What’s the Most Important Part of Communication?

Advance Apology: I’m going to talk about politics in this post, despite my usual warning that talking about politics at work is generally a bad idea. If, like me, you’d prefer not to think about the U.S. Presidential Election, click elsewhere. But please trust me when I say that I have an educational purpose in mind. “Trigger warning” having been issued, I shall now continue with my writing.

It’s not the words you use…

It’s painful for a technical writer to admit it, but words are most likely NOT the most important aspect to communication. In print publications, layout, font, graphics, and white space can distract from or aid a reader’s willingness to read the actual words. Online, in addition to the items I just mentioned, you can add things like site usability, screen resolution, interactivity, quality of images, background colors/patterns, and even background music.* All of these components are part of a complete communication package, within which the reader/consumer eventually encounters the words. 

(*And all this ignores the things you can’t control, such as the circumstances under which the user actually encounters your content–in a paper manual read in a noisy room, on an app on their smart phone, or on a laptop at their desk in an office where the air conditioning/heat is not working.)

Beyond the internet, the next level of challenge is that confusing, contradictory, fuzzy world of actual face-to-face interactions: individual conversations, meetings, or presentations. A presentation can combine all the challenges regarding the computer-based content described above with the dynamics of an uncomfortable meeting room, uncertain or divisive office politics, or the individual style of the speaker. In fact, in a face-to-face situation, verbal information (the actual content writers sweat over) can have as little audience impact as seven percent, with body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other externals making the major bulk of the impact.

Which brings me to the Presidential Debate this past Tuesday.

Presidential debating as a technical writing exercise

I won’ lie: I deliberately tuned out the debate show, preferring to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns instead (more on that later). The guy I’m voting for this year wasn’t even invited to the event, so I really didn’t have a dog in the fight. I did, however, promise myself that I would read the transcript of the debate the next day to see what the two most prominent individuals running for the office had to say.

To begin, I pulled up a comment-free transcript from the Washington Post. Even the minimal number of advertisements and links were a little too distracting for me. I just wanted the text, so I copied and pasted the entire transcript to a Word doc, reformatted it so the font was easily read and spacing reset so that I could print out the whole thing if I so chose. Even with an 11-point Calibri font, single-spaced paragraphs, and one-inch margins, the entire thing fell out at 35 pages, so I decided to stick with reading the text on the screen.

Now here I must step on toes here, and I apologize. If you just read the statements by the two candidates over the space of 90 minutes, there’s not even a question that Hillary Clinton won that debate. She spoke in clear, complete sentences and for the most part answered the questions put to her. Donald Trump’s answers often wandered off topic or–if I am reading the transcript correctly and the transcript was faithful to what was actually said–didn’t always make sense.

Examples…

Clinton:

I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their — their debt from college at a lower rate. Those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.

Trump:

We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble. And we better be awfully careful. And we have a Fed that’s doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the Fed. The Fed is doing political — by keeping the interest rates at this level. And believe me: The day Obama goes off, and he leaves, and goes out to the golf course for the rest of his life to play golf, when they raise interest rates, you’re going to see some very bad things happen, because the Fed is not doing their job. The Fed is being more political than Secretary Clinton.

In this case I tried to capture two responses about the same topic that were of reasonably equal length and to capture the essence of Clinton’s and Trump’s respective styles of communicating. What’s interesting, now that I think on it, is that Trump’s natural speaking style does not translate well into direct technical writing. Clinton’s chosen style does. That reflects extensive preparation, I believe, but again, is a style that “reads” better when you see the words as plain text.

What does all this prove? I still don’t agree with Clinton on policy matters, but I at least understood clearly what she was trying to say. I was reminded of the college professor who gave me a backhanded compliment by saying that the nice part about my writing style was that it was clear enough to identify exactly what was wrong with my ideas. The fact remains that when translated into text, Clinton’s words were an excellent example of policy-focused technical writing.

And yet, judging by a smattering of  online polls the next day (not the scientific kind, but still…), Trump was the perceived winner of the debate. This might outrage you because you’re a Clinton supporter, you dislike Trump, you have a preference for clear language, or a combination of these situations. So as I puzzled over the polls, a line from one of the Star Trek: TNG  episodes came to me after seeing the polls:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
– Jean-Luc Picard

Leaving aside whatever those results mean for the ultimate election result, I’d instead ask: what do those results say about politics as a technical communication exercise? Quite simply, it isn’t. Or, at least it isn’t primarily. Remember all those externals I mentioned earlier? They are the focus of most of our political culture, maybe more than the 93 percent reflective of most face-to-face communications. What is the candidate’s body language like? What is their tone of voice? How are they dressed? How relaxed do they appear? Who has the more “commanding” or “leader-like” presence?

