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.)

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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