Do read it: Beatrice and Virgil – a novel

A few years ago I had reviewed Life of Pi by Yann Martell for our office newsletter. I had absolutely loved that book. Beatrice and Virgil (by the same author) too throws up some excellent prose, creativity, and profound questions on human cruelty.

Yann Martell’s tell tale signs are in the book: protagonist who plays a role in the plot, rare animals as symbols, creative structuring, allegory to major incidents (Noah’s Ark in Life of Pi) and the Holocaust here, messages for mankind…

Henry wants to write a book without having to talk about the holocaust. However, Henry comes back to the terrible event and feels that he should write a flip book and dicscuss the holocaust in a creative way. He also feels that drama and prose should merge.

Henry then gets a letter from a taxidermist (a profession that he uses with telling effect to discuss human cruelty on animals) asking him to review and help with a book. This starts off a great adventure that is described in masterly fashion. Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey have various discussions. They are of course liked to characters (prisoners) of the holocaust. Through them the plot moves along … often questions on human cruelty, arrogance, and selfishness are thrown up. Protection of animals is also a central theme.

The Okapi is the standout symbol – rare, strange, and innocent facing danger. Similarly, he list various animals from the African continent (in Life of Pi, the animals were from a Zoo).

The revelation is towards the end. The books is simple, easy, and engrossing.

Being an awful writer

I must confess that I am not a good writer. I don’t write for long periods of time and I don’t get so many ideas like some others do. If at all I get an idea and do write I take a long time to put it all down. My thoughts don’t flow like that of some other writers. I also don’t seem to say what I meant to say. I just write because I have become a sort of writer. After all I need to earn too.

How much I envy my friend who can write lovely sentences and use the right words at the right place. There is a sort of rhythm and dexterity to it. When I read what my friend writes it is as if a story is being told. I get engrossed in it. The paragraphs begin well and simply and move on steadily like a well trained swimmer through water. The end is nowhere in sight – only when I do actually come to the end that do I realize that the article is complete. It is you know…like watching a good movie that you can’t have enough of. I rarely read anything twice but when my friend writes I read it time and again.

So what if I write about software? I should be able to keep my audience engrossed shouldn’t I? But I just seem to follow a few templates and copy paste jargon that technical people have written. I use the spell checker to fine-tune my mistakes. Luckily no one seems to care so much; else what I write would have been torn apart by worthy reviewers. Anyway I am lucky to be having a job. I don’t have worry too much as I work in a team and the document manger and senior writer will take care of the smaller mistakes I make. But then this is what many writers do – they count on the so-called peer review – and in case they get a very strict manager, they can just “jump” – I mean just quit and find another job. You know…it is so easy to find technical writing jobs in India than having to improve your skills.

At times I go through travelogues and feel tempted to visit the place. That’s it – the writer has made a point and conveyed what he or she meant to. I wish I could write such travelogues too. But I end up describing my trip rather than the place. No wonder the travelogues I send don’t get published.

A decade back when I started off writing poetry and features, I would study all kinds of stuff whether online or printed. I would marvel at the use of words such as “quintessential” and “eclectic” and “blandishment” and “quixotic” and so on. Of course I was thought to scorn at those words in technical writing. Unfortunately, I never learnt how to use those words. I only learnt what not to use. Therefore, how can I call myself a writer? I can never be one of those writers who can type away – a hundred odd words an hour and publish fiction that everyone reads on the train.

I am and will be one of those slow pokes: I cannot write on the fly and churn out big articles. At best I can only write a page or two and end up struggling to find more information to write about. Meanwhile my mind goes through the internal struggles – should I use “about” or is it “on”?

Of course the one thing I did do was ask for opinions. I would write and send it to fellow writers and ask for their opinion (it was written on some web page that you should always seek peer opinion). Many times people would say “oh, you are so creative” and add “you should perhaps try writing”. At times, I would get a response such as “a bit jerky and lacks flow”. I would not listen – my ego would never let me listen. Or was it that I lacked the skills to write as well as those who write well?

Mmm come to think of it…I was never born to write and I only liked English as I was poor at math. Therefore, I would never been able to write very well. I might get away because these software companies require people who can use the word processors and put things (that is content) in decent shape. It comes cheap and so I too get a job. Saw that? In the previous sentence “it” is vague and I never bothered to explain what I meant by “it”. I meant technical writing jobs in India.

I was always an average student – good at nothing in particular. I was poorly built…not good at math, not good enough in cricket, okay in zoology, not so bad in geography, and not particularly attractive to the opposite sex. I also wore a 10 pound spectacle (without which I was could not even see small objects like trains three feet away from me).

Therefore, I was confused and pursued a master’s degree in science. I was not good enough to be a scientist though and I was wondering what to do next. I ended up as copy editor of scientific journals. I was okay I thought but such discipline was too much to ask of me. I was – remember – only an average student all along. I could never make the cut and meet the high standards usually set by the publishing industries. Thus, I let go any notions of making the grade as editor of novels or books. I was sad and lonely and started writing poetry which had only rhythm and that too absolutely forced ones. Someone mentioned I could be good in the advertising agency as my poems sounded funny. Much to my chagrin, I realized that writing poetry was no joke.

So I became a copy writer. I absolutely hated it! I was an introvert and was ill at ease with strange clients, nosy account executives, bossy bosses, quirky art directors, and odd working hours. At least in the world of editing, discipline was important and I was not bothered by people. Out there in the so-called creative world, I was okay with writing brochures, leaflets, and commercial story boards but found it difficult to convince the boisterous crowd that my ideas were good. I was often steam rolled and pulled down to earth. I had a weak personality and a meeker voice. In India you have to make a lot of noise to be heard. Even though you might have great ideas you still have to sell it.

I decided to quit. I could never talk loud enough and was too straight forward to survive. Had I had friends it could have been different. But that was it.

How do these other writers out there in the software cities of India become writers? Idiot, they were born writers – London was put to shame and even the Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders get a complex. These writers know everything – they write blogs, organize conferences, and “do networking”. It does not matter if you don’t know something as you can always learn. Better still hang on and you can become a documentation manager.

Over to me…like a monk in his teens looking for reason and reason why he should control his bodily desires, I was caught between my inability to hold my own in the creative world and my failure to stick to the hardcore discipline of the publishing world. In this context I thought I would teach. I made a bloody mistake as I could not face so many people. I was nervous and my mind was elsewhere and I just mumbled rather than speak. I was out in a couple of days and desperately looked for solitude and peace by a quiet lakeside.

I could not find a lake in hot old Chennai but was lucky as software technology had made rapid advances and reached the saturation peak (as they show in those management graphs) in the United States. Some of the jobs were being sent to India in the guise of a fancy word: “outsourcing”. I learnt a few tools, had some inherent writing skills, plus read a lot about technical writing on the web sites. But my biggest ally was the culture and environment these information technology companies provided. I could hide behind a computer from nine to six and just wriggle out of office the moment the manager went out. I got some privacy too behind the cabinets. It was like a dream and my only worry was that I was not a technical person. But then you can’t have the cake and get the bakery too!

In addition (I was asked to use this word instead of “additionally”), I sort of lived an invisible life behind the cabinets. Usually, writers in India ought to be female, “chic”, and definitely wearing jeans and tees and sit cross-legged during “meetings” and ask questions that the technical guys would frown upon. Of course, if you were a real technical writer, you would easily get away by uttering a few accented English words. Obviously, the technical guys get an inferiority complex when a lady talks in such fluent English. If you were a male technical writer you would always talk about getting into “testing” or “development”.

Anyhow, at last, I had found my niche and started growing in confidence. All I had to do at times was create headings, paragraph styles, and align pictures. After that I needed to ensure the file names were according to the standards, the documents were converted to portable format, and the correct version was stored properly. For the first time, I came across practical and everyday use of style guides, tools, structured content, indexes, technology, and concepts. Not that these were lacking before but these aspects of writing were available in a different form and the companies had their own methods.

