A few years ago, I wrote an article for someone else about how music was used in remixes and mashups, but it never got published. Even so, I was reminded of how music has a lot of reuse due to two events that happened to me over this past weekend.
First, I went to a concert given by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. The pieces that were played were Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Ninth “Choral” Symphony. About an hour before the concert, the maestro/conductor held a little talk about the pieces, giving some history and other notes about the pieces. He mentioned that both pieces were reflections of the times, in that the music reflected the turmoil that was going on in Europe during the early 19th century. But what also struck me–and what I listened for–was the reuse of music to reflect some of the action or feelings of the time. In the 1812 Overture, for example, they played the original Russian version, which begins with a Russian Orthodox chant. Later, you hear the French National Anthem several times repeated over and over to reflect Russian and French forces at odds. Beethoven also used bits of well-known (at the time) country songs that were reflected in each movement.
Second, I started to watch an excellent program on television about the Beatles. It was on very late, and my husband and I–who are big Beatles fans–got drawn in, but had to turn it off as we needed to get to sleep. But when we did see was fascinating, and it put an interesting spin on their music. The episode was concentrating on how revolutionary the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was. It was the first time any musicians purposely made a studio album that wasn’t meant to be played for touring. This allowed the Beatles a lot of freedom to experiment with sounds that were either repurposes or found a new place. Sometimes it was the instrumentation that was new; sometimes it was the hybridization of two or more different styles. The one piece that they broke apart that captured my attention was “Penny Lane”. “Penny Lane” is about observations around the area where Paul McCartney and John Lennon grew up. Musically, it captured the old vaudeville sound yet at the same time had a pop/rock sound to it, with overtones of baroque as well. The final track included 4 separate tracks of piano, and a host of other instruments like a special piccolo trumpet (I think that’s what it was called, but correct me if I’m wrong), which wasn’t an instrument used often in modern pop music! Another example, although not part of the album but part of the recording period, is “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Did you ever think that the vocal track sounded a little weird, even though it worked? That’s because the main music background track was made on one day at one speed, and the voice was recorded at a different speed on a different day. John Lennon wanted to use both tracks, but they didn’t synchronize well. Because the technology wasn’t there electronically like it is now, sound engineers had to figure out how to change the variable speed on both recordings so that they could get them to synch. That sort of thing didn’t exist until then! Fascinating stuff.
So what does this have to do with content strategy? Everything. Here’s why.
A big part of content strategy is knowing what to keep and what not to keep. Content strategists are always promoting reuse of content to be used in new ways. By mixing and matching content appropriately, you can get a hybrid that is something new and unique to itself. Nowadays, copyright laws can get in the ways, but if they are heeded appropriately, something new and wonderful can be produced. The music world really started to notice when rap and hip-hop started sampling and reusing music, a practice that’s still used today for new music, remixes, and mashups.
What do you think? Did musicians have this figured out well before writers by almost 200 years? Include your comments below.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned! I am a failure in technical communications.”
OK, perhaps in many eyes, I haven’t been a failure in technical communications. It will be five years this spring since I graduated with my Masters degree in Professional and Technical Communication from NJIT. In many ways, that feels like it was just yesterday, and I’m still a “new graduate”. But with the change this year in my STC Membership that’s moved from “Student” to “New Professional” to “Classic”, I supposed I’m not anymore.
While graduate school gave me a good foundation to move forward, I learned very quickly that I needed to continue to educate myself. As I attended conferences and presentations, and paid attention to discussions in social media, I found out that graduate school lessons barely cut the surface. I’ve tried my best to continue my studies by attending as many webinars, conferences, and presentations that I can. I even took another university graduate certificate course on digital marketing, hoping to get some insight that might help me going forward.
However, in the end, I failed to do one thing that might actually boost what I’m doing as a fledgling content strategist, and thus, my confession: I needed to learn DITA.
For those of you who don’t know what DITA is, it’s the acronym for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it’s a commonly used method for creating structured authoring using XML coding. The idea is that documentation done using DITA methods will allow for single-sourcing for content elements, and equally make it easier to integrate that content into print or digital outputs in a super-organized, modular way. It’s a standard that helps because it’s generic to almost any system out there. Any system that can read XML can read a DITA document, for the most part. When moving from one system to another, the content can stay intact if done using DITA/XML methods.
I don’t remember learning much about DITA in grad school, other than understanding what it was in general as I explained it above. I never learned the details. In my work life so far, I haven’t needed it. It’s always been unstructured authoring. I try to take some small steps to create some single-sourcing content when possible in content management systems, but that was hard to do sometimes. One of my recent jobs made me realize that we needed some sort of structured authoring done, but I didn’t know how to go about it. We created our own coding tags to describe things going on in copy decks. It wasn’t the best, but it was better than nothing.
