7 Pointers for Your Writing Process and Practice

As a first year professional writing student at York University, I often considered my course “WRIT 1980 – Professional Writing: Process and Practice” as my “main” course both as a student and as a writer. Although this course wasn’t as practical as other courses I’ve taken, it was definitely an eye-opener, and provided a lot of interesting knowledge about the history and theory of the writing process.

I also enjoyed the course for its fantastic professor, Jan Rehner. She injected liveliness and humanity into every lecture, and really emphasized that not all writing has to be academic (a shocking revelation to a then-university novice like myself). Her course helped me view writing in a new light, and has embedded some key points that I take into consideration in the process of all my writing endeavors.

Therefore, I would like to provide some key takeaways from the course that I feel can aid in any element of the writing process, whether one is composing an academic essay or a travel brochure. So, please keep these 7 pointers in mind:

1. Don’t Think Chronologically: It’s rare for a writer to simply produce a work of text from introduction to conclusion. The writing process is by no means chronological. Remember, it’s okay to start in the middle of your piece, or even near the end! Drafting is meant to be an organic process, and writers should start in a place that feels natural. Starting a piece from somewhere other than the introduction can also help writers uncover the main idea that they’re trying to convey, if that isn’t clear from the beginning. Write at different parts of the piece; see what works and what doesn’t.

2. Beware the Monitor: Most writers have an internal voice that “speaks to them” as they write; this is better known as “The Monitor.” While it’s often natural to give yourself feedback when you write, doing this too much can cause an abundance of hindering “stops” in writing, in many cases to edit what has been written. Instead, it’s better to simply write continuously from an extended period of time to properly let your ideas flow, and then allow “The Monitor” to go back and organize what you’ve written. “The Monitor” should be a helper, not an interrupter.

3.  Think About Discourse Communities: A discourse community can be as complex as a Board of Directors or as simple as people who like to skateboard. While writers should always keep their audience in mind, identifying a particular discourse community to gear your writing towards adds a layer of specificity to your work. While this implies using a specific tone or language in your writing, it also means to consider the discourse community’s social, political, economic and cultural context, among others. Thinking about these things can help you tailor your writing more appropriately.

4. Employ Strong Rhetoric: Rhetoric is the art of persuasive discourse. However objective your work may be, you still want to convince your readers that your work is credible. Therefore, it is helpful to consider three modes of persuasion:

  • Ethos (establishing yourself as a knowledgeable and legitimate source)
  • Pathos (appealing to your audience’s emotions)
  • Logos (employing a logical framework for your text)

Again, not all written work is argumentative in nature, but all written work is still subject to criticism from readers. By taking these modes of persuasion into consideration and employing strong rhetoric, you can not only make your work seem more legitimate, but you can also generate more content and think of relevant ideas you may not have originally included. As a writer, you should always want the reader to believe what you’re saying.

5. Keep a Writer’s Notebook: You’ve probably heard about this suggestion before, but you’d be surprised how helpful something like a notebook can be, especially considering the prevalence of writer’s block in today’s writers. This notebook can contain many things: sentences you think are awesome, interesting words or ideas, or other knowledge you’ve gained in your travels. Notebooks are a very helpful reference point for the writing process. While the human brain is an amazing organ, our memories can only contain so much. Keep a notebook just in case.

6. Familiarize Yourself with the CSI: No, I don’t mean television show about detectives. “CSI” stands for:

  • Context (the circumstanced under which you’re writing),
  • Subtext (the meaning of your piece)
  • Intertext (references to other works)

These elements are often part of what’s known as “critical reading strategy” (how readers interpret complicated text). While these techniques generally apply to literary works,  it’s helpful for writers to have a clear definition of these things while they’re writing. CSI emphasizes clarity and complexity during the writing process; writers who have a strong sense of these elements are more likely to produce stronger text.

7. Know What’s Been Said And Engage It: A good writer always does his or her research, and this really does transcend every genre of writing. Research doesn’t necessarily mean that you should look up the history of writing on Wikipdia; in fact, your research should encompass people of many different fields. Whether a famous psychologist or an independent filmmaker, it’s helpful for writers to know about existing ideas so they can either add to them or challenge them. Taking an informative approach is definitely appreciated by readers, who, more often than not, want to be informed.

Now, while some of these vary in importance depending on what you’re writing, I think that they’re all relevant to the writing process in a general sense. Personally, when I utilize these strategies, I often find that writer’s block is a thing of the past.

Thank you for reading! If you would like other tips on how to improve your writing process, leave a comment, or contact me on LinkedIn.

