Devil Mountain Views Home Page
Newsletter of the East Bay Chapter of STC

Supporting technical communication in the
San Francisco Bay Area since 1962
Return to EBSTC Home Page

Fourth Quarter 2016 Issue

President's Message ****  Editor's Message
Book Review - The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
EBSTC October Program Recap **** 

President's Message

I still remember my first STC meeting back in the early 1980s with the Silicon Valley chapter. I had only recently realized that the work I was doing was called technical writing.

A year after relocating from the central coast to Union City, I found a job as an office manager/secretary for a small software startup company. I was excited to get paid to use a PC every day! Part of the work involved transcribing my boss's notes from a yellow pad into a word processor to document how to use his relational database application. Eventually I started writing all of the user documentation myself. At the time, I was totally unaware that this type of writing was special.

One day I noticed a job description in the San Jose Mercury News classified ads that sounded like the work I was doing. Curious to learn more, I arranged for an informational interview with the company. After our chat, they surprised me by offering me that job at a pay rate 15% higher than my current wages. They needed my answer in 48 hours. What a quandary!

I really didn't want to switch jobs, so I approached my boss and explained the situation, apologizing for the short notice. I told him I really loved the work I was doing for him and that if he could give me a 15% raise and keep me on as a full-time technical writer, I would stay and help search for a replacement office manager. The next day, he agreed to my new role and rate, and as they say, the rest is history.

Writing for a growing start-up meant I wore all of the hats: from marketing writing to procedure and installation manuals to page layout. Somehow I stumbled upon a community known as the STC. Soon after I joined the Silicon Valley chapter, I attended my first dinner meeting. When I walked into that room with at least two dozen tables set up for 10 people each, I was awestruck by the size of my new peer group. Getting acquainted with my dinner companions and soaking up the night's program gave me a wonderful sense of validation for my daily work and the education, comradeship and networking opportunities that have kept me renewing year after year.

Stop reading this and join or renew your membership right NOW. STC's spiffy new membership page is a marvel of responsive design and exactly the right content to justify the cost of whichever level is right for you. The sooner you lock in your 2017 membership, the longer you have to enjoy all of those benefits.

Liz Miller
EBSTC President

Editor's Message

I don't know about you, but I really enjoyed reading our President's Message about how she started her career as a technical communicator. In fact, it inspired me to mention my own humble beginnings!

I owe my first tech comm job-Technical Editor at Kaiser Permanente - to EBSTC. I was volunteering as the newsletter editor (same as now) and the then - president of EBSTC managed a team of writers at Kaiser Permanente. She called me out of the blue one day to tell me about an urgent opening in her group and asked me if I was interested. Of course, I was! I started at Kaiser Permanente the very next week as a contractor and was hired as an employee three months later. The power of STC!

Go to the STC website and renew your membership as soon as you can. Don't forget to select the East Bay Chapter as your chapter. And just so you know, EBSTC's ever-popular Holiday Party scheduled for December 1 will cost STC members only $10 (non-members pay $20).

If we have inspired you to reminisce about your own tech comm or STC anecdotes, please share them with us and we'll publish them in our newsletter.

Happy Holidays!

Ashwini Tharval
Managing Editor

Book Review - The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker. 2014. New York, NY: Viking Adult. [ISBN 978-0-670-02585-5. 360 pages, including index. US$27.95 (hardcover).]

Note: This book review by Patrick Lufkin was originally published in the STC Journal Technical Communication, Volume 62, Number 1, February 2015.

With dozens of books offering writing advice out there, do we really need another?

After examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing guides, Pinker argues that the considerable progress made in cognitive science in recent years cries out for a fresh approach. We now have "an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin," "a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading," and "a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings" (p. 6).

Pinker translates these new understandings into practical advice for the working writer in this delightful, informative guide. He is a cognitive scientist, linguist, Harvard psychology professor, and Chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Pinker is also a best-selling author of more than a dozen books on language and other topics.

To make his points, Pinker disassembles passages of exemplary prose to show how they work, and discusses various writing styles in terms of their effect on the reader. For most purposes, he recommends a classic style-a style modeled on a conversation among equals. Classic style offers a window on the world and uses clear explanations and concrete examples. Classic style "makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce" (p. 36).

Besides poor style choice, much incomprehensible writing stems from what Pinker calls "the curse of knowledge" (p. 57), the writer's failure to comprehend or appreciate that the reader doesn't know what the writer knows. This can lead to poorly chosen focus, excessive abstraction, using incomprehensible jargon, omitting concrete details the reader needs, and a host of other faults.

Drawing on new understandings of grammar and syntax, Pinker provides fresh explanations that are clear, lucid, and likely to be remembered and applied. Along the way, he shows that the rules are not a series of traps, but valuable tools that make sharing ideas possible by helping you avoid convoluted and misleading prose. Pinker also shows how to gracefully link sentences into larger units of what he calls "arcs of coherence" that help readers "grasp the topic, get the point, keep track of the players, and see how one idea follows from another" (p. 139).

Pinker finishes by addressing dozens of thorny issues of correctness and usage. With clarity and wit, he separates truths from half-truths, myths, peeves, and ham-fisted advice, and gives careful writers the information they need to push back against usage scolds and overzealous copyeditors.

Whether you're a working writer who wants to improve your craft or someone who just wants to better understand how language works at its best, get The Sense of Style. Both wise and practical, this superb guide is as good as they come.

Patrick Lufkin
STC Associate Fellow

Patrick Lufkin has experience in computer documentation, newsletter production, and public relations. He reads widely in science, history, and current affairs, as well as on writing and editing. He chairs the Gordon Scholarship for Technical Communication and co-chairs the Northern California Technical Communication competition.

EBSTC October Program Recap

Applying Standard Approaches Toward Improving Usability

We've all heard of the International Standards Organization (ISO). During his presentation at the EBSTC October 6 dinner meeting, Ron Stone elaborated on how standards apply to usability. He described a notion of "applicability" as a means of establishing consensus--about the formulation of best practices or a decision to use specific standards. Ron summarized the benefits and costs related to using standards, and noted that these costs could be included as a part of normal operation.

Many standards are relevant to technical communicators, in addition to a content development project's team and stakeholders. Some of these include HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative). Depending on the situation, technical communicators also need to be aware of other discipline-specific standards or regulations, for example, medical, science, engineering, devices, pharmaceuticals, and so forth.

Ron also introduced standards related to metrication, a process of learning about or practicing the use of metric measures. Such standards include SI (International System of Units) and AAT ICAS (Integrated Chronological Applications System, Alliance for the Advancement of Technology).

As the presentation continued, a few real-world applications emerged through audience participation:

  • Some standards are seemingly arbitrary; such as what side of the road we drive on in a given country.
  • Will the standard be applicable in online formats as well as on 8.5" by 11" or A4 printed paper?
  • What standard(s) allows the same content to be consumed by impaired users, non-native language speakers or on mobile devices? Audience-specific applicability is a concern for both the lone writer and large organizations.

You can read the slides and notes of Ron's presentation here.

Send Web site comments or report errors to the webweaver, Joseph Humbert.

Last updated: Sunday, November 30, 2016