from the process were:

  1. Certification works.
  2. It takes longer than you think (it requires the assistance of senior industry players who are typically time poor; admin support is essential; you can fast track by buying skills and/or burning cash!)
  3. Marketing is an important pressure point — you have to get the message out to the practitioners, the employers, etc.
  4. Project management is even more important.
  5. The education industry is about bums on seats, so getting in to schools, colleges etc. is a good move. The goal is to have an education system that turns out people for the industry.

Finally, John emphasised that it’s a global world, and the certification needs to stand the scrutiny of the world market.

The ‘Don’t Panic Guide to Annual Report Production’ (Helen Lewis)

Helen spoke about the main themes in her revised book on producing annual reports. Her background is mainly with Commonwealth Government annual reports. The two themes she focused on were:

  • Understand the process
  • Manage the process (planning, troubleshooting, etc.).

The preproduction phase was when you need to develop a sound structure for the report; if the previous report worked well, use its structure — don’t feel you have to change it.

Content is typically driven or dictated by legal requirements.

She recommended an ‘order of book’ document/binder which contained details of every element of the report – e.g. spine, back of cover, ISBN/ISSN, list of terms, appendices, etc. etc.

Finally, she gave two pieces of advice:

  • Beware of the ‘just a’ syndrome — ‘it’s just a small change…’
  • Don’t panic. If things are out of control, go back to the process and do what needs to be done.

Technical Writing from a Personality Type Perspective (Brian O’Donnell)

Brian is both a technical writer and a Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) accredited practitioner. He explained the differing dichotomies in MBTI, and asked us to note where we thought we best fitted for each. He emphasised that while we all have a preference for one style over another, it is not possible to ONLY be one all the time — everyone has parts of the other side that make us functioning human beings.

How does this fit with technical writing? He said that being aware of our own style and the likely styles of others (audience, customers, colleagues), we can become better writers. By being aware of our own writing style, we can see where we may neglect to cover the things that aren’t our preference.

And he left us with a joke: When asked about their MBTI styles, the wife said: “I’m an ISTJ, and he’s a DICK.”

BTW, based on this very cursory glance over the types, I think I’m an ESTJ or ISTJ. But the STJ is pretty clear…

Developing the Society of Editors’ Accreditation Program (Robin Bennett)

Robin Bennett is a Councillor for the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) and the Queensland delegate to their Accreditation Board. She spoke about the long road to accreditation by the joint Australian Societies of Editors, culminating in the first-ever accreditation exam only two weeks ago. Like John earlier this morning, she emphasised the need to be realistic about the time it takes, the amount of volunteer effort and energy required, and the cost of getting all the legal structures in place. She also indicated that if ASTC (NSW) goes down that path, they need to realistic about the time it could take to gain acceptance both by the profession and employers (5 to 10 years).

Lunch was a lengthy 90 minutes, then it was back into it…

Forms Design: A Complex Mix of Language Design, and Technology (Liz Griffiths and Larraine Hall)

Liz talked about the communication ‘dialogue’ of forms, while Larraine concentrated on the design aspects.

Liz explained that all forms are a dialogue and an exchange of trust. The dialogue is between a person and an organisation (business, government, etc.). However, forms are a flawed communication process — real dialogue often relies on restating, reiterating, paraphrasing and clarifying. We do not have that luxury with forms. Compounding the communication problem are issues such as:

  • adding marketing messages or questions — ‘Business forms are NOT marketing tools’ and in many industries it is illegal to have extraneous questions on a form used to gather information
  • reducing a form to one page (the equivalent of ‘monosyllabic grunts’)
  • the attitude that high error rates on a form are the result of stupid customers.

According to Liz, electronic forms are no less frustrating than paper forms — the technology has improved the delivery, but hasn’t fixed the dialogue problems inherent in a form. ‘Automated forms just automate inefficiency; technology cannot solve what is essentially a communication problem’.

Larraine showed some examples of forms and form redesign and warned against following fashion and fads, with specific reference to Web 2.0 elements such as DRAG (dropped shadow, rounded corners, and gradients!). A visually clear form will guide the user and thus produce a positive customer experience.

Bringing Communication to Life (Rodney D’Silva)

I’m not sure how this fitted with the other presentations, but it was fun! Rod showed lots of examples of flash animations done by his students, and then showed us how quick and easy it was to create an animation in Flash (when you know how!). Having had some 30 years of animation experience, Rod made it look oh so easy to draw a basic figure in running and walking mode.

What’s in a Mine? (Ana Young)

The final presentation was a bit of a ‘what’s my job’ session. Ana works for a mining software company in Queensland and described what a mine is like and how there are many varied software and hardware aspects to mining, which technical writers can be involved in. Having worked in and on the edges of the mining and resources industry now for some years, none of it was new to me, but I suspect that it was new ground for a lot of those living and working in Sydney.

Short, sweet, and to the point. I like these sort of ‘case study’ sessions where people talk about their work/industry.

