Clif Notes: Blood Not Required

If you haven't already read Nathan Rector's From the Inside column this issue, I would strongly suggest you turn to the front of the magazine and do so. He is requesting help in getting the word out that MultiValue is alive and well and quite able to tackle your modern application requirements. It is also very capabile of fitting into a "mainstream" IT shop having a number of different platforms working together. But as long as there are only a handful of us who write articles or blog entries about the kinds of problems we have solved using our various MultiValue platforms and the techniques we used to do it, as a community we are going to continue to appear to be much smaller than we really are. Whereas other platforms have dozens of writers publishing articles for various magazines, journals, and newsletters, in the MultiValue world it seems like you see the same bylines over and over. Not that there is anything wrong with seeing certain writers consistently producing articles! But when those are the only writers you see, it gives the impression that there must not be very many people using this thing, otherwise you would see a lot more people writing about it and discussing it. I think he did an excellent job explaining some of the issues and shooting down some of the myths about what it takes to write an article. Now I would like to add a couple of thoughts then share with you an idea about how to make the process even less daunting.

One of the things that we do each year at the Spectrum Conference is conduct a session for people who would like to consider writing articles for the magazine — what sort of things we're looking for, how to come up with ideas for topics, and how to go about it. So far, these sessions have been very well attended. They seem to generate a lot of enthusiasm, and at the session during the 2011 conference, we were joined by several of our contributing writers who shared their experiences, not only how they wrote their articles, but how it felt personally and how it affected them professionally when their work and byline actually appeared in print. But one of the things that always puzzles me is why with the number of attendees we have, maybe we will get one new writer to do one article. I've given a fair amount of thought to this question and I think I have come up with one of the answers.

Writing is hard

Huh? Really? Especially if you are writing about a topic or technique you know inside and out, have used to solve a real-world problem, and have no trouble explaining to someone sitting across the table at lunch, how hard could it be? And yet, with as many years as I have been writing columns, articles, and technical documentation, I will admit that I sometimes get bogged down even in starting because of the perception that, "This is going to be hard." Notice that I didn't say it was, I said that was the perception. And perception is influenced quite a bit by psychology.

Relax, they're just words

Frankly, I blame the school system (public or private). Writing is treated as something that is clearly done either right or wrong. Style is either right or wrong. Grammar is either right or wrong. And punctuation is either absolutely perfect or it is wrong, wrong, wrong, and you are an idiot worth being laughed at. And if you end a sentence with a preposition like the previous one or begin a sentence with a conjunction like this one does, then you have proven yourself to be illiterate.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not an English major. I never took an English or writing class that wasn't a mandatory part of the core requirements. My eighth grade English teacher told me, in front of the class of course, that I would never amount to anything because I refused to learn how to diagram sentences. The next year I became the only freshman to have a story published in our high school's literary journal. (So stick it in your ear, Mr. Simmons.)

When I first took the position of Editor of Spectrum magazine, it would take me hours to edit the articles. I spent an extraordinary amount of time with my nose stuck in grammar texts, punctuation guidelines, and Chicago Manual of Style trying to make up for my perceived lack of formal training. Well guess what? I discovered that not only are there very few hard and fast rules when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but a lot of the "experts" disagree among themselves. And some of the rules that we have had pounded into us, like that chestnut of not ending a sentence with a preposition, are holdovers from grammar books used years and years ago that were not even correct when they were written. They were just some teacher's personal opinion that got propagated because that particular textbook was popular at the time.

So loosen up and take it easy. Unless you're in a writing class and doing a paper for some instructor who's never been published in his or her life, stop worrying about whether or not you would recognize a participle if it was dangled in front of you. Even the pros don't get it right all the time. I'm amazed at how many grammar "errors" I find on news web sites like CNN.

Making the physical work easier

No wonder writing seems hard. The way many of us were forced to do it most of our lives is hard, physically hard. Writing essays longhand, re-copying them, having to throw out an entire page if you wanted to switch several of the sentences around? Writer's cramp is physically painful.

When you get old enough to use a typewriter, assuming your family could afford one at the time, things got noticeably better as far as the physical act of getting words on paper was concerned. But much of the rework when revising your first draft or editing your final copy remained the same. Throw the page out and retype it.

Then came word processors, but they were dedicated devices way out of the price range of most students. It wasn't until the arrival of the personal computer and word processing programs that the physical act of generating words, rearranging them, modifying large blocks of text, and producing near-perfect final papers stopped being an exercise in physical torment. Yet I think that most of us still react to "writing" in a negative manner because we are really reacting to the memory of how hard the physical process was.

Write like you were talking to your reader

That's not a bad bit of advice. But I will go you one better. Don't write like you were talking to your reader. Actually talk to them. I have been experimenting with dictation software for a number of years. I am happy to report that the technology and the affordable processor power is now readily available to anybody who can afford a personal computer, notebook, or now, even a tablet. In fact, that is how I am "writing" this column. If you want to write articles, if your job requires that you write reports or documentation, or you have to write more than ten e-mails a day, you owe it to yourself to explore this technology.

If you decide to try using dictation software let me share with you a discovery that will dramatically improve your productivity with it. Don't correct your mistakes while you're dictating. Every product I have tried has the ability for you to tell it to backup a certain number of characters, delete the previous certain number of words, or correct a phrase for better voice recognition next time. Don't do it. Pay attention to talking and getting your point across. Then, using Mr. Fingers and Mr. Keyboard, go back through the rough draft and make your corrections and edits the old-fashioned way. It's much faster than trying to dictate corrections to your dictation. Give it a try. You will find that while you still have to think about what you're going to say and communicate it in an understandable manner, the actual process of producing the words no longer needs to be a bloodletting experience.

After all, I've never heard of anybody getting a "pixel cut."


Sep/Oct 2011