The OC (Week 9)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Life is Funny
I started class today with story time. See, one of my students mentioned a couple weeks ago that he didn’t need to do the Employment Packet assignments because he already had a job. The Employment Packet assignments require them to research job openings, and develop a resume (and practice their business letter writing skills a couple more times). While I’m at it I’m teaching them some advanced styling techniques in Word, but that’s just an added bonus.

Anyway, today I started out by asking how many of them already had professional-level jobs or internships, and nearly all the hands went up. I wasn’t surprised by that — I’ve been getting information about their career status from them since the first assignment. Next I asked them how many really believed that would be the last job they ever needed, and only three or four left their hands up.

And, y’know, I’ve read their company profiles, and it’s quite possible. Still, I said, life is funny.

See, when I took that class in my senior year, I had no idea I would be a technical writer. In fact, just a few weeks before I was a technical writer I had no idea I would be a technical writer. I’d spent college killing time in the emptiest of the computer labs as a lab technician, and then supplementing my income by playing Asheron’s Call.

I told them that story, which was fun. I told them how I’d played AC and harvested singularity keys and sold them on eBay. Then, one day, Toby said he could probably write a program to handle that process for me, and we made the Damion bot. By the time it was done, I spent a few months making a couple hundred bucks a week off that.

Then I graduated, and a couple hundred bucks a week wasn’t going to cut it, so I had to get a real job. I got lucky there, because our department chair put me in touch with Mark Lee at Lowrance, who was looking for a new technical writer. He needed a resume, though.

What was I going to put on my resume? I had the writing degree, but all my writing samples were poetry and chapters from a dragon-rider novel. I put down the lab tech job, and my only other work experience before that was as an assistant at a private elementary school. I probably included that. I didn’t list “Professional video game player” as an occupation, but I’m sure I put video games under interests….

Then I went for the interview, and Mark listed all those things. Eyebrows raised in a question, “Says here you’re interested in…video games?” And I nodded, feeling stupid, and he said, “Y’know, the problem with posting a technical writing job opening is that you get all these applicants who know how to write, but don’t know anything about operating the devices. You sound like the kind of guy who could play with the gadgets we make, figure them out, and then explain them in a manual. That’s exactly what we need.”

Life is funny.

A little while later, Toby applied for a job there, too, and it happened to come just as our company was adding a new product to our development — turn-by-turn GPS devices. In Toby’s interview, he told them the story of designing the software that guided my character through dungeons to gather singularity keys for me while I slept, and that pretty much got him the job. Half a year later, he was in charge of developing the turn-by-turn software.

Life is funny.

Auto-generated Text
That whole bit was more mentoring than Tech Writing teaching, but it made a great introduction to my class lecture, which was on auto-generated text in Microsoft Word. I told them that when I got to Lowrance, Mark was still building Tables of Contents for the manuals by hand. It was dozens of hours of work tacked on to the end of every single project, and it was a huge source of errors (because it’s so easy to leave in a mistake and never notice).

That same spirit of poking around and figuring stuff out that Mark had thought would serve me well with the product documentation came into play with our documentation process, too. I got irritated trying to correct a broken ToC one time, and decided to see what sort of tools existed.

Turns out, Word has a pretty impressive ToC generator built right in. The trick is that you’ve got to use consistent, well-designed heading styles. That’s some of the “advanced styling techniques” I talked about earlier. I’ve spent the last month telling them how to develop these styles, and requiring them to use section headings in all of their homework assignments just to get them ready for this.

All of those assignments have been accompanied with tutorials I developed — six, so far — and each of those tutorials has been structured using a single set of custom styles (chapter heading, section heading, paragraph heading, body text, bullets, block quote, image, and caption). By now the students know well enough how I made those styles that they were able to grasp the significance of each of them.

So I pulled up all six of their tutorials on the overhead, and copied and pasted them together into one big long document, the chapter heading style automatically separating the different tutorials into chapters. I had to make a couple little adjustments (give the heading styles appropriate Outline levels, and make a clone of the chapter heading for the ToC title), and I explained what I was doing as I did it, but about ten minutes into the presentation I was able to scroll to the top of the document, choose Insert | Quick Parts | Field | TOC, and hit OK.

A fully formatted, populated, beautiful Table of Contents appeared on the page. Someone in the back said, “That’s awesome!” Somebody else said, “You cheated!”

Exactly the response I was looking for.

I showed them some more stuff along the same lines. We added automatic chapter numbers, and figure numbering in the captions, and then we built a Table of Illustrations to go with the ToC. We fixed the page numbering so the front matter had little roman numerals and the first page of chapter 1 was labeled 1 (instead of 5).

Then we went to the header and put in a field that shows the chapter title on the top of every page (so if you’re in the middle of chapter 4, you know it’s chapter 4). All of that took about forty minutes. Maybe a little less, and when we were done we had turned a handful of documents into a real book.

It was easy…but only because we’d done our work beforehand. Everything I did relied on the consistent use of well-designed styles. Because all of my chapters used Tutorial Chapter style, and every single section heading was Tutorial Section, and every caption was Tutorial Caption, I was able to do these things. That was really the main point of my lesson for the day. I don’t expect any of them to be able to build a ToC or add a StyleRef field to a document on command. I do expect them to be able to build a document that could support those, though. And if they ever have to work with one that does, I expect them to be able to recognize what’s going on, and use the built-in styles appropriately.

It was a pretty straightforward lecture day, divided evenly between story time and presentation, and when I got to the end of the presentation I let them go. I’d thought about having them build an Index as their in-class activity, but I’m pretty sure that would have taken hours. I filled fifty minutes as it was, and the lingerers and hangers-on kept me in the classroom, talking, until well past 2:15.

More next week.