adapting fiction techniques: the freitag triangle

Freitag TriangleNo, it’s not the title of Robert Ludlum’s latest thriller. But it is something you might remember from high school English. The Freitag triangle is perhaps the classic graphic representation of story progression (click on image for full size). Remember? “Every plot has to have a climax and a denouement.”

Did you know that you can apply the same structure to your nonfiction articles to make them as readable as — well, as readable as the latest Robert Ludlum thriller? Here’s how:

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games writers play

JoystickNo, I’m not talking about creative justifications for billing your client for the time you spent surfing the web, or writing off your cruise to the Bahamas as a business expense.

I’m talking about video games.

And I’m going to try to convice you that you shouldn’t feel guilty for playing them during working hours — because, admit it, you do. Instead, I’m going to try to explain why game breaks are an essential component of the creative process.

And I’m also going to recommend some good games to play.

Image courtesy iBand.com

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study confirms best companies include writers from the beginning

The most successful companies bring their technical writers into the loop at the outset of a project, according to a new study by the Aberdeen Group. Back in February, I blogged about the importance of including writers from the earliest stages of a project; it’s good to see that there is evidence to bear out my contention of the writer’s added value.

According to the Society for Technical Communication, the study, which was co-sponsored by STC, the UK-based Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, and the Center for Information-Development Management, that finding was among the most important results of an online survey of over 300 companies.

The study report, The Next-Generation Product Documentation Report: Getting Past the “Throw it over the Wall” Approach by Chad Jackson and Mehul Shah, looked at five key performance indicators:

  • product launch date
  • documentation cost
  • translation cost
  • documentation purpose
  • documentation quality

Nearly three-quarters of the respondent companies that scored highest on these five indicators reported that they launched their documentation and product development processes simultaneously. According to the study, top-ranking companies were also likely to:

  • integrate the documentation staff into the engineering department;
  • rely on document authoring tools that facilitate content repurposing;
  • use software to minimize content localization lags; and
  • measure readability by tracking content resue.

Managers, the results are in: keep your friends close, but keep your technical writers closer.

quick tips for working with SMEs

Stock photo of people in meetingYou know the drill. The meeting is in the small conference room at the far end of some cheap airport hotel. Inside, there’s nothing to sustain you until lunch but tepid coffee and stale cheese danish dusted with spilled non-dairy creamer. Yet, for some reason, instead of bonding over a shared fate, the participants quickly divide into two camps — the experts and the interlopers.

A SME chuckles about “you English majors.” Your publications manager mutters something about “those knuckle-draggers.” And that’s just the morning of the first day.

Whether you write instructional textbooks, online help content, user guides, or even feature articles, as a technical writer you rely on the people who know the topic better than anyone else — subject matter experts, or SMEs. Likewise, SMEs rely on you to interpret and translate their information, to present it clearly and accurately, and to make it easy for the reader to understand and follow.

Nevertheless, writers and SMEs often have difficulty establishing a collaborative relationship, and the resulting friction only hurts the final product.

Like it or not, it’s up to you to establish a good working relationship with your SMEs right from the start. Here’s how:

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discussion: is everything miscellaneous?

I have yet to read David Weinberger’s new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, but I am looking forward to doing so. The ongoing discussion about the impact of hypertext on information classification is of great personal and professional interest to me. Whenever I come across a new article or blog entry on the subject, I read it eagerly and with real interest. There is much that remains to be said.

As a writer with a Masters in Library Science, I am acutely aware of the limiting and liberating powers of classification and its impact on writing. The fundamental element of classification, after all, is the word. However, I have come to believe that many writers are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting the premises and assumptions behind our inherited classification systems.

What makes me say that? And why should writers care?

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followup: the other half of the equation

Royal TypewriterOver on The Copywriter Underground (which should be part of every freelance writer’s complete nutritious breakfast), Tom Chandler reminds us about the importance of client feedback.

And we’re not talking about editorial comments before going to press — we’re talking about taking a hard look at the effectiveness of the piece once it’s published. Did your advertising copy bring in new customers? Did your feature article generate letters to the editor? Did people find your report to be informative and useful? And how can you find out?

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practical advice for writers

Have you ever heard someone described as “a writer’s writer?” I certainly have, but I confess that I’ve never understood what it means. To me, the real mark of distinction is to be considered “a reader’s writer” — a writer who is keenly attuned to the needs and expectations of the audience above all.

Quinn McDonald is a quintissential reader’s writer. She’s also an eagle-eyed editor, an artist in several media, and a creativity coach. On her blog, Quinn frequently addresses issues of interest to writers and editors, distilling her years of professional experience into pithy and often provocative advice. Here are two of my recent favorites:

Writer’s Dilemma:”

“And then you find out your client’s client is a company whose goals you disagree with. Not just a little. A lot. There’s a wide breach between your beliefs and the company’s. What do you do?”

Freelance Frustration:”

“Freelancers will almost always jump through some hoops, even ones that are on fire, to please a client. We sympathize with your emergencies, unless we sense you don’t care.

Disclaimer (which doubles as a plug): I am working with Quinn to develop two lines of index card templates for some exciting new projects that she is developing. Check back with her site regularly to find out more. Better yet, subscribe to her blog and make it part of your morning’s reading!

thoreau and the economics of adverbs and adjectives

“Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short.”
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

If you’ve ever taken a class on writing fiction, chances are you remember your instructor admonishing you to eliminate adjectives and adverbs from your writing. Or perhaps you were told to make a great effort to eliminate them ruthlessly (if you had my witty instructor). This advice applies just as well to nonfiction writing as it does to fiction.

Some writers believe that using gobs of adjectives and adverbs conveys erudition, emphasis, or importance. But to a discerning reader — your reader — it will convey precisely the opposite.

Why? Because most nouns and verbs already provide their own accompaniment. In the presence of a well-chosen noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs are redundant. Use them and your reader will assume one of two things: either that you lack the vocabulary, or that you don’t know the real meaning of the word.

In other words, taking the time to pick the right nouns and verbs conveys the message that you care about what you wrote. And your readers will care, too.

Still too abstract? Here’s a handy tip that I recommend for eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, using a metaphor that any businessman or -woman can understand: money.

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burying the lede in technical writing

“Burying the lede” is a common stylistic error in journalism. To bury a lede (rhymes with “bead”) is to hide the most important information within a news story instead of putting it up front where readers can find it immediately.

Technical writers can bury the lede too, and with the same results — the audience leaves, never to return, without ever reading the crucial message you wanted to convey.

Learn how to spot these four common style errors before they cost you your audience — and their business.

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