Tag Archives: Writing

Young Writers, Get Out There and WRITE!


STC speaker

Charles Crawley, lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins; Liz Herman, deputy director, policy and professional development, General Dynamics Information Technology; Michelle Felser, staff technical writer and team lead, Schneider Electric North America; and Michael O’Neill, product communication specialist, Geonetric answer questions during the STC meeting Oct. 9 at Mount Mercy University.

Perhaps, I went into the wrong field. The Eastern Iowa chapter of the Society for Technical Communication held their annual “college” program Oct. 8 at Mount Mercy University.

I was pleased to see more than half a dozen MMU students or recent alums there. There were four panelists on the program, and I thought they said many good things that I hope students take to heart.

One clear message from the STC is that technical writing, even in today’s slow economy, is a growing field. It’s not the kind of writing that many English or Journalism students first think of as a career, yet it’s an industry with a large presence in Iowa’s “creative corridor,” the Waterloo/Cedar Falls-Cedar Rapids-Iowa City region. Not to mention that many people make their living doing technical writing in Iowa’s largest city, too (shout out to delayed twin!).

Liz Herman

Liz Herman was a journalism student in her undergraduate years. I hope she gave some MMU communication and journalism students some ideas.

One of the speakers, Liz Herman, deputy director of policy and professional development at General Dynamics Information Technology, made the point that there is a clear way for university students to get technical writing experience while they are in school.

It’s called “journalism.”

Yes, indeed. As she said, and I believe Charles Crawley, a lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins agreed, the point of journalism is to learn to talk with people, gain information and package that information in a concise, readable form for an audience. With the exception that the stakes might be higher—speaker Michelle Felser, staff technical writer and team lead at Schneider Electric North America made the point that in her work, bad grammar could cause something to explode—that is a pretty good description of what technical writers, as well as journalists, do.

Use “any outlet” to get your writing published, Herman also urged. At MMU, a student can be published, for the most part, in one of two places: Paha, the literary magazine; or the Mount Mercy Times, our student newspaper.

I encourage students to aim to be published often in both. As Michael O’Neill, product communication specialist at Geonetic, said, you don’t want 9-to-5 to be your only source of validation. A writer should seek multiple outlets. (He also noted that blogging can be one of those outlets, another point I’ve made to students).

Michelle Felser

Michelle Felser made an important point–bad grammar kills! In her line of work, poorly worded instructions could lead to BOOM.

Anyway, an MMU journalism student who was at the program last night noted that she isn’t sure that she wants to work for a newspaper when she graduates. In fact, that probably puts her with the majority of J-students. Journalism, as it’s taught at MMU and most universities, involves fungible writing and information gathering tools.

So, heed these writers’ wise words, MMU students. If you’re seeking an outlet for your writing, look first in the lower level of Busse Library.

There’s a newspaper office down there where you should spend some time.

And why was I concerned that I might have chosen the wrong field? STC presented some salary data. In Iowa, the median technical writer salary tops $50,000. One speaker last night shared how her salary changed during her career path, starting two decades ago with a grand sum of $18,000. Today, since she has an advanced degree and has moved into management, her salary tops $90,000.

She wouldn’t say by how much. She coyly noted that “it’s over that ($91,000)” and left it at that.

Well, nobody becomes a professor to get rich. It’s a good living, but not the most lucrative career possible. It does lift me into the middle class and affords me plenty of job autonomy and gives me the chance to do work I love. So if it doesn’t pay me as well as technical writing would, well, there are other rewards.

I’ll just keep telling myself that.

Anyway, students, the point is clear. If you’re serious about writing, whatever your major: Take steps to ensure that you’re regularly published now. And the quickest way to do that is in your weekly student newspaper.

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Writing Advice From Gazette’s Rick Smith


Rick Smith

Rick Smith, reporter for the Gazette. He reported that he has resisted being on TV, I hope exposure on a blog is OK.

Rick Smith, a long-time Gazette reporter who has covered City Hall in Cedar Rapids for more than a decade, visited one of my classes this morning.

Students in CO 281: Newspaper Reporting will cover a Cedar Rapids City Council meeting later this month, and Smith was kind enough to give students some suggestions.

The resulting conversation was wide-ranging and open-ended. Rick just opened up and shared anecdotes and context for city issues, and I didn’t see any reason to reign him in. In fact, I felt a bit guilty glancing at the clock, because he thought I might be done with him. Nope—please carry on, Mr. Smith.

