Category: Business

How home automation has made me a more productive remote employee

Business Personal

How home automation has made me a more productive remote employee

I’ve been working remotely since 2007. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about how my workspace impacts my productivity. Home automation has enabled subtle improvements to my life and productivity as a remote employee – and subtle improvements can have big impacts.


When I first started out working remotely, I was in my mid-20s and every day was a hustle. I didn’t have any family obligations, and my social life was slow at the time. I worked from anywhere, anytime. I’d work from my couch at 2am. I’d work from my desk during the day. I’d wake up and check/respond to email from bed. I’d walk to a coffee shop and work.

I was just starting out freelancing, and it seemed important to me to do as much work as possible, and to be as responsive as possible to clients. I worked ridiculous hours to complete projects on fast turnarounds; I distinctly remember times even a few years into my freelance life where I’d literally work all night, walk up the street to Dunkin’ Donuts at 6am for some fresh donuts and coffee, and work some more.

Fast forward a few years; my social life gets busier, I wreck my hands typing thousands of words per day on my very non-ergonomic laptop keyboard, and I realize I’m getting too old to be pulling all-nighters for a few hundred dollars. Things have to change.

I set up an office, which was separate from my living space. The purpose of the office was work. The purpose of the living space was living. When I lived with roommates, my room had to do both, but I clearly defined those separate spaces. When I wasn’t living with roommates, I gave my office a dedicated room; it was my office. That’s where I went to work. And when I wasn’t in the office, I wouldn’t work. Simple, right?

Making my spaces work for me

Dedicated office space is great, but only if you go there and work. Sometimes, in winter in New England especially, my office would be cold and dark, and I just couldn’t pry myself from the warm, cozy, well-lit couch, where I’d huddle under a blanket and think about how I should be getting to work. Those days were a struggle.

When I lived with a partner who left the house for work, I’d have him go to the office and turn on a space heater and some lights for me, so it could warm up a bit; and then I’d force myself off the couch to say farewell to him at the door, and use the momentum of being up to head off to my office. That helped, but even that wasn’t always a foolproof method.


In 2015, after visiting a friend who had installed some Philips Hue lights behind her TV that provided some interesting mood lighting, we did the same. I thought it was a novelty; I could make it change colors depending on what I was watching, and it provided some additional lighting in a part of the room that wasn’t well-lit. And hey, how fun – the Hue app for my iPhone would let me set up Routines, so I could have the lights do different things on an automated schedule.

I set the lights to come on in the morning, while we were puttering around and waking up in the living room. When I noticed that my husband was leaving slightly later and later for work every day, I set the lights to turn off a few minutes before he ought to leave for work.

The first time this happened, he was amused. It was a subtle difference; the Hue bulbs were providing some nice mood lighting, but standing lamps provided the room lighting. We still had plenty of light, but it was enough of a reminder that he ought to leave – that he left. And I went to my office.

This trick worked so well, I did the same thing at night; I set the Hue lights to come on when it got dark, and turn off again when we really should be in bed. Voila, subtle bedtime reminder that works.

In time, we started switching more and more light bulbs to Hue lights. Today, we have Hue workspace lights in both of our offices (over our desks; the main room lights aren’t Hue – yet), Hue lights in the gym, Hue lights in the living room stand lamps, and Hue lights in the bedroom. And of course, we still have the behind-the-TV lights that kicked the whole thing off.

My automation has gotten more sophisticated. In the winter, the living room lights come on about 10 minutes after our alarms go off. The TV lights come on year-round, because the mood lighting is still nice; and when those turn off, it’s still our subtle reminder to go to work. There’s a 15-minute delay between when the TV lights go off and when the room lights go off; time for us to get on our way, but if we linger, the room lights turning off are a last call of sorts.

Our office workspace lights are set to turn off at 6pm. Again, they’re not room lights, so we still have light in the space, but the subtle change in light is enough to remind us “Hey, it’s time to stop working for the day! Wrap up your tasks and leave the office.”

The living room lights come on automatically when it gets dark, so we never have to come into a dark living room and fumble around. And they turn off again when we should have really gone to bed by now, serving as a subtle reminder to get to sleep if we haven’t already done it.

Color temperature and brightness matters, too. The bedroom lights are set to “relax” – a dim, warm mode. The living room lights are also warm, and we can make them dimmer closer to bed to optimize for sleepiness. The Hue light in the gym is set to “energize” – a bright daylight. This winter, I’m going to upgrade my office Hue lighting to give me a bright daylight during the morning, but switch to a warm, dimmer light later in the afternoon as evening approaches.

My favorite thing of all, now that everything is integrated with Apple Home Kit, is telling Siri on my iPhone to turn off the lights, and having all the Hue lights in the house go off (usually the bedroom and living room lights, but sometimes we’ve gone back up to our offices and may have forgotten to turn one of those lights off, too).


Lights were a big part of the equation in getting us to move from one area of our house to another when we should be starting/stopping work – but they weren’t the only answer. In that example I gave above, my office was cold and dark; lights solved the dark issue, but temperature was still a problem. A problem that moving to an ~84-year-old house in Vermont exacerbated.

Our bedroom is an addition to the first floor of the house, and we didn’t know this when we bought the place on a sunny summer day, but the addition is not well-insulated. In the winter, it’s regularly 5 to 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house; in the summer, it’s that much warmer. The offices, being upstairs, are regularly warmer than the first floor.

All this translates to me really not wanting to get out of bed on a winter morning when it’s cold in the bedroom. Or setting the heat to a temperature – say 68 degrees – that’s fine in the living room where the thermostat is located, but makes our offices upstairs so hot I have to open a window, while the bedroom addition is still too cold.

It didn’t take long in our first winter in this house – November, to be exact – for me to start investigating smart thermostats. After some research, I landed on the Ecobee4 smart thermostat, which supported extra (wireless) sensors you could place in various rooms around the house.

The way we have the Ecobee configured, it attempts to provide the set temperature for the rooms that are occupied. This means that if we’re in the bedroom, it tries to heat the bedroom to whatever temperature we set (which typically means the living room and offices, where the other sensors are located, are too warm). If we’re in the offices, which tend to be the warmest rooms in the house, the Ecobee attempts to provide the set temperature there, which means the living room is cool, but the offices aren’t roasting us out.

This smart feature, combined with a very stepped series of temperature changes that are made much easier by home automation web interfaces, gets us to ideal temperatures to make it easier to move through the house on those cold winter days.

Around a half hour before it’s time to get up, the Ecobee starts warming the house from 58 to 64. That’s just enough to get me out of bed, and not make it too toasty in the rest of the house.

When we get up, it warms the house to 68, which is typically going by the living room sensor at that point as we’ve left the bedroom. When we get up to our offices, it’s around 70 degrees, which is a smidge warm for me in the winter, but it cools to the set 68 once the sensors figure out that the offices are the occupied rooms and the living room is no longer occupied.

In the evening, I like to snuggle up in my chair under a blanket and watch TV, read a book, or work on a project, so I have the temperature going back down to 64. An hour or two before bed, it drops to 62. Then, at bedtime, 58. That’s really too cold to linger in the rest of the house, although it’s the perfect temperature for sleeping under a nice thick comforter, so the temperatures – combined with the lighting cues – lead us to bed.

Good sleep, downtime leads to productive work time

Bottom line: home automation has made it easier to set and adhere to boundaries in a life where I work and live at home.

Getting enough sleep, and sleeping well, makes it possible to be more productive at work. My brain works better, and I’ve got more stamina to get through the afternoon slump. (I very rarely drink afternoon coffee these days, but I was doing it religiously in the bad old days when my work/home life was less structured.)

Good downtime is essential to avoiding burnout, or even just a slow-building, lingering resentment that gradually erodes work productivity. Stopping work at a set time and going off to do other things gives me protected downtime, which makes it easier to work during work time and enjoy downtime when it’s time for that.

Having a house that is optimized to give me exactly what I want where I want it – appropriate lighting and comfortable temperatures – makes it easier to move through the day, and be more productive.

Investing in good equipment

Business Coding Lifestyle Personal Writing

Investing in good equipment

A younger, more innocent me bought a 13″ mid-2014 MacBook Pro on closeout in early 2015. My main tasks for my computer at that time were writing documents in word processors (Pages) and using CMSs to create and publish content. I thought I might do some light video editing of travel videos for Corporate Runaways, but didn’t have much need or desire for a powerhouse machine. I had an external monitor for additional screen real estate, and mostly used the laptop screen for reference material.

Fast forward to 2019. In the past few years, I’ve started doing docs-as-code in conjunction with a few open source projects. From the open source project side, this has involved setting up local development environments on my machine, and running apps locally so I can document them. From the documentation side, this has involved using static site generators to create doc sites from files (markdown, mostly). My work needs have definitely gotten more intensive.

Then, this spring, I dove into Swift. When I decided to learn to code so I could write an app I want to use, I took a gradual approach. I worked through some Swift Playgrounds stuff on my iPad, and then read a book or two about coding and Swift. I brainstormed the data structure for my app, and made UML diagrams. Eventually, I took a couple of online classes on Xcode and Swift.

Between my technical writing work and my app development, my 13″ laptop + external monitor had begun to feel cramped. What had once felt sufficient for doing marketing writing in a single window, with maybe a reference window alongside, had now become a nightmare of overlapping windows and constant swapping. I wanted more screen real estate so I could have multiple windows open for reference and working simultaneously, and I wanted those windows to be bigger.

But mostly, I wanted Xcode to not just laugh at me when I attempted to compile things, or – even worse – not have Xcode sputter when I attempt to Auto Run a Playground so I can see how things are working as I code.

One of the classes I took involved working in Playground files on my machine as I followed the instructor’s videos. I had to keep pausing the instruction video to wait for my local Playground to respond to my inputs, while the instructor did the exact same thing in the video and then happily chugged along with his much more powerful machine.

It was clear. Xcode was a memory/processor hog, and I had too little of both. I’d been bumping up against those limits for a while now with my other work, but the app development pushed me over the edge. So it was time… time to upgrade my equipment.

(Don’t get me wrong – that little 13″ mid-2014 MBP did well to get me into mid-2019 without a hitch, and is still chugging along happily with less intensive tasks; it’s my “couch computer” now.)

I looked around at the options. I could get a newer, more powerful MacBook Pro. But I’d still have limited screen real estate, and that was chafing more and more. Also, I essentially never use my laptop as a laptop these days; I work exclusively at my desk, with my Kinesis Advantage2 keyboard and my external monitor setup. Could it be time to go back to a desktop, when I still remembered fondly the liberating joy of going from a PC tower to my first laptop back in the mid-2000s? It seemed like such a step back, it was hard to fathom.

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense to get a desktop again. I never use the laptop as a laptop. I could get better CPU/more RAM significantly cheaper with a desktop. And then I could have another big monitor, giving me the screen real estate I’ve been craving.

I decided to go back to a desktop. I clearly didn’t need a powerhouse like the newly-announced Mac Pro, so I wasn’t going that route. I looked at the Mac mini; a capable little machine. I looked at the iMac, with its beautiful monitor. I looked at the iMac Pro – nope, that’s more than I need.

Waffle. Research external monitors. Waffle. Spec out both machines to a level that would support my current needs, plus some future-proofing. Cringe at the price tag. Waffle some more. Deal with some stupid imposter BS because my husband is the experienced web dev, and how could I justify spending that much on a setup for my less-intensive work + dabbling in Swift development; an entirely self-driven project that may never make me a penny?

Eventually, I drove the hour to the nearest Apple store to see an iMac in person. And then I sat myself down and gave myself a pep talk about giving myself permission to invest in my skill development. Maybe I’ll get more heavily into coding as a tech writer. Maybe I’ll love developing in Swift so much that I’ll pivot to Mac app development. Or maybe I’ll write this app, but then decide that coding isn’t something I want to pursue beyond that. I won’t know unless I give myself the room to develop those skills and see what happens, but it is 100% OK to invest in my career potential.

So I pulled the trigger, and got a beautiful 27″ iMac. And it isn’t the entry-level iMac, either; it’s closer to the top tier, to give myself room for growth.

And you know what? It is frigging delightful. It’s so fast. And the screen is so beautiful. It’s a little painful to use it right next to my old external monitor, which isn’t even 4k; the resolution drop and seeing visible pixels is a little jarring looking back and forth. I expect I’ll upgrade that, too, soon. But my tech writing work has been much more hassle-free with the extra screen real estate, and staring at text on a retina-resolution screen is delightfully enjoyable.

So here’s a reminder, if you need one, too: investing in good equipment is an important part of taking your professional life seriously. This is mission critical for remote workers who don’t have office-supplied equipment. I see a lot of remote workers sitting on their couch and typing on a laptop keyboard; that’s a good way to ruin your hands, your back, your posture, and reduce your efficiency and output. (Trust me, that’s how I started out with my remote work back in 2007.)

Yes, I am extremely privileged to be able to spend the money on an Apple device; I know you pay a big premium for their products. And I know that not everyone has the financial freedom to invest in big, splashy monitors and professional-quality office equipment; especially for folks who are the sole breadwinners, or supporting family members. But it is worthwhile to put money aside and invest in the equipment you need for your career, in whatever form you’re able and whatever that equipment looks like for you.

I am very much enjoying my new setup.

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.

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!

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.

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.