Author: Dachary Carey

Choosing the best writing tool

Business Writing

Choosing the best writing tool

In my recent technical writing job search and interviewing process, I’ve encountered a lot of discussion around tooling. I always ask about the toolchain for a position I’m considering, and I’m happy to talk tools all day long. But the truth is, I’m tool agnostic. My questions about toolchain aren’t about deciding if you use a tool I like; they’re about discovering the maturity of your process.

That’s because there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all writing tool.

I had an interviewer ask me recently: “When you sit down at the computer to write, what app do you open?” He seemed a little surprised when I responded: “That depends entirely on what I’m writing.” Here’s why:

Different writing tools are designed for different tasks. There are also a lot of ancillary tools related to writing tasks that a writer might need to use in the course of the job.

Word processors

When the general public thinks about writing on a computer, they typically picture a word processor, such as Microsoft Office or Apple’s Pages. I’m also seeing more and more enterprises using Google Docs for basic word-processing tasks, as part of G Suite adoption within the orgs.

Currently, I don’t use word processors very often. I’d typically fire this type of app up when working on a simple article or marketing piece. The majority of the time these days, I’m only using a word processor when editing something a client has sent me. It’s fine for simple revision work, or working with simple content, but if you’re hiring a technical writer and you want complex deliverables in Microsoft Word, I might run the other direction.

(Not because I don’t know how to use the more advanced functionality of these tools, like Table of Contents, etc. – but because this isn’t the best tool for long-form or sophisticated content needs, and if it’s the tool you rely on, that tells me a lot about your organization’s documentation processes. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…)

Long-form writing

One of my favorite writing apps ever is Scrivener. I’ve spent a fair amount of my time over the years drafting long-form content; think novels and business books.

I think it is the single best writing tool for long-form content out there; it has amazing support for organizing and re-ordering content, revision workflow, storing relevant research and notes within the app, and more advanced features to help you tackle even the most complex long-form writing project.

And the compiling options… so many compiling options.

If you’re a single person working on long-form writing projects, Scrivener is the way to go.

Unfortunately, it’s really not great for collaboration. And if you’re doing a project that requires complex page layouts, that’s not where Scrivener shines. I suspect most business users have never even heard of it; it’s really more of a lone novelist’s tool. But I heart it so much.

Text editors

When the technical writing gets more technical, I turn to simple text editors. Recently, I worked on some API documentation using GitHub-flavored Markdown, which I committed to a private repo on GitHub, so I used Atom for this project. It’s simple, displays Markdown and code nicely and makes it easy to spot potential problems. Atom does a good job of ‘helping’ with auto-complete and spotting properly-formed (and improperly-formed) syntax.

When I’m working on simple code, JSON, XML, Markdown, CSS or HTML, I use Atom. It’s my preferred tool when doing the more technical type of technical writing. (Until I get to more substantial code manipulation, and then I use an IDE, but that’s more developer-y and is probably an outlier for a pure writer or tech writer.)

I have friends who prefer VS Code, and my husband is a staunch Vim user… there are a lot of opinions about text editors, especially among developers. I’ll leave you all to your holy wars.

I also have a few other text editing apps I use on occasion; iA Writer and MacDown. Because you can never have too many text editors; one for every occasion!


Sometimes, I write directly in a content management system, or CMS. When I’m blogging here, for example, I just write the content directly in WordPress. When I was working for a client who had a help authoring-flavored CMS, I authored that content directly in the CMS. Same for clients I’ve had using Drupal.

I prefer authoring directly in a CMS if I’m creating rich content, with links and images, that will ultimately end up in a CMS; saves overhead vs. drafting it in a word processor, and then fighting with formatting when bringing it into the CMS from another app. (Unless I’m working in Markdown, and the CMS supports Markdown. Then I might just draft the content in my text editor.)

You’ll note I don’t have a separate section for wikis. I don’t make a distinction between a wiki and other types of CMSs; from a technical writer’s standpoint, a wiki is just another type of CMS. Granted, a wiki is supposed to encourage collaboration, so you may have more contributors, and effectively managing content there may require more process. But that’s another digression…


Some clients need a sophisticated authoring solution like a help-authoring tool, or HAT. HATs are great if you need to single-source content, create conditional content, or want to output in specific/multiple formats. MadCap Flare, Adobe RoboHelp, Author-It, and Oxygen XML Author are all HATs.

HATs are great for a single technical writer, or a team of technical writers, working to produce help documentation. Things get more complicated if you want a tool that enables easy collaboration outside of the technical writing team, such as collaboration with SMEs. More sophisticated (and expensive) authoring tools support collaboration well, too, but may add cost in terms of adding seats for SMEs, or complexity, in terms of requiring SMEs to work with docs in a specific way.

One company I’ve talked with during my interviewing process uses Flare for their authoring, which is a tool I quite like, but they manage open source projects, and they’re struggling with finding the right process to get open source documentation into Flare. The workflow they’re using is to have the technical writers manually pull in content from PRs into Flare in order to update open source docs, but this type of workaround a trade-off and something to consider when selecting tooling.

API documentation

The API documentation project I recently completed was quite simple, so I just used Atom to manually draft the docs. I’ve added a REST Client package to my Atom install, which is very basic, but gets the job done. I did install and poke Insomnia, which is a more robust REST client with a focus on documentation, but I didn’t need those capabilities for the small project I just wrapped.

On the other end of the API documentation spectrum, you have something like Swagger, which is an API development tool that also has some documentation elements, such as being able to automatically generate components of API docs, or ensuring API docs stay up-to-date as the API changes. I see it in a lot of job postings, and it’s a valuable tool for developing and documenting complex APIs.

