After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Subheads for Clarity, If not Beauty

Posted on August 30, 2013
Filed Under Communication, Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

Technical writing needs to be orderly, but to insure that it’s read and understood by busy people, it definitely shouldn’t be dense. Aside from writing reasonably short, orderly sentences, adding subheads when the focus changes a bit is a mechanical, but very helpful, way of keeping a reader with you. Subheads are perhaps a tech writer’s most valuable organizational tool.

imagesTom Johnson, on his excellent “I’d Rather Be Writing” technical writing blog, deals with the virtues of subheads at some depth. Tom took a poll on why “users can’t find answers in help material.”  And he found that “help is either too long so users can’t find the answer, or help is too short so users can’t find the answer.” So what’s needed is a mechanism to facilitate organizing and scanning a page. (Oh, there’s that “f” word again.) Subheads are the answer both to orderly writing and orderly page layout.

Use subheads, first, to organize material that belongs together and then to draw your reader’s eyes to your handiwork. You’ve made his or her day when it’s easy to follow what you’re presenting. Subheads along with reasonably clear writing are the answer.  They’re both attractive  typographically and  highly utilitarian. (Below a subhead, or instead of one, a “bullet” dot to set off key sentences or paragraphs can also be helpful.)

A maximum of four indented subheads on a page, as illustrated here, may actually be too many, unless your material is so complex that it requires them. Definitely avoid run-on subheads, as much as run-on writing. The idea is to be organized, not typographically lush. Typographical techniques aren’t a substitute for clear, well-organized writing, just helpmates in negotiating your terrain. The eye can be distracted by too many of them.

“Almost any Wikipedia page provides a great example of subheadings in action,” Tom notes. “There we have many paragraphs of content broken up by subheadings, with a built-in navigation embedded at the top. It’s a model that seems to work well on the web.” Subheads work well on paper, too, if they’re not overdone. Keep them always in mind as your technical writing unfolds. – Doug Bedell 

An Engaging Robot’s Emerging from the Internet’s Plastic ‘Sands’

Posted on August 18, 2013
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

When you first see the upper “body” of the InMoov robot that will be demonstrated at the World Maker Faire show in New York’s Queens County next month, your impulse is to exclaim, “Frankenstein!” But that would be mistaken, for there is no monster, nor his novelistic creator, a modern-day Mary Shelley, behind this robot. Instead, there is Chuck Fletcher, who is one of an Internet community of people developing inMoov robots, part-by-plastic part, with 3D printers.

imgresWhat’s that? you say. You’re right – InMoov is a lot to swallow in one gulp. But from what we can gather from the Maker Faire website, a deftly functioning robot (or ranks of them around the Internet) is emerging from the plastic sands, or resins, of 3D printers, which are amazing enough in themselves.

This is where you need to start: The Make site advises that Chuck Fletcher will be bringing to World Maker Faire “a fully articulated and animated 3D printed humanoid animatronic robot.” Got that? “The build,” Chuck continues, “is based on the open source inMoov project by Gael Langevin. This is an amazing project with hundreds of parts and a growing community of makers adding features like eye tracking, hand and finger control using the Kinect and LeapMotion devices.” Suddenly, there are too many “makers” to count and too much ingenious technology to readily grasp.

(One of the great potentials of plastic parts produced by 3D printing, Langevin notes virtually as an aside, is for prosthestics, or human body parts.)

Be sure you take a few minutes to watch Gael Lsngevin’s emerging winsome, yet intent, robot lift a red ball of something from “his” right hand to his left, raise it to his eyes for “inspection,” then drop  it on the table before him, followed by what you might call, possibly, a celebratory gesture. It’s easy to feel that you’re on the verge of a bigtime something (again, not Frankenstein) under construction across the Internet – from printed-out plastic parts. Wow! (There’s more on the plastic angle on the MakerBot Thingiverse site.) – Doug Bedell

Apostrophes Matter When You’re Claiming to be Careful

Posted on August 2, 2013
Filed Under Business, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

Geez, we don’t want to be sticklers for detail, but in technical writing, detail’s important – especially when you’re claiming to pay attention to it, as is the case with this post, “iFixit Announces Free Tech Writing Handbook.” We were surfing for an Insights topic when we came across this post and its declaration that “I only hire applicants who practice good grammar.”

macfixittwhWe’re not sure that punctuation is necessarily included in “good grammar,” but sloppy punctuation derails readers as easily as sloppy grammar.  And we found a half-dozen punctuation errors and a couple of other writing sins in this post by iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens:

First, in the opening sentence, there’s a semantic miscue – “I kicked up a bit of a dust last year…” (italics added) “I kicked up a bit of dust…” is correct, of course.  Then, in the next sentence, an apostrophe is omitted in “an applicants attention to detail.” (Even WordPress has this underscored.) And there are several other instances in which apostrophes are omitted.

Then there’s a space lacking where there ought to be a dash, so we have “We teach real people how to do real-world thingshow to repair computers…” (Again, WordPress is on the ball.)

In the sixth paragraph, we have quote marks missing around the sentences beginning “I’m sorry…”  And this paragraph ends simply, “My bad.” “My bad” what?

We may be coming across as quibblers. But when a technical writing colleague posts on his book being “a useful resource for anyone looking to improve basic writing skills,” careful proofreading is such a skill, even in, or especially in, a web promotional release.  – Doug Bedell

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