Thursday, August 2, 2012

The beginning and the end... or at least, the pause

The adventure started nearly two years ago when Marie, Terri, Susyn, Susan, and I met at a career development meeting. We were all in search of a new beginning, and decided that the road would be easier if we joined forces. Week after week, we supported each other in defining then chasing our career goals.

As varied as our experiences and target jobs may have been, we had common aspirations. And so the idea came up of starting this blog, where we would all contribute our reflexions on a subject we were all passionate about: words and communication.

The blog provided a space where we could gather portfolio pieces and write new pieces highlighting our skills, strengths, and experience in each of our professions.

Beyond these individual contributions, we constructed a mini mosaic of opinions on topics such as story telling or voice, on which we would successively write, bringing to the table either a nuance or a radically different point of view with each new post.

Writing down and sharing our thoughts through this blog served as powerful starting blocks from which we all sprung into new adventures and rewarding activities.

The goal has now been met--we are well on our way along our respective paths, and have thus decided that we would no longer update Words Et Cetera. We want to keep this blog open, however, as the demonstration of a successful and empowering collaboration. And as every writer knows, the itch of writing some more is never far... The "end" may really just be a pause...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Welcome to Qatar

I'm in the Souq, the marketplace in downtown Doha, the capital of Qatar. Men in their long white gowns--or brown mouse colored ones--with their red and white or white headdresses--go by. And women in their black abeyas and hair all covered and sometimes faces too.... Hookah pipes are passed freely in cafes with fruit juices everywhere.... Although everything is familiar, nothing is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Technical Writing and the Corporate Voice

A good portion of a company's image can be defined without a single word, or with very few words. Think of ads (Apple's for example), trademarks (Nike's "just do it"), a website's design, a product's packaging, etc. These visuals showcase not only the company's products, but many aspects of the company's identity (or at least the public side of its identity) in a strong and very identifiable way. However, if much can be conveyed without words, every word a company publishes, whether in print or on the web, also has an impact on its image. Matthew Stibbe wrote a great article on the subject in his blog Bad Language, in which he writes that
"Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Good writing enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader's idea of what the brand stands for."
The examples Stibbe uses, from Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to Amazon's cues that reassure buyers and incite them to click that final "place order" button, are all direct (and short) messages sent to the end user. But can the unique voice of a company also transpire in its most technical documents? How does a 100+ page user's manual differ from one company to the next? And is it identifiable to the company past the logo on the front page? In other words, does the document use the corporate voice? Technical writers follow so many rules, dictated by widely-distributed style guides and other manuals, and are so constrained by the technical nature of their documents' content, that they don't seem to have much legroom for branding. Needless to say, however, that a few minutes of research will prove just the opposite. 

Take a look at these (randomly chosen) smartphone user guides, for example.
The visual design (layout, colors, fonts, etc.) of these publications sets the tone. But look at the choice of information architecture. What information comes first? Is it an overview of the phone, a series of obscure commands, or several pages of legal material? What other topics are covered in the document? How are they organized? Is the emphasis on the phone's hardware or its applications? Compare the choices of words (in particular those that have an impact on the reader's emotions, such as "important," "troubleshooting," "warning," "not," "cannot," etc., or, on the opposite, "you can"). Compare the use of graphics and tables. These guides are very different from one another, aren't they?

Defining a corporate voice and maintaining a uniform voice across a myriad of technical publications takes a lot of effort and coordination at all levels of a company. A few tools that help: corporate style guides, document templates, unified outlines, clear objectives... and good communication between Marcom, Tech Pubs, and other departments.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Do We Mean By Voice?

What do we mean when we refer to a writer's voice? Do we mean word choice, the length of sentences, the use of pronouns, the rhythm of the sentences, the literalness of the language? What do we actually mean?

When singers talk about using voice, they--above all--are referring to the timbre of a voice: that quality of a person's voice that makes it instantaneously recognizable. Think of Frank Sinatra.... Think of Orson Welles, especially in his later years, marketing wine. Think of George W. Bush's drawl.

