The Blog of John Hewitt

Turnover, Freedom, and Standards

Turnover

At work this week, we are losing one of my favorite and most relied upon coworkers. He’s a programmer who helped build and customize our customer help delivery site. It is a massive site for a massive set of products. Beyond missing him personally, I will miss his understanding of the giant ball of code that keeps our systems running. If you ever doubt the difficulty of this, spend a little time reading this essay at Still Drinking. Last summer, we lost the other programmer who helped build this platform, and so all of the key builders are gone. We have another programmer who replaced the last, and he is good at his job, but the depth of experience with our little beast of a platform went from vast to minimal in the span of less than a year. That is a problem and it will have clear consequences when it comes to future development. I’m not sure if it was avoidable though.

Freedom

GlassesWhy did we lose these guys? I can only speculate, but I think the freedom to create is a big part of it. When the platform was young, there was much to do. As a small group without a lot of people watching over them, they were able to build it with a certain amount of freedom. Did they create the perfect platform? No, there are issues, but they created something good and useful. As time progressed and the visibility of the project got higher, the number of people who wanted a say in how it was built began to grow. Over the past couple years, there have been a lot of people who wanted a say in how this (now high profile) platform moves forward. The programmers were no longer creating in a vacuum. People were watching what they did and for better or worse, telling them what was wrong (real or perceived) with the platform that they built. The freedom to create was gone.

I’ve left a few jobs in my time (sometimes by choice, sometimes not) and one of the overwhelming feelings I’ve gotten every time, is one of freedom. Sure, leaving a job is scary, but when a job ends, so does a wall of rules that have kept you constricted. For a creative person, and most good programmers are endlessly creative, freedom is a necessary tool. I’m not criticizing usability studies, standards, and design oversight. They are an important component of a development project. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance. There are programmers out there who care only about the code. Give them a clear design with a set goal and they can do it. For most though, that much limitation starts to kill their passion for what they do. The desire to be free to create becomes overwhelming. In many cases, people just end up swapping one set of restrictions for another set at a new company, but even that can be better. At least the restrictions were there when you got there, rather than imposed along the way.

Standards

It is the same for writers as for programmers. At my job, I am the leader of the technical communications standards committee (I named us the Standards Heroes). We discuss and vote on everything from broad concepts to nit-picky word choices for our technical communications strategy. Some people might think I am a strange choice for this. I am not a member of the grammar police, as anyone who reads this site knows. In a way though, it is why I belong at the top of that standards heap. I don’t want to overburden us with rules. I want there to be a certain amount of freedom to create, even in a technical atmosphere. I understand that there are some writers, like some programmers, who only want to know exactly what to do and exactly how to do it, but I want to leave room for creative people who just want a path to guide them, not walls to limit them.

What do you think? What is the best balance between rules, standards, oversight, and the freedom to be creative?

What I’m Reading

Rachel Rachelle Gardner over at Books and Such has a nice article about How to Work With a Freelance Editor.

Some good advice:

  • Use it as a learning experience.
  • Make the changes yourself.
  • Start with an evaluation of the first few chapters.

Janice Hardy over at Fiction University discusses Balancing the Number of Characters and the Scale of Your World.

She talks about social hierarchies and bonds between social groups, using a school classroom as an analogy. She also shows some of the ways you can demonstrate the size of a community even without having a flood of characters.

Leslie Jordan Clary over at Make a Living Writing writes about How I Found a Steady Stream of Writing Clients in 9 Months Flat

I agree with her advice about developing a niche. I think it is important to have a writing focus that people can know you for. I make my living as a technical writer with a web development background. I’ve never made much of a living writing general articles, even though I have done so on occasion because I enjoy it. I’m not a true freelancer though; I mainly worked on contract and now have a “permanent” gig. Your mileage may vary.

Deb Ng over at Kommein lets people know that Freelancing Doesn’t Look Like This.

She critiques an advertisement for “freelance writing riches” that shows a woman sitting on a rocky beach, typing on a laptop. Beyond that fact that nobody sits for long on a pile of rocks expecting to get work done, she makes the point that a freelancer’s hours are long, clients often don’t pay on time, and people never really think of what you’re doing as a “real job”. I’ve had a couple of deadbeat clients in my time. It is very frustrating. I don’t miss it. As for typing on the beach, I would if I could but I’d prefer bigger, flatter rocks.

Eight Tips for Writing a Division Essay

The purpose of the division essay, also known as the classification essay or the division and classification essay, is to separate things into categories. For example, you might write about diseases that have similar symptoms, or about categories of comedy, or about the causes behind social unrest. The key to a division essay to discuss the differences and delineations between things that are in many ways similar or contribute toward a similar whole. Here are some tips to help you write a division essay:

  • A division essay must contain at least three categories. When you have only two categories, your essay would be classified as compare and contrast.
  • The best division essays find new categories that haven’t already been discussed to death. The three branches of the United States government have been categories a million times. An essay that categorizes the ways the executive branch and the judicial branch interact would be a more original approach to similar material.
  • Classifications should use the same elements for each item in the category. If you classify one category by size, speed, color and price, you need to classify every category by size, speed, color and price.
  • Give every category an equal amount of attention and discussion. If one categories merits a full page of discussion, all the categories should receive about a page of discussion.
  • Your introduction should mention all of the categories you wish to discuss and mention the criteria you intend to use to differentiate between the categories.
  • Try to be thorough, don’t leave a category out. If it looks like there are too many categories to discuss using the amount of space and time you have available, then look for a less complex topic. For short essays, it is usually better to stick to topics that can be divided into three or four categories.
  • Make sure that your categories can all be divided using the same criteria. If two categories are very similar and the rest are very different, your essay may feel unbalanced.
  • Outlines are useful for most types of essays, but they are especially useful for division essays because they give you the opportunity to quickly review the criteria you are using to differentiate each category. Make sure that, you have researched and identified the key comparison points for each category.