10 Strategies to Optimize Technical Information

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication.

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication. (Sony)

One area of professional writing that I am particularly interested in is the technical communication field. This interest stemmed from a course I took at Seneca College called “PWR 381 – Digesting Technical Information.” The course was particularly valuable because the professor, Bernard Aschwanden, had tons of work experience.

The course was quite comprehensive on a content level. However, it differs from Duncan’s course in the sense that Bernard specifically taught us how to make documents functional. These types of documents are not necessarily prose (which can be personal or academic). Instead, they are user-guides or other sources of information often produced for professional organizations. Often, professional writers make these documents in attempt to simplify difficult technical information and make it accessible for an audience.

So, if you’re interested in producing these types of documents, I recommend undertaking all of the following strategies:

1. Identify your Audience: As I mentioned in an earlier post, the audience is a priority in any professional writing job. This does not change in technical communication, especially considering that the audiences of these types of documents is often not knowledgeable about the topic which you are describing. Consider your audience with every word that you write.

2. Give Your Document a Clear Goal: Remember, technical communication is action-oriented, and often procedural. You want your audience to do something with your document. If you’re working for an organization, you’ll often know what the goal is, so you shouldn’t waste any time or energy on detracting from this goal (going out of your way to make your document sound intelligent, for example). Make sure that your document solves a problem.

3. Prioritize Minimalism: Audiences usually don’t read technical documents for fun; they read them to learn information quickly and efficiently. Naturally, audiences don’t want to sift through pages and pages of documentation. In this case, less is more, and technical writers minimize the size of their documents so that audiences are more inclined to read them.

4. “Chunk” Your Information: We, as people, tend to retain information easier in groups, or “chunks,” as they’re called in technical communication. “Chunking” can include using lists or groups of headings to clearly distinguish important information. An individual scanning a document will usually remember or at least make a point to remember the items in a properly formatted list, so “chunking” can definitely help your document reach its goal.

5. Avoid or Define Jargon: “Jargon” contains phrases that only a specific audience knows; even a term like “gross income” might seem like jargon to someone who has no business experience. When technical communicators attempt to make information accessible to general audiences, the last thing they want to do is confuse these audiences. Jargon can be confusing, so it should be avoided or at least defined.

6. Predict Potential Problems: Truly excellent technical documentation has a good troubleshooting section. Writing a procedure can be simple; predicting a user’s potential problems when undertaking the procedure is a mark of intelligence. So, make sure to figure out these problems and include their solutions in your documentation. Remember, technical documents solve problems; they’re not supposed to produce them.

7. Be Sure to Introduce and Summarize: Bernard had an excellent saying for this point: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Clarity is a very important principle of technical documentation, and the use of repetition in a technical document clearly communicates the message. Make sure that you introduce the goal of your document at its introduction, and remind your users what this goal was at its conclusion.

8. Adhere to Style Guides: If you’re hired by a company and really want to impress them, try to get a head start and study their style guide, if they have one. For those of you that don’t know, style guides are “handbooks” that contain rules about grammar and syntax which are normally subjective in the English language (capitalization of certain terms, certain forms of punctuation). Many large organizations have their own style guide, as these companies produce a lot of documentation every year. Style guides enable organizations to stay consistent, and chances are that they also enjoy consistent employees.

9. Study Your Genre: There are many different genres of technical documentation. Government tax documents, scientific reports and corporate hardware guides are just some of them. If you really want to produce efficient technical documentation, study the structure of existing documents of whatever genre you plan on producing yourself. You can see what some of these documents do well, and what mistakes you can avoid.

10. Consult With Subject Matter Experts: Sometimes, technical communication can be too intense for just one writer, especially when dealing with fields that used advanced terminology (such as the scientific field). Don’t hesitate to seek the help of a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to help explain whatever it is that you’re having trouble with. An engineer or an investment banker are excellent examples of this. The difference between you and them, however, is that you’re an SME yourself; your subject is writing and communication. Technical communication isn’t a one-person job, so make sure you do what you need to do to make your document as good as it can be.

I really enjoyed PWR 381 for its practicality and it definitely helped me with my own technical documentation. I am planning on continuing my career in technical communication.

If you would like to discuss this topic more, leave a comment here or get in touch with me on LinkedIn for more information.

4 Key Considerations for Presentation Strategies

I think that one of the interesting things about the professional writing industry is that it contains far more than just written documents, as I explained in my previous post about writing and computers.

