The Difference Between Story and Drama

In our data-driven age, we tend to give short shrift to story. Story tends to get herded off into the ghetto of drama. Story is for amusement; at work we stick to data.

When I wrote my last post, suggesting a switch of terminology from “content” to “story”, many people naturally interpreted story as meaning drama. As Larry Kunz put it, “In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.”

That may be a useful way to think about your tech writing, but it is a definition of story derived from the world of drama. When I talk about story in the world of tech comm (or marketing communication, for the most part) I am not talking about drama, I am talking about general human communication about everything. Because story is not a special preserve of entertainment. It is how we communicate about everything. read more

Let’s Replace “Content” with “Story”

We used to be in the writing business. Then we were in the communication business. Now we are in the content business. It’s probably getting time to change the monika again. I have a candidate: “story.”

There have always been two schools of thought about the word “content”. Some love it. Some hate it.

I hate it. It is an ugly generic word chosen specifically not to mean anything specific. We can’t say “writing” because sometimes we use pictures. Etc. Etc. It is the sort of word you use when you don’t care what is in the container. (Many years ago I asked a Documentum rep what Documentum meant by content, to which he replied, “anything you can store in Documentum.”) read more

Is There a Reproducible Method for Explanation?

In a recent LinkedIn discussion on “Most important competencies for technical writers“, I commented that the most important skill for technical writers was explanation, and that the ability to write and the ability to explain are not the same thing, and that the ability to explain is significantly less common that the ability to write well enough.

This scarcity of natural ability to explain well, I argued, is why we need to pay attention to tools and structure, because we need to find ways to help people who do not have a natural gift for explanation to explain things at least reasonably well. Tacitly, this argument suggests that there is a reproducible method for explaining things. read more

7 Keys to the Discipline of Linking

Following my recent STC Webinar on Every Page is Page One, an attendee wrote to ask about the discipline of linking. Unfortunately, that email mysteriously vanished from my inbox before I could answer personally, so, whoever asked, I hope you see the answer here.

Linking is important to Every Page is Page One and to a bottom-up information architecture. When readers can enter your content at any individual page, links are what orient them in the larger content set and what keep them in your content rather than sending them back to their search engine. read more

The Economy of Language or Why we Argue About Words

Human language is extraordinarily economical. We can say an extraordinary amount in very few well chosen words. This economy is essential to its function. Language is what in computer science is called a soft real-time system. That is, you have a limited amount of time in which to convey your meaning. After that, your audience will get bored or go to sleep, or the event you wished to discuss or avoid will have taken place. The night will have come without the fire being built. The deer will have fled without the arrow being loosed from the string. read more

The other thing wrong with the DIKW pyramid

I took a side swipe at the DIKW (Data Information Knowledge Wisdom) pyramid the other day, and included a link to David Weinberger’s excellent debunking of it, which concludes:

The real problem with the DIKW pyramid is that it’s a pyramid. The image that knowledge (much less wisdom) results from applying finer-grained filters at each level, paints the wrong picture. That view is natural to the Information Age which has been all about filtering noise, reducing the flow to what is clean, clear and manageable. Knowledge is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous. read more

The Role of Story in Technical Communication

I have wanted to write about the role of story in technical communication for a long time. It is certainly a subject that comes up again and again, but without any clear message emerging. I have long felt that yes, story is fundamental to technical communication, but I could never quite pin down how.

It is well understood that story is fundamental to human beings. We are a species who tells stories, who understands ourselves and our roles in the world in terms of stories. The marketing business has long recognized the centrality of stories to what they do, and the importance of story in creating an emotional connection to the reader. A Harley Davidson executive is supposed to have once said: read more

Skimming and skipping is not a problem; quit trying to fix it

On a quite regular basis, someone publishes a study proclaiming — horror of horrors — that on the Web, people don’t always read content all the way through but skim and skip. Oh no! The Web is rotting our brains! Oh no! Writers have to change everything they do!

Bosh. Did they not bother to ask if people skipped and skimmed before the Web? Did they ever pause to consider how people read newspapers or the magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms?

skippingSkimming and skipping is perfectly normal reader behavior. It does not indicate that there is a problem with the content or with the reader. It is not a problem to be fixed, though it may be something that writers need to do a little bit more to support. read more