Progress sometimes looks like regression

The only downside to the Magic Spreadsheet is the lack of an edit-tracking mechanism. This can make “edit weeks,” which I’ve been on since about the 20th, look like a lack of progress at best, and a declining word count at worst. (My workaround for this is to track the time I spend editing, then log the “word count” I usually get in that amount of time. It’s not perfect, but it works for me. Now if I can just get the motivation to edit every day…)

The first draft of the latest WIP started out at over 10,300 words. I have it down to almost 9,600, with 9,000 as the goal. The edit revealed several weak spots; there are scenes to add, scenes to cut, and an infinite number of other places to improve things.

For 23 in 2013, I need to get A Hitch in His Getalong submitted somewhere. It’s been sitting here two weeks, which is about 13 days longer than it should have.

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Prepositions: Addiction or Dependency?

A terrible affliction hampers millions today, yet is virtually unknown. Its victims usually suffer silently, not even aware the malady burdening them is curable. I’m talking about Prepositional Phrase Addiction. PPA affects all races and nationalities, but engineers, scientists, and academics suffer the most. Current research indicates PPA is communicable, usually transmitted through colleges, universities, and laboratories. Preventing PPA is extremely difficult; there is good news: PPA is curable.

Prepositional Phrase Addiction Cure Experts work with editors, literacy experts, and librarians, providing punctuation therapy and preposition aversion training. PPACE programs help thousands of professionals whose communication efforts — their thoughts and ideas — would otherwise fail.

Here is what PPACE did for one former sufferer. This is a typical sentence, written before treatment:

If in the initial testing of the solvent, not all of the “necessary and sufficient” properties are within the acceptance criteria specified in the Test Specification, the Solvent Developer and the cognizant engineer collaborate to come to a closure on a path forward which may include a change of acceptance criteria.

Following treatment, the same person wrote:

In initial solvent testing, some “necessary and sufficient” properties could measure beyond or below the requirements. If so, the Solvent Developer and the cognizant engineer collaborate to resolve the shortfall; such resolution may include changing the acceptance criteria.

Countless working professionals await PPACE programs, many unaware of the suffering their malady causes. Please help.

The Reader Pie is infinitely large

Recently, I found out that the husband of one of my co-workers is getting published in a few weeks. I also learned yesterday that a guy I’ve known for several years has just received his first copies of his book. I didn’t even know he wrote!

So today is the day to beat the jealousy monster with a stick. A big stick. And forget about speaking softly, jealousy needs to get shouted down and insulted until it slinks back out the side door it snuck in through. Other people getting published does not make it less likely that I will get published. The pie chart of readers doesn’t get divided up among all the authors; the pie chart of readers is infinitely large. I have no reason to be jealous of these other guys. Especially since one of them wrote a western and one wrote a biography, while I can’t get much out of my fingers that isn’t SF.

Jealousy eats at you from the inside out, like a diseased tree. I wanted to take that metaphor further, but I’d end up way out in the blackberries somewhere, and diseased blackberry trees just wouldn’t work.

4 things you wish tracked changes could do

Like millions of other writers and editors, I rely on MS Word. My employer uses Office 2003; at home, I have Office 2010. The alterations in tracked changes and comments between these two editions amount to cosmetics and presentation; the big change seems to be placing the reviewing pane on the left by default now, instead of at the bottom.

If they’d really like to make changes and comments more powerful, I have a few modest suggestions.

Addressable Comments – “Address” in the sense of recipient, not in the sense of resolutions. (Although sometimes I wonder if the author will ever address the comments I give!) I often have comments for a co-editor, the primary author, and the reviewer all in one editing pass. How cool would it be for each of them to see only the comments addressed to them? Word always knows who on the network has a file open, so the data is already there. It would be similar to Google+ circles, with each comment tagged for one or more others, or for everyone. You could even leave comments just to yourself. Right click > reviewers > check boxes.

Tagged insertions and deletions – Insertions and deletions can be simple spelling, punctuation, and grammar corrections; cross-reference field insertions; rewording of a Yoda-esque sentence; or a wholesale rewrite of a paragraph in fluent Engineering-ese. Wouldn’t it be great if these changes looked different on-screen? Someone completing a technical reading wouldn’t have to step through pages of comma insertions, style updates, and rearrange your words, we did. Right click > Tags > (list) would make this a snap to implement.

Assignable reviewer colors – Some high-profile or high page-count documents I’ve worked on had as many as eighteen different authors, commenters, and editors. Word runs out of colors and starts repeating them, and some of them are really hard to read in the first place (silver?). I’d love to have all the comments from Engineering in blue, all the comments from Industrial Safety in green, everything from the primar author in red, and Publications staff changes in purple. Word lets me either choose one color for everybody, or relinquish control to what is in all likelihood the same chunk of code that makes my Excel charts those godawful colors.

