by John Hedtke, Principal, JVH Communications, and STC Associate Fellow
Editor's note: The first part of this article was published in the December 2003 issue of Dateline Houston.
Before the stars in your eyes and visions of accepting the Pulitzer Prize block out any view of reality, I need to show you the dark side of the mirror. First of all, you're going to be alone when you're writing. This is not the same as contract technical writing. Even if you're working offsite for a contract, you're in contact with people. But your acquisitions editor is not like your project lead. You may not talk to your acquisitions editor even once a week. You will possibly talk to the project editor once a week and even once a day as the book is getting close to done, but the project editor is interested only in page count, style, and editorial and mechanical questions, rather than process and production questions.
You have no idea of what "alone" means until you're two-thirds of the way through a hard book contract period and you're running a month late. It's just you in your office, staring at the monitor, and (you hope) writing brilliant prose. You may be a writer that likes a TV or stereo on in the background, but it's still going to be just you and the computer. The bottom line is that you just won't have much contact with people while you're writing a book except when you're not writing.
As a result, you can get depressed easily, particularly if you're having trouble with a chapter that's just not gelling. You can also procrastinate easily. Before you start a project, you should be completely honest with yourself about what kind of procrastinator you are. You can get derailed easily. Set goals for writing productivity and be absolutely honest with yourself. (You don't need to show this to anyone else, with the possible exception of your therapist, but you need to track your progress.)
One publisher I know says that up to 75% of all computer books are delivered from one to six months late. The reasons for this are many and varied, but most commonly, it's because the authors lose focus, they get overbooked (one project runs late and slides into another), they get depressed, their support system breaks down (or their significant other loses patience with the enforced solitude), or because they discover they just can't do this one.
You need a lot of personal tools to be a successful author. Over the years, I've developed a whole array of tools, including the book proposal format I use (which covers everything about a book you'd need to know before the fact),a large network of people I can call upon with technical questions of all sorts (including a good friend who'll periodically come over and fix my computer late at night in exchange for a sushi dinner with me), and my boundless optimism. These are some of the tools I have, but you won't necessarily have any of these at hand. Part of your choosing to write a book should be to identify the resources you have available and how to solve some of the problems that may come up. Listing everyone you know, or at least, listing your technical contacts, will be helpful. (By the way, if someone does help you, even if it's only answering a single question some evening, mention them in the acknowledgments.)
One hot tip: don't count on corporate support for a book when you're looking at resources. Just because you're writing a book about a product that will provide marketing for the product, improve the users' ability to use and enjoy the product, and will let the company sell more of the product, you can't expect the company to help you. Like many of the other things we do for clients, this doesn't have to make sense... but it's reality. Just because your book is a great idea and it'll help the company and they like the idea, too, you still can't count on the company's help for anything . As one example, I've written a series of books on accounting software that do all of these things and the company refuses to support the project or acknowledge that the books exist, because they have a "not invented here" attitude. I make money from these, but the company has been enormously irritating to deal with over the years.
A lot of people who contract (including me) like the freedom of assignment combined with the large paychecks. But we still have a lot of structure in our lives, even as contractors. We're hired to accomplish a fairly specific task by a specific deadline. The format, writing style, and content are largely predetermined. By contrast, writing a book has no safety net. It's completely free-form. The format and writing style will be broadly dictated by the publisher, but there's not a lot of structure beyond that. And, unlike contracting, you're working with people in remote locations whom you will probably never meet face-to-face and who may not have a great deal of understanding of what you're writing about. As a matter of fact, you are usually the subject matter expert for the book, not the developer down the hall. The publisher will have a technical editor working on the book, but that person will expect you to know what you're talking about.
Probably the most important thing to consider is your significant other and family. You single people don't have to worry about this--you'll probably just remain permanently single while writing books--but people who are in relationships have to consider the effect that their absence is going to have on their significant other and family. Be sure to make some provisions for taking your sweetie out for dinner/movies/a weekend on a regular basis during the project and be extra nice to them when you're done. I'm still learning to balance this one myself, but it's important and will greatly reduce friction. Make a contract with your significant other and stick to it. And don't be surprised if halfway through a book, your SO announces that she or he is fed up with your being absent. Be prepared to negotiate some more if that happens.
One final downside that you should keep in mind: you can write a brilliant, award-winning book that's critically acclaimed, lauded in the New York Times , and is quoted for 10 years thereafter... and it can still die on the vine and never earn out its advance, let alone make any money. It's happened to me. Never spend your royalties before you earn them.