This was technical writing or information development or technical documentation and I was assured of a challenging career where introverts could survive, creative writers could contribute, meek people could have their say through their talents without having to shout “buy” or “sell”, and importantly average people could work hard to achieve their dreams. So what was the big difference as opposed to other industries? A structured environment where “boss” was just a manager. Or in other words all were accountable and one could pace their work. I started to feel I was in the midst of a civilized world. Online help, user manuals, release notes, software developer guides, and installation guides were the most common pieces of writing. Now and then, I would chip in with a white paper or brochure. At times someone in the company might send a document for editing. In essence, I was doing what I would have done in an advertising agency while also applying what I had learnt during my copy editing days. There were other avenues too – if keen, I could get into preparing computer-based tutorials, policy manuals, and even press releases.

Therefore, what was different? Probably I was not writing anything the academics might praise: neither literary reviews, nor book reviews, or novels. I was of course writing content for the web following crude methods like for example using the words “enterprise”, “paradigm”, “moving forward”, “best-of-breed”, and so on. I was also writing a lot of brochures for different industries. However, I had never been a journalist and I lacked dearly when it came to writing features in newspapers. Was it because it required research and reporting? Or was it because I did not write these well enough to merit an editor’s attention (the couple of travelogues and the odd article being exceptions)?

However, if you remove the technical documents written for the software companies I have worked in, there is not much in the portfolio. Where is the article on technical writing or a well thought out piece on environment or a great piece about birds in my locality or a humorous dig in a local magazine or even a short story?

Therefore, how can I call myself a writer? If user manuals were to be banned what would I do? Can I hope to get a job as editor of a journal or journalist or creative writer? And having not acquired such skills as project manager or quality assurance specialist or human resources expert and definitely lacking the needs of a marketing specialist or teacher, there is little I can hope to do apart from technical writing. Therefore, I must make sure I acquire more skills.

You may laugh or laugh it off but I must confess that I am not a good writer. How can I hope to write novels? I can at best write a text book on technical writing. I may by now have acquired a few qualities writers must have. Yet, to write well I must know the subject well. How can I write on poverty in Zambia or about the dwindling rainforests of Brazil or social changes in modern India unless I go around and see what’s happening? Can I hope to ever be on television interviewing famous personalities? A role as sports commentator is definitely ruled out as I am not eloquent. Alas, I am left with some rudimentary skills that have been polished using crude tools. And writing is a craft and art to be built through wrong methods.

Definitely, I am no native speaker. I believe that native speakers write very well as they think in English. I tried to follow this and was chided once. Although, the senior technical writer (Irish without a “O” in her name, whose grandma had run-away to the US during the Titanic days) said that I write better than some of the state-side (United States that is) writers, I became very unpopular for believing that native speakers usually make good writers and that for those who write in English but for whom English is second language, hard work will help them improve. Anyway, that is one of my views and there are many other things to do in office than just talk about writing! There were “fags” to smoke and salaries to be discussed with the odd bit of gossip about the lady in the third floor thrown in. Pressure was immense too in the form of tax-saving ventures, claiming your working hours, booking movie tickets for your family, and discussing why only developers are sent “onsite”. Thus, technical writers don’t have time to discuss trivial things such as work.

I will try to improve and learn new things as I am not a good writer. There are geniuses out there who can reinvent themselves and their resumes. Wait a minute – why am I talking about all these? Maybe I am passionate about writing? Should I not do what others do and aspire to be a manager and think about earning more?

Should be no big deal to get published – you must make a name for yourself – and by crook or hook, get your photo or blog in the newspapers. Then just network and you would be called to give lectures or write columns. Else use the “jump” technique or try the “occupancy” theory whereby you find a company that will make you a manager and stick to it. Don’t worry about extra income…you can always do the shares and companies will send you “onsite” where renaissance will happen and you will motivate your team to write well.

Alas, I was an average student and I must confess that I am not a good writer. It involves hard work and thinking about such silly things as M dashes and modifiers and figure citations and making sure that the reader understands and benefits from what is written.

So if out there are any such bad writers I do hope they learn from me and never select this profession. They might get by and get good salaries but if they are passionate they should think before they choose writing as a career. After all there are flights to catch than worry about verb—noun confusions and minimalism and parallel constructions.

