Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers

  • Title: Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers
  • Author: Barry J. Rosenberg
  • Subject: Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/22/2012

Update: – Read this for a technical writing class, back in 2012, per the date on GoodReads.

Spring into Technical Writing is a textbook, however, it is useful and even amusing at times. Some of the examples are a bit overwhelming but I like a challenge, and they weren’t so dense as to be completely off-putting or to cause me to put the book down.

This was a very readable textbook. It kept my interest and was a quick read. It also seemed to be full of good advice. I really liked the “bad”, “better”, “good”, “best” examples throughout the book and it could have used even more. I did at times find that the book was a bit simplistic (I do know, believe it or not, the difference between a serif and sans-serif font) and throughout the book often the starting point for a section or chapter was too easy. On the other hand, the chapter on HTML was very difficult for me. Yes, I realize this wasn’t a manual on learning HTML, but that seemed to be the only section in the book that assumed some pre-knowledge that I didn’t have. (The web is like a car, I can use it but I don’t know or care how it works. I know more about how a server and a network “serve” web pages, and the meaning of terms like “caching web browser” than I do about HTML – and I’ve learned more HTML from the Goodreads website than any web design book I’ve read or class I started then quit). But I digress. Other than the HTML section, which I intend to re-read, I found this textbook to be light-hearted, useful, and fun to read. The humor and examples helped.

Second Update: Since reading this book, I’ve learned more HTML by using WordPress, and from my four-month stint as a knowledge base writer/editor. So I should probably re-read the HTML section and see if it’s less confusing.

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Microsoft Office Tips for Word and Excel

Excel Basics – Formatting Sheets and Cells

Formatting Sheets

Professional spreadsheets should not look like an 8-bit game, or an Easter Egg. However, some formatting can make spreadsheets easier to read. This article will review formatting sheets and cells.

The spreadsheet itself should look professional. Excel files should be named – with short descriptive names. Your quarterly budget reports should be named “Budget First Quarter.xlsx” or “Budget January 2016.xlsx” Nothing says unprofessional like a report with a name that’s a sentence – or a file named “Book1”. Plus reasonably named files are easy to locate. And having a system – naming your monthly budget as “Budget Month Year.xlsx” makes it easy to find again. Use the “save as” feature to change the initial default name (usually “book1”, “book2”, etc.)

Not only should the spreadsheet file be reasonably named with an intelligent, relevant name, but each tab should also have a name or label.

To label tabs:

Right click the tab, then choose “rename”. Delete “sheet1” and replace with a short, descriptive name for the tab. You can also double-click on the tab and do the same thing – delete the default and rename it.

Rename Sheet Option in Excel

Deleting Sheets

Older versions of Excel, including 2010, automatically open a new workbook with three tabs. Please delete the tabs you are not using. Nothing says unprofessional like a spreadsheet with extra blank tabs named “sheet2” or “sheet3”. To delete an entire sheet: Right-click and choose “delete” – you may or may not get a pop-up asking if you really want to delete the sheet – if you do, choose “yes” and click “OK”. One of the few advantages of the newest version of Office (Office 2013 aka “Office 365”) is that when you open a new workbook you get one sheet. Which is often all you need.

Delete Sheet in Excel

What if you need additional sheets, though?

Inserting Sheets – Insert

There are two ways to add sheets.  The first is using the Insert Command.

Click the tab, click Insert on the pop-up menu, then click “Worksheet” and press the “OK” button.

Insert Sheet in Excel

Excel Insert Worksheet dialog Box

Move or Copy Sheets

Let’s say, though, you have a Yearly by Month budget in Excel, and every month you add a new “Monthly Budget” sheet. All your column labels and formulas are already entered into the “January” tab. Sure, the details will change from month-to-month, but the format is the same. With Excel, you don’t need to start over with re-creating all the formatting and formulas. Simply copy the sheet, keep the formatting and delete the data.

To copy a sheet, right-click the tab, and choose “Move or Copy”.

Move or Copy Sheet in Excel

Put a check mark in the “Make a Copy” box, (make sure in the drop list the new sheet will appear “at end” (the default is before the current sheet). If you forget this step, you can always go in and move the sheet.

Excel - Create a Copy Circled

“Move or Copy” is one of the most useful tools in Excel – you can even move sheets to a new book.

Creating a New Book Using Move or copy

Use the drop-down arrow to choose new book. Your new copy will have the default name of “book2” (or three or four, etc – depends on how many new spreadsheets you’ve created that day) be sure to save the spreadsheet with a new name.

And as it says on the tin, the move command allows you to re-arrange sheets in a multi-spreadsheet workbook.

Some versions of Excel also allow color-coding of tabs. This makes it easier to find the correct sheet in large multi-sheet workbooks. Right-click the tab and simply choose “tab color” from the menu.

Excel Tab Color

Formatting Cells

The formatting menu has several useful commands. To get to the formatting menu, right click and choose “format cells”.

Format Cells on Excel Context Menu

This button can be added to your “Custom Quick Access Toolbar” as can any of the tabs in the menu, such as formatting. There are many useful items in Format Cells, let’s go through them one at a time.