Starting about 2001, the market for a lot of computer books, particularly the low-end books (of the "How to Write Your First Paragraph with Word/Absolutely Anything for Dummies/The Internet for Anybody Who Hasn't Heard About It Yet" class) pretty much died and went away. There's still a market for higher end books, such as "Web Server Administration Tips for People Who Never Sleep" and "Programming Your Own HAL9000 in XML," but you'll probably need a specialty to capitalize on if you're going to write general computer books. The market for lower-end books will probably start picking up again around 2005.
Writing a book (at the beginning) looks awfully simple. Here are some tips for the writing process that will keep it from being simply awful.
Writing technical books sharpens all of your writing skills. Your ability to plan projects improves. Most authors notice that their writing speed increases dramatically the further they get into a book, usually to between 10 and 15 finished pages a day in the last stretch.
Writing technical books can be profitable. Furthermore, royalties are "found" income. You can expect royalties for several years after the book is published, in addition to your current salary. Publishing a book also looks very good on the resumé and impresses clients greatly.
Most importantly, writing technical books is fun. Although I like to joke that writing books is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer ("Because it feels so good when you stop!"), it's been an incredibly valuable experience for me. When I got my promotional copies from the publisher, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Seeing my first book for sale in the bookstores was one of the great joys of my life, and it will likely be one of yours, too.
Web Resources for Writing and Publishing
Copyright 1990-2002 by John Hedtke (firstname.lastname@example.org). One-time serial rights granted to STC newsletters to reprint the article in entirety in exchange for advance notification and permission and two copies of the printed final version. All other rights are reserved by the author. To request reprint rights, contact the author at email@example.com.
by John Hedtke, Principal, JVH Communications, and STC Associate Fellow
Here is a list of web resources worth looking at:
Studio B Literary Agency. Contacts with authors, publishers, and information about the publishing business. Also the home of the Computer Book Author's listserv, a daily mailing list (get the digest version!) that anyone interested in computer book publishing should subscribe to.
Writer's Hotspot of the Week. A service of the Graham Literary Agency, this lists hot web sites for writers (they are, too; you'll spend a lot of time browsing from this point).
Ivan Hoffman, B.A., J.D, a lawyer representing authors and publishers as well as web site designers and site owners. He has a large number of articles on his award-winning site that can be of great interest to these groups.
THOR+, The Virtual Reference Desk. Good online reference materials for writers.
Adler and Robin Literary Agency. They handle many different types of nonfiction. Good information, links, and writing resources.
John Kremer (author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Book). Lots of great ideas and contacts for publishers. Also the home of the Book Marketing listserv, which will give you information on successful marketing (and a chance to compare notes with other authors doing the same thing). John also has very extensive lists of publishers, both computer and general.
A list of Internet resources from BookZone's web site. There are more links here than you'll ever be able to research for all kinds of book and magazine publishing. Check out the links at www.bookzone.com/secret/addresses.html#pub , too.
Home page for the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Good for helping you not take writing too seriously.
Charles Ackerman's Brain on the Web. Be sure to look at the Computer Publishing Update.
Judith Appelbaum & Sensible Solutions, Inc. Good information for all kinds of publishing.
Roger C. Parker's Meaningful Content.
The International Association of Business Communicators.
The National Writers Union.
Inkspot, a writer's resource web site. They also host Inklings, an e-mail newsletter.
World Wide Will's list of movie script deals, updated regularly. This will be of casual interest to most peoplescreenwriting is a very specific form of writingbut it's interesting to see what's being purchased by whom and for how much. (Don't get too upset over the money; they have to put up with Hollywood and you don't!)
Publisher's Weekly, the best-known industry trade magazine.
Rainwater Press and Nan McCarthy's web site. Publishing resources, great information.
Roger C. Parker's Meaningful Content. I've admired Roger's writing for a long time. Go look at his site.
The Society for Technical Communication.
The Tale Wins Literary Agency. Home of the Golden Quill award for promoting literary excellence on the web. (Check out some of the sites that they've given this award to.)
"The Guru's Lair," Don Lancaster's rich and funny web site. Don wrote The Incredible Secret Money Machine years ago, one of the best books for showing you how you, too, could freelance and make money.
"For Writers Only," Jack Beslanwitch's site for writers. An extraordinary number of links for fiction (particularly fantasy and SF) writers. Great place for fiction or general nonfiction writers to explore. The references links are classed by type of writing.
