It ain’t over ’til it’s over–How I “close out” a story

I moved from science research to science journalism, in part, because I wanted to finish things. In the lab, I always needed another repetition or another experiment—indeed, you can spend a lifetime in science and not entirely solve the questions you started with.

Journalism, on the other hand, offered the finality of a printed story and a clear sense of accomplishment.

But when is a story done? When you hand over the hard-wrought final draft? When it’s published for your mom and all of the rest of the world to read? Or when you’ve got the paycheck in your hot little hands?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an admittedly elaborate definition of when a story is truly over, and I can stop thinking about it. In what I call my “closing out” process, I check a number of mental boxes to determine it’s really through:
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You don’t have to wait for OS X Lion to get focus-saving fullscreen apps

The Mac fanboys out there (including me) just watched Steve Jobs preview the latest iteration of OS X, called Lion. One of the neater features is “fullscreen apps,” which basically just makes the application window take over your whole screen. Apparently people really like that on various iDevices, so they’re adding it to normal Macs.

I really like it too: it’s amazing how much less cluttered your mindspace can be if you’re only focusing on one thing at a time onscreen. In fact, I’ve been using this feature for months already on my MacBook Pro, even though it hasn’t been released yet…

Yep, ye olde “maximize window” will do wonders for your concentration. Just click and drag your application window to fill up the screen, et voila! Instant simplicity. (I use Apple-Tab to switch between apps.) The experience may not be as pretty as the one coming in Lion, but you won’t have to buy a whole new OS to get it.

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Confessions of a productivity hack(er)

I have a confession to make: I’m not as productive as I’d like to be.

There, I said it! They say the first part of solving a problem is to admit you have one. So, there it is: Check off step 1.

This might seem a strange admission to make just weeks prior to my ScienceWriters2010 session on Productive Freelancing, but that’s okay: I think the whole point of our panel is that each and every one of us, rookies and seasoned veterans alike, can find some process we can do better.

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Wanted: a starting pistol for your brain

Sometimes you just need a little "John Kerry with a gun" in your head to get going.

Ever have one of those busy days where you know exactly what you gotta do, but it’s a lotta stuff, and you’re not quite sure how you’re gonna make it all happen? I just had one of those days.

Often, for whatever reason, zen-like time management isn’t much help when staring down the barrel of a day like this. You feel the clock ticking. Pre-organizing your tasks just feels like lost time. Anxiety starts to tighten its grip, and you feel a swelling compulsion to check Facebook.

In these situations you need a starting pistol for your brain: something that snaps your attention like a whip and gets you out of the blocks and on your way, regardless of whether you’re perfectly “ready” or not. But when you’re working by yourself in a home office, this can be hard to come by. Here’s what I did:

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Forget word rate—What’s your time worth?

Editors have done a great job of training us to think in terms of dollars per word. The more, the better, right?

And for editors and publishers, this paradigm makes perfect sense. The more of a page you fill, the more they’ll pay you.

But I had a minor epiphany recently when I realized the word rate is not what’s key for me, the writer. Continue reading

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Bundle your attention and find flow with “cells”

ooh... science metaphor!

I briefly mentioned the “cell” — a longish, mostly uninterrupted block of time in which you focus on one creative objective — in my last post. A couple people have asked me to explain in a bit more detail how I use them to wrangle my day, so here we go.

Before I start, I should say that this idea isn’t mine — I borrowed it from a brilliant dude named Dorian Taylor, who writes interesting things about knowledge work all the time. You could start there, or just read on for how I’ve modified/implemented the tactic.

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Do-it-yourself billing with MS Office

Much as we hate to admit it, being a freelancer means being more than mere writers. If we want to be paid, we need to be staff our internal accounts receivable and billing departments, too