I don’t think this is a particularly new phenomenon. Literature snobs like me might admire the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but the fact remains that George Washington and the Continental Congress still had to do a lot of politicking and working with people to convince the American colonies to revolt against the British Crown and stay committed to independence through a hard-fought, seven-year campaign.

All this is not to say that words do not matter in politics or technical communication. Words absolutely have weight and value. Excellent words, delivered with conviction by a document or person with the right external attributes can change history–ideally for the better. So while the aesthetics of our technical communication products can affect their ultimate reception, the words that we use should still receive the same tender-loving care we always give them. History is watching.

Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Writing About the Space Business with Authority

Lately I’ve been doing a project for Spaceflight Insider that has required me to do a lot of research on launch vehicles (the engineers’ term for the rockets that get things off the ground). The challenge, sometimes, is getting the information I need without being an employee or having an “inside source.”

Why is space-related information hard to find?

Rockets are pretty hard to hide once they’re ignited. The forces a vehicle has to generate to get into orbit–a minimum of 250 miles (402 kilometers) in altitude and a speed of 17,500 miles per hour (28,163.5 km/hr)–also create a lot of bright flame and unbelievable noise. Everyone can see it–we can hear the mission control person reading off the speed, altitude and distance downrange–so what’s the big secret? Several things, actually, not all of them having to do with the rocket:

  • To comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR): ITAR is a headache for much of the space industry because it prohibits useful products, ideas, and technologies from crossing international borders. The purpose of this prohibition, of course, is to keep nations or other organizations unfriendly to the U.S. from acquiring knowledge or technology they could use to build a missile, which would then be fired at us. Or, worse, some specific weakness might be revealed that a hostile power could use to interfere with or destroy our hardware. This means that sharing things like technical details about how a rocket is made or operates cannot be shared in an online payload user guide.
  • For purposes of state: Some customers–particularly military and intelligence-gathering agencies–don’t want everyone to know the precise orbit of a satellite. As a result, the mission control announcer will sometimes read off the speed, altitude, or distance numbers on a time delay so that anyone listening in can’t get the actual data they need to track it.
  • To protect the secret sauce: Every company has its proprietary secrets for building a better rocket. So while you might learn that a particular rocket is made from an aluminum honeycomb of some sort, you won’t be able to find out what the precise materials, thicknesses, or techniques are to make that honeycomb a reality. The laws of physics are known to pretty much every industrialized nation–the specific ways people have devised to exploit them are covered by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and, sometimes, government classification (see above).

Where can you get information in a guarded environment?

So how do I get information if everything’s such a big secret? Obviously, I work with what official public information the manufacturers or agencies publish online. Occasionally I’ll break down and go to a private site with good reputation and a lot of data on the vehicle(s) in question. I’ve even been known to acquire actual books with good data in them. It’s crazy what you can find in libraries sometimes.

Most of the time, my reporting doesn’t require me to get into the nitty-gritty of Rocket Company A or Government Agency B’s secret sauce unless the failure of that secret sauce is the point of the story. At that point, I have to start emailing the public affairs office to see what the official word is. If I can’t get much of an answer from the official line, I start contacting other people I know in the business and ask them for some sort of insight.

This approach works for science as well as engineering, though it’s much easier with scientists sometimes because they generally are not trying to protect anything proprietary or classified. Also, if asked about their favorite field of study, a scientist is happy to speculate (within reason) and can usually be counted on for a pithy quotation or two. Engineers, often more reticent, don’t like to speculate about some situations, because they don’t have all the data, aren’t familiar with the specific technology, or have a natural conservatism that prevents them from making snap judgments. All of these are admirable attributes in someone building expensive, dangerous hardware, but it makes for difficult reporting at times.

Sometimes, if I have a deadline pending and little chance of getting the information I want on time, I have to scale back my expectations about what I can report. As it happens, I assume that I am writing for members of the space-interested public, which can include anyone from aerospace engineers and other professionals to family members or friends of mine who don’t speak space much better than I do, but count on me to explain things in ways that someone with a high school diploma can get without having to check Google.