Charts and presentations

By far the most common charting and diagramming tool I see in job descriptions is Microsoft Visio, which makes me a little sad. Microsoft products get the job done, but… well, I’ll refrain from further comment until I’m in a longer-term gig where I know I won’t have to use them. But my preferred charting tool is OmniGraffle, and it’s the one I will continue to use for my personal projects for the foreseeable future.

And then you have presentations, which, sadly, have been the bane of offices everywhere from the very first PowerPoint presentation… and will continue to be so, because sometimes a presentation (or slide deck) really is the best tool for the job. As a long-time Mac user, I prefer Apple’s Keynote, but can use either. And let’s not forget Google Slides, which is the G Suite answer to presentations.

Graphic editing, screen-capturing and video editing tools

Good documentation isn’t just words. People are attracted to interesting and engaging pictures, and sometimes a picture can illustrate a point far more efficiently and effectively than words. And video can be a great way to demonstrate a complex flow, or can serve as an alternative to documents for people who are more visual learners.

As a documentarian, sometimes it becomes my job to create or edit those pictures and graphics, capture screenshares to illustrate flow, and even create and edit video. I own and routinely use a ton of tools related to this aspect of the job, and have used many more over the years, but here’s a sampling:

There are also some great stock image sites where you can get affordable images to use in documentation; I routinely use those in my personal project sites.

Project management and issue trackers

Writing often entails some form of project management. There are a variety of reasons to use project management tools and issue trackers, from keeping track of incoming requests, to providing transparency to management about what’s in-progress, to being able to show conversations about a specific deliverable.

Most recently, I’ve used Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, Jira, GitHub Issues/Projects and Trello for project management and issue tracking. I’m partial to Jira, but they each have their quirks, and I’m basically just a worker bee using whatever the organization uses. But I do strongly believe having one of these tools in place helps organizations of all sizes stay organized and on-top of outstanding tasks, and using this type of tool is something I look for when interviewing.

I also rely heavily on project management and issue tracking tools to provide transparency in an organization around workload and productivity. Working remotely requires an extra level of trust, and having a shared project management tool where other members of an organization can see the current workload broken down – and watch tickets progress through the columns – can help promote that trust. But there’s a whole lot more I could unpack around this… I really need to write more about working remotely.

Collaboration tools

Let’s not forget collaboration tools, whether you’re talking messaging tool (Slack) or shared workspace tools (Confluence, Notion). Collaboration is key to getting anything done as a technical writer. Maybe you’re collaborating with SMEs, or your department, or cross-departmentally among the org. Maybe you’re collaborating with freelance or contract workers.

There are a lot of contexts where collaboration tools are useful, and breaking things down to a particular level of granularity can be helpful; i.e. a shared workspace for each project, or a collaboration tool where you can lock-down access when you’re working with external providers.

I’ve used Slack in every technical writing gig I’ve had since 2016, but I’ve rarely been a part of an org that uses workspace collaboration tools. More advanced collaboration tools can speak to a maturity of process, but they can also indicate unnecessary overhead in a large organization. I always try to find out more about how these are being used when I encounter them in a workplace, because their mere presence isn’t enough to accurately telegraph a company’s process maturity.

Source control, static site generators and command-line tools

On the more technical end of things, you have tech writers set up more like developers, with source control and local development environments for compiling static site generators and viewing the output of Markdown or other text files. I generally have the command line open for using git and serving static sites as I draft them, and the occasional foray into documenting a CLI or poking a piece of software.

Some technical writers never get into this level of technical complexity; I spent years at gigs where I never had to touch a command line and there was no source control; while other technical writers I know deal with this and more complex tooling and workflow on a daily basis.

In my experience, the more tightly coupled a technical writer is with a software development team, the more likely they are to be working in this type of environment. Tech writers that are more embedded in Product, Customer Services or other parts of the org are more likely to be using software that abstracts away some of the technical complexity. But that’s obviously not true in every case; there are a wide range of ways technical writers work within an org, so it’s tough to make generalizations about tooling and workflow.

The “best” writing tool changes in context

The one generalization it’s safe to make about technical writing tooling is that the “best” tool varies based on the org, the desired output, SMEs and a broad range of factors. What’s “best” in one org may not work at all in another org. As a writer, the tools I use today may not be the ones I’ll use tomorrow; today I’m working on Markdown files in Atom and running git on the command line, but tomorrow I might be drafting a blog post in a CMS, or working on API documentation.

As a generalist, I enjoy using a wide range of writing tools; that way I can just pick up the best tool for the job when I sit down to start my task.

Real talk: freelance/contract writing

Business Writing

Real talk: freelance/contract writing

Someone in the Write the Docs Slack was asking about things to consider as she pondered transitioning to a freelance/contract technical writing career, and I have Thoughts to share:

Benefits and administrative overhead

Freelance/contract typically means 1099, which means no benefits – no insurance, no matching 401(k), no PTO, and you do your own tax withholding and paying. These things have a real dollar value, so it’s worthwhile to consider what your rate needs to be to make up for the cost of losing those benefits.

Additionally, taking care of these tasks require a lot of administrative overhead that eats into your working time, especially when you’re just starting out and figuring stuff out. So if you want to work a 40-hour week, you may end up working 45-50 hours for a while as you spin up on new knowledge and processes.


You have to be good at selling yourself and your services. This can feel unnatural at first for some people, and if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing that, you may not enjoy the process. You will likely spend a lot of time when starting out figuring out how you want to position yourself, tweaking website/resume copy to appeal to the clients you want, how to screen for clients that are likely to respond to your particular style/skills, etc.

When I first started freelancing, I spent anywhere from 10-20 hours weekly looking for/applying for projects, on top of any hours I was actually working. YMMV, obviously.

Work availability

In terms of working on things you’re passionate about… when you’re doing freelance/contract work, you may not always get that luxury. It’s very feast-or-famine. You may have a lot of work availability at once, or you may have months where you don’t have any projects going on. When you haven’t had anything in the pipeline for a while, you may be more likely to go after projects that don’t excite you just to have some income.

Making your own schedule

Re: making your own schedule: freelance offers some flexibility, but especially if you’re doing contract work, the client may expect you to work a regular 9-5 just like you were a corporate worker. In a lot of contract gigs, you’re expected to behave/function like a company employee, report on-site during regular hours, etc. – so it’s kind of like being an employee without the benefits, and typically on a temporary timeframe. If you’re doing a project-based gig vs. a contract, you may have a little more flexibility in making your own schedule, but there are also fewer of those.

Pitfalls of the freelance/contract world

There are serious pitfalls possible in the freelance/contract world. There are clients who slow-pay, or never pay at all. (The latter has only happened once to me, but I have had clients drag out billing for months; I’ve fired a few clients for this reason.) I’ve landed gigs, only to have them get canceled at the last minute, and then I have nothing to replace them. Exactly twice, I’ve gotten into a gig, only to find out that the client’s expectations were completely unreasonable and the gig wasn’t going to work out. Bail early in those situations, and I’ve learned to better screen my clients to make sure we’re aligned before starting a project.

Screening clients

First and foremost, I look for a client who either has a strong idea of what they want, or is open to letting me lead the process as the expert; someone who doesn’t know what they want but wants too much control can be an issue. I look for how reasonable their expectations are. Is their project far too vast to accomplish in their stated timeframe? Are they in love with a specific toolchain that isn’t well-suited to their project? Are they flexible in their approach? I start with general questions and then follow up with specifics based on their answers to get a feel for how it would be to work with them, and whether I think what I can deliver will align with their expectations.

In terms of slow-pay and no-pay clients, I look for level of professionalism. Are they an established company, a startup, or someone with a side project? Do they ask for a W-9? Do they have other vendors? How wide is their online scope? If it’s a pretty big company that regularly works with vendors, they probably already have a fixed contract they use and they’ll ask for a W-9 (in the US anyway), and you can probably rely on them to pay – although it may be slow. The issues I’ve had have been with smaller companies, companies that re-org or individuals with side gigs, so I’m a bit more wary about those.

Contract pitfalls

As a freelance/contractor, you typically will not own rights to the work you produce. If it’s public, you may be able to point a future employer at it, but if it’s proprietary, you will not be able to show your work to future employers. This can become a major bummer when you’re hunting your next project/gig – I’ve done some awesome work I can’t show people because the IP belongs to the client. I even wrote a blog post about it a few months ago.

Beware of contracts that generically state that work you do/writing you produce while working for X becomes the property of X. I’ve seen really generic clauses that could apply to work you do outside of the client’s contract while you’re also contracting for the client. The most recent contract I signed had language specific to the work I produce for the client belongs to the client, and work I produce outside of client work is 100% mine, and I’ll be ripping off that language for every future contract.

(Also, when contracting, typically the employer provides the contract; you may get to suggest changes, but usually it’s a pretty fixed thing. If you’re doing stuff on a project basis, or more casual work you pick up from word-of-mouth or off something like a Craigslist, you may have to provide a contract.)

Finally, there’s legal liability. There’s one client I worked with that had language in the contract that said any legal liability for the content I created was my responsibility. i.e. if someone got injured following my directions, I was legally liable, not the company publishing/providing the content. Don’t sign those contracts. You do not want to assume legal liability for some jackass out there who injures himself using a hammer – or a more complex, dangerous power tool.

Where to hunt for freelance/contract work

This has changed for me over the years. Back in the day, I did a lot of work on Elance, which then became oDesk… I don’t know what it is now. I’m also very public about being a writer/tech writer, and have had work come to me from my personal network.

Over time, I got a stable pool of clients, and those clients would recommend me when people they know needed a writer, so I stopped going out looking for work because so much was coming to me. That was probably 2-3 years after I started freelancing.

More recently, I spent two years in a full-time gig, and then took some time off, so I only recently (this year) spun up the work hunt engine again. This time, I’ve found my engagements via Slack. I’ve applied for a lot of things on job hunting sites – LinkedIn, Indeed, Dice, ZipRecruiter, WeWorkRemotely, and have had mixed results with those. I got a couple of offers but they couldn’t meet my rate requirement, but I also got a lot of screening interviews where I never heard back from a hiring manager.

It helps to have strong samples, and be able to speak authoritatively to process; I’m currently working on an open source project in my free time, so I can show examples of my API work when my current engagements finish.

Finally, YMMV but there’s a freelance developer on a Slack where I’m a member, and he routinely posts queries he gets from his Craigslist ads (developer offering services) when he doesn’t have the bandwidth to do them himself, so there may be some traction there; I’m not sure.

Learning to code

Coding Personal

Learning to code

There are a couple of apps I’ve been wanting to write, so the time has come to learn to code! Unsurprisingly, this makes hubby happy, as now I can more readily empathize with the geeky coding plights of a senior web dev.

It’s actually been pretty interesting, so far.

I first taught myself to code in Basic when I was 12 or 13 on a Commodore 128 computer; programs were on floppy disks then, the 5 1/4″ kind. I had a handful of programs that came with the computer, which my family bought used for $400; a lot of money in the early ’90s. (They’d spend $999 on my next computer in the mid-’90s, a Packard Bell Pentium 75mHz machine, running Windows 3.11. I was a lucky little kid.)

Of the programs that came with the Commodore, I adored the text-based adventure games the most. They were a cross between interactive fiction, and what I imagined D&D must be like (having not yet played it, at that point) – and the one I played the most was based on The Hobbit. I loved it so much that I decided I should write my own, so I’d have different adventures to play.

So I dug into the code, figured out how the game was written, copied-and-pasted bits of it, and started writing my own games. Of course, then came debugging, because a 12-year-old copying-and-pasting code is far from bulletproof. So I had to figure out how the code actually worked, so I could fix the bits that broke.

But that was a long time ago, and my first love remained writing, so I never really pursued coding as computers and languages evolved. (Although I did have a side gig in computers when I founded a computer repair business, for a while, which mostly involved replacing dead hardware, doing upgrades for people, or wiping someone’s drive that had gotten all crudded-up with malware and reinstalling Windows.)

Fast forward to today, when there are a couple of apps that have been percolating in the back of my mind for a while. I’ve been waiting for someone to write one of them for a couple of years, but everything that comes along isn’t quite what I want… so now I’m annoyed and fed-up enough that I’m ready to write it myself.

App number one is fairly trivial, and something that I really just want to use myself; I don’t care if another person ever buys it. But that app should serve as training wheels for the more important app I want to write; one that will hopefully be useful to an entire industry.

Right now, I’m working my way through Swift Playgrounds to get some of the basic fundamentals under my belt. I’m also reading a couple of books. Maybe this time I’ll make it through Chris Pine’s Learn to Program, a great beginner book hubby gifted to me ages ago. From there, I’ve got a couple of other courses lined up.

Happily, I’m already familiar with the logic behind programming; some of my work as a technical writer has been to explain that logic to non-programmers, so they can use a very technical app whose interface was developed by engineers, not UI/UX folks. And I remember some of the basics from my old days mucking about in Basic; conditionals and loops are conditionals and loops, 25 years ago or today.

Wish me luck as I dive into this side project! I’m still looking for a paying technical writing gig to cover the bills, but this is a fun way to expand my skills while I hunt for the right fit. And maybe I can bring in a little side income from the apps I’ll write.

If nothing else, I always enjoy stretching my brain and learning new skills, and it’s fun to come full-circle from my early days in computing and dip my toes into coding again.

The downside of works-for-hire, NDAs and dead links


The downside of works-for-hire, NDAs and dead links

I’m applying for jobs again, which brings me once again to the Hell that is “provide links to your work.”

There are three reasons that’s not a simple request, and I dread this question:

  1. I’ve written literally thousands of pieces of content as works-for-hire. This means that I do not retain rights to those works. In many cases, they are posted under someone else’s name. They may contain proprietary information. My best pieces have been written as works-for-hire, which means I cannot share those pieces with potential employers/clients. It’s a bummer.
  2. NDAs. In the corporate world, NDAs are common. I’ve spent years of my life writing for clients with literally nothing to show for my effort, because those works have been protected by NDAs. When I apply with corporate clients, or clients who want to see my business or technical writing content, I simply can’t show samples because that content is restricted under NDAs.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, the web is not forever. From 2007 to 2016 or so, I maintained a freelance writing website with portfolio links to articles I had written. It was awesome, because I could simply link clients to relevant content when interviewing. But businesses went out of business; people changed web hosts and URLs, and much of that portfolio turned into broken links. So I took it down, because curating and maintaining a working list became a major time sink.

So now, when I fill out forms asking for links to my prior work, I basically end up saying ad infinitum “I can’t provide working links, but I can send you some PDFs.” Or “I can’t provide samples because of NDAs and works-for-hire, but trust me, I’ve written a ton in that industry and it was really good stuff.”

If you’re thinking about hiring me, but you need to see a specific type of sample, chances are good that I’ve got a PDF somewhere I can share. Please let me know what you want to see, and I’ll find a relevant sample and send it over.

And if you absolutely have to see corporate samples that I’ve written under an NDA… I can redact something heavily and send it to you to give you an idea of my organization and structuring capabilities, but don’t expect to learn any insider info. I take the legal status of my works seriously.

Looking for a new (meaningful) writing gig

Business Personal

Looking for a new (meaningful) writing gig

At the beginning of August, I said farewell to the company where I’ve been contracting for the past two years. I worked with a great team, but I’d gotten burned out and it was time to take a break and then look at what I want to do next.

My plan had been to focus on publishing and doing my own writing full-time whenever I left that contract gig, but… I haven’t built up the publishing to the point where it can pay all the bills yet, and frankly, it feels a little frivolous to me at this moment in time.

Given everything going on in the world… I want to do something a bit more meaningful. I want to use my writing skill-set to do something with more impact.

I stumbled across the high-impact job board at 80,000 hours; they say:

They’re all high-impact opportunities at top organisations that are working on some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The types of problems that these organizations work on are definitely interesting, and direly need to be addressed. Things like; positively shaping the development of artificial intelligence; biorisk reduction; promoting effective altruism; improving institutional decision-making; all these things are big-picture, high-impact problems where I’d find the work a lot more meaningful than making another rich company richer. Or maybe something with some social impact, like working on gender equality, or LGBT rights, or something along those lines.

I’m currently looking around to see what’s out there. But if you’re reading this, and you happen to know an organization working on a meaningful problem that could use a writer, I’d love for you to reach out. Drop me a message via my contact form.

Wish me luck!

A sincere plea


A sincere plea

Tl;dr: latest school shooting hits too close to home; this sh*t has got to stop.

I owned a house 10 minutes from there. If the ex-husband and I had kids, they would have gone to that school. I have family who have lived in that area a long time, and family that still live there. I know it’s a cliche that no-one expects bad things will happen to them, but this hits way too close to home.

I have been very conspicuously silent on all these types of things, except to say my hearts go out to all those affected.

