Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category


Using Zoom to record a presentation with no audience

July 27, 2020

With conferences off my agenda for the next year or two, or more, as a result of COVID-19 I’m considering doing some pre-recorded webinars based on conference presentations I’ve done over the past few years. Time zone issues mean that presenting live to anywhere outside Australasia or east Asian countries is out of the question.

But first I needed to get a webcam for my computer (my laptop’s inbuilt webcam is very grey and grainy). Do you know how rare webcams became as everyone started working from home? My first purchase was a disaster (a $100 no-name one from Amazon, which overexposed everything no matter what light I used, and didn’t sync my moving lips with the sound it recorded; to their credit Amazon refunded me in full). My second purchase from a local retailer this past weekend (stocks are now returning to retailers) was more successful, and I now have a Logitech C270, which seems perfect for webinars as it doesn’t have a wide field of view and seems to focus more on your head and not everything else in the room. The light balance without using their software, which you have to download separately from the Logitech website, is good and so far I haven’t needed to install that software. The microphone seems to pick up voice well too, and there’s no time lag between my voice and my moving lips. I’ve only tested it with the Camera software that comes with Windows 10, and with Zoom.

Zoom will likely be my preference for recording any webinars I might do as it has screen sharing functions I’m familiar with from webinars I’ve presented that were hosted by professional organisations in Canada and New Zealand. But I’ve never hosted my own, nor have I tried to record myself presenting a webinar without an audience. It wasn’t easy to find out how to, using Zoom’s own help, but I found an excellent set of instructions from the University of Oklahoma that got me started: (I’ve put a copy of that PDF here Using Zoom to Record Presentations in case it disappears from the university’s website).

My first tests using those instructions worked well and I was able to record successfully.

Next step is to figure out how to show me as the active speaker (typically at the beginning and end to simulate a conference presentation) then switch to the PowerPoint slides and back again. Zoom has an option in the settings (Record settings) to display a small view of you presenting, or not, but I want to start off with a full face intro, and then switch to that thumbnail view while the slides take over. Back to the learning curve! I’ll update this post as I discover things. Of course, if someone already knows how to do this, feel free to comment!

Update 28 July 2020: I did a bit more testing with various settings and discovered these seemed to work best for my setup:

  • Wear the headset when recording and use the headset’s microphone as it’s clearer than the webcam’s mike (NOTE: I haven’t yet installed the Logitech webcam’s software, so I’m not sure if that will make a difference or not)
  • Zoom settings > Video: Touch up my appearance (I left the rest as the defaults)
  • Zoom settings > Share Screen: Side-by-side mode (rest were the defaults)
  • Zoom settings > Recording: Record video during screen sharing AND Place video next to the shared screen in the recording (rest were the defaults)
  • When you go to Shared Screen mode in the Zoom recording, resize the thumbnail to the maximum allowed, otherwise you’ll look like a small dot in the recording
  • PowerPoint > Slide Show tab > Set Up Slide Show: set the Show Type to Presentation by a speaker (full screen)

Switching from me as the active speaker to the shared screen and back again doesn’t appear to be very intuitive, and I couldn’t find a setting in Zoom to do this seamlessly. The only way I could do it is described in Steps 6 to 12 of the instructions below:

  1. Start PowerPoint and switch to presentation mode.
  2. Start Zoom and start a new meeting.
  3. If muted/turned off, unmute the audio and turn on the video in Zoom.
  4. Optional: Put on your headset if you’re going to use that microphone, then click the arrow next to Mute and select the headset’s microphone.
  5. Adjust the webcam to get your face in the viewport as you want.
  6. Ready? Click More (the three dots) in the Zoom controls and select Record on this computer.
  7. Start speaking and introduce your presentation. Where possible, speak to the webcam lens not the screen to be more personal to your audience. (Tip: Some people suggest putting a cutout of a friend’s picture next to the webcam and using that as your ‘audience’).
  8. Click Share Screen.
  9. Choose the screen to share (i.e. the full screen of the PowerPoint presentation). This puts the video of your face into a thumbnail view at the top right of the viewport being recorded.
  10. Optional: Resize the thumbnail to maximum size.
  11. Do the presentation.
  12. To return to the video of your face, click Stop Share to stop sharing the screen.
  13. Finalise what you have to say in the presentation, thank the attendees, then click End.
  14. Once you’ve clicked End, click End Meeting for All.
  15. Zoom will automatically create an MP4 file of the recording.
  16. Before distributing/publishing it, watch it and check for places that you may need to re-record. (I don’t know how to cut and splice changes into a video like this, but there will be software that does this. If it’s only a minor error, don’t fuss too much about it—it will show you’re human and that you make mistakes like everybody else. If you were on stage doing this presentation, you might make mistakes there too, and nobody would think less of you for it. Only re-record if there are major errors you want to correct, such as things not working as they should (practice several times beforehand), clothing that disappears into the background, background objects looking as though they are growing out of your head, family members or pets interrupting you, exceptionally loud noises coming from outside that you have no control over, etc. If this is a solo presentation for later distribution, then re-recording is not as disastrous as if it was a live presentation where these things went wrong.)

See also: 4-minute YouTube video of recording yourself in the presentation:

[Links last checked February 2021]


Blast from the past: My first conference paper

June 24, 2019

I was going through some stuff from my first career as a teacher-librarian the other day and found the printed proceedings of the first conference I ever spoke at—in 1990. If I ever had an electronic copy of the paper I presented, it’s long gone on 3.5 floppy discs disposed of many years ago. Because the only copy I have is deep within a more than 500-page second volume, I decided to scan it and convert it to Word.

If you’re interested in what I had to say about my teacher-exchange experience when I changed work and home lives with a fellow teacher-librarian in Canada, you can read it here: Trading_Places_Canadian_Exchange_1986_ALIA_conference_1990 (PDF, 185 KB).



IPEd Conference 2019: Day 2

May 12, 2019

Last week (8 to 10 May 2019) I attended the biennial IPEd Conference (Institute of Professional Editors, the national association of Australian [and now New Zealand] editors), held in Melbourne. These notes summarise MY experience at the conference and my opinions and represent no-one else’s experience or opinions. I took notes for many of the sessions I attended, but as there were several concurrent streams, these notes in no way reflect the full breadth of the conference sessions.

NOTE: Many of the sessions were only 10 minutes long and there was limited changeover time. Some session notes may be missing if I had to leave for the next session before the current session’s presenter finished.

There were quite a few plenary sessions today, and only one time slot where multiple sessions ran concurrently. The first was a 90-minute plenary on the state of IPEd, with information and updates from the chairs of various standing committees. And at the end of the day was the closing ceremony, where various awards were handed out, and the dates and location of the next conference were announced: Hobart Grand Chancellor, 28 to 30 June 2021. I heard a rumour that the 2023 conference will be held in New Zealand, but have no idea if that’s true or not.

Katherine Bode: ‘Digital Collections: Archival and editorial impulses remixed’ (plenary session)

The title of this session gave no clue as to how fascinating it would be! Katherine started off by describing the archival impulse as that which curates, collects, and categorises, whereas the editorial impulse is to transfer that archival impulse into material suitable for specific audiences.

I was still none the wiser when she showed how a Google image search for ‘editing’ gave a lot of images of computer screens etc, whereas an image search for ‘editing writing’ gave images of red pens on paper.

Back to the editorial impulse… she then asked what if you combined the editing impulse with extensive (hundreds of thousands) archives of materials. What were challenges in editing that number of documents? And then she introduced us to ‘To be continued… The Australian Newspaper Fiction Database’ project (

Back in the 19th century, Australia didn’t have a book publishing industry, or at least, not a thriving one, and so newspapers, which were prevalent and cheap, were the main way people read fiction. Sometimes a newspaper would publish a complete short story; other times it would serialise a novel. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of fiction were published this way in Australian newspapers in the 19th century.

The database the project team used was Trove (—a part of the National Library of Australia (NLA), which has digitised Australia’s newspapers since 2010. Trove (which I use for genealogical research and which I help edit on occasion) is the largest open-access collection of digitised newspapers in the world. By 2015, about 30% of Australia’s newspapers had been scanned and OCR’d. The problem with OCR is that a machine does a ’best match’ for what it thinks a character might be, which means there are many errors in the transcriptions.

The next challenge was how to identify what was fiction in these newspapers. They didn’t all have a heading of ‘Fiction’, so the team used various Trove search algorithms and Trove’s API to narrow it down, and narrowed further by adding ‘paratext’ to the searches—words such as serial, author, chapter, tales, story, novelist, novella, etc. They went from hundreds of thousands of potential fiction articles to 21,000 after they’d cleaned up the data.

They then analysed that data to see if some assumptions about fiction writing and publishing in 19th century Australian newspapers held true; the main assumptions were:

  • most fiction (80%) was by British authors
  • fiction was published almost entirely in metro newspapers, with little published in provincial newspapers; if fiction was published in provincial newspapers, it was assumed that it had been pirated from a metro source
  • according to academics, early colonial readers in Australia were uninterested in Australian fiction.

What they found in the data was quite a different story! Yes, there was quite a lot of British fiction, but not as much as expected. About 25% of the fiction was Australian, 50% British, 20% American, and 5% from other countries.

They also found hundreds of new titles by known Australian authors, and even more by unknown Australian authors (all of which added to their database of author names to search for).

As far as where fiction was published, only 45% was in metro papers, with 55% published by the provincial press. And the sources of the fiction? The metro papers often published the same title at the same time, getting syndicated fiction from a British or American agency. Similarly, provincial newspapers often published the same title at the same time (but NOT the same title as the metro papers) because they got their material from different syndication agencies. These provincial syndication agencies often crossed state lines too, so the same story might be published in NSW and Victorian regions. The team wasn’t aware of these different syndicated sources prior to their study. There was an assumption that most fiction in newspapers was published in the metro papers, then syndicated to the provincial papers in the same state, but this wasn’t the case. The provincial syndicates that operated across the country were the largest publishers of Australian fiction in the 19th century. All this refutes the claim that The Bulletin was the origin of Australian literary culture. And it refutes the claim that Australian readers had no interest in Australian fiction.

Newspapers reflect what their readers want, and in colonial Australia, readers chose Australian fiction. In fact ‘Australian’ was a common term in many of the fiction titles. And sometimes newspaper editors changed a overseas story to give it Australian locales and names!

The team used two computational methods in analysing the data:

  • topic grouping, with the 200 most popular words in an article shown graphically (like a word tag cloud)
  • decision trees, which look for tendencies in word usage and use dataset variables to see where they align [no, I didn’t understand this bit either!].

