Clear and to the Point

29 April, 2010

Project cycles

I’ve recently discovered that graduate students typically a crisis when writing their thesis, when they despair of ever finishing their degree. At the time it seems like the collapse of their hopes for a career. It might be easier to handle as a stage in the normal writing-project cycle.

I’ve been writing technical materials for years, mostly in project three to eight months long, and still suffer from the emotional ups and downs of writing. Every project has similar emotional phases: excitement at starting out, wonder of discovery at learning the material, puzzlement or even bewilderment about how to organize the information, feeling productive at putting it together, and then doubt that it will ever be finished. The last stage is surprise and pleasure as it all comes together and doesn’t look so bad after all. The crisis might be less severe if thesis advisers would only tell their candidates to expect those phases and keep slogging, get a good night’s sleep or go for a walk and then come back to do a short manageable task.

It’s very daunting to start writing without a clear plan and just hoping to have everything down by the last page. It’s like setting off one day to walk across the continent. To help keep it manageable, I suggest outlining the topics and sub-topics of the thesis and then roughing out each one with a few sentences & a note of any illustrations or references. You can run such a plan past your adviser to make sure you’re on the right track. Then, with the logical structure in place, it’s easier to fill in the details. It’s more like riding to the next town, checking your itinerary, and buying a ticket to the next town—except that you don’t have to do the sections in order. Fill them in when you have the information or the inspiration. This is called top-down design and it’s one way to cut a project down to size.

I hope that helps (similes and all)!

4 March, 2009

Remember the sanity check!

Filed under: technical communication — monado @ 23:24
Tags: , , ,

There will always be mistakes in everything that we do. Murphy’s Law pretty much guarantees that when you get a new book back from the printer and open it at random, there will be a mistake on the first page you look at.

One of the ways in which we try to foil Murphy is to make the last task before committing to production a “sanity check.” That’s one last look over the whole thing for errors that might have been missed. Here is where you look to make sure that headings, page numbers, captions, and titles are complete and correct. Or titles, links, and code. It’s a form of editing. Look for blanks, place-fillers, and queries that have been overlooked. I have seen typographical errors 30 points high and published material with “Fred to fill in” and web topics labelled “Subhead here.” So give everything one last scan.

I think a quick scan might have caught this rather cute and inconsequential error from Galaxy Zoo, one of my favourite sites. There you can take part in the scientific endeavour to classify thousands of new galaxies. They’ve started a blog and the blog features the top ten favourite galaxies.

This is number eight:spiral galaxy

And this is number three:

spiral galaxy

It seems familiar somehow, doesn’t it?

Murphy strikes again!

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