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Jan 28, 2019

NBlog Jan 28 - creative technical writing


"On Writing and Reviewing ..." is a fairly lengthy piece written for EDPACS (the EDP Audit, Control, and Security Newsletter) by Endre Bihari. 

Endre discusses the creative process of writing and reviewing articles, academic papers in particular although the same principles apply more widely - security awareness briefings, for example, or training course notes. Articles for industry journals too. Even scripts for webcasts and seminars etc. Perhaps even blogs.

Although Endre's style is verbose and the language quite complex in places, I find his succinct bullet point advice to reviewers more accessible, for example on the conclusion section he recommends:
  • Are there surprises? Is new material produced?
  • How do the results the writer arrived at tie back to the purpose of the paper?
  • Is there a logical flow from the body of the paper to the conclusion?
  • What are the implications for further study and practice?
  • Are there limitations in the paper the reader might want to investigate? Are they pointed at sufficiently?
  • Does the writing feel “finished” at the end of the conclusion?
  • Is the reader engaged until the end?
  • How does the writer prompt the reader to continue the creative process?
I particularly like the way Endre emphasizes the creative side of communicating effectively. Even formal academic papers can be treated as creative writing. In fact, most would benefit from a more approachable, readable style. 

Interestingly, Endre points out that the author, reviewer and reader are key parties to the communication, with a brief mention of the editor responsible for managing the overall creative process. Good point!

Had I been asked to review Endre's paper, I might have suggested consolidating the bullet-points into a checklist, perhaps as an appendix or a distinct version of his paper. Outside of academia, the world is increasingly operating on Internet time due, largely, to the tsunami of information assaulting us all. Some of us want to get straight to the point, first, then if our interest has been piqued, perhaps explore in more detail from there which suggests the idea of layering the writing, more succinct and direct at first with successive layers expanding on the depth. [Endre does discuss the abstract (or summary, executive summary, precis, outline or whatever but I'm talking here about layering the entire article.]

Another suggestion I'd have made is to incorporate diagrams and figures, in other words using graphic images to supplement or replace the words. A key reason is that many of us 'think in pictures': we find it easier to grasp concepts that are literally drawn out for us rather than (just) written about. There is an art to designing and producing good graphics, though, requiring a set of competencies or aptitudes distinct from writing. 

Graphics are especially beneficial for technical documentation including security awareness materials, such as the NoticeBored seminar presentations and accompanying briefing papers. We incorporate a lot of graphics such as:
  • Screen-shots showing web pages or application screens such as security configuration options;
  • Graphs - pie-charts, bar-charts, line-charts, spider or radar diagrams etc. depending on the nature of the data;
  • Mind-maps separating the topic into key areas, sometimes pointing out key aspects, conceptual links and common factors;
  • Process flow charts;
  • Informational and motivational messages with eye-catching photographic images;
  • Conceptual diagrams, often mistakenly called 'models' [the models are what the diagrams attempt to portray: the diagrams are simply representational];
  • Other diagrams and images, sometimes annotated and often presented carefully to emphasize certain aspects.
Also, by the way, we use buttons, text boxes, colors and various other graphic devices to pep-up our pieces, for example turning plain (= dull!) bullet point lists into structured figures like this slide plucked from next month's management-level security awareness and training seminar on "Mistakes":

So, depending on its intended purpose and audience, a graphical version of Endre's paper might have been better for some readers, supplementing the published version. At least, that's my take on it, as a reviewer and tech author by day. YMMV


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