|Microsoft Word Issues||Screen Capture Tools||E-mailing HTML||AuthorIT|
|Wiki||Evaluations of Help Authoring Tools||FrameMaker Resources||Picking an ISP|
|Project Coordination Software||Adobe Illustrator||Time Tracking||Spam Filters|
|TOC Issues||Getting Word to Run Faster||File Size Issues||Field Codes||Templates||TOC Issues|
|Inserting Landscape Visio Images|
Dealing with TOCs
Question: TOC pages in WORD document are different than actual content of the document, and/or the size of the document is huge. How do I fix this?
Sometimes the TOC will not update properly if I have the Show All/Hide All turned on when I update the TOC. It hasn’t happened with enough regularity for me to be totally sure that’s the problem, but it’s worth a shot. So try turning off the Show All before you update the TOC.
Also, are you doing Select All (Ctrl+A) to grab the entire doc and then doing an update (F9) — to completely update every field in the doc? (The other option is to set this to happen automatically when you go to print: Tools –> Options –> Print tab –> check Update Fields.) Possibly some fields have not been updated and are throwing off the process. Again, it’s a long shot, but might be worth trying, unless you have fields in the doc that you DON’T want updated for some reason.
If you’re using any bookmarks, double check that none of them were split by any inserted breaks (section, page). Particularly if you are cross-referencing and placing the bookmarked text elsewhere in the doc. This can add the inserted breaks from the bookmark into the cross-reference points. I’ve seen this happen and these additional breaks can be difficult to spot.
In Word, page numbering can restart at section breaks, so that might be what’s setting things off. I don’t use XP, but in older version of Word you need to get into the Format Page Number dialog, which is accessible through the Headers and Footers toolbar.
You can “reassert” styles in Word by reapplying them, (or applying a new style and then re-applying the old style) but it’s a bit of a pain if you have a lot of styles. In long Word documents, I do a final pass at the end to fix up the styles. If they are really messed up, I make a hard copy, Save As plain text or RTF to strip as much of the old formatting as possible.
One way to avoid having Word adjust your styles automagically when you don’t want it to is to avoid basing the styles you create on Normal. (‘cuz Normal ain’t really normal 🙂 ). If you base a style on something and then make a change to that original style, Word very *helpfully* carries that change to any styles based on the style you changed.
Getting MS Word to Run Faster
- Turn off fast saves (Tools –> Options –> Click Save tab –> Unclick fast saves)
- Turn off background saves (Tools –> Options –> Click Save tab –> Unclick background saves).
- Turn off ‘versions’ (File –> Version –> Unclick Automatically save a version on close).
- Accept all review changes and turn off ‘Review’ (Tools –> Toggle ‘Track Changes’).
- Copy doc, except last paragraph mark, and past into new doc.
- Turn off automatic repagination (must do this in Normal View because Page Layout view automatically repaginates and won’t allow you to turn off the pagination). Click Tools –> Options –> click General tab –> remove the check mark from the box for Background Pagination.
Dealing with MS Word File Size
- Copy the entire document EXCEPT FOR THE LAST paragraph marker and copy it into a new one.
- Check to be sure you’ve not enabled Fast Saves (Tools –> Options –> click the Save tab).
- Make sure Versions — from the File menu — is turned off.
- It might be the build-up of “undo” information. By turning on the review toolbar and clicking on the option to accept all changes, then resaving, that might shrink the file again.
- Are you using Track Changes? If you are, try doing an Accept All Changes.
- Turn off “Save Preview Picture” — that will make the file huge regardless of content. (File –> Properties –> Summary tab).
- Turn off “Allow Fast Saves” (Tools –> Options –> Save tab).
- Do a Select All and paste into a new file and then save the file. If the new file is still 33 MB try selecting half the pages and paste into a new file. By doing this repeatedly you can narrow down where the problem is (if it’s in one particular spot).
- As a last desperate measure you could try saving in RTF but you might lose some formatting.
Using Field Codes
Question: How do I use MSWord field codes to insert variables into a document (such as for a document name or product name), and also how do I use field codes in autonumbers?
Here are some suggestions:
- I just found exactly what you are looking for on the Lone Writers new website. You will have to log in with your STC log in. https://www.stcsig.org/lw/wiki/wiki.asp?db=WikiAsp&o=TechResources.
- If you have time to read, http://word.mvps.org/FAQs/Numbering/index.htm outlines the problem and several options. If you need to process the word fields with WebWorks, think twice about solutions with hidden custom codes.
- I found an even better solution to the numbering problem – without fields. At last year’s Conference in Seattle, Elizabeth Regers and Jerry Franklin did a fantastic presentation called “Do Your MS Word Documents Ever Blow Up? Preventing Corruption in MS Word Documents.” Elizabeth has placed some of her materials, including one called “Numbering and Styles”, on the Session Materials page at http://www.stc.org/52ndConf/session.materials.asp.
- You can insert things like the document title pretty easily without macros or special templates. I do this in two ways.Method One: DocProperty Field Codes: This method uses the document properties dialog box to specify all kinds of document information for a file and then a field code to pull that information into your document wherever you want.
- Select menu item File -> Properties to open the Doc Properties dialog box.
- Select the Summary tab.
- Type the title for your document in the Title field and click OK.
- In the document, click where you want the document name to appear (header, footer, somewhere in the body).
- Select menu item Insert -> Field to open the Field dialog box.
- From the Categories list (on the left), select Document Information.
- On the right, in the Field Names list, you will see all potential doc information fields that you can insert.
- For the doc title, you have two choices:
- Select “Title” from the Field Names list and click OK; or
- Select “DocProperty” from the Field Names list, click the “Options…” button to open the Options dialog box, scroll to select “Title” from the list, click “Add to Field”, and then click OK twice.
- Use Styles to format your text.
- In the document, click where you want the chapter or section name to appear.
- Select menu item Insert > Field to open the Field dialog box.
- From the Categories list (on the left), select Links and References.
- On the right, in the Field Names list, select StyleRef.
- Click the “Options…” button.
- On the Field Specific Switches tab, click on things and read their descriptions to give you some ideas of what controls you can select. (If you see something you want, click on “Add to Field.”)
- On the Styles tab, select a Style for the field to look for in your doc and click “Add to Field” to insert the Style name into your field code.
- Click OK twice.
- Also, you should update fields by pressing Ctrl-A followed by F9. Sometimes Word’s fields don’t immediately update when you make changes and that forces them to do so.
- You can also right-click on any field (easier to do if you’ve got the shading turned on) and choose “Toggle Field Codes.” This is an excellent way to see the structure and coding behind the field code.
Word Template for Consulting Documents
Question: We all use different Word templates, so my Heading 1 looks different from everyone else’s, and I don’t love any of them. In Word, you can make a template your “global template.” I would like to take all of the different templates that we have and apply the standardized template. So, when a consultant needs to write process flow, they can open the process flow template and get started, and it looks like a functional spec created by someone else in our group.
Standardizing Word templates for an organization can be time consuming. I worked with one company on standardizing internal documentation. In addition to my part-time work on the project, a full time manager devoted his time to gathering information about user needs, communicating with management about the process, and then helping people understand how to use the templates once they were created. This was only after a small group of consultants made recommendations about process changes as the company grew. I was fortunate in that I was able to use AuthorIT to take existing Word documents, import them into AuthorIT, work with the content, and then output into squeaky clean Word docs that I could save as .dot files. It might be worth the investment in AuthorIT just to save time…
Background–this was a company that weathered the dot com bust well, and continued growing. They realized that they needed to have an identified process and funded the project. Everyone agreed that more process was needed, but the details were sometimes hotly debated.
Another person responded by saying the following: My interpretation of the question is that the department has a number of templates already in place for different types of documents (process flow, etc.) and she wants to create a universal template that will force everyone to use the same styles regardless of document type. The Word MVP site is an excellent place to start learning about templates. She can search for articles about templates at the MVP site–plus, there’s a page with additional links to other Word-specific sites: http://word.mvps.org/. The concept of the global template is explained at: http://word.mvps.org/macwordnew/globaltemplatecontent.htm.
Problems with Even Page Footers
Question: A Word document that was being updated for content seemed to have lost its even page footers. The last version I worked on had them and they appeared correctly. I’ve tried pasting the current content into that old file, but the even page footer seems to disappear when I do that.
The last person to work on it ended up pasting the text from the first even page of the main part of the book into the first even page footer. As a result, the only thing that appears in the even page footer is the top margin of the pasted object, which seems to be why I don’t even see the footer text box. I couldn’t find any way to delete that text box, but we found that if you set the view to Normal, you see that now huge even page footer, which is outside the page dimensions, which explains why I only see the top margin of the pasted-in page in the footer. Unfortunately, it was pasted as an object, not text, so I can’t select it to remove it. I haven’t figured out the quickest way to solve this.On a hunch, I had saved the .DOC file as .RTF. I remembered that often you can see and access more stuff in RTF format than in DOC format. I opened the .RTF file and set the view to Normal.I was able to access the troublesome footer and copy the long table that got pasted in it and put it back on the page body.I looked up header/footer problems in an old copy of “Word 97 Annoyances” by Woody Leonhard et al. They recommended deleting all headers/footers first and then making sure all “Link to Previous” settings were cleared.I went to File –> Page Setup –> Page Layout. I set Headers and Footers to Different odd and even and Different first page and applied these settings to the entire document.At the end of each chapter, on the even page, I added an Odd page section break. (The book was numbered continuously from chapter 1 (1, 2, 3, …).I added my page numbers in the footer, then added the book title to even page headers, starting with chapter 1. I added the chapter title to odd page headers in each chapter, then set each new even page header in subsequent chapters to Link to Previous. (Each ChapNum style is set to have a page break before.)
Everything works fine now and the book has stable headers and footers.
Inserting a Landscape Visio File into MS Word
Question: I have several Visio diagrams in landscape format that I want to insert into my MS Word docs. I’ve checked out the online help and have found that the instructions are rather vague. Does it have to do with creating page breaks in the Word doc so the landscape-formatted page can be inserted between them? Date: 09/07
- Create a section break starting a new page at both the beginning and end of the section you want to make landscape.
- Go to File > Page Setup and select “Landscape” on the Margins tab in your new section.
- Under Preview, select “Apply to this Section” on the drop-down menu. The rest of the document will remain in Portrait format.
- Insert your image.
- To reformat Headers and Footers in your new section, first deselect “Same as Previous.”
- Reformat Headers and Footers in the landscape-formatted section. E.g. On the Page Number Format icon select the button for “Continue from previous section” under Page Numbering.
- In the section following the landscape image, go to View > Header and Footer.
- On the Page Number Format icon select the button for “Continue from previous section” under Page Numbering.
- Go to Print Preview a few pages in front of your new section and use the Page Down key to verify your changes.
Question: Is there a free or inexpensive screen capture tool that give high resolution?
Suggestions Other Than Tools: To get a higher resolution, you might need to change the screen settings on the computer you’re using, since screen capture tools capture at the resolution of the system.Tools and Comments:
- IrfanView (http://www.irfanview.com) is freeware/donationware. For such a small utility, it packs a lot of really useful features such as format conversions, batch processing, organizational tools, basic image editing, and more.
- PrintKey-Pro offers a 30-day free trial, and only costs $19.95. I’ve used the older version, PrintKey 2000, for several years and it works great.
- WisdomSoft ScreenHunter 4.0 Free does everything I need. There are also Plus and Pro versions of the tool for 19.95 and 29.95, respectively. See http://www.wisdom-soft.com/products/screenhunter.htm.
- SnagIT is easy, versatile, and inexpensive ($29.95). Updating is easy. They always exhibit at the STC international conference. Their people are helpful and I’ve often gotten some free training by just standing around and asking questions. Recommended by several people.
- CaptureIt!, FullShot, and HiJack work well and are not very expensive.
- Paint Shop Pro works well and my screen shots always look fine. Admittedly, I don’t do anything special with the resolution until I place them into my FrameMaker files. There I use the DPI setting to size them the way I need them. They come out great when viewing online or printing from PDF. However, this is a full graphics program and is not inexpensive!
- Paint is free and already on your computer if you have Microsoft Office. To take a screen shot, use “Alt” plus the “PrtScn/SysReq” button on the upper right portion of your keyboard. (Of if you want an image of the entire screen, use “Ctrl” plus “PrtScn/SysReq”.) Paste the image into Paint using “Ctrl-V.” Click Yes if prompted to enlarge the image. Save the screenshot as a BMP (default), GIF, or JPEG.
Drawbacks of Paint, from another user: The advantage with using a screen capture utility is… well, heck, too numerous to mention. You can capture drop down menus, include the cursor, automatically create tear-off’s, batch convert to other formats, capture a region, capture a long scrolling page… Believe me, I use Paint on occasion, too. But when taking screen shots for my manuals, again, it’s well worth the few dollars spent to buy a tool intended for that purpose. You are also slightly limited in the output formats you get with Paint; only the newer versions save as PNGs. That format offers great quality, and small file size.
Question: Every time I try to send an HTML page as an announcement in an e-mail message through Outlook, it becomes an attachment, rather than the actual e-mail. Can someone tell me the trick to sending out these snazzy HTML announcements?
To send an HTML page as an e-mail announcement in Outlook, in your new e-mail message, choose Insert –> File. Select the HTML file that you want to insert, and then click the arrow on the Insert button to select Insert As Text.For sending HTML announcements in e-mail, you can try the following:
All three are e-mail announcement/newsletter services. Each service manages your subscription list, sends HTML as well as plain text (to folks whose e-mail programs do not support HTML), and gives you reports on who has opened the newsletter and who has not. Pricing varies depending on your needs, but the cost per e-mail can be as low as $.015 (one and a half cents).
Offering a newsletter to your niche market is a very good marketing tool that helps establish you as an expert in your field and helps drive business to your Web site. Allowing people to subscribe to your newsletter on your Web site makes it more likely that your newsletter will be read and will survive readers’ spam filters. The anti-spam laws are strict these days and using a service like Vertical Response can help ensure that your company is managing its marketing communications legally.
Question: Do you create print (PDF ready for print) output? If you do, how well does it work? That’s the biggest down side I’ve heard about AIT.
Answer: Yes, I do create print output. I have install guides that go to PDF only, and I have user’s guides (that combine the online help and install guide into a single book). Yes, I have to output THROUGH Word to get to the PDF. But AIT is very strict about adherence to styles and that, along with the knowledge the AIT devs have of the Word “issues” with creating large manuals, ensures that I have minimal problems once I get the docs into Word.
Word on the street is that AuthorIT version 5 will contain direct publish to PDF.
[from another source…] For PDF, you publish to Word (and it’s always a ‘clean’ publication, so the numbers etc. always work!), then create a PDF from the Word doc. I do about 4x 500 page manuals and it takes minutes. In AIT, Word doesn’t corrupt like it does when you’re authoring in Word because it always creates the Word doc ‘from scratch’ at publishing time. In v5 (coming…) there is meant to be a direct to PDF option (I think using XSL-FO).
Question: What “flavors” of online help and HTML-based output does it create?
Answer: HTML Help, HTML-based help, WinHelp, JavaHelp, and Oracle Help.
[from another source…] WinHelp, CHMs, pure HTML, pure XHTML (both with TOCs and Indexes and optional search), JavaHelp and Oracle Help.
Question: I notice that the TOC and index of the User Guide are not links. Can it create links for these?
Answer: The TOC can be hyperlinked but the index cannot (this is a limitation of Word).
Question: Can you create a two-level index?
Answer: Yes, and I do. I can also easily create see also references.
[from another source…] TOC links are created automaitcally if you have your Word template set up to do this; Word does NOT create links for index entries.
With regard to a 2-level index – I guess you’re referring to main entries and sub-entries… Yes; if you wanted to go to 5 levels, you could (but you’d REALLY have to decide if this would create a usable index!)
Question: Is there conditional text?
Answer: I’m not sure what you mean by conditional text. (It’s likely that someone didn’t update the index before they output to PDF and that’s why the page numbers differ?) At any rate, do you mean what’s known as variables? You can create a variable and then assign it to each book or topic. For example, I have several different products that I document; I’ve created variables to handle the product names, product components, version numbers, and so on. Is that what you mean? I can also set topics so that they output to online only, or that they are included in the online help but not the TOC (for example, for a context-sensitive topic on a dialog box, where I’ll have a “How To” link for the procedural steps).
[another person weighs in…] I have also used AuthorIT for several years and have had the same pleasant experience as Sue. You can do conditional text:
- Mark the topic to appear in Help only or print only, etc.
- OR share text between topics.
[from another person] You can also conditionalise based on styles. For example, I include screen shots in the print output, but not the online (with a few minor exceptions). For each screen shot, I apply a paragraph style that only publishes in Word output, not in HTML output. Equally, you could set up character styles for text that is ONLY in Word or ONLY in HTML.
I also love the way AuthorIT uses object templates. This makes changes so easy and quick.
Of all the HAT tools out there, I think AuthorIT has the greatest potential to provide a good transition to Longhorn Help too. Every other tool I know, besides AuthorIT, starts with one format (Word, .HTML, or rich text) and then switches to a different format for the outputs. Any time a HAT uses that sort of workflow, I think there are inherent problems. AuthorIT is really format-independent and the only HAT that can claim that, IMHO.
I am not familiar with FrameMaker at all… but sharing text between objects can be accomplished by embedding Topic Objects into other Topic Objects (or not).
You can choose to have Topic Objects appear in only specified output types (say… only HTML, not Print) – with a simple click of a checkbox, and you can choose to assemble Books using particular topics… or not, depending on the product line requirements.
Text within a topic can be conditional using variables such as <product_name> <product_version> <product_build> etc. This is a PERFECT example of the use of variables in AuthorIT. And they are super-easy to assign and apply. Variable types include:
- Text (a string of any characters up to 2000 characters long)
- List of Values (a list of pre-set character strings, each up to 255 characters long)
- File Objects (logos, graphics, etc.)
- System (time, date, current user).
You can nest variables too… for example, you could include the following variable (which includes nested variables) in your content:
<AITfull_version> = <AITversion>.<AITsubver>.<AITbuild_no>
Content could look like: “… the curernt version of Authorit is <AITfull_version>…”
Output could look like: “… the current version of AuthorIT is 4.1.0473…” (though perhaps only the “build” component changed)
Question: What are HTML variables?
[another person weights in on HTML variables…] In addition to what Sue just said, you can also use variables in a custom HTML template to set up feedback loops extracting topic IDs, version numbers, topic titles etc.
Actually “HTML variables” aren’t a different type of variable – they are a standard AIT variable; when used in HTML code (or ASP, JS, or whatever) they have a different syntax from a variable in the main AIT authoring environment.
[more on conditional text…] Conditional text can be one word or a whole section. You highlight what you want to conditionalize and then select the condition from the dialog box.
Question: Who do you recommend as an Internet Service Provider, to host a domain name and a web site? Date: 02/07
Recommended ISPs included the following:
- www.godaddy.com (two recommendations)
- www.ipower.com (two recommendations)
- Full Service Hosting
- 1and1.com and brinkster.com
- Gandi.net in France.
- HostMySite (two recommendations) and 1&1.com.
- IX Web Hosting Services
- Lunar Pages
Question: Has anyone implemented a Wiki? If yes, please answer the following:
- What system requirements does it have? I’ve browsed through a ton of Wiki info and can’t seem to find anything specific. I know that the software is open source, but does it have particular hardware requirements?
- There also seem to be several different flavors of Wiki–does anyone have a good feel for which one is best for what type of deployment?
- How do I host a Wiki?
- What are the pitfalls to avoid when implementing one?
- If you had to do it all over again would you? Why or why not?
- How do you use the Wiki? (e.g. customer interaction, internal knowledgebase, etc.)
- Have you integrated the Wiki into other systems and knowledge management initiatives?
- Are there good Wiki resources?
The following sections answer these questions. There is a list of Wiki resources at the end of the summary, and an appendix with a press release from a content engineering organization that offers a Wiki-based web site.
What is Wiki?
[Editor’s Note: The following information was copied from http://Wiki.org/Wiki.cgi?WhatIsWiki]
Wiki is, in Ward’s original description, “the simplest online database that could possibly work.”
Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and crosslinks between internal pages on the fly.
Wiki is unusual among group communication mechanisms in that it allows the organization of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself.
Like many simple concepts, “open editing” has some profound and subtle effects on Wiki usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a Web site is exciting in that it encourages democratic use of the Web and promotes content composition by nontechnical users.
What System Requirements Does Wiki Have?
All respondents said that they’re using “old” computers to host the Wiki. Examples included:
- Pentium III 650MHz, 512MB RAM, 16GB disk (the new server)
- Pentium II 350MHz, 128MB RAM, 3GB disk (the old server)
- A discarded developer system (probably a low-speed P4 system)
On the software side, you generally need a basic Web server that can handle CGI scripts. The rest depends on the Wiki that you choose. Some Wikis might need to be installed on a web server that has PHP, MySQL, etc. One respondent is using Linux, Apache and TWiki. The system requirements seem to be more about the database underlying the Wiki than the Wiki itself. The best (and possibly only) place to reliably find out what you need is the installation instructions page for any given Wiki. For example, for instructions on installing MediaWiki, see http://meta.Wikimedia.org/Wiki/Wiki_on_a_stick#Procedure. One person said they run a nightly backup of the pages in each Wiki as a cron job.
For the Wiki users, they simply need a Web browser.
What’s the Best Wiki?
General Information: It really depends on what you’re using the Wiki for, how technical your audience/community is, and how “ugly-tolerant” they are towards presentation. Some software is quite excellent technically, but not that pretty. Others make it technically difficult to add material, but look great.
Each Wiki seems to have it’s own quirky markup for formatting and links. It’s usually pretty simple but some non-technical users might have problems.
