Turning a page

I am turning a page. An elderly metaphor, but still apt for a writer. My kids are grown. My mortgage is paid. My savings are adequate. I only need do the work I most want to do. I have said the things that I truly thought it important to say about technical communication and content strategy (in Every Page is Page One, and Structured Writing).

This happy state is not without its emotional perils, however. For one thing, you start to ask yourself questions like, if I were to be given a fatal diagnosis tomorrow, what would I regret not having done in my life? When I ask myself that question, I find there is only one item left on the list: publishing a novel. And since anyone can publish a novel on Amazon today let me clarify that I mean publishing traditionally using someone else’s money, because that means someone beside me has some skin in the game.

So I am going to take a run at the novel thing. This is something I more or less abandoned when I acquired the kids and the mortgage and needed to pay for them, and found tech comm to be the most reliable way for a writer to make a steady paycheck. But I’ve dabbled along the way, taken classes, gone to conferences, and has a few stories published — and received enough encouragement to conclude that this is not entirely a pipe dream. Probably a pipe dream, no doubt, but not certainly. But that is what bucket lists are for: chasing the improbable when the probable is done.

Being the pathologically analytical cuss that I am, this is not going to mean I just write fiction from now on. My approach to tech comm has been hopelessly meta, and I am certain my approach to fiction will be just as hopelessly meta. In other words, I have some thoughts about the way stories work and how language works (which, incidentally, I think apply to both fiction and nonfiction), and I expect that I will be writing about those ideas. What I am not going to do anymore is work on new tech comm and content strategy projects and ideas for their own sake. If the new stuff I write about has crossover appeal, so much the better.

No turning of the page is ever quite clean. While completing the latest book, does allow me to complete some thoughts that have interested me about technical communication and content strategy for over 15 years, it does not  bring every project to a final end. Everything seems to spawn something else, and so no work is every really finished. The page must turn with something still unwritten.

This means downing tools on some projects I have been working on for a long time. In particular I have a couple of software projects that are very much related to my ideas on technical communication and content strategy. By their very nature, software projects are never really finished. So I can’t say that I have drawn a line under either the SPFE project or the SAM markup language project. Both projects were created, principally, to work out and to illustrate the ideas expressed in Every Page is Page One and Structured Writing.

SPFE

Most current content development tools are designed for content that is linear or hierarchical in structure. Every Page is Page One describes an approach to information architecture that is neither linear nor hierarchical but is based on search and linking (Wikipedia being the most obvious example). Wikis support this model, but they don’t support structured writing or automation. The SPFE project was designed to show how a structured approach to a bottom-up information architecture and and Every Page is Page One could work.

In particular, SPFE supports a different approach to link creation and management. Links are one of the most expensive things to create and maintain in current tools, and I believe this has been a key factor in inhibiting the move to in Every Page is Page One information design.

But while the SPFE project is functional and shows what is possible, it is by no means ready for general popular use. If it’s going to go for forward, it needs to be adopted either by an open source community or by a tool vending company.

One of the aims of, Structured Writing, was to explain in detail the kind of structured writing approach that would be appropriate to use with something like SPFE and to explain the comprehensive benefits that such an approach would bring. I hope that that book will increase interest in this type of approach whether or not it increases interest in SPFE itself. (Structured Writing is a survey of the entire range of structured writing practice. It includes, but is not limited to, those that SPFE is designed to support.)

SAM

I have long complained that XML sucks for writing, and that this causes real problems for the type of subject-domain structured writing that I advocate in Structured Writing. In the course of writing the book, I developed an alternate markup syntax which I call SAM. Initially the purpose was simply to show the structure of examples without cluttering things up with angle brackets. But I quickly realized that SAM was robust enough and complete enough that I could write the book in it. (The process involved is described in the book itself.) It is also suitable for a wide range of structured writing applications.

I put the language specification and the parser I wrote for SAM up on GitHub. It seems to be fairly reliable for command-line usage at least, and it has an interesting direct-to-HTML mode that could make it a more semantically rich and constrainable alternative to MarkDown.

Both projects were designed to explore and illustrate ideas rather than to be finished working software. While both projects do work, SPFE, in particular, lacks the polish, optimization, and documentation that would be required for general adoption.  Both projects are currently available on GitHub, here and here.  I will continue to respond to issues and pull requests, but if any open source community or commercial vendor is interested in further exploring the ideas or actually developing the specific projects they may be assured of both my consent and my cooperation.

Even if no one decides to take these projects further, however, I think both retain significant value as an illustration of different approaches to the structure and management and creation of content. If anyone is interested in them in that context, they should also feel free to contact me with any questions they have.

This blog

Another important artifact of my years in the tech comm and content strategy space is this blog. I haven’t posted much of late, but, despite this, the blog gets a steady stream of visitors. It seems to have become a useful resource for many in the content strategy and tech comm communities. Because of this, I certainly intend to leave it intact for the foreseeable future. It is also the place for anyone to contact me about the two books, both of which I will continue to support, if anyone has any questions or comments concerning them. This blog will remain the logical place to do that.

