Repost: “When your nonfiction book idea is stuck in the mud”

Dovetailing neatly with my recent post Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?, there’s a lovely post about nonfiction book ideas entitled “When your nonfiction book idea is stuck in the mud.” This is on the WOW! (Women on Writing) blog, which you should check out.

How to Hire a Winner: Assembling a Team of Great People

Hiring the right people is always a challenge for any of us. We’ve all hired people who looked good but who failed dramatically. We’ve similarly hired people who looked marginal and who then went on to become stars. This article gives you the secret to consistently hiring people who are star performers.

Bob, my mentor, ran a Tech Pubs department at a high-tech hardware company in the greater Seattle area for 15 years. After his first 5 years there, he noticed that some people didn’t work out and others did, and he started experimenting with his hiring practices to figure out what was the right thing to do. After another 5 years, he had isolated the element that made people work out. He started hiring based on this factor and, by the time he left, he had a powerhouse team.

What Bob described he was looking for was an attitude that he dubbed “being a winner.” Being a winner had two elements:

First, winners get the job done. All of us have blown deadlines at one time or another. There are always lots of reasons for not getting a project done on time, but the bottom line is that the job didn’t get done. Winners, on the other hand, get the job done. They make their deadlines.

Second, and equally important, winners inspire others around them to get the job done, too. This part matters. Screamers and bullies can get the job done by beating on everyone until they get the job done, but their ability to continually get people to do a job this way is limited. Having experienced this once or twice, people will avoid working with people who get the job done at everyone else’s expense. They’ll tell them “no” or quit and go elsewhere. Winners instill enthusiasm in their co-workers. (“Enthusiasm” is from the Greek entheos, “to have the God within one.”)They inspire the people around them to get things done. They are exothermic.

Bob says that during his 5 years of research (and his subsequent 5 years of validation for his theory), he found that being a winner counted for 60% of the ability necessary. Everything else–education, experience, training, certificates, writing ability, technical knowledge–were collectively worth the other 40%. Bob says that he found that he could teach people all the other things, but being a winner was not something he could teach. Hanging out with other winners would light the fire in people and move them forward, but it was best to start with winners.

Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?

In a recent post, I described how you don’t need to have an idea to get a book. Yes, it can help, but it’s not necessary; there are plenty of books floating around publishers that need an author to have them assigned to. Easily half of my first dozen books were assigned to me by the acquisitions editors I was working with. They’d suggest ideas for books to me. Some of the ideas I said “No” to: I don’t know enough about programming to write programming books, for example. Others just didn’t grab me or didn’t grab me enough with respect to some of the other projects available to me at the time.

But let’s suppose you like an idea that’s been lofted by the ack ed and want to pursue it. They ask you for a proposal, you say “Yes,” they hang up, and you suddenly realize that you don’t really know the product or the software or whatever very well. Are you doomed? No, probably not. And unless you’ve gotten yourself into completely deep water far out of sight of land, chances are that you’ll be okay.

What you’re going to be doing is writing to learn, as William Zinsser described it in his book of the same name. (I recommend that you buy a copy of this and read it, btw. Zinsser’s books are very approachable and really quite entertaining.) You won’t know a great deal about the topic when you start, but you’ll learn an awful lot as you write the book.

My technique for writing on a topic that I don’t know much about is to take it apart and figure out what skill sets I need to master it. Once I’ve gotten the skill sets identified for the topic, I match my skill sets with the skill sets for the topic and do my best to “surround” it. I then start making connections to the remaining skills I need. In the case of software, I frequently will find that I have most of the skills necessary to use the software, but need some conceptual knowledge and a chance to play with the software to get an idea of what I’m doing. (Picking up software quickly has been an essential ability for me.)