One thing they found was the consistent representation of aboriginal characters and women in the newspaper fiction. This contradicts the view of terra nullius. Interestingly, the Australian fiction chosen to be published as books in Britain rarely showed aboriginal or female characters (and rarely published Australian female writers), thus perpetuating what they [the British?] THOUGHT colonial Australia was. This is not reflected in the newspaper fiction, where aboriginals and women were depicted often, and where women fiction writers also had a voice (though some may have written under a male pseudonym in the hopes of getting published more easily).

The team has opened up the database to crowd sourcing, allowing people to fix transcription errors from the OCR. Contributors can also add any fiction they find that’s not already in the database. Public editing such as this can improve a digitised archive. Trove harvests the corrections each week and these go back into the main Trove database.

There were concerns regarding crowd sourcing: how to ensure quality, how to prevent errors from being introduced, etc. But nothing happened! Many of those who correct entries come from editing and associated professions and are passionate about getting it right and contributing to the archive. The feedback often refers to wanting to rescue stories from the database and turn them into books, and the team has already done so for some stories. Ultimately the aim is to have publication platform where people can curate their own collection and publish as ebooks or even printed books. Ebooks published by this process will also be harvested by the NLA/Trove and become another legitimate edition of the book.

Michael Webster: ‘The book is far from dead: A review of the 2018 book sales in Australia’ (plenary session)

(This was a last-minute replacement session as the person heading up the Style Manual review who was slotted to speak couldn’t do so under a caretaker government, with a federal election just a week away)

The ebook has NOT taken over—only about 18 to 20% of sales of all books in Australia are in ebook format.

[removed Bookscan data as I was informed that it was confidential]

Bookscan collects data about books actually sold (from point of sale systems), NOT what the publishers say they’ve sold to booksellers (~20% of publisher ‘sales’ are returned unsold). It captures more than 92% of book sales, including online sales, discount sales (e.g. BigW, Target), chain and independent bookshops. Note: BigW sells more books than anyone else in Australia.

Any bestseller lists from Bookscan are for sales two weeks prior. But what is a ‘best seller’? If you sell 3000 to 4000 copies of an Australian fiction title, that’s very good. Authors want to know number of sales, whereas publishers want to know the value of the sales.

Sales trends follow predictable peaks—school/uni return, mothers day, fathers day, and a HUGE spike in the weeks prior to Christmas, with almost nothing in January (bookshops are returning books to publishers in January). Some 13% of total sales for the year are in the Christmas peak, and many are cookbooks. If you want to publish a cookbook, make sure it’s in colour, is hardback, and is released near Christmas, but never after it.

The book sales market has been growing slowly but steadily the past few years. There was an appreciable drop when Angus and Robertson went under (they sold 20% of all books), and even more so in regional towns where their stores closed and weren’t taken over by other bookstores, leaving many towns without a bookstore.

Other information:

  • 2018 sales were driven by key non-fiction categories, with a slight lift in adult fiction.
  • YA lit is purchased by teenagers, whereas children’s books are purchased by adults.
  • The Barefoot Investor took the number one spot in 2018.
  • Australian authors took six of the top 10 spots in fiction sales in 2018.
  • Chains/online sales had 55% share of the market, then DDS (what’s DDS?) and independent bookstores.
  • US/Canadian bookstores can’t compete with Amazon on price (though he didn’t say anything about the effect, if any, Amazon Australia has had on sales).
  • The top nine adult fiction publishers in Australia account for 95% of ALL fiction sales in Australia, so if you go with a small press, you will have a huge battle to get distribution into bookshops. If an author is not represented by one of these big nine companies, you effectively can’t get into the market.
  • Established publishers are risk-averse, so it’s very hard to find a publisher that will take the risk on a new fiction author.
  • For non-fiction, the top ten trade publishers account for 76% of the market, and for children’s books, 80% of titles come from just ten publishers. Again, distribution is the biggest issue facing new authors. Local/independent/small presses account for just 13% of Australian publishing—combined.
  • Paperbacks dominate, but hardback popularity continues to grow (21% of the market in 2003, and 27% in 2018). After the global financial crisis (i.e. after 2008), publishers reduced the prices of hardbacks.

Grant McAvaney: ‘Copyright for editorial gatekeepers’ (plenary session)

Grant took us on a very quick journey through the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (on 1 May 2019, it was 50 years since it came into force). The Act was amended substantially five years ago.

I took as many notes as I could but he covered a LOT of ground. He did say that the Copyright Council’s website ( has many free fact sheets that cover the detail of what he spoke about.

Copyright myths:

  • No, you don’t have to apply for or pay for copyright protection.
  • There is no ‘fair use’ defence in the Act, but there is a ‘fair dealing’ provision.
  • There’s no legal term for plagiarism; instead it’s ‘unauthorised use of someone else’s copyright’.
  • Generally, there’s no ‘10% rule’ (except under specific circumstances).
  • Anything on the internet is NOT public domain.

Copyright is a bundle of rights:

  • Copyright protects things that would otherwise have no protection at all: ‘works’, and ‘subject matter other than works’. ‘Works’ include literary, artistic, dramatic, and musical works; ‘other than works’ include films, sound recordings, broadcasts, published editions. Copyright does not protect ideas.
  • While those things are protected, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to acknowledge those works.
  • There’s only a copyright breach is there’s substantial use, but defining ‘substantial use’ is a very grey area. It might only be as little as the line of a poem or song. For larger works, small quotes or snippets MAY be OK. Facebook posts, Tweets, etc. are not classed as substantial works.
  • Even if larger chunks are used, the fair dealing defence may come into play (e.g. it may be OK for a review/criticism, news report, parody/satire, access for those with a disability).
  • Copyright is the starting position, but contracts trump everything (e.g. an author may have assigned it or licensed it to someone else in such a way that prevents even them using it).
  • In general, copyright lasts for the life of the creator + 70 years.
  • Broadly, if you create it, you own it. But there are exceptions.
  • The owner of the copyright (may not be the author) has exclusive rights to reproduction, communication, public performance, adaptation, publication, and broadcast of the work.
  • Ownership does NOT equal licence.
  • Attribution is not a defence to copyright, but often calms the author down.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s protected?
  • If it’s protected, is it ‘substantial use’?
  • Is there a ‘fair dealing’ defence?
  • Do I REALLY have permission? (remember, the permission may not be the author’s to give) Ask the person what copyright permission they have, and GET PERMISSION.

Moral rights:

  • are for individuals—they can’t be sold or assigned to someone else, like copyright can
  • life of the creator + 70 years
  • right of attribution
  • right against false attribution (and more that I didn’t note down).

In 2018 the Copyright Modernisation Review was started—currently on hold while the government is in caretaker mode prior to the 2019 federal election. But it’s likely they will cover fair use, extra fair dealing rules, orphan works (where you can’t find the owner after due diligence), quotations, etc.

Kevin Young, Hella Ibrahim: ‘Agents for change: The in-house /freelance editor working relationship in digital-first educational publishing’

The presenters work for Jacaranda Wiley educational publishing and talked about how they edit digital-first content.

Traditional workflow was print first then convert to digital. Switched to ‘digital first, with an initial strategy of no print. However, schools still wanted print. Content is the same no matter where/how published—printed, online ebook, online course. Online has the advantage of being able to include lots of extra resources and links to other resources.

Single-source content, so edit once for all formats.

Tools must be user friendly so editors can just focus on the content.

Freelance editors must have good traditional editing skills, plus:

  • assess user experience
  • course creation spreadsheets (I’m not sure I got that right)
  • edit interactive content elements, assessment tools, etc.

How do you tune out technology to focus on content? You don’t—embrace technology. Same skills, different format.

Where does traditional editing role end and digital start? When to use in-house editors or freelance editors?

How can tools be improved to help improve the process? Identify pain points and issues. Editors are part of the process of suggesting improvements, and are considered ‘agents of change’ (i.e. someone who promotes and enables change to happen in an organisation). How can the process or tools be improved? Editors are encouraged to be proactive. Editors can and should be agents of change in digital-first production.

Rebecca Campbell, Jessica Carr, Emma Knight: ‘Editing for print and digital in educational publishing: efficiencies, challenges, and the future’

(also with Wiley)

Manuscripts are generally fairly complete by the time they get them.

They start with a Word doc and need to keep in mind the eventual final product.

Needed to identify what in print is superfluous in an ebook. Page numbers were an obvious choice—instead, they use directional callouts (e.g. links to section/figure/table numbers).

Images in print and digital may need to be laid out/wrapped differently, plus alt text for screen readers.

Simplified design so that print and ebook look similar.

Ebook advantages:

  • can include other media (video, quizzes, etc.), but then there are other challenges (embed? Stream? What about different operating systems, devices, browsers, etc.?)
  • supports different learning styles
  • accessibility (screen readers, alt text, closed captions in video)

They use a single-source XML-based system to help deliver to the requirements, thus a shortened production time. Once the content is approved, titles can get to market quicker.

Print and digital runs are done in parallel.

Media editing includes editing scripts, storyboards, captions, etc.


  • continued growth in automation
  • what styling can be done in Word and flow through to XML etc. (e.g. non-breaking spaces)

Doro Forck: ‘CCAMLR’s approach to preparing and editing meeting reports’

CCAMLR: Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

International body set up in 1982; comprises 25 countries. All materials are produced in four languages concurrently—English, French, Spanish, and Russian.

The Secretariat supports the meetings, which are typically one to two weeks long. In 2018, there were eight meetings with more than 500 participants.

They needed a modern system for reports that fit with their website, was multilingual, only available to registered members, etc.

In 2012 they used Drupal to create their new website:

  • contains all meeting-related information
  • they have a meeting server
  • need to track status, workflow
  • need email alerts of changes
  • need version control
  • system available to all participants, and all can see new comments/changes

Rapporteurs draft meeting report text (different ones for each agenda item), and are the only people who can upload new versions.

On the final meeting day, everything comes together. All meeting reports—in all languages—are available on the last day [WOW!].

Meeting report server:

  • accommodates requirements of different user groups
  • also used for drafting legislation (??)
  • flexible, adaptable system
  • user feedback easily included
  • transferrable.

Stacey King, Rachel Westbury: ‘Editing in the modern workplace: Everything you wanted to know about using collaborative tools’

Even for a 20-minute session, ‘everything’ was always going to be a challenge. Their focus was Google Docs, which has track changes, commenting, and real-time collaboration [which can also be done in Word, BTW].

They work for the University of Queensland and have eight student guides to produce, involving 35 stakeholders.

