The OC (Week 10)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Pulling My Punchlines
Last week’s class was disappointing. I think, of all the classes I’ve prepared this semester, the only one I was more excited about (beforehand) was the one with the band flyers. That time I was excited about the in-class activity, though. This time I was excited about the lecture.

Because I had good material. Dad told me before Week 2 that I had to focus on how I could make their lives better, and this class was all about that. I had so much good information to impart, I just knew it would be a great class.

And it was not, by any means, a bad class. The information was good, the students paid attention, I filled an hour but didn’t keep them late. It was a good class, but it lacked punch. None of my excitement really got through, because (for the first time) I felt comfortable enough before class that I didn’t invest much preparation in the presentation. Turns out, I’m still not a natural. I didn’t have any punchlines, so I’d spend ten minutes telling them how cool this feature was, or how that program worked, but I failed to drive home how it would impact them. I guess a good activity could have served that purpose, but I had so much I wanted to cover that I didn’t really have time for one.

Or…well, I did. It just wasn’t in-class. I’ll talk about that more later.

The class covered “Collaborative Writing and Editing Tools,” and the most basic of those is markup. Markup, as I told them, is the process of providing feedback on a documentation product using a consistent, somewhat standard set of marks and symbols. You’re probably familiar with the paragraph mark, which can be penned into the middle of a long paragraph to recommend a good spot to break it up. You might be familiar with the strikethrough line ending in a little swirl to indicate text that should be removed. If you don’t do a lot of markup, you’re more likely to just cross out text you think should go.

There are a bunch of standard marks, but there’s also a bunch of standards, so it’s hard to find one reliable set. Because of that, I stressed “consistent” more heavily than “standard,” and showed them (very quickly) how to look up a set of editing marks online.

Before I got to that, I had a little slideshow ready, and I flashed hand-drawn samples of my personal markup on the screen, and asked them to identify the meaning. They’ve been getting markup from me all semester, so they had no trouble with that process.

The problem with markup is that it’s slow. A document’s author has to create a baseline document, get it to an editor, wait for the editor to suggest changes, and then incorporate those changes into his baseline. If the author tries to continue working while that’s going on, he risks invalidating much of the feedback he’ll get from the editor. If he wants several different people to review his document (without a lot of wasted effort) he has to go through the whole process separately (in order) with each editor.

Track Changes
Word makes things a little easier by allowing direct modification within documents. Instead of printing out a copy for my boss to mark up, I can email her a copy of a document I’m working on and she can make any recommended changes directly. To preserve author control, she can activate a tool called “Track Changes,” which allows Word to keep track of every modification she makes to the document.

When I get that document back from her, I can change some view settings to see what the original looked like (my document), what the final looks like (her suggested version), or “Final with Markup.” Turning on that last option shows me a visual record of every change she made, and I can right-click any one of those and choose “Accept Change” or “Reject Change.” Once I do that, the markup goes away, and I’m left with the text I want, as the document’s author.

That only eliminates one step in the markup process, but it speeds things up a lot, and it allows the editor to make much more detailed suggestions (in the form of actual changes). Word also offers a Comment which allows an editor to attach a note to a document he’s reviewing without actually modifying the text any. Something like “Should we say more here?” maybe, or “Check this figure number.”

The nice thing about all of this is that I can keep all of the markup available when I need it, but just change my viewing option to “Final” when I need to see (or print) a clean document.

Collaborative Writing
Still (you all knew this was coming), markup is just a clumsy process given the tools we have available now. After talking through the ways we can do markup, and get the most out of it, I opened up my Google Docs folder on the screen and started really preaching.

With tools like Google Docs, it’s easy for multiple authors to work on a single document. By way of example, I opened some of the (many) documents in my folder. I showed them my Class Topics document, which I keep on Google Docs so I can update it from anywhere, whenever I have a moment and an idea. I showed them a spreadsheet I use to track some stuff I’m working on in WoW, just as a sort of virtual Post-It Note (to stress the simplicity of creating and maintaining documents). I showed them our NaNoWriMo spreadsheet, as an example of one that has a lot of editors viewing and modifying all the time.

When that one went up, I launched into my little speech. “This makes it easy for any of us to open it up at any time and update our word count–“

And someone said, “Yeah, and you can see just how bad you’re doing.” At that point I had about 1,100 words, which put me dead last among the people on that list, and around 1/5 of my target, so I didn’t disagree.

Someone else said, “Wow, Courtney’s really smoking!” She was a hair shy of 6,000 words.

So I came out from behind my podium, shaking a finger at them, and said, “Oh, yeah, sure. But she’s a full time novelist. That’s what she does. And me? I’ve got a day job. I’ve got two kids. Oh, and I’ve got to teach you guys.” I put some venom in that, and they all laughed.

Real-time Feedback
Then I opened a couple more documents, copies of Gods Tomorrow that I’d shared with Carlos and Courtney, and showed them how they’d provided feedback right in the document — Courtney with color-coded comments between paragraphs, and Carlos with footnotes, that behave just like the Comments in Word.

That’s really my favorite use of Google Docs, because it lets me watch a reader reading my books. That has got to be the greatest thrill for a writer.

Change History
Of course, giving them the ability to change my documents creates a little bit of a security concern. Both of those documents were copies of my original, but to get the most out of collaborative writing, you’re eventually going to have to relinquish some control, and that creates the possibility for a reckless editor to really mess up a document.

Google Docs (and, really, any modern collaborative writing software) handles that by tracking changes. I can open any of my Google Docs and view a list of every change that has ever been made to it, all the way back to the original blank page. Not only that, but I can see who made each change, I can compare versions, I can revert to an old copy. It’s incredibly powerful.

So I talked through that process, and (really like everything I’d shown them in Google Docs) it was mostly showing how Google had implemented useful collaboration tools available elsewhere, because I’d started the class talking about version control software, and how to make the most of it. The real key is to keep on top of the changes being made to a document you’re responsible for — know who’s working on it, what they’re doing to it, and be sure to catch any serious problems early. As long as you’re paying attention, it’s easy enough to protect the quality of your document in a system like that.

The Punchline
To close the class, I opened a final document on the screen — the instruction sheet from an AirSoft gun (which is to say, really terribly translated English with some cheap illustrations). You can see the original here, if you’re curious. For the Google Doc, I just copied all the text over verbatim, and put it in a plain text document.

Then I told them that their assignment for the week was to fix that document. On Thursday, when they got their tutorial, I walked them through the process of setting up a Google Docs account, and then required them to send me a copy of the email they’d used. Once I had that, I invited each of them to collaborate on that document. I also set up a spreadsheet to use for presentation sign-up, instead of passing around a sheet of paper at the next class.

That, I think, will do more to sell them on the usefulness of this information than anything I did in class on Tuesday. They’ll be able to see collaborative editing in action, they’ll see their classmates modifying a document they have open in real-time, and at the end of the day they’ll have a Google Docs account set up. It’s another weapon in their arsenal. They’re better able to handle real-world writing challenges this week than they were last week, and that’s really all I was ever going for.

More next week.