The question I’m struggling with is this: Since I will clearly need someplace to write about my thoughts on language in story and fiction and drama in the years to come, do I continue to use this blog for that purpose, or start a new one?

This has never been a personal blog. It has always been a business blog about technical communication and content strategy and about the communication topics that matter to those industries. Communication being as general a human activity as it is, this has meant that I have often dealt with ideas that were far broader than technical communication and content strategy. In particular, my thoughts on the nature of language as a structure made up of stories is something that applies across the board and will continue to be something I think about and write about going forward.

So there is a continuity of subject matter between what I’ve written about in the past and what I expect to write about in the future. However, there will also be a discontinuity in emphasis and a transition to the the more imaginative rather than commercial aspects of communication.

There seem to be three options available to me.

  1. Stop posting to this blog and create a new one and grow its audience from scratch.
  2. Start a new blog, but cross post or cross link from this blog to the new one whenever I think there is crossover appeal, thus hopefully pulling some of the audience for this blog over to the new one.
  3. Just keep posting in this blog and let the audience sort itself out over time.

I would welcome your thoughts on the matter (and any other alternatives I may have missed.)

Keep a candle burning for me

This does not necessarily mean I will be gone forever from the tech comm and content strategy space. As I said above, I will continue to support Every Page is Page One, and Structured Writing and respond to any requests or questions I get about them. My interests have always tended to move in circles, and if I find that the fiction thing is a bust (as most people do) then I will have to find something else to do with my time, and that might bring me back round to tech comm and content strategy again.

But for now, I am turning a page. Your thoughts on the question above will help me make the transition smoother, and I thank you for them in advance.

 

 

 

Author: Mark Baker

Mark Baker is the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process as well as other books on content and content technologies and dozens of articles on technical communication, content strategy, and structured writing. He has worked as a technical writer, tech comm manager, director of communications, trainer, programmer, copywriter, and consultant and has spoken frequently at industry conferences. He has designed, built, and used multiple structured writing tools and systems, including the one used to write this book. He blogs at everypageispageone.com and tweets as @mbakeranalecta. For more information, see analecta.com.

32 thoughts on “Turning a page”

  1. FWIW, I’d vote for Option 2. I’m not a fan of multiple audiences trying to use a single source for different purposes, and I kinda get that same vibe from you.

    That said, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I’m of the same general age, with the same general situation in life (albeit without having published books). I will watch to see how things go for you … and wish you all the best. And maybe take yet another cue from you one of these days – if only to see if I have any imagination left.

  2. Option 3 for sure. I’d be interested in following your adventure and don’t want to lose track of you.

  3. #3. I find your writing illuminating. It puts words to thoughts I have intuitively felt but couldn’t express on my own. While I may not be looking to write a novel, I suspect your writing about your own process, characters, and the like will still be interesting. And for those new readers of yours who you attract, they can pick through the archives of this blog as they wish…just like the rest of us.

  4. Option 2 but keep the intent of each post specific to the target audience of each blog area. At this stage in your life your audience is here to follow you as a person, so Option 1 especially attractive. However, as your thoughts diverge, you will both alienate one group while fascinating another. That’s the sad reality of our explorations.

    Besides, domain names are cheap. 😉

  5. I say option 3. “Every Page Is Page One” is actually a great title for a blog on creative writing. It subtly addresses the issue of writer’s block, and it appeals to the writer’s sense of pages and the paradigm of reading from a book (or ebook). I know you got away from that in documentation but reading creative writing is different. It’s also inspirational, as if to say, “Every time you sit down to write your novel, it’s as exciting as writing the first page.”

  6. Mark, many thanks for all you’ve contributed to the field. You’ve given us lots to think about and talk about, and the community is richer for it. Wish you all the best in your next endeavor…

  7. So exciting, Mark!

    Although I’m sure you could make 2 or 3 work, I’d go with 1. It’s a big change, and I think a clean slate is called for (and possibly more exciting from your point of view). I don’t think you’d have any trouble finding an audience for a new blog either.

    You can still link the two blogs, and it’ll mean this one, which is primarily tech-comm focused, won’t be diluted. I think it’s a fantastic resource that needs to stand as it is.

  8. Good for you, Mark. Your kids are grown, your mortgage paid. But your curiosity and creativity are still going full-tilt.

    Because a lot of people use this blog as a resource, I think option 2 makes the most sense. It preserves the EPPO blog as an archive of sorts — non-static, but still focused primarily on nonfiction writing.

  9. Option 3, it’s the easiest for us readers too, we simply keep following. Just have different categories and the old content will still be visible enough. Besides, Every Page Is Page One is such a great blog name.

  10. I would pick option 3, because I can see you will be in the same zone and in same mindset (structure, narrative, outcome). In any case, I do not see anyone separating their one-form-of-work from any other form of work – particularly when they have spoken, discussed, and written extensively on that approach for 15 years. I do not see the logic either.

