A thought on contract writing work

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I tend to keep the lines of communication open for contract technical writing jobs, because one never knows when you’ll want more work. (And even if I don’t want something, I can forward it to friends who are looking for work and help them out.)

Only rarely do job listings give a pay rate, so if I see something I like, the first question I always ask recruiters is “How much does it pay?” This question gets a surprised response about 2/3 of the time and usually some shuffling around. The usual response is “How much do you want?” to which I say “I know what my rates tend to be, but I don’t have enough information to make a determination about what they’re asking me to do on the job based on the job description you sent me. But I would like to find out what the job’s budget is so that I can find out if it’s worth my time to apply. It’ll be in both our interests to not waste our time by having me apply for a job that’s going to lowball me.”

And at that point, they’ll usually come across with the hourly rate or something a lot like it. (Unless it’s some pump-and-dump Indian recruiting firm.) Enough for me to make an informed decision, anyway.

If they’re still being coy or pretending to be shocked (Gods know why at this point), I then say “I’m not in this business for my health. I’m in this business to make as much money as I can. So I’d like to find out what this is going to pay to see if it’s worth my time.” If they’re still dancing around about money, I tend to write ‘em off at that point.

Always remember: We are in this business to make money as a rule. We’re selling our skills. We are not doing this for the honor of contributing to some company’s bottom line at the expense of our own. We are making money and, by extension, we are making as much money as we reasonably can. Stuff we do for free is something else entirely.

Writing short

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My last book was with someone who’s an ER doctor. Subsequently, he asked if I would edit something he was putting together with papers from other doctors. It was unintelligible drivel. Oh, I could figure out what it was saying, but it was just onanistic parading of one’s vocabulary to no good effect. I told him I could eventually turn it into English, but I didn’t think he’d like it. He said no, he’d do it, thanks.

There’s a tendency in medicine, academia, and government to try to make things really, really fancy, purely for the reason that you CAN, which doesn’t impress me at all. You’re supposed to admire the puissant prose of the person who put it together, but it fails in its ability to actually communicate. FWIW, gov’t agency PowerPoint slides also have a tendency to use every possible shred of white space on every slide so that you could just about read the slides. This is a dumb way to do things, too. Yes, you can make it work, but just because you can open a bottle of beer on the nose of a Trident submarine does not mean that it’s actually any good at that.

There’s a classic George Bernard Shaw quote:”I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” The same thing applies to technical writing. Making things short and snappy gets you to the point quickly and usually communicates better… but it’s harder. One of my favorite examples of good, short communication is someone’s comment about the morning after an incredibly drunken night:

The morning was death, with birdsongs.

Six words and you don’t need a lot more picture than that to describe exactly how things are. (For an even better example of minimalist communication, go look up Hemingway’s 6-word short story.)

Fun: Contract addenda

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Donna Barr is an amazing artist. She’s probably best known for The Desert Peach, a series of comic books about Manfred Pfirsich Marie Rommel, Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s “younger, cuter brother.” She’s a delightful and well-informed (read “opinionated”) speaker about the business of being an artist, too.

Several years ago, she wrote a delicious article about contract addenda that I’m reproducing here. (The link to the original is here.)

Binding, My Ass

What can the internet do? Shall we see? I once offered this language to an animation-industry artist, and after thinking a moment, she said, “They’d jump at it! No lawyers!” So here we go.

“THIS contract shall be binding on ALL movie studios, publishers and all other middle-men who sign contracts with me. If it’s between the quotes on this posting — and you sign a contract with me after this date — this contract is binding upon you. You are responsible to find and understand this contract in conjunction with any contract with me. This is a public blog. Hereafter:

“This is a contract binding upon all movie studios with whom I (as understood by the artist/writer/ Donna Barr, born in 1952 and Not From Earth) shall henceforth negotiate for use of my work:

If any studio shall wish to use my (see I) work in movie/s, for t-shirts and other tchatskis or internet shenanigans, send $4 million dollars to an off-shore account in my name and then go away and never bother me any more. If you wish to contact me again, every contact — in voice, flesh, pixels or throwing one of those fuzzy green tennis balls for my dog (I’ll get one) — shall be billed at $1 million per contact.

The same goes for any publisher (you know who you are) who wants my copyright. You’re lucky I don’t make this retroactive.”

For those of you who are getting those manga-based contracts that demand copyright, just remember this: if they can’t afford to buy your copyright, they can’t afford to sue you. I didn’t say “Take the money and run,” but you get the idea.

Hey, we didn’t start this. We just want to draw and write stuff and not end up on the street when we’re old.

(For those of you who are not my readers, this is supposed to be be funny.)

Dictation software

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I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about dictation software these days. I was very interested in it when it first started becoming a real possibility 20, 25 years ago. Dragon NaturallySpeaking was the market leader back then as I recall and this hasn’t changed in all this time. I recall that it would do 75wpm way back when, which was fair, but not great: most people speak at 125-175wpm and I know that I speak pretty quickly, so dictation with NaturallySpeaking would be.




Even with this shortcoming, I knew that Dragon NaturallySpeaking would get better, smarter, and faster fairly quickly as faster generations of software came out and there were better codecs for processing audio. And it did. Checking out it’s capabilities for this post, I found a video of Dragon NaturallySpeaking handling 200wpm. It’s also very good with specialized vocabularies (such as medical and legal transcription), which makes it a godsend for specialized applications and fields.

And with all that wonder and power, I’m still not interested in using it to write books. The basic problem remains, and it’s not with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

I type.

I type for a lot of reasons:

  • I type because it’s fast. I can type at 120-130wpm when I’m really cruising (that’s because of decades of power typing and also these fancy-schmancy Avant Stellar super-clicky keyboards I buy). That’s nowhere near as fast as Dragon NaturallySpeaking can process these days–and good for it–but it’s as fast as I could probably talk comfortable for hours on end.
  • I type because I don’t have to think about it. My fingers are automatic. So automatic, in fact, that they become spooled devices, like a printer. I recall when I was writing my first book back in 1987 that I was thinking ahead a couple paragraphs while my fingers were running automatically to get things down on paper as fast as I could. I didn’t have to interrupt the creative flow at all: the process of getting things out of my head was not a real-time operation. (This is also why I hate using the mouse for things: it stops the stream of thought and kicks me into a real-time mode where nothing’s automatic.)
  • I type because I can listen to music or the tv or be talking on phone. When I’m working, I live for having background noise. I can also do a lot of pro forma writing while I’m talking about something else (that “spooled” thing again). Having background noise (music) or other voices (TV) or trying to talk on the phone while dictating (ha!) just ain’t gonna work. But the music, TV, and phone calls are all a part of the writing process for me.
  • I type because I simply cannot talk into a microphone for 12 hours at a time. I don’t think you can, either. And I don’t think you could do it for 4 months at a go. Your tongue would dry up and turn to dust.
  • I type because it uses a different part of my brain. This is a little hard to describe, but I know that I simply can’t listen to certain types of music or have the TV on when I’m trying to write specific pieces. It keeps feeling like the part of my brain that’s processing the words in the song or TV is the same part that I’m using for some very nitty writing tasks, and the two tasks keep bashing into each other. I usually have to put on Chopin or a Hearts of Space show or something. Trying to speak while I’m trying to create would be equally difficult, perhaps even more so: I’ve noticed that I frequently don’t like talking at all when I’m working on a section like this.

So far all these reasons and probably more, I type. I am very pleased that Dragon NaturallySpeaking has gotten to be such a monster product and I may find a use for it some day, but I type well and I type quickly, and I just don’t feel a need to dictate my books.

Writing by hand, and why I don’t

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I type. I can’t write by hand except for shopping lists, telephone notes, and the like. It’s not fast enough.

I’ve forgotten how to write cursive. I know I was taught cursive writing. I didn’t do very well at it; I was always sloppy. I can remember that my capital letters would come out squashy and not round because I was always in too much of a hurry to get on with it. But I also remember the enormous satisfaction I had when I could do a really good capital “Q” (you remember, that funny cursive letter that looked a lot like a “2″). I had stopped using cursive and was just printing by about 10th grade, although I didn’t learn to touch-type until I was 20.

But cursive does have some advantages. It is usually faster than the standard block-printing that most of us tend to do. I have heard that block printing will get you to about 10-12wpm and maybe 15wpm if you really push it, but that cursive can be pushed up to 22-25wpm.

Note: This comes up when learning Morse code: when you’re starting out, you transcribe what you hear. You rapidly discover that you’re not able to transcribe faster than you can print, and you try to resurrect your cursive skills. Shortly thereafter, you learn to type what you’re hearing and then transcribe in your head independent of your ability to get it down directly, which can double your ability to “hear” Morse code.

Writing by hand is a good idea if you’re working remotely and only have a pen and paper–and who among us doesn’t usually have a pen and paper?–and for scribbling ideas and small amounts of words. Whenever I write songs, it’s always done sitting somewhere with an instrument and a piece of paper, but this is not “production” writing. Words are slowly accreted and put on the page a half-line at a time. When I’m done, I type everything up.

In contrast, writing books tends to be a volume business at a few thousand words a day. I’d find writing this much by hand crippling, not to mention boring, but I know that some people really like it this way. If you’re agonizing over the words, the dialog, the descriptions and not turning out as many words in a day because very word is a gem, handwriting may work for you. I can think of half a dozen writers whose prose is lapidary for whom handwriting could be an option, but handwriting just doesn’t work for me.

Book blurbs

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Sorry for the gap in posts. This new job is an all-consuming thing at times! I’m reading lots of stuff on my own time and working hard during the week. It’s fun, exciting, and very busy. And it’s taken me a while to get settled in the new apartment in Beaverton. I drive home to Eugene on the weekends, but it’s not as restful as just being there, of course.

Here’s a lovely article about writing book blurbs. Although this is for fiction, it’s worth noting that the concepts are the same: you want to grab the reader’s attention and hold it, making them want to buy the book, take it home, and devour it.

When we are writing blurbs for non-fiction books, we’re not usually able to put a really compelling quote like “It shouldn’t be called ‘stalking’ if you’re really just trying to save someone,” (which is the opening line for a very good story I just heard about). But we can tell the reader why this book will answer questions about the topic that they hadn’t thought to ask and even pitch them on how this will make a positive difference in their effectiveness, their income stream, or their life.

Another tale of publishing cluelessness

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At one point, I was trying to sell a book on a particular technical topic: a piece of software that I felt was significantly underrepresented in the book market. I hadn’t been able to sell the idea to anyone yet and I had ended up pitching it to the Dummies books people.

About the same time, I had finally made the decision to sign up with Studio B. I’m still with them and I think they’re incredible. I recommend them highly. So this would be the first book they represented me on. Cool.

With every other publisher, I’d been able to say “Okay, and then I wrote…” and poof! I could usually get a contract if they felt the book was worth doing. The Dummies folks said, rightly, that only about half the people who were accomplished authors could actually write in the Dummies style. I could understand that: it’s not as easy as it looks.

Auditioning for a Dummies book was not a thrilling experiment. The acquisitions editor I was dealing with kept losing track of things. I’d send her something and then a while later I’d get a snottygram from her asking why I wasn’t doing my bit and I’d point out that I’d emailed it to her a week ago. She frequently wouldn’t believe me until I forwarded the mail with the original mail headers, at which point she would go finally do her bit. She was clearly not the sharpest spoon in the drawer.

Another problem was the developmental editor, who left a great deal to be desired. The thing about Dummies books is that they have to be funny and lighthearted in a certain way, which is why they’re so hard to write. I had that down, but what I was not ready for was the really unhelpful suggestions from the developmental editor. The sample chapter I was writing was about dealing with graphics in this product, so I was unprepared for one of his suggestions near the end of the chapter: “I don’t know how you feel about this, but a good fart joke would go well here.” I’m writing a book about a tool used exclusively by technical writers and you want me to stick fart jokes in this?!? I thought. (No, I most decidedly did not add a fart joke there!)

I sent the revised chapter in to the acquisitions editor who, true to form, lost it and bitched at me a couple weeks later. When we finally got her to acknowledge that she had the chapter in her hands, she let me know that it was good enough for me to be a Dummies author (oh, yippee-skippee) and that she’d be getting back to my agent about a deal.

Shortly thereafter, my agency phones me up. The deal really sucked. It was about half of what I’d been getting with other publishers. My agent kept pulling out additional terms and clauses in a “But wait, there’s less!!” sort of mode. After two or three of these, I said “Tell me the good part.”

He said “Well, we are at the good part. This is why we don’t do a lot of deals with the Dummies people; they don’t pay very well.”


“Do you want me to make a counteroffer?”

“Other than the obvious? Yes, please, tell them they should double this and we’ll talk.”

Okay, fine, no deal. I wasn’t terribly surprised, nor could I quite say I was disappointed. I wasn’t keen on spending time working with either the acquisitions editor nor the developmental editor, so skipping this one wouldn’t be a big deal.

The next morning at 6:45am Pacific time, I get a phone call from the acquisitions editor in Indianapolis.


Without my agent on the line.

You need to understand that this is a gross violation of publishing ethics. Unless there’s a darned good reason, like we’re about to collide with another planet, the editor NEVER phones the author directly to discuss business when they’re represented by an agent. It is Simply Not Done. I also didn’t care for the fact that I’d been woken up about 2 hours before I had planned on being conscious, either. So I was definitely not in a mood to roll over and give way.

The acquisitions editor tried to push me hard about the fact that I’d turned down their offer. It was the best deal I could get from them she said. (This was a complete lie, as I knew two authors who had gotten much better deals recently and she’d been the acquisitions editor on those deals.) I’d be a Dummies author, she said, which would count for something.

I’m not in the business for the fame, I said. I want the money. And, I added, after 17 books in this field, I really didn’t think I needed to pay any dues.

But you’ve never written for Dummies before, she countered. There’s a risk you might not make it.

“So you’re worried about the risk and that’s why you’re not paying me?”

Yes, definitely, she replied.

“Okay, well, then let’s structure the deal this way,” I said: “You don’t pay me any advance, but you crank the royalty rate up to 15%. That way, you’re not out anything. If the book doesn’t sell, then there’s very little exposure, but if it does sell, which is what I’m betting, then we both make money.”

“Oh, we couldn’t do that!”

“It adequately takes care of your risk problem.”

“But we just couldn’t do that!” she said.

We talked for another 10 minutes with her trying to browbeat me into taking the deal and me saying that I wanted more money. I could get more money, she said, if I just made the deal directly with her and dumped my agent. (Sheesh, there was just no limit to the lack of ethics with this woman!) The call ended with her saying something that translated as “You’ll never write Dummies books in this town again!” and me saying something that translated as “Blow me.”

I hung up and then called my agent and was just frothing at him about the gross unprofessionalism of this woman and that she’d not only phoned me directly but that she’d suggested I cut the agency out of the deal. This didn’t surprise my agent at all, as he’d actually worked in a cubicle next to hers at another publisher and he actively wondered how she managed to keep her job. (I suggested that some people are like bullets: they sit around their chamber waiting to be fired.) He said not to worry, they’d get the book placed, and we’d do fine.

And sure enough, they did. They got me in to another division of the publisher. They paid me twice the advance I normally got, they got me about everything I wanted for royalty, and the book was going to be an in-depth professional book, exactly what I wanted it to be.

Ironically, late in the book process, the publisher closed down that wing and books were reassigned. We ended up back on the desk of the same clueless idiot I’d dealt with originally, albeit not doing a Dummies book. I never brought up anything about dealing with her in the past and neither did she. I at first thought that it was that she was going to be professional, too, but the more I worked with her and saw her in inaction, the more I think it’s because she simply didn’t remember.

The happiest footnote to this is that she got laid off about a year later. There was many a dry eye in the house at this news. There were quite a few smirks, too. She left the business and went into real estate, proving that she was as good an acquisitions editor as everyone had always thought.

And there was much rejoicing throughout the land.

We’re doing it for the money

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Sometimes in the course of looking at book projects, you may end up considering a project that you think is lowering your standards. And what the heck? Maybe it is. Ask yourself how much money and opportunity this book is and if this is something that could actually damage your reputation. If it’s simply a matter of you don’t care much for the subject or the publisher’s style but the money’s good, then you should go with it. Here’s why.

As you’re whacking out books, one after another, bear in mind that what we’re doing isn’t really Great Art. Oh, very occasionally, you’ll get a nonfiction book that is going to last on the shelf for some years and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll have one that lasts for your career. But what we’re writing won’t last for decades as a rule. Shucks, most of us are lucky if our writing lasts on the shelves a year. Do your job, enjoy your job, be professional about the stuff you’re turning out, but don’t ever kid yourself that this is usually a Work for the Ages. If you keep this in mind, you’ll probably be able to be more flexible. (There are pleasant exceptions to this observation, but they’re few and very far between.)

A couple hundred years ago, Dr. Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Some things just don’t change: we are doing this for the money. It should be fun whenever possible, but if it pays the bills, that’s the best part of all.