Monthly Archives: September 2016

From Stories to Cartography

At my company, customers access much of our documentation by searching a central repository. Far and away, the most frequent feedback that we receive about our documentation is “I can’t find what I’m looking for.” So I was very interested in “Informational Design: From Authoring Text to Architecting Virtual Space” (Salvo and Rosinski) and their discussion of the necessity of search and retrieval and of designing our documentation for better navigation.

map

Findability

Salvo and Rosinski talk about envisioning documentation spatially to help users’ navigate and find their destination. They give the example of knowing user context when searching for “broccoli” in order to return the best results. There is no question that findability is hugely important in how customers locate and use our documentation, and search engine optimization (SEO) has become a big business. It doesn’t matter what we write if the right audience can’t find it at the right time.

Interestingly, I saw this user-context-based search engine patent filed by Google in 2006 (published in 2013). They discuss the known limitations of search engines and their invention to return search results by categorizing the information based on external context clues. The example that they give is figuring out that a given web site is an encyclopedia based on the surrounding words, and then using information about the user to determine whether they are looking for an encyclopedia.

I think having more context-aware searches would be a boon to technical communication and continue to accelerate our path from content creators to content managers, who look beyond the sentence level to strategic documentation processes.

The second piece of findability is not just locating the right document, but then navigating within it. The Wired article “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business” talks about both halves in the context of marketing your business, but I think the same is true for helping readers through technical documentation. The tips on providing user-relevant content and appropriate links (as well as the astounding statistic that 30% of visitors use site search) are certainly relevant to how we create and envision documentation.

Ambience

Salvo and Rosinksi make a closely related point about using genre conventions and creating a document environment that orients the audience and primes them for a response. By using signposts and making it clear what kind of document they are reading, we can set expectations so the audience knows what to look for and how to respond.

The diagram below actually comes from a SEO company, but the accompanying article “Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” makes a surprisingly counter-serving claim that the best strategy to getting read online isn’t just tricking search engines but creating high-quality content. Documentation that is designed for the audience and understands their needs is more effective in boosting overall findability of both the website itself and particular information within it.

findability

In “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” Dave Clark also addresses genre theory and how we can create standards and templates that help users know what to find. Although perhaps not as obvious as a wedding invitation, what are other ways that we can be using signposts and ambience tools to define the genre of each document and subconsciously cue the audience on what to look for and where to find it?

Salvo and Rosinski quote Johnson-Eilola as saying “the map has started to replace the story as our fundamental way of knowing.” In light of human history, that seems a shocking thing to say, but I do see it being borne out, at least to some degree, as the amount of information grows exponentially and the challenge of navigating it becomes more important. I still fancy myself as a writer about a cartographer, but managing documentation for findability is an increasingly key part of the role.

References:

“Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” KER Communications. 29 June 2010. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://kercommunications.com/seo/marketing-search-engines-people/

Hendron, Michael. “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business.” Wired. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/02/findability-will-make-break-online-business/

New Knowledge in the Technical Communication Field

User-Centered Design and User Experience

The purpose of part II of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was to provide insight into some new, foundational knowledge in the TPC world which all technical communicators should know about. As this book is from 2010, these ideas are likely a bit more understood now then they were at the time of publishing, but are still relevant. The overwhelming idea that I saw between the three chapters was the use of user-centered design and the importance of user experience in technical communication. Although most explicitly discussed in Chapter 4, Salvo and Rosinski’s “Information Design”, all three chapters discussed concepts that either directly or indirectly related to user experience.

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Components of User Experience, found here

Having taken a course last semester on user experience, I have studied in-depth its importance in technical communication and the use of user-centered design. All three chapters in part II of Spilka’s book emphasize the increasing importance of these ideas for technical communicators. As Salvo and Rosinski point out, when the internet first became commonly used, websites were often created without regard to traditional page design conventions, leading to websites that were difficult to navigate and unpleasant to use (poor user experience).

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Photo found here

We now know the importance of considering page design even when creating web pages. Additionally, we have to consider all aspects of documents (both online and in print) including the rhetorical situation, the user experience, accessibility, etc., when creating any documentation – these chapters emphasize the importance of the role of technical communicators as we are trained to examine documents in this way.

These chapters outline the importance of understanding and utilizing the technologies available to us as technical communicators to help readers and users in all tasks. I would argue that immersing oneself in these technologies and examining them from a critical standpoint would help all technical communicators become more effective.

Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

Working in 2016 as a technical communicator means that we have to stay on top of technology, but what I think is more specific is that we have to make sure to take a proper survey of technological advances, both personal and professional. What does this actually mean? Maybe your job doesn’t involve social media or other trends that fall outside of a cubicle. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it in your job.

Digital literacy in the modern era is something that has to be cultivated and developed by current technical communicators. Professional organizations like the Society for Technical Communication do their best to connect practitioners, teach best practices and techniques, inform the public about the critical role of technical communicators, and establish a baseline for the field, a field that depends so much on who takes part and how technology will grow to meet the needs of users, those anticipated and those yet to be determined.

  digitalliteracy

Source: (https://writingforelectronicmedia.wikispaces.com/Digital+Literacy?responseToken=54ac9cf5a782233fc19c8f54d2a7a578)

Based on my personal journey, I can tell you that I had no idea what a technical communicator was before being approached by my previous employer for a Technical Editor position. I had worked as a writer and editor with work experience in magazine and newspaper publishing. The basic skills transferred, but there was a different way of thinking about the content and working with it that I had to learn on the job. My experience there was based on mentorship and learning as I went. We used technologically on a very basic level (working as a government contractor with technology years behind the times definitely did not contribute to my digital literacy) and had no digital tools for learning or analysis.

Working in this field means being willing and able to embrace change and build connections between disciplines and schools of thought that have their own unique structures. New technologies mean that any traditional idea of workspace, learning, businesses, and institutions have to evolve in order to continue competing and remaining relevant, especially to an audience that is being reared in an environment where technology is the new normal.

The schema of the modern world is such that information is deemed old within hours of its release and the news which may shock one individual does not phase the next because of the streaming coverage available to them practically wherever they happen to be at the time. The age in which verbal communication and oral storytelling were the be all and end all of knowledge gathering has long since passed and now, everything is shared at lightning speeds through shortened statements and improper sentences online and over the air. Literacy in this sense, means being able to access the forms of information sharing and collection that would permit a person to be active in their society and have awareness of the occurrences going on around them. And at this stage, the definition of literacy has already been ruptured beyond its basic level.

Personally, the advent of the Internet and emerging technology has made it easier than ever to communicate their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and ideas with a global audience. Given the fact that I work in the writing and editing field, I find it important to keep a close eye on how that has been affected by this trend. “Writing and editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators. However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored” (Pilka pg. 54). Working overseas, sending work out to freelancers and contract temps so that corporate can continue to meet its bottom line without investing too much in one of the critical areas in establishing and maintaining an appropriate presence.

It also matters a great deal to both me and to the field at large because of the ever increasing globalization effect that technology has. What worked in the past and what is working now to bind us together has made us more aware of our international partners. It has also made it more apparent that we have become reliant on the very technology that most take for granted nowadays. Utilizing technology at work and in the classroom is a prerequisite in the developed world and is looked on as lacking in third world countries and developing nations. Employees find themselves either without the latest and greatest technologies to draw upon or thrust into the deep end, developing content and creating standards for an evolving and shifting pool of apps, software, hardware, and devices most of which do not have any rules and regulations set in stone.

Death Sentence?

I have to say reading through the beginning of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was a little bit sobering for me as a technical communication student.  When I was researching graduate programs and schools, I found that the options were limited for what I was planning on doing.  I knew I wanted my Master’s degree in Communications, but was not interested in technical communication.  It just so happened the only graduate program available through any UW school that could be earned online is the MSTPC program at UW-Stout.  So I’m more or less incidentally a technical communication student.  But I suppose these days, communication is technical or digital regardless.  As Spilka points out, communication has evolved and “every aspect of our work has changed”. (2010, p. 7).