Wikis may or may not have memory of changes, and may authenticate people or not, with different degrees of authentication. Different choices will be suited for different kinds of collaboration:
- The very first and “pure” Wikis offer neither memory nor authentication. Anyone can go to a page and change it or even delete its contents. In practice people tend to behave nicely (c2.com explains why) but you still do not know the history of a page or who wrote what. This is probably enough for small teams.
- The common public Wikis offer “weak” authentication. Typically you may read pages at will, but you will have to “register” to edit pages. However, the process of registering typically amounts to filling in a form with your name, so you could easily have impostors and rogue users. These Wikis may or may not offer memory for pages: c2.com does not, tWiki.org does. This seems to work well for public Wikis, and may work well in a large company.
- The intranet Wikis provide both memory and strong authentication. They may also provide private pages for a person or a small group of persons. This is important where politics and information control are the norm.
A respondent thinks that there are a few emerging standards: the term “TEXTILE” and a few others have been thrown around.
TWiki: TWiki can be configured to provide all three modes of collaboration listed above, and even others. One supporter of TWiki believes that having both memory and strong authentication was very important for Wikis to succeed at his place of employment. People are authenticated against the official LDAP database. People gain and lose access to the Wiki as soon as IT creates or destroys the same record that gives access to other company servers. As a consequence, there are neither anonymous changes nor rogue users.
TWiki also provides revision control for pages using RCS. Anyone can contribute to a page, but anyone else can determine who wrote what. This was important to ease the fears of senior SMEs with strong control of information. If they add something to a page, it will carry their authority in a way that anyone can see, separated from the contributions of “mere mortals.” Of course, they don’t contribute that much, but they will ignore the Wiki until it is too late for them to regain all the control.
Revision control is also an amazing bonus for teams. The team (all three of them!) has been using Wikis to track daily work since January 2004. On December 31st, they were finishing the year by recalling all their strategic decisions for the year, and trying to figure out how much progress they did in each. And suddenly they realized that their daily logs (obtained almost automatically just by tracking the status) provided precise information about the concrete achievements that they were just recognizing at the meeting.
Another person chose TWiki because there are lots of plugins and add-ons being developed by the community. And of course the whole system is free but you do “pay” with your time investment. Overall, it’s a good tool. Folks who are interested in Wikis might want to check out http://tWiki.org/.
MediaWiki: One respondent said that they used MediaWiki, but from other friends in the content management industry, this person has heard a preference for DokuWiki. MediaWiki doesn’t do import-export too well yet.
Another respondent spent a great deal of time editing articles on Wikipedia which runs on MediaWiki. This has one of the cleanest, most comprehensive and easiest Wiki interfaces that this person has encountered.
DokuWiki: One respondent has heard that DokuWiki is much superior to MediaWiki for documentation, since it keeps its database in flat XML files.
How do I Host a Wiki Using My Domain Name?
There are web hosting servers out there that will host a Wiki and use a person’s domain name. Python.org has a hosting page for Wiki friendly hosts:
A Google search will also turn up more. If you see a Wiki you like, you can always use www.netcraft.org to find out who their host is and then contact the host.
One respondent’s web host has phpWiki and tikiWiki installs available. If you have Linux hosting for your domain name, they may have similar options.
What Are the Wiki Implementation Pitfalls?
None of the respondents felt there were any major pitfalls concerning the hardware and software. Wikis themselves are very basic tools. The respondents felt the biggest hurdle was the human factors: gaining acceptance, proper guidelines and use, not getting caught up in the â€ścool factorâ€ť. The main points were:
- It’s a bit “geeky” and people who are not comfortable in geekdom may push back. The hardest part of dealing with one is getting everyone to sign on to using it. Some people prefer email, some people prefer bulletin boards or public messaging forums. Getting everyone to use the Wiki, which is the only way it will be successful, can be a major hurdle. (There are still people around here saying “I hate Wiki’s” without actually using it, in spite of the fact that our VP is really pushing its use!)
- A Wiki is only as good as the people who use it. If it truly is to be used as a collaborative mechanism, people need to use it. Write to it. Edit topics. Subscribe to pages. Most of the interesting stuff happens when you get the right people using those basic tools in interesting ways.
- It is important to remember that Wiki is NOT about technology. Wiki’s allow people to collaborate in new ways. Wiki’s excel at capturing consensus (as opposed to discussion). Therefore, don’t build a Wiki for the “cool factor”. Wikis are a neat bit of software technology, and have a certain coolness to them because they are relatively new to most people. However, there’s nothing like the right tool for the job, and if you have static information that does not change, then a Wiki is nothing like the right tool for the job. On the other hand, if you have what I like to call “fast-moving information,” the type of material that is subject to quick and frequent change or open discussion, then Wiki is a great way to go.
- Many Wikis simply provide you with a collaboration platform. It’s very open. You have to create a structure by having some agreed upon processes in the team. So, if there’s no plan to your Wiki, it can quickly get messy, out of control, and disorganized.
- Free support may be hard to use. With TWiki for example, a community support knowledge base is there but not always easy to search. You can post new questions but there’s no guarantee that anyone will actually answer your question.
Would You Use Wiki Again?
Everyone said “yes!” Here are more specific replies:
- Since the one here at work is still running, I’d say I’d definitely do it again.
- I am still doing it and reaping the benefits. No doubt about it!
- I absolutely would do it again, because even though we’re using the Wiki “wrong,” it still is a great vehicle for the type and breadth of information our Wiki distributes.
- It’s surprising how widespread the adoption has been in our case: support engineers, program managers, even programmers that I thought would be put off by a Web-based tool are actually using the thing! And the way we rolled out was from the bottom up–support engineer got his boss and peers going, and then showed engineering a page where he was collecting numbers on our product’s performance, and engineers just jumped in and added/edited them and so on.
How Do You Use Wiki?
The specific uses of Wiki vary widely, but they can be summarized in these general points:
- They are all used internally (although some have plans to go external).
- They are used to collaborate on issues
- They are for collections of information that change frequently.
Respondents provided the specific usage examples below. After the examples, some responses fell into the categories of using a Wiki for requirements gathering, and using a Wiki for documentation.
Case 1: We are using TWiki in a collaborative environment of about 50 people. We use it track product requirements, tasks and assignment, test status, meeting notes, and marketing information. This is not our Bug database or our source repository. We use it as a way to put down all the bits and pieces of information that other internal people might need.
It has worked much better than the original rigid database we tried to set up, because it is so easy for anyone to add content and topics and it does not need to fit a rigid database structure.
It is working well in a technical environment where people are OK with using some pseudo code and setting up links etc. Some people use it as a reference point without adding content. We implemented it with one small group, and then let people find it and realize what they could do with it. That worked best in our culture of people who like to explore things. I don’t know how well it would work with people who would be intimidated by the content creation rules.
Case 2: We use it as the “Apps Engineering” (pre- and post-sales support and marketing) intranet. It has become the place to go for everything, such as:
- Product updates (from “Whole Product Meeting” minutes to document status and links to drafts)
- Lists of Open Issues
- “Who the heck is the support engineer on X product?!
The dream is to make a controlled part of the Wiki available on our external support site as a support database–not much thinking and planning has been done yet.
One support engineer claims to be working a Wiki-based trouble ticketing system, but I haven’t seen anything other than a specification to give me any confidence that it can actually be done.
Case 3: Internal use only. Currently, our biggest use of one has to do with engineering communications and updates.
Case 4: Several basic ways:
- Collaborating on maintaining “difficult” information that keeps changing, that is hard to get, or that you cannot write in a document, typically for political reasons. For example, all the BAD spots in 3rd-party products, with workarounds 🙂 This information nicely complements the official documentation.
- Replacing email. Altitude had this global email list for technical questions where technical people asked questions related to ongoing projects, such as “has anyone done this before?” With downsizing, many people left, and Altitude was left with lots of personal list archives saying “yes, I did that; I will send you the answer directly,” where BOTH people had left the company (!)
- Team coordination. I currently run my 3-person team over a Wiki (with RELEVANT CONVENTIONS, of course!). Most of the teams at Altitude have adopted or are considering adopting Wikis for the same purpose.
- A Wiki area has also helped the official product coordination meetings, replacing the Word-based meeting minutes (always late, rarely read) with up-to-date information (often updated during the meetings themselves).
Case 5: We have three or four Wikis running, each of which serves as a bulletin board for a particular team or workgroup. The traffic isn’t high (in hits per hour), and there isn’t lots of data (a few MB at most).
We’ve tried out other, more feature-rich Wiki tools. Not worth the hassle, for what we want to do.
To my mind, knowledge management is at the opposite end of the complexity spectrum from the original (and still vital) conception behind Wiki.
Case 6: We built a Wiki as a “golden path tour” of the available information about a particular project initiative on our internal LAN. It’s strictly internal, and walks developers through the most salient documentation available.
Using a Wiki for Requirements Gathering: You might institute a Wiki and make it available to the analysts. That way, everyone could contribute and avoid needless duplication. DokuWiki seems designed for this kind of situation.
Using a Wiki for Documentation: There were a few enthusiastic supporters of using a Wiki for documentation:
- Wikis are great real-time documentation tools. I started using intranet Wikis for contract documentation development projects in 1999. Software engineers take to them eagerly, and even managers chimed in with suggestions. The projects were multi-national, which used to create review, revision, and translation bottlenecks. But the Wikis allowed us to get instant review and approval for milestones and changes, no matter where the reviewers were. They are definitely the bee’s knees for collaborative documentation efforts.
Disclaimer: I am so enamored of Wikis that I developed an editing and documentation production tool, WikiWriter at http://hytext.com/ww , to bring internet-compatible Wiki production methods to standalone (no server required) and offline projects.
- I use a Wiki to develop all my technical documentation. I happen to use TWiki, which is quite popular in collaborative business environments. Here are some strong points and benefits to using a Wiki:
- I access my documentation pages in the Wiki via my web browser. Depending on the day and my appointments, I may be working in my office on my PC, or in a random location on campus, documenting with my laptop. It doesn’t matter where I am because most of the university buildings here have wireless access. (I’m at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). Coffee shops here also have free wireless access.
- I have a revision history. I can go back and view the first version or any version in between.
- Since I develop requirements definitions, our Wiki is great because my peers can review the requirements documentation at any time, and comment on it. I work with a small team of four software developers, one project lead / business analyst, and a project manager.
- One respondent who hasn’t actually used a Wiki for documentation, passed along this information:
- I was intrigued this evening to run across an article involving the use of OpenOffice Writer with a Wiki designed specifically for documentation. The article is at http://applications.linux.com/applications/05/01/10/232235.shtml?tid=49&tid=13.
- DokuWiki is at http://Wiki.splitbrain.org/Wiki:dokuWiki.
- Since the Wiki includes the ability to restrict those who can add, edit or delete to specified users and since it recognizes XHTML, CSS, and various other standards, I think it might be an interesting approach for those activities that want to have their documentation on the Web. Further, it supports printing, and therefore, it should support fairly simple .pdf creation as well. I thought this might be worth looking into, especially for smaller groups and for Web-based products.
Have You Integrated Wiki into Other Applications?
Respondents who have integrated their Wikis with other systems have done the following:
- Besides Wiki areas (for collaboration) I offer plain file areas (for publishing) and recently a blog area for announcements.
- Some of our servlet-based web applications access information in the Wiki (treating the content as XHTML after passing it through htmltidy), but the access is by simple HTTP request.
- We leverage the linking features to integrate the Wiki with all kinds of other materials, repositories, even knowledge management systems.
Before Implementing: Respondents ranged from “you don’t need to know anything before implementing a Wiki” to the following advice:
- Voice of Experience #1: The original Wiki (http://c2.com) has LOTS of information on Wiki deployment (don’t let the 80’s appearance stop you from reading). This respondent started using a Wiki for the team in June 2002, and it was not before January 2004 that it was redeployed experimentally in the company as a solution to the email archive issue.
- Voice of Experience #2: Start using a Wiki (any Wiki will do to start). Understand the strong and weak points of the tool. Learn when to use it and when NOT to use it. Choose your tool carefully. Wiki syntax is NOT PORTABLE. If you later need to migrate to a “better” Wiki, you will have to migrate all the contents. Also, you must choose between:
- Simple (trivial to install and understand, but limited)
- Complex (not so trivial to install; it is difficult compare complex Wikis to each other and understand their limitations).
However, make some effort to organize the raw information (which just happens to be a strong point for technical writers).
THE REAL WORK IS ABOUT PEOPLE. You (the Wiki designer/evangelist/champion/whatever) are not advocating a tool. You are advocating a new way to work. Keep that in mind when people start resisting Wikis; often their resistance is not about Wikis at all.
- Voice of Experience 3: It helps to have someone on hand who can tweak the (relatively simple) Wiki CGI scripts to tailor them to your needs.
- Voice of Experience 4: This person would have liked to know how to do a lot of things like links, bookmarks, anchors, and categories, and just how bad the search function is.
- http://en.Wikipedia.org/Wiki/Wiki. There is a link there to the Wiki Software topic, which includes a lot of information about how to choose a Wiki, the base operating systems of several popular choices, etc. That link is here: http://en.Wikipedia.org/Wiki/Wiki_software.
- The reference page for TWiki requirements: http://tWiki.org/cgi-bin/view/TWiki/TWikiSystemRequirements
- For instructions on installing MediaWiki, see http://meta.Wikimedia.org/Wiki/Wiki_on_a_stick#Procedure.
- WikiWriter is at http://hytext.com/ww.
- Content Engineering Organization Launches Wiki-Based Web Site for Collaborative Authoring and Online Publishing(opens in a pop-up window)
Question: What do you think of the various help authoring tools, such as AuthorIT, RoboHelp, and WebWorks?
I’ve quoted many of the highlights below, grouped by the software. One additional program was suggested which sounded very interesting: HelpScribble (http://www.helpscribble.com/.
“Just awful… now looking at WebWorks.”
“Definitely almost dead… Generally slow and unreliable.”
“I’m happy with it although I can only use the HTML part of the program.”
“I gather that it is rising like the Phoenix… I never liked its print output. It outputs only to Word and always required lots of tweaking…”
“not impressed… bad design.”
“Utterly and completely user-unfriendly.”
“the code is a bloody mess”
“Tech support is probably one of the worst…”
“Generally slow and unreliable.”
“I use this all the time… It works very well to convert content from Word or Frame…”
“[we’re] moving to AuthorIT from RoboHelp and Webworks… because of AuthorIT’s single-source capabilities.”
“It has its own authoring environment, so you don’t need to author in Word. It’s print goes only to Word, though.”
“I’ve played with it and think it could be quite a nice tool. Right now, it supports only Word 2003, but it also has its own authoring environment. It is supposed to support Frame by this fall (maybe sooner).”
“My corporate senior technical writer friend SUPER supports Flare.”
“great product… the client loves it.”
- Yahoo group HATT
Question: I’d like to learn FrameMaker – what’s the best approach?
Free Online Tutorials:
Onsite Training Courses:
- Bernard Aschwanden at:
- Karen Zorn — highly recommended STC workshops
Learning Books/Self-Study Material:
- Classroom in a Book
- The Complete Reference FrameMaker 7 by Sarah O’Keefe and Sheila Loring
- Unstructured FrameMaker: Accelerated Introduction by Sarah O’Keefe
- Masters Series FrameMaker 6 by Thomas Neuburger (www.TwelfthNight.com)
- FrameUsers List at frameusers.com
- Adobe FrameMaker forum at http://www.adobe.com/support/forums/main.html
Question: I am working to get a position on a project developing a web-based instructional program. In addition to writing and editing content, I would be responsible for organizing the project and coordinating the other team members. I was wondering if anyone knew of any web-based software that would allow communication among multiple team members (SME’s, writers, programmers, and more) located across the country. Ideally, the system would facilitate communication between all members, help schedule and track project benchmarks and deadlines, allow for access and revision to documents by multiple users, track revisions, and more (TBD as the scope and structure of the project are worked out).
Does anyone know of a tool like this? Also, do you have any suggestions for how to organize and run a project of this size? Most of my experience has been on smaller scale projects, so I would appreciate any advice from those who have been there. Date: 09/07
- “Managing Virtual Teams: Getting the Most from Wikis, Blogs, and Other Collaborative Tools”. www.wordware.com/wiki/
(This book provides some checklists for determining which tools will work best for your particular needs for virtual project coordination and tracking. Before picking a set of tools, do a needs and gap analysis, so that you have a clear idea of what features and functionality that you really need. Some of the collaboration suites include Basecamp, Drupal, eGroupware, MS Sharepoint…)
I use Basecamp as a collaborative tool. It’s not full-fledged project management software, so if you need more than basic task/milestone management it won’t be suitable. But it provides an easy way for my widely-scattered team to communicate.
Zoho has a free suite of tools that might work for you.
You might want to look into implementing a wiki. There are many of them out there to choose from. The team I work with are using DokuWiki to collaborate because it is free, does not use a database, and is very easy to set up and start using. There was an excellent summary about wikis on the CIC SIG list about a year and a half ago, which is what got me started.
AuthorIT has a number of products that fit the bill. Excellent, single-source, content re-use, version control, etc.
Question: I want to convert a B/W AI-format logo to a jpg for a b/w print ad. I have CorelDraw X3. Date: 11/07
Solution: With my time crunch and limited knowledge of CorelDraw, I accepted Susan McLain’s offer to use Illustrator to convert the AI logo file to JPG format. I then created the B/W ad in Publisher and used the JPG of the logo.
Other suggestions were also given:
- Try importing the AI file into CorelDraw and/or Corel Photo-Paint and then exporting it as a JPG. Also try Corel Photo Paint or Adobe Photoshop.
Result: It works very nicely. AI can import and export “just about any format in the known universe.”
- Try using Able Fax Tif.
- FaxTIFView seems very flexible, good, and inexpensive (with a free long trial period).
- InkScape can help you “set logo graphics free”!
- PagePlus from Serif always have free versions, but even their full versions are not expensive.
Question: What tools do people use for tracking their time? Date: 11/08
Also: bill by the project or deliverable, when possible.
Question: What tool do you use for filterng spam email messages? Date: 3/09
Here are all the responses I received (from three discussion groups).
- My 2007 version of Outlook does what you want…as I understand it.
- I use a gmail account to read most of my mail–I have mail from my other accounts forwarded, which is very handy for me.
The gmail spam filter is good, and the gmail program lets you look at message addresses and see the first line of content without opening the message (unless the from address is “me”).
But I haven’t seen any way to set it up to read a message with text, unless you set your program to plain text instead of the enhanced version. So that might not address your concerns about letting someone know that your address is legit.
- My employer uses Postini and I love it. It does allow you to preview plain text, but when I went to their Web site to look into it a little further, I discovered that it has a 100 minimum user policy. But, perhaps you could search for a program like Postini that doesn’t have that requirement?
- I’m using spamarrest.com. It’s pretty simple-minded – any unauthorized mail is held in the “unauthorized” folder on their website until you authorize or for a week. You can authorize or block domains and specific emails. It allows individuals to authorize themselves.
Some people don’t like it because it doesn’t really automate anything (which might be nice; I really don’t need to see all the Viagra ads), but since I get a fair amount of unauthorized email, I would rather check it and make sure something I want doesn’t get deleted by an overzealous app.
It costs about $45/year.
- Qurb is lovely. I think you can get it fairly cheaply. It doesn’t do anything else, though.
I use AVG virus checking, which can be obtained free, and it has a nice spam capability.
My personal bias is to avoid Norton. It eats RAM and never gives it up. I’m not much happier with McAfee and I’ve used them both. Right now, my favorite is AVG.
- The hosting company I use have installed SpamAssassin. It ‘scores’ emails, and a score of 5 or more is regarded as spam. I had spam emails transferred to a spam account for some time with SpamBox, but now any email with this score is discarded.
I then use Apple’s Mail to further filter emails, and it filters what SpamAssassin lets through.
- Several people recommended Mailwasher Pro from Firetrust.com.
I like it because it looks at all my mailboxes and I can choose to accept, delete and bounce messages before I download them to my computer. I can set up blacklists and friend lists.
It deals with your email while it still is on the server. The only email you download to your email program is email that you’ve already approved. It learns as you teach it. It also taps into the FirstAlert spam database to mark email from known spammers. It has the usual Friends List, Blacklist, and tremendous custom filters. I deal with about 200 spam messages every day and it takes me 2 minutes to quickly scan the subjects of messages that Mailwasher flags as suspicious. And yes, I can preview the message in plain text. Because the message is still on the server, I’m relatively confident that the sender has no way of knowing that I previewed it. I couldn’t live without it.
- I’ve completely disabled all spam filtering on all of my email accounts. It just seemed to consume far more time and effort to look at the suspected spam in a different location than to just manage it in one of my multiple inboxes.
I’ve found the best spam filter for me is my eyes. In most cases, I can look at the subject and/or sender and instantly determine if a message is spam. In those few cases where I’m not sure, I can view the message source in plain text in my email client (Thunderbird). I don’t think you can do that in Outlook but it can be done in Outlook Express.
- If you’re using the older model of downloading all your email to your PC… I’d consider adopting a web-based model such as Gmail, Yahoo, or one of the others to keep all the stuff on the server and your PC free of all downloaded email files and the problems associated with ’em. If you were going to keep on downloading them, I’d look at Thunderbird…
Assuming you are using an ISP, you can pretty easily set up a free Google ap service to handle your email for you, without changing your email address(es).
And either Gmail or Google Aps allow you to look at the message in plain text.
- I use Outlook 2003, and I’ve viewed the message headers before, but on checking realized that the normal method (View > Options) is applicable only to messages that are already open, so no help there.
So I googled “outlook view message headers,” and found the answer: right-click on the message and select Options, just as if you were doing the View > Options from within an open message.
I also eventually found this: http://www.xintercept.com/pkpeek.htm. It’s pretty old shareware, but Outlook 2003 is obviously pretty old, too. Looks promising, and I might try it out when I have some spare minutes.
