authors & audience design & typography language & style

Drawn to War and Peace

I finished the 2167-page eBook version in about 100 days. About half the number of days it took Napoleon to advance toward and retreat from Moscow. I thought of the rich layers of data presented in the multi-flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

While the Minard map uses geography and temperature as part of the visualization, Tolstoy uses descriptive details and analogy to bring the struggle to life. “The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.” (p1456) Here are some favourite quotes that add another layer of data to the map.

On filling a role, “Our fire is mowing them down by the rows, but they hold on.” said the adjutant. “They want more! Let them have it!” said Napoleon. “And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhumane role predestined for him.” (p1455)

On preparing to die. “What are you saying about the militia?” “Preparing for tomorrow, your Serene Highness—for death—they have put on clean shirts.” (p1366)

On describing vacated Moscow, “It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.” (p1557) Paragraphs go on about what happens in a disfunctional hive. It’s so vivid, you could substitute names of soldiers and generals for each bee carcass.

On losing nine-tenths of his men, “Ney, who came last, have been busying himself blowing up the walls of Smolensk which were in nobody’s way, because despite the unfortunate plight of the French or because of it, they wished to punish the floor against which they had hurt themselves.” (p1896)

On cutting off invaders, “One can cut off a slice of bread, but not an army.” In December as the French retreated, the Russian army “acted like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (p1903-5)

On reoccupation, “Besides the plunderers, very various people, some drawn by curiosity, some by official duties, some by self-interest—house owners, clergy, officials of all kinds, tradesmen, artisans, and peasants—streamed into Moscow as blood flows to the heart.” (p1970)

authors & audience

Drive it like you stole it

Flooring it

My daily commute takes almost 3 hours by transit—my choice. For being heavy-duty, buses react when drivers floor it. They’re driving pros.

And I hardly notice the ride. I’m in the zone: read email, read enews, transfer, read eBook, transfer, answer email, reach destination, repeat. That is my routine until it’s interrupted.

The subject of this post is about a storyteller we’ll call ‘Con’. Con and his two buddies were on their way to test drive a long-haul truck. (Oh, the irony of travelling to a truck stop by city bus.) Concentration broken. I’m just another set of ears in his three-way conversation. How Con was going to afford the truck was called into question. He admitted being unable to save whether he made minimum wage or six figures. Details followed about stints selling real estate, flipping burgers and machining parts. Broke by payday, Con & buddies concurred—hand paycheque to wife and all’s good but I digress…

Over the engine noise, Con dismissed automatic transmissions—the model they would be test driving—as boring. But more important, there’s only one way to know if an automatic rig could make it up the Coquihalla Summit. Drive it like you stole it said the storyteller. Did the professional driving trio have some familiarity with grand theft auto? Their tale unfolded as a pleasant interruption from War and Peace.

authors & audience career exploration

Be the flywheel

From time to time I’m asked to talk to groups about career exploration and career development. One thing I accept about longevity in any career is harnessing the energy that feeds it. I use the flywheel to represent that provider of continuous energy. Let me explain…

One’s journey might begin by envisioning an industry you want to work in or adopt as your role model.

To learn more, ask for an information interview. Treat it like a job interview. Gain a business connection from it. Get noticed by initiating ‘a first’, filling a deficiency and respecting connections. 
Along the way gain a body of knowledge and show authenticity while you plot a 3-year plan. As you gather momentum you will encounter conflict, friction, dead ends and deadwood. Anticipate these but keep focused on your 3-year plan. Build partnerships, credit others (blame yourself), pick great successors and remember to nurture talent.

Your accumulated effort pushed in a consistent direction will convert inertia to momentum.

Thanks to Jimmy Zimmerman for conceiving Good to Great animation, and thanks to Jim Collins for verbalizing the flywheel concept.

authors & audience

Letter wizard – what the family pack proved

My mother remembered birthdays without fail. She’d pre-write cards for all December-borns, penciling the recipient’s DOB in the postage stamp corner. Three to four days later a Hallmark greeting arrived like clockwork. Given the scale of mom’s birthday card sending, a request for backup was reasonable at Christmastime. Dad enlisted to sign cards going to his brothers and sisters.

My father adopted a penmanship habit that resembled stretching before a run. He limbered up with a few air pen swirls, then pen on paper swirls. He completed the first card from our family to his eldest sister’s family.

When mom read the closing, well, I wasn’t sure if she’d throttle him or crack up laughing. It read Mr. & Mrs. John DiStefano. Not the formality you’d expect from a sibling everyone called Johnny.

Mom was not one to waste anything but a ruined greeting card was about as bad as a forgotten one.

authors & audience career exploration

My centred life

My identity blurred the day I become chapter president and employed. Leaving only pockets of time to savor summer, I relished one late afternoon, on a rooftop patio, sipping coffee and being interviewed about work.

Let me back up…

STC Canada West Coast recently launched a service that connects senior technical writers with people exploring a tech writing career. The idea flowed from a planning chautauqua. Thirty days later, a big idea became a new service. The information interview was born and already had a waiting list.

Part bedside manner, part job shadow, the information interview aims to entice students and job seekers to join professional associations. The interviewer gets questions answered and receives free admission to a professional program in exchange for a donation to the local chapter. Ostensibly, the interviewer gets a glimpse of a day in the life of a tech writer. As it turns out, this form of coffee break may yield fruit.

Learn more about the Information Interview Service.

authors & audience

Feeling the pull

expecting the pull

I followed the unexplainable to do this thing called president. Now I’ve stepped in it. Going to lead the Canada West Coast chapter for the 2011/12 year.

It’s an honour, really. Engage with the world’s largest professional association serving technical communicators.

The Society for Technical Communication has 11,000 members in over 100 chapters. We work in high-tech, health care, natural resources, legal, utilities, business services and government. The CWC chapter is a geographic community rich with technical communicators.

Past presidents set the model for doing good and giving back. I hear you: uphold this standard!

My chapter has given me tools to profit. So that’s my reason to follow this path. My vision, while still taking shape, will seek ways to engage our 118 members.

authors & audience

The Stanley Cup, unedited

Ice hockey’s top prize is presented to players on the winning team. The quest for every NHL team is to win the Stanley Cup championship, then to have your name inscribed among the greatest names. Some 2,163 names of players and staff decorate the cup.

Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada

photo by John Biehler

Inscriptions and bits of human error

As for naming… There’s hockey hall of famer Bob “GAINY” instead of Gainey. I sympathize with misspelled names. But misspelled teams? How is it possible to slip up TORONTO MAPLE LEAES? BQSTQN BRUINS? NEW YORK ILANDERS? Perhaps someone jotted down Long Island’s team but c’mon, that’s not the paper scrap to give to the engraver. So much for knowing your subject matter!

As for consistency… Call yourself lucky to be named more than once. Count ’em, five variations on Jacques Plante and Dickie Moore. So much for style guidance!

As for corrections… On the trophy? Why the name of a player’s father made it on the cup is an odd problem. But how the mistake was amended is beyond ugly. What’s left of ‘Dad’ is a row of pretty Xs. So much for the first draft.

As for care and feeding… This cup is handled with gloves. This cup has a vault. This cup looks nothing like the bowl Lord Stanley awarded a century ago. Despite its amusing flaws the Stanley Cup remains a gleaming thing to be hoisted.

authors & audience

Magicians, mystery shoppers and technical writers

birds tweeting

These occupations require keen observational skills and stealth at blending in anonymously. Workers unite through professional organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.

Workers are guided by codes of their professional community.

  • Respect the rights of authors, creators and inventors and obtain permission before using their tricks.
  • Follow principles of honesty, professionalism, fairness and confidentiality to guard the interests of the public and clients in order to promote good business practices.
  • Evaluate communication products and services constructively and tactfully, and seek definitive assessments of our own professional performance.

These occupations are among the top 10 in the Philippines.

A talented magician can earn up to 173.45 USD per party.
A mystery shopper can earn 81.64 USD per project to dine, phone or test a service.
A passionate blogger can earn more than 69.38 USD for an article.

It’s someone’s job to produce something from nothing but it’s unknown who shops for market researchers or writes a manual for magicians.

authors & audience grammar & speech

Little ears

Setting: in a bank branch
Teller: How old is she?
Customer: She’s 4, and we have another at home 2½.
Teller: I have a 1½. We might have another when this one is potty trained.
Child: Mommy, why are we here?
Customer: I’m getting a check.
Child: Looks puzzled by the unfamiliar transaction.
Customer: Realizes the setting. Emily, when we go to the bank we get a C-H-E-Q-U-E. We get C-H-E-C-K-E-D when we go to the doctor.

A piece of paper and a lollipop appear to cure all.

authors & audience grammar & speech language & style

Language support serves meaning first

We used an immigration lawyer to start the paperwork six months before we arrived. Worried whether Canada would let us land the lawyer calmed us by saying something like “… you can speak the language.” It was a moment of introspection.

Seeing how many people face communication barriers, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada publishes an Interpreter Handbook. The code of conduct advises practitioners to take all reasonable care to accurately interpret or translate what is stated in the source language, having regard to meaning first and then to style.

Persons performing oral or written translation must express exactly what has been said. No paraphrasing, no embellishment, no omission, no explanation, no opinion.

If a speaker says he was “struck” an appropriate equivalent term would be “hit”– but not “assaulted”. If a speaker says “I will appeal…”, the interpreter repeats “I will appeal …”, not “my client will appeal..” and not “she will appeal …”. Getting the meaning right takes care, skill and diligence.