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Humor Opinion

More cowbell!

About a year ago, we added Google Analytics to our web site. I have done some research to see what posts were the most popular in the past year:

  1. The clear winner was our FrameMaker 9 review. With 21 comments, I think it was also the most heavily commented post. Interestingly, the post itself is little more than a pointer to the PDF file that contains the actual review.
  2. InDesign CS4 = Hannibal post, which discussed InDesign’s encroachment on traditional FrameMaker features.
  3. A surprise…a post from 2006 in which Mark Baker discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of DITA in To DITA or not to DITA

Our readers appear to like clever headlines, because I don’t think the content quality explains the high numbers for posts such as:

We noticed this pattern recently, when a carefully crafted, meticulously written post was ignored in favor of a throwaway post dashed off in minutes with a catchy title (Death to Recipes!).

For useful, thoughtful advice on blogging, I refer you to Tom Johnson and Rich Maggiani. I, however, have a new set of blogging recommendations:

  1. Write catchy titles
  2. Have an opinion, preferably an outrageous one
  3. More cowbell

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Our first experience with print on demand (POD)

It’s been a little over a month since we released the third edition of Technical Writing 101. The downloadable PDF version is the primary format for the new edition, and we’ve seen more sales from outside the U.S. because downloads eliminate shipping costs and delays.

Selling Technical Writing 101 as a PDF file has made the book readily available to a wider audience (and at a cheaper price of $20, too). However, we know that a lot of people still like to read printed books, so we wanted to offer printed copies—but without the expense of printing books, storing them, and shipping them out.

We have published several books over the past nine years, and declining revenue from books made it difficult for us to justify spending thousands of dollars to do an offset print run of 1000+ copies of Technical Writing 101 and then pay the added expense of preparing individual books for shipment as they are ordered. Storage has also been a problem: we have only so much space for storing books in our office, and we didn’t want to spend money on climate-controlled storage for inventory. (Book bindings would melt and warp without air conditioning during our hot, humid summers here in North Carolina.) For us, the logical solution was print on demand (POD): when a buyer orders the book, a publishing company prints a copy using a digital printing process and then ships it.

We chose for our first experiment with POD, and so far, we have been happy with the quality of the books from there. We are still exploring our options with POD and may try some other companies’ services in the future, but based on our experience so far, I can offer two pieces of advice:

  • Follow the specs and templates provided by the printer, and consider allowing even a bit more wiggle room for interior margins. The first test book I printed had text running too close to the binding, so I made some adjustments to add more room for the interior margins before we sold the book to the public.
  • Look at the page sizes offered by the different POD publishers before choosing a size. If you choose a page size that multiple POD publishers support, you’ll have more flexibility in using another publisher’s services in the future, particularly if they offer other services (distribution, etc.) that better suit your needs. Also, ensure the page size you choose is supported when printing occurs in a country other than your own; some publishers have facilities and partners in multiple countries. In an attempt to minimize the amount of production work for the third edition, I chose a page size for Technical Writing 101 that was the closest match to the footprint of the previous edition’s layout. However, I likely would have chosen a different page size if I had known more about the common sizes across the various POD companies. The page size I chose at Lulu is not supported by CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s POD arm. When you publish through CreateSpace, you get distribution through, which isn’t the necessarily the case with other POD publishers. (I’ve read several blog posts about how some authors use the same sets of files to simultaneously publish books through multiple POD firms to maximize the distribution of their content.)

In these tight economic times, POD publishing makes a lot of sense, particularly when you want to release content in print but don’t want to invest a lot of money in printing multiple copies that you have no guarantee of selling. The POD model certainly was a good match for Technical Writing 101, so we decided to give it a try.

I’ll keep you updated on our experiences with POD publishing in this blog. If you have experience with POD, please leave a comment about how it’s worked for you.

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A different take on Twittering and technical writers

by Sheila Loring

Technical writers abound on Twitter as do blog posts on how Twitter can make you a better tech writer.

I’d Rather Be Writing has an alternate take in the article Following the NBA Can Make You a Better Writer. Tom Johnson uses the analogy of Kobe Bryant and Lebron James playing their respective positions on the court. He argues that unless you’re a one-person shop, you’re doing yourself a disservice by trying to be a Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades. Play up your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses, tech writers. Read Tom’s article for more.

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Technical writing and social networks

There is an interesting thread on techwr-l about using social networking sites to deliver product information. In the thread, Geoff Hart notes there is a generation gap in those who turn to unofficial online resources vs. product documentation:

The young’uns go to the net and social networks more than we older folk, who still rely on developer-provided documentation. We ignore this change at our peril. Cheryl Lockett Zubak had a lovely anecdote at WritersUA a few years ago about how she and her son both set out to solve an iPod problem; they both found the solution in roughly equal amounts of time, but she found it in Apple’s documentation, while her son found it on YouTube.

My experience as a user straddles both relying on official docs and information available elsewhere. When my iPod locked up a few years ago, I found decent information on Apple’s web site, but the best resource for my particular problem turned out to be on YouTube. A user had made a video showing step-by-step what to do.

The dilemma of official docs vs. Web 2.0 information partially boils down to question of audience. As part of the process for planning and developing content, technical communicators should evaluate and remember the audience, and that audience consideration now needs to extend to how a company distributes the content. I don’t think there are cut-and-dried answers here; for example, it’s unwise to make the assumption that all folk over a certain age are unaware of or don’t use social networks and other Web 2.0 resources. Ignoring unofficial information channels is certainly not the solution, however.

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Think global

All your docs are belong to us.
We are joining with a couple of other technical communication companies to form the TechComm Alliance:

Three companies—Cherryleaf Ltd., HyperWrite, and Scriptorium Publishing—are forming TechComm Alliance to help us handle technical communication projects around the world. We are located in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, respectively, and each company has customers in both its home location and in other countries. TechComm Alliance will make it easier to work with global companies that need services worldwide.

How will this work? We expect to:

  • Work together on large projects that require support in multiple locations. For instance, Scriptorium might be implementing structured authoring for a U.S. company that also has operations in Europe and Australia. During rollout, instead of sending a Scriptorium consultant around the world, we partner with Cherryleaf for the training in Europe and with HyperWrite for the training in Australia. The result? Our customer saves on travel expenses, and our consultants spend less time in airplanes.
  • Refer projects to each other. Each company has (and will continue to have) clients around the world. When we feel that a local presence would benefit the customer, we can refer the project to our alliance partners.
  • Produce webinars and other events together. I’d like for Scriptorium customers to benefit from the expertise of our partners, and we are working on joint webinars.

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Documentation as conversation webinar

We have added Documentation as Conversation, presented by Anne Gentle, to our upcoming webinars. Anne is scheduled to present on June 9 at 11 a.m. Eastern time:

Even if your documentation system does not converse with your users, your documentation can help customers talk to each other and make the connections that help them do their jobs well or learn something new as if they were in a classroom with a community for classmates. This talk describes how you can think about documentation and user assistance in a conversational way, with the help of social media technology. I’ll discuss the topics in my new book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation. I’ll describe the use of in-person Book Sprints that combine wikis and community events to gather together writers to accomplish documentation goals

Anne is an expert, perhaps the expert, on using wikis and other social media to extend traditional documentation efforts. She’s also an excellent speaker, so I hope you’ll join us for this session.

Register for Documentation as Conversation ($20)

See all upcoming webinars

PS We are working on additional topics and looking for more speakers. Do you have topics you would like us to cover? Please let us know. We are working on a couple of sessions on document conversion.

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Death to Recipes!

I love food. I enjoy cooking and I especially enjoy eating. One of my favorite web sites is, and the kitchen shelf devoted to cookbooks sags alarmingly. Many Saturday mornings, you will find me here.

But I am not happy about how recipes have insinuated themselves into my work life. For some reason, the recipe is the default example of structured content. Look at what happens when you search Google for xml recipe example. Recipes are everywhere, not unlike high fructose corn syrup. Unfortunately, I am not immune to the XML recipe infiltration myself.

I understand the appeal. Recipes are:

  • highly structured content
  • well understood

But I think the example is getting a little tired and wilted. Let’s try working with something new. Try out a new kind of lettuce, er, example. This week, I’m trying to write a very basic introduction to structured authoring, and I’m paralyzed by my inability to think of any non-recipe examples.

I’m considering using a glossary as an example. After all, it’s a highly structure piece of content whose organization is well understood. Maybe I’ll use food items as my glossary entries. Baby steps…

PS It’s totally unrelated, but this article about two chefs eating their way through Durham (“nine restaurants in one night, at least five hours of eating and drinking”) is quite fun.

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DocTrain’s demise and a challenge to presenters

Unfortunate news in my inbox this morning:

I regret to announce that DocTrain DITA Indianapolis is cancelled. DocTrain/PUBSNET Inc is shutting down.

As a business owner, messages like this strike fear in my heart. If it could happen to them…gulp. (This might be a good time to mention that we are ALWAYS looking for projects, so send them on over, please.) My condolences to the principals at DocTrain.

Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about what we can do in place of the event. I had a couple of presentations scheduled for DocTrain DITA, and Simon Bate was planning a day-long workshop on DITA Open Toolkit configuration.

So, here’s the plan. We are going to offer a couple of webinars based on the sessions we were planning to do at DocTrain DITA:

Each webinar is $20. We may record the webinars and make the recordings available later, but I’m not making any promises. Registration is limited to 50 people.

Here’s the challenge part: If you were scheduled to present at DocTrain DITA (or weren’t but have something useful to say), please set up a webcast of your presentation. It would be ultra-cool if we could replicate the event online (I know that the first week in June was cleared on your schedule!), but let’s get as much of this content as possible available. If you do not have a way to offer a webinar, let me know, and I’ll work with you to host it through Scriptorium.

And here’s my challenge to those of you who like to attend conferences: Please consider supporting these online events. If $20 is truly more than you can afford, contact me.

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Back from Atlanta, STC wrapup

The STC Summit was fun as always. My slides are below, but first some other observations.

David Pogue was an excellent keynote speaker. And he sang!

Attendance was lower than last year, but traffic at our booth (and others from what I heard) was up. I think this was a combination of a better location for exhibitors, shorter exhibit hours (Wednesday was cut), and perhaps more senior and more serious attendees.

The biggest change from previous years had to be the use of social media in general, but especially Twitter:

  • The #stc09 hashtag got a serious workout, the tweetup drew 50 or 60 people, and there was constant chatter about the conference online.
  • There was a complementary online event, #stcnotthere.
  • As we were leaving the conference in sketchy weather, #stuckinATL_stc09, created by @lisajoydyer, helped us chronicle the various airport delays and find each other at the airport. It made the delays almost bearable.
  • Rachel Hougton’s flickr feed captures the feel of the entire event, ranging from the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola to the honors banquet and lots of casual photos. (great job, Rachel, btw)
  • You can find a collaborative liveblog on scribblelive.

Interestingly, it seems as though fewer people blogged the event; instead, they were tweeting. However, Keith Soltys did put up day-by-day summaries on Core Dump, and Gryphon Mountain Journals has some reactions. I was unable to find any other live-blogging; if I missed you, please leave a comment.

Tom Johnson interviewed numerous people (including me) at the event. His interview with Ginny Redish is already available.

The tweeting and other social media augmented the actual event. There were people tweeting for lots of reasons: to solve problems (chairs needed), organize groups for dinner, provide sound bites from presentations, and more. The organizing committee put up a twitter feed on a monitor next to their booth and got lots of attention.

I get the impression that the tweets gave non-attendees a flavor of the event. If you were following #stc09 but not attending, did this make you more likely to consider attending in 2010?

Ironically, one of my presentations was actually about technical communication and Web 2.0 issues. I have a white paper on this topic, which is far more useful than the slides. (OK, if you insist, the slides are also available.)

My second presentation was presumptuously entitled “The State of Structure.” This presentation discusses the results of our industry survey on structured authoring, which was conducted in January and February 2009.

If you want more information, the survey report is $200 and available in our store.

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