The Life of a Lone Writer
by Whitney Potsus
“Lone writers” — those people who work as their employer’s only staff writers — are a different breed, with their own unique set of professional and personal challenges. At the same time a blessing and a curse, the lone writer life offers flexibility, variety, and autonomy, along with feelings of stress, isolation, and burnout.
Lone writers are found across all industries, as junior- and senior-level employees, contract workers and direct employees. Sometimes, they’re not even the only writers in their company, but rather are the only writers in their division with either little to no contact — or little to nothing in common — with the other writers in other company divisions.
All this said, at their core, the lives of lone writers have the same joys and the same challenges — and many of the same could-haves, would-haves, and should-haves. What follows is the summary of the answers that were received when experienced lone writers were asked, “What do you know now that you wish you knew then?” These could-haves/should-haves include:
- Create A Professional Development Plan
- Have A Project Plan
- Have An Overtime Management Plan
- Know When To Say “Enough”
Often, lone writers are the jacks-of-all-trades for their employers. If there’s something that needs to be written, edited, designed, proofed, or mocked up, it inevitably falls to the lone writer. The good thing about this role is the variety of assignments you have, and the ability to develop skills that are complementary to technical writing. The bad thing about this role is that you get so involved with helping out the team that you lose sight of what you wanted to do with your career.
Lack of focus almost always comes back to bite you in the guise of career dissatisfaction. For example, you always wanted to develop skills in instructional design and training, but the time you could have spent in that area, you spent learning Macromedia Dreamweaver and maintaining the company Web site — even though Web design had never been an area in which you’d been interested. You used what little free time you had left to do some self-education in instructional design, grabbed what work you could get as a substitute instructor, and helped revise the training manuals from time to time — and told yourself you were content with the arrangement. Then, when a long-awaited training opportunity did come up, it went to someone else because no one knew you were interested in training or perceived you as qualified for the job.
In the worst cases, writers can’t get even the most cursory involvement in the projects in which they’re interested. The result? Bitterness piled on top of burnout, and possibly compounded by missed opportunity. Continuing our anecdote, the writer becomes so profoundly disenchanted, thus missing the opportunity to combine those Dreamweaver skills with interest in instructional design and use them to develop a proposal for an innovative distance-learning service.
In the recent recession, many laid-off lone writers sat down to revise their resumes and discovered they’d been so busy playing pinch-hitter for miscellaneous projects, or playing for altogether the wrong team, that they didn’t have the skills they needed to compete in the job market, or to make a transition to a related field. These were the writers who had to expend extra time and effort marketing themselves to potential employers, who had to work hard to convince hiring managers that the writers’ skills were solid enough foundations to build upon, or adaptable enough to suit any job requirements. These were also writers who lost valuable hours lashing themselves with their could-haves, would-haves, and should-haves.
Having a professional development plan is your safety net. It helps you keep track of what you’re doing, and stay focused on where you eventually want to be. Such a plan helps you distinguish between the things that you really want to do from the things you’d like to do from the things that you might possibly like to do (but haven’t delved into enough to know for sure). By planning your course, you identify things you need to work on in your free time, thus giving you a compelling reason to get out of the office at a decent hour; can find ways to prevent your lone presence from fading into the woodwork while also developing the skills you want to have (many of the principles in the October 2005 TechCom Manager article, “Raising Your Documentation Team’s Visibility,” can be adapted for lone writer use); and can have an exit plan.
Once you have a plan, evaluate it annually against your job description to see how convergent — or divergent — the two are. If your company does performance reviews, do this evaluation at the same time. The face-to-face meeting with your manager is an excellent time to discuss goals, interests, and concerns.
Also, keep your ears open for coworkers who are interested in aspects of your job. Just as there are things you desire in others’ jobs, someone may be wishing they have something that’s currently under your care. It helps your cause to be able to suggest someone for, say, those marketing writing responsibilities you’d like to unload. A good manager will recognize the value of having fresh perspectives on familiar projects and of letting employees play to their strengths and interests.
Most lone writers say their biggest initial mistake — and probably the single biggest contributor to all the other problems they have — is not using some kind of formal project management in their jobs. When it’s just you keeping track of you, it’s easy to think:
- “I keep track of everything in my head. I can tell you at any time where all my projects stand.”
