Portrait of a working woman

Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center began in 1872 as an orphanage. It has since morphed into a limited residence program for displaced teens and a 24-hour daycare center for working parents. The center’s mission is “to preserve family unity and to help prevent the dependency, neglect, abuse and delinquency of children by responding to the community’s childcare needs.”

For a year producer Maria Shriver shadowed a mother who depends on Chambliss services, as part of a documentary series on the working poor. Recently our Sunday school class decided to take a look at Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert (see http://shriverreport.org/special-report/a-womans-nation-pushes-back-from-the-brink/). The film presents a year in the life of a mother living and working in the Chattanooga area, and it led me to the conclusion that our communities have social obligations to the working poor—people who provide essential services to families of all classes—in the face of huge financial obstacles.

What can go wrong will go wrong

Thirty-year-old single mother Katrina Gilbert takes two of her three children to Chambliss Center so that she can work long, hard hours as a certified nursing assistant, at $9.50 an hour. In Katrina’s world, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. She married young, with the dream of having a family and buying a home. That dream went sideways when her husband became addicted to painkillers and lost the family’s income. To keep her family afloat, Katrina moved with her three children into a trailer. Her husband moved home to Alabama to live with his mother.

In the documentary you see Katrina make a tremendous effort to keep the kids and their dad connected, regularly driving them to Alabama for visits and encouraging him to find work near the children. Periodically Katrina loses her food stamps, and she must choose between getting much-needed medical care for herself, feeding her children, and paying the legal fees for divorce. Eventually she gives her trailer to the children’s dad and moves in with her boyfriend, a cheerful working man who also has several children and problems of his own. She is accepted into a college program only to be denied scholarship money, making furthering her education impossible.

Despite these and other setbacks, Katrina remains positive, sure that everything will work out. She’s a loving (if sometimes overwhelmed) mother and a devoted caregiver to the elderly residents of the nursing home where she works.

We’re all related

Anyone who has family responsibilities can relate to Katrina. She isn’t some layabout: She works hard and she loves her patients and her children. She has meaningful personal relationships—some that flounder and others that bring her joy.

Tribulations like Katrina’s are not limited to the poor. After viewing the film, a friend in the class talked with me about it. “Sound familiar?” I asked, knowing that she and I had a shared history of single motherhood, and she quickly nodded. We both related to the sorrow the children feel when Dad is not a constant presence in their lives, the panic when a child gets sick and you have no backup plan for daycare, the anxious maneuvering for summer care, the confusion over how to respond when the children blame Mom for Dad’s absence. Because of education, my friend and I had more choices than Katrina, but I’m not sure I made my choices with Katrina’s equanimity.

Focus on hope

Our connection with Katrina is the thing that Slate.com pushes back on, calling Katrina “the most sympathetic poor woman in America” and pointing out that Shriver hand-picked Katrina because she is so easy to empathize with. As Shriver herself says in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, “everyone in this story is trying.” Slate.com points out there are a lot of people who make bad decisions, and they need help too. Would we empathize with a less likeable woman whose poor decisions resulted in addiction, illiteracy, homelessness, and utter hopelessness? Maybe not so much.

The question to ask, though, is why the film maker chose to focus on hope rather than hopelessness. If Maria Shriver has an ulterior motive, it is to show that there is a need for social change. Katrina just can’t make it alone, no matter how hopeful she feels or how hard she works. In the absence of family support, she needs the support of her community.

In interviews Shriver suggests solutions: Our communities should encourage women to go to school, vote on women’s issues, and mentor other women. Women should partner with men to exert economic power by making spending decisions that support companies whose employees receive fair wages, family sick leave, and benefits. Those who can donate time and money should support nonprofits—like Chambliss Center—that do what they can to shore up the working poor in America.


The Lemon Tree: Confronting conflict, striving for peace

Our church book club read The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan, in January. The book tells the true story of the decades-long interaction between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman who share a sense of place – a home in the city of al-Ramla.

