5 Books on My Summer Reading List

It’s summer, which for my family means time at the beach, or on a lake or pond, as much as possible. A few years back, hubby and I purchased our 34-foot motor home, vintage 1980s, in honor of my 40th birthday. It already owes us nothing, given the great trips we’ve taken in it so far, mainly to New Hampshire or to a small island close to home, North of Boston. (This is the up-side of the contracting lifestyle.)

Of course, since we’ve bought the camper, it seems at least to me that we’ve had an unusual share of rainy summers, but that can be OK, too. More time to play board games with the family, watch Scooby Doo or read with the kids, and maybe try out a new crock pot recipe.

Those rainy days in the camper are also good for curling up with a book of my own, or as the case more often is these days, with the Kindle. Since I received my Kindle as a Mother’s Day gift this spring, I’m definitely buying more books. I’m not 100% sure I’m reading more books—at least reading in the way I used to read–but that’s something I’ll explore in a different post.

Without further ado, here are the books I’m in the process of reading right now.

On My Kindle Right Now

1. The Ultimate Online Customer Service Guide: How to Connect with Your Customers to Sell More!, by Marsha Collier

I’ve followed Marsha Collier on Twitter (@MarshaCollier) for a while now, and I’ve always admired her positive online presence. I’m especially interested in ways technical writers can complement and enhance online Customer Service. Marsha’s book seems even more relevant now, with the advent of Google+, and its potential as a Customer Support platform.

2. Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, by Guy Kawasaki

I’m almost done reading the book, and it’s a great introduction to the psychology of persuasion. Learn about the 3 pillars of enchantment: likeability, trustworthiness, and offering a great product. For a helpful preview of Kawasaki’s themes, see his interview with Brian Solis. Kawasaki’s insights on likeability were especially interesting to me as a technical communicator, as I explore affective user assistance.

3. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability: When Bad Design Decisions Happen to Good People, by Steve Krug

In the late-nineties, I led an information design initiative at BBN Planet (of  ARPANET fame), which later became GTE Internetworking and finally, Genuity. I simultaneously completed usability, human factors, and web design courses at Bentley College (now Bentley University). Krugg’s book complements all those interests and past experience, providing a common sense approach to web design usability, delivered in a concise and highly accessible writing style.

4. The DITA Style Guide: Best Practices for Authors, by Tony Self

According to reviewer Yvonne Kucher on Amazon, “this book is the Chicago Manual of Style for DITA.” Through real-world examples and clear recommendations, “The DITA Style Guide (published by Scriptorium Press) describes how to create consistent, semantically correct DITA content.” In today’s  job market, knowledge of DITA best practices can provide a competitive edge for technical communicators.

5. When Search Meets Web Usability, by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica

I first learned about this book from Jared Spool’s User Interface Engineering (UIE) site. For a preview of Spool’s UIE Virtual Seminar Presentation, check out the video, When Search Meets Usability: Using Information for Improved Search Engine Visibility. There, Thurow discusses the convergence of SEO with web usability, as explored more fully, in her book.

Additional Recommendations

So, there you have it. Those are the books I’m reading on my Kindle, this summer. In this post, I didn’t even get to the books I’m reading or re-reading in print, or the books on my Amazon Wish List.

As I conclude, I’m thinking that it’s been awhile since I’ve read a good novel. Any fiction recommendations? Biographies are among my favorite types of books, too. And I’m always in search of a good cookbook. Sheryl Crow’s new cookbook with Chuck White, If It Makes You Healthy: More Than 100 Delicious Recipes Inspired by the Seasons, looks pretty good. Are there any other recent cookbooks you’d recommend? What are you reading lately?

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Why Technical Writers Should Read Content Rules

Disclosure: I’m both a MarketingProfs Pro Member and a Contributing Writer for MarketingProfs newsletters on search marketing. I’ve met Ann Handley, in context of both these roles. Content Rules reflects the same high standards and I might add–fun–of my previous experiences with Ann, both through MarketingProfs and very occasionally, in person.

This holiday season, I’ve been reading Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, and Webinars, by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman.                                                                                                                                                                   The fourth book in the New Rules of Social Media Book Series with John Wiley & Sons, Content Rules “demystifies the publishing process and shares the secrets of creating remarkable blogs, podcasts, webinars, ebooks, and other web content that will attract would-be customers to you” (p. xv1).

