Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Language of Marketing

February 9, 2011

I was absently staring at a new tube of toothpaste this morning as I washed my hair. You have to look at something, right? This one declared “healthy, whiter teeth for longer”. An image of extremely long (but healthy and white) teeth filled my mind, and was immediately pushed out by the technical writer in me asking “whiter and longer than what, exactly?”

Most marketing slogans give technical writers the screaming heebie-jeebies. Not only do they make spurious and vague claims like ‘more fibre’, ‘less fat’, and ‘20% bigger’ with alarming regularity, but the adjectives! I have no doubt that it is actually possible to sell things with sentences that contain only one adjective. And if they do need more than one, I’m sure a comma wouldn’t kill them. I could rant on the folly of adverbs, too, but that is a whole different article.

Why are marketers such terrible writers?

Because customers expect spin, and spin is easy to write. All you need is a handful of adjectives and a call to action: “The new fruity refreshing Globswoddle Fizz is now available. Experience the heady taste of summer today!”

While yelling at the toothpaste tube in the morning might make us all feel better, it is not likely to turn us into marketers just to help an obviously flailing industry. I finished my marketing degree about three weeks before I decided that the marketing industry was the last place in the world I wanted to work. Eventually, I became a technical writer instead, and discovered that I had inadvertently ended up working in marketing after all. Every word we set to paper is marketing in one way or another. If it is going to be read by a customer, then it needs to sell the product. But the last thing we want to write is spin.

Why are writers such terrible marketers?

Because customers want anything but spin, and while spin is easy to write, spinless marketing is not so easy.

Spin is wanted and welcomed in places where it is expected, like product packaging and on the airwaves. When our customers read technical manuals or help text, they are looking for a solution to a problem. If they were suddenly faced with the empty promises of spin, they would lose faith in the documentation, and possibly the product.

However brutal honesty is not required, either. Product documentation should not tell customers that the product cannot fulfill their expectations. Every question needs to be anticipated and answered. The documentation must give the customer hope that their problem can be resolved, their task completed, and their sanity retained in the process.

Effective documentation never tells the customer that a product is terrible (even if it is), and it never tells a customer that they are stupid (even if they are). It never makes over-inflated claims of software brilliance, and it never assumes greater-than-average user intelligence.

Somewhere nestled in there is product documentation that shows the product in a positive light, without the hard sell. Sound easy? Like most technical writing, it sounds easy until you actually try to do it. Some tips for getting started with spinless writing:

Kick adverbs, take names.
Adverbs are a big red flag for spin. Be ruthless and cut them all out. If your sentence requires a modifier, consider what you are really trying to say. If it forms part of an instruction or description (‘The widget can be fully removed by …’), reword it to remove the adverb (‘Remove the widget by …’).

Never call anything ‘simple’.
If you tell your users that something is ‘simple’, ‘quick’, or ‘easy’, and the customer struggles with it (for whatever reason), you are essentially telling them that they fail at life. Try not to insult your users.

Mind your adjectives.
Adjectives are fine in their place. Use them only where necessary, though, and try not to use more than one at a time. (‘Locate the red button’ is fine, but avoid ‘Locate the large, shiny, red button’ that is next to the ‘tiny, silver, shiny lever’).

Know your stuff.
If you can’t describe your topic in a single short sentence, you don’t understand it well enough, and it becomes too easy to succumb to spin statements. You need to be able to give succinct and accurate descriptions for each and every component part, as well as the product as whole. If you are not able to do this, continue to research your product until you can.

Understand the enemy.
As modern humans, we are largely desensitised to advertising, simply because we are so totally immersed in it. Start noticing it. Analyse what language is used, the sentence structure they’ve employed. Work out how you would re-write it to send the same message, but without the spin.

Edit with a knife.
Never say more than you need to.


