Selling WriterTech

For Sale by Owner sign

Yep. It’s true. WriterTech is for sale, not me of course, but the five top level domains, facebook page, and twitter account. Yes. You can have it all. Make me an offer!

Be aware that after you purchase this package, I’ll need some time to migrate several email accounts and make several other changes.

Of course, I’ll delete my sites, posts, tweets, and anything else as part of the sale.

  • Positive reputation
  • Always owned by one/same person, me
  • Owned for many years
  • Never blacklisted, marked for spam, or had a bad reputation

eLearning Tools Are Very Powerful, Use With Caution

eLearning authoring tools (for example Storyline, Lectora, Captivate, etc.,) are very powerful and offer a number of tools and features for enhancing the appearance and performance of the output. Unfortunately, many of these features, used improperly, can have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of enhancing and speeding up learning/performance, they can make it more difficult for learners to access and learn from the material.

You may hear from non-instructional designers (perhaps your manager or director) that we should “jazz up the interface or content.” By that they mean make it more “visually appealing or attractive.” They’re typically not thinking of ID/eD/adult learning principles. Instead, they were playing with the tool, attended a demo, or saw a fancy example and think that that feature or function will work in other/all circumstances. Wrong!

Features and constructs to use sparingly, if at all:

  • Sliders, accordions, flashcards, flip cards, buttons, fiddly process diagrams, tabs, and other interactive gimmicks that hide information behind unnecessary clicks (and not part of practice)
  • Image maps, drop-downs, expanding sections
  • Purely decorative images (people, places, objects that are not directly related to the topic)
  • Overly attractive/distracting images and video lacking an instructional purpose
  • Background music behind the narration
  • Distracting games
  • Hidden content (is it a secret?)
  • Lengthy lectures (eHectoring) without worked and practice examples
  • Important text buried in images or under multiple clicks
  • Items that move unnecessarily in an attempt to hold interest while the narrator drones on

Three Reasons to Favor the Infinitive in User Assistance

Verbs that can be made gerunds by adding ingThree Reasons to Favor the Infinitive Form

In user assistance titles and text, should you use the present participle (ing form), or the infinitive, for example; Baking a cake, or Bake a cake? Here are several reasons to use the infinitive form rather than the ing form.

1. The infinitive is shorter and easier to understand

The infinitive has fewer letters than the present participle, and easier to read and understand. The infinitive imposes a lower cognitive load, and has a faster comprehension speed. Here are two examples; set versus setting, skip versus skipping. Which would you rather do; set the table or be setting the table, skip this step, or be skipping this step?

Here’s another example.

Stopping, Restarting and Continuing Numbering (41 letters)
Stop, Restart and Continue Numbering (32 letters, or 22% shorter). Shorter is generally better, but how can we quantify better?

Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scores

We can measure readability using the Flesh-Kincaid score. Let’s compare some examples using and their Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Copying and Pasting Rows – Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 54.7, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 6.6
Copy and paste rows – Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 75.9, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 3.7

2. Write from the audience perspective. How do we search? What do we want to do?

As the user assistance writer, your task is to describe the process of (insert present participle here) (insert noun here).” For example, what’s the process of starting the engine. Meanwhile, your audience may be asking themselves, “how do I start the engine?” This is what they search for. If you’re not a writer, you may have heard about Voice of the Customer campaigns. These are designed to help company associates think/act/listen/speak in the voice of the customer. When we use the same terms as our users/clients/customers, it obviously aids understanding, n’est pas?

When we search for how to do something, which of these do you think we generally put in the search field; “resize rows,” “resizing rows,” or “how to resize rows?” We’re not likely to enter the present participle form.

Imagine I’m driving and somehow damage a tire. I’ll probably think or even say out loud; “how do I fix a tire? Or “how to I change a tire? this is what I’d search for or perhaps speak into the search on my phone.

Writer versus User/Performer/Reader Perspective

When writing about something, the writer might think “what are the users/performers doing?” This might lead the writer to use the present participle form. Users/performers, however, might think or ask “how do I do something?” This leads to the infinitive form. It’s part of audience analysis to put yourself as the writer into the perspective of the audience.

3. The infinitive implies that we can accomplish the task and move on

Would you rather peel some potatoes or be peeling some potatoes?

Once and done or ongoing/repeating?

Finite time, not ongoing. Users want to complete a task. They want to do something. They’d rather not be completing it or doing it. The ing form implies that the task takes time, or that they may have to keep doing it, or worse, redo it. We want to do something then move on the the next task. The present participle form makes it seem as though the task may take a while to accomplish or be something difficult, or something we’ll have to keep doing over and over.

What do the buttons say?

Look at the buttons/commands in almost any application. You’ll see; Enter, Submit, Apply, Edit, Move, Copy, Confirm, Hide, Find, Go, Save, Preview, Continue, Publish, Discard Changes, Cancel, Import, Export, Backup, Select, Log in, Log out etc,. You get the point. Buttons use infinitives. Users search using infinitives. Shouldn’t your user assistance use infinitives so it matches what users do and what they look for?

I’m certainly not arguing (see…using the present participle) against present participles in all situation, just many situation in user assistance.

