The Blog of John Hewitt

A Quick Note on Marshall Cooper

Greetings, my few remaining followers. I took my novel, Marshall Cooper, off the site for the time being while I clean it up a bit.

From what I can tell, no one was really looking at it anyway. Reading a story as 28 different blog posts that appear in reverse order is a bit of a tedious exercise for even my most rabid readers.

I plan to clean it up (a bit) and put it out as a free e-book. It will never be professional grade, but I can at least reduce the grammar and typo issues a bit before patting it on the butt and sending it back out to play.

Thank you for your understanding.

Love,

John

My Current Technical Writing Toolset

Ten years ago, most of these tools would not have been on my list. Only Microsoft Office, WordPress, Acrobat, and Notepad have remained in my toolset over the past ten years. Some bigger names that have fallen off my list over the past few years include RoboHelp, DreamWeaver, FrameMaker, and PaintShop Pro. That is partially due to personal preferences, and largely due to the company I work for and the job I do for them. I haven’t included browsers here, but the short answer is that I use all the major ones for one thing or another but Chrome is my primary.

Content Tools

Confluence

Confluence is the wiki on which we write and publish most of our documentation at my job. I was part of the team that chose it and launched it at our company. I am also one of the administrators. I have my own cloud version that I use for all of my non-work writing. For the most part, it has replaced word processors as my default when writing. Having it in the cloud means that all of my work, and the interface to develop it with, are available wherever I go and whatever machine I am on.

Microsoft SharePoint

Our company’s intranet sites are developed using SharePoint. I am the SharePoint administrator for the development and support arm of my company. I spend a lot of time curating content and fixing/redesigning pages.

Snagit Editor

I not only use Snagit for screenshots, I do most of my image editing using its editor. It isn’t full-featured like Gimp (my other image editing program) but because it has a simple interface, and some nice out-of the box annotation graphics. I use it for most work-related image creation and editing.

Microsoft PowerPoint

I frequently create presentations, usually just a few slides. I also use it for text-heavy image work because it is easy to move elements around on the page.

ER Studio Data Architect

This is not a common technical writer tool. I support our data dictionaries, which led to me becoming one of two administrators for this tool. I don’t develop data dictionaries from scratch, but I often come in and clean them up for publication. I am the main support person for the tool, so if anyone has trouble publishing their data dictionaries, I come in and troubleshoot the problem.

Adobe Captivate

Every once in a while I need to make a video and this is the program I use. Captivate is actually a little high-end for my purposes, so I end up tripping over some features, but in the end I come out with some nice videos.

Gimp

If Snagit Editor can’t do the job with an image, Gimp is my fallback. It is much more powerful, but far more complex, which slows me down.

Microsoft Word

I rarely write from scratch in Microsoft Word, because I have Confluence, but I still get Word documents from other people that I need to edit. I also use it whenever I need to change the capitalization for a large block of words, or if I want to convert text to a table or a table to text.

Microsoft Excel

We report a lot of information in spreadsheets, and Excel is still the best tool for that.

Notepad

I mainly use this for notes and when I want to remove formatting from a block of text in another program.

WordPress

This isn’t used for my job often, but I still maintain my personal web sites in WordPress. Occasionally, I also use it to do some quick and dirty HTML editing.

TinyLetter

I use this to publish my newsletter. It has a nice, straightforward interface that is almost like sending an email.

Adobe Acrobat Standard

Every once in a while, I need to publish or edit a PDF.

Productivity Tools

Jira

My group at work tracks its projects using Jira. We’ve only been at it for a few months, and I am still getting used to the interface, but it does a good job of making my deliverables clear and letting my boss know when I do and do not have time for additional work.

HP Agile Manager

Another group at work is using HP Agile Manager for tracking a single project that I work on. It does the same thing as Jira, and I like the basic interface a little better, but either tool will do the job.

Trello

Trello is a much simpler project tracking tool that I use for my own projects. It is quick, easy, and surprisingly powerful if you want to dig a little deeper. I can break out project steps very quickly in Trello, which is something I cannot do quickly in Jira or HP Agile manager.

Microsoft Outlook

I could just as easily put this in as a meetings and communication tools, but I put it here because the calendar in Outlook is the first place I go to see what kind of day I am going to have. I use Outlook for email, of course, but the calendar is what keeps me afloat.

Meeting and Communication Tools

GoToMeeting

I run several meetings and attend far more. GoToMeeting allows me to use both audio and screen sharing.

Microsoft Lync

Lync can do many of the same things as GoToMeeting, but is dependent on other people having the program. I use it more for instant messaging with co-workers and occasionally sharing a screen. Some coworkers run meetings using it.

Web Help Tools

I can export HTML from Confluence and use it to build web-help files. These are the tools that help me do it.

Advanced Renamer

I use this to rename large blocks of files. This allows me to get rid of special characters in the names that could be problematic for some browsers.

TextCrawler

I use this to make edits to large blocks of files. Once I change the names of a block of files using Advanced Renamer, I need to change all the links. TextCrawler also allows me to change headers and footers quickly.

Zoom Search Engine Indexer

I can create a search engine for a set of HTML files using this program.

NotePad ++

If I need to edit HTML for a file, I use Notepad++.

Xenu

If I need to check for broken links on a web site, I use Xenu.

The Skills You Need to be a Freelance Writer

Writing skills aren’t all you need

If you’re just realizing that your excellent writing skills could be put to good use on the Internet, and earn you some attractive cash, welcome! You’re about to have the time of your life as you explore being a freelance writer.

But hold on – writing skills aren’t all you need. In fact, a lack of secondary skills is what sets many freelance writers on the road to failure instead of success.

Before you launch yourself into writing your way into a fulfilling, satisfying career, take a good look at what else you’ll need for a successful venture:

Customer service skills

Interestingly enough, writers are horrible at customer service.

Wrapped in their comforting words, they can pen beautiful content that converts and resonates – but they often come off as arrogant, overly laid back or just plain blunt in communication with clients.

Convey a positive, professional attitude at all times – and especially in email communication. Emails are no place to let your guard down and show your worst. In fact, emails are the single-most important area in which you should excel at writing.

It may mean the difference between landing a gig and being passed on.

Bookkeeping skills

If you can’t do the math, then you can’t run a business.

Freelance writers are self-employed workers. They must effectively manage their books, track their income, monitor expenses and examine their profit and loss statements. (And you thought there was no math involved in writing.)

Buy a book on accounting 101. Take a course at a community college. You can even learn basic bookkeeping online.

Otherwise, you may sit down one day and wonder why you’re not making ends meet, even when you’re making good money.

Marketing skills

The Internet is saturated with competition for writers.

The good news is, many of those competing writers aren’t very good ones. You may feel like there’s a writer around every corner, but when you take a good, close look, you’ll notice that many are just fly-by-night hacks. Sad, but true.

Learn how to tell people about your services and why you’re the best choice for them. It isn’t because you’re a crack writer, though that certainly helps. The extra qualities that make you stand out are what sells people these days.

It’s also a good idea to take a marketing course or learn more about it. Web writing often involves a healthy dose of marketing and having good knowledge helps you get an edge.

Organizational skills

If you can’t plan and your memory is shot, you’re going to have a tough time online.

The Internet world moves very quickly. You might find yourself needing a calendar to manage your schedule and a way to organize your daily workload. Freelancing isn’t a huge life of abandoned freedom – in fact, quite the contrary.

A freelance writer needs to be able to organize a day efficiently and work in all the possible interruptions that might occur. Writers need to plan, schedule and maintain a production routine – just like any business in operation.

Know realistically how much time you have available and how much you can manage before saying yes to each gig that comes your way.

Plan B

If you’re about to step into freelance writing, you need a Plan B.

Earning enough income to support yourself isn’t going to happen for a while. What’s your backup plan in the meantime while you gain clients and increase your income? Do you have three months of income set aside to support yourself?

What happens if you have a really bad month and no one needs you?

Have a Plan B at hand for the worst case scenario – always and forever, no matter how established you become. Maybe you can freelance and write essays for other students, for example. You never know what tomorrow might bring, and taking a leap of faith without a good parachute to catch your fall is a huge mistake.

Sound grim?

If you find yourself feeling discouraged about your idea of becoming a freelance writer, don’t be. Freelance writing is an exciting, fulfilling career and you’ll have a great time easing into your new job.

You also have a better idea of exactly what you’re getting into. You’re more informed, can research the additional areas involved in freelancing and learn the skills that you may need.

By taking the time to learn everything you can about freelance writing, you’re giving yourself a solid fighting chance at making it as a writer. You’ll be able to think on your game plan, prepare yourself and take secure steps to ensure your success.

Because success is what you want, isn’t it?

Successful Freelance Writers are Surrounded by Terrible Freelance Writers

It’s true. Successful freelance writers are surrounded by terrible freelance writers. Some of those terrible writers are even making a good living at it. You would be amazed at the number sub-par freelancers who manage to make money. Some of them make idiotic, easy-to-correct mistakes such as sending their proposals on scented pink paper, getting the editor’s name wrong or finishing their assignments long after they are due. Some are sloppy. Some don’t know how to market themselves. Some are just lousy writers.

Most freelance writers who make these kinds of mistakes struggle. They eventually either get better or give up. Others, however, manage to find clients or publishers and make money. They manage to be in the right place at the right time and luck into jobs. Some freelance writers manage to succeed just by showing up.

The lesson here is that it really isn’t that hard to succeed as a freelance writer. If you follow the basic steps of marketing yourself, following instructions when they are given, meeting your deadlines and building relationships with clients, you will have an excellent chance of succeeding. Why? Because you will be competing with so many people who can’t even manage to meet such minimal benchmarks.

It really isn’t that hard to rise above the pack if you do your job well. That is why good writers still make a lot of money, even with all the cheap, desperate competition out there. I have been in a position to judge other writers as an editor, as a publisher, and as an employer. I’ve put up with more than my fair share of low-quality submissions. At times, I’ve had to use writers whose submissions, resumes or portfolios were below my standards, simply because I couldn’t find anyone better. The number of competitors you must face for a given job or assignment is irrelevant. What matters is the quality of your competitors. I am here to tell you that their quality is low.If you are good at what you do, you will find work. If you aren’t good at it, you still might find work. Either way, you won’t know until you try.

Usability: Think in terms of scenarios

When you design a user interface, it helps to think in terms of the scenarios instead of tasks. A task is simply a major or minor event that needs to be accomplished. It’s important, but it doesn’t define the goals and circumstances that guide the user. That’s why it is important to think in terms of scenarios.

A user scenario involves more than just task that is to be accomplished. Scenarios can be general or detailed but they answer such questions as:

  • What are the overall goals of the user?
  • How will the user define success?
  • What level of skill, experience and authority does the user have?
  • Where will the user be when they access the product?
  • What time constraints might the user be under?
  • What influence will stakeholders besides the user have over the final outcome?

These are just a few of the possible considerations that can go into a scenario. The goal is to think in terms of the user instead of in terms of the product and the tasks.