Bruce Epstein maintains an informal "Who's Who" of computer book publishing. (You can sign up whenever you like, so it's not a closed group.) Here's an opportunity to find out more about your favorite computer book authors and find out how to contact them directly.
Go back to "Hey, Kids! Become an Author at Home in Your Spare Time and Earn Big Bucks!"—Part 2
by Cindy Pao, Information Developer, BMC Software, Inc.
STC Houston is pleased to name Mary Gwynne as the Volunteer of the Month for December.
Thank you, Mary, for logging all of the chapter's competition entries!
Mary has worked at BMC Software for nearly five years, making countless contributions to her documentation and development teams. Not only can this communicator write, but she is also a strong researcher and analyzer!
Mary continuously offers to help others on her team with their projects. Furthermore, she takes on special assignments that help the whole team and the whole company. One of Mary's volunteer assignments at work is usability testing.
Mary has managed the art of juggling multiple projects with ease, both at work and at home.
Recently, Mary and her family bought a new house, and it happened that she had a product release during the same week as her move. Mary managed to pack up the old house, transfer the kids to a different school, and move. When there was a miscommunication with the electric company, and she was without power in the new house for several days, did that stop her? No. She worked through the darkness to get her product out the door, set up the house, and calm the kids.
Mary is a cool mom, always finding time to plan birthday parties, volunteer at the school, and hang out and play. In her free time, Mary enjoys spending time with her husband and children at their cabin under the pines at Lake Livingston.
"Mary is a great person. She is outgoing, funny, and a true team player."
by Cindy Pao, Information Developer, BMC Software, Inc.
STC Houston is pleased to name Steve Shriver as the Information Developer, Volunteer of the Month for January.
Thank you, Steve, for helping to make the strategic planning session a success!
Steve has been a technical communicator since 1993, when he started at Compaq as a technical writer and editor.
From Compaq, Steve moved on to Interim Technology Consulting, where he worked on assignments with Chase Bank of Texas and American General Life Insurance.
Before Steve became a technical communicator, he was a reporter, writer, and editor for daily newspapers in Tyler, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This year, Steve took on the job of manager of the employment committee. Since monthly meetings started in September, Steve has held court at the employment committee table, where he provides employment information to technical communicators and provides counsel on job searches and resumes. Steve also moderates the employment forum on STC Houston's web site.
In November, Steve helped plan and execute the "Strategic Planning for Your Career and Life" workshop.
Steve wants non-members and visitors to STC Houston meetings to feel welcome and to participate in our community.
"Steve is great at networking with other professionals on behalf of STC. He is exceptional at promoting the benefits of membership to non-members, particularly highlighting our programs and explaining how they serve professional needs. Steve is creative and is always exploring ways to expand employment opportunities for members. You can count on Steve to make things happen."
by Jocelyn Williams, Independent Consultant
As we move into 2004, we examine the year 2003 and determine how well we have done our work. As an organization, are we pleased with it thus far? Are we proud to say that we are members of STC Houston? Have the programs been informative and interactive? Is the financial health of the chapter excellent?
From the year's kick-off progam on project management to the strategic planning sessions, we have achieved our goals and faced challenges, all the while providing value. During a year that has been a struggle for many STC chapters, we have:
The second half of the program year will feature interesting presentations on various topics, the competitions awards banquet, an employment workshop, a new-member luncheon, a high-school writing contest, and the annual conference preview. Yes, we can be confident that we have done our work well. As we prepare to engage in the activities of this new year, we know that there are challenges ahead. At the same time, we can move into 2004 knowing that we are ready to continue providing value.
Here's to a great New Year!
by Rebecca Taylor, Product Marketing Manager, Hewlett-Packard
During this time of the year, it's normal for plans and dreams; where we've been and where we're going. Well, it's not different for STC. The Society has recognized that our profession is changing rapidly to keep up with the world around it. Now, the Society has decided it's time for STC to change to keep up with its members. The Transformation Team web site says, "We realize that transformation is not really `new' to our profession, because we've been evolving for the last 50 years, but everyone knows that for our profession to survive and for STC to provide the best value as a professional organization, we must constantly strive to improve."
The STC Transformation Team (www.stc.org/transformation.asp) is helping to build a model to guide the Society into the future. This team of 20 dedicated STC members is actively seeking for ways to make STC what you need it to be.