What was sobering for me during the reading was the realization that I am most definitely resisting becoming “digitally literate.”  As I’ve stated before, I’m not very keen on technology, computers, social networking, etc.  I’ve never been very technologically inclined and I tend to stay away from computers and other electronic devices except for when I’m at work.  And at work, I mostly use e-mail and the Microsoft Suite, so it’s very basic.  I have a smart phone that I use for texting, checking the weather, GPS, and scrolling through Pinterest when I’m bored.  That’s really the extent of it.  Right now I work at the Rock County Council on Aging and an elderly lady asked me last week to help her with her iPhone and I couldn’t!  I have never used one and I couldn’t figure out how to access her voicemail like she needed.  As technology has evolved, I’ve kept my head buried in the sand.  I figured if I avoided it, technology wouldn’t have an effect on my life.  Now I’m hoping that my ignorance doesn’t negatively affect my educational success.

Spilka mentions survival, evolving, and adapting or dying.  When did we take a right turn into The Hunger Games?  Spilka assures the audience that the purpose of the book is not to “alarm, scare, warn, or provide ultimatums” (p. 3) but I have to say it certainly felt like it.  Realizing how behind I am and how I fundamentally disagree with a lot that comes with the world of technology–the voyeurism of Facebook, the obsession created among children, the effect of blue screen on the body and mind–sort of makes me feel ill-equipped to take on the remainder of the MSTPC program.

At this point, I’m going to swallow my pride and look at digital literacy from an educational perspective rather than a personal one.  There is so much more to it than I had previously considered.  So much so that the experts are still trying to properly define it and agree on a single definition.  Heck, they’re still finding new terms to describe the practice itself (p. 7).  I’ve always approached technology with a place of disdain, but, like the book says, it might come down to “adapt or die”.  I’m still barely starting to create my professional self.  The last thing I want to do is “die professionally” before I even begin.

The Historical Documentation of Change in Technical Communication

Elissa Matulis Myers said in the March 2009 issue of Intercom that technical communicators “need to define their own opportunities and then move boldly forward” (2009) by adapting to the changes in their work environment or risk becoming irrelevant. This is true not only for technical communicators, but for everyone working in an environment where technology plays a significant role in their professional tasks.

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Cover graphic of Intercom, March 2009, Society for Technical Communication.

In that same issue of Intercom were two helpful articles about adapting to keep up with the changing business environment. One offered practical advice to recession-proof your career by taking actions to decrease the chance of being laid off such as “add[ing] value to your company, ensur[ing] management recognizes that you add value, and repeat as needed” (Molisani, 2009, p.14).

The second article compared and contrasted social media and technical communication “…to demonstrate how social media is changing the way we communicate, to engage our audience in a dialogue, to create a sense of community, and to better meet expectations” (Maggiani, 2009, p.19).

These articles reinforce the idea that we need to adapt to both the shift in technology and management.

When Myers published her article in 2009, I was a year away from graduating with my bachelors of science in Technical Communication and entering into a workforce that was in turmoil due to the economy. Yet, somehow and according to Meyers, I found my way to become visible and indispensable to my employers. In essence in order for me and many of my colleagues to become successful and stay on top of the business, we needed to “…adapt to the changes and become a valuable asset to a work environment…” (2009).

Documenting Our Past to Find Our Future

If we want to look to the future of technical communication, we must look back into history. When reading Saul Carliner and R. Stanley Dicks’ respective histories of technical communication, I was excited to see how the field of technical communication transformed in the last forty years. Many of the tools and processes that were used by technical communicators since the end of World War II are still around and others have completely disappeared. Carliner said that technology in the last thirty years has affected our profession and shows us the five phases in the development of technical communication. Besides technology making these transformations in our field, Dicks points out the changes in management and business economics profoundly affected technical communicators. Both authors show us the larger picture in which our field has been affected, once again, by technology and management.

I want to emphasize that our work is constantly shifting toward becoming the experts in content. We no longer are bound to being experts in a specific tool, instead we are experts in content, information, concepts, and ideas. Dicks shows how technical communicators have moved on from the fundamentals of technical communication and into the field of symbolic-analytic work, which “their primary products are ideas (e.g. assertions, recommendations, value judgements) delivered in reports, plans, proposals, and other genres.” (Dicks, 2010, p.55). Symbolic-analytic work sounds more like content strategy which is to manage content, analyze methods, and use effective processes for publishing it.

For me, at work, I’m more interested in finding ways a business can reduce cost, increase revenue, and use technology when creating and managing technical content. This is a mantra I share with many content strategists, of which Jack Molisani promotes these ideas every year with his LavaCon Content Strategy Conferences (2013). I think he and others like him have adapted to the current trends in the changes with technology and management.

I feel have made the move from being a traditional technical communicator when I first started in my college years. I imagined I would do more than just edit copy or document processes. I did a lot of fun things such as publish a newspaper and create websites. My focus was on using technology tools and how I can use them to publish faster, easier, and smarter. If I can make recommendations on using the tools, I can prove my value towards the company and remain gainfully employed.

Just Keep Going

In conclusion, in order to maintain relevancy, Myers points out that “[s]uccessful technical communicators need to be able to sell their skills and value independent of their industry or content, and they should not base their marketability on the expertise they have acquired in a specific field” (2009). More easily said: market your knowledge of concepts instead of expertise in the tools.


References

Dicks R.S. (2010). The effects of digital literacy. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 51-81). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

Maggiani, R. (2009, March). Technical communication in a social media world. Intercom, 18-20.

Molisani, J. (2013). Building a business case for content initiatives. [Presentation Slides]. Retrieved from http://lavacon.org/business_case_for_content_initatives.pdf

Molisani, J. (2009, March). Recession-proof your career. Intercom, 14-17.

Myers, E. M. (2009, March). Adapt or die: Technical communicators of the twenty-first century. Intercom, 7-13.

Anybody can write.

This post’s title was inspired by the lament of technical communicators on discussion groups and message boards in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Frustrated writers and editors were being downsized because budget-crunched companies saw little reason to hire people just for writing. After all, everybody learns to write in school, so why not save money by having the engineers and programmers write the documentation? After all, they’re already more familiar with the product being documented.

It was clear from these posts and e-mailed discussions that employers no longer valued writing or editing ability, favoring instead technical ability. However, being anecdotal conversations in e-mails or message boards, perhaps these technical communicators’ observations and experiences are apocryphal.

Unfortunately, they may be correct. In Rachel Spilka’s 2010 anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, two authors share their research and advice regarding the past and future of technical communicators. In “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century,” Saul Carliner provides a perspective on the history of the field from the 1970s to the modern day. In “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” R. Stanley Dicks offers an assessment of the current technological landscape as it applies to technical communicators and makes recommendations for technical communicators who “worry about how they are perceived and evaluated and whether they might be likely sources for being reengineered and either eliminated or outsourced” (2010, p.64).

Carliner illustrates how technical communication has changed throughout the years, describing the audiences, tools, outputs, and skills of technical communicators throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. From his description, basic writing and editing skills were only truly valued during the late 1980s, when documentation was no longer written for expert audiences, and the lay user needed an advocates who “[supplied] their versatile base of skills (writing, editing, and illustration) to explain products.. to users” (Carliner, 2010, p. 26). Prior to and following this period, writing and editing skills were not valued by employers compared to product expertise in the 1970s (p. 23), interface and web design skills in the 1990s (p. 28), and expertise in publishing tools (DITA, XML, etc.) (p. 29) and Web 2.0 technologies (p. 41) in the 2000s. In other words, he says, “Hiring managers gave priority to applicants with technical skills” (p. 37).

In the modern of advanced publishing tools and easy access to spelling- and grammar-checkers, Carliner points out, “Those who develop and produce content has been facing dwindling work opportunities” (2010, p. 44).

Dicks (2010) also acknowledges that writing and editing are no longer sought-after skills in the Information Age:

Writing or editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators. However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored. (p. 54)

Dicks further quotes Moore and Kreth, who say, “…Today, technical communicators who add value to their organizations do not merely write or edit documents” (p. 54).

In short, because everyone (including offshore employees for whom English often is a second language) can write, technical communicators must demonstrate their value beyond mere writing and editing. In short, technical writers must “learn new talents and tools” (Dicks, 2010, p. 61).

While I do understand the need to stay relevant and maintain one’s relative level of digital literacy, it makes me sad that writing and editing are now largely unvalued. I have seen firsthand the emphasis on tools expertise over writing. While applying for jobs, I have been told several variations on, “Well your writing is great, but unfortunately, we need somebody with expertise in xyz.” With xyz being the publishing tool du jour or Agile or whatever.  It was disheartening.

