How Do You Express Gratitude?

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., so don’t expect a lengthy post. Nevertheless, wherever you are, if you’re reading this post, I thought today would be a good day to pose the question in the subject line: How do you express gratitude?

The most common question Thanksgiving-related posts ask is “What are you thankful for?” I thought I’d take another approach, so I hope you’ll indulge me for a couple paragraphs.

Being thankful for something or someone is one thing; expressing it is another. I ask about expressing gratitude because all too frequently I encounter people who cannot manage a simple “thank you” when someone helps them out or does them a favor. On rare occasions, I’ve even encountered individuals who almost grit their teeth when someone does them a good turn, as if they’re unhappy to acknowledge the good deed or to be indebted somehow. Mind you, my time with Disney (and very manner-conscious parents) probably drilled politeness into my head a little more than was strictly necessary, but it still taught me the value of recognizing and appreciating when someone helps me.

So when someone helps you get through a sudden rush job–even if they’re busy or not exactly in their job description–or someone provides you with the opportunity to go to an event you like, do you take that behavior as a given? (Hint: you shouldn’t.) Or do you recognize that the other person didn’t have to do you that good turn and take the time to say “Thank you?” It’s a good habit.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

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What Do You Do Best?

“We can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn.” 
― Frank Herbert

We all have abilities (things we’re born with, like a good memory or–I wish–excellent eye-hand coordination) and skills (tasks we’ve learned to do). Yet how many of us can pinpoint the combination of skills and abilities that we do best? Do you know when and how you do your best work or add the most value?

This topic has been occurring to me more often, so I thought I’d take a shot at it after Parin, my best friend from elementary school, challenged me with the following question: “What are you an expert at?”

It’s a tricky thing, knowing your exact expertise. You don’t want to brag, but if someone asks why they should hire you–what makes you different from all the other candidates out there–you should have a pretty good answer.

We all know our limitations, and we can sense, based on a job description, whether the task is something we would enjoy or not, but can we pinpoint why we’d be good at something?

If you have an odd career, as I do, it can be difficult to find what all the pieces are that can help explain the whole: Disney, Department of Defense, NASA, Science Cheerleaders–how do all those fit together? Again, thanks to Parin for cornering me on the topic. I didn’t have an answer for him at the time, but I think I have an answer now. Regardless of the task that’s put in front of me, I’m willing to dig in and learn how to do it, and then I do it. That works whether I’m writing about an unfamiliar topic, organizing a conference, or setting up an event for the Science Cheerleaders. Call it a strong affinity for research with an added willingness to dig in and get things done.

That combination is especially helpful if you’re faced with unfamiliar topics or situations: “I’ve never done X before.” Research skills are paramount for most writers, but that ability also matters when handling specific tasks. Disney was a good place to learn the answer, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”

Okay, fine, that’s where I do my best, but what about you, Dear Reader? Can you identify the types of tasks that work best for you? If you don’t know your strengths that well, what do other people think you’re good at doing? What do people ask your advice about? What sorts of tasks do you look forward to doing, and which tasks do you do well? All of these are typical interview questions, but they’re also marketing questions if you’re looking to offer your services as a freelance contributor. As another bonus, knowing what you do well can help you focus your job/work search and allow you to concentrate on the areas where your special skill set can really make a difference.

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Do You Need to Be a Heroic Technical Writer?

My recent discussion with an Iowa State University tech writing class was for the purpose of talking about ethics. The discussion also covered a range of other issues, from answering complaint letters to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Ethics inevitably veers into politics because frequently our ethical problems result from how people in power treat those with less of it.

One of the unspoken subtexts I seemed to hear from the students was, “How often do you run into ethically challenging situations in a technical communication environment?” Another way of asking this might be, “How much call is there to be a ‘heroic’ technical writer?”

The honest answer is: it depends.

Why do we need ethics?

Ethics–guidelines for how humans should behave toward each other to obtain a good result–are there for situations when the answer is not obvious. Obvious situations are usually those where you have the freedom to act when asked to contribute to material that you know is designed to harm other people or where you are asked to commit, facilitate, or ignore a crime. Or, alternatively, there are few ethical problems if you are asked to write something truthful about a product or service that is designed to benefit others.

Ethical considerations come up in situations when knowing what to do is not  obvious. The class and I spent a bit of time discussing Edward Snowden’s disclosure about NSA surveillance and Wikileaks’ sharing of sensitive diplomatic information. People of good and ill intent have provided cogent arguments about whether their actions were ethical or not. My take on Wikileaks (I think the student’s question was about Snowden, so I’m correcting what I said here; my bad) is that while shining bright lights on how your country conducts its diplomacy might be a good thing to some, in other cases revealing the information can and did put other people in real danger. So in situations like those, where whole nations are involved in the equation, some thought should be given to the potential negative consequences of revealing the information–or how it is revealed.

That said, the occasions where you’re likely to face a world-changing ethical issue are rare. Not impossible, but rare.

Working ethically in everyday situations

My attitude toward issues less grave than national security is still to work out situations as honestly, openly, and clearly as you can within the system you are given. That means keeping the secrets you signed agreements saying you would keep. It also means clearly calling someone on their bad behavior or escalating the issue if they do not provide a good answer or cease and desist. If escalation does not resolve a problem then move it up the chain of command. If the chain of command won’t help and no internal ethics committee exists to address a problem, then you take it outside the company, taking with you all the documentation demonstrating that you made good-faith efforts to resolve the problem in-house.

Here some of the typical situations that will call for ethical evaluation:

  • Keeping or divulging secrets
  • Obeying or disobeying the rules/authority
  • Taking or refraining from action

I’ve had situations where a manager wanted to know what was going on with one of my projects. The project team was, in fact, having heated discussions about some engineering issues, but they wanted the content of the discussions kept within the team. Acknowledging a problem without sharing the content would be an ethical way to handle the situation as long as there was nothing critical happening that could affect the organization in a negative fashion.

Alternatives to ethical behavior

It is possible to have an ethical stance that says, “I’m in it only for myself.” You might think that you can do whatever you can get away with because you’re one small person in a very large, profitable corporation. Your “ethics” in this situation would mean that you value advancing your own career or protecting your own reputation over any other consideration. You can proceed this way, but don’t expect to be particularly trusted or well-liked. There are social (karma) costs to thinking this way. If you are perceived to be a shady character, you might find it hard to get or maintain employment. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, you can avoid ethics, but you can’t avoid the consequences of lacking ethics.

And really, if you face an ethical dilemma that you feel is beyond your ability to judge clearly, ask the opinions of reputable people you trust–keeping the details to a minimum–or find a lawyer. It’s a tricky world. You should do the right thing to the greatest extent possible but not (especially if you yourself are not complicit in any wrongdoing) at the expense of putting yourself into jeopardy.

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Handling Political Discussions in the Office

My first advice on discussing politics in the office or with clients would be simply: don’t. Save it for friends or family–people you know well–or the internet, preferably on a site where your customers aren’t. You never know what “hot button” you’re going to accidentally push. I understand this is a very American attitude to things. In fact, when I asked a waiter in France what people talked about there if they didn’t talk about their jobs or sports, he laughed at me and said, “We talk about sex, politics, and religion.”

And some folks are persistent. In which case you can try, politely, to deflect the conversation if you don’t wish to engage.

Then again, you might be someone who enjoys initiating discussions about politics with your clients. Good luck with that if you don’t work in the political game for a living. The short version of my advice goes something like this:

  • Listen to what the other person has to say.
  • Take their comments or thoughts seriously.
  • Approach the discussion with an eye toward understanding the other’s viewpoint, not in forcing your own agenda.
  • Likewise, it’s a bad idea to jump right into how you think the world could or should be made better by promoting [X philosophy/policy] and how anyone who disagrees with you is a corrupt, ignorant fool (I’ve had people do this with me). Great way to lose friends and cease influencing people.
  • Take the time to explain why you feel a certain way about a particular topic and why it’s important to you.
  • Try to aim for the best possible outcome, which is to say that you should aim for a flow of discussion in which your customer still wants to talk with you when the discussion is over. This means…
  • Don’t attack, insult, mock, or try to “trap” someone when they share their point of view.

I say all this because political discussions are philosophical discussions (despite a friend I had who insisted that “philosophy has nothing to do with politics”). Philosophy is all about deciding what’s important to us. Philosophy is a reflection of who we are, and none of us likes to have who we are questioned or mocked. Which is why political “discussions” frequently devolve into arguments. And when you have an argument, you cease learning and start attacking. From there on, you have unhappy people.

So again, I caution you against initiating these sorts of talks with strangers or in a work environment with people you know primarily in a professional capacity. But then I’m a non-confrontational kind of guy. If you want to argue politics, knock yourself out. Just be aware that there’s a reason people tell you not to talk to religion or politics with strangers. You might just learn the hard way.

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What Should You Charge for Your Hourly Rate?

This entry will either be extremely useful or no help at all. My apologies in advance.

A friend of a friend wanted to know how I go about setting my hourly rate. That I can do. I will not be sharing my own rate here because a) it varies from client to client and b) that’s not your business unless you plan to hire me. That said, let me see if I can lay down some guidelines that might be of use.

Base your rate on what you’ve made in the past

In my case, I had 30 years in the workforce–half of them spent getting paid to write–before I had to go off on my own. As a result, I knew what full-time employers were willing to pay me. I was also used to budgeting my lifestyle for that rate, so I could use it as a starting point.

Add a percentage for benefits

As a freelancer/1099 worker, you don’t get vacation or health insurance included in your pay. You’re not an employee, so you get no benefits. You have to supply those for yourself. And given how much healthcare premiums are going up (I myself am looking forward to another 26% increase in 2016), you need to make sure that you’re including money in your rate to cover that. You also might want to retire at some point. Or take a vacation. Those are things you might need to factor into your numbers. The guideline I’ve used since I started freelancing is my hourly rate as a full-time employee plus 30-35 percent.

Do the research

Okay, so maybe you’re new to this freelancing thing or you’re fresh out of college or whatever. In that case, a good place to learn about how to set your rate is by using or some other site that allows you to find out what the salary ranges are for your particular role, industry, and experience.’s primary criteria are job title (e.g. Tech Writer I vs. Tech Writer III), experience/education, and market/city. All of those will be factors in the bell curve of salary ranges. Ideally you want to be in the middle of the curve for your level of experience so that you still have room to grow.

Another good way to figure out what to charge is to look for full-time jobs doing what you want to do on your own and see what an employer is willing to pay for that position.

Be flexible

My rates fluctuate by client because different customers have different needs, budgets, and expectations. I tend to charge less for nonprofit or small business customers, for example, than I do for commercial or government clients. The latter usually can afford to pay more so you’d be foolish not to pursue those rates. Another thing to consider is that different markets will pay different rates. For example, my standard rate for Huntsville, AL–where tech writers are in relatively high demand–is often too high for Orlando, FL and too low for Washington, DC. In fact, most of my bill-paying clients are out of state. The marvelous thing about the internet is that I can work for customers remotely while maintaining my warm-weather lifestyle with only occasional needs to visit the frozen north. In any case, again, do your homework.

One thing about government rates: I have a single rate for government customers (NASA, DoD, whomever) because the General Services Administration–basically the U.S. Government’s in-house procurement department–contracts with business for specific products and services and expects to pay a competitive, consistent rate for a particular type and quality of service. My GSA rate was set when I started working for Zero Point Frontiers, and I’ve more or less stuck with that since then.

Be willing to negotiate

Whenever I get into a hiring situation and someone is serious, eventually they want to know my “number.” I’ve heard it said that whoever gives a number first “loses” the negotiation. I’m not canny enough to play those kind of games, but if you are, you might try asking something like, “I can provide you X level of service and get your product done better/faster/cheaper/with more sprinkles. How much is that worth to you?” and see if you can get them to blink first. One thing I have done is hit someone with my high-end rate to see if they flinch. If they do, I will probably have to come down on my price. If they take it without question, I end up learning the hard way that I lowballed myself.

Know your worth

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally I’m asked to do work that, quite frankly, will not pay my bills or is a patently lowball offer. Try asking a plumber with 20 years of experience to come over and fix your drain on a Sunday night for $10 an hour. Said plumber will either hang up on you or laugh at you. Tech writers have a useful and necessary skill as well. It is more challenging and requires more skill than a burger-flipper, and they’re demanding $15/hour. Assuming you have the skills to be a technical writer, you can at least look at that as a price too low.

At the same time, there’s no need to go overboard. Like I said, if someone flinches at your price, you’re either going to have to come down on your rate or walk away if you don’t think it’s worth it. In the end, assuming you can do a good job of putting words together, you should be able to charge–like any other business–whatever the market will bear.

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Making Connections

I really don’t know where I picked up the habit of helping others connect, but I’ve been doing it since at least the early ’90s. A lady friend was at odds about what to do with her career, so I suggested (since she had done schooling overseas) that she look into working at what as then called EuroDisney, now Disneyland Paris. In other circumstances I’ve introduced friends to new lines of work or to books that might help them in their current task.

Malcolm Gladwell describes such behavior in The Tipping Point as being a “connector.” That great font of wisdom, Wikipedia, summarizes Gladwell’s take on connectors thusly:

Connectors are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles. They are people who “link us up with the world…people with a special gift for bringing the world together”.

That sums it up nicely. I’m an idea guy, so my way of putting people in touch with each other is mostly idea-related. When I get to know someone, I’m usually interested in what a person’s philosophical priorities are: work (what type), family, religion, politics, hobbies, etc. This is the mental equivalent of “tagging.” When another person or book or TV show or other item appears that includes those tags, I am prompted to put two and two together so that the individual or individuals have the opportunity to expand on their interests.

Being a connector is useful skill to have as a technical communicator. If you know what types of things other people know, you can leverage that network when you have a question about certain topics. Or, conversely, if you find something of interest to someone who has particular interests, you can connect them with something or someone of interest to them later. I’ve read books that I thought would be of interest to a friend or acquaintance, and I’ll point them to that book. Yesterday I put two people in touch based on their mutual interest Republican politics in the Chicago area. Notice that the connection had at least two components to it: location, interests, and philosophy. Alternatively, another friend is facing impending unemployment. Knowing her skills and interests, I poked around through my network and found a couple of jobs that might work for her.

I don’t always expect these “connection” experiences to pan out. (Note that I’m a professional matchmaker, not a personal one.) My job is to arrange the meeting and let things take their natural course from there. However, I make the effort anyway.

Regardless of the ultimate success of my efforts to connect people, this approach is a good way for an introvert to build their network. If going to a room full of suits with business cards isn’t your idea of a good time–and for me it usually is not–“connecting” people when you’ve got a chance to speak with them one on one is a great alternative.

The primary abilities or skills you need to do this well are a good memory (or note-taking system) and a willingness to reach out and help others. Often there’s zero gain for me in these situations: “Oh, no, I’m not that type of writer. However, you should contact my friend So-and-so. She’s a genius at that.” or “You should talk to Whatshisname in Huntsville. He’s doing the same thing you are on a different scale.” The goal is to help the other person expand their knowledge or enjoyment of a particular experience or idea. Or maybe I just like helping my friends. In any case, being a Connector is one of those ways a technical communicator can add value to an organization or a community: not by any work we do, but simply by helping others do their work better.

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Taking Your Health Seriously

Short version of this blog: If you determine that you’ve got health problems–major or minor–attend to them before getting back to work.

Long(ish) version…

2014 and 2015 have not been a great time for me, medically speaking. I usually don’t share this sort of thing (as my mother puts it, “My health is nobody’s d@mn business”). However, I figured I could get a useful lesson or two out of it.

Sometime in May of last year I had a dream in which I felt as if I was choking. I was a little horrified to discover, upon awakening, that I was having the physical sensation as well. I was not, but obviously I was a bit disturbed by the situation. It felt like Darth Vader was doing the remote throat-grab thing on me. What followed was a month or two of doctor visits trying to figure out what was going on…general practitioner, ear/nose/throat doctor, and then eventually a gastroenterologist, that last of whom put me in the hospital for an in-patient endoscopy to shove a camera down my throat.

The determination? Acid reflux. Welcome to middle age.

Overlapping with the Darth Vader neck thing, I was getting terrible energy crashes during the middle of the day, so bad I’d have to take a 45-minute nap to get coherent again. One early morning my heart woke me up by leaping up against my ribcage. The good news was that it wasn’t a heart attack, but it took an overnight at the hospital to confirm that. My guess there (and the doctors didn’t dispute me) was sleep apnea, which was keeping me from breathing in the middle of the night and getting restful sleep. The heart thing, so far as I can tell, was triggered by my heart being so happy and excited to get oxygen again that it went into overdrive. Or something. Anyhow, there’s nothing like the words “chest pain” to get emergency room doctors to pay attention to you.

Fortunately, at the same time I was writing a class on obesity management for Florida Hospital, and that course addressed both acid reflux and sleep apnea…so I knew what sorts of things I could or had to do: change my diet, lose weight, start exercising, and eventually get a CPAP machine (go look it up–it’s too sexy for words).

None of this was fun, and the bills were sufficiently bad determining all of my various maladies that despite my deductibles continuing to rise, I met them in ’14 and ’15.

Why am I bothering to share this close-to-too-much-information story?


  • As a freelancer, you’re on your own for finding insurance (and like I said, the options keep getting worse–the cause of that I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader) and doctors. It’s important to make sure that you have the insurance and find a way to pay for the medical attention you need.
  • You need to use your professional tech writing skills to keep track of what has been done to treat you so that you can explain things clearly to the next doctor you see.
  • Asking questions is important: this, again, is a tech writer skill you use when you’re interviewing subject matter experts. “What are you giving me? What will that do? What are the side effects? I also take X, will that affect how my body reacts?” There’s nothing like self-interest to get you to ask a lot of the right questions.
  • You know your body better than a doctor, so let the doctor know if a medicine/treatment is not working. That said, even if something isn’t working, a doctor will try it anyway to get some actual data to that effect.
  • If you’re single and working from home, as I am, you’re the one who’s going to have to push yourself to go see the doctor and take constructive action on your own behalf.
  • Even if you’re single, if you’re in a hospitalization situation, try to have a good friend or family member nearby drop by to “hold your paw.” Or, if no one is nearby, make sure you can talk to someone on the phone (keep your phone charged–a lesson I learned the hard way).
  • Taking care of your health is important, regardless of where you work.

Let’s be careful out there.

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