Time to break my silence. You strike near my heart, I can’t not say something.

All the people who politicize these shootings? You’re horrible people. Period.

School shootings, and mass shootings in general, are NOT a “good excuse” to resurrect those same old gun control arguments you’ve been fighting for years. People are entrenched in their beliefs around the issue, and there is no dialogue happening – just trying to shout down the other side.

Here’s the thing: THIS. CANNOT. CONTINUE.

I have nieces and nephews in school, and who are going into school soon. I have friends with kids. This issue affects people that I care about, and we as a society need to STEP UP.

This needs to stop being a shouting match about gun control. We need to take real steps toward ending the violence that has become a daily issue for our kids to face. It is ridiculous and sickening that our young children have to think about whether they might die today. That they have to drill and learn skills on how to be silent and hide in school when someone goes on a shooting spree. We need to stop accepting this. It is not acceptable.

We need to stop looking for a scapegoat or an easy solution that blames everyone else.

“It’s guns in every household.”
“It’s violent video games.”
“It’s bad parenting.”
“It’s bullying.”

Let me just get this out of the way…

I was bullied every day in elementary and middle school, and I HATED the boy who bullied me.

I’ve played violent video games as long as “modern” video games were a thing, starting with Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein in the 90s (all first-person shooters).

There was at least one gun in my household growing up, if not more.

My mom, bless her heart, was a drug addict; I saw things that no child should ever have to see, and was raised (most of the time) by my grandparents.

Never once in my life, never in my deepest, darkest psyche, did I have even a hint of a suggestion that I should take the handgun in my household and shoot the boy who bullied me, or any of the other people in my life who made it unhappy.

Gun violence and school shootings are WAY more complicated than finding one or even a few rallying points to shout about ineffectively while we watch our children die.

We need to get to whatever underlying sickness has infected our society, and we need to treat it. We need to stop shouting and FIGURE THIS OUT.

We need to get our best psychologists and sociologists on the case and have them figure out how it ever got to this point.

We need to pay teachers more, and make sure they have the time and emotional capacity to really *listen* to our kids, and help them learn the empathy and social skills that let us live together in a functional society.

We need to make sure parents have the time and emotional capacity to spend time with their kids, and provide good examples, and help them learn the empathy and social skills that let us live together in a functional society.

(This probably means parents working fewer hours, because the parents I know tend to be overworked and exhausted; we need to figure out a way to collectively help our fellow humans, because individually, we only have so much capacity.)

We need to make it easier for parents to access special needs resources and mental health services for their children, to give them the help they need when challenges come up. We can’t all be experts in everything, and parents should have access to these experts when they need them.

We need to find a way to reduce the roles that television and technology play in our lives, because this stuff is damaging and diminishing the personal connections that teach us how to interact with and value other human beings.

We need to level the playing field, so kids and their families are starting from a more even footing, with the same access to educational resources, healthy food, and a world in which anyone really can do anything. Right now, racial, economical, gender-based and other differences and tensions make things very unequal.

There are SO MANY FACTORS that are contributing to this gun violence crisis, and I don’t pretend to be an expert or to have all the answers. I DO want us to start having a real dialogue, and start making real changes, instead of just repeating the same old “take away all the guns” “over my cold, dead body” arguments we’ve been having for years.

We HAVE to address this. Now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not five years from now; it is time to sit down and FIGURE THIS OUT.

We are already diminished as a species, because we’re making our small children worry about whether they’re going to die today at school; this is already doing lasting damage to an entire generation of children. But we’ll be doomed as a species if we can’t figure out how to keep our young people safe.

And personally, I’m literally worried sick about the children I care about in my life; and I can’t imagine how parents find the fortitude to send their children off to school every day with this hanging over us.

We need to make it stop.

Unnecessarily gendered language

Language Personal

Unnecessarily gendered language

I was chatting with someone the other day, and caught myself using “guys” – as in, “you guys” – when talking with a woman about her relationship with her wife. I’ve been sensitive to using that word for years now, and I stopped myself, explained that it was one of those unfortunate verbal habits I’ve been trying to break, and re-framed the inquiry with “you ladies.”

This is one of MANY examples of a time I’ve gotten frustrated lately with how unnecessarily gendered our language is.

Why does gender matter when you’re using a common phrase?

I know plenty of people who don’t understand why it bothers me so much that I use “guys” by default to refer to more than one person; particularly in a mixed-gender group. Those people argue that “guys” is understood to mean “people” and isn’t intended to be offensive to women.

I have two fundamental problems with that.

First, and most personal to me, as I age, I’m becoming more and more of a feminist. I’m noticing more and more ways in which our society is unequal toward women, and it’s bothering me more every day, with every new observation of how unfair things are. I know this isn’t new to other people, but it’s new to me, and it’s fueling an increasing sense of injustice in me, so even these “inoffensive” assumptions in our language are becoming offensive to me.

I am not a guy. I am a woman. If you want to use a gender-specific term to refer to a mixed-gender group, why shouldn’t everyone be “ladies” instead? Of course I know that would never be accepted (although I loved the nod to this in Tandy’s attempt to be “woke” in Last Man On Earth), and I’m not seriously asserting it’s a better solution, but it’s an equally viable option. It’s equivalent. So ask yourself why that would never be accepted, and you’ll understand a bit of why I find it unjust.

Second, out of sensitivity to others, just don’t apply unnecessary gender labels when you don’t have to. Period.

Why does this matter?

When you’re addressing an individual or a group, you may have no idea how those people identify themselves. Applying an unnecessarily gendered label may be very uncomfortable for them, even if you don’t mean it in a literal sense.

Take my “guys” example above.

