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!

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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.

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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?

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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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Online Mentoring

It’s nice to know when this blog is working as intended. In addition to the readership, which has been growing steadily, one sign that I’m reaching my target audience is that I’m getting occasional emails from young people seeking career advice about entering the technical communication field. I just received another of those emails yesterday.

The young man who contacted me is working on a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in English and was asking about the utility of pursuing a graduate certificate in technical writing. He was also interested in any further advice I might have regarding improving his marketability in the job hunt. My response is below. If there’s one piece of advice I’d add, it would be to develop a solid network of peers, mentors, and professionals as you do your work well. Knowing a bunch of people doesn’t do you much good if they also know you to be a shoddy worker. Onward!

Good morning!

Okay, now that I’ve had sleep and some caffeine, I can respond a little more coherently.

So you want to be a professional technical writer. Good for you! I see that you “speak” C++ and Java. You’ve got an advantage over me, as I’m allergic to coding. X-) Given that advantage and your interests, I’d say you’ll be in a good position to find work in your chosen field, even without a technical writing certificate. The certificate wouldn’t hurt, I suppose, but you might want to check your career options before spending money on education you don’t need. I got a master’s degree in tech writing because I needed to prove to the rocket scientists that I was serious as a technical communicator, and writing letters for Disney World while having a B.A. in English Literature was not going to cut it.

Re: job hunting marketability

Start a portfolio of your projects–the good ones, of course–and polish up others that you can add to the mix to show that you have experience writing specific types of documents: design documents, technical requirements, interface descriptions, and so forth.

The big battle technical communicators are facing right now is that companies are still in a downsizing mood. They’d rather hire “an engineer who can write” rather than an English major with a flair for communicating clearly about technology. So, again, you’re ahead of me on that score. My day-job work for the last 8 years has been in a very narrow niche: technical and outreach writing for space and rocket propulsion engineering. The way I earned credibility in the aerospace field (besides getting the M.A.) was by doing a lot of extracurricular writing in my topic of choice, space exploration. So if you are looking for things to beef up your resume, I’d go in that direction. Is there a computer or coding club by you? Perhaps you could volunteer to help them write their documentation. Are there computer people or other techies who are trying to start a business? Find out if they need help writing their business plan. Diversity is helpful because it can lead to other work.

Most of my work is in proposal and marketing/outreach writing. I am not a documentation writer because that stuff bores me a little. I AM passionate about helping bright people get their messages out and their products/ideas sold. If I had one final bit of advice for you, it would be to get clear about what type of work you like to do. My blog is full of articles on such things, so I encourage you to review that as well. It covers anything from future markets for tech writing to what size company provides the best working environment. Speaking of the blog, I might post this note on my blog, since you’re not the first person to query me for advice. There are no big secrets here, so I hope you don’t mind.

Good luck to you, and keep me posted on your progress. Thanks again for contacting me.

Bart

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