The Mechanics of the Home Office

In this follow-up to my piece on the tools for working in a home office, I’ll talk a bit about businesses processes, which I’ve had to work out as I go, sometimes on my own, sometimes with input from others. At some point, I’ll discuss business development and acquiring clients, so bear with me as I continue to learn.

Tracking Your Finances

First, I’ll plagiarize myself and reiterate my last bullet point from the previous entry on things you need to run your business:

  • A business checking account and a method/place for storing receipts. The more business matters you handle with a dedicated business account, the easier you’ll have things come tax time…which, for the independent consultant, is once a quarter, when you file your estimated taxes. And you’ll want to save the receipts for the types of office supplies I mentioned above. Good luck with that.

As a one-person show, you’ve got to keep an eye on the business of your work, not just the work that is your business, if that makes sense. Remember Economics or Accounting 101? Income – expenses = profit. How are you to know if you’re making a profit if you don’t know how much you’ve taken in or how much you’re spending? The government will certainly want to know. If you’re not making a profit after three years, you don’t have a business, you’re practicing a hobby. At least that’s how the IRS sees it.

Now I’m a bit of an organization freak, but not to the point of organizing my receipts by date or keeping little note cards to accompany every little piece of paper. I do, however, keep all my business-related receipts in a single large envelope so I know where to find them.

Legitimate Business Expenses

This is as good a place as any to discuss the difference between legitimate vs. non-legitimate business expenses.

Legit:

  • Computer/peripherals.
  • Office supplies – and by office supplies I mean things that you normally use as office supplies. If you can make your accountant believe that you “need” a 72-inch flat-screen TV “to do research,” well, that’s your business.
  • Utilities (cable, phone, power) – It’s easier to do this if you have an actual office, separate from your home. However, the way it was explained to me is that you need to do some calculations of how much time/space you actually dedicate to your work activities and treat those as a percentage of your overall bills.
  • Parking and mileage for business meetings. And yes, you need to track your mileage. The current government rate for mileage (July 2014) is 56 cents per mile.
  • Business travel you pay out of your own pocket (as opposed to business travel picked up by a customer who has requested it and is paying–no double-dipping!).
  • Memberships/professional associations.
  • Wifi charges at remote locations/airports/hotels if you’re working.
  • Books/research materials that are work related.
  • Gifts for clients – I’m on the fence with this one. Gifts to clients aren’t necessary, just nice. However, while you can probably make a case for such things as marketing expenses, you’ll need to have room in the budget for them. And just a reminder: actual bribes are beyond the pale, no matter how carefully you itemize. Al Capone got put in jail for tax evasion and because his bookkeeper was just a little too good about keeping the records.

Not Legit

  • Vacations.
  • Leisure dining.
  • Clothes/dry cleaning – my finance person might disagree on this one, especially if you are required to wear a particular wardrobe to work with particular clients and you only wear that wardrobe on business.
  • Child care – this might be a deduction for your taxes. I’m the wrong guy to ask (SINK).
  • Groceries, toys, yard tools, etc…

Your smell test for legitimate vs. non-legitimate expenses should be, “Would I buy this for myself if I wasn’t working?” If the answer is no, it’s a business expense. If the answer is “maybe,” ask a tax accountant.

Tracking Invoices

First of all, you’ll need to create an invoice or receipt form. Or buy or download one. I use the invoice template from Microsoft Word, and I’ve modified it to meet my needs and the needs of particular clients. If you want to get fancy and make your own, here are some of the things your invoice will need to include:

  • Your name or your company’s name.
  • Invoice number.
  • Your business contact information (address, phone, email, fax).
  • The customer’s name.
  • The name of the job you worked on or the name of the product/service you provided.
  • If you’re tracking hours, include the number of hours and your hourly rate.
  • Sales tax, if applicable.
  • Date(s) when charges were incurred.
  • Payment terms – I use “NET 30,” which means that full payment is due within 30 days of the invoice date. You might choose other terms, but those should be stated up front so there aren’t any surprises for your customer/client.

I also maintain a spreadsheet of all my invoices, in numerical order. Aside from the invoice number, I track the customer name, invoice amount, whether it’s been sent or not, and whether the client has paid or not. This will help you with the income side of your tax equation.

Tracking Hours

Because I charge by the hour for most of my services (I’ll cover rates some other time, if I remember), I have to keep close tabs on my hours worked and for whom.