Their old process:

  • extract and convert content from PDF into Word (I’m not sure why they stated with PDF and not the original Word docs)
  • distribute to stakeholders, compile feedback
  • mediate conflicts
  • input final changes into InDesign


  • version control
  • managing communication and mediating conflicts between stakeholders
  • enforcing deadlines

New process (with Google Docs):

  • extract and convert content from PDF into Google Docs
  • split content into separate docs and have a shared spreadsheet (Google Sheet) to manage the process
  • invite stakeholders to review in Google Docs
  • stakeholders add updates, resolve queries and conflicts among themselves (i.e. NOT involving the editors)
  • lock down permissions at the deadline (forces the final deadline)
  • edit and transfer updated changes to InDesign

This new process removed the editorial team from acting as middlemen for the conflicts.


  • anonymous comments (people forget to log in)
  • reluctant stakeholders (unwilling to try new technology)

Top tips for trialling Google Docs with a team:

  • meet with stakeholders and offer support
  • decide how will break large project into clear and logical sections
  • communicate importance of logging in before adding comments

Benefit: streamlined as administratively intensive process

Benefits of Google Docs to small (one-person) editorial business:

  • version control (only one master file)
  • transparency (version history, email notifications)
  • editing/collaborating in real time
  • clients can accept/reject changes as you’re making them, if you choose to do this
  • store and share templates (e.g. style sheets, briefing templates)
  • saves changes automatically


  • live editing = stage fright!
  • no PerfectIt (but can export to Word, run PerfectIt, and make changes in Google Docs)
  • no macros
  • potential client confusion with the process
  • not always accessible (cloud-based)

Top tips for using in your own business:

  • consider what jobs it might be suitable for
  • give clients/users clear instructions (e.g. changes save automatically, so there’s no ‘save’ button)
  • set boundaries/expectations

Rachel and Stacey made a video covering the basics of Google Docs for editors:

Justine McNamara: ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk? How our ‘other’ professions inform editing practice’

Justine has had many careers, several in the medical and allied professions, before becoming an editor. She shared the insights she gained when she looked at her careers as a whole, and how many common themes or threads emerged when she made connections that weren’t readily apparent, and how these linked with her current editing career.

Often editing is an ‘accidental’ profession with people ‘falling into it’ from another career. When she analysed the IPEd membership directory, she found about one-third of members mentioned their previous careers in their profiles (she also mentioned that it’s possible there are many more who have had other careers but DIDN’T mention them in their profiles).

Questions to consider:

  • How do your past careers tell you about your strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes?
  • What knowledge/skills do you bring from earlier jobs that you can apply to editing?
  • How can you use this information to carve out a successful and enjoyable editing career?
  • How can you use this information to market yourself as an editor?

Messages for the future:

  • beware insecure employment
  • welcome technology
  • look after yourself

(Note: I did something similar several years ago, looking at how the careers I’ve had all seem to follow a pattern:

(Also, I still don’t know what the raven reference is in the title of her talk)

Penny Modra: ‘Editing in the age of content’ (plenary session)

  • In business, writing is an assumed skill and there are many ‘writing workers’.
  • All brands now publish (e.g. social media, magazines). About 20% of marketing dollars in the US are now spent on Facebook marketing. [source?]
  • Australian schools removed grammar, punctuation etc. from curricula in the 1970s, so there’s not a few generations of students who have no idea.
  • What do businesses need? Editors!

They think they need a style guide, but they really need:

  • training
  • efficiencies
  • systems
  • empowerment
  • audience advocacy
  • [and others I didn’t have time to jot down]


  • buy-in:
    • editors can bring neutral reader advocacy
    • people in charge have misconceptions: ‘We already have a style guide’ when they mean brand guidelines; ‘Our people already know how to write’ when they are unaware of the long arguments about hyphenation; ‘We have other budget priorities’ when they don’t realise that the words they show to the world ARE their reputation and the main way their customers interact them. Consistency is absolutely critical to credibility—consistency IS branding. Consistency is critical to readability
    • from the team: open the worm-cans: language changes (often resistance); grammar versus style; how style guides work
  • extent
  • examples
  • format
  • updates
  • voice and tone

[I didn’t take many notes for the rest as I found the presentation jumped here and there. However, one thing that did resonate was the capping of job titles, and how that can almost represent hierarchies of greater and lesser jobs—for example, if Chief Executive Officer is capped, are you also capping Cleaner?]

Closing ceremony

At the closing ceremony the next IPEd conference venue and dates were announced: 28 to 30 June 2021, Hobart Grand Chancellor (yes, the middle of winter in Tasmania!). Theme: ‘Editing on the edges’. Conference website:

The conference dates will be book-ended by the Dark Mofo winter festival ( and the Festival of Voices (

Finally, I observed that the plenary sessions had lots of people, and guessed the attendance to be around 300. I asked the conference organisers on the last day, and they said about 350 attended the conference, which included those who only came for a single day or for a workshop. The ACES conference over three days earlier this year had about twice that, but to put it in perspective, North America has more than ten times the population of Australia and New Zealand combined, so IPEd is punching well above its weight to get 350 attendees for a two-day Australasian conference.

See also:


IPEd Conference 2019: Day 1

May 12, 2019

Last week (8 to 10 May 2019) I attended the biennial IPEd Conference (Institute of Professional Editors, the national association of Australian [and now New Zealand] editors), held in Melbourne. These notes summarise MY experience at the conference and my opinions and represent no-one else’s experience or opinions. I took notes for many of the sessions I attended, but as there were several concurrent streams, these notes in no way reflect the full breadth of the conference sessions. NOTE: Many of the sessions were only 10 minutes long and there was limited changeover time. Some session notes may be missing if I had to leave for the next session before the current session’s presenter finished.

Opening Ceremony

Blah blah blah… Call me cynical, but I’ve attended many many conferences, and most opening ceremonies are full of thanks from the organisers, rah rah rah about how good this conference will be and how much ‘fun’ it will be, messages from the high levels of the organisations and other ‘dignitaries’. This one was no different. However, despite a lot to cover and limited time, one of the invited ‘dignitaries’ went on and on and on and on… So much so that she cribbed a lot of time from the opening speakers who actually had interesting stuff to say. I felt very sorry for these invited opening speakers—the keynote speaker (yes, the important keynote address) didn’t start until 30 minutes after her allotted start time, and was pressured to finish early. All because the blah blah blah stuff went on too long.

The two other speakers in the opening time slot were good. First up was Angela Savage on ‘Great moments in editing’, where she shared some anecdotes from several Australian authors about how their editors made them look good. Much of the stuff the authors related were where their editors had picked up issues related to fact checking and verification, such as who really was playing cricket against whom in the year the novel was set. And whether a left-hander could hit a ball into the holly bush in the backyard based on where the editor had mapped all the backyard vegetation to be. Or the fact that a certain brand of sports shoe wasn’t released into the Australian market until after the date in which the novel was set. She finished by adding that a robot editor couldn’t do that sort of work.

The Welcome Address was given by Roly Sussex, who talked about language shortening and widening. My notes:


  • Over the centuries, the time taken to write and publish has shortened from months, even years, to milliseconds.
  • Reading time has also shortened, and people tend not to read long passages of text anymore.
  • Production time has collapsed (e.g. newspapers, books), with a flow-on effect on quality.


  • Despite more than 6000 languages worldwide, there’s more of a move to English than any other language. English has become the ‘world language’ for business, commerce, and in other areas.
  • Initially, only the educated male clergy could read and write. With Caxton, literacy jumped the gender barriers, and with the 1871 Education Act in the UK, literacy was available to all. Now, anything can be published, whether it should be or not.
  • About 75% of English transactions are now carried out by those whose first language isn’t English (e.g. India, Pakistan, etc.)
  • English may have widened, but is has also weakened. Unlike French, there’s no regulatory body that decides what’s in the dictionaries, how the language is used, what words can be imported into the language etc. In the absence of a regulatory body, editors are guardians/gatekeepers of English language usage.

Other notes:

  • In public, written English, there are country/regional variations (spelling, date formats, punctuation rules etc.).
  • Australian English has three main dictionaries and three main usage guides as authorities.
  • Editors in some industries (e.g. newspapers) are in danger.
  • Be guardians of flexibility and innovation, exercise judgment.

Keynote Address

As I mentioned earlier, the keynote address started 30 minutes late and therefore the (invited) speaker had to finish much earlier than she would have expected. This was really unfair to both her and the delegates and I’d have been furious had it been me.

The keynote speaker was Susan Butler, a previous editor of the Macquarie Dictionary. Her topic was ‘When to care and when not to care: The editor’s angst’. The premise of her talk was based on words that are often confused, and which ones we should take note of and stand firm on, and which ones may well be becoming acceptable terms. Her pet peeve was using ‘infamous’ instead of ‘famous’. Common usage errors are often caused by confusion and proliferated in social media and the like (e.g. alternate/alternative, toll/toil, endure/endear, ensure/ensue, etc.). We need to make sure we respect the author’s wishes, but also need to advise authors if we think they are making an error, and thus aim to protect the author from ridicule. Confused words affect clarity.

She also said she’s in favour of killing off the apostrophe as it’s so often misused in plurals. However, she thinks she’s a lone voice on this and doesn’t think that will happen any time soon.

When new words were introduced to Macquarie, she said they always got the pedants riled who sent in letters stating ‘I’ve never heard that word in my life’ [and therefore it can’t be a real word]. She emphasised that old dictionaries and style guides are NOT an authority [and I’ll add that your 5th grade teacher isn’t an authority either!]. Similarly, not every word in use has to be in the dictionary to be a legitimate word.

By the way, she said that ‘a wigwam for a goose’s bridle’ [a common Australian expression that I remember hearing often when I was a kid], was derived from ‘a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle’ (a whim-wham is a trinket).


After the opening session and keynote address, we broke for a yummy morning tea. There were some nice savoury items as well as sweet, a pleasant change from many conferences were there are only sweet items. But still no soft drinks or juices to cater for those who don’t drink tea or coffee. We always have to buy these ourselves, which always seems unfair when the tea and coffee drinkers get all their drinks (and as many as they can imbibe) included in the conference fee.