Yet many other fields are having to modernize—old dogs learning new tricks to stay relevant and add value. Why should technical communicators be any different? In fact, I believe that the width and breadth of technical communication makes it much easier to adjust to these changes. We have to learn technology to document it, so learning technology to use it should not be a very large jump. And no matter what tools, systems, or work methodologies we are forced to learn, we will always be able to write and edit—and we care about that even if nobody else does.

I Was There

Nothing can make a person feel old as reading the history of events for which one was present.  This is the case with Carliner’s Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication by Rachel Spilka.  As I read the history of technical communicators and the evolution of computers, one thought stood out: I was there.

I was there when mainframe and mini computers were used in banking. Right out of high school, I worked for a bank whose mainframe computer was housed at another location and connected to our minis via telephone line.  I remember how awed we were when our computer buzzed and a pop up window opened with the Digital Tech style font from someone at the main branch.  That was the earliest form of texting and we thought we were very advanced, technologically. 

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Photo Credit: Sevenels.net

When I wrote for a newspaper, many years ago, I turned my copy in to the typist who would type it and submit it and send it back to be arranged on actual newspaper sized pages. When we created ads, we didn’t use computers. We designed them by paging through hundreds of volumes of “clip art.”  When we found what we wanted to use, we would photo copy it.  Our copiers were the best in the business.  We would enlarge or reduce the size of the art with the copier.  For words, we would submit in writing what we needed printed.  One person would create the copy, and we used the copiers to manipulate the size of the font.  We would then cut it out and glue it with our artwork into a specific sized ad to be glued on larger sheets that made up the newspaper.  Many years later, when I took a group of students to tour the newspaper, I was envious of the ease at which the writers could create and submit their pieces.  The advertising art department was much smaller and didn’t involve glue and scissors.  I’m not sure if they’re still called “Paste Up Artists,” but they now use Photoshop, Illustrator, and other software to create the art.

I learned HTML so that I could write up nice adds for Ebay. Today, I can use Ebay without having to write code.  I was one of those people that Carliner described, buying the cheapest PC I could find (IBM Aptiva).  I watched as companies that I worked for purchased technology packages and had people come in and set up systems, teaching us all how to use new software.  I noticed when mainframes gave way to PC’s, and I sat in meetings where we discussed which software would serve our needs best.  As I read through the chapters, I recognized each significant change and phase since I had also experienced it. I used libraries instead of Google, typewriters instead of word processing software, correction tape instead of a delete key, and glue & scissors instead of Photoshop.  I was there to watch the technological revolution (and I’m still young).


References

Spilka, Rachel. (2010). Computers and technical communication in the 21st century. Digital literacy for technical communicators. Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

Sevenel.net. (2016). Machines of loving grace.  http://sevenels.net/typewriters/royals.htm. Retrieved on September 24, 2016.

Becoming a Symbolic-Analytic Worker

Theodore Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” As a relative newcomer to technical communications, I appreciated the overview in Carliner’s article “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” of how the field has developed over the past 40 years. He lays the groundwork for understanding how changes in content management and publication technology has shifted what it fundamentally means to be a technical writer. Because of the advances that he describes, notably in GUI development and the emergence of the Internet, our primary function has evolved from “crank-turners” for publication to a more nuanced understanding of content creators.

This is the shift that Dicks further explores in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” and that I find fascinating both in light of my current job and future opportunities in the field. The key phrase that caught my attention in Dicks’ article was the evolution of technical writing into “symbolic-analytic work,” which he attributes to economic, management, and technological trends. In “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age,” Johnson-Eilola further describes symbolic-analytic work as it applies to technical communication: “Symbolic-Analytic Workers possess the abilities to identify, rearrange, circulate, abstract, and broker information. Their principal work materials are information and symbols, their principal products are reports, plans, and proposals.”

Twenty years later, Johnson-Eilola’s description of the evolving role of technical communicators certainly seems to have borne out. Technology has advanced to the point that the nuts and bolts of the publication process are no longer a burden. Technical writers no longer contribute value by knowing which lever to pull, so to speak. Instead, in order to add value to the post-industrial society that Dicks describes, we need to be performing higher-level tasks regarding how content is created, managed, distributed, and understood.

This shift is happening throughout many sectors of the economy, as shown in the chart below, and technical communications is one example of it:

changing-skill-demand

In my own experience, I was hired in 2012 with the elaborate job title of “Writer.” The next year, the company changed the name of our division, and there was a mild identity crisis as all of our business cards changed to say “Technical Communications” instead. Although some of my more romantic colleagues were dismayed by losing the artsy flair of being “writers,” I thought that the shift was a much more accurate reflection of the scope of our work. The majority of my work day is not spent strictly writing, but rather investigating new projects, deciding which information is the most meaningful for our audience, and managing content at a much higher level. As Dicks points out, we need to re-envision ourselves not as merely documenters but “strategic contributors”.

In “The Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office,” McCarthy brings it full circle and argues that just as the scope of our work was initially limited by the technology available to us, we should now seek content management systems that support our new roles. He states, “With the missions and desired outcomes of organizations now closely entwined with how they manage their knowledge, the ability to develop tools that support the formation and coordination of the textual representation of knowledge is extremely important” (McCarthy p. 5).

I think Carliner would agree. Technical communications evolved in direct response to the available technologies, and as we complete the shift into symbolic-analytic work, we need to seek development of tools to support it. Although I think these tools will likely look a little different in each industry and context, at the heart they need to support collaboration, flexibility, interactivity, and ease of use, allowing us to focus on the higher-brain tasks of communication and our evolving audience.

Personally, I’m excited about working in this new world where I have the opportunity to think critically, explore new ideas, and continually redefine successful communication. I find it a much more dynamic and engaging environment than simply being a “routine manual” worker, as Dicks cautions is quickly going extinct.

References:

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan (1996). Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245-270.

McCarthy, Jacob E. Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office: Building a Way of Organizing Writing. Proquest, 2009.

Spilka, Rachel (Ed.) 2010. Digital Literacy for Technical Communications. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Van Damme, Dirk. “21st Century Learners Demand Post-Industrial Education Systems.” OECD.

 

 

Past, Present and Future of Tech Communicators

I was fascinated by the history of technical communications and the progress of technical communicators from Rachel Spilka’s (2010) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. Working as a technical writer with a large oil and gas corporation, I identified with several of the changes in the technical communication field from having knowledge of writing to understanding digital literacy. I was surprised that technical communicators will likely experience “reengineering” or periods of work and non-work during their careers. The future of technical communication jobs is uncertain; however, technical communicators need to assert certain digital skills and prove their value to the company/industry to maintain employment.

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Courtesy of Hippoquotes.com

I have experienced many changes of roles and responsibilities with technology and writing throughout the past several years. As JoAnn Hackos explains, “the roles and responsibilities of technical communicators are changing rapidly – in some cases for the worse” (Spilka, 2010, p. ix). As technology evolves and changes, people have to learn, adapt and apply new technology to advance their expertise. Spilka (2010) states that in Part III of Digital Literacy technical communicators need to explore the answers to past theories or develop new ones to better understand how technology has transformed our work (p.14). I have not considered past technology and methods for communicating has an effect on future ones.

I haven’t been in my current position just over three years and I have experienced a dramatic change in our standard writing procedure and content management system (CMS). We started with MS Word generated documents, received hand written signature approvals, and used a file transfer protocol (FTP) to upload them to an archaic CMS system. This process (writing and receiving approvals) often took months or even years to complete and was not efficient or effective for those who needed to follow the standards every day. Two years ago we underwent a complete overhaul of our process and CMS system. Most parts of the process are auto-generated with email reminders and a CMS that uses HTML and XML files for creating standards that are compatible with multiple platforms. No more written signatures or filing papers in file folders since most of the workflow process is completed within 60 days or less. Although the system has several drawbacks and oftentimes has “bugs” that hinder our process, we’re still better than before. Management is researching the next system since technology becomes outdated as soon as it becomes popular.

We’re in the Web 2.0 era, but will digital literacy, advancing globalization, and technical communication survive the “seismic shift” that will likely lead to Web 3.0 in the near future? R. Stanley Dicks (Spilka, 2010) examines the drastic changes technical communication has been experiencing the last couple decades and it doesn’t appear to moving backward either. These dramatic changes will test our skills and value in the workplace. Dicks says to remain a valuable contributor, we’ll have to add a “strategic value” to increase company profits which comprises of having leadership skills, training and education as well as being more than a writer and editor. Technical communicators will have to be “symbolic-analytical” workers.(Check out this SlideShare about Johnson-Eilola’s research.) I’m still trying to visualize this concept, but I understand that we’ll have to know and do more than just write words. We’ll have to be the researcher, theorist, rhetorician, translator, and collaborator to prove our valuable skill sets to remain employed.