Just as the Society has changed, so has STC Houston. Only two years ago, our chapter community was shocked by the collapse of Enron. Even now many of our writers' careers are changing as more IT jobs are moving overseas. But not all change is bad: UH-Downtown has just announced a Master's program in professional writing and technical communication, providing the area's first graduate-level degree in the field of technical communication.
Our STC Houston community has survived these changes, and will survive many more. But we don't want to just survive—we want to thrive.
To do this, the chapter leaders need your help. Our chapter leaders know many of you personally and professionally, but they're not psychic!
In my two-and-a-half years as newsletter editor, I have received perhaps a dozen notes about Dateline Houston from our members. Dateline Houston is an integral part of your membership benefit, so it's vital that our newsletter meet your needs. It's hard to know we're meeting your needs if you don't tell us.
And this doesn't just apply to the newsletter. As times change, so do your needs. STC Houston chapter leaders want to know what we're doing wrong. What are we doing right? What kind of programs do you want? What do you expect from your membership? Without your input, STC Houston will never be what you need it to be.
So let us know what we can do for you. Go to our STC@50 forum (forum.stc-houston.org/viewforum.php?f=18) to provide suggestions. Or, you can contact any of our chapter leaders directly (www.stc-houston.org/leadership.html).
Please join us to celebrate the excellence of technical communications achieved by our peers. Learn from their experience and work products how to provide more value to your own organization.
February 6, 2004
Hilton Houston Westchase & Towers
9999 Westheimer Road
6:30 - 7:30 p.m. Viewing of winning entries
7:30 - 9:00 p.m. Banquet & awards
9:00 - 9:30 p.m. Additional viewing of entries
Traditional Business Attire Suggested
Look for your invitation and RSVP form in the mail.
For the latest information, go to the STC Houston Web page at www.stc-houston.org/competitions.html or email Linda.King@hp.com.
by David Remson, Information Developer, NetIQ
If you pay taxes in the United States, keep in mind that STC dues are tax deductible. You can claim dues as a deduction in several ways.
You can deduct at least a portion of your STC dues if you claim this portion as a charitable donation. IRS publication 526 (rev. 2000) defines this option:
You may be able to deduct membership fees or dues you pay to a qualified organization. However, you can deduct only the amount that is more than the value of the benefits you receive.
As a 501(c)(3) organization, STC is a qualified organization. The only determination you need to make is the amount that is more than the value of the benefits you receive. STC's tangible benefits can be estimated at $30 ($15 for the Society's quarterly journal, Technical Communication, and $15 for the magazine, Intercom). The difference between the cost of membership ($125 in 2003) and tangible benefits ($30) is $95, and you can claim that amount as a charitable contribution.
If you are an employee or a self-employed consultant, you can claim the full amount of dues as a business expense.
If you do not fall into the categories defined above, you may still be able to claim the amount of the dues as a miscellaneous deduction. For miscellaneous deductions to affect your taxes, the total amount of the miscellaneous deductions must exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income.
If dues are deducted as a charitable expense, business expense, or miscellaneous deduction, they must be deducted from the tax return filed for the year in which they were paid. In other words, dues paid in 2003 may be deducted only on 2003 tax returns. If you have not yet renewed your membership for 2004, renew today and save the documentation for your 2004 tax returns. For more information, see the IRS web site at www.irs.gov.
Please be aware that, while dues, contributions, and out-of-pocket expenses may be deducted, personal services may not.
(This article was reprinted in part from November 2003 Tieline.)
by Steve Shriver, Contract Technical Writer, Baker Hughes
Here's great idea I got from Tom Green, who gleaned it from the TECHWR-L web site: www.raycomm.com/techwhirl/employmentarticles/tletter.html.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of the purpose of a résumé—to get an interview. The résumé entices the recruiter to want to meet you and then you get an opportunity to sell yourself. I'm going to try this idea myself, especially when I see something I really want to go for.
I've had a lot of sales experience in my previous life and I'm grateful to have that skill to fall back on. I might end up selling real estate someday in my "retirement," for example. I want to emphasize that it is a skill, that is, a talent that can be developed. Sales is something we all do, whether we realize it or not, and whether we're good at it or not. It's basic people-skill stuff.
There are three things that are important in progressing along your career path and I've been talking these until I'm blue in the face: 1) a 30-second sound bite, 2) résumé accomplishment statements, and 3) a targeted résumé, outlined in minute detail in the link noted above. Notice that two of them focus on the résumé, just to get your foot in the door.
