A thought on contract writing work

I tend to keep the lines of communication open for contract technical writing jobs, because one never knows when you’ll want more work. (And even if I don’t want something, I can forward it to friends who are looking for work and help them out.)

Only rarely do job listings give a pay rate, so if I see something I like, the first question I always ask recruiters is “How much does it pay?” This question gets a surprised response about 2/3 of the time and usually some shuffling around. The usual response is “How much do you want?” to which I say “I know what my rates tend to be, but I don’t have enough information to make a determination about what they’re asking me to do on the job based on the job description you sent me. But I would like to find out what the job’s budget is so that I can find out if it’s worth my time to apply. It’ll be in both our interests to not waste our time by having me apply for a job that’s going to lowball me.”

And at that point, they’ll usually come across with the hourly rate or something a lot like it. (Unless it’s some pump-and-dump Indian recruiting firm.) Enough for me to make an informed decision, anyway.

If they’re still being coy or pretending to be shocked (Gods know why at this point), I then say “I’m not in this business for my health. I’m in this business to make as much money as I can. So I’d like to find out what this is going to pay to see if it’s worth my time.” If they’re still dancing around about money, I tend to write ’em off at that point.

Always remember: We are in this business to make money as a rule. We’re selling our skills. We are not doing this for the honor of contributing to some company’s bottom line at the expense of our own. We are making money and, by extension, we are making as much money as we reasonably can. Stuff we do for free is something else entirely.

Writing by hand, and why I don’t

I type. I can’t write by hand except for shopping lists, telephone notes, and the like. It’s not fast enough.

I’ve forgotten how to write cursive. I know I was taught cursive writing. I didn’t do very well at it; I was always sloppy. I can remember that my capital letters would come out squashy and not round because I was always in too much of a hurry to get on with it. But I also remember the enormous satisfaction I had when I could do a really good capital “Q” (you remember, that funny cursive letter that looked a lot like a “2”). I had stopped using cursive and was just printing by about 10th grade, although I didn’t learn to touch-type until I was 20.

But cursive does have some advantages. It is usually faster than the standard block-printing that most of us tend to do. I have heard that block printing will get you to about 10-12wpm and maybe 15wpm if you really push it, but that cursive can be pushed up to 22-25wpm.

Note: This comes up when learning Morse code: when you’re starting out, you transcribe what you hear. You rapidly discover that you’re not able to transcribe faster than you can print, and you try to resurrect your cursive skills. Shortly thereafter, you learn to type what you’re hearing and then transcribe in your head independent of your ability to get it down directly, which can double your ability to “hear” Morse code.

Writing by hand is a good idea if you’re working remotely and only have a pen and paper–and who among us doesn’t usually have a pen and paper?–and for scribbling ideas and small amounts of words. Whenever I write songs, it’s always done sitting somewhere with an instrument and a piece of paper, but this is not “production” writing. Words are slowly accreted and put on the page a half-line at a time. When I’m done, I type everything up.

In contrast, writing books tends to be a volume business at a few thousand words a day. I’d find writing this much by hand crippling, not to mention boring, but I know that some people really like it this way. If you’re agonizing over the words, the dialog, the descriptions and not turning out as many words in a day because very word is a gem, handwriting may work for you. I can think of half a dozen writers whose prose is lapidary for whom handwriting could be an option, but handwriting just doesn’t work for me.

Book blurbs

Before I mention book blurbs, I want to give you a bibliography of my books to look at. You can look most of these up on Amazon and see what the publishers did for book blurbs for them (I had a hand in some of the blurbs, but not all of them).

Here’s a lovely article about writing book blurbs. Although this is for fiction, it’s worth noting that the concepts are the same: you want to grab the reader’s attention and hold it, making them want to buy the book, take it home, and devour it.

When we are writing blurbs for non-fiction books, we’re not usually able to put a really compelling quote like “It shouldn’t be called ‘stalking’ if you’re really just trying to save someone,” (which is the opening line for a very good story I just heard about). But we can tell the reader why this book will answer questions about the topic that they hadn’t thought to ask and even pitch them on how this will make a positive difference in their effectiveness, their income stream, or their life.

We’re doing it for the money

Sometimes in the course of looking at book projects, you may end up considering a project that you think is lowering your standards. And what the heck? Maybe it is. Ask yourself how much money and opportunity this book is and if this is something that could actually damage your reputation. If it’s simply a matter of you don’t care much for the subject or the publisher’s style but the money’s good, then you should go with it. Here’s why.

As you’re whacking out books, one after another, bear in mind that what we’re doing isn’t really Great Art. Oh, very occasionally, you’ll get a nonfiction book that is going to last on the shelf for some years and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll have one that lasts for your career. But what we’re writing won’t last for decades as a rule. Shucks, most of us are lucky if our writing lasts on the shelves a year. Do your job, enjoy your job, be professional about the stuff you’re turning out, but don’t ever kid yourself that this is usually a Work for the Ages. If you keep this in mind, you’ll probably be able to be more flexible. (There are pleasant exceptions to this observation, but they’re few and very far between.)

A couple hundred years ago, Dr. Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Some things just don’t change: we are doing this for the money. It should be fun whenever possible, but if it pays the bills, that’s the best part of all.


I know people working at a contract right now with some specific house style requirements. Some of the house rules are:

  • Avoid using “that.” Most uses of “that” are actually unnecessary.
  • Ditto “all.” There are some cases where it makes sense, but the typical usage is something like “Sort all the parts in the bin.” In this case, “all” is really not adding anything.
  • Avoid “you” when writing. (Years of writing books make this one scrape my nerves.)
  • Avoid contractions. (Again, it’s a little tighter and friendlier with contractions.)

All this (or just “This,” as some would have it) brings me to a discussion of readability.

Readability is simply a measure of how easy it is for your readers to understand you. There are a number of metrics for measuring basic readability, all of which look at the sentence length, word complexity, and punctuation marks, and then do something arcanely mathematical with these data points.

There are a lot of different readability indexes, including Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog Index, and several dozen others. The first two of these are available in Microsoft Word in the proofing options. The Gunning Fog Index is available here. You just plug a chunk of text in and hit “Calculate.” Most tests measure in grade level—what grade would you expect someone to be able to read this?—but some measure in 1 to 100. I prefer grade level, as it’s easier to envision this how the writing will be received by my audience.

I’m not going to tell you what formulas these use, as it’s not important. You’ll find online testing options for most of these on the net, so when you have a method you prefer, you can plug sample text in and see how it reads. It doesn’t matter which you use as long as you’re consistent. With all of them, the lower the score, the easier the text is to understand.

It is rarely a problem having your readability too low. In fact, the lower your readability, the better the chances your audience will understand things. My favorite example of how you can communicate big ideas with small words is a great piece of writing that describes Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in words of four letters or less. (Go look; I’ll wait. It’s worth it.)

What is so totally cool about this piece is that the Gunning Fog reading level on this comes out to about 5.5. That’s incredibly low for technical writing of any kind, but Brian did a great job. You still get a clear picture of how relativity works.

I know a number of people, including academicians, government workers, and doctors, who really love saying things with big, meaty words. The reading level of their writing is frequently in the 20s and it’s largely impossible to figure out what they’re saying. I’ve asked them about this and there are several factors for why they like writing so much dense garbage:

  • Big words prove that they’re qualified to write this. (Absurd, but do go on.)
  • Big words ensure that I, the reader, am qualified to read this. (They should be happy I’m even trying without making me want to hurl their stuff across the room.)
  • Big words prove that they’re smart. (That’s not communicating; that’s just shoving their college degree up the reader’s nose.)

Anybody can write drivel. Many people do. It takes a qualified writer to produce something intelligible. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive belief in these folks that they won’t be perceived as qualified or smart if they don’t write such dense crap. This may even be true, but it should be noted that you may just be dealing with a whole lotta phony assholes hiding behind their degrees, too.

You don’t have to bring everything down to “1984”-style Newspeak, where things are doubleplus good and you have to drink victory gin while writing. But when you’re selecting choosing words, you will communicate make your point better with your audience readers if you use words that aren’t as esoteric strange and are more comprehensible easier to understand and more concise shorter.

Where do you get your ideas?

As I wrestled a bit to get back in the saddle of writing this blog after moving, I thought “I need some more ideas for blog topics,” and this idea almost immediately popped up as an obvious topic. So let me talk about fiction writers a bit and then I’ll get to nonfiction writers. Trust me, it’ll be a pleasant journey.