In the past year, I’ve tried to figure out ways to continue to improve my skills, and make myself more marketable as a content strategist/content manager. I talked to the leading experts in the field. (It’s one of the benefits of getting involved with the STC and attending STC events–you get to know these people personally.) And the one thing that seemed to come back to me again and again was that I had a good resume, and I have some great skills under my belt, and they knew that I was a good writer from this blog. The biggest sore spot in my skill set was that I lacked an important skill–knowing DITA and using it. And while I looked for jobs in my area that included DITA practices (I think I’ve only seen one listing in three years), I’ve been assured that if I could learn DITA, the remote/telecommuting possibilities could be much better for me. And since remote opportunities are my best bet right now, I have to do what I need to do to make that happen.
So, as the saying goes, I bit the bullet. Fortunately, the STC was promoting a course about DITA Essentials taught by Bernard Aschwanden, the Immediate Past-President of the STC, and the proprietor of Publishing Smarter. Bernard’s a great instructor, and he’s taking it nice and slow. One of the best parts of the course is hands-on experience, even if it’s in the simplest ways. That’s the way I tend to learn best–learn the logistics of how something is done, then I need to learn to do the work through trial and error. Last week’s assignment was particularly challenging for me. While I understood what I had to do conceptually, since I was also trying to familiarize myself with a few XML editors at the same time while applying what I wanted to do with my assignment, I got very frustrated. I sent in my assignment, along with notes about where I was getting frustrated and needing some guidance. Bernard assured me that all would be well, and asked me if he could use what I had turned in for my assignment for the most recent class. He also warned me to have a glass of wine ready while taking class, because I’d be needing it. Yikes!
The glass of wine was done by the end of the class, and yes, he ripped my assignment apart, but it was okay in the end. I knew there were problems with it, and he showed me where my original thought process was correct, but I didn’t know how to execute it properly. One of the mistakes I was making was my use of XML tags, particularly using the correct ones. While the XML editing apps all have guidance features to help you with using correct tags in certain situations, I still wasn’t using the best choices. Most of that was because I’m not familiar with what these XML tags mean, so I was using them at face value. For example, I was using a step example tag in part of my content, and Bernard understood why I used it, but felt that the way I used it was incorrect, and didn’t allow for cleaner coding. Okay, I can deal with that, especially when he demonstrated the correction.
So, as much as I’m struggling with DITA, I do understand the essential concepts behind it now. My biggest problem is learning how to use it beyond the most elementary tasks. I haven’t had any “real world” scenarios to date when I could implement and learn how to use the XML editors and use DITA practices in writing or rewriting content. I need to figure out how to find content and start having a way to truly play with something so that I can get the full experience of that trial and error to master DITA.
After the STC course that Bernard is teaching, I plan to follow-up with Scriptorium’s DITA tutorials as well, and see if I can learn some more about XML coding. I have a lot to do to figure this out, but I know that in the end, this will be a big skill that will make a lot of difference in how I approach content. The content strategist skills I already have acquired have helped me frame DITA much more easily than if I learned this with no prior knowledge. But, I can tell that I still have a long way to go before I feel that I’ve mastered this.
So, this ends my confession. I have needed to learn DITA. If it’s not taught in university classes in technical writing, it should be. I think it would have saved me a lot of frustration, and provided more opportunities for me sooner. If I can get a better handle on this, I’m hoping that I can start exploring how XML Editors can integrate with CMSs, like Adobe CQ. I’m not an Adobe AEM developer (I’m not a developer at all!), but I know how to create websites and pages with AEM, and hopefully I can start figuring out how to integrate those skills with DITA skills. I was told by one mentor, that would make me a very desirable job candidate, and I think she’s onto something. Of course, I need to brush up on my AEM skills, since it’s been a couple of years since I’ve used them regularly, but with all things, once you master them, it’s like riding a bicycle. You might be a little unstable at first, but you never quite forget how to do it once you get started back into it again.
Here’s hoping that in 2017, DITA will become a “bicycle” skill for me. I’ll go say a few rounds of the Rosary in the meantime for my penance.
(What do you think? How important is DITA in technical writing? I’ve heard some say it’s a passing trend, and others say that its usage continues to grow. Include your comments below.)
Oh, when I read this, I knew this would appeal to the history geek in me, while also satisfying the tech comm geek in me as well. When the click bait of this article says, “What do Alexander Hamilton, Harry Potter, and Bayesian Statistics Have in Common?”, you know I went for the bait. And knowing that Alexander Hamilton’s reputation is becoming more relevant thanks to the Broadway musical, “Hamilton”, I thought this would be relevant to share.