Number

Format Cells - Number

Excel was designed for crunching numbers – but it has many other uses – the Number tab allows the user to customize a row, or more likely a column, by setting how Excel views “numbers”. The most used option is to set a column to “text”. Click at the very top of the spreadsheet column (the letter), right click, choose “format cells”, choose “text” and confirm the choice by clicking “OK”.

This will force Excel to consider a column, even one with numbers, as text. Do you have a phone list for your office in Excel, but the spreadsheet tries to perform mathematical expressions with the phone numbers? Set the column to text. This command also works best if you set the column to text before entering data.

Alignment

Text Alignment Horizontal tells Excel how to align text inside cells. The default is “General” which means Excel will try to “guess” how to display data. Trust me – you usually don’t want Excel deciding for you.

For text – names, budget items, etc – you want Horizontal set to left, you can then adjust the column size to be the smallest possible. This, in turn, allows the spreadsheet to be of a reasonable size – especially if you need to print it.

Numbers, especially currency, are normally set flush right. Also set the Number type to “currency” or “Accounting” (both will line up numbers by the decimal point. Both allow one to turn the currency symbol on or off and choosing the number of decimal places. Currency allows formatting negative numbers as red and enclosed in parenthesis, which is an accounting standard.

Center, Justify, and Distributed aren’t terribly useful for columns of data – but they may be useful for column headers. I’ve also used “Center” for check mark columns or Yes/No columns.

Vertical alignment – leave it at “Bottom” – this will also make “wrap text” work correctly.

Text Control

Alignment, text control circled

Wrap Text allows you to wrap a long title or item in the same cell, so it appears as two lines but it’s in the same cell. This is extremely useful for any descriptive item. It also allows you to continue to use Excel’s sorting and filtering tools which are thrown off by blank lines or text that takes up multiple rows.

Shrink to fit I don’t use – but it probably does what it says on the tin – shrinks a particular item to fit in a cell.

Merge Cells is an interesting one. I use it in my first (title or cell label) row sometimes. Merge cells will take the cells you select and merge them into something that gives the appearance of a single cell. It’s useful for setting up the labels at the top of your spreadsheet.

Orientation allows you to tip the text to the angle you select in the box. Again, this is useful for setting up your first row that describes the content of a column. If you, for example, have long column headers but short information in the column – Orientation can be used to tip the words in the first row to make the spreadsheet overall shorter and the columns narrower. Think for example of an order sheet.

Example of an Order Sheet with Tipped Text

It is even possible to color-code the columns to make the order sheet easier to use.

Color-Coded Order Sheet with Borders

Another solution would be to wrap the text in the first row – however, each column will still need to be as wide as the longest word in the item description.

Font

Font formatting in Excel is the same as in Word and most other Microsoft Office programs. One thing to point out, the Calibri Font is a compressed san serif font that works beautifully in Excel. Excel often is used to organize a lot of information in an easy-to-understand format, often, ideally a single sheet, or a series of related sheets. Calibri allows the same information (same characters) to take up less space. It’s also San-Serif so it’s easy to read, especially on-line or for numbers.

Border

Borders is a way to format cells in a spreadsheet. This includes setting a line under, for example, all the cells in the first row which describe what information is in each cell. Borders can be used to highlight a cell – such as a final price.

Fill

Fill allows the filling of cells with color. This is also easier with the shortcut button Paint Can Icon for Fills. Both the shortcut and the fill tab allow for picking color from the standard colors by clicking the “More Colors” button.

Color Picker Excel

The Fill Effects button allows building of two-color gradients.

Gradient Fill in Excel

However, in professional spreadsheets it would be a very rare occasion that would require using gradients. Remember, most professional spreadsheets should look professional, not like an Easter egg. Shading the first row of a spreadsheet, the one with the column labels, is about all you need to do. The Cookie Spreadsheet I’ve used as some samples in this tutorial is designed to be fun – something to easily illustrate a few points, and certainly order sheets are a common use for Excel – but it’s a bit colorful for business purposes. Think about the purpose and use of your spreadsheets, and don’t over design with too much color or pattern.

Text Color

In Excel, text color can be changed using the Text Color button  Text Color Button, Line Under the Letter A . Click the arrow to choose the text color you want to use. Text Colors can be used to highlight data, such as negative numbers. However, text colors should be used sparingly.

Protection

Finally the Protection tab allows you to lock and hide spreadsheets. It also has no effect until you protect the worksheet. Basically ignore this tab.

Conclusion

Excel is a powerful spreadsheet program. It has many uses, and can be used to do many things that it’s designers probably never thought it would be used for (My Doctor Who Episode List for my Master Post was made using Excel). There are many different formatting options for Excel. Some you will use all the time – setting the Number format, Alignment, Borders, and Fills; others not-so-much such as gradient fills or protecting a worksheet. Just remember that the formatting you apply to spreadsheets should enhance comprehension, readability and visibility of information and not distract from it.

Microsoft Office Tips for Word and Excel

Excel Basics – Navigation and Freeze Panes

What is Microsoft Excel?

This is the first of three posts of knowledgeable information for working with Microsoft Excel. Excel is a spreadsheet program which is included with even the most basic versions of Microsoft Office. Excel is used for calculations, storing and working with financial data, and working with any sort of numbers in a home or office setting. Budgets, depreciation schedules, profit-and-loss statements, accounting statements, account balances, are all typical uses for Excel. I also use it for any information that looks best in a row and column format. I keep an up-to-date copy of the Doctor Who episode list in Excel, for example. Originally, I used the list to keep track of the DVD releases, but now that the entire Classic and New Series are available – I don’t need that primary purpose anymore, but it’s still good to have. Excel is also useful, for example, for lists of comics you have or need. Essentially, Excel is good for lists of highly changeable data.

