Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

Thanks to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, I not only have a greater appreciation of Charles Edenshaw as an individual artist, but a greater understanding of his key role on the Renaissance of First Nations Art in the Pacific Northwest. But, increasingly, I wonder about the man behind the art. What was his inner life like?

Glimpses of his life do exist. In During My Time, his daughter Florence Davidson mentions how her father used to say a prayer, then sit himself down on the low chair he preferred and work for the next twelve hours. I believe, too that Davidson tells how he once said that he was tired of art, and wouldn’t do any in his next life; a great nephew who showed no interest in art but died early is suspected to have been his reincarnation. Haida friends also tell me that a lively oral tradition about Edenshaw continues to exist on Haida Gwaii, and from his art, I infer a man with great powers of concentration and attention to detail who took pride in his work.

But such glimpses are tantalizingly few, especially for such a man and such times as he lived in. Almost immediately, the reliable information trails off into surmises. He was said to have been sickly in his youth, and even in his prime, he looks small and fragile in the pictures that have survived, and possibly not too steady on his feet. His early ill-health is often surmised to be the reason he turned to art to make a living – he simply wasn’t rugged enough to earn a living by fishing and logging, like other men of his generation.

Yet what he thought about his life is completely unknown. Did he ever feel resentful at having to live a sedentary life? Or was he quiet man, content to stay close at home and perhaps see more of his family than most of his generation of men? We simply don’t know.

Nor do we know how he felt about the great events happening around him. How did he feel about the epidemics that wiped out most of his generation among the Haida? Was he grateful to survive, or did he sometimes brood at his work bench, wondering how he survived? Was he proud of the titles he accumulated due to the gaps in the successions? Or did he see himself as a caretaker of the titles, assuming them in trust for future generations?

Similarly, I wonder why he accepted baptism in middle age. Did he hope that Christianity might preserve him and his family from other epidemics? Did he see his culture as ending, and Christianity as a way into the future? Or did he see baptism as a way of hedging his bets, an accommodation that allowed him to preserve more of his culture than opposition would? Perhaps as the leader of his people, he converted to maintain his authority over the increasingly Christian Haida clans and houses. Or perhaps he was genuinely drawn to Christianity.

But we do not know any of the reasons for what he did. We do not even know what he thought of the art that such a central feature of his art. I would give a lot to know whether he ever thought of his life’s work as anything other than a way to feed his family. Did he see himself as an individual artist, the way that those from European and American cultures do? Did he hold himself responsible for preserving parts of Haida culture that the epidemics had left abandoned, or was Haida culture just a commodity that he could sell to make a living?

I wonder, too, whether the man who was known in his lifetime as Charlie among English-speakers be proud or embarrassed to be addressed in tones of respect as Charles. I imagine that a man who had taken on so many names as his importance as a chief increased would have taken taken yet another name in his stride. Still, what would he have thought about his influence on the modern art of not only the Haida, but their hereditary enemies the Tsimshian and all the other nations up and down the coast. Did he ever imagine such a role, even for a moment when talking to Franz Boas and the other ethnographers? Or was he too busy going about his life to ever imagine that anyone else would take take such an interest in his work?

At this point, the only answer to all these questions is that at this point we will never know. Fortunately, we do not have to know, because his art is eloquent by itself. But, historically, the man himself remains laconic, and frustratingly close to mute.

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Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

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Every now and then, someone takes a harsh view of my journalism – not my how-tos and reviews so much as my commentary. From some people’s perspectives, I am trolling, trying to deliberately create controversy, specifically in the hopes of getting more page hits on my articles. I never quite know how to answer such attacks, because they are so far from what actually happens that I doubt they would believe my explanations could possibly be true.

However, if I did try to explain, I would have to start with the fact that I am a writer, not an editor. Unlike an editor, I hardly think about page hits. Page hits may affect whether a given website continues to buy my articles, and occasionally an editor will veto a suggested topic on the grounds that it has never done well, but otherwise? Planning writing around page hits sounds all too likely to mean writing about topics that don’t particularly interest me, or about which I have nothing original to say. If I wanted to write that way, I would go back to writing technical manuals, which not only pays more, but also pays more regularly.

My first consideration when choosing a topic is whether I can write about it while it is still timely. Online articles are rarely current for more than a few days, and sometimes my other obligations or the complexity of what I would like to say mean that I have no time to do a particular topic. justice, even if it interests me. Rather than do a superficial job, in these situations I prefer to ignore a topic altogether.

However, for me, the biggest perq of journalism is that I get to write about what interests me, restricted only by the need for editorial approval. When I am generating topics, what I think about is: Am I interested enough in this topic to spend the hours that the story takes to write? Are the facts interesting and important to readers? Do I have any perspectives that are different enough from those of the half dozen or so others who might write on this topic that I can contribute something original to the discussion?

Unless I can answer all these questions with “Yes,” I usually avoid a story – which is why I only occasionally write about breaking news. (Well, that and the fact that living on the Pacific coast means that by the time I log on in the morning, writers living on the east coast have probably already filed their stories). I figure that a story that will bore me will probably bore a lot of readers as well, and fortunately most editors regard me as more than a reporter on the beat. Most of the time, most editors will trust my judgment on whether a story is worth writing.

Perhaps I should be flattered that my detractors think of me as a sort of Professor Moriarty of journalism, constantly engaged in manipulations of everyone around me in the fulfillment of some obscure but diabolical agenda. But honestly? I lack both the energy and inclination for the requisite plotting.

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For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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Say something controversial to me in person, and you usually don’t much of a response. I have to be unusually tired or fed up before I’ll do more than say something non-committal and make an excuse as soon as possible to leave. Often, my withdrawal will be to write about the outrageousness of what just happened, because, in print – having sold some 1400 articles and written some 665 blog entries – I’m not exactly known for my reticence. But occasionally, being silent even in print is forced on me by circumstance, although usually at the cost of biting my tongue hard enough that it needs a dozen stitches.

It doesn’t happen often. I have a naïve reverence for the power of dialog. Unlike my father, who learned in the army that giving your opinion could be dangerous if you were overheard by the brass, I believe in talking, no matter what the consequences. Despite countless examples to the contrary, I continue to believe, very simply and sincerely, that if I can just get a conversation started, I can improve things by pointing out previously overlooked nuances, working to keep people informed, and pointing out possible common ground or solutions that nobody else has raised.

The trouble is, the chance for dialog doesn’t always exist..

For example, once I had the kind of story that every writer dreams about. I had proof of some major financial inconsistencies that an organization had been making for several years running, up to and including a loan made to a former director. It was a rare case of black and white without nuance of gray, and I was practically cackling in anticipation of being a minor league Woodward or Bernstein.

The only trouble was, no reputable editor would touch it. Too controversial, they all said, even though I had evidence. Not the sort of thing we publish, one editor told me. So I fumed and stayed silent, and eventually the story sunk into irrelevancy.

Several times, too, some organization or person I had researched has done and said something rash, and I’ve been in the person in the best position to write a blistering op-ed in reply. And I wanted to, because their actions put one cause or another I believed in into disrepute. Sometimes, I even went so far as drafting a dissection of their actions and possible effects with all the verbal wit of a Dorothy Parker or the polemical skill of a Harlan Ellison (at least in my own imagination). But, in the end, I refrained from publishing.

In these cases, part of my restraint has been my deep-seated reluctance to join a lynch mob. I don’t care for the mob mentality, having been on its receiving end once or twice, and I won’t countenance it; it feels too much like being a bully, no matter how justified.

More importantly, while the organization or person may deserve to be called into account, the causes they represent may not. Yet it is not always easy to separate the organization or person from their causes. An attack on the organization of purpose may hurt the cause. So, once again, I shut up, fuming that I am letting someone get away with crassness or stupidity while seeing no other choice except to attack a worthwhile cause.

So what do I do while such events play out? I listen to favorite music. I go for harder than usual workouts. Sometimes, too, I write other things, including blog entries on the difficulty of silence.

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Parliamentary democracy is far from a perfect system of government. Its party system and first past the post elections are both serious flaws that seem increasingly unsuited to the modern world. However, it does include one concept that I find invaluable: that of the loyal opposition.

To anyone used to another system of government, the words “loyal opposition” may seem like an oxymoron. If someone was loyal, how could they oppose the government? If someone opposed the government, in what sense could they be loyal? Americans, with their system of confrontational politics, have a particularly hard time with the concept.

As a concept, the loyal opposition is reminiscent of the devil’s advocate. The assumption behind both is that questioning decisions and suggesting ways of modifying them makes for better decisions. It is also assumed that, in raising questions and making suggestions, the opposition is ultimately committed to making the government’s decisions better, and has a genuine allegiance to the country.

To someone trying to comprehend the idea, the loyal opposition sounds absurd at first. Since the opposition wants to form the government someday, surely its main motivation must be to discredit the government at every opportunity, rather than helping it to pass better laws or to take more useful actions. And today, to a large extent, people who think this way would be right.

All the same, the concept of the loyal opposition continues to exist. Especially in times of crisis, it allows a government and its opposition to act together. Yet, even in untroubled moments, it is not unusual to learn that the same people who exchange carefully restrained abuse in the House of Commons are in the habit of having a drink together in the evening.

I mention the concept because the loyal opposition is often the position I find myself in as a writer about free and open source software (FOSS). Despite the speed at which FOSS is growing, those involved in the community tend to be a small group. They know each other and, although feuds exist, they often support each other uncritically. They exchange praise easily, and rarely criticize each other – a situation that doesn’t always make for the best possible decisions.

Sometimes, users can correct this tendency by protesting clearly and repeatedly. However, users are not easily stirred up, and too much happens that would be better for a review.

That’s where people like me come in. I am all in favor of FOSS (if I wasn’t, I would be off doing something more lucrative), but there are frequently times when more feedback is useful, when a suggestion of alternatives is needed, or someone simply to say in public what everyone is saying in private emails and tweets. Nobody else is doing these things, so people like me write commentaries that do.

My criticism is rarely as harsh as it could be. In fact, you could probably get an accurate sense of my opinions by how diplomatically I phrase them. But, like the loyal opposition, I believe – perhaps arrogantly – that the community makes better decisions because someone says them at all.

Contrary to the knee-jerk cynicism of the Internet, it’s not because I am a paid troll, or set out to increase page hits by deliberately creating controversy. It’s because, like the loyal opposition, I am convinced that, frequently, voicing dissent is a greater sign of loyalty than unquestioning support.

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Quoting is a delicate art. Depending on your preferences, you can clean up the grammar or elide a few words to make what remains pithier, but what you can never do – at least, not if you have any integrity – is present someone’s words in such a way that you misrepresent their opinions. However, recently I’ve noticed that the claim that a quote is taken out of context is becoming the last refuge of everyone from politicians to social media users trying to distance themselves from something they’ve said that happens to be inconvenient or embarrassing.

Probably, this defense has become popular because of the seriousness with which quoting out of context is viewed by academics and journalists. However, the distinction between legitimate and opportunistic users of the idea of context quickly becomes clear when you look at examples.

First, an example of someone actually quoting out of context. Five years ago, in an article on Linux.com, I wrote,”I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.”

In the comments, an anonymous poster wrote that he found himself “convinced that Bruce Byfield is single, has no daughters, and doesn’t have a close women friends. The fact of the matter is that (most) women interact differently both men do, in their interactions with both other women and men. If he doesn’t know this, he hasn’t spent much time around women.”

This comment, as another poster was quick to point out, focused entirely on the first sentence I wrote. Even then, he missed the nuance of “I’m not a great believer.” But, even more importantly, by stopping at the first sentence, he formed an entirely mistaken opinion of what I thought by ignoring the next sentence, which completed the thought I was expressing. Instead, he derided me for an opinion that I had never expressed, and made himself look like foolish rather than me.

By contrast, recently I wrote an article about how the priorities in GNOME, the free desktop used on Linux, appeared to have shifted. I quoted at length one member of the project who wrote during an online discussion that they were against allowing extensions that would alter the vision of the design team. I carefully mentioned that the discussion had taken place over a year ago, and went on to add that the member was now focusing on other matters, meaning to imply that they were no longer opposing the idea of extensions, and that their previous views no longer prevailed in the project.

The day after the article appeared, the person whose email I quote denounced me on Google+. I had quoted them out of context, they insisted. I should have asked them for their current view, and I was unprofessional because I didn’t. Yet when I asked them to explain exactly how I had misquoted them, they either would not or could not do so.

I never did get an explanation out of them. So far as they were concerned, I must have deliberately attacked them, and they were under no obligation to explain (although they were apparently quite willing to attack me, and to rant vaguely but ominously about the dangers of discussion on a public mailing list). I suspect that the person in question was now embarrassed by their former views, and was concerned about being associated with them. Perhaps their concern was that others might think they didn’t support the current policy.

My use of the quote had nothing out of context. It was clearly presented as a past view, contrasted with the present, and included several sentences in order to represent accurately the opinions expressed. But, whatever the exact reasons for the person’s reaction, the words “out of context” were a convenient form of denial. Never mind that they could not point to any misrepresentation – by savaging my reputation, they hoped to salvage theirs.

These two examples clearly show the difference between using the phrase “out of context” legitimately, and as a defense. In the first case, going to the original source quickly shows that the context has been misrepresented or misunderstood. In the second case, particulars are avoided for a generalized accusation, and the original discussion is deflected by a personal attack.

Fortunately, the response to cases like the second is exactly the same as for those like the first. In both circumstances, looking at the source immediately shows whether anything has been taken out of context or not. The real danger is when politicians and public figures claim that they were misquoted loudly enough that any methodical debunking of the claim is missed, and they are able to evade responsibility for their own words by launching a misleading counter-attack.

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Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.

The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.

Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.

For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.

By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.

Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.

Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.

A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”

So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months,  I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.

But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.

I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.

I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.

Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.

More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.

This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.

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Unlike most articles, an interview does not require multiple sources for legitimacy. By implication, the subject of an interview is either famous enough or interesting enough that readers will want to hear about them in detail. As the writer, your task is to present your subject’s opinions as accurately as possible, with a minimum of comment from you. Your ability to reach this goal will depend on how you conduct the interview, and how you structure it for publication.

This goal does not mean that you simply present your questions and the interviewee’s answers. That’s a transcript – and after you’ve made a few, you will understand why experienced writers say that the worst thing you can do to a person is quote them word for word. Even the most articulate are likely to have ums and ers and other hesitations, and to repeat themselves and forget to finish sentences. For this reason, very few people cannot be made to sound like rambling drunks when quoted verbatim.

Also, many readers react with dread to a long passage presented as a quote, and are likely to skip. Give them too many long passages of one person talking, and these readers are likely to stop reading your interview.

Instead, it is understood that your interview is an edited version of the transcript. As the writer you are expected not only to correct grammar and spelling, but to condense and reorganize to make the interviewee’s statements clearer. Similarly, you might edit your questions so that the context of what is being discussed is clearer.

What you must never do, however (assuming you want to be taken seriously), is edit the interviewee’s words so that they say something they would not to say, or edit your words so that you look clever at the interviewee’s expense. Both these practices are an abuse of your power as the writer.

Conducting the interview

To help you reach these basic goals, learn as much as possible about the interviewee and the topic of the interview before it takes place. Not only is preparation likely to give you better results, but you will be able to know if the interviewee is wrong or avoiding a topic and be able to ask more thorough questions.

Whenever possible, conduct your interview in person. At the very least, conduct it over the phone or video chat like Google+’s circles. These venues will help you to ask follow-up questions more easily.

They will also make the interviewee’s comments more natural-sounding. You want to do an email interview only as a last resource. Even chat gives more natural-sounding results than email. Some experienced interviewees may prefer email because they want to think about what they say, but you may be able to make them change their minds if you tell them that a live interview requires less of their time – which is generally true.

When you do a live interview, remember that it is about the subject, not you. While you should have some questions prepared, try to make sure, especially in the early stages, that your subject talks more than you. Start them out slow by asking easy, non-controversial questions such what their background is, then steer them gradually towards more detailed questions.

Try and talk yourself only when you need to focus the interview, or to ask for clarification. You’ll be surprised how often the interviewee will mention the points you wanted to cover without any prompting if you only wait a while. Cultivate the skills of a listener, including using body language to show your interest.

Occasionally, you may interview two or three people together. When you do, have each interviewee introduce themselves at the start, so you can identify their voices as you transcribe the interview. Ideally, you could have them name themselves each time they speak, but that can be awkward and is easily forgotten as the interview continues.

If you do have to do an email interview, see if your subject will consider several rounds of questions. The second and subsequent rounds will be shorter, but you may need them to get clarifications or details. These details may include the proper spelling of names, although you can sometimes use a web search instead.

Writing the interview

As you prepare to write, you will probably notice that the interviewee has some pet phrases and sentence structures. Use these quirks as a way of representing character, but not so much that the interviewee sound ridiculous or limited.

If you are preparing a transcript, you may also have to decide how to write down your interviewee’s favorite structures. For example, you may decide after a few examples to omit throwaway phrases like “I think.” Similarly, you may have to decide whether a dash or a semi-colon best represents how the interviewee joins two thoughts together

When you come to write your interview, resist the temptation to present it in simple question and answer form. The more interesting – and more difficult – choice is to use regular paragraphs, weaving the quotes into the grammar of your own sentences. Readers find this structure easier to read, and it has the advantage of making summaries and explanations easier.

But, regardless of this format, try to find a quote that will serve as a conclusion, even if you have to pick it out of an earlier point in the interview. Often, I find that ending an interview by talking about future plans, finishing with, “Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to make sure gets said?” will provide that conclusion.

You will find that some editors dislike ending with a quote. If you ever write for someone with this preference, restating the last quote in different words will often be enough. Otherwise, a modest conclusion will usually do.

All these practices make an interview very different from the typical article. In a typical article, you may quote, but usually not at such length, and the effect on the structure is minimal. By contrast, in an interview, the content becomes the structure. Your goal is to discover the structure implicit in the content.

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