How do you develop a voice? When I studied voice, my teacher told me to sing softly and quietly, so that my natural voice would come out clearly, free of any impulses to imitate the other voices that I heard. I was to focus on developing my voice, not making it Joan Baez's or anyone else's....

Writing teachers often encourage their students to keep journals, composed of writing that they do regularly for themselves. In a sense, keeping a journal is like singing quietly. As a singers progress and their unique voices become stronger, they begin to sing with bolder, louder voices. For writers, the process is often the same. Through journal writing and taking other opportunities to write, a writer's voice can evolve from a more generic sound to one that is much more unique to the particular writer.

A few blogs ago, I wrote about having iPad lust. I gave into my passions last week. I'm using Dragon Dictation now to write this blog entry about voice by actually using my voice to dictate. When you write, can you hear your own voice speaking the words in your head? Listen to yourself, and ask yourself what you sound like.

The first step in developing your own voice is to recognize that you have one and then go looking for it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How I became a technical writer

One of my favorite bedtime stories1, when I was little, was about a dog who could read the newspaper, talk, walk on two legs, prepare his own dinner... This smart dog lived by one and only principle: "marche au hasard, tu arriveras bien quelque part," which translates to: "walk at random, you'll end up somewhere." This seems like the worst advice a kid can get in a world where the most successful people are those who have clear (and written) goals. Yet it stayed with me. The way I interpreted it was: if you trust your instincts, if you let the path open in front of you, you can't go wrong. Life will take you where you fit best, because you will naturally follow your most favorable path.

Years later, as I entered college, the senior students "welcomed" all of us freshmen on campus with a hazing in the form of a series of tests and challenges (similar to what students do to enter fraternities here, albeit in a subdued fashion. Still, I spent a day covered in paint and shaving cream, collecting coins at a light stop in the middle of Lyon... But I digress). One of the assignments (which I took very seriously), was to find the best adjective to describe oneself. I came up with "optimistic". I think this explains why I understood Mister Dog's advice the way I did.

So the optimistic and waiting-to-see-what-life-will-offer little girl grew up without knowing what her professional life would be like. I was very good at maths and science, which were the most revered disciplines in my family, so I studied to become an engineer. I didn't think much of it, but it turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was intellectually challenging, rewarding in many ways. I was missing the other disciplines I'd been exposed to in high school (philosophy being my favorite; arts, music, history and literature not far behind), but there wasn't time for everything.

Life became interesting when I first moved to California. The words "Silicon Valley" sounded really magical in the late 1990's, so I came to San Jose for a six-month internship before my final year in grad school2. Discovering a new culture (many cultures, actually, as everyone I met came from a different corner of the world) was extraordinary. My horizon expanded in ways I had never anticipated. Speaking and writing in English every day also reinforced my interest in languages. I came back to Lyon to finish my master's degree, spent six months in Munich to immerse myself in one more culture and capitalize on a dozen years of learning German, then decided I had to see more of California.

For the following eight years, I worked as a digital design engineer and as an engineering manager in the Bay Area. However, as years past, I realized that the most enjoyable part of my work was to communicate with others and explain what I had designed or was about to design. Creating new algorithms gave me nightmares—working through the details of the implementation was just as stressful. But writing about the whole creation was pure joy. I started thinking that if one day I could devote my entire time to writing, it would be ideal. I didn't know yet about a profession called technical writing.

Meanwhile, I traveled all around the United States in my spare time. I started blogging about my adventures (in French, here) to share my enthusiasm with family members and friends. Being away also helped me see France in a new light and I wanted to share at least one aspect of my "frenchness" with my new friends on this side of the pond. So I started blogging about my favorite recipes (in English, here). This was another unconscious attempt at "technical" (or at least procedural) writing.

Slowly but surely, all these experiences and aspirations started converging. As Mister Dog had predicted, my seemingly disconnected adventures in engineering and writing, and my interest in languages and novelties, all pointed me in the direction of technical communication. I ended up somewhere unexpected, unplanned, yet perfectly fitting.

1 After a little research, I'm finding out that the book is Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown (Golden Press, 1952). I had the French translation, Monsieur Chien. Now I need to buy the book and see what Crispin's Crispian (that's the dog's name) was saying in the original version.

2 If you're wondering, there isn't really a concept of college and graduate school in France. All the curriculum is done in a so-called "Grande Ecole", or engineering school, which takes students from high school to master's level in five very full years.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Read-Book-See-Movie or See-Movie-Read-Book?

I love to read and I love to go to the movies; two of my favorite means of personal entertainment. Some of my favorites to read are fictional stories where the characters interact with actual historical events and characters, like John Jakes’ series of novels the Kent Family Chronicles, Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series of novels, or Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles. Several of John Jakes’ Kent family stories were filmed as miniseries for television: “The Bastard,” “The Rebels,” “The Seekers,” and the North and South trilogy (made into 3 miniseries). I loved that Patrick Swayze played my favorite character in the North and South trilogy: Jared Kent. (I think I fell in love with Jared Kent before Patrick Swayze portrayed his character – I named my son after him, Jared that is.) I have not yet seen Ms. Gabaldon’s or Mr. Whyte’s stories brought to film – might be fun though.

Through the years I have heard several arguments over whether to read the book, or not, before seeing the movie. My daughter read all of the Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer, before the movies were made. She loved the books; those and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series sparked her interest in reading. But when the movies came out, she was very disappointed – they cut a lot of stuff out, they messed it up, the book was better, … You’ve heard all the arguments before. And with the Twilight movies, she felt the characters were better defined in the book, well except maybe for Jacob – she was definitely on Team Jacob! I personally, do not mind what the order, read-book-see-movie or see-movie-read-book. Sometimes I enjoy a movie so much I just have to read the book, if there is one, to get more information – I know they did not get it all in the 2-hour movie. Then I can start with a vision of the characters and go from there on a treasure hunt: which characters did they combine into one in the movie, what did the screenwriters or the director’s cut leave out (yes, I watch all the cut scenes on the dvd too).

A couple months ago, I saw the trailer for “The Help,” and just knew that it was going to be one of those love-hate stories for me. You know a good story on the human condition, reflecting how cruel we can treat one another. Like I said, I like fictional stories woven into actual historical events. I knew I was going to love the movie, the story, but hate the cruelty or potential inhumanity toward the people. Then I saw the book by Kathryn Stockett, and picked it up for a read before the movie came out. Okay ... I could not get through the book. Mind you, I am the type of person who reads a book with a red pen close by to mark the typos. I sometimes wonder if I should send my redlined books to the publisher – yeah right.

Let me explain. “The Help” is the story about black housekeepers who work in upper class white homes in Jackson, Mississippi, pre-civil rights movement (1961-1963). A story where I was going to love the strong characters excelling beyond the humiliation in their lives, but hate that as a God-fearing people we have the capacity to be so cruel and loathsome toward one another. I knew from the trailers that a young white female journalist would write a book describing how the help was treated in this southern neighborhood. What I did not know – the story is told from the housekeeper’s perspective. I tried for a couple of weeks to get through the story. But: “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” “And Law, do that room get quiet.” “I do like she tell me to, even though they cups is full to the rim.” “I know they ain’t discussing no politic. They talking about what Miss Jackie [Kennedy] done wore on the tee vee.” Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page – the editor in me is not enjoying this reading! Where is my red pen?

I have since learned that Ms. Stockett’s life was similar in some ways to her character Skeeter’s:

  • She was raised in the south by a black caretaker (but in the 70’s, not the 60’s).
  • She moved to New York in her early 20’s (and is now living back in the south).
  • “The Help” was her first manuscript.

Unlike Skeeter, Ms. Stockett took 5 years to write her novel and had a hard time getting it published – she had somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 rejections. It took her quite a while to be taken seriously: a young well off southern white woman writing in a black voice, a southern-black vernacular. But she did get published in February 2009, and now less than a year and a half later the movie is out. I saw the movie on opening night, August 10, 2011. The main characters were very likable, and I felt for them. They were very proud, strong women doing a remarkable job in a contemptuous environment. Yes the uppity socialites were a little hard to take, but I wondered as I usually do – being raised in the same environment would I be just as capable of such haughtiness. I would like to think not, but you never know.

So, I tried to read the book first, but could not get through it. I saw the movie, love the story-line and the characters. I read that “The Help,” the book, is told by the three main characters: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. I have had trouble getting into other books before, but have been able to pick them up again later. Maybe “The Help” will be one of those books for me, now that I know I like the characters, the storyline, and part of the book might actually be told by Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Happy reading!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Telling My Stories: Leaving Frederick for Frankfurt

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about telling stories and ended by saying that I would tell you my stories in future entries.

Easier said than done.

Where to begin? What story—or stories—should I tell? I originally thought that making a list of possible stories and analytically choosing the “best” one would enable me to start writing. Who else has noticed that being engaged in analytic, critical reasoning does NOT produce the state of mind that supports good storytelling?

In any case, creating a list and picking the best alternative didn’t work for me as I thought about but didn’t succeed at getting any writing done.

Yesterday, when I was walking with a friend, I began telling her about my storytelling quandary and then began to remember how I would get college freshmen to tell their stories when I taught composition at San Jose State University.

Their assignment was to write a personal narrative with a thesis statement that pointed out the significance of the story. To do that, I needed to model for them how to create a personal narrative.

As a teacher, I was on the spot. I hadn’t thought through what story I would tell, but I needed to come up with a story fast.

I was also teaching students to cluster--a technique developed by Gabriele Rico in her book, Writing the Natural Way.

The way to cluster is to begin by putting your subject in the middle of a piece of unlined paper—or a chalkboard if you’re the teacher in a classroom.

I thought about a nightmare about piano-playing that I’d had when I was about nine years old.

Then, when you cluster, ideas will come to you, and you jot them down wherever you want. The point is to be free as you write and not to constrict yourself to any linearity of thought.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I’d been hearing my father play the piano in my dream.

He was playing the music from The Bell Trio in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I couldn’t get rid of the lyrics in my head—something about “Rend the air with warbling wild….”

I loved the piano. And we’d sold it.

I was in the middle of the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. Our family was on the U.S.S. Butner, a military ship that reeked of garlic.

We were moving from Frederick, Maryland, to Frankfurt, Germany.

I didn’t really know why I didn’t like living in Frederick—even as a small child. I wasn’t that athletic and sometimes it seemed like my older sister Ruth had more fun than I did. She liked running in the cow fields across the street whereas I was happier sitting around reading mythology books. One time my mother and I went to Baltimore, which was about an hour’s drive away, for a 24-hour getaway, and I decided that I loved cities.

Moving to Frankfurt seemed exciting—not because it was in Europe—but because it was a city.

But, would we get another piano?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In clustering, after you’ve written down your ideas, you connect them with lines to see their interrelationships and to help you deduce that often elusive thesis statement.

What was this cluster really about? Had I just described a childhood experience to the college freshman in my classroom? Or did this experience have greater meaning?

What the cluster said to me was that change—even when good—could be threatening or frightening. I was happy that I was moving to Frankfurt. My life—even as a nine year old—did get better. I didn’t have to deal with the cow fields anymore. But I was afraid, afraid that we’d never have a piano and that I wouldn’t hear my father play again. My fears, however, were unfounded. My father also had to have a piano, and he purchased one within a month of our arrival in Frankfurt.

Telling the piano story to the students also had a good outcome. I was teaching college freshman for the first time. After telling this story, I had felt pretty vulnerable, almost like I’d revealed too much about myself to my students. I didn’t know what to expect or what they’d think of me.

A week later, the students turned their “Personal Narrative,” 1000-word essays.

Some of their stories amazed me. Rather than having revealed too much in the piano story, I showed them how they could reveal more about themselves, and I made them feel like it was safe to do so.

Authenticity breeds authenticity.