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So, how was your 2020? Good for you, too?

Let’s face it–2020 was a horrible year for everyone for a variety of reasons. And it was no different for me. One of the things I’m trying to do as I reflect back is understand how lucky I was in so many respects. No one in my immediate family has gotten COVID at this point. No one in my immediate family had died from COVID. My husband didn’t lose his job (since he’s the main breadwinner of the family), we didn’t lose our house, no one got horribly sick with anything that couldn’t easily be treated, no one went hungry–nothing like that. In that respect, I count my blessings.

Things that weren’t so good were included that we lost my father-in-law during this pandemic. He was located in another country, and my husband couldn’t even travel to say goodbye or pay his respects. He had to be on a video call with his half-brother to watch his father be buried. I lost two friends this fall from STC, which made me sad, and one of my best friends lost her mother a few weeks ago. A year ago exactly, I was let go from a job I wasn’t happy with, but the release from my contract was sudden and without much warning and was not handled well. I thought I had something lined up…a friend from graduate school had given me the lead, and I got the job. It would’ve been the most lucrative thing I’d done, and I was up to the challenge, but that fell apart before the pandemic hit. Having missed the new year window of job opportunities (most job listings are around the new year and the fiscal new year in July), I struggled to find opportunities and get interviews. And then…the pandemic hit, and hiring freezes were abound. While I had unemployment insurance funds to get me through for a while, it was a good thing that I am always saving money and conservative with my money, because I had to go into my nest egg for most of the year. I did pick up a few small side gigs–and that helped to not only buoy my finances, but also my confidence when it was at an all-time low.

You see, for most of this year, I was in a deep funk of depression. People would call me “inspirational” for constantly trying to pursue work and keep things going. I can assure you now, there’s nothing inspirational about it. It’s called survival and doing what you have to do, even if you aren’t up to doing it. 

Job hunting constantly is exhausting in and of itself, but constantly getting “ghosted” and rejected takes a toll on you after a while, or getting some big rejections when you thought you were getting close to securing that job that you wanted…it can be a big blow to your ego. Now, imagine doing that for almost a year. I even had one job offer that I was looking forward to, only to have an opportunity–for the second time in the same year–retracted due to no fault of my own. I mentioned the first one at the beginning of this year. It was a situation where I was the sub-contractor, and the client decided that they were not ready to go through the project after all, so they dumped the project, so I had to be dumped in the process as well. No fault of mine.  The second one was the fault of the recruiter. Because of some sort of legal mumbo-jumbo going on with drawing up the contracts for my consulting employment with the client, the deal didn’t go down–after I had already faced some daunting and difficult interviews to secure the job in the first place. I was really starting to lose hope, and I spent a good part of my year trying to figure out the answer to the question, “What’s my next move?” Frankly, I had no idea. Part of that involved reminding myself that I probably wasn’t doing anything wrong at all–it’s just the circumstances of what’s been going on with a pandemic. 

Add to that other stresses going on. My son started college at the local community college at the beginning of the year. He’d had problems with the program he was in during the last quarter of 2019, and he’d been asked to leave–essentially because the educational facility where he was didn’t have any clue how to support his special needs appropriately. It was a blessing in disguise, because now he’s in a good program at this local community college. However, he still has to get general education requirements out of the way, and those have been a challenge. Between his dad and I (mostly me), he’s halfway through the general education classes, and passing with what’s probably a mid-to-low B average.  He was just starting to gain some independence when that was taken away because he couldn’t go into classes on campus. That was a big step for him. and the pandemic set him back quite a bit.

The last stressor was my chapter–STC-Philadelphia. For whatever reason, pulling in new volunteers has been difficult for the last few years, and I knew that if we continued in the same way we have been, the chapter wouldn’t be sustainable for much longer, and it would fold. We lost some money due to the CONDUIT conference we had to eventually cancel due to the pandemic. So, a big part of my year was trying to reorganize and try to keep the chapter afloat, bring in new people, and set new expectations to stay afloat. I couldn’t bear the weight of it all on my shoulders anymore.

Things didn’t finally start to turn around until the end of October, which was good because I thought I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown by that point. But they started to improve, just in time.

First, I was grateful that I had those smaller gigs, because when I needed a little boost that validated that yes, I do have the skills and experience needed to do something, I had it. Thanks to Kevin Siegel for being one of those people who gave me a chance, even though it was short term. I enjoyed the work very much. But I was also happy for finally finding work that I’m enjoying now and getting compensated appropriately for. I like working for a manager speaks the same content design and UX design language as I do. One of her requirements was that she wanted someone who’s active in STC, and I’ve got that in spades! My suggestions and recommendations are not nixed, and I actually feel valued again. That’s all anyone really wants with their job, if you think about it. They want to feel productive in what they do, valued for what they do and think, and compensated fairly for being productive and valuable. I’m getting that now, so just for that, much of my depression has been lifted.

Next, my chapter is still afloat. We have a new team that’s starting to come together now, and the new chapter president is doing fine. I still advise, but the weight is off my shoulders. In fact, I was able to move into new volunteer opportunities. I was invited to be on the STC Education Committee and the STC Community Affairs Committee (CAC), both of which are high profile groups at the Society level. I’ve been working hard in those groups, and finding my value there, and getting great support from the chairs of those committees.

And…while the deaths of friends and family weren’t due to COVID, COVID did have an impact. I’m hoping that now that the US has a new president and vice-president elected, things will get better. Like many in the US, I was on pins and needles until that final count came in. I cried for joy for hours–something I’ve never done in a situation like that before. Why? Because of the relief that some semblance of “normalcy” and decency is going to be brought back to our government. The US is not out of the woods yet–it’s still going to be ugly for a while, but decency and morality and ethics prevailed in the end. That anxiety was alleviated a bit, too.

So, as 2021 begins, we still have a pandemic. We still won’t be able to do what we want to be doing. Not having a vacation or leaving the state is taking a toll. I need to break away, but being slightly immunocompromised, I really don’t want to take my chances outside my immediate area where most people are generally good about wearing masks and all the other stuff. (Yes, even in hard hit New Jersey.) I was looking forward to going back to conferences and seeing my friends. I’ve seen them online and in video chats, but it’s not the same. I haven’t seen any friends for ages except one and that’s only because she’s my dermatologist, too.

I think when all this pandemic stuff started, it hit me very hard and pulled me down hard because there seemed to be no end in sight. As a person with high-functioning autism, and just as a human being–I needed something that gave me some structure and something to look forward to. I couldn’t look forward to a vacation or anything like that all year. Now that a vaccine is out (even if I am not probably able to get it for another year), that means there’s some hope again–that there is an end in sight. In my eyes, it’s about a year from now. I’m thinking that things will be different this time next year. I will have probably finished up my current contract, and will be sad to go but on the hunt again. My son will have started the classes in his major and gained his newfound independence again. And “normalcy” will start to bloom again, albeit slowly, but surely.

One of my tech comm friends recently was down on herself because she didn’t hit any of her goals this year. Frankly, neither did I, except for one that I made later–stay alive! This is my goal for this year as well. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not always attaining what we want to do. First, we’ve been in a pandemic, so we need to adjust. Secondly, this year, as horrible as it has been, has helped many people–including myself–realize what’s really most important to us. Survival and supportive personal relationships are key. You do what you have to do–physically, mentally, and emotionally to stay alive. Most of us have been on “Red Alert” all year, and haven’t had a chance to back down to “Yellow Alert” (sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek this past year), but I’m hoping that 2021 is that “Yellow Alert” year–where we still have to be cautious and use our heads, but pure survivalist instincts will take over. 

