How Technical Writing Makes Me a Better Fiction Writer

I just published this post on Medium. This post brings a new train of thoughts. Thoughts that lead me to think more for and about those who use what I write for. Hopefully, I will learn to write better. Hopefully, I will have something new for you, too.

Let me know how you found this post. Until next time, then! Happy writing.

You’re a Talented Writer

Am I?

I purposefully start this post with a question because I know that most of those who know that I blog, think that I do so not because I have something to say but because they think that that’s my talent. All I can do is reply with this question. I delve this dialogue in this post.

What is talent?

Is it any special ability that you are born with? Is it something that most others can’t, but you can with the utmost ease? I reckon none of the questions need to be answered.

Your talent is your bent towards better focus and clarity in the application of a skill. It is mostly natural, but you can hone it over time. Talent isn’t something that you and I can’t learn. It is something that both you and I ALREADY have but may have failed to discover. For the most part of our life, we remain learners. Our talent is our sphere of flawless application of what we continue to explore and learn.

So, am I a talented writer? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I someone who can flawlessly describe what I intend to say? Definitely. From what I know and have experienced, this is a skill. And, if this is a skill, you too can learn to master this skill. Here’s how:

  • Observe your triggers: Observe what made you do things. Observe what made you read, see, do, and write. Can you define it? No? But can you understand it? Can you describe it? Can you see how the thoughts and actions connect to your past, present, and future? Can you communicate what you were thinking before doing, while doing, and after you’re done? If you are affirmative, you can write about it.
  • Wear different hats: Think as they would think. See things from the perspective of an observer. Don’t just play the doer, for not always will you like to see yourself in the first person. Become an audience to your own audience. Write from their perspective. Sometimes it is good to wear different hats. Especially when you are dealing with emotions. Play the characters of your story. Wear the hat of an author. But first, wear the hat of a reader.
  • Learn to listen: This one’s tricky. Let me help you understand this how I’ve come to understand it. The reason the almighty gave us two ears but only one mouth is that He wants us to listen twice as much as we talk. Be all ears to what others are saying. But reserve an ear for your inner self. You talk to your inner self as you write. When you begin to listen to your silence, the readers begin to listen to what you write.

If you too are doing what I do, you too are as talented as anybody else. Just be on the write path and your talent will flourish.

I am Your Echo

I have this to say to my parents and gurus:

Flowing through the air are the glowing ashes of my smoldering.

If the smolders of karma be my destiny, then I am your echo.

Singing through the dark woods are the verses of this destiny.

To make this song of life melodious, I am your echo.

Dancing before my eyes are the glories of tomorrow,

If I am to attune to this rhythm, then I am your echo.

Gazing the horizon are the flights of fantasies

If I have your wings, then I am your echo.

I’m eyeing perfection but am set to fall and rise,

If I can learn from my mistakes, then I am your echo.

Raging inside my veins is the blood that calls for the undone.

If I can voice my dreams, then I am your echo.

© Suyog Ketkar

Writing tools are of critical importance

Which is the best and the most reliable technical content writing software for any technical content writer?

I’d say that it depends on your organization’s standard processes, requirements, budget, delivery formats, and time at hand. I’d choose based on those points. The current trend is shifting from the conventional PDFs through videos, tutorials, and interactive help. But, based on my previous stints, here is the list of usually-used tools I’d say useful to you:

  • If you rely on instructional videos for your organization, you can use TechSmith Camtasia to create instructional tutorials, provide voice over, run parallel tracks for superimposing two faded screenshots, and provide animation and special effects, too. The other similar tool, which I find was equally easy to learn was Adobe Captivate.
  • If you are heavy on video reviews instead of instructional videos, you can look at other movie making videos like Adobe After Effects.
  • For those who still use the conventional PDFs, there is a plethora of choice available.
  • If you use single-sourcing and are keen on creating content that is reusable, I would suggest tools like Adobe RoboHelp (the latest version is just fantastic because you now can create Apps, too) and Help & Manual (this is perhaps the most underrated tool, believe me).
  • If you are following the DITA XML methods of structured writing, I’d suggest use Adobe FrameMaker. You could also use MadCap Flare
  • If you plan to create an online, Server-based, CMS-oriented repository of your work, I’d suggest you use Atlassian Confluence. First, there are a lot of plug-in applications that you can add to it. Second, this is a centrally-managed-and-organized tool. So, this means greater control on who is working on what. Another advantage is that you get periodic updates that get pushed into your system automatically. Just that some of my friends tell me that it is a little expensive to implement. But, since I haven’t used it, I wouldn’t choose to comment on it.

But, there is a lot more to deciding on a technical writing tool that just that. You have to decide on what software will you use in order to implement version controlling. Version controlling will help you create and post versions on a Server so that neither your data is lost nor there is more than one technical communicator working on the same thing. A software, such as Bitbucket (previously called Stash), SVN, and VSS can help you do that.

You should look into a bug (a.k.a issues) management tools like the JIRA. This is a complete tool for creating and managing items that need to be worked upon. You can add people to the item-specific conversations; cross-refer to other JIRA items; create sub-tasks; and drill up, down, and through to the other linked JIRA items. I’ve used quite a few organization-specific bug trackers as well.

Besides, you have to look for a software that can help you push data into the version controlling software. I’ve used Git Extensions to push data into Bitbucket, but I’ve found both SVN and VSS to be of equally good quality in their management and response. You can look at Git Hub, too.

For one of my previous stints, we’ve even used Microsoft Word for creating and managing the content. We would later export it to PDFs to circulate the technical documents to our customers. There isn’t one tool that I’d pinpoint as the best of all. But, based on the points I mentioned in the beginning, you can still zero in on what software you require for your organization.

I hope I’ve been able to answer your question.

Oh, and I published this answer on Quora with a disclaimer because I thought it would be nice for me to come clean.

And that’s why I’d go for a DSLR

In February, this year, I released a post on why I’d prefer a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) over a digital SLR (DSLR). Over time, I continued my analysis and reading. Not that I chose to change my choice, given one, but I definitely liked to see the other side of the story. And, that’s exactly what this post is about.

As was with that post, too, the following premise stands:

  • I am an amateur enthusiast photographer. And, I am happy with my current point-and-shoot Canon IXUS HS 300. But, because I’ve tried the gear to its limits, I am looking out for a new one.
  • I know that the best camera is the one that I current hold in my hands. Other than that, it all depends on my imagination and creativity.
  • And, that none of the big or small companies have ever paid me to write for them. So, no imaginations on that part.

Here I go.

The battery life isn’t good enough, yet

As an enthusiast, I want my gear to be ever ready for me. But, with mirrorless cameras, the battery has always been an issue. Yes, I can carry multiple batteries. But, why would I choose to do that? Besides, how many batteries would I be required to carry? As of today, the mirrorless provides a battery that’s only about half of that of a DSLR. Unless there comes a technology that helps batteries retain their power for long or help extensively improve the battery efficiency, I’d choose to use a DSLR.

What about options (Or, is it choices?)

The mirrorless is still mostly a new technology for users like me. And, for the APS-C sensor market, there aren’t, frankly, as many options, leaving out the likes of Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Samsung, and, very recently, Canon, of which the majority isn’t available in India. And, if the choices were available, they wouldn’t be any cheap, either. Hey, that should count as two points, and not one. And, what about the retailers and repair facilities?

See, I’ll tell you how I look at it. For me, a product can only be sold once. After that, the product has to sell for itself. So, a network that can help users get access to sufficient choices in accessories, and sufficient outlets for sales and repairs, should be established even before bringing products into new markets. But, mostly, it happens the other way around.

The (way too) expensive lenses

First, the lenses aren’t available. A lens as basic as the Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4 was released as recently as July 2016, until which time the customers had to make do with only the f1.8 one. And, the f1.4 lens comes at whopping 119,000 (INR) in December 2016. Again, this is not specific to a brand, but, given the choices, I’d prefer waiting until the market matures.