Fiction writers get asked “Where do you get your ideas?” all the time. Many of them have written about this, somewhat in self-defense. My favorite classic answer is that of Harlan Ellison, who, when asked this question for the thousandth time, replied “Schenectady.” This rapidly evolved to a whole shtick about a post office box in Schenectady that was home to a circular of ideas that you could subscribe to and use. Locus Magazine, the zine for SF & fantasy writers, used to run this one into the ground on a regular basis for decades. It was fun.

Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful essay about coming up with ideas. He recounts many of the schnarky answers he’s given to people over the years, but he’s finally just started telling them the truth of where they come from: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He talks about making an appearance for his 7yo-daughter’s class and telling them “When I was your age, people told me not to make things up. These days, they give me money for it.” Gaiman also said “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it. You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just What if…? Another important question is, If only…?”

(Go read it. It’s a very good essay.)

Sidenote: At Worldcon last month, Dean Wesley Smith was on a panel and said “I get paid to sit in a room and make stuff up.” Chris York, who was on the same panel, replied “I write mysteries. I get paid to kill people.” We get to make stuff up and get paid for it.

Orson Scott Card once gave a workshop at an SF con in Seattle entitled “1000 Ideas in an Hour.” The focus of this was not that ideas are the hard part; most writers have far, far more ideas than they can ever use. To prove it, he spent an hour working with a fairly large audience riffing on all sorts of things, all of which could make for interesting stories or novels. I remember that there was a whole extended set on an alien race that was intelligent 4’ long alligatory things. He suggested overpopulation, climate change brought about by indiscriminate use of natural resources, taboos related to reproductive urges, and probably another half-dozen ideas about how one could take this concept of alien gators and do interesting things in a story with them. (20-some years ago and this one session sticks in my mind.)

But all of this is about fiction writing, where people have a certain amount of free range in the things they can come up with for ideas. Where do NONFICTION writers get their ideas?

Well, for me, it’s just like Neil Gaiman says: I make them up. Out of my head.

There are a few differences in the process. For one thing, I’m generally not allowed to write about intelligent saurians unless there’s some way I can tie this into something real. (That pesky nonfiction dictum gets in the way again!) But I also get to write things that fiction writers don’t get to write, such as a coffee-table book of the history of men’s ties. Or the development of indoor plumbing (which is a fascinating story.) Or a million possible things on cooking (whether using saurians as an ingredient or not). All of these things are possible book ideas, worthy of consideration for at least a moment.

Neil Gaiman’s suggestions for saying “what if?” and “if only….” are both very relevant. For example, I got into writing books by saying “If only there were a book that showed people how to use about bulletin board systems.” At the time, there’d been a few books that hinted at the edge of what I was wanting, but there was nothing that really sat you down and said “Here’s how you do it!” Similarly, my fifth book, “Winning! The Awesome & Amazing Book of Windows Games Tips, Traps, & Sneaky Tricks,” started by me saying “What if there were a book about the Microsoft Games (which were currently shipping without documentation of any kind) that told people how to play them, how to cheat at them, and interesting things they might want to know?” (FWIW, if you ever saw anything about how to cheat at Windows Solitaire or Minesweeper, you learned it from this book, even if indirectly. NOBODY knew how to do it until I looked up the developers and talked to them.)

Some of this can be mundane: “There’s a new version of Word out; I’ll write a book on it.” But fiction can be a bit mundane in that regard, too, with follow-on volumes to a preceding book or series. Much of the heavy lifting is done with character and world development and you can rely as much as you like on elements you’ve already established.

The what-ifs and if-onlys can be simple: What if there was a book on using Firefox? What if I could just give my youngest a book of lifeskills when she went off to college? What if there was a basic guide on socializing birds so they make the best pets? If only I knew how to set up sound systems and connect them to my computer, I could get music and digital video throughout my house. If only I could figure out how to decorate the house on my own, I could save a ton of time and money and be sure that I’d get something I really liked. If only I could brew my own beer, I’d have good beer in the house whenever I wanted.

Because nonfiction is also about teaching people things, you should add another standard question to the list: “How can I…?” How can I get an executive-level job without a college degree? How can I bake sourdough bread? How can I tune and maintain my car by myself? How can I learn to paint watercolor landscapes? (“I want to know….” is closely related to this, but it includes histories, biographies, books about films, and many other kinds of passive knowledge.)

Possibly the biggest difference is that the books that I (and most nonfiction authors) write are oriented somehow towards the idea of “Will this book make money?” Sure, there are nonfiction books that one could write for the satisfaction of doing so, but it’s my casual belief that nonfiction authors may be geared more towards making money with their writing than fiction authors. I’m not saying that we do make more money, but we may think about it more. I could be completely wrong on this: most fiction authors I know are keen on the idea of selling what they write, but unlike me, they may not know to whom they’re going to sell it before the fact. Since nonfiction writing is usually aimed at a specific audience or publisher or magazine before the fact, the question of sales has frequently already been dealt with before characters show up on the screen. (Again, I may be pulling this completely out of my hat. Feel free to disagree vehemently.)

But the point is that, just as with fiction, ideas for nonfiction books are cheap. Ideas are lying on the street like stray pennies. You can find them everywhere about literally anything. (If only I could get a job as an international courier, I could see the world for nothing.) There’s no telling what might trigger you to think of something, or when. (How can I reduce the number of drugs I take for my diabetes?) It’s the implementation of the idea that makes most of the difference. There might not be a market for a particular book, but that’s a second process. A new book on understanding the internals of the Commodore 64 is not going to ever see the light of day but a book on how to buy junked Commodore 64s and build a quick-and-dirty network to run the entire operation of your family farm or business for a total cost of a dollar-three-ninety-eight might actually be interesting. Determining the value of an idea is different from coming up with it in the first place. And FWIW, as you get more practice with generating ideas, you can start to generate better ones just through experience.

If you don’t think of yourself as generating a lot of book ideas, try this: carry a notebook and write down every idea you find yourself thinking of that would make a nonfiction book. Don’t edit this for things you think would be good nonfiction books; just go for ideas. Chances are you won’t make it an hour or two before you realize just how many ideas you’re generating. Most of them won’t be worth more than the amount of time you gave them when you wrote them down, but you don’t need even one good idea a day to have all the ideas you could need to keep your plate full.

Your ideas aren’t coming from a PO box in Schenectady. They’re always there in never-ending abundance, right in your head.

A thought about getting rich

(Well, I’m back from travels to Dallas and Portland looking for work, grading final projects for students, and a few other things. The blog beckons me for updating with increasingly plangent tones.)

I woke up this morning and remembered something that a good friend, Paul Peck, said to me decades ago. “Nobody never got rich but what they weren’t doing something on the side.” We talked about it. It could be one of several things, all of which are equally true:

  • Busy people are always more likely to get rich. Doing something on the side is a sign of that.
  • The side job generates extra income that provides that bit of grease and financial latitude you need to start building a huge nest egg.
  • The side activity may not generate money because it’s all volunteerism (such as being a Big Brother/Big Sister or building houses for Habitat for Humanity), but it gives you extra skills/contacts/oomph that you can use in your day job.
  • You’re putting your time to better use than just watching TV.

…and several other possible interpretations that also tend to be true.

Whatever the path to riches, I think it’s true: you’re more likely to get rich if you’re someone who does something on the side. Whether it’s the extra cash or the visible manifestation of extra energy or just that you have ADD and can’t sit still so you’re doing something, it’s a pretty safe bet that you stand a better chance of getting rich–and probably having a lot more fun, regardless–when you’re doing something on the side.

Knowing when to quit

Something that thankfully doesn’t come up often is knowing when to quit a book. This is not something you should ever do lightly, but it’s also important to know when you should say “This is just not working out. I think I need to leave this project.”

Some of the reasons you might want to quit a project are:

  • You won’t be able to finish the book in any reasonable amount of time. This may be because you’ve got too much going on in the rest of your professional life (you just had a new contract land in your lap or a promotion happened at your day job) or your personal life (deaths, divorce, illness, and accident are the biggies).
  • You and the editor aren’t clicking. This isn’t a frequent problem, but there are times when you and the acquisitions editor are getting along like cats and dogs. This better not be something casual. Just being uncomfortable with your editor isn’t good enough: a good editor will make you work hard and will also kick your ass when it needs kicking. That’s their job and you should accept this gratefully because they’re usually doing it to make you a better author now and in the future. But if there’s a lot of friction–and I mean a lot of friction–and you’re absolutely certain that it’s not you and there’s nothing you can do about it, you may want to consider leaving a book.

    I’ve almost always had good editors, but there’ve been one or two pills over the years. The worst was legendary in the business for her unprofessional behavior. I’d already passed once on doing a book with her after she’d phoned me directly and tried to get me to disregard my agent’s advice. I inherited her only after the great editor I’d had on a book got laid off mid-project and his work was reassigned to existing staff. I described her as a “bullet,” someone who sits in her chamber waiting to be fired. She got laid off about a year later and is out of the business now. There was many a dry eye in the house when this happened.
  • When you can’t get the support you were banking on. None of us are in this business for our health. We’re writing books for the money. If you’re writing a book based on the idea that you’re going to get support during or after a book and you don’t, you may have a problem. If you were depending on information from the company, advance PR such as email blasts or prominent blurbs on their website, chapter reviews, or other marketing, and the company completely fails to come through, you may be in a no-win situation. If you go from “Oh, we’re really keen to do a book!” to “We’ll get back to you with an answer,” it may be time to leave.

So what do you do if you can’t win? Or the book can’t be completed in a timely fashion or you’ll spend every cent you have just to complete a book that won’t pay you a dime? You need to talk to your agent (if you have one) first and find out if there are options. Your agent will give you the benefit of their experience. That’s what your agent is there for, after all; s/he is your mouthpiece. If you’re dealing directly with the publisher, you need to let them know what’s happening as professionally as possible and with a minimum of drama.

Leaving a book project is not something you do casually, ever. But if it’s going to cost you a fortune just to stay on the project or you’re not going to be able to finish it for other reasons, it’s best to bow out as gracefully as you can.

Crawling into a hole

I’m in the latter half of the current book. There’s nothing much new about what I’m feeling right now on the current book in terms of the writing process for me, but I should mention that it’s still as much of a pest as the previous 26 books have been. Don’t get me wrong, I really like this job, but writing a book is always a PITA during parts of it no matter what. As I’ve said before, writing a book is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop.

My process, as one of my co-authors recently reminded me, is to grind along on the first third of the book figuring out what I want to write, then I hit smooth sailing for most of the rest of it with a possible long chapter in the middle and a bump near the end of the road when I’m almost done. I am jamming out chapters right now and it feels bloody marvelous.

What I actually feel like right now (other than the enormous pressure to hit my deadline) is that I’ve got tunnel vision, rather literally. I’m not focusing on anything much except what’s right in front of me. There’s a pressure in my forehead and I don’t want to talk to people because it’ll shake me out of the writing reverie… and I really need that to help the words keep flowing. I’m thinking of little more than the stuff that I’m writing about. And I’m listening to a lot of music from Hearts of Space: drifty, non-vocal, background Nouveau Age stuff that doesn’t get in the way.

My sleep schedule’s getting strange, too. I’m drinking a lot more tea than coffee because I can keep drinking tea and don’t get as wired as I do on coffee. (Unsolicited plug here: I buy all my tea from Seattle Teacup, which is one of the premier tea stores in the Pacific Northwest. They do lots of mail order–how I usually get mine–and they’ve got a wider selection than I’ve seen anywhere else. If you want something interesting, delicate, and flavorful without being fruity or floral, let me recommend Queen Anne’s Treasure, which is what I’m drinking today.)

That’s probably all I have for the moment. I don’t want to stay away from the chapter too long or I’ll lose the flow.

Random negotiating tactics

I have a couple random thoughts on the things that people will try to get something for less or for nothing from you.

Years ago I heard an artist talking about how people will frequently try to bargain with you and give you some hourly rate for a piece as if you’re a house painter or something. He says that people will say “How long did it take you to paint that picture?” and he’ll respond “All my life.”

There are times and places to do things for the exposure. When you’re new to the biz, when you want to try out a new market, when you’re willing to do something like blog posts or articles for an organization’s newsletter or whatever Just Because, sure. Shucks, I do lots of things just for the exposure, myself. I’ll publish a lot of otherwise-saleable content here on this blog and contributing to lots of other blogs and some non-profits’ newsletters. It’s all pro bono and I’m glad to do it. But you also need to remember that, in a lot of places, people die of exposure. (Thanks to David Okum for that pithy thought.) Another friend, JoAnne Kirley, observed similarly that, when she hears “It’ll bring you business,” she responds “That’s not the kind of business I need.”

Be careful.