I’ve often reminded people of two things– humans are adaptable creatures, so anything thrown our way, we can learn to adapt. This was definitely a year of learning how to adapt! The other part of it is that life is not a race. Only matters of life and death should be rushed–all the rest is nice to have sooner than later. Even earlier today, I was talking to my husband (who is an IDL developer/programmer) about this, especially in relation to IT or tech comm work. Forcing patterns and speed help nothing. Agile is good in theory, but I’m seeing more and more often that good content and UX is sacrificed for the sake of speed getting it up. The “bling” of UX layout and visual design is still overridden over content. We talked about SCRUM and DITA, and where is works and other instances that it wouldn’t work. All of these things are worthy discussions and have valid guidelines for practice. Perhaps in light of what’s going on, it’s time to take a few steps back, take out time, and rethink things. What’s REALLY important? What’s more important to you and your users–that they get the info they want and need, or that your site looks “sexy”? 

My goals for 2021 are simple:

  1. Stay alive
    1. Get the vaccine when eligible
  2. Eat more veggies this year
  3. Move a little more (not exercise or exercise more regularly, just move)
  4. Stay in touch and support the people who I care about and support me in return
  5. Stay flexible and learn what I can in my current position. 

We never know what’s going to happen from year to year–despite the best laid plans. Keeping your plans simple will help you achieve them, and also help keep you feeling sane. Self-care and self-love can go a long way, so do it when you can. 

Here’s hoping for a better year ahead in 2021. Let’s be stealth and jump to Black Alert. (Really–it’s worth it if you watch a lot of the current Star Trek series. Great entertainment as well as mental motivators.) 

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Content in the Age of Coronavirus

Man watching TV intensely Welcome to day 4-ish of my self-quarantine from the coronavirus pandemic. I say 4-ish because I went out on Sunday, but once I came back, I’ve stayed home every since. I went for a walk with my husband around the neighborhood yesterday for a little bit of fresh air, but now most of the weather is expected to be wet and soggy for most of the next week, so other than a doctor’s appointment that hasn’t been cancelled yet, I plan to stay indoors.

This post was inspired by something that I just watched on Twitter. Normally, I don’t watch Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show much (we’re more Late Show with Stephen Colbert people), but I saw he had posted a “home edition” post, and I was curious. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but he said something in his conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda in passing that perked my ears up. He mentioned that right now, it’s “all about the content”.


In the conditions that all of us are in right now, with most of us on self-imposed quarantines, many don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t doing their work from home or helping their kids with schoolwork. Being generally sequestered indefinitely, they yearn for content to keep them abreast of what’s going on in the world as well as something to entertain them to help pass the time. Many business-related companies that have means of broadcasting through webinars or the like are already taking advantage of this, and trying to help the “cause” of needing content to help people get through these times. So many people are not used to staying at home for long periods of time, unless they’ve been seriously ill, or snowed in from a blizzard or other natural disaster. Perhaps because I’m a bit of an introvert, and I’ve worked from home for a long time, I’m used to staying home and not going out for long stretches of time. I am a natural couch potato–my mother used to criticize me for it, but I’ve always loved watching TV to watch all the comedies, action shows, and documentaries I could. I swear half of my knowledge comes from pop culture from those years of intensely watching TV from the 1970s-1990s especially.

So, this is an opportunity to either appreciate the content that is out there or start creating your own. I’ve been watching documentaries, movies, and TV shows that were on my watch list for the longest time, and I’m starting to read some books again. At the same time,  I’m working with my programming chair/vice-president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter and another STC person on creating other content and events to go on virtually in the coming months.

Now, you might think that you need to have fancy equipment and lighting and audio to create content. Nope. Heck, this blog post is content. It’s taking up some of your time, and giving you something to think about, doesn’t it? Additionally, it’s not about the “bling”. Again the point is the content itself. What is the big message? What value does the content–whether it be text, video, audio, or whatever–have? Does it need to be “perfect” in order to get that main message through? In my opinion, it doesn’t not have to be glitzy. It’s nice when it is, but it doesn’t have to be. All content, as we’ve been told by content marketers, is about storytelling. Yes, that procedure manual you are writing or those instructions that you are writing as a technical writer are still telling a story. Any kind of entertainment we watch right now is content and it’s storytelling. Content storytelling comes in infinite forms, after all.

Photo of TechCommGeekMom and hubby walking in their neighborhood.
Here’s my contribution. Here’s a photo of me and my husband taking a walk around our neighborhood. It’s usually this quiet around here for the most part anyway. We didn’t stay six feet apart for long!

What kind of content are you either going to consume or create today? For me, it’s watching a mini-series on Hulu, then watching Star Trek: Picard and the Ready Room later today. I might create some storytelling by submitting my resume to another job opening. I know I’ve definitely been having conversations via social media and instant messaging with friends and family during this time. For me, most of this is generally the same as usual–I fill my life with content. Content is storytelling, but it’s also how you fill your life with experiences. Going out for a walk to get some fresh air is still absorbing content–you are using all your senses to create your story of taking that walk outside. You can translate that into further content by either video recording that walk, taking photos along the way, or writing about it later. No matter how it’s processed, it’s content.

So, while it’s frustrating to be sequestered for this long, we all know it’s for our own health and for the greater good of the PLANET. Coronavirus has definitely hit my area, and with my bad asthma, I’m hesitant to leave the house–other than a neighborhood walk–for anything for the most part. I know a lot of people are having a hard time with this, but we really are in this together. My recommendation is to concentrate on the good content that is out there. Be aware of the “doom and gloom” to be educated, but focus on the better stuff. Pay attention to how others are helping each other. Look at the content that people are putting out to ensure that you are recognized, loved, helped, and that your mind is staying active. Watch webinars and video conferences. This is a great opportunity to hone your verbal and written communications skills because working from home involves better communications skills than when you are in the office. Appreciate and enjoy all the entertainment and education that the media offers. You know I learned how to cook better over the years from watching a lot of the Food Network? My husband I have learned a lot about DIY projects and real estate from watching HGTV. It’s an opportunity for you to read all those books that you’ve been collecting to read and “will get to eventually”. This is time to spend with your families. This is a time to break out your creative side and draw, paint, knit…whatever. Learn to exercise at home doing something different–there are plenty of “dance parties” and yoga classes online where you don’t need equipment. Use this time to absorb content that will help you be a better person when you emerge from the quarantines. It will help distract you from the doom and gloom. Contribute content when you can, even if it’s a one-to-one instant message conversation with a friend, or an email. I know an email checking in on my parents lifted their spirits that I was checking in on them. Or heck, a blog post. 🙂

It’s all about the content right now. Learn to absorb and appreciate what’s out there right now that we can use, and help contribute positive content to share.

What are your thoughts? Include your comments below.

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How do we determine the bounds of digital literacy?

Yes, you are seeing this correctly. There’s a blog posting from me. No need to double-blink in disbelief. I am still alive and well. I don’t always get much of a chance to write here because I’m busy! One of these days, I’ll try to catch up with what’s going on with me, but in summary, I’m busy teaching a technical editing class at NJIT, working a part-time gig for BASF, working a “freelance contract” with a pharmaceutical company as a digital content strategist, and working my tail off for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as president, conference chair, sponsorship chair, and competition chair.  Not a lot of time to come up for air these days!

But as I do have a short moment right now to put these thoughts down, I thought I’d start this conversation, because it is a frequent topic that comes up again and again in all the things I’m working on these days.

Where are the boundary lines what constitutes digital literacy? Just like a person needing to know how to read and write, we live in an age where almost everything is done digitally these days.  You can’t do a lot of what you used to be able to do on paper or manually. You call a toll-free helpline, and you are most likely to get an automated chatbot responding to you before you can even get to a real person. Credit cards use chips increasingly more than the magnetic strips, or even use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or the like. To get help for anything, most people go online to find answers through browser searches.  So where’s the line of what’s considered digitally literate and digitally illiterate?

I bring this up because I often get into discussions about what is acceptable and user-friendly UX, and what’s not. I usually follow the tech comm mantra of “know your audience”, so many of the audiences I have to deal with aren’t necessarily the most digitally savvy bunch. I’ll argue to include something to make interactivity with the site more apparent, whereas others will argue that it’s not necessary.

I also wonder about people who still can’t figure things out like social media, or GMail or Google Drive, or things like that. These have been around for a decade–or more! There are other apps and sites that have also been around for a long time, and people still have no clue how to begin to use them (and it’s more disturbing to me when it’s someone who has to either work with digital on a daily basis, write for digital, or is teaching digital).  Now, some may argue that it’s a generational thing, but I don’t agree. I know people who are my parents’ age (into their 70s) who have a better clue than I do about how to use digital, and are very good at it. And then I know people younger than me who have no idea how to use word processing or a simple spreadsheet. It runs the gamut.  Digital has been a part of society for at least the last 30 years, and there isn’t anybody who isn’t touched by it these days. Those who don’t adapt fall behind. Digital is pretty much everywhere, and it’s even easier to use now than it was in the decades before.

Case in point: I recently had to go for my yearly eye exam. My optometrist is still scheduling in a paper book, does her bookkeeping in a paper book (the receptionist writes out receipts rather than prints them out), and most of the records are still done solely on paper. Additionally, they don’t have an up-to-date database or access to one to look up insurance information. I was told that I didn’t have certain kind of coverage, but when the place that I got my glasses (a different place than my doctor) looked the information up, I did have the coverage. Why? They could access the information online more easily.  While it seems old-fashioned, my doctor is actually severely behind the times, and she’s going to have issues keeping up with more modern practices soon enough. She complains that there’s no software that meets her needs, but she doesn’t know that no software will meet ALL of her needs, and she needs to work with a vendor to customize things as much as possible so that it WILL meet her needs.

I also had to deal with someone for whom I had help them sign onto Google Drive and Gmail. I’ve told this person many times how to do it–in writing, no less–and they still can’t figure it out. I don’t think it’s my instructions, as others have used the same instructions without any issues. I think part of it is a conscientious mental block that person puts up, because they don’t want to learn.

So, this is why I ask…

As a society, we put great emphasis on the basics of learning how to read and write. Same thing for understanding the basics of mathematics. So what’s the functional literacy level for using digital? I will grant you that understanding how to use digital has evolved over time. But there’s a point where, even as technical writers, we need to be promoting better ways to be literate. For example, if you are on a webpage, and you see text that’s in a different color or especially if it’s underlined, wouldn’t that tell you that it’s a hyperlink, and it’s going to take you somewhere else or open another window? Then why do we still have text like, “Click here to view the video” instead of “View the video”–or better yet, if the title of the video is mentioned in the sentence, just hyperlink the video title? This is especially true when it comes to writing for mobile, as you can’t “click” on something, just as you can’t “tap” on a desktop/laptop interface unless you have a touch screen.  This is an example of something that’s incredibly basic, yet there are those who still don’t get it.

So how do we define the parameters of being digitally literate versus being digitally illiterate in this day and age? I know I have my own ideas, but I would like to hear yours.  How would you define these parameters? Include your comments below.


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Good writing always gets you ahead.

Captain Picard has a lot of editing to do with ipads around him everywhere.
Even Picard knows that if you don’t have good writing and editing, things fall behind when you have a lot of editing to do.

I’ve been job searching again, as my last contract ended about a month ago. I’ve had some ups and downs in the last month, to say the least, but finding the next gig is always a priority (even though I said I was going to take the summer off). I’m still doing a few hours here and there of freelancing, but it’s not paying the bills, so the search goes on.

But as I’m working on coming up with a curriculum for the technical editing course I’m slated to teach at NJIT this fall, and following a phone interview with a recruiter for another job, it occurs to me that good writing and editing has always been a mainstay in my career, even before I got involved in technical communications.

The first job I had that involved writing was as a consumer affairs representative for the company that makes Arm & Hammer products. Part of the job was not only taking notes about the consumer calls, but also answering written inquiries. Now remember, this is in the days before the web, so phone calls and letters were all we had, but they kept us busy! My department had several form letters that we could use for the most common correspondence we’d get, but now and then, we’d have to customize one of those form letters, or write a totally new letter. I was often told, as a kid fresh out of college, that I was a good writer, and my letters usually didn’t need as many tweaks as the others in my group.

Fast forward to the job that launched me into looking at technical communications. I was working as an application specialist at a huge philanthropy/non-profit. My department used instructional design techniques and technical editing to review grant application processes, and help those writing the grant applications and review processes to turn those paper processes into digital processes. I’d have to check for grammar, sentence structure, make sure that instructions were clear to elicit the responses that were expected from those using the content management system. I didn’t know the terms “instructional design” or “technical editing” or “content management” at the time, but figured them out later when I got laid off from that position, and decided to go back to school to do…something. I was often praised by my manager that I understood grammar and knew how to make the correct edits better than my predecessor, and we bonded over Oxford commas.

And to think, I wasn’t even an English major! But I always liked learning languages and I always did well with grammar lessons, so it seemed natural to me.

Fast forward again to now. Many of the jobs that I’ve applied to in the past few years or so have involved my ability to write and edit. Some of those jobs were earned, and I had to show that I could write and edit, and I did successfully. I had done very well in graduate school in my technical editing class, and now I’m working on revamping the curriculum for the same class which I’m about to teach this fall.

These days, it seems like good writing and editing is going by the wayside. Digital writers depend too much on spell checker and grammar checker to be caught by their word processing or editing software, when that’s only a tool to help catch the obvious mistakes. I don’t know how many times I’ve checked and double-checked a document and found mistakes that spell checker did not find. Those tools on common software can’t find sentence structure phrases that would be unfamiliar to a machine doing translation to find turns of phrase that aren’t found in other languages.

As I continue my search for the next big thing I’ll be doing, I’m realizing that my attention to grammar and language has been a boon for my career, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s something that’s so simple and starts at a very young age while still in elementary school. For those who make arguments about evolving language and grammar, and advocate that emoji are part of written language, I disagree. Straightforward language, but written and spoken, has always helped me in my career, and I suspect that it will continue to help me going forward. Technical writing and technical communication beseeches that we use a solid foundation of good language skills, as it is a requirement for those in the field to do our job properly.

If you usually don’t do much authoring or editing, it would be worth taking a refresher course. I think the STC sometimes provides great ones online. In these days of digital writing when no one is properly checking content, it’s worth the time and effort to make sure that you have the skills to do what software or a machine sometimes can’t do.

What do you think? Include your comments below.

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STC-NEC Interchange 2018’s Keynote Speaker: TechCommGeekMom

Nighttime image of Lowell, MA
Well, this will be a first!  I’ve been invited to be the keynote speaker for the STC-New England Chapter’s conference, Interchange, this coming fall–October 26-27, 2018 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Interchange is one of those regional conferences that I’ve wanted to attend, and to be invited to speak as the keynote? Wow! I’m truly honored.

They first asked me if I was interested actually when I was in the midst of CONDUIT 2018 this past spring. To say the least, I was surprised. Me? Keynote material? Then I thought, hey, why not? I’m sure I can figure out something to talk about in a half hour (I have until October to figure it out now–possibly sooner).  I know that the STC-New England Chapter is hard at work to ensure that this is going to be a really good conference, and worth the trip north in the fall! I’m looking forward to seeing my STC friends from New England, and meeting some new ones.

If you are interesting in checking out this conference, go to the Interchange 2018 website for more details. I hope that I will see you there, and please don’t jeer or heckle me while I speak (although some people I would expect it from. LOL)

In the meantime, plans are already underway for CONDUIT 2019. We haven’t pinned down an exact date yet, but it will be in the first half of April, for sure.  I’m in the midst of seeing if we can find a new venue for our little conference. I’ve visited one place that’s excellent–and most of our board’s first choice–but I have to do due diligence in visiting the other places as well that we’ve chosen as finalists, and then doing some number-crunching to see which is the most economical. There will be some big changes for next year no matter where we go, but we are confident that it will be worth it.

In the meantime, go register for Interchange 2018, and I’ll see you there!