I know a trans person who has sometimes had a hard time “passing” as a woman. People would sometimes identify her as male when we were out in public – using words like “sir” etc. when speaking to her. That made her feel miserable. Trans people are already far more aware of gender identity than cisgendered folks; calling unnecessary attention to gender identity in every day scenarios where it simply doesn’t matter is almost cruel.

If someone had addressed a group she was in as “guys” – that could set up a whole chain of negative thoughts. “Did I not pass again? Ugh, this sucks…” etc. Even if the person addressing the group didn’t mean it literally, it’s like probing an open wound. (I happen to know that this individual isn’t bothered by “guys” in a literal sense, but there are enough other unnecessarily gendered interactions that I’m always sensitive to it when I hear myself use the term.)

So, in this example, wouldn’t ladies be just as bad – but in the other direction? Doesn’t “ladies” unnecessarily gender a group of people, who may be equally sensitive to gender identity in an inverse way? Or even just somewhere on a spectrum; neither trans nor cis but something in between.

Sir, ma’am, ladies, gentlemen, guys, dudes, boys, girls; we are all people. Sometimes it’s useful to refer to gender identity, like when you’re discussing health concerns with a doctor – but I don’t see why it should matter in any other context. Certainly not in the millions of every day interactions in which we unnecessarily gender a person, or even an inanimate object. (Why are cars, boats, and the sea “her?” None of the reasons I’ve heard are flattering…)

This is something I’ll continue to work on in my own language and interactions with people. And I hope it’s something other people will begin to think about more as they go through the world and have these little interactions.

To business card, or not to business card


To business card, or not to business card

Silly thing, I know… but I don’t have business cards anymore. I’ve had so many business cards over the years, in various incarnations, that when I made the decision to stop promoting my freelance career, I abandoned my old cards and made an intentional decision not to get new ones printed. I didn’t want cards for Bright Little Light Press yet, since I’m basically a one-woman house and imposter syndrome and all that stuff. I figured I’d probably get some printed eventually when we get bigger and I want to start accepting submissions, potentially hiring, etc. And I didn’t feel that personal cards were particularly relevant, as I wasn’t promoting my freelance career anymore.

But… also, there’s an element of wanting to be a bit more discretionary with my contact info. I’ve been more than happy to sit down with people over the years who wanted to pick my brain and learn from me… but I’ve also spent a LOT of hours in one-way exchanges where I give, and don’t get anything back from the other people. Since I started the publishing thing, I wanted to be more mindful of my time, and I also wanted to avoid the “all the writers who want to get published trying to reach out” element that can quickly become a major time-sink.

And, here’s the thing… as a woman, and someone who grew up in the Midwest where we’re super nice… I’m really bad at saying no. I don’t know how to say no to a contact request without being awkward. So, if I didn’t have business cards, I could just say “Sorry, I don’t have business cards, give me yours and I’ll reach out to you.”

Well, that’s dumb.

I’m currently smack in the middle of a great conference – Publishing University 2018, put together by IBPA. And yeah, there have been people I’ve chatted with that I don’t necessarily want to connect with… but there have also been some great people with whom I’d be happy to stay in touch. I went to a “Women in Publishing” breakfast meetup this morning, and it was a group of wonderful, professional peers with whom I’d be happy to have an ongoing relationship. And they all had cards but me. Which they passed around the table, while I apologized and promised to email them.

One of the things we chatted about was the boundary issue. It was wonderful/sad to hear that I’m not the only person who’s had this problem, but it was also really informative how different people have handled it. And I realized it’s time for me to practice saying ‘no’ – so I can also say ‘yes’ when I want to.

Next time I go to a conference, I’ll bring cards. In fact, scratch that – when I get home, I’ll go to Moo and get cards made so I always have them and don’t have to think about it next time I want to make a connection. And if I don’t want to make the connection, I’ll politely decline, or perhaps direct them to an alternative resource that can answer their questions.

My strange caffeine detox journey

Lifestyle Personal

My strange caffeine detox journey

If you know me at all, you know I’m a devoted coffee snob. I have an AeroPress at home and a second one at the office where I’ve been contracting for almost a year. I have not one, but two expensive burr grinders so I can always brew from fresh beans (one at home, one at the office). I temp the water before I brew. (Different beans extract ideally at different temps – I generally prefer anywhere from 85C to 95C depending on the bean, but 92C seems to be about my sweet spot.) And I buy rather expensive single-source beans from a local roaster.

So it came as a big surprise to my friends and family when, leading up to Memorial Day Weekend, I announced my intent to do a caffeine detox.

It started as my attempt to give up diet soda – I’d usually drink Coke Zero at lunch and dinner, and sometimes extra Coke Zero throughout the day. I know the chemicals in that stuff are going to kill me someday, so I decided I wanted to stop drinking it. Soda entirely, really – the diet stuff is full of chemical crap, and the non-diet stuff is jam-packed with unnecessary sugar, and I really don’t need any of that in my life. Plus, I lost a bunch of weight when I stopped drinking soda in 2005, so I thought it might be a good way to jump-start a healthier lifestyle again.

When I was thinking about it giving up soda, though, I realized I’d gotten entirely too accustomed to drinking a lot of caffeine, period. I’d start my workday with a latte. I’d have Coke Zero at lunch. I’d have a latte or a mocha mid-afternoon when I started feeling sleepy at the office. I’d have Coke Zero at dinner. Sometimes, when we’d eat out, I’d have a coffee with dessert. Basically, caffeine every few hours from morning ’til bedtime. I thought: “You know, while I’m trying to clean up my soda-drinking habits, maybe I should just stop drinking caffeine entirely. Just for a little while. Get through the withdrawal, and then drink less of it when I start drinking it again.”

So I did.

I planned to start over Memorial Day Weekend, because I’d have an extra day off and I knew I’d have massive headaches due to the caffeine withdrawal.

I was right.

The extra day off wasn’t really enough. I ended up working at home for a couple of days once the weekend was over. It wasn’t until an entire week had passed since I last drank caffeine that the headaches let up. And we’re talking migraine-level headaches for days 2-4, and then pretty bad headaches from 5-7. It was no walk in the park.

Week two was about feeling exhausted, all the time. I never really thought about what that must be doing to my body – how every time I started to get tired during the day, I’d just add some more caffeine. As a result, I had unconsciously programmed my body that whenever it sent me a sleepy signal, I’d just give it a chemical upper. I had completely messed with my body’s natural energy cycle, and it didn’t really know what to do once the caffeine wasn’t coming in again.

I’d wake up feeling relatively ok. But by the time an hour had passed – when I’d normally be drinking my morning latte or coffee – my eyelids didn’t want to stay up on their own. I had NO energy. I just wanted to go back to bed. Mid-morning, I’d be dragging. But mid-afternoon, when I always tend to get sleepy, was the worst. I’d literally be staring at my computer, and no matter how much effort I put into keeping my eyelids open, they would not stay open. I never fell asleep at my desk, but there were times when I’d sit there with my eyelids closed because I just literally couldn’t keep them open. I’d give them thirty seconds and force them open again, or go for a walk to try to get some blood flowing and give me some energy. But I think week two was even harder than the headaches – I could barely focus, and there’s something really debilitating about just being exhausted all the time.

By week three, I’d gotten a little apprehensive about what was going to come next. Was it going to be headaches again? Was the perpetual exhaustion about to descend on me again? When neither manifested, I thought: hey, maybe that’s it. Maybe the withdrawal is done. I started thinking about when I might start drinking caffeine again, and what form that might take.

One day, in the afternoon, I was feeling sleepy and also craving chocolate, so I thought about getting myself a hot chocolate. I know hot chocolate has caffeine in it. I did some spelunking to determine how much. Turns out, it depends. Generally, anywhere from 5mg to 20mg of caffeine in a hot cocoa, versus 80mg to 200mg in coffee, depending on the bean and the brewing method. I decided that was benign enough, so I treated myself to a hot cocoa around mid-week during week three.

MAN, I felt that caffeine!

That hot chocolate tasted effing amazing. And I felt SO GREAT after I drank it. I felt like I could do ALL THE THINGS. My mood lifted, I had so much more energy and focus, and I was super productive for the rest of the afternoon.

That’s when I realized two things:

  1. Wow, the body really adjusts quickly to not having caffeine. I thought I’d barely feel it, because I’d been drinking so much caffeine before, but let me tell you I felt the results and was very aware that the caffeine was affecting me.
  2. Oh shit. This might be worse than I realize. If even a little hot cocoa makes me feel this way, I’m going to have to be damn careful about how I re-introduce caffeine to my life. Maybe I shouldn’t drink caffeine again at all?

I wrestled with that for a few days. On Sunday, about five days after the hot cocoa and a little ways into week four, I decided to try a latte from one of my favorite local coffee shops. I was going to be deliberate about it – we sat there and had breakfast, and I savored the crap out of it. It was one of the most amazing coffee-drinking experiences I’ve ever had. And I realized: mindful coffee drinking is even more mind-blowing than habitual caffeine consumption. (This was the latte in the picture at the top of the post. Yes, I took a picture of it. It tasted even better than it looks.)

The rest of that day was amazing. I was SO PRODUCTIVE. I did a million chores, and got a bunch of writing stuff done, and didn’t feel like napping at 3 o clock or any of the normal stuff.

Then, when night rolled around, I was still feeling pretty energetic when it was time to go to bed. I forced myself to lie down, but my brain wouldn’t shut off – I laid there tossing and turning for a couple of hours, just thinking about everything and nothing, because my brain was too busy for sleep.

The next day was rough. And I knew it was because of the caffeine. I could still feel it in my system 24 hours after I drank it. But by the time mid-afternoon had rolled around – around 30-32 hours post caffeine – I was crashing. I think most of it had left my system, and combined with the lack of sleep the night before, I was exhausted. I barely made it through the rest of the day, and I canceled my evening plans because I just didn’t have brain.

Then I started to wonder if I should really be drinking caffeine anymore. If one latte, drank first thing in the morning, could have that effect – should I even be ingesting this stuff, period?

But I enjoyed it so much. And I had felt so productive and focused.

When Thursday of that week rolled around, I was absolutely dragging. I woke up feeling really cranky and grumpy. I could barely keep my eyes open. I made a decision: I’m going to get a mocha this morning. I want the chocolate and caffeine, for the mood elevation and to help me wake up. Otherwise, work is going to be very unpleasant, not just for me, but for anyone who encounters me.

It was a good call. That mocha was amazing. By the time I got to work, I was happy and chatty. (Mildly obnoxious, too – I announced to at least a half dozen people that I’d had a mocha that morning, and I even made it my Slack status. I had previously shared with people at work that I was caffeine detoxing, so I wanted to let them all know the good news when I started drinking it again. In retrospect, I may have been mildly caffeine-high.)

In the end, I didn’t regret drinking that mocha at all. I’d made a very intentional decision to have it, because I wanted it (and perhaps because I felt I needed it), and it had the desired effect.

Now here we are into week five. It’s Sunday, and I’ve just bought a mocha again. This is my third caffeine-based beverage in about four and a half weeks. (Well, really, my third in the last week, because that’s when I started drinking them again – last Sunday.)

I thought, when I walked up the street to pick it up, that I finally had it figured out.

I could have coffee-based drinks when I wanted them, and ONLY then. Not when I felt I needed them. Not when I was feeling sleepy, or tired, or cranky. Not out of any sort of craving or habitual need – I’d gotten used to lattes every morning, and again every afternoon/evening, and I don’t want to get back to that state. Only when I deliberately, mindfully, WANTED a coffee-based drink should I have one. I was pretty happy with that decision while I was sipping my mocha on the way home.

But now that I’m sitting here, typing this out and thinking about my reactions, I’m wondering if that’s really a good call. I made the decision to have a mocha on Thursday because I was cranky and tired and couldn’t keep my eyes open. Was it really that I WANTED it, or did I feel I needed it?

How much can I trust myself to judge the difference between want and need?

I don’t want to get back to a dependency state, because withdrawal was no good and it can’t be healthy for my body to be going through all that. The migraine-level headaches completely eliminated my ability to do anything substantive in days two through four. The exhaustion I felt during all of week two of my detox made me realize how I’d been putting my body through all kinds of crazy, unnatural swings with the sleepy/caffeine cycle. I feel like the caffeine was just masking the fact that my body was actually tired, and shouldn’t I be listening to my body? Isn’t that the whole point of mindfulness?

There’s also the fact that it feels wonderful to be so focused and productive when I drink caffeine. I feel like I get so much done. (I really do get so much done.) But it also just feels like a better mental state. And how is that different than any of the more serious, less socially-acceptable drugs? It feels like a slippery slope to me. Not that I ever have, or ever would, use “real” drugs – with my family history, that’s just not a thing that would happen. But in terms of how it affects the body, and wondering whether I can trust my mind when I’m making a decision about whether or not to have caffeine – all of the same psychology of addiction applies, I’m beginning to realize.

There’s the added complication that this coffee-consumption is tied into my identity as a writer. I love sitting at my desk, typing away and drinking coffee. It’s a really satisfying ritual. But how much of that is habitual?

And coffee helps me through those lagging cycles, where I want to stop and rest, instead letting me sit in front of my keyboard and just keep on working. But is that the healthiest thing? Shouldn’t I instead get up and talk a walk, or exercise, or nap?

Let’s not forget the fact that coffee and writers go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a huge part of the cultural identity of writers. If I stop drinking coffee entirely, does that mean I’m less a writer than other writers? It does feel alienating.

In short, this is a way more complicated question than I thought it would be when I stopped drinking caffeine on Memorial Day Weekend. The coffee detox was only supposed to be temporary – no more soda, but I’d go back to drinking coffee because I love coffee and I don’t have a medical reason not to.

But now, I have to wonder… is it really that simple? I’ve seen very clear signs of the physical effects, and I don’t think it’s such a straightforward question anymore. So I guess today, I’ll finish drinking this mocha, and savor it, and acknowledge that I have some thinking to do about whether caffeine has a place in my life long-term, and if so, how it will fit in.

Protecting your digital empire


Protecting your digital empire

After some of the conversations I’ve seen lately about backup strategies, I have been reminded that I’m not on my A-game when it comes to backing up my digital assets. It’s not just manuscripts; it’s the book covers, ad images, videos, podcasts and everything else related to the publishing empire. I’ve had bits and pieces backed up here and there, but not a comprehensive strategy.

So hubby and I have just splurged on a Synology (a raid array storage device with redundant drives to back up computers, so even if our computer dies and our backup fails, there’s another backup) and we’ll be syncing it with Backblaze for offsite storage.

Sound like overkill? Here’s the thing: hard drives die. It only takes your computer harddrive dying once to realize you need to back it up regularly. But what if your backup drive dies? Those don’t get the same attention as a computer drive, and you’d be surprised by how often they fail. (The one we’re using right now? Over 10 years old. Statistically, it should have died years ago. Before that, I’ve had two other backup drives fail.)

The raid array means that a backup drive can fail, too, but the information is stored in such a way that the other drives contain enough information to recreate the failed drive’s contents. There’s redundancy across drives, so one drive in the array can fail but the others still have enough data to protect everything.

But then what about a horrible disaster – like what if, God forbid, your house catches on fire, or gets destroyed in a hurricane? Your carefully-planned raid array is useless – you need an offsite backup solution.

A lot of people use Dropbox for this, which can be OK if you’re just talking a few documents. But if you want to back up terabytes of data, Dropbox isn’t a great solution. We currently have a 2TB backup drive that contains about 1.5TB of content. We also want to store content that we have on other drives, like videos from our trips, so there are a couple of other 1-2TB drives scattered around the house. Dropbox gets pricey when you go over 2TB, and more importantly – I’m not happy with some of their business decisions lately. I’d rather stop using them entirely.

So: Synology for the raid-array backup on-site, and Backblaze offers a Synology integration to back up our content offsite. It’s cheaper than Dropbox, doesn’t have the same icky business practices, and gives me a trusted company to keep my digital content safe even if a disaster should strike my home.

When your entire business is based on digital assets, this stuff matters. I have tons of documents (literally thousands – or maybe verging on tens of thousands at this point) from my freelance career. I have manuscripts from the publishing empire. I have cover art, ad image art and videos that have been professionally designed – I’ve paid thousands of dollars for – on my computer. I have podcasts for Bright Little Light Press. I have tax returns and accounting stuff. These things are assets, with real values attached, that my business can’t afford to lose. So it’s about time I’ve gotten serious about my backup strategy.

These are the types of expenses you don’t necessarily think about when you start a business. I know a lot of businesses that don’t have a good storage strategy, and an emergency data recovery plan with an offsite element in the event of an emergency. But these things can absolutely have a catastrophic impact on your business if you don’t take the proper precautions to safeguard yourself.