Meet us in Memphis @WritersUA Contest

I just entered a contest to be a guest blogger for the Conference for Software User Assistance hosted by Writers UA in Memphis, TN in March!  I’ve never been to a conference like this before and would absolutely love to go.

Just reading the session topics got this #techcomm nerd excited about the possibility of being chosen to go.  Their main topics are: Content Strategy, Tools and Technologies (HTML5, CSS3, HATs, Adobe, DITA, and Mobile help), and Emerging Skills. I feel like I could learn so much from these industry experts.  If picked, I would be interviewing them, attending the sessions, and blogging about it from the road.

I’m glad that tech writers and industry professionals get together like this to share ideas and engage in discussions.  It helps everyone develop and improve their skills.  College was the best time of my life, and I think it was mostly because of the constant learning, community, and engagement in focused subjects of interest.  I thrive on it.  I’m always researching new topics and looking for ways to improve myself both personally and professionally.  Attending conferences like this one is a great way to do so.

I hope I get picked!



Follow up: I won!  I’m going to the conference and will be covering it both on this blog and on the Tech Whirl website.  Stay tuned for more info!

Tips & Tricks: MS Word

This is a fantastic article with tips and tricks for MS Word and Excel.  It inspired me to share a few of my own with you. I am a self-taught MS Office user.  I never opened a book or took a course on how to use the programs (which is the case for every program that I use), I just started using them and clicking on things to see what they do until I learned advanced techniques.  I picked up a few tricks from peers and colleagues, learned some while writing my thesis, at work, and of course, from googling how to get out of “format hell,” as I like to call it.  But by now, I can make Word, Excel, Power Point and Outlook sing and dance.

1. Show/Hide Formatting marks.  This is probably my favorite feature of word.  I often reveal the formatting marks while I write and edit.  The first thing to know about these little marks is that they hold all of the formatting for the entire line of text.  If you highlight the paragraph symbol at the end of a line and copy and paste it over the next line’s mark, then that line will have the same formatting.  (It is similar to the functionality of “Format Painter,” but it is more specific.)

To show the formatting marks, click on the symbol (shown below) in the Paragraph section of the Word ribbon at the top of the screen.

It will look like this when it is turned on:

2. Use Styles religiously.  Along with revealing the formatting marks while I write and edit documentation, I also reveal the styles.  If you have no clue how a word or line is being formatted (or if it is doing something totally wacky – which it usually is), simply click anywhere in the line and look at which style is identified in they styles pane.  In the example below, the cursor is on Normal text.  You can use this feature to select a line and click on your desired style set for that line and it will change the formatting for the selected line(s).

This is also where you can modify the default styles. Hover over the style name, then click on the arrow to open the drop-down menu and select Modify.

This will open the Modify Style Editing window.  From here, you can change everything about that style and make it your own.  This is crucial to being a professional writer.  Using the default styles is usually the mark of an inexperienced writer.  It is very easy to modify the styles and it can have a major impact on your work.

3. I have two words for you… Find and Replace.  Warning: This might change your life.  Have you ever spent hours going through a document to change 1 word to another?  This feature of word will change everything.  From the Home tab on the Word Ribbon, click Replace.  This will open the Find and Replace window.  In the first box, type the word you wish to replace.  In the second box, type the word that will replace the first word.  Click Replace All.  Voila!

4. Track Changes is your friendWhen you need to edit a document and mark it up with your changes, track changes is the way to go.  I’m often surprised by  how many people don’t know about track changes.  They manually change the color of their text each time they type and manually enter comments, when all that work is done for you with track changes.  From the Review tab on the Word ribbon, click on Track Changes to turn it on, then freely edit the document and save.  You can also add comments from the review tab and it will mark them with your initials.

5. Compare/Combine.  Here is a scenario for you: Two people are editing the same document.  One is using track changes, the other isn’t.  You need to compare the edited version to the original and see what they changed, you can use the Compare feature in word.  It will prompt you to locate both versions in your files and then it will markup the edited one with track changes so you can see what they changed.  Now, let’s say that you need to merge their marked up copy with yours, use the Combine feature. These features are both accessible on the Review  tab of the Word ribbon.

And now for my favorite time-saving keyboard shortcuts!

  • Ctrl+C = Copy
  • Ctrl+V = Paste
  • Ctrl+B = Bold
  • Ctrl+U = Underline
  • Ctrl+I = Italic
  • Ctrl+Z= Undo (love this one)
  • Ctrl+X= Cut (it copies and deletes at the same time)
  • Crtl+A = Select All (very useful)
  • Ctrl+P = Print
  • Ctrl+Scroll = Scrolling up on your mouse scroll wheel increases the size of the page you are viewing and scrolling down decreases it.  This works on most windows.
  • Alt+Tab = switch between open programs  (You can continue holding down Alt and pressing tab to toggle through all your open programs.  When you release the Ctrl button, it will open the last page that you stop on.)
  • Alt+F4 = Quit Program or closes current window
  • Windows Icon+D = minimized all of your open windows
  • Windows Icon = opens the Start menu
  • Enter+Shift = In MS Word allow you to enter a carriage return (space) without carrying the formatting from the line above.  For instance, you are writing a bulleted list and you want to add a sentence in the middle of the list without interrupting the bullets.

Am I forgetting any?  What are some of your favorite time-saving tips and tricks for windows and MS word?

A blog entry on the importance of blogging…

I just read this article from Social Fresh written by Michael White of Musings of a PR Student and thought I’d share with you.  It is called The 8 Reasons Why Students Should Blog (but really applies to anyone – not just students). White makes some very valid points, most of which are reasons why I started a blog myself.  The biggest reasons for me were #1, 3, 5, and 6 – portfolio, networking, expanding knowledge-base, and reputation. (#8 would be nice of course, but like White said: “In my opinion earning money is never a goal, only a side effect from doing something you enjoy.”)


Web Design for Tech Writers Part Two

So I realized that there are a couple of other tools and tricks that I didn’t share with you all in my last post on web design for tech writers.  Today, I wrote CSS to go with a page of HTML documentation.  I used the following tools, which some of you might already know about, but if you are just learning web design, they might be helpful to you:

Browser Developer Tools

Each browser has different features in their developer tools which allow you to inspect and edit the source code of a webpage (both HTML and CSS).

  1. In Internet Explorer (IE), you can simply press F12 and the developer tools window will open.  From there you can select the arrow to highlight areas of a webpage to inspect or edit.
  2. In Google Chrome, click on the wrench icon on the right, then tools, then developer tools. There are a lot more features in Chrome’s developer tools than IE such as elements, resources, network, scripts, timeline, profiles, audits, and console.
  3. Mozilla Firefox has probably the best developer tools of all, but you have to download a plugin for Firebug.  Firebug works much the same as Chrome and IE’s developer tools.  It is opened by pressing F12 and it has many of the same features of Chrome, but is also has predictive text and auto-fill capabilities.  This is especially useful to beginning web designers who are still learning the code, but can also speed up the coding of even the most experienced web designer. (This is my preferred method.)

*Note: If you do not already have all three of these browsers installed on your computer, highly recommend doing so.  Webpages look very different on each of them (especially chrome) and it is beneficial to test it on each.  Certain browsers only support certain fonts, graphics, technologies, etc. It is equally important to make sure that your browser is always up-to-date with the latest version. It seems to me like everyone has a different favorite browser. hmm

Viewing the Page Source

On any webpage, you can right click the page and select view source or view page source.  This will open up a notepad document with all of the HTML and CSS source code for a webpage.  Using developer tools mentioned above provide you with the exact same information, but in an editable format.  If you are just looking at the source, or copying and pasting it, this is the best way to do it.

For people learning web design, this is a great way to get familiar with how webpages are put together and what HTML and CSS looks like.  It may seem like a foreign language at first, but the more you read it and break it down, the more it will make sense to you.  Everything is abbreviated and represented by characters.  For instance, paragraphs are marked with the letter <p> and to insert a line break is just <br>. (As I mentioned in my other post, the quickest and best place to learn HTML and CSS is w3schools.)


The best free MS Windows source code editor is notepad++.  I used to code in regular notepad, but once I got notepad++ I will never look back.  It’s name describes it pretty well, it is notepad, but plus, plus.  It makes coding so much easier by doing syntax highlighting, line numbering, and also supporting several programming languages.  Plus, plus, it’s logo is an adorable green gecko and who doesn’t love geckos?  (You can also use Adobe Dreamweaver to edit your source code, but that is an extremely expensive software and not needed to design web pages with HTML and CSS.)

Even if you don’t know what you are doing, try out some of this stuff and play around.  You can make a simple HTML page and add CSS to it and then just mess around with it in the developer tools and notepad++.  You can’t break it, so try different things out.  Go to w3schools and play with their “Try it Yourself” editor.  It’s fun to see how the changes you make to the code impact what happens on the webpage.

If you are an expert web designer and you’ve known all about this stuff for years, then I apologize if this bores you, but I’m a writer and I’m still learning.

STC Membership

I am now a full member of the Society for Technical Communications (STC)!  In college, I had a student membership.  Since graduation, I have been debating paying the higher rate for the full professional membership and just found out that my company will pay for any professional association memberships!  So naturally, I signed right up!

There is a myriad of benefits for joining an organization such as STC, especially for someone in my industry.  The field is ever-changing, and it is crucial to keep oneself abreast of the latest and greatest information.  The networking opportunities are endless, the conferences and events are frequent, they offer classes and webinars, and the list goes on and on. For those who are considering it, you may be interested to know that they have a new membership option called New TC Professional for people that graduated less than 3 years ago for only $160 a year!  (That is cheaper than my alumni organization’s membership dues!)

I now have access to a large salary database and will get monthly printed journals from STC’s 2 publications, Intercom and Technical Communications.   I have seen these journals on the office shelves of my favorite college professors and in the library at school.  I have read them and cited them numerous times and can’t wait to fill my own shelf in my office with them as well.  These journals have excellent articles.  Hopefully someday I will be published in one of them myself!

So, look out STC Boston, your newest member is excited to join the ranks of the well-connected and well-informed!  (Only a nerd like me would be this excited about STC membership.)

Emerging Trends: Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) and Wikis

One of my favorite aspects of my job is how every single day I am learning new things.  Today, I stumbled upon DITA.  I have heard DITA mentioned once or twice but never knew what it was. Today I researched it a little bit.  This site has a good overview and description.

“The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based, end-to-end architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering technical information. This architecture consists of a set of design principles for creating “information-typed” modules at a topic level and for using that content in delivery modes such as online help and product support portals on the Web.”

An example of online help content using DITA XML and a CMS is the Autodesk WikiHelp Page.  A lot of tech writers are using wikis for their help content.  That is another area that I am exploring.  {A wiki is a website that can be modified by multiple people.  Wiki means “quick” in Hawaiian.  Some companies use them to provide a community-like feel by allowing users to help author the software documentation. The best, and most obvious example of a wiki is Wikipedia. Genius invention, even though it isn’t 100% reliable.}

A frequent topic of discussion is how to present online help content in new and interesting ways.  In fact, I was once asked that very question in a job interview.  As a writer, the thought at the front of mind whenever I’m writing user documentation is “What does the user want?”  I try to think of what I would want, and what examples of online help content have helped me the most.  (More often than not, I start with the search field in the online help or just go straight to google because I am looking for a quick answer so I can get back to work.)

I think that most people are like me, they want their questions answered in the shortest amount of time and the fewest steps as possible.  No one wants to read a 200 page manual to find out how to use the software or to answer a question that is holding them up from completing their work.  That’s why things like FAQ’s (frequently asked questions) and search fields are so instrumental; they rapidly provide users with answers.

I am constantly looking for new and creative ideas for presenting information in the MOST user-friendly, user-oriented way possible.  Recently, I started incorporating more Quick Starts, Tutorial Videos, and Walk-Through Guides into my documentation architecture.  I find that these guides rapidly provide users with just enough information to get them started performing the most commonly used tasks.

I am excited to learn more about wikis and DITA for authoring technical information.  Does anyone have any advice or examples of how they have used wikis and/or DITA?

Warm-ish Winter Wonderland

When I moved to Boston in the Fall, I enjoyed the beautiful leaves changing colors, but knew in the back of my mind that a brutally cold winter was coming soon.  This Florida girl prepared and braced herself for cold like she’s never known before, but so far, it hasn’t been that bad.  This winter has been the second warmest winter in history!  It’s as if I brought the  warm Floridaweather with me.  Most days are in the 30s with the low in the 10s to 20s.  It has snowed a few times laready, but nothing like the mountains of snow they got here last year.  I am certainly not complaining!

Most people thought that I would be freezing my tucas off here, but I am actually really enjoying the steadily “cold” weather.  The coldest it ever got in Florida was 27 and it would only get below 50 degrees for a few days out of the year.  It always annoyed me that there weren’t real seasons in Fl (even girls would wear their ugg boots with shorts in the winter).  So, I am really enjoying getting some actual use out of my winter wardrobe (coats, boots, hats, scarves) and the cool, crisp air is extremely refreshing. 

Boston Common

Walking around outside is quite pleasant, even when the wind is blowing.  I reluctantly bought a puffy parka jacket and I will never look back.  I used to think they were ugly and made people look larger than they really were due to the Michellin man-like structure, but I’ve never had a warmer coat in my life.

Despire it not snowing very much here, we went skiing last weekend.  Most of the ski resorts in the North East pump in snow to structure their ski runs.  We went to a place in Northern Massachusetts and skied and snowboarded.  It was fabulous.

Having winter sports and activities such as skiing, sledding, and ice skating can make a cold couple of months be much more bearable.  Hot chocolate is a must!  But, overall, this Florida girl is enjoying her first New England winter, despite it being unseasonable mild.  How is the weather where you are?