The OC (Weeks 12 and 13)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Week 12
Back in August — back when I had so much delicious free time on my hands that reactivating my WoW account seemed like a good idea — I was just a bright-eyed kid all full of ideas. Those were the good old days, before bitter experience taught me the cynicism of reality. (In case you can’t tell, I’ve been noveling.)

Anyway, back then I made up a course schedule to put in the syllabus, which included lecture topics for every week, and assignments for the students along the way. I mentioned the fallacy of that schedule in the week 11 post about technical writers as programmers, where I pretended a topic of actual interest to them was a topic I knew something about.

Week 12 featured a reversal of that, when I pretended a topic I knew something about was a topic of actual interest to them. The title for the lecture was “Writing to a Deadline and the Publication Process.” I reversed the order for my presentation.

The Publication Process
By “the publication process” I meant the actual physical process that converts a Word file into a paper book. As a technical writer, that’s a process that takes up a lot of my time. After I’ve finished writing a perfectly-crafted, error-free description of my topic, I then have to spend hours and days and weeks reshaping the beast to make it play nice with paper pages.

This reshaping takes two major forms: page design, and print options. Page design is stuff I can do in Word, like adding page breaks (and “Notes” pages, and “This page intentionally left blank.” pages) to make sure new sections start on right-hand (front) pages, and adjusting space between paragraphs and illustration sizes to make nice full pages, and making sure every document’s length (in pages) is a multiple of four.

I went to some effort to explain why that last bit matters. It has to do with printing on both sides of a double-wide sheet, and then folding it in half (producing a four-page fold called a “signature,” which was a word I totally blanked on during the class). The reasons for this are complicated and partly apocryphal, but mostly they’re just uninteresting. I won’t bore you with the details.

Then there’s print options, such as which print method you want to use. Offset printing (using big acid-etched copper plates and rolling rubber mats) is still far prettier than digital printing (using, y’know, lasers), but it’s prohibitively expensive for small press runs (anything less than a hundred thousand copies), and it requires a lot of set-up time. As a technical writer, that’s a really difficult balance to hit sometimes. As…anyone else, it doesn’t matter. Offset printing is just outside the price range of the housewife putting together a cookbook, and printing contracts at most companies are handled by accounting or documentation departments, not the programmers and engineers who are taking my class.

Still, it’s the technical process by which we make real things out of the documents they’re building in Word, and I felt like I should go over it.

I also discussed the various binding methods — from three-ring binders and spiral-bindings to the hardback (“case” binding) and paperback (“perfect” binding) you’ll find on the shelves at B&N. I discussed the benefits and drawbacks of each, showed some samples, and then moved on.

Writing to a Deadline
Writing to a deadline is the biggest challenge of the technical writer (whether it’s a job title or just a job requirement). The nature of the deadline varies from shop to shop, and I demonstrated that by talking about my personal experience again. At Lowrance, we typically received an assignment with three days to build a hundred-plus-page book. Sometimes we had to turn it overnight. At the FAA…the Maintenance Handbook project I just finished was one of my top priorities for most of the last year. Once it was officially given to me, the deadline was a vague “soon” for months before it became, all of a sudden, “Friday.”

There’s a commonality in both cases, though. In all technical writing, really, the information you’re supposed to be putting into a document comes to you at a trickle — an agonizingly slow trickle at times. At Lowrance, we knew what products were in the works for months, but it would be three days before packaging before we had a working model to test and grab screenshots on.

Your job as a technical writer is to get as much information on paper as you can, as early as you can, without wasting too much time. That last bit can be the tricky bit, because we could easily have built a bunch of documents at Lowrance using early emulators, and then had to scrap 90% of our work because of a single software change (and we often did).

The other difficulty you’ll encounter when you’re writing to a deadline, I told them, is that you’ll get called into meetings, or have to attend training, or deal with any manner of pompous windbags who monopolize your time to tell you about something incredibly important to them, but that has no relevance to your project (or your life) whatsoever.

The best thing to do in those cases, I’ve found, is to have your laptop open on the table in front of you and just spend the whole lecture working on your project. (That got a laugh.)

Work Time
That whole lecture took forty minutes or so (as intended), and I left them the rest of the time to work on their projects and ask questions. They did, and some even hung around after the end of the period, so it was 2:30 before I headed home.

I sent out an email later that week to let them know the following Tuesday would be exclusively work time. I promised to be available (in class) if they had any questions or needed advice, but that I wouldn’t have a lecture prepared, and I wouldn’t be taking attendance. I also sent an email to several of the other professors inviting them to stop by and keep me company, because I didn’t expect any of my students to actually show up.

Week 13
Some of them did. Three, actually, which doesn’t sound very impressive, but it amounts to 20% of my class, so it’s not too shabby. I barely broke 50% on Week 12, and I did take attendance that week. (That was my only low week, though, and they did know it was going to be partly a work period.)

Anyway, I had some great questions from the students who showed up, and I’m pretty confident they’re going to have great projects to turn in. I also got to chat with one of my students about Google Wave for half an hour, which was both fun and educational.

Oh, and I got all my dailies done. So it was a productive period all around.

All I’ve got left now is presentations, evaluations, and the final exam. Oh, and the grading. I tremble at the thought of all the grading to be done. Still, the semester is mostly survived, and I think I’ve done some real good. Yay me.

More next week.