And finally, this looks promising: http://www.outlook-tips.net/howto/view_source.htm.
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|Tips for 50+ Workers|
Question: I’ve been asked to give an informal presentation to a TC seminar at Cincinnati State Community and Technical College re TC job availability and what employers are looking for.
Even though we are independents, I know we keep an eye on things, if only because potential clients can use our services while they are looking for employees to handle TC duties.
Would you mind providing me with some information about how you see the TC market changing or operating currently? What do you see employers looking for, e.g, I know we need to be more than “one trick ponies” — although that really isn’t any different from my experience over the past 30 years (Yikes–it’s been that long!)
I’d like to be able to give these students some information from beyond the boundary of I-275 (the outer highway belt around southwestern Ohio).
Bay Area, California: This year seems much better than the last couple. I’ve been hearing about more jobs through networking contacts, much in the way I used to. (For several years the “do you have any time or know someone who…” word-of-mouth referrals had become few and far between. There still aren’t as many as there used to be, but there are more than 2001-2002.)
Most of the projects I hear about are fairly technical, for administrator or IT audiences. Companies seem to be looking for experience dealing with technical information that is similar to, if not exactly matching, their domain. That said, I’ve had two clients in the last year that hired me for my expertise in designing and developing documentation, and didn’t care at all if I knew the domain. (While that used to be the case fairly frequently, it wasn’t for awhile.)
Single-sourcing is often a need, in one form or another. Most often, it is either the need to have two or more flavors of a book, or the need to create both PDF and HTML versions. It helps that I know multiple tools, as different clients are using different products.
An upcoming project will develop MS HTML Help, with that as the primary deliverable — also a type of project that I used to get, but haven’t in awhile.
In terms of additional skills — I’ve been focusing on usability for quite some time now, and more recently accessibility. Documentation clients appreciate that, and I often get to integrate some UI and usability work into my documentation projects. When there is a limited budget, making sure the documentation that’s created is what meets user needs becomes even more important, so focusing on understanding who the users are and what they need is key. I also do projects that primarily focus on UI and usability. That work ranges from writing UI style guides to reviewing the UI for usability and providing feedback, to helping develop the product UI and interaction in a user-centered development environment.
It still helps to be able to hit the ground running, get up to speed quickly, and create deliverables in fairly short timeframe. A typical project is anywhere between 6 weeks and 3 months from start to finish.
Clients are also very appreciative of the ability to plan, and to look at the big picture, as well as short-term needs. For schedules that don’t really allow enough time for what is needed, I work with the client to define optimal documentation, and then to decide what should be created “this time,” putting in place the groundwork to develop more later, as time and budget permits.
I don’t think most of this is anything new. I think the piece that’s the most different from 10 years ago is the need for single sourcing in one form or another. With fewer resources, it’s more important than ever to get multiple books or outputs from one set of files, and one person! Learning how to do that well is a great skill to cultivate. It’s a lot more than just knowing the tools.
Boston: Well, the situation here in Boston hasn’t improved much. There was a marginal up-tick. And some would still tell you that a good TC can always get a job, but I am not convinced. Too many of my good writer friends are retiring or turning in their keyboards for other, non-technical jobs.
There are still opportunities, but fewer and fewer of them are with high-tech companies. In our area, financial services companies, biotech companies, and others are the ones where there is growth. This presents a problem for a person who identifies himself as a TC, because these non-tech companies aren’t looking for TCs and if you try to sell them TC skills, they act like you are talking a foreign language. “Writer” or “editor” are titles this group understands. And there will always be a need for good writers and editors.
For some of us, the solution is to retool as Information Architects, but I am guessing that that won’t be more than about 10% of us, because it is different in many, many ways from traditional TC. The focus here is on design and not content, which is the primary focus for most TCs, and design work is higher up the food chain. The scope of this work is much larger, with more people involved, than a typical writing project with one or a few writers and a few engineers. And IA requires a more broadly based business background than most TCs have.
Yes, we are seeing outsourcing, so there probably will be a need for people here in the U.S. to project manage outsourced work, but I don’t know that I would look at that as a long-term career option, because the companies and people on the other end will come up to speed in 2-3 years and won’t be interested in being project managed from a distance.
Finally, what we are not seeing is the next new thing. For me, it was computers, then the web. So what’s next? No one seems to know. There was a lot of thinking that biotech was going to blossom, but we’re not seeing it. Besides, who needs a user’s guide for a new gene? The latest bubble in the high-tech world around here has been in nano-technology. And there may be some real work there, eventually. My guess is that we are at least 3-5 years away from seeing that rose bloom.
Cincinnati: There are jobs out there. I think people have to be willing to spend some time researching companies and also need to realize that most good technical communication jobs aren’t usually posted in newspapers and/or on job web sites. I honestly believe that networking, especially in small markets like ours, is the way to find out what’s going on and who may be hiring/planning on hiring in the near future.
This may ramble a bit, but here I go… Seapine recently decided to hire another writer. As I mentioned to you last week, I was first surprised by the lack of quality resumes. We only received a handful of resumes that didn’t have typos, format inconsistencies, or misspellings. Even if you don’t have much experience, the least I expect is a perfect resume. Even if it takes hours and hours to get it to perfect – that is time well spent. Why should I interview, much less hire, someone who can’t even proof his or her own resume? I was also surprised that most resumes didn’t include cover letters. Although we didn’t specify one, a well-written cover letter can be a great introduction and help me understand how your skills set may apply to what I’m looking for.
Next, I was definitely surprised (shocked) by the newer writers’ (recent grad/one person with about three years experience) lack of interviewing skills/portfolios/preparation about Seapine. I know that interviewing isn’t easy but if you really want a job it’s something you need to learn how to do successfully. What happened to preparing for an interview? Even if the interviewee doesn’t understand everything that Seapine’s software does, I would at least expect them to come in with some basic understanding of what we offer. One interviewee thought we wrote custom reports for users. Nothing about bug tracking or source control or automated testing – just custom reports.
In addition, I was expecting writing samples to actually be in some type of portfolio with a brief explanation of each sample. My portfolio is a three ring binder, nothing fancy. But it’s organized by writing type and should give a potential employer an idea of what I’ve accomplished. Two of our interviewees literally handed me a stack of papers, some of which were wrinkled. Even if you’re looking for your first technical communication job you should be able to start putting together a portfolio. We were open to everything — school assignments, volunteer writing, etc.
Now, on to interviewing. One thing we were looking for is someone who would ask questions – hoping that person will ask questions when they’re documenting a feature, working on a knowledgebase article, or just wondering why a developer used Yes/No instead of OK/Cancel on a dialog. We purposefully didn’t give an overview of tech comm at Seapine and how we do what we do. I wanted people to ask about tools, deliverables, processes, a day in the life, deadlines, expectations, training, etc. That only happened with one interviewee. The other two people only answered questions and didn’t ask anything. If you followed up with either of those people and asked how I do what I do they couldn’t even begin to answer. If you want to be a successful technical communication professional, you have to learn to ask questions and (I believe) have a desire to learn about new things. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about, if you’re designing web sites, etc. – there should always be the desire to learn about your audience, what you’re writing about, etc.
By the way, technical communication isn’t about sitting in a cube writing all day long. There are days I may spend the majority of my time writing, but that’s generally not the case. I spend the majority of my time reading design documents, writing up UI-related bugs for the developers, playing with the software, then finally writing. In the 4+ years I’ve been at Seapine, and the ten or so years I’ve been a technical writer, I’ve never spent the day without interacting with at least one other person (unless I go to work on a Saturday just to get work done, ha ha). Verbal communication skills are just as important as written communication skills.
Last thing, if you’re interested in the job, tell me at the end of the interview AND send a thank you note. People don’t realize how thank you notes and well-written cover letters set them apart from the pack.
Baltimore/DC: There are lots of opportunities in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, but the rates aren’t what they used to be, even 6 months ago. Six months ago the rates seemed to be recovering, but the market was slow. Now the market is better, but the rates are less. Some of this could probably be attributed to being an election year, as a well as to the economy. When you live as close as I do to DC, the national news is your local news, those events affect the market more than you would expect.
From my perspective, there is a new, enlarging world out here for communicators venturing outside of information technology, particularly those prepared to manage communication and documentation projects; develop training and marketing materials; manage, coordinate, and produce major proposals; coach presenters and help small businesses “get organized”; analyze material for audience appeal; etc.
I agree with Judith, especially about marketing. I’m getting that work pretty easily. It’s also expanding beyond marketing copy–I’m getting involved in business naming, developing tag lines, and other branding work. It’s more stressful in some ways than instructional or tech writing, but it’s also more fun, and the projects are short enough that they end before I get burned out.
Cleveland: What we look for at RADCom, is someone who has:
- Business Sense
- Professional appearance and demeanor
- Common sense
- Excellent writing ability
- Ability to interview SMEs and gather information on the SME’s terms
- Ability to learn quickly
- Knowledge of human factors issues and how to integrate it into their deliverables
- Knowledge of instructional design principles and how to integrate them into their deliverables
What we do NOT want:
- Someone who is only good at writing
- Anyone who is introverted
- Someone who is so proud of being a great writer that it gets in the way of their job performance. (!)
- Someone who is technologically inept.
Rochester NY: This can vary so much from person to person, but I’ve been seeing much more growth this year than over the last few years. Here are the main trends I’ve personally experienced:
- All of my work is coming from small to mid-sized companies rather than the big corporations.
- Most of my work is now in documenting procedures and not writing software manuals.
- I used to write s/w user guides almost exclusively, especially for mega-corps, so my work now is quite different.
San Diego:&bnsp; I think you’re going to get a variety of answers, depending on where in the country folks are located. For example, I know that the job market (no matter how you work) has still not recovered in northern California, but here in southern California things haven’t changed all that much.
That said, I’m still seeing a bigger emphasis on the types of tools used, rather than the technologies. I wish this would change, since it’s ever so much easier to learn how to use, say RoboHelp, than it is to learn how to create a usable online help system.
I’ve always been more than a one-trick pony, as I have a lot of marketing background. I’ve also done quite a bit of training stuff (in fact, just got a new contract yesterday to create training materials for a Web-based application).
In the online documentation world, I’m seeing more and more people heading towards Web-based applications, and less and less still creating the older WinHelp. I’m seeing less and less emphasis on printed manuals, but still a requirement for PDF. More and more emphasis is heading towards single sourcing and CMS. HTML is giving way to XML.
Of course, all of this varies depending on the industry (I primarily work within the software industry). Here in San Diego, we still have a lot of biomed and hardware companies, and those companies demand FrameMaker experts (ugh! 🙂 ) and less emphasis on help authoring. The primary tool here in San Diego is RoboHelp, although I’ve recently switched MY primary tool to AuthorIT (for it’s single-sourcing and CMS aspects).
St Louis, MO: The job situation for technical communicators in the St. Louis, Missouri area is bleak. Few companies are hiring either full time employees or contracting with us independents.
Some chapters may have job opportunity listings that are open to the public (not password protected or restricted to members only). Students could search the chapters for information in various regions
Dayton, OH: I have always focused on finding someone with (a) proven writing ability (not just school-related, and not just co-op or intern stuff) and (b) proven technical ability. By that I mean proof that the person can learn and use some technical skill–maybe a programming skill, network architecture, database design, web design, or even something like geology or agricultural science. Too many writing candidates are really technical lightweights. I can improve writing skill, but I can’t instill a technical mindset where there is none. Software skill simply isn’t enough to show technical acumen.
I expect people to know their own limitations (not the cliche “I’m a perfectionist”). In other words, I expect them to know what they don’t know and admit it.
I expect a mini-barrage of questions about the work environment, type of workload, and so on. On the flip side, I expect them to show knowledge of my company – beyond what they’ll find in our website.
If they don’t have any questions for me, or if they ask only about self-serving things (benefits, vacation), they’re almost certainly out.
I expect a professionally written (and edited) cover letter and resume. The cover letter needs to follow a standard letter format — to a tee.
If I ask them questions about their writing samples, they better be able to answer them intelligently–showing me that they learned from the technical content they wrote about.
If I ask about some of the basics of tech writing (audience analysis, parallel structure, information mapping, online help), they need to answer intelligently.
Question: A friend is translating Dutch/English documents and often finds problems in the English text (e.g., inconsistent or vague word usage). Is there a market for technical editors? Is there another name for the job position? If there is such a market, what does the job entail? Any suggestions I could pass along?
Here is how several people responded:
Yes, there is a market for technical editors. I just got home from such a project as a senior technical editor for “a global software security” corporation. The duties were to snag all the problems you mention, and enforce a corporate style to munge the output of 70 writers scattered all around the world (really: New Zealand, Tahiti, etc.), the majority of which belonged to one of several small companies that had just been sold out from under them and did NOT want to change.
In general, the sentences must be set up for translation, with certain wording (secret) and punctuation conventions, but with one other stipulation: all these paragraphs are to be able to live on their own, like Help “topics.” That’s not easy. Furthermore, they are to be popped in and out of a database and edited in “word processor” software in XML. Translation costs are key because each word costs 25 cents, and the stuff is translated into 23 languages. Ireland seems to have a lot of translators.
There is a company in Troy, Michigan called Iterotext. I have a blurb from the upcoming STC local meeting, where a representative will speak, or you can visit http://www.iterotext.com/. The blurb has a good summary of the theory, in case you or anyone else would like it. It really is interesting.
At one point, I interviewed at Volkswagen. They had translators, but they weren’t car people, so they’d come up with things like “carburetor-rope-pull” for choke cable.
I’ve been doing technical editing for many years. Some large companies employ full-time tech editors; large and small companies (the ones that understand the value technical editors can provide) also hire contractors/contractors/freelancers.
The work can take a number of forms, from basic copyediting of a technical document to partnering with the writer on developing the documentation suite for a product and being involved with user testing of the documents. Fact checking in a formal sense isn’t usually involved, at least in the jobs I’ve had, but editors use our knowledge of a product line to query material that seems wrong or incomplete and work with the writer to get the latest information from the development team.
STC has a Technical Editing SIG here: https://www.stcsig.org/te/
I have been an independent consultant for a couple of years. I do both technical writing and technical editing, but more of the latter. I focus on materials for international audiences, but I think of that as a reflection of my interests, rather than the demand in the market. I suppose it is a happy coincidence of the two.
One of my ongoing contracts is to do “globalization editing” for a large software company. My job is to make the English as clear and concise as possible. There are several reasons for this:
- Increased accuracy in localization/translation
- Lower costs for localization/translation
- Increased usefulness for non-native speakers (and, for that matter, native speakers)
As globalization editors, we also look for anything that would be hard to understand or likely be offensive in a cross-cultural setting.
One can make the case that paying a technical editor is cheaper than translating wordy, inaccurate materials in many languages — especially if it is necessary to make changes in the translations. Also, simplifying the wording usually reduces word count and therefore costs. In short, there’s an economic case for the value of technical editing. I’m not sure how many companies could justify a full-time editor, but that should make consulting all the more viable.
You could bolster that case if your company/client was doing highly regulated work. At Bechtel, we built a nuclear plant, and the NRC was all over it looking for problems of any kind. As a result, there was a team of 4 editors that handled every project document from memo to 47-volume report. We assumed that these could be analyzed at any time, so even a hint of ambiguity was reworked.
I just heard about a technical communications quality assurance product that a company I work for is using. It is called “acrocheck”. It is made by a company called acrolinx. It appears to address just the problems you’re raising. According to their website it checks style, terminology consistency, grammar and spelling and integrates in Word, Framemaker, XmetaL, Arbortext Epic and TRADOS. Does anyone have experience with it?
I believe it (acrocheck) also integrates with AuthorIT but I haven’t used it. However, it has a hefty price tag so for me as a lone writer it’s off the agenda.
I use a piece of software – StyleWriter – that integrates with Word. It costs about $160 USD. You can get it an evaluation version from http://www.editorsoftware.com, or, if you want to go through me, I get a small affiliate fee if you download then later buy via my site http://www.cybertext.com.au/editorsoftware/affiliate_index.html.
I’d like to second the suggestion for StyleWriter. I purchased a license shortly after reading a review in Intercom, and it was well worth the price. Like SnagIt, the cost is small, and it doesn’t do too much — but what it does, it does very, very well.
I’m not affiliated with them, but I am definitely a happy user.
There is a lot of work available for technical editors (as others have stated). Another area your friend may not have considered is linguistic usability reviews (different from an in-country technical review where you see both languages; in this case I only see the English translation and have to figure out what it means; sorta like reading a VCR manual that was translated into English). I’ve done several (mostly for Asian companies). These reviews help companies evaluate the quality of the translations and to ensure that the translation is technically, linguistically, and syntactically accurate.
Your friend may be interested in joining the International Tech Com SIG (https://www.stcsig.org/itc/). The list is getting almost as active as this one, and is a great resource for technical communicators, translators, and localization vendors (I’m the current manager).
Take a look at Jean Hollis Weber’s site: www.jeanweber.com — it’s pretty much all about tech editing!
Question: Are there many jobs out there that combine web development and technical writing? Also, I’m considering enrolling in a Web Development certificate program but I’m not sure how much it will increase my value as a tech com professional.
Responses: I’ve seen a few jobs out there that combine the two, but they are heavy on the database side…this sounds like a medium to large organization implementing and/or maintaining a content management system (including the software education and ongoing support)…
To decide about the clas, I would ask to speak to graduates of the certificate program. I say go for the course. Broaden your skill set and you will not be sorry. Whatever you do, don’t do it for job hits on Monster (or wherever). Do what you love, do it well, and the jobs will come. “They” need us even if they don’t know it.
As a tech writer who moved entirely into web development in 2000, I saw web development as a different way to deliver the content I was already developing. I prefer the web stuff to writing; I now expect my clients to supply me with web-ready material or hire a writer/editor to help them create it.
In pure technical writing terms, I’ve seen jobs posted where there is a preference for the writer to have web scripting or programming experience for developer-facing guides. The career transition choice or option to freelance as a website designer broadens your marketability. Also just for technical writing, I think that the more scripting and programming you understand and can do, the more credibility you can have with certain decision makers about your ability to learn and communicate about technical concepts.
Question: Are you seeing a lot of openings for full-time, “permanent” jobs? Are you finding a lot of opportunities for contract work? Date: 01/07
Responses: Overall, most of us are seeing opportunities out there.
Individual responses relating to full-time work include the following:
- More and more lately. Things have really picked up in the last 6 months or so.
- Some. The demand is the highest I have seen in several years.
- I’ll say 50/50 permanent/contract based on the job boards coming through my inbox (BWA, STC, referral work–all contract btw, and Andrew Hudson’s PR job list–includes writing gigs and perm jobs for business and marketing communications.
Individual responses relating to contract work include the following:
- Yes, I’m turning down work every month. At decent-to-good rates, too.
- Yes indeed. My business opportunities have really taken off in the last 3 months or so, to the point where I have started to hire subcontractors (rather than work as a subcontractor, which is where I was last spring).
- I have never worked so hard in all my life–’06 was my best year ever. All my work has been repeat business up until the first week of ’07 where I got two new clients from referrals and a gig I had to turn down (dang!) because my schedule was too full.
Question: Have you seen much work moving out of North America to other countries? Date: 01/07
Responses: Overall, certainly not everyone sees jobs moving out of North America.
Individual responses relating to off-shoring include the following:
- Not nearly as much in the past 12 months as I’ve seen in the previous three-four years.
- Not from here, unless the position can’t be staffed. The job market in Alberta is hot, hot, hot: billions of dollars in oil sands development is scheduled for the next 10-12 years. Firms can’t find the skilled workers they need fast enough.
- I haven’t heard anything one way or the other. Several permanent positions have been posted that require extensive experience in various fields/software and request “deadline-oriented” and “dedicated” people. These descriptions often translate to “tight deadlines” and “unpaid overtime” in my dictionary. I seem to be finding opportunities for contract work. I have not seen much usability work moving “offshore” but I know others who have firsthand experienced with this.
- After being downsized last year, I noticed that contract work and off shoring had taken its toll on the tech writing field. Salaries are also way down and at age 45, I am considered a senior citizen at my company.
- I see that pure technical writing is going overseas. We do not hire more writers when someone leaves; we just send their work to India (which is not necessarily a good thing). I used to work on one product and now I handle 10 and have a support team in India helping with the process of getting the documentation into the build. This method seems to work well, I write and they do all the other work. But I have now taken 10 jobs and rolled them into one. Business focus: Business, marketing, and technical communications (NOT software or hardware user documentation) for people who teach, sell, or inform: white papers, classroom and handbook instruction, survey and business case study reports, and web copy. Geographic area: Denver and environs.
- No, not any. Because of the nature of my work, I don’t think it is suitable for export. I live in Florence, South Carolina. I’ve been in technical communication since 1998. There is only one company in town that employs technical writers, and the pay is so low they can’t keep anyone. Last year, I had a contract in the Research Triangle-Raleigh-Durham, NC, area, which meant I had to live away from home during the week. I can also drive to Columbia, SC, which is an hour or hour-and-a-half away, one way, depending on where the job is in Columbia. Currently I have a contract in Columbia. I see very few jobs advertised for full-time, “permanent” positions. There are sometimes several contract positions, sometimes none at all, in Columbia–it seems to be rather cyclical. I have no direct experience with work moving out of North America, but I have friends and colleagues who do. You didn’t ask, but let me add that telecommuting positions appear to be as rare as fur on fish; I have never found a situation where it was supported, and only one where it was even considered.
- Through my work with the local St. Catharines – Thorold Chamber of Commerce that represents 1,000 local businesses, I am pleased to find that there are some technical writing jobs here in the Niagara Region. This is an agricultural and tourism area, so even though high-tech is not big, there is still some demand for it. As well, I am seeing that there are plenty of permanent and contract jobs advertised in the STC Toronto Job Bank. I haven’t noticed that jobs are going overseas, but do not think I am connected with the larger firms where that might be happening.