As usual, my dad started reading the book first – I had put off reading this book about a troubled conflict that I know little about in favor of a few easy-to-solve mysteries. One day my dad commented that he was going to stop reading The Lemon Tree. “It’s just so sad,” he said, “and there is no solution.” I’m not sure he was true to his word about abandoning the book, but his comment reminded me that I had better confront reality and start reading the book.

The story

The Lemon Tree explores the relationship between Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian attorney Bashir Al Khayri. In July 1967 Bashir travels to al-Ramla and the home from which his family was exiled in 1948. Dalia, a young college student whose family now lives in the home, meets Bashir at the door and allows him to visit her home and to see the lemon tree Bashir’s father planted long ago. Later Dalia visits Bashir’s family, and the life-long discussion between two unlikely friends begins. Their views are never fully reconciled, but trust and understanding grow throughout the years. Many years after their first encounter they establish a center for peace and coexistence among Israeli Arabs and Jews in the house with the lemon tree.

The history

Tolan provides a detailed historic backdrop for the relationship between Dalia and Bashir.
We learn how Dalia’s Bulgarian family immigrated to Israel in 1948 and how families like the Eshkenazis populated Palestinian towns and homes. We learn of the Khayri family’s long history in Palestine and their abrupt exile from their ancestral home. We see their painful walk to a camp in the city of Ramallah and subsequent lives filled with want and longing for home.

In our book-club discussion, several people voiced their frustration with the extensive historical information about the Zionist movement, the Israeli War for Independence (or the Catastrophe, as it was known to displaced Palestinians), the six-day war in 1967, and various political events that came after it. It seems as if each act of violence produces a corresponding violent act, over and over again. Tolan’s meticulous documentation of the conflict shows us the human consequences of each act of violence – over and over again. Dalia is often consumed with fear of Palestinian attack; Bashir faces torture, prison, and long separations from his family as a consequence of political activism.

The stalemate

My sense is that after meeting Bashir, Dalia recognizes that a terrible injustice was done to the Palestinian people; it is up to her generation to confront that injustice. The injustice of the occupation is Bashir’s focus in life; he insists that his family’s land and the home his father built will be returned to him someday. Bashir tells Dalia that her people should return to where they came from, but Dalia already lives where she came from: She came to the house with the lemon tree when she was an infant, and there is no going back. Even these two friends who have known only one place in the world cannot resolve the twin issues of freedom for the
Palestinian people and self-preservation for Jews in Israel.

Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel

The day after our book club discussion of The Lemon Trees, our church welcomed a guest speaker on Peacemaking in Palestine and Israel. Presbyterian minister Dr. Fahed Abu-Ackel is the son of Palestinian Christians. (Most of us were not aware that Christian Palestinians were displaced along with Muslims.)

Dr. Abu-Ackel gave us his perspective on Zionism and the need for peace in Israel. When questioned about what we can do to further peace, he said that we must have steadfast hope, we must pray, and we must act to let Palestinian Christians know our concerns. When questioned about the political solution, Dr. Abu-Ackel said that the answer is to establish one secular government in Israel. Several members of our congregation pointed out that Israelis, even those sympathetic to the plight of displaced Palestinians, are not likely to accept a solution that would dissolve the Jewish state. Others suggested that until the cycle of violence ends, the Israeli government is not likely to consider a secular state. I didn’t feel Dr. Abu-Ackel had a clear response to these comments, perhaps because there is no clear answer.

Biases in the story

One criticism of The Lemon Tree is that it is biased toward the Palestinian perspective, and that same bias seemed built into Dr. Abu-Ackel’s talk. Dr. Abu-Ackel suggested that we Americans have embraced the Israeli side of this story – the building of a Zionist state from the ruins of the Holocaust in Europe – and we need to educate ourselves on the Palestinian perspective.

I’m not sure I agree entirely that Americans are completely unaware of the plight of the
Palestinians. Many of us, like my dad, see the problem but no clear solution. Whether or not the book is biased, it presses one point upon us: No matter how much we would prefer to turn a blind eye to the sad stories of history, citizens of the world must confront those stories if we want peace to prevail.

Death in the Dynamo

J.D. Frost’s Dollface

With its hilly terrain, historic Civil War battlefields, and well-advertised attractions Rock City and Ruby Falls, Chattanooga has long been a popular tourist attraction in the Southeast. Before the turn of the 20th century it was also a railroad hub and industrial powerhouse. By the 1930s our city became known as the “Dynamo of the South” because its factories and foundries generated a lively industrial economy. That economy eventually waned, but in the 21st century the city’s economy has been revived by investment in new manufacturing and in the country’s fastest
Internet connection. Now known as “Gig City,” Chattanooga has a high-tech vibe that attracts young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs. It has also attracted artists and novelists, among them retired optometrist J.D. Frost. This August Frost released his mystery Dollface, a police procedural that portrays Chattanooga as a young, hip destination city with dark undertones.

The detective

Chattanooga police detective Moses Palmer is a divorced father of one driven from the Atlanta police force by his powerful—and vengeful—father-in-law. He attracts unwanted attention from the press and the bad guys, creating such animosity from his superiors that he is constantly in jeopardy of losing his job. He has a keen sense of place, a new partner, and a guilty secret from his childhood—a secret he’d rather not face. Sound familiar? As a Michael Connelly fan, I picked up on the similarities to the Hieronymus Bosch series from the beginning of the novel. It seems that J.D. Frost is also a fan of the scruffy Bosch. Frost attended an optometrist’s convention in Los Angeles, where he saw first-hand the backdrop of his favorite Bosch novel, Angel’s Flight. That visit inspired Frost to recreate himself as a novelist with Dollface.

The story

Palmer has been in Chattanooga only a brief time when a stalker/serial killer begins sending him taunting videos of gruesome murders. Frost does a creditable job of moving the plot along while exploring the animosity that the lead investigator and city officials feel toward Palmer and the negative publicity he seems to have brought the city. Frost also explores the protagonist’s childhood tragedy and his divorce, giving the reader a glimpse into what may come in the next two installments of this planned trilogy of mysteries. And Frost cleverly uses his knowledge of optometry to create a clue that breaks the case for Palmer and his partner.

The stage

Frost uses the city and surrounding countryside to define Palmer’s character and further the plot. The stage is almost exclusively set in a limited area of downtown Chattanooga, offering only the briefest of scenes in Red Bank and Hixson. Riverside Drive is a major conduit for Palmer as he searches for the killer. The irony is that Palmer is something of an aquaphobe—
a bad thing for a Chattanoogan, since the Tennessee River dissects the city. Palmer takes circuitous routes to work in order to shield himself from water. As a result we get really detailed descriptions of downtown Chattanooga, East Ridge, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and even the ever-congested Brainerd Road.

In a sense, the river is a character in the novel. It’s always on Palmer’s mind. Driving down Riverside Drive, he makes note of the current in the river—some days the “the river is flat,” others the river is tumultuous. He looks down from a Lookout Mountain mansion/crime scene to see Moccasin Bend, a recognizable bend in the river. And in the end he cannot avoid becoming immersed in the river as he tracks down the serial killer through the Bluff View Art District and into the water.

What’s next

Frost has an interesting perspective as a first-time novelist at age 67 and a regular visitor to Chattanooga from his home base in Alabama.   He says he is working on the next Moses Palmer novel, the second in a planned trilogy. Let’s hope Palmer has exorcised his water demons and can now cross the river to explore the North Shore and beyond.

An aside

In this book Palmer briefly visits his hometown of Summerville, Georgia. In life, Summerville is a picturesque small town set in beautiful rolling hills. It is also home to Hayes State prison, which has recently become notorious for brutal conditions, lax security, and an excessive number of inmate deaths. The prison is within eye shot of a the peculiar, sprawling Paradise Gardens, a ramshackle set of buildings created by the late folk artist Howard Finster. Summerville is the home of an annual folk festival, Finsterfest, each May. Visiting Paradise Gardens is a real treat for those who love folk art. I can’t see Moses Palmer at Finsterfest, but that town would be an interesting backdrop for Palmer’s expert detecting.


The mystery that is music

A comment on Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul

Last month my dad and I led a book-club discussion of Frank Conroy’s 1993 novel Body and Soul, the coming-of-age story of a musical prodigy. This is a sprawling novel with a Dickensian cast of characters. Conroy begins with a poverty-stricken child whose circumstances seem to doom him to failure. But kind benefactors, hard work, and innate musical genius change his fortune, and he becomes a world-renowned concert pianist and composer.

About the novel

Poverty stricken and neglected by his mother, Claude Rawlings lives in a basement in 1940s New York. From the beginning of his life he perceives the world in musical terms: As a young child he peers out the basement window and feels the “ever-changing rhythms and tempos of legs and feet moving across his field of vision.” The narrator comments that “much of his thinking, especially when he was alone, went on without words, went on beneath the level of language.”

Claude is rescued by a series of benefactors who teach him about music – and about life. As a child he is too self-absorbed to give back to those who befriend him, but in adulthood he learns to value those who have given him insight into life and those who patiently guided him toward the mystery that is music.

Conroy’s in-depth discussions of Claude’s apprehension of musical harmony, tonality, and structure are impressive. The author says that he “had to go back and re-educate” himself on the theory of music, particularly the atonal music Claude masters as a young man. The author uses these discussions to show us that Claude is not like most people – he understands the language of music much better than he understands the nature of relationships or things of the body.

About the author

The book is semi-autobiographical. Conroy was born in 1936 in New York City. His father was mentally ill and institutionalized. His mother was distant and cold. He escaped from the loneliness of his childhood by reading and teaching himself to play the piano. Unlike Claude, he did not have a benefactor who provided him music lessons. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Conroy said that Body and Soul is in part a fantasy whereby he invents a father and
a music teacher – two things he never had. Despite early neglect, Conroy became a successful writer, jazz musician, and teacher.

In 1967, at the age of 31, Conroy published his critically acclaimed autobiography Stop-Time, in which he recounted his miserable childhood. In 1993, he became director of the famous
Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and published the novel Body and Soul. Expectations were high, reviews mixed. Some critics said the book was too much like his autobiography; others seemed to feel it was not enough like the autobiography. To some Claude was a flat character, the narrator’s comments were intrusive, and the book was poorly written.

Conroy seemed to think of himself as a teacher more than a writer, and at that he was very successful. He died in 2005 of colon cancer.

What I learned

When I lived in New Mexico, particularly years that I was alone for the holidays, my parents
sent me a Christmas package that always included a book. This was one of those books, and I enjoyed reading it. When we chose it as a book-club selection, I was worried that I wouldn’t
enjoy it quite as much the second time around. Sometimes when I reread a book I loved I’m disappointed. But I enjoyed this book even more at second reading. On first reading Body and Soul I skipped over the discussions of music theory and focused on the plot. This time, I thought more about the music.

I have the experience of starting college as a piano performance major. It took a few years to realize that I was more interested in listening to music than playing it, more interested in writing about music than performing it. My favorite music class was music history, where I learned about the organization of music during different periods. But I was an abysmal failure at music theory, especially the contemplation of harmony and tone, and in the end, I decided to study literature instead of music.

Body and Soul taught me that I’m still pretty much a failure at theory. This time, though, I didn’t skip over the discussions of theory, because I saw them as integral to the story. In presenting the evolution of musical genius, Conroy seems to be showing the reader that there really exists a “music of the spheres” – a kind of fusion of metaphysics and mathematics that can thrill the composer, the performer, and the audience.

Another thing Conroy shows is that it takes a lot of luck – and even more hard work – to realize your potential, even if you are a genius. Pages and pages of text are devoted to Claude’s single-minded, sometimes ecstatic pursuit of musical perfection.

Claude’s relationship with music is his primary relationship. His personal relationships with other people are self-centered and romanticized. One critic points out that Claude takes but never gives back. It is as if his stunted childhood makes adult relationships difficult; music alone saves him. This book underscores the concept of mystery – there are aspects of music and of human relationships that remain mystery, even for those souls who do hear the music of the spheres.

The trainer has left the building: Creating tutorials to leave behind

At a recent meeting of the Chattanooga chapter of the American Society for Training and
Development (ASTD), Derek Bartley of C2Q, Inc. demonstrated how to train a worker to perform a complex task:

  1. Establish a relationship with the worker and find out what the worker already knows about the task.
  2. Provide a context for the task by showing the worker the end product and explaining why it is important to perform the task correctly.
  3. Demonstrate the task multiple times, pointing out key aspects of the task.
  4. Watch the worker perform the task multiple times, discussing key points and any issues the worker may have with the task.
  5. Follow up with instruction as the worker becomes comfortable performing the task
    on the job.

The case for cheat sheets

During this presentation I thought about what happens when the training and coaching sessions conclude. What sorts of print or electronic materials can a trainer leave behind to remind the worker of key points in the task? A training manual may provide everything workers need to know about the task, but readers can get exasperated by the details when all they really want are quick tips and reminders.

I suggest leaving learners with “cheat sheets” – summary work instructions. Cheat sheets can be printed cards, brief files to view on computers or tablets, or brief videos.

If the trainer doesn’t prepare a cheat sheet, workers will. I have seen excerpts from manuals taped to walls in laboratories and pinned to office cubes. I’ve also seen summaries that management painstakingly created and posted on or near equipment. And I’m pretty sure there are YouTube videos for any task imaginable. My quick search yielded, for example, a cheat sheet for quality control in medical device manufacturing, a music industry glossary defining terms used in album manufacturing, an interactive ballistics calculator used to determine ammunition needs, instructions for measuring process work with a time study, and animated fly-tying examples.

To prepare a cheat sheet

Cheat sheets are often tutorial in nature, emphasizing the key points that are described in full during training sessions. To create an effective print or electronic tutorial:

1. Start simple

These are the five elements of a simple procedure:

  • A title
  • A conceptual element (Why perform the task?)
  • An infinitive subheading (Example: “To calibrate instrument optics:”)
  • Steps in the procedure (Limit the number of steps in a procedure to 10 to 12 steps; break a complex procedure into a series of independent, manageable tasks.)
  • Notes

You can number steps, put them in a table, or even show the steps graphically and skip most of the words. The goal is to provide an at-a-glance reminder of how to perform a task.

2. Eliminate elements

  • Combine the title with the infinitive subheading. (Example: Title a summary of tying a particular type of fishing fly “To tie a shad fly:”)
  • Eliminate conceptual material; cross-reference or link to complete explanations of why the job is important or to theory of operation.
  • Pare down or eliminate notes, again by cross-referencing to complete documentation.

Note: Be careful not to eliminate required safety notes or conceptual material crucial to safe operation of equipment.

3. Cut away the details

Get rid of repetition by placing tasks repeated over and over again in one spot. For example, if an electronic task requires multiple login steps, explain how to log in once, up front. Then refer to these instructions at the appropriate point in the procedure. (Example: “Log in a second time as an Administrator to access security settings.”)

Combine multiple related actions into one step. (Example: “Ensure that you can reach all controls, adjust the seat and mirrors, then start the forklift using the key and the start button, as shown.”)

Delete intuitive procedures that require little explanation. For example, if installing a software upgrade is straightforward and the user interface easy to follow, tell users how to start the installation and then direct them to follow on-screen instructions.

When to focus on concepts, not steps

In some cases, concepts are more useful than step-by-step instructions. Sometimes a process or product is so well designed that reminders are not necessary; you can focus on concepts and minimize procedures. Experienced workers may want to know what else they can do with a product, or how to streamline a process for increased efficiency. Scenarios based on common usage help give the learner context for the task at hand. Parts lists might be helpful if workers need to replenish or replace parts frequently. For software, if new users are likely to have problems navigating through an interface, an interface map or flowchart may be more useful than a detailed set of steps.

Were rules for hyphenating compound modifiers made to be broken?

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about punctuation, but when I’m proofreading I consider every punctuation mark. Today I’m thinking about hyphens used with compound modifiers – and how following strict hyphenation rules can easily distract the reader.

Actually, there are few hard-and-fast rules about hyphenating compound modifiers. As a general rule, hyphenate a compound modifier that comes before a noun (full-time employees). But even then, you can use your own judgment.

 (Almost) always hyphenate

Hyphenate these compound modifiers when they come before a noun:

  • Color terms when the elements are of equal importance (blue-green dress)
  • A cardinal number and a unit of measurement before a noun (100-yard dash)
  • Adjectival compounds beginning with high and low (high-level programming language)
  • Adverb-adjective combinations (much-loved character)
  • “Two-thought” compounds (socio-economic)

Hyphenate compounds beginning with self or half, whether or not they precede a noun:
I believed he was self-reliant. This idea turned out to be half-baked!

(Almost) never hyphenate

  • Combinations that are ordinarily hyphenated before a noun are often not hyphenated
    after a noun: Employees who expressed satisfaction generally work full time.
  • Don’t hyphenate adverbs ending in ly + a participle or adjective (a highly complex system).
  • Word-forming prefixes do not require hyphens: anteroom, binomial, infrastructure.
  • Proper nouns (anti-Semitic)
  • Words that without hyphens could look like other words (un-ionized)
  • Words with identical letters that need separating (pre-empt)

Exceptions to the almost-never-hyphenate rule:

Breaking the rules

All these rules are helpful, but style guides almost always admonish readers to seek clarity before slavishly following rules. Applied without restraint, hyphenation rules can result in a sea of hyphens that make the text difficult to read. If sentences are succinct and clear, I suggest not over worrying about hyphenation.

Choosing words carefully

Business writers take pride in writing clear, concise, grammatically correct communications. But sometimes even the most precise communicators have difficulty knowing exactly the right word to choose:

Dear Style Master: One of my coworkers insists on using “percent of employees” in
business communications about management. I think she should be referring to a
“percentage of employees”. Who is correct?

– Fractious

 Dear Fractious: I see these two terms used interchangeably, but somehow “percent of a
number” doesn’t sound right to me. After a little search I learned that percent should always be accompanied by a number; percentage is used when no number is present. So, you might say that 98 percent of company employees reported satisfaction with the new time-reporting
software, and only a small percentage of employees had difficulty using the application. Fractious, I think you are correct!

The answer to your question is, in my opinion, unambiguous. But read on for a couple of word-choice questions that don’t have such definite answers:

Dear Style Master: When do I use “less” and when do I use “fewer” with percentages? I know to use “fewer” with countable nouns and “less” with nouns you can’t count, but are percentages considered countable or mass nouns?

Less Than Certain

 Dear Uncertain: To me, you are referring to a number of countable things when you speak of percentages. For example, you might say that fewer than ten percent of employees have difficulty using the new time keeping system. The noun employees is countable.

The trouble is that different style guides give us different direction. The experts at Chicago
Manual Online say that less is ok with percentages, because tradition holds that you use less when referring to time, amount, or distance. Percentages are amounts. But the AP stylebook agrees with me that, since you can count employees, fewer is correct.

If you look at online forums on style, you’ll see a lot of argument on this subject. So the answer is less. Or fewer. Either way, you’re certain to be correct.

Dear Style Master: Prior to encountering my current editor, I used “prior to” all the time in my project documents. But now, my editor is suggesting that I use “before” instead. Why?

Professional Documentation Project Manager (PDPM)

Dear Pro: Some editors say that prior to is grammatically incorrect because prior is an adjective (I couldn’t come to the party last night because I had a prior commitment). Others think prior to is just an affected, bureaucratic phrase that means before.  However, dictionaries generally
accept prior to as an informal noun phrase. So, prior to doesn’t seem to be flat out incorrect. It’s just annoying. I suggest using before to mean before and prior as an adjective, even if you’re a bureaucrat. (I’d also use after instead of subsequent to.)

Lessons learned as a freelancer in 2013

After a whirlwind end-of-year editing extravaganza, I now have some time to consider what I learned as a freelancer in 2013. Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know (or couldn’t face) a year ago:

Clients don’t necessarily need you when you need them.

In 2013 a new client did not materialize until midyear. I spent the first part of the year
worrying about how to survive and wondering if I’d make it as a freelancer. I spent the last half of the year worrying about how to do holiday shopping when I had to work days, nights, and weekends.

The big lesson, of course, is to budget: Save money so you can live during downtime (easier said than done when your 12-year-old car falls apart and your roof springs a massive leak).

And budget your actual time as if you were working. Early last year I began filling my time
with Meaningful Activities. I volunteered, and I flung myself into personal and professional
development: I joined a garden club, started a blog, joined a second professional organization, developed a brochure, and exhibited in the “Consultants Corner” at a convention. When paying work came up last summer, I found myself with several non-paying commitments that I no longer had time for. I had to go for the money.

Build time for your life into the schedule.

Sometimes personal obligations come before professional ones. In 2013 my mother went to a nursing facility and my dad to assisted living. I spent time driving my dad to see my mom,
discussing medical decisions with doctors, and helping both parents adjust to living apart after 62 years of marriage. Occasionally I had to tell clients and professional associates that I was behind and why. They all understood. Clients can be difficult and demanding, but they can also be compassionate and empathetic when you have to make room for family in the work schedule.

Promise only what you can deliver.

My friend Steve Wilson, a business consultant and manager, sent me a time management
plan with tips that seemed at first a little outlandish. The tip that caught me off guard involved setting a maximum workload and being honest about it with potential clients. Steve told me to look at my current workload and the maximum number of hours available to work, then determine a delivery date to communicate to a prospective client. I’d risk losing the client by being up front about that date, but I would not lose my reputation for honesty. And producing a deliverable on time or early would only enhance that reputation.

Communicate with clients before going over budget.

I’m still learning about estimates. Until I start working, I rarely know the extent of writing and editing required. If the material is complex and content is scarce, the job can take can take a lot longer than expected. If possible, I clarify that the original estimate is just that – an estimate. Then I communicate regularly with the client about progress made toward reaching project goals. If I see that a task is headed toward being over budget, I talk with clients about their
preferences. Would they like me to return a draft? Complete the job at greater expense? I have discovered that clients are often more concerned about a job well done than about manageable cost overruns.

Clarify technical details up front.

I took a job that required use of a technical publishing system. The current version of the publishing system was available only on PC and I had a Mac, so I bought a PC and the publishing system. I happily did the work and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the publishing system. When I turned files over to the production staff, I learned that the client had an early version of the publishing system and the production staff could not open my files! Eventually we figured out a way to create readable files for the client, but it was painful.

In retrospect, the issues could have been avoided if I had gotten version information about the software required. I probably would not have purchased an antique version of the publishing system, but I might have worked out a way to use client equipment and software, or I might have talked to an IT professional to resolve compatibility issues up front.

You can fail a test long after you’re out of school.

Sometimes I’m invited to take an editing test, usually by an organization providing editorial services to technical and medical professionals. Some organizations pay editors to take tests. I’m always amenable to taking a test, paid or not. After all, I got my first technical writing job after taking a test!

The tests I took this year had time limits, and I didn’t meet them. I carefully looked up a lot
of medical terms that I don’t use every day, and I was methodical in my edits. But I honestly reported my time, and I didn’t get any work as a result of the tests. Recently I experimented with one test and did a less-than-stellar job within the allotted about of time given. We’ll see what the employer thought about my “good enough” attitude. I suspect not much.