Another important facet of being a professional writer is also being a professional presenter. In many companies, writers might find themselves having to make proposals for projects to company officials, or explaining difficult concepts to large audiences. And while writing is an integral part of constructing a presentation (the idea of “winging it” has no place in professional presentations), there is a lot more to consider.

TED Talks has many examples of fantastic presentations.

TED Talks has many examples of fantastic presentations. (TED Blog)

I learned about these important factors in a course I took at Seneca College called “PWR 382 – Workshop in Presentation Strategies.” My professor, Burke Cullen, took a practical approach to the course; there were presentations literally every week. This gave our class a chance to both learn about how other people present and apply our own strategies to presentations.

The thing about presentations is that there are different approaches to them. For example, Burke advocated for the use of Powerpoint, whereas Duncan Koerber (who I described in an earlier post) dislikes Powerpoint, and instead supports the use of Prezi. In another way, Burke told us that our presentations had to be heavily memorized, whereas Duncan told us to take a more natural approach, remembering only key points.

In PWR 382, however, I learned about four important considerations for presentations. And although certain elements of presentations are subjective, I do feel that anyone who wants to produce a professional presentation should do the following:

  • Consider Your Presentation Context: This consideration is most pertinent when putting your presentation together. One cliché we always hear in the professional writing world is that the audience is first and foremost. The reason this is a cliché, however, is that it is absolutely true. Presenters need to consider the needs of their audience: why are they listening to this presentation? Why should they care? When you have this information, you also need to consider how you’re going to do your research, and how much time you’ll have to present it. Context is everything.
  • Consider Your Physical Environment: Many people discount this consideration, but a good presenter should never be caught by surprise. Presenters should investigate their presentation area beforehand to get a feel for the size and the number of people to that they will be presenting. They should also investigate what type of equipment will be available (microphones, projectors) in case they need to make changes to their presentation. Also, some companies provide lecterns for presenters; this will affect any physical gestures that you might plan to do when you present.
  • Consider Your Voice: A presenter’s voice is naturally integral to his or her presentation; most presentations are live and oral, so a presenter needs to have complete control over his or her voice. This is perhaps the least subjective consideration, as there are some standard rules for maintaining a good voice for a presentation. Presenters should keep a good volume, a good pace and should enunciate every word. Presenters should also avoid things like uptalking or from an abundance of “ums” or “uhs.” A presenter’s voice should be clear for every audience member.
  • Consider Your Visuals: Presentations, like many documents, often have important visual aspects. There are different types of presentation software out there, but there are a few unifying principles that presenters should consider no matter what types of visuals they use. For starters, the visuals should be readable. Factors like a small font size or an ugly colour scheme can hinder the readability of a visual, so presenters should avoid these. It is also helpful to add titles to visuals. This helps audience members know where they are in the presentation. Lastly, try to keep a consistent appearance; this helps familiarize the visuals with the audience.

Of course, there are many different types of presentations, and each calls for a different strategy. Pearson Education’s Talking Business: Strategies for Successful Presentations gives a comprehensive guide to delivering excellent professional presentations. While a lot of the work that professional writers do is often behind a computer screen, you shouldn’t discount the fact that you may have to do a few of these presentations in your lifetime.

As always, I’m happy to answer more questions about presentations. If you would like to know more, leave a comment here or send me a question on LinkedIn.

10 Vital Tips for Visual Info and Document Design

In an earlier post, I discussed ways to improve the content of your writing. And while a document’s content is important, this is irrelevant if people are turned off by the document’s overall design. Content should always be produced in an attractive and clear manner; this not only keeps audiences reading your documents, it also helps them remember what they read.

So, when I took “PWR 480 – Advanced Workshop 1: Visual Info and Document Design” at Seneca College, I learned many important principles for optimizing the appearance of my documents. My professor, the excellent Sharon Winstanley, was very enthusiastic about the content, and she hammered each of these points into us until they were second nature.

Any professional writer looking to make clean, clear and concise documents should definitely take note of these important tips for document design:

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when choosing fonts.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when choosing fonts. (University of Calgary)

1. Choose the Right Font: While font choice may be menial to some, every designer knows that fonts are one of the most important parts of a document. Fonts greatly vary depending on readability and legibility; naturally, document designers select fonts that are very easy to read. Fonts also have distinctive personalities; we can immediately gauge the formality of a document that uses Times New Roman versus one that uses Comic Sans. Make sure that you choose the right font for the document you’re designing.

2. Consider Word and Letter Spacing: In many contemporary word processing programs such as Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign, you can adjust the overall spacing between words, lines and letters. The space between these elements is called local white space, and it affects the readability and legibility of a document. At times, words or letters may be too close together, at others, too far apart. Document designers should try to making text too dense, but should simultaneously use the space available efficiently.

3. Use Headings, But Use them Judiciously: Headings are a great way to organize information, as they describe what paragraphs of text are about. Headings are especially helpful for longer documents, as readers can quickly go to the appropriate heading to extract the information that they need. While headings help make documents more functional, document designers should be aware that too many headings can clutter a document. Readers who need to memorize a document will have a harder time doing so if there are too many headings.

4. Use Lists Effectively: Lists, like headings, are great way to easily identify groups of information. When using lists, document designers should be careful whether to make them vertical or horizontal; studies do show that vertical lists have a greater readability. Document designers should also decide between bullets and numbers; bullets usually work better for shorter lists, and numbers for longer lists. Lastly, be sure not to overload your audience with too many list items.

5. Pick the Right Image for the Job: Images are a fantastic way to convey visual information, but document designers must remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Each image in a document should serve one of three functions: it can be decorative (improving the overall aesthetic of the document); informative (a chart or graph that helps explain a complicated idea) or emotive (a touching photograph that adds emotion to the content). Please ensure that you’re not needlessly placing images if they don’t complete a specific function.

6. Introduce, Identify and Interpret Your Images: Remember, text has to work with an image in order for both elements to reach their maximum potential. When using an image, be sure to introduce it by describing what it is. You should also identify the image via an appropriate caption and title (for example, “Figure 1.1”). Lastly, interpret your image by stating its relevance in the text. This three-step method emphasizes clarity, which is very important for audiences.

7. Use Colour Effectively: Colour helps create unity in documents, both through images and text. For example, document designers can colour-code headings depending on the content they cover. This helps readers identify and group this colour-coded information together. Also, a document with multiple images might have all of them use the same colour palette. This creates aesthetic unity. Document designers can experiment with colour and use it to their advantage.

8. Create Global White Space: While I talked about local white space earlier, I also want to bring extra consideration to global white space, which is the overall white space of the document. An ineffective use of global white space can make a document too dense or too sparse, so document designers need to be weary when placing images or paragraphs on a page. There should be an ample amount of space between the separate parts of a page; this helps the document look clean and allows each part to be easily read.

The "F-Shaped Pattern" tracked via web browsing.

The “F-Shaped Pattern” tracked during web browsing. (Nielsen Norman Group)

9. Keep the “F-Shaped Pattern” in Mind: I’ve attached an image of the “F-Shaped Pattern.” This was created using technology that tracks human eye movement when a person reads a document. Often, people “scan” documents rather than reading them all the way through. As you can see, people are more likely to read the areas that are “hot spots” when they scan the page. Therefore, document designers should keep in mind that these “hot sports” are good places to put important information.

10. Avoid Underlining: This last one may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but this was one of Sharon’s professional (and personal pet peeves). We, as readers, are used to seeing and using underlines for emphasis. However, Sharon suggested that there are cleaner ways to emphasize a phrase, such as bolding or italicizing it. An underline actually makes the text less legible, and it also interferes with local white space. At first, I was skeptical about this, but after my experience in the course, I do feel that underlining is obsolete, as there are always cleaner options for emphasis and identification. Document design is a fun and creative experience, and I encourage all of you to play around with some of these elements to get a feel for what looks good and what doesn’t.

Of course, there are many more strategies for improving your documents. Thinking with Type is a great place to start, and there are tons of other resources online or in book stores.

If you’d like to ask me anything personally, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on LinkedIn.

7 Ways to Improve Your Prose, Style and Argument

One of the most useful courses that I’ve taken at York University was called “WRIT 2710 – Prose: Style and Argument.” The goal of the course was to help people improve their writing at both a conceptual and a sentence level. I enjoyed the course thoroughly because unlike some of my other university courses, this course endowed me with concrete knowledge that I am able to apply not only to my career but to my daily life as well.

The professor, Duncan Koerber, is one of the best professors that I’ve had in university. He gave us assignments that were both fun and challenging; one assignment had us write a personal memoir about a traumatic event in our lives, another prompted us to interview an interesting person and produce an article that did them justice. The point of these assignments was to familiarize us with different popular writing styles.

So, I’d like to share a few of the things I learned in Duncan’s course. Every writer should make use of these tips, no matter what content they’re producing:

Just about every famous writer has planned or drafted their work.

Just about every famous writer has planned or drafted their work. (The Daily Mail)

1. Be Sure to Plan and Draft: Before writing anything, it’s often a good idea to have a rough layout of your content’s structure. Writing isn’t just about editing the first thing that comes out of your head; it’s always helpful to create and compare different drafts of your work.