Question: What do you do when an employer, who posted the position on the STC site, turns out to be a flake? Date: 11/07
I have sent the “nastygram” with my attorney on copy. I have also contacted the STC and will let you all know what STC says about whether there is any screening of the jobs on the job site. Fortunately, the amount I lost was small, so this has been a “good” way to learn. As some may have guessed, the company in question is the Detective Training Institute. I did have “warning” signs of a bad, possibly unscrupulous client, but I ignored them.
Below is a summary of what I learned.
- Research the individual and company before getting involved. If you can’t get information on the business, or even if you can, and especially if you have not worked with them before, ask for a deposit up front. The deposit could be anywhere from 20% – 50% of the estimated cost of the job.
- Do progressive billings.
- Be sure to obtain and keep all project documentation and make records of all communication with the company.
- Learn about contract law and utilize a contract lawyer.
- Depending on how much is at stake, pursue what you are owed!
- Have complete, explicit project documents, e.g., Letter Agreement/Contract, sign-off form, etc.
Question: Should I use my LinkedIn profile as a way to pique a potential client’s interest instead of providing details about my past experience? Do clients care if their contractors are not only highly qualified but also–well, 50-plus? I’ve read the article on the STC job bootcamp site about implicit age discrimination, and I’ve heard from other sources that any experience more than 10 years in the past is irrelevant. But does such conventional wisdom apply equally–or at all–to contractors? Date: 2/10
Here are some tips I received
- A LinkedIn profile is quite useful if you can get some recommendations. It can sometimes be an alternative to taking references.
- Read “What color is your parachute?” by Richard N Bolles.
- There is no requirement to put your DOB on your CV!
- Use all of your networks, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Extend your network beyond the profession to groups that might actually be hiring consultants and contractors.
- John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing is doing a workshop on Social Media.
- Pam Slim, business coach and blogger, just came out with a book based on her blog.
- Lisa Haneberg’s “Two Weeks to a Breakthrough”; Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”; and “The 100 Best Business Books of All Time”.
- You don’t have to have a chronological resume. Clients want to know that you can do the work and bring knowledge and skills to the table.
- Sample resumes
- Set up meetings, visit trade show events, attend seminars in the subject area of your expertise, ask to speak at trade show events, attend STC chapter meetings.
- Use Functional resumes or T-letters.
- PDF your resume.
- Include a link to your online portfolio or include a publications list.
- Eliminate the summary/objective field.
- Use your company name as your current employment.
- Highlight your most relevant experience. It’s OK not to have exactly the experience someone is looking for, but be sure that you highlight related and relevant experience that you DO have.
- Use tech com best practices. Spell out acronyms, avoid idioms, use parallel structure and action verbs, keep the tense the same throughout, etc. Run a spell check.
- Take the time to make it look nice. Show a little design flair (unless you have to upload it to a text only system). Stand out a little from the crowd.
- Think about your audience. They are busy managers who probably have a stack of resumes on their desks and little time peruse them. The faster they can put you in the interview pile, the better off you are.
- Check out the techwr-l site for examples — look in the archives; they’ve had lots of good ideas.
- Be careful what ads you respond to–a lot of the ads are spam. The safest way to deal with it is to respond to ads listing a website or business.
- STC SIGs are great if you have professional connections; techwr-l (in my experience) is better for broad, industry wide info. HATT is also good.
- Always name your file as follows: <lastname><firstinitial>_resume_<year>.xxx
With a functional resume, the outline generally looks as follows:
Address (in header)
Related Skills (the order of the skills changes depending on the specific job's requirements):
--Skill A (e.g., Writing/editing)
----3-4 bullet points that demonstrate skill A (e.g., Designed and developed 5 user guides for x product. New design reduced customer service calls by 10%.)
--Skill B (e.g., Project Management)
----3-4 bullet points that demonstrate skill B --Skill C (e.g., Web Design)
----3-4 bullet points that demonstrate skill C
Computer knowledge (order of list depends on what job asks for):
--list the applications you are an expert user in; if you are just familiar with (i.e., have played with but not used extensively) you can still list it but you need to separate those from the apps you are expert in
Employment History (reverse chron)
Education/Training (reverse chron)
Honors/Awards (reverse chron)
End with "References and Publications List Available upon request, or you can visit my website, <insert URL>"
Be sure to put the following in your footer <last name, first name> page X of Y
The best explanation of a T-letter is from the TECHWR-L archives.
STC-Related TopicsAnnual Conference BenefitsMeeting TopicsNetworking OrganizationsAnnual Conference BenefitsQuestion: What are the benefits/ROI of attending the annual STC conference?Here is a list of the benefits people mentioned:$545 is inexpensiveit's tax deductible5 to 10 times return on expenses, but only after several yearsnetworkingvacationinvestment in selfskill sessionstrendsprofessional growthsense of communityfriendshipface-to-face communicationexhibit hall booths staffed by decision-makers in the industrygreat exposure for presentersgood first speaking engagementpresentations force you to analyze their work morefind speakers for local chapternational exposure at society levelchapter role trainingAnd the drawbacks:sessions are too brief to provide useful informationvendors are less than stellarspeakers do not get any price breaksrare to get an immediate contractwithout spending a long time, you do not get any work from conferences and volunteeringas a speaker, hard to make anyone happyUseful Advice for Attending the Conference:Go this year; if you don't make it back over the year, don't go back next year.Go with the goal of recouping the cost of the conference, and not more; identify attendees and vendors who can use your servicesWrite down 3 to 5 things to accomplish, and put it in the badge holder to remind yourself of goals.Write down how you met and a tidbit about each person on the back of the business card, then follow up by email within a week.Networking doesn't just work when you need workâ€”it's an all the time thing. It comes back 3-fold, but over time.Get hotel/airfare combination prices.If you belong to a casino's player's club, call for your player's rate (mine was $30/night). Only useful for the Las Vegas conference.Meeting TopicsNot surprisingly, CICers and lone writers (LWers) differed in the topics they’d like to hear about or have found useful in SIG or chapter meetings. There were a couple of areas that overlapped, namely marketing and networking.Meeting formats also generated some really good responses. Most people in both groups were very positive about their experiences with informal meetings where they could network, share ideas and problems, and review each other’s work.CIC RESPONSESCICers were primarily interested in marketing, selling themselves and their services, opportunities to network, contracts and rates, and running a business.Almost everyone who responded made some reference to marketing: marketing tools (like brochures), how to find clients, selling yourself, and marketing techniques.The second most popular meeting idea was contracts and setting rates.Meetings where SIG members can informally network – such as lunch and dinner meetings and/or round table discussions – was a very common meeting idea and most people seemed to think it is an extremely productive format.Other ideas included print production and using print brokers, time management, motivational subjects, communicating/understanding clients, and tools education (software, web page development).One idea that came from the CICers was to hold an *affordable* seminar or conference focusing on running a consulting business: contracts, rates, taxes, insurance, accounting, etc. It could be done on the regional level to make it more accessible to people. Anyone who’s interested can contact Linda Gallagher.LW RESPONSESLWers were interested in tools, support and information from peers (via networking opportunities), and marketing. I also included some information from a recent thread on the LW SIG mailing list regarding transformation where several members discussed networking and chapter meetings.Tool information/tips/training was mentioned a few times. And looking at past mailing list threads, it is definitely a topic of interest to LWers.Marketing ideas for LWers covered both internal marketing ( a couple of people mentioned covering how to prove value to your fellow workers/boss/company) and job-related marketing (portfolio, resume).LWers want opportunities to network more with their peers. For many LWers, SIG-level meetings are more appealing for networking and sharing information because it’s a group of peers who have the same interests/needs/perspectives. Several LWers discussed feeling out of place at chapter meetings but have felt more comfortable at SIG-level meetings or think that they would fell more comfortable with them more than chapter-level meetings.Networking OrganizationsQuestion: Where do you go to network besides STC?Responses (in alphabetical order)Advertising FederationAIIM (The ECM Institution)American Academy for the Advancement of ScienceAmerican Industrial Hygiene AssociationAmerican Marketing AssociationAmerican Public Health AssociationAmerican Society for Training and DevelopmentAmerican Society for Training DevelopersAMWA (American Medical Writers)ASIS (American Society for Information Science)Association of Proposal Management ProfessionalsATABoard of Trade (BC)British Computer Society (BCS), www.bcs.orgChambers of CommerceClientside NewsCM Pros (Content Management Professionals)DIA (Drug Information Assoc)EContent Institute (Canada only)Framemaker ForumFramemaker-dita Yahoo! group4-HHATTHigh Tech Communicators' Exchange (HTCE)IAI (Information Architecture Institute)IEEE Professional Communication SocietyInstitute of Directors (www.iod.com)International Association of Business CommunicatorsISPIKickstand.orgKnowledge Management Community of PracticeLocalization Fusion SocietyNational Association of Female Executives (NAFE)National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO)Professional Contractors Group (PCG), www.pcg.org.ukProfessional mailing lists, such as TECHWR-L, HATT, WWPProject Management InstitutePublic Relations Society of AmericaSIGDOCSCORE (assn of retired executives who provide counseling to small businesses)Society of Indexers (SI), www.indexers.org.ukTechVibesTekoUK's Institute of Scientific & Technical Communicators (ISTC)Vancouver User Experience (VanUE)Unitarian Universalist AssociationUPAVanX (XML developers)WinwritersWired WomanWomen in Computer Technology (NWCT)WWP listContracting & Project Management TopicsKeeping Busy On-SiteConfidentiality AgreementsMinimizing Client ChangesEstimating Project ManagementHealth InsuranceThe State of SalariesOutsourcingHandwritten NotesConcurrent ClientsOn-site vs Off-site WorkDaily Status ReportsCharging for Travel Time and CommutingContent Creation & WorkflowMilestone Payment StructureOnline Backup ServicesSubcontracting as a Pass-Through Convenience for a ClientChanging Scopes & Difficult ClientsWhen a Client Wants to Buy Out a SubcontractorHourly Rates & DiscountsProject Management ResourcesSubcontracting versus ReferralSubcontracting AgreementsSubcontracting RatesCrash Course on Being a ContractorTransferring Large Files to ClientsKeeping Busy On-SiteQuestion: What can do I when I'm required to be on-site but have no project work to do?Here's a brief summary of the suggestions (in LEAST to MOST desirable order):ask the boss if I can cut back on my hourscome in early, tend to personal business, then do a little work and leave earlyask the boss for more work (including in other areas of the company)use the 'extra' time to practice writing essays, poetry, and fictionuse the 'extra' time to catch up on the STC journalsuse the 'extra' time to take an online course, learn new toolsuse the 'extra' time to learn more about the client and its businesslook for ways to improve the project documentation (e.g., add an index or glossary)sit back and enjoy it (read the funny pages online, laugh all way to the bank!)Another, more detailed response:When I first experienced "down time" on this job, I went to my boss and just flat out asked her how she wants to handle this. I've already asked them what else I can do, and there is nothing. The big difference is that I work from home many days per week unless meetings, etc. demand that I'm on-site. Therefore, I spend "down-time" at home and I can always find things to do. It seems especially weird to just bill those hours when I'm tending to my tomatoes.My boss thanked me for my honesty, and told me that they don't want me to find another job, so they're willing to pay me whether I'm working or not as long as I'm available. So, I check my e-mail frequently from home and check in to see if there is work. The project really seems to ebb and flow. They extended my contract for a few months, but during long periods of down tim--, even though it seems like a blessing--, I feel uneasy at times wondering if they'll end my contract early.In short: My advice if you can't work from home is to enjoy the down time and do other stuff, and when you get bored enough, just be honest with your boss and try to work something out. It alleviated a lot of stress for me.Confidentiality AgreementsQuestion: Are companies ever concerned about the confidentiality of contractors? Do companies prefer to hire employees to further protect their confidential and proprietary information?No, it is standard practice for companies large and small to hire contractors. Most companies will ask you to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) before disclosing any company information. You should read the NDA thoroughly and ask questions about anything that isnąt clear.A company may ask you to sign an NDA before you can even talk about putting a quote or proposal together for them, and sometimes it's once you have signed a contract for the work. Some clients never ask at all.Protect the companyąs information by disposing of drafts, source documents, etc. in a secure way. Contractors can also bring old docs to the company to put into their own recycling containers.Refer to the CIC SIG online book for more information on getting started as an independent contractor: Especially relevant is Chapter 11, Contracts and Letters of Agreements, which covers confidentiality agreements, and contains a sample contract.Minimizing Client ChangesQuestion: I write and edit online courses for an e-learning developer that builds custom courses for big corporations. I'm concerned that I spend too much time making last-minute changes submitted by the developer's clients.More detail on the situation:I work on a flat fee, but I'm not concerned about my income -- the fee covers the many hours required to make changes. I'm more concerned about my sanity.Many of these changes would have been avoided (or would be billable) if the developer required a signoff on content early in the process. However, the developer doesn't require content approval until the course is done. How can I help the developer minimize changes from their clients?Their current process:Write a design doc that includes details about animations and content. Client approves it.Write the content, sending drafts as Word docs to the client for their changes. No official SME review or approval is required.Put the content into HTML and Flash.Do an alpha test.Make expensive changes because stakeholders and SMEs didn't see the content during step 2.Do a beta test.Get content approval and deliver the course.I think the developer should require formal approval of the content in step 2, when things are easy to change. Is this reasonable? Any other ideas?Answers:Two Philosophies of Development:I'm reminded of the old joke about psychiatrists: "How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it has to really want to change."I suspect that changing your client's process is going to be very difficult, especially if your client doesn't perceive the frequent changes as a problem. If it's driving you nuts, you could start charge a flat fee which includes X number of change requests, and then charge by the change afterwards. In some ways, it's effectively the same as charging per hour, but it may make your client think twice before requesting any changes. That does nothing for your client's client, but you only have control over how you operate.In any case, I used to be a software developer, and there are two basic philosophies to managing constant changes.One philosophy is the old-style waterfall approach, where the design and requirements are signed off and iron-clad before any development actually begins. The entire project is designed all at once, and then developed all at once--any changes after development begins are slotted for version 2. In practice, waterfall development is seldom this disciplined, but this is the ideal.The other philosophy is to embrace constant change. There are a few names for this, the most general of which are agile development, or iterative development. Essentially, instead of one big design/development cycle for the whole project, you have many short iterations (e.g., two weeks) where you gather requirements, design and develop a small but complete section of the larger project. After every iteration, you have a complete, standalone project. Every iteration is treated as a new version in that you can add new things or change the old version, but the scope of all the changes must be small enough to fit into your short iteration.Agile methods require a lot of prototyping and interaction with the client. I'm a big fan of them for in-house IT development, but off the top of my head, I don't know how well this translates to courseware development.Persuade them with numbersI agree that it will be difficult to change your client's processes if they don't see them as a problem, though you have some good ideas. There are a couple of things you can do to point out the seriousness of the issue:Run the numbers. I can guarantee that your client and your client's client will sit up and listen if you can show them (for example) that a change in the design phase costs $10, while a change in beta costs $1000 and a change after final signoff costs $10000. If your gut is saying that they can save 25% of their cost of doing business by tweaking their process, then back it up with a little research and a concrete example. The client will appreciate it and you will get more business.