Final thoughts

The important thing to remember when writing about aerospace engineering or any other technical subject is that, as they used to say on The X Files, “the truth is out there.” Patient research can generally turn up the facts, insights, or technological information you need to explain it properly to your intended audience. How much of that information is easily or publicly accessible will, of course, vary by your position, employer, audience, and purpose in writing the document you need to write. The more you research, though, the better you become at understanding how the technologies work and whom to ask about what. All part of the fun of being a heroic technical writer.

Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What Should You Look for in a Resume?

If you’ve ever been in the position of hiring someone, then you know that reading through resumes can be a challenge. I recall reading through a good 30+ resumes to fill one tech writing at a defense contractor within the DC Beltway. The experience of the applicants ranged from young people fresh out of college to people with 30+ years of experience. Your mileage could vary, but this is how I sift through resumes:

  • Quality and organization of the content: Yes, I admit it: I’m one of those people who judge others by their ability to spell correctly. Of course if I’m hiring a writer, that should go without saying, right? But really, given spell check and careful reading, there is no reason a resume should have a spelling error. I’m also looking at things like fonts, layout, consistent formatting, and all that good technical writer stuff. If you can present your resume neatly, that bodes well for the sort of work I can expect.
  • Directly relevant experience: Have they done the specific job you’re hiring for in the (recent) past? I’ve seen people with a career in sales send in resumes for technical writing positions and thought, “Really?” Sometimes you won’t get any resumes that meet all of your qualifications: wrong industry, wrong type of education, what have you. In that case, you have to start reconsidering your job “requirements” and thinking about what  you really want your new hire to do. How much do they need to bring to the table and how much can you train them with a minimum of fuss?

    Related to this question is the quantity of someone’s experience, and here I have to tread carefully. I am NOT a human resources person, but I understand the implications of age-related discrimination. Some folks, just by the length of (or dates on) their resume, convey the obvious fact that they’re a certain age. However, if the applicant’s experience, accomplishments, and references are exactly what you need, you’d be foolish not to interview them. On the flip side of that, if you’re hiring for an entry-level position, the concern always comes up: Will they be satisfied with the salary this job is offering? If they’re looking for any work that pays the bills, they’re probably well aware of the salary range; that’s not for you to judge. You just need to gauge their willingness to do this job. Another thing to consider: having an experienced person on the staff offers advantages that include a broader network, more extensive background, and a keener sense of the tricks of the trade.

    Taking this in the other direction, a younger person comes in with fewer preconceived notions of “how things should be done” and usually has lower salary requirements. However, they will probably require more on-the-job training.

  • Accomplishments: Not everyone includes accomplishments in their resume, but they should. I even included a master’s thesis on my resume for a while just to show that I got something out of grad school besides another diploma. Accomplishments, of course, are just little brags that show the impact you’ve made in the places you’ve worked. A quick way to determine if something in your work history is an accomplishment is to ask if: a) the thing you did made or saved money or b) anyone in that position has ever done what you did before. (Mind you, these should be positive things.)
  • Education: I’m not as snobby as I used to be about getting English majors for writing projects–or even communications or public relations majors. Usually most tech writing positions require a college degree, so that’s more a matter of checking a box. More important than the degree is how well you can write.

The goal of a hiring manager should be to hire the best candidate you can for the salary you’re able to offer. And I have to add this because I’ve seen situations where it was a problem: you should be willing to hire people who are smarter or better than you in some areas. Smarter employees are not a threat to your job, they’re an opportunity for you to learn from them and for the organization to benefit from their abilities. If anything, you could look at a smart(er) employee as part of your succession plan: if you get promoted, what sort of person would you like to succeed you? Just some food for thought. Happy hiring!

(By the way, my apologies for the late posting. The time just got away from me this week.)

Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Mechanics of Blog Writing

Occasionally I get questions from readers asking how I go about blogging. I’m not certain if I’m doing this in a business-savvy manner all the time (see my friend Chef Katrina for advice on that), but when it comes to content, I’m pretty fearless at coughing up entries twice a week. How does that happen? Well, let’s get started.

