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February 2001

Editors

Nicole Cook

Marge Freking

Steve Gage

Nathan Graham

Melissa Goodwin

Jaclyn Jensen

Bobby McFall

Susan Mueller

Dave Pagel

 

Feature Articles

Markup Languages: Their Origins and Applications

Usability Tests in the Field

Virtual Space and Top Level Domains

"Designing the Future of Technical Communication"

Cross-Cultural Global Communication

Opting for Active Voice and E-Prime

 

In Every Issue

Letter from the Editor

Bulletin Board

Meet the Staff

 

 

 

 

Markup Languages: Their Origins and Applications

by Bobby McFall

Most people familiar with the Internet know the acronym HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language. But what is it, where did it come from, and how is technology influencing markup languages and web design?

Markup languages first appeared in the 1960s with IBM’s creation of GML, Generalized Markup Language, to manage data within their organization. In 1986, IBM created SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language). ISO, the International Standards Organization, adopted SGML as an international standard for document formatting. Though still used today, SGML, remains a challenge in transitioning to hypertext documents.

Therefore, in 1989 experts created Hypertext Markup Language. HTML, considered an easily learned and understood markup language even for non-computer users, can adapt its language to create electronic documents, particularly pages on the Internet .

By looking back only ten years into the history of web design, one can track no fewer than six generations of markup languages, each an improvement over its predecessor. With the exploding popularity of the Internet, it soon became apparent that HTML could not meet the increasing demands of web design and complexity.

DHTML, Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language, developed in the early 1990s, combined three technologies: HTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and scripting, such as Javascript. DHTML has its faults, however. It only works on 4.0 or greater browser versions and has some browser specific capabilities. Internet Explorer and Netscape each support different versions of DHTML. For this reason, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has not approved DHTML for standardized use. Such approval depends on its widespread acceptance.

DHTML technology:

  • adds interactivity such as mouse rollovers and multimedia to web pages
  • allows the designer to control how the HTML displays page content
  • positions elements precisely in the window, and changes that position after the  document has loaded
  • hides and shows content as needed

Web authoring software such as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver and Adobe GoLive contain DHTML capability and feature cross-browser compatibility.

In 1996 the W3C determined that it needed a more structured, easily validated, and extensible language to meet the requirements of web designers who found HTML insufficient for their purposes. The Web Developers Virtual Library describes XML (Extensible Markup Language) as "a human readable, machine understandable, general syntax applicable to a wide range of applications (data bases, e-commerce, Java, web development, searching). Custom tags enable the transmission, validation, and interpretation of data between applications and organization." Extensible means writers can specify their own tags and define their own attributes.

XML, an ISO compliant subset of SGML, may soon replace HTML. The W3C describes XML as a "universal format for structured documents and data on the Web." Due to its cross-browser capability in the global market, XML can succeed where DHTML does not stand a chance. XML:

  • functions in a straightforward and usable manner over the Internet
  • supports many applications
  • works compatibly with SGML
  • prepares designs quickly
  • permits the author to develop content
  • derived from multiple sources
  • gives a web client all the information needed to process data
  • allows clients to sort, filter, and manipulate a data set locally
  • allows each user to develop his or her own display parameters
  • comprises its design in a formal and concise manner
  • performs advanced search and navigation functions as well as complex formatting

The primary difference between XML and HTML lies in the organization of information. Writers can create their own tags for logical organization. Syntax in HTML confines the writer. XML also has the ability to single source. This means that a single file can create all information. In HTML, each page becomes a separate file rather than an all-inclusive file, as seen in the diagram.

Refinements stand to improve markup languages and take them to even higher limits. XHTML (Extensible Hypertext Markup Language) does just that. On December 19, 2000, the W3C released XHTML Basic as a recommendation. The W3C membership favors its adoption by the industry. People can view XHTML on their desktop computers,–– TVs, PDAs, pagers, and mobile phones can share its basic content. XHTML Basic reflects ten years of basic web experience, including advances in XML and accessibility.

In XHTML, elements of HTML and XML combine to make a single language. To ensure that web pages work the way you want them to in the next generation of browsers, you must follow W3C recommendations. XHTML standards help you do this.

While HTML, XML, and XHTML help to define web page content, a gap exists in web page design ability regarding standardization and acceptance by the W3C. A brand new style language called XSL may remedy this situation. In November 2000, it became one of the W3C Candidate Recommendations.