How the Book Is Organized

The format consists of four parts:

  • Part One: Describes the 11 “Content Rules,” which are not meant to be “fixed codes of behavior with dire consequences if they are broken,” but rather guidelines, “to simplify your life and ease the anxiety you might have about creating content” (xxii).
  • Part Two: Includes a How-To Section, with tips on creating blogs, webinars, ebooks, customer success stories, FAQs, video, podcasting, and photographs.
  • Part Three: Offers ten success stories (formerly known as case studies) in addition to “ideas you can steal.”
  • Part Four:  Provides a 12-point content checklist, as a parting gift.

Content Rules = Fundamentals of Literature & Journalism Combined with Fundamentals of Marketing

I like the book a lot, and recommend it highly to any publisher, especially its intended marketing audience, which as the book’s introduction notes, “can learn a lot from the art and style of storytelling (literature) and the fundamentals and science of good reporting (journalism)” (p. xix).

Crisply written, clearly organized, and well-researched with strong supporting examples, this is one of the meatiest books I’ve read on social media.

Who Are You?

My favorite chapter was Chapter 4, “Who Are You,” which offers some of the best writing advice I’ve found to date, on not only how to differentiate your content but more importantly your business itself, through a distinctive voice, which aligns with your brand.

Citing Rohit Bhargava, from Personality Not Included (McGraw-Hill, 2008), the authors highlight that being faceless doesn’t work any longer.

Personality is particularly critical in the age of social media, which ‘requires focusing less on marketing your products and benefits, and more on understanding how to use the personality behind your brand to build a relationship with your customers.’

For this reason, Handley and Chapman advise:

Let your originality–your specialness, your brand personality–come through in your online content. Give your readers or visitors a sense of a person or point of view (p. 39).

A Timely Book for Technical Writers

Though technical writers are not the major intended audience for Content Rules, the book’s principles are broad enough to appeal to any content publisher, who wants to better engage customers. The advice on how to develop your brand personality through a distinctive writing voice dovetails nicely with Ellis Pratt’s recent reflections on Affective User Assistance, in the Nov. issue of Intercom, the Magazine of the Society for Technical Communication.

There, in his article, “The Emotional Factor in User Manuals: How to Use Affective Assistance to Create More Loyal Customers,” Pratt recognizes the power of emotion in customer documentation, especially in moving customers from a negative to positive experience with our products. In our help files, for example, he observes the possible need to move away from our traditional technical writing style–one that is clear, unambiguous, and unemotional–in favor of using a tone of voice that is “dominant or submissive, friendly or unfriendly, depending on the situation” (p. 12).

Other parts of Content Rules that will resonate especially well with technical writers include a great list of business buzz words that should be banned, including user (instead of customer), of which technical writers are most certainly repeat offenders. There’s also a great chapter on reimagining content, with an inclusive focus that notes how critical it is to include the voice and input of everyone in the company, when developing a content strategy (p. 55).  A chapter on how to make-over FAQs is also helpful, for any technical writer who has been involved in writing answers to these questions.

Finally, there’s a nice overview table, showing prospects’ and customers’ information needs and content preferences, according to buyer stage/prospect type.  Traditional product documentation such as user and installation guides, is included in the loyalty stage of the content life-cycle.

I think it’s helpful for technical writers, especially those who pinch hit for marketing and technical support, as well as developing the user assistance embedded in the product itself, to understand how their various content deliverables support different business objectives in this life-cycle.


In summary, this is an important book for all content publishers, marketers and non-marketers alike. Given how many of us are managing our personal brands on the Social Web, in some sense today, we’re really all marketers and can equally benefit from these helpful guidelines.

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Stever Robbins on How to Live on Purpose

A few weeks back, I attended Stever Robbins’ book launch for 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, at Porter Square Books, in Cambridge, MA. Earlier that day at Podcamp 5, I’d heard the Get-It-Done Guy talk about his interesting transition, from podcaster to published author.

I decided to follow Robbins on over to Porter Square later that evening, first off, because it’s been forever since I explored Cambridge, or had the opportunity to enjoy an authentic Indian dish, which I knew I’d discover somewhere along the way.  And second, here was someone I could relate to. Self-proclaimed “reformed nerd” (p. 177), Robbins spoke the introvert’s language, in a way that was as wise, as it was simultaneously funny, pragmatic, and personal.

Since that night, I’ve been enjoying Robbins’ useful advice on getting organized and staying focused—especially important to me right now, as applies to my job search, but which will be just as important later on, balancing work and family again.

Live on Purpose

At the Porter Square reading, Robbins read excerpts from a few chapters, including what he noted was the most important chapter in the book, Step 1: Live on Purpose.” The central thesis of Robbins’ entire book can be summarized in this line: The key to working less is being on purpose” (p. 11).

