In Memoriam: Bill Owen Coggin, 1948-2014

by Liz Pohland on 25 July 2014

Guest Post by Bill Leavitt, Past President and Fellow

Bill Coggin

BILL COGGIN, STC Fellow and Student Advisor of the Bowling Green State University Student STC Chapter, passed away on 9 February 2014 after a long illness. Bill served the technical communication profession and STC both in the academic and professional/industrial arenas with significant personal and professional success.

Bill taught technical communication classes at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) and was instrumental in creating the BGSU English Department’s Technical and Scientific Communication program, which offered both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Bill also created a large and successful student chapter at BGSU and served as its advisor and editor of the national students’ STC journal. To help his students with their job searches, he established a fund that helps students attend and present papers at STC international conferences; this fund will continue to help students for the foreseeable future. Bill was a very popular teacher and student chapter advisor and he did everything possible to help his students to successful careers.

At the Society level, Bill was elected Region 5 director-sponsor for the term 1986-1989 and was nominated for second vice president of STC in 1989 and 1990. During my administration (1989-1990), Bill was appointed to be the first person to serve in the newly created position of Assistant to the President for Academic Affairs, which was the principal contact for students and student chapters to be represented on the STC Board of Directors. In this position, he created an academic support role that has endured in one form or another for 25 years.

Bill has authored and co-authored many books and journal articles, and has conducted workshops and made presentations at academic and industry conferences, including those of STC. Beginning in the late 1990s, Bill made a number of trips to China to teach in BGSU’s faculty exchange program at Xi’an Foreign Languages University, combining teaching English with learning Mandarin and doing research into Chinese education and culture.

He was born in Malvern, Arkansas, and received his BA and MA degrees from Louisiana Tech University. During this time, he met his wife, Betty, and they had two sons, Robert and Martin. He taught at Oklahoma State University (OSU) where he earned his PhD in Anglo Saxon literature and history. While teaching at OSU, Bill became a friends with Tom Warren, Professor Emeritus at OSU (also STC Fellow, Jay R. Gould Award recipient, and long-time STC leader). “Bill, one of the first graduate students to teach technical communication at OSU, not only was a compassionate teacher, he was also highly creative, coming up with novel ways to help students understand the importance of clear communication. Even though his dissertation was in literature, he became a strong advocate for technical communication, which earned him his first teaching job,” Warren said.

Bill then taught technical communication at Miami University before spending the rest of his career at BGSU. Bill was the first in his family to graduate from high school; he worked in the oil fields to earn his way through college. He was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a Vietnam interrogator and interpreter.

Bill Coggin and I go back to 1983, when we met during an STC conference. A small group of us were talking about STC and telling jokes. Bill and I became instant friends, as we shared a similar sense of humor and a desire to help STC members and especially students. Bill was Student Advisor at the BGSU Student Chapter during the time that I served as Director-Sponsor (D-S) for STC Region 5 (1983-1986). I feel that I trained and motivated Bill for the job, as he was elected to succeed me as D-S in 1987. Bill then trained and motivated another BGSU person, Lynnette Porter, who then succeeded him in 1989.

Bill served in my presidential administration as Assistant to the President for Academic Programs and we remained friends through our STC careers from then on.

Anyone who wishes to contribute to the fund that helps students attend and present papers at conferences can send their donation to BGSU Foundation, Mileti Alumni Center, Bowling Green, OH 43403; make sure to include the following on the memo line: “In Memory of Bill Coggin.”

Bill Leavitt has written a variety of books on construction and architecture, history, and retirement planning. His latest book is entitled Retirement: Life’s Greatest Adventure. The book contains guidance for how people thinking about retiring can best prepare for retirement and also suggestions for those who have retired but may not have discovered all the joys of retirement.

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Plainly Speaking: Ambiguous Antecedent

by Karen Field Carroll on 24 July 2014

Being a technical writer and editor, I’m somewhat fond of style guides. The other day I found a good deal on the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013, so I bought it and took it home. Flipping through the book later, I read this in the Foreword:

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. It marks its 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages and is published across an array of digital platforms, encompassing the collective wisdom of its readers….”