See also: Day 2.


Social networking sites for technical communicators

October 31, 2008

There are quite a few social networking groups related to technical writers and technical communicators around at the moment.

Some of those that I’ve looked at or joined include:


Show full menus in Office 2003 applications

October 30, 2008

Some people love those collapsed menus in Word and other Microsoft Office 2003 applications where you have to click the arrows at the bottom of the menu to see all the options, but I loathe them. One of the first things I do when I have a new installation of Word is to turn on the option to show menus in full.

  1. In Word 2003, go to Tools > Customize, then select the Options tab.
  2. Make sure the Always show full menus check box is ticked.

If I remember correctly, setting it in one Office 2003 application applies it to all other Office 2003 programs.

Note: Office 2007 and later have a ‘ribbon’ interface not menus, so this information does not apply.

[This article was first published in the September 2003 CyberText Newsletter]


Word: Controlbox toolbar won’t go away

October 29, 2008

I have a couple of Word 2003 documents that always open with a floating Controlbox toolbar, and it drives me nuts.

I’ve never figured out where it came from or why it kept coming back. But the team over at WordTips have provided a solution to make it go away:

[Link last checked July 2008; link checked for compatibility with Word 2007 in September 2008]


PDF security

October 28, 2008

One of the great benefits of PDFs is that they’re (almost) universally readable. But sometimes you don’t want everyone to read your work.

Using full Acrobat you can password-protect a PDF, thus restricting viewing, changing, and even printing to only those who know the password. You can also prohibit text and image content from being copied and pasted. Your PDF document retains the settings you selected, even if it’s downloaded from the web.

As a user you might not be happy about some of these restrictions, but as a content owner, you may be pleased that Acrobat offers this sort of security.

  1. In Acrobat (NOT Acrobat Reader), select File > Properties from the menu (or File > Document Properties in earlier versions).
  2. Select Security, then change the Security Method to Password Security.
  3. On the Password Security – Settings window, select the areas you want protected.
  4. Click OK to close all windows.

Don’t forget—if you set a password on the document, you’ll need to remember it too, otherwise you won’t be able to open the document either!

[This article was first published in the June 2003 CyberText Newsletter; steps last checked January 2008 and rechecked in September 2008 for compatibility with Acrobat Professional 9]


Tips for Microsoft Word

October 27, 2008

For many years, Allen Wyatt has been providing free tips for using Microsoft Word. I started subscribing to his (free) weekly email newsletter a long time ago. Well, now he’s gone one step further and added a new site just for Word 2007 tips. There are enough differences in how you do things in Word 2007 to warrant this, in my opinion, so I’m glad he’s seen fit to create the Word 2007 Tips site.

You can find these sites here:


UI slide deck in ‘Featured’ list

October 27, 2008

OMG. I had an email this morning from the people at telling me that my presentation (‘Techniques for Reviewing a User interface’) from the WritersUA and AODC conferences was on their ‘Featured’ list. I don’t know how long it will stay there, but right now it’s at #2 (of 20).

I have no clue how they decide what gets featured or not—they have thousands of slide decks listed.

I guess I just achieved my 15 minutes of fame! ;-)

You can check out all my slide decks by clicking on the Slideshare icon in the right sidebar.


It’s called an octothorpe

October 26, 2008

Referred to in various countries as the hash or pound key (#), it’s actually an octothorpe.

We call it the ‘hash’ key in Australia and every time I do a webinar or US-based conference call where I have to dial in a code, the voice always says ‘press the pound sign’. Even though I know what it is, it still causes a nanosecond’s worth of confusion as that’s not what I know it as.

Yet another terminology usage difference even when both countries speak the same language—English!

For more information on this and other weird words, see:

(Thanks for this link, Grant)

[This article was first published in the December 2007 CyberText Newsletter; link last checked January 2008]


World clock with a difference

October 25, 2008

In addition to telling the time, this clock has live statistics on the world’s population, diseases, oil pumped etc.

I don’t know how accurate the stats are, but the display is pretty impressive:

[This article was first published in the December 2007 CyberText Newsletter; link last checked January 2008]


Technical writer resumes

October 24, 2008

I was going through some old emails when I came across this from 2005. I wrote this to a friend (X) in response to her sending me a resume from Y touting themselves as a technical writer. My sentiments about this still stand:

Thanks X.

But just between you and me, if I see another resume from someone touting themselves as a tech writer who doesn’t use styles for formatting and layout, who doesn’t follow parallel structure, and who can’t see the readability issues with the layout, I’ll scream!

(I’m ranting because I had to look over some resumes recently and I was appalled at the lack of understanding of basic Word stuff that an experienced tech writer SHOULD know. And this is another one… Can’t they at least PDF the thing to hide their lack of knowledge?)

Sorry for the sound off… I’m sure Y is a very nice person and she seems to have done a lot, but her lack of professional care in her resume would make me think twice about hiring her.