Not only did I come away with a cool story about The Federalist Papers and statistics, but the thing that kept coming back to me was how tech comm has become advanced enough that we use many of the same techniques in content strategy now. To be more specific, Mark Lewis and his talks and book about XML metrics instantly popped into my head, and how we use similar statistics to figure out how to economize our content, and provide the best ROI for the content that is created.
Read this article, then go back and read my articles about Mark’s talks about XML Metrics here and here. You’ll see where I was making a connection.
What do you think about this? Do you think that The Federalist Papers project laid the groundwork for XML metrics and other metrics we use today in tech comm? Why or why not? Include your comments below.
Thanks to Madonnalisa Gonzales Chan for posting this on the Content Strategists’ group on Facebook. This is an excellent article that starts to delve into the idea of how one would create UX content to interact with people. As I’ve been working in UX creating some of this style of text (but definitely not anywhere close to this deep), I found this fascinating, and the journey that the author took in exploring this brought up points that I hadn’t thought of, as well as points I could relate to.
What do you think? Where do you see conversational design going as we start to write more content for help, IoT, and other content outputs? Put your comments below.
While I’ve spent years blogging and talking about being a technical writer, I haven’t actually been a technical writer except for doing projects in grad school–until now.
In the last two months, I’ve started a position as a content/technical writer for the UX/UI Design team of a large company, working on their global self-service portal. The position was available shortly after my last contract gig ended prematurely. While I’m not enjoying the extra long commute, and I took a pay cut to remain employed, I have to say that I am learning a lot while applying a lot of the “theory” that I know.
Up until now, I’ve been more caught up in content strategy, creating the UX of websites, and making suggestions about how to utilize content rather than actually writing it. This new position has taken me in a completely new direction that I’m sure most of my readers are already familiar with, but it’s new territory for me–at least in applying what I know about it. There’s an outside vendor who creates the business requirements, who passes those along to the UX and graphic designers to create wireframes and the UI designs, and then another writer and I create the copy decks based on those. The project we’re all working on is the Company’s global self-service product (the image above is a hint of where I’m working), so there are a lot of details to consider.
My time as a knowledge management specialist in my last position was not as pleasant as I would have liked simply because I wasn’t doing that much actually related to knowledge management at all. I was brought in to do one thing, and ended up doing something completely different and something that didn’t play up to my strengths.
This is the complete opposite of that. While I will contend that I’m still very much in the learning curve of understanding my responsibilities and their expectations, the environment is much more in line with what I need to be around. Our manager has been talking about the idea of creating consistency throughout the product’s content. I’ve suggested looking into single-sourcing tools that might help us with that, but they don’t know how to wrap their heads around that idea yet. Even so, the other writer of the team and I have had some lively discussions about it. I appreciate having a voice when asking questions of why a UX designer went in a certain direction, and I get a vote when the team discusses how customers think and how they should direct the customers on the site. While I’m still learning by doing when creating new copy and editing old copy, I feel like I’ve been well-trained for this at grad school as well as from various presentations I’ve attended over the years at conferences. I’ve even had the chance to share my localization/globalization insights to the company in the hopes that we can be sensitive to better copy when the product is ready for translation.
So, this is certainly a new adventure. It’s not the direction that I thought I’d be going into, but I’ve definitely been learning a lot over the last couple of weeks, and things are just getting started. We’ll see how this progresses in the coming weeks. I finished my first copy deck last week, and I was told that I did a pretty good job for a first-timer. However the second, much bigger and more complicated deck I just completed with little guidance was ripped to shreds after spending a month writing it, with only a day and a half to fix everything. Needless to say, I was unhappy about that (spent the afternoon in tears), and it made me put all my education and self-confidence as a technical writer into question. As I said above, I know they need better processes that probably involve a way to write single-sourcing information, but the problem is that it’s not the kind of information that would eventually be published as a website, ePub or other documentation. It’s complicated to explain, but it’s a bad process. All the copy is done in Word. Need I say more?
My husband has said that there’s one thing that’s been for sure during this last year or so–I can’t say that as a contractor that I haven’t had an opportunity to learn new things, and to have very different experiences in the process. He’s certainly right about that! This latest position is one that I think will provide me with better insights into writing and developing content, and how it integrates best for a good user experience for the customer. I’m used to receiving content written by others, so it’s a great chance for me to be on the “other side” of the equation. It’ll also provide me with insight as to whether this is the kind of job for me. (I’m thinking right now that I like content strategy and management better.)
Where will this take me next? Good question–I don’t know. But there’s still a lot to learn, and it definitely contributes to my skills as a technical communicator.
What was your first writing gig like? Share your experience in the comments below!
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