Fiction

Here are a few articles I’ve written about fiction writing.

  1. Plotting by Elimination
  2. What to Do Once the Crisis is Settled
  3. Maintaining your Novel’s Pace-Time Continuum
  4. Explaining the unreliable narrator
  5. Formatting a short story for submission to a potential publisher
  6. Creating a believable world
  7. Developing an idea into a novel
  8. How to Write a 50,000 Word Novel in a Month
  9. Deciding on a Narrative Voice
  10. There is no right way to write a novel
  11. Six Quick Tips For Starting Your Story
  12. Six Quick Tips for Writing Descriptions
  13. Six quick ways to jump start a stalled novel
  14. Questions you should ask yourself when you are describing things for a story
  15. How Setting Influences Story
  16. How Good is Your Bad Guy?
  17. Building Better Novels Through Conflict
  18. 10 days of character building wrap up
  19. Character Bio Sheets
  20. Mapping out your novel’s characters
  21. Twelve questions that will help you create your character
  22. Basing characters on real people
  23. Building characters through adversity
  24. Exploring characters through their possessions
  25. Creating a character biography
  26. Building Characters by Brainstorming
  27. Using interviewing to create fictional characters
  28. Using a normal day to define your character
  29. Building a character from multiple perspectives
  30. Are Your Characters Well Spoken, or is it Just You?
  31. Creating a role-playing character biography

A List of Essay Writing Don’ts

Topic / Research

  • Don’t try to solve the mysteries of the world in an essay. Stick to topics that you can handle in the space and time provided to you.
  • Don’t write about a topic you don’t understand. Pick a topic you can write intelligently about and take the time to research your topic before writing your essay.
  • Don’t use web sites as your only sources. Read some actual books or academic papers.
  • Don’t make things up.
  • Don’t include irrelevant information.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over. Sometimes your initial approach won’t work. Recognize that and move on.
  • Don’t feel like you have to agree with the experts.
  • Don’t plagiarize.
  • Don’t forget to answer a question.

Style

  • Don’t provide lengthy plot summaries or paraphrases.
  • Don’t provide a collection of generic declarations and cliches.
  • Don’t use overly long quotations.
  • Don’t pad your writing. Take the space to say everything that is necessary, but don’t use a paragraph to provide a sentence worth of material.
  • Don’t misuse the thesaurus or convince yourself that big fancy words will make your essay sound more academic or intelligent.
  • Don’t be afraid to write in the first person, but remember that your voice must fit the material and the audience.
  • Don’t use slang or unnecessary technical jargon. If you must use an obscure term, take the time to define and explain it.
  • Don’t try too hard to be funny. Some humor may work in an essay, but going overboard can make your topic and you look foolish.
  • Don’t try to imitate others. Just write cleanly and correctly in your own voice.
  • Don’t just spout a list of facts or statistics. Take the time to analyze the information you are presenting.
  • Don’t forget to let your personality and ideas about the topic guide the way you write.
  • Don’t brag or put down other people.

Editing

  • Don’t turn in your first draft.
  • Don’t forget to proofread.
  • Don’t rely exclusively on your computer to check your spelling. Read through what you have written. Read it out loud and listen to the way your paper sounds.
  • Don’t be afraid of revision. Sometimes it takes a while to find the true focus of your essay. Once you find it, you may need to make major changes to create your best essay.

Formatting

  • Don’t hand-write your essay.
  • Don’t use subheadings before every paragraph.
  • Don’t use a font that is too large or too small
  • Don’t use colored or oddly-sized paper.
  • Don’t turn in an essay that is messy or poorly formatted.

Chapbook Publishing

What is a chapbook?

A chapbook is a book that created by folding standard 8 1/2 x 11 (The size varies outside of the United States) paper in half so that you create a shape close to that of a common paperback book. By doing this, a single sheet of paper yields four pages of a book. You then bind the multiple pages together by stapling along the crease of the sheets of paper. A mere eight sheets of paper can create a 32 page chapbook. Because of the limitations of the stapling and folding process, chapbooks tend to run about 32 pages and rarely more than 64 pages. In addition to standard sheets of paper, you may wish to create a cover using thicker (and perhaps glossy) cover-stock paper.

What are the advantages of a chapbook?

The primary advantage of a chapbook is that it can be created cheaply using a computer, a word processing or desktop publishing program, and a printer. This means that you can produce as many or as few books as you need. Poetry chapbooks are accepted in the poetry community and many poetry competitions accept chapbooks as entries.

What are the disadvantages of a chapbook?

The primary disadvantage of a chapbook is that most retail bookstores will not sell it. Because chapbooks do not have spine wide enough to print a title on, they cannot easily be found on the bookshelf. Also, if you wish to produce a chapbook yourself, that means you will have to write, edit, design, print, and bind the book yourself. Many people lack the skill or the motivation to do these things themselves. It is possible to have a professional print shop produce the chapbook for you, but that will add to the expense and you will have to order a set run of books. There are also online services such as Lulu who will publish one for you, but again, if your goal is cheap this may not get you what you want.

Once I create a chapbook, what can I do with it?

You can sell it through your web site. You can bring it to sell at poetry readings (even open mike nights). You can enter it in poetry contests and you can produce it so cheaply that you can even give it away if you want to.