  11. My mind, right now: “Option 2 is logical. Don’t say option 3. Don’t say it. Don’t. ”
    Me: Option 3. What are tags and categories for, after all?
    🙂
    Wishes you best for the future endeavors.

  12. Awesome to hear, Mark. It’s always encouraging to hear of tech writers who are also doing creative writing (something I’m trying to juggle myself). All the best – I think all of your experience in writing and publishing over the years will serve you quite well. Looking forward to your debut novel. 🙂

    As for your blog ideas, I’m in agreement with others above who’ve voted for #2.

  13. Excited for you, Mark! What a great change. I feel like most of us are pragmatic would-be novelists, but few of us make it all the way once life settles down. Best of luck to you!

  14. Congrats, Mark, and best of luck with the fiction.

    I vote Option #2. I disagree with Steve Janoff. If I had writer’s block, viewing the blank screen as EPPO would paralyze me more deeply. Meanwhile, in six months people who encounter EPPO for the first time looking for web-related material may think they’re in the wrong place, categories or not.

  15. I encourage you to move forward with your fiction plans.
    I suggest that “publisher pays” is not a good validation. Try putting your current work out to an email list by MailChimp or similar.
    If people like your scene-length and chapter- length pieces, your list will grow and become an earlier indication of your writing’s alue. Feedback on the list will help you improve long before the publisher’s editor would see it.
    Good luck!
    Rob

  16. Option 3 is best, for the simple fact that maintaining multiple blogs is difficult and never seems to work out in the end (at least not for me). Also, many readers are interested to see your thoughts on this other writing topic as well. I find that many people are curious about other facets of one’s life beyond tech comm.

  17. This is very exciting, Mark! I vote for option 3, as it will show your progress from a hard-core and respected technical writer to a writer of creative fiction. (Though it sounds like you’ve already had some success in creative fiction.) Enjoy!

  18. Thank you all so much for your comments. I am truly touched that so many of you take enough interest in my future career to comment and to vote on this.

    Option 3 is the clear winner here, and yet I find Mike McAllister’s point compelling. As much as continuing to post here would make things easiest for those in my current audience who wish to keep reading as I turn the page, new readers coming here for web and tech comm information would certainly be confused to find a long essay on Arthur Ransome, for instance. Categories alone will not solve that, because, while they may provide useful navigation for those who know where they are, they don’t contribute to information scent in any meaningful way.

    A larger question, perhaps, is whether the old tech comm material would be confusing to potential new readers (those maybe interested in an essay on Arthur Ransome, for example). Maybe that is not such a big concern, since they are more likely to see the new material than the old, but it is something to think about.

    There is a bit of a content strategy lesson in this too. When trying to determine audience preferences, surveys have a built in bias, which is that only your current audience sees or responds to them, and they, presumably like what you are doing already. There is a built in status quo bias in any such survey. What answers would I have got from Arthur Ransome fans with no interest in tech comm or content strategy?

    However, I also take Tom Johnson’s point very much to heart. People who read your stuff on one subject do get interested in other facets of your life. I know I do. In that sense, every blog is personal, no matter how much you try to keep it to purely business or technical topics. Bearing that in mind, it might well prove that the people who came to read my essay on Arthur Ransome might, if they found it interesting, want to know something of my thoughts on writing for the web, etc.

    So, taking it all into consideration, I’ve decided to … think about is some more. In particular, I am going to think about whether there is a way to do option 3 at the technical level while making it look like option 2 at the design level.

    Thanks all of you for your good wishes.

    Arthur Ransome, by the way, was an English children’s author of the early 20th century. 30 some years ago, I wrote an essay about the use of an extended game to express the nature of childhood in his most famous work, Swallows and Amazons. I pulled it out of a stack of old papers I was throwing away the other day, and I think its argument stands up today, though it needs a bit of a rewrite. So look for it here (or elsewhere) somewhere down the road.

  19. Thanks for your awesome contribution to the tech com field.

    I’m sure you can find a way to group the tech com related content of your blog together and open a new content type group. It’s a winner solution.

    Lately I’ve taken interest in deciphering the techniques used by fiction authors to create stories and characters, so I can’t wait to read what you have to say about this.

  20. If I can do anything to help with your transition, let me know. My wife and I have already begun to make that same transition. My wife has written a series of historical/paranormal novels and I am producing said works. One book is available now and two more will be available soon. Self-publishing isn’t a piece of cake, but isn’t that onerous (particularly for us TWs) or expensive, either. Even if you choose the traditional route, let me know, because I may still be able to help.

  21. Best of wishes for your future, whichever option you will choose. Your blog is probably the most inspired and lucid one in technical communication, I savored every post.

    And good luck with writing fiction. I used to think that I was bound to become a fiction writer myself, but that was long ago: I realized that fiction is too hard for me.

    I will be buying Structured Writing in digital version as soon as my salary comes in. A good read for the structured authoring course in the TechComm Master’s degree I will be starting in a few weeks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *