Standing experiment

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There are health risks to sitting for a long time, so you should get up and move around every 2o minutes or so. This is supposed to improve your health and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Click here to read more about standing while you work.

Another option is to use a standing desk, but this has health risks too. Unfortunately, Standing for too long can also be unhealthy and is much more tiring than sitting. Which I didn’t realize before I started my experiment, but you can read more about why it’s not a great idea here.

Today I worked while standing for three hours (with a few breaks).

I don’t have a standing desk, so I made my own. I set up my laptop on top of a bookcase because no shelf was at the right height and stood on a chair to reach the laptop (see the photo above). I’m not at the right angle because your elbows are supposed to be at 90 degrees to your keyboard and you’re supposed to be looking slightly downwards at your screen. I’m looking slightly upwards because my chair isn’t tall enough. Even as I write this blog post, I am still standing on my chair and feeling slightly light headed.

I heard about standing desks and thought I’d try it out, not for health reasons, but to see if it improves my productivity. And I can conclude that at least for my first try, it does! Here are my observations:

  1. Standing just makes me feel more energetic.
  2. It’s a new environment (being this close to my ceiling) and the newness makes me more productive.
  3. I am less distracted because it would feel bizarre to browse Pinterest or do some online shopping at this angle and height.

Unfortunately, the major con is the health risks and the lightheadedness. I’m curious to try out an actual standing desk someday (or find a better make shift one). But for now, I will return to sitting and make an effort to stand and move (movement is key, even just a quick walk is beneficial!) every 20 minutes.

In conclusion, I don’t recommend trying it yourself, at least not for three hours. I have also learned a lesson in researching something before I try it out myself!

Be concise

Throughout the technical writing program, there are habits I have had to unlearn. Because my background is in history, I’m used to writing long essays. While conciseness is important in essay writing, it’s inevitable that if a professor requires a 15 page essay, the paper will be 15 pages, even if the arguments and supporting evidence could be written in 10 or 8 pages.

I want to share a tip that helps me write concisely. I like to keep a list of words in my mind (or on paper) that I should avoid or replace if I notice them in my writing because they are too vague, passive, or unnecessary.

You can find many of these lists on the internet. Here is the first one I came across and often refer to.

I have listed examples below:

  • really
  • very
  • severely
  • somewhat
  • extremely
  • actually
  • basically
  • there is
  • there are

An excellent resource on this topic is On Writing Well by William Zinsser (a great book!). The second chapter “Simplicity” is about the clutter in writing today.

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Image source: Amazon.ca

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising amount that shouldn’t be there.” (Zinsser, 12)

Here are the clutter words Zinsser mentions (use the words in brackets instead):

  • personal
  • experiencing
  • at this point in time (now)
  • currently (now)
  • in a sense
  • for the purpose of (for)
  • I might add (“If you might add, add it.” Zinsser, 15)
  • It is interesting to note
  • assistance (help)
  • numerous (many)
  • facilitate (ease)
  • individual (man or woman)
  • remainder (rest)
  • initial (first)
  • implement (do)
  • sufficient (enough)
  • attempt (try)
  • referred to as (called)

“Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it is beautiful? Simplify, simplify.” (Zinsser, 16)

Zinsser states that first drafts can often be cut by 50% and convey the same meaning.

My goal as I write and edit is to constantly ask myself:

Is every word doing new work?

Source:

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Rev ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

Manuals with Microsoft Word

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In the first semester of Algonquin’s technical writing program, I learned how to use Adobe FrameMaker.

Click here to see a manual I created using FrameMaker.

I understand that FrameMaker is a powerful tool intended for creating technical content. Someday, I’m guessing I’ll need to use FrameMaker or a similar software again to create more complex or lengthy manuals. But for now I’m so much more comfortable using Microsoft Word. So since completing the FrameMaker course, I’ve learned how to put together and easily manage a decent looking manual with several chapters using Word and Adobe Acrobat.

Click here to see a manual I compiled using the method explained below.

The process can be a bit tedious, and maybe there are easier ways of doing this (let me know in the comments!) but this has worked for me so I wanted to share it here.

Please note that you’ll find these instructions more detailed than necessary if you’re already familiar and comfortable with using Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat.


First chapter

  1. Write your first chapter using Microsoft Word.
  2. In the Header & Footer section, select the checkbox beside Different Odd & Even Pages.

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    Header & Footer toolbar

  3. Consider designing your header with the company’s logo and the page number in the upper left corner of the even pages (shown below) and just the page number in the upper right corner of the odd pages.

