Jim Morton

Archive for the ‘Technical Writing’ Category

Using a Chromebook

In Misc, Technical Writing on May 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm

chromebook A year and a half ago I was presented with an interesting situation. I needed a new laptop. My old MacBook was still working, but at six pounds, the idea of carrying the thing around with me was out of the question. I had tried that before and all I got for the effort was a bad backache every night. I decided to get a MacBook Air, which weighed less than half as much. I liked my old MacBook, so the Air seemed like the way to go. I was saving my pennies when I came across an ad for the new (at the time) Samsung Chromebook. It looked a lot like the Air, weighed even less, and, best of all, was only $250. At first I was skeptical. After all, at one-quarter the price, could this little laptop serve my needs adequately. I remembered my experiences with netbooks, where the cramped keyboards made me feel like I was giant trying to type with a kid’s toy. There had to be something wrong here, I reasoned, and, for the first few months, I ignored them. Eventually, my curiosity and the low price got the better of me and ordered one. After all, I reasoned, if it turns out to be a bad idea, it won’t be too bad a mistake at that price. I’ve been using the Chromebook since then, and I can report that it was one of the better investments I’ve made. People ask me if I like it and if they should buy one. My answer to the first question is “I love it.” My answer to the second is “it depends.” Before you go out and purchase one, there are a few things you should know.

Using Drive

First, I should explain that my primary—almost my only—use for a laptop is to write. That’s what I do. A lot. I write white papers, blogs, articles, books, you name it. I spend hours every day writing. Yes, I’ll confess, I’m one of those people you often see in coffee houses, busily tapping away on his laptop, oblivious to the world around him. I’ve been writing in coffee houses since the early eighties, so I feel like I’ve earned the right to do so. Back then I did everything on paper, then typed it out later. As I got used it, more and more of my writing was done on the computer, and today, I hardly use my trusty old notebooks except when I’m on the couch at home writing notes on a film I’m reviewing. Like nearly everyone else in the world, I used to use Microsoft Word, the later switched to OpenOffice and its predecessor, LibreOffice. The problem with this approach was that, if I wanted to continue working on something when I got home, I either had to keep working on it on the laptop at home, or transfer a copy to my desktop computer. If an article took a while, this sometimes meant transferring an article back and forth, or sitting in the kitchen working on the laptop. Either way, it wasn’t much fun. Eventually, I decided to move my work to the cloud and began using Google Docs to write. This made things a lot easier; no more transferring and the ability to work on an article anywhere. So, as you might imagine, the fact that the Chromebook treats Google Drive as part of its native environment made it perfect for my needs. I have another writer friend who will do everything he can to avoid anything with the name Google attached to it. As you might imagine, he won’t be purchasing a Chromebook anytime soon. If your one of those people who has gone out of their way to avoid all things Google, then I would say no, this isn’t the laptop for you.

But I Need More Than Just Google Drive

I also wouldn’t chose this laptop if there is some specific piece of software that you just can’t live without. I have another friend whose job requires her to work with an industry-specific projects software that only runs on a PC. For her, neither the Chromebook nor the MacBook Air would make much sense. If, on the other hand, you need an application that is not part of the basic Google Drive set, you might want to see what’s available in the Chrome store first. A few months after I purchased my Chromebook, my boss wanted me to create a workflow for a triggered email campaign. I went to the Chrome store and found LucidChart, which did what I needed at a very reasonable price. I’ve used it many times since then, and it has proven to be a nice addition to me toolbox. If you are used to certain software and you just can’t live without it, then Chromebook might not be the best choice for you either. I won’t go into the specs here, those are easy enough to find on the Samsung website. This is just my personal observations.

What I like

So, with those qualifiers out of the way, here are a few of the things I like about the Chromebook:

  •  Weight: I can carry this thing around all day and night without ever feeling it in my back.
  • Trackpad: One of the things I loved about my old MacBook was the ability to do multiple finger commands; particularly the two-finger scroll. If it didn’t have this feature, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.
  • Keyboard: If you are using it to write, there is no more important component to a laptop than the keyboard. The Chromebook had a very good, responsive keyboard. Better, actually, than my old MacBook’s keyboard (I can’t speak to the newer Macs, however).
  • Works offline: Part of my daily trip involves writing while I’m on the ferry from Alameda to San Francisco. At certain points during the trip, my WiFi cuts out (I’m using a Karma, which I may write about in a future post). Although designed for working int he cloud, you have the option of working locally as well, and if the WiFi you are using cuts out, the Chromebook starts saving your work to the computer until the link is reestablished. I wouldn’t use it as an offline computer as my default, but it’s nice to know this feature is there.