Build Strong Relationships

Chapter 8 alone, Build Stronger Relationships,” is worth the price of the entire book. It’s a must read, for anyone interested in better understanding communication differences or how to build closer relationships, despite those differences. Introverts and extroverts alike can also benefit from Robbins’ advice on how to end conflict quickly and how to prevent conflicts from occurring, in the first place.

Content Focus versus Task Focus

Robbins’ description of the two types of focus, content focus versus task focus, especially resonated with this blog’s themes as well as my natural work style. According to Robbins, it’s best to group tasks, according to the type of focus required:

Focus around single content areas when you need to keep an entire content area in mind and completeness and depth are what’s important…Project management, writing, proposal writing, helping a client fix a problem, and completing a college application all would benefit from content focus.

Focus around the task when the tasks don’t involve keeping a lot of details in mind, and it would take a long time to switch between types of tasks. Running to the post office, shopping, sorting stacks of incoming mail, and cooking several courses of a meal would all benefit from focus around task (pp. 93 – 94).

Stop Wasting Time

Robbins advises that we can apply the 80/20 rule to stop wasting time. According to Robbins, it means “when you look over your Life Map (or even just your current work goals), you’ll find that most of your progress will come up from just a few actions” (p. 137).

“If you can identify those most important actions, simply do more of those and less of the busywork, and you’ll be home free” (p. 137), Robbins explains.

Recommendation: Business, Self-Help, & Comedy (All in One)

At the Porter Square reading, Robbins remarked that he wanted to write a book that could be categorized as business, self-help, and comedy, all at the same time. For me, Robbins definitely succeeded creating a book with that kind of multidimensional feel. His concrete steps, detailed examples, conversational style, and engaging wit make this book as much fun, as it is helpful.

As I look for ways to increase productivity in both my personal and professional lives, I can’t help but think how Robbins’ themes correspond to Thoreau’s often-quoted line: As if you could kill time, without injuring eternity.”

In my case, I am definitely re-evaluating how some of my social networking activities and other uses of technology are really furthering my job search goals. Are there better platforms I could be using? better ways I could be gathering information or building relationships on or offline, with the right people, which might involve less time? are there tasks I’m ignoring, that could better serve my job search?

Where is the busywork in your life? How can you apply the 80/20 rule to get more out of your respective efforts?

Postscript: I highly recommend Porter Square Books, btw, for a fun night out, if you’re into free book readings. Food for thought, intermingling with a nice-sized audience, and the opportunity for a cup of coffee, or glass of wine during the reading, depending on your preference. All that, within Cambridge’s bustling Porter Square, where I did find my sought-after Indian restaurant. Good deal.

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Why Groundswell Is Still My Favorite Social Strategy Book

…Vacation…time at the beach, and time to catch up on reading…At this more relaxing time of year, it’s interesting to note that of all the business books vying for my attention on the ol’ bookshelf at home, I’m using my free time to re-read a book, which I read almost cover to cover, a year and a half ago, when I began blogging and tweeting.

That book was one of the earliest books I read on social media, and for me, it’s still one of the best, especially if you’re looking for guidance on not just how to get started, but on why getting started is so important, in the first place.

The book remains unique among the many books available on new media because it is written for the entire enterprise, not just for one discipline. It shows how relationships with customers are always more important than tools, and it provides Forrester’s tried and tested process for developing (and evaluating) social strategies.

In its concluding chapters, it describes the internal corporate transformation, so necessary for attaining social business objectives as well as the individual mindset that helps ensure success. All this–with numerous case studies, relevant examples, and supporting ROI data, presented in a highly readable, conversational style.

That book, of course, is Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s now classic Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.

The Groundswell, Defined

Twitter. Facebook. LinkedIn. If you’re still wondering about the groundswell, what Li and Bernoff  describe as “a spontaneous movement of people using online tools to connect” (p. x), then this is the book for you. So, exactly what is the groundswell?

Simply put, the groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other instead of from companies…The groundswell phenomenon is not a flash in the pan. The technologies that make it work are evolving at an ever-increasing pace, but the phenomenon itself is based on people acting on their eternal desire to connect. It has created a permanent, long-lasting shift in the way the world works. This book exists to help companies deal with the trend, regardless of how the individual technologies pieces change. We call this groundswell thinking (x).