Here’s another place where networking is going to help you: it’s a good idea to cultivate friends who know things you don’t so when you have a question or need someone to give you a quick rundown, they’re able to help. And never discount the wealth of resources on the Internet: look for training materials, exercises, documents, and FAQs. Many colleges post their course materials online. Googling for the topic plus “training” or “classes” can produce a surprising number of relevant hits.

You may not realize it, but you’re already writing to learn. If you write technical manuals or magazine articles, chances are that you’ve written about something you didn’t know everything about when you began. You might have known the previous version of whatever or the topic your article was about, but your research and experimentation filled in the holes in your knowledge. That’s writing to learn, too!

As I’m building the outline for something I don’t know very well, I rely on the structure presented in other books, in training materials, and anything else I can find to get an idea of the structure I want for the book. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever run into something that has the same outline and flow that I’d like to use for a topic.

Writing to learn may sound risky. It’s certainly more work than writing about something you’ve already mastered. But it lets you write a book and stretch yourself intellectually while doing so. There isn’t nearly as much risk as you might think, either. You’ll have an early measure of your ability to do this for a given topic: how well you do on your proposal. When you’ve created the detailed outline, you’ll have a feeling for what you can and can’t do. You can then make plans to fill in the holes in the outline and your knowledge.

On the other hand, if the topic’s too far afield and you can’t gain enough knowledge to feel comfortable, the proposal simply won’t happen. The proposal’s kind of a safety release in that way: if you can’t figure out enough of the material to create a good proposal, then you couldn’t possibly create a good book. In that case, apologize to your ack ed and say that you just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic to do well. It’s possible that your ack ed may nevertheless feel that the topic is something you can master (and they can give you some pointers on what you need to learn specifically) or that you might do well with a co-author who’s got product knowledge but lacks your writing skills… in which case, you’ll learn a lot about the product from working with an expert.

Writing to learn works. It takes some extra effort, but if you think about it, chances are you’ve already been doing it for a lot of other writing assignments.

“But what do I write about?”

I’m finally past the hump of having been to South by Southwest, getting home, and unpacking. Life’s been busy with learning how to get a book listed on Amazon and other busynesses, but I’m able to at last turn my attention back to the blog.

One of the many great things I attended while I was at South by Southwest was a party put on by Peachpit Press. Peachpit is a wonderful company that’s been in business for about 25 years. They’re based in Berkeley. Peachpit focuses on smaller technical books that are incredibly well-designed, short, and informative. I’ve never been dissatisfied with any Peachpit book I’ve read. I had the honor of writing two books for Peachpit 20 years ago, too. They’re lovely people to work with.

While I was at their party, I was chatting with a new author who’s written one book and really enjoys it. He was saying that he’d like to write more books but he wasn’t sure what to write about. It sounded like a blog topic and I said as much to him. (I touched on this briefly in an early blog post, but there’s more to be said.) The question is “Do need an idea to become an author?” The answer is “no, not necessarily.” Here’s why:

Many people have the technical skill to be an author and know that they’d like to get into this silly business; their problem is that they’re not sure what to write about. You can still identify general topics you’d like to write about and personal strengths in your writing. Even if this doesn’t point you at a specific set of topics to write about, it’ll help narrow the field. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I do very well writing books about computer and software basics, stuff for the 1st– and 2nd-tier users. I wouldn’t do nearly as well for the senior developer because I don’t think I have enough coding knowledge these days… although I might be able to co-author a book on that topic with an author who does have the technical chops to do coding examples and so on. I also know that I’ve got a long history of co-authoring books and I rather like that. I have even batted clean-up in a few cases: gone in to pick up a project that someone else had been working on and had gotten jammed up and couldn’t work on anymore. All of these things go on my list.

With this in mind, I pitch an acquisitions editor saying that I can do all of this nifty keen things and does s/he have a project that needs an author. And you know… sometimes, they do. It’s easiest to approach a publisher if you have a book proposal in hand about a specific topic, but it’s also true that publishers will have ideas for books lying around on their desks that don’t have authors assigned to them. My very first book happened that way, in fact: I had pitched one book and they didn’t like it, but they said “Stick around, kid, we wanna work with you. How’d you like to write a book on Word?” Sure, what the heck? And lo! I became an author shortly thereafter.