The rolling issue of the rolling shutter

The jello effect is apparent in videos taken from even the full frame mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7r mark II. But, going forward, this issue might meet resolutions (no pun intended), I believe. It is just that we’ve found a new technology, but are yet to realize its full potential. So, for now, I will stick to the conventional DSLR and bank on its lens-feature-price combination until we are, at least, close to hitting any such sweet combination for the mirrorless siblings.

Because size does (not) matter

Remember I said that mirrorless cameras can be easier to carry because of their compact form factor and lighter weight? Well, I realize I was partly true. That’s because, despite how carry-able my camera is, I am never going to use it ALONE; that I will always have a lens attached to it. For enthusiasts, it is easy to assume that they will continue to experiment with lenses. They will buy or rent heavier, longer lenses on the same camera. And, this is where they might face issues. The overall system of the camera and the lens will somehow feel unbalanced and difficult to carry with a heavier lens attached to a light-weight camera. In my case, I anyway will carry at least two-three lenses, and a mirrorless camera will mean I will also have to carry an extra battery, too. This, sort of, negates to overall size and weight advantage.

There’s more. The compact size means that you have lesser real estate to grip in your hands. That’s not an issue for me, because I have small hands. But, for those with bigger hands, things might be different. I reckon they have a look at the Single Lens Translucent mirror (SLT) cameras from Sony. The new Sony A99 mark II is the new candidate on my WANTED list.

The Viewfinder that’s yet to reach its maturity

I agree, this one is as debatable and subjective as one’s taste. Although I would love to promote a newer technology, it is the dependability on the technology that bothers me the most. The truth is, a share of the power goes to viewfinders on mirrorless ILCs to power your vision through the lens. This means – you guessed it – additional battery drain. I would love to see a combination of optical viewfinder on a mirrorless, if that’s possible. But, let us just strike off this point from the list for now. That’s because amateur photographers, like me, rely on the Live View for taking pictures.

So much for the benefits?

The benefits – that’s the term the marketing experts use to sell you a product – that we are talking about are Wi-Fi sharing, in-body image stabilization, better burst rates even in the APS-C sized sensor category, and a remarkable ease in video creation. Benefits is the word here, because it brings in ease of accessibility and almost an exhaustive feature set. The question is if these benefits are worth your investment.

Amongst the many benefits that we see a mirrorless has over a DSLR, we must accept the above discussed points, although with a pinch of salt. Until the mirrorless category matures enough to address at least the battery and the lens option issues, I would choose remain rather conventional.

What Writing a Book for Children Taught Me

No, I am not breaking that I am writing a book for children; it is just another random thought that stuck me when I was researching on improving my writing skills. Turns out, one of the best ways I can improve my writing skills is to write books for children. I will write a book for children, but that’s far from even a start, as of now.

The big question of whether I will, one day, write and publish my own books still remains unanswered. But, I don’t want to confuse writing with publishing: they are two different things. And, for now, it is writing that I want to concentrate upon. This post comes at a time when I am learning to write. It’s been a while since I began writing frequently on this blog, and I believe the time has come to take things to the next level.

Now that I know that I can communicate my thoughts, and that the writing (Or is it typing?) flows as freely as my thoughts, I should try to bring all my energies, and the free-flowing thoughts, together to write better. Hey, I didn’t want to make this post look didactic… and I haven’t even begun yet. Never mind. There goes the rule number one: get thoughts and words to flow together.

When I began thinking on writing something for children, the immediate next question was: What should I write about? The thought of writing for kids was fine, but I was clueless about what I would write about. You see, there lies another rule. Even before you finalize on what you want to write about, and share with children, you have to be clear about how you’d write that. I mean your writing has to be so smooth that children (from age 3 to 10, roughly) will understand everything that they either listen to or read. Still, here are those rules that came in handy as I made a start:

  • Keep sentences short: Well, you are writing for those who’ve just stepped into the world of books. So, you better make it quick for them. The shorter, the simpler. The simpler, the better.
  • Use bigger typesetting: Use a bigger font size. And, preferably use the non-capped (sans serif) type font. For those who don’t know much about typesetting, the sans serif fonts are those fonts that do not contain the extra caps at the corners of alphabets. Such fonts are readable even when smaller in size, and largely appear informal, friendly in approach.
  • Don’t offer side notes: Unlike the way I did in the previous point, don’t use side notes and additional information that might break the flow. Remember, you are writing for someone with far lesser span of attention.
  • Let pictures do the talking: Use pictures that are colorful; that share an action or event from the story; that can help them imagine the rest of the characters. Seeing is believing; let them see the story for themselves. Avoid monochrome pictures, unless they are simple enough to understand.
  • Focus on grammar: You have to keep sentences short, but you don’t have to play with the rules of grammar. Grammar is like mortar; words are like bricks. If you use only loose bricks, the wall will not stand (or, stand for long). Also, stick to one tense across sentences, as much as possible.
  • Use imaginative relationships: See how I have been figurative in my comparison of grammar and words with mortar and bricks. Use comparisons that can help children build cross-referencing or poetic associations. Make them think; at least, for a while.

Those are some points about how I’d prepare either myself or my content. Now, some points regarding setting pages:

  • Cut short: Delete those sentences that do not contribute to the story or poem. This means, lesser content for me to bother about and for the children to read and understand.
  • One thought, one page: Make sure that the sentences don’t run into the subsequent pages. If so, break those sentences. That’s because, children might find it tough to reconcile their understanding of those sentences that involve more than one event described in sentences that run across pages. Children will most likely skip sentences if they have to turn pages back and forth to understand what’s going on. In fact, I’ve observed that most children hardly turn pages back and forth: they go along only one way.
  • Check for punctuation: Don’t use a lot of punctuation. Instead, let the pictures talk for you.
  • Leave with an afterthought; but not always.

Of all these rules, I’ve come to understand the following two as the most important:

  • Don’t lecture: No one wants to be taught. Learn to share.
  • Be a master weaver: If I can explain the story in just three sentences, I can expand it across the fabric and weave it into a story.

Then, there are other things like:

  • All black and white; no shades of grey (not the color, but the message)
  • Only happy endings
  • Don’t end with a question

But, it depends on who I or you ideally wish to address. Readership varies greatly within this age group. When I look back at the rules, I see that there’s a lot of similarity between what I do every day as a technical communicator and what I’d love to do as a children’s writer. Here’s the greatest of all catches: I understood, all the things that apply to the children’s books, apply to technical communication as well. I can’t exclude even one. I wish to come up with a book that will fancily be a part of every child’s bookshelf. Until then it is all black-and-white documentation (No, not the color, again).

My All-time Favorite Test Cricket Players

This post is a response to a comment my friend Vinish Garg made on my recent blog on Test Cricket in India. Today’s post is about those Cricketers whom I idolize. They are those Hall of Fame Cricketers who have become a part of cricketing ballads; those, whose galore of perseverance, talent, and the sheer ability to turn the table is much like an embroidery on the fabric of the game.

But, before I begin with my list of the all-time favorites, let me tell you that I’ve not gotten back much in time to look into the statistical history or for those names that are unheard off by the most of today’s generation. I, for one, am not much of a watcher of the game, myself. To make the job easier, I have selected from those names whom I have seen play: Basically, I am looking at a list of players from roughly 1995 to the present decade.

That’s because, in the years and decades before that, things were a bit different. Not much interaction and analysis happened on Cricket. Not a lot of players – except for the likes of Sir Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee, and Kapil Dev – played as names that represented the game. On most occasions.

But, there’s more to my choice than just that. Based on the statistics, it seems that with us tiptoeing into the twenty-first century the percentage of Test matches ending in a definitive result (neither Drawn nor Tied) has increased. That may be on various grounds (no pun intended), such as the change in techniques, change in the player’s and team management’s mindset, and change in the sporting gears and equipment. So, here are my all-time favorites:

Fast Bowlers

Wasim Akram: Perhaps the best bowler I’ve seen. He could control the ball the way he wanted to. At times, he could swing the ball both ways in one delivery… no kidding there. Although he lost his luster to the match-fixing controversies in the 1990s, but he continued playing at the international level unit the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

Waqar Younis: The short description for him is: The King of the Reverse. Well, the long description better be left to those who batted against him. He debuted at a time when the real prowess for fast bowlers was their ability to bowl fast and short. He had the balls (No pun intended – he was a bowler, after all.) to change that. And how? The real ability lies in bowling fast and full, and moving the ball right at the toes of the batter.

Sir Curtly Ambrose: True that you must let only your success make the noise for you. No better example than him. He was the most devastating bowler of his time. I can only imagine how would it be to see a fast ball bowled from as high as 10 feet. His 7 for 1 against Australia remains marked on favorites list on YouTube. Lexicographers should consider replacing the word “consistency” in dictionaries with his name. I know, I know. The list would never be complete without his mention.

Spin Bowlers

From those who spin themselves yet bowl straight to those who genuinely spin the ball, we’ve seen a lot of spinners experimenting and delivering on the 22 yards. But, those who I respect are truly a class of their own.

Anil Kumble: On field, he was amongst those who didn’t spin the ball too much, but did so sufficiently enough to create doubts in the batters’ minds. And, that’s enough. A snick, a leading edge, or a trajectory and bounce miss was all it took for him to create wicket-taking opportunities. And, to keep the statistician inside you happy, he happens to be the only Indian (I believe the only person in the world after Jim Laker) to take all 10 wickets in a Test innings.

Muttiah Muralitharan: Most part of the magician spinner’s career was beset by the controversy over his bowling action. But, that didn’t stop him from taking as many as 800 wickets in the Test format of the game, which is the highest by any bowler to date. It was perhaps his elbow flexion that got his bowling action into questions. But, the magician spinner spun enough for others to think that he created an “optical illusion of throwing”, and finished his career best with 9/51 (an unfortunate drop-catch for the otherwise tenth wicket in one innings).

Shane Warne: He was one of the most iconic and greatest Test spinners of all times. He, the second-most wicket taker, got Gatting on the “ball of the century”. The wicket of Gatting as much officially marked the revival of the leg break bowling in modern day Test Cricket as it helped the newbie Warne make his mark in the game. I conclude that one’s only limit is their own imagination.

All-rounders

Jacques Kallis: Talk about focus and talk about blows; here is an all-round batter who can bowl (and bowl well). He is that broad-shouldered Cricketer who you would love to see score (or take wickets) even when you are the one he is playing against. A gentleman-looking Cricketer, much like Rahul Dravid. Critics view him mostly as a soft player who often underplayed his talent by scoring slow. But then there are players who put their country’s and team’s interest before their own. Isn’t that true?

Steve Waugh: Here is an all-round batter who mastered playing the spin. I’m told he suffered from severe back pain, and hence he quit bowling. He played for his country for close to two decades during which he helped Australia see 15 Test wins in a row – Actually 16, but he captained in only 15 of those.

Specialist Batters

For this category I would choose to include the names of Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden. None else. The reason is simple. The format of Test Cricket is boring by the nature of it. Let me give you a little background here: You have plenty of overs by your side and you don’t really have to bend your back and stretch and dive to keep the scoreboard ticking; The runs come by not as the primary goal in themselves but as by-product of this five-day journey called the Test.

That’s much like the slow life of the weekend, where you rock on an armchair in your porch, watch dusk set in, enjoy slow music as you sip over wine occasionally, listen to the mild breeze that flows by, and watch the evening hues right through to the void that lies beyond the horizon.

With that background, most batters would slow down on their run rates – relaxed. Most, except for these two. Their styles match to the extent of commanding (if, for a change, not influencing) the bowlers’ mindsets. They are the ones who bring colors to the otherwise dressed-in-white game. They are the ones who can stand and deliver; thwack even some of the most accurately-bowled deliveries out of the Cricket grounds; and make even good bowlers feel poor about their existence. What else is otherwise equally exciting in a Test Cricket, anyway?

But, let me tell this to you honestly. The Test Cricket is all about technique. Not that these two batters didn’t have a technique, it is just that their focus was not on facing balls and bowlers to improve on and discover the best of their techniques. This is the reason I am including that one batter, who I think deserves a mention in this section of the list: Rahul Dravid.

Some of us don’t need any introduction. When on the pitch, he would be one such player. Everything he did was everything about him: his signature style of defense and his signature style of keeping the wickets. I’m told that it was his wish to push his limits that he chose to keep wickets when India was in dire need of a wicketkeeper. So, when all we needed was a wicketkeeper who could also bat, in him we found a fantastic batter who could also keep wickets. And how! When I look at the statistics, I see that his batting average, while he kept wickets for India, was more than that of Kumar Sangakkara and Adam Gilchrist. True that your attitude determines where your talent takes you.

But, that was all in the ODIs. What about the Test format? Did you know that he holds the record for facing 31258 deliveries, the most by any batter? Given that his technique was at least as strong, IF not better – assume for the sake of it – he could have scored the highest number of runs a lot earlier than any of them. True that the Test Cricket requires a different mindset.

Special mention: Virat Kohli. He has had a wonderful 2016: two double centuries in Test, more than 900 runs in T20s, and lots of accolades and match-winning innings in the ODIs. He’s also proved to be a leader and an expert finisher. But, I will choose to not include him in here, because he is not like neither Sehwag or Hayden not like Dravid. He is a lot more adaptive. Remember the time he had issues with inswing deliveries? That’s history now.

Special mention: Also, Ricky Ponting. He, like the other Australian on our list, is someone who’s made his mark with his own style. Another dominator, he could have made it to our list of specialist batters. But, for his batting woes toward the end of his Cricket career, which he couldn’t find the scope to get out of.

Wicketkeeper Batters

Adam Gilchrist: I feel short of words to talk about someone who happens to be on the list of Martin Crowe’s all-time dream XI for Test. At the order in which he batted, he played his role ever so successfully. So, as a batter, he was explosive. But, as a wicketkeeper, he was even more devastating. Imagining a combination of the likes of Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist is enough to send shivers down to the spine of even the top quality batsmen.

Kumar Sangakkara: This legendary match winner happened to be one of the most run-scoring batters for Sri Lanka, and still holds the most wicket keeping dismissals of all time.

Special mention: MS Dhoni. I would love to include Dhoni to the list. But, his signature wicket-keeping techniques are more suitable for the other formats of the game.

Conclusion

Despite how odd some of us think of Test Cricket to be in today’s context, I believe Cricket has always been (and will always be) a game of twenty good deliveries. It is just a matter of how quickly can your bowlers bowl them. So, irrespective of what you choose to play/watch, your intention is to understand and enjoy the techniques as you become a part of the sport.

The Future? Day-night Tests. Yes. Pink ball? Probably. Changes? Well, somebody suggested that the toss be replaced with the guest taking the call to either bat or bowl. That way, we negate the local advantage – take luck in winning tosses out of the way – and hosts get to test their prowess when they get to bat on the fifth day. After all, that’s the Test Cricket about, anyway. But, will Tests continue to be played? From where I can see, Yes. That’s due to the better sporting equipment, more use of technology, more support team, more cricketing opportunities, and more followers of the Test format.

Are you game?

__________

PS: The credit for the supporting statistics, and cross opinion, in some cases goes to Pranav Kunte, my brother in law, who is the biggest Cricket follower I know.