For example, if I add 2 topics in the design phase before the content is written, I can make the change by adding line items to the outline or storyboard and the information gets incorporated as I go and the opportunity for error is small because I haven't done anything yet. If I add the topic after the content is written but before it is compiled, I then have to figure out what other topics that new content is related to; revisit existing related topics to add links, or to tweak the content according to the new content; edit all the related topics to be sure I didn't miss any; go back through the review process; and the opportunity for error is medium to large, depending on the size of the change and the complexity of project I'm working on. If the change occurs after compilation, I have to do all the steps above, plus recompile and retest, which adds even more opportunities for error.Add a change management process to your list, where changes are prioritized and ranked on a scale of 1 (vital) to 4 (new feature, scope change). In the early phases of development, all changes are fair game if they fit the scope. Later in the process, the project team needs to be more strict about prioritizing the changes. Also, every person on the team who can request changes should be aware that the change at this stage will cost $X. They may still want to make the change, but they are making the decision with a better idea of the consequences.Examine the process and the changes you are receiving and see if there is a way to increase the communication with the client's client. For example, are you allowed to attend the project meetings or have access to the SMEs? If not, is there a way that you could gain that access? This may be a way of reducing the number of changes.If all else fails, take a deep, cleansing breath and repeat the mantra: it all pays the same (assuming you are doing time and materials). I have to remind myself of that when clients do things that go against my better judgment. At a certain point, if you've told them what the issues are and they refuse to see it, you have two options: a) fire the client or b) allow them to pay you twice -- once when they do it wrong and again when they ask you to fix it for them. Actually, when I feel strongly that a client is going the wrong way (and I know they have a sense of humor), I sometimes tell them that b is a viable option by saying (while smiling) something to the effect of "well, you can choose to do it that way if you really want to pay me twice for the work -- once to do it the way you want, and when your way doesn't work, the second time to fix it." It usually takes them aback enough that I can then explain the cost/benefits in more detail. CAUTION: I only recommend that approach if you know the client really well and have a long-standing relationship with them and they trust you.Add more signoff points:You've gotten some great ideas with which I wholeheartedly agree. Since you're not on hourly, your pain is obviously more than the folks that can just say "bill 'em." I agree with your process, and here's where I gain sign-off:Design Document -- for content scope and approachPrototype -- primarily for look and feelStoryboards -- (on a unit-by-unit basis) for content appropriateness, accuracy, and completeness as well as appropriate methods/mediaKey frames -- when using a great deal of Flash art, I like to get signoff on the key frame art prior to animating it. I like to give it to SMEs in a flat course with the associated text so they can see it come together prior to full animationAlpha/unit review with full animation, interactions, etc.Beta/integration review of full courseIt seems like a lot of sign-off, but it does save headaches. Since your client is reluctant to change and sees no benefit, then the suggestion of tracking time is a good one. With most of my projects, I add a rework category to my timesheet. I can even add a rework category for each stage, especially those past prototyping. For example, if I have to rewrite a storyboard to include new content, then those rework hours need to show up. In reality they reflect on the review of the design document.As everyone has pointed out, the amount of hours it takes to correct a change that should have been caught at an earlier stage increases the farther into the development process you have to make it. If you can do this detailed tracking (and for one project, we built a database), you can really show where your processes are breaking down. It does, however, take buy-in from a project manager in one client company or another.Another way to manage it, especially for those on T&M, is to document every change as a change order. We're building a house now, and it's all documented, priced, signed off on, etc. And I want it as much as my contractor does to control costs). You can give them a few freebies and then say, holding up the stack of free ones, "I've done these changes without extra costs, but from now on, I'll have to charge you." I know this doesn't directly apply to your situation, but as a future reference . . .You also may have to look at your own "true rate" (actual rate/hour spent) against the "billed rate" to see how big the gap is. If you're in a position to give the fixed bid, then you need to either increase the estimated hours or your rate per hour to be sure you're being adequately compensated.You may also want to look at how contracts are worded, how scope of work is specified, the built-in assumptions, etc. I always build in some good assumptions that specify work outside these assumptions will result in additional costs--even if the project is a fixed bid project. I can then go back to those assumptions, if I need to, to point out where I had to do work not called for.And last, a good lead in to any consultative advice is, "I would be remiss in my duties as a consultant not to suggest to you that you . . . " (in this case) "could save yourselves some time and money if you took a hard look at your processes." Then you can offer to help them, if they are so inclined.Other than that, the psychiatrist joke applies :-).Estimating Project ManagementQuestion: How do I estimate how much time I will spend on project management?First, let's define "project management" (PM): The administrative activities associated with managing the delivery of the content.Project managment tasks include the following:Attending meetingsInterviewingE-mail communicationsScheduling and facilitating reviewsObtaining bids from subcontractorsControlling costsInformation transfer to subcontractors (illustrators, translators, video producers)Delivery of contentFacilitating productionEstimate project managment as a percentage of the total time spent on the project. For most projects, PM is 10% to 20% of the total time estimate of the content deliverable(s). Add or remove time based on your understanding of project risks (e.g. changes in scope and expectations).To keep PM time to a minimum, use these techniques:Establish one contact at the client who serves as an internal project manager.Know the project roles and risksProvide a task list to include in a client quote. See the article by Mark D. Hall in the December 2004 Intercom, "Expose Your Writing Tasks".Health InsuranceQuestion: It is open season for health insurance, and I am considering BlueCrossBlueShield Options Blue. Has anyone had experience with them that you could share with me? Has anyone had experience with High Deductible Health Plans with Health Savings Accounts?Here are some answers from the trenches:I haven't tried Blue Cross but I have applied to a Liberty Health drug plan. If the applicant has a pre-existing condition, they won't pay out. Now, I am very wary of health plans. Hopefully, someone else will have some better advice.**********I have a high-deductible ($5K) policy with Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS). BCBS is all I could get as a self-employed person in Indiana. I'm not thrilled but it's better than nothing. It's a preferred provider setup, which means when I needed a specialist I had to drive 1.5 hours to the nearest big city because none of the local docs were "preferred." They also increased my premium with no valid reason as soon as they found out I saw an oncologist--it turns out I'm fine, but apparently if I once had something worthy of an oncologist's concern, I'm forever marked. Finally, they refused to pay for Vioxx, but I guess that's not an issue anymore!Even though I have a high deductible, I do get price breaks on almost everything, which helps. And the premiums are still pretty low -- a little over $100/month.**********I currently have BCBS Options Blue in Illinois through a state-run group. I have multiple health problems and am a heavy insurance user (thus, the state-provided group....I can't get "regular" health insurance).Though my premiums are high (but, I've discovered, not really out of line with friends in our age group who also have a health history...and I have a low deductible), I have been extremely happy with my plan. In fact, it's perhaps one of the best I've ever had....wide range of doctors and facilities (including all of my current providers, which I've never experienced before) and, because it's BCBS, there seems to be coverage wherever I travel. I have not yet hit a city where I could find a facility or a pharmacy.When choosing a health plan, ask a million questions! There may be a better plan based on your health history. But I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the program you're looking at if Minnesota offers the same type of coverage as Illinois.**********Actually, unless you are covered under a group, pre-existing conditions are usually not covered. Depending on the pre-existing condition, they may even decline to cover you! I used to have Blue Cross, as part of a group, and never had problems with their plan.**********I've used Anthem BCBS individual health insurance for the past six years. They actually -- at least here in SW Ohio -- now have specific sales people for the individual market, so it's obviously a group they are targeting. I was told by one of those sales reps -- who I met at a networking meeting -- that the insurance I have is the same as the health insurance benefit Anthem offers its employees.The cost of it has gone up over the years -- what hasn't? But it has not risen in price as outrageously as some other health insurance has around here.What matters a good deal, according to this rep, is the age at which you start buying this insurance. In other words, someone just starting to buy the insurance who is my current age is probably going to have to pay more for it than I do now. This has something to do with risk factors. Because I have a history with Anthem, the insurance co. is better able to assess my risk. And, because I started buying it when I was younger, my risk was lower then. Someone new, even though we may be the same age now, is more of a risk because the insurance co. has no historical info on that person. Obviously, your age, condition, and the state where you live will affect your personal costs.**********I have an individual plan through BCBS-Texas called Advantage PPO. The coverage has worked very well for me. The big disadvantage is the continually increasing premium prices. Right now I'm in the process of investigating options for changing plans within Blue Cross because my premium is going up again, and my deductibles are already huge. In all other ways -- service, coverage, quality of providers in the PPO network, etc. -- I've been very happy with Blue Cross. Also, FWIW, I had a minor pre-existing condition that had caused problems with other carriers (e.g., insisting on attaching a rider or turning me down altogether), but which wasn't an issue with Blue Cross.**********For about 10 years, I've had individual BCBS-Missouri for my health insurance carrier. I learned the hard and expensive way to ask if there's a "better plan for me." After several years of high deductible ($2,000 or so), no claims because I was healthy and never met the deductible, but up-creeping premiums, I reached my budget limit in mid-2001. When I inquired about a lower-cost option, the representative told me about the Alliance program. The deductible is lower ($500) and the premium was the same or maybe a tad lower, too!! Why they didn't suggest this program when I started with BCBS, I'll never know.You have to be fairly healthy to qualify, and I did. I had to complete a new health history and application form, and the conditions they won't pay for changed somewhat -- pretty much they won't cover anything you have been treated for in the past. However, the previous restriction on back trouble went away because I hadn't put in a claim for it for several years. Now, BCBS is covering chiropractic visits for me. And I had wonderful coverage for my breast cancer treatment (2002). Of course I can't change insurers because of the illness, but I'll get Medicare in a couple of years, so I have to tough out the rapidly increasing, huge premiums until then.There's another program in Missouri -- RateSaver -- that has a high deductible and covers only catastrophic health care (hospitalizations, what they used to call Major Medical). It's worth looking at to see if it would save you money.Consider items such as drug benefits. If an insurer offers "good" drug benefits, that might outweigh a higher premium, for example. Drug benefits vary all over the place. If you are changing from company or group benefits to an individual plan, you'll likely be surprised, and not in a nice way.Advice to all -- Watch your health insurer like a hawk. Check every statement and every doctor bill very carefully. You'll find that the doctor's office lists things differently from the health insurer's statement. Ask for explanations of anything you don't understand. Protest (diplomatically) when you get denials or improper amounts. Billing is a nightmare for everyone, patients and doctors alike. For example, it took me over a year to get one set of bills straightened out.Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) became available several years ago. The reviews are mixed. Many companies that will let you set up an HSA will also charge high fees, and the investment vehicles do not pay very much interest. You might do better to set something up on your own, investing that money in a mutual fund or reliable stock. Please do some research in unbiased places before you jump into an HSA. Consumer Reports might have a comparison.**********My family has been on the individual BCBS Select Advantage PPO plan in Texas for about 3 years now. We have been very happy with them except for their rising costs. We are currently considering another plan within BCBS. Our current plan is very rich and is costing about $900/mo., increasing to $998 in December. We are going to the BCBS Select Choice PPO with a higher deductible ($1000 instead of $500), and we will reduce our cost to $560/mo. The Select Choice plan is still a very rich plan, and it provides a higher maximum lifetime benefit and a higher yearly benefit. Why it is almost half the price I have no idea.We haven't investigated other providers. Even though we are all healthy, we have been to doctors in the past, and the whole process (having them assess our health, providing all the records, dealing with potential riders/exclusions) scares us.I am self-employed, as is my husband. Insurance is a big issue for us. We have a hard time understanding why everyone can't be part of a feature-rich group plan.**********OK, now for another angle: Why are we all so convinced that we absolutely MUST have insurance?Since leaving my former job, where my half of the monthly insurance premiums was somewhere around $450 (the other half being paid by my employer), I have tracked my ongoing medical expenses, to see if I really need medical insurance. You know what? I've decided I don't.Now, lest you all think my family and I are all extraordinarily healthy with perfect vision and perfect teeth, let me tell you, we're not. I am a diabetic, so I have ongoing, regular medical expenses. Many insurance companies would not touch me without a "pre-existing condition" exclusion (meaning I would still have to pay all expenses related to my diabetes out my own pocket). We do not skimp on going to the doctor when we need to, nor the optometrist, nor the dentist. We all wear glasses, and we've had our share of dental and medical problems.And guess what? Even with all of our regular and other expenses, it still averages to less out of pocket than the amount I paid when I was insured and paying copays. That's right: My average monthly medical/dental/eye expenses over the past two years have actually been LESS than what I was paying in insurance premiums and co-pays.So, who needs insurance? I think the whole insurance industry monster has duped us, folks. And what's more, I think they are one of the major reasons medically related costs are skyrocketing. (I'll spare you all that particular diatribe.)True, my one big concern is "What if something major were to come up?" I do worry some about that. But, on the other hand, I've been told (rightly or wrongly) that hospitals cannot refuse to treat you as long as you are willing to make regular payments, so I guess I just trust that if/when the time comes, it will work out. Maybe pie-in-the-sky, but the truth of the matter is that I really cannot afford the hefty insurance premiums PLUS the increasing copays PLUS the regular out-of-pocket expenses from pre-existing condition exclusions PLUS all the other things the insurance companies refuse to pay (and the huge deductibles). So I am, by choice, uninsured -- and convinced I am really better off for it, believe it or not.**********On this same note, be careful who you identify as a doctor. I used a naturopath for a few years as my primary care physician. She did regular acupuncture that helped allergies among other things. One underwriting company disqualified me because her files listed "liver blockage," a common Chinese diagnosis associated with allergy treatment. They thought I had liver problems. I now no longer consider her a "doctor" when it comes to insurance applications. I will only list MDs I've seen. Let the buyer beware - insurance companies do not understand or recognize alternative providers -- so don't even give their information.**********Blue Cross options may depend on your state. I used Blue Cross Blue Shield in Massachusetts. It started out fairly reasonable, but, as always, the prices rose.I now use Health Choice in Maine, managed by Anthem (which also provides Blue Cross). It is still a little more expensive than Blue Cross in Mass. I prefer Health Choice, because I do not need referrals. I have a high deductible ($2200), which works because I use it up with some expensive medications. I love that they pay 100% after reaching the deductible. There are never co-pays on meds or office visits. I don't like that they don't pay for meds up front; they reimburse for them.Also, next year they plan to offer a health savings account (HSA) for self-employed people, which helps with taxes. With the premium and deductible, it will really help with taxes, I'm sure. For HSA information, see http://www.treasury.gov/offices/public-affairs/hsa/ and www.hsainsider.com.P.S.: Pre-existing conditions ARE usually covered if you are still on a health plan when you apply for a new plan. I think this is controlled by state law.**********On the subject of not needing insurance...What if you get involved in an accident? What if you fall down and break a leg? What if your wife has breast cancer? What if your kids contract some disease for which long aftercare is required? Can you afford to pay all medical costs associated with those medical events? Insurance will pay for a large portion of those (very large!) medical bills.Same principle applies to your car insurance, your homeowner's insurance... if your car gets totalled, are you gonna be able to purchase another car? If your car burns down (remember, we lost 2K houses here a year ago), can you rebuild?**********And just how do you think healthcare facilities can afford to treat you in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury? Because you (and others like you) are subsidized in my high rates. I appreciate the fact that insurance is expensive, but it is not unnecessary. The best thing you could do is to buy a cheap indemnity or major medical policy that covers catastrophic events and continue to pay for your drugs and office visits out of pocket. In fact, I think all of us should pay as much as we can out of pocket rather than relying on insurance for reimbursement. Insurance should be used when we can't afford to pay. If everyone used it this way, we wouldn't have the insurance/healthcare problems we do.**********[the no-insurance guy responds] Believe me, I share your concerns. But, as I indicated in my earlier post, as far as the medical expenses go, I will let the medical personnel do what they must -- be it as the result of an accident, a major illness, or what have you -- and then proceed to pay it off for however long it takes. It can't be much worse than paying off a mortgage, can it?To balance things and respond to your other concerns, I do have auto insurance (for one thing, it is required by law in the state of Ohio), and I also carry some forms of homeowner's insurance that would take care of those things if something catastrophic were to happen to me or my wife. But those forms of insurance, much as I abhor and deplore their necessity, are much more affordable than ANY kind of medical insurance would be. I have yet to find a major medical or catastrophic plan that was any more affordable than a comprehensive plan--OR that would cost me less than what I am currently paying out of pocket.True, it is something of a risk to be without medical/dental insurance. But the truth of it, I believe, is that it is nowhere near the risk we've been led to think it is by the medical insurance machine. Don't kid yourself: They're not in it for altruistic reasons. They're in it to make money. And if you want to know the horrible, ugly truth, the amount of money they make is truly obscene. (If I wanted to get rich and had absolutely no moral scruples, I would become an insurance magnate.)They can afford to treat me, because I am willing to pay for it myself, however long it takes. It may take me the rest of my life to pay it off, but I am willing to pay for it myself, and not expect somebody else's insurance to pay for it for me. I'm not asking for charity or a free ride. Therefore, I am not imposing on you OR your high rate subsidies. YOU are not going to pay for my medical care. I will.In fact, I contend that it is precisely *because* the majority of us have been so brainwashed and duped as to think that we absolutely MUST HAVE this kind of insurance that has led to the deplorable high rates and high costs associated with medical and dental care today. That, and the ridiculous amount of litigation in this country.As far as buying a "cheap indemnity or major medical policy that covers catastrophic events," if you know of one, I would like to hear about it. I have done a lot of checking, and I have yet to find anything that I would consider *affordable,* much less *cheap." If you know of something affordable (and by affordable, I mean $100 a month or less), then I would love to hear about it. Otherwise, I will remain uninsured (medically) and trust to my Creator.**********As irritated as I get with them from time to time, I think that Kaiser Permanente (KP) works for us both for those in groups and those covered as individuals through one of KP's plans.**********I considered Kaiser, but I really hated it when I had it. I was constantly given medication by one doctor that conflicted with the medication given by another. I had really long waits to see a doctor, and with triaging, sometimes couldn't see one at all. The only good point was that the premiums were lower than any of the 80% companies. My husband likes Kaiser, however. I don't think they'll take me after the second cancer.**********You may want to check with your tax professional, but I believe that health insurance premiums are or soon will be 100% deductible for us small business persons.SalariesGary Smith has written an editorial of sorts on the topic of The State of Salaries for Technical Communicators.OutsourcingGary has also written a one-page summary of what's happening with outsourcing: Outsourcing--A Growing Trend.Handwritten NotesQuestion: Does anyone use handwritten notes sent to customers? Does this seem to help provide repeat business?One responder, who is fairly new to independent contracting, has a marketing strategy that consists of an initial letter, a phone call, and then a postcard every few months. The responder ordered postcards from vistaprint.com and was very pleased with the selection, price, and quality.You can order cards and/or postcards from the following:Cardstore.comVistaprint.comVistaPrint seems to offer more options than cardstore.com and has similar pricing.The advantage of sending handwritten notes, as the responder sees it, is that most prospects in the responder's market niche (marketing professionals at software companies) get a ton of e-mail, a lot of phone calls, and a good bit of direct mail, but very few personal notes. A personal note has a novelty factor (and is therefore more likely to be read), and implies personal attention going forward--good CRM overall. The biggest disadvantage is the time it takes.Depending on how many clients/prospects you are sending notes to, another alternative is to handwrite notes to the ones you are actively courting, but send something relatively generic to others just to keep you in mind.Concurrent ClientsQuestion: As an independent contractor, I sometimes work with several clients concurrently. That's how they appear on my chronological resume. Lately, potential clients seem to question my ability to serve more than one client at a time. I reply that doctors do it all the time. Has anyone else encountered this problem? How do you deal with it? Maybe there's a more acceptable analogy I could use.Here are how people responded to this question:I think that's the perfect analogy. Doctors are supposed to be professionals. So are technical communicators.My experience has been that when clients make "noises" like that, they are really trying to tell you they want an in-house technical writer, not an independent contractor. However, I've heard a rumor that the courts are on your side.We take the following approach:We ask the client what result they want.We ask the client what budget they have.Then we explain that, during our process, we are likely to be onsite quite a lot to interview SMEs and attend meetings.We then say that if the budget constraints are severe, it is more economical for the technical communicator to work offsite. While we are "captive", we must charge for the whole time, but while we work offsite, we can interleave other work alongside theirs. Therefore, if they are down or inaccessible, we won't have to charge them.We then smile brightly and say that most of our clients like the cost savings, and prefer to focus on the result without paying for a "captive" onsite.This has worked so well that I only have one client right now that needs to "see" our folks. And for them, it's a culture issue – if they can't "see" you, you can't be working.I work that way all the time and have gotten to the point where I talk about how I work (multiple clients, offsite, 1099) very early on in conversations with prospects. Unless a client is really looking for someone to be onsite and working full time (these are mostly through agencies), I've never had a problem.
I don't use a chronological résumé. Most of the time, I don't use a résumé at all. To my mind, a chronological résumé is for someone seeking a job. If you're not seeking a job, try something that doesn't look like a résumé, but still reflects your experience. I point folks to my Web site a lot where I have project summaries and client quotes.
Another thing that I'll cover fairly early on is getting a feel for the size and timing of the project. Based on that, I determine if I can fit it into my schedule. Once I determine that I can, I tell the client that when I commit to a deadline, I'll do whatever it takes on my end to meet it. (Of course, I also include caveats in conversations and similar language in my contract that all deadlines are dependent on receiving timely information, updates, answers to questions, and review comments). Their delays will cause the deadline to be pushed back on my end.If a client wants me to be "exclusive", I ask them to provide a retainer. If you have to sit idly by waiting for them to send you work when you could be making money with someone else, they should pay for it.In my case, my contract with my major client states that I need to be available for 40 hours a week to service the documentation needs of four different computer systems in an IS department. That still leaves "nights and weekends" to take on additional work.
When another client approached me to write their user manual, I gave them the "nights and weekends" speech first. That was fine with them. So, both clients still are happy as long as I meet the deadlines.I use a functional résumé . I then list my clients on a separate page with hotlinks to project descriptions where I'm allowed to discuss my work with them: .
I love being on retainer and usual have at least one, but that still requires the client to schedule their work with me in advance. I use retainers as an opportunity for my best clients to get access to me at my best rates, and for me to have a steady cash flow. One benefit that is important in my specialty is exclusivity, which only my retainer clients get. In other words, I agree not to work for any direct competitors while on retainer.I refer people who have questions like this to my previous clients. You can also tell a client that tax agencies (like the IRS and, in California, EDD) generally view daily status reports, even weekly ones, as evidence of an employer-employee relationship. That should get their attention.Whenever I work with clients, I talk in terms of "deliverables" and "deadlines" in an attempt to focus on results, not attendance. Like others on the list, I'll work whatever time is required to meet the deadlines (subject to the usual caveats of the client having info to me in a timely manner, of course). If the client is willing to pay a healthy per diem for me to be exclusive and work on their site, I'm happy to take it, although I try to discourage it (I am incorporated so the employee-contractor issue is moot). If I have projects underway when we agree to this, I do disclose the situation along with a forecast of how long it will continue before I'm "totally yours".On-site vs Off-site WorkQuestion: Do you charge differently for onsite time versus offsite work? I have been considering trying a strategy like that to get past this hang-up that some clients seem to have with regard to my being onsite.Here are some responses to this question:I had a trainer working for me once who used a "pantyhose surcharge" on her per diem whenever she was required to do course development work at the client site (she worked in a track suit at home). It didn't seem to change the client's requirements but made the extra effort and time a bit more remunerative.I love telling the story about working for Lockheed Martin. My first assignment was onsite by necessity. For a second assignment, they called and had a less generous budget and wanted to know how I could help them and yet reduce the cost. I replied, "Well, if we do it your way, it will cost $6500, and if we do it my way, it will cost $3000." "Gee, what's the difference?" "Well, your way, I get on a plane to Syracuse, work onsite, and then go home. My way is you send me the files, I work on them, we set up a phone conference to go over them, and then I make any changes and send them back to you." "You mean you charge extra for being here in person?!?" "No, that's just the airfare and hotel from my last trip to see you." "Well, in that case, we'll do it your way!"
Next thing I know, a consultant calls me to complain that I've ruined Lockheed Martin. They are now asking everyone for their "site" and "virtual" pricing. He saw no advantage in staying out of airports and hotels – I guess his wife didn't like having him around the house.Daily Status ReportsQuestion: Many new clients want to have a constant check-in from me (sometimes multiple times a day) when I am working offsite, as an assurance that I am "working" on their project. I have "bitten the bullet" and devised a technique for providing "short and sweet" status reports to them every day, but it is maddening at times. I was wondering how people on this list handle this.Here are some responses to this question:I have never had clients ask me to check in daily. One or two have wanted weekly status reports, but I even resist those, diplomatically. Checking in daily, or heaven forbid, multiple times a day, is just crazy. My clients know when I'm working on their project, because I'm sending them questions at least once a day. I've even said that on occasion.
I have used a different rate for onsite and offsite (just $5 an hour difference), and it has worked to discourage lots of requests for me to be onsite. Admittedly, with the softer market the last couple of years, I've not been consistent with that structure. Few clients have balked though, when I've explained that rate structure.For status reporting, we talk about that up front as well. We do it weekly, and the status reports are tied to time sheets which are tied to invoicing. We also do a lot of account management with the client to try to shield the communicators from being continually bugged. If we funnel work into them on an orderly basis, they get a lot more work done.
We have one client who thinks up great ideas in the middle of the night. Thank goodness we have a great account manager who funnels that stuff in an orderly manner to make sure we get productivity without driving our folks mad.Thanks for the sanity check about the daily check-ins. I'm in the Silicon Valley Area and I know my experiences are not unique to me in this area. There are just a lot of people here who seem to have a need for strong control over the contractors. Unfortunately, I think a lot of it has arisen from the more "affluent" times when some companies had bad experiences with some contract writers. I have learned, though, that humoring them in the beginning of the contract pays off, as I can usually "wind down" the pace of check-ins and status reports as I show them progress. It is also far less stressful doing this than fighting their insecurities.
An even better way to manage this is to ensure that I do interact with them every single day. I tend to tackle a piece of a project and bury myself in it for a few days, composing multiple questions that I present at one time. However, it may serve me better to fire off the questions as I encounter them.
I also think these companies are really looking for a full-time employee. I know that many of my clients just don't have the budget to hire a full-time employee (or don't want to have to provide the benefits or personnel management).I ALWAYS provided a weekly status report whether the client wanted one or not. I also stayed in touch daily. I would save my questions up until the end of the day and then send them out. Usually the SMEs had already left for the day but answered my questions first thing the next morning. Gradually, the SMEs came to find out that ignoring my questions was the worst thing they could do. I am nothing if not relentless.When I work from my home office, I don't do them (it's not a good use of the client's fees and I'm certainly going to charge for the time), but, as they are ready, I do send along drafts of the materials for their review and comment so they can see I'm working on their behalf.Charging for Travel Time and CommutingQuestion: I just had a client ask me if I charge for travel time (I don't). Their last writer did and that was one of the reasons they started looking for a new contract technical writer. Do most people charge for travel time? I don't unless I'm working on the plane. Many times I'll fly to a client's for a week. I bill them for hotel, car rental, food etc. but I only bill for time actually spent working. Is this unusual? When I work onsite for a client that lives in the same city I don't charge for travel time. I would consider it a cost of doing business with that client.Question: I've heard the rumor from a fairly reliable source that an Independent who commutes is entitled, according to the State of California, to 36 cents-per-mile from the client. Any info?Here are some responses to these questions:Charging for Travel TimeI don't charge for travel time, but I do often use the two rates (one for onsite and a lower one for offsite), so that covers the travel and "pain-in-the-neck" factor of being onsite. I work onsite so seldom, that's it's not really an issue for me.
I do keep track of my miles, no matter where I'm going related to business, and use the standard IRS mileage rate as a business expense deduction. I don't charge them to a client, however.We charge for "gate-to-gate" time if flying. We do not charge for local travel to onsite locations. However, if you are independent, you should be logging your auto travel for tax purposes.My place of business is my home office, and if I travel away from there because the client wants me to, I figure I'm traveling on his time. You're treating that time as overhead. For non-local travel, I charge by the day, not the hour, so the issue doesn't come up. If I had to charge that time by the hour, I don't know what I'd do. I know I'd want to charge every minute, gate-to-gate, as someone wrote. I wouldn't be in that city if the client didn't bring me there, so of course I'd want to charge him for my time.Let's say your client expects you to attend a meeting onsite and be there at 10 a.m. You get there a few minutes early and end up having to wait until 11:30 for the meeting to begin. What do you do with that hour and a half while you're cooling your jets?
Does the fact that you are doing nothing productive toward your client's project impact whether you bill for this time? I think billing for travel time is fairly standard in the industry. Think about this: you've called a plumber to come to your house, but by the time he arrives, your neighbor has fixed the problem for you. You still get billed for the plumber's time to come out there, don't you? The phone company charges you to come to your house and tell you the problem with your phone is in your equipment, don't they?
What about the time you spend organizing your thoughts in order to start writing? I do my organizing in my head and prewrite there, too. Does that mean that time is not billable? Everything you do to advance your client's project is billable time.
Most people I know may not charge for a certain amount of travel, but if they have to drive more than 30 minutes, they do. Or if they have to fly, they charge for that time. This is time you are unavailable to work on Client B's project because you are doing something for Client A.
Clients are always going to tell you they want something for nothing, or they want something for less than they've been paying someone else. You need to decide what is fair to you.
What if you had to travel today and then they decided two days later they wanted you back? What if a client wanted you to fly in on Monday and fly out on Tuesday; fly back in on Thursday and fly back out on Friday and do that for five weeks? They could say they have a corporate jet that is making that trip on its way to something else or that since they have a corporate jet, it's more cost effective than putting you up in a hotel. What would you say to that? That is a lot of down time.I remember a similar discussion several months ago. The issue of local versus out-of-town travel came up. Based on that previous discussion this is what I charge now:Travel to an onsite job 45 minutes or less on a daily basis, no charge. I am making a steadier income with more billable hours for that regular onsite contract than I would a smaller, short-term contract while I am working at home.If I travel more than an hour, I charge half my hourly rate for the time and make sure this rate is clear in my proposal.I do not charge my clients for travel time to go to meetings. I view that as a cost of doing business. I keep track of those miles and deduct whatever the IRS allows. However, I do not work on a client's site at all, so my travel is largely to attend meetings.I came from a video production background where it is common practice here in the upper-Midwest to charge half rate for travel time when the distance is more than 25 miles from my place of business. I use the same rule for my tech writing now and have not had any complaints.One thing that been missing from the discussion about whether or not to charge a client for travel time is that (in my experience), the client may simply refuse to pay for it. "If you want the work, then don't try to bill us for travel time." If that's the attitude, then no matter how valid (in our minds) the arguments are, they are pointless.Your travel time is time you are not available for other clients, unless you 're working for them. But if you, for example, are piloting the plane or driving a car and are not able to do work that generates an income, why shouldn't your client pay for that time?But the client can (and often does) insist you cut your fee. They'll want you to stand on your head and sing if they decide they need some entertainment and you're willing to do that.
You are a contractor, not a standard employee. Many benefits available to those employees are not available to you. Sure, I travel to my day job on my nickel. If my company relocated farther from my home, that, too, would be on my nickel.
But on the other hand, my company contributes to my 401(K), my health/dental/life insurance and short and long term disability. It pays me to continue my college education. Right now, I'm pursuing a master's. My company pays the tuition up front and reimburses my book expenses after the class and I have to achieve only a C. When I get my degree, I'll get a $1K bonus. Not much and they deduct taxes, but hey, what do my consulting clients give me as a bonus?
My day-job company even pays for my STC dues and one SIG. The others I paid for. And I paid the extra bucks to join an STC chapter at my college.
Yes, there are certain things that should be considered the cost of doing business. I am just saying there are some things that should be the client's responsibility. The things I listed above, for example, you have to pay for in full out of your own pocket or forego.
That is the advantage to the client in hiring a contractor over a standard employee.
Whatever a consultant or contractor decides is reasonable, that is something he or she should decide for himself or herself. I am not saying stick it to the client or nickel-and-dime them to death. And I certainly don't advocate charging them for everything. But I suggest consultants set a policy based on what they think is reasonable and fair to both the client and themselves.
If you want to accept a contract that requires a lot of traveling, that takes up a lot of your time you could be doing something that generates an income. If you don't charge for traveling, a higher per hour rate may be in order. Or, as one person stated, an extra fee. I am just saying we shouldn't put ourselves in a situation where we've established we never charge for traveling and then the client expects us to do a lot of it. I think everyone should have a policy that so much travel is part of the job as overhead. But when it reaches this distance or this amount of time or whatever, then a charge to the client is appropriate.
And sure, if the travel is too much, pass on the contract.Caution – Ask a tax accountant and a lawyer first. I am definitely not an expert in these matters.....
My first consideration is being fair to the client while keeping my own business afloat. Clients understand this philosophy and continue to give me repeat business and send others to me.
My second is keeping it simple. Setting a fair and reasonable rate that allows me to assume the expenses involved in cost-effectively running an office and local travel to client sites without having to bill separately for expenses or travel time works for me, and my clients understand the advantages to them too. The clients are usually not interested in my costs of doing business, although I'm certainly open to providing that information if they are interested.
If the client asks me to represent their company and travel to drive to another location over an hour away and during the working day (to coach or train their staff, interview subject matter experts, attend meetings on their behalf, etc.), I include mileage on the expense report and bill travel time. I follow their expense accounting and claiming rules and submit expense forms separate from my invoice for my time. I bill for every hour I actually work (which I did not do as a captured employee). (By the way, sometimes I am able to find other work to do while I am on overnight travel so that my downtime away is still billable. Or, I'm happily visiting friends, take a member of my family along, or am seeing new sights and don't care that I'm not making any money.)
Having my own business is definitely a balancing act. For me the lifestyle advantages outweigh the disadvantages.In cases in which I pointed out "gate-to-gate" travel time, many clients have opted to find a way around the travel. This is good because we can usually do the work in a multitude of ways that won't include travel expenses. The consultants experience less wear and tear. The time out-of-pocket is less.
As fuel costs go up, so will travel expenses. There are many less expensive alternatives.Charging for CommutingThis sounds like it's been whispered from ear to ear until it lost something. The state of California has a lot of agencies. Which one said this? And what exactly does "entitled" mean? Certainly, as an independent contractor, you're entitled to recover your costs. You can deduct them from your gross. You can charge them to the client – it's legal to do that – but I imagine the client would have to agree beforehand.Content Creation and WorkflowQuestion: How do people handle content creation and workflow? (a survey)Organizations of all sizes struggle with content creation and publishing workflow issues. These problems are varied, time-consuming, and waste finite resources. Many can negatively impact an organization's ability to meet business goals, be cause for regulatory and legal headaches, and frustrate employees.To help better understand and quantify the major content creation and publishing workflow problems affecting business communicators (e.g., technical, medical, training and marketing writers) and to learn which software tools are being used to help reduce workflow obstacles, The Content Wrangler created a short survey. 234 communicators responded. The data collected indicates content creation and publishing workflow is an area in which most organizations can make improvements and save significant resources. Additionally, the data suggest software vendors -- both authoring tools and content management systems -- have a lot of work to do when it comes to product name recognition and adoption (read: sales). A brief summary of some of the issues uncovered is presented here for your review.Workflow: Automation or not?77.8% of participants believe their content creation and publishing workflow could be improved by automation6.4% said they did not believe their content creation and publishing workflow can benefit from automation15.8% said they did not know whether their content creation and publishing workflow could benefit from automationWorkflow specifics: What are the biggest problems?Participants were asked to rate workflow problems as "always a problem," "often a problem," "sometimes a problem," "seldom a problem," "not a problem," and "don't know." Most common problems were rated "often a problem," or "sometimes a problem."Often a problem: Waiting, change management, and content reuse - The results indicate content creators and publishers are often waiting for others to complete their tasks, causing delays that force them to rush to complete their tasks and/or prevent them from being able to find time to create value-added content. Content reuse, content retrieval, and change management issues were also rated as "often a problem."Ensuring those who need to know are notified when changes occur - 34%Determining which changes need to be made and where - 36%Reusing content in an efficient way - 32%Managing reusable content - 30%Locating all instances where content has been reused - 27%Changing all instances where content has been reused - 25%Locating all instances where reusable content should be used - 30%Obtaining timely content review- 35%Getting content approved prior to publication - 28%Rushing to complete tasks on time - 36%Waiting for others to complete tasks- 41%Finding time to create additional value-added content - 36%Finding time to accomplish all the tasks that should be completed prior to deadline - 29%Sometimes a problem: Version control, finding existing content, and retiring outdated content - The results indicate content creators and publishers have difficulty identifying and retiring outdated content, preventing inaccurate and inconsistent content from being published, ensuring changes are made to all content that needs to be changed, and meeting deadlines. Problems with version control, and change management issues create further bottlenecks. Content creators and publishers say they have to spend time recreating content that already exists simply because they can't locate it. And, to make matter worse, in order to meet deadlines, they are often forced to skip steps in their organizations' content creation and publishing workflow.Locating all content that needs to be changed - 31%Ensuring all changes are made everywhere they should be - 34%Controlling versions of content - 29%Preventing inaccurate content from being published - 35%Preventing inconsistent content from being published - 33%Identifying and retiring outdated content - 36%Completing all tasks that should be completed prior to deadline - 34%Preventing workflow bottlenecks - 32%Recreating content that exists but canąt be found - 28%Meeting deadlines - 33%Skipping steps in content creation and publishing workflow in order to meet deadlines - 28%Brand identity and content management systems: And the winners are - Content management tools vendors have their work cut out for them. Author IT and Documentum have excellent brand recognition, while SiberLogic, Vasont, Astoria, XyEnterprise and Ektron are not as well known to survey participants as the marketing departments at these companies may believe they are. 75% of participants said they "know of" Author IT and 65% said the same of ECM Documentum. The "never heard of" category is something smart marketers of content management software should take note of.18% of participants said they "never heard of" Author IT26% of participants said they "never heard of" ECM Documentum59% of participants said they never heard of" SiberLogic SiberSafe62% of participants said they "never heard of" Vasont CMS65% of participants said they "never heard of" Astoria CMS71% of participants said they "never heard of" XyEnterprise Content@88% of participants said they "never heard of" Ektron CMSBrand identity and usage of authoring tools: And the winners are - Some authoring an editing tools vendors also have significant work to do in the area of brand identity, product name recognition, and usage. The tools with the best name recognition are -- not surprisingly -- Adobe FrameMaker and Microsoft Word 2003. Both of these tools are known to 98% or more of respondents. The most often used authoring and editing tools are also Adobe FrameMaker (65%) and Microsoft Word 2003 (52%). The others didn't fair as well.1% of participants said they "never heard of" Adobe FrameMaker2% of participants said they "never heard of" Microsoft Word 200329% of participants said they "never heard of" Arbortext EPIC52% of participants said they "never heard of" Blast Radius XMetaL55% of participants said they "never heard of" Altova XML Spy79% of participants said they "never heard of" Tibco TurboXMLWhat the results mean for software vendors: There's a lot more that can be gleaned from viewing the complete survey results. There's simply too much data to cram into one short article. One thing is for sure, there's significant room for improvement in the content creation and publishing workflow arena and software tool vendors need to take a close look at their marketing strategies and design campaigns aimed at reaching those who have workflow problems and know it. With more than 187,000 small to medium sized businesses (100-1000 employees) in the U.S. alone, the vendors who offer affordable tools that can automate the most expensive and time-consuming content creation and publishing workflow problems are sure to reap big rewards. But only if they find a way to increase brand awareness. After all, if we don't know who they are, how do they expect us to purchase their products?You can view the entire survey summary here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/Report.asp?U=113930568102.Milestone Payment StructureQuestion: Has anyone out there successfully linked milestones to payment? Any suggested "do's" and "don'ts"?Here are some responses to this question:A well-developed scope of work, and keen attention to monitoring scope, is essential. Identify early any scope changes and immediately remind your client that the quote will need revising. The importance of this was underlined by all respondents.At the same time, it can be useful to be flexible on some small points so the client has a feeling of added value, while you reserve the right to re-quote for true scope change.In support of protection against scope changes, be sure to put in place controls for events you know will happen.In the Statement/Scope of Work, define the client's responsibilities in the project.Linking payment to milestones is not uncommon, and can be beneficial to the writer. Choose milestones that you control.Payment in thirds is frequent, but tying this to other milestones is acceptable. The length of the project can affect effective execution of this. Some payment at the outset of the project is generally expected.It is useful to reserve the right to define the deliverables (i.e., what's contained in an appropriate first draft).Supply only appropriate details in milestone description: not too vague, but not needlessly specific.Not-to-exceed ceilings are not uncommon. These protect the client and put the burden on the writer to estimate accurately.In those cases where a project is considered hourly, only hours worked are billed; in other words, if the project comes in under estimate, the client benefits. This is positive for the writer also, as it makes the client happy and makes the writer look good.Problems with milestone payment include events beyond the writer's control; for example: dates pushed back, products not ready, unavailability of SMEs for questions or reviews.Source files are typically not relinquished until the final payment is received.A detailed schedule can help minimize, or even avoid, milestone payment problems by foreseeing them and creating solutions in advance.Your comfort level with the client (i.e., trust) can provide a rule of thumb about the length of time that transpires between work and payment.Trust your instincts and comfort level, and don't be afraid to walk away.Online Backup ServicesQuestion: Is anyone out there using an online backup service? If yes, which one, what does it cost, and how do you like it? While I will continue to use my local backup process (outlined briefly below), I am so frustrated with dealing with backup hardware (just had to replace my DVD drive), software (sometimes seems to flake out), and media (not sure of storage life), that I need a backup (pun intended) method.
I've been looking at Xdrive.com, because they were rated highly and had good prices in a recent article at pcworld.com (http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/article/0,aid,121970,00.asp). Xdrive charges $9.95 a month for 5 GB, but I need more than that and would likely go for their 10 GB service at $199.50 per year or $19.90 per month.
I'm not really interested in the ability to share files (though it *may* be handy). I really just want another place to store my backups in the event I need them.
I'm also concerned about my long-term storage of my archives of old projects. I currently store them on a hard drive of an old PC and on two CD-R discs (one in my office, the other in my safe deposit box). I had someone telling me that CD-Rs degrade in a short time (he didn't specify and I was too frustrated with my DVD drive at the time to ask). I store my shorter term backups (current files that back up daily) on DVD-RW discs.
Anyone have any knowledge about the storage life? I did some research and found that CD-Rs should have a good storage life (10+ years), but didn't do extensive research. I'd used tape for years, but it's such a pain (slow and expensive per cartridge) and switched to DVD nearly two years ago. Both, at times, flake out for either software or hardware reasons (usually don't know which), but at least DVD is fast and has worked more consistently.Final DecisionBased on the responses to the question, I'll likely try xdrive.com's trial and see how that goes. I'll continue my DVD backups, but I also bought a 120 GB external hard drive, to be another backup to my backup. I like the DVDs because I can easily store one (or more) off-site in my safe deposit box. I also keep daily incremental backups (only files that changed) on DVD, and I keep those for several months.
I may someday copy my archives to CD-R gold discs, but I'm not rushing out to do that right now. I am going to stop using the sleeves for CDs and use only jewel cases (thin ones), because of some things I'd read about storing discs (can't seem to find that article again, though).ResponsesHere are some responses to this question:I had a hard drive scare a few months ago and looked into backing up my files. I actually decided to save everything to a USB stick ($80) and do it once a week or so, or whenever I think of it. It works fine and I can transfer data to my laptop easily from the stick too.I'm quite satisfied with Connected, which I've used since 2000: www.connected.com. They were recently purchased by Iron Mountain but I haven't noticed any degradation. I imagine their prices will rise faster.
I need to look at Xdrive.com, however, because their pricing at 10GB, which is my service level at Connected, is lower by about $5/month.
DVD/CD: It's a hassle, but you can refresh the media once per year. Just go back to the bank to retrieve the oldies, copy to fresh media, and deposit those. I think DVD will eventually replace CD, so you're probably right there.
Regarding hardware, you're probably doing as well as anyone. I had bad luck with tape and dumped it.
Hard drives are so cheap you might want to consider a removable backup drive in a drawer. You push the image button and wait 15 minutes, then you pull the newly imaged drive from the drawer and put it in the trunk of your car. This gets you some "offsite backup" (and potentially a bootable drive) in case your system blinks. I've been pondering the question of fail-over for a while â€“ thus my question about "backup" copy of WWP -- and I'll make a decision about it by CYEOne thing you might consider, at least for short term backup, would be a USB portable hard drive. With rebate, Office Depot (I don't work for them) has the IOMagic 40 GB Gigabank for $130. I just bought one myself. I'm looking for mostly portability personally, but they would make a great short term backup.For routine backup use, I've switched to using external hard drives, which are dirt cheap these days. I've picked up three 80-160 GB hard drives for about $39.95 each (on sale, after rebates). With either USB 2.0 or FireWire plug-and-play convenience, these are a cheap and easy way to do regular backups. I keep a couple of these attached to my computers, and have another off-site in case of disaster.
I continue to use CDs or DVDs for offline storage, such as archives of past client projects or extra photos. I burn one for me, and another for the client. I try to use good quality, brand name media for any important discs. The Taiyo Yuden discs now seem to get the highest reviews, but I haven't yet tried them.I use Datadepositbox which charges by the amount you store each month. Currently I'm paying about $21 for a little under 5 GB. I do use their file sharing ability frequently and you can have them back up multiple machines. I recommend Web backup services because the backups are done continuously (at least they are with Datadepositbox) which means that every time you step away from your machine, things get backed up.
When my hard drive went south a few months ago, I was happy to have the service, because my personal backups were out of date.
For archiving projects, I burn regular read-only CDs.Check out ibackup.com. It works very well for groups of writers and file exchanges, so it may not be what you need.I've been doing the bulk of my daily backups on Zip 250 MB and old Zip 100 MB discs. They have been close to 100 percent reliable, but I realize that I'll need to switch backup technologies when I get a new computer.
I have been doing some archiving on CD-R discs, and I haven't had any problems yet. I should undoubtedly do more, but the concept of throwing out discs on a daily basis bothers me from a recycling standpoint.
I haven't heard that straight backups on CD-R discs pose any sort of problem. I have music CDs that I purchased back in the mid '80s. I haven't run into any that I can no longer play. I think the CD-R technology is fairly close to regular CD burning.
If you are using "session" backups, that IS a potential problem. Here is a forum entry I was just reading on MacWorld this morning:
What you're talking about is multi-session format. I was burning and reading multi-session CDs back in the mid-1990s on my Mac in OS 8.1 using Toast 3.x and Adaptec DirectCD. The problem with multi-session CDs is they are more prone to catastrophic data failure. Each 'session' adds new data to the CD, essentially updating a few files and adding a new directory that points at the added files plus the older unmodified files. The earlier files aren't overwritten, as on a hard drive -- they're merely harder to find (unless you know how to dig into the old directory structure). So, with multi-session the original data remains on the CD though it's no longer accessible without using special recovery tools, or unless you're a real expert in reading B-trees and catalog structures."In order to protect one of these multi-session CDs from data loss, you have to "close the session." That's where trouble can happen. Write errors during closing occur not uncommonly, resulting in total data loss. What's different from ordinary burn failures is this problem may occur months or years after the original multi-session CD was started. The original files may well have been deleted from a person's hard drive by someone who wasn't savvy about the shortcomings of multi-session format. After enough people had bad experiences with multi-session format, and as media prices dropped through the floor, multi-session CDs began to lose favor on the Mac. There just wasn't the same motivation for people to squeeze every last megabyte out of a CD that costs 10 cents, versus 1x nonrewritable CDs that were $15 to $25 each.
For some reason not totally clear to me, multi-session CDs remain popular in the Windows world. Sure, they have some advantages. But the potential for catastrophic data loss remains a serious problem. I hope everyone who works with multi-session format knows the risks they are taking with their data, but I fear that's not the case. While it may be OK for "quick and dirty" CD creation, it's really not reliable enough for archiving critical data.I have been suspicious of multi-session disc archiving; this fellow knows enough to explain why it's risky. I think regular, closed- session CD-R backups should be fine. No computer medium is forever, but by the time your CD backups fail, your client data will probably be worthless.
I haven't been using DVD backups, but as far as I know, there aren't any major problems with closed-session DVDs.Maybe you've already considered or used this method. I tend to back up onto my external zip drive, which I can take to an office if necessary and plug into their USB port. For backup, I copy to the drive disk. For archiving, I place zip files on the zip disk. This has worked for me, and it's what I did to save files when I had to get my older PC reformatted (the kids use it now).
You can check out X-drive with a free two-week trial period, which I did just to see what it was like. Seems like a good way to get extra space for storage and backup. I may use it in the future.I've heard that written CDs are good for about five years, for what that's worth.I use Backup Solutions, www.backupsolutions.com and pay $250 a year I believe. Love the service. It's fantastic. Easy to use. Can go back to any point in time and download all files or just specific files. In addition to my data files, it keeps all my software and settings and preferences backed up. Very intuitive, good customer support. It automatically backs up at the same time each day and gives me a report. I was just telling a client about it tonight. I don't worry about my data any more!
Highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5.Subcontracting as a Pass-Through Convenience for a ClientQuestion: Have any of you subcontracted as a convenience for an existing client? In this case, an existing client just wants to pass some billing for a contractor through my company. This way, the client can avoid difficult internal paperwork to get a new contractor approved. The pass-through won't affect the budget for the work I've been doing, and I'll get a little markup for the billing effort.
I've subcontracted before, but only when the subcontractor was someone I needed to work with on a client's project. In a situation like this, do I need any type of contract with the subcontractor? I have nothing to do with the actual work.ResponsesA few people had either done this before or been in the subcontractor's position and the client company had hired them the same way (through a contractor) for similar reasons.The majority of respondents favored a contract with the subcontractor.A couple of people were worried about the ethics of helping someone get around their company procedure.Some respondents had tips on accounting. Two mentioned that the prime contractor was incorporated. Others mentioned working as W-2, a temporary employee, instead of a subcontractor, which negates the need for a contract, but has overhead costs.Here are some specific comments on this topic.Make a Contract with the Subcontractor: Most respondents (7 of 13) expressed a need for a contract with the subcontractor even though the contractor would have nothing to do with the subcontractor's work. The reasons are:To ensure the contractor is not responsible for the quality or completion of the subcontractor's work.To ensure that if the client does not pay for the subcontractor, you are not stuck with the bill.Nine respondents pointed out that the contractor would taking a risk by “hiring” the subcontractor.Consider the Ethical Implications: Two respondents felt that helping the contact at the client company get around the company's system for hiring contractors is not ethical and could cause the contractor problems.Go For It!: Three respondents said that either they had hired a subcontractor to save the client the "hassle", or they had been the subcontractor hired by a "prime contractor". All of these respondents had been happy with the business arrangement. One of the contractors hired the subcontractor without an additional contract and said that as long as the extra income and the expenses matched, there would be no effect on income tax. There was some additional accounting work, and they had to make sure that the billing cycles matched so that the contractor did not end up acting as the client's bank, unless the contractor charged for this service, too.Changing Scopes & Difficult ClientsQuestion: Becky Lash of Epic Trends was trying to meet the needs of a young, successful customer with a widely-known product. He changed his requests about writing style in the middle of the project and had detailed, somewhat controlling comments about things like bulleted lists and present tense. He expressed complete disastisfaction with the second rewrite. His comments and the responses they required were taking up too much of Becky's time for the rate she was charging.Suggestions & CommentsGet a deposit. That was Becky's first mistake. :)Start charging by the hour, instead of a flat rate for the project. In general, do not price projects with a flat rate. Use an hourly estimate instead.Make sure the contract or estimate includes a statement about providing three rewrites and a stop-work clause.Determine what the customer wants before starting the project. Ask "feeling" words. Use a design document with a section for "feeling" words from the client. In your interview with the client, fish these words out and put them on paper. Then, as you interview, ask "When you say 'fun,' what does that mean to you?" Take that conversation as far as you can, even in email, until you might have a prototype of what the customer wants. You can even get them to sketch something out for you to view or write a short paragraph.Consider the possible difficulties in communicating only by email with someone who uses English as a second language.Do not try to charge different prices for different levels of difficulty. Charge a consistent hourly rate. The customer is paying for your expertise.A majority of the folks who responded to this thread advised Becky to find a way to disengage herself from a customer like this. Claim your schedule does not allow your continuing the project, you are not the best person for the job, or your bookkeeper or partner has said you must stop the work.Make sure you clearly explain why you are writing in a certain style or structure to the customer when he/she objects.Some good references on the subject of difficult customers:The Tipping Point, by Malcolm GladwellMaking Money in Technical Writing by Peter KentGetting Started in Consulting and Independent Contracting, written by veteran CIC SIG members (http://english.ttu.edu/gscic/).When a Client Wants to Buy Out a SubcontractorQuestion: Has a client ever offered to "buy out" one of your subcontractors? I have a couple of subcontractors who work for me at various client sites and one of my clients would like to hire the subcontractor as a regular employee. When I hire subcontractors, I have them sign a contract with me stating that they will not work directly for any of my clients without my express permission. I know some outsourcing companies ask the client to pay a percentage of the writer's salary during the first year after "the move". What kind of compensation or arrangement do you use?Response SummaryMost companies have some sort of arrangement where a contractor can “move to the other side” after a half year of work or once the current project is completed. In other cases, the subcontractor can be bought out during the project for something in the order of two months salary or 20 - 25% of the annual compensation. That said, most of us seem to feel it makes good business sense to let go of the subcontractor--even when compensation agreements are in place--and use the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the client.Hourly Rates & DiscountsQuestion: Can anyone provide information on the current hourly rates charged by experienced independent contractors for technical writing in the Chicago area? I'm located in the western suburbs, have nine years of experience, and am currently developing user guides and related projects. I realize this is a sensitive area, but I would appreciate any information that you can share.Summary of ResponsesI think that some consultants with long-term direct client relationships earn over $40 per hour, but most major Chicago companies, especially downtown, work only with a limited set of agencies.
If you work directly with the client, you may be able to make more (but not always). I know two top independent writers in Chicago who billed at quite high rates ($85 and $100 per hour) a couple of years ago. But they are the exception, not the rule. Both have spent over 15 years building a client base; one is highly technical, the other is a trainer as well as a writer. Rates and salaries here are down 20% from what they were in 2000. Clients appear to prefer writers with three to five years experience, based on what they are willing to pay.
If you are a security expert, ex-programmer, or know SAP, however, you may be able to charge more than average. Also, medical writers here earn excellent rates, if they have pharmaceutical expertise.
As for Chicago versus the Rocky Mountain area, our industries have still not recovered from the 2001-2003 setback. I'm glad to hear that you folks are doing well, but the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan) is still floundering. Chicago has far fewer company headquarters than it did ten or fifteen years ago. If you have a friend in Independent Writers of Chicago, ask what their latest survey showed. Also, see the chapter on rates in the latest Writers' Market.
The Agency Factor: The highest hourly rate I know of at this time through an agency (in Chicago) is $40 per hour (for an independent, not a W2). I've seen rates as low as $18 per hour. $40 per hour is the top rate agencies are paying independents (in Chicago) for onsite full time work. Most agencies pay $30 to $35 per hour.If agencies are paying $40 per hour (in general), you can bet that they are charging the companies at least 30% to 50% more than that. Agencies always pay the contractor less than what he or she could get on his or her own. However, they've also done all the legwork and sometimes have benefit packages that you can buy into, so there are tradeoffs.
Rates in Other Areas: While I do not know the Chicago market, this seems rather low to me. The Rocky Mountain Chapter is about to conduct its (usually) biennial salary survey, so our data is pretty old, but in our 2003 survey for the Denver market, the median hourly rate was $48 per hour, down $2 per hour from our previous survey in 2001.I am in Ann Arbor/Detroit when at home, and $40 per hour seems to be the top. The bottom is yet to be determined, but I've seen some at $12 per hour in Florida, and $17 per hour in Michigan. I have also seen postings that cite $75 per hour. If you have expertise in a particular area such as wireless networking or other hot technology, you should expect more.I'm on the west coast, but in the smaller town of Santa Barbara. Through agencies, $40 per hour is about what's expected. Direct, I think many people charge around $50 per hour, and have for years. My rate is a bit higher, but I have long-term clients who seem happy.Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, hourly rates for contractors in the "high tech" arena (i.e., the "computer" software/hardware, etc.) have varied over the past 6+ years from $100 down to $25 per hour as the economy here has had its ups and downs. Personally, I always thought the "high" rates were always outrageously high, while the "low" rates have always been outrageously low considering how expensive it is to live around here. A fully-qualified "senior" tech writer in the Bay Area has a chance of getting as high as $70 to $80 per hour here (and, yes, I do know people getting these rates at this very moment). This is usually for contracts that initially require 100% onsite work, regardless of how many hours per week. The "low" price for a senior writer seems to be very fluid at this time, although it looks like it's stabilizing right now at $50 to $60 per hour (for a senior writer).I haven't seen any responses yet from Canada, though I may have missed it, and thought I'd give my personal perspective from Toronto.
I've been both contractor and corporate over a career of 30+ years, and decided about two years ago that I'd never be "captive" again - waaaaaay too much corporate b-s. I checked out agencies in Toronto, and the typical rate was $30 per hour. One agent told me "We never pay more than $35 an hour". They bill out at around double this, of course. If I hustle my own work and can find it in my particular areas of expertise — aerospace, IT, digital imagery — I can get $45 to $50 per hour (even more for rare special needs). If not, I'll take that agency job for $35 per hour, but keep it short-term in order to stay available for the better jobs.Wow, how that market has changed in six years then! I haven't done any tech writing since 2000. But I was living in southern Ontario at that time, and regularly getting $40 to $50 per hour through agencies (more if I contracted directly ) as an intermediate level tech writer.In the Atlanta market, we (TrainingPros) are paying our tech writers, on average, $50 per hour (1099). Local Market vs. Remote Markets Rates are based on where you live, not where your clients are located.Who says so? I say the market into which you are selling AND your self-image, determine the rate. If your local market has a lower rate, you can charge the local rate to have a competitive advantage, or charge the market rate in the target market, if you have advantages other than price that make you desirable.Almost all of my clients are local. Otherwise I think it would be difficult to assign a different rate for different locations. What criteria would you use? Using one rate avoids the confusion of all that.I'm not inclined to agree. You'd get beaten to a pulp in Chicago (because good organizations can do the work, and will, for less), and leave “money on the table” in San Francisco. It's important to know what the norm is in each place.Most of my clients are remote. I charge a single base rate that goes up if the complexity and service warrants it (for example, a basic technical writing job will cost less than a job that also involves style guide or template development). I do everything time and materials, and when I sub-contract I don't typically reduce the rate the client is being charged because subcontracting involves additional oversight.I've got clients in Houston, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Washington DC area. I have my own small business and subcontract some work to others. When I am very busy, I don't do all of the desktop publishing, editing, or graphic design work on each project since I know others who do these tasks very well. I pass the lower rates they charge for this work on to my clients — so, for the client, the average cost is averaged down.So -- what if a client hires a remote contractor? Should the client pay the going contractor rate for its locality, or the local rate based on the contractor's "point of origin"? Isn't this the same business issue that revolves around outsourcing any job to anyplace, especially outside the USA? Every client has the right to go out and find someone who can do the work for less money. Let's face it, it's happening in every facet of business in the USA today -- we all benefit and we all lose from it. Don't we all look for a bargain when we can get it?
Globalization and Commodity Work Globalization will have an affect on rates. There will be in increase, for instance, in the rates in India, over time, and as that market gets tight for skilled tech comm people (demand, rumor has it, is already exceeding supply, and affecting reliability of delivery dates). Although our rates came down due to multiple factors in a short period, they will rise as the baby boomers retire and our labor gets shorter, and as offshore labor markets get tighter.We must differentiate ourselves from a commodity offering. However, the commodity of technical communications functions at a certain norm, like a float. Many of us will be above that norm, and can justify it through our services. Many will be below that norm because we are seeking the level we should be , or because local offerings are in a depressed state. The norm was hugely affected by the .com bust, 9/11 and the growing trend to offshoring to countries with low labor costs. However, the norm may be rising somewhat because of a recovery in the U.S. nearly everywhere except the central corridor, and the tightening of the labor market in other countries.Client DiscountsDo you offer a discount of some kind for long-term, bread-and-butter clients who trust you implicitly, and whom you trust too?Yes...if I don't have to go through a middleman.We don't discount. At the end of the day, our cost is about 83% the contractor's rate. I have no room for discounts. But, we do extra stuff for our clients. We research, we network, we connect them with resources, we post things at STC if they ask, and we do our best for service (extra mile).I also offer discounts. Since I work directly with my clients, I rarely bother with anything beyond a handshake — or a nod by computer, as the case may be. I do prepare a project plan or doc plan that describes the task and includes a cost estimate and all the potential risks and contingencies I can think of. It is in that document that I offer additional services by my network at other rates, including graphics support and desktop publishing.Other Factors that Impact RatesOne of the more interesting contract developments to evolve in the last year or so is that of where the contractor works: onsite or offsite. For myself, if a client requires that I work onsite 100% of the time, I charge higher rates (especially if they also require 40 hours per week). If they are willing to let me work offsite from the start, then I will lower my rate. Obviously, I do this while also leveraging whatever qualifications I bring to the contract. The rates I charge for contracts are dependent on the following factors:onsite vs. offsite requirements/allowancesif the client requires onsite work, I also consider how easy it is to commute to their office by car or public transittotal hours per week and flexibilityfixed-time contract or open-ended contract, based on required deliverablescurrent engineering and development status of project (i.e., new project for client or established product)any previous documentation efforts relevant to the project, especially when projected timeframe is questionableexistence of other doc writers on the same project — if so, how many contractors, how many staff writers?who is managing me (e.g., a pubs manager versus an engineering or — shudder — a marketing manager)existence of an established template and style guide, or requirements to create a new template for my deliverablesThe questions you should be asking are what are my expenses, what profit margin do I want, and what will the market bear for the skill set I have? You are an independent contractor because you want to make a living, not run a charity. The $12 to $20 per hour rates won't get you far, and sell your skills short. I wouldn't want to work for a client who thought they could get quality documentation at intern level rates.When calculating your expenses, don't forget things like Social Security taxes, insurance, office space rent, living expenses, supplies, hardware and software, retirement, and vacation. If you recently had a full-time job, one way of figuring out what you need is to take your salary and figure out the hourly rate for that, then add at least 50% to cover expenses and benefits. This will tell you your break-even rate.For example, if you make $50,000 per year at a corporate job, that works out to about $24 per hour. Multiple that by 50% (add $12 to the $24) and you need at least $36 per hour just to make expenses, assuming that you are working 40 hours per week.Corporate jobs are 2000 hours per year, assuming two weeks vacation at 40 hours per week. Contractors typically work about 1000 to 1500 billable hours per year. So you need to take that slack time into account when setting your rates as well.Project Management Books and Web SitesQuestion: I have a new contract that requires me to be a project manager on several projects at intervals during the next year. I need a nuts-and-bolts how-to reference for project management.Books:Project Management Jump Start, by Kim HeldmanManaging Your Documentation Projects, by JoAnn HackosThe Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, by Eric VerzuhManaging Information Technology Projects, by Dick BillowsThe Art of Constructive Confrontation, by Hoover and DiSilvestroA Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 3rd ed., published by the Project Management Institute (PMI)Web Siteshttp://www.pmi.org/info/default.asphttp://www.pmibookstore.org/PMIBookStore/index.aspxhttp://www.amanet.org/index.htmhttp://www.constructiveconfrontation.com/Subcontracting versus ReferralsQuestion: When do you refer rather than subcontract and vice versa?Response #1: I subcontract when a client needs a service that I don't perform as part of the scope of work. Typically, that's graphic design/production. I have also subcontracted video production and occasionally writing when I needed extra help. I may refer business to a colleague when a prospect that I don't know calls and I'm too busy to help, or when a client or prospect is looking for a service I don't provide.**********Response #2: I will refer rather than subcontract if (1) I don't know enough about the person's work to have complete confidence in their ability to make the client happy; (2) I am too busy to take on project management/quality control (I wouldn't turn in someone else's work without looking it over first); (3) the client has a very limited budget and can't support a markup of the subcontractor's rates (I will never subcontract if I can't mark them up -- no point in taking on the added risk if there isn't a financial payoff).**********Response #3: I refer colleagues when I'm not in a position to add value to the project. I would rather refer and reap the goodwill than try to subcontract a contractor who doesn't need any help or support from me. On the other hand, if a client wants me to put a team in place and provide services, management oversight, or any other level of value added, I bring the contractors on as subcontractors.Subcontracting AgreementsQuestion: What contract provisions do you include in subcontract agreements (whether you're the primary or the sub)?Response #1: I use a simple agreement. It specifies the scope of work, fee for service, payment terms, and duration of the contract. The agreement also covers non-compete, confidentiality, work-for-hire considerations, and the sub's independent contractor status.**********Response #2: When I do subcontract, typically to build a team of which I am a part, I bind the subcontractors to my company's contract, then add as necessary any addenda regarding client-specific provisions. If a subcontractor is representing my company, they have to be on contract with my company.Subcontracting RatesQuestion: How do you handle rates in subcontracting situations? Do you use a percentage markup, a specific dollar-amount markup, or some other method?Response #1: I generally don't mark up subcontractors at all, because I'm usually billing for my own services on the project and don't need to make money on the sub. When I do mark up, it's by a specific dollar amount.**********Response #2: I typically mark them up by 20%--sometimes more, if their rate is considerably lower than mine. I figure that the next time, I may be doing the work myself, so no point in setting up an unrealistic expectation about costs.**********Response #3: It depends on the service provided. I'm incorporated and can add subcontractors as employees and pay them through payroll. Or I can pay subs on a 1099 basis. I typically give the subcontractor the option. Depending on the level of service my company provides for managing the contract and paying the subcontractors, I charge any where from 2% to 10% to cover my administrative and finance costs as I almost always have contractor payments due before I collect from the client. A 2% markup is what I charge for providing a billing service and paying the subcontractor on a 1099 basis. A 10% markup is what I charge for subcontractors on payroll, with slow-pay clients, that require some level of project management support.Crash Course in Being a ContractorQuestion: Help - I need a crash course on being an independent contractor!Date: 01/07Online Resources:"Getting Started in Consulting and Independent Contracting," available from https://www.stcsig.org/cic/gscic/gscic.htm. Regarding letters of Agreement and Contracts, read Chapter 11 of the CIC SIG Online Book (I found Chapter 9 also useful).www.buncosquad.net may have some info that you'll find helpful.www.alanweiss.com or www.summitconsulting.com.As far as the contract goes, I started with the one on the STC Rocky Mountain Chapter (RMC) website and had an attorney read it - see http://www.stcrmc.org/jobs_freelance/fr_samples/smplcontr.htm. Also useful is the STC-RMC Freelance Resources: http://www.stcrmc.org/jobs_freelance/freelance.htm.www.eFax.com, www.myfax.com or similar to send/receive faxes on your computer without having to leave your fax machine on and subject to spending your ink on spam adverts.Professional Resources: There are 5 people whom every consultant needs on his/her team:biz lawyer (check into an LLC--varies by state but is easy to set up and gives you lots of tax and liability advantages; costs less than you might think for both, and will save you tons of money later)CPA or other tax professionalfinancial plannerinsurance agent (make sure your business assets are covered under a commercial policy; homeowner's insurance is usually not sufficient)banker (get to know your branch manager personally so that if you have problems with an account or need to borrow $$ you can do that) Also, you may want to consider setting up a business line of credit. This will help during those times when your clients screw up paperwork and you don't get paid for awhile.Miscellaneous comments:The best way to provide someone with a meaningful quote is to get a sample of the work that must be done, edit it, and extrapolate a quote for the entire job based on the sampling. In reality, the only way to get good at quoting jobs is to start developing data from your projects. You'll come to know the rate at which you work and the type of work you either fly through or get stuck in.Doug Florzak's book "Successful Independent Consulting." He's got good forms for business planning, and questions to ask yourself about your preferred tax status and so forth.Intuit's QuickBooks for banking and accounting management--at nearly $500 (circa 2005), it's worth a look into the substantially cheaper Quicken For Home and Business. Should you grow into QuickBooks, you can always make the switch. In your early, early days you may be able to get by on a simple spreadsheet; but then it's up to you to track and categorize business expenses for that P/L sheet.Transferring Large Files to ClientsQuestion: I need a way to transfer large video files to a client - does anyone have suggestions for what is the best way to go about this? Should I get a temporary web site? Date: 05/08My choice for the current client was to create a gmail account and share the username/password with the client. There does not appear to be a file size limit for uploads. While not perfect, it has sufficed for the current needs. I will delete the account when this project concludes.Other suggestions included the following:Use the free website hosting for personal pages that comes you're your e-mail account. If it doesn't offer this feature, there are a number of sites out there (geocities, tripod, lycos) where you can sign up for a free website.YouTube might be an option.
You can embed a private video on your website by copying the embed code on the "Edit Video" page for that video and pasting it into your website. To share it, just click the "Share Video" link under the video while you're watching it, and send it to whomever you like.
In order to view the video, the person coming to your website must be logged into YouTube, and be part of the list with which you shared the video (i.e., Friends or Family). If they are not, the video will not load.I set up separate subdirectories and user accounts for my clients on my business web site. Each client gets an ID and password, and can log in to view confidential data on pages dedicated to their projects, and to download or upload files for review. When the project is over, I delete the account.You might also try setting up a wiki. Many are free and access may be limited to only those invited. One free wiki that supports video is wetpaint (http://www.wetpaint.com/).You can try DropSend: http://www.dropsend.com/Adobe has a new product at www.photoexpress.com which might help. It allows you to upload large files. It's a 'new' product in beta, so the subscription is free (for now) and it might help you a lot in this instance.There are a variety of Web 2.0 tools, many free, at which you can load your file up, and pass along the access info, then your client can download from there.
The tools are so numerous as to be overwhelming, but you can start by looking at this URL: http://www.go2web20.netHave you tried the Office Live Workspaces? The free versions are quite functional and easy to set up. (www.workspace.officelive.com) Access is via a Windows Live ID.Send Files for FREE under 100MB and Sign up for a FREE Trial Database! http://www.mavricmedia.com/Try Whale Mail at www.whalemail.com.Look at Slideshare - I'm not sure about HTML/SWF files but I know you can load PPT files to it and I think you can create a private area. www.slideshare.netLook at the Google collaboration tools and see if anything there suits, or some of the 37signals stuff.You may be able to use one of the large file transfer apps (see http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2008/04/02/email-or-file-limit-blues/ for details)If you want a place to upload the files so the client can retrieve them, try www.box.net. I think you can even put them online for the client to view, by using their widget: http://www.box.net/info/widget.http://www.yousendit.com/For transferring large files to clients, I use www.sendthisfile.com. The basic service is free, and you can purchase an encrypted service. Works like a charm for me, even with dial-up!Document Types and IssuesDocumenting APIs & SDKsEffective Placement of GraphicsEquipment ManualsPrinting BookletsWhite PapersClean Global EnglishThe Value of Style GuidesDocumenting APIs & SDKsQuestion: What should I consider when documenting APIs and SDKs? Are there any good resources out there?Things to Consider: Typically, you just need to identify all the different function calls (methods), what the parameters are, etc. A good example of this is the Java Programmer's Reference guide (Grant Palmer). Though it's not exactly an API book, it might be a good example of what needs to be written. He lists each type of function call, explains how each function works, explains the input parameters, and shows examples for using the function.The legwork you do with your SME(s) is more critical with APIs than with other product documentation. Unless you're able to read the code yourself and figure out what they did (code comments?), all of your content has to come from the developers. Even if there are specs, there's no telling if the final product actually matches the specs.Start with a list of the APIs to document (this is actually one of the hardest and potentially politically charged aspects of the project). Get your developer and/or product manager to list all of the APIs (or Java methods?) to be documented. The developer has to comb through all of the code and produce the list. Then the developer needs to verify that you actually want to document each of those APIs.Remind your developer to include any APIs that might be included in imported libraries, because these APIs would also be exposed by your product. Here's where it gets tricky though. Are those imported libraries yours or are they 3rd party libraries? For example, I once had a developer tell me that he imported a class of Sun Java methods (500+ methods) and that I needed to document them "because they're exposed by the product." I had to go over the developer's head to get management buy-in that it's not proper (or legal) to document a 3rd party's product.The next bit of information is the "signature" or attributes of the APIs. You should get this information from the developer at the same time you get the list of APIs. The only reason I think of this as a separate cycle is that the list of APIs is often politically charged, but the signature is very cut & dried. The signature of each API should include information like Name, Parameter(s), and Returns.Add some more bits to this, and you have a fully documented API:NameDescriptionParametersReturnsComments (or "Additional Information")ExampleDepending on the style guide you're using, you may or may not already have a pair of Term/Definition styles. If so, you can probably use them for your APIs, like the following examples:myFunction [This is the "Name" of the API. Use whatever heading level is appropriate for the structure of your doc]Description ["Term" style]
The myFunction method converts a string to an integer and washes your car. ["Definition" style]Parameters ["Term"]
The myFunction method uses the following parameters: ["Definition"][Insert a table for the parameters. Typically, you'd include a column for the parameter name, type (string, Boolean, etc.), and a description.]Returns ["Term"]true - Returns true if the function was successful. Otherwise, returns false.or
string - Returns the name of the requesting function as a string.Example[Insert code sample here]This pattern of "thing" and "description" (e.g. Return and return description) should be consistent throughout all of your APIs, but will be unique for your doc. For example, Java methods would also include a "Throw" and the signature: myMethod(string String1, string String2, int iCounter). So you'll definitely have to tailor this layout to match the environment and language for your product.If you're trying to cost-engineer the project, then get rid of the code samples. The code samples are the hardest part of the API, again because of the dependence on the developer. If you were proficient enough to write your own code samples, then you'd be a developer instead of a writer.Foster a strong relationship with your developer and it should go well. (Don't tell anyone, but the developer does more than 50% of the work on these types of project. Your job is to ensure that the structure/formatting is consistent, that there is no missing information, and that the language is correct--not Chinese or Russian.)Organize the APIs into categories (like Type Conversions, Date and Time, Input Output, etc.). Usually types of functions are contained in separate libraries or classes. Use these categories to create your chapters. List each function alphabetically within the chapter. Where possible, include cross references to related functions.It's OK to relax your grammar when you're documenting APIs. Because this is reference material for developers, it's OK for certain descriptions to be sentence fragments. (I don't know where it is written that APIs use relaxed grammar - it's just that way).Finally, be careful with your copy & paste. Since APIs are fairly repetitive, it's tempting to recycle your material. It's safer to document each function from scratch than it is to copy/paste.A final tip: API's are great candidates for XML-based documentation. If it's automated well, the developer can give you his information in XML directly from comments in the source code.API & SDK Documentation Resources: One man's opinion: Regarding books on APIs, I honestly don't think the subject warrants it's own book. It's like writing a book about how to write a cookbook. There are plenty of good books on writing and plenty of fine examples of cookbooks. It's up to you to connect the dots and apply the writing concepts to the specific topic of APIs.
And another's: I agree that API writing is repetitive and easy to do once you get going. However, you also wade into very abstract programming concepts that many writers (especially those with no programming experience or training) have difficulty getting their heads around. API training is very useful to understand what programmers want and need, and how to write for this audience.Examples of API documentation: Online help for Excel. Look up the help for one of the functions that has multiple parameters (like COUNTIF). Their help will give you an idea of the flavor of an API doc.Manuel Gordon's course "Documenting APIs and SDKs." It is available on DVD (http://www.gordonandgordon.com/).If you are documenting Java classes/methods, then you should consider using the Sun Javadoc utility to create and deliver HTML javadocs.This group discusses docs for APIs and SDKs quite a bit: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nettechwriters/Effective Placement of GraphicsQuestion: What can research tell us about whether graphics (pictures and tables) should be placed to the left or right of the text?Print and online differ!: Are you talking print or online? If online, it depends on what you want people to notice on the page or screen. People notice the upper left and center before they notice other parts of the screen, and they notice graphics before text. Therefore, if your graphic is telling the story and is the most important element, place it in one of the high visibility areas. If the text is telling the story, place it in the high visibility area with the graphic to the right (upper or lower), where it will carry less emphasis.A good book on graphics is "Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials," by Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons (who is an STC member and has contributed to Intercom several times). Other good books about print placement of graphics is "Print That Works" by Elizabeth Adler and "Before and After Page Design" by John McWade. Although they may be out of print, these books can be found at Amazon.com.For online page arrangement, there is a good research report recently published by Marketing Sherpa, called "Landing Page Handbook". It includes graphic illustrations of eye travel on Web pages from the author's research that run counter to many common perceptions. It’s expensive, but very worthwhile and based on research results, rather than educated guesswork.You also need to realize that graphics placement is culturally-based. Since most societies read left to right, and since a textual description usually precedes graphics, it would be natural in the flow of communication to place graphics after the text – that is, to the right or below.Equipment ManualsQuestion: Does anyone have any good resources for writing an equipment manual?Recommended Equipment Manual Books:Developing and Managing Engineering Procedures by Phillip Cloud (~$70 used) Engineering Procedures Handbook by Phillip Cloud (~ $112 used)Technical Writing for Industry: An Operations Manual for the Technical Writer by Larry Riney (~ $2.49 used)Discussion of Cautions/Danger/Warning NoticesFew users recognize the difference between signal words.Regulatory agencies may require specific terminology to be used.Another good resource is "Highlighting Hazards: Mastering Warnings and Error Messages" by Leah Guren. The presentation lists several references that may be useful. Also, ANSI requirements for safety labels for equipment can be found at http://www.safetylabel.com/safetylabelstandards/iso-ansi-faq.php.Printing BookletsQuestion: I have a 4-page manual in FrameMaker that I save as Adobe PDF. The pages are 8.5 x 11 inches and I'd like to print them 2 per side on 11 x 17 pages, duplexed, so that they can be folded in half and become a leaflet. However, when I print the PDF, the 8.5 x 11 pages seem to be formatted for 11 x 17, then shrunk to fit side by side. Unfortunately, this makes the end result smaller than printing 8.5 x 11 pages.
I'm using Adobe Acrobat Professional 6.0.0 5/19/2003 with Windows XP and printing to an HP LaserJet 9000 printer (although I've tried a few others and had the same result). I read a couple of other posts from people who wanted to do the same thing, and they were told to try the multiple-up pages, but I've been trying that and getting the result I described above.Suggestions and Their ResultsI received several suggestions, but none of them worked for me. However, they did lead me to the eventual solution.Suggestion 1:
Go back to the FrameMaker source file and format it for tabloid pages (11x17), but make the text areas letter-size (8.5 x 11).Result: I had neglected to mention that I’m using structured FrameMaker and conditional text, so there are five flavours (and counting) of the file. Since I don’t want to reformat these documents five times (multiplied by every time I generate them), I have to change the source file. Also, when I change the text flow to put the last page first, FrameMaker won’t let me do it (which makes sense), not to mention, it breaks the structure.Suggestion 2: The problem might be the Distiller settings, or the Adobe settings and printer settings are getting in each other’s way.Result: I tried setting the printer settings from the Control Panel instead, and tried using the Adobe PDF printer driver and just printing to a file, but I got the same results.Suggestion 3:
Buy some software such as Quite Imposing (http://www.quite.com/imposing/) or Clickbook (http://www.bluesquirrel.com/products/clickbook/) that would allow you to do layout with PDF documents.Result: Quite Imposing costs more money than I was willing to spend for a print run of a few dozen. Clickbook was a definite possibility, but I wasn’t ready to give up trying to solve the problem with my existing tools.Suggestion 4:
Give the PDF to a printing shop and get them to do the proper layout.Result: I didn’t try this because I didn’t want to spend the money.Solution:What worked for me is that I finally put together the ideas "printer driver" and "booklet," and some suggestions that I get the company to buy a fancier printer. I changed to the sophisticated color copier/scanner/printer in the office. I found the "booklet" option in the printer settings and started to play with it. I got what I wanted by not choosing 2-up, choosing Booklet, and printing the pages in reverse order.In conclusion, I think that I should have called this booklet printing, not 2-up. It can’t be done on all printers, and if you don’t have a printer with the Booklet option, you should look at Clickbook or a printing house.White PapersQuestion: What do writers charge for white papers? I've never written one, but the subject matter is right up my alley and I know I can do it. When contacted by a new client yesterday, she said that I would obviously charge more for writing a white paper than for editing and proofreading. If I charge $75/hour for technical editing, what should I charge for writing a white paper?ResponsesResponse 1:
In a white paper titled "Writing White Papers for the US IT Market," James P. Cavanagh gave a "...general industry guideline of $1,500 to $2,000 per page for the white paper content...for 7 to 8 pages." That was in 2003. I've written technical white papers for the localization industry, but never been paid anywhere near that per-page figure. I charge US $80 per hour, but using flat-fee project pricing for white papers I ended up with an actual rate of closer to $60.Response 2:
I charge my regular hourly rate for writing white papers, and that covers time spent on research as well as writing. I do not charge different hourly rates for different types of work because that could lead to situations where I might give priority to projects that carry higher rates -- instead of to their deadlines. It's much too complicated to charge different rates for different services. No matter what the project, the client is getting the same expertise and capability.Response 3:
I charge my regular hourly rate for white papers. As my experience and by ability to create value grows, I will charge more, no matter the output. A recent (purchased) survey by Stelzner Consulting (http://www.stelzner.com/copy-HowTo-whitepapers.php) states:"At the bottom of the price scale, approximately 35 percent of independent writers in the US charge $1,999 or less for a typical 10-page white paper. In the mid-priced range, nearly 41 percent charge between $2,000 and $4,999. At the top of the scale, approximately 25 percent charge $5,000 to $10,000 or more.""… More experienced white paper writers command a significant premium for their services. Among U.S. writers with 5 or more years experience writing white papers, 55 percent charge between $3,000 and $6,999 for a 10-page white paper. Among U.S. writers who have written more than 80 white papers, 75 percent charge between $4,000 and $6,999 for a 10-page white paper."Another excellent white paper resource is Gordon and Gordon's "State of the White Paper" (http://www.gordonandgordon.com/white_papers.html).ConclusionOut of five responses, three said they charged their regular rate for white papers and two said they bumped up their rate. I told the client I would give them my usual rate of $75/hour for the first white paper, and after that, I would charge them $120/hour. They agreed.Clean Global EnglishQuestion: Is there such a thing as GCE (Global Clean English)? This question came up as we were reviewing a recent job applicant's resume. We adhere to plain language in our work, but I have not heard of GCE.ResponsesI did a web search: google, ask, yahoo, and all I came up with were job reqs for HP requiring Global Clean English. "Ability to write in Global Clean English and according to established international guidelines." No other references to GCE.**********I think the person is referring to Global English. The "clean" part might be a title used by the person or organization from whom s/he obtained the training. It's a localization issue, that is, how to write documents in English using vocabulary that anyone in the target audience knowing English can understand--for instance, without connotations, idiomatic expressions, cultural references, etc. I'm not sure this is possible on a large scale, but could be targeted to English speakers in a few countries or within a geographical region. See here: http://www.globalenglish.info/global.html**********I've heard of Simplified Technical English, Plain English, and Controlled English. I suspect there is some minor distinction for GCE but that it's in the same area as STE or Controlled English.**********Evidently it is a Hewlett Packard standard: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=%22global+clean+english%22&btnG=Sea
Another person also said, "I think this is a term that HP made up; more common terms are International English, Simplified English, and Controlled English."**********Since no one in your office (or on this list) is familiar with the term, you could try asking the candidate. You'll find out what Global Clean English is, and you also might find out about the candidate's ability to explain things--always an important trait in technical writing. Let us know if you find out!********************My first thought of what Global Clean English would be is something akin to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language. I think that's what my mother was trying to enforce with the help of Ivory soap. Unlike most languages, English has resisted oversight and enforcement of what is proper and what is vulgar. There is what is loosely referred to as the "Queen's English" but that's hardly rigorous. On the bright side, English, not being tightly regulated, is a wildly creative language. I believe English also has (by far) the largest vocabulary of any spoken language. I doubt that the average speaker would trade the freedom of making up words to suit the situation (teenagers come to mind) for the clarity that comes from having a formalized and relatively unchanging vocabulary. Nonetheless in the practice of technical communication where our goal is to communicate clearly, I think that formalized use of language would reduce confusion (too many ways to say the same thing) and facilitate localization.**********Global Clean English is a standard at many companies, including HP. The focus of GCE is writing content that can be more easily localized.**********I've never heard of it. Search engine results produce only job descriptions that mention it, and I can't find it in a quick search of TECHWR-L and the STC editing SIG listserv. I'd be curious to know where she got this training (and why a company that offers this training wouldn't promote it on the web).**********I expect GCE is Hewlitt-Packard's equivalent to Eastman Kodak's KISL (Kodak International Service Language). While user documentation is translated into every language under the eight-count-'em-eight planets, service documentation for internal use by company employees is -- or was the last time I checked -- all in English with a limited, strictly controlled vocabulary. Being experienced with KISL used to be guarantee of job security in the 1970s, before they realized that if they could train new service techs on KISL in less than a week, they could probably train new writers in less time.The Value of Style GuidesQuestion: I am writing a style guide for a large medical manufacturing firm. I would like to share the general benefits of following a style guide in the introduction. Please share your personal experience with the benefits of creating and following a style guide. I am particularly interested in any dollar benefits if you have quantified them. Date: 07/08ResponsesIn the past few years, I have created a couple different style guides for different projects. Since all of the members of each project were potentially readers/users of the style guide, I had a few guidelines that I followed when developing them:Resist using editing jargonDivide the content into more easily digested sections (e.g., format, commonly used words and spellings, etc.)Update the document every few months, including anything that you missed during the previous draftStore the file somewhere readily accessible to allWhat I found after developing these style guides was that not only did we save time not having to go through old files (looking for the conventions we used previously), but the consistency in our documents made us look like a stronger, more organized project, as a whole. I know that's difficult to quantify, but it's true. Little typos in a document reflect poorly on the entire organization. Another thing that was great about the style guide was that the team members knew where to look before asking me a question about the style; I then noted any questions I received and addressed them in the next version.As a contractor, I am often surprised when a large company does not have a style guide. They could save money by having one because every time they hire a new contractor, the contractor has to take the time to go over their preferred formats, font usage, unique words, etc. Additionally, the new contractor has to take the time to learn all of this. Also from my perspective, because I have several clients, all of whom have different style requirements, it is tough trying to remember all the requirements. It would save me a lot of time if I could quickly look up the information.I don't have any specific numbers to offer (although I'm sure they're "out there"), but clearly one of the biggest cost reasons to have a style guide is to make translation/localization much less expensive. A style guide will ensure that every writer and every page uses the same terminology, meaning that the translator/localizer only has to come up with the new word once.
There are lots of intangibles that are hard to put a dollar estimate to, but I'd guess that there are some metrics out there. I'm thinking of things such as:Ensures consistency across docs, which ensures consistency with branding/marketing efforts.Ensures consistency regardless of who's doing the writing and editing, which is especially helpful in orgs with high numbers of consultants (or high turnover). Although we consultant's may wonder at something that seems odd in a new client's style guide, and may ask about it for historical reference (or occasionally to argue about), we will generally follow it regardless.Helps curtail style arguments among a group's writers. (Of course, if they're writing the initial style guide, that's certainly not true!)Don't forget that consistency is especially important for items like medical devices, where government regulation may come into play, where end-users may need instant access to information, and where end-users may have English as a second language.I am a freelance writer and one of my clients is a medium-size cardiac devices company. I am working on projects for the marketing department and although they had branding guidelines, they did not have a style guide. I suggested a style guide and the director of marketing asked, "What's that?"
I explained the content to him and he still wasn't too sure it was necessary until he saw my draft document. Then he realized that the guide would help with consistency with respect to acronyms, trademarks, spelling (is it logon or log on), bulleted items, hyphenation, and so on.
In addition, I was able to send the working document to a new hire; she was very appreciative because it saved her a lot of time and hassle. And they are in the process of talking to a web-content writer; I will be able to send the style guide to that person, too; again, that will save time and provide consistency.Will this style guide go on the Web or will you print it? That's one of the issues we're considering. I'd like to have it online, but I'm concerned that someone will make unauthorized changes, and I don't know how to prepare it for their intranet.I don't have a quantified benefit, but one benefit that could be realized in a text-to-web or text-to-hard-copy-publication is this: My client has me write copy in a style sheet and follow strict instructions on how to style text (headers, subheaders, numbered lists, bulleted lists, sidebars, notes to graphic designers, etc.) The Web or hard-copy designers can quickly convert that styled text into his or her own Web or (say) InDesign styles that will be used for Web or print publication. Make sense? The point: Time saved in converting copy for Web or print publications.
With specific regard to Style Guides, Amy Einshohn's The Copyeditors Handbook has a great guide for making decisions on editorial preferences (pgs. 423-429).The two biggest benefits of a style guide are 1) long-term savings (time and money) during document writing, reviewing, and production and 2) a guide to create clear, consistent, and professional documentation company-wide (if the entire company has access to it).General Business IssuesBusiness PlansMoving a Business to the U.S.Business PlansQuestion: I'm thinking of writing a business plan -- how do I go about it, and why is it important?Business Plan ResourcesThe article, "Business Plans Build Good Business," April 2004 Intercom magazine (pp 38 to 42) by Bette Frick. See the resources on page 39.The book, "The One Page Business Plan" (ISBN 1-891315-09-9). It's a workbook that provides a series of exercises. The end product is a one page document that includes:vision (what are you building?)mission (why does this business exist?)objectives (what will you measure?)strategies (how will this business be built/expanded?)plans (what is the work to be done?)The book, "Simplified Strategic Planning" by Robert BradfordThe CIC SIG's online bookBusiness plan software -- cost is $100.The document at http://www.anz.com/australia/business/toolkit/toolkit.asp (An Australian bank’s Word document)Business Plan Templates on Web SitesInformation MappingMicrosoft Business Plan (also see their Excel templates for cash flows, profit/loss projections, start up needs, and break even analysis documents).SCORE (www.score.org). One member took a SCORE class where they give you all the basics on what a start up company needs to think about. The class was only $40 and offered through their local public schools one night a week. The member thought the course was worth the fee just for the tax information.The Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov)Thoughts & Comments on Business PlansSome members stated that their business today is very different from that original plan -- nonetheless, it was a good way to organize plans and thoughts at the beginning of a business.Some members do a business plan and budget each January. "The planning forced us to look at our core assumptions every year, as well as at the financial structure of our business. We would analyze which types of projects were making us money, which not. We could see how our administrative expenses stacked up against our income and project expenses. The budget allowed us to plan for capital expenditures. The plan encouraged us to rethink our initiatives and plan money and resources for them. Usually the plan became the blueprint guiding our sales and marketing efforts, and suggested how we needed to structure our sales commissions for the coming year.""There's no real place in business plans for the .com bubble bursting, or what happened to the economy when 9/11 events tanked it. There is also no real place for those sudden insights that show you what you really should be doing, how to do it better, faster, and dramatically different, or the fabulous net add of great employees. There is no accommodation for gradually figuring out who you are as an owner."Moving a Business to the U.S.Question: I'm thinking about moving my business to the U.S. Where do I start?Responses & ResourcesContact the Service Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE) at www.score.org. They provide advice to businesses that is generally without a fee. It is mainly comprised of retired executives (thus the RE in SCORE) or of executives who want to volunteer their time to help small businesses.Read related books before finding and hiring an accountant.Visit one of the big office supply stores (Office Depot, Staples, etc.), especially on-line. The business books section should have a paperback entitled, "Starting & Operating a business in [state]: a step-by-step guide." The book will equip you with checklists of things to look out for, agencies hidden in the State bureaucracy whom you should not overlook, and, of course, forms, links, phone numbers and addresses.Check resources on Nolo Press's website. They are based in California, and their products are excellent.Some specific resources for starting a business in California:California Business Portal - Starting a Business http://www.ss.ca.gov/business/filings.htmSTARTING AND OPERATING A BUSINESS IN CALIFORNIA http://www.roninsoft.com/states/ca.htmCommercial Services Bureau - Business License (Long Beach, CA) http://www.longbeach.gov/commercial/business_licenses.aspOperating a Business in Long Beach (PDF) http://www.longbeach.gov/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=4801Los Angeles Public Library - Licenses and Permits http://www.lapl.org/resources/guides/startbus/4license.htmlCounty of Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Naming Your Business http://lavote.net/clerk/naming.htmSome general online resources for US businesses:Missouri has a fabulous resource at http://www.missouribusiness.net/startup/index.asp - you can download a pdf or order a CD. It is recommended even for people in other states, the general information is that good.General info on taxes for freelancers About.com - Taxes and Freelancing http://taxes.about.com/od/taxplanning/a/freelance.htm