How the Book Is Organized

Groundswell is organized in three parts:

  • Part I: Defines the social trend known as the groundswell and describes the basic technologies (such as blogs, social networks|virtual worlds, wikis and open source, forums|ratings|reviews, tagging, and rss|widgets) in the groundswell, according to how people use them and what they mean for companies. It also describes a tool that allows people in business to examine and then create strategies based on the groundswell tendencies of specific groups of people (see Chapter 3, The Social Technographics Profile).
  • Part II: Defines the four-step POST process for creating strategies—people, objectives, strategy, and technology—and reveals why starting with technologies is a mistake. It further defines the five primary objectives for groundswell strategy:
    Listening to the Groundswell (Research). “Explains how to use the groundswell for research purposes, with tools like private communities and brand monitoring” (p. xii).
    Talking to the Groundswell (Marketing). “Shows how to use the groundswell for marketing and PR, with techniques like user-generated video, blogs, and communities” (p. xii).
    Energizing the Groundswell (Sales). “Illustrates a key strategy—charging up your best customers and enabling them to recruit their peers, through techniques such as ratings, reviews, and communities” (p. xii).
    Helping the Groundswell Support Itself (Support). Provides a strategy for saving money and gaining insight by helping your company’s customers support each other, through for example, community forums and wikis.
    Embracing the Groundswell (Development). “Explains how to accomplish the most powerful goal of all—including your customers as collaborators in your company” (p. xii).
  • Part III: Describes how the groundswell spreads with a customer-centric organization and provides steps for organizations to prepare for a transformation. It provides strategies for nurturing the internal groundswell, including internal social networks, collaborating on wikis, and contributing to idea exchanges. It concludes with a scenario on the future of the groundswell, as well as steps on how to develop the right attitude for groundswell thinking.

Highly Recommended Reading, Especially for Enterprise 2.0

I’ve been noticing a bit of a backlash, on the word “strategy” these days, in the social media community. It’s becoming a catch-all phrase, with lots of folks claiming to be strategists, in the same way that a year and a half ago, everyone was a social media expert. However, if we go back and review Groundswell— for many, still the bible on social strategy—we are reminded of what developing a strategy is really all about…

Social Strategy, Defined

According to Li and Bernoff, a social strategy is a measurable plan for meeting objectives, on how a company wants to change its relationship with customers.

Changing Relationships through Social Technologies

Does your company understand how it wants to change its relationship with customers, through social technologies? What are your company’s objectives? Are you interested in listening to, talking to, energizing, helping, or embracing customers?  How do these goals tie back to the way your customers want to engage with you?

Post Method: A Process for Developing Strategies

Li and Bernoff provide the POST method (p. 67-68), a systematic framework for assembling your plan. Also valuable are the series of questions for evaluating new technologies (see The Groundswell Technology Test, p. 35).

Five Objectives for Groundswell Strategy

The chapters in Part II. Tapping the Groundswell, fully illustrate each of the five primary objectives for groundswell strategy, with compelling stories from the people who make the groundswell. Here, the authors take an inclusive approach, illustrating how groundswell thinking and objectives apply across the organization’s various disciplines.

These objectives are linked to existing business functions in your company (Research, Marketing, Sales, Support, and Development), “except that they’re far more engaged with customers and include more communication—especially communication that happens between customers” (p. 69).

Transforming Your Organization

Through Part III. The Groundswell Transforms, Li and Bernoff provide what may be the most useful strategy tips of all, with ways to nurture groundswell thinking, within your own organization.

The approach here seems especially relevant to Enterprise 2.0, and builds on the advice in the earlier section, “What about business-to-business?” which reminds readers that “businesspeople are people, too” (p. 70).

In business to business settings, picking an objective first is still the best practice. You can listen to, talk to, energize, support, or embrace your business customers—businesspeople—just as you would consumers. And if you don’t start with a clear objective, you’re just as likely to go wrong (p 71).

The Groundswell, as a State of Mind

Li and Bernoff conclude by providing tips on not so much what to do, but rather on how to be; that is, they describe how to develop the right attitude for making the transition to groundswell thinking. These principles (p. 240-241) are what make Li and Bernoff’s book so timeless, and well worth re-reading, before you develop any social strategy or choose your next tool:

  1. “Never forget that the groundswell is about person-to person activity. This means you must be ready to connect to people you haven’t met.”
  2. “Be a good listener.”
  3. “Be patient.”
  4. “Be opportunistic. Start small and build on success. Get moving when you get a green light or have a great idea.”
  5. “Be flexible.”
  6. “Be collaborative.”
  7. “Be humble.”

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Justin Levy’s Facebook Marketing Book Launch

I’ve added another autographed book on social media to my growing collection. Last Thur. evening, I asked best-selling author Justin Levy, Director of Business Development, Marketing, and Client Relations of New Marketing Labs, to sign the second edition of Facebook Marketing: Designing Your Next Business Campaign, at a recent book launch, in Boston, Ma. Sponsored by the Massaachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange (MITX), the bash was held at Red Sky, on North Street, appropriately enough, in the shadow of Faneuil Hall Marketplace—one of the nation’s oldest marketplaces—a vital business and civic hub in Boston, for more than 250 years.

