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Summit ’14: Talking with Marcia Riefer Johnston

150 150 James Cameron

When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since. To share her love of writing, she has written a book of essays: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them). Marcia studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She has taught technical writing in Cornell University’s Engineering School, and she has run a tech-writing business for … a long time. Once a member of the Central New York STC chapter, Marcia now serves as secretary of the Willamette Valley chapter in Portland, Oregon.  Marcia joins us for the Summit this year with two sessions, Write Tight(er)—Part 1: The Technique and Write Tight(er)—Part 2: Applying the Technique. Conference Chair Chris Hester spoke with her recently about her sessions and more.

Tell me about the sessions you’re doing for us this year.

The idea for this workshop grew from two of my book chapters: “To Be or Not To Be” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Shovel.” These chapters give tips for writing concisely, tips that I use every day to tighten everything I write. These tips work for writers at any level doing any kind of writing. Even writers who already know these things can benefit from a refresher.

I’ve given this presentation and workshop a number of times. I enjoy doing it. People have a good time and they leave with a technique they can use immediately. It gives me a good feeling to hear from them afterward, to know that they found value in what I had to share.

Complete the sentence: “You should absolutely plan on attending these sessions if you  …”

… want to give your writing more oomph.

In the session evaluations, we ask attendees, “What is the best idea you heard in this session that you plan to use?” What do you expect the top answer to be?

See be-verbs. Is, are, am, were, be, was, been, being. You might not believe the impact that this one tip can have on your writing.

Attendees have three, four, or five sessions to choose from at one time at the Summit. What makes yours a must-see?

Two things: work and play.

1) Work. Conciseness has business value, especially if you’re translating content. Words equal dollars. Even if your company or clients don’t translate, concise writing goes a long way toward engaging readers. We all want to engage readers. Business content must engage readers.

2) Play. I guarantee at least one smile during our time together.

What are you looking forward to most in Phoenix?

Meeting virtual pals face to face. I can’t wait to meet some fellow tech commers I’ve only ever met online. Of course, I look forward to seeing old friends, too. The more conferences I go to, the more I appreciate the hallway conversations and after-hours get-togethers.

What are you reading right now? What’s on your desk or your nightstand?

I just finished Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Larson has a masterful way of unspooling this true story. I can’t imagine the amount of information he had to sift through to transport readers to an era so different from our own. I had no idea that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair had even happened let alone that it had “changed America.” Everyone in my book group found Devil in the White City a compelling read; I don’t remember that ever happening before.

I have just started The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. I loved math through high school. Algebra, geometry, trig. Bring on the proofs! Math = brain candy. Then, I hit college. Calculus didn’t click. I couldn’t get my head around n-space. I heard that I was missing the best part of math. Along comes Strogatz, an award-winning Cornell professor who once wrote a New York Times column called “The Elements of Math.” He has a reputation for making math accessible. With his help, I may crack Calculus yet. He also talks about big data. I find myself writing about big data for one of my clients, so I look forward to getting more insight into that topic. Besides, this book starts with a Sesame Street example. Who could resist?

More about Marcia

Interview with Marcia Riefer Johnston, Intercom, December 2012

Review of Word Up! the Technical Communication Journal February 2014 issue

Marcia on Lanyrd

Marcia on Twitter

Marcia’s website