 

 

 

The Evolution and Future of Technical Communication

The Readings

In part I of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication anthology (2010), the history and future of the Technical Communication field is investigated. Saul Carliner begins the section with his piece entitled “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”. This piece discusses the history and evolution of the field through his experience as a technical writer in the software/technology field. The second chapter of the section is composed of a piece by R. Stanley Dicks entitled “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work”. This piece discusses not only the history of the technical communication field, but its current and projected intricacies and structure. While Carliner presents a quite interesting and compelling history of the field, Dicks provides a detailed outlook of how the field will change and what this will mean for current and prospective technical communicators.

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Carliner’s View

Carliner’s in-depth history of the technical communication field was fascinating to me, and curtailed nicely with a piece I read last week for another course I am taking this semester (ENG 700). That paper (“The Rise of Technical Writing Instruction in America”), written by a famous technical communication scholar, Robert J. Connors was also very informative on the evolution of the field.. Both pieces presented a detailed history of the field and how emerging media over the last several decades has caused the profession to change immensely – Carliner focusing on the effect on the professionals in the field at the time and Conners on the change in the academic programs and courses associated with the field. This was of particular interest to me as a prospective technical communicator, not yet in the field. I think it is important to learn the history of the career you desire, in order to respect those who have come before you and paved the way. As Carliner described the earliest methods of creating and publishing technical documents and the early days of computers, I was in awe of the way technology has changed since the 70’s. For each decade he provided a unique look at the changes in the field, technology, job titles, and viewpoints of technical communicators. This allowed me to see how far things have come in the field and gave me new perspective on how things are now.

Dicks’ View

Dicks’ piece was less historical and more future-oriented – using the past to inform the future changes in the field. Much of what he wrote had me quite nervous to enter the field. His discussion of the need for technical communicators to be able to defend their worth to their employers (and coworkers) seemed to propose a somewhat bleak view of the field, one in which no one appreciates you or your work and you are in constant fear of losing your job. However, as he went on to discuss the way technical communicators are currently utilized in the workplace and as part of teams, the field seemed much less daunting and more as I had imagined it.

Much of what Dicks described when looking at the current organization and utilization of technical communicators related back to my only real source of knowledge of the field – my husband. As a software developer for GE Healthcare, he works in a scrum team (which includes a technical writer) to develop and improve software. His description of the type of work technical writers do was the main motivation for my interest in the field, so as Dicks began describing a position of neglect and lack of appreciation/integration I really began to wonder if I made a mistake again in my choice of future field! Fortunately my fears were lessened as I continued to read.

In Conclusion…

Both of the pieces in Part I of Spilka’s anthology gave an in-depth history and view of the technical communication field and how it is likely to progress in the future. There was not a great deal of discussion of Web 2.0 in either piece (a small section in each dedicated to the topic and the future uses), but I think that will be one of the larger game-changers in the field in the upcoming years.

Reach for it!

In their 2014 Technical Communication Quarterly article, “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media,” Elise Hurley and Amy C. Kimme Hea discuss the challenges they encountered when trying to meld social media and technical communication. For the most part their students were, “hesitant to engage social media in technical communication contexts where assumptions about professionalism and credibility seem too high a price to pay for use” (56). Despite acknowledging the advantages of using social media, the students had heard too many horror stories of social media gone wrong. According to the authors, “it was clear that social media are tools to be used informally… not in professional contexts” (60).

This is unfortunate, the authors argue, because, “students need to be able to engage actively in [social media’s] cultural construction” (Hurley and Hea, 58). To do this, the authors turned to two concepts:

  1. reach: “the ability to form relationships, address user interests, and determine long-term effects of networking” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57)
  2. crowdsourcing: “the practice of tapping into the collective public intelligence to complete a task or gain insights that would traditionally have been assigned to a member or consultant for an organization” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57).

I have been familiar with the latter term for years, as I used to work for a company that crowdsourced its content. Ever since then, I have been interested in its use in technical communication, and I am excited to see it referenced within the field’s literature. I agree with Hurley and Hea’s conclusion that, “technical writers must maintain their relevance by reaching readers and anticipating their needs as they create content…” (61).

However, I believe that crowdsourced technical communication is more prevalent than the authors seem to realize. And more often than not, the content was not written by a technical writer. One example is the Stack Overflow website. People can come to this site asking questions about programming, and other users of the site will answer, with other users chiming in to contribute their experience, until a satisfactory solution is found. The community is self-moderated by a reputation system that allows garbage questions and answers to be removed. I have stumbled over this website (or its parent, Stack Exchange) again and again searching for solutions to my software problems.

I am less interested in this sort of crowdsourced knowledge. What I am interested is when companies take advantage of crowdsourcing that is already going on. In this scenario, a company will set up some sort of forum or bulletin board-style site where users of their product can ask questions. However, rather than hiring staff to answer those questions, the company instead depends on altruistic users who post their answers and experiences without pay.

Microsoft is one company leveraging the power of the “crowd” to help users solve technical problems. The Microsoft Community is their community-fueled help platform. Much like Stack Overflow, users can post questions to be answered by other users. The difference, however, is that Microsoft employees moderate the forum–although they rarely post responses themselves.

I can only imagine how much money Microsoft has saved by enabling its community of users to troubleshoot other users’ problems. I would be interested in finding out what other companies do this, and if it extends to more traditional documentation, rather than just questions and answers.

The article says, “To succeed in the age of social media… businesses need to adapt to the affordances of the Web in terms of users’ social and browsing habits” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 60). It is clear that companies like Microsoft are doing just that, and as technical communicators, we need to do so as well.

 

Fear of Social Media? Embrace It!

No one ever said that social media is easy. The internet is a wonderful place where we can connect with one another, use it for business, and get our entertainment. Likewise, social media works in the same fashion which all kinds of content can live in harmony.

Can social media and technical communication work together?

Whenever I think of social media and technical communication, I go back to my first professional presentation and conference proceeding, “The Benefits and Pitfalls of Social Media Networks” (Koch, G. L. & Renteria R. A., 2009). With my co-presenter, we showed how social media can be used in productive ways despite the negative press surrounding it at the time. To counter the notion and fears of social media, we provided tips to help colleagues embrace this emerging communications technology.

benefits-pitfalls

Society for Technical Communication 2009 Summit Proceedings

In “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media” Hurley and Hea (2014) describe modern stories where professionals damage their career because of something they posted on social media. In their article, they describe students who have a fear of using social media in the context of technical communication. I find it amusing that in the years since I co-presented about social media that these issues of using it for professional causes remain present. I still refer to ”fatty paycheck” Tweet, Facebook Fairy’s Kevin Colvin, and Airline Crew Insulting Passengers on Facebook as early examples of social media mistakes. Fortunately or unfortunately, the internet is a great record keeper.

So, where does social media sit in the form of technical communication? Hurley and Hea present responses that showcase the reasons social media is not favorable for technical communication purposes because students think it can “cause more harm than good,” make people forget how to write well, and feel “they must dumb-down literature because of the diverse audience that now has access to it” (2014).

Due to the sensationalism of social media, students are often less likely to use these new and emerging technologies for professional purposes. However, me and my co-presenter provided the counterargument years earlier that you can, indeed, use social media for professional purposes. We showed that while using social media can be a risk, the benefits may outweigh the dangers when used appropriately and after becoming familiar with the privacy settings (Koch G. L., Renteria, R. A., 2009).

Lastly, the literature is not being dumbed-down, instead plain language is taking root. When looking at effective writing, I consider taking the easier and simpler route of writing because it is closer to how we communicate with each other in real-life. In the well-known adage of “less is more,” let’s consider adding another one: “plain language is easy to understand.”

We can use social media for many things and nothing should stop us from embracing it for educational and professional purposes. It’s not a bad thing.


References

Hurley, E. V. (2014) The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(1), 55-68

Koch, G. L. & Renteria R. A., (2009) The Benefits and Pitfalls of Social Media Networks. Society for Technical Communication 2009 Summit Proceedings, 83-86

Step 13 says I need a catchy headline.

While not an expert, I do not consider myself a stranger to social media, despite being a late-adopter of Facebook and other Web 2.0 social media. I was active in America Online chat rooms in middle school and joined forums for various purposes throughout high school–while not the same as modern social media, it can definitely be argued that they are indeed in that class.

In high school, my friends introduced me to LiveJournal, which was arguably one of the earliest blogging platforms. Most of my friends used it as a diary, expressing their teenage woes and triumphs and commenting on each others’. However, some artists I knew at the time used it as a platform where they could communicate with their customer base–very similar to how some modern blogging platforms are used.

I was in college when I first heard the term blog. And like any proper Luddite, I hated it. These crazy Internet portmanteaus are ruining the world! (As an aside, I still hate the term vlog, despite accepting blog. Grudgingly. One can only go so far.) While blogging was somewhat common, wikis were more my speed. We used them for collaboration and discussion in class, and I wrote my senior thesis on them. I have since come to realize that a blog is simply a wiki with a single editor.

While I skipped the MySpace craze, I finally gave in to Facebook late in my college career. To this day I don’t have any other social media accounts. My cat, however, has both a Facebook and an Instagram–my husband curates the Instagram because I just won’t! Any day now, Tau become the next Grumpy Cat, and we’ll be able to retire. Or that’s what we tell people who look at us oddly for having feline social media.

I have a personal blog, which I actively posted to when I was looking for a job and had lots of spare time. I considered it a vital part of my “brand,” which also included my resume and portfolio. That fell by the wayside despite all of my intentions of resurrecting it. Meanwhile, for the past two years, I was the webmaster for the Chicago chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. While not a traditional blog, it it is a WordPress site, so behaved very similarly to my own blog/site.

In addition to being a producer of social media, I am a fairly avid blog consumer. I read many blogs in various genres: cooking, crafts, gaming, webcomics, science, and many more. I’ve been following some of these blogs long enough that I’ve seen them evolve as the landscape has evolved. They are constantly challenged by staying relevant, keeping and growing their readership, and staying profitable. I’ve seen at least one blog fold completely because it just became insolvent.

And I understand the struggle myself, as somebody who wants to make it big on Facebook–it’s simply very difficult to do, and often feels random. Sometimes it seems like all you can do is dream that something you have goes viral, and hope that once it does, your existing content is good enough to hold readers while you churn out as much new content as you can (while still retaining quality, of course).

That’s why I get very frustrated when I see articles like Belle Beth Cooper’s 2013 offering, “16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners.” Articles like these are all over the Internet, and many of them have conflicting, or simply inapplicable, advice.

The first “top tip” in this article is one such example: “Get ideas from your audience” (Cooper, 2013). The gist of this tip is to use your preexisting audience as a topic resource. That’s great and all, but if I’m a new blogger (the “for Beginners” part of the article’s title), I don’t have an audience to get ideas from. How does this tip help me right now, while I’m a beginner? Tip number five, “Love your existing readers,” also strikes an odd note for the same reason (Cooper, 2013).

Ironically, number two is, “Know your audience” (Cooper, 2013). It seems that Cooper failed to follow this very advice when compiling this article. Otherwise, why have so many tips that don’t apply to truly beginning bloggers?

Not all the tips seem as nonsensical, however. Tips six, eight, nine, eleven, and thirteen all seem like very good advice. But they are good advice for any writing–not just blogging.

My blogging evolution

Before this course, I blogged off and on for several years on Blogger, LiveJournal, and WordPress. In college, LiveJournal was my first exposure to the idea of a blog. I used LiveJournal as a personal diary to share my thoughts with my closest friends who used it on a frequent basis. To me, it was my first social network experience because I would check every day for new posts from my friends and I would post there many times a day. After a few years of constant posting, I abandoned my account because my focus shifted to Facebook.

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My life is behind one of these electronic typewriters. Credit: Roger Renteria.

Beyond documenting my personal life to my friends, I blogged about my summer internship for a grade. As part of the class requirements, I wrote about my experiences working for the Public Information Office at New Mexico Tech. My blog only had an audience of one: my professor, and I didn’t think I’d reference it here eight years later. Now when I re-read these posts, I definitely notice how different my writing was back then. As with any kind of activity, you get better the more you keep trying you improve with practice.

After I attended the Society for Technical Communication 2011 Summit, I started my own blog called WriteTechie. I was inspired to create a technical communication blog because I saw so many people blog about their experiences at the conference, technical communication issues, and anything related to this field. At first, I had difficulty finding topics that were interesting to write about, and I couldn’t maintain a consistent schedule.

When I was told in a job interview that my professional website was “too bloggish,” I converted my blog into a professional business website; my blog became a section of the website. Right now, if you search on Google for “technical communication blogs,” my blog shows up on first page of results. If you search Google for “professional usernames,” my blog post shows up first. I used search engine optimization to get my blog post to show up at the top, and somehow it has stayed there since 2011.

Lately, I hardly blog much because I have no time to write lengthy articles and do the necessary research to post anything meaningful. At my current job, we discourage blogging. I admit there are no technical limitations to blogging; however, it is a massive time commitment. That is something I understand when I look at my own blogs I’ve created. At some point, blogs become stale and then dormant.

Where do I go from here?

When I was reading the articles about blog literacy, I was surprised to learn from “Scholarly Reflections on Blogging” that “[b]logging has slowly become part of academic life” (Doucet, 2012). Andrea Doucet makes a nice point that blogging frees you from the bounds of the academic world and opens your content to larger and different audiences. I feel that when you write in a blog, you have more room to speak freely and develop a voice than in other formats such as press releases or research papers. In essence, blogging can be a formal-informal way of communication because you can express your professional ideas in a fresh and casual format while reaching a very broad audience. Andrea and I agree: “[b]logging has helped me as a writer” (2012). Whenever I read my old work, I notice an evolution in my writing. Writing for blogs is challenging and I know it only gets better with more experience.

Lastly, before I read, “Why We Blog” (Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Swartz, 2004), I didn’t consider my LiveJournal as a type of confessional blog which was a form of catharsis. In retrospect, writing in my LiveJournal was therapeutic. When I read old posts, whether from LiveJournal, Blogger, or WordPress, I look back at how much I’ve grown since then. Some day when I least expect it, I’ll look back at this blog, re-read my entries, and wonder: what was I thinking?


References

Doucet, A. (2012, January 2) Scholarly Reflections on Blogging: Once a Tortoise, Never a Hare. The Chronicle for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Scholarly-Reflections-on/130191

Nardi B., Schiano D.J., Gumbrect M., & Swartz, L. (2004) Why We Blog. Communications of the ACM, 47(12) 41-46

Using Social Media to Create Useful Information and Connections

I think of social media as “noise” especially during this political year (2016). How do I know what is reliable information to make an informed opinion? There is so much commentary on both sides of the fence from news sources, politicians, analysts, scholars and general public that I finally had to mute all of them. This social noise needs to be filtered.

Amy Hea (2014) argues that social media is “symbolic representations, metaphors, articulations, assemblages of cultural systems of knowledge and power” (“Social Media in Technical Communication,” p. 2). She further states that social media is a “connection of the medium and the users…cultural practices that shape and are shaped by political, social, and cultural conditions” (p. 2). Making connections with people is innate; however, the context and medium of which it is done has changed drastically in the past decade. Creating credibility and trust between writer and reader is the relationship that needs to exist to provide active engagement. Technical communication instructors define, examine, demystify and expose students to social media as a professional contributor. What we write is shaped by what we read, hear, and understand through other outlets and mediums.

Hurley and Hea (2014) discuss “reach as a metaphor” and “crowd-sourcing” in “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media” as methods to provide a needed source of information that would also engage others to respond. Reach pertains to the “reaching the masses” but information that is useful or needed, while crowd-sourcing involves multiple people contributing to a project or content, but also establishes online presence (p. 66). Using social media as a medium to provide useful information also provides credibility and creates a following for future posts.

Social media is useful for engaging people to comment and respond to content as long as it’s useful and credible.

References

Hea, A. C. K. (2014). “Social media in technical communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2014.850841

Hurley, E. V. and Hea, A. C. K. (2014). “The rhetoric of reach: Preparing students for technical communication in the age of social media.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 55-68. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2014.850854

Social Media and Technical Writing

It is true that prior to this course, I have not associated the compatibility of social media and technical writing.  On one hand, it’s odd not to connect the two.  On the other hand, I, like many, haven’t viewed social media as a platform for technical writing.  For me, social media served two purposes. Like the students referenced in The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media, social media serves to stay connected with friends and family. In addition, I use social media to promote music and concerts for the band I manage.

On occasion, I will browse Facebook for entertainment or “news.”  However, I tend to get distracted by poor grammar, mechanical errors, or informal “slang.”  In The Rhetoric of Reach, the authors write, “Social media has definitely altered the way writers write. They used to write to be read.  Now, they write to be browsed” (p. 60).  That is very accurate.  In fact, I once read a news article that reported on something that I found to be important.  Yet, the article was riddled with errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  So much so that I emailed the writer to tell him that his subject matter was important, yet I couldn’t view it as a credible piece because of the unprofessional publishing.  He replied and defended his work by explaining that he had to quickly text the story in on his phone while on the scene.  He didn’t have time to edit it or use a computer because someone else would have made the report faster than him and he prides himself on being the first to make a report.  That was a real eye opener for me.  Of course, I found his reasoning ridiculous, but it made me realize that accuracy and writing skill were being sacrificed for speed and instant publishing.  Writers no longer go through editors.  Pieces are published and sent out to the masses at a click of a button. This is exactly what is described in the student’s concerns in The Rhetoric of Reach.

It is because of this that I choose to be a bit rebellious.  I always spell my words out all the way (no substituting “r” for “are”) and I use complete sentences with punctuation when.  Although I will confess that I occasionally drop the subject in my texting.

Tech Comm & Social Media

Social media and technical communication share an interesting sort of synergy when you really think about it. Some of the basic tenants of social media have direct links to tech comm concepts: brevity, visual design and exposure, plain language, UX design.

Something social media does better than technical communication, at least in my mind, is bridge the gap between technical information delivery and pop culture/mainstream information.

It might just be me, but I often find myself turned off by the rigid formality of the academic side to technical communications. I can say that about any scientific or professional field, but you have to learn how to speak to the people where they live and social media outreach does that so effectively.

Of course, with the good you have to take the bad. Unlike “usable” technical communication products, social media does not have to researched, arranged proofed, or even properly discussed before being put out into the world.

I love the idea of freedom of speech, but the modern implementation of it through social media leaves a lot to be desired. The power to say anything you want whenever you want is a powerful tool. It has power, especially in the hands of marginalized groups, but anything beneficial can be exploited.

So how do we reconcile the two?

There are professional social media sites like LinkedIn that led the charge to normalize and propose order on the online social spheres being created.

Something I connected to in the reading was the idea that social media has the ability to place two figures, customer/client, business/public, celebrity/fan, on the same level.

“To succeed in the age of social media, Pearson suggests that businesses need to adapt to the affordances of the Web in terms of users’ social and browsing habits; companies must reach customers before customers turn to them, and they must answer people’s questions by becoming a peer in their customers’ communities” (Hurley et al pg. 61).

That’s powerful and really changes the traditional structures and images people have about companies/figures/institutions, especially those that have a pre-social media, established presence.

Moving forward, social media needs to be continuously recognized as the powerful tool it is. But we also have to take into account the two-way street that it has opened up. Technical communicators can only get back what they put into it.

Citation:

Elise Verzosa Hurley & Amy C. Kimme Hea (2014) The Rhetoric of Reach:Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media, Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 55-68, DOI: 10.1080/10572252.2014.850854

Reaching Too Far?

When I consider how far reaching social media has become, one experience particularly comes to mind.  As I’ve said in my introduction discussion post, I don’t personally have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.  I do have a Pinterest and definitely have a sweet spot for that app, but I don’t know that I consider Pinterest social networking.  I don’t use it to socialize, I just use it to “pin” recipes, inspiration, clothing, hair and makeup ideas, and girly and nerdy nonsense.  I would certainly survive without it, but I do check it a few times a day.

The experience which I reference in regards to technology and social media reaching “too far” was recently when I was job searching.  I didn’t have a LinkedIn account even though I had read that it was becoming more and more important to have one, I didn’t fully understand what LinkedIn was and wasn’t interested in finding out more about it.  But as I was applying to more jobs, it became more common for me to have to have a LinkedIn.  A lot of the jobs I was interested in had digital applications, and many of them had a section where the applicant was required to insert my LinkedIn URL.  It wasn’t until I started applying to those jobs that I was really interested in that I created an account.  I’m not sure how important LinkedIn really is, and I don’t know if I’ll ever actually use it professionally, but the dream job I just landed required the URL so I guess I’m glad I had it.

It’s been crossing my mind that getting a Facebook or an Instagram might be a good move for my new job.  It would be a great way to promote the fitness studios where I’ll work.  But I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I did that.  But there also might be a time where social media reaches even the biggest non-believers like me.  I haven’t made the decision yet.  It feels like walking the plank.

The Wide World of Blogging

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Courtesy of The Gingerbread Gem.

I started blogging in 2008 before I started working for an online marketing business. I didn’t know really anything about writing online or blogging; however, I was interested to have my thoughts and ideas published online and to learn more about WordPress. I began with a site similar to this one and later moved on to the self-hosted WordPress.org where I selected a title and registered it with GoDaddy.com.

Part of my job with the online marketing company  was to write, edit, and publish about 12 blog posts per week for business clients. I wrote about car parts, plastic surgery, divorce and dating, limousine and wine tours, travel within the United States, custom cabinets, pet memorials, pet sitting, shipping/packaging supplies, Ohio law (lawyers) and more. To improve a business’ visibility in the search engines, search engine optimization (SEO) was important, which included keywords. These keywords (1-2 blog post) are placed throughout the blog post, title, meta-title, meta-description and meta-keywords. Check out Hubspot’s “How to Search Engine Optimize Your Blog Content”.

Content was important since anything published online is permanent.  Then you need to think about your blog’s “reach” according to Elise Hurley and Amy Hea (2014), “consider the ways which content is shared and distributed across social media and other media venues” (“The Rhetoric of Reach”, p. 62). Not only content, but also connecting with the audience. Be personable and imagine talking to one person about your topic. Whether a blog was one sentence or 750 words long, it was important to make a connection with the audience. This is true for business and personal blogs. How often have you read a recipe blog or a computer review that was dry and boring? Probably not too often.

With my personal blog (mostly how to be more eco-conscious), I didn’t think anyone would read it because there was already so much information online; what could I possibly add? There’s always something that you can offer – your opinion – on any topic and someone will read it. For example, Wikipedia, this is user-generated and user-edited. Anyone can start a topic on Wikipedia and others can add, clarify and provide sources of additional information to make it valid and credible. Hurley and Hea (2014) used Instructables.com as a student project to examine crowd-sourcing, the involvement of several people to do small pieces of a project. The result of crowd-sourcing is engagement though use of commenting, responding and sharing the content (p. 65).

Social media and blogging are important within the technical communication field because it provides another communication medium to connect with a larger audience and create a professional platform for future opportunities.

Reference

Hurley, E. V. and Hea, A. C. K. (2014). “The rhetoric of reach: Preparing students for technical communication in the age of social media.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 55-68.

Being Part of the Consumer’s Community

Because I don’t yet work as a technical communicator, I mainly approach technical communication as a health consumer. I have multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the brain and spine, causing weakness, fatigue, and other symptoms. Living with MS, I was frustrated by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s outreach efforts. I felt it focused on fundraising and new drug treatments, none of which had helped me. As a health consumer, I wanted results I could see.

In January 2012, my cousin posted Dr. Terry Wahls’s TEDx talk on Facebook. Wahls stands for 17 minutes, explaining how changing her diet changed the course of her MS. She demonstrated how she started out in a tilt-recline wheelchair and transitioned to walking without a cane and riding a bike in less than a year. She credited this change to eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy and eating great amounts of vegetables rich in sulfur and phytonutrients, along with high-quality animal protein.

terry-wahls-before-and-after

www.terrywahls.com

YouTube allowed Wahls to reach millions of people with autoimmune disease, including me. Because of social media, I changed my diet and started using electrical stimulation on my muscles. I bought Wahls’s book and googled the Paleo diet. With YouTube, Wahls achieved an element of what Verzosa Hurley & Kimme Hea (2014, p. 61) and Pearson (2011, p. 5) called reach. She found me, a customer for her book, before I knew I was her customer. She persuaded me to change my diet and lifestyle. And although I didn’t stop needing a walker, her diet helped me greatly reduce my fatigue and alleviated many other symptoms.

