The Whistle-Blower Knows How to Write

(Photo source: The New York Times)

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard all about the bombshell that has hit the American political establishment. Yes, I have my own political opinions as to what’s happening. But I won’t express them here. That is not why I am writing this article.

I felt compelled to write this after reading this article (whose title I shamelessly stole for this article) in the New York Times. The author, Jane Rosenzweig, is a college writing instructor. Rather than analyze the politics of the situation, she instead scrutinizes the whistle-blower’s writing itself. And what she says is exactly the reason why I preach what I do at SQL Saturday.

Go ahead and read Ms. Rosenzweig’s article. It’s a pretty good read.

I will admit to a couple of things: (1) I am a self-admitted grammar snob, and (2) I am not a grammatically perfect writer. I was never an English major, and I’m sure much of my writing would likely make many writing instructors cringe. I’m admittedly liberal with a number of grammar rules, such as ending sentences with a preposition (which I do from time to time). That said, I know the differences between “your” and “you’re” and “too,” “to,” and “two.” I am an unabashed and unashamed defender of the Oxford comma (on this, I have a very strong opinion; I believe not using it is incorrect). And I still believe that anyone who says “irregardless” should be strung up by his or her fingernails.

In any case, I do consider myself a fairly strong (though not perfect) writer. It’s why I have a job. And its importance is why I preach about the importance of communication. Communication is critical in any endeavor. You needn’t look further than the example put forth by the anonymous whistle-blower.

A picture is worth (writing) a thousand words

On a recent project in which I was documenting an application, I found myself hitting yet another case of technical writer’s block. I sat in front of the screen, staring at the application — sometimes, for hours — and came to the realization that all I was doing was blankly staring at the screen. I tried different techniques to stir up ideas as to how to tackle writing the documentation, but no matter what I tried, the words just wouldn’t come. Even just trying to figure out a document structure — never mind actually trying to describe the application — was proving to be elusive.

It was at that point where I decided to give up on trying to write a description of the application functions and turned my attention to grabbing screen captures. I went through the application’s menu structure, built a document heading hierarchy based on it, and started working on the application images I’d just captured. I took the time to clean up the images, including altering them to eliminate any client or user data (replacing them with “dummy” data), and formatting them for my document. Once I was satisfied with the result, I inserted it into the document, proceeded to the next screen capture, and repeated the process.

A funny thing happened during this process. First, I found that my document was expanding in content. Granted, it was mostly graphics, but it was, nonetheless, content. Second, I’m finding it easier to come up with ideas for descriptions and text content. Third, I’m no longer blankly staring at my screen; I’m finding that I’m actually productive. Finally, I’m finding myself having fun with the process!

This is not the first time that I’ve performed this process while writing a document. Indeed, I’ve often worked on documents in which I found myself in a writing rut, shifted gears to work on graphics, and discovered the spark that I needed to write the text.

It’s an age-old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Most often, this phrase is geared toward the perspective of the reader. However, what is not as appreciated is that this cliché is applicable to the document developer as well. If ever you find yourself in a writing rut, try working on the graphics. It might just be enough to spark ideas and get you out of the rut.

First drafts are ugly

“The secret to life is editing. Write that down. Okay, now cross it out.”

William Safire, 1990 Syracuse University commencement speech

“No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

William Forrester (Sean Connery), Finding Forrester

“Just do it.”

Nike

I will confess that this article is a reminder to myself as much as anything else.

Raise your hand if you’re a writer, and whatever it is you’re writing has to be perfect the first time around. Yeah, me too.

How many times have you tried writing something, but in doing so, you hit a wall (a.k.a. writer’s block) because you don’t quite know how to put something in writing? Or how often have you written a first draft, only to take a second look at it a second time and say, “what a piece of s**t!”

(And speaking as someone with application development experience, this happens with writing code, too. Don’t think that this is limited to just documentation. This is yet another example of how technical writing and application development are related.)

Someone (I don’t know whom) once said, “one of the stupidest phrases ever coined is, ‘get it right the first time.’ It’s almost never done right the first time!” In all likelihood, you need to go through several iterations — review, editing, rewriting, etc. — before a draft is ready for public consumption. It’s called a “draft” for a reason.

The fact is, nobody has to see what you write the first time around. If you’re trying to get started on a document, just write what’s on your mind, and worry about making it look nice later.

Want to get started with speaking? Try your local user group!

Usually around this time of the month — a week before (my user group‘s) monthly meeting — I’d be posting an announcement about our upcoming meeting.

I still will do so — as soon as I find out who’s speaking.

As I write this, I’m guessing that our speaker will be Greg Moore, but I’m not completely sure. One way or another, I’ll post an announcement later today.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s article.

Have you ever wanted to speak publically or do presentations? Consider doing so at a local user group. It’s the perfect place to do so!

There are many advantages about speaking at a local user group. If you’re a first-time speaker, it’s an opportunity to practice your presentation skills. If you’ve been a part of a user group for some time, you can do so in front of a familiar audience. If it’s your first time at a particular user group, it can serve as an introduction to the group. Either way, it’s a wonderful experience that is generally less pressure than presenting for the first time at, say, a SQL Saturday.

I’ve told this story plenty of times. In 2015, I came up with a presentation idea that I first presented at my user group. I had been involved with this user group for a while, I was among friends, and I felt comfortable about presenting to this group. Ever since that initial experience, I’ve spoken at several SQL Saturdays, and this coming November, I will be doing that same presentation for PASS Summit! My experience with speaking has also passively helped my career in numerous ways, including (but not limited to) expanding my network and improving my own professional self-confidence. I’ve come a long way since that initial start!

And if you’re still not completely comfortable with speaking, but still have an interest in doing so, there are other resources available to get you started. Look into groups or courses such as Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. (Disclosure: I have friends who are involved with Toastmasters, and I, myself, am a Dale Carnegie grad.)

If you’re interested in speaking, consider starting at your local user group. You never know where a small start could lead!

P.S. if you’d like to speak for our user group, feel free to drop us a line!

Coming up with presentation ideas

As a followup to yesterday’s article, I thought it might be fitting to talk about presentation ideas.

Despite the fact that I speak regularly at SQL Saturday, none of my presentations (up to this point) have anything to do with SQL Server or even anything data-related. My topics revolve mostly around documentation and communication. So how do I go about coming up with presentation topics?

To answer this, I suppose I should go back to the beginning, and (re-)tell the tale as to how I got involved.

Back when I was primarily a SQL Saturday attendee, I knew I wanted to get involved. The question was, how? At the time, I looked around at the people attending the event, and I said to myself, “these people probably know more about SQL Server than I do. What can I present that these people would find interesting?”

In the early days of our user group (I was one of the original co-founders and members), we sought out speakers to present. I thought about data-related topics. I even took a turn one meeting where we were encouraged to bring up SQL-related issues as discussion topics. But when it came to ideas for data-related topics, I kept coming up empty.

I thought about a time at one of my jobs where I became an accidental customer service analyst. As a developer, I was not allowed to speak with end-users, but one day, I received a phone call from a user. It turned out that he had gotten my number from someone who was not supposed to give out my number. I was able to walk him through and satisfactorily resolve his issue. In fact, I did such a good job with it that, from that point forward, I became one of the few developer/analysts who was allowed to talk to customers. It made me realize that I had a knack of being able to discuss technology with end-users without being condescending to them.

During one user group meeting, I jotted some notes down. By the end of the meeting, I had come up with enough material for a presentation. I ran my idea past my fellow user group attendees, all of whom said, “that would make a great presentation!”

I worked on the presentation and presented it at a user group meeting.

Four years later, I will be giving that same presentation at PASS Summit! I’ve come a long way!

While that ended up being a good presentation, I’ve tried not to rest on my laurels. I still try to come up with new presentation ideas. I’ve come up with several since then, and I’m still trying to come up with more.

When I think about presentation ideas, I generally keep these thoughts in mind.

  • Is it a topic that attendees will find interesting?
  • Is it unique?
  • Is it something about which I’m knowledgeable, and I feel comfortable talking about?
  • Is it something I can present within an hour? And do I need to cut it back to an hour, or do I need to fill it in to an hour?

I still remember a piece of advice that Chris Bell, a DBA and fellow SQL Saturday speaker, once told me: “an expert is someone who knows something that you don’t.” That was profound advice, and I’ve never forgotten it. So far, it’s served me well in my speaking endeavors.

So if you struggle to come up with presentation ideas (like I do!), hopefully this will help you get the ball rolling. I look forward to seeing your presentation soon!

PASS Summit and Election Day

Important public service announcement…

Election Day falls during PASS Summit.

I just filled out an application for an absentee ballot. If you’re attending PASS Summit and are eligible to vote, I suggest you do the same! Contact your local board of elections for more information.

References and memorization

I was working on a document, and wanted to toggle the language on MS Word that was used for proofing (I downloaded the template from our UK subsidiary, so it was proofing in UK, not US, English). I couldn’t remember how to do it, so I consulted Google, found my answer, changed the setting, and went along my merry way.

For whatever reason, it got me thinking about Microsoft certification exams (it’s funny how one’s mind works sometimes). It’s been a long time since I took one. What got me thinking was that, when you take a certification exam, you are not allowed to bring any notes or references with you into the testing room (as far as I remember — I’m not sure if that’s still the case now; like I said, it’s been a long time since I took a certification exam).

In this day and age where finding information is as easy as picking up your smartphone, I really believe that memorization is overrated (and, maybe in some cases, even dangerous). I wrote as much a while back, and I still believe that now.

Back when I worked as an adjunct instructor, all my assignments, quizzes, and exams that I gave to students were open-book, open-note. I also told my students that they were allowed to help each other work toward the answers, including during an exam. They were not allowed to outright give each other answers; that constituted cheating and were grounds for failing the exam. Maybe some instructors might scoff at this approach, but my students were very good about adhering to those rules (many of them told me later that they learned more in my class than any other they’d ever taken), and there was a method to my madness.

For one thing, I told my students that the ability to look up and research information was an important skill to have. We, as imperfect human beings, are never going to remember absolutely everything, so to be able to know how find the correct answers is important. Second, when we’re in a working environment, the ability to work together as a team is critical. When you’re working within a team environment, being able to work with others to achieve a common goal is a big deal.

Finally, how many workplaces are going to tell you, “okay, put away all your books and references. You’re going to do this project entirely from memory.” I don’t know about you, but if a manager ever told me to do that, I wouldn’t be able to update and distribute my resume fast enough.

In his SQL Saturday presentation entitled “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute,” Thomas Grohser mentions that he does not expect any candidate to be able to know everything. If a candidate says that (s)he “does not know the answer, but here’s how I would go about finding the answer,” then that is a perfectly acceptable answer. More often than not, trying to do everything from memory is a bad and sometimes dangerous approach, and is a bad way of thinking.

We are not perfect. We will never remember everything. And anyone who says that (s)he knows everything is full of crap. Rather than try to brute-force memorize anything and everything, it’s more important to develop skills that teach you how to think and how to find, verify, and process information. If I was a hiring manager, that ability would be vastly more valuable than someone who says that (s)he “knows everything.”