- “Everything about my projects is in my day-runner.”
- “My status reports keep my manager apprised of things.”
To some extent, these statements may all be true. But you very quickly run into situations where you have more work than time, where all your deadlines get thrown off, and where you have dueling deadlines with two departments. And if all this stuff is in your head, it’s not out where your manager can see it and use it.
Learning and implementing project management strategies can range from the low-tech and inexpensive (like dry erase calendars and whiteboards) to the low-fuss (like Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Outlook task reminders) to the formal and expensive (like Microsoft Project and project management certification courses). Project calendars (especially ones in applications like Microsoft Project) will:
- Total the number of days, start to finish, a project will require
- Let you show the percentage of your time being spent on each project
- update all deadlines for a project when one deadline is met early or late
- show what predecessor tasks your tasks are dependent upon
- Let you record scheduled and actual delivery dates
…and much more. The level of specificity that project calendars offer is invaluable to building your case for hiring help, showing how often deadlines are missed (and why), when competing deadlines converge, and so on. Because few people outside of technical writing really understand and appreciate all the work that goes into creating documentation, breaking down on a project calendar all the tasks that go into creating, for example, a new manual can be an effective way to educate managers and co-workers about what you do.
And don’t be reluctant to use a combination of tools for project tracking. One writer said that even after he started using Microsoft Project, he continued to keep dry erase calendars and whiteboards filled with project deadlines in his office. Why? Because when people came to him with rush jobs and other projects, they’d look at the boards, see how much he was already doing, and change their minds about making the request either at that time or of that person.
This leads us to our final point on the topic — and another “should-have” from lone writers. When you’re the only writer, particularly one who may be feeling insecure about your ability to weather company cutbacks with your job intact, saying “no” can be difficult. But when you’re managing your projects with calendars, handling new requests becomes easier when you have something concrete to point to. Armed with these tools, you’re able to respond with comments like:
- “If I spend five hours on this, it takes five hours away from the training manual you asked me to finish by Thursday. Is that trade-off acceptable?”
- “Your requested deadline directly conflicts with Manager A’s and Manager B’s deadlines. Please work with them to prioritize these projects, then let me know how to proceed.”
- “These are the projects and deadlines that your manager’s name here and I have agreed to. If there’s something else you need me to work on, please talk to your manager’s name here so s/he can weigh this against existing priorities.”
There’s a myth about the productivity of 12-hour days — and that’s that you’re productive for all 12 hours. In reality, you’re good for somewhere between eight and 10 hours, and the rest of the time you’re going through the motions — especially if, in your job, 12-hour-plus days are the rule rather than the exception to the rule. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking about the favorite TV show you’re missing, the laundry that’s not going to get done, the family you won’t have dinner with, what time the parking lot lights will click off and leave you in the dark, and how much you hate being in the office building by yourself. You’re not doing your best work, you’re not leading your best life, and you’re getting more tired and stressed by the day.
- Set rules to minimize the amount of overtime you’re logging. You don’t (necessarily) need to make announcements to managers and co-workers that you’re cutting back, but you should hold yourself accountable for whatever you decide to do. Set limits on the number of days a week you’ll work late, the maximum amount of overtime you’ll work each week, and the number of consecutive days or weeks you’ll work overtime before you talk with your manager.
- Start your day with a different mindset. Don’t start your day with the thought that you’ll have to work until 9 p.m. to get everything done. Set a firm time to walk out the door in the evening, and schedule it like an appointment you’re expected to show up for. Changing your expectations at the beginning of the day change your efficiency throughout the day, with you managing distractions and disruptions differently, working to make meetings end on time, altering how often you check and respond to e-mails, and so forth.
- Re-evaluate and, if necessary, triage your project list. Identify what tasks are must-have versus nice-to-have, then discuss with your manager your recommendations for what tasks can be taken out of the equation for the impending deadline. After the two of you reach an agreement, work together to determine what, if anything, needs to be communicated to colleagues and customers.
- Ask for temporary help. Get your manager to recruit help from other groups in the company if tasks can be delegated in the short-term and if neither deadlines nor project lists for those deadlines can change.
