Is Marcia Riefer Johnston stalking you, too?

How to write everything

Last September, I had an eerie experience after posting a comment on an STC (Society for Technical Communication) blog― my comment appeared with Marcia Riefer Johnston’s name on it (Who is SHE? I wondered). We finally straightened it out, and that started a random, lovely, productive relationship with a fellow STC member and now, a fellow author.

In the flurry of e-mails about the technological glitch, I learned that Marcia was finishing her book Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)  and was readying it for publication. She told me that all of her chapters had been born (my term, not hers) as blog posts (more on that shortly). What a great way to prewrite, I thought. I have always taught my students to prewrite and draft shorter chunks of text rather than put off their writing until they “have time” to write the whole, huge report or article. Marcia, I think, is a good model.

Anyway, after learning about Marcia’s project, I decided to take my 26 Intercom “Business Matters” columns from the last 9 years and compile them into a book of survival advice for freelance technical communicators. I’m not sure I would have conceived of this idea had I not had those conversations with Marcia. We started emailing regularly, and Marcia shared with me her original plans for converting her blog posts into a book:

“Two years ago―TWO YEARS AGO―I set out to bundle up my blog posts and call the compilation good. I planned to put out a little book that I could sell online and stuff into Christmas stockings. Fortunately, my husband had the courage to say: “Honey, why don’t you rethink your goals? You have more in you than that. What you have right now won’t hit anything out of the park.” It took me a few days to let his words in. Boy, am I glad I did. Whether the resulting effort blasts anything over any walls remains to be seen, but I’m content in knowing that I’ve given it my best swing.”

Not me, I thought. My columns are already in PDFs; I’ll just throw on a front and back cover.

And so I found a publisher―Richard Hamilton of XML Press, a prince of a guy. Marcia must have been stalking him, too, because the next thing I knew, he had convinced me to revise and update all the chapters and add some fresh material―basically, to give up my life for the next six months. And he told me to get book-marketing advice from. . . Marcia.

Is she stalking everyone?

When Word Up! came out in May, I wanted to see if she had hit her home run. She had. In fact, at least three home runs.

Word Up! offers advice on three levels:

  1.  Grammar help: Clear explanations of difficult topics such as hyphenation, who vs. whom, and painful personal pronoun pairings (such as her and I).
  2. Writing help: Valuable advice on how to energize your writing: “Want one tip, a single bloat-busting strategy guaranteed to energize your sentences? Dump to be” (p. 13). She provides splendid examples. And I’m wise enough to take her advice. For example, a few sentences above, I originally wrote: “I wanted to see if it [her book] was a home run or not.” I revised that to read, “I wanted to see if she had hit her home run; she had!” That’s stronger, don’t you think?
  3. Better explanations than my graduate school heroes, Quirk and Greenbaum (A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English): For example, I’ve never read a clearer explanation of the difference between prepositions, verb particles, and adverbs than her chapter “You Don’t Know From Prepositions.” Unless you’re a closet linguist, this topic might not really excite you, but at least you’ll find the chapter clear and easy to follow.

However, I would like to challenge her chapter, “The Last Word.” She quotes many experts, including Bryan Garner, Strunk and White, and William Zinsser, whom she says all insist that the most important point should be placed at the end of the sentence, paragraph, or document, and she provides many of their examples. Placing the most important point at the end may work well in essays, fiction, and political speeches, but I would argue that technical and business readers want to know the “bottom line on top”: What is the point? Why am I reading this? What lies ahead? Don’t give me a mystery novel; tell me what you are going to tell me right at the beginning. We’ve agreed to talk about this soon to see if there might be some middle ground.

The glossary is superb, providing clear explanations for some of most commonly misunderstood grammatical and writing terms.

I feel that Marcia may be stalking me as I think about writing my second book, Marketing Bingo, before attending to all that I need to do to get Business Matters published. Perhaps when both my books are on Amazon, Marcia will leave me alone for awhile.

(A slightly different version of this blog post appeared on the Society for Technical Communication (STC) blog on June 18, 2013.)

Leave a reply