Technowriter

Business and Technical Writing

End of the Year is Upon Us…

Posted by tcookmatranga on December 16, 2009

Here we are at the end of another year and it is a time to look back in reflection, but also a time to look forward to a new year with new opportunities and challenges.

I was able to teach three college classes this past semester.  I taught two sections of a business writing course and another section of freshman composition.   I love teaching because I think I learn as much from the students as they do from me.  My business writing students were excited to have an instructor from the “real world” and asked many questions about the world of business and the expectations they will face in just a few short years.  I was honest – I told them business people want no nonsense writing – tell them the facts, explain the possible solutions, and be realistic on what can and can’t be accomplished. 

I think a hard truth for many was good ideas don’t always get implemented because they are good ideas.  Good ideas must be able to produce solid results – financially and productivity-wise.  My students really struggled justifying their good ideas for their in-class projects.  I really wanted to tell them that because it’s the right thing to do, your company will do it, but that’s not how it works.  Especially in today’s economy, good ideas must have a solid backing.  Companies who have survived cannot afford the luxury of implementing programs that do not produce solid results for their stakeholders.

Today’s students are eager, just as most new genererations, to change the world.  They are bright, energetic, and ready to join the ranks of the “real world” businesspeople.  I wish them the best and hope for a brighter economic future as they move along their path to graduation.

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Where Did the Time (And the Technology) Go?

Posted by tcookmatranga on July 16, 2009

Michael Jackson is gone.  A Charlie’s Angel went back home. And now, the Space Shuttle takes its final few journeys before it, too, is gone.  Lately, it seems as though my childhood is leaving in bits and pieces.  I remember when Farah went from supermodel to super-serious actress.  I remember when Michael wore just one glove and no one thought he was strange.  And I remember that first shuttle mission, how incredible a spaceship could go up and come back down – just like a an X-Wing fighter from Star Wars. 

Back then, the future of technology seemed incredibly fascinating.  Machines would take over the mundane work of our lives and we would be free to pursue our passions.  Just as our Star Trek heroes worked not for money, but for the love of the work, we would surely share a similar fate.

But, what has technology gotten us?  A 24-hour a day news cycle, 365 days of work, we are always connected, and always on.  And our mundane chores, well, they’re still here.  We still have to fit in time to do the laundry, mow the lawn (unless you have one of those incredibly neat automatic mowers), make the beds, and make dinner.  Where’s my robot to help around the house?  Unless you count the IRobot vacuum, it’s nowhere to be found.

So, were we too optimistic?  As we watched Back To The Future, did we really believe that our gas pumps would be automated and our windows would be turned into giant TVs? 

Well, our gas pumps are automated, unfortunately, because now we must pump our own, swipe our own credit card, pick up the receipt, wash the windows, and be on our way without so much as a “Have a Nice Day.”

TVs are getting closer.  The one hanging on my wall now is pretty thin, but it’s not ready for the roller shade any time soon.  I suppose by the time I grow too old to care about those new shiny technologies, I’ll be buying a TV shade. 

What about computers?  They were supposed to free us – but, did we ever really envision the Internet?  I was there in 1986 as the first Internet, finally freed from the confines of the University mainframe, began to get noticed.  I used its pitiful email system, akin to our IM today, to “talk” to my friends across the country.  We thought we were so cool with our 56K modems and our giant bag cellular phones.  Mine only cost about a dollar a minute back then.  Quite the bargain.

Fast forward to today, where I struggle to get out that last text message while answering the call coming in.  I get unlimited minutes in my network; $5 a month for unlimited texting.  My husband has the Internet package, but I’m still resisting a Blackberry.  Got to check the computer first thing, although now it’s a laptop with wireless so I can walk it around the house as I check my email accounts – personal and work, pop into my LinkedIn page, send a couple of Twitters, and check WordPress to see if my blog is getting any attention.

What happened to the newspaper over morning tea?  When did we begin discussions with, “I just got a text from…”?

As a technical writer, I’ve seen many iterations of technology, I’m sure to see more.  It’s tough keeping up these days.  One thing that doesn’t change though – people still need help understanding new technology and user manuals are still difficult to navigate.  Back when Michael was cool and Farah was an Angel, we were still puzzling over how to set the clock on the VCR – and it was probably a BetaMax.

So, I guess no matter what new technologies ambush me tomorrow, I can at least be assured that those new technology developers are still going to need an old-fashioned writer who can somehow translate the ideas in their minds into something the rest of us can understand.  I just hope we are still using words in 20 years.  I’m not so sure I’ll be very good at telepathy.

About the writer:  Tammy Cook-Matranga is a business and technical writer specializing in business-to-business and business-to-consumer writing.  Contact her at tammy@tmcook.com or check out her website, www.tmcook.com.

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Social media – what is it anyway?

Posted by tcookmatranga on July 10, 2009

I just read a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Copyblogger ,on just what is and isn’t social media.  The basic premise was from another post where the person had declared he was quitting social media, but continuing to blog.  So, when is blogging not social media?  And, if it is not social media, what is it? 

I tend to agree that blogging is social media and I agree it is most likely one of the earliest forms of social media.  Before Twitter and Facebook, blogging was already on the radar of most technologically minded individuals.  As a form of social media, by allowing linking, comments, and trackbacks, it becomes an interactive forum for ideas.  Just as the first printing presses allowed like-minded individuals to share information easily for the first time, blogging has allowed even easier access to the public.  I believe blogging is just a natural evolution of social communication.

Before blogging, people responded with letters to the editor or through letters to each other.  Blogging has allowed just about anyone with a little knowledge of the technical implications to share information.  I began blogging as a corporate writer and recently started my own blog here.  I found that newsletters had become too restrictive and the news was usually already out of date.  Blogging allows me to address topics quickly and put out information more easily.  Where I used to write newsletters and send out letters and memos, I now use blogging and email to connect.  Just different vehicles, but the messages are still there in essence.

I believe social media is here to stay, and blogging is definitely a part of it, but it will evolve.  I believe sites like Twitter will change as more people find a better purpose for their use.  I think the social networking sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, will continue in their form for a longer time, but each generation will make their mark.  I also believe blogging is here to stay, but we will continue to see more video blogs and more interaction within the community.  I welcome the changes.  If I have learned anything from the history of computing (and I’ve been around since we had mainframe e-mail systems – basically IM for the early age), it is that each iteration brings us a closer world.  And, that is exciting to me.

Oh, and Brian – I do not like Tofu, no matter how you prepare it.

About the writer – Tammy Cook-Matranga is a professional business and technical writer specializing in business to business and business to consumer marketing.  Contact her at tammy@tmcook.com

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It’s just a letter, right?

Posted by tcookmatranga on July 6, 2009

It’s just a letter, right? 

I heard this question in a class I taught recently as I was giving out assignments.  I was thinking about that question again this July 4 as I reflected on our country’s unique history and culture. 

In the workplace, every single person’s success depends on their communication skills.  Regardless of who you are or what you do, communication is often critical to your work.  Think about that for a minute.  Critical – yet our education systems often place more emphasis on math and science than the simple communication skills every student must have in order to be successful.

I once read the average executive spends 90% if his/her time communicating – emailing associates, writing letters and memos, creating reports, putting together speeches and presentations, you name it – it’s probably some type of communication. 

In the modern workplace, most successes depend on good communication skills.  Professionals must be able to articulate their ideas and then help others understand the importance in order to get funding and resources.  Each employee goes through some type of evaluation process which involves the ability to show how your contributions are helping the organization.  In today’s tough economy, it is very important to communicate your value. 

So, why do I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall when discussing the importance of communication?  I teach a college course each semester to help me keep up on trends.  Students also tend to force you to stay current – they can spot outdated skills.  However, I am often disheartened to observe just how poor their communication skills are – and these are often juniors and seniors, ready to graduate and join the rest of the working world.  Yet, they do not understand they need to use correct grammar in emails or the need to do simple follow up to ensure understanding.  Their writing is often chaotic with the use of “fifty cent” words and fancy type in place of solid content and good organization. 

I also hear, and often –“Writing is hard,” yet they have no problem sending hundreds of texts each day – each one perfectly crafted to be understood by the recipient.  I often illustrate my point by asking them to give an instruction to another student.  Then, I ask them to write it down.  I question – did you know where to pause when you spoke?  How did the other person know you were done speaking?  Did they interrupt?  I use this exercise to talk about punctuation, the road signs of the writing world.  Then, we talk about accomplishing tasks and how communication plays a critical role.  Finally, I discuss how people really move up in the corporate world.  Their eyes are opened and they realize they do not have the skills. 

Where do we fall down in helping our younger generation?  I think we, as the denizens of the working world, need to share our knowledge more actively.  I teach in order to share my knowledge, others may volunteer, but it is important that those of us who are “communicators” become more active in the educational community.  Scientists, engineers, mathematicians already have a long tradition of teaching in the educational community.  We need to take up this long-standing tradition of having practitioners teach courses. 

I believe it also needs to start earlier.  The students I teach are often amazed at the media “tricks” I show and are naïve about the power of marketing.  We need to be educating the grade schools so our children are not so vulnerable to the realities of content and targeted marketing today. 

Why should we care about communication?  Our founding fathers understood the importance.  They wrote a letter to the King.  It was just a letter, right?

Tammy Cook-Matranga is a freelance business and technical writer specializing in business to business and business to consumer marketing.  Contact her at tammy@tmcook.com.

Posted in advertising, education, marketing, writing, Writing Help | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why is writing so hard for some and so easy for others?

Posted by tcookmatranga on June 26, 2009

Do you struggle to write the first few lines, unsure of how to put the hours of research and reams of information into a format that is easy to understand and logical for your readers?  People ask me all the time, where do you start and then how do you continue?  My secret, I was trained as a journalist and it taught me how to organize information quickly and then put together stories that grabbed the reader and gave them the necessary facts.  I use the same principles used in journalistic writing in business writing.  First, for every assignment, I start with the basics – the five W’s and the H. 

For years, journalists have asked these six basic questions in order to begin their reporting:

 Who?  What?  Where?  When?  Why?  How?

You can use this simple formula to make your writing more concise and easy to understand.   Start by writing out the questions on a sheet of paper.  Then, answer each question precisely. 

Who is really a two part question.  First, who are you writing to?  Fix clearly in your mind who you are writing to – what are they interested in?  Next, who are you writing about?  Why are they interesting to the reader?  Answering these two questions gives you perspective into what you need to tell your reader about the subject. 

Next, is “What” –  As in, what is important to your reader?  Is there a specific benefit or feature they are looking for in your piece?  Put it in layman’s terms.  Make it easy to pick out in your piece.

Where – what is the location or situation?  This could be an actual location or it might be a more generalized place – the workplace, the home, etc. 

 When – when do your readers need to know about the topic – is this an immediate need or a future thought?

Why – why is your writing important to your reader?  What about the topic makes them want to read your piece.  Figure this key information out and the rest of the writing becomes simple. 

Finally – How?  What will your reader do with the information you have provided.  Give them specific steps to take to accomplish your objectives for the writing piece.  Never assume the reader understands their next step – give him or her an outline for action. 

Once you’ve answered the questions, then it is time to create that first paragraph, packing in all five W’s and the H to begin your reader’s journey.  Tell your reader enough to get interested in the subject, and then in the next paragraphs, explain each of your answers in detail – who are your talking about, what information are your providing?  Why is it important and in what context are you speaking?  And, don’t forget to include the all important how – the steps you want the reader to take as a result of reading the piece.  Sometimes, it is just enough they are aware of the situation, in others, you may have a specific action in mind.  Whatever your next step, be sure to spell it out clearly, don’t leave it to chance.  

Once you’ve mastered the key questions, you’ll find it is much easier to organize your thoughts and create a piece that is easy to understand and gives the reader a clear path to action. 

Tammy Cook-Matranga is a freelance writer specializing in business writing.  You may contact her at tammy@tmcook.com or visit her website, http://www.tmcook.com.

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