There’s a subtle yet serious problem with the first pronoun and its antecedent. Before I explain it, here’s a refresher from 7th-grade English class.

Pronouns take the place of nouns. For example, in the sentence “She is so tall,” the pronoun “she” replaces the name of the person the speaker refers to. Pronouns save us work and make our speech more elegant. Without them, we’d have to repeat the name of the noun itself in every sentence we spoke about it.

Consider this sentence. “Karen just got here. You know, she is so tall. I wonder where she shops for dresses?” Without pronouns, we’d have to say “Karen just got here. You know, Karen is so tall. I wonder where Karen shops for dresses?” That’s ugly.

Sometimes a noun appears before its pronoun. In that case, the noun is called the pronoun’s antecedent. In the example in the previous paragraph, “Karen” is the antecedent of the pronoun “she.” And in the paragraph I cited from the AP Stylebook, “the first Associated Press Stylebook” is the antecedent of the pronoun “it.” So what’s the problem?

If you substitute the antecedent for “it,” you’ll see where the paragraph falls apart.

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. The first Associated Press Stylebook marks its 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages…”

Even though the author probably meant to say that the current version of the stylebook marks the 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual, what he said was that the first version marks the 60th year.

Here’s a clear rewrite.

“The first Associated Press Stylebook was 60 pages, bound together with staples. The version you’re reading now marks the Stylebook’s 60th year as a comprehensive reference manual that fills more than 500 pages…”

I replaced the pronoun with the noun phrase “the version you’re reading now.” But I also changed the verb phrase “marks its 60th year” to “marks the Stylebook’s 60th year.” Why did I have to do that? The topic of the paragraph is the Stylebook, but the sentences talk about three instances of it: The first version (60 pages and bound with staples), the current version, and the stylebook as a living document. To be completely clear, I had to insert “the Stylebook” before “60th year” to reference its enduring state.

Am I being nit-picky? Maybe. After all, readers might figure out what the author meant. But they also might pause over the discrepancy—just because something “sounds wrong.” And if prose makes a reader pause, that prose is not plain language.

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Linda’s Lessons: When is Good Enough Good Enough?

by Linda Oestreich on 23 July 2014

We often hear that something is “good enough.” I used to consider that phrase derogatory. In fact, working as often as I have within the government, I have always hated the phrase, “good enough for government work.” As a proud professional, I like to think that my work is error-free. I know most writing and editing rules and I try to follow them, yet sometimes, mistakes happen! As a new technical communicator, I had little flex about what was right and what was wrong. Back then, I had the luxury of working in a job where my talents were appreciated and the company didn’t focus on next quarter’s share prices. Combine that environment with my brand-new, college-degreed book-learning, and my only choice was to strive for perfection.

Fast forward. Today, after many years of being a technical editor, doc manager, and project manager at a for-profit company, I learned that striving for perfection is foolish. Perfection costs more than it’s worth and it’s unattainable.

One of the classes I teach is in basic technical editing techniques. My students edit various documents and, of course, not one of them can exactly reproduce in their exercises what I provide in the answer key. Why? Because writing and editing are not exact sciences. I tell my students that their primary objectives are to fix errors and avoid making new ones. If they can do that, they succeed. Sure, some students edit “better” than others do. Their sentences are shorter; their words more concrete. Their final versions better meet the needs of the audience and purpose. Yet, as long as a student follows those primary objectives, I’m happy.

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The right sounds and graphics can make your presentations more engaging and effective. Join Robert Hershenow for the live Web seminar Graphics and Audio for More Engaging Presentations, presented on Wednesday, 23 July, from 1:00-2:00 PM EDT (GMT-4), and learn how to find, edit, and use photos, clip art, and audio to enhance your content, and build your own fast-access media library along the way.

Learn about:

  • Sources for audio and graphics
  • Differences between media file types
  • Quick ways to record and edit audio
  • How to edit clip art
  • How to optimize your narration and soundtrack
  • How the right multimedia can boost learning
  • Creative ways to make custom slide templates
  • Tricks for easy graphics animation

Join us for this webinar and find out how sights and sounds can take your presentations to the top!

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When planning a trip, it’s essential to know your destination. This is also true for graphics. You need to know where the graphics are going to be seen before you add them to your documentation. The destination will determine the best format, resolution, and size of graphic to use.

Plan your graphics journey with the live Web seminar Destination: Graphics, presented by Tricia Spayer on Tuesday, 22 July, from 10:00-11:00 AM EDT (GMT-4). You will also learn about the benefits of using graphics vs. text, what makes an effective graphic, best practices for graphics, the types of graphics, single-sourcing graphics, effective callouts, and enhancing illustrations and photographs. This webinar will cover:

  • Planning for the graphics destination
  • Benefits of graphics, including benefits for international users, saving time, space, and money, showing steps in a process, and showing relationships.
  • What makes an effective graphic, including adding meaning, consistency, legibility, understandability, uniqueness, cleanliness, and clarity.
  • Formats to use for which destination, including .jpg, .png, .gif, .tif, .eps, .svg, and more. We will also discuss the benefits of vector vs. raster graphics.
  • Sizing and resolution for graphics, considering where the graphic will be seen, determining your maximum available size, re-sizing graphics, single-sourcing for multiple devices, and using relative sizes for future compatibility.
  • Best practices for graphics, including templating, using a graphics style guide, and creating and resizing before importing into authoring programs.
  • What makes an effective callout, including readability, use of halos, considerations for localization, uniformity, placement, font sizes and line weights, and shading regions of interest.
  • A brief discussion on enhancing illustrations and photos, a discussion of line drawings vs. photos, hardware documentation recommendations, contrast, focus, and removal of clutter.

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Fifty Years with Bill: The NAFTA Problem in 1989

by Bill Leavitt on 18 July 2014

Guest Post by Bill Leavitt

A few months after I became STC president, I was invited to visit the Toronto Chapter to discuss with them an issue regarding education of technical communicators. I arranged a visit in December 1989, and invited my newly appointed Assistant to the President for Academic Affairs, Bill Coggin, to go with me.

We were not warmly welcomed to say the least. We discovered that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)* was going to create a problem for Canadian technical communicators. Apparently the politicians who crafted the agreement couldn’t easily define “technical communicator,” so they simply said that technical writers or technical communicators could work in other NAFTA countries if they had a baccalaureate degree in technical communication. As technical communicators, most of us know that not all technical communicators have a degree or education in this subject. In fact, probably significantly less than half of all practicing technical communicators had a degree in this field at that time.

My research showed that over 100 U.S. universities offered programs in technical communication, but only one Canadian university (at that time) offered an acceptable program. So, while possibly one-quarter to one-half of the technical communicators in the United States had degrees that met the requirements, and thus could do consulting work in Canada, no universities in Canada offered technical communication programs that met the NAFTA requirements, and thus, could not consult in the United States.

“What are you going to do about it?” demanded the Toronto STC members. Since STC doesn’t have much clout with the people who wrote the agreement, Bill Coggin and I were faced with an insurmountable problem.

I did the best I could for the Canadian members. I wrote to the Canadian federal government agency (Minister for International Trade) responsible for this agreement and pointed out the problem. I suggested that the solution for them was to influence Canadian universities to begin offering degree programs in technical communication that would meet the requirements of the agreement. The government responded to me and agreed to look into the problem.

I have never heard another complaint from our Canadian friends, so I believe the problem has been solved. I sincerely hope so!

*Also known as the Free Trade Act (FTA) in Canada.

Bill Leavitt has written a variety of books on construction and architecture, history, and retirement planning.  His latest book is entitled Retirement: Life’s Greatest Adventure.  The book contains guidance for how people thinking about retiring can best prepare for retirement and also suggestions for those who have retired but may not have discovered all the joys of retirement.

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I work on a small project team that has just enough people to keep the project somewhat on schedule. When the quality assurance manager asked for help to test software—I volunteered. My manager was delighted and disappointed that I volunteered to test software because he believed that testing software would take me away from my primary job—writing a user guide. As it turned out, testing software helped me to learn the system’s workflows and logic, which helped me to write the user guide.

While testing the software I found opportunities to put my technical writing skills to good use.  While referring to test cases to evaluate the software, I rewrote test cases that did not have clear and complete instructions. I created reports to identify errors to workflows, labels of buttons, and messages.

You might believe that correcting test cases is not your job and you are correct. It’s not your job to test software. I am not advocating that you work outside your job description. However, if test cases are your only source for understanding the navigation of the system then you might want to volunteer to rewrite them. On the other hand, you can always rely on the helpful and friendly developers.

Technical writers know the importance of getting the software correct to avoid their user guide (and training) to become a solution for poor design. Involving technical writers in the testing process brings the perspective of the end user. Bringing the perspective of the end user to the design effort ensures that designing a satisfying user experience is as just as important as meeting the release deadline.

Working outside your job description and raising your visibility above the expectations of coworkers will elevate you to new heights and put your skills to good use—helping to design the user experience.

I’m David Dick and I’m Talking Usability

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New online content techniques like multichannel publishing and responsive design rely heavily on best practices for development. One of the most important of those practices is the use of styles and style sheets, in line with W3C recommendations that style codes be removed from HTML files and put in a style sheet, or CSS, instead. The result will be cleaner, more future-proofed content.

If you’re new to CSS, it may look impenetrable but there actually is logic to it. Understand that logic and the rest begins to fall into place. Start the journey with a special Friday live Web seminar, Styles Gone Wild? CSS Concepts in a Nutshell, presented by Neil Perlin on 18 July from 1:00-2:00 PM EDT (GMT-4). You’ll look at:

  • The basic logic of CSS
  • How CSS styles differ from Word styles
  • Two definitions of “cascading”
  • Why relative font sizes are important for future-proofing our content
  • CSS3, media queries, and responsive design
  • Some best practices
  • Sources of information

If you’ve decided that it’s time to make serious and correct use of styles but aren’t sure where to start, this presentation will get you going.

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More and more communities and community members are taking advantage of the renewed mailing lists. We noticed that the Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, in particular, was making great use of their mailing lists. We asked the SIG Manager Marilyn Woelk to share what they’ve done to help spur interest and conversation. See her guest blog below. If you are a Chapter or SIG member and are contacted by your community leader to register for a list, please do so. You can also sign up for mailing lists online.

The technical communication profession can be full of challenges; it’s up to you to learn how to solve them. If you are having a software issue, don’t you want to ask someone about it? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to respond to a client that is bending your contract to the breaking point? Would you like to know how to market yourself and your services more effectively? Yes, we would, too! By “we,” I mean the over 400 members of the STC Consulting and Independent Contracting (CIC) SIG. The CIC SIG has seen a need for these kinds of discussions for many years and has had a very active discussion list. Since we now have a new list provider (and a new address for our discussion list), we thought it was time to reintroduce the list and get some interesting new discussions started. We developed a process for re-engaging our members.

First, Tracy Parkin (our acting Membership Manager) enrolled all members of our SIG in the new list and gave them the option to opt out if they chose to do so. Next, Ann Wiley (List Manager) invited all of the list subscribers to introduce themselves, explain how they got into the field of technical communication, and describe the services they offer. Finally, we added “fuel” to the current list discussions by posting a few interesting questions about how to convert documents into e-books, what the contract industry is like now, etc. We allowed members to post back and forth about specific questions. (They did this by listing the topic they were responding to in the subject line of their emails to the List Manager.)

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Do you understand how you’ve been affected by the Heartbleed bug? Are you worried about maintaining your privacy online? (You should be.) Do you know how to best protect client or company information? Is it safe to use social media? Have you heard of ransomware? Are you worried about identity theft?

It’s not getting any safer out there! If your head is spinning after considering these questions, you need to attend The Secure Communicator—Best Practices for Surviving Heartbleed and Other Threats, presented by Ben Woelk on Thursday, 17 July, from 4:00-5:00 PM EDT (GMT-4).

Most technical communicators know that it’s important to secure their work and online presence, but many don’t know how to do it effectively. Good security can enable—not hinder—your work. Join the presenter as he discusses the steps you can take to adopt a security lifestyle that protects you and enables you to work effectively:

  • Protecting your computer
  • Protecting your reputation
  • Protecting your information
  • Protecting your identity
  • Creating strong and memorable passwords
  • Leveraging cool tools

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