- Evaluate your reasons for chronically working overtime. Is your workload that consistently huge and demanding? Are things taking longer because you have to work around tools that are no longer effective for your needs? Are you working late to make up for colleagues who are always missing their deadlines? Do you perceive pressure from someone to work overtime? Are you working late out of job insecurity? Are you using work to avoid another area of your life?
In most cases, you can’t rule out overtime — some projects and deadlines require extra time now and then. And sometimes, you’re putting in the hours to teach yourself a new skill. But if you’re chronically logging more than 10 hours of overtime a week to keep up with your core workload, there’s a problem somewhere with project or process management. Until you call attention to it and try to help resolve it, you’re just enabling a bad situation.
Admittedly, there are companies where the documentation workload is a manageable full-time job for one writer and may never be more than that. Then there are companies where a lone writer consistently has a 60-hour-a-week job, and a list of new projects that never get started, or finished, because there’s not enough hours in the week for one person to get the core job responsibilities completed.
Tips and strategies for making the case for another technical writer are well-documented in other articles and other publications, so we’ll defer this part of the discussion to those articles. What we will talk about is how long to continue the lone writer life when the reality of your work situation demonstrates that another writer is long overdue.
- managed and documented your projects,
- identified and helped to resolve project and process management problems in your company,
- communicated frequently and clearly with your manager(s),
- actively made (or helped make) a business case for hiring help, and
- ascertained that the company isn’t having financial problems,
If you and others see there is too much work for one person, but management doesn’t a) hire contract or staff help, or b) doesn’t temporarily shelve certain projects, or c) doesn’t work with you to redefine your job description and delegate some of your old responsibilities to other employees, there’s a problem that’s not likely to get resolved on your watch or with current management. In many cases, you’re dealing with an organization’s culture and values, which change slowly. Most writers reach a point where their physical health, mental and emotional well-being, personal relationships, and professional growth simply cannot wait for these major changes to happen.
If you’ve passed maximum threshold with workload and overtime, acknowledge that you and your employer have gotten out of each other all you were ever meant to get — and then start looking for a better job. If you’re armed with a professional development plan, the decision to leave a familiar job with a familiar company becomes a lot less scary because you already have a fairly good idea of where you want to go. An exit strategy makes you feel in control and proactive — instead of out of control and reactive.
For many, the lone writer life is the only life to lead if you’re a technical writer. It offers flexibility and variety that can’t always be found in companies with rigid departmental lines and fixed (and, for some, stale) job descriptions. The independence and autonomy has proven time and again to be an excellent training ground for those who aspire to go into business for themselves as contractors. The key, though, to a contented and successful lone writer career is making honest attempts to learn from your mistakes (and others’ as well), finding a good support network of other technical writers, and striking a healthy balance between your professional and personal life. When done well, you may find that the rewards of being a lone writer far exceed any scars from the could-haves, would-haves, and should-haves you had along the way.
- “The Occupational Adventure Guide” by Curt Rosengren, a downloadable e-book (http://www.passioncatalyst.com/download/index.cgi) that is short and highly focused ($14.95)
- “Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction” by Laura Berman Fortgang, a more intensive journey packed with exercises, self-assessment quizzes, and anecdotes
- The International Coach Federation’s Web site at www.coachfederation.org, if you think you’d do better working one-on-one with a coach rather than working on your own
- “Raising Your Documentation Team’s Visibility” by Whitney Potsus, TechCom Manager, October 2005 (http://www.enewsbuilder.net/techcommanager/index000096802.cfm)
For project management:
- “Managing Your Documentation Projects” by Joanne Hackos
- “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)” from the Project Management Institute
- “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (Second Edition)” by Eric Verzuh
- Shadow Plan, project management shareware for environments where Microsoft Project might be overkill or overly expensive (downloadable from www.codejedi.com)
For handling sticky conversations and difficult people:
- “Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
- “Crucial Confrontations” (by the same group of authors)
- “Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How To Bring Out The Best In People At Their Worst” by Rick Brinkman
Whitney Potsus has been a lone writer for the entirety of her technical writing career, both as a staff employee and as a contractor. Recently transitioned into full-time contracting, she’s now making her first foray into the aerospace industry. She spends her off hours teaching business and technical communications courses, and freelance writing for a variety of publications. She launched, and managed for several years, the “Solitary Scrivener” newsletter for the STC’s Lone Writer special-interest group and has contributed articles to several STC and IEEE publications.