Facebook as Modern-Day Marketplace

The similarities between the needs Facebook serves today, as a virtual meeting-place, with those served so successfully, up through the present, by the historic Boston marketplace, resonated very strongly in my mind, that June evening. Fresh off my reading experience of The ClueTrain Manifesto, I couldn’t help but think that the many tweet-ups, meet-ups, and other occasions to connect across Boston and beyond, all speak to a collective, age-old longing for community. It’s just the medium that’s changed—one which enhances connection when physical barriers make meeting in person difficult, and one which ultimately leads us back to connecting directly, when there aren’t those limitations.

Markets Are Conversations

If markets are indeed conversations, as The ClueTrain Manifesto suggests, then Levy’s book launch was a great example of that principle, in motion. I especially enjoyed chatting about all things blogging and social media, with very enthusiastic staff from the New Media Labs team, including Benjamin Abrams and Erica Templeman. (Erica: As an on-again/off-again freelancer, I’ll enjoy checking out the Work-shifting site you manage, maintained by Citrix Online and New Marketing Labs.)

Building Communities

I have only just started reading and skimming Facebook Marketing, along with several other books I’m reading simultaneously, right now. So far, I’m finding it very helpful. I especially like the chapter, “Using Facebook to Develop Communities.” There, Levy captures the essence of the Facebook community.

At a basic level, Facebook represents one large community. Within that large community, a limitless number of subcommittees form. People form communities around their interests, hobbies, events, companies, products, services, celebrities, schools, or even favorite foods. We form and use these communities in the same way we would in the physical world. We engage with one another, form bonds, share interesting articles, upload photos and videos, and invite others with similar interests to join our communities (p. 143).

He goes on to offer these tips on how to build a community for your company, product, or service: uploading photos, uploading video, asking questions, providing exclusives, and more.

He also discusses building different types of communities, including internal communities, focus groups, and personal communities. Coming from mostly high tech environments, I’m especially intrigued by the use of Facebook as a way to get folks collaborating, within the enterprise, as well as a way to work on agile software development, directly with customers. Facebook Marketing’s chapter on Community, complements all these interests.

Book Review: Technical Writing 101 by Alan S. Pringle and Sarah S. O’Keefe

As any technical writer knows, answering the obligatory, “What do you do for a living?” question at a party or in any other casual setting is often a conversation stopper. So observe Alan S. Pringle and Sarah S. O’Keefe of Scriptorium Publishing Services, Inc, in the preface to Technical Writing 101: A Real-World Guide to Planning and Writing Technical Content, the 3rd Edition. In good humor, Pringle and O’Keefe supply, what my own experience confirms, is the reaction that usually follows, when you say you’re a technical writer:

  • More questions: What’s that?
  • Blank stares.
  • Minor hostilities: Did you write that worthless online help that came with my wordprocessing software?
    (p. 19).

Book’s Intended Audience

Well, for those who have ever wondered what exactly a technical writer does, or who are thinking about getting started in the field, then this is the right book for you, jam-packed with advice and tools, which even as an experienced technical writer I have found to be quite useful and informative. The book focuses on developing content for computer hardware and software; however, the authors note, “many of the concepts described apply to other forms of technical writing, such as writing about manufacturing environments, medical and pharmaceutical topics, and science” (p. 24).

What’s a technical writer?

The first chapter opens with, “So, What’s a technical writer?” According to Pringle and O’Keefe, “the short definition of a “technical writer” is a person who writes about technical topics. But perhaps a better definition is someone who can explain complicated concepts in clear, easy-to-understand prose.”

A technical writer is really a translator. You start with a complicated piece of technology, and your mission is to explain to a nonexpert how to use that technology (p. 25).

“This deceptively simple mission requires more than just writing ability and understanding of technology.” Although both of those skills are critical, the authors explain, they aren’t enough. Technical writing also requires organizational skills, and detective and people skills.

Four Basic Skill Sets, for Technical Writers

In chapter one, Pringle and O’Keefe outline the four basic skill sets every technical writer needs:

  • Knowledge of technology: Though you do not need to be a hardcore techie to be a successful technical writer, you should be “comfortable with and have some basic knowledge about the technology you’ll be documenting,” Pringle and O”Keefe advise (p. 26). Importantly, “you should be willing (or even eager) to learn about new technology, as it develops.”
  • Writing ability: “Enormous technical knowledge is no substitute for writing ability.” (p. 29).
  • Organizational skills: “To succeed as a technical writer, you need project management and scheduling ability.” (p. 32).
  • Detective and people skills: “Often, the problem is not getting information, but identifying what information is relevant” (p. 34).

