Louisa Lawson and The Digitise The Dawn Project

Louisa Albury was born in 1848 in Mudgee, the second of twelve children. Although she was offered a position as 'pupil teacher' at school, she was encouraged by her parents to leave school in order to look after her younger siblings. It was a fairly common thing to happen to eldest girls at the time, but judging by Louisa's later life, it seems that she regretted it most severely. And who can blame her? She married Niels Hertzberg Larsen (who called himself Peter) in 1866 at the tender age of eighteen, and they later Anglicised their surname to Lawson. Peter, for good or bad, spent much of his time away at the goldfields, and left Louisa at home to look after their brood of five children alone. Eventually, his absences became longer and more frequent, and by the time Louisa moved with her children to Sydney in 1883, the marriage was all but over. Left alone with five children to support, and with very little and sporadic financial assistance from Peter, she turned her hand first to sewing and washing to earn money. She also took in boarders from time to time. In 1887, she took the opportunity to purchase The Republican newspaper, a paper about which I've been almost completely unable to find information on, sadly. The one thing I have learned, though, is that it (apparently) "called for all Australians to unite under 'the flag of a Federated Australia, the Great Republic of the Southern Seas'"[0]. By all accounts, it didn't last long though, and ceased production the following year, in 1888. But Louisa'a political leanings were very much beginning to show.

Apparently bitten by the publishing bug, and probably eager to continue publishing her own essays and works of poetry, she started publishing a magazine called The Dawn in 1888. It was printed as "A Journal for Australian Women" and "publicize women's wrongs, fight their battles and sue for their suffrage"[1]. It was the first newspaper printed in Australia that dealt with issues of feminism and suffrage, and is considered perhaps the single most important factor in the beginning of the suffragette movement in Australia. Shortly after The Dawn's inception, Louisa's husband Peter died, leaving her with a large inheritance, which was immediately spent on improving the printing press and increasing the circulation of the magazine. She also hired ten staff, all of whom were women. The NSW Typographical Association did not accept female members at the time, and took exception to the fact that a magazine could be edited, printed, and circulated only by women. They took up arms against Louisa and the magazine and encouraged advertisers to boycott The Dawn and reportedly harassed the women on site.

As evidence of Louisa's strength, she did not let this discourage her, and in 1889, she began running meetings at the Dawn offices which became known as The Dawn Club. The Club discussed issues relating to the "evil laws" made by men, and encouraged women to infiltrate male-dominated arenas such as debating clubs, and Louisa herself became the first female member of the board of management of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts.

The Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW began in 1891 and, hardly surprisingly, Louisa was elected to its council. She offered the Dawn offices and printing press for the League to use for meetings and pamphlets free of charge, and this remained the case until the League's demise, despite the fact that Louisa herself withdrew from the council in 1893 after an ill-documented dispute.

By the time women were given the vote in 1902, Louisa was starting to slow down. In 1900, she had a fall from a tram and was badly injured, although she was politically active again in 1902 itself, when she was introduced to the Australia parliament as "The Mother of Suffrage in New South Wales"[2]. During the early 1900's she took several extended 'rest' periods from her campaigning and the magazine. She was 54, not old by our modern standards, but perfectly elderly by the standards of the day, and she had worked hard both physically and mentally all her life.

With the coming of the women's vote, Louisa aged and so, sadly, did The Dawn. The columns grew fewer and less fervent, the advertisers gradually departed, and in 1905 the newspaper printed its last edition.

Louisa continued to write for several Sydney-based publications, and she also produced an extensive volume of poetry.

I have been unable to find out what mental ailment troubled her in her final days, but dementia appears to be the most likely. She died in the Gladesville Mental Hospital aged 72, in 1920. The fight gets to even the strongest of us in the end.

Unfortunately, The Dawn has so far not been included in the National Library's 'Trove' Digitisation Project, despite it's great historical significance in gaining Australian women the vote, and despite Louisa's passion and fervour in promoting women's rights of all description. Do you feel it's an important part of Australian history? If you do, why not contribute to the project? It's being run by the lovely Donna Benjamin and she needs your help to raise the funds to make the digitisation a reality. You might also like to follow @digitisethedawn on Twitter to keep up with progress, and to help spread the word.

Oh, and as a postscript: yes, Louisa did have a very famous son, but her story is so much more interesting than that, don't you agree?


[0] http://www.nla.gov.au/guides/federation/people/lawsonl.html
[1] http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100019b.htm
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_Lawson

Computer Engineer Barbie

Early last year, I wrote this blog post about Computer Engineer Barbie. It took me a little while to get the logistics sorted, but with a little help from an expat friend in the US, two of the dolls arrived on my doorstep yesterday. One to keep in the box, and one to play with. Because I got swamped with questions when I announced their arrival on Twitter, I thought I'd photograph the unboxing for you all:

The Language of Marketing

I was absently staring at a new tube of toothpaste this morning as I washed my hair. You have to look at something, right? This one declared “healthy, whiter teeth for longer”. An image of extremely long (but healthy and white) teeth filled my mind, and was immediately pushed out by the technical writer in me asking “whiter and longer than what, exactly?”

Most marketing slogans give technical writers the screaming heebie-jeebies. Not only do they make spurious and vague claims like ‘more fibre’, ‘less fat’, and ‘20% bigger’ with alarming regularity, but the adjectives! I have no doubt that it is actually possible to sell things with sentences that contain only one adjective. And if they do need more than one, I’m sure a comma wouldn’t kill them. I could rant on the folly of adverbs, too, but that is a whole different article.

Why are marketers such terrible writers?

Because customers expect spin, and spin is easy to write. All you need is a handful of adjectives and a call to action: “The new fruity refreshing Globswoddle Fizz is now available. Experience the heady taste of summer today!”

While yelling at the toothpaste tube in the morning might make us all feel better, it is not likely to turn us into marketers just to help an obviously flailing industry. I finished my marketing degree about three weeks before I decided that the marketing industry was the last place in the world I wanted to work. Eventually, I became a technical writer instead, and discovered that I had inadvertently ended up working in marketing after all. Every word we set to paper is marketing in one way or another. If it is going to be read by a customer, then it needs to sell the product. But the last thing we want to write is spin.

Why are writers such terrible marketers?

Because customers want anything but spin, and while spin is easy to write, spinless marketing is not so easy.

Spin is wanted and welcomed in places where it is expected, like product packaging and on the airwaves. When our customers read technical manuals or help text, they are looking for a solution to a problem. If they were suddenly faced with the empty promises of spin, they would lose faith in the documentation, and possibly the product.

However brutal honesty is not required, either. Product documentation should not tell customers that the product cannot fulfill their expectations. Every question needs to be anticipated and answered. The documentation must give the customer hope that their problem can be resolved, their task completed, and their sanity retained in the process.

Effective documentation never tells the customer that a product is terrible (even if it is), and it never tells a customer that they are stupid (even if they are). It never makes over-inflated claims of software brilliance, and it never assumes greater-than-average user intelligence.

Somewhere nestled in there is product documentation that shows the product in a positive light, without the hard sell. Sound easy? Like most technical writing, it sounds easy until you actually try to do it. Some tips for getting started with spinless writing:

Kick adverbs, take names.
Adverbs are a big red flag for spin. Be ruthless and cut them all out. If your sentence requires a modifier, consider what you are really trying to say. If it forms part of an instruction or description (‘The widget can be fully removed by …’), reword it to remove the adverb (‘Remove the widget by …’).

Never call anything ‘simple’.
If you tell your users that something is ‘simple’, ‘quick’, or ‘easy’, and the customer struggles with it (for whatever reason), you are essentially telling them that they fail at life. Try not to insult your users.

Mind your adjectives.
Adjectives are fine in their place. Use them only where necessary, though, and try not to use more than one at a time. (‘Locate the red button’ is fine, but avoid ‘Locate the large, shiny, red button’ that is next to the ‘tiny, silver, shiny lever’).

Know your stuff.
If you can’t describe your topic in a single short sentence, you don’t understand it well enough, and it becomes too easy to succumb to spin statements. You need to be able to give succinct and accurate descriptions for each and every component part, as well as the product as whole. If you are not able to do this, continue to research your product until you can.

Understand the enemy.
As modern humans, we are largely desensitised to advertising, simply because we are so totally immersed in it. Start noticing it. Analyse what language is used, the sentence structure they’ve employed. Work out how you would re-write it to send the same message, but without the spin.

Edit with a knife.
Never say more than you need to.


This article was originally published in Words: A Quarterly Bulletin for Technical Writers and Communicators. Volume 3, Issue 1: February 2011, with the following bio:
Lana Brindley has been playing with technology since that summer in the 80’s when she spent the whole time trying not to be eaten by a grue. She has been writing since she could hold a pencil, and is currently writing technical documentation for Red Hat. Lana holds business degrees in marketing and information systems, and with any luck will have a technical communicators degree by the end of the year. She works from her home in Canberra, Australia, and occasionally leaves the house in order to berate university students and conference goers about passive sentence construction.

This post has been cross-posted to fossdocs.

LCA Day 4 & 5: It got better before it got worse

I've taken a bit longer than planned to write this final post, as it has required some ruminating. Apologies for the delay, and a trigger warning for discussion about (and links to) sexual and offensive behaviour.

The Good

Thursday was hot and humid, but it was nice to have my official duties over for the week, and to be able to kick back and just be a conference-goer for the day.

I went along to the GLBTI+ lunch as an ally (or a "+" I guess). As another group that is under-represented at technical and open source events, I feel it is important to stick together. Unfortunately, the lunch venue required a long trek through midday Queensland heat, and we were all feeling less-than-chirpy by the time we got there. A few beers and a pleasant lunch put us all back in good spirits though, and we invested in a taxi-ride back the conference.

Thursday evening was the Penguin Dinner, held in the Conference Centre at Southbank. I had an awful lot of fun drinking cheap champagne and poking fun at the poor spelling in the trivia slides (let this be a lesson to you: never put two tech writers on a table together, and never try to outdrink an Irish woman!).

The Bad

Friday morning started with the keynote speaker, Mark Pesce. I'm not going to recount his talk in detail here, as it's already been done in other places, with much better commentary than I'm capable of producing. It's very googleable, if you so desire.

One of the things that is most interesting is seeing which of the several different offensive images most upsets people. It just proves yet again that we are all human and all perceive offence, discrimination, and humour in very different ways. What some see as funny, others will perceive as mildly amusing, disturbing, or deeply offensive.

I had seen Pesce's tweets in the lead-up to the talk mentioning that the talk included some swearing, so when he provided his "PG-13" warning, I naturally thought it was relating only to language. Oh boy, was I wrong!

Of course, the talk through the day, especially amongst the assembled haecksen was about the Pesce talk, harassment and offence in general, and the anti-harassment policy in particular. Suddenly, every infraction stood out in relief: The guy who seemed to always be in my face taking photos, the ones who were just a little too friendly and a little too helpful, the guy who asked me out on a date over IRC, despite never having actually met me. These are all the kinds of things that happen daily to most women, especially those who hang around in tech circles as much as I do, but the incidents were starting to mount up. However, an apology for the Pesce talk was given with aplomb and good grace at the closing session, and it seemed as though the worst had blown over. With a sigh of relief, the conference drew to a close.

By the time Open Day was over (and I'll have another post about that to come soon) I was exhausted, but happy. I'd had a great conference, heard lots of interesting things (many that made my brain spin with new ideas), had a great time with old and new friends, and had successfully pulled off both the miniconf and my talk.

I wasn't angry, yet ...

The Ugly

The emails began within twenty-four hours of the apology. I was originally intending to selectively quote some of the better gems here, but I have decided against it. I'm sure it is obvious where I stand on the issue, and this blog is here to record and organise my thoughts, not beat a dead horse.

However well intentioned and delivered the apology from the LCA2011 committee was, it was very clearly not echoed across the board of conference-goers. Even other committee members stood up against the policy, and defended Mark Pesce, which I find totally appalling.

I have only one question: if Pesce had given his talk at a corporate event, would the attendees have spent the next week arguing over whether or not it was appropriate? If it's not suitable for a corporate event, why should it be appropriate for a technical conference?

It wasn't the conference that let me down, in the end. It was the attitude of the conference-goers in the wake of it. I haven't decided yet whether I'll attend next year's event, and if I do whether I'll offer to run the haecksen miniconf again. The fact that I even have to consider these things is an indication that my perspective has changed, though.