Technical Communications Juggler: Balancing Work, Life and Writing Books

technical communications jugglerIt’s a hard slog writing technical books, especially when juggling a full-time technical communications job and the usual set of family responsibilities. You can do it, but it’s not a life everybody would want. Structure and discipline are the keys to success. I won’t pretend to be a paragon of either practice, but I get better with each project. You can too.

Here are some guidelines based on hard-won experience, to balancing the technical communications work, the personal life and the book writing dream.

Make Writing a Priority

Rochelle Melander, the WriteNow Coach, and author of Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It), stresses the importance of scheduling writing time first. When you try to squeeze writing around all the other demands placed on your time, guess what you’re most likely to drop when the demands get too much? Of course, having a contract with an advance and a deadline over your head helps you to say ‘no’ to those other demands. But be aware that only the most patient spouse will accept “I’ve got work to do” as an excuse for begging off all household chores for months at a time.

Take your calendar and mark off the time periods you will commit to working on the book. Now you can schedule the rest of your life.

I have some advantages over some folks with growing families: My daughter’s grown up with kids of her own, so I am rarely called on to arbitrate family conflicts, or shuttle kids from school to chorus rehearsal to baseball games and birthday parties. Everyone thinks it’s cool when grandpa comes to a grade-school basketball game, and doesn’t take notice of all the games and performances I miss.

Making writing a priority does not have to mean that all other activities stop. Make agreements with the people that matter to you (friends and family alike) early about how things will change while you’re working on the book, and when your life returns to normal. Doing this helps you plan the project overall, and should reduce the stress involved.

Of course, there’s another writing priority that also takes precedence: the 40 hours (or more) that you spend on the technical communications job. A technical book advance will not, by itself, pay your rent, mortgage or groceries. The book project should never interfere with the assignment that does. Chances are good that if you’re talented enough to get a book contract, you are probably already doing well at your job. Managers and co-workers will likely be supportive as long as you remain on top of your assignments. Depending on your situation, you may even be able to negotiate an alternative work schedule to accommodate any interviews, conferences, or even publicity opportunities that come your way.

Work Fast

Tech publishers are in a constant rush to get books out, for reasons everyone understands. Keeping up with a software release schedule can be taxing. You may start writing about version Z3 in March, only to have version Z4 come out in July. Even worse, if your book comes out a month before (or after) a major software release, it’s almost a waste of paper to print. At the same time, publishers who want a 700-page book in two months’ time ask quite a lot of their writers.

If you have your priorities set, and your deadlines in place, you can effectively plan the project. Planning is half the battle.

Break Your Writing and Technical Communications Tasks Down

The first part of any book-project plan, like those job-related technical communications plans, often involves mapping out what you want to write about. One reason publishers want to see your table of contents when you propose a book is so they know you understand what the scope of the project will be. When you write manuals (or browse sequences) at the day job, you know what you’re in for before you start. The same is true for technical books; and a TOC is often all the roadmap you need to project what you need to do.

I put the entire detailed TOC into my to-do list at the start of every project. If necessary, I break each section down to individual research and writing tasks. Time spent planning pays off in the long run.

Get Something Accomplished Every Day

Technical communications is a demanding intellectual activity, and when you go home at the end of the day, it’s not always easy to reset your brain and write some more on a completely different topic. When fully engaged in a book project, I’ll take a half-hour power nap after dinner to recharge the batteries. Sometimes I can even generate ideas in that down time.

My most productive periods of writing happen on the weekends, because I can usually mark out large blocks of time for the project. If you decide to block your time this way, remember that despite the potential for evening fatigue, you should make some progress during the week. When you have a deadline looming, you can become overwhelmed with the amount of work in front of you. Don’t lose sleep worrying about what you didn’t get done.

When I get to my home office (and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a permanent space to write in!), no matter how tired I might be on a given evening, I will get something done. Ideally, it’s a page or two. Sometimes it’s just getting some screen shots, other research, or seeing if the text is still holding together.

Keep up with Changing Software

If you document software in your day job, you know that the user assistance has to be ready when the product is released. Publishers really love to have books come out on the software release date too. If you’re not an employee of the software company, you have to figure out a way to get the pre-release code ahead of time.

Because my books are about open source software, getting pre-release software to test and describe is often just a matter of knowing the correct download URL, Subversion or Git source-code repository. I sympathize with those independent writers who need to work with big companies, sign non-disclosure agreements and then wait for the next build.

Besides working with the software itself, you may also want to keep track of the rumors and other discussion channels around the project. Use Google Alerts and similar services to track news and blogosphere commentary about the project. When Amazing Feature #27 doesn’t make it into the final release, your readers may want to know why.

Don’t Give Up Everything Else

As with any second job, you will have to give up some recreational activity to complete a computer book project. At the same time, don’t let the book dominate your life to the point of hating it all. Sure you may have to record a TV show or six, but when you start getting stressed out, go ahead and schedule a movie night. Both the day job and the book will be better when your brain is refreshed.

Earlier, I noted that I’m most productive on the weekend. This is what I do: I write all Saturday morning, take a long lunch break to handle other chores, then work for a couple hours in the afternoon. Saturday nights I reserve for fun. That can change if I’m on deadline, or a snowstorm breaks out or some other productivity-killing calamity strikes.

Sundays are similar, with continued work in the morning. I will occasionally reward myself with some TV sports on Sunday afternoon if it’s been a productive morning. Sunday evening, I prep for the coming week: Update the to-do list, see what the calendar brings in the way of commitments, and what else is coming at me. Get a good night’s sleep and I’m ready for the new week.

Writing books can be fun. Planning and discipline can make it manageable for your technical communications coworkers, and more enjoyable for you and the people you care about.


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