Though she had social media accounts on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube, Wahls rarely posted or commented on social media. (In fairness, she’s busy practicing medicine, running her foundation, and conducting clinical trials on diet and MS.) But she didn’t become part of my life.

After I started the Wahls Protocol, I enjoyed so many health improvements that I resolved to stick with the diet and eliminate other potentially inflammatory foods. With Google, I found Sarah Ballantyne, a medical biophysicist, at www.thepaleomom.com. She had improved her own autoimmune disease and lost over 100 pounds after changing her diet. She wrote about the Autoimmune Protocol, a diet similar to the Wahls Protocol. The Autoimmune Protocol further eliminates eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshades, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Ballantyne maintained active social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and iTunes. She posted original recipes and linked to others. She hosted guest bloggers on her website. She guest-blogged on other bloggers’ sites and appeared on their podcasts. She updated her blog frequently with original scientific papers and always posted links on social media. She started a podcast with Stacy Toth of www.paleoparents.com. She started a cooking TV show. She went on a book tour and met me!

sarah-ballantyne-and-hannah-img_0172

By creating content and giving other writers a forum on her podcast and website, Ballantyne contributed to the community of health consumers looking to improve their health with her diet, and she became part of their lives. She created a following and increased her visibility, as Verzosa Hurley & Kimme Hea (2014, p. 65) and Pearson (2011, p. 5) put it. She reached this consumer in a way that the National Multiple Sclerosis Society didn’t.

REFERENCES

Pearson, B. (2011). Pre-commerce: How companies and customers are transforming business together. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Verzosa Hurley, E. & Kimme Hea, A. C. (2014). The rhetoric of reach: Preparing students for tech comm in the age of social media. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 55–68. doi: 10.1080/10572252.2014.850854

#ProfessionalCommunicator

I admit that my knee-jerk reaction to the relationship between social media and technical communication is similar to that of the students in the “Rhetoric of Reach” article by Hurley and Hea. Comparing technical communication to tweets and wall posts seems to cheapen the role of the technical writer, moving it from an elevated profession to the medium of the masses. It suddenly seems like something anyone can do, just tapping on their phone on the bus.

However, there are actually a surprising number of similarities, as I brainstormed in the diagram below (forgive the poor formatting). A job description for a technical writer on Truity called attention to several skills that would also apply to having a successful social media presence, such as strong and clear writing, effective use of multimedia like links and graphics, and continuing revision.

I think Hurley and Hea also identified a major area of overlap in their discussion of reach and creating reader-driven content that is tailored to be relevant to your audience. Understanding and responding to the needs of your audience is a crucial part of technical writing, and the secret to creating documentation that achieves its purpose. In his article “Re-Thinking the Context of Technical Communication,” Kirk St. Amant touches on the importance of audience analysis and how it’s one of the most significant trends in today’s technical writing. I’ve found in my own job that we spend a lot of resources to investigate our audience’s interests and needs and solicit their feedback. Similarly, a successful blogger seeks to build a relationship with his readers and create a forum that connects to their needs.

Despite these similarities, I think the differences are also significant and separates technical communication into a separate art form. I put a few differences in the diagram below, but I’d say that the biggest distinguisher is in purpose and content. Social media contributors with large followings have a strong personal voice. They are very much a part of their work, and their purpose is usually to express a viewpoint or tell their own story. The Forbes article “Are You a Social Media Narcissist?” explores how social media (especially for the millennial generation) is all about you and how you are using social media to elevate yourself and build relationships.

In contrast, the focus of technical communication is on the product or the content being communicated. The writing is objective and divorced from the personality of the writer. The goal isn’t self-glorification or personal connection but rather to provide information to an audience clearly and concisely. The difference becomes obvious in writing style and expression.

Because of the similarities between social media and technical communication and their continuing convergence in audience interaction and multimedia, I’m very intrigued by the rest of this course and look forward to further investigation in how they relate. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind the fundamental difference in purpose and function, and how that plays out in writing style and content.

beecken-venn-diagram

 

Blogging to Slay Impostor Syndrome

Earlier this year, as I was finishing up the online classes for UCSD Extension’s copyediting certificate, I knew I needed to launch my copyediting website if I wanted to get more clients. I also knew that blogs can drive traffic to a website.

But I was afraid to start one. What if people didn’t like it? What if someone criticized something I said? What if I made a mistake?

What if they found out I’m a fraud?

UCSD Extension offered an elective called Digital Journalism: Self-Editing and Publishing for the Web.) The catalog promised that at the end, I would have a website and a portfolio. The class would make me start a website. So I signed up.

I named my copyediting website www.ogrammar.com because it’s a play on words from H. L. Chace’s “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.” My family has quoted this story for years, and O Grammar seemed like a memorable business name.

For the journalism class, I wrote a 500-word article about how a retired accountant and his son got arrested demonstrating at the U.S. Capitol.

1-person-1-vote-sgn-cropped

I’m proud of the story, and I’ve shown it to immediate family and close friends. But I haven’t put a link to it on Facebook. Although Jessica is right that the Internet is forever, my fear of being judged imperfect has kept me from exposing my work to a wider audience. There’s got to be a happy medium!

It’s funny that Molly mentioned food bloggers and their interminable stories. I wrote a recipe for coconut yogurt, but I didn’t post it, for two reasons:

  1. Impostor syndrome.
  2. What does coconut yogurt have to do with grammar?

But a few days ago, a friend asked how I make coconut yogurt. She inspired me to post my recipe. (Molly, you’ll be happy that I learned how to let the reader skip the backstory!)

I loved Alex Reid’s point in “Why Blog? Searching for Writing on the Web,” that “the regular writing practice of blogging will help you discover some intrinsic motivation for writing.”

I’ve found that the more I blog, the less I’m afraid of failing at writing. And as Reid says, writing becomes its own reward. It is overpowering the fear of failure.

And maybe if I keep blogging long enough, I’ll even figure out what yogurt has to do with grammar.

Using Social Media to Teach Technical Communication

The Hurley and Hea (2014) article is one I used for my final paper in English 720 last semester:


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I really think the idea of incorporating social media into technical communication courses is extremely beneficial to the students and the professional world. Companies need technical communicators who are experienced and skilled in the use of social media! As I’m sure will be evident by the case studies later in the semester, many companies are not using social media in ways other than marketing. There is a whole world that could be opened up if social media was utilized to communicate directly with consumers to better companies’ products and knowledge of what is working or not. Additionally, social media can be used to disseminate information (and allow interaction) about troubleshooting, common issues, instructional information, etc. The benefits of companies adding these types of post to their existing social media (or adding social media if they still do not have any) could be immense. That’s what my final paper for ENG 720 was about (along with the rhetorical uses of social media for technical communicators and companies). The incorporation of social media courses into technical communication programs is essential if these changes are to be made.

My Life of Social Media

As I mentioned in my introductory discussion post, I have a great deal of experience with social media, and use it many times a day. Blogging is something I have dabbled with (still have a few accounts here and there, but I rarely use them). The main appeal to me about blogging (and social media in general) is the ability to connect with others – people who you would never otherwise have had the chance to know. I think it’s a wonderful addition to our social worlds to be able to “meet” people who may be thousands of miles away from you, and create relationships that may never have otherwise been possible.

I agree with Andrea Doucet (2013) when she emphasizes the benefit of blogging (which I believe extends to most social media) in connecting writer and reader. There is no better feeling, to me, than getting a comment on your post with an “I thought I was the only one!” or “thank you for sharing, now I know I’m not alone”. This connection in both the social and intellectual aspects is what makes social media great in my opinion.

To finish out my diatribe on my love of social media, here is a snapchat photo I took earlier of my sweet greyhound looking at the rain.

Stella.jpg

A Mixed Bag of Blog Experiences

A major reason that I pivoted from journalism to technical writing is the joke “What do you call an unemployed journalist? A blogger.” For me, blogs have been a casual acquaintance that make an appearance in various contexts every couple of years. I’m always impressed with the potential of blogs to be a dynamic forum to give voice to your worldview, and then a little bit disappointed when the reality of the work they take and mediocre response sets in.

