With more than ten years experience in software development, technical support and documentation, I know the importance of clear, user-friendly material, presented in the most appropriate way for the audience.

I'm not just aware of it, I'm passionate about it.

Author Ink Blog

Observations and musings of a technical writer based in Hampshire.

A change of scene

Monday, August 29, 2016

Back in the day, I remember a new-starters' induction where a lady from HR gave a talk and said:


"Don't feel that you're chained to your desk; as long as the work gets done, we don't mind where you do it."


I found this liberating. It was an amazing working environment - a huge, open-plan office with some inspiring people, industrial strength espresso machines, and - wait for it - hair straighteners in all the loos (I know!). But nevertheless, there were occasions when it was like working in fog. Sometimes, clarity requires a change of scene, so during those times, I'd take my laptop to a bookshop around the corner and everything would be fine.


Later, when I switched to freelancing, I had romantic notions of 'living the dream' - working in coffee shops and parks and stately homes (yes - that actually crossed my mind). The reality hasn't quite lived up to that. Yes, I'll occasionally de-camp to a coffee shop if chats with the cat are becoming a little too deep - but most days are spent in my office. It's a perfectly lovely office - things DO get done and generally there's no place I'd rather work.


But, last month I found myself craving that change of scene, and a coffee shop just wasn't going to cut it. I needed something more drastic - somewhere I could go to develop a new idea that's been turning round in my mind for months, and maybe (just maybe) blast all of those admin tasks that have been languishing at the bottom of my to-do list for far too long. What to do?  Reader, I rented a beach hut. 


West Wittering beach hut


For one week, I occupied beach hut Number 9 on West Wittering beach, and it was everything that I needed it to be. That same week happened to be a heatwave, which meant that I had to get to the hut at crack of dawn to get a quiet few hours before the crowds arrived. I got a ton of admin done in those hours, then for the rest of each day I scribbled notes and sketched mind maps so, by the end of the week I had forged a plan and cleared my mind.



Now, I'm back in my office - refreshed and ready to push things forward. Turns out that a change of scene can be great for productivity AND good for the soul!


 


 

Twisty Question #3: How Can I Make a Paragraph Start on the Next Page?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In this post, I'm looking at the thorny issue of page breaks in Microsoft Word or - more specifically - page breaks for people who are scared of page breaks.

 

Imagine the scenario where you're typing a long document with a number of headings - you add a new heading near the end of the page, but it would look MUCH neater at the start of the next page. What do you do? For many, the answer is to just keep pressing Enter until the text has shifted down enough to go over the page - which is great...until you need to go back and make some amendments and suddenly that heading has shifted up/down so it's no longer where you want it. Pressing Enter is only a temporary fix - you can do better than that.

 

For some, the obvious answer is to use Word's Insert > Page Break option and that's OK - it does what it says on the tin and lots of people use it very happily. However, if you peel the label off that tin and take a look underneath, you'll find that there's a bit more going on. When you add a page break in this way, you're adding a 'hard' page break - these can be tricky to move or delete, and sometimes they get tangled up in things they shouldn't - personally, I avoid this option.

 

So, the trick that I'd like to show is Word's Page Break Before option, for formatting paragraphs. When this option is selected, it means that the selected paragraph will start on the next page. Strictly speaking, it's intended for use when you're configuring styles - for example, you might select this option for the Heading 1 style, to ensure that all Heading 1 paragraphs automatically start on a new page.

 

Don't get me wrong. I am all about using styles in documents - I will never, ever discourage anyone from doing that. So, yes, if you want all of your main headings to start on a new page, for goodness sake just update the relevant style and ensure that the Page Break Before option is set - the last thing you should be doing is updating each and every instance of a heading manually (maybe I'll do a follow-up post on that later). 

 

However, life isn't always neat and tidy. Maybe you don't like working with styles. Or, maybe you are working with a heading style, but those headings shouldn't always start on a new page, so you need to adjust them on a case-by-case basis. Or maybe it isn't a heading at all - just a paragraph that you've decided would look better on a new page and you just want to change it quickly and reliably so please stop lecturing me about defining styles...*breathe*

 

Whatever your reason, this is my preferred method for quickly starting content on the next page:

 

Painless page breaks 

Author Ink - Painless Page Breaks Author Ink - Painless Page Breaks (1105 KB)



* If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you!

My name is Claire and I'm an appaholic

Monday, January 04, 2016

Using Duet at Author Ink

 

 

There. I said it. I am addicted to apps. I browse the App store in much the same way that I browse Amazon for books - never a chore, always a joy.

 

But it’s not just any-old apps. For more years than I care to remember, I’ve been in search of the 'perfect’ app to organise my working life, much like I’ve been in search of the ‘perfect’ handbag (a somewhat more expensive enterprise).

 

Finally, I’ve reached the conclusion that there is no single program or app that’s going to do everything that I need - but there are a lot of really fantastic programs that fulfil specific tasks - be it note taking, writing, getting stuff done, organising files… it’s a long list. They’re clever; they look amazing - and they just work.

 

Often, when I find one of these, I’m so impressed that I need to tell someone about it. Anyone. Sadly, the cat isn’t interested and even I concede that it makes for poor dinner conversation, so WHAT LUCK that I have an outlet here! Not before time, I will start to post some of the nicer apps that I stumble (or have stumbled) across. They won’t be perfect for everyone - indeed, they may not be perfect for me for longer than a few weeks - but they have something about them worthy of note. 
 
And so - behold - the app that has prompted this very post today: Duet.

 

Duet Icon

 

Duet is available for both Mac and Windows users (I’ve been working with the Mac version) and it allows you to connect an iPad to a Mac and then use the iPad as a second monitor. It's developed by a team of ex-Apple engineers so of course it looks lovely - but for me, the real beauty lies in its simplicity. Duet has one job to do and it does that job really, really well - no faffing and no complicated setup:
 
(1) Download and install the iPad app.
(2) Download and install the Mac app.
(3) Connect the iPad.
(4) Done!

 

And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: why bother? Why not just use an actual second monitor? 
 
But you see, that’s all very well if you’re safely tucked up in your office with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to monitors, cables and space - but what if you’re not? What if you’re grabbing a couple of hours at the kitchen table with your laptop, or camped out in a coffee shop in a desperate bid to drag some human contact into your freelance bubble? You *think* you won’t need a second monitor - you’re just doing some admin that’s perfectly easy on a laptop - but before you know it you’re switching back and forth between spreadsheets and emails and the web and it all gets a little bit chaotic...

 

With Duet, your iPad behaves exactly like any other second monitor - you can drag windows over to the iPad and use them perfectly normally. I do this (still) with the same level of awe that I get when I beam a film from my ‘phone to my TV and it’s flawless - I like to think that I’m technically savvy and yet somehow a tiny part of me remains convinced that fairies must be involved.

 

I’ve been using Duet for a month or so now and it’s become a key tool for working away from the office.

 

 


 

Twisty Question #2: Why Does the Appearance of Text In My Document Change When I Alter One Little Thing?

Monday, January 26, 2015

A while ago, I wrote about being asked twisty questions about Microsoft Word in all manner of situations; it's certainly not unusual for me to be explaining the finer points of field codes or the perils of master documents over a vegetarian lasagne and a cheeky little New World Shiraz, whilst some poor victim friend with a glazed expression nods and regrets ever asking.


So, here is my second guide, based on that age-old question...


Why Does the Appearance of Text In My Microsoft Word Document Change When I Alter One Little Thing?


It's that situation where you're working on a document (typically when there's a tight deadline involved), you change the colour of one word - ONE WORD - and then suddenly lots of other text is that colour too and you have absolutely no clue how, why or when that happened.


This is down to an automatically update option that’s associated with styles. Every style in your document has this option - essentially it means: 'If I change the appearance of a piece of text which is set to this style, do I want Word to automatically update all other text that's set to this style in the same way?'


It can be a great thing! For example, suppose you have a long document with lots of headings formatted with the Heading 1 style. Now suppose you decide that these headings should be red and not black - how do you update them? You can:


(1) Work through the whole document and update each, individual heading manually


-or-


(2) Ensure that the automatically update option is switched on for the Heading 1 style, then simply update one heading - all other headings using that style will be updated too.


But, there will be times where this option is switched on for a style and it's just plain annoying - you want to update one, tiny thing, not the entire document...grrrrrrr! In this situation, you can switch the automatically update option off - here's how:


Author Ink - Auto Updating Styles Author Ink - Auto Updating Styles (410 KB)



* If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you!

Happy New Year!

Monday, January 05, 2015

November Morning in London

November Morning in London

The break over Christmas has been fantastic and definitely rejuvenating - but for the last few days I’ve had ants in my pants: writing lists (all colour-coded, of course); tidying the office (quite a feat after the madly busy end to 2014 - turns out there was actually a floor under all the debris!) and, of course, making the odd resolution along the way.


One of which is to do much better when it comes to my own writing, including this blog. It started so well and then tailed off when things got really busy - a common problem, I know. And actually, there was a lot to say: working with lovely people (some new, some longstanding clients); working in some lovely places (London, Stockholm and OF COURSE, Petersfield) and working with some interesting new authoring tools.


There will be more on all of that to come, I'm sure. For now - with a clear floor and freshly crafted lists - it's onward and upward into 2015...  
   

Rainy Landing in Stockholm



Pasting Text in Microsoft Word (Without Trauma)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

We've all heard tell of doctors going to dinner parties and being bombarded about the various afflictions of assembled guests, but spare a thought for the humble technical writer. 


Typically, most "And what do you do? " conversations at any sort of gathering begin with varying degrees of blankness when I say I'm a technical writer, closely followed by a spark of recognition and then, often:


"Oh! So you're good with Microsoft Word!"


Generally, I nod and try to steer the conversation towards more pressing issues of the day (What about those buns in Great British Bake Off this week? or Have you noticed how the price of tinned tomatoes has crept up?) but very often the person thinks for a few seconds and then hits me with a twisty Microsoft Word question. 


So, based on these moments, I've put together a series of short guides which are based on some of the most common questions that I've been asked.


Twisty Question #1: Why is my document a mess when I paste content from another place?


The first guide deals with the thorny issue of pasting text into a document, where the text that you need to paste might be in another document, elsewhere in your current document, or perhaps from another source altogether (for example, a web page). In theory, there's nothing simpler - everyone knows you just select the portion of text, press CTRL+C to copy it and then use Word's Paste option. Easy!


Yes, it is. But many of us will have had to deal with cases where the pasted text looks completely different to the existing content and suddenly you're faced with a re-styling task - it's annoying at the best of times, but it's infuriating when you're in a hurry. Understanding how Word's Paste options work can save a lot of time, and a lot of stress - take a few seconds to think about the type of content that you need to paste and choose the most appropriate option for the situation:


How To Paste Text Without Trauma - Infographic

Author Ink How To Guide - Pasting Text Without Trauma Author Ink How To Guide - Pasting Text Without Trauma (801 KB)


* If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you.

I Shall Disarm You With My Super Charged Interrobang! (And Other Obscure Punctuation Marks)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In his Guardian piece Make Way for a New Social Media Icon: The Interrobang, Peter Robinson talks of his predilection for staring at his keyboard and wondering which will be the next lucky character to enjoy the same phenomenal rise to stardom as the previously humble symbol. I know exactly where he's coming from: for me, it's the tilde. I’ve always had an affection for the tilde [~] character on my keyboard - it’s wiggly and thus by definition, friendly; unlike the sharp (and thus by definition, snippy) hyphen or dash. 


So, imagine my consternation to learn (from the aforementioned article) that the super friendly tilde is now commonly used on social media to signify disdain. Disdain! And so I got to thinking about the myriad of punctuation marks that we use on a day-to-day basis and then, what about the ones that have fallen out of favour, or those that never quite made it to the party playlist? Which of those will be the next to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, blinking and unprepared?


Take, for example, the interrobang:



Have you seen the attention lavished on this little question/exclamation mark hybrid recently? It has its own website (albeit there's not a whole lot happening there at the moment - oh sweet irony) and there are cartoons and t-shirts...it's the punctuation equivalent of One Direction. Sort of. 


But why is this Claire? I hear you cry. I'm afraid I have to tell you that I just don't know. Maybe it's the fact that the character looks so cool, or maybe it's that the name sounds like it could be a secret weapon for any self-respecting super hero. It's a mystery best left to those with huge, typographical brains.


For the rest of us, a quick search about the web throws up many articles on obscure punctuation marks - there are even essays and dissertations on the subject. Nothing so highbrow here; I’ve settled on some of the marks which I think look interesting, and bundled them into a little infographic (any excuse!). If, as was I, you're wondering how you can use these symbols on a Mac or  Windows computer, carry on reading for some high-level guidance.


Obscure Punctuation Marks - Infographic


Using Obscure Punctuation Marks on a Mac


If you're using a Mac, available characters and symbols can be accessed from the character viewer:


  1. Open the character  viewer (select special characters from the edit menu or press ctrl++space bar).

  2. Search or browse for the required character - if you already know the relevant unicode you can enter it into the search field. Alternatively, you can search for the character name (e.g.interrobang).

  3. To insert a character, ensure that your cursor is at the required location in your document and then either double-click the character (in the character viewer) or drag it from the character viewer to the required location.

Using Obscure Punctuation Marks on a Windows Computer


If you're using a Windows computer, available characters and symbols can be accessed from the character map:


  1. Press the Windows start key.

  2. Type character map in the search/run field.

  3. Select the character map program (or right-click and choose to pin the character map program to your taskbar or start menu - useful if you’re going to be using special characters a lot).

-Alternatively-


In many applications, you can simply type the unicode for a character or symbol. This isn’t entirely straightforward since prerequisite setup can vary between Windows versions and also registry settings. However, in some programs (for example, Microsoft Word) you can type the unicode, immediately followed by alt+x.    


Note: Apologies for stating the obvious, but you'll only see characters if you have an installed font which contains them - many applications are clever enough to switch to the most appropriate font automatically but sometimes you might have to select the right font yourself.


Different fonts have different characters for the same unicode, so the appearance of the character will depend on the font which is defined in the web browser or application. Also bear in mind that not every unicode is available in every font.


* If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you.

The Curious Incident of the Missing Trees at 107 Charing Cross Road

Thursday, July 31, 2014


My love affair with Foyles at Charing Cross Road has been a constant over the years. Standing strong, proud, a little bit eccentric but always familiar and inviting - it's been a loyal friend. 


So, when news came that my friend would be regenerating into a shiny new version just a tiny bit further down the road, I think maybe I finally understood what all those die-hard Dr Who fans are crying about every time somebody new is about to arrive in the TARDIS. It's ridiculously exciting and scary in almost equal measure. What if it isn't as good? What if it loses its charm? What if there's no atmosphere? What if just feels...wrong?


In recent months I've followed the Foyles blog and Twitter feed, hoovering up nuggets of information about what to expect from the new flagship store. From these there were no certainties except for one major piece of information: there would be treesAs I understood it, these trees would be placed in the middle of the shop, rising up through all of the floors - how amazing! 


The new shop opened in June this year and I finally got to visit last week. 


My Maiden Visit


It was with some trepidation that I left the tube with long-suffering Richard and we made our way to Charing Cross Road. As we approached the old building, it was almost a shock to see the red, melancholic Foyles signage still in situ, but with a nod of due respect we carried on walking to number 107 and stepped into a brave new world. For a few seconds I stopped, inhaled my surroundings and said the first two things that came to mind:


"Wow!" 


and then...


"Where are the trees?"


Richard (who was already checking to see which floor the cafe was on) looked at me quizzically. This is not in itself unusual when I've just asked something of great importance.


"What trees?" He asked, having ascertained that the cafe was on the fifth floor and that there were at least six types of cake to choose from.


"They said there would be an atrium. Where is it?" 


"You're standing in it. Look up - you can see all the floors."




I think the penny dropped for both of us in exactly the same moment.


"They said ATRIUM Claire, not ARBORETUM!"


"I know!" I retorted (totally lying) "Are we going to find the Cafe or what?"


Oh how we he laughed. 


And the Verdict?


Including time out for exceedingly good coffee and cake, I spent four hours wandering around, getting to know my new old friend.


Trees or no trees, the new Foyles is a thing of great beauty. It is sleek, spacious and cool in every sense of the word. With its smooth lines and light, airy layout (there's an atrium you know), the place oozes style and loveliness.


I know what you're thinking - how can it still be Foyles with all this talk of smooth lines and sophistication? I thought the same. I worried about the same. To me, Foyles has always been about charm and warmth and squidginess - a bit ripped at the seams and slightly jumbled but you always knew where you were and it just felt right.


But here's the thing. Somehow, against all the odds, they've managed to take the very essence of the old Foyles and transplant it into a new, shiny version. They might not have trees but that doesn't matter because they've got something much, much better. They've got an unmistakably authentic Foyles heartbeat - and it's pumping magic around every floor at 107 Charing Cross Road.




* If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you.


Go Manual Girls!

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Way back when in a previous life, I worked in software support. The software in question was an order processing application which was used by mail order companies - we're talking banks of operators taking orders over the 'phone, typically with a harassed supervisor who would call us with any system problems. 


One of our customers was based in Scotland and alas, they seemed to have more problems than most. At least twice a week there would be some sort of drama and the small team of us in the support office would draw straws as to whose turn it was to deal with their supervisor - The Fierce Scottish Lady - who called with their queries (there is a point to this meandering trip down memory lane - I promise I'm getting to it!). 


Occasionally, we would need to ask The Fierce Scottish Lady to stop operators from using the system for a few minutes so we could investigate a query. Whenever this happened, she would take a deep breath, press the telephone to her bosom (evidently ineffectual since we always heard everything that followed) and then holler to her long-suffering staff:


"Go manual girls!"


Yesterday - many years and a whole career later - I found myself with The Fierce Scottish Lady back in my head, clear as day. Maybe it's all this talk of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, who knows?


Staring at a blank document in Scrivener (the same blank document I'd created with such optimism two days before) and trying to find inspiration for a copywriting project, nothing was working - everything I typed sounded dull and uninspired. In a fit of pique I closed the laptop (note that I did not slam or snap the laptop closed - I'd never be THAT piqued); then I picked up a notepad and pencil and headed out of the door. 


As I locked up - from absolutely nowhere - I heard The Fierce Scottish Lady's dulcet tones once again: "Go manual girls!". 


In a nearby coffee shop, I drank three (skinny) flat whites, and wrote nine pages of copy. It was rough copy in need of work, but still - NINE PAGES! The physical act of writing, scribbling out and turning pages was somehow liberating; perhaps the fact that I wasn't using a computer tricked my brain into thinking this isn't work and so the creative muscles loosened up - whatever it was, something clicked into place and the task was suddenly much easier.


There is much talk at the moment expounding the virtues of 'un-plugging' from out digital lives and how we can all benefit from stepping away from our 'phones, tablets and computers once in a while. I didn't do the whole digital detox thing (my iPhone was firmly by my side the whole time) but for one, glorious summer's afternoon I DID go manual. And I liked it.


* A big 'thank you' to Patrick Baty for use of the photograph at the start of this post. 


** If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you.

But What Does A Technical Writer Actually Do?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Whenever I meet someone new and the inevitable "So, what do you do for a living?" question arises, I say that I'm a technical writer and they reply something along the lines of:


"Oh! That sounds interesting. [pause] But what does a technical writer actually do?"


At this stage, I confess that I tend to boil it all down into one little nugget (it's really the best thing for both of us) and I say:


"I write user help for software, mainly."


More often than not there's another, longer pause and then they'll respond with something like:


"What's that?" 


And I'll say:


"You know when you're using something like Microsoft Word and there's a button in the top right-hand corner that you click to get help? I write that kind of thing."


I know. Not exactly sparkling party conversation - and upon reflection I may have left an awful lot of people with the false impression that I have written all of the help for Microsoft Word completely on my own - alas I've had no input at all (though Microsoft, if you're reading, I'm happy to help anytime!).


But the point is that I really haven't been selling myself very well on these occasions. Yes, I do write online help for software - and user manuals, and training materials - but I do an awful lot more as well. To this end, I have gone and made an infographic (because I can):


Tree of Documentation

** If you enjoyed reading this post then please do leave a comment - it's always nice to hear your thoughts. Similarly, if you're looking for a technical writer for a documentation project - large or small - I'd love to hear from you.




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