In addition to using the infinitive, consider using the present tense.

Unnecessary Past and Future Tense Can Cause Doubt and Confusion

Past Present Future sign postUnnecessary past, future, and other verb tenses and constructions can cause avoidable doubt and confusion on the part of your readers/listeners. When you use the past tense unnecessarily, readers may ask themselves if what you’re talking about is still relevant in the present and future. If you use the future tense unnecessarily, readers may ask themselves if this is the case now, or under what circumstances it will be the case in the future.

I’m not sure if this propensity to over-use past and future tense is due to laziness, ignorance, bad habits, or the culture (all of these). Maybe it’s a fear of the present. The past isn’t so scary, because, well, it’s in the past. The future is somewhat unknown and well, things may change, right? But why not be in the present, be in the moment? I don’t get it. Maybe we really don’t know the meaning of is.

When in doubt, technical communicators should use the tense that is the simplest, most direct, accurate, and imposes the lightest cognitive load on readers. Often times, this means using the present tense. Don’t fall for the linguistic gymnastics that you think might either; (1) make you look/sound smarter, or (2) give what you write/say some legal/grammatical wiggle room vis-a-vis reality or the truth. Our job as technical communicators is to make it easy for our readers to understand and act upon what they’re reading or hearing.

Of course there are exceptions. If your audience/purpose/context calls for lots of future and past tense, then by all means, use it.

Here are some ripped-from-common-parlance examples of what I’m talking about. Notice I didn’t write: “…what I will be talking about” or “…what I was talking about.”

“We are updating our Terms of Service.” (Microsoft site)
This begs the question, just when will you complete the process of updating your ToS, and how will I know that you updated it?

The Past is Prologue?

“I liked that house.” (HGTV Love it or List it)
When/why did you stop liking it? Home shoppers on this TV show are literally still standing in a home, or in the driveway and talking about it in the past tense. I’m dumbfounded by this.

“That house had a great backyard and master bath.” (HGTV Love it or List it)
When did it stop having a great backyard and master bath? Did someone dig up the yard since you were there? Was there a fire?

“This item was out of stock.” (email received from overseas vendor)
That’s fine. Is the item in stock now? If not, when will it be available? I’m not sure how this company stays in business with such poor sales communication!

When Does the Future Get Here?

“This course will take a minimum of 2.5 hours to complete. It does not need to be completed in one sitting.” (eLearning course intro)
Two sins here, the future tense and an inanimate object (course) with a need. My version: This course takes a minimum of 2.5 hours to complete. You do not have to complete it in one sitting.

“The purpose of this style guide is to document a consistent look and feel that will encourage consistent design, maintenance, ease of use, and navigation.” (Style Guide intro)
The future tense introduces doubt. And there’s another problem, encourage. It’s probably better to say that the guide describes consistent design for the purposes of… The guide itself is a guide. It’s management’s job to encourage/enforce it.

“Today’s how-to is going to be on replacing the serpentine belt on a 1999 F-150 5.4L V8.” (Youtube video description)
Why not say: “Here’s how to replace the serpentine belt on a 1999 F-150 5.4L V8.” It’s six words shorter and doesn’t involve the future tense. It’s a lot clearer what we’re talking about, right?

“This deal will require the approval of regulators.” (Wall Street Journal)
Is it a deal, or is it a pre-deal? Does the deal require approval now, or does something else have to happen before it requires approval? Why introduce unnecessary ambiguity?

“Your discount code will expire on August 2, 2015.” (Email from vendor)
Why not write that the code expires on August 2. Fewer words, less confusion. Less really is more.

Writing less complicated sentences using the present tense is less work for your readers/learners/doers. Isn’t that what technical communication is all about?

Consistency…or Three Chefs in the Kitchen?

WSUS ScreenshotConsistency in technical communication means that we’re consistent about grammar, construction, voice, etc, within a document, a set of materials, or an entire system. We generally refer to and follow a style guide that helps us, and our editors, keep us consistent. Software developers follow the same principle. Or at least they should.

Here’s an example where there are obviously three opinions about how to label different versions of the Microsoft Windows OS.

Windows 7 Professional and Windows XP Professional were there first. Next they added Windows 8.1, notice the decimal and one place to the right of the decimal, and the missing Professional. And most recently, they added Windows (Version 10.0). Here notice that they put Version 10.0 in parentheses and again omitted the Professional.

I find this in the recently released Microsoft Update Services 10.0.10514.0.

If I were editing this, I’d change this list to display as:

  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • Windows 10.0 Pro
  • Windows 7 Pro
  • Windows XP Pro

Following a parallel pattern such as this makes it easier to recognize differences.

Technical Communicators Wear Many Hats

MensHatsHere are some of the jobs, titles, tasks, roles, activities…, basically the hats that I wear, as a technical communicator. Naturally, I had to put this list in alphabet order!

I wear at least a few of these on every project.





