Using the Best Sources

I’ve been doing a series of articles for Spaceflight Insider recently, and it’s been a challenge sometimes trying to find the information I want. Some of this is a natural side effect of writing about the space industry; some of it, curiously enough, is from having too much information to work from. When you’re working in a data-rich environment, how do you know which sources are worth using and which ones should be avoided?

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Whenever you’re writing about a complex technical subject, the closer you can get to original source documents–plans, technical manuals, official websites–the better. The reason original sources are so important is simply because the people creating them had the most direct knowledge of the topic you’re researching.

In addition to source documents, it is also helpful if you can speak with individuals who actually designed or built a product or read their notes from the design/construction process. They will also have the most insight into detailed, off-the-beaten-path questions you might have simply because they were there and know why things were done a certain way.

Ask an expert

Depending on your topic, your subject matter experts might or might not be alive still. Are there individuals you can contact who worked closely with the inventor or who have studied their work in depth? Those would be good go-to sources as well.

Can’t find anyone living who worked on a product? Try living people currently working on it or studying it.

Or maybe you can take a leap of faith and use information from a blog maintained by a professional in your field of interest. Another source to consider are other experts in the field and what sources they trust for reference.

Read the news

I’m partial to technical journals and industry-specific news sites that have a known following or reputation for accuracy because their primary audience is other industry professionals who know BS when they see it.

More general news outlets might or might not get things right–the more technical the subject, the closer things lean toward not–but sometimes they’ll have interviews with prominent individuals in the field who do know what they’re talking about. Information from those individuals is worth considering.

One cheer for Wikipedia

Wikipedia is crowdsourced by a bunch of people who might or might not know what they’re talking about. However, having written Wikipedia articles from time to time, I can tell you that the mysterious editors who watch over the site will flag as suspicious any article that is insufficiently cited from reasonably credible sources. So while Wikipedia might give you a lay person’s understanding of a topic, the sources that the articles cite can be more useful.

Again, the closer your research gets to first-hand sources, the better off you’ll be.

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Making Sales Calls

My father was a sales representative for the original Eastern Airlines. As one of EAL’s Florida experts, he spent a lot of time visiting hotels and attractions around the Sunshine State, making sure they had all the system timetables they needed, and in general  reminding them that Eastern was around and looking to do business with them.

What does a sales call look like?

Dad was trying to sell seats on airplanes. I’m trying to sell technical writing services. Still, the process of the sales call doesn’t change too much, despite the difference in industries and products.

You might or might not enjoy sales as part of your work routine, but it is often necessary. When things get quiet as a freelancer, you need to check in with your existing customers to see if you can dig around for more work before you start looking for new customers. It’s a delicate balance sometimes. You want to get paying work, but you don’t want to look desperate or pushy. The goals of a sales call are simple:

  • Maintain your connection with the customer
  • Look for opportunities for future sales

Maintain your connection with the customer

The first part–maintaining the relationship–is a combination of “small talk” (the nemesis of many an introvert) and serious talk. The small talk means simple things: learning and remembering the point of contact’s name, where they’re from, their interests, any personal details that you can remember as conversation starters on future visits. And yes, it doesn’t hurt if you just try to make friends with your customers. Friendships and closer connections make it easier and more fun to work with customers in the long run.

There are multiple software programs out there that you can use to track your sales contacts. You can even use Microsoft Excel, if you’re lazy/cheap. Or, if you’ve got a reasonably good memory, you can just remember who is who and what their lives and needs are.

Look for opportunities for future sales

People in the sales profession will always emphasize the need to “ask for the sale.” Meaning you need to ask a concrete, yes-or-no question like, “Can you commit to X activity?” or “When can I expect to hear from you about writing for X project?”

I know: if you’re like me, you might not always be comfortable asking for money. But you’ve got to eat, too. And there are psychological tricks you can play on yourself to work around this. The most important thing to do (for me) is to ask for the work. This means you’re more concerned about helping the customer. The money will come after that.

And here’s another thing you can do when looking for work. It’s entirely possible that your customer doesn’t have work and doesn’t feel comfortable telling you that. Rather than force your customer into an uncomfortable corner by asking, “Have you got any work for me?” you could ask instead: “Do you know anyone in need of a writer at the moment?”

This opens a couple of opportunities for your customer:

  • They are free to refer you to another department within their organization or even at another company.
  • If they don’t know anyone needing technical writing assistance, they can save face by saying, “No, but I’ll keep my ears open” or “No, but I’ll be happy to recommend you if someone needs help.”

Ensuring the next sale

The trick, of course, is developing your reputation with the customer to the level where they will be willing and eager to recommend you to another organization. That requires you to do two things:

  1. Do good enough work that a customer can recommend you professionally.
  2. Develop a good enough personal relationship with the customer that they will recommend you personally.

The second item might seem minor, but it’s not. Humans are emotional creatures. It’s easier and more believable for a customer to recommend your services if they appreciate the quality of your work and they like working with you. I wish it were a simple matter of pure merit, but it’s not.

So as you’re working through the mysteries of translating Engineerish and getting your style and grammar right, remember that you also have to pay attention to the sales aspect of your life as a writer.

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Why Doing Things at the Last Minute Is a Bad Idea

I was slow getting up this morning, and unlike previous days, I didn’t have a blog entry “in the queue” and ready to go for 9 a.m. I’m now typing this at 8:50, and odds are I won’t get much useful content done because I’m doing this at the last minute. There’s a lesson to be learned here, yes? This is why, when I get or give myself an assignment, I try to jump on it in the first minute, rather than wait until it’s nearly due to expect some brilliance to occur. It doesn’t work that way. I don’t have the time to edit this, either, so there could be spelling or grammatical errors. I’ve tweaked the title a little. I added a hyperlink, but there’s the clock ticking away: 8:54. What can I possibly do or say now that will add to this? My blood pressure is rising, and I feel irritated with myself that I didn’t start sooner. I should be formatting this thing, right? Making it neat and pretty? But no. Now I’m trying to throw in as many brilliant thoughts as possible and hoping that you’ll get some value out of this post. 8:55. I used to write papers in college this way until my grades started to slip. Planning matters, and for good planning, I need some time to think and work through all the possibilities–the structure, the main points, the tone and content. What are you getting now, when it’s 8:57 and I’ve got three minutes to be useful to you? Not as much structure. Perhaps a whiff of BS. A product not nearly as polished. 8:58. Another problem with not having the time to plan is not having the time to think other thoughts. If I’d started this at a more leisurely pace, I might have had other ideas instead of scrambling around in my head for the last few minutes trying to add some bit of trivia that will meet my minimum word count. Crikey! 8:59. Any last thoughts on this? If you want to produce a good writing product, it’s better to give yourself the time, which means writing as soon as

Quote | Posted on by | 1 Comment

Work Lessons from Baseball


Source: Getty Images

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. This has been a good year to watch, as they’ve had a spectacular season (103-58, thank you very much), and have just won the National League Divisional Series. Winning teams are fun to watch because they have a few things in common, attributes that apply just as well to other fields of work:

Natural talent

This is one thing you can’t fake is natural talent. Thanks to excellent recruiting and demonstrated ability in the field, a team can go far just by having bright people with natural skills to do the jobs you need. The Cubs have managed to field an amazing, young, and talented team in the last couple years, and they’ve been willing to pay competitive salaries to keep those players in Chicago. The Chicago Bears’ management should be so wise.

Hard work

Natural talent is one thing, but applying that talent is something else again. Great hitters (or writers) who don’t show up on time or aren’t working to the best of their ability aren’t much use. And even average performers putting in extra effort can make a difference. There are always going to be days when you’d rather “phone it in” than give it your all, but  if that becomes a habit, it will be noticed. Likewise, you might feel like you’re dragging or not motivated, but as soon as you show up for the job, you’re all attention and focus, that too becomes a habit. This work ethic also helps in a pinch when the team is behind–they don’t quit!

Getting the basics right

You can do some individual things right–home runs are a good thing in baseball, for instance–but if your defensive game is off or your runners keep getting thrown out on base because they’re not paying attention, those little mistakes will cost you. Getting the little things right in an office setting means attention to detail, like spell checking or getting the math right on a spreadsheet. The big picture starts to suffer if the details are missed.

Keeping it loose


Hard work does not preclude enjoying what you’re doing. This can arise form a combination of factors, including enjoying the company of the people you’re working with to being excited about a particular project to having a leader who motivates you to want to do more. The Cubs this year–and really most winning teams that I’ve seen–have an upbeat, “loose” attitude to the extent that they’re confident in themselves and happy to be doing what they’re doing. And really, can you get much looser than “pajama night” in the dugout?

Being fun to watch

As a fan, it’s great to watch the Cubs play. They’re good at what they do and they’re upbeat while doing it. In a business context, you’re more likely to work with other teams rather than just watch them as a spectator, but even teams you’re only a customer for will have a “vibe” to them. Would you rather work with an organization that is motivated and productive or one that’s silent and morose? Positive feedback from customers makes a difference as well.

Tying it all together

Like I said, winning teams in baseball are not that different from winning or productive teams in other lines of work. Bring together a group of talented people for a task, get them motivated to do things great and small, and keep them having a good time doing it, and great things can be accomplished. One hopes these are lessons that the current owners and manager of the Chicago Cubs remember going forward. One hundred and eight years is far too long for an organization to miss out on what good teams can do.



Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Five Principles of Good Leadership

These are the attributes that make a good leader for me…your specific priorities might differ, but regardless of what you do, leadership matters. And if you’re a freelance writer, you still have to interact with managers and other individuals that serve in leadership positions. Bad leadership can be demoralizing or emotionally toxic. Forbes even noted that “people leave managers, not companies.”

A sense of mission

Good leaders, in my experience, have a definite sense of mission and an emotional investment in that mission. Mind you, the “mission” of a particular organization can vary greatly: selling merchandise, checking in/out guests at a hotel, answering guest letters, writing proposals for military hardware, or communicating about space missions. Regardless of the task at hand, good leader articulates how what you’re doing–however lowly or thankless the activity–contributes to some greater, more important enterprise, a greater good.

A sense of appreciation

I appreciate leaders who take the time to thank me for my dedication with sincerity. I’m often a sucker for “thank you.” Appreciation can take many forms. For example, introverts like me get uncomfortable with public displays of recognition. However, a quiet discussion that explains why an action was appreciated can do wonders. Others, of course, love public recognition in front of peers and others. Sometimes the recognition comes in the form of a raise or a bonus. Regardless of how it’s done, positive feedback is as necessary as constructive criticism and often rarer because some managers assume that if work is being done well, that such situations are the norm and don’t require thanks. That’s a mistake: they do.

An ability to inspire hard work

The first two abilities–a sense of mission and a willingness to thank employees for their efforts–make employees a lot more willing to go the extra mile for a leader when crunch times arise. Leaders of this type often are hard workers themselves and are often “in the trenches with the troops.” If they aren’t able to contribute directly to whatever work is being done, they are doing what they can to ensure that the team has the resources it needs and reduces any impediments to progress. Donna Shirley, former manager of the Mars Exploration program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, referred to her leadership role as acting like a cell wall: “[A] cell wall, what’s its function? It’s to let nutrients in and to keep bad chemicals and attacking viruses and stuff out.” Those efforts by a leader are appreciated.

A willingness to respect employee expertise

Occasionally, I’ve encountered individuals who ask me to edit or rewrite their work and then, when I do, they push back–either against my specific wording or my advice on how to approach a particular communication challenge. This can be particularly vexing when the leader in question specifically confesses ignorance about a subject. Repeated often enough, this behavior eventually creates reluctance to offer input or advice. After all, if you don’t know what you want or how to do something, and then you reject the advice given to you by a person you acknowledge as an expert, why should that expert bother? Respect for an employee’s expertise does not mean taking advice without qualification or explanation, though sometimes that happens. A leader might ask why an employee recommends a particular course of action, which is fair in my book, especially if the leader wants to understand the how and why of their thinking. If, after that explanation, the leader decides not to follow the advice, they should explain their reasoning as well. Respect can and should flow in both directions.

A willingness to back up their team

I’m not clear on how the term “thrown under the bus” came to be used, but I know what it feels like, and I’m certain a lot of people reading this do, too. If something goes awry on the job, and the bad results affect a customer or another team within the organization, the team wants to know that their manager will stand up for them, not blame the mishap on their incompetence. Good leaders also maintain the “cell wall” attitude by doing what they can to ensure that they get the resources or support they need from other organizations within reasonable constraints. And if the team does not get the resources they need, that leader will go to bat and try to obtain relief elsewhere. Good leaders speak well of their team and don’t engage in a lot of backstabbing or gossiping with other leaders about the deficiencies of the team.

All of these behaviors engender a sense of trust. If a leader loses their team’s trust, they can also expect to lose all of the rest of the attributes described above. But given an environment of vision, sincere appreciation, shared work, mutual respect, and trust, leaders can create high-performing teams who will want to work with that leader again and again.

Quote | Posted on by | 2 Comments

Contingency Planning: It’s Not All Bad News


There’s another hurricane heading toward Florida, so I’m in the process of developing my personal contingency plans, depending on which path the storm eventually takes. This wouldn’t surprise too many of my friends or professional peers. While a pleasant enough person, I’m also a pessimist.

Perhaps, being Irish, I subscribe to Murphy’s Law more than the average person. This doesn’t mean I spend all day worrying or expecting the worst out of people or overall situations. I love my job, and I do it joyfully. It does mean, however, that I am willing to bring a voice of caution to various work situations. I drive optimists up the wall because I keep asking “What if?”, but more realistic managers appreciate my willingness to plan for other eventualities and see the whole picture.

Pessimism as a communication practice

One of the best applications for this mindset comes in crisis communication planning. This is a sub-discipline of strategic communication and public relations that ensures organizations have responses ready if/when bad situations take place. Crisis communication plans include not just what to say in a crisis situation, but also accounts for who is authorized to say what and how the chain of command will operate if specific individuals within the chain of command are not available. It’s a sometimes-unpleasant, extended game of “What if?” but at the end of it, your organization has a plan and the people within it know what to do if an emergency situation crops up.

Practical pessimism in your work life

One side effect of being an operational pessimist is that I tend to over-communicate in high-pressure situations, such as proposals. The optimist says, “I’ll get this to you tomorrow!” The pessimist, not knowing if a mishap will interrupt his or her work flow, might take the step of sharing the current-state draft at the end of each day or sometimes twice a day so that anyone wanting the latest draft can find a reasonable facsimile should the writer’s cat get sick or car get sideswiped by a garbage truck.

I call this attitude the “Hit by a Bus” theory of operations, and it basically means that I try to make sure that my customer or manager knows the status of what I’m doing at the end of the day or before I go on vacation or off the clock so that nothing is lost or dropped.

Pessimism off the clock

My optimist friends might not want to hear this, but you want a pessimist to do your planning for you. Not your brainstorming–leave that to the fun people who believe that the sky’s the limit. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of estimating how long things will take or when people need to arrive for a vacation, business trip, or party, the pessimist will have a better feel for which forms of Murphy’s Law are most likely to affect a program or event schedule and add the appropriate amount of margin into the process.

I’ve touched on this issue before. Adding margin to a schedule and then finishing ahead of schedule might look like the work of a “miracle worker,” but there will be times when the margin–and then some–is needed because the unexpected occurs.

Personal pessimism can also serve as a quiet form of conscience or intuition when dealing with an unknown environment or social situation. Is the person who opened the door to their car really an Uber driver, or are they just taking advantage of you because you look like you’re waiting for someone? Do they have the Uber sticker on their car window, do they have the right license plate number, and do they know your name when opening the door? (A friend of mine recently had to ask these questions of herself in the space of a few seconds, and was glad she did–because the answers to most of these questions turned out to be all the wrong ones.)

Again the point is not to walk around with a dark cloud over your head or to eye every stranger or situation with a cynical eye. Bad situations happen: it’s a reality for all of us. Some folks are just more watchful for those things to happen. So if you’re in the middle of planning a Great Thing and suddenly the quiet one in the back of the room raises his or her hand to question an assumption, don’t get irritated. You should want and will need their feedback. Sometimes all they want to know is that there is a plan on hand if something should go wrong. If there isn’t a plan, the best thing to do is often to put your office pessimist in charge of creating that plan. That will make your Great Thing–whatever it is–foolproof and seamless, because if something goes wrong, you’ve already got a plan!

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Keeping the Channels Open

On the whole, I’m not one to burn bridges. Not to say I haven’t, or that others haven’t stopped talking to me (deservedly or not). The point is, where I can, I try to keep my professional relationships going after I leave a workplace. There are a few reasons for this.

It’s a small world

I work in the human spaceflight business, which is a pretty small community. That also means the odds are often better than even that I will be working with someone again in the future. Getting angry? Backstabbing? Causing a ruckus? Being difficult to work with? None of these help make life easier if you have to work with certain individuals again. And all that goes back to reputation, which is built over the course of days, months, and years. Would you rather hear someone say, “Oh, good! I get to work with you again!” or “Let’s try to keep it civil this time?”

Friends are good to have

We spend a lot of time at work, sometimes more time than we spend with our families. Given the amount I have spent on the job, it just makes sense to try to be as agreeable and pleasant as I can manage. And really, wouldn’t you rather spend the day with friends than people who irritate you?

You just never know

I’ve had multiple contacts from my professional life circle back and ask me if I would like to work with them again. This is not a primary reason for keeping channels open, or even a secondary reason. Still, I mention it because after 20+ years as a corporate guy, I’ve now spent nearly three years as a freelancer, and my network has been critical to finding work. In fact, most gratifyingly, they have sought me out. And yes, on those occasions where work has been a little slim, I’ve gone back and looked up previous peers and managers to see if they knew anyone looking for work that a technical writer can do, which is a little different from asking them directly for a job. Less pain and embarrassment on their part if the answer is no. And if the answer is no and they can’t refer me to someone, they at least know I’m looking, right?

When the bridge burns anyway

Today’s blog is not about sharing “war stories” or another example of one of my failures–I’m sure I’ll get to that on another day–but I would add these thoughts about how to handle it when you eventually encounter someone with whom you didn’t part on the best of terms. You might still be angry or hurt. They might still be angry or hurt. Odds are, though, that you’ll be in a professional setting and have to put on a good face. Put on that good face. Shake their hand. Say the right things. You might not feel like doing that at all, but for one reason or another your work has put you into a circumstance where you have to work with someone you dislike, and paying the bills requires you doing the work.

It’s your call as to whether it’s worth leaving a job to avoid working with someone unpleasant again, but you again have to consider your long-term reputation and other circumstances. Is it a permanent arrangement or temporary assignment? Can you shift out soon thereafter? Do you want to be perceived as being immature or unprofessional because you cannot work with a particular person? Or your old animosity might resurface and you’ll swear never to work with that person again, in which case you’ll learn a professional way to avoid doing so. You might hate it, but sometimes it’s worth it to be “the bigger person,” and just do the job. You might learn to respect the other person. You might repair that bridge.

Quote | Posted on by | Leave a comment