Writing fortunes for cookies

Ever had to write a fortune?

I’m working on a crochet project – a bowl of fortune cookies.

The pattern I’m following stitches them closed and embroiders a smiley face on the outside but I chose to include actual fortunes inside my cookies.

Writing challenge! I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of space or flexibility for presentation of the messages, so brevity was key. I also had to make some style decisions.

Font. Punctuation. Language.

Next, because I was using iron-on transfer paper I needed to print the text backwards. I created mirror text in Word and did a few test prints.

Result

You can’t turn tech writing off, no matter the project.

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Instructions to assemble a spinning wheel

I have only ever documented software.

One of my secret tech writer dreams is to write doco for tangible products. “Congratulations on the purchase of your whipper snipper” I’d write.

Recently I bought a portable spinning wheel that folds up and fits into a carry bag. It is called a Joy and it is aptly named – a marvel of design and engineering.

When the box arrived, I had to assemble the wheel. A very exciting prospect because I like building things and I like reading instructions.

I was keen to play every tech writer’s favourite game of picking the guide to pieces.

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Imagine my disappointment when it was actually quite okay!
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The critique

It was two column layout. Some of the content ran down the page, some of it across. A trifle confusing but not too bad.

The guide started with a graphic parts list (Ikea style), but should have also included a labelled diagram of the assembled wheel.

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Spinning wheel parts have names that may be foreign to new users. Reading instructions like “Thread the flyer spindle into the top shaft…” and “Hold the whorl with one hand…” didn’t bother me, but would have been double-dutch to the new spinner.

Happy and sad faces were used to show the correct tension.

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The re-write

One of the opportunities open to job-hunting tech writers is to take a poor example of writing, improve it and then send it back to the source.

I think I’ll take the high road on this one. I really like the Ashford company and their products. Although I could completely redesign their user guide, one could argue that there’s nothing really wrong with it since I managed to assemble the wheel with no problems.

Any anyway, I’d rather be spinning. Look how it folds up  – so cool!

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Lifelines in writing and knitting

Being able to reclaim work is very important as a writer and a crafter.

If you make a mistake in your knitting, you can tink – that is “knit” backwards. Basically you undo stitches one by one by reversing your actions to get back to a point in time. In tech writing terms, a bit like Ctrl+Z.

More drastically you can frog your knitting, which means you take the stitches off the needles and unravel big time, past the point of your mistake. Kind of like restoring from backup: you’re not really sure where you’re going to end up, and it’s probably further back than you’d like.

The most reliable way to recover from a mistake is to use a lifeline. A lifeline is a strand of yarn that you thread through the stitches on the needle and it acts as a place marker. You can confidently return to a known point in time and the stitches won’t unravel past your lifeline. This is as safe as source control.

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Tech writing lifeline

Source control is a lifeline in tech writing.

In the lace knit scarf I’m working on, the pattern is made up of 8 repeated rows. Every time I reach a perfectly completed set of 8 rows, I move the lifeline up.

In writing, this is akin to using a source control system to regularly check-in files or label a version of completed work.

Just like the second cup of tea is never as good as the first, I can never quite recapture the perfection of a phrase I have written when I have to reconstruct it from memory.

With source control, you don’t have to recall artful phrases from memory or reconstruct lost work.

Know how it works

Most authoring tools these days integrate with source control software. I recommend that you become familiar with the nuts and bolts of how your source control system behaves.

  • Where are the files actually stored?
  • How does branching and versioning work?
  • How can you retrieve an older version?
  • Does it allow multiple checkouts of the same file? If so, test what happens upon checking-in.

Be aware of the flexibility and limitations of your source control software – it might just save your life.

20140608-095859-35939207.jpgFind out more about fixing your knitting mistakes.

Zentangle graphic instructions

A cool example of instructions without words:

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Zentangle is a meditative form of doodling. I recently got into it as a really quick way to relax. (Bonus: you end up with piece of artwork!)

In the Zentangle book I use, the instructions for the different doodle designs are represented in comic strip style.

Each new step is shown in red.

No words

The method of this instruction style is never explained in writing. The graphic is not preceded by the heading “Instructions”. The authors don’t say, “Each new bit of the doodle is shown in red”.

Here it is in context on the page:

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Elegant simplicity.

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Watch out for colour

Using colour is a risk I usually avoid as a tech writer. Not everyone can see colour, or they see colour differently.

I think these Zentangle instructions would lose some of their punch without the colour, but the clarity of the design means they would probably still work as instructions.

Could you use it?

I’d love to be able to incorporate this instruction style in tech writing. I could see it working with any sort of progressive task where each step builds on the previous step.

This technique might work as an alternative to numbered steps in a user guide for:

  • assembling a product
  • filling in a complex form
  • playing a game
  • using an app.