One thing Excel isn’t is a true relational database. Although you can filter and sort information in Excel, that is not the same thing as being able to run queries a number of different ways, on tables that hold information separately. Microsoft Access is still a good, medium-sized relational database that is included in some versions of Microsoft Office, such as Professional 2010.

Excel Navigation

There are many common ways to move around in an Excel spreadsheet. First, you can simply click on any cell in the spreadsheet to select it. This includes blank cells.

You can use the tab key or arrow keys on your keyboard to move between cells.

To edit a cell, click, then move the mouse to the formula bar and edit in the formula bar.

Highlighted formula bar in Excel

Copy and paste is very easy in Excel, simply click the cell or cells you want to copy, press control and the letter C together (CTRL +C), click where you want to paste the information and press Enter. You do not need to use CTRL + V to paste (as in a word processing program or any other place). You can also drag and fill by clicking on the little box in the lower left corner of the cell, dragging it down several rows then releasing the mouse (this can be turned on or off in Options on the File tab).

Autofill is something you want to be careful of – and you may want to turn it on or off depending on an individual spreadsheet you are working on. Autofill will fill the contents of the cell based on what you have typed previously in the spreadsheet. This means, for example, if you have a sales spreadsheet for red, blue, and yellow balloons – and you are recording the sales, once you’ve typed a few rows of data, the second you type an “r” the cell will fill with “red”, and when you type a “b” the cell will fill with “blue” etc. Which seems all well and good, however, what if you are also recording the salespeople who sell the balloons (to calculate a bonus or commission, perhaps?) and your sales people are: Jane, Joan, Jon, Jim, John, Jill, Justin, Bob, and Mary. Every time you type a “J” Excel will try to autofill the result – without knowing the difference between Joan and Jon or Jim and Jill. Since Excel can autofill based on a single letter, your “J”-heavy sales department might see inaccurate results. It might be best to turn off autofill in this case, and manually type everything. Or use copy and paste. Or even use drag and fill. I find that I use “Autofill” only about half the time, and the rest of the time I have it turned off (again, in “Options” on the “File” tab) – it really doesn’t save that much time.

Quick Tip: Navigation

Having worked as both a temporary and full-time accounting assistant, and a temporary secretary or admin asst, I’ve spent a lot of time working with Excel. For the best and speediest results when editing and updating spreadsheets – use a variety of methods to move around a spreadsheet, especially a long or complicated one; click directly on a cell you need to change, edit in the formula bar, move from cell to cell with the tab key, move around the spreadsheet with the arrow keys.

Freeze Panes

Freeze Panes is a handy feature in Excel that allows you to set part of the spreadsheet (typically the top row or left-most column or columns to not move, even when the rest of the spreadsheet does move. By default, Freeze Panes is found on the View tab in Excel 2010 and later.

Freeze Panes on Excel View Tab

Because I find freezing the top row (or occasionally the first column) to be a very useful feature in Excel, I added the shortcut button to my Excel Quick Access Toolbar. The process to Add Any Command to the Quick Access Toolbar is the same for Excel or Word in Office 2010 or later.

How exactly do you Freeze Panes? And Why?

If you have a long spreadsheet, chances are you have a row at the very top that describes what is in each column (the pictures in this post have used a cleaned-up Access Export of my film list, the top row includes the Director Name, Title, Edition, etc.). But if you are editing or adding data, and the spreadsheet is very long, the top row will disappear quickly. How do you know what goes where?

Sure, it might seem obvious in a spreadsheet like the film list I’ve used as an example – but I’ve worked with extremely complicated, precise spreadsheets, where it’s vital to have information in the correct place. Spreadsheets such as Profit-and-Loss statements, Zero-balance accounting spreadsheets, even checklists with pass/fail tests consisting of five or six (or more) separate items one needs to record “yes” or “no” after looking-up information. It’s much easier to have the guide, in terms of the first row, visible. Freeze panes does that.

Simply place your cursor at the top of the spreadsheet in the first cell under the row to freeze, click the “freeze panes” button, then click “freeze top row”. If you have a spreadsheet set up where the first column doesn’t change and new information in recorded in columns and rows to the right of the first column, choose, “freeze first column”. You can tweak the two presets by using “freeze panes” – just make sure you place your cursor in the correct place. This is helpful if you need to freeze the first column and the top row, or if you have two or more “top rows” that you want to freeze.

 

Freeze Panes in Excel

Freeze Panes is an essential tool for working with Microsoft Excel.

This blog post introduced basic navigation in Microsoft Excel and how to freeze panes to make navigation of long spreadsheets easier. Future blog posts with tips and tricks for using Microsoft Excel will include how to format cells, and how to use sorting and filtering tools.

What would you like to learn about using Microsoft Excel? Feel free to leave me questions in the comments.

Microsoft Office Tips for Word and Excel

How to Create and Use a Microsoft Word Macro

What is a Macro?

A Macro is a method of automating a series of actions. Macros can be used in both Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, but this tutorial will concentrate on Microsoft Word. Macros are like a very small program, however, they are even smaller than the most basic program or application.

Aren’t Macros “Viruses”?

A Macro is not a virus. It’s a program, in a sense (actually it’s smaller than a program). Macros for Microsoft Word and Excel are written in the Visual Basic scripting language (VB). Theoretically, if some unscrupulous person were to e-mail you a macro and you installed it – you could install a virus. However, Javascript, Java, Flash, Shockwave (older Flash), Frame .Net, and several other scripting languages that make the Internet work could also “hide” viruses. Just as you should avoid suspicious websites, always run anti-virus software, and run anti-spyware, and anti-adware programs on your computer – you shouldn’t install a suspicious “free” macro. But if you write the macros yourself in VB, or use the Macro Recorder in Word or Excel to create your own Macros – there shouldn’t be any problem and you shouldn’t encounter a virus. After all, Why would you put a virus in code you wrote yourself?

When to Use a Macro

It is important to give some thought as to what situations may be improved or made faster or more consistent by using Macros. Macros automate steps – to be worth it, it should be a fairly long, repetitive, series of steps. If you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, with no variation, a Macro might help you. The other key to using macros is that it must be the exact same series of steps – you cannot (easily) include a variable in a macro. So if you’re writing a phone list in Word but everyone’s name and phone number are different – that is not a good candidate for a Macro. Also, there should be several steps – if it’s just one or two, a Macro probably isn’t worth setting up.

There are other ways to automate formatting of text such as with Styles. And Find and Replace is a marvelous tool that can help and automate changing certain types of text formatting (such as removing double spaces after a period and replacing them with a single space.) You can also use a Macro to automate steps in a Find and Replace sequence.

When developing Macros, stick with repetitive tasks with several identical steps – but once set-up they can save you time.

How to Create a Macro

Creating a Macro is really very easy, although they are written in Visual Basic (VB), you don’t even need to know VB to create Macros. One of the easiest ways to create a Macro is by using Microsoft’s Macro Recorder.

  • In Microsoft Word 2010 and later, click the developer tab. If you don’t see the developer tab, do the following:
  •  Go to the File tab, then
  • Click Options, then
  • Click “Customize Ribbon”
  • Put a check mark in “Developer” and click “OK”
  • The Developer Tab should now be visible

Developer_tab

  • Next, click the Macro Recorder button – be sure you know what steps to perform for your macro because once you hit the record button every action will go into your Macro.

Record_Macro_Button_Dev-tab

For this lesson we will create a Macro to replace hard-coded line breaks with paragraphs marks. Why? Have you ever copied a professional article, or even a fanfic from on-line to Word for off-line reading – only to have it be only three and a half or four inches wide no matter what you do? The article or story has hard-coded line breaks at the end of every single line. To make the text flow, the first step is to get rid of the hard breaks. After the line breaks are removed, extra paragraph marks can be removed separately (and manually).

By hand (without a Macro) you remove a hard break by using Find and Replace.

  • Click Find (the binoculars)
  • Choose Replace… from the pull-down menu
  • Click More>>
  • Click Special and open it with the pull down menu

Find_and_Replace_Special-button

  • Click in “Find What” then click “Manual line break” in the Special Menu

Pop-up_Menu_Special-Characters_Find-Replace

  • Click in “Replace with” then click “paragraph mark”
  • Finally, click “Replace All”.
  • Once it’s run, it will tell you how many replacements it’s made. You can close out of Find and Replace.

To create a Macro using Recorder, press the Record button, do all the steps above, close out of Find and Replace, then click “End Record”. (If you want to know how many replacements were many each time you use the Macro stop recording with clicking “Replace All”. However, you’ll need to close “find and Replace” every time you run the Macro.)

The Macro dialogue will also ask you to name your Macro and if you want to assign it to a button or keyboard combination. I usually go with “button” and have the Macro on my Quick Access toolbar. When I’ve worked in Technical Writing and had ten or so Macros for different functions, our version of Word had a new Ribbon Group with all the Macros we used for work on it. But for a home user or small business, placing buttons on the Quick Access Toolbar is fine. And of course, if you would rather use a Keyboard Combo, that is fine too.

 

Twitter Basics

Introduction

Twitter is a realtime micro-blogging public social media network. It has a 140-character limit for a Tweet, but recently removed the same limit for direct messages (more about those in a moment). Like most social networks, Twitter is free to join and can be joined by anyone. I’ve been on Twitter since 2010, and currently have 354 followers, and I follow hundreds of accounts. I also continuously read and learn about Twitter and other social media networks and run a curated board about Social Media for Business on Pinterest.

Getting Started with Twitter

To get started with Twitter go to Twitter.com and choose the new account or getting started link then follow the prompts. You’ll need to provide very little information to join the network, and you’ll need an valid e-mail address as your login. When you create your account you’ll be prompted to create your Twitter Handle – this is your username on Twitter and how you will be seen by others. You can use your name or a variation on your name (15 character limit). I found that my full name was too long for a Twitter handle and I had to use a diminutive instead. Besides using your name, you could also use your company name, your personal “brand” name, a nickname, the name of your cat, etc. but remember that your handle is your public face. When you create your account you should immediately replace the default “egg” avatar with a picture or some type of icon. You can also add a profile picture to the top your profile page. And finally, you’ll be asked to provide a profile page description and your website or blog address. The website isn’t required, but if you have one – fill it in.

Twitter as a Professional Networking Tool

Twitter has many sides to it, which is why it is not the most immediately intuitive social network to use, unlike Facebook. Since anyone can get an account on Twitter – the network is used by different people in different ways. Many celebrities are on Twitter, including writers, comic book artists, actors, musicians and people in the music business, directors and people in the film and television business, news agencies, businesses, etc. Even though the mechanics of the network are the same for everyone – different users emphasize different things with how they use Twitter. For example, many businesses use Twitter as word-of-mouth advertising. When a business does this they are concerned with “engagement” a metric that tracks how much customers interact with the business through social media including Twitter. This isn’t simply only traditional brick-and-mortar, corporate, or even internet businesses, however. Television networks such as the CW and USA require their creative teams to have a Twitter presence. Here’s CW Public Social Media Directory – note it includes all their shows and most creative people for those shows. Actors and other involved creative people who tweet about their CW shows are spreading positive good will about the show and hopefully, in CW’s eyes, increasing viewership. No longer do monolithic networks put out a product and expect the masses to absorb it without opinion. Now television viewership is more of a two way street. Viewers can express both positive and negative opinions about what they are watching – immediately, and without censorship or interpretation by a third entity. But many other companies are finding that Twitter can help improve brand reach and influence and even help bring in new customers.

However, Twitter can also be a professional networking tool – even if you have yet to start your own micro-business or small company, I’ve found that by following leaders, experts, and simply just other professional people in your business or profession, you can quickly build a professional network. And as you follow others, some of them will follow you. Also, by tweeting on professional topics, you will gain followers. Twitter, like Linked In, is the place to be in the professional sense, especially if you behave in a professional manner. And because Twitter lets you have as many accounts as you want (unlike Facebook per their terms of service) you could even create multiple accounts for different roles. Personally, I keep everything in the same account, but I don’t manage multiple accounts for others yet.

Twitter is a Public Social Media Platform

All tweets on Twitter are public (except some DMs discussed below). Everything you say in a tweet can be read by everyone else on Twitter. There is no difference between “friends” and “public”. This means you do have to think about what you’re saying. This means, for example, if you are currently job hunting, you might want to be a little careful about the content of your Tweets. It also means, if you don’t want something known – don’t tweet about it.

Also, because of the character-limited nature of Tweets, most items on Twitter aren’t necessarily original Tweets. They are Retweets, Links, occasional pictures or video, auto-posted content from other sources such as Instagram, Vine, a personal blog, or others. A Retweet (RT) is when you click the RT button on the bottom of someone else’s Tweet. This will post that Tweet to your Twitter as an RT. You can even RT a retweet someone else retweeted. So for example, my Twitter handle is @JackieOMoleski. If I see a Tweet I like, or find interesting, or even a link to a post or news article I want to read later, I’d click the Retweet button, so for example, if I RT a @BlackGirlNerds Tweet, it will appear on my timeline but as a Retweet. Similarly, if that tweet was a RT, it will show. Here’s an example:

ReTweet_ex

Here I’m retweeting @BlackGirlNerds, who are in return Retweeting @InHollywoodland. On Twitter it’s always easy to tell something is a RT, and to track who the original Tweet came from. Therefore, there should be little misunderstanding about who’s content the Tweet actually is.

By contrast, here’s an original Tweet by me – on the same topic:

Tweet ex

The difference is obvious.

Twitter also has DMs which stands for Direct Messages. A Direct Message is sent from one Twitter user to another directly, with the implication it’s private. DMs start with @username (handle) at the beginning of the Tweet. To send a DM you must follow the person you are messaging and they must follow you. Also, see the little left-pointing arrow at the bottom of every tweet (see pictures above) – clicking on that will let you reply to the Tweet. Note, however if you have any characters before the handle in your DM – the message will post to all of Twitter as a public Tweet, this includes a simple dot or period prior to the handle.  Dot@User (handle) can be used to send a message to a particular user while simultaneously sending it to your timeline as a public tweet.

It is very important to remember that Tweets are public. Don’t make the faux pas of engaging a troll, and embarrassing yourself in public.

Tweetspeak

There are a lot of acronyms, terminology, and even slang that is used on Twitter – here are a few of the most common and necessary ones to understand.

Handle – Twitter slang for your username or identity on Twitter. It’s always preceded by the @ symbol.

Hashtag – The # symbol prior to any word or group of characters without spaces makes that topic searchable.

Trending – Twitter keeps it’s own statistics about how the site is used and hashtag topics that are extremely popular at any given time are said to be trending. Marketers and even fans often will try (sometimes successfully) to get a topic to trend. Also, when a hashtag gains popular use over time in the context of a political statement such as #Icantbreathe or #blacklivesmatter it’s often said to be a “trending topic” though this is a different usage than the Twitter metric or statistic.

Retweet – Explained in detail above, but a copy of someone else’s tweet sent via the RT (retweet) button to your own activity or timeline space with attribution to the original sender.

DM or Direct Message – Also explained in detail above, a “private” message between two Twitter users.

Dot@user (.@handle) – the most common way to copy a DM to your timeline, thus making it public. Another way is to place the username or handle any place in the Tweet (the end is also common) other than at the very beginning with no characters before it.

Live Tweeting or Live Tweet Event – Tweeting simultaneously to an event at the time it happens. For example, last Monday I live-tweeted the Supergirl pilot; in other words, I Tweeted reactions as I was watching it, as did many other people on Twitter. Live Tweet events normally have an “approved hashtag” (such as #Supergirl) that everyone uses in their tweets so they are linked and a search will bring up all such Tweets. Live Tweeting events sometimes include people associated with the event also live tweeting it, or answering questions. And Live Tweet events are also a lot of fun. Yes, one could live tweet from an irl event, such as a sporting event, parade, trade show, (fan or professional) convention, etc. Essentially, what makes live tweeting so much fun is the instant sense of community and the variety of perspectives. It’s also a great way to “meet” new people, find accounts to follow, and gain new followers.

Favorite – For a long time, Twitter had a “favorite” button (a star), rather than a “like” button. Twitter users used it to bookmark great Tweets. This week, Twitter change to a heart-shaped like button. My observation is that some users were upset by this. We’ll see if it lasts, and users adapt or not.

Blogging 101 – My Presentation at BarCampGR

For the last two posts I’ve mentioned BarCampGR, a local Ad-Hoc IT conference, where I gave a presentation on Blogging, and I’ve said that I would post the lecture. It’s required by BarCamp to make the lecture available on-line, so here it is.

First, a couple of definitions – which I totally forgot to do in my lecture on Friday, 21 August 2015. I will try to be brief.

What is a blog? A blog is a series of usually written entries on a website that appear in reverse-chronological order (most recent first).

What is a blogging platform? The blogging platform is the website that hosts many blogs. Live Journal, Dreamwidth, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress are all popular blogging sites.

What costs are involved in blogging? Time. That’s about it. Blogging, especially if you are serious about it will take time. But any enjoyable hobby takes time. A hobby is something you enjoy spending your time on, so if writing isn’t something you enjoy – don’t blog. Most blogging platforms are free.

How much money do you make blogging? Zero. Zip. Nada. See previous paragraph. Actually, not only do I not make money off any of my blogs – it really irritates me when people ask this question. No one asks someone who’s into antique cars if they make money or someone who’s in an amateur sports league if they get paid. But me – they ask.

I think that’s it for the FAQ that I totally forgot to include as part of my lecture at BarCampGR, and I think that covers most questions I was asked by the audience.

So away we go.

Presentation on Blogging for BarCampGR – 21 August 2015

Introduction

I have been blogging for about ten years. I currently have four blogs, but I primarily use two of them and the other two are mostly archives. I’m a technical writer, and I have been always interested in doing at least some time of writing.

Three Types of Blogs

There are three types of blogs, first, purely Personal Blogs, second, Semi-Professional Blogs, and third, Professional (Company) blogs. This presentation will focus on the first two: Personal and Semi-Professional blogs. A purely personal blog, is a blog one launches for personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It may be about your personal hobby or interests, or it may be a general blog about everything in your life that you are willing to share on-line. When blogging started, most blogs were personal blogs, and personal blogs still exist.  My WordPress blog is a personal blog – I don’t limit my content to a specific topic, and I frequently include the best content from my other, older, blogs. And, again – a personal blog can be about anything: your favorite TV show, your hobby, anything you want. Or, it can be about everything. Personal blogs are frequently havens of creativity and they don’t have a lot of rules.

The second common type of blog is a semi-professional blog. This is the type of blog you might want if you have a hobby that you hope to eventually make your profession. For example, if you are an amateur photographer, but you hope someday to be a professional, a semi-professional blog is perfect for you. – You can display your best photos on your blog, write about your photographic experiences (share your stories), even include a résumé. In essence, your blog becomes your on-line portfolio. And it isn’t just photography – any art or craft can become the subject of your blog. Do you love to cook? Start a blog with recipes, tips, and tricks. Cooking and recipe blogs some of the most popular places on the web. And if you want to include video – don’t forget youTube. It’s extremely easy to embed youTube videos in a blog these days. You can even establish statistics – followers, likes, etc., which you can use in a “pitch meeting”, or job interview. Semi-professional blogs are exploding right now. And if you are a student, a career-changer, or you just want to see if you can make your hobby into your dream job and still make a living – a semi-professional blog is a great place to start.

The third type of blog is a business blog. I don’t intend to spend a lot of time on business blogs, beyond explaining what they are. A business blog is usually part of a larger business website. Business blogs are meant to drive customers to your website, and thus create new customers. They are also meant to help your business retain customers and keep them from going to your competition. The best business blogs aren’t hard sell, used-car-salesman-like places. The best business blogs offer something – and something concrete. They seek to instruct. They include special offers – discounts and coupons. They inform. And they listen. All business social media interaction, including blogs, is about building a community with your customers.

How does one start a blog? – Blogging Platforms

There are a lot of different blogging platforms out there. I’ve used Live Journal, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress. Every time I’ve started a new blog, I’ve learned something. And, in my opinion, every blog I’ve started has been better than the previous one. When you are starting from scratch, it’s good to do a little research, and read blogs on different platforms before deciding where you want to start. But, as with most things in computers, it also depends on your personal likes and dislikes, what you want to do with your blog, and your preferences. Most blogging platforms are intuitive and easy to use – and free, especially to start. You can also simply try a few different platforms before making a final decision, and abandon or delete the old blog on the old platform.

Live Journal (LJs) is one of the oldest blogging platforms. It’s entirely volunteer-run as well. Live Journal doesn’t limit content, and it is open to many different opinions and ideas. However, because it’s so old, the code is very, very old too. Although Live Journal tries to keep up and update its site to add features that users want – it can be slow and buggy. It’s also one of the few sites hosted outside the US, which can cause accessibility issues.

Dreamwidth, which I have not personally used, is, in essence, the US mirror for Live Journal. It uses the exact same code – and you can import your Live Journal directly into Dreamwidth and keep everything intact because it’s the same code and system – but hosted in the US. The problem with Dreamwidth is it is the exact same coding platform as Live Journal. Therefore the bugs in LJs, frequently also exist in Dreamwidth. Also volunteer-run, Dreamwidth seems to be slow in adding new features.

Both Live Journal and Dreamwidth do not play well with other blogs. If you want to re-publish content from another blog, you’ll need to cut and paste. Or you can link to non-LJs content. LJs did, finally, however, add the ability to embed videos from sources such as youTube or Vimeo rather than simply linking to them.

Blogger is Google’s blogging site. Any blog address with “BlogSpot” in it is hosted on Blogger. And when I set-up my movie review blog there, I loved it because design was drag and drop. Finally, an easy way to set things up to look the way I wanted, without having to use CSS, HMTL, JavaScript, or some type of code. The drawback of blogger is interactivity – there is none (pretty much). Most blogging sites host communities – some method to meet people who share your interests. They also allow for commenting, and for the blogger to comment back on comments. Yes, that sometimes means spam or trolls – but you can delete that. You can also set-up a spam filter to prevent seeing it in the first place. But one prime purpose of blogging is not only to express your own creativity, it’s to meet like-minded people. The power of community isn’t to be under-estimated. Blogger has security settings that are so high you are unlikely to get any comments. It’s also hard to get followers on Blogger – harder than any other platform.

Tumblr is a live-stream blogging site. It’s like Twitter – without the character limit. In fact, I became aware of Tumblr because I noticed people I followed on Twitter often simply posted a link on Twitter to blog content on Tumblr. Tumblr is almost entirely tag-driven. The easiest way to find the content you are looking for is to search for tags. You can follow other blogs on Tumblr, and find a community that shares your interests. It’s also very easy to link other blogs or social media accounts to Tumblr, or vice versa – to link your Tumblr account to automatically post a link to your social media accounts. Or, you can manually post the links you want to Twitter, Facebook, or other accounts. The downside of Tumblr is the complete lack of design controls. Even simple widgets – like a tag list, are missing from Tumblr – probably because it’s so in the now, like Twitter. Whereas Twitter makes this fun – for a blog, if you want to provide an archive of your writing, or art, or photography, or pictures of your crafts (everything from jewelry to wedding cakes), Tumblr isn’t the best only choice. But it can be a good additional place, something to use in addition to Twitter or even in addition to a second website or blog.

WordPress is what I’m now using for my blog. The most confusing thing about WordPress is that there are actually two of them. WordPress.Org, confusingly enough, is the commercial arm of WordPress. If you want a company website and blog – check out WordPress.org. But you’re going to have to pay for it. I actually use WordPress.Com, which is the free blogging site from WordPress. My blog is a personal one, and although I sometimes think of making it a semi-professional one – at this point, I’m not willing to pay monthly fees just for my blog. Still, WordPress.com has enough for the hobbyist blogger. And, unlike most other blogging sites, you can import the contents of another blog into WordPress, and create WordPress entries from your old blog entries. If you choose to do that, a couple of things to keep in mind. First, only import one blog at a time – or you will be overwhelmed by the new content. Second, proofread your new blog entries – remove extra spaces, and test links – updating them as needed. Third, use WordPress tags and categories to organize the imported content. Do not rely on the tags (labels, categories, etc.) importing correctly or completely – check and update them as needed.

How does one start a blog? – Design

To start a blog simply go to the main page of a blogging site and open an account. Fill in the required information and follow the on-screen directions to get started. The exact information you need to provide varies by service – but it usually isn’t much, a user name and an e-mail, that’s about it.

When starting a blog you’ll often start by choosing a theme. A theme is the decorative motif for your website. Most sites provide a number of free themes – some more than others. Some sites also have premium (paid) themes. The theme gives you a starting point for how your blog will look. Some themes are customizable – you can start from the basics that are given to use and update colors for example. Others are set as they are. If you see a theme you like somewhat but, for example, don’t like the color scheme – look at the description to see if the theme is customizable – if not choose a different theme.

Once you have a theme, you still might be able to customize the layout of your blog. My Movie Project blog on Blogger has a header row that goes across the top, a navigation column on the left then the main content column in the middle. My WordPress blog has a pinned video post on the top, and three columns: navigation, main content, then widgets. I prefer a two or three column layout column because it looks like a newspaper or newsletter. However, you can have any layout you want – and your projected content should determine the layout. My WordPress theme even lets me have a header photo for each blog post which looks very professional and engages the reader’s interest. But, again, because blogs tend to be customizable – you can do whatever you like and whatever appeals to you.

After determining your theme and customizing it, the next step is to add widgets if you want. Widgets are simply interactive or static “boxes” that hold information in a specific place on your blog. Widgets can import information from another source, such as your Twitter feed, or they can be a static list or piece of information – a quote, an “about you” description, a list of your favorite films – anything that fits your blog and that you want front and center and non-moving. Different blogging platforms offer different types of widgets you can use on their site. This might be another consideration when choosing a platform.

And that’s it – that should complete your design set-up. You are ready to start blogging. To post to your blog, or create a blog entry, sign in to your admin section, click on the “new post” button or icon, give your post a title and write away.

When you finish your post – press the “publish” button (or “Post” or “upload” whatever your service calls it). You also want to organize your posts to make them easier to find. Called “labels”, “tags”, or “categories”, you will want to use a consistent organization scheme, so your posts are identified by general content or type and others can find your posts. The tags you use will vary, it depends on the blogging platform and your actual content. But do not skip tagging (or using categories) to organize your posts and be consistent in the tags that you use. Tagging can get complex, but don’t skip it.

Another common thing you should add to at least some posts is pictures or video. Pictures make your posts more visually appealing and can draw people in to your blog. Pictures can be pictures, drawings, vector graphics, infographics, .jpgs of charts or graphs from Excel, a single Power Point image – anything with visual appeal. All graphics uploaded to blogging sites should be in the .jpg format.

Wrap-Up and Questions

Presentation at BarCampGR (21 – 22 August 2015) and Event Review

A week ago, one of my Meetup Groups mentioned BarCampGR, a local “unconference” from the national and international BarCamp organization. It was the person from my Meetup Group who invited me to attend. The idea of BarCamp is to have conferences about IT, computers, and other geeky topics, where everyone presents something and the conference is completely ad-hoc. I’m used to conventions where the schedule is set in advance – and if you want to suggest a panel topic, give a “lecture”, or host a panel discussion or round table – you suggest it to the convention organizers, then once they’ve approved your topic and scheduled it – you prepare and present your topic, whether it’s a more traditional lecture-style topic, or a panel with several presenters, or a round-table, or even hosting a hands-on event. It might sound somewhat formal, but really, it’s just being organized and structured – and it ensures that everyone knows the schedule for the weekend and can have a good time. But for BarCamp, and I’m not sure if this is how all of them work, or just the local one, there was no schedule. I proposed a topic when I signed-up, and was told, “write it on the board when you get there.” As someone who likes structure, this was daunting.

However, I arrived on Friday evening and everything went fine. I scheduled my presentation as one of the first sessions after the opening meet-and-greet, food provided, hour. I gave my presentation, and I actually had some people to give my presentation to. Since I was unfamiliar with BarCamp, I went with a straight lecture format (sessions were 25 minutes), followed by a Q & A for five minutes. I knew that “just talking” can be a bit boring, but I also knew that if you depend on being able to show slides for example, you are in trouble if you don’t have access to a slide projector, or if you can’t get your laptop to connect to the slide projector, or if any technical things go wrong. Plus, I don’t actually own a laptop – I always have to borrow one, and though I could have done that – I really didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s laptop, when it might have gotten stolen or been damaged. I’ve seen lots of presenters crash and burn due to malfunction equipment, and I didn’t want that to happen. And I knew I could do my presentation in lecture format. I also practiced once, by recording my presentation in Audacity. Audacity is a free audio recorder, it’s great for Podcasting, and for practicing a speech it’s great because you can work out the kinks when you practice (there are some words and phrases that might look fine on the page, but when you try to say them you can easily get tongue-tied. Practicing with Audacity helps you find those, and to re-write to avoid them.) And having at least one practice session makes actually giving the presentation easier.

Anyway, my session went well. I went to several other sessions on Friday and Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon ended-up being a bit of a bust. Most of the sessions I went to were, how can I put it? Not friendly in some way, shape, or form. I did go to an excellent presentation on Social Media and Marketing from a PR perspective, but the rest of the presentations were a mess. In one presentation, the guy who had done a very good job the day before, was asked to do a second presentation the next day on a different aspect of a very large and complex thing – the person who understood that aspect better and was supposed to co-present didn’t show-up, leaving the poor guy looking incompetent – and having to repeat his previous lecture. I felt really bad for him.

Another lecture, which should have been a round table, was a disaster for me – I was unfairly attacked by other audience members when I entered. The presenter also gave bad information, and when I called him on it, he got very belligerent. It was supposed to be a presentation on geeky conventions, gatherings, and such in Michigan. The guy in charge, towards the end of the session, insisted a convention that I attend in Chicago had “folded”. Then he bashed the con. Then he attacked me for daring to correct him. I reported (sans name, since he “forgot” to give it) to the Chicago convention directly (via Facebook) someone was spreading rumors about them. But needless to say, that put me in a really bad mood for at least an hour. No one likes being yelled at – especially for correcting information that’s wrong, given by an arrogant presenter who figures the way to get more people to go to the events he runs is to tell people other events no longer exist, or that they aren’t any good – especially when those other events are actually much better.

Anyway, in the most part – it was a good event, I’d probably go again, I’d definitely present again, and other than the venue, the good probably outweighed the bad.

My presentation / lecture will be presented in a separate post for linking convenience.