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Ten Tips for Working from Home

Writers and editors find themselves oddly prepared for the situation many of us now find ourselves in.  

As it happens, I have just written extensively about working from home for my book, Making a Living as a Freelance Editor, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Spring, 2021. I gained permission to reprint the following excerpt, which might, unfortunately, apply to a wide variety of industries right now. If you have to create structure (including breaks!) in your day and no longer have a commute to signal when it’s okay to quit, there might be something here for you, too.

  1. Design a workweek that suits who you really are. For example, I am ready to work at 6:30 a.m.—but it could be 4:30 a.m. if there is a pressing reason. You might feel that the only way you are working at that hour is if you are still up. Conversely, my brain shuts down at 8:00 p.m. and things take two to three times longer to process. I am only working harder and not smarter. Even with the restrictions that may be upon you where you are sheltering, you can still think about, What am I like?..
  2. Start with your own system. While you are designing your perfect workday you might derive inspiration from other sample list-making systems but, bear in mind, trendy time management and productivity gurus can change with the season and it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. It is better to start with your present system and evolve it rather than overhaul it based on someone else’s ideas, only to quit your new plan almost immediately.
  3. Create a Weekly Calendar. My spreadsheets are pretty simple: In the first column I list the client’s name, the second column the hours I intend (or estimate) I will spend on their project this week, the third column how many of those hours I have accomplished, and the fourth column any notes regarding such things as due dates. After I have completed a client’s work for the week, I will cross it off, digitally speaking, by highlighting the line in a darker grey. Even just seeing everything I have to do for the week ahead in one place helps me take a deeper breath. It also helps me manage additions that pop-up into my schedule.
  4. Create a Daily List. In addition to your weekly calendar, you need your list for today. To be able to concentrate, you first need to know what you are focusing on. I make my list each morning, ideally after I meditate for twenty minutes. If I make the list (or check my email) before I meditate, everything feels pressing, with those who shout the loudest seeming to be heard the most clearly. If I make the list after I meditate, some surprising things see the light of day—and everything else has a more purposeful feel to it.
  5. Do your hardest tasks first. A lot of people know to do this; doing it, on the other hand, can take some discipline. This is just a reminder that when you work your way down from the most complicated assignments to the easiest ones—when you knock out the key projects earlier in the day—you get more quickly to that great feeling we love to have at work: I got this.
  6. Work real hours. I realize this is a time when we may not be meeting all of our goals, but a good week for me is forty-five hours of work. When I say forty-five hours a week, I mean forty-five real hours, recorded in quarter-hour increments. Going on Facebook doesn’t count. Waiting for someone to call who doesn’t, doesn’t count. Either we are doing things that are tangibly contributing to the business or we are not at work.
  7. Take breaks. Your day can’t be all work, of course. We need to take breaks to refocus our minds, and breaks are best when we take them intentionally. If you are coming up from one work session, and before you head into another, should you check email? Is that a break? Unlikely. These days, menu planning, helping a middle schooler with homework, or running the dishwasher again are more likely to empty our minds temporarily.
  8. Tame the email beast. I have set times during the day when I review my email. This may not work for the nature of your job, but I still think we should eliminate the phrase “checking my email” from our vocabulary entirely. There is no point in just checking email; this puts you in a reactive, burdened state. When you review your email you should have the time to do something about what you are reading. During my set times, I engage with email instead of just checking it, by using three related strategies:
    • If it will take less than two minutes to respond to an email, I do it now (H/t to David Allen for this strategy.)
    • Second, not every email needs a response. I know. I couldn’t believe it either when I first really figured that out.
    • Third, after an email has been responded to (or not), I put it in a client file or a general archive. Let’s face it, no email is ever really gone unless you put it in the trash and then delete the trash. If you do a search by name, you will come up with everything you and that person have ever talked about, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything. But you don’t have to look at it every day, either.
  9. The joys of punching out. If you have worked all the hours you planned to today, it is time to go home. Even if you are already home. Taking time to regenerate, whether it is simply for the rest of the day, or for the weekend, is important for you to do your best work (as is taking a real vacation again someday). Some people like to make their list for tomorrow at the end of their workday. I say, let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.
  10. Write a brief work journal entry. At the end of every day, I make an entry into a journal: 100–150 words about the biggest challenge I faced, a question I don’t yet have the answer to, a long-awaited triumph or a small piece of an evolving strategy—whatever is the most pressing content on my mind. When I shut that journal, I will listen for that imaginary socking noise of a timecard entering and being stamped by one of those metal clock boxes…punching out, people. I’m done.

You can consider all of this a work in progress. What matters is to reflect on what you are like, and then to evolve a system that is sane and works for you. And don’t forget to write it down.

P.S. If you can’t stick to a rule, that means that it needs to change, not you. These aren’t official laws; they belong to your system, and that system should be set up to maximize your efficiency, income, happiness, and performance.

The Most Famous Person

 

It takes a certain kind of organization to make money and develop its people in equal measure. The national PR agency, InkHouse, recently created Hindsight 2020, a book of essays written by the team about moments of consciousness that opened them up to new points of view. According to CEO, Beth Monaghan, such moments of clarity are important in PR because new connections are the essence of stories; they are what allow someone else’s experience to exist next to our own. That is the very job of PR, to bring people and ideas together.

I was honored to write the Afterword to InkHouse’s Hindsight 2020, and to close the book launch with a reading of it. Here is me describing my moment of clarity—occasioned by having a drink with the most famous person I have ever met. In less than 600 words, because clarity also needs brevity.

 

Personal Essay Writing

It takes a certain kind of organization to make money and develop its people in equal measure. The national PR agency, InkHouse, recently created Hindsight 2020, a book of essays written by the team about moments of consciousness that opened them up to new points of view. According to CEO, Beth Monaghan, such moments of clarity are important in PR because new connections are the essence of stories that allow someone else’s experience to exist next to our own. That is the very job of PR, to bring people and ideas together.

As the coach and developmental editor for Hindsight, I oriented prospective writers to the judging criteria. This criteria would be used to select the top 20 entries for inclusion in the book—and eventually the top three winners as well. Each essay was scored in four categories, with a maximum amount of 25 points per category: VOICE, STRUCTURE, PROFICIENCY, and IMPACT.

VOICE, or: How well the writer’s unique voice comes through in content and expression.

  • Since this was a work setting, the first thing to tackle was how comfortable authors felt to liberate their voice. Wasn’t this work, after all? How close did they want to allow their co-workers to get? I encouraged them, wherever appropriate, to get personal. This was the kind of workplace in which people really did want to get to know each other, and not just use inside information to seize a weakness and climb past someone else on the corporate ladder.
  • Trying too hard is an inherent turnoff for audiences in both PR and in essay writing, so I tried to steer writers away from trying to impress. At the same time, it wouldn’t do to go to the opposite pole and try to shock anybody on purpose, to put the chip on the shoulder on full display.
  • Rather, they were encouraged to consider who their true audience members were. Was there one person at work who got them? Who can you tell your truth to? Who raises your frequency? Who calls you to account? Who loves you at your best?
  • Because see, here’s the thing: There is no such thing as voice in the abstract—there is only tone of voice. Or to put it another way, you don’t look for your voice; you find your audience. And then the tone you take to ring some bells for them, that is what delivers a great sentence. And another one…

STRUCTURE, or: How well the piece evolves around its theme, balances digressions, and creates links and repetitions.

  • For readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that I recommend honing in on one’s theme as the key to structure. The overarching theme of Hindsight was a moment of clarity that opened the author up to another point of view, a new perspective, or a new curiosity. It could be a historical event, a moment in their life, or their work. Writers then chose a personalized embodiment of that theme.
  • When presented with such a topic, you may have more than one possibility floating around your head. If that was the case, I recommended trying out several possibilities—and being honest about which one really had your heart and mind. Where the writing goes, the writer needs to go after it.
  • Once a moment of clarity was chosen, it was examined; when examined, it was seen to be actually a series of moments. Scenes, if you will. I ran through the five definitions of scene to help generate first draft material, select second draft material and hone third draft material.
  • Finally, we discussed placing those scenes in either chronological or narrative order. We took it as a matter of aesthetic faith that there was a perfect order for one’s chosen scenes that would best relate a moment of clarity that had stayed with its author.

PROFICIENCY: Or, Proper sentence and narrative structure; capable handling of facts and research where necessary.

  • Since we were exploring writing within a public relations environment, it was important to place the essay in the wider context of the world. Such “data” could include findings from a study, a quote from an expert, or statistics that would bring in a degree of objectivity.
  • We didn’t cover topics like grammar or consistency of stylistic usage, but we did touch on how to use the drafting process to bring out clarity in their work. Earlier drafts sometimes can only ask a question that the later drafts will answer. Working on an essay five times will make it stronger than working on it once. That sort of thing.

IMPACT: Or, Effect on the reader in terms of opens up a new point of view/curiosity.

  • I loved this criteria for judging. At the same time, an author will never know that. Or rather, the only way to assess what topic and approach will move others is to assume if it really relates to you, it will relate to us.
  • The question then becomes: What’s in it for me? Which topic, which aspect of that topic will lead to greater self-knowledge? What are you still trying to understand? If you ask yourself a key question, readers may ask it of themselves.
  • To get the answer, of course, you have to open yourself up. You have to allow yourself to be changed. What space do you want to move into? Where is the energy coming from that needs to be liberated? Or to put it another way, in order to make something interesting to other people, you may have to scare the shit out of yourself first.

Seven Themes from Well-Known Narratives

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #7.

Sometimes I get asked if I think that every great work of narrative has a single theme that sustains it. In other words, does a book have to be about one thing in order to be great?

The answer is no, of course. I am suggesting your book can only be about one thing because of the helpfulness such a construction brings, not because it is some hard-and-fast rule. I suggest a theme because it can give you a mantra to focus your mind.

There was a period of my life when I was into reading Russian novels. I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, it saved my life one summer when I was working my most menial of waiting-tables jobs. That said, structurally that book is a mess. It seems to repeat entirely 200 pages; I’m not sure it was even edited.

If you take Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on the other hand, the theme is present on the first page. In fact, it is the very first line:

Theme #1:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy then goes on to give us 800+ pages, but if we ever forget what this book is about, we can go back to page one and refresh ourselves.

Sometimes the theme comes at the end of a work instead. J. K. Rowling’s theme for the entire Harry Potter series comes in the seventh and final volume; imagine writing a theme not just for one book but for seven books all in the same sentence:

Theme #2:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With a series that spans more than 4,000 pages and has such a large and devoted following, I can’t imagine that a single person out there would disagree with me. That’s a joke. Nonetheless, we will press on, and I will present Potter scholar C.S. Plocher’s rationale for the above theme she chose:

“The biggest theme in the Harry Potter series is the fight between good and evil. Snape plays a big part in that theme because we’re not sure for most of the series if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Rowling puts a twist on the classic ‘good and evil’ when we find out in the end that Snape is fighting for the good guys but not really for the right reason. Snape loved Harry’s mother and he felt responsible for her death, so he became a double agent for the good side even though he’s ‘spiteful’ and ‘a bully’ (Rowling’s words). Rowling summed up the whole idea in the last book in her series when she wrote on a tombstone, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’

 

I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for?”

That’s what we’re looking for, all right. Your theme can be stated as a maxim, moral, or message, all of which have different shades of expression. Rowling’s theme is what I would call a maxim. We find an example of moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Ugly Duckling.”

Theme #3:

“It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg.”

It’s a moral because it has a more specific value system assigned to it. Something in between a maxim and a moral is a message. A message is never fully expressed, except through a variety of examples that all add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. In Don Freeman’s children’s book Corduroy, the message is an anti-materialist screed about what’s really important in life. That’s my reading of all the iterations of the I’ve Always Wanted series [for more, see chapter one of Book Architecture (BA)]. The fifth iteration in this series reads:

Theme #4

“I know I’ve always wanted a home.”

A message can exist within one series or at the crossroads of several different series; if it is the latter, it will likely need to be stated a few different ways, as Joseph Heller does in his novel Catch-22:

Theme #5

“Immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment.” (If you’ve ever seen the film version of Catch-22, you will either love it or hate it, but I think it does a good job of presenting this theme to the viewer. The movie was based on a 450-page book, so what more do you want?)

When narratives are written specifically for film, it is easier to write the theme directly into one of the character’s speeches so that it becomes memorable, since a screenplay is usually fewer than 30,000 words. That’s what Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network when Eduardo says:

Theme #6

“See, in a world where social structure was everything, that (the ability to invite— or not invite—friends to join Facebook) was the thing.”

Every chance I get, I praise this film for the way even the tangential scenes all relate to series and contribute to the theme of Exclusivity. (For more, see chapter four of BA).

And now we have arrived at my favorite of the seven themes I chose to include in this PDF/blog. It comes from the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Theme #7

“What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”

Why is it my favorite? For one thing, its elegance is straightforward. For another, it indicates not only the Inspector’s character but also the attitude of millions of people regarding India’s caste system. But best of all, it also directs the main action of the film (what I have called the central series) and gives us the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All in eight words. No pressure.