Anyway, as often seems to be the case, what he told my students shouldn’t have been new or news to them—but it’s always useful for students to hear how another journalist articulates basically the same advice I give them.

For example, Rick emphasized the importance of the story lead—the first sentence.

On this blog post, I don’t have a particularly good example, although to be fair, this isn’t a news story, either, so there. Anyway, getting a good lead—recognizing what salient point will serve as the theme of the news story and summing up that main point in a compelling and interesting sentence that both communicates the main news and yet still motivates the reader to carry on—well, that’s a big part of the battle.

Especially in a City Council meeting which offers so many false data alleys and information dead ends. I like that Rick had prompted students to look at the city’s web site for agendas and minutes—something the class did as a group on Wednesday, and that I will expect them to do individually before the meeting they cover.

Anyway, what else do I hope students will recall from Rick Smith’s visit?

  • What happens at a meeting is always part of a larger story. For example, he spoke about a new development in the works for the corner of Edgewood Road and Blair’s Ferry. The policy question is whether the city should provide tax incentives to the developer. Those incentives traditionally were given to manufacturing companies, but a decade ago the city used them to help persuade HyVee to go ahead with plans for a new store in an economically poor neighborhood—and now someone wants them for a swanky new shopping and office complex in an upscale area of town. The city’s materials explain what the tax incentive is, but don’t tie this decision to the context of earlier decisions—and that context is what a journalist provides. The rule is bigger than just this topic—on any beat for virtually any story, a journalist needs to seek the context and deliver that valued insight. I think that’s increasingly the role of the profession, tying the news of the minute to the larger saga, as events themselves are more universally experienced without information intermediaries.
  • A meeting is partially a public performance. TV, even small-audience local cable TV, changes whatever it pays attention to. There used to be five members of the Cedar Rapids City Council—now, with nine, when something important happens, “you have to listen to nine speeches.” I suspect those speeches are for the benefit of the home audience of potential voters.
  • Brevity is one of the keys to good news writing. If he were professor, Rick says, part of the assignment would be: “See how short you can make it.” Students, Rick isn’t the professor and I’m going to want you to cover the full meeting…but “covering” does mean recognizing what’s important (and writing about it) and what’s not (and leaving it out). And whatever you report, if you’re a journalist, always try to use a few words effectively rather than deploy too many for the job. Write short.

Anyway, much of the talk was Rick telling stories that I think give students some context to try to understand what will happen before them later this month. He gave students and me a lot to think about, along with good advice, and I’m grateful he was willing to speak with my class.

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Just A Plain and Simple Chapel


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You’ll search and you’ll search but you’ll never find, no place on earth to gain peace of mind. But on MMU, one of the most peaceful spots is the Chapel of Mercy.

I’m not totally in love with the chapel—my taste in churches runs much more to old than to new—but it’s still a very impressive, and peaceful, place. The vaulted ceiling and octagonal shape make it unique on campus.

As a writing exercise, I took a class there today, to have them soak in the atmosphere and then try to use literary techniques to paint an accurate verbal picture.

It’s not easy. The chapel is a complex place, so I will cheat and add a slide show.

What impression did it make on students? Here are some of their, slightly edited for space and typos, descriptions:

  • You notice there are four stained glass windows, one for each direction on a compass; the alter faces east so in the morning the sun radiates through directly at where the holy priest would be, if he were there.
  • It almost has the appearance of a Nordic longhouse in the shape of a hollowed out pyramid. Four large stained-glass windows decorate the ceiling. The morning sun shines brightly through the stained-glass window facing to the east. It gives the chapel a sort of “holy glow.” Rows of pews stand in formation like an army ready for inspection. The white marble altar stands at the front on a carpeted platform as a commander ready to give marching orders.
  • When you walk in, your breath could quite possibly be taken away from the sheer size of it. Not that there are many pews, but just that ceiling height is stunning. When there are very few people in there, the room almost seems sort of hollow due to its height. The octagon shaped room features four stained glass windows. The three towards the front of the room are filled with squares and rectangles of red, blue, orange, and a few other colors. The rear window was a completely different color scheme featuring green, purple and yellow with a few shapes of red, blue and orange. It was this window that the sun was beating through. It left splashes of  green, purple and yellow on the plain, gray, speckled tile.

I am hoping to prod the students to use a few more metaphors, personifications and allusionw, but their descriptions were poetic. I am only quoting a few lines of each.  The chapel is one of my favorite spots on campus. And it seems to work OK as a writing muse, too.

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Here is a post, yes it is


The home page of the MMU Times, go there, times.mtmercy.edu

Just showing my students how to post in WordPress—many new blogs starting today! Most will end up on my blogroll, so watch for those links.

Students are watching me type, which is embarassing because I’m not so hot at it, and must be really, really, really dull for them to watch. So, soon I will stop. Maybe more later, we’ll see.

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How to be a writer


“So, you are a writer. I would love to write, but need some training. What would you suggest?”

That’s a Facebook message from a high school friend who found me again via the social networking site.

That’s a big question. What would I suggest? It made me think of the many things so many of us aspire to be or to do, and the obstacles that get in our way. I would like to play a musical instrument and speak a second language. I’m closer to the later rather than the former, having taking some classes in Spanish, but I did join a chime choir this year, too.

What should a person who aspires to be a writer do? I guess part of the answer is to determine what kind of a writer you want to be, because it’s a little like saying “I want to be an athlete, what should I do?” Learn a sport. Learn how to shoot a basketball, what a foul is, how to dribble, do a jump shot, etc.

I also feel a bit inadequate trying to answer the question. Although I teach writing courses and was a journalist for around 18 years, that qualifies me to talk about only one kind of writing—and a fairly narrow branch of that writing, too. I’ve never written a book or a TV script, for example. I have done feature stories, news stories, editorials and opinion columns, but not a lot of work that’s more than 700 words.

Still, here are my suggestions:

1) Write. Start a blog. Keep a diary. Pen letters to the editor. Volunteer for a church or organizational newsletter, if you can fulfill those obligations. I am a much better biker than my wife—not that she doesn’t have the “basic” skill of balance that most of us learn as kids—but I can go much farther and avoid more spills. I don’t have any special physical talent (those who know me might with some accuracy say I don’t have any physical talents at all, let along “special” talent—I was, after all, a star of the debate team in high school) but I do have experience. I have long ridden various bicycles as a form or relaxation and usually ride a bike to work, which means I get at least 50 miles of seat time a week. Audrey can ride a bike, but I can go 13 miles from my house to Kirkwood Community College and then turn around and ride back with no soreness. She can’t do that, but only because she doesn’t practice bike riding very often. I do. If you want to be a writer, ride the bike every day. Write.

2) Read. I am not a very fast reader. When the “Harry Potter” books were new, my kids were avid fans and we excitedly awaited each new installment. A “pecking order” developed over time for each new Harry Potter book, based on family seniority and reading speech. Despite my advanced years, I was always near the end of the book queue. Not because I lack family seniority—but because I don’t read as quickly as either Audrey or my kids. I’m almost 51; I don’t think that harsh reality will change. I’ve been reading “The Brothers Karamazov” for a week now, and am only on page 75. Granted, it’s my “bedtime” book and Russian fiction is a great cure for insomnia (if only Michael Jackson had tried Dostoyevsky) but still. Yet, I always read. I read “Hot, Flat and Crowded” before this book. I’ll pick another book after TBK (which, by the way, I’m only reading because I enjoyed an American book, “The Brothers K,” so much that I wanted to read its inspiration). I also read “Newsweek” every week, “The Gazette” every day, and I skim the “New York Times” web site, reading what interests me (I love Dowd’s column about Sarah Palin’s resignation, by the way). I read news every day, and I chug away at a longer work of fiction or non-fiction daily. I suppose there are many more readers than writers in the world, but I doubt many of the writers aren’t readers.

Other than that, there are many venues for practice. If you’re young, major in English and print journalism (yes, learn to write a newspaper story even if there is no newspaper industry—the art of journalism is the art of collecting and writing non-fiction).

Regardless of age, experiment with different forms of writing and see what you like. Again, writing is like sports, there are many different forms, types, tones and venues.

Finally, remember writing is also a bit like singing. Many of us enjoy it, at least in a shower, but it takes extraordinary talent and luck to turn this pleasurable activity into a livelihood. Be honest with yourself about what your goals are. For me, my singing goal is usually not to be overheard so I don’t bug people—my writing goals are legitimately a bit loftier. Don’t let anybody keep you from singing, but don’t think you’re the next pop star, either.

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