I actually kept my own blog for a semester in college when I was studying in New York City, which was considered a different world from my home and school in Minnesota. It was the stereotypical travel “abroad” college blog to share pictures and stay in touch with family and friends. I like to think that my blog was slightly more clever and widely applicable than most, and I actually had a pretty strong and consistent readership. Then I came home and intentionally killed the blog.  

Nevertheless, a lot of the points in the Nardi, Gumbrecht, and Swartz article “Why We Blog” resonate with my experience with personal blogging. Along with the mix of motives for creating blogs, the authors discuss the awareness of readers and the effect that blogs can have on off-line relationships. My NYC blog was certainly an intentional form of communication, and I was very aware that my parents read it. I also appreciate the authors’ acknowledgment of “blogger burnout” and how the pace and style that you set for your blog can determine its long-term sustainability.

As a reader, I have a couple of favorite blogs that I frequent, but I haven’t bookmarked, closely followed, or commented on any of them. These range from recipes blogs to political commentary to friends’ blogs, and I categorize them all as “junk food” reading when I want to mindlessly skim and not think.

Along with my personal use of blogs, I’ve also blogged previously in academic contexts. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually can’t remember any blogging when I did online courses in eighth, ninth, and twelfth grade. I’m not sure if it was just too early in the virtual education revolution or if blogging wasn’t to be trusted to high schoolers.

In college, I did have several traditional and hybrid classes that included an online blogging component. My experience is in line with the findings in “Learning with Weblogs” (Du and Wagner) about the value of using weblogs in a constructivist model of learning. The learner-centered nature of a blog certainly helps with engaging course content, processing it, and creating based on it. Then again, this isn’t particularly new, and teachers have had students writing short essays for generations, long before they could be published as blogs.

However, I’ve been disappointed in the past with the collaborative aspect to blogs that Du and Wagner emphasize. Despite the potential, I haven’t really seen great dialogue come from blog comments. Even for classes that require commenting on others’ blogs, the comments are often low-level steps to a grade and don’t meaningfully contribute to a larger conversation or collaborative learning. In his article “Instructional Blogging: Promoting Interactivity, Student-Centered Learning, and Peer Input,” Stuart Glogoff enthusiastically embraces blogs for online learning, but also recognizes the difficulty in creating quality community through blog commenting.

I think this comic is a fair summary of my casual contact as a blog passerbyer so far, and I’m hoping for a much better level of comments and engagement in this course.

blogging-post-comic

A Lightbulb Just Went On

I’ve never blogged before.  My experience with blogs is only as a reader.  I’ve watched as some of my friends began blogging about whatever they were experiencing.  One wrote about being a new mom; sharing her experiences with other young or soon-to-be mothers.  Some wrote about eating healthy or political views.  I always thought that there are enough resources out there – I didn’t need to contribute my two cents.

As I read Is Social Networking for You by Jack Molisani, a lightbulb went on in my head. I realized how essential blogging is to business building.  Using social media and blogs to direct traffic to a website is very effective. I always thought that people were  either being helpful by sharing their experiences, or they were trying to gain popularity by blogging.

I’m very excited for this experience, and already in one week, I’ve learned so much about the world of social media.   I’m looking forward to more lightbulbs and ah-ha moments. Already, my mind is spinning with new ideas for my own website. I can’t wait to see what else I’m going to learn.

Blogging 101: How Did I Get Here?

If I had to describe it I would say that my experience with blogging thus far has been a mere flirtation;  I don’t come to the class with anything reaching formal or professional training.

I remember starting a blog in high school, in the late 2000s. I can’t remember what I called it but I would try and post every day about something that had happened. Maybe I had a particularly witty insight during Pre-Calculus. Maybe the teacher caught me reading a fantasy novel instead of paying attention to the projected history lesson. I recall that I would always end the blog with a section titled “Lessons from Lloyd” or something like that: a bulleted list of sage teen advice I would dole out to the masses.

I didn’t have any sort of real audience. My group of friends knew about it and would sometimes poke fun at me, but it was mostly a solitary endeavor, a way for me to write down what I was thinking and laugh at myself while I did it.

What strikes me to this day is two particular posts I wrote: movie reviews for Twilight and Harry Potter (whichever one came out around that time). I had fun ripping the first movie apart with my words and enjoyed figuring out why I liked the second one (but not as much as other films in the series).

When I saw this assignment on the schedule, I tried to Google my old blog. It didn’t really work out. Mostly because any key words I may have used have been buried so far in my subconscious, I’d never a brain biopsy to route them out. Also, because I’m not sure what platform I used; I think it was BlogSpot, but I didn’t get any hits when I searched.

Oh well. It’d be fun to find those posts again, a little time capsule of my writing style to look back on, but c’est la vie.

I had a literature professor who loved to make us blog in undergrad. She’d come up with these specific prompts and styles for us to use. I was terrible at meeting deadlines and she was quick to call me out.

Professionally, my experience with WordPress began in my last semester of college. I had a magazine internship that used WordPress to load select print articles to their website. I was in charge of choosing the stories, loading them to the site, and creating SEO tags for them. I had absolutely no training in search engine optimization, but it did expose me to what that meant so kudos to Guy for leaving it in my hands.

In regard to some of the readings, the term “academic blogging” interest me, mostly because it seems like, other aspects of academia, to suck the fun out of the experience. It is not enough to take part in this activity, it must be renamed and repurposed for proper discussion and acceptance.

Excuse me if I take a hard line, but I have strong feelings about the way academia re-interprets already existing things. For example, I took a Pop Culture class in college and we read a paper by an academic that went into a long spiel about the validity of fanfiction as a way to look at audience interaction with media and content. This author created a master list of terms and descriptions for already existing norms. These things are already valid and don’t need a PhD stamp of approval before the world can officially sign off.

What is it about the academic part that requires the creation of a unique subculture in the blogosphere?

Don’t feel obliged to answer that. I did research on so-called popular literature and subcultures in undergrad and I somehow manage to revive the topic every so often.

Maybe it has to do with the research-based mindsight that comes with a “Publish or Perish” higher education system. Maybe I’m just too sensitive about a perceived slight.

The world may never know.

I do look forward to interacting with the class and figuring out how to communicate with emerging media. From the glimpses I’ve read of past students’ work, this is a place for lively discussion and appropriately timed infographics and pictures.

If you’ve managed to last this long, thank you for indulging me on my trip down memory lane and my mini rant about…whatever the underlying point of those few paragraphs was. This blog post is the sole product of my particular upbringing.

Here’s to a successful semester of blogging!

Almost First Blog Ever

This is (pretty much) the first blog I’ve ever written.  The only previous experience I have with writing blogs occurred long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away called…Senior Year German Class at Clinton High School in 2006.  My German teacher, Frau Peters, affectionately known as simply Frau, really wanted to set her students up for success and get us blogging as part of a year-long German 5 project (Deutsch Fünf Projekt) and as a way to express ourselves.  Naturally, we goofed around on the blog more than anything and had basically zero understanding as to what a blog even was.  I recall it being just another place for my classmates (some of my best friends) and I to be silly and tell inside jokes that Frau didn’t seem to ever catch.  For example, one of her favorite questions to ask us on Monday was, “Was hast du am Wochenende gemacht?” meaning, “What did you do this weekend?”  We were pretty good kids, don’t get me wrong, but our weekends were usually pretty colorful and we often responded with answers using code words.  For example, “Wir haben viel Limonada getrunken!” which means “We drank lots of lemonade!”  Oy.

The only other exposure I’ve had more recently to blogs has been when I’m looking for recipes and seem to get taken to all sorts of (mostly ladies’) blogs that go on FOREVER when I’m simply looking for the standard recipe:  ingredients and preparation.  Instead, I have to scroll past what feels like an incredible story and a lifetime of photos leading up to the turkey meatloaf the blogger prepared for her picky husband and children, but (to her delight!) they ate every last bite of the turkey loaf and (gasp!) they couldn’t even tell the difference!

I hope I don’t completely offend/bore/annoy people when it comes to my blog here this semester.  It was shocking to me to read so much about blogging and blog literacy on the course content of D2L–I never knew there were so many rules and so much speculation when it comes to blogging.  But I suppose like anything else there are protocol and analyses.

So here’s to a great semester of blogging and learning about emerging media.  I promise I’ll take this one more seriously than the one from German 5.