I’m certain there are programs you can buy that do all this for you. I’ve heard good things about Quick Books, for example, and I might purchase it at some point because it’s built for small businesses. However, if you’re a relatively organized person, you can create your own spreadsheets in a format that makes sense to you.

Finding a Business/Tax Advisor and Filing Your Taxes

I’m fortunate to have a friend who does both. If you don’t, talk to H&R Block or someone who’s a professional–unless you enjoy the prospect of filing estimated quarterly taxes on your own. However, it’s good to know someone who speaks business/taxes because they’re a much better resource than just referring to your friendly neighborhood English major who’s learning as he goes.

Freelance income is variable. Even if employers/customers are taking taxes out of your 1099s, you’re going to need to track your taxes and, if you have other, non-1099 income, file estimated taxes quarterly. Part of that also means you have to set aside money from your income to write that check to Uncle Sam, come the day. Your best bet is to take out whatever tax bracket you think you’ll be in, then double whatever you might have paid for FICA if you previously worked for an employer did that for you. Say you think you’ll be in the 28% tax bracket and got 3% taken out for FICA at your last employer. That means you’ll need to set aside 34% of your income to pay those taxes so you have the money on hand when the end of the quarter arrives (March 31, June 30, September 30, December 31). Lucky me, I live in a state without income tax; if you don’t, you get to do some additional math and file a state return as well.

Operations

Maintaining Office Hours

Now maybe you’re a seat-of-the-pants person who likes to work whenever the mood strikes her–staying up with the coyotes until 3 a.m. That’s great. However, odds are, your clients might be used to more traditional business hours. It’s important, then, to set some office hours. And, if possible, stick to them. As an entrepreneur, you’re really in business development mode all the time, you just don’t realize it. If a client calls you to consult about a project for more than a few minutes and it’s outside your regular business hours, log the time and charge for the time, especially if you’re being paid by the hour. You’re not in the business of doing favors. People are paying you for your brain.

Maintaining an Office Space

Having a dedicated office space in your home is important for a couple of different reasons. First, just like a regular office, it’s nice to know where all your stuff is and to have it all in once place. Second, as I noted above, if a particular room is being used as your home office space, that needs to be consistent so you can carve out a consistent percentage of your utilities for office use.

Plus, and maybe this is just me–it’s good not to work in the same place where you do everything else–sleep, cook, socialize, whatever. This can help put you into your work “head space” vs. your domestic mind. Just as you would with a regular office job, it’s important to try to put reasonable restrictions on what constitutes a reasonable interruption. If you have little people in the house, this can be especially difficult. Not being a parent, I can’t provide a lot of constructive advice; however, my brother-in-law has a home office, and my niece and nephew have learned not to bug him when he’s in the office with the door closed because “Daddy’s working,” so it can be done.

Depending on the sensitivity of your work and the potential for visitors, you also might need an office with an actual door. Just throwing it out there.

Miscellaneous

Notice I haven’t said anything here about dress code or office culture or security procedures? Those things are up to you. I happen to favor Hawaiian shirts and shorts if I’m not expected to be anywhere. However, if I’m going to visit with a client, I dig out the khakis and might or might not replace the Hawaiian shirt with a golf shirt (this is Florida, after all). The point being, you can be comfortable in whatever way that suits you. That’s one of the advantages of working from home. However, if you’re going to be face-to-face with a client, you’ll need to put in a little more effort–bed-head isn’t a good idea, even on video teleconferences. Of course if it’s voice-only, you could be in bathroom and fuzzy bunny slippers. I know of people who work from home but still put on a jacket and tie when doing a  business call to put them in the right frame of mind. Do what works for you, but remember that there are other people out there.

Being a morning person, I happen to believe that it’s important to get up at a regular time, shower, make myself breakfast, and get to work on a regular schedule–notice that I have regular “awake” time, if not exactly business hours listed on this site. Keeping yourself groomed and healthy helps with your attitude, so you need to take care of yourself so you have the energy and drive to keep yourself motivated.

And if you’re tired from working from home because all that quiet time (or loud time with the kids) is getting to you, you might try coworking. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the last decade, but basically it’s an environment where you pay by the day, week, or month to have an off-site work space. This gives you the opportunity to talk to people without the burden of actually working for anyone but yourself. Of course if a social space doesn’t work when you need to concentrate, don’t go that day. That’s one advantage of the freelancing lifestyle.

Self-Discipline

One last thought: if you’re working from home, you no doubt believe you can do so reliably. If you need the motivation of someone standing over you, perhaps working from home isn’t for you. But if you’re self-propelled, this means you can continue to deliver your work on time and with a quality that others are willing to pay you to do it regardless of where you work. The trick is to keep yourself motivated and organized for success.

Posted in clients, consulting, freelancing, meetings, personal, technical writing, travel, workplace | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Logistics of the Home Office

I am now seven months into this freelancing thing. I’m doing well if by “doing well” one means that I’m paying the bills and trying to sock away a little money for the day when I am no longer working out of coffee shops or someone else’s house. This  essay will discuss the materials one needs for a home office.

Now I admit I have no idea what your particular working circumstances are. You might live in the city, the suburbs, or a cabin in the woods that has wifi (if that last one, could I visit?). However, I’m just going to have to make a few assumptions about what you can or can’t afford to do. What follows is what I consider a list of “minimums” to function on your own in a home office.

The Stuff

So what does one need to operate a functioning technical writer’s office away from corporate America? Obviously your needs will vary, but here are mine:

  • Computer Hardware, Software, and Internet Access. Obviously you need this stuff, or you wouldn’t be able to do your work or read this entertaining blog, right? Notice I didn’t say which type of computer to get. If you want to read about the comparative virtues and vices of the Mac-vs.-PC debate, see my thoughts here. What I will say is that you should try to work with a computer that less than five years old, has the memory and RAM to run and remember all the things you do. To stay in touch with customers, job opportunities, and your favorite websites, you’ll need internet access, preferably some sort of broadband access–dial-up is nearly dead. A printer is a good but not absolutely necessary thing. I’m doing less and less in hard copy and only print things when I want to keep them around, hand them out (such as my marketing flyer), or if I’m tired of looking at a glowing screen. As for software, yes, you Microsoft haters out there are going to need MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to support most technical writing customers. You might get away with using the Open Office products, but you’ll be missing a lot of the functionality. If you want to get fancy and can afford it, you can go with the full Adobe suite, including FrameMaker. You’ll need a reliable email provider and a professional-sounding email address–or even your own domain!
  • Backup. I need to do this, and plan to do so when a couple more invoices get paid. I’m not gung-ho to trust “the cloud” to protect everything, but I suppose that’s one option. At the very least, you need to save and back up your work products somewhere other than your hard drive. They have external hard drives that can save one terabyte of information. Unless you’re making or saving digital movies on the scale of Star Wars, you’re probably safe with that. Word documents don’t take up a lot of room. But really, I live in Central Florida, Lightning Capital of the United States. You’d think I’d have a backup by now. Seriously, I just added that to my to-do list (see below).
  • A method for organizing your work. This could come in many forms, but if you are supporting multiple clients with overlapping deadlines, you will NEED to be organized. If you think you can rely on your memory for everything, you’re wrong. Something will slip through the cracks, and you’ll miss a deadline or lose something. Trust me on this. I have a good memory (as Bill Cosby once said, “This is the same child my wife sends with me whenever I’m going out somewhere”), but I had organization forced on me after I had to confess to a customer that I’d just plain forgotten something and missed a deadline. Ouch. Don’t be that guy/gal. I harp on this quite a bit now because I developed my own system(s) for tracking my work (read here and here). My good friend Dauna is a Post-It Note user. Her desk makes me crazy, with its random bits of paper everywhere, but she gets things done because she has those pieces of paper there. As it happens, I have several overlapping systems to keep myself on the ball:
    • Smart Phone: Calendar, reminder list, business calls.
    • Excel spreadsheets: Invoice tracking, hours tracking.
    • Filing system: My computer drive is organized by customer, then projects, and there’s a separate folder for invoices and other customer-related paperwork (W-9, Non-disclosure Agreements, etc.).
    • Google Drive/DropBox: Depending on the customer, shared documents are posted to one of these “cloud” resources so everyone has the same shared data they need to keep things in line.

    Too OCD for you? Well, you don’t have to do ALL of the above, but if you’re going to be a freelance business person, you’re going to have a lot to track, and wouldn’t it be a shame if you missed a deadline (or an invoice!) because you just plain forgot to write it down or file it somewhere?

  • Good pens. If you don’t believe in paper and pen anymore, skip this part. However, if you still like writing things down in analog fashion on paper, continue reading. Once I figured I could call myself a legitimate writing professional, I decided that I should do better than the Bic pens I bought by the dozen at the supermarket…or grabbing pens from the office or hotel rooms. I was accidentally introduced to my favorite writing utensil when someone loaned me theirs. Now I am not usually a huge fan of product endorsements, but this one is long overdue. I just love working with the Uni-Ball Vision Elite Medium Point pens. The ink line is bold and consistent and comes in black and blue-black, which I prefer just because it’s different. They cost about $10 for a pack of four, and most likely you’ll have to go to Office Depot or Staples to find them, but they’re worth it. They are costly enough that you’ll keep track of them but not so dear that you’ll freak out if you lose one (“Oh $%&#, where’s my Mont Blanc?!??”). Why do you need good pens? Do you go to meetings? Do you take a lot of notes? Do you want to be able to read what you wrote later? Do you dislike ink clumps on your pages? Yeah, get some good pens.
  • Envelopes and stamps. There are still times when you need to use paper envelopes, usually #10 Legal envelopes (the ones that are security-printed on the inside are better) and maybe some 9X12″ Manila envelopes for sending full documents. Your customer might require you to send things via overnight letter, in which case you could charge the expense to them, set up your own account, or just pay out of pocket, the last two options being legitimate business expenses.
  • Business cards.  Business cards are still a common medium of exchange, especially at conferences or other events. Or, say you’ve been chatting up someone in line at the grocery store. That’d be a great time to provide a reminder for them about your services. Office Depot and other printing companies have good templates online, which allow you to customize your card’s paper type (thick or thin, shiny or matte), shape (squared or rounded), and of course your critical business information and a tagline, if you prefer. I also added a “Notes” feature to the back of mine, which many folks appreciate so they can write down any information that reminds them why they want to contact you. (Piece of useful trivia: a friend pointed out that horizontally oriented/”landscape” cards work better than vertical cards if you’re working with a Japanese client.)
    Business Card Front and Back
  • A business checking account and a method/place for storing receipts. The more business matters you handle with a dedicated business account, the easier you’ll have things come tax time…which, for the independent consultant, is once a quarter, when you file your estimated taxes. And you’ll want to save the receipts for the types of office supplies I mentioned above. Good luck with that.

Pretty much anything else is optional. For instance, I have my own dry-erase board and markers because I remember things better when they’re staring me down day after day. I have a journal, which is part diary, part business note-taking repository–that item is necessary to ME because I have a habit of writing things down–however I don’t have a Franklin Covey planner because that system doesn’t work for me. I have a stapler to keep together documents and receipts. Somewhere in my storage unit I have a bunch of desk stuff that seemed useful at the time but which I’ve managed to live without for seven months, so I consider that a lesson in simplifying my life.

In future entries, I’ll discuss other aspects of the home office, from business practices to actual office setup. And, of course, if my readers have specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Meanwhile, best of luck to those of you contemplating, starting, or living the freelance life!

Posted in consulting, freelancing, personal, Technology, workplace | Leave a comment

That Is All

Grumpy Hero

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Book Review: How the World Sees You

I’m a big fan of personality tests. This is a side effect of being introverted and spending a great deal of time trying to figure out what makes me tick. Ideally, some of the insights I gather help me make be a better person and communicator. What makes How the World Sees You by Sally Hogshead interesting and worth posting in the professional blog is its focus on personal behavior and marketing.

HowtheWorldSeesYouLet’s begin with the basics: Ms. Hogshead is a marketing and advertising person, not a clinical psychologist, though I suppose a marketing practitioner qualifies as a practical psychologist. She has spent her career learning what makes people tick so she can help companies and organizations establish their brand through advertising and marketing campaigns. Eventually she formed her own organization and started doing consulting to help individuals develop their own personal brand.

What the heck do we mean by brand, anyway, and why should we as individual technical communicators even bother acquiring one? I’m a freelancer now, so I’m more or less forced into it, but what if you’re working in a company? I’m an introvert–is all that hoopla really necessary?

I’ll take my own shot at describing “brand” based on my time with the Walt Disney World Resort and NASA, two of the most brand-conscious organizations in the world. Brand is the totality of how a company presents itself to the world: name, logo, culture, tag lines, advertising look/feel, stationery, trademarks, employee behavior codes, intellectual property, and corporate “voice.” Ideally, all of these things have a common thread of themes: philosophical, visual, and personal. Disney is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Its marketing efforts strive to convey “magical” family-friendly entertainment and experiences. NASA’s brand is one of serious scientific and engineering virtuosity as well as wonderment in the context of observing and exploring the universe. Both Disney and NASA strive constantly to maintain and protect their brand from becoming diluted or attached to activities that don’t match that integrated image. Other recognizable brands are also out there, such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Apple, and Southwest Airlines.

I mentioned those particular organizations because they set themselves apart–not just because of quality of the things they do, but because they have a clearly defined sense of why they are different from others. Returning to How the World Sees You, Sally Hogshead argues that individuals need to be equally conscious of their personal “brand,” how others perceive their personal differences, and how they can leverage their personal differences/brand to stand out in the workplace.

I’d put it more bluntly: you need a personal brand to help you answer the following questions:

  • From a potential client: “Why should I use your services?”
  • From an interviewer: “Why should I hire you?”
  • From a leader at an annual review: “How do you think you’ve been contributing to this organization?”

Hogshead’s system is slightly different from the Strengths Finder 2.0 approach used at my former employer, where the emphasis is on an individual’s particular high-level business skill set. These are the sorts of skills or abilities that help you clarify how you add specific value (for example, I’m supposed to be strong on being Strategic, Learner, Activator, Individualization, and Achiever strengths).

How the World Sees You emphasizes a set of seven “Fascination” principles, the sorts of things about an individual that might make them captivating from a marketing and communication style point of view–in other words, not just how you add value, but how you captivate others in a working environment. The seven principles are: Innovation, Passion, Power, Prestige, Trust, Mystique, and Alert.

Fascinating
Usually you take the book’s personality assessment in the course of reading it. I caught a break by getting an opportunity to take the assessment for free through an early-look link from another consultant-author, Pamela Slim. I still bought the book, but you can go online and pay for the assessment and report alone. Regardless of when you take the assessment, though, you receive a pretty thorough report on your “Personality Archetype,” the way Hogshead helps individuals identify their marketing/branding strengths. The archetypes are depicted on a 7X7 grid, with your Primary Advantage on one axis and your Secondary Advantage on another. I came out with a primary Trust advantage and a secondary Mystique advantage, which makes my Archetype “The Anchor,” not someone who drags everyone down, but someone upon whom an organization depends because they tend to be protective, purposeful, and analytical.

Once the reader goes through the assessment exercise, they’re ready to learn how they fit in the individual branding world and how they can create their own personal “brand” to focus their efforts and others’ perceptions. Ideally you come out with a two- or three-word tag line to crystallize your personal style. I ended up with “Analytical Communication,” but quite frankly, I’ve been quite happy with “Heroic Technical Writing,” so I’m going to keep that brand, if that’s okay with my readers. However, the book did prompt me to explain my blog/business brand better:

What is “heroic” technical writing? That means I want to understand what you do and to help you communicate that in the best way possible so your idea wins the day.

If you read deeply enough into the Anchor Archetype, you realize that the above statement is within character, as the Anchor looks to protect and safeguard the interests of whatever he or she is doing–which is the point of a hero, right?

So is this book worth picking up and reading/using for yourself? I believe so. Perhaps the most positive message from the book is Hogshead’s belief that you will succeed by best focusing on what makes you different from others–not necessarily better. I’ve shared a lot here, but I don’t think the author will mind. There are a lot of insights Hogshead provides over the course of the book, and I have by no means covered all of them. The text is a bit weighty, coming in at 428 pages, mostly because it provides descriptions and coaching tips for each of the 49 archetypes. However, being able to state clearly who you (and your coworkers) are and explain how you add value are important to explaining why someone should hire you, buy from you, or keep you employed.

Posted in consulting, marketing, personal, philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Strategic Planning for the Freelance Technical Writer

I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve been winging it on this freelancing thing for six months or so. And by “winging it,” I mean that to obtain work, I’ve primarily operated within my comfort zone. What that means in practical terms is that I’ve worked with people or industries I know. It’s a reasonable and practical way to pursue work, but what if that’s not enough? That’s when I decided to knuckle down and develop a strategic plan for myself under the assumption that my current network and lines of business will not work.

I shared my planning template with a friend and figured, what the heck, my blog readers might have some use for it, too. I was inspired to write this, in part, after reading Sally Hogshead’s How to Fascinate web page, which provides insights on how others see you. I highly encourage you to visit that site as well. Use the following as you see fit.

Big Picture

My SWOT

Marketing and business development people like the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) quad chart. It’s a good starting point for assessing where you or your organization is, business-wise.

For this table, you need to look honestly at how you approach the marketplace with your particular set of skills. Strengths and weaknesses are pretty straightforward. Opportunities are places/industries where you might apply your strengths/skills. Threats are people, other businesses, or situations that might get in the way of you getting the career you want.

Strengths Weaknesses
Opportunities Threats

I add value by…

List the top 3-5 things you’re good at or why you are good at what you do. This is your personal “value proposition,” the reason others will hire you over someone else.

I provide the following services…

What specific tasks do you perform at your current job? If those tasks are irrelevant to your “dream career/job,” what sorts of things can you do that you would like to get paid for? Even better—go wild and conjure up a list of things you’d do for free just because they’re fun.

I work best with:

This is where you think about your ideal work environment:

  • Location (Close to home/kids? Suburbs? City?)
  • Company/team size (Big company? Small business? Do you work alone or with a group?)
  • Work content (in what type of industry are you and “your kind of people” working?)
  • Operational culture (Are you a neckties-and-dresses kind of person or khakis and gym shoes? How do people behave in your ideal workplace? What does the work location look like? What does your work space look like?)
  • People (Educated? “People” people? What do they have in common? What makes them different?)

I will find my ideal job/clients by…

If you know where you want to go, then all you need to do is figure out where People Who Want to Hire You will be.

I will obtain a steady (or sufficient) income by pursuing the following strategies/tactics…

This was a blurb I added for myself because I’m trying to freelance. It’s the action side of the previous question: “Okay, I know who I want to work for/with, and where I can find them; here’s how I’ll go about getting their attention.”

My elevator pitch will be…

This is the very short version of “Why should someone hire me?” Assume you’ve got to make an impression with someone you want to work with and you meet them in an elevator. You can’t freeze up—you have to know what you’ll say. Here’s mine:

  • “I’m the writer that entrepreneurial engineering firms call if they need a lot of new, complex information synthesized quickly and clearly. I’m interested in helping communicating about the products and services of the future.”

Resources

Website links that provide a starting point for the types of careers, companies, or work you want to pursue.

Is this a full-fledged, business-ready strategic plan? Maybe not, but it’s a lot better than winging it, right?

Posted in careers, clients, freelancing, job hunting, personal, technical writing, workplace | Tagged , | 1 Comment

When is Quiet Too Quiet?

If you ask me, I’ll happily tell you I’m an introvert. So will my friends, who don’t see me very often. Working from home is one of the best environments for an introvert seeking a quiet workplace. However, occasionally there are downsides. It can get lonely on occasion, even for people most comfortable working alone.

The primary problem with working from home (for me) is the loss of regular social contact. When I’m on a roll, there’s nothing like uninterrupted time to get things done. But when things slack off, it’s just me in the empty room. Alone-time is fine. Loneliness is a morale killer. It can make you think you need to stay “home alone” all the time and suffer in silence. I’ve learned to do something about this for my own well being.

Call somebody and talk. Just because you’ve left the traditional workplace doesn’t mean you can’t contact your friends or colleagues. I don’t mean call at random and interrupt someone’s day…after all, they’re working too. Or wait until after work hours. But instead of sending an email to ask a question, pick up that smart phone and actually speak to a human being. You might get the answer in less time via text or email, but you miss that essential human contact.

Get out of the house/apartment and be among people. If you’re working from home, it’s probably because you wanted the flexibility of setting your own schedule. It’s time to take advantage of that arrangement and schedule some time to get out and interact with people. It might be as simple as lunch with a friend or family member or going to the grocery store or the book store. And odds are, you have the advantage of flexibility when it comes to time and location because you aren’t locked up in meetings all the time.

Tell people how you’re feeling. That’s what family and friends are for, right? Sometimes it feels better just to get the feelings off your chest. (Note: If your healthcare plan covers mental health and you feel you’re desperate, arrange to talk to a professional.) Your personal care and feeding matter because the same brain you use to write the world’s greatest prose is also the same brain that gets lonely or overwhelmed sometimes. Odds are, if you’re emotionally stressed or depressed, the writing part of your brain isn’t operating at peak efficiency, either.

Seek out partnering opportunities. Just because you’ve lost the resources that come readily with working in an office does not mean that you have lost all ties. As a nontraditional worker, you have the opportunity and the need to create an alternative network to the traditional boss, administrative assistants, subject matter experts, and peer group that come with a typical office day job. For example, I am not particularly artistic when it comes to graphic design. But say I have a project that requires some graphic design help–a brochure, for instance. My customer might or might not have a graphic designer, but if I know someone whose work I trust and (more importantly) someone I like to work with, I can propose his or her services when I bid for the job.

Network. I know: if you’re an introvert reading this, you probably think that networking is a pain. It’s difficult, especially if you’re not particularly good at small talk. However, if you have a hobby (and for gosh sakes, if you don’t, start one), chances are that there’s a gathering for people with similar interests. For me, that’s space exploration, so it’s relatively easy for me to find space-related gatherings. A space conference is the sort of thing I’d attend in my free time even if I wasn’t getting paid for it because the topic interests me. And if you’re in an environment where the content is interesting, you’ll be much more comfortable and likely to chat with people at the event. Having started that conversation, you can gently segue into talking about work.

And here’s the important thing: you don’t ask people point-blank for a job. The more roundabout thing to do is to ask if they know anyone who has work. That allows the person you’re asking to respond, without discomfort, “No, but I will keep my eye open for you” or “No, but I believe So-and-so was looking for a writer.” At which point you can ask for an introduction. But yes, you need to talk to people–how much better is it if you’re talking to people who share a common interest!

Take care of yourself. Yes, it often seems like you’re an “army of one,” but that need not be the case. You have the freedom of movement that comes with a freelance work style. Take advantage of it.

(Additional Note: It occurred to me after I hit the “Publish” button that one might seek help from one’s spouse or significant other. Lacking said spouse or S.O., I wrote this post accordingly. I’ll leave it to others to provide advice on that.  :) )

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Thinking About Research

I’ve touched on research before, but it’s always a topic worth revisiting. As a technical writer, I’m constantly exposed to new topics, which require me to expand my field of knowledge. Occasionally I have to apply a system to what I do or invent a new system for a new field.

“Drinking from the fire hose” is usually the first step in any topic I have to learn. I look at the list of questions I have to answer and the issues I have to cover. If the topic is completely off the radar, I might be asking myself fundamental questions:

  • What are the primary definitions/subtopics that I need to know?
  • How does this idea/product function?
  • How does this topic relate to information I already know?
  • What are the other keywords associated with this topic?
  • Once I understand the landscape, how do I organizemy topic?

Starting Points

I’m going to cause a lot of folks–especially university professors–to cringe, but I’m coming to appreciate Wikipedia.org as a first stop for research…not as a primary or even secondary listed source (unless your project invites informality). However, Wikipedia serves as a great starting place to get the big picture and basic definitions, especially on technical topics. Wikipedia becomes a problem on controversial or current topics because “the jury is still out” or because the Wikipedia judges have locked down the topic because too many conflicting opinions are flooding the wiki space.

Wikipedia has one saving grace: the references at the bottom of the page. Wikipedia entry writers must provide reputable sources for their content. Those are the places to go when you want more authoritative content.

Beyond Wikipedia, you’ve got your sources: textbooks, websites, subject matter experts, and so forth. You’ve got to absorb a lot of information, usually in a very short time.

Bringing Order to Chaos

Okay, so you’ve answered the basic questions (“What is it?” and “How do things fit?”). Your next task is to corral the topic into more manageable chunks. I’ve covered this subject elsewhere at the link cited above, but the primary think to remember about your topic is that what you write should be organized based on the nature of the topic itself. If you’re covering something that’s a physical object, it can be organized by its physical attributes or functions. If you’re covering a process, you can organize it by the order it which it happens or the functions from which it’s comprised.

Telling Your Story

When you start writing, another issue that’s important is having a “story line” in your head. I don’t mean turning a technical manual or research report into War and Peace. However, stories have a flow to them that people understand. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have a message. They have characters (the users). They have settings.

Another thing that can help the writer of technical content can do is organize it by analogy from another field. Could an analogy from the human body or other aspect of nature be used to explain a business’s operating systems? Or, working backward, are there technological analogies that could be used to explain a biological process? This sort of analogy, if it’s common or familiar to your readers, can also help them understand your content.

It seems obvious, but your final writing product should mirror research process. You start with the basics and work down to the details in whatever fashion makes the most sense to you. If your research process is scattered or disordered, your final document can end up that way, too. (One caveat: I’m very process-oriented when I research, working from the big picture to the small. Not everyone works the same way, and the content can still come out with content that’s organized.)

Happy researching!

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