This article was originally published in Words: A Quarterly Bulletin for Technical Writers and Communicators. Volume 3, Issue 1: February 2011, with the following bio:

Lana Brindley has been playing with technology since that summer in the 80’s when she spent the whole time trying not to be eaten by a grue. She has been writing since she could hold a pencil, and is currently writing technical documentation for Red Hat. Lana holds business degrees in marketing and information systems, and with any luck will have a technical communicators degree by the end of the year. She works from her home in Canberra, Australia, and occasionally leaves the house in order to berate university students and conference goers about passive sentence construction.

This post has been cross-posted to On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

Educating Developers about XML Content Authoring – The MCDUG.

October 1, 2009

In my gig as a Technical Writer for Red Hat Brisbane, I have the opportunity to work with incredibly skilled Open Source developers, and write about cutting edge technology in the Open Source software arena.

Sometimes, it is necessary to step away from documenting the technology aspects of an Open Source project, and focus on writing content that will help a team work together more effectively. I’m talking about writing documentation that supports aspects of an open source project, not what the open source project is working on. Yes, I’m talking about a procedures guide.

The Mobicents team expressed interest in taking back ownership of the community XML documentation being maintained by Red Hat. The decision had a number of positive effects:

  • Developers could contribute directly to the user documentation.
  • The open source community had access to the community content source.
  • The Red Hat Content Author (me) could focus on developing the Red Hat product documentation for the project.

Because the team was going to be writing the initial content themselves, I realised that the Self Managed Community Documentation (SMCD) project would fail quickly if the development team did not have clearly defined processes, clear grammar guidelines and support with XML authoring.

I decided to take a step back from writing content for the software, and invested time in creating the Mobicents Community Documentation User Guide (MCDUG). I had to juggle urgent documentation tasks with my MCDUG writing, but the juggling act was worth it.

I have completed the first full release of the MCDUG. The guide is hosted on the Hudson build server, and is freely available to anyone who wishes to read it. Much of the guide contains information that will only be relevant to Mobicents Developers, however there is some useful information about DocBook XML structure that may be useful to those new to XML Authoring.

I’ve been referring new Red Hat Content Authors to the structure tips contained in the MCDUG, and the information seems to be helping them get accustomed to working with XML faster. My ultimate hope is the MCDUG will be used regularly by the Mobicents developers, and will continue to evolve with the SMCD project. After all, a procedures guide is only relevant if the procedures are relevant.

Planning and flow

July 22, 2009

After a considerable amount of struggle, I have managed to beat SELinux/rsync/Fedora 11 into submission and my chapter in managing-confined-services about running rsync on a non-standard port is just about done.

Start with properly labeled files to share (public_content_rw_t). Create a custom init script from scratch to launch rsync as a daemon as there is none shipped in the F11 distro. The script itself needs to be properly labeled as initrc_exec_t so that the rsync daemon will launch as rsync_t. If the rsync daemon doesn’t transition to this, the related Booleans (or SELinux itself) can’t be expected to have much of an effect over rsync.

So, we have a daemon in the rsync_t domain. Modify rsyncd.conf so it has a non-default port directive, which looks something like port = 10000 (in the global section of the file). Now, after starting rsync from the new init script again, SELinux will not at all be impressed that rsync has started on a port that it doesn’t expect (ie. a port that is not defined in rsync_port_t). Give up now? Never! Run:

# semanage port -a -t rsync_port_t -p tcp 10000

Still with me?

That command will appease SELinux (fussy little thing, huh?) and rsync will happily start on 10000.

This has been a pretty long battle to distill all this information from disparate sources online, IRC support channels, mailing lists and of course good old-fashioned google-fu. The world of SELinux can be quite arcane and this book is unique in that it covers real-world examples of how to enable services an administrator might configure and how to work around the problems that are commonly encountered. Let’s just say I kept finding my own book in google when searching for solutions!

Once I had all the details gathered it was a pretty quick task to get it all in XML, ready for proof-reading and minor editing. It’s become apparent to me that depending on your subject, perhaps you won’t spend so much time actually writing. This rsync adventure required a working lab setup, fully tested and confirmed and repeated before I even opened a para tag. Have everything ready, research your subject, make sure you have at least a decent outline and some sort of progression of how it will look, and the actual flow of information tends to go pretty quickly from then on.