Fine-grained control over “balloons” – You can tell when a new feature in Word bombs with users: it’s introduced with much fanfare in Version a, still available – albeit in a toolbar that isn’t Standard or Formatting – in version b, and is accessible only through Customize > Commands tab > All Commands in version c. (Anyone else remember the Spike?) Using balloons for tracked changes was supposed to make reviewing simpler, showing you the deleted text, formatting, and comments in the margin and giving you the final version in the main text. Except it shrank the page, fouled up margins, tables, and images, and ran out of room fast if there were a lot of changes. Plus, it was ugly. So by 2003, balloons could be turned off completely, or used only for comments and formatting. I’d rather have a box where I can check yes or no on balloons at a much more detailed level. No for underline, italics, or bold, but yes for styles. No for bullets, yes for outline numbering.

What nonexistent feature would you like to have in Word?

Seven rules for technical writing

If you are a professional working in a technical or scientific field, you will eventually have to write.  Whether it is reporting on your research, describing a process or system, or justifying some engineering decisions, these documents are the concrete evidence of your professional skill.  Here are some tips on doing it well.

1.  Acronyms are not your friends.

When you finish your first draft, review it for the number of different acronyms you used.  How do you know if you’ve used too many of them?  Try this simple test. Count how many different acronyms you used, then find your total in the categories below.

0-1 total acronyms: You’re fine.  Good work!
2-5 total acronyms: If any of them are used three or fewer times, turn them back into words.
5+ total acronyms: Turn half of them back into words.  No one will notice.

Now that you have a reasonable number of acronyms, are the remaining ones defined the first time you use them?  Never assume the reader knows anything beyond what last year’s intern knew.  You can safely assume they have most basic technical knowledge, but that’s it.  Writing that you “completed COTS C&I NDEs” isn’t a space saver, it means you spilled your Alpha-Bits.

While we’re on the topic, define acronyms only once. You know that guy at the party who has had a couple too many, and is now telling the same story over and over, even to the same people? That’s redefining acronyms; don’t be that guy.  Every time you tell the reader – again – that the Widget Contracting Officer (WCO) controls the widget contract, they sigh and wonder if they can excuse themselves from the conversation.

2.  Jargon isn’t your friend, either.

This is especially common when the person writing is “in the field.” I’m not saying anything against those in construction, not even field engineers.  It’s natural to write with the words used to accomplish the work.  That said, it is important to realize that your readers are almost invariably in a different field.  The budget review team neither knows nor cares what an “overpack” is if you can’t take the time to explain it – in two sentences.  They just know that these “overpacks” are $700,00 over budget for the fiscal year.

While we’re on jargon, never say things like “submitted for issuance.”  Adjectives and adverbs like “issuance” makes my skin crawl.  Instead say “submitted to be issued.”  Passive voice isn’t bad, especially when it’s replacing fake verbs.  If the passive tense bothers you that much, shorten it to “submitted.”  This leads to the next piece of advice…

3.  Don’t try to use “big words.”

There will be someone reading your document that knows you’ve used a fancy word wrong, misspelled it, or even made it up.  Shakespeare and Dodgson may have made up words, but they knew they were doing it.  Most importantly, they didn’t intend to write something else.  “Frugal” and “chortle” are one thing; “refudiate” is something else entirely.

4.  Use the right words, not the words everyone else uses.

Some words are commonly confused for others that may sound similar.  These malaprops can make you look foolish, communicate the wrong meaning, or weaken the point of your writing.  Or all three.

The parts comprise the whole; the whole is composed of the parts. Don’t say that “Three managers, two experts, and a government representative comprised the team.”  Either “the team was comprised of” those members, or the members composed the team.

Another one is less and fewer.  Fewer compares a number of items or units; less provides a comparison within a single unit.  There are fewer leaves on the lawn this Fall.  The weather was less windy last year.  It doesn’t matter if the Speedy Checkout says “Ten Items or Less” and has said that since 1976.  It’s still wrong.

I’ve tried to get writers (especially engineers) to stop using impact when they mean affect, but it seems to be impossible.

5.  Be very careful with numbers.

Whether they are written as digits or spelled out, numbers can cause problems.  It is even more important than with text to ensure they are accurate; spell check alone will not be enough.  Verifying your numbers is the difference between “eight-inch pipe” and “eighth-inch pipe.”

6.  Be even more careful with “find and replace.”

Never use the “replace all” option unless you are absolutely certain you mean it.  Even then, check.  I bought a replacement power supply for a computer recently.  In the manual, it referred to “indiviDL” units or some such.  I’m guessing “DL” is the term used for “dual” throughout their product line, and the guy writing the manual did a global replace and didn’t proofread.

7.  The “enter” key is your friend.

Some folks still call it the “return” key.  Whatever you name it, it is your friend.
Just because you’re still writing about the same “ion extraction process” or what have you, that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same paragraph.  Paragraphs are a way to divide up the text by subject, by thought, or into related groups.  Think of it this way: the reader gets a chance to mentally blink at each comma and inhale at a period.  Paragraphs let the reader look away from the page, think about what you’ve written, and check themselves for understanding before moving on.

Paragraphs give an expected level of organization to writing, no matter how formal or informal. If you want your writing to be clear and understandable, you’ll make that half-page block of text into at least three paragraphs.

Technical writing can be daunting.  It can also be frustrating to have the project’s edit staff bleed all over your report.  I can’t guarantee that the editors won’t continue to rip your report to pieces; but if you can keep this advice in mind, at least the pieces will be bigger.