If you want to try this bookwriting stuff out but you don’t have an idea in mind, don’t despair. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Add whatever other skills you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author.

So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. The publisher will be able to aim you in the right direction for the project they have in mind. They might say “Hmmm… I need a proposal on a book about muckle manufacturing in Lower Slobbovia by Thursday” and if you want to take a crack at it, you can grab that book template off the blog here and whip one out. They’ve provided you the basic idea and will tell you who they want you to write it for and how; all you have to do is figure out how you’re going to do that and write it. (Simple, huh?)

Do you need an idea to become an author? Nope. It may make it easier to get in the door, but it’s more important to be able to write and know where your strengths lie. Everything else you may end up making up as you go along.

Why self-publishing may be a good idea

I recently got an interesting email from someone in a Linkedin writers’ group. He asked met about the value of self-publishing:

I am of two minds about self-publishing. On the one hand, I can’t get away from the idea of the “vanity press,” which meant little more than a bindery service, where you ended up with a garage full of books you had to market (usually to unsuspecting friends and family). And the idea of paying someone to publish me, instead of the other way around, is also a tough pill to swallow.

On the other hand, members of this and other groups praise the idea highly. And the writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in her blog, has done a complete 180-degree turnaround on the issue in about a year, and now sees it as the next wave of publishing and distribution. So I don’t know what to think.

Have you made a profit, or at least earned back your initial investment? Are your ideas getting exposure? How much of your own publicity have you had to do?

I really liked this. I used to also not be a fan of self-publishing, not because it was bad somehow, but there was a ton of work to be done with it and I didn’t see how to do the marketing and distribution. But thankfully, the Internet has changed all that.

As with almost everything else I do with writing and publishing, my reasons for self-publishing the current book are economic: I stand to make a bunch more money doing the book myself.

The current book is technical, dealing with a software product. If I went with a standard publisher of this kind of technical book, I’d need to show them that this book was likely to generate at least 8-10K sales in 18-24 months. I can’t do that; I’m thinking that I’ll probably sell 2000 copies in that time (based on the marketing information, the phase of the moon, and that Seven of Clubs you have in your hand). That’s just not worth it to a standard publisher. But even if I *COULD* generate that many sales (and I’d be glad to be wrong), the economics wouldn’t be worth it for me: I’d make, oh, $1.50-$2.00/copy for a potential total of $15,000-$20,000. That’s not a lot of money for the 4 months of work getting this out, even assuming I was able to sell that many copies.

Now, let’s look at self-publishing. For this particular book, I’m going to be handling the printing myself with a standard printer, rather than POD through Lulu or the like. (I’m also looking at ebook options, but go with me on the idea of printing because it’s a fixed cost.) Quotes that I’ve received are $6900 delivered for 2000 copies of a standard 9″ x 7″ trade paperback. Adding in all the other costs I’m incurring and my cost of goods will probably be about $5/copy. My sales price for this book is going to be $39.95 initially and $49.95 six months down the road.

If I sell all 2000 copies at the initial price, I’ll make $80,000, less the $10K this is all going to cost me to set everything up, for a gross revenue of $70,000 for four months work. In addition, part of my effort has been setting up a publishing company, Double Tall Press, to go along with all of this, so I’ll have a publishing venue of my very own with website, logos, brand, and so on. (The website has a placeholder at With luck, I’ll have a draft of my new website there very soon.)

Marketing for this book will be something handled largely through the company whose product I’m writing about, as it inures massively to their benefit to have this book out there. Future scheduled books have different marketing requirements that I’m addressing appropriately for each one.

Vanity presses are vanity presses, without a doubt, whether they’re classic printers or they’re online POD houses. But self-publishing can definitely work out for you.