Crafting beautiful technical documentation

July 9, 2009

Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.

– David Sedaris

Technical writing is a strange breed. When you write fiction or poetry or a screenplay, it’s a release, it’s a way of expressing what is inside yourself, and allowing your imagination to creep into the those little crevices in your brain, and poke about to see what squirms. Writing technical documentation is almost entirely the opposite. It’s about getting into the heads of your readers, finding out what makes them tick, how they work, and then presenting them with the information in a way that will make them go “Aha!”. It’s about taking source documentation that would make your eyelashes curl, and crafting it – shaping it, massaging it, chewing it up and spitting it out – into something that not only makes sense, but is useful, intuitive, and – dare I say it – beautiful.

Beautiful technical documentation? Why yes. I think so. Bad technical writing is hard to use, hard to understand, and hard to find what you want. Good technical documentation is intuitive, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing. Good technical documentation is beautiful.

The question, then, is how to create beautiful technical documentation, and how to know when that’s what you’ve got. While it would seem easy to tell when you haven’t got it, it is not always as simple as it might sound. The problem is the same as a lot of artists and craftsmen complain of – getting too close to the subject matter. One of the reasons that engineers can not generally create effective documentation is because they get too close to the nuts and bolts of the thing. They spend too much time looking at the engine of the beast, that they become unable to describe what colour the paintjob is. That is where the documentation team step in – we bring fresh eyes to the project, and are able to look at it from the top down. We can describe what it looks like, what it does, and how to do it, without having to explain how that happens. But once you’ve been working on that single document for months, you’ve been through revisions, and revisions of revisions, you’ve been bombarded with information from the technical team, you’ve had requests for more detail, more depth, and more minutiae … then how do you tell if it is any good? Your advantage – your fresh pair of eyes, your ability to see the big picture, and your talent for information organisation – is no longer whole. Now you are the one who is too close to the project.

A writer of fiction would tell you this: put the book down, step away from the desk. Leave it for a week or two, a month or two. And then tackle it with fresh eyes. A technical writer would scoff – who has time for all that? This book needs to be released next Wednesday!

Often, the solution is to hand it to someone else – a fellow writer – for review and comment. But what about when that option isn’t available either? Every writer has their own method of handling this. What I do is this: I put it down, not for long, but for an afternoon, or overnight. And I write something else. Something completely different. A blog post, for example, or a chapter of a novel, or a short story. Anything that has absolutely nothing in common with the piece you’re working on. Ensure the voice that you are writing in changes, the topic changes, the emotion changes. Then, make yourself a cup of tea, and pick the book back up again. But don’t start at the beginning. Read it backwards. Read each page, on its own, in reverse order. I even read the paragraphs in reverse order. Start at the last one, and work your way back to the beginning of the book. You’re checking for typos, for sentence structure, for punctuation, grammar, and all that good stuff. By reading it out of order, you’re less likely to drift off and start thinking about something else. You’re more likely to read what’s there, rather than what you think is there.

Then find a blank piece of paper. Put yourself in the mind of your customer: What do they need to know? What are they trying to achieve? Why do they have your book? The answers will be myriad – but list the obvious ones out. You need to think about what your customer knows, and what your customer doesn’t know – that gap is where your book fits.

Once you’re thinking like a customer, pin that list up somewhere you can see it, go back again, and read the book in order. If you’re able, read it aloud, it helps to catch odd phrasing. This time, you need to be looking for flow. Make sure each paragraph flows into the next, that each section flows into the next, that each chapter flows into the next. Check that you’re introducing concepts in order from the top down – start with the big things, and then explain the detail as you go on. Cut out anything that doesn’t fit. Don’t be afraid to cut and paste paragraphs, to taste-test them in a new arrangement.

And the whole time – there’s only one thing you should be thinking about – your customer. If the customer perceives value in your documentation, if your book bridges that gap between what the customer knows, and what they need to know – then they will see the beauty in it.

