Communicating with signs and symbols

As a technical communicator, I find it fascinating to learn about ways of communicating without using words. Often a diagram or drawing is more effective than a sentence, and can cross barriers of language, education, learning styles and ability.

Power symbols: on-off, Committee to Protect Journalists, Unicorn Mercat Cross

Power symbols: on-off, Committee to Protect Journalists, Unicorn Mercat Cross

At 6 am this morning, with my first cup of coffee in hand, I couldn’t remember which symbol means ‘on’ and which means ‘off’ on a power switch. I found a website called Symbols – a sort of Wikipedia for symbols – where the Power Symbols group contained the symbols I was looking for, along with a symbol for unicorn, as unicorns represent power as well as purity in Celtic mythology. The Media Control category includes the power symbols as well as symbols for the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Divide and Conquer symbol and the Play symbol for audio and film devices. So both Power and Media Control are used in different contexts – an example of how in language, one word can have many meanings.

Usually I’m pretty focussed when I’m using the internet, but I couldn’t resist looking up more symbols, and I came across Blissymbols.

Blissymbols for unicorn, cow, sheep and sheep barn show how symbols are combined to form new symbols

Blissymbols for unicorn, cow, sheep and sheep barn show how symbols are combined to form new symbols

Blissymbolics is a semantic graphical language that is currently composed of more than 5000 authorized symbols - Bliss-characters and Bliss-words. It is a generative language that allows its users to create new Bliss-words as needed. It is used by individuals with severe speech and physical impairments around the world, but also by others for language learning and support, or just for the fascination and joy of this unique language representation.

Simple shapes are used to keep the symbols easy and fast to draw and because both abstract and concrete levels of concepts can be represented, Blissymbolics can be applied both to children and adults and are appropriate for persons with a wide range of intellectual abilities.

The search on Blissymbols also led to an article about a study comparing them to manual symbols (such as sign language), which found that the 7- and 8-year-old children tested were able to learn and remember them equally well.

As I’ve been observing my 1-year-old granddaughter learning to communicate with signs over the past 9 months or so, I’m keen to find out whether we can teach her to communicate with Blissymbols as well, before she learns to speak understandably. I’ve been amazed at how well she can communicate with us with only 3 words but a dozen or more signs. I remember the frustration when my daughter was preverbal and couldn’t tell me what she needed or why she was upset, and I can imagine the difference it would make to communication with older children and adults who cannot speak understandably, or cannot use written words.

Blissymbols - milk and milkshake

Blissymbols - milk and milkshake



"On Off Symbol." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

"Unicorn Mercat Cross." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

"Committee to Protect Journalists." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

Blissymbolics Communication International

Learning of Blissymbols and Manual Signs, Diane Bristow and Macalyne Fristoe, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, v.49 Issue 2, May 1984 pp 145-151.


Fencing wire, haggis and ink

In the last couple of weeks I've attended three workshops and learned a few practical skills.


The Fencing workshop taught me how to tie a knot in fencing wire with just my bare hands (I always thought that required tools or super strong hands - it's just technique!) Actually my knot isn’t as neat as this.

The Regenerative Agriculture workshop taught me about planning for drought - and one of the useful things I’ve learned while figuring out a plan is that a sheep's stomach is (obvious when you think about it) the size of a haggis, which is about the size of a football - so if I imagine holding a football, that's how much a sheep eats in a day (though I suspect the sheep on the left eats more than she’s supposed to).


The Writing About Art workshop taught me to think about what I love most about the materials I use for making art - pens and ink. And about my drawings - how the first rough sketches are often the best, and the ones I draw with my left (non dominant) hand are even better, and surprising, because they come from my left brain.


Networking in Yass cafes

The Yass Valley Business Chamber kicked off the new year with a networking breakfast at Trader & Co, great coffee as always and plenty of interesting short talks by members. I’m looking forward to building relationships with other local business owners in Yass and the surrounding region.

Later at Tootsie Fine Art and Design, I caught up with my daughter Celeste who is our graphic designer and the owner of Celeste Ann Designs, and we had lunch while her little one admired the amazing mosaics and practised walking.

Accepting and rejecting your editor's changes the easy way

The Review tab in MS Word allows you and your editor to track changes, and view the document as it will appear if you accept all the changes. You can accept or reject the changes one at a time or all at once.

I have often worked with clients who ask me to make my changes ‘in red’ so they can see what I’ve changed. Changing the text colour to red and changing the font style to underlined or strikethrough, and then changing them back to normal style, is slow and tedious for both the editor and the client.

A much more efficient way is to use the Track Changes functions in Word. Here is a video showing how you can accept and reject your editor’s changes. This video is made using Word 2013 and another old article about Yass from the Trove collection (weather conditions in November 1855 were very similar to November 2018, with sun’s rays intense, the god of winds exerting himself unusually and blowing most pitifully).

Ask your editor to help you learn to use this and the other useful Review functions in Word, to speed up your workflow and communication with your editor.

Plain English and Australian usage

You may have been told you must write in plain English, or maybe you will just agree that it’s the best way to communicate with your chosen audience. Either way, you may need some help choosing appropriate words and phrases. This is especially important if you are writing instructions for other people to follow.

What is plain English?

Plain English is clear and accurate writing, in a natural style, and avoids the use of bureaucratic, longwinded and confusing language.

Learning to write in plain English

A great resource for learning how to write and communicate in plain English is the Oxford Guide to Plain English, which describes this ‘woolly term’ as:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.'

The Complete Plain Words, published by Penguin in 1987, also gives good explanations of how and why you should write clearly.

The Plain English Campaign was launched in Britain in 1979, and offers free online guides and other tools, including a gobbledegook generator.

Choosing the right words

The Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus are my first choice when I’m searching for the right word. I like to have a hardcopy edition but it’s well worth having a subscription to the online versions. However, a dictionary doesn’t always help us choose the best words to convey our meaning. There are many books that explain correct usage of words and phrases.

The two modern and specifically Australian references I find most useful are:

Right Words: A guide to English usage in Australia, by Stephen Murray-Smith, 2nd ed., Penguin, Ringwood, Vic 1990, is still an excellent reference. It explains the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, the difference in usage between words that are frequently confused, and common mistakes.

The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, by Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic, 2007, is a comprehensive guide that gives the facts about variants of language used in written Australian communication, and leaves it up to the reader to choose the most suitable. It compares Australian English with British, American and other varieties of English. It covers spelling, grammar, punctuation, the style and structure of language, and editorial style and formatting.

If you are writing for an American audience, Garner’s Modern American Usage by Brian A. Garner, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, is a useful guide.


Self publishing on Amazon with Kindle Direct Publishing

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is an Amazon self-publishing service. You can publish your books in digital and print for free and sell on Amazon to millions of readers. You can earn up to 70% royalty on Kindle eBook and 60% on paperback sales.

I used the CreateSpace platform to publish All the Safe Places: An Australian child’s war before CreateSpace combined with Kindle Direct Publishing. This no longer an option. I was able to order proof copies and author copies at cost, and I’m very happy with the quality.


Amazon says “CreateSpace is combining with Kindle Direct publishing (KDP), making KDP the single place to publish your print and digital books” and “KDP's print on demand service allows you to self-publish your book in paperback and sell it on Amazon websites in the US, Europe, and Japan, as well as other retail book sellers through KDP's Expanded Distribution channels. You don't have to pay any costs upfront or carry any inventory. Your book is printed on demand when customers purchase it.”

Ethics in editing seminar

Editors NSW, a branch of the Institute of Professional Editors, is about to hold its biennial seminar, and the topic is Ethics in Editing. I’ll be attending to learn more about dealing with ethical issues that may come up when quoting for a project or during the work itself.

I’m particularly interested in the discussion of ethical issues in life writing and children’s fiction.

Here’s an outline of the day’s presentations:

Third biennial Editors NSW Seminar: the ethics of editing
A variety of presenters through the day answer some of the questions of ethics which challenge editors both in their editing and their business practices.

  • Julie Ganner AE – Core values, blurry lines and the IPEd Code of Ethics

  • Sarah JH Fletcher – Fiction editing with an agenda

  • Dr Radhiah Chowdhury – Gut feelings and bias: editing children’s fiction sensitively

  • Dr Rhonda Daniels AE – The ethics of quoting

  • Melissa Faulkner – Editors and social media

  • Dr Juliet Richters AE – When is it cheating? Ethical dilemmas for the academic editor

  • Dr Rae Luckie – Ethical tightropes: editing life writing

The day concludes with a panel session answering questions from the audience.

Print on Demand with Amazon

I'm about to publish All the Safe Places as a print-on-demand paperback on Amazon. I've had it set up on Amazon's CreateSpace platform since I published the Kindle version but I had some formatting issues to sort out and have only just come back to fix them and publish the print version. I discovered that there is now another option - KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) has a beta version of a paperback print-on-demand platform, KDP Paperbacks. Wondering whether that would be a better option, I searched for answers among the Indie publishing blogs.

The consensus seems to be that it's too early to switch, but Create Space will eventually be removed. If you transfer a book you've published on CreateSpace over to KDP Paperback, it's deleted from CreateSpace.

The royalties are the same but you can't order at-cost proof copies and author copies, and there can be some technical problems if you're transferring a book that you've already created in Create Space. An advantage of KDP is that if you make changes to your print book on CreateSpace, the old version of the book is removed (which can affect sales and ranking) while KDP – both print and Kindle – keeps your old version up and available for purchase until the new version is approved. An author on the CreateSpace forums mentions that "I really like the efficiency of Createspace Customer Support. KDP you can't even contact by phone and usually not at all through other means. (In fact, I am not sure how to contact them)." Another wrote that "If you are happy with CreateSpace, stick around and don't fix what ain't broke. In any case, being a no-backing-out bleeding-edge beta-test guinea pig is not advised for people who care about their publishing venture."

So I'll be publishing this one in Create Space, and waiting until these issues have been sorted out before publishing anything on KDP Paperbacks.

An important issue is whether either platform will enable books to be printed and shipped from the new Amazon Australia warehouse. Here's what one blogger said about this: "There was no confirmation about the Australian store being added to either POD platform soon. The recent opening of Amazon fulfillment centers in both Australia and Japan though gives hope that eventually Amazon POD books will be added as well."

Here are links to some of the useful posts I found:

Amazon's explanation of the new service: Publish your paperback on KDP (Beta)

John Doppler: Should Authors Move From Createspace to KDP Paperbacks? A First Look

Gundi Gabrielle: CreateSpace vs KDP Print

The discussion on the CreateSpace Forum

How to use your Kindle Paperwhite to become a better writer

The Kindle Paperwhite has some features that can help you become a better writer, in an enjoyable and relatively effortless way. Other versions of Kindle or other devices may have these features, but the Kindle Paperwhite is the one I'm using.

Firstly, if you want to write well, you must read widely. Any ebook reader can help you there. The classics are available free or at a very low cost, and when you hear about an interesting new book you can often obtain it immediately. Don't just read the popular works, though - and do read books from the previous decades and even the previous century, if you are not already familiar with them. By doing so, you will automatically absorb correct grammar, sentence structure, spelling and a wide vocabulary. You will see words and phrases in context, and will be less likely to use them inappropriately.

The Kindle Paperwhite has a direct link to Amazon and to Goodreads, the book reviewing application, where you can review books you have read and see recommendations for similar books.

The next useful feature of a Kindle is the dictionary. You can choose from several dictionaries, for example the Oxford or the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Sadly, the Macquarie Dictionary, which is the standard for Australia, does not seem to be available on Amazon. For Australians, the next best option is the Oxford. Once you have chosen your dictionary (under Settings), when you press on a word the definition is displayed. Since this is so much more convenient than looking the word up online, or dragging out volume 3 of your hardcopy dictionary, you are much more likely to look up words you are not familiar with and find out the exact definition, rather than relying on guesswork.

The Kindle Paperwhite also offers to look the word up on Wikipedia, which may or may not be useful.

The new feature that is offered in the Kindle Paperwhite, which didn't exist in the Kindle Touch, is the Vocabulary Builder. If you have turned on this feature, every time you look up a word in the dictionary, it is added to the list of words you're learning in the Vocabulary Builder.

When you go to Vocabulary Builder, you will see the words you've looked up, and you can see the definition. You can also see the word in the context of the sentence from the book where you read it. Even if the dictionary didn't have a definition, the context may be enough to remind you of the meaning if you looked it up elsewhere (for example, on Google). In this way, you will increase your vocabulary in a fairly painless way. More importantly, you will be reminded of the context, by seeing the word in the sentence from the book you were reading. This will help you avoid the classic mistake of using a newly learned word in an inappropriate context. If you have chosen well-written books to read, you will see new words used in interesting ways. When you are confident that you know the new word and how to use it, you can select 'Mastered' and it will disappear from your wordlist.

All of these tools can also be used to learn or reinforce your knowledge of a foreign language.

By learning new words and the appropriate context for their use, you will become a better writer. By reading widely from the classics and the best modern literature, you will learn to write grammatically correct sentences. By increasing your vocabulary, you will be able to use vibrant language and avoid using cliches and jargon. All of these benefits can be obtained in snippets of time, on the bus, at lunchtime, or in the evening. You will become a better writer, confident in your knowledge of the English language.