Tuesday, November 13, 2007

We got skills

On Saturday, November 10, I hosted a book-signing party at my house to celebrate the publication of my first book, Gem Trails of Washington. It was the most fun I've had in a long time, what with a bevy of life-long friends and close relatives streaming in and out, picking up a heavily-discounted copy of the book and asking for a few hand-written words up front. I even got interviewed by the media -- although, in fairness, "the media" was a ten-year old girl working on a school project.

I'm hoping to put together a formal article or presentation on the whole project, to give technical communicators some ideas for their own publication. In fairness, it wasn't that hard, and I had a great time. Sure, my wife was missing me on the many weekends I was out collecting without her, but it didn't seem like that much work to mount continued road trips into the hinterlands. My belief is that we technical writers have the skills and abilities to branch out from writing online help and technical manuals. As a group, we are familiar with every facet of the writing process, skilled in research and data-gathering, able to meet deadlines, and our skin is thick enough to withstand the editing process without too much angst. When we become our own Subject Matter Expert, what's not to like?

The book, now available at Amazon.com, is a list of 78 different locales in Washington state of interest to anyone who likes to collect rocks, gems, and fossils. I personally visited each site, used my digital camera to collect over 600 images, used a GPS device to record detailed latitude and longitude coordinates, and organized a collection of samples that I could come back to when writing up each spot. I used a laptop with an AC/DC converter in the field to write down first impressions and later went into more detail. I used Adobe PhotoShop to clean up the pictures, used Adobe Illustrator to create the maps, and used Adobe Acrobat to create drafts for the publisher to gauge my progress.

In addition, I used the following online tools:

1. TopoZone.com for digital topographic maps. I used my field record of the GPS coordinates and verified that I was, in fact, where I thought I was, and in more than one case corrected transposed entries that would have placed the reader in the middle of a lake or river.
2. GoogleEarth for aerial photographs of the places I was either researching or confirming. This program was especially helpful in planning trips, as I could tell whether camping would be an option or if I was likely to be in the middle of a rancher's field. I also used the measuring tool to refine mileage estimates and record road information.

3. Mapquest.com for road maps to and from locales. In some cases, Mapquest showed roads that did not exist, but in other cases, I found short-cuts and easier routes.
4. Google Maps was another good road mapping program. In order to get readers to a certain spot, I had to know the roads and provide mileages. Many times the roads are not marked in the field, so my notes had to be accurate. Google Maps has a toggle between photos and maps that was very helpful.
5. BLM LR2000 is an online claims record that shows land ownership patterns. I can't send readers to a site that is actually someone else's mining claim, so this tool was helpful in avoiding mistakes.
6. Rocks and Minerals Mailing List was a good online discussion board for asking specific questions to other rockhounds who knew as much, or more, than I did about collecting in Washington.
7. Weather.com helped in planning trips both long-term and short-term. Knowing precipitation patterns, I developed a plan that allowed for knocking out all the high-elevation sites first, then picking off the western areas of the state that see the most rain, and finishing in lower elevations in eastern Washington as the weather turned cold.
8. State of Washington WebCams helped me understand traffic bottlenecks, pass conditions, and road construction projects to avoid.
9. JBO-Night Sky helped me keep on the lookout for stars, planets, comets, meteor showers, satellites, and other interesting celestial objects that wandered across the starry nights. Heck, once you're out camping, you might as well enjoy the whole experience.

On top of those tools, I used email to keep in touch with other rockhounds, and I frequented the websites for U.S. Forest Service regional offices, where fire conditions were posted as well as road construction projects. I used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of mileage and expenses, which kept the accountants happy. I used FullShot to take screen captures of images and maps, and then pasted them into PowerPoint because the landscape orientation made it easier to view the information.

Finally, my PC skills were put to the test. I updated my PC to Windows Vista, beefed up the memory, and installed a new hard drive to handle the expected surge in data. I managed my file backups, created directories for each locale to store digital pictures, burned data DVDs to ensure the project files were safe, and carried a USB drive around in my pocket as another backup device.

The payoff was last week's party. The book won't be on any best-seller lists, as it is a small niche market. When my grandparents were taking us kids out into the woods in the 1960s, it seemed like a lot more families were involved in camping, hiking, and picking up rocks, but the hobby is not as popular today. No worries; I'm not in it for the money. I am hard at work on a companion guide covering the state of Oregon, and next year I will complete a contract for the state of Idaho. After that...who knows? It's a big world out there. "Gem Trails of Antarctica" has a nice ring to it.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Next Crop

I submitted a proposal to take part in a progression at the Society for Technical Communication conference in Philadelphia next summer. The topic concerns reaching out to the high school level to describe technical writing as a career option. Earlier this year I spoke to a group of high school science teachers about getting better writing from their students. The topic continues to intrigue me, and I have started to contact local schools to get more opportunities around Career Days.

In the dark, dim past it seemed like there was a very low barrier to entry for aspiring technical writers. Basically, anyone caught conjugating a verb properly was a likely candidate. The writing staff at some companies was comprised of technicians, secretaries, journalists, frustrated novelists, and the like. It seemed like half the staff was there by accident.

Fast-forward to 2007 and the writing staff is far different. Most technical communicators have degrees in their chosen field, or degrees in English, Journalism, etc. In other words, the writers are here by choice.

My hope is to get more representation at the high school level and help students identify the technical communication career as a viable path. As I find out more, I'll keep blogging about it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Greetings! I am a technical communicator in Portland, Oregon. I manage the technical documentation department for Kentrox, Inc. We make gear for the telecom industry.

I also teach technical communication at Portland State University. I am active in the Society for Technical Communication, having served in multiple positions at the local level and I am increasing my involvement at the international level.