Cross-posted to On Writing, Tech, and other Loquacities

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players

July 7, 2009

In what has become a somewhat impromptu series on the evolution of the English language, I just had to mention something I read whilst on holidays last weekend. I picked up Bill Bryson’s take on the life of Shakespeare whilst away. I’ve been interested in the great mystery of Shakespeare’s life for some time now. I own a copy of Nolan’s “Shakespeare’s Face” and have read numerous other accounts (or, more accurately, guesses) of his life and works. Add to this the fact that I have been wanting to start reading Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, and it was a fairly predictable attraction. Not incidentally, I’m intending to read his “The Mother Tongue” shortly too.

The book is quite short, and I finished it mere days after purchase – helped along by a few days in a warm climate with no pressing demands, I might add. It is written in true Bryson style, very conversational and light hearted, and he gives a lovely (or not so lovely, depending on your take on plague and wanton violence) picture of 16th century England, and Shakespeare’s somewhat unassuming – so far as we can tell – place in it.

However, my favourite part is this discussion of some of the many words that Shakespeare (allegedly) introduced into the English language:

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before – such as “breathing one’s last” and “backing a horse”, both coined by Shakespeare – were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double superlatives and double negatives – “the most unkindest cut of all” – troubled no one and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost.

Bryson goes on to mention the notorious variability of spelling known in early English society, noting this little gem –

Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.

Of course, it just goes to show that the language has been evolving apace for many hundreds of years. Indeed, despite the naysayers it is happening much slower now than it was back in Shakespeare’s day. I can imagine that back then there were people (perhaps among the upper, educated, classes) who complained that artists such as he were mangling the language, and doing things the wrong way, although the attitude towards English was reasonably fluid then, thanks to Latin and French being considered ‘proper’. Surely, as time went on, and English took hold first in business and legal matters, and later in the sciences, that there have been people unwilling to accept change, even as it occurs around them. Nothing has changed in that respect, I imagine, it’s just that now they have access to the internet – and a world full of people reading their opinions. Hopefully, it won’t impede the progress overly. Much as I still cringe a little at “truthiness”, “coopetition” and “incentivise”, I am completely capable of embracing the words that I like – “blogosphere” is one of my favourites, along with “jumping the shark” and “backronym”. It’s only a matter of time before the language evolves to the point that our grandchildren will be almost incomprehensible, and Shakespeare’s scribblings will have taken another step towards total obscurity.

Originally posted at On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

New Words, Old Words.

June 29, 2009

Not so long ago, I wrote this. To summarise, it was about new words adopted into the English language by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, most of which had their genesis in online culture. So it was with great joy that I came across this article which outlines some of the words that the internet has succesfully killed. It’s a lovely piece of work, I suggest you read it. My very favourite is at the top of the list – “friend”. Once a word meaning ” someone you knew, had a personal relationship with, occasionally spoke to, and frequently drank beers with” it now, according to the article, means “someone who found your email address and typed it into Facebook and/or LinkedIN. You may have met said person at a conference once, and possibly even conversed with for 5 or more minutes”. Of course, my second favourite is in there too – “startup”. Once, it meant “a company with a novel idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company into a successful, profitable entity”. Now, it means “a college graduate and three friends who have an incremental idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company such that it gets acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo (in that order), preferably within 18 months for at least 9 figures.”

The article is tongue-in-cheek – and readily admits it – but there’s a whole lot of truth in there (albeit disguised nicely behind humour). Language is evolving, and the major vehicle for change is that thing that has become so pervasive in our lives – the internet – and the culture that goes with it. Not only have new words entered – “w00t” and “mondegreen” instantly spring to mind – but ‘old’ words have had their meanings modified to fit the new medium. I maintain that it’s not a bad thing, it’s progress (whatever definition you choose to use for ‘progress’). Sometimes it seems like backwards progress, but it is nevertheless the direction we are heading. Don’t like it? That’s OK – the new generation do. And when they’re all grown up and complaining about the “young ‘ens”, well, that’s OK too. Their kids will be busy picking up the slack by then.

Originally Posted at On Writing, Tech, and other Loquacities