It’s always feast or famine

Suppose you’re writing a book, any book. That’s wonderful, but remember that unless you have a really fat advance, you’re not going to be making money while you write the book. If you can spit a book out in 3-4 months, you’ll probably not deplete your savings too badly, but you’re going to want to have something lined up you can leap on when you’re done.

Let’s further suppose that another writing contract heaves into view. It doesn’t matter what, but it represents real money that you can use to refill the savings and pay off the miscellaneous expenses that you’ve ~a-hem~ been putting on a credit card. And that’s really good, too.

The only problem is getting the timing to work out right. Can you predict accurately to the day, or even the week, when the book is going to be done? No, probably not. You can certainly set yourself deadlines and push yourself to achieve them and you may, but writing a book is not the easiest thing in the world to estimate. Even more so, you may be picking things up as you go (as Bill Zinsser describes it, “writing to learn“), making it that much harder to identify parts of your process. You’ll be enriched and enlightened by what you discover, but the chances are very good that you’ll see at least one delay as a result of your educational process.

Or even worse for your schedule, what if the new gig comes in so that it overlaps the last few weeks of your book writing schedule? The new gig may be another great book, a long-term writing contract at $60/hour, or a magazine article you promised to do, but the problem is still that you have to squeeze out twice as many writing hours/day as there probably are. And the worst part is that the overlap is hitting you at the very worst part of your writing madness on the book.

What do you do? First, try to get as much slack in the new schedule as you can. If you don’t really need to start the new project immediately and have some time for delivery, you may have all the wiggle room you need. You’ll drink a lot of coffee, bang the keyboard that much harder, and finish the book… then you’ll drink a lot more coffee, bang the keyboard, and meet your first deadlines on the new project. (See, I told you: writing is fun!)

Another possibility is subcontracting: if there’s some way to quietly farm out a small piece of whatever you’re doing on one project or another, consider doing it. You’ll make a little less money than you would’ve, but you’ll still make more money than if you’d said “No” to the new project.

Most of the time, the answer is to scream a little in your office, and just blaze away as hard and fast as you can. Authors and freelance writers all recognize that “burning the candle at all three ends” feeling that happens regularly. The life of an author is always feast or famine. It’s always better to have too much than too little, but you’re still going to work hard for it at times. You may console yourself with the thought that this is a job with no heavy lifting and keep typing.

The books I always recommend

There are a few books that I recommend to everyone who’s a writer, everyone who’s a freelancer, everyone who’s a captive employee, and everyone who works in high tech. Yes, they’re that meaningful. And none of them are “The Secret” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” or anything insipid like that. These books are:

Okay, now I’ll tell you why they’re important.

Clutter’s Last Stand” is at the top of the list because everyone needs this, no matter who they are. Don Aslett defines “clutter” as anything that you’re not using and have no immediate plans for but that you’re hanging on to for whatever reason. This includes things you’re hanging on to because they might be worth something someday, you may have a need for it, or just because you don’t want to throw it out. In fact, most of the time, clutter is filling up space in your life and using up time, blocking out things that you really want to do or get to and can’t. The message of “Clutter’s Last Stand” is that if you’re not using it and you don’t have plans for it and it doesn’t make you feel good to keep it, get rid of it! It’ll save you time, it’ll make it easier to move around, and you’ll feel incredibly free for the doing of it.

The Richest Man in Babylon” is the first book you need to read about making and saving money. There’s an updated version “for the 21st Century” but you don’t really need that; stick with the basics. This is good, solid advice that I recommend. It works. And as you’re reading it, your internal dialog is going to be saying “Yes, but….” here and there. Here’s how you deal with that: the book is right. You’re wrong. Shut up and keep reading. Then do this. It works. It really works. It’s all that simple. If you stick to it, you’ll be in good shape. You can follow up by reading “The Millionaire Next Door” (which is also pretty good and along the same lines) if you need more financial smacking around. “The Richest Man in Babylon” has been around for longer than you or I have been alive and is readily available in the library if you don’t want to buy it.

Up the Organization” was the foundation of “Theory Y” management: the idea that people want to work and they want to work hard and well given the opportunity. It’s a bunch of little pieces of no more than 200 words each that Townsend would jot down in a notebook. There are surprisingly few things that are dated. I have often found myself quoting things from this. There are a few additional books he wrote in the same style, all of which are equally good. You can find Townsend in the public library, too.

The Secrets of Consulting” is a book that anyone who wants to get into freelance work of any kind needs to read. I like most of what Gerry Weinberg wrote, but this is my fave of his. “The Secrets of Consulting” presents many different lessons about consulting using stories and parables. They all end with a moral you can remember, such as Rudy’s Rutabaga Rule: “After you solve your #1 problem, your #2 problem gets a promotion.” (See how easy that was for me to remember?) This is a book that is fun to read. BTW, if you’re working programmers, I strongly recommend “The Psychology of Computer Programming.”

Peopleware” is a seditious book. It may not quite as much use to you if you’re working in a non-technical environment, but it’s still valuable. The premise of the book is that it’s rarely the technology that kills projects, it’s managing the people. Their example of this is accounting software. Accounting software is not rocket surgery; it’s the antithesis of rocket surgery, in fact… yet 9 out of 10 accounting systems are never completed. Ergo, it’s a people issue. They’re right, too. But I think I can sell you on the book by telling you how I was sold on it: Chapter 8 is entitled [insert drumroll] “The Furniture Police.” That oughta tell you everything you need to know about the book.

There are lots of other books that I can recommend, and probably will as I think of them. But the fact that I always think of these books when I list books that people should read says to me that these are the books that you should read, too.

Is technical communication the job for you?

Every so often, I get asked about being a technical communicator, mostly by people wondering if they should sign up for college classes to learn to become a technical communicator.

I like it a lot for a lot of reasons, but this is one of those “It all depends” situations. I’m going to tell you about all the good and all the bad I can think of to give you as complete a picture so you can make a fully-informed decision.

What Is Technical Communication?

Before anything else, I want to try and nail down the idea of “technical communication” (or “TC” just to save my wrists) so we’re talking apples and apples.

The first thing that most people think of for TC is technical writing. Technical writing is creating product and user manuals, online help, FAQs, tip sheets, product spec sheets, maintenance documentation, knowledge bases, quick reference guides, training materials, APIs and programmer references, and installation instructions. You can work in any number of industries doing any number of things, too. The software and hardware industries are big users of technical communicators, but there are many other kinds of technical writing. Here’s a sample of technical communication in a variety of industries:

  • automotive–those manuals that come with your car, maintenance manuals
  • medical–retail and professional medical supplies packaging and instructions, medical equipment operation and maintenance manuals
  • consumer electronics–installation, operation, and maintenance manuals
  • industrial equipment–operation and maintenance manuals
  • manufacturing–documentation for car seats to beds to stoves to plumbing fixtures to sewing machines
  • food–someone has to write the recipes on the back of cake mix boxes
  • government–anything the government produces, from tax instructions to drivers license manuals to landscaper training materials

As you can see, TC covers a lot of ground. Any time you see words in a row that describe how to do something, it’s TC and some grown person somewhere got paid to do that. (Even when you don’t see words in a row and it’s just graphics, such as with IKEA instructions or airplane safety cards, it’s still TC and some grown person got paid for it.)

What Are Technical Communicators Like?

Technical communicators (TCers) are an odd bunch. For one thing, there’s a high percentage of TCers with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not as high a percentage as, say, programmers, but enough that you’ll notice the lack of a sense of humor in some of your compatriots. In addition, the majority of TCers are introverted, which is neither good nor bad, but it’s important to be aware of. (Old joke, equally true of technical writers and programmers: “How can you tell a technical writer is introverted?” “He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.”) If you’re an extrovert (like me), you can either assume that your jokes aren’t going to always be understood or that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Both are equally true.

Good TCers tend to be very focused on details and have at least fair organizational skills. Most TCers do not do office politics well, in large part because they don’t read people as well as they might.

As a final comment, I’d like to point out that Tina the Brittle Tech Writer in Dilbert is a real person. No, I don’t mean she’s real like we all know someone like that, I mean that Tina is modeled after one, specific, live human being who you could actually meet in person. There’s a story that hangs on this as you might well imagine and it’s not my story to tell and I’m not gonna. (So there!) But she really is real. And she really is exactly like what you see in Dilbert.

What Kind of Educational Background Do You Need?

Some TC jobs require specific skills; for example, if you’re documenting medical equipment, you may need to have specific training or background. On the other hand, you might not need any background at all except for the ability to write. Taking writing courses is pretty much always a good idea, as there are basic planning, writing, and organizational skills that every TCer will benefit from.

If you have no background in TC, look for a TC certificate program at schools in your area. You can also take remote classes in TC from a number of colleges and universities, either as single classes or as part of a TC Certificate program. Check out the University of California, Riverside Extension program for both live and online classes. They have a great certificate program, too.

In my experience, the best TCers have come to the field from other places: people who were chemists or accountants or musicians or whatever. The additional life experience gives them background to work with, particularly if they’re doing writing in the field in which they have personal experience. There are many TCers who have degrees in TC specifically, but it’s not necessary. The person I talked to that sparked the idea to write this post has a background in industrial engineering, organizational management, writing training materials, doing training, and several other things in general business environments. She’s going to be a dynamo as soon as she gets even a few good technical writing courses under her belt.

Note: You don’t necessarily have to have any training at all to be brilliant. I’ve got a high school diploma. I attended college briefly but I was a complete washout academically. The most important training I received after high school was a CETA program that taught me to type, how to use a variety of office equipment, the basics of accounting, and entry level programming. From there, I got a couple dozen temp jobs, then became a programmer, then started writing documentation, became a technical writer, and things just sort of blossomed from there. So by way of reference, I’ll stack my career up against anyone’s at this point, but I don’t have a college degree or writing training. (Damn, I’m good. I ain’t humble, but I’m really good!) I can’t honestly say that I’d recommend doing it this way–it’s hard at times!–but it’s possible to do it if you wish.

What’s the Money Like?

The money’s not bad. If you’re working captive for a company, you can get anywhere from $40-75K as a TCer. Freelance writing can get you anywhere from $25K-$100K or even more depending on the type of writing and how good you are at marketing your skills. (If you’re looking for more money in a technical field, consider programming, which earns as much as $100K captive and as much as $150K freelance.)

Do Technical Communicators Get Respect?

There is very little respect to be had in TC. I don’t care how many degrees you’ve got or how fast you can whip stuff out; TCers don’t get respect. Part of this is related to the introverted personality type of TCers, but a lot of it is situational. Here’s how it works.

Most jobs in a company are vertical. Sales, Development, Marketing, Testing, and Support are all vertical with tightly defined relationships. Work flows in from and is handed off clearly specified people or positions. Technical Publications, on the other hand, is horizontal. Technical Publications cuts across all the other groups of the company. Work can come in from anywhere in the company and be handed off to anyone in the company… or even outside the company. It is possible that a single TCer could talk to a shipping clerk, the receptionist, a developer, and the company’s CEO in the same day for the same project. (Think about it and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of a scenario yourself.)

Because TCers talk to everyone, TCers are the ones that hear that the product Development is creating, which leans sideways and is painted green, is being eagerly anticipated by a Marketing department that has been telling everyone that this thing stands on its head and is painted blue. Because TCers are the first to identify these disconnects in a company, TCers are also the ones who have the painful obligation of pointing out these disparities in goals. And TCers, ultimately, are the ones who are ritually slaughtered as the bearers of bad news. (In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” you never hear what happened to the little boy that points out the Emperor’s nakedness after the story ended. TCers know from personal experience.)

As a result of all this, there’s a situational problem with getting respect on the job. And that’s okay, you know: if you’re aware that you’re unlikely to get respect, you won’t be looking for it. Unfortunately. many TCers get wrapped around the axle about why there isn’t respect and start making waves to get validation. That’s their choice, but there’s just no winning in this situation. Respect is not a coin that TCers get paid in. I’m fond of saying that, if you want a career with respect, you should become a nurse or a school teacher, because both those professions get a lot more respect than TC.

What’s the Career Path?

Typically, you progress to senior writer, group lead/project manager, writing manager, and possibly even director of communication. There are many offshoots from basic technical writing leading to related fields such as technical marketing writing, web content development, corporate communication, executive presentations and white papers, user experience expertise, and training. TC is noted for having a very thin glass ceiling; generally, the higher up you go, the higher the ratio of women to men.

Other Types of TC to Consider

Besides manuals and documentation as I’ve already described, you can try your hand at non-fiction books (which you’re probably already interested in, because that’s what this blog is about) and magazine articles. There’s lots of material about books elsewhere in this blog, but I want to mention that magazine articles pay very well for a relatively small amount of work… and they’re fun. (I’ll talk more about writing magazine articles in a later post.)

If you have a business background, you can try being a business analyst. Business analysts go into companies and figure out what needs fixing and how. The skill sets for business analyst and TCer are about the same, but there’s something you should know about business analysts: they tend to make a lot more money than TCers and they get treated with lots of respect. Yeah, they’re probably the bearers of bad news, too, which doesn’t make sense; that’s just the way it is. But it’s fascinating work if you’re interested.

Freelance Opportunities

TC has many opportunities for working freelance. Virtually all the jobs I’ve described can be done remotely and/or freelance from the pleasure of your own home office.

Are You Interested or Still Not Sure?

I’ve tried to present many of the pluses and minuses of TC here without spending too much time doing it. (And I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong, too. Comments are welcome.) I certainly like it: writing is a fun way to make a living. The hours are tolerable and there’s no heavy lifting.

If you’re interested at this point or would just like some more information, I encourage you to hang out at a few meetings of the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Chapters vary dramatically in size and focus, but you can rub shoulders with people who do this for a living and see if you like it.

Buffalo wolves

Many years ago, I went to Wolf Haven in Tenino, WA. It’s a great place: they provide sanctuary for captivity-born wolves, raise awareness about wolves, and provide protection for wild wolves in a variety of ways. While I was there, I saw a buffalo wolf.

Buffalo wolves, we were told, are “triply extinct.” (It makes me sad to write this, even now.) Their habitat’s gone (the plains), their food source is gone (buffalo), and at the time I saw them, there weren’t enough left to form a viable captive breeding population. If they’re not gone from the Earth now, they will be soon. But that’s not the point of this story.

Buffalo wolves (canis lupus nubilus), also known as “Great Plains wolves,” are a subspecies of gray wolf. They hunted buffalo. Buffalo, in case you aren’t familiar with them, don’t take garbage from anyone. Bulls can weigh a ton or more. They stand 5-6′ high at the shoulders. They’re incredibly agile and they can sprint at 30mph. They can jump over a 6′ fence from a standing position. They are tough dudes.

Nevertheless, buffalo wolves would hunt, kill, and eat buffalo regularly. This went on for thousands of years (before humans came along and screwed things up). How did they do that to an animal that could kill them just by stepping on them? The answer is that, like other wolves, buffalo wolves hunted in packs. They didn’t need to face down a buffalo single-handedly. No one wolf had but a fraction of the strength and power of a buffalo, but a lot of them together were able to whittle a buffalo down, kill it, and eat it.

This story gives me heart and hope. I’ll never be as strong as a buffalo myself, but the buffalo wolf has taught me that I don’t need to be. I just have to be part of a big-enough pack of other buffalo wolves focused on bringing down that particular buffalo and we’ll win every time. It’s a very appealing image.

A quick intro to mind mapping

I told you in an earlier post that I’d tell you about mind mapping. A mind map is a diagram that starts with a central word or concept, then spreads out to show how you visualize other words or concepts (or project tasks or images or anything else) connected to that. Mind maps are inherently non-linear, with the focus of the mind map in the center of the page and then everything connected to it moving out from there.

Mind maps are visual, so here are several examples of mind maps to give you a better idea of how they work. Note that these are mind maps about mind mapping, so they’re illustrating the connections between the core concept of mind mapping and the concepts and tasks associated with it. (Be sure to check out the source websites for additional information and resources on mind mapping.)

I’m impressed with the graphics on these; when I do a mind map, it’s usually much more sparsely illustrated, something like the following example:

Sample rough mindmap from Wikipedia

As you can see, thought, the things that make mind maps most effective are to use lots of color and lots of illustrations. You not only have words and key concepts to hang your memories on, but the color and graphics make them easier to remember and make the concepts and relationships stand out. The right side of your brain thinks in pictures and colors far more than in words, so this technique gets both sides of your brain involved, increasing the depth of the associations on a subject.

In addition, you should put your thoughts down without trying to squeeze them into place in an arbitrary linear hierarchy. Mind mapping is a technique for getting your thoughts down on paper on a subject while recognizing that many concepts are not inherently linear. There are certainly many concepts that are dependent on other concepts, things that are linear and stepwise, but you don’t have to make things fit an outline that moves chronologically from A to Z just because.

In fact, if you think about it, outlining is most relevant for books or printed manuals… but if you’re creating an online help system or a web page or something else with hyperlinking and non-linear navigation, outlining presents a false structure. Mind maps are far more radial in their symmetry, frequently without a specific starting point from the central concept. The colors and graphics may give some clues, but it’s also possible that one starting point is as good as any other. Because the purpose of the mind map is to use visual and graphic elements to highlight relationships, the first two examples give a lot of information through the weight of the graphics.

Tony Buzan invented contemporary mind mapping. While there have been many pictorial record systems going back at least 2300 years, Buzan has popularized mind mapping in several books, such as Use Both Sides of Your Brain and The Mind Map Book. His techniques have also expanded on the connections between left and right brain activity and rung in software as well, for all of which is he richly deserving of credit.

Some other links worth checking out:

  • Wikipedia (there’s always Wikipedia)
  • A list of mind mapping software, both free and paid. (I don’t tend to use mind mapping software because I’m usually mind mapping when I’m taking notes or brainstorming on paper, so the process of doing the software takes too much effort that I could be using to write things down, leaping from concept tree to concept tree with a pen, but you may like it.)
  • Information about FreeMind, the mind mapping software package I do use when I use one. (Here’s where to download FreeMind if you want to try it.)
  • Information about Freeplane, another good mind mapping product (and a download link for Freeplane as well).

Mind mapping isn’t the tool you’ll want to use for everything, but it’s a great thing to know for breaking the bonds of a heirarchical outline. In fact, I will frequently mind map something first and then, with the concepts and relationships down on paper, I can start assigning weight, order, and presentation methodology in a linear outline. Try it out on some small piece of writing, such as an article or a blog post and see how it works for you.

Final tip: if you’re sweating too much over what goes where on the page, you’re putting too much thought into it. Mind mapping should be as light and quick as possible. Mind maps are usually a lot more fun than an outline because your right brain gets a chance to participate. If your pen is hovering over a section of the page too much, you’re probably stuck on something, so go do something else in another part of the mind map until whatever you’re trying to place pops up again.