XSL, the style sheet language of XML, contains three parts:

  • transforming XML documents
  • defining XML parts and patterns
  • formatting XML documents

While the World Wide Web continues to

evolve rapidly, web pages and the design elements used to create them also evolve at breakneck speeds. Technical communicators face the difficult but essential task of keeping pace with this changing technology. The websites listed below can help with this task.

http://www.online-learning.com

http://www.w3schools.com

http://hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey

 

<HTML>
<Head>STC member Jones
</Head>
<Body>
Jones, Jane<br>
Phone: (321)555-1234<br>
123 Main Street <br>
Anytown, MN  55555 <br>
E-mail: jonesjane@mynet.net<br>
</Body>
</HTML>

 

One HTML file

<Member>
       <Name>
            <First>Jane</First>
            <Last>Jones</Last>
        </Name>
        <Phone>(321)555-1234</Phone>
        <Address>
              <Street>123 Main Street
              </Street>
              <City>Anytown, MN 55555
             </City>
         </Address>
</Member>

One record within an XML file

 

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Usability Tests in the Field

by Melissa Goodwin

 

Know your audience. Technical communicators must strive to engrave that message in their minds. As a result, technical communicators turn to usability testing to learn more about their readers and to improve their methods of communication.

 

Technical communicators write manuals, instructions, and warnings for computer software and hardware. They also write about products such as hand tools, medical equipment, lawn mowers, tractors, and pesticide sprayers. Most manuals, instructions, and product guides can benefit from usability testing. Replicating systematic procedures in these tests helps to assure clear, concise, and precise writing.

 

When technical communicators perform usability tests, three major considerations emerge: safety, realism, and logistics.

 

Safety

Technical communicators focus on possible consequences that users might encounter as a result of following the test instructions. Procedures to safeguard the user may need inclusion in the manual, and usability testing helps to discover flaws and weaknesses in the instructions.

 

Realism

Technical communicators must make certain that tests mimic real-life situations. Scenarios must reflect the actual setting, equipment, conditions, and back-ground in which instructions will be used.

 

Logistics

Ideally, usability tests take place in the same circumstances and in the same setting where the actual event occurs. However, conducting usability testing in mock settings requires easily moved equipment or products. Testers must then strive to replicate conditions as near as possible to actual surroundings and situations to ensure reliable results.

With these three considerations in place, technical communicators really discover their audience, the hallmark of their jobs, and they fulfill their customers' needs.

 

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Virtual Space and Top Level Domains

by Steve Gage

The dot-com world needs more dot-organization. Internet users recognize domain names like .com, .gov, and .org. Under current restraints, the Internet needs more virtual space and new TLDs (Top Level Domains). The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit corporation, assumed responsibility for the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, space allocations, protocol parameter assignments, domain name systems management, and root system management functions. In November 2000, ICANNs board of directors announced the formation of seven new TLDs for negotiation of agreements.

Since no companies have accreditation, they cannot register names in any of the new TLDs. Registration procedures and guarantees do not exist to assure organizations which TLDs they can have. Therefore, top level domains cannot be pre-registered.

The United States Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer alert about scam artists offering pre-registration services. See the ICANN web site for the latest information at www.icann.com.

According to Laura Moran of redPatent, Inc., federal laws protect registered users against attacks from cybersquatters who register famous brand names as Internet domain names hoping to sell them to the appropriate owners or competitors. Therefore, multiple registrations to protect your site become unnecessary.

Users can access WIPO at http://wipo2.wipo.int/process1/report/finalreport.html#lV for detailed explanations. Any legitimate online business registering its name in good faith and owning a trademark in their domain name, has the most complete protection from cybersquatting threats.

New TLDs may open for business around March 2001. Implementation of the seven new top level domains (seen in the diagram) may create a far more organized Internet, enabling users to find more specific domains to suit their purposes.

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"Designing the Future of Technical Communication"

by Susan M. Jensen, Region 6 Director-Sponsor

This year the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Board of Directors plans to conduct a series of workshops at its regular meetings to evaluate governance, an activity resulting from STC’s new mission statement, "Designing the Future of Technical Communication." Aspects under consideration include:

  • The balance of workloads between office-staff and their  volunteers
  • The patterns of communication
  • The process of decision-making
  • The structure of representation

A clear picture of leadership dominates the workshops. The focus centers on trends, vision, strategy, and practices; embraces outside influences; and concentrates on setting policy rather than operational details. In a concluding workshop in May, participants expect to set short-term and long-term goals for meeting those objectives.

The 48th Annual STC Conference in Chicago, Illinois, this May includes 440 speakers for 256 sessions. Forty-one vendors plan to participate and already contracted for booths at the conference.

STC placed its membership directory online. Members can now access others in the organization. The search results display the member’s name, address, phone, fax, email, chapter, grade, and date joined.

Hand-in-hand with the STC mission statement, work to redesign the STC web site has begun. Watch for the first official use of the new logo in the upcoming Preliminary Annual Conference Program. Additionally, the STC web site incorporated recommendations from usability studies performed by graduate students at Mercer University.

Richard Adix agreed to serve as Region 6 webmaster. Please welcome him to his new position and plan to visit the site at www.stc.org/region6/.

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Cross-Cultural Global Communication

by Susan Mueller

In a world of ever-increasing global economy, technical communicators must learn to write carefully and succinctly for international markets. Because more and more companies manufacture products for export, the job of the technical communicator expands beyond creating user manuals for native-speaking consumers. Technical communicators must also produce appropriate manuals for the foreign market.

However, writers need to concern themselves with more than simply translating documents into target languages. Cross-cultural communication involves conscientious usage of icons for different cultures and the correct use of colors, idioms, and hosts of other issues. For example, red may signify warning to an American reader, but to a Chinese reader, red represents luck. This could pose a problem to a technical communicator trying to caution readers through the use of color.

To understand the importance of cross-cultural communication, consider communication on a national level. Cultural differences abound, even within the borders of one country. For instance, writers who prepare documents for products with safety concerns must familiarize themselves with myriad regulations on issues such as handling, transporting, and disposing of hazardous materials. To comply with various state and local regulations, for example, writers often need to modify instructions for the disposal of such materials. One state law might allow dumping of certain items or substances in a landfill, while other state laws may object. The same holds true for emissions standards.

Now take the same product and ship it to another country. Technical communicators must stay alert to the laws and regulations governing other countries' safety and environmental issues.

Not only do technical communicators need knowledge pertaining to users' needs and how products function, they need an awareness of cultures and possible cultural barriers. Technical manuals and documents must be user-friendly. Therefore, technical communicators must concern themselves with things such as the idiomatic differences between languages and the expectations of other users. Writers must take measure to avoid–at all costs–abbreviations and documentation that may limit the user’s understanding. Companies exporting a product to other English-speaking countries may find it helpful to double-check terms. For example, American English differs slightly from New Zealand or Australian English. Technical communicators run the risk of misinterpretation or confusion by failing to investigate differences in cultures and their dialects.

In addition to confusing word usage, word choices may pose problems and offend people from other countries. Graphics and humor often depend on culture, so writers must take precautions to avoid insulting their end-users. William Horton, author of The Almost Universal Language: Graphics for International Documents (1993), suggested the five strategies to use to avoid offensive language or misinterpretation.

  • Use simple, abstract depictions of humans, free of any indication of race or gender
  • Maintain a sense of modesty when using figures or exposing skin
  • Avoid hand gestures
  • Define color and use it sparingly
  • Avoid humor

In addition, writers must bear in mind that other countries may have different cultural preferences with regard to the presentation and organization of information. Some people in other cultures prefer their information ordered from specific to general. People of other cultures, however, expect documentation to begin with general information and lead to more specific details. Often there exists a heavy reliance on topic sentences and headings.

The job of the technical communicator encompasses not only effective but also gracious communication. When doing business that concerns foreign markets, technical communicators become the liaison, not only between manufacturers and users, but also between vastly differing cultures. Companies needing their documents translated must hire writers who pay careful attention to detail in every component of the document, not just vocabulary and word usage.

Therefore, writing successfully for a foreign market means possessing an awareness of the needs, expectations, and cultural differences of many diverse audiences.

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Opting for Active Voice and E-Prime

by Nicole Cook

 

Writing in active voice and eliminating "to be" verbs confuses technical communicators almost as much as it confuses everybody else. Writing in active voice adds clarity to sentence structure. Therefore, writers try to eliminate verbs such as am, is, are, was, and were in order to give precise meaning to their sentences. Choosing active voice means using e-prime.

 

Vague and wordy sentences often confuse readers, making them more apt to misunderstand the messages they read. If the message concerns a procedure or policy, serious problems may result.

 

Passive sentence structure and overuse of to be verbs adds to this problem. However, the remedy often lies within the sentence. Using active voice and e-prime theory makes readability easier and aids understanding, clarifying who performs the action in a sentence.

 

Passive to Active

Passive voice refers to sentence structure where the subject receives rather than performs the action. In the sentence, "The dog was hit by the car," the subject (dog) receives the action (hit). Passive sentence structure describes something "being done" to the subject. Problems result when passive sentences mislead or confuse readers. Wordy indirectness often omits the doer of the action. Conversely, active voice names the subject performing the action. Notice the clarity of the sentence, "The car hit the dog." The subject (car) performs the action (hit). In this context passive or active voice does not seem important. Who really cares who hit the dog? But consider the importance of voice in legal or government documents where passive sentence construction hides or misrepresents the subject of the action.

 

Imagine receiving this statement in your mail: "Your tax work has been analyzed and deemed fraudulent. Serious consequences will be determined." Who claims responsibility for this statement? Who analyzed the tax work? Who determines the serious consequences? Would you even know whom to call to clarify this confusion? Obviously, passive voice in technical communication can contribute to confusion by hiding the source of the action.

 

Passive voice can be used in some cases. For instance, you know I referred to you in the previous sentence. Rewritten in active voice, the sentence looks like this: You can use passive voice in some cases. When the subject is obvious and easily understood, passive construction works well. Sentences written in passive voice tend to have more nouns than verbs. Verbs show action. In technical communication, active voice clarifies understanding by helping the reader recognize who performs the action.

 

Weak to Dynamic

Writing in e-prime helps keep passive voice to a minimum. Instead of writing, rereading, then replacing to be verbs, simply omit them from the first draft. Replace to be verbs with action verbs. Overuse of the to be verbs, including am, is, are, was, and were foster wordy and indirect sentences. Sometimes using to be verbs is unavoidable and, occasionally, the clearest way to express an idea. However, almost exclusive use of to be verbs causes weak, tedious, and confusing writing.

 

Using e-prime facilitates active voice and user-orientated language. This simple change in style adds energy and action to sentence structure.

 

User-orientated language in the guise of active voice and e-prime makes written messages clear for the reader. Technical communicators must know how to write clearly for the sake of their documents and their users. In documents like policies and procedures, active voice specifies the doer of the action so the user easily finds the doer of the sentence. E-prime contributes to active voice by using verbs to show movement, behavior, and animation so the writer names the doer of the action in the subject. The reader benefits from such clear and efficient language.

 

Changing writing styles to e-prime takes time and practice because most people are used to writing in passive voice. E-prime and active voice means learning a new form of communication, but clarity, conciseness, and precision results from writing with the audience in mind.

 

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Letter from the Editor

A new semester brings new faces to the Techniques staff. We have a great group of enthusiastic, talented individuals. The diversity of backgrounds we bring to our discussions and planning sessions helps us focus on new aspects of communication.

Dave joins our online editors this semester. Please visit the online edition of Techniques. Dave, Nathan, and Steve worked hard to prepare the online version, and we believe they did an incredible job!

On April 3 & 4, 2001, Dave, Nathan, and Steve plan to submit an abstract at the Undergraduate Research Conference (URC). The Presentation of Scholarship occurs on the MSU campus, and we invite you to join us in supporting our editors. For additional information, visit the URC web site at www.mnsu.edu/dept/~radstud/gradweb/urc.htm.

Jackie, Nicole, and Susan join Marge as copy editors this semester. We welcome their talent and their contributions to our newsletter. Bobby works with Melissa as a layout editor, and we appreciate the skills she brings to her position. Jim plans to help with graphics as he familiarizes himself with the programs available to the newsletter staff.

We welcome your comments, so feel free to contact any or all the editors to offer your suggestions, constructive criticisms, or observations. We even respond to praise! We value our readers’ opinions. Again, we thank you for your patronage.

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Bulletin Board

 

WinWriters Ninth Annual Online Help Conference

March 4 - 8, 2001

Software User Assistance

Santa Clara, California

 

Undergraduate Research Conference

April 3 - 4, 2001

Minnesota State University Campus

Mankato, Minnesota

 

Annual STC Conference

May 13 - 16, 2001

Chicago, Illinois

 

21st Annual Institute of Technical Communication

June 17 - 22, 2001

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

 

Ten Scholarships Will Be Awarded to High School Teachers

Registration deadline March 10 of Technical Communication in all Subject Areas!

www2.stc.org/pics/pcc/pcmain.htm

email stc_prac_comm@hotmail.com or call 417-359-7020

 

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Meet the Staff

 

Nicole Cook 

Nicole Cook carries a technical communication minor and a major in English literature. Combining two different disciplines in English requires adaptability, since both require a profound understanding of English, a strong sense of the intended audience, and a keen understanding of the manuscript's purpose. Nicole maintains that working in both areas strengthened not only her comprehension in reading but also her oral and written skills. Nicole, a copy editor for Techniques, expects to graduate this May.

Nicole plans to begin graduate school and pursue a degree in English education because of the challenges and opportunities she envisions. Working with a diverse population that includes youth and their parents appeals to Nicole. Her undergraduate disciplines should facilitate a productive and interesting classroom environment.

Nicole’s family includes her husband, Chris, and two children, Isabella and Mitchell. Nicole credits her family with her interest in technical communication.

Jim Spurrier

Jim Spurrier, who works with graphics for Techniques, plans to graduate in May. Jim chose technical communication as his major study, since writing adds versatility to the jobs available in biology, his minor field of study.

Jim spent his internship working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, writing fact sheets for them on twenty-nine endangered species found in the Midwest.

Jim serves as secretary for the MSU Wildlife Club. Last year his club traveled to Florida to observe the animals and wildlife at some of their theme parks.

In his free time Jim enjoys reading the works of Peter Hathaway Kapstick, spending time with family and friends, writing in his journal, and researching rare species of wildlife.

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Last Updated: 10/20/2005