These are all pluses, but that’s not to say it’s perfect. There are a few things I really don’t like about the Chromebook. One is just a wish, one is a design flaw, and one is a pain in the neck.

What I Don’t Like

There are a few things that I don’t like about. I do miss the lighted keyboard of the MacBook Air. I can see where that would be very useful, especially when traveling overseas in a darkened airplane, or sitting outside on a hot summer night. It also has a tendency to leave a mark across the screen where the edge of the trackpad meets the screen. You can get most of this off with a screen cleaner, but after a while it does leave a mark. But the worst thing about it—especially when compared to the Macs—is the inability to easily enter special characters. Suppose, for instance, if you want to use an em dash, you have to go to the “Insert” menu and choose “Special characters…” then type “2014” in the hex input box. You can create a shortcut for this and other characters, but even so, it’s a lot more hassle than the Mac’s “Option+Shift+hyphen” keystroke.


Whether or not this is a good computer for you will depend on how you use a laptop and whether or not you have highly specific software requirements. If, like me you work in the cloud, this is a great way to go. I can honestly say there hasn’t been a day when I’ve regretted buying this Chromebook. And I saved $750 in the bargain.


Who’s Your Audience?

In Language, Skills, Technical Writing, Web Content on April 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

Whether you’re writing ad copy, email blasts, or white papers, the question you always should ask before you get started is: “Who is your audience?” It’s one of the first rules students are taught in Marketing 101, and yet, many writers get so wrapped up in their own visions that they forget this. They concoct catchy science fiction scenarios that would draw in everyone at Comic Con for a product that is better suited to a global summit of the Fortune 500. The cleverest advertising campaign in the world is a failure if it doesn’t engage its primary audience.

Sometimes it’s tricky figuring out who that audience is. I worked with a very sharp woman who understood marketing backwards and forwards. She knew how to pitch things, and she knew how to sell. When asked to come up with a campaign for an upcoming trade show, she came up with a solution that probably would have sold a lot of equipment, but it fell flat in the meeting room. The reason: her real audience was the boss and he hated it. She was pitching to a group of people who weren’t there. With a little more care, she might have been able to find a way to get the boss on board with her ideas, but she overlooked that one link in the chain. In the end, the man went with his own vision and the products continued to sell in the same modest way they always had. In fairness to her, she had only been on-board for a few weeks and didn’t appreciate this man’s idiosyncrasies. He would have done well to listen to her suggestions, but she also should have recognized who her real audience was and proceeded accordingly.

One of the most obvious examples of bad marketing is now a classic meme of the Internet: Snakes on a Plane. Quite unexpectedly, this film’s title, in advance of the Samuel  L. Jackson movie’s release, became a popular catch phrase among the technoscenti. The marketing crew at New Line Cinema were sure they hit paydirt, and they milked it for all it was worth. But when the movie came out, it had tepid box office during its all-important opening weekend. Techies liked the phrase, but they weren’t the audience for this film. The marketing team would have done better to concentrate the efforts in other areas and let the meme take care of itself instead of nurturing what turned out to be a dead end.

In conclusion: Good marketing requires understanding who your audience is, but it also requires some careful consideration to make sure that you are pitching to the right people.

Technical Writing

In Skills, Technical Writing on March 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm

You may be a good writer, but when it comes to writing technical manuals, much of what you’ve learned needs to be rethought. Technical manuals have their own sets of rules. These rules are well-known, and yet, too often I see manuals that ignore them. The most important thing to remember about manuals is that 99% of us don’t bother to open them until we have to. It is from this behavior that we get the acronym RTFM (Read the *bleep*ing manual). When people do turn to their manuals, they want all the information they need right there. For this reason there is no such thing as repetition in a technical manual. Treat every section as a complete entity. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve already explained something in Chapter 2, the reader isn’t looking for a narrative plot line. Like Sargent Joe Friday on Dragnet, they want “just the facts.”

Sometimes I am also called upon to illustrate manuals. The rules for this are the same as the rules for the text. There is no sin in repetition, If instructions in section 4 require several of the same images as section 2, there is no shame in reusing the images.

And by the way, here’s a tip for creating technical illustrations from photos. If you have to create several drawings of a piece of equipment, and you are working from photographs, put the camera on a tripod and lock it down. That way, the elements that don’t change from photo to photo only need to be drawn once.

Here is a link to a manual that I both wrote and illustrated: IW manual.