  • Consistent timing: Back in November of last year, I made the decision to go with regular days and times of posting (Mondays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time). This regularity of timing helps my readers anticipate content at specific times–sort of like watching their favorite television shows, for those of you who don’t record your TV viewing, like me.
  • Central theme and audience: Once I made the decision not to write about space on this blog, I had to narrow down my content so it wouldn’t be as meandering and inconsistent as my personal blog. This, again, goes to consistency and helps my readers know what to expect when they read my site. In my case, I decided to write about the business of technical writing, which means primarily writing about all the things they don’t teach you in formal classes about technical communication. I will throw in some of the mechanics occasionally, but my goal is to offer advice to the technical writing student or professional that can offer insight into all the things that happen around the technical writer when s/he is not writing.
  • Maintaining consistent style: I don’t know how to impart style to you, though I’ve seen some writers try it. For me, the way I write for this blog is the same way I’d talk (with, perhaps, a bit more politeness and clarity) in the office or at a saloon after work. There are some things I might get spun up or passionate about (space exploration or ethics), but I try not to be too pompous. I’m just a guy who’s done a lot of things and has some ideas to share. My style might be too casual for some–I’m certain a few of my former English professors would be or are horrified by fast-and-loose interpretation of “the rules” of technical writing–and it might be too academic for others. Fair enough. I read somewhere that you can’t please everyone–you’re not pizza. Or that if everyone agrees with you, you’re not expressing any opinions worth hearing. Regardless, the best way to maintain your personal style in a blog is simply to keep writing. If two times a week isn’t enough, try writing daily. But you know what you want to say, and whether you realize it or not, you have your own distinctive way of saying it. It’s one of the mysteries of writing and one of the things I love, so the less “explanation,” for me, the better.
  • Setting boundaries: “The business of technical writing” is still a pretty broad topic. That may–and has, on this page–cover anything from editing to resumes to career hunting to dealing with customers. However, you might also notice that I have my own particular blind spots or topics that I avoid: politics, sexual harassment, racism/sexism, or women’s fashion. Guilty. These are topics that I’ve generally covered under the blanket heading of “leave it outside the office.” Another suggestion would be to follow the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they would wish to be treated.”

    I also don’t cover issues like dating, marriage, or kids in this blog because I don’t engage in any of that, either. Those are all personal choices of mine, and far be it for me to inflict my monklike existence on the rest of you. I don’t feel obligated to write about these topics, either. I’m here to write about what interests me. I might offer up advice if I were asked about one of these topics, but so far, thankfully, no one has; and anyhow I’m not certain my advice would do you any good anyhow.

    One last note on setting boundaries: If I find myself sharing negative situations about a customer, manager, or peer, I do my level best to focus on the situation and not “name names.” The I extract as much personal and company information as possible because the point of sharing the story is usually to show a) something I screwed up or b) how to fix a situation. It’s really in nobody’s best interest to gripe about a customer online, and I wince when I see people do it, knowing full well where they work. The point of social media is that it’s social–other people will see it. Maybe even your peers, customers, or managers. If you wouldn’t something to their face, why would you post it online? My two cents.

  • Writing blogs ahead of time: A lot of what I write is what media people call “evergreen” content, meaning it could be posted at any time, regardless of what’s happening in the world or even the time of year. That being the case, I can write several entries at a time and schedule them in advance for the appropriate date/time.  Occasionally a situation will crop up that I feel requires moving addressing to address the events of the day, which causes me to shuffle the order of other entries, but you’re none the wiser because there’s no real order to what I’m writing here.
  • How I come up with ideas: Again, given my relatively broad topic and my known audience, I rarely have a problem coming up with ideas. Sometimes I’m writing later than I’d like–this particular entry is being written on the morning it’s due (50 minutes from when I type these exact words–but anything in my work life is likely to spark an entry. And yes, I cover some topics more than once. It’s inevitable. The point is to provide a different emphasis or spin on how to think about those topics. Usually all it takes is a confluence of audience-situation-opinion to get me started.
  • Entry length: I have no personal rules on blog post length. I suppose I should, though I don’t often go longer than 1,500 words. What I’ve started doing is adding more headings or bullets so people can scan the longer entries and decide if the content is right for them. Maybe I’ll do some more investigating on this matter to investigate how many words I cough up at a given moment, but for now, I usually write 250-1,000 words, depending on the topic and how much I have to say. Occasionally I break up entries into multiple parts.
  • Reader response: When I get emails or comments from my readers, I make an effort to reply promptly and politely. Fortunately, I’ve yet to face a situation where someone was rude enough that I had to block them or delete their comments, though that has happened in other forums.

    Flipping back to the positive side, I appreciate the fact that some of you have taken the time to write, and I appreciate your indulgence if I’ve turned my response to your questions into blog entries. This isn’t to air your personal business, but simply because I believe that the questions I receive are worth sharing…and because it’s entirely possible that others might have the same question but were simply afraid to ask. I do, when asked, change or remove names or specific details. However, if there’s ever a situation you prefer that I not blog about, perhaps I’m the wrong guy to ask, because one way or another, I probably will write about it. The goal is to be fair with my readers and to share what I know.

If you’re interested in writing your own blog about technical writing, by all means, do so! These are my guidelines, this is my blog, so everything above applies to me. Like I said, I have blind spots and a particular viewpoint. You, being who you are, have your own insights, viewpoints, and yes, blind spots. If you have things worth saying, the readers will come.

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Why Should You Hire a Freelance Technical Writer?

Not everyone needs a technical writer on staff all the time. However, that need can arise. Those needs are important because they are how independent contractors like me pay our bills.

Why would a business need a technical writer?

There are any number of reasons for this, from the nature of an organization’s work to its size, budget, or workload. However, there are organizations that would benefit from hiring a writer to help in particular situations on at least a part-time basis. These situations include:

  • Writing proposals.
  • Writing technical documents or white papers.
  • Writing instructional manuals or procedures for a product or service.
  • Developing marketing/outreach/educational materials.
  • Writing critical executive correspondence, such as:
    • Conducting Sales/marketing outreach.
    • Contacting an elected official.
    • Responding to a complaint or product/service deficiency.
    • Proposing a business deal or merger.
    • Responding to an accident or public relations issue.

All of these situations have traits in common:

  • They are usually not daily needs in a company’s business.
  • When they do come up, the company usually wants to put their best foot forward, communicate clearly, and get results.
  • They are often, but not always, time sensitive.

What are the benefits?

Operational success

The most important reason to hire a professional communicator for the aforementioned situations is simply operational success. Success can take many forms; it need not always be winning a contract–though proposals are often the most common reason to hire a freelance technical writer. Operational success could mean getting a meeting with an elected official; opening the door to a new customer or a potential business partnerships; ensuring the proper and safe handling of the hardware the company is building; or piquing the interest of potential customers about the company’s products or services.

Less paperwork

Any new employee requires a certain amount of paperwork to bring onto the team; however contractor/freelance technical writers can be advantageous to a company that doesn’t want or have the money to pay benefits. (A freelancer will factor their self-provided benefits into their rates.) The contract both parties sign can be established for a specified amount of work and time. All that the company is required to provide is content, payment, perhaps internet/facility access, and the 1099 form at the end of the year. If the company does not have a prewritten contract on hand, the freelancer often has a standard form that can be customized to help employers procure their services. The writer’s responsibilities, in turn, are straightforward: sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), an I-9 (employment eligibility) form, and deliver the work for the contracting organization.

I’ve done work with considerably less paperwork than this–I’ve negotiated my hourly rate and signed an NDA via email without ever seeing the customer face to face (in those situations, the employer did some due diligence and asked for references before hiring me based on my reputation). The work started, and the checks started arriving.

Acquiring expertise for hire

A freelance technical writer with experience in an organization’s given industry can join the team with a minimum of fuss and can focus on the specific content needed for the job. The questions that an experienced technical writer asks will differ from someone who doesn’t know the business. A writer without experience in the field will be asking high-level questions like “What is it you’re building?” An experienced writer will start asking about specifics: “What type of widget are you building? What makes it different? What are the particular client needs/sensitivities?”

My background in technical writing for launch vehicle and spacecraft engineering enables me to join those types of organizations with a minimum of ramp-up time. However, sometimes my customers are more concerned about my ability simply to write and organize information and are willing to put in the time to teach me the basics.

Opportunity to “test drive” a future employee

Additionally, a company considering hiring a full-time technical writer might use a 1099 contractor is as an “audition” for an eventual full-time hire.

Being realistic about outcomes

A technical writer cannot always guarantee success, especially in a proposal. However, if an organization’s staff is small, lacks strong writers, or lacks experience with writing  some of the other items listed above, it can be worth the time, money, and effort to hire a freelance technical writer to handle situations like these. Again, the goal is operational success, and that success is more achievable if your company’s content is communicated clearly.

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

What to Look for When Editing Technical Material

When I’m given existing technical material to edit, I have some basic items that I look for to make the content more engaging, robust, and easy to read. These are the types of edits I do when I’m asked to “Make this sound like English” and I’m given carte blanche to change things to my heart’s content.

