Preparing for Retirement

If you’re in my college-age target audience, you might not be making much and you probably don’t want to think about the R word (Retirement) when your career has barely started yet. Saving money is still a good idea. But it’s about more than just having cash in the bank. Those same low interest rates that make home and car loans more affordable also mean that your basic savings account or certificate of deposit (CD) is earning less than one percent. With the rate of inflation averaging three percent, you might as well shove your cash under a mattress for all the good “saving money” will do for you when it comes to retirement. My only firm non-professional’s advice on saving and investing for the future is simply this: do it! What follows are some points for consideration.

The Magic of Compound Interest

The earlier you start saving, the longer your money has an opportunity to accumulate. And while interest rates are awful right now (see above), banks still offer them as an incentive for you to deposit your money with them. And by deposit I mean opening an account, not placing money in a safe deposit box. The latter is nice but isn’t doing anything at all. You want your money to work for you, so at the very least you need a savings account of some sort that provides interest–ideally more interest than service charges.

The Speed of Money

In my mind, there are three speeds of money: immediate, near-term, and long-term.

Immediate money is the money you keep in your checking account to pay bills day to day or week to week.

Near-term money is your savings account, which covers things like emergencies, slow work periods, large purchases, and vacations. It’s still cash and relatively liquid (easily spendable).

Long-term money is where things get more complicated because there are more options, but that’s the money you hold onto until you’re ready to stop working…ideally because you want to, not because you have to.

You’ve got plans for the future, or you wouldn’t be going to college, right? What does that future involve–spouse, kids, home, car, travel? All of those things cost money. And then there’s that whole R-word thing. Eventually you’ll need some way to pay the bills when you’re not able to work. Most of what I’ll be sharing today will be options for near-term or long-term money.



This is a nice investment option to have, if you can get it (I was in my 30s before I had a job that offered one). A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored investment opportunity that allows you to invest pre-tax money in stocks, mutual funds, gold, or whatever the employer’s investment company offers. “Pre-tax” means that the money is subtracted from your income so that income taxes are assessed on the remaining amount. Taxes are paid once you start withdrawing from the account. Employers often offer matching funds up to a certain percentage or dollar amount, meaning whatever you put in, they’ll match it up to that amount. Usually there’s a range of investment levels, from 1 to 20% of your salary, with the employer matching up to X% (the ones I had usually matched to 3%).

401(k)s are useful in that you can roll over the amount of money you accumulate in one company’s account into another’s. However, the exact investments within the account will change if the new employer’s 401(k) program is run by a different investment house. What usually happens is that when you get set up in your new employer’s 401(k) program you call up the previous employer’s investment house and ask them to close out the account so you can roll it over to the next one. For gosh sakes, don’t just ask them to close it out and send you a check! Otherwise they’ll treat the transaction as a withdrawal you’ll take a big tax hit (and some investment house penalties) for closing the account early–meaning before you turn 65. There are no taxes charged on a rollover. If you had a 401(k) with your previous employer and the new employer doesn’t have one, keep the account open–you can continue to contribute to it on your own. The investment house (Merrill Lynch, Edward Jones, etc.) is responsible for maintaining the account, not the employer.

Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

This is something you can get without an employer sponsoring it. Like a 401(k), the money in the account can be applied to a variety of investment options–stocks, equities, bonds, etc. (more on those later)–and that money is allowed to accumulate until you reach 65 years of age, at which point you have to start withdrawing. Like the 401(k), a traditional IRA is funded with pre-tax dollars and the taxes are paid once you start withdrawing from the account. There’s also a Roth IRA, where you put money into the account after taxes so that the money is not taxed when you’re older. Are taxes going to be higher or lower when you’re 65? Place your bets. Or hedge your bets and open one of each.


You can always go to an investment house and purchase stocks individually on your own. Stocks are an opportunity to own a piece of a company–if the company makes a profit, it rewards its investors with dividends (note: you will be taxed on these at the end of the year). This requires a bit more skill because you have to do the research and still guess which stock or stocks will grow in value the most. The trick is to be able to handle a lot of volatility. Some folks do day trading, where they constantly buy and sell stocks on the same day, hoping to make quick profits on sudden changes in particular stock values. I am not nearly smart enough to do this sort of thing. The one thing I’d advise against is buying only one stock and placing all your faith in that as an investment.

Mutual Funds

These are large funds that can contain shares in dozens or hundreds of different companies, as well as bonds and other types of investments based on a certain expected rate of return. Mutual funds can be included in an IRA or 401(k) or not. If they aren’t, you can withdraw money from them without pre-retirement penalties. Like stocks, if you receive dividends or the value of your fund has gone up between purchase and sale–and you’d better hope it does, or you need to change funds–you will have to pay taxes on the sale.


There are multiple flavors of bonds, but many of them are the government equivalent of stocks: you’re contributing money to a national, state, or municipality for its operations in return for (usually) a set amount of return. Bonds are considered more stable or reliable investments than stocks because they’re backed by a government–you expect to get paid. The higher the rating on the bond (AAA being the best), the more reliable the investment. Of course if they’re stable in value, that means they’re not growing that much, either.

Other Options

There are something like 100,000 different funds out there, focusing on everything from precious metals (platinum, gold, silver) to mutual funds that specialize in stocks that meet specific political criteria. If you’re seriously interested in what’s out there, start reading The Wall Street Journal, Forbesor CNN Moneyyour head might start spinning.

General Advice

Commit to Saving

Start investing for your near-term and long-term savings as soon as it’s feasible, and then consider that money untouchable until you really need it or until you’re old enough to retire. My preferred near-term cash savings (the “rainy day fund”) should be equivalent to six or more months’s salary. Thanks to part-time work I managed to make my six-month rainy day fund last 9 before it finally ran out. Fortunately other work came in just in the nick of time. The trick–especially for freelancers–is to be socking away as much “rainy day” money as you can to handle stretches when no work is coming in.

When I can make it work, I try to shoot for saving 10 percent of my income for retirement. You might have laughed at that, especially if you’re not making much as it is. Note, again, that these are my preferences–your mileage can and will vary.

Talk to a Professional

I’ve been as vague as possible here because the only advice I want to offer here is that you should invest for your retirement. How you invest should be up to you. Investment houses have agents who are paid to help people meet their financial goals–usually with an eye toward the long term. Go out and do the research yourself, by all means. You should have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into; but there’s no shame in talking to a professional investment/financial advisor. And if you’re in your 30s or 40s (or even 50s!) and still don’t have “a plan,” it’s worth talking to someone about getting one together. As a freelancer I now lack access to an employer-based investment house, so I sought them elsewhere (one nonprofit I found through my church and one for-profit house who was presenting at a neighborhood street fair).

Know Your Risk Posture

This is a big thing for financial advisors to know: how much risk are you willing to accept if the potential reward is also high? Are you willing to lose $X,000 if the gain is 3X,—? This will affect the types of investments they’ll steer you toward acquiring. The young and fearless usually can afford to go for more “aggressive” investments, such as funds that specialize in international markets that might not be as stable or reliable as the U.S. Then again, you might like or want stable growth. You know what you will put up with, and if the constant peaks and valleys of the stock market make you nervous, well…you know your attitude toward risk, don’t you?


A financial analyst will tell you this, too. There are different types of investments to meet differing needs: income growth, steady/reliable income, short-term holdings, long-term holdings, etc. The different options can be used to support near-term or long-term needs. Different investment options offer advantages depending on how much money you have to play with, how close to retirement you are, and how volatile the markets are. Generally, the closer you get to retirement, the more reliable/stable your investments get because now you need to depend on that money to pay the bills instead of money from a job.

Take Care of Your Family

Most of this content was written for the single person, but the options become more important if you have a spouse or kids. I didn’t mention life insurance up to now, but that’s worth considering as income replacement for your family if you don’t quite make it to retirement. Another thing to consider to keep the state or relatives fighting over your assets after your demise is to set up a will or trust with specific instructions about what to do with your money and how to pay for everything. I’m terrible at taking this advice because I’m single, but a will is much more important for people who have others (even pets) depending on them.

Believe in the Long-Term Health and Growth of the U.S. Economy

Since I was born, there have been five or six big economic burps that negatively impacted investments at the time. Recoveries still happen. There’s an axiom in the investment world that you “buy low, sell high.” That means if you’re able to think long-term and you believe that the economy can and will recover, you keep buying stocks, funds, or whatever, under the assumption that the current crisis will not last forever. In some ways, we’re still reeling from the 2008 housing bubble crash, but the stock market has been at all-time highs. New businesses keep forming but so do government bureaucracies. Whom do you believe? Investing for the long term still means seeking out items that you believe will have the same or better value in the future because people want and need them. I cannot speak for economies elsewhere, but that sort of optimism keeps the size of the U.S. economy valued at something like $14 trillion. And until the point where I retire, I’ll keep buying. So should you.

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How to Respond to Complaint Letters

Yesterday I had the opportunity to be a virtual “guest speaker” for a technical writing class at Iowa State University. In the follow-up discussions with the professor, I was asked additional questions about answering guest letters for the Walt Disney World Resort. More specifically, she wanted my insights on the business thinking behind answering complaints. Before I write anything further, let me make this clear: The following content does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Walt Disney World Resort. Any opinions are strictly my own. 

That said, I have no idea how Disney operates this part of its business anymore. I will stress here that my thoughts are meant to address any business correspondence, not just letters related to a certain large resort complex in Florida. I should also add that I’ve written correspondence for defense contractors, nonprofit organizations, NASA project managers, and my own personal business. What follows, then, is a composite approach based on over 20 years of writing on behalf of organizations.

Read the Whole Letter

This seems like a given. However, I’ve been caught off-guard by letters that start out badly but include some bright spot. Be certain to acknowledge that bright spot. Sometimes a customer or member of the general public has a long laundry list of points they want your organization to know about–make sure you get the whole story.

Thank Them for Writing

Courtesy first. You might not feel it, you might want to chuck the letter in the circular file. They can’t see your face or hear your rage as they thoroughly insulted an organization you happen to appreciate. Thank them for writing anyway.

Determine the Writer’s Tone

Generally this is pretty easy to do, though as we’ve learned from the internet, text is not always the most effective or efficient way to convey emotion. Still, you can look for some obvious words like “thrilled” or “enraged” to capture your correspondent’s state of mind. This is important for establishing the tone of your response. Happy people can get a happy letter. Serious people get a serious letter. Threatening people might get a serious letter or they might get referred to your Legal Department…or the authorities.

Determine the Most Important Issue

This can be a challenge, especially in a letter or email that covers multiple concerns. However, the skill of being able to “read between the lines” is critical to responding to a customer concern. They might be irritated that their flight was late, for example, but what really set them off might be how they were treated by a desk agent. How do you determine the most important issue? When in doubt, just look at what the customer spends the most words discussing. Sometimes they’ll even tell you what their biggest concern is. Regardless of how many issues are in a letter, you need to get to the heart of the matter and make certain that your organization’s response addresses that.

Evaluate Requests for Action/Service Recovery

Sometimes customers are writing just to make you aware of a negative situation. Sometimes they say they are just making you aware but make a hint that they won’t be fully satisfied unless they are given something to make them feel better. If you’re in a product or service organization, they might want a refund or something free on their next visit. If you’re in a nonprofit organization, they might want you to change a particular policy position. Some people just want an apology. Then again, some people want to sue.

So how do you decide who gets what?

Service recovery has gotten complicated, especially with the advent of the internet, where people will share their “horror stories” online with anyone who will read them. And those “horrors” could include how a company responds to their original complaint. On the flip side, if you end up being exceptionally generous with your service recovery, the recipient might share their joy online and suddenly you’ve got a hundred copycat complaints. Which is why you have to do research on a problem occasionally–were they actually there? Did they actually pay for/use the product/service? What was the opinion of the closest employee(s)? Do they have receipts? Audio? Video? And what, exactly, do they want in response to their situation? Large organizations usually have preordained responses and guidelines for handling service issues. A lot of it boils down to a constellation of proof (on the customer’s part), responsibility (on the organization’s part), and reasonableness (of the request/resolution).

Then again, sometimes an apology is sufficient.

Determine if an Issue Needs to be Escalated

If you’ve been asked to write a response to a complaint letter, that task might or might not be your regular line of work. The Walt Disney World Resort is large enough to require a whole staff of Guest Communications correspondents whose full-time role is answering letters, calls, and emails. Small businesses or even medium-sized businesses might not get that many letters, so the person who’s the best wordsmith in the office gets the job. If the issue is unusual enough, you might get some guidance from a leader on what needs to be said and how any service recovery would need to be handled.

If your regular job is responding to customer concerns, you’ve probably been given the organization’s service recovery guidelines. You also might be empowered to provide that recovery without management approval–though you might have an editor or a manager look over your work before you pull the trigger. Of course if you work at Zappos or Ritz-Carlton, you might have broader guidelines than others. If, however, the customer is requesting or demanding something that it is not in your power to give, you might need to bump the request up the chain before getting a yes–especially if you think it’s warranted.

The Goals of a Business Correspondent

Whether you call a department Guest Letters, Customer Service, or something else, the goal of the person who must provide the service is twofold:

  • Protect the interests of the organization.
  • Keep the customers happy enough to keep patronizing the business.

It can be tricky to maintain a healthy balance between these two mandates in your mind. You want to serve the customer, whose dollars support the company. On the other hand, you need to be a responsible steward of the company’s resources so that it’s not defrauded. It is possible to err or become too zealous on one side of the equation on the other. “It’s not my money” can be an invitation in your mind to give away whatever you want or make you paranoid about issuing any service recovery whatsoever. Sometimes, if you’re in doubt, it’s better to just ask a peer or manager to get another perspective.

I’m Sorry vs. I Apologize

Others have written about this. I go back and forth on the word choice. In my mind, “sorry” is more sincere than “apologize,” which is a colder, more formal word. One way or another, some folks want to hear “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” for whatever situation prompted the letter. However, depending on whom you ask, either word might get you into legal trouble because it might imply culpability. One nice word that avoids this issue entirely is regret, as in: “We regret that you had a disappointing experience with X.” Not happy with that answer? Go search “I’m sorry vs. I apologize” on Google and prepare to send a few hours sorting out the best way to say that you feel badly that something untoward happened to your customer.

How to Say No to a Request

There are any number of reasons why a customer’s request might be refused. Their service recovery request might not match the circumstances–demanding a free vacation for four because someone stubbed their toe on a door jamb, for example. They might not have enough evidence of their problem–receipts, names, dates, the malfunctioning product, medical bills, or other specific evidence. Or they might be making a policy request that is unlikely to happen, like asking a defense company to stop making machinery that could be used for war. Or, on a more subtle and realistic note, the correspondent might ask a nonprofit organization to include his or her pet sub-cause in the organization’s overall mission.

Regardless of the situation, eventually it comes down to giving someone the bad news. I’m not comfortable with that, but I’ve done it. The language can be relatively simple: “We understand that you would like us to provide you with X. However, the situation you described does not fall within our service recovery guidelines.” Or something like that. If the problem is one of insufficient evidence, you could throw in something like “Unfortunately, your letter did not include your original receipt. We would be willing to research your concern further if you will mail it to us.” If the problem is one of policy, you might need to explain why the organization will not follow the correspondent’s policy preference.

When a Response is Not Necessary

Sometimes no response is the best response. For instance, if a customer is outraged about life in general but doesn’t have any comments about your organization, don’t bother. Or maybe, again, they’ve sent some sort of rant about the state of the world and they want nothing to do with your organization. They haven’t complained about your organization, but they’re just angry? File 86.

Closing Well

Again, try to match the tone of the correspondent or try to use words that put the correspondent in the mood you want them to have. Happy people can get another thank you and a “hope you’re our customer/guest soon” sort of closing. Angry/disappointed folks  might require words to the effect of “We realize you have many choices when it comes to X, and we hope you will consider choosing us in the future.”

The Reality of Business Correspondence

On the whole, happy people don’t write letters. If I had to guess on the negative-to-positive letters I’ve read over the years, I’d say the ratio was 9:1. Treasure those compliments and make sure that specific people or departments, if they’re recognized, are informed about the happy customer. If business correspondence is your full-time job, you will learn a lot about how people argue: which approaches they’ll take to get what they want, what upsets them, etc. You’ll encounter a lot of bad language (profane, grammatically incorrect, or both). You’ll see moments of joy and of high dudgeon. The bottom line is that, from a literary point of view, you are the “voice” of your organization. You have the opportunity to represent it well, to celebrate with your fans, and maybe turn around some of your detractors. It’s an exercise in applied rhetoric, and it’s a great education in writing clearly and well.

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In Defense of Being Older

I read a lot in various tech blogs how the young–for me, that’s Millennials and younger–have an advantage over anyone older because they’re more tech-savvy. You know what? They’re right. My mom and dad use their computers for email and checking the news, that’s about it. My dad refuses to buy a smart phone. I myself have mental blocks about InDesign, Siri, humanoid robots, and several online chat programs.

Points conceded.

However, unlike Mr. Reagan, I can and will advantage of younger people’s youth and inexperience. I need any advantage I can get. And the single most important advantage an older person has is simply more time on this Earth to do more things. Electronically, younger people might have larger networks than me and no doubt can call on the “hive mind” of the internet to answer any question they see fit. That doesn’t mean I avoid the electrons (unlike the guy in the Dilbert cartoon below), but my electrons plus my in-person experiences can help me get quicker results than electrons alone.

Being Old

In this case, the older person’s advantage is simply face-to-face experience working with other professionals in my chosen field. Yes, someone younger might be able to email Eminent Subject Matter Expert X with a request and they might or might not get a response. My advantage might be something as minor as having met the Eminent Subject Matter and hanging out with them at several industry-related events. Example: when I first started writing articles about space as a regular habit, I had zero connections; today I can call upon multiple professionals whom I’ve worked with in some capacity to get the information (or quotations) I need to round out the article.

The clip from The Hunt for Red October below is actually a reverse situation where the younger professional shuts down an older one, but it gets the point across. The longer you’ve been around, the more people you’ve had the opportunity to meet; and if you’ve met someone, you might have more credibility than someone who’s just a LinkedIn connection simply because you know them.

Not all of this is a given, nor is it entirely rational. Human beings are interesting folk, and depending on your reputation, sometimes face-to-face experience isn’t the best advantage (corollary of being older–you’ve had more time to make enemies as well as friends).

However, I think it’s a mistake to discount the inputs of someone older than you. Respect for the wisdom of age is not always a common practice in the tech sector culture,  where young minds and fresh ideas predominate. However, an experienced professional’s relationships have something a younger person’s might not: leverage. One of my employers, Zero Point Frontiers, does draw on the wisdom of a couple of Apollo-era veterans to develop their aerospace engineering products. These gentlemen (“graybeards” in NASA parlance) know what’s been done before, know how the system works within specific organizations, know whom to call to get an answer or decision quickly, and have the stature to get people to listen to them. That’s a combination of abilities and experience that’s hard to top.

So here are my final thoughts on age in the workplace: if you get the opportunity to pick the brain of or be mentored by a senior professional in your field, take it. Will they have wrongheaded or backwards ideas about this or that technology? Possibly, though if you explain its use in practical terms they’ll get it soon enough. Might you disagree with them about politics? Certainly, but you’re there to work, not vote, right? What that eminent older person might offer you, though, are the insights and connections to improve your own standing and network. Those are lessons well worth learning.

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Random Bits of Etiquette

I picked up the habit of sharing well-meaning, unsolicited advice from my well-meaning German grandmother. You can probably thank her for the following items.

Bringing Money Anywhere

When you go out somewhere with friends or family (event, restaurant, saloon), do you make the assumption that someone else will pick up the tab? Helpful bit of advice: don’t.

While I know that cash is becoming an endangered species, it is still appreciated. Have some with you. Or a debit/credit card. Wherever you go, if you’re with a group, expect that you’ll have to pay your own way, and if you brought a traveling companion, that you will pay for them as well.

There are always exceptions: prepaid events, open bars, invitations where the host(ess) has stated up front that s/he will pay. Even then, if you haven’t paid in advance, bring moneyI’ve bailed out a few friends over the years–nothing major, and I didn’t demand that they repay me immediately afterward (“You owe me drinks next time!”). That’s not to say the situation didn’t rankle. It did. Don’t be that guy/gal. Bring money. Or, if you can’t afford it, don’t go.

Don’t Be a Jerk to Service Personnel

I spent my early career (high school through post-college) in the service industry, so this has probably made me sensitive to this issue. But really, if you’re having a bad day at the office or your blind date isn’t going well or you’re out with clients, there is absolutely no need to insult, condescend to, or berate a bartender, restaurant server, bellman, or other random stranger with a necktie and a name tag unless they attacked you in some way first.

I’m really not certain why, but some people think it’s amusing to abuse service personnel, especially when the customer knows they are not allowed to fight back or they’ll lose their job. A lot of hospitality employees are making less-than-minimum wage and depending on tips to pay their bills. Yes, those tips depend on their level of service, and they don’t deserve a great one if their service is awful. However, making them “work for it” by forcing them to smile in the face of deliberate insults is uncalled-for, and quite frankly rude.

And if you think I’m speaking from personal experience, I’m not. I’ve never worked in a tipped position. I’m just sayin’. It’s the service industry, not the servant industry.

Know What to Expect When You Go to the Airport

If you’ve never traveled by commercial aviation before, or if you have and keep acting surprised when certain things happen, allow me to help:

  • You show your driver’s license when you check in/drop off your luggage. You can get your boarding pass at a kiosk before checking your luggage.
  • When you get to the TSA checkpoint, you show your driver’s license and boarding pass. Once you’ve passed the people in the bright blue uniforms, put your ID and boarding pass away. You don’t need it to go through the full-body scanner.
  • Don’t bring any bottles of liquid/gels (e.g. suntan lotion) with a full capacity of more than 4 ounces. You might have one ounce left in your 8-ounce toothpaste, but if the container size says 8 ounces, the TSA will take your toothpaste. Yes, it’s stealing. No, you can’t do anything about it.
  • Yelling at or insulting TSA personnel will ensure that, at the very least, you will miss your plane.
  • When you get on the plane and they announce that it’s time to shut the boarding door, you turn off your cell phone. You don’t hide it, you don’t ignore the flight attendants, you turn the bloody thing OFF. They can and will throw you off the plane if you don’t do what they tell you to do. You might not like that any more than having your toothpaste confiscated, but that’s more or less the law here now. Welcome to the reality of “homeland security.”
  • Don’t get intoxicated beyond the point of all reason, say, to the point where you’re insulting or being otherwise rude to the flight attendants (see my previous note above). The airlines and the FAA have zero patience these days, and they will turn the plane around or land it early to throw you off the plane. Oh yes, and you probably won’t be getting any holiday cards from your fellow passengers, either.

Honestly, I’m baffled by unprovoked rudeness sometimes. Am I completely immune? Probably not, but I also don’t let myself get to the point of being “disciplined” by airline staff or the TSA.

The world’s a harsh place sometimes. Give “nice” or at least “polite” a chance. Anyone else need this soapbox? I’m done with it for the moment.

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Secrets of Being a “Miracle Worker”

In the Star Trek universe, Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) is the quintessential competent engineer. He might gripe and complain in his Scottish burr, but you know in the end that he’ll do what it takes to get the job done and save the Enterprise, whether it’s restarting the warp drive or ridding the ship of a Tribble infestation. By the time the movies came out in the ’70s and ’80s, Scotty’s legend was all but a given, to the point where even his long-time commanding officer, James T. Kirk, had the exchange with him in the video. I’ve got some folks convinced that I’m a literary “Scotty.” Yes, there is some skill and speed involved, but much of my working success comes from processes anyone can follow.

Give Yourself More Time Than You Think You’ll Need

Last-minute-itis drives me crazy. I used to have the habit in college. I grew out of it after learning the hard way that things can go wrong (I’ll cover that in a bit). The first priority, however, is to give yourself enough time to think clearly and do the job well.

People under stress miss things. For instance, even if you remember to use spell check under deadline, that’s not to say that the wrong word won’t show up in your prose. They say the wrong things.

Hurricane Track

Scotty’s little trick of multiplying repair estimates by a factor of four, while not 100% realistic, has several grains of truth in it. Much of what I do is deadline-driven, so regardless of my “estimates” of the time needed to get work done, the due date is the due date and the due time is the due time.

Given a deadline, there are still ways I can arrange my workload so that I am not doing things at the last minute. Also, yes, I do add time to my estimates, depending on the task at hand, other tasks I have pending, and the likelihood that I will be interrupted while trying to meet said deadline.

Start As Soon As Possible

One of the things I try to do when I get a new assignment is jump in right away and start working. One good reason to do this is because the information and parameters of the task are still fresh in my brain. If I just listen to the request or write down a note and then don’t come back to it for several hours, inevitably data is lost. Your brain can only recall 5-7 bits of data at a time. You might be lucky and be one of those people with an eidetic memory. However, if you don’t remember everything after a long delay, you’d better take good notes. Or, like I said, start the task right away.

By starting the task right away, I should clarify that I don’t always mean doing the whole thing–unless that’s required or feasible and you’ve got the time. Sometimes, at the very least, I’ll set up an outline or structure in my head and then set it up in a document somewhere. Maybe I’ll just set up a table in Excel or put together a proposal “shell” (i.e. a proposal document that’s formatted, includes all the relevant headings, titles, etc., but doesn’t have any content) just to get the process rolling.

Again, this was a learned behavior, but it was one well worth learning because you need to…

Prepare for Things to Go Wrong

I have a dear friend who is wicked-smart and great at her work, but she is fundamentally unable to arrive at an airport early. I can recall multiple instances where, due to traffic hiccups or other unexpected issues, she missed a train or airplane and had to wait for the next one.

Travel and technical writing actually have some similar requirements.

  • They are both deadline driven.
  • You need to have everything on hand at the time of the deadline (luggage, tickets, people).
  • If you don’t show up on time, the train/plane/ship will depart without you and your stuff.

I try to get to the airport the recommended 90-120 minutes before flight time. Mind you, I don’t always arrive that early, but I plan to arrive at that time just in case things go wrong. And if I’ve eaten into my fudge-factor time but arrive on time for the flight, I’m still ahead. Scotty’s 21st century engineering progenitors call this “schedule margin.”

On a vacation, that might cost you a few hours and maybe some hefty ticket change fees. In a professional environment, you or your employer can lose out on thousands–nay, millions–of dollars. That happened on a proposal I was working on. My part was on time, I hasten to add, but not all of the parts were submitted on time. The proposal was bounced by the government.

What could possibly go wrong when creating a document? Oh, let me count the ways:

  • Printer jammed/out of toner
  • Last-minute meeting with the CEO/Program Manager
  • Power outage
  • Tornado warning (others: earthquake, fire drill, security scare)
  • Team member stuck in traffic/unable to deliver content when you need it
  • Someone spills coffee on your keyboard

You get the picture. Accidents happen. Life happens. You don’t need to expect World War III to break out at any minute every time you do an estimate, but you need to give yourself some flexibility to be prepared when things go pear-shaped. People who are stressed out under deadlines tend to get sloppy or clumsy. I do, anyway. This opens the door for your own self-sabotage. Any job goes a lot more smoothly if you’ve got the time to do it right, and the more work you do early, the less work you have to do at the last minute.

Estimate Honestly

The last point I’d make here is not to sandbag people with your work time estimates just to make yourself look good or to pad your hours. Multiplying your work times by a factor of four might make you seem like a “miracle worker” once or twice, but if you keep doing that, eventually people are going to want to know “how long will it really take.” The best way I know to do that is to be mindful of how long it takes you to produce, say, one page of high-quality text under ideal conditions and then how long it takes under not-so-ideal conditions and find an average of the two; after that, multiply by the number of pages. You also might want to factor in your familiarity with the content or the specific task at hand and adjust your scale accordingly.*

The last factor in your “padding” should be the “things-going-wrong” number, which will vary from person to person. It could be five minutes per hour or 15. Just be prepared for the warp drive to have a hiccup now and then. Having that extra margin allows you to remain calm when things really do go awry. If you appear calm when chaos ensues, others are more likely to remain calm as well. It took me 20 years to learn that. With any luck, you’ll learn more quickly than that.

(* I underestimated my time on a big job once and ran over budget, specifically because the content was new and the task unfamiliar. I estimated my time based on my aerospace performance, which was a mistake because my topic was not anywhere near space. I needed ramp-up time, which I didn’t factor into my estimate. Fortunately, my employer still covered my time, but I was prepared to absorb a significant amount of unpaid time due to my own misjudgment.)

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Space Writing Samples (Or: Why I Don’t Talk About Work on my Blog)

I was at a meeting of entrepreneurs yesterday, during which we learned about blog contents from a professional marketing expert (@TheChefKatrina). Her talk was instructive because she pointed out new things I can try to improve the quality and success of this site.

One obvious hole I have on my page, despite my passion for and employment by the aerospace industry, is a regular sharing of writing samples. This hole became obvious to me after the talk when one of the participants (Eriq) wanted to read some.

If I’d been thinking clearly–it was 6 p.m. on a Friday, throw me a bone here, man–I could have referred him to my Publications page and left it at that. However, a little further down I’ve picked some good ones for anyone who’s interested in how I write when I’m actually talking about the content that pays my bills.

Proprietary or other sensitive information

I might have explained this before, but quite frankly a lot of what I write is not for the general public. That doesn’t mean I’m writing for three-letter agencies in Northern Virginia or Bond villains. It does mean that much of my work is tied up in proposals, where my employer is pitching a particular widget or “secret sauce” they have to the help the government solve a problem. Many proposals have a notice on the cover informing the receiving agency that the contents are proprietary and thus not to be shared beyond the agency personnel reviewing the proposal.

Some proposal work can also be subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (a.k.a. ITAR). These are regulations dictated by Congress and enforced by the State Department that keep sensitive or strategic technologies out of the hands of foreign governments. This happens a lot when you’re working with rockets, missiles, and things that can go boom. The U.S. Government takes a dim view of sharing those types of secrets with the rest of the world. Penalties for violations are stiff, and can include losing your job, hefty fines, and even imprisonment. So no, I don’t share that stuff, either.

Even the public conference papers I wrote for NASA went through an internal export control review before being published.

Content fatigue

Blogging, for me, is a leisure activity, albeit with a serious purpose (I hope people learn from what I have to say). After writing about rockets or spacecraft all day, it often happens that I’m “spaced out” at the end of the day and don’t feel like writing about them when I get home. That’s why I write about the business of technical writing–something that I know and am passionate about but that is still sufficiently different so I don’t get burned out in my free time.

The space blogging business is getting crowded

There are already some first-rate bloggers out there who share their better-informed opinions about specific aspects of space, including defense, NASA human spaceflight, NASA robotic explorers, and commercial space. There’s a guy out there whose entire schtick is to criticize everything NASA does. Others are defenders of NASA and harsh critics of commercial space. And so forth.

I was toying with a space-related blog for a while, but the problem is that I’m a “space moderate,” which means that I’m fascinated by all military, civil, and commercial space efforts and am unlikely to criticize the fundamental bases of specific programs out of sheer ideological pique. For instance, I was once called a “socialist” because I dared say nice things about NASA. And there’s a NASA guy (or two) who thinks I’m not quite kosher because I get along with “those [commercial space] people.”

I’m not here to offend people, I’m here to make a buck. There’s more and steadier money to be made writing for the various players in the space business than there is writing opinions about them…at least that’s been my experience. Which leads me to the final, and perhaps most important reason why I don’t write about space on my blog very often…

I need to eat

When I interviewed for my first “space writing job” with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, I needed to bring along my portfolio, which included samples of my space-related writings to that point. Many of those samples were letters to the Orlando Sentinel critical of NASA and its handling of the space program. I decided to take the risk anyway because a) they were on topic and b) they showed that I could advocate for a point of view. Rather than me asking if my letters would keep NASA from hiring me, I was surprised when one of my interviewers asked, “Given your opinions, are you sure you want to work for NASA?” The answer was and remains Yes! Again, I’m interested in human space exploration, regardless of who does it. Yes, there are things I think would be done better by the commercial sector, but I don’t want to see NASA shoved out of the business entirely. And perhaps I’ll just leave it at that.

Anyhow, the lesson of this letter-writing example should be obvious: if I write opinions that are too sharply critical of a specific organization (agency or company), program managers and corporate CEOs in those organizations can take that sort of thing personally. People are people. They can get defensive about the programs they lead. They can hold grudges. That sort of thing can interfere with my ability to obtain future work.

The aerospace business is surprisingly small, and the aerospace writing business is small enough that I know the names of or have met most of the practitioners in the field. I’m more interested in contributing to projects that advance the cause of space exploration than I am in criticizing failures. And like I said, I’ve got to eat.

All that said…

Now that you know the pragmatic reasons why I don’t blog about space as a regular habit, I’ll share below some of the items I have written that avoid the problems above. Read and enjoy…and let this be a reminder that, when possible, you should be able to share SOME samples of your work on your blog, even if the bulk of it isn’t in the public domain.

Technical Papers, White Papers, & Speeches

“Launch Propulsion Systems Roadmap.” Coauthored with Paul McConnaughey, et al. November 2010

“Operational Lessons Learned from Ares I-X.” Presented by Stephan R. Davis at SpaceOps 2010, Huntsville, Alabama, April 2010. Reprinted in: Space Operations: Exploration, Scientific Utilization & Technology Development. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Summer 2011.

Reporting, Book Reviews, Opinion, Interviews, and Other Publications

“EFT-1: A Perfect Flight, But What Happens Next?” Ad Astra Magazine, Spring 2015.

“Microbes, spacecraft, and cheerleaders: the ISS payload story of Project MERCCURI.” The Space Review, April 28, 2014

Book Reviews: Children of God, In the Shadow of the Moon, Homesteading Space, Lucifer’s Hammer, Mining the Sky, Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture, Red MarsRocket Man, The Singularity is Near, Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History, The Sparrow,and Variable Star.

“Jules Verne Returns: Will Space Guns Provide Low-Cost Access to Space?” The Space Review, July 30, 2007

“When Courting Capital, New Space Companies Should Stress Competence Over Coolness.”, May 29, 2007

“For Space Entrepreneurs, Access Equals Economic Growth.”, May 26, 2007

“Pixel Lander Makes Progress Despite Challenges.”, May 26, 2007

“Space Venture Symposium Highlights Industry Diversity.”, May
25, 2007

“Floods! Fire! SERVIR.”, January 31, 2007

“Communicating with Multiple Audiences in Space Advocacy.” The Space,
January 29, 2007

“Space Elevator Competition Extended One Day.”, October 22, 2006

“Handicapping the Space Elevator Games.”, October 20, 2006

“The New Age of Space Advocacy: Enter the Professionals.”, May
25, 2006

“Save Our Planet: Advocates See the Bigger Picture.”, May 18, 2006

“Space Access: The Private Investment vs. Public Funding Debate.”, May 12, 2006.


How to Play Nicely with Subject Matter Experts.” Rocket City Technical Communications Conference, Huntsville, AL, April 20, 2013.

Blogs and Social Networking Sites

“Zero Point Frontiers Delivers Favorable Architecture Assessment to Golden Spike Company.” July 23, 2013

“Commercial Enterprise to the Moon.” December 6, 2012

“SERVIR Delivers ISERV Instrument for Launch to ISS.” January 26, 2012

“Developing Ecosystem maps for Africa.” December 28, 2011

“SERVIR Detecting Red Tides in El Salvador” September 1, 2011

“Liftoff!” Coauthored with Dan Kanigan. Ares I-X Blog, October 28, 2009

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Monetizing Your Blog

Recently I offered up some advice on how to use a blog to demonstrate expertise in a particular field. However, there’s another side to blogging that I neglected to mention because I do not do it personally. However, it is entirely possible to use your blog to make money.

I set up Heroic Technical Writing as a place to demonstrate and share my general expertise as a technical writer. My personal blog ( is there just to share random things that interest me–books, space exploration, politics, science fiction, whatever. My LinkedIn profile is there to keep the resume up to date. However, because I’m mostly a contractor rather than a full-fledged business owner, I have not established a site for the purposes of making money. It can be done, that’s just not a priority right now because I’m serving the clients I have now.

But it can be done.

If you’re setting up a blog/website for the purposes of making money, you need to include a few basics:

  • Description of yourself/your company
  • Description of your products/services
  • Rate/pricing information – not always necessary, and sometimes counterproductive if your rates vary with the situation
  • Contact information so someone can hire you
  • Blog content that demonstrates expertise or provides value in a particular field with the goal of attracting a particular type of customer
  • An engaging style

Blogging in this type of environment is usually briefer than what I write here (again, wise man/wise guy pontificating, not necessarily doing business). You don’t share ALL that you know, but share enough intriguing insights so that your reader/potential customer will want to know more. Such blogs also include a call to action, maybe something like: “Want to know more or interested in hiring me? Email me at blahblahblah at”

If you are interested solely in sharing your thoughts, just blog away to your heart’s content. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of business from it.

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