Collaborative and competetive writing is the next step

Writers have all along been collaborating to write manuals using various tools. Some have used Word to write and have used folder structures and file naming to store documents. They have defined a basic process to collaborate. Many have used server versions of FrameMaker to work on the same book. Content Management Systems (VSS, Perforce, etc) have been really useful too. Help authors have created topics in Robohelp and efficiently worked and on single help file outputs.

Writers have co-existed and collaborated on the same guide or at the project level. Writers have reviewed work of peers. While one writes another has taken care of graphics. Of late writers have used WIKIS in a big way.

Competitive and collaborative writing is the future of information. A company could ask two vendors to work on the same piece of software and provide content. Then they could select the one that suits their needs. Projects would ask two writers to work on the same chapter. While this sounds like repetition, there is a clear purpose.
The advantages are:

– Both writers gain knowledge of entire product
– If one writer is not around, the other can still continue
– Content is analysed thoroughly
– At the end of each phase of the DDLC (document development lifecycle) the writers collaborate to share notes and enhance the content. This irons out any major blocks.

However, this requires double the investment. A style guide and an Editor are a must. Writers would need to vibe and work towards a common goal. Both writers should be of equal skill and bring two perspectives to work.

This might sound crazy but I have seen this work. In 2003 my manager used this trick to chuck out a writer who had used various tricks to get the job. The notorious writer gave reasons while the manager provided a user guide to the client! Last year I worked with a writer from the UK to deliver a document faster. We learnt a lot from our work each week and it helped solve writers block often caused by not understanding something well enough. We kept the technical team in place. Of course we had some clashes which we dealt with through our third eye – the editor.

This model is useful when the focus is on the quality and importance of technical documentation.

Providing information in future: touch screens, technology, and search based on guessing what’s on the users mind

Touch screens and surfaces, on devices that can be held in the hand and used comfortably, are the future of reading information.

Amazon Kindle with wireless broadband, Apple iPad, dual touch screen Toshiba tablets, large screen mobiles from Google, Nokia, and Samsung running Android, read-while-driving screens in cars with Google TV built in, huge LED and Plasma TV from Sony, GE Kiosks in Hospitals are some of the future devices.

Top-of-the mind, question-based search for information with any application is the need of the future (and is the future). Therefore, Help and user information would have to be short and crisp and absolutely relevant. Yet when needed, users should be able to find detailed procedures and reference information too. For this technical writers would need to analyze the possible questions users might have in a given context. User profiles would have to be spot on.

For example, user scenarios might say that a patient can use a self diagnosing instrument to test their blood sugar level or RBC count. However, the same information should also be available as an FAQ – Are you feeling dizzy today even after taking your medicine? Test your RBC count.

In another context, a system admin might be working on configuring the system for high availability and might want some information on replication in Oracle. In between the admin might tweak some parameters in an XML file in the mobile application version.

A user going through the steps to learn Adobe FrameMaker 7.0 (because the user has Frame 7.0 only), might be confused with irritating pop-ups related to Frame 9.0 (even though Adobe is hell bent on promoting Frame 9.0).

Therefore, writers would need to be thorough in their user scenarios. Writers would need to play the role of multiple users and write information. Yes this is what we have been doing all along but now with changing technology this becomes paramount. We may use DITA’s topic, concept, reference, and task types to the fullest. We may not write information based on guide but on audience and information type and technology.

I was trying to use my touch screen mobile but found access to features not “natural”. Even though I had never used a phone properly, I was able to use my older mobile phone easily. I never have thought of Help. However, with the touch screen I was finding it tough and had to look at the Help! Many of my questions were not answered easily.

I find the same problem with the Ribbon of MS Word. In this case, I had been used to accessing information in the “old way”.

I have also got feedback on my current Help system. Users are searching for information using keywords. They want a “Google” type of interface.

Thus as the world becomes touch screen based, the way we access applications will change. Interfaces will change. Users are impatient. The day is not far off when writers would need to provide information that is based on guessing the context. Equipment would “interact” with users and predict what users expect. Writers would need to analyze possible user needs.

What I want to do in the next 10 years…

A snapshot of my career and education so far.
———————————————-

Worked as Technical Writer in:
  • services company. Used Madcap Flare to author Webhelp following Agile model.
  • a security product company briefly. Wrote deployment scenarios and started with planning guide (4 months)
  • large corporation – used RoboHelp, traveled extensively, mentored other writers, filed a disclosure, got accredited. Worked on different projects – wrote system admin guides and user guides (nearly 4 years!)
  • company producing software for semiconductor-manufacturing process. wrote configuration guide, concept guide, and user guide using Adobe FrameMaker. Was lead. (2 years)
  • software product company and wrote install cards and user guides (1 year). Used Adobe FrameMaker
  • ERP software company as part of education team and wrote training manuals, work books, and online help (2 years), Used RoboHelp 2000 and Word and Adobe Acrobat
Worked part time as
  • Copy Writer in advertising agency (an year)
  • Copy Editor for Science Journals (a little more than an year)

Studied:

  • Masters in Geology
  • PG Diploma in Advertising
  • Computers and information processing
  • Diploma in Creative Writing

What I want to do next:
————————

  • Become CCNA certified. Also in database and domain
  • Complete TKT
  • Get certified in Flare, Adobe FarmeMaker, DITA, and Word
  • Get Masters in English Language Teaching
  • Work for a few years on complex software product (such as network products, anti-virus software, or database technology) as senior writer (Cisco, Juniper, Novell, Symantec, or Mcafee)
  • Work in end user product (Yahoo, Amazon, MS Word, or Adobe)
  • Use DITA
  • Use Structured FrameMaker
  • Write API Guide, Hardware Guides, Getting Started Guides, and User Guides for technical users
  • Work in training role
  • Implement accessibility in documents
Finally
  • Move over to teaching technical writing in university
  • Publish book on technical writing
  • Start my own information and documentation company, a library, and a teaching centre

IELTS – not the entire test is a real test of English language skills

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is a test of English for speakers of other languages who want to study or take up employment in English-speaking countries. The test has the following modules:

  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking

However, I definitely feel that this type of test is a test of memory, concentration, reasoning, and being familiar in set piece situations. The listening module requires candidates to listen and reproduce or match the words in the tape scripts. I work with many native speakers and never find understanding them tough. I have grown up listening to commentary of various sports – cricket, wrestling, motor racing, horse racing, football, and rugby. I have also watched major English TV channels right from National Geographic, BBC News, BBC Prime, CNN, through ESPN. I don’t find accents a problem unless the speaker is non-native and has a bad voice or if the audio is bad. So the IELTS listening module test does not actually test your English … rather it tests if you remember what was spoken. Yes you need to remember what was spoken but in which context in real life do we have to paraphrase word by word? I think answers that mean the same should also be counted as correct. Maybe one section alone should use the current format.

The reading test again tests reasoning abilities. I think this module should have some grammar questions, comprehension by rewriting, maybe a bit of editing, and test of vocabulary or spelling. I like the part where candidates have to place the question to the relevant paragraph or match a heading to text.

The writing test is fine but should provide more choice: candidates could choose to write a letter or story, opinion essay or film/book review. Might be a good idea to have some grammar tests here too.

The speaking test is a bit silly. I would allow a candidate to be nervous … I am not sure if they differentiate between exam nerves or stage fright and stammering. Moreover, as long as the answers are in correct English and pronunciation is fine, I would say okay. I think they should stop looking for answers as in the preparation materials. The whole test looks like a rehearsal for a short movie 🙂

The test is a bit long as well. I know that the test is a bit tough due to competition but they should make it a proper test of English.

Tech Comm Twitter Chat – how useful would this be?

Just joined a chat in twitter on technical communication. Not a great fan of SMS or texting on mobile nor do I enjoy the short bursts of tweets…so am not sure how the chats would take shape. Looks a good idea but what is that we are going to achieve in the end? Here is the link:

http://twitter.com/TC_Chat