Sunday, August 14, 2011

Write It Right. Knitting Tech Writing for Dummies Part I

Best Quote I Heard All Day
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” --Mark Twain

Since I rather doubt any of the magazines would publish an article about knitting technical writing, I figured why the fuck not do it here?

As many of you know, I make my living as an IT tech writer, specializing in Software Development Life Cycle, SharePoint (a Microsoft collaborative platform), end-user guides, and a pile of other tech documentation crap.

Lately, I've been horrified at the poor quality of many knitting directions, some of which are published by well-known yarn companies and some by independent designers. Last Thursday at Stix-n-Stitches's Sit 'n' Knit night, I helped a fellow knitter translate some badly written directions. Get this--the cast-on instructions, which included placing markers between pattern repeats, were totally confusing. It was written sans asterisks, sans stitch counts, and sans much of anything other than the initial cast-on count, so she had no idea how many markers to place. In order to give her the the correct number of pattern repeats, I checked the math. Oy.

Many of you (including me) are either considering or doing your own designs and hoping to sell them. Well, if so, you'd better have your writing shit together first. This series, which I figure will run for a month, will give you some guidance. I have a very specific process that I use when designing so that my directions are comprehensible and correct. Most budding designers have wonderful ideas but no idea as to how they should be presented professionally.

Let's go!

Pre-Design Preparation
First of all, don't tell me that you "design on the needles" and re-create your directions after you've finished the piece. That's fine for swatching but not fine when you are working on a complete item, be it a sweater or a scarf. Ya gotta write and knit from the get-go. Most magazines have style guides; but you cannot go wrong using the Craft Yarn Council's Standards and Guidelines for Crochet and Knitting. This link will take you directly to their PDF. READ IT.

Step 1: Buy a notebook and use it for your sketches, charts, and directions. This will become your hard-copy Bible that you'll keep in your knitting bag while working out your design. (Of course, if you're really geeky, you can do this on your iPad or laptop but I still prefer writing with a pen to start.)

Step 2: Create a directions template for yourself in Microsoft Word, or whatever word processing app you use. Start formatting your e-file with appropriate headers. MATERIALS, GAUGE, and ABBREVIATIONS are permanent headers. And add your logo, if you have one. If you'd like, check out my Yeti Socks formatting. (If you are submitting to a magazine, you'll have to follow their publishing style, so check with your editor.)

For example, if you have designed a cardigan, you will have various section headers: BACK, FRONT (generally, you will tell your user to "reverse the right front shapings" but if one front is different than the other, you will have two Front headers), SLEEVES, FINISHING. And yes, you will have sub-headers, such as Neck Shaping.

Step 3: When you have determined what your design will be--sweater, socks, scarf, warshcloth, whatevah--choose your yarn and write down the yarn info in your Bible. Don't forget the color name(s)--if all you have on the yarn band is the color number, look it up on the web. Add this information to your electronic file.

Step 4: When you have chosen your stitch pattern(s), chart them out. I use Knit Visualizer because right now I can't afford Adobe Illustrator, which is the app that most publishers use for charting. You can also use Microsoft Excel but just for a working chart, not for final publication, EVER!

Step 5: Swatch, block, measure. Note the final gauge in your Bible and then in your e-file.

Step 6: Begin your calculations, writing them in your Bible. And for God's sake, use a calculator!!! Don't do it in your head, unless you're a fucking Einstein.

Step 7: Once you've finished your basic calculations, write your directions in your e-file and add any charts; then print the file out and put it into your Bible so that you can add notes and corrections. Don't forget to transpose written notes and corrections back into your e-file as soon as you can.

And do your sizing now! Stitch patterns, be they Fair Isle, cables, lace, or what-have-you, will dictate the sizes and their calculations, so get over that hump immediately.

So this is the very beginning. If you are working with test knitters, you want to make sure that you give them the most accurate directions possible. We'll talk about appropriate directions wording in the next entry. Here's the series' list of topics:

  • Part II: Listen to the Foghorn: How to Write Clear Directions
  • Part III: App Hazard--How to use computer applications for knitting directions
  • Part IV: Edit, Edit, Edit, Check, Check, Check--how to edit your own directions

So tomorrow I'm off to another tech writing gig in NYC, this time down in the Village! So much better than uptown. I'll be writing the next entry in a week, on Sunday, which is a rare and handy day to so do.

Later, skanks!


D. Jean Quarles said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It makes me crazy when I can't figure it out and the notes are not clear.

Anonymous said...

Sincere wishes that many, many designers read your directions on directions and follow them. Let it be. Thanks.
- Beth

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

I recently saw a college-level Composition syllabus which read, "More than five (4) absences will result in a failing grade for this course."
And that was just the tip of the proofreading iceberg. It concluded with the motto, "Perfection is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people."
I prefer the Hawthorne quote myself!


Elizabeth said...

Thank you so much for the clear guidance. I have been reading your blog for years, and I am always appreciative of your insight, not to mention the liberal use of "fuck" in your writing.

Deb in Southern Maryland said...

Hi, Mar,

This is perfect timing for me, as I'm beginning to write up some of my own patterns. I've been doing pattern testing for years. Recently, a friend gave me a kit she bought at MS&W and the pattern was unintelligible! She's going to tell the vendor. Time to fight back. You should design a program and grant certification in Knitting Tech Writing and/or write a book. Much needed. Patiently awaiting Part II and hope you and yours have not been carried away by floodwater.
Best, Deb

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I still enjoy knitting from patterns, but I'm becoming more interested in designing, and I'm finding it more difficult to marshal my thoughts and ideas the older I get. :/ So I appreciate your freely sharing this helpful info more than you'll ever know! -Sharon (Stitch Jones)

Amanda said...

I have always read your blog - never commented - and my job kept me from my knitting the last few years. I am so happy that you have not changed!

I also want to thank you for this series on tech writing for knitting. I have so many ideas in my head, but I want them to be easy for others to understand. I can't wait for the next installment.


Chris said...

He Marilyn....I am a grandmother that babysits a 15 month old, so I don't have a huge amount of time. But I've been searching for something to help me get the quilt and knitting patterns swishing around in my head onto paper, blog what have you. This is the first blog I've ever commented on and I have to say your first sentence made me laugh. Your my kind of teacher...thank you and I'll be returning often. Chrisr