Thursday, June 04, 2009

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

Mera Hard At Work
Mera Hard At Work
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I stare at the screen befuddled for a moment, trying to remember how to generate an em dash in FrameMaker. It used to be second nature. Em dash, en dash, copyright, registered and trademark are all symbols so hideously counter-intuitive to generate in FrameMaker that it is a constant source of amazement that Adobe ever succeeded in establishing the application as the preeminent tool of technical writers. More bewildering is how long the program stayed at the top of the heap. Even today, when they swear that the last update is long behind them and other tools – commercial and open source – pop up like daisies on the authorial landscape, Frame is still used by the majority of my clients.

Which actually brings us to the real problem I face this afternoon: I have clients. Clients are the companies which keep Toast afloat. Clients want stuff. Clients ask questions, set deadlines, and need things. Clients are like children with bank accounts and an attitude. Clients are simultaneously my best friends and my worst enemies.

Technically speaking – and as a technical writer I should try to speak technically, albeit more or less inaccurately – I have had clients since the day I quit my full time job. For the most part my clients come from people who worked with me in the past and then scattered to the four winds after leaving our shared employer. Former employers, employees, and coworkers find themselves in a bind with a product to get out the door and either no user guide or a really spectacularly bad user guide. While I'm a bit pricey on the technical writer pay scale, I work fast, independently, and generally leave a client with documentation in fine shape to hand over to a less senior, less experienced writer... for example, the engineers.

Since I quit my job, I can name a double handful of companies for whom I consulted on documentation, training, or simplified English. Ironically, during those years I was a documentation consultant for the largest, most complicated training development project in my career. I've done little quick start brochures and a command line interface guide. I've written help in Robo, Wiki, CHM, and a text file. I developed a database used to direct the development effort of a team of 22 content producers, and I contributed to the documentation on a number of open source projects.

However, when you get right down to it, my resume or LinkedIn profile is a white lie, a bit of true stretching, or total and unmitigated bull shit depending on your perspective. At any given time out here floating around off the coast of Mexico, I have two or three ongoing projects or active clients. String them all end to end, the number of hours I bill out each year probably only amounts to 8 man weeks. Or woman weeks. It's not enough work to keep us in limes and honey roasted peanuts, but it is enough to make the resume look really good.

Because the real reason I work is insurance. Working is a back door to the real world in case something bad happens. If the boat is destroyed, DrC injured, or family reasons force us to make a quick return to the States, I don't have to tell anyone that I've been playing footloose and fancy free for four years. I can truthfully point to these professional experiences and say that I'm still active, I know my stuff, I'm still growing. Hire me. I'll find the em dash... really
Candeleros Heading South
Candeleros Heading South
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Which was a great theory until the market crashed and the economy went to hell and the unemployment rate in the tech industry skyrocketed and technical writers started hitting the streets in record numbers. No matter how good I look on paper, there are a hundred applicants for every full time job in my business, a hundred hungry people with children to feed and a roof to keep over their heads with whom I would rather not compete. I'll take my five hours here, my interesting project in London there, and continue to work part time, staying out of the way of the people who need that full time work for as long as I possibly can. I cross my fingers, try to keep DrC out of trouble, and keep my handful of steady, resume-padding clients happy while we wait for the world economy to sort itself out.

Ah ha! Found it. Ctrl-Q then shift-Q and you get an em dash. What idiot thought that was a good idea?


Nancy said...

Hey Karen -
I LOVE your blog. I've been reading it for two years now - I've learned so much from you, your family and your journey.

But as for this post and TechTip: YOTREPS, I must say, "I have no idea what I just read."

...but then, why would I consistantly read a blog written my someone dumber than me?

Keep enlightening me and when you do talk aver my head, I promise to just smile and nod.

Singing Land Cruiser said...

My Dear Toast, we feel your pain. The economy hit us in a bad way also. We have been booking shows with resorts that have no entertainment budgets. That means, "Pass the Hat". But thats our world today. We, like you, will wait out the storm. On another note, it is day 6 of our new life and our bus is doing just fine. . Thank you once again Toast. All the Best, M&C