Why didn’t you notice that before?

Not that I’ve ever been asked the question, but some clients may have thought it. Picture this:

You, welcomed reader, bring me your literary pride and joy for developmental editing. I examine it, see fairly early on that it has major issues to address, load it down with comments explaining those issues, and send it back to you with the recommendation that you fix them. I explain that it will cost a lot less, and be more reflective of your creativity, if you take a stab at fixing them. I had you at ‘cost a lot less,’ so you then demonstrate to me what a superb and coachable client you are by addressing them. In most cases, you ‘get it.’ Beaming, you ship me the modified ms. I edit it this time, and I include a bunch of comments about stuff I didn’t point out in the first pass (but dealt with this time). And perhaps here you wonder: how’d he miss that stuff the first time?

Let’s use an analogy to a flipper house. The carpet needs replacement. The color scheme chosen was Crazy Cat Lady Provincial. The rose bushes are out of control. The crushed rock isn’t strangling the weeds. The hot water heater has a failing thermostat, there isn’t enough insulation, and some imbecile fixed numerous nail and molly bolt holes in the wall without bothering to sand the filler. The bathroom fan is about to chuck a bearing, and so on. Oh, and no one raked leaves last year, so half the yard is dead. Except for plenty of thistles, dandelions, and morning glories.

If we’re going to turn that house into the cozy, attractive property that it could become, we are going to begin by taking care of the big stuff so that it no longer obscures the small stuff. We restrain the roses and discover that the squirrels planted a walnut sapling at their base. We pull off the baseboards and find evidence that something in the wall has leaked. We rip up the carpet and find that the previous imbecile covered up battered but beautiful hardwood. We pull out the range and learn that someone had a chronic problem with stuff boiling over and running down the sides, rotting out the subfloor.

While we are doing all that, we are not really seeing the smaller but important stuff, because the big stuff obscures it. It’s not that we are incompetent; it’s that we will notice the miniature burro in the room only when the elephant has been herded out of it.

That’s how it is, editing books. Fix the big stuff so that the small stuff can stand out, then fix that, and you have a good book. Because you don’t retexture drywall that you know you will be replacing anyway.

Simple true statements about investing to cut through the mountain of baloney

When I talk to people about investing, I see how easily they get overwhelmed. Can’t blame ‘em. So let’s reduce it to a series of statements that are simple and true (in my opinion and experience), independent of one another, and see if that helps.

My suggestion is to read and absorb just one a day. That ought to last a while.

  • All stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are securities. When one says ‘securities,’ one means all those, but excludes raw precious metals, commodities, real estate, Cabbage Patch Dolls, and stuff like that.
  • An index, like the Dow or S&P 500 or NASDAQ, just watches a pool of securities and reduces it to a total number. It’s only as indicative as the chosen securities and the weight each receives.
  • In all investing, percentage is key. Don’t look at the raw number change of the index, or the security. Look at percentage change. If you can’t divide using Windows Calculator, you can’t understand investing. Of course, if you can divide using Windows Calculator, you can understand investing.
  • Stock splits mainly change looks and convenience. If a $500 stock splits ten for one, the fundamental valuation didn’t change. Everyone just got ten shares of $50 stock in return for one share of $500 stock. It’s about as significant as breaking a $20 bill into tens, fives, ones, whatever.
  • A common stock represents a share of ownership of a company. On the fundamental level, it is buying a piece of a business.
  • A bond represents borrowed money, with bondholders as debtholders. Your car loan or mortgage would be in effect a bond issued by you to your bank, if you only had to pay the monthly interest as you went and then had to fork over the principal at the end of the term. Since you have to cough up principal as you go, it’s not quite the same.
  • A preferred stock is a hybrid of bond and stock (oversimplification for ease of understanding), but in my opinion is more like the bond part than the stock part.
  • When we say ‘fixed income,’ we generally mean bonds, but preferred stocks fit the category as well.
  • There are two main ways to make money: growth and income.
  • In growth, you want to sell it later for more than you paid for it. In income, you want to get paid as you go along. Some go for one, some the other, some for a combination. I like getting paid as I go along, myself. Then it’s too late for them to back out on paying me.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds (most of the ones you hear about) apply 1975 logic and constraints to 2015 investing. Which was fine in 1975, less so today.
  • Roth vs. traditional IRA: you are deciding whether you want to get the tax benefit now (traditional) or trust the government to give it to you later (Roth). Your call, and there are good arguments for both sides.
  • Your employer’s 401k often limits your choices to crappy open-end conventional mutual funds. Not much you can do about it. It’s a great racket for fund administrators and fund companies, which is not to say it’s all bad for you. Rather, it’s not as good as if you were free to invest it as you chose.
  • Most conventional open-end mutual funds don’t beat their target market indices, so it raises the question of why keep paying them 1-2% per year when you can, in effect and with ease, buy the performance of the index and pay the index fund manager about 0.2%.
  • Buying a precious metal fund or mining company stock is not the same as buying the metal, and the two shouldn’t be confused.
  • Looking at interest/dividend yields, here’s the simple math: divide the total annual money they pay you per share by the price you paid for the share. Payout$ / price$ = yield%. If they pay you $5 per year for a share that cost you $100, you are getting 5%. If the share went up to $150, you are still getting 5%, provided the dollars paid you per year do not change.
  • A full-commission broker is only as good as his or her thinking, and has to outperform by the commission amount just to break even for you. Worse: the broker generally has a vested interest in trading. Buy-and-hold makes him/her no money, unless it’s an unlimited free trades setup, in which case you’ll pay about what you’d pay a conventional mutual fund manager.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average is worse than worthless. Why? Because if you take two stocks of companies of the same overall value, one priced at $10 and one priced at $100, and each change by $1 in a given day, for the first it’s 10% (a huge day) and for the second it’s 1% (a typical day). Yet both have equal impact on the Dow. You would be better off if you strove never to even learn what the Dow does.
  • You don’t know how good your investing nerves are until you watch the whole market go to hell one day. What you do, or do not, when that happens for weeks, is your answer.
  • Bond funds are not the same as bonds, any more than gold stocks are the same as gold.
  • Bonds don’t have a market like the NYSE or NASDAQ. They’re bought and sold from inventories. As such, bond indexes can’t perfectly imitate their markets; they can only try very hard for representative samples.
  • Bonds die. Stocks don’t. In ten years, a ten-year bond goes away, with its principal paid out in redemption, and it no longer exists to buy or sell. IBM stock, in some form, has existed for nearly a century.
  • The bond your school wants you to approve involves them getting a loan from investors, with you agreeing to pay the investors the interest, and in time, reimburse the investors for the principal. So investing is part of your world if you pay rent, because your rent covers the property taxes, and that’s where school bond taxes are paid.
  • It’s unrealistic to expect gains every year. The realistic comparison is to the relevant indices: did your total return % (growth plus income) exceed them? Match them? Underperform them? If the indices took a 20% dump, and you only took 15%, good job, well done. If the indices climbed 30%, and you only got 20%, you took a bath. Terrible year.
  • The market is full of euphemisms. One is ‘correction.’ A correction means that the market took a big dump. It sounds so much better in print than ‘big dump,’ more dignified, but money is money.
  • Feel free to engage in ethical investing, long as you accept that you have reduced the focus on making money. And remember this: the total amount of stock doesn’t change because you refuse to own Monsatan (poisons), Wal-Mart (first world exploitation), Nike (third world exploitation), Reynolds (tobacco), or Exxon (fossil fuels), or Diageo (alcohol). To sell it, someone has to buy it. If you really want to annoy the company, buy their stock, donate the dividends to causes that hassle the company, and vote against management’s recommendations in shareholder elections.
  • Read too much investment media, and it’s like politics or football: you can find articles to confirm any perception. Want to believe next year is crash year? There’s a guy at Marketwatch who predicts crashes every year. About once a decade, he’s right. No one calls him out on the other nine years.
  • If you get your market information from Jim Cramer, that’s like getting your history information from the History Channel, or your understanding of basketball from the Globetrotters, or your science information from a religious scripture. As in all media, do not confuse financial news with financial news entertainment.
  • If you hand your money to a financial planner, find out how s/he gets paid. With every investment: find out who gets paid, and what. No one’s doing any of this free. Two things are true: 1) everyone is getting paid, and 2) you are paying them, somehow, somewhere. It’s okay to pay, but stupid not to know what/who/when you pay.
  • I keep using the long phrase ‘conventional open-end mutual funds’ not to be cumbersome, but because there are a number of mutual funds that are neither conventional nor open-ended, which I want to exclude from the statement.
  • For equities (securities representing ownership rather than debt), we identify them by a ‘ticker’ of one to five letters (AT&T is T, Microsoft is MSFT, Fidelity Magellan Fund is FMAGX). Five letters ending in X is a conventional open-end mutual fund. Five ending in Q is usually a company in bankruptcy, delisted from the major exchanges. Five ending in Y is a foreign stock’s American shares, without getting too complicated. Five ending in F is a foreign stock.
  • Note that there is no way to tell exchange-traded mutual funds, real estate investment trusts, closed-end mutual funds, and many other pooled investment shares from common stocks by looking at the ticker symbol. Note also that not all foreign stocks have an F or Y at the end, or five letters. Toyota is TM.
  • Any dividend that looks too enormous is soon to be cut or eliminated. Simple.
  • When you see lots of people around you doing a stupid thing financially, brace for impact. Security guards bragging in the elevator of your skyscraper about big returns? Venture capitalists throwing money at anyone with a domain name and a tattoo? Banks lending money to people who can’t pay it? Brace for impact.
  • 95% of Americans should just buy index ETFs and sit on them, rebalancing every year or two. That works unless you forecast an apocalypse that destroys the value of the US dollar and economy.
  • If you forecast an apocalypse, not even your mattress is safe. If you really believe it, you should emigrate to someplace you do not forecast will face an apocalypse, because even if your doomsday doesn’t kill you, it will make your life suck.
  • Investing is a great way to find out what people really believe, as distinguished from what they like to say and think they believe. Show me someone who thinks it’s all going to hell, and who’s putting money in a 401k, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t believe his or her own words.
  • Rebalancing is good. It means when you divide your investments among several things, and adhere to a percentage allocation by selling what you now have an excess of, and using it to buy what you have a shortage of.
  • Yes, Wall Street is ripping us all off. Imagine if you were allowed to go to Vegas (or the local Native American casino), but if you lost big, got bailed out. You will not get to play by Wall Street rules, which are for very rich people. That, however, doesn’t mean you can’t make gains; they just will never match the gains guaranteed to those who own the system and operate it mostly for their own profit. That’s no reason not to get some gains of your own.
  • If you think the investing public is smarter than you are, think on this. Money market mutual funds are basically savings accounts in most people’s eyes, but in reality they aren’t guaranteed. They maintain a share value of $1 a share, and that’s what you actually own in them: shares. In 2008 or so, a few MMFs ‘broke the buck’–had their share value slip below the $1 which everyone takes for gospel. It was cause for panic, and in panic times, people run for safe havens. Where did they rush to? The safe haven of…money market mutual funds! To get out of the burning building, they ran outside, then back into the building. That’s your competition. Still think they’re smarter?

Our system is greed-based, and the extent and style of your participation in it is a personal decision.

Memories from a too-young RA

From 1983-85, I was a Resident Advisor in McMahon Hall at the University of Washington. RAs did a lot. It wasn’t always fun, but it was full of surprises. In those days, most advisory staff were partiers on one level or another, and some had been troublemakers of one kind or another. Most were juniors, some seniors, and a few sophomores.

McMahon, UW’s largest dorm (we were required to use the term ‘residence hall’), held nearly 1100 students, probably two-thirds of whom were freshmen. In my first year as an RA, all but about five of my residents were frosh. It was organized by clusters of four to six rooms, mostly double, sharing a common mini-lounge, balcony, and bathroom. Each floor had twelve clusters, but the stairwell in the center divided the building into north and south towers. No one standing outside the building would have had any idea of the division, but your ‘floor’ ended at the building’s center stairwell. For example, in my first year, I was RA on 10th North.

I saw a lot of the men and women in the two clusters farthest from the center, because they had to walk by my door to get to the elevators. The men’s cluster was on my side, and it was an interesting place. It had a couple of Husky linemen, Gil Swick and Mike McDonald, and a tailback by the name of David Toy. Of the three, only Dave eventually saw much playing time. In the women’s elevator cluster lived Chris Sicuro, sister of quarterback Paul Sicuro. Paul started in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, the famous Sooner Schooner game.

Expecting to hear about trouble with big jocks who aren’t there to get an education? Not happening here, on several levels. For one thing, the players on my floor always treated me with friendly respect, even at the end of the school year when they might as easily have told me to go to hell. I had a class with Paul Sicuro once, nice fellow, and learned that he had about a 3.9 GPA. This might explain why he is now Dr. Paul Sicuro (oncology). In the Don James era, football player trouble was a great rarity. The same couldn’t be said for the basketball team. But this story is wandering.

In the cluster with Dave, Gil and Mike lived a fellow by the name of Chris. I never knew much about him, but he had that entitled, snooty personality that screams ‘ruling class.’ Not all in the ruling class have it, but some do, and Chris did. In general, he was dismissive and arrogant, but I was his RA, and if he needed me to perform one of my functions, I would do it. That cluster wasn’t very rowdy, and when they would cut loose a bit, I generally didn’t pay much attention. Nothing serious would happen, and if complaints started coming in, I knew they’d tone it down on request.

One fine Saturday night (I do not recognize that morning begins at midnight, so it’s Saturday until the sun comes up or I wake up) about 2:30 AM, I was about half in the bag. We weren’t supposed to have open containers of alcohol with the door open, so my beer was well hidden. The football players’ cluster had been a little raucous all evening, but I only knew it because their area adjoined my luxurious single room with bath. There were far louder events going on throughout the building. My residents were not disturbing my reading in the least, but I was getting sleepy.

Right about then, a procession passed my open doorway. It was Gil, Mike, Dave, and someone else whose identify now eludes me. They were carrying a mattress on their shoulders, and on it was Chris, dressed only in his underwear and apparently passed out. I took a wild guess what had happened: they’d finally gotten him to have a few beers with the peasantry, he’d gotten plastered, and they were having a little fun with him. They would probably take him down to the parking garage or something. Since the door locked behind you there, without his keys, he would have to wait until someone else was coming through the door. In the meantime, in the chilly garage, he would probably experience some discomfort. It was his chance to show, if he chose, that he was a regular guy with a sense of humor.

“Hi, John!” said my residents, stopping before my room. They were smiling, but the question was in their eyes: was I going to do anything? I sized it up, pretended to squint a little, and decided that this was a problem solving itself. I followed the Sergeant Schultz playbook. “Guys,” I said, “my eyes are real tired tonight, I’ve been studying. You should probably keep moving.”

They did so, beaming. A few minutes later, they waved on the way back, sans Chris. He showed up about ten minutes later, staggering down the hall in his briefs, dragging his mattress. He did not offer me a salutation. Not long after that, I went to bed.

Around eleven the next morning, when I was just becoming coherent, there came a knock at my door. This wasn’t rare, because residents sometimes needed access to the custodial closet across the hall from my room. If they wanted the mop, they had to leave their meal card with me. I opened the door to see Chris, now fully dressed, and looking as if he didn’t feel too well.

“I need the mop,” he said, in his usual tone of command to a minion.

“No problem. Everything okay?”

“It’s fine. Just let me check out the mop, all right?”

I couldn’t resist. “Sure, Chris. Did something happen?”

His look and tone grew impatient. “It’s what you need in order to clean up barf, all right? Now can I just get the mop?”

Like I said, I never had a problem with that cluster. Situations, but not problems. I believe that Gil has since passed on, but I hope Mike, Dave, and even Chris are still doing all right.

They were good times.

Swoopy cyborg keyboards for writers

I’m fussy about keyboards. And since my work demands that my keys do as they are told when pressed, I can’t afford a crappy keyboard.

That’s what I had until recently, when my space bar wore out on one side. I grant that it was something of a crappy keyboard to begin with, but I did not consider it so crappy it would last only a year. It still worked, but about every tenth time, it would fail to insert a space between words as desired.

If we measure anger in curse words used, and assume that I cursed 50% of the time when this happened, and figure that I type several thousand words most days, we may see that it was getting on my nerves.

It sounds so simple, right? A keyboard’s a keyboard? I suspect that every user has his or her foibles, and here are mine.

  • My keys must do as told when pressed, every time. When this does not occur, I have the disposition of a cottonmouth.
  • I must be able to pop off the stupid Windows keys, sources of so much irritation. Only Microsoft could have come up with those, and put them where literate persons might bump them by accident.
  • The board must have risers to angle it.
  • It must be rectangular, so my wrist rest will stay in place.
  • No decals; I will wear them off in a month. Painted symbols are okay; molded are much preferred.
  • Has to have the full number pad.
  • Needs the full Insert/Home/PgUp/etc. block, by itself, above the arrows like the gods intended.
  • All stupid newfangled keys (defined as anything I don’t ever want to bother with), that I cannot remove, must at least be somewhere I won’t hit them by mistake.
  • Any ergonomically cruelty-free fair trade gluten-free free-range keyboard that looks like it went through a microwave, no way.
  • Has to feel sturdy, not crappy.
  • No wireless. I do not like things that require a battery. I like real cords.
  • No touchpads. Only a technology company could think it intelligent to put a pointing device right where my thumbs are likely to hit, but I don’t even want to look at a touchpad that’s well out of my thumbs’ range. In my ideal computing life, I would never again even see a touchpad.
  • Did I mention that it mustn’t have a touchpad?

You can see why I don’t like laptop keyboards. I’m an 80 wpm typist, and I don’t normally stop every ten words. (80 is not bad, but my wife–who does not spend a tenth of the time I do on a keyboard–slaughters me at a blistering 120 wpm.) I can’t write if the keys don’t do what I say. On top of that, I’m a former bookkeeper whose fingers know where to go, and my fingers had better find the key where they expect them, without me having to send out a search party for some mystery Fn key to use the 10-key or the Delete key.

Well, it turns out that my requirements are very expensive to meet. Like $150 expensive. I did find one: the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate, a gaming keyboard that does a crapton of things I’ll probably never want, but has a number that I do:

  • Clicks. I so sorely miss the tactile click.
  • Molded symbols with backlighting.
  • Heavy enough to stay in place unless I choose to move it.

Of course, I was fool enough to assume that I could just plug in one of its two USB connectors, and that the other was for all the gaming stuff I don’t need. Didn’t work. In the end, I had to slide the machine out, shuffle the USB devices, and fiddle with all the cable re-routing. Now my keys glow with green backlit symbols, as if I were some hardcore gamer nightly dealing frags to others around the globe

And joy of joys, Windows recognized it, so I don’t have to install Razer’s software and create an account just to use this thing. At first, it looked like that might be the case.

It’s going to be fun editing people’s romance fiction, Native American historical fiction, and horror thrillers on a keyboard meant to withstand a lot of Cheeto dust in the dark.


Newly published: No Circuses, by James O’Callaghan

This novel has recently been published. I was substantive editor.

I loved the story concept from the start. Written by an authoritative source (a retired Foreign Service officer), Latin American cultural nuances, subtle, informed. I am at my happiest when dealing with people who know things I do not. The protagonist finds himself assigned to direct a bi-national center, which I did not know we even had. They’re either designed to promote international friendship and understanding (if you’re idealistic), or a way to try and broadcast our policies and why people should embrace them (if you’re cynical). Our hero finds himself immersed in the culture–perhaps a bit too much. Or perhaps just the right amount.

Author Jim O’Callaghan approached me to edit the ms. I could instantly tell I was dealing with maturity and openness, someone who could and would learn, but I was also dealing with a pretty good writer. There were some baroque and wordy constructions to simplify here and there, but not outright English flaws, and that was refreshing. Perhaps the greatest thing about the story, besides his comprehensive understanding of Spanish and LatAm culture, was his gift for letting the reader find the humor. It was a long project, but as the end approached, I realized I would miss it.

I am a devotee of Andina, the musical sounds of the Andes (mostly popular in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and heavily overlain with Native rhythms and language). They are heavy on guitar and pan-flute, and while I worked, I played nothing else on my MusicMonkey. When you read it, if you have any Andina, I recommend you do the same. If you find yourself desiring to try some, I suggest K’ala Marka, Nativo, Los Kjarkas, Ecuador Inkas or Savia Andina as starting points. Lively, passionate, soulful.

Jim was one of the easiest authors an editor could seek to work with. He handled himself like someone who has already been successful, and that bodes well. It’s an adventure story that pokes fun at bureaucracy, the labyrinthine ways of Latin American politics, and how things are not always as they seem. The Hemingway vibe is perceptible throughout. It has complex characters with crises, emotions and motivations; that is one area where I have nothing to teach Jim. There is no one in this book you will find difficult to picture. It has goofy and often hilarious situations, but none quite so goofy as to crack your suspension of disbelief. As I neared the end, I was convinced this was autobiographical with only names changed. It isn’t, but he had me going.

While I always hope my clients will succeed, and handsomely so, I often edit books that I would not myself purchase. I’m buying a copy of this one. If anything I’ve described sounds interesting to you, consider this one to receive an unqualified recommendation.

Current read: A Short History of the American Revolution, by James L. Stokesbury

I love history. I hate much recent history writing.

Some years back, I landed work writing a series of US history articles. My collegiate studies focused on ancient Western civs; I only took one US history class, and it wasn’t a highlight. In prep, I went out looking for a balanced survey of the subject–and found none. What I found was two enormous packs of agenda-driven crap: A Patriot’s History of the United States, and A People’s History of the United States. Both were repulsive; the first more so, because my long-ago undergraduate advisor helped perpetrate it, but the answer to was that no balanced survey was readily available.

One may not write about US history, it seems, unless one begins with a conclusion (Murrica is wonderful and perfect, Murrica has never done a single decent thing) and then distorts the evidence to sustain the conclusion. That’s not history.

History is when one looks at the evidence, puts the context into perspective, and tells the story as an honest broker. Nowadays, this is not much done. Nowadays, it’s not just the journalists who write garbage history, though you can tell when they’re doing it. Big names write garbage history. I watch people deify Howard Zinn, and I despair. But it’s not all bad.

The War of American Independence, or the American Revolution, is a favorite subject of mine. It conflicts me. On the one hand, I consider our rebellion a symbol of the national pathology. On the other, even I–the least nationalistic American citizen most people will ever meet–find myself stirred by the exploits of the Rebel militia, the forlorn Continental Navy, and so on. There is an odd pleasure in reading of how a ragtag army, which spent much of its time going home after expired enlistments, stood in there with some of the elite armies of Europe and won by not quitting. It is inspiring to have some distant sense of connection with it, even if my own forebears were nearly all on the other side. But in the United States, one is almost not allowed to consider the Revolutionary War with any objectivity. Only two stances are tolerated: “we were right,” or “we were lunatics.”

My own reading of the history suggests that one may credibly split the difference, here as in so many other cases. Yeah, it was the act of a bunch of whiners who resented helping to foot the bill for their own defense, a war spurred by the rich and fought by the poor. But it is just as true that the Crown was enormously out of touch with colonial life and reality, and dealt with the colonies in such pigheaded and ham-fisted ways as to bring about armed rebellion. Not often do I see history that examines events not in light of what we know now, or what mythology we have spent eleven generations creating, but in light of what the participants understood or could know.

This is why I am enamored with the subject book. Its only fault is that it is short on maps (in particular, it needs one for the Saratoga campaign). It credits the colonials where due, and the British where due, and takes one ever back to the context of the times. Why did the British not carry the war through to a finish in 1776? Because a healthy segment of British thought misunderstood the colonial sentiment, and hoped to bring the strays back into the fold. Because nationalism was rather a new thing; a war in which taking the enemy capital did not result in a settlement with concessions was a new thing. Because colonials would resent beyond all expectation the mother country enlisting Native Americans and German mercenaries to put down the rebellion. Stokesbury always takes us back to the vital question: what did the participants know and think, at the time, and without our modern hindsight?

It sounds so obvious, yet is the first thing many seem to forget. Take Japan in December 1941. Today, it seems bizarre that Japan imagined that Pearl Harbor and blows against the British and Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies would force the United States to accept the Pacific status quo. They understood us as poorly as we understood them. And yet, without that thinking, the actions of the times make little sense. Insight into the contemporary mindset is vital to historical understanding. That, dear reader, is where Stokesbury delivers. His account positions the events, impartially presented, in the context of what those of the day knew and understood, while pointing out that which they did not yet realize.

That is how you teach history. Prof. Stokesbury passed away two decades ago, but if this is a fair sample, he was a loss to the discipline of history. If you’d like to understand the Revolutionary War without the modern partisan crap, and without 20/20 hindsight, this historian has delivered.

The client question I dread most

No, it is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” It is not, “Now that I have gone through and torn apart your completed editing work, will you re-edit it for free?” And it is not even, “Will you look at my child’s writing and give her a critique?” It is not, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”

Not that I don’t dread those questions; I do. But for all of them there are responsive answers to offer: ‘from life,’ ‘not for free, nope,’ ‘only if you understand that I will lie,’ and ‘it doesn’t exist.’ For this one there is no good answer:

“How do I do that in Word?”

You might be amazed at how often clients look to me for Word tech support: on how to enable this feature, or make that go away, in a Word document. Often I am their first point of call, and it does not occur to them that I dread the question.

Perhaps the assumption is that I’m a Word expert, and that I have mental models of every version of Word since Word 97 to summon forth. What else can I assume?

So why do I not just say “no, not my line of work?” Because that come across as bad customer service. It doesn’t matter that the expectation is unreasonable. How I feel is beside the point. If I say what I am thinking, the client will think I’m a jerk, unhelpful, and crabby. That’s no good. Most clients find me easy to work with, helpful, and cheerful, and that’s important to me.

But life is not fair. As an editor, at one point or another in the relationship, every client will ask me for Word tech support, and I will have to attempt to offer it, and if I cannot do it with a happy smile, I must at least muffle the curse words and replace the grimace with a mask of calm. Never mind that I feel like a flight attendant who has just been handed a baby and asked to change the diaper.

What’s the big deal? Why all the stress and dread? Because:

  • I am incompetent at it, I know this, and being inept is intensely uncomfortable for a person who takes pride in capability.
  • I don’t want to become competent at it. I’m an editor, not a technical guru. All I want from my word processor is that it serve my work functions. I don’t want to be the Word Answer Man. I want to help people perfect their brainchildren, combining candor with consideration and camaraderie.
  • I used to be a computer shaman, and came to hate it, and when I left that line of work, my mind and heart left it behind. When I have a computer problem of my own, I don’t go very far trying to solve it myself. I call the tech support guy I know in Utah who does a fantastic job (that’s Ray Ross of Bugzap), and I do whatever he says to do.

So why is it impractical? Why can’t I just joyously answer the formatting question and be happy to be helpful? Because:

  • The client and I are probably not using the same version of Word, nor will we be, because Word gets worse with every new version. I’m using Word 2002 and will not switch unless/until forced, and if forced, may end up switching to a Mac. With each new version, MS rethinks the names of some concepts, and moves some features around so that one no longer knows where to find them, and calls that an ‘upgrade.’ I don’t have time or patience to go on a new treasure hunt every year, paying for the privilege, so I am not ‘upgrading.’ Neither should most people.
  • Clients vary in technical know-how, but writers often seem to take a perverse pride in technical dufosity. Most computer users don’t even know the real meanings of words like ‘login,’ ‘download,’ ‘malware,’ and even ‘word processor,’ thus often we do not even begin by speaking in the same terminology. It is a weakness of mine, related to my line of work, that I count upon knowing exactly what words mean.
  • Since we are probably not using the same version of Word, I can’t know what s/he is seeing, or where/how to tell him or her to start looking. I can, with laborious effort, explain in some cases how it is done in Word 2002. But if it’s Word-flaky, I can’t answer why theirs isn’t working like mine.
  • Since that is the case, the client will probably still have questions, which I can’t answer. I will look useless, feel uncomfortable, and silently dislike the unfairness of the situation, powerless to change it.
  • If on the other hand my help does solve the problem, the client may decide that I am a Word Deity, and may even come to depend on me for Word tech support in the future, since that went so well.

Thus, there is no good outcome for me.

What do I wish people would do? Join a discussion forum about Word. Many are staffed by actual Microserfs, or people blessed by the company. I don’t know of a specific one to suggest, but I know they are there. When I find myself confounded, here’s what I do (or would do if need be):

  • Save a backup copy of your document beforehand. Now you can experiment and butcher it to your heart’s content, because you have a fallback position.
  • Check Word help, though it will probably be irrelevant and clunky. I marvel at how much worse they have managed to make it.
  • If you think it’s a technical problem with Word, restart your machine and try it from a fresh Windows and Word session with nothing else going, just to rule out some potential conflict sources.
  • Use the exact terms Word uses, and feed your problem to a search engine. That will probably lead you to the MS Knowledge Base, or to a message board discussion about the situation, where someone already solved this for someone else. Be sure to include your version of Word in the search, but when the search turns up solutions that seem to apply to other versions, try to run with them.
  • Sign onto one of the message boards that seemed to have the most helpful people. Read the FAQ in case you are about to become the 101,000th newbie to ask this question; it may solve your problem. Be prepared for very brief, direct questions and answers; gurus don’t waste lots of time. Be prepared also for at least a few people who don’t read your post with attention to detail. List your version of Windows, your version of Word, the type of document, what you are trying to do, and if necessary, take a screenie of the problem, using these instructions. Explore anything they suggest.

Some other generally-sound-practice technical tips, while I’m at it:

  • Always save a copy of your work before doing anything daring, so you can revert if you butcher it.
  • There are two types of computer users who do not back up their data files: those who have lost data that way and do not learn from their mistakes, and those who are waiting for doomsday.
  • Just because software offers you an update does not mean it’s always an upgrade. There are exceptions, but the usual result is everything gets moved around and you gain nothing new. Firefox is the poster child for software that gets worse with every new version.
  • If you do not keep a virus scanner updated and current, you are just waiting for the suffering. If you take my advice, you’ll either go with Panda AVG for a free version, or for a powerful pay version worth every penny, Eset’s NOD32. That’s what I use. When I hear that someone got a free trial of McAfee and just stayed with that after the trial period expired, that’s someone I’m expecting to hear got a virus.
  • Not everything your computer vendor pre-installed is garbage, but a lot of it is free trials, tutorials you will never use, and other whizbang stuff from which you can not benefit. Always be careful (like the time I uninstalled a network speed monitor and it took my Internet access with it), but a lot of that is just crapola that can be uninstalled.

Blogging freelance writing and life in general.


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