How Technical Writers Work

In Chapter 2, “The Technical Writing Process,” the authors provide a traditional step-by-step process for developing technical documentation, from the first step of identifying the needed deliverables, to the last step of producing the materials. Here, they also describe the differences between template-based authoring and structured authoring, and how these approaches provide the foundation for single sourcing, which is “the process of using one set of files to create different versions of content and multiple types of output” (p. 45).

I especially enjoyed, and think those just entering the field would greatly benefit from reading, the follow-up thoughts to the formal process description, in which the authors provide a real-world glimpse into how technical writers often work:

During a real-life project, however, you’ll get approximately halfway through step 6 (creating visuals), at which point you’ll discover that the developers have added a slew of new features to the product.

At this point, you’ll go back and document those features, test them against the product, and then discover that the developers also took out a couple of features without telling you. You check with a friendly developer around the corner and discover that those features are just “temporarily disabled;” development found some bugs but expects to correct the problems before the final release.

At this point, you have to make a decision. Do you assume that they will restore the features before the release, or do you delete the content? Or do you hedge your bets by making a copy of the information but removing it from the content for now. Every project is full of happy surprises like these (p. 40).

The authors state that the rest of the book provides more information about how the technical writing process works and offers helpful information about how to handle the inevitable bumps on the road” (p. 40).

Basic and Advanced Technical Writing Topics

I found that Pringle and O’Keefe amply deliver on their promise to provide advice and tools for technical writers, just getting started. In addition to the topics explained above, which describe technical writers’ roles and responsibilities as well as how they get their jobs done, there are all the getting started topics that one would expect in a Technical Writing 101 book, including chapters on doc plans (with suggestions on estimating page counts and hours per page or topic), outlines, the technical writing tool box, tips on getting information, audience analysis, and style considerations.

Writing tips are included in Chapter 7, “Writing Task-Oriented Information,” with related editing advice and checklists in Chapter 9, “The Importance of Being Edited,” and again in “Chapter 11, Final Preparation–production editing.”

Chapter 8, “Visual Communication” and Chapter 10, “Indexing” provide overviews on introductory topics, where even experienced technical writers could use the refresher, as these topics, in my opinion, are too often neglected in our scheduling estimates, or sometimes not as developed as other parts of technical writers’ basic skill sets.

As an experienced technical writer, I was happy to find informative discussions, on these advanced topics, which any technical writer striving to stay abreast of the latest trends driving our field can’t afford to ignore:

  • Avoiding International Irritation
  • Structured Authoring with XML
  • Web 2.0 and Technical Documentation


I taught technical writing for two years, at the university level, and this book would have greatly aided my efforts at the time, providing my students “a real-world guide.” Too many technical writing books focus just on writing mechanics and process, but Technical Writing 101: A Real-World Guide to Planning and Writing Technical Content takes technical writing out of the realm of the classroom and instills in its readers an understanding of the most current tools, trends, and technical writing practices, applicable to a business environment.

When I was just entering the field, this pragmatic book would have helped me to better know what to expect on my first technical writing job. (Indeed, there’s even an appendix called, “Getting Your First Job as a Technical Writer.”) It would have helped further identify what topics and skill sets I would need to continue drilling down on, over the course of my entire career.

On the flip side, though the book does cover traditional writing, organizational, and editing tips, I think that a more in-depth and applied treatment of those topics is still necessary to distinguish technical writers from the many sister disciplines that do technical writing these days, because despite perception, not anyone can do technical writing well.

If I were teaching technical writing today, I would assign liberal portions of Pringle and O’Keefe’s book as background reading, and as a way to launch discussions and related assignments on real-world technical writing topics. As long as our discipline is called technical writing, I’d still also refer to a nuts and bolts guide on writing, like Kristin Woolever’s classic Writing for the Computer Industry, to ensure that my students gained plenty of hands-on writing practice, via  Woolever’s many applied writing exercises. Given how much of today’s communication is visual, I would search for a similar guide, with exercises geared toward building visual literacy and refining online visual presentation skills. I would use the many pragmatic chapters and real-world information from Technical Writing 101 in combination with these other approaches.

As a concluding note to experienced writers who may possibly think they are more advanced than Technical Writing 101— I’d say, think again. The discussions on Structured Authoring with XML, and Web 2.0 and Technical Documentation, are among the most concisely written, best stand-alone explanations that I have seen on these subjects. These sections should be viewed as essential reading for technical writers, both new to the field and experienced. The “Resources” section in the appendix further lists print and online references for technical writers, highlighting some of the best resources in the profession.

I continue to glean some valuable, new nugget, each time I visit Technical Writing 101—so will you.

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Reading Log: Oprah as One of Us

In Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, co-authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith describe trust agents as “people who humanize the Web” (p. 20). They go on to organize their book around six overarching but interrelated behaviors that describe what a trust agent is (p. 28).

Making Her Own Game

In the opening chapter on “Trust, Social Capital, and Media,” Brogan and Smith mention Oprah Winfrey, as amply demonstrating the first characteristic of a trust agent—that is, being able to “make your own game.”

In popular entertainment, Oprah Winfrey went from being the local TV weather reporter to a multimillion-dollar media enterprise. Though she used traditional media tools to accomplish this, when you look back on the circumstances of Winfrey’s rise, you’ll recognize all the various points in her career where she made her own game (against some fairly daunting odds). Put another way, making your own game is about standing out (p. 29).

Applying the Archimedes Effect as Gatekeeper

Later in the book, Brogan and Smith describe how Oprah uses the Archimedes Effect—a trust agent principle about leveraging opportunities—by being a gatekeeper for her audience.

Here is a rule of thumb that works really well when it comes to leveraging your relationship with your audience: Don’t ever sell to your audience. Instead, be their gatekeeper.

Think of Oprah Winfrey. She gives and gives, constantly, and leverages that goodwill into bigger and bigger guests and giveaways. But does she ever try to sell to her audience directly? No, Winfrey leverages her audience to provide visibility: to stars, to movies, to car companies. She protects her audience from the bad stuff, and lets the good stuff pass through, making her audience even happier as a result (p. 128).

Being One of Us

For me, even more than making her own game and effectively harnessing the Archimedes Effect, Winfrey epitomizes the trust agent principle, described by Brogan and Smith as being “One of Us.” Being “One of Us,” the co-authors explain, is “about belonging” (p. 29). In David Carr’s NY Times article on Winfrey’s success, A Triumph of Avoiding the Traps, Arianna Huffington observes how Winfrey has always been One of Us:

She was transparent and authentic before those things were cool,” said Arianna Huffington. “When she went through her battles with weight, with her battles to come to grips with her past, we went through those things with her. Now with social media and the Internet, those things are the coin of the realm, but she got there before the rest of us did.

Nice (and Smart) Folks Sometimes Finish First

In my previous review of Trust Agents, I ended with a bit of rhetoric, asking myself as much as the reader, whether it’s possible for nice guys (and gals) to finish first in business. If they are fortunate enough to succeed, I wondered in that post’s conclusion, how often do they remain true to the qualities which brought them so far?

In Winfrey’s case, I find an example that shows it is possible. Here, another quote from David Carr’s NY Times article demonstrates how Winfrey stayed true to herself, and how that genuineness is largely responsible for her business success:

Yes, she followed her heart and taught us we were all pretty on the inside, but Ms. Winfrey also ignored conventional wisdom. As a novice actress, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “The Color Purple,” but turned down role after role because she knew her talk show was the thing that would butter her bread. When she does get involved in movies — she is very much behind “Precious,” a recent release — it is a matter of personal conviction combined with commercial calculation.

Oprah, not Winfrey

And if you want really visceral proof of just how much Winfrey is One of Us, check out this ***amazing*** video of The Black Eyed Peas performance of “I Gotta Feeling,” with Oprah on stage in Chicago, kicking off her 24th season. I mean—just look at Oprah’s face—the pure emotion, openness to both her own and others’ experience, and connectedness to her audience. It’s so real, and it’s so, so cool.

Postcript: I called her Winfrey throughout the more book reportish part of this post. —But when I was looking up quotes that I remembered from the Trust Agent book, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t finding Oprah’s name in the index. Only then did it occur to me that she has a last name. But she’s always been just Oprah to me—because she’s One of Us.

Photo Credit, Vectorlyme

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Book Review: Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

I remember our last weekend get-away in the camper this past October, when it rained all day that Saturday. While the kids watched videos and the hubby snoozed, I uncharacteristically stayed in bed and read away a good part of that relaxing afternoon, finishing Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community. I didn’t mind at all that it rained that day, because it gave me the opportunity to absorb uninterrupted, what to me is a must-read, for any technical communicator who wants to remain viable in a Web 2.0 world.

Using the Social Web for Documentation: Seizing the Opportunity

In the year that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve noticed that when discussions arise about how the different disciplines are using social technologies, or which disciplines are most suited for using those technologies, I often hear about “marketing, customer service, public relations, and ‘others’.”

Technical communicators, I imagine, are lumped into the “and others” category, and if that remains the case, we will bear the ultimate blame, because as Anne Gentle so accurately notes in the introduction to her book on the social web for documentation, “professional writers now have the tools to collaborate with their audience easily for the first time in history” (p. 7). She observes the irony that “some content creators do not yet see a link between online help and the blogs, wikis, and forum posts with which users are finding help online” (p. 13).

Enabling Conversation and Community

In Conversation and Community, there is finally a book available for technical communicators, who are interested in using social media and social networking to “enable conversation and community” in our documentation (p. 9). Gentle’s book is also relevant to “technical development, support, or that most intriguing new job description–community manager” (p. 2), because of Gentle’s broad definition of documentation:

The definition of documentation ranges from the standard email message on a mailing list, to a 140-character microblog post, to an exhaustively examined and discussed forum post or wiki article, to a traditional online help file, to the trusty dog-eared manual or often-opened PDF (p. 9).


In her well-researched and innovative book, Gentle blazes the way for technical communicators to start integrating conversation and community into their user assistance. Here is a snapshot of the book’s contents:

  • Chapter 1, “Towards the Future of Documentation”: Provides reasons for moving content towards the social web. Examines how expectations for documentation have shifted and describes how search may affect delivery and presentation methods. Advises making sure that your online user assistance is available on the Internet to be found by search engines. “If search engines value user-generated content more than other types of content, consider integrating user-generated content into your user assistance” (p. 20).
  • Chapter 2, “Concepts and Tools of the Social Web”: Contains a “frozen-in-time list of some terms and tools in 2009 that are related to social media” (p. 29). If you are new to the social web and are trying to make sense of all the buzzwords and technologies, then this is the chapter for you.
  • Chapter 3, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web”: Discusses strategies for determining your role, as an instigator or enabler of conversation, and offers strategies for a phased approach to integrating the social web in your writing. Asks you to consider “whether you are an information worker or a connection worker, and whether your corporate culture supports you more in one model or another” (p. 72). Recommends understanding “your department’s place in the organization—are you more helpful to marketing and pre-sales efforts or to technical support?” (p. 89).  Notes that “rather than being directly involved in conversations, writers can [also] facilitate conversations and community by incorporating them into the documentation system” (p. 88).
  • Chapter 4, “Community and Documentation”: Explores the idea that “a small group of people who have a sense of belonging in an online community may provide content much like a technical writer does. Regardless of their background, education, or training, more people are becoming providers of technical information on the web” (p. 101).  This shift means changing roles for writers, including that of “content curator,” “someone who assembles collections based on themes.” “As an extension of [the] writer’s role of training the trainer, a writer may become a leader within the online community, teaching other community members” (p. 105).  The chapter also provides tips on growing a community, as well as a description of how Adam Hyde, founder of the FLOSS Manuals, experimented with collaborative authoring through book sprints.
  • Chapter 5, “Commenting and Connecting with Users”: (My Favorite Chapter) Discusses ideas for starting conversations, building on the  stages of listening, participating, and offering a platform” (p. 126). Provides tips on starting and maintaining a blog, offers examples of corporate blogs, maintained by technical writers, and recommends ways to integrate user content into your user assistance, including wikislices, screencasts, comment and feedback systems.
  • Chapter 6, :Wikis and Open Documentation Systems”: Provides tips for evaluating wikis, starting or reinvigorating a wiki, and integrating the wiki with other content. Suggests finding ways “to expand the user assistance system to include the wiki or support forums in a search” (p.156). Discusses wiki round tripping, the conversion from source to wiki to back” (p. 164). Provides wiki examples.
  • Chapter 7, “Finding Your Voice”: Describes how to write with the “social media audience” in mind (p. 183), as well as provides tips on publishing strategies and idea generation.


This book is a helpful way to immerse yourself into the jargon of the social web and begin considering ways to integrate conversation and community into your user assistance,  incorporating wikislices, screencasts, and comment/feedback systems. I especially appreciated the technical tips interspersed throughout the book, including suggestions on how to mashup your wiki content with your user assistance content  (p. 135), as well as tips on using DITA, as an in-between authoring-source-and-wiki-storage mechanism (p. 165). Other bonuses include helpful tables, a solid glossary, and useful reading list.

In my opinion book Conversation and Communit s a transformative and very necessary book, in the field of technical communication.

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog