Category Archives: Writing

Validate Me

One of the appealing aspects of NaNoWriMo is the ability to track progress. The only way I can stay on task is to create a paper trail that proves that I’ve done something other than stare out the window and stuff my face with Kashi bars all week. Uploading my latest chunk of scribbles and seeing my word count go up on the NaNo website is satisfying and validating.

Equally appealing is the public nature of NaNo. My tongue-in-cheek motto — and presumably the motto for about 2/3 of our population — is, “If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen.” If I don’t post my word count for the world to see (as if they are interested, but let’s not explore that too deeply), did I really write those words?

Reality Check

Someone said to me, “You aren’t as important as you think you are.” She said it matter-of-factly. I was crushed until I realized she was advising me to ignore my imaginary audience. You know, that group of people who spend their days criticizing your wardrobe, noticing your mistakes, and discussing your terrible writing behind your back?

Everyone has an imaginary audience, but for those of us born with self-consciousness issues or who suffer from delusions of grandeur, the audience causes a lot of unnecessary stress. We make decisions based on what we imagine the audience is saying about us. We spend a little too much time worrying that the audience knows we wore these jeans yesterday. Most importantly, we stifle some of our creativity; we don’t take chances because (we think) the audience is watching our every move.

Ninety percent of the time, though, no one cares that you wore those jeans yesterday. They don’t remember that blog post where you misspelled “grandeur” and inappropriately used a semi-colon. They seriously aren’t meeting after class to discuss your train wreck of a manuscript.

They have their own imaginary audiences to worry about. You’re just not that important to them. Thank god.

Useless Status Update Thursday

I almost didn’t write this because I’d rather see a useless Facebook status update from someone I like than no update at all. And I am certainly guilty of posting useless updates from time to time (all the time). But griping about useless status updates is a hobby of mine. I can’t resist writing about them on Useless Adjective Thursday.

8 Useless Updates, in no particular order

Darlene… is waiting on Tim : I wonder if “waiting on” is even legitimate grammar. She doesn’t mean she’s a waitress and she’s serving dinner to Tim. She means she’s sitting in her car waiting FOR Tim. Also, this is possibly the most boring status update ever, because she’s bored, which makes us bored.

Billy Bob… is glad it’s Friday! (see also: thank God it’s Friday, I’m so glad it’s Friday, it is finally Friday, only one more day until Friday, and only two more days until Friday) : While TGIF status updates are not useless in and of themselves, they are overused — grossly — and therefore their meaning is diluted, rendering them useless.

Jeannie… has a case of the Mondays! (see also: I wish it were Friday, I can’t believe it’s already Monday, I hate Mondays, and why can’t it be Friday?) : Diluted. See above.

Lisa… Wow! It is a beautiful day! : Weather-related status updates are not necessarily useless. But “beautiful” weather could be anything. Give me a visual, people. I like picturing my various friends in various locations enjoying various climates. But one man’s beautiful is another man’s… not beautiful. Throw us a bone.

Jim… is tired (see also: exhausted, sleepy, and needs a nap) : Boring.

Any and every update with “AI” (American Idol) in the text.

Sara… needs coffee (see also: is drinking coffee, loves coffee, wants more coffee, can’t wait to have coffee, mmm coffee)  Alert: writing about coffee and your need for it is overused and flirts with useless.

Any and every update with Yum! appended to it. : Unnecessary. I assume your food is “Yummy!” or you wouldn’t be bothering to update your status with a description of it.

Juno… is relaxed (see also: is relaxing, is chillin’, and my least favorite: is chillaxin’) : I need more (and eliminate chillaxin’ altogether, please). Are you relaxing while watching Rescue Me with a glass of wine? Are you relaxing while sitting on your back porch shooting rats as they run along your fence? Give me something I can sink my teeth into here.

California Technical Writers: Exempt vs. Non-exempt

If you’re a technical writer in California, you should know about an amendment to the labor code that requires employers to classify us as non-exempt employees. Non-exempt means, among other things, that you are an hourly employee with a time card. So far, only a handful of companies have reclassified their writers, but considering that the labor code stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that tech writers are non-exempt, we have to assume that many more companies will follow.

The question is: do technical writers WANT to be classified as hourly employees? Is punching in and punching out even realistic for writing professionals who work closely with engineers and project managers who are not on the clock?

The small sample of writers with whom I’ve spoken abhor the amendment and are deeply unhappy with the new classification. As if technical writers don’t already have trouble getting respect in the computer industry, being placed in the non-exempt category of workers implies that we aren’t professionals.

According to the revised labor code, we are no longer employees whose “work … is intellectual or creative and that requires the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.” We aren’t “primarily engaged in duties that consist of … The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs”, nor are we “highly skilled and … proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis, programming, or software engineering.”

Certainly, being non-exempt isn’t all bad. You’ll no longer be working for free if your project requires you to stay in the office for 70 hours a week. But your boss must approve of the overtime. And what happens during down times, between releases, when you’re ramping up and your hours are well below 70 or barely 40?

Many people believe that the amendment to the labor code is a reaction to the lawsuits brought by “incorrectly classified” employees whose work is NOT considered highly skilled who were forced to put in long hours doing rote tasks in the computer industry. A lawsuit filed by a Sun employee is probably one of the reasons the amendment calls out technical writers specifically as non-exempt.

But our work is not rote. Our work does require discretion, creativity, and higher learning. We aren’t simply transcribing specs written by engineers. We aren’t documenting how to set up your VCR. If this amendment does not suit the majority of technical writers in California, we need to do something. If we want to maintain our professional status, we need to protest this amendment.

Just keep swimming

Via She Started It, this column is a fun and inspiring read: Rats with Islands.

Perspective: Get Some

As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)

This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.

Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.

Perspective. I have some now.

Tiptoeing outside the perimeter of my comfort zone

I have a narrow comfort zone. It has enough room for my couch with an annex for my office (preferably with the door closed). I like to spend a lot of time in this zone. But being comfortable is not inspiring. Every once in a while, when the well is dry and I have nothing to write about other than my high score on Mario Kart, I’ll get brave enough to try something uncomfortable.

For you, trying something uncomfortable might mean jumping out of an airplane or traveling to a foreign country by yourself. For me, uncomfortable is never that far away. I consider shopping at an unfamiliar Trader Joe’s to be uncomfortable.

My husband is less chicken when it comes to trying things or going places that he’s never been. He’s climbed two of the tallest peaks in Northern California with only a few pints of water and a peanut butter sandwich in his backpack. He once danced with our daughter on stage in front of the school during a class concert. He thinks nothing of going to a foreign Trader Joes.

Through him, I am sometimes encouraged to push the limits of comfort. I never intend to climb a mountain, but I have kayaked, skiied, hiked, and attended social events that took place way outside of the zone.

Obviously, the positive side effect of being uncomfortable is having something to write about. That’s why I am sort of, kind of doing Script Frenzy (so uncomfortable! it burns!). That’s why sometimes I volunteer to work at the food bank with a group of strangers or offer to host a dinner despite my hosting anxiety or agree to walk in a parade with a bunch of baton-twirling second graders (wow, that hurts just to think about). Trivial things, but any departure from the ho-hum revs up the creativity that has gone dormant during those weeks in the zone.

Maybe this weekend I’ll check out the Trader Joe’s in Mountan View. Dare me?