Content

  • Make sure you understand who the audience is, under what circumstances they will be reading it, and what they need out of the document. I call these my two most important questions.  By understanding your audience, context, and intended outcome, you can better shape the tone and emphasis of the content. And while you’re at it, you want to make certain that the content is meeting the audience, situation, and outcomes the original authors intended.
  • Ensure that the main point/summary is up front. As I’ve noted elsewhere, scientists and engineers often assume that the purpose or benefit of their particular project is so obvious that it does not need to be stated up front in plain language. I disagree. I go into a document thinking like a non-techie manager or a bureaucrat, which is close to my actual role. I need and expect my “so what?” text to be up front. This should be something like, “We are building X Widget to make Y process better/cheaper/faster to achieve end result Z.”
  • Ensure that the content/order is complete and makes sense. Sometimes you might encounter a document where explanations are left out or the order of operations seems contradictory or confusing. If that’s the case, call them on it and attempt to clarify: “Did you mean to say…X?”

Mechanics

A content edit is about making certain that the content is correct, makes sense, and fits together. This differs from copyediting, where you’re just looking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting. I have yet to restrain myself from doing copyediting while doing a content edit, and generally, if I’m given free rein to fix the document, I’ll be expected to do it anyway. The challenge with doing too much copyediting during a content review is that you might end up wasting time fixing minor nits on a sentence or paragraph that ends up getting pulled anyway.

Sometimes you need to educate your customers on the difference between content and copy editing and the process they want to follow. You might, for example, suggest a content edit first to ensure that the document has all the information it should in the proper order before you go in and do copyediting on the next draft. This is not to say you shouldn’t copyedit, but be judicious about it if the content is due to go back to the SMEs for review.

  • Enforce active voice where feasible. Some organizations are stylistically allergic to using any sort of individual or even corporate voice. “The magnet was moved” is more common than “I/we/the team moved the magnet,” and it makes for dull reading. Passive voice adds words unnecessarily and dilutes the message. If your organization is similarly averse to having actual people in their prose, see if there are ways to make the widget active: “The Space Launch System enables larger payloads to be launched into space and ensure increased science capabilities beyond Earth orbit.”
  • Keep subjects and their actions close. For some reason, it can be tempting to add a lot of explanatory text between the subject of a sentence and the action it is performing. Let me see if I can make up an example. “The five-segment reusable solid rocket booster (RSRB), using polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN) propellant aboard and providing immediate, increased thrust during liftoff, burns for a little over two minutes before being jettisoned.” The subject in this case is the solid rocket booster or RSRB. And while there are a couple of gerunds in there (using and providing), the actual verb the RSRB performs is burns. There are something like 13 words separating the actor for its action. Again, the impact is diluted. There are a couple of ways you can fix this, including breaking up the sentence into a couple sentences or you could move the words around so that the action is closer to its subject: “The five-segment reusable solid rocket booster (RSRB) burns its polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN) propellant for a little over two minutes, providing immediate, increased thrust during liftoff before being jettisoned.” There are doubtless many other ways you can tweak this sentence and make it shorter. The goal here is simply to make the action more connected to what is performing the action.
  • Maintain parallel structure. This can follow a couple of different tracks. For instance, making certain that the first word in each bullet point is a verb. Another thing to do would be to ensure that items of equal importance have equal length as well as a similar structure. For example, if you’re describing a series of objects, you would describe them in a similar order, say, by physical description, then function then size, then capability, then by safety features. Sometimes adding subheadings can keep this order better organized and ensure that each attribute is covered.
  • Unify writing styles. It’s not uncommon for for multiple to write a document and for  word choices, tenses, and even tone of “voice” to shift dramatically as the content moves from author to author. The trick, as always, is to make certain that the entire document reads as if one person wrote it. That topic might require a separate entry all to itself, but for now the simplest way to ensure a consistent style is just to read the entire thing and ensure that it reads in a consistent style that you can live with (it might not necessarily be your style).

Other items can and do come up when you’re editing, such as ensuring that acronyms are spelled out the first time they’re used, but these are the sorts of things that I’ve conditioned myself to spot and fix given the opportunity to do full-scale technical editing. if you have other “favorites,” feel free to share in the comments below!

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

On Assignment

Today I will be on site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to observe and report on the launch of OSIRIS-REx, a.k.a. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, a robotic spacecraft that will orbit and collect samples from the asteroid Bennu. The launch is scheduled to occur at 7:05 p.m. Eastern Time (11:05 p.m. UTC/GMT). Space exploration geek that I am, I’ve had fun reporting on this mission:

http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/ula/nasas-osiris-rex-asteroid-mission-launch-thursday/

If you’re in Florida, you should have a good view of the launch. Otherwise the launch should also be carried on NASA.gov.
Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment