I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 35 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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— Harry S Truman


<July 2024>



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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 1:27 AM Pacific

  11:33 PM

The other day I was taking an introductory training class for some technology at work. There was a slide that outlined the technology, and one of the bullet points had an asterisk next to it. At the bottom of the page was this footnote:

Most strong statements like this are only mostly true. Don’t worry about it.

I had to stop for a while to ponder the pedagogical implications of this footnote.

There's an inherent problem in trying to describe something complicated to a newbie: how do you start? If someone knows absolutely nothing about, say, playing bridge, or verbs in Spanish, or physics, or grammar, you have to give them a large-picture, broad-stroke overview of this thing they're about to dive into.

This is hard. One reason is that people who are familiar with some domain frequently have difficulty coming up with sufficiently high-level overviews that make sense to a beginner. I've had a couple of people attempt to explain the game of bridge to me, but they could not come up with a simple, comprehensible explanation of the bidding process.[1]

A closely related reason is that experts often cannot let go of details. For example, in your first week of Spanish class, the teacher tells you that the verb hablar means "to speak," and that to say "I speak" you cut off -ar and add -o: hablo. And that this is the pattern for any verb that ends in -ar. So to say "I take," you use the verb tomar and turn it into tomo.

Easy! Powerful! Also, of course, only mostly true: there are irregular verbs and reflexive verbs and other fun. But throwing those additional details at you in the first week of Spanish 101 is counterproductive. There will be time to sort out the exceptions later, once you understand some basics.

I took physics in high school, and when you start, you're learning a lot about f=ma. I have memories of homework problems involving blocks being pulled or pushed, and the problems always said something like "… ignoring the effects of air resistance." A beginning physics student has enough to think about when calculating the effect of gravitational acceleration without trying to factor in air resistance and all the other real-life variables that come into play. In fact, there's a well-known joke in the physics community about a "spherical cow" that represents the ultimate in simplifying a model.

One more example. In the linguistics community, it's widely discussed that even if kids are taught grammar, it's not taught very well. People who are experts in grammar will sometimes complain (example) that the explanations we give students are hopelessly simplistic. "A noun is the name for a person, place, or thing," goes a typical definition. This doesn't adequately cover gerunds ("Smoking is bad for you") or concepts ("Orange is the new black") or many other ways in which we noun things.

But this gets back to the point. If you're faced with a classroom of 8-year-olds, how do you tell them what a noun is? Using terms like "lexical category" and "defined by its role in the sentence" is not going to work. You have to start somewhere.[2][3]

And that means ignoring messy details. As one of the commenters on the linked grammar post describes it, "It's quite normal for us to use 'lies to children' in education." Or, to get back to where we started, you sometimes have to make strong statements that are only mostly true.

[1] There are people can do this; it just wasn't the people I was playing with.

[2] By coincidence, I ran across a video that tries to explain what nouns and verbs are. We can have a think about whether this is a description that would be suitable for first-time grammar leaners.

[3] And another! Jed Hartman (of Hartman's Law of Prescriptive Retaliation) also has an entry Coming Down with Noun Syndrome about the challenges of identifying parts of speech. ("[A]s usual, the truth is a little more complicated than we were taught. Oops.")

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  08:23 AM

At the end of March I gave a presentation at the ACES conference on "Tips and Tricks for Using Microsoft Word Styles." For years I've taught a class about Word styles at Bellevue College. My experience is that even people who use Word don't necessarily know all the ins and outs of using styles, so when the call for papers for the conference came out, I submitted a proposal. It was accepted, and I was given a 60-minute slot.

I spent a lot of time preparing for the session, agonizing about what material to include. Much of my indecision was because I simply didn't know who my audience would be. Would there be people new to styles? Were all of my tips already old hat to an audience of experienced editors? Plus I only had an hour, which I know from experience seems like a lot of time, but is nothing. (My course at BC runs 6 hours.)

I ended up presenting a quick overview, and then a lightning tour of how to apply, create, and manage styles. Along the way I threw in tips that I reckoned could be useful to even people who had worked with styles: keyboard shortcuts; tips for naming styles; style inheritance; styling TOCs; taming multi-level list styles; and more. There were about 60 people in the room.

Presenting about styles. (Photo: Lindsay Lelivelt)

I got the evaluations back recently. There was enough positive feedback to suggest that yes, it was a useful session and that people got good information from it. Big relief! A number of commenters indicated that they liked "technical" sessions, which I hope means I'll have another shot at a session like this.

What was particularly useful, though, was feedback from people who had suggestions or complaints. There were several classes of feedback that I think I've learned different lessons from.

Not the right level. Some felt it was too advanced; a few others felt it wasn’t advanced enough. (This was, of course, precisely my fear.) The solution here, I think , was suggested by more than one person: the session description should have indicated a lot more clearly what level I was aiming at. I got to write my own session description, so this was well within my control.

The session was fast and there was a lot of (too much) information. Boy, this one is a dilemma. There's only an hour, so how do you make it less rushed? One solution, obviously, is to spend more time but try to get through less information. I guess this is possible if I also do the previous, which is to set expectations correctly about what we'll cover.

No hands on. The conference organizers had told me that people like hands-on sessions, and I can see why. But I know also that when people are following along, the pace is just slower, and I knew we would already be pressed for time. I think a solution here might be to request a longer session time (some 90-minute slots are available), or to think about creating an online course.

No Mac information. Someone noted in a slightly annoyed comment that I was unable to answer questions about Word styles on the Mac. Boy, I really dropped the ball on this one. Although I don't use a Mac myself, I know that many people do, and I should have been able to explain which of my tips did and didn't apply to Macs. I won't give this session again without fixing this issue.

All in all, it was a gratifying experience. As with most teaching, the need to present information cohesively forced me to organize and articulate stuff I had floating around in my head, plus I was obliged to research some corners of Word that I knew about but was fuzzy on. Armed with my list of ways to improve the session, I'll pitch it again for the next ACES in conference.

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  01:14 AM

Tired. So tired.

Kafka for the Kindergarten Set. Aaron Swartz with another dispatch about our educational system. He doesn't like NCLB-inspired testing:
Every year, a couple months before school ends, a kind of controlled experiment happens in NCLB schools: The principal remains the same, the teachers remain the same, the students remain the same. The only thing that changes is that the test is over, forgotten until next year starts. And suddenly everything changes: test prep boards come off the wall, students start writing poetry, they go on field trips and do science experiments, they work in groups and do real reading.

City Museum Photo Tour. Sabrina visited St. Louis over the weekend and sent me a link to this. Looks amazing, I'd love to go.

Fox Says, "Smile, You're Under Arrest". Summary: “It’s COPS as comedy and no one’s ever tried it before." Reality TV: it's a race to the bottom. (Hey, maybe that's a new show: Race to the Bottom.) [via naum]

It's Lovely! I'll Take It. Subtitle says it: "A collection of poorly chosen photos from real estate listings." Everything from bathrooms with underwear hanging up, to bedrooms with guys lounging on the bed, to $500K houses with plywood in the windows:

Ya know, the bar is very, very low for real-estate listings.

[via Kim]

[categories]   , , [tags] schools, no child left behind, st. louis, city museum, FOX TV, real estate, reality TV


  02:13 AM

And as promised last time, the class itself. As I had said at the beginning, we were thinking that the target student:

  • Has some notion of what blogging is, but
  • Has not blogged before, and

  • Wants to start blogging for a job or business (i.e., "in a professional context"), and
  • Wants some guidance on tools and techniques for starting.
And that’s pretty much exactly who we got. A couple of the people in the class read blogs; one guy has blogged before. The rest, tho, met this profile pretty much exactly.

For example, there was a manager from Boeing who was investigating blogging in her group. There was a translator who thought that a blog might be good for her business. A program advisor at school thought blogging might be a way to communicate directly and rapidly with students. A woman who has a business and already has a Web site was scoping out how blogging would enhance that. And some of the people were just curious about blogging in general.

What was great for me was that everyone was more-or-less at the same level (or close enough), and that they brought a variety of interests and questions to the class. For example, one person was particularly interested in the mechanics of a blog site, whereas someone else had lots of questions about legal issues.

I laid out the class in what I suppose is a typical format of lecture-demo-exercise.[1] As I said, I wanted there to be as much interactive work in the class as possible. Here’s a sampling of what we did.And of course I blathered on -- about blog planning, writing, mechanics, design, topics and content, feeds, aggregators, comments, linking, ethics, legal issues, measuring success (analytics), and whatever else came up. And showed more examples for as many things as I could.

All in all, I enjoyed the class. Such comments as I got were positive, so I think that the class in general is on the right track. I'm going to tweak some of the exercises -- as one example, rather than asking people to set up their own blogs, I'll just have a blog already that they can (if they don't mind) write an entry in.

I continue to get ideas, and people have sent me some additional material that I can slot nicely into the class. I would welcome ideas from anyone, actually, so if you have any thoughts about content, exercises, themes, discssion points, or whatever for a class like this, please send them.[2]

Thus endeth the story of the blog class. For now. If you want to read the other posts in order, here they are:

Blog class, Part 1: Class proposal
Blog class, Part 2: Syllabus
Blog class, Part 3: Contradictory advice
Blog class, Part 4: Getting information from the commmunity

PS The title of this entry originally was wrong (it said part 6 instead of part 5), so I changed it. If you saw that and are wondering what happened to part 6, there isn't one -- just a little sequencing error on my part. Sorry about that.

[1] Not quite the Watch One -- Do One -- Teach One approach of medical school. :-)

[2] I am scrupulous about crediting people both for using their blogs in class and for any information I've gleaned from them.

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  11:35 PM

Continuing the saga of the class. As much as I’ve blogged (too much, some might say) and in spite of my apparent willingness to throw myself in front of a group of people to talk about blogging, it was certainly clear when I was planning the class that I’m hardly the ultimate expert on All Things Blogging. The solution, of course, is to get help from people who really know what they’re doing.

As soon as I got the go-ahead to do the class, I went on a bit of a blogging-book shopping spree. Blogging exploded in the early 2000s; books on business blogging exploded in 2006, it seems, and I rounded up a nice selection. Debbie Weil and especially Nancy Flynn wrote for the POV of the company considering letting its employees loose on blogging. Shel Holz & Ted Demopoulus and DL Byron & Steve Broback wrote for the person inside the corporation who was going to be doing the blogging. Tom Masters, whose book we selected as the text for the class, wrote for the individual blogger, offering tons of advice on quantifying the blogging experience. And Shel Israel and Scoble wrote about all of those things and about blogging as a socio-corporate phenomenon. (The most compelling of all those books, I thought, but I’m somewhat biased.) I had a great time reading these books, and pulled quote after quote out of them as aphorisms about points that I wanted to make. Here are just a couple, indulge me for a sec.
What problem does blogging solve? The human desire -- and business need -- to connect. In real time.
-- Debbie Weil
Ask yourself this question. What do I care enough about that I want to talk about it every day? You can measure your passion for a particular topic by how much you read about it, talk about it, or engage in activities associated with that subject area. If your answer is “not much,” you might want to consider another topic. -- Tom Masters
Your writing style: Be simple, clear, conversational. In other words, write well. -- Debbie Weil
And others too numerous to mention.[1]

And then online, of course, I found hundreds of sites. I ended up with a three-page list of links to what I considered to be useful instructions and advice about blogging. (Pity the student who feels compelled to look at all those sites.)

The most interesting part of the research, tho, was asking real, live bloggers for some thoughts. Leveraging the slimmest possible excuse of an acquaintance, I emailed some questions to people whose blogs I admire. And I got back some great answers. I asked Nancy Friedman about her experience with blog platforms, and she sent me back a wonderful, detailed email with her history with Typepad and what she would do different now.

I pinged Eric Lippert, who (as noted in the last segment) had cogent, thought-provoking things to say about comment policies and about the criteria he uses when deciding to blog something. Scott Hanselman pointed me to his post Blog Interesting - 32 Ways to Keep Your Blog from Sucking, which boils down his years of blogging into a couple of pages of pithy observations.

I regret that I didn’t ask more people -– Jeff Atwood, Scott Guthrie, Phil Haack, and John McIntyre among people I (sort of) know, and Ariel Meadow Stallings, Steve Yegge, Eric Sink, Randy Tinseth, and Joel Spolsky among those I don’t know and might screw up the courage to contact. These are all people whose blogs I used as (positive) examples in the class and whose thoughts about their blogs and their blogging experience would be wonderful to hear first-hand. Well, perhaps in the future.

Next time: The class itself and what we did.

[1] I can post the whole list if you’re interested.

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  01:34 PM

As I noted before (Part 1, Part 2), an interesting aspect of teaching blogging is that there are no formal rules. This does not, as further noted, prevent people from coming up with all manner of guidelines and opinions. In most cases, the guidelines are sensible; in fact, they are often the same guidelines you’d have for any sort of writing, blog or otherwise.

And there are what seem to be a pretty common set of guidelines for blogging specifically. For example, pretty much eveyone who dispenses advice about blogging suggests that you keep blog entries to a reasonable size – say, 500 words. Similarly, pretty much everyone agrees that you should post frequently; you’ll see suggestions like daily or several times a week. The idea is to keep the blog fresh so that return visitors are rewarded, and to not tax your readers with oceans of text. In both cases, this is good advice, I think, for someone who’s still developing their blogging persona, let’s call it.

But. Counter-examples abound. Steve Yegge writes lo-o-o-ong (5000-word) essays, really, that he posts maybe once a month. And people love his stuff, because it’s fantastic. Scott Guthrie posts full-length articles on the latest and greatest in ASP.NET, and he's in approximately the Top 1 of Microsoft bloggers.[1]

And those are counter-examples to just the stuff that people mostly agree on. Other advice, pfffft. Careful study of the recommendations of professional bloggers will get you ideas that are, how you say, completely contradictory. Here are a few of the couplets I’ve run across (trust me, there are more):
  • Plan your blog carefully before you start.
  • Blogging is like swimming – to learn it, you need to jump in and do it.
  • Stick strictly to your blog’s theme/topic.
  • It's your blog, post about things that interest you.
  • Post frequently or you'll lose your readers.
  • Post only when you have something of real value to say.
  • It's important that your posts be grammatically perfect.
  • People forgive occasional typos and mistakes, lighten up.
I also had a most interesting email conversation with Eric Lippert, who gave me some thoughts that, sure enough, were 180 degrees off what I was reading elsewhere. I’ll severely truncate Eric’s much more extensive (and quite convincing) thoughts, but the dichotomy was:
  • It’s important that you develop a comments policy and post it.
  • (From Eric) Lippert’s Prime Directive Of Comment Policy is "never state the comment policy anywhere on the blog."
All this contradictory advice. You might think that this would make the job of teaching blogging much harder.

But here’s the odd thing: everyone is right. Every situation is different. If someone says A, it can make sense in situation A or for person A or for blog A. If someone says, nope, Z, well, that probably applies in situation Z or for person Z or for blog Z.

I figure the only thing you can do is just lay things out for the students. You tell them that lots of people recommend 500-word posts, but that you’ll find many excellent long posts. You tell them that people say you should post frequently, and then note that some of the best blogs have weeks or months between posts. You tell them that lots of people advise a comments policy, and then you lay out Eric’s cogent arguments against it.

As I say, there are no rules, really[2]. The best you can do is give people guidelines, contradictory or otherwise, and do your best to explain the reasoning and context for each one. From that point, the aspiring blogger has to take over and figure out what works for him or her.

Next time: canvassing the community for input.

[1] The motto on the site (not really blog) of the amazing Maciej Ceglowski is "brevity is for the weak." Ha.

[2] For the record, I have one rule I consider unequivocal: you must enable comments. No comments, no blog; you’re just posting essays.

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  12:20 AM

What exactly do you teach in a class about blogging? As I said in the last post, we just don’t know what the students will already know and what they hope to learn. Our best guess for this first class is that the student:
  • Has some notion of what blogging is, but
  • Has not blogged before, and
  • Wants to start blogging for a job or business (i.e., "in a professional context"), and
  • Wants some guidance on tools and techniques for starting.
I mean, ya gotta start with a persona of some sort, right?

Thus I’ve come up with the following as a very high-level outline:
  • Introduction to blogs – anatomy, examples.
  • Purpose of professional blogging – why people blog in the non-feelings-and-kitties sense.
  • Setting up a blog – planning, research, blog engines, how-to.
  • Writing for professional blogs - topics, writing conventions, ideas, tips (dos and don’ts).
  • Comments, links, and feeds – protocols (and mechanics) for dealing with comments, same for links. All about feeds and trackbacks[1].
  • Blog ethics, etc. – ethical and legal considerations for professional blogs.
  • Measuring success – comments, traffic, referrers.
A couple of things I’m not intending to cover in the 6-hour class: search-engine optimization and keyword strategies, and monetizing a blog. If the class is ever expanded into the long version, those would be suitable topics. Or, as might happen, if it turns out that people in the class don’t need a lot of detail about some of the other stuff in the proposed outline.

I have exercises or activities planned for all of these areas. I’ve requested that we get a computer-equipped classroom so that the students can do all this hands-on. (I sure hope they don’t have to just watch me, gah, how uninteresting that would be.)

It seems like the class really should focus a lot on the writing angle – this is, as noted, an offering in the tech-writing program. I’ve therefore been careful to plan activities that involve both analyzing blog writing and, of course, actually writing stuff. I’m not quite sure how this will work out, of course. But it could be fun.

Next time: contradictory guidelines.

[1] It’s my perception, actually, that trackbacks are waning (gone?), due to irreconcilable spam problems. I need to look into just how gone they really are.

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  09:26 PM

In a couple of weeks I'm going to teach a one-day class on blogging at Bellevue Community College. When I mention this to people, I tend to see eyebrows go up followed by some variation on "People need to learn ... blogging?"

In fact, the class is "Blogging in a Professional Context." This isn't a class about expressing your innermost feelings and posting pictures of your cats. The idea is that we'll discuss the ways and means of how blogging expands on the types of communication already used in corporations and by professionals. (Perhaps it clarifies to note that the class is being offered through the technical writing program at BCC.)

The idea was not originally mine. One of the people who has taught in the program at BCC for some time approached the program coordinator about the idea, which piqued the coordinator's interest. However, the teacher became unavailable to flesh out the concept. At the time, I was observing editing classes, and one of the students happened to mention to me that a class in blogging was being considered. I went up and discussed it with the coordinator, wrote up a class proposal, and here we are.

This will be an experiment. In this, its first manifestation, it will be a one-day (6-hour) class. If the experiment looks successful, it's possible that it can be expanded out to the usual 5-week (1 day/week) classes that are the norm for the program.

I've been working a lot at nailing down a concrete syllabus. A factor that adds an interesting twist is that we just don't know who will sign up for the class, or what the students will hope to get from the class. The program coordinator noted that the class has no recommended prerequisite. (Even if it did, the college doesn't enforce it--in general, as I understand it, class registrations are open.) So virtually anyone could walk into the classroom. We tried to emphasize in the class description that this was about professional writing, and the class is, after all, part of the professional writing program. Nonetheless, it's not impossible that someone might show up who is primarily interested in blogging about feelings and kitty cats. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

My other concern is that the class will consist of long-time bloggers who will be looking for ... something, I'm not sure what. People who, in any event, will not need any schooling in some of the blogging basics that I've been intending to include.

I said earlier that in the class we'll discuss blogging. The thing about the rules for blogging is that there aren't really any rules for blogging. There are ideas and suggestions and recommendations, and there are lots of opinions. The class will certainly include a good share of my opinions about blogging (and some that I'm borrowing from others), but I also intend for the class to be in part a forum among the students for discussing the ideas that I'll bring to the class. I suspect that students will already have some of their own opinions, based on either blogging already or on having read blogs. If so, it could be quite lively indeed.

Next time: the syllabus.

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