Best of Show
by Melanie Walker and Yvonne Wade Sanchez
To listen to the podcast, visit http://www.stc-houston.org/podcasts.htm.
Photograph of Best of Show Winners posing with Linda King at the STC Banquet
The interview questions in this article were sent to the 2007–2008 Best of Show Winners in preparation for Dateline Houston’s podcast interview. Datelineinterviewed Martha Dutton, Jennifer Smith, and Erik Nelson about their entry for Schlumberger, Well Cementing, Second Edition.
In addition to the questions, we are also providing the answers submitted by the interviewees before the podcast interview.
Q1: Why did you submit the entry? In other words, why did you feel it would win an award?
A: [Martha Dutton] Having judged in past STC Regional and International competitions, I felt that Well Cementing was a strong candidate. Technical content, writing, and design (illustration and layout) are all exceptionally strong points in this document.
A: [Jennifer Smith] I felt that the book is an excellent example of technical communication at its finest: extremely technical material (lots of equations, theory, and practice) made accessible through solid structure, clean prose, exceptional illustrations, and good overall design. Well Cementing, Second Edition, conveys close to state-of-the-art information from a scientific and practical point of view. A unified nomenclature and professional index aid comprehension and easy referencing.
The editors, Erik B. Nelson and Dominique Guillot, are recognized experts in the field of well cementing. Contributors from multiple service companies helped make the point that this was a truly noncommercial effort to inform and teach.
A: [Erik Nelson] The original 1990 version of this book had become a classic reference and, after more than a decade, an update was overdue. When the industry became aware that a second edition was being produced, there was a lot of “buzz” and anticipation. In addition, industry leaders outside of SLB were eager to assist by contributing or reviewing material. The Editorial Review Board for this book is a “Who’s Who” of cementing industry heavyweights. Dominique and I wanted this book to be as good as it could be, given the reputation of its predecessor.
Q2: What do you feel were the strengths and weaknesses of your entry?
A: [Martha Dutton] Strength: Because the book was produced by a highly experienced internal group, the production costs were kept reasonable, allowing the price per book to be lower. Weakness: Because of the length of time necessary to produce the document (from initial outline to delivery), some of the technical content was a bit dated.
A: [Jennifer Smith] The book is comprehensive, covering multiple disciplines (fluid mechanics, chemistry, etc.) with attention to detail. That strength contributes to its “weakness”: It is physically large and heavy, weighing about 10 pounds. It can be intimidating-looking.
A: [Erik Nelson] It would have been nice if the book had included a CD with the material in electronic form. However, time constraints and piracy problems experienced with previous SLB books prevented this.
Q3: How many people were on your team? In addition, how important is a team in regard to producing an award-winning entry? In other words, could you have produced the same deliverable as a lone writer?
A: [Martha Dutton] I had worked with Erik on the original 1990 version. Having experience and history on our side made improving the second edition a much easier task. An experienced team makes all the difference! This document would not have become the book it is without a team. Core team, excluding outside contributors, [consisted of] 5 people.
A: [Jennifer Smith] Erik Nelson and Dominique Guillot wrote portions of the text. They also sought out multiple contributors from across the oil industry. They ensured that the text was technically sound, as ensured by peer review. Then the book came to the marketing communications group. Jennifer Smith acted as copy editor, Martha Dutton acted as art director and project manager, and contractor Don Daigle acted as artist and layout person.
I think each contributor played a vital role, each doing the part assigned very well. It would not be possible to produce the same high quality without multiple people, each offering expertise in his or her own area.
A: [Erik Nelson] It’s important to add that more than three years of technical writing occurred before the Marketing and Communications Group became involved.
Q4: Name the disciplines represented (project manager, editor, writer, graphic designer, SME, etc.) on the team. How important was each role? In other words, do you feel that the artwork was the most important component, or do you feel that the editing made all the difference, etc.?
A: [Martha Dutton]
Technical content is the primary and most important component—without good solid content, there is no reason to engage the resources necessary to produce such a document.
Editing—Consistency in prose is important, especially when the content was coming from so many different sources, some of which were not native English speakers.
Design—Good design flow and consistent imagery standards help guide the reader through such technical document without calling attention to itself.
A: [Jennifer Smith] I feel that the text is the most important part of this book. Selected by Erik and Dominique and polished by Jennifer and Erik working closely together, the text is really what people will buy the book for. That being said, I think the illustrations and the clean design make the comprehensive text much more accessible. And of course, the whole project was managed extremely well—deadlines set and enforced, liaising with printers, etc.—by Martha
A: [Erik Nelson] The technical material is the heart of the book, but excellent presentation is absolutely essential to producing a reference that is accessible to readers.
Q5: What innovations or techniques did you use when designing and constructing your entry?
A: [Martha Dutton] No new techniques were used in the creation of the book. Being on board at the beginning of the “desktop publication” era (back in the mid-80s), I have strived to use all that the computer offers when producing a document such as this. Using high-quality vendors for printing and binding also made the book a success.
A: [Jennifer Smith] Not my area—other than to say it looked great to me!
A: [Erik Nelson] To my knowledge, this was the first full-color reference book that Marketing and Communications had attempted. Having color throughout the book brings the material to life.
Q6: If money, time, and resources were unlimited, what would you do differently?
A: [Martha Dutton] Having the luxury of time to be methodical when getting production estimates would be a cost saver. Fixing each small inexact item in the book to make it perfect.
A: [Jennifer Smith] The problem with a book like this is that it takes so long to put together that whatever you do may not be cutting edge by the time you finish it. Parts of it were getting, if not dated, at least a little long in the tooth before printing.
Q7: Did you put much effort into the entry form (for example, description of audience, identification of obstacles, etc.)? In addition, in your opinion, how important is a good entry form?
A: [Martha Dutton] Having the experience of producing a comprehensive, very well-explained entry form doesn’t necessarily matter. From prior STC competitions, I once had an entry “dinged” because of an item that was explained in the entry materials and knew it would be an issue. The judging team did not take the time to read the entry well; otherwise, they would have understood. You are at the mercy of the judges and their ways.
A: [Jennifer Smith] I did the entry form. It probably took me the equivalent of half a day’s work spread out over several days, because I wanted to get feedback from the team so that it was representative of all our opinions. I think the description of the audience was crucial because it’s a book with only limited appeal to a broad audience. The entry form was very important to explain this publication to to its judges.
A: [Erik Nelson] I think I would say that the book has great appeal to a limited audience (that is, the cementing industry).
Q8: In your opinion, what are the benefits of participating in the competition? In other words, how did you sell the idea to your boss?
A: [Martha Dutton] I think competitions are a good way to see how you are perceived by peers and others in your industry. Everyone is energized by acceptance and recognition. Attending the awards ceremony is a great way to network and also see what others are creating.
A: [Jennifer Smith] I think participating in a technical communication competition is a great way to show that Schlumberger is really good at whatever it does. It can be recognized for excellence in all matters, not only oil exploration and production.
A: [Erik Nelson] I must say that the industry is in awe of the production values. The quality of the printing, illustrations, paper, etc., has impressed everyone. I frequently joke that the book is a triumph of production over content!
Q9: If you had to mentor another group or writer on how to produce an award-winning entry, what advice would you give?
A: [Martha Dutton] Nothing great is accomplished without risk, sacrifice, and a lot of good ol’ blood, sweat, and tears! Being an “explorer” can be lonely and frightening, but when it is successful, it is the greatest feeling of accomplishment and something to be proud of!
A: [Jennifer Smith] Hitch your wagon to a star—I was so fortunate to work with this team! Erik Nelson and Dominique Guillot have the knowledge and experience that made the difference. Don’s illustrations and Martha’s design are examples of excellence.
More concretely (ha! I made a funny!), I would say that patience and attention to detail are key. Don’t let it be “good enough.” Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. What would you want to see? Make it so.
A: [Erik Nelson] One of the major obstacles we had to overcome was presenting a unified nomenclature throughout the book. When the technical writers created the original chapter manuscripts, they did not know about such guidelines. In addition, because the subject matter covered many disciplines, we frequently encountered situations in which different quantities shared the same symbols. As a result, Jennifer and I were obliged to create a nomenclature and rewrite hundreds of equations to conform to the new nomenclature. This added several months to the production schedule and greatly increased the probability of errors. Fortunately, very few errors have been reported! In the future, the technical writing staff for a book must know that all manuscripts have to conform to a unified nomenclature before submission to Marketing and Communications.