If you can't get the interview, you can't sell yourself. That's where the 30-second sound bite is so important. Most of us are conditioned to handle any pitch for 30 seconds. Think about it—how many TV commercials have you seen in your life? We're actually entertained by commercials, sometimes enlightened, but always sold.
However, a good sales pitch never seems like it. It makes me think it's my idea. Nobody wants to be sold. But lots of people are buying all kinds of stuff. We live in a consumer-oriented culture; some would even call it consumer crazy.
A good sales pitch takes lots of planning and practice—Madison Avenue has been using this magic formula for years and years. Write it out first, then rewrite it, time it, and practice it in front of the mirror. Seriously. This is how it works, it has to sound conversational, perfectly natural.
And you can't ramble on and on. This is where many people get in trouble, especially a poor salesman. They don't know when to shut up. Thirty seconds is it. Never talk more than 30 seconds—you'll bore your recipient. Try to finish off your short spiel with a question. This is a natural transition for the other party to talk.
You need to know how you're coming across, so now you can practice the other equally important part of your sales pitch—listening. These are basic people skills and they work wonders in selling yourself, which is your most important sale ever.
|Society & Industry News|
by Nancy J. Hoffman, STC Fellow, Southeastern Michigan Chapter
Editor's note: STC holds its elections every spring and allows candidates to submit position statements to chapter newsletters. Dateline Houston does not endorse any candidates but encourages all members to read the statements and vote in the elections.
Early in 2004, you will elect a new STC second vice president (2VP). After serving as 2VP, that person becomes first vice president, then president, and finally immediate past president. Whoever wins the upcoming election makes a four-year commitment and performs a lot of volunteer work on behalf of STC and its members. I'm one of the candidates, and I will be very happy and very proud to make that commitment of time and effort to our Society.
If I'm elected to the position of 2VP, I want to make major contributions and make a difference to the STC in several areas.
I want to improve communication in all parts of our organization. At a given point in time, many (possibly hundreds of) activities are being planned, organized, and carried out in STC's chapters, regions, and SIGs. I believe that there are many untapped avenues for sharing information about STC's activities and the work associated with providing those activities. I believe we can use current technology in many more ways to share that information within our organization, with industries that are related to our field, and with academic programs that support technical communication.
I believe that improved sharing of information will help STC members get jobs, get better jobs, and be better trained for performing their jobs. Providing information about the value of STC to the outside world will bring increased recognition of our field and show that we are a valuable resource to businesses and industry.
STC's future lies in the abilities of upcoming technical communicators at all ages and all levels of education, and we must strive to offer better support those future professionals. One key way we can do this is to increase the dollar amounts and number of scholarships that STC gives to technical communication students of all ages. By better preparing those who are entering the technical communication field, we can help ensure that our field and our organization remain relevant and vital as the technical and business environments grow and evolve.
We need to keep up with--no, get ahead of--technology related to our field. STC needs to increase its support of pertinent, new technology research in technical communication. Along with our increased support of research, we need to receive from our researchers regular, timely reports about the status of these projects so that we can use the results of their findings as soon as possible.
We need to expand services for our members. We can offer members more training--through STC meetings, seminars, and conferences, for example--so that they can get better jobs. Some members are unemployed or think they might be facing unemployment soon. We can and we must provide help to members who are in those positions.
In an era of shrinking budgets and financial restraint, where can we find the money to support expanded services, increased scholarships, and new and relevant research? I believe that much of the needed funding can come from external fundraising activities. We can and should set up programs for soliciting contributions from industry and academic institutions. We also can solicit funding from STC members who are willing and able to provide additional support for specific projects, such as research or scholarships. STC's new and expanded efforts need not result in increased membership or conference fees if untapped, external funding sources are found and used.
I have many years of experience in STC as a member and an active volunteer at all levels, including chapter president, Region 4 director-sponsor, and assistant to the president for communication. I also have served for three years as communication director on the board of another nonprofit association. It has given me experience that will, I believe, benefit STC as we move forward.
I worked as a technical writer, editor, project manager, and manager of other writers for 20 years. Now I have my own business, editing many different kinds of documents for many different kinds of companies. I also edit doctoral dissertations. I have experience in the business world--working as both a full-time employee and as an entrepreneur.
I encourage you to vote in the upcoming election. I believe that our field is very important to industry and that I'm ready to make major contributions of time and effort to help STC grow and prosper and to promote STC as the premier professional association serving the technical communication field.
If you have a networking opportunity to share, please tell us! Go to www.stc-houston.org/contacteditor.htm.
Volume 43, Issue 4