Next up were the main conference sessions. There were three streams running concurrently over 90 minutes, and 14 sessions to choose from. Most sessions were about 10 minutes long (an incredibly short time for a conference presentation!) with a 5-minute changeover. You could stay in the one room for the whole stream or chop and change according to your interests. For this first concurrent session, I went to five different presentations across two streams, going from Ballroom 3 to 1 to 3 to 1 to 3 again. As a result of the changeover and the fact that nearly every speaker went over time, I missed the ends of many presentations. Also, each speaker was introduced by a host, and many gave their own Welcome to Country message, thus adding an extra two minutes to most time slots and reducing to eight minutes the available time to get their message across. It was always going to be interesting…. My notes are NOT complete—in some rooms, I had to stand at the back and thus couldn’t take notes easily, but mostly I had to leave before the presenter finished. Many of these presentations were understandably rushed and the speakers could not get through all the content on their slides, or even all their slides. Or they went over time. Or all the above.

Pam Hewitt: ‘For love and money’

Pam has done studies of salaries and hourly rates for editors over time and shared some of her findings with us. In the past few decades, editors’ salaries have decreased in real terms (i/e after taking inflation, CPI, average minimum wage etc. in to account), and are now less than the average weekly earnings. For freelancers, the average hourly rate in 2001 was $50, and by 2016 was $60, which doesn’t even cover inflation; taking inflation into account, it should have been $74/hr by 2016.

She also mentioned contributing factors such as:

  • the wage gap by gender (editing is a predominantly female profession, and thus attracts lower salaries; even within evenly gendered industries, women are paid only 77% the salary that a man gets for the same job)
  • globalisation: in-house editors are an endangered species. Clients now have access to editors around the country and around the world; equally freelancers can work with clients around the country and the world, so there are possibly more opportunities for work, though not necessarily at a liveable hourly rate
  • treating editing as a second income or post-retirement income, with the editor not being the main breadwinner, or doing editing as a ‘hobby’. One of the associated issues is the lack of superannuation for women in general, and for editors who don’t work sufficient hours to put away enough Super. Pam suggested including an amount to cover Super in your hourly rate.

Other things for freelancers to consider when setting rates include overheads (advertising, insurances, professional development/education, phone/ISP, maintenance, professional memberships, non-billable hours, office supplies, professional library, accountancy fees, utilities, health, holidays, Superannuation).

She also stated that being transparent with others about your salary/hourly rate can only help the everyone in the profession. IPEd is considering setting baseline rates so that clients know what to expect [I think that’s what she said, but I’m not 100% sure as I had to leave about then].

David Zmood: ‘Scientific and technical editing for the non-specialist editor’

David advised us to focus on what we’re good at—language, and how the information is being conveyed to the reader. Polish the language. ‘Let the researchers research, and the editors edit.’

Look at the document type—different ones have different requirements.

Look at the writing style—passive, or first person/active (which is easier to read and becoming more acceptable)

Is the language clear, consistent, and precise? Remove ambiguity; check jargon, abbreviations, acronyms; check the structure; are units of measure used consistently throughout; when decimals are used, are they to the same level for each value (e.g. 3 versus 3.25, which should be 3.00 and 3.25)?

Check figures, tables, and charts. Watch for duplication of the information in the fig etc. in the main body of the text (don’t make the reader re-read the information). Do figs etc. have a clear purpose, are they introduced in the text, and are they in the right location (i.e. near where they are introduced)? Are they readable and accessible? Avoid 3D charts, colours and patterns that aren’t visible/readable in greyscale, and be aware of other vision impairment issues of potential reader.

Karen Farrar: ‘5 Ws of advocacy – lessons for editors from other professions’

Karen had a varied career in the medical sciences before becoming an editor. She has been a member of many professional bodies and thus can see the commonalities between them and the editing profession. First she defined professional advocacy as ‘raising awareness to achieve change’.


  • who are you (as an organisation)?
  • who do you represent?
  • who is your target audience for advocacy?
  • who should be involved?


  • what do you want?
  • what are your key messages?


  • when you’re invited to contribute
  • when opportunity knocks
  • whenever you can make connections (e.g. current events)
  • when you can make your own news (e.g. awards publicity)
  • should be done constantly


  • professional bodies, such as governments, industry meetings and publications, website, social media
  • individuals: educate clients, educate friends and family (they often have no idea what you do)

[I had to leave this session before it finished)

Joely Taylor and Katharine O’Moore-Klopf (via video link from the US): ‘Purging plagiarism: Why authors plagiarise and how to fix it’

[When I arrived at this session, it was standing room only, so I didn’t take notes. The staff brought in extra chairs, so I started to take notes when Katharine started her section of the presentation]

Types of plagiarism:

  • self-plagiarism: re-using your own material that’s been published elsewhere and passing it off as new material; entwined with copyright and research and publication ethics; data augmentation; double dipping
  • patch writing: patching together different parts of words/sentences/paragraphs from the works cited and passing off as your own; unsuccessful paraphrasing; possibly a learning stage
  • copy/paste writing: copied from original works with little/no attempt at paraphrasing; done without attribution.

Finding plagiarism:

  • Look for suspicious text and ask questions about it: changes in language style, syntax, grammar, length of words and sentences; font changes, text background colours.
  • Check Adrienne Montgomerie’s ’10 signs of “lifted” text’:
  • Plenty of plagiarism detection software available—some free, some not.

Bobby Graham: ‘Blogging for your business’

Bobby updated us on her story so far—it seems at the last conference she’d just embarked on blogging (a niche market blog for those wanting to travel light). She said to date her plans and dreams hadn’t come to fruition and she’d made no money, so she was changing tack.

There are four pillars that sustain a blog/website: technology, design, content, and governance.

  • Technology/design: She recommended all-in-one solutions like SquareSpace (, which is a blogging platform with things such as e-commerce, predesigned templates, etc.
  • Content: This is where writers/editors shine. Consider tools such as CoSchedule headline analyser for coming up with alternative headlines to the one you’ve written that are better for search engine optimisation (
  • Governance: Have a content calendar for your blog posts

Blogging is a lonely business, so perhaps consult with a content strategist to help keep you on track.

Consider guest blog posts—you being the guest on others’ blogs, and they being a guest blogger on yours.

Look at your target market and consider how you can get noticed where they hang out (e.g. she targets female travellers over a certain age [e.g.]). Narrow down your target market—she made the mistake of thinking she would target all travellers, but no is more focused on a particular demographic.


Lunch was held in the Cliveden restaurant in the hotel and was a delicious buffet lunch, with a good range of hot dishes and salads, and dessert. Much better than in Brisbane when I think we stood around juggling plates of food and trying to talk and eat while standing up. This time we sat at tables of 4 to 6 people, which was much more civilised and much easier to talk with others.


After lunch, the three streams had a combined 11 sessions over 90 minutes. I didn’t move around so much this time—my first two sessions were in the same room, with the next two also in the same room (though a different room to the first!).

Panel: ‘Academic Editing’ (chaired by Susan Keogh, with panellists Sharon Lierse and Robyn Williams)

The PhD process:

  • Typically three years
  • Student has to write a 10,000-word confirmation of candidature, and an ethics application within the first few months. At this point the supervisor gets a clear idea of their writing skills. Supervisor must sign off on both these submissions.
  • Dissertation may be 80,000 words and is usually supervised by up to three people.

Dilemma: How to convince students to pay for a professional accredited editing services as versus the ‘We’ll edit your thesis in 24 hours for $250’ signs rampant around uni campuses.

IPEd has clear guidelines for editing research theses (updated earlier in 2019 and available from the IPEd website: They list what editors can and can’t do (e.g. no substantive editing). Essential to make students aware of their responsibilities and that of their editor. There’s a grey area between copy and substantive editing of theses, and sometimes questions of clarification need to go back to the supervisor. Supervisors are more hands-on with the student’s work.

Who pays for the editing? Students often can’t afford the cost. Sometimes the uni pays up to a certain amount. If the uni is paying, then need to involve the supervisor. Some students can afford to pay for editing, but many can’t—does this lead to inequality? Not all unis have editorial support—many are cash-strapped and don’t offer this.

However, once a student has attained their PhD, any editing after that can involve the whole range, including substantive as they are no longer subject to the same rules. The chair asked the panel if this was fair.

If a student’s English is poor, where are the boundaries? Editors need to flag issues, not rewrite (e.g. comment, perhaps with a link to someone like Grammar Girl who discusses the issue). Editors must stay at arm’s length. Typical writing issues for ESL students include: subject/verb agreement, length of sentences/paragraphs, plurals.

At one point, editors weren’t ever involved in PhD theses, but now are getting involved in Masters and sometimes undergrad work. Will editors eventually be asked to edit year 12 assignments? Up to schools to teach students how to write, but often grammar etc. not taught. Should Ed Depts give a blanket statement to schools about the use of editing with students? Is it already happening with some tutoring services? In some private schools? ‘Editors for everyone’?

Universities should have clear policies as to when/if students should engage an editor. Not all do. Role for IPEd?

Editing mills: Very cheap/free. The uneducated consumer doesn’t know the difference between a professional editor and someone who hangs up a shingle and calls themselves an editor. This affects everyone in regards to credibility, wages/rates.

Academic authors want better quality, in a shorter time, and cheaper! (i.e. all three on the ‘pick two’ continuum).

University/scholarly presses: Many are abandoning scholarly publishing (very expensive). Is there a space for indie publishing for academic authors? Uni presses need to maintain high standards to keep their reputations. Some now want authors to pay—self-publishing/vanity model? But do these works go out for peer review? Academics are unlikely to self-publish because their prestige depends on being published by reputable presses.

Cooperation with unis is vital. It can’t just be editors holding up the guidelines—it needs a joint approach from the unis too.

Pam Peters: ‘Best practice for editing – all at one URL’

Pam gave an overview of the upcoming collaborative ‘StyleHub’ portal (; due for launch mid-2019) that is a joint exercise between Macquarie Dictionary and BioText, and will bring together in one place the many resources that editors need, such as:

  • style manual (not sure which one this is, but later she talked about the Australian Manual of Scientific Style [AMOSS] being made more general and being called the Australian Manual of Style [AMOS])
  • Australian style (not sure what this is in comparison to the first one)
  • term finders
  • clear communication
  • research and testing
  • training.

[I had to leave before she finished, and have no idea how much this portal website will cost to access]

Julie Irish: ‘Accessibility: Creating content for everyone’

More than 4 million Australians at any one time have a disability, be it permanent or temporary (e.g. broken arm):

  • accessibility is a requirement for all federal government websites
  • best practice for web design/development
  • available to the broadest possible audience

Other impairments:

  • English is not the first language
  • situational impairments, such as trying to watch a video on a phone with no headphones

Accessible content:

  • clear/logical structure (headings essential)
  • inclusive language
  • good readability (check with Hemingway app)
  • [I missed a few here…]
  • alt text, captions, transcripts
  • link text
  • microcopy (e.g. button text)
  • writing to suit user’s purposes,

Accessibility is for everyone. There’s no such thing as ‘normal’.

Cathy Nicholl: ‘Making the accessible usable when editing for the online world’

Content needs to be useful to visual, audio, and kinaesthetic learners—must cater for different learning styles as well as different abilities.
Accessible, usable, multichannel.

Close of day keynote: Michael Williams, Director, The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas

Michael was a humorous speaker, who made a potentially dry subject very entertaining (governments have an ‘edifice complex’, a need to build something new even though it might already exist in another form).

The Wheeler Centre ( was established by the Victorian Government after Melbourne became the second UNESCO City of Literature. It brings together in the one place several Victorian and Melbourne organisations associated with publishing, books, writing, comedy etc. They have an extensive talks program (about 250 a year, of which 80% are free to attend), and mentor new writers. By making talks free, there’s a greater chance people will spend that money saved buying the books etc. after the talk. And by starting them at 6:15pm, they get workers before they go home but after they’ve finished work for the day, and still have them back on the train by 7:00pm.

It’s a centre for public conversations that have been abandoned over the years by institutions of old—churches, railway and mechanics institutes, trade unions, local government, etc.

Their eclectic programs cater to multiple tribes. They host local writers and those who are visiting Melbourne.

However, they aren’t just an events organisation—they also help fill gaps in Australian publishing. They are concerned with how well supported the next generation of writers will be. Traditional publishing is typically very risk-averse, so new writers—no matter how good they are—may never get published. They offer a voice to those in the margins, those less privileged. Publishing is connecting an idea with an audience.

The proliferation of small publishers don’t have the resources to work with audiences and promote new writers. So The wheeler Centre, in partnership with Aesop Cosmetics Foundation, have established ‘The Next Chapter’, a mentoring program for ten new writers. Each person chosen gets $15,000, is assigned a mentor, and signs a moratorium contract to NOT go to a publisher. Their job is to hone their craft and make it the best it can possibly be, even if it never gets published. At the end of the 12 months, The Wheeler Centre will act as their agent to help them get published.

Close of day Panel: ‘Things I wish I’d known’

In this plenary session Renee Otmar asked six experienced editors for their take on what they learnt the hard way, or what they wish they’d known early in their editing careers. The panellists were: Ted Briggs, Edward Caruso, Ruth Davies, Loene Doube, Kirsten Rawlings, and Kathie Stove. This was a light-hearted finish to the end of Day 1.


The Gala Dinner was held this evening, but I didn’t attend. There’s something about ‘fancy dress’ that turns me right off any event that has a dress-up theme!

See also:


IPEd Conference 2019: Workshop day

May 12, 2019

Last week (8 to 10 May 2019) I attended the biennial IPEd Conference (Institute of Professional Editors, the national association of Australian [and now New Zealand] editors), held in Melbourne at the Pullman on the Park hotel. These notes summarise MY experience at the conference and my opinions and represent no-one else’s experience or opinions. 

IPEd held several half-day pre-conference workshops the day before the conference started, for an extra cost of $175 per workshop. I attended ‘Mastering Macros: Understanding the full potential of Word’, presented by Kevin O’Brien.

I was familiar with much of what Kevin had to say, but I did learn a couple of new things. He covered the basics of macros very comprehensively, then got us to record our own macro, assign macros to keyboard shortcuts, modify a macro in the VBA window (e.g. add a loop command), and helped us debug a failing macro. The sample template he provided has many macros, some of which I may add to my suite of useful macros once I’ve had time to test them out.


The first official event of the conference was the Welcome Reception, held after all the workshops were finished. The catering staff were very good in providing drinks, but it did take a while for the food to come out to soak up the alcohol. However, when it did it was excellent finger food—hot, small enough to eat in one or perhaps two bites, with a lot of variety. I only stayed for about an hour (it got very noisy, with a couple of hundred delegates all chatting) and then headed back to my nearby hotel (I didn’t stay at the conference venue).

See also:


ACES Conference 2019: Providence, Rhode Island

April 1, 2019

I’ve just finished attending the ACES Conference in Providence (ACES was previously known as the American Copy Editors Association; now it’s ACES: The Society for Editors). This was my fifth ACES conference and it was the biggest yet. The 2018 record of 710 attendees in Chicago was broken with an increase of 16%, taking the registered attendees in 2019 to 827!

The conference was held at the Omni Providence Hotel, on the edge of downtown Providence and right next door to the convention centre. The rooms were standard hotel rooms for a hotel of this star rating, so nothing much to say about those. The lobby was easy to find as were the conference rooms (unlike in Chicago in 2018). And the conference rooms were set up well for a conference of this nature—the audio worked well, the presentations were projected on the screens without any glitches, and there were no impediments to seeing the presenters (except for the panel discussions where the participants were seated at a table at floor level, not on a dais).

The program was extensive, and the sessions I attended were excellent. Between five and eight concurrent sessions were scheduled for each time slot (typically seven or eight), so it was impossible to go to them all. There was a 30-minute break between sessions, with a long lunch break, which gave you enough time to visit the bathroom, grab a coffee, check out the vendor booths, and get to your next session. As a presenter, that 30 minutes was perfect for making sure the previous presenter had vacated the room, and give you unpressured time to set up for your session.

All the comments and notes below are my own and do not represent anybody else. Naturally, I only reported on the sessions I attended.

Freelancers Happy Hour

This was held the evening before the conference started and was not an official ACES event. It was sponsored by some small copyediting businesses and was held at a bar a couple of blocks from the hotel. The food was good (free food, cash bar), the company was good, and the room was LOUD. I left after about an hour because I thought I’d lose my voice trying to maintain a conversation at that noise level, and with my presentation scheduled for early the next day I wasn’t going to jeopardise my voice. Unfortunately, this year the Freelancers Happy Hour clashed with the ACES Spelling Bee, which was on at the same time. In previous years, the spelling bee has been held on another night, and not at the same time as the freelancers’ thing, so I’m sure many people were torn as to which one they’d go to.

Day 1

After the opening session, the first sessions of the conference started. My 10:30am session on Microsoft Word clashed with another session I really wanted to go to (Samantha Enslen’s session on editing for readability, which I missed last year because of the lack of microphone in a big room), but as I was speaking at the same time, it was impossible to attend hers. This year, the session times were cut to 60 minutes (from 90 and then 75 minutes in previous years), so I had to move through my material at a fair clip and had to take out all demonstrations (bar one) from my presentation so that I could cover everything in the time allotted. I also included Mac information for each tip for the first time. In previous years, the audience for this session has hovered around 150 people, but was only about 80 people this year. But then, it’s the fourth consecutive year I’ve done the same session! The response from attendees immediately after the session and in the following days was all very positive. And many attendees from previous years came up to thank me for making their lives easier, including one chap from a military university, who said he’s shared my tips and handouts with thousands of students and faculty.

Lunch on the first day was the Peer Networking Lunch, and I sat at one of the Corporate Editors tables. I quite like the idea of these lunches as you get to meet other editors you may not meet otherwise, but why-oh-why do they have to seat us at such big tables? It’s impossible to talk to 10 or 12 people across a large round table, even if there wasn’t a lot of other noise coming from the other tables. You end up only talking to those next to you, or perhaps one further away on each side, and thus pretty much ignore the rest of those at the table because you can’t hear or be heard. Tables of four to six people would be much better because you’d get a chance to introduce yourself and talk to everyone at the table, and thus not feel as though you’ve excluded those you can’t hear.

After lunch I attended the ‘Maximize your time: Growth and balance for your freelance editorial biz’ co-presented by Julie Willson and Melanie Padget Powers. Most of what they had to say and the advice they gave wasn’t new to me, but it was revealing and scary to see how much time in a 24-hour day I spend on various activities. My aim? To cut down the amount of time spent on social media and watching TV, and spend more time on hobbies and creative pursuits. I’ll see how that goes… Some other insights from their session included:

  • Focus on peak productivity times (are you a morning or a night person?)
  • Create routines/habits to maximise your energy peaks and troughs
  • Simplify your systems
  • What are your pre-work routines? What do you do first? Is there a better/more efficient way or time to do those tasks? (e.g. don’t deal with non-urgent emails etc. in your peak productivity times—leave until you are less sharp)
  • Habit formation: Create a ‘today’ list of 3 to 4 items only; create a highlight for the day; create a random questions list; make it convenient; reward yourself
  • Go to to find out which sort of tendency (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel) you best match

The last session of the day was Sea Chapman’s ‘Raging silence: Confronting death in the written word’. This wasn’t my first choice for that time slot, but I’d had breakfast with Sea and a couple of others that morning, and her presentation sounded fascinating. And so it was. Unlike journalists who may have to report on deaths (natural, murder, suicide, violent deaths, terror acts, obituaries, etc.), my only exposure to death in the documents I work on relates to euthanising animals that are injured as a result of work activities (e.g. struck by a vehicle). Sea took us through an overview of how death is seen in different countries, religions, and cultures; the rituals involved in death and the disposal of the body; the ethics of writing about death and a dead person; terms used to describe suicide (‘took their own life’ or ‘died by suicide’ are preferred to ‘committed suicide’, which survivors may find offensive or harmful or imply criminality); the various euphemisms and metaphors used to describe death—and how to avoid them; focusing on the victims and survivors after a tragedy and not giving power or publicity to the perpetrator; etc. She also provided us with an extensive handout of resources, including an excellent set of guidelines at:

The Opening Night Reception (food included, cash bar) was well attended and another loud event (well, nearly 800 people in a room will create a lot of noise, even if many of them are self-confessed introverts—they’re not so introverted when they are with their tribe!). One of the highlights was the availability of heaps of word board games around the room and on small tables! This was a brilliant idea and should be standard at all conferences for writers, editors, and others involved in words. It allowed us to meet others in a way that avoided the social chitchat and small talk that is painful to so many people at an event like this. Getting to know someone over a board game certainly beats standing around waiting to join in the conversation with a group of people you don’t know.

Day 2

My sessions today started with Lisa McLendon’s ‘Small changes, big difference’ where she focused on the little things we can do to eliminate excessive and awkward wording, making the copy smoother, clearer, and more concise, and making sentences stronger and more direct. She showed lots of examples, and explained why and how they could be revised. For example:

  • There were thousands of screaming fans packing the arena. ==>Thousands of screaming fans packed the arena.
  • The restaurant offers seven different vegetarian entrees. ==> The restaurant offers seven vegetarian entrees. (‘different’ is redundant—they wouldn’t offer seven entrees the same!)
  • Estimated to be about 50,000 years old, the Yukon Paleontology program thinks the specimens are the oldest mummified mammal tissue ever discovered. ==> The Yukon Paleontology program thinks the specimens, estimated to be 50,000 years old, are the oldest mummified mammal tissues ever discovered. (example of misplaced modifier)

Her general advice was to use your judgement, be mindful of who the audience is, find the true subject of the sentence, and never give the reader an excuse to stop reading.

Next up was a difficult choice—do I go to the one on creativity, or to James Harbeck’s session? That decision was made for me when I arrived at the room for the creativity session about 10 mins early to find the room packed and people spilling onto the floor and into the hallway. So off I went to James Harbeck’s ‘When to use bad English’ session. James was quick to point out that bad does not always equal inappropriate. The essence is to make sure that the text produces the right effect in the intended audience, which means you have to know your audience. Other advice included:

  • Look for the SQ (snicker quotient) of the words you use
  • The passive voice is not always a grammatical error
  • Beware of dog whistles—things that only the picky set will notice (again, know your audience). Use dog whistles to whistle up the right dogs, not the wrong ones
  • Know your genres and registers (e.g. instruction manual versus a novel)
  • Know whether the material is involved (spoken, spontaneous, personal) or if it is informational (e.g. more formal, such as government documents, reports).

Use ‘bad English’:

  • To set the tone (we choose our registers according to the situation—you speak differently to a close friend than a government official, for example)
  • To get attention, such as in marketing slogans (e.g. Kmart’s ‘Ship my pants’; ‘Got milk?’)
  • To preserve the sound (e.g. ‘to boldly go’ just doesn’t sound as emphatic as ‘to go boldly’). Grammar is not a moral code handed down on stone tablets—use language that the audience is comfortable with. Ideas about ‘correct English’ are often about class
  • To be like normal folks. Stilted language may bring back bad memories of English classes at school. Slight imperfections can be inviting. If there are no errors in, say, a restaurant’s menu, then the company has likely been able to afford an editor. Too-perfect English can be uninviting in some contexts
  • To be believable. Sometimes a redundancy stresses the importance (e.g. ‘free gift’)
  • To be clear, and for usability (e.g. spelled out numbers may get lost in the copy)
  • To give some people something to pick at (e.g. typos in a dissertation) and thus possibly overlook or skip more important errors
  • As a red herring (e.g. politicians—people may think you’re stupid even if you’re not). People will give more credit to honesty than to perfect English
  • For shits and giggles (e.g. ‘I can haz cheezburgr’). Vulgarity can be very effective
  • For a slap in the face; however, too much erodes the effect
  • For the well-placed vulgarity. Vulgarities connect with the limbic system, so play for contrast. Also, vulgarity is an ‘in group’ thing
  • To get friends and readers (e.g. the F bomb under certain circumstances)
  • If you’re sure you can get away with it.

The first session after lunch was Laura Poole’s ‘Be bold! Making your own opportunities’. My notes from her session included:

  • Your business is only open when your mouth is
  • Freelancing—the dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately
  • Bold does not equal rude
  • Think in terms of approaching potential clients with ‘How could I help your business? Could we be referral partners?’
  • If approaching a successful freelancer for tips, try ‘Can I buy you a meal / pay your consulting rate for an hour of your time?’
  • Rate setting stages:
    1. They’ll chose me if I’m cheaper
    2. What does everyone else charge?
    3. I’ve been doing this a while
    4. What’s it really worth
    5. If you want me, this is what it costs
  • Ask for referrals, recommendations, work. Consider a signature line or line on your invoice such as ‘A referral is the greatest compliment I can receive’. Ask for LinkedIn recommendations, testimonials for your website, etc.
  • Up-sell other services you offer—‘I can also help you with …’ (perhaps also add to sig line or invoice?)
  • Bold offer—‘I can also give this presentation to any group’, then negotiate the details of expenses, travel etc.
  • Say NO to projects that drain you, heavy deadline jobs
  • Look for speaking opportunities (e.g. with clients, potential clients, chapter meetings of professional organisations, etc.). Seriously consider joining Remember, the audience WANTS you to succeed
  • Colleagues are potential referral partners (work colleagues, or editing conference colleagues)
  • Create your own training/workshops from speaking opportunities
  • Split a workshop into several webinar parts, promote and sell via website
  • Remember, ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’
  • Be honest when you don’t know the answer
  • Write articles, blog posts, ebooks, workbooks for workshop, swap blog posts with others.

The final session of the day was just a single offering—the ‘Style guide superjam, or is it super jam?’ with hosts and panellists from Merriam-Webster, AP Stylebook, Buzzfeed, Chicago Manual of Style, Random House, and the New York Times. Each spoke about how they approach their roles and their style rules. As expected, the very large room was packed, and they had to open another room and provide a video feed to that room. Because I don’t use any of those style guides and thus don’t get all ‘fangirl’ over the names of those who were on the panel, I didn’t get a lot out of this session.

The Friday Night Banquet was held this evening, and the guest speaker was from well outside the editing world—Rupal Patel, founder and CEO of VocaliD (, a company that creates human voices for those who can’t speak, and who uses the voices of real people to create composite AI voices that sound human, not like they were generated from a computer. What she had to say and demonstrated was fascinating, and I can see applications for her work in all sorts of areas, not just in assistive technologies for those who can’t speak.

Day 3

The final day. First up for me was Daniel Heuman’s session on PerfectIt: ‘How to check consistency and enforce your house style: Using Perfectit for faster and better results’. I’ve been using PerfectIt since 2010, and just love it. It’s the only Word add-in I’d never be without. Daniel covered some of the basics for those who are new to PerfectIt or just considering purchasing it, and some more advanced stuff for seasoned practitioners. He demonstrated the features using PerfectIt 4 (currently being beta tested, with an expected release date at the end of June 2019). With regards to versions, PerfectIt 3 and 4 are for installation on a PC, while PerfectIt Cloud is for Mac. PerfectIt Cloud doesn’t yet have the customisation functions, but no doubt they will eventually make it into that version. Licensing has changed, and all new purchases will be on the $70/year subscription model ($49 for ACES members via the ACES website), whether they are for the installed or cloud versions. Updates will be automatically included in the subscription price, though you can choose when to install them (at least for PerfectIt 4—I’m not sure about the cloud version). In discussions with Daniel, he also said that a single-user license can be installed on a PC and a laptop, and still be classed as a single user. Some other notes from this session:

  • Preview window can be widened
  • Fix option is available right in line with each item found
  • Can purchase from, via the Microsoft Store option in Word (not sure if this applies to Macs too), or for a discounted price via the members’ section of the ACES website
  • F6 will put PerfectIt into keyboard mode
  • From Office 2013 onwards, you can import a PDF into Word and then check it with PerfectIt
  • Daniel highly recommends Jack Lyon’s Wildcard Cookbook (

My next session was Aleksandra Sandstrom’s ‘Working with survey data: Best practices for editors and fact checkers’. Even though this session was aimed more at those working in newspapers etc., and focused on human surveys, much still applied to any sort of survey data. My notes:

  • Is the survey trustworthy? (often subjective)
  • Is it representative?
  • Who paid for it to be done?
  • Why was it conducted?
  • Is there a method statement? (critical)

Regarding the methodology:

  • Who conducted the survey?
  • Who paid for it?
  • When was it conducted? (dates are very important in surveys of current event issues)
  • What data collection method was used? Common types of sampling include probability (everyone has a known chance of inclusion) versus non probability (quota samples [e.g. we’ve already asked xx women and now we don’t want any more], convenience samples [e.g. people who are willing and available in a particular place]). Modes of collection include phone, online, mobile (text), post, face-to-face, and a mix of these.
  • Who was NOT surveyed? (e.g. can’t reach [such as homeless]; can’t consent [such as institutionalised, or under 18])
  • What is the margin of error? (e.g. +/- 5) As the sample size increases, the margin of error decreases. Confidence interval is related to the margin of error. Watch for differences over years when you take into account the margin of error. ‘Majority’ only applies if both ends of the confidence interval is >50%. Watch for different subgroups of the sample having different margins of error (e.g. 18 to 24 year olds versus over 65s).
  • What is the weighting? Weighting typically accounts for demographic characteristics, type of person most likely to complete the survey, special considerations (e.g. language used). Can a small sample really represent the entire population? (she used the analogy of making soup, where a small taste can represent the flavour of the entire pot—you don’t have to eat all the soup to know that the sample was correct; recommends watching Methods 101: Random Sampling on YouTube:
  • How are the questions worded? Types of ‘bad’ questions include double-barrelled questions, leading questions, and questions that don’t make sense.

Common mistakes and how to avoid them:

  • Defining the universe— clearly define the group you’re talking about
  • Is it a median (middle value of a set) or a mean (average value)? The median can mitigate the effects of a wild outlier value
  • Prevalence versus intensity—you may need to ask follow-up questions to help define and narrow the responses
  • Confusing numbers with % share.

The final session of the conference I attended (not including the closing session) was on ‘Understanding your freelance pricing feedback loop’ presented by Jake Poiner and Erin Brenner. Their blurb for this session started with ‘Do I charge enough? How many more clients to I need to make the money I want?’ Their basic premise is that you can’t determine either of these things without data. My notes from this session:

  • Potential new client:
    • Collect data
    • Analyse data
    • Implement changes based on that analysis
    • Assess the project parameters
    • Present the estimate—Yes? Complete the project; No? No deal
  • When formulating rates, can use:
    • Expense/profit calculations
    • Equivalent salary calculations
    • Rate sheets
    • Other resources
  • Know how an hourly rate translates to a per page/per word rate (standard is 250 words per page, no matter how many words are actually on each page)
  • Talk to graphic designers—they are often users of editing services and can give an idea of what they expect to pay
  • Pricing for persuasion:
    • Understand the client’s needs/motivations
    • How are you conveying value? What will the client make from the work you do for them?
    • What’s the best kind of deal? The one that makes you and the client happy!
    • Do you have different pricing models for different clients? (e.g. large corporate versus a non-profit you care about) This is NOT the same as having different prices for different activities for the same client
    • Be perceived as a fair business person
    • Understand what the client expects
    • What’s the worst that can happen? (typically a job at a price that doesn’t make you happy; you still have to do the job, but you’re not getting what you should for it)
    • Get feedback—if you don’t know, ask
  • Prices, estimates, your business in general shouldn’t be static
  • How to use business data:
    • Collect data (e.g. editing speed; even if you’re not charging by the hour, you are selling hours)
    • Analyse data
    • Implement changes based on the data
  • How do I make more money and work fewer hours? You need DATA
  • Client types: Categorise clients based on value to you (bread-and-butter: you can count on them for regular work; blue-chip: you’ll do anything for them; cattle call: you’re competing with other editors on price alone; one-offs; Halley’s Comet: they like you but they don’t come around very often; passion projects: may not pay off right away but will eventually)
  • Analyse where your income is coming from—which clients? look for patterns in your business of receipts and expenditure
  • How to increase your rate: ‘On <date>, my rate will be $xx.’ Don’t apologise. Grandfathering: ‘I’ll charge you at the old rate for xx time, but the rate will increase to $xx on <date>.’ Alternative: ‘My new rate from <date> will be $xx, so get in now for me to do your work at the old rate’
  • Focus on the benefits to them (the client)
  • You need pitch data. What’s your pitch? What’s your proposal process? You need pitch data to track the source of the request (Where did they come from? How did they find you? Who referred them to you?)
  • Spend time in the places where you’ll get more projects
  • Wins and losses—ask why you didn’t get the job/contract, or why you did. Repeat the things that work
  • Record project details
  • Record response time
  • Calculate estimated editing speed (based on previous data), time, and cost
  • Record actual editing speed, time, and cost
  • Data needs a purpose—focus on your goals and collect the data, analyse the data, and implement changes
  • Be curious about your business—ask yourself what worked and why and what didn’t and why not
  • Remember, corporations expect to pay you at a consultant’s rate, not at editorial rates
  • Make sure you have a clause in your contract to cover scope creep: ‘Work outside the scope will be charged at $XX/hour’
  • Send your contract with your estimate

At the closing session, the dates and locations for future ACES conferences were announced:

  • 2020 Salt Lake City, 30 April to 2 May [CANCELLED owing to COVID-19 pandemic]
  • 2021 Atlanta, 22 to 24 April
  • 2022 San Antonio, 31 March to 2 April
  • 2023 Columbus, 23 to 25 March

And then it was all over. People packed up their gear, said their (occasionally teary) goodbyes, and headed home to their normal lives, hoping to do it all again in 2020 with those who ‘get’ them.


Featured in the ACES blog

January 8, 2019

I wrote a guest post for the ACES blog, which was published at the end of 2018. It’s a brief summary of my conference presentation on being more efficient with Microsoft Word. You can read it here:


LavaCon2018: Day 3

October 25, 2018

The last day of LavaCon 2018 was full of breakout sessions, with no plenary sessions. Here are my notes from the sessions I attended.

Diversify your content ecosystem

Bernard Aschwanden took us through a heap of information, a tiny amount of which I captured in notes. I’ll have to watch the recording and view the slides later. The notes I did make were:

  • clarify, simplify, and reuse content
  • track/share costs — you can cut costs by sharing content, but even better is to generate revenue. Docs can reduce costs AND generate revenue
  • content is a core business asset
  • content is cross-department and cross-functional — it shouldn’t live in silos
  • search is a headache, find is a solution (think of searching for your car keys [anxiety] versus finding your keys [happiness/relief])
  • think about components, not complete docs
  • reuse components across business verticals
  • how and what to measure — process efficiencies to reduce costs; revenue growth

Cross-format and cross-silo: Lightweight DITA (LWDITA) for intelligent content

(Michael Priestley, IBM)

  • DITA is a standard, which means it’s portable and scalable
  • Why isn’t DITA everywhere? perceived complexity (too many tags, too hard to customise, steep learning curve) and it’s XML (software developers mostly use XML for data, so when JSON came along, XML was dead for them; bias against XML in favour of Markdown, HTML5, custom formats)
  • Simplify the model — no longer reliant on XML schema; cross-format content standard
  • LWDITA — has only 2 doc types (topic and map), 40 elements types (33 from DITA 1.3, 7 for multimedia support), and 3 formats (XML, HTML5, Markdown)
  • LWDITA is less flexible but easier to learn
  • Full DITA — advanced features, more flexibility, mature tools
  • LWDITA — start simple, eventually more tool support, don;t need XML
  • Tools that support LWDITA include oXygen XML Editor, Author, Web Author; SimplyXML Content Mapper; and others
  • Publishing options — DITA-OT; XML Mind DITA Converter; Adobe AEM Publishing
  • people and processes are the hard part — tools are the easy part!
  • more info: and

‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed — cultivating a weed-free content ecosystem

This was an info-filled talk by Helen St Denis, Conversion Services Manager, from Stilo. She talked about pre- and post-conversion tasks for DITA, amongst other things. I tried to keep up with her but these notes may be missing a few points.

Content strategy includes:

  • content modelling
  • taxonomies
  • setting up storage, reuse and publication facilities
  • perhaps style guides

First step is the content audit:

  • what do we have
  • what do we need to keep
  • what’s OK and where is it now
  • what needs to be rewritten
  • what should be moved first

Writing for minimalism:

  • focus on action-oriented approach
  • understand the users’ world
  • recognise the importance of troubleshooting info
  • ensure users can find the info they need
  • remember that every page is page 1
  • rewrite for reuse
  • rewrite for localisation/translation even if not going there yet — consistent terminology, concise, clear (avoid idioms), grammatically complete (don’t forget ‘that’)
  • minimise inline x-refs — move into a relationship table

Content model:

  • topic-based — smallest unit of content that makes sense by itself
  • 4 basic topics — task, concept, reference, and troubleshooting
  • do not include multiple types on content in the one topic — just one


  • only 1 set of steps per task
  • if there are two ways to do something, you need two tasks
  • doing and undoing something = two tasks
  • improve conversion by adding paragraph breaks between <step><cmd> and<step><result> or <info>

Short descriptions:

  • these help with findability
  • either use everywhere or nowhere — not a mix; everywhere is best, but time consuming

Pre vs post conversion cleanup:

  • if you don’t need the docs immediately, convert after
  • if active docs, do pre-conversion cleanup

Really need to do:

  • topics — break out based on heading levels
  • topic types — many not need immediately, but much easier to add at conversion time, not after

Authoring conventions:

  • tasks — look for gerunds, ‘how to’
  • concepts — look for ‘about’
  • references — look for titles with command names in lower case
  • paragraph styles — look for styles like ‘procedure heading’
  • consider adding prefixes in text (e.g. T_ for task, C_ for concept, R_ for reference)

Topic types:

  • can allow conversion to determine these based on content of topic (e.g steps = tasks; syntax diagram = reference)
  • can use in combination

Data model:

  • tasks are trickiest
  • only 1 set of steps per task
  • no sections — stuff before and after MUST be in the correct order

Inline elements:

  • especially important if you will localise/translate
  • some things may not be translated
  • some things will be presented differently in different languages
  • may already have styles/typographic conventions for these
  • character-level style names (if still working on the docs); if not, consider colour highlighting the elements

Don’t need to worry about:

  • tables
  • links
  • variables
  • conditions
  • having all the answers

Other considerations:

  • graphics — supported format; where stored; findable
  • do graphics have superimposed callouts? Are they easily editable?
  • paragraph breaks — watch out for hard and soft line breaks
  • look out for text in the wrong order (e.g. from text boxes, or from inDesign)
  • eliminate superfluous docs
  • some legacy content may have reuse already built in; some is from copy/paste
  • legacy reuse can be at doc level (e.g. Word master docs), phrase level (e.g. Word auto text)

DITA reuse:

  • reuse is at the element level
  • maps can bring in other maps
  • phrase level — conrefs, keys
  • conrefs allow reuse of single DITA element (para, table, single list item, whole list)
  • conref range — first and last elements MUST be the same

Identifying reused content:

  • text inserts/snippets — use the file name
  • create conrefs using the filename as the ID
  • each block level element becomes a conref

De-duplicating (dedup’g) content:

  • prune redundancies
  • spreadsheet to track duplications — very painful and slow! Avoid
  • tools can help ID identical and near match content, but still need a human eye (e.g. Stilo’s OptimizeR, which compares DITA elements, shows diffs, you choose to dup or not, auto creates conrefs, auto adjusts maps to refer to selected topic, gives a report of what has been dedup’d)
  • allow time for implementing a reuse mechanism

Content 4.0

(Pam Noreault and Chip Gettinger, SDL)

  • Landscape: any device can be used to display content
  • Customer demands: By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as a main differentiator

Product content:

  • branded tech product info is 2nd most trusted source (they didn’t state what the 1st was)
  • customer support (phone/online) has dramatically decreased
  • product info must be available in various languages, for various devices and formats
  • customers want to go to one place to get info


  • shared content strategy — content mashups, portals, microcontent, blogs, videos, chatbots, Twitter feeds, documentation and product help, KB articles, communities/forums
  • shared enterprise taxonomy — make content findable by applying consistent terminology and metadata
  • device independence — design content for any device; mobile first; responsive design; how will voice interaction affect content
  • design for global customers — plan initially for translation even if not doing so now
  • adaptive personalisation — machine learning, AI, natural language processing in real time


  • review info architecture (IA)
  • be flexible and willing to support new use cases
  • consider content granularity
  • taxonomy — seek help from others, including industry experts
  • work within the politics of the organisation to gain allies — get a seat at the table
  • get your IA house in order
  • move ahead in increments
  • gain knowledge through research and people — seek out those who’ve already done it
  • start with a small pilot and expand
  • morph again and embrace change
  • create a global content strategy
  • understand where you are and where you need to be
  • know the gaps and narrow them
  • support your company’s global business
  • improve the quality of your source content
  • don;t create another content silo
  • get the global strategy completed first
  • Google Translate is NOT the solution!
  • research tools, infrastructure and whatever else you need
  • mix strategy with technology
  • empower SMEs, contributors and authors
  • make content findable and relatable
  • connect contextually (e.g. classified searches vs free text)

LavaCon2018: Day 2

October 24, 2018

Day 2 started as per Day 1, with several short (20 minute) plenary sessions.

A journey to intelligent content delivery

The first breakout session I attended was another case study on how a software company transformed their help and documentation offering using Zoomin, in this case Pam Goodwin describing how her small team of 6 authors changed how documentation was viewed for Cherwell, an IT service management company with 450 employees.


  • focus was on ‘catch up’ documentation
  • dated look
  • poor search capability
  • different help systems and tools used for different rpoducts
  • no consolidated search
  • no access outside the software to other information

Interim (2016):

  • used SuiteHelp
  • based on DITA source
  • improved searching
  • standalone systems for each product release
  • needed separate PDF plug-in and PDF delivery model

After (2018):

  • easy to find
  • cross-product and cross-version support
  • multi language support
  • improved searching
  • on-demand PDF creation by users at point of need
  • responsive design
  • scalable
  • simple delivery model for authors
  • easy maintenance

Why choose Zoomin Docs?

  • met all their requirements
  • powerful search
  • minimal changes to DITA source
  • improved analytics (esp. for searches)
  • on-demand PDFs
  • built-in feedback mechanism
  • past relationship with vendor’s personnel
  • great customer references

How they sold it to decision makers:

  • Timing — new leadership were looking for opportunities to modernise and scale
  • Executive support — Chief Product officer (CPO) saw tech docs as a valuable marketing tool, esp. once he realised that when he was researching a product, he always checked the docs as part of his decision making
  • Strong program management — saw value and helped navigate the approval process
  • Affordable solution — able to take great strides with minimal investment and compressed timeline

Project challenges:

  • lack of UI/UX support at kick-off
  • struggled with taxonomy shift; once made, then kept it simple
  • quickly pushed multi language support and context-sensitive help to phase [not sure what I wrote there!]
  • table formatting issues
  • automation issues
  • user management
  • need a third testing environment


  • significant increase in users (27%)
  • number of sessions per user down (i.e. ‘hit and run’)
  • 320% increase in number of page views
  • 91% increase in unique page views
  • 37% decrease in bounce rates
  • 17.5% increase in Net Promoter score [what is this?] in past year; great customer comments

Creating interactive intelligent style guides

(George Bina, Oxygen)

20 years since XML standard was first published, and since Oxygen was created.

A style guide is a set of rules to follow when writing content. (e.g. how to style code blocks so the code remains correct, but visually readable). A style guide helps you avoid making mistakes.

A style guide should:

  • evolve and grow over time
  • deal with errors/new issues as you find them

But often there are too many rules.

Solution: Automate. Auto detect when content doesn’t follow a specific rule. (e.g. Schematron will detect variations in patterns in structured docs; Acrolynx).

Schematron can also check text via regular expressions. Works inside the authoring tool (e.g. Oxygen XML Editor) and is integrated within it so you get messages about potential errors while writing.

With Schematron, you select the rule and provide your parameters, plus a message for the writer.

(Note: I left this session halfway through because while automated style guides are something I wanted to know more about, what he was demonstrating was the integration between an XML/DITA editor [which I don’t use] and Schematron — I couldn’t see how I would ever use this.)

End of day plenaries

The last two plenaries of the day were from David Dylan Thomas (The content strategy of civil discourse: Turning conflict into collaboration) and Megan Gilhooly (The power of learning you were wrong). Both were really excellent!



LavaCon2018: Day 1

October 23, 2018

I helped out on the Registration desk this morning. It was a bit of a madhouse, with three of us checking in about 450 people in just on an hour!

By the time I got into the intro and plenary sessions there were no seats left, it was hard to see the screen, and hear the speakers, so I left after Karen McGrane’s keynote.

Some notes from McGrane’s talk:

  • How to create content for any format (including audio only), any device, any screen size, no matter what the ‘next big thing’ is, even for devices not yet created?
  • Still too much reliance on visual styling (as used in books/paper) to create meaning. The web isn’t print — the way people create content has to change.
  • Content ecosystem has to be navigable whatever size device (e.g. watch to stadium screen; digital signage), even if not the primary target device.
  • Need true separation of content from form; presentation-independent content.
  • Content must be readable, browsable, and accessible on any platform/device.

Word and DITA

The first general session I attended was on Microsoft Word and DITA, and featured Doug Corman speaking about the pros and cons of each and how an add-in from SimplyXML could make it easier to general authors to write in a style compatible with DITA (yes, I checked with him afterwards about the add-in’s applicability for editing, and it’s not).

My notes from this session:

DITA positives:

  • XML standard
  • separates content creation and form
  • supports topic-based authoring
  • information typing
  • re-use at many levels
  • open source
  • large global community of practitioners
  • proven for tech pubs
  • flexible (640+ elements)
  • integration with CMSs and modern processes
  • control through a standard architecture

DITA negatives:

  • 640+ elements!
  • transformation costs from Word, XML, PDF
  • XML editors are complicated
  • DITA tools are expensive
  • expertise required for implementation
  • rework/rekeying of DOCX, PDF may be required.

Microsoft Word positives:

  • ubiquitous (at least 1 billion users)
  • does everything
  • has footnote/bibliography capability
  • has review functions such as track changes and comments
  • publishing format flexibility — fonts, templates

Microsoft Word negatives:

  • does everything (flexibility)
  • full DITA functionality is impossible
  • standards, macros can be violated
  • authoring and publishing are tightly integrated

Best of both (ideal world):

  • XML
  • topic-based authoring
  • information typing
  • re-use at many levels
  • open source architecture
  • large global community of practitioners
  • flexible — 640 elements or fewer
  • integration with CMSs and modern processes

SimplyXML has a plug-in for Word (Content Mapper) that uses the Word API and constrains (severely) the use of Word functions to match the DITA schema. Authors still author in Word, but are limited in how they use it. Cost is $300 for a single user; price decreases dramatically when more than 100 users, and even more so when more than 1000 users.

If you focus on the technical side of DITA/XML, you will fail with everyday Word users in an enterprise. need to:

  • take a well-defined systematic approach
  • understand and focus on information consumers
  • make the least number of changes
  • comply with content and markup standards
  • use a phased implementation approach — pilot, then go live in stages
  • need support from C-level leadership (i.e. CEO, CFO, COO, etc.)
  • apply KISS — keep it simple, smart person (i.e. ‘don’t try to  boil the ocean’)

Information consumers want:

  • accurate, actionable content
  • consistent look and feel (branding)
  • just enough and just in time content

Product knowledge triangle

The next general session I attended was after lunch. It was delivered by Hannan Saltzman and Lawrence Orin (from Zoomin software). Lawrence has only just joined Zoomin and worked for a company that implemented their solution, and presented a compelling case study on that.

My notes from this session:

70-85% of site traffic to most tech companies is looking for product content (not just docs!; includes support, forums), with only about 16% to the main website, and about 1% to sales info.

The product knowledge triangle has three parts: product documentation (writer-generated); knowledge base (KB) articles (field-generated), and forums (user-generated).

Product documentation:

  • often PDFs (e.g. admin, user, installation guides)
  • web Help
  • customers must search for this info, often filtering down by product name, version etc. to find the docs and then having to download individual PDFs to find the one with the info they need

KB/support documentation:

  • includes support, tech notes, and KB articles (usually focusing on a specific task)
  • often kept in a KB database, and accessed by case #
  • typical content includes symptom, cause, solution
  • customer needs to search the KB database separately from the product documentation

Forums (can include chat, talk back):

  • has discussion threads
  • disorganised
  • can be hard to search (especially chats)
  • typically has repeated questions, star responders, and a lot of inconsistency
  • customers have to drill down threads to find answers, even if have a search engine

Implications for enterprises regarding this triangle:

  • each place a customer goes is a separate place/dataset with a separate search function and results
  • lots of findability issues

Case study — Aternity:

  • product monitors performance of devices in a company
  • information is displayed in browser
  • monthly software releases (Agile process)
  • audience is IT/product helpdesk
  • had a help site within the site (used DITA for authoring, 2 tech writers)


  • portal with a login required to access the documentation/help
  • classic doc set (e.g. PDFs) that had to be downloaded before you could see if they contained the relevant info; if not, download and try the next one
  • had to search by product, then version, then publication
  • basically books on the web (with TOCs, indexes), and NOT search oriented
  • needed to shift paradigm to a search with the main aim of ‘findability’ (used Zoomin software)


  • a single search box for everything
  • no login required
  • can quickly jump to topics
  • task topics, not a book metaphor
  • device agnostic
  • filters on side of results page to narrow down search by product etc. (all products, all versions, live filters, intelligent context-sensitive help, synonyms)

When trying to convince management of the solution, had to deal with the ‘docs are an evil necessity’ mindset so came up with a ‘Why write docs’ proposal that had a business and customer focus. Used a restaurant menu metaphor [which I think was a brilliant strategy!]:

  • make the menu (docs) public, but never the recipes (code)
  • make the menu gorgeous and tempting
  • don’t worry about the restaurant down the road (your competitors) seeing your menu posted outside — let them see how good you are, but not how you work

The aims of making the docs public are to sell, upsell, maintain loyalty, promote the thrill of what’s new, and the thrill of being the best (i.e. technical marketing!)

A typical topic page:

  • had a customer focus/relevance
  • focused on customer tasks
  • used customer jargon
  • first paragraph had the who, when, what, and WHY, followed by an example
  • included as many rich visuals as possible
  • had glossary popups (allowed topic to be pared back to basics)
  • had a place for user feedback
  • placed related KB (‘Support’) and forum (‘Community’) topic links into a side bar on the page

The result was a modern help portal that:

  • was easy — inviting, easy to find, open, easy to view
  • had a clear aim — external/potential customers (no login required), to sell and upsell the product, loyalty
  • had a customer focus — tasks, examples, rich graphics
  • was exposed — many more hits, easy to publish, search tracking, tweaked synonyms as a result of search tracking, track feedback
  • had unexpected effects/consequences — customers used the product properly (reduced level 1 support calls; nature of support shifted (questions changed — basic questions almost disappeared, and questions became more sophisticated; tracking allowed benefits to be quantified and raised the profile of the doc team — people stopped thinking of docs as a necessary evil; like support, the nature of training shifted (no more 101 courses needed); prospects/pre-sales were going to the help to find out what the product did; interest in the product increased; other business units wanted to join in.

Before, the web help pages would get 500 to 100 hits per month; after — ~25,000 hits per month. User tracking showed that customers typically spent 4 minutes viewing an article. 45% were ‘hit and run’ users (quick in and out grab of information they needed), while 55% were ‘hit and browse’.

Tracking the top search terms helped them define more synonyms (e.g. ‘db’ for ‘database’), and was used for developing documentation relevant to those search terms. Tracking search errors was also important — as a result they either created more documentation that addressed the missing info, or added synonyms to route users to the correct place. Tracking feedback wasn’t really about where the docs needed work — customers would use it to talk about the product, suggest changes to it, talk about issues they were having with it — the doc team passed these on the support people.

The impact of the ‘modern help’ was immense, in ways unforeseen when they started. The documentation is now the public side of R&D (having it behind a login defeated that purpose). The main takeaways of the project were:

  • know where your customers are looking for answers
  • ensure content is available from all touchpoints
  • prevent info overload by using filters, related articles, glossary popups
  • think content monetisation (how will making content available drive sales, reduce costs)