2. Reduce “Dead” Verbs: “Dead” verbs are essentially abstract in nature. Verbs like “to be” and “to do” are not specific and are boring to read. Therefore, you should write using “alive” verbs; some examples are “jump,” “run,” “punch,” and “blink.” These are concrete actions that readers can picture in their heads. The more specific the image you create, the more interesting your work is.

3. Avoid Wordiness: Wordiness is simply the idea of sentences having unnecessary words. Writing should convey a message in a clear and concise manner. If the content does not do this, readers can quickly become bored. Reducing wordiness occurs when writers choose to use “always” instead of “all the time,” or “first” instead of “first and foremost.” Removing unnecessary words helps content flow better.

4. Avoid Passive Voice: The ball was thrown. I threw the ball. Which sounds more specific to you? In the first sentence, there is an instance of passive voice. This means that the sentence features a verb (thrown) and an object (the ball), but no subject (I). Just like when reducing dead verbs, avoiding passive voice makes sentences more specific, and by association more interesting for readers.

5. Avoid Clichés: He was as fit as a fiddle. She was a diamond in the rough. All’s well that ends well. These are examples of clichés. They are problematic because they are stale and overused. Writing is supposed to be fresh and interesting, so writers should avoid using these outdated phrases. Some of them are also ambiguous…how can one exactly be “as fit as a fiddle?” Fiddles don’t even work out!

6. Take Advantage of Parallelism: Parallelism is when a sentence’s structure is balanced. Which sounds better to you? “I ate, worked and went to sleep,” or, “I ate, worked and slept”? Personally, I prefer the latter example. Parallelism often uses less words and completes a pattern. Readers are accustomed to learning things in patterns or lists. When writers use parallelism, they make their messages easier for readers to remember.

7. Read Your Work Aloud: This final tip pertains to the editing process, but I would argue that it is the most important. When editing your work, be sure to read it aloud to yourself. It is easier for us to miss mistakes when simply looking over our work. By reading your work aloud, you are forced to read every single word, and your brain has an easier time determining if your sentences make sense. Reading aloud, for me, has significantly improved my work.

So there you have it! Every one of these strategies is excellent for improving your writing, so I encourage you to use them. A helpful reference is Pearson Canada’s Strategies for Successful Writing, which was the textbook we used for our course. It’s very comprehensive, but easy to understand.

I hope that these suggestions have helped. If you have any questions, leave a comment here or shoot me a message on LinkedIn.

4 Important Concepts of Writing and Computers

Wikipedia is a perfect example of webtexts done right.

Wikipedia is a perfect example of webtexts done right.

In my first year at York University, I took a course called “WRIT 1500 – Writing and Computers.” Considering that I enjoy both writing and computers, taking this course was a no-brainer; however, I wasn’t prepared for what my professor, John Spencer, was about to spring on our class!

The professor taught the class through a course wiki that was updated by the students themselves. We learned not only to produce written content optimal for online consumption but also to structure this content. We created our own personal wiki pages and our assignments consisted of completing wiki pages defining course ideas.

So, what were some of the things I learned from the course? I can describe 4 very important concepts for potential online content producers:

  • Webtexts: Webtexts are any form of online content. Webtexts are commonly thought to include only alphanumeric text (such as the “text” of this blog); on the contrary, webtexts include images, audio, video and other forms of media. Whether an blog post or a Youtube video, webtexts are “read” by their audiences. Therefore, online content producers need to be aware of the “reading habits” of their audiences.
  • Hyperlinks: Content that contains links to other content. Our professor stressed the importance of interconnectivity on the internet, and hyperlinks bring this concept into fruition. Hyperlinks allow users to access more content in an easy manner, so online content producers need to ensure that they use hyperlinks to their advantage.
  • Public Writing: The idea that user-generated content can help improve a webtext. Wikis are at the forefront of the public writing debate, as they allow any user (registered or anonymous) to edit articles. While this has raised concern about misinformation in wikis, public writing (when properly implemented) can create a plethora of valuable information and perspectives. As the internet becomes more communal, the amount of user-generated content is increasing, and online content producers must be sure to explore the possibilities that public writing allows.

This class really helped shape my perspective on online content production; I find the process both fascinating and fun (and after rereading my blog, I’ve determined that at times I have a little too much fun). I try to keep these four concepts in mind when producing any sort of online document, and I encourage others to do the same.

If you want to know more about this stuff, leave a comment here or send me a message on LinkedIn.