  • Authoring tool sponsor, tester, integrator, user
  • Brainstormer
  • Contractor, full time employee
  • Defect and enhancement tracker
  • Documentation Specialist
  • eLearning Developer
  • Entrepreneur
  • Friend, critic, cheerleader, co-worker, confidante
  • Graduate Student
  • Information Mapper
  • Instructional System Designer
  • Instructor, virtual instructor, trainer, teacher, mentor, resource
  • Learning Consultant
  • Learning Management System Administrator
  • Learning Technology Consultant
  • Level I/II/III technical support, triage, troubleshooter
  • Librarian, curator, archivist
  • Narrator
  • Negotiator, mediator
  • Online & context-sensitive help author
  • PHI Hider
  • Photographer, photo editor/shopper
  • Proposal Writer
  • Prospector, candidate
  • Publisher
  • Report writer, runner, editor
  • Royalty-free image purchaser
  • Screen scraper, image capturer, image editor
  • Script writer
  • SharePoint site/collection administrator
  • SME Interviewer
  • Software sponsor, installer, configurer
  • Software, document, mobile, browser, technical, and user acceptance tester
  • Sound/audio recorder, sound editor
  • Storyboarder
  • Student, learner
  • Style guide author, referee
  • Subject Matter Expert
  • Team member, team leader
  • Technical Project Manager
  • Technical Writer
  • Technology researcher, implementer
  • Template creator
  • Time tracker
  • Troubleshooter
  • User assistance creator
  • Videographer, video editor
  • Web Developer
  • Writer, author, formatter, editor, publisher

Bad Information (BI) is Everywhere and it Costs a Bundle

Bad Information Bell Curve

What is Bad Information?

Bad Information is information that isn’t quite accurate, not really helpful, or usually both. It could be a million miles off or just a few microns off. In both cases, it’s bad. That means that it isn’t good. Good Information is information we can use as-is to make, fix, do, or learn something right now. We don’t have to get a second, third, or twelfth opinion, we don’t have to balance information from 20 sources. We don’t have to research it for a year. We don’t have to deconstruct and reconstruct Good Information. Good Information is usable now. Bad information gets in the way of us discovering and acting upon the good information.

Bad Information (BI) takes many forms and wears many guises. And in fact, it’s truly everywhere. Think about it. If we were swimming in Good Information, would we have bought that item, taken that job, argued for something a certain way, or voted for that person…you get the idea. We’re neck deep in BI. Now, say it with me… “BI is everywhere!”

BI comes at us from all angles

BI comes at us like water from a fire hose. It’s sent to us in email, it’s on TV, the radio, in the news apps. Friends and family tell us BI. We get it in tweets, and on social media sites. Man! I’m still getting the Nigerian Letter for Christs’ sake.

Good Information is scarce and causes us to rely upon feelings and emotion

In addition to good/bad information, we make decisions based upon emotion and feelings. We almost have to because of the scarcity of Good Information. Take a look at ethos, pathos, and logos, if you’re not familiar. If we were (or could be) more rational and less emotional, we’d base our decisions mostly on information. That’s what I’m talking about here. One could easily argue that because there is so much BI, we’re pretty much forced to rely on emotion and gut feelings.

Some general characteristics of BI

Bad Information can have one or more of these characteristics. You can probably think of more.

  • Imprecise, inaccurate
  • Purposefully or accidentally false (the author is misleading on purpose or doesn’t know, or can’t know the truth)
  • Vague
  • Historical or forward-looking (it may have been true in the past or it might be true in the future)
  • Spin, bias, misleading
  • Omitted certain key characteristics or facts in order to support one side
  • Purely political, propaganda
  • Incomplete
  • Inconclusive
  • Shading of the truth
  • White lies, and plain old lies

Examples of BI

Since BI is everywhere, just think about your interactions with others, documentation, products, really anything. You might have had experiences such as:

  • The repair shop estimated the repairs to be around $300. They end up being $600
  • The Craigslist ad said the item is new. It’s actually five years old and smells of cigarettes
  • The piece of paper that came with the item you just bought neglects to tell you how to use the item
  • This investment is going through the roof
  • If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. Period.

Bad Information versus Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence permits businesses to grow because they have a handle on their; data, customers, product, price, profitability, market share, workforce, salaries, etc. Business Intelligence is a goal, a business plan, an ideal. And just because its initials are also BI, it should not be confused with BI, Bad Information. It’s also basically the truth described in two words instead of one. Bad Information, from a volume perspective, is the Atlantic Ocean. Business Intelligence on the other hand, is the gallon of milk in my refrigerator. The bell curve image above fairly describes the relationship between how much BI you’ll encounter versus how much truth or even truthiness.

The Cost of Bad Information

The cost of BI is astronomical. The reason that it’s so high is because so many people are so heavily invested in BI. Disseminating BI gives them the edge. From the fake Vuiton handbag salesman in NYC to the large company that doesn’t want you to know that you can buy a very similar but better product across the street. Not knowing how to use/fix/do something costs us time trying to figure it out by; trial-and-error, asking someone, Googling it, or looking for professional user assistance, etc. I’m sure you can think of many examples.

Technical Communicators Constantly Battle BI

Creating Good Information, and battling BI is our work and our passion, or at least it should be. Just as journalists should report the unbiased news, technical communicators should describe what we’re describing based upon the facts. It’s the ethical thing to do. BI is everywhere and we should keep that in mind at all times.