You never know where your next job will come from.

Here I am at the beginning of 2014, with time on my hands to blog, edit my LinkedIn profile, revisit my resume, and search for new jobs. In 2013 I got jobs through professional organizations, former employers and coworkers, and friends at church and on the tennis court. It turns out that all my downtime at the beginning of 2013 gave me a chance to be social and network my way into the next job. Here’s hoping networking pays off again in 2014!

Rules for numerals

Dear Style Master: Why do I have to spell out numbers at the beginning of sentences?
Numerals Rule!

Dear Ruler: Honestly, I don’t know why. I have searched high and low for the reason that the rule in all style guides is to use words rather than numerals to start sentences. My guess is that this rule has something to do with readability.

As with any rule, however, there are exceptions. Some style guides say you can begin a
sentence with a calendar year (“2013 was a tumultuous year for our family”) or with the name of an organization that begins with a number (3M). Headlines in news and marketing copy
also tend to use numerals rather than words to represent numbers. Using numerals at the
beginning of a sentence for emphasis, especially if they are treated graphically, makes sense to me. For example:

97% of our customers give us positive ratings for customer service!

In fact, a lot of marketing documents use numerals all the time, because they stand out and make readers take note.


Handling numbers in your documents

I have been reading marketing literature for one client and scientific procedures for another client. I notice differences in style, and I’m particularly interested in the special problems posed for writers of each type of literature when it comes to handling numbers. Scientific writers puzzle over long numbers and line breaks, whether to use a comma or a period to signify a decimal, and spacing between a numeral and a unit of measure. Marketers have to decide whether or not to follow the Associated Press rules regarding spelling out single-digit numbers when numerals can call attention to product advantages. All types of writers seem to have trouble knowing when to use a number and when to use a bullet in a list. Here are a few tips on presenting numbers in your documents:

When to spell out numbers and when to use numerals

The general rule: Use words for numbers zero through nine and use numerals for numbers starting with 10. (The Chicago Manual of Style advocates spelling out numbers zero through 99.) It is acceptable to use all words or all numerals when presenting numbers in a series (Example: 1, 99, and 200)

Scientific publications often use numerals rather than words to represent single-digit numbers. The Council of Science Editors, for example, advocates the consistent use of numerals in text: “This style allows all quantities to be expressed in a similar manner, and because numerals have greater visual distinctiveness than words, it increases the profile of quantities in running text.” To avoid confusion, however, the Council recommends spelling out zero and one.

Scientific publications often use numerals rather than words to represent single-digit numbers. The Council of Science Editors, for example, advocates the consistent use of numerals in text: “This style allows all quantities to be expressed in a similar manner, and because numerals have greater visual distinctiveness than words, it increases the profile of quantities in running text.” To avoid confusion, however, the Council recommends spelling out zero and one.

Other rules:

  • Use words for numbers that begin a sentence, unless the sentence begins with a calendar year or an organization or product name that begins with a number.
  • When two numbers are next to each other, spell one of them (Example: 28 twelve-foot boards).
  • Use words in quotes and dialog.
  • Use words for simple fractions (Example: one-half).
  • Use numerals with other fractions, except at the beginning of a sentence.
  • Use numerals to show the age of a person.

Using numbers in lists

Bullets are ubiquitous in presentation materials, probably because bulleted items are built into presentation software. Lists are great ways to present material that audiences scan. They are great for visually organizing training and technical material for easy comprehension. But be sure that you use the appropriate type of list to present the material.

When should you use numbers in a list? When you need to to show order:

  • To describe procedures and processes. Most how-to-do-it or how-it-works text benefits when you number steps that must be performed in a certain order.
  • To show order of importance.

Use bullets when order is not important or when all items have the same weight.

A note about lists

Bullets and numbers signify that you are presenting lists, and a list contains more than one item. Even in presentations, I avoid using a bullet with a single item.