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    even page

  4. If you’re having trouble formatting the page numbers so they’re on opposite sides of the page (left for even and right for odd), leave them both on the left. Double click on the page number of the odd page and press the Tab key on your keyboard twice. This will push the number to the right side of the page and all the subsequent odd pages will be similarly formatted.

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    odd page

  5. The design of the header will remain the same for each chapter, but the footer will be different because it will include the specific chapter name. Consider placing the manual name on the bottom left of even pages and the chapter name on the bottom right of odd pages.
  6. Save the completed chapter to a new folder and name the file “manual name_chapter name.”

Subsequent chapters

  1. Open the first chapter.
  2. Select Save As.
  3. Type in your new chapter’s file name and select Save.
  4. Delete the content of the first chapter (but not the header or footer) and begin writing the second chapter (this will keep the styles, bulleted lists, headers, footers, etc. consistent).
  5. Rewrite the footer of the odd pages to match the new chapter name.

Page numbering

  1. Determine how many pages you will need for a TOC (table of contents). For these instructions we will use the example of two pages being used for the TOC.
  2. Open your first chapter and go to Page Number>Format Page Numbers.

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    Page Number menu

  3. Under Page numbering, select Start at and type in the page number of the first page of the first chapter (in our example, the TOC takes up two pages, so we are starting the first chapter on p.3).

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    Page Number Format

  4. Continue this process for every subsequent chapter, starting the page numbering where the previous chapter left off.

Creating the TOC

After completing the chapters and adjusting the page numbers, it’s time to create a TOC.

  1. Create a new document and type out the title of the first chapter.
  2. Press the Tab key on your keyboard twice and type the page number of the first chapter so it is aligned with the right margin.
  3. Below the chapter title, insert a table with two columns and at least two rows.

    Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 11.08.02 PM.png

    Insert Table

  4. Make the right hand column very narrow and specify that the text in that column should be right aligned.
  5. Type each heading and subheading of the first chapter in the left hand column, adding rows as needed.
  6. Type the corresponding page numbers in the right hand column.
  7. Indent the subheading titles to the right so they are distinct from the heading titles.

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    TOC example

  8. Remove the table border by selecting No Border from the Borders menu in the Table Design section.

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    No Border

  9. Repeat this process for each chapter by copying and pasting the table you used from the first chapter.
  10. Save the TOC to the same folder where you saved the chapter files.

Compiling the PDF

  1. Open Adobe Acrobat and select Tools from the top menu.
  2. Select Combine Files.

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    Combine Files

  3. Add all of the Word documents from your manual folder.
  4. Rearrange the files so they are in the correct order (you can also add a title page Word document at the beginning or include a title page as the first page of your TOC. If you add it to your TOC, start the page count at zero and remove the page number from the title page by selecting Different First Page under the Header & Footer section).
  5. Select Combine.
  6. Save your PDF manual.

And you’re finished! I hope you find this helpful. I realize it might seem like a lot of extra work. The two major annoyances are creating a TOC manually and editing or updating a finished manual. When you need to edit one part of the manual, that means re combining all of the files again in Adobe Acrobat and sometimes adjusting the page numbers. However, for minor changes, you could just use the Edit PDF feature in Adobe Acrobat and change the already-combined-PDF rather than making changes in Microsoft Word.

And if you enjoy using Microsoft Word, this method does allow you to work with larger projects in manageable chunks, which I really prefer to working with one long Word document.

Canva for technical writers

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This past summer I discovered a fun and useful tool for technical writers. Canva is a website (and also an app available for iPhone and iPad) used for graphic design and photo editing.

The large number of templates, free icons, illustrations, photos, text, backgrounds, and layouts for any type of print or online document you need sets Canva apart. While this might seem more useful for an amateur graphic artist, Canva has so many templates that can be incorporated into a technical writing project. Some of the templates that are more relevant to technical writing include:

  • letter
  • presentation
  • resume
  • flyer
  • trifold brochure
  • infographic
  • blog graphic

Click here to see the variety of templates Canva offers.

I have used Canva to make:

  • blog header
  • business card
  • invitation
  • resume
  • cover letter

I have also used Canva to write a reference document that summarizes technical writing concepts and guidelines which you can download here.

While I had a lot of fun experimenting with text and icons when writing this reference document, I wouldn’t recommend using Canva for writing documents that are much longer than a page. It’s not a sophisticated text editor and can run pretty slowly as you’re using it on the internet (I’ve never tried the iTunes app). So it’s certainly no replacement for Microsoft Word. But for shorter projects or documents that contain more graphic elements than text, I highly recommend this tool!

Click here to visit Canva’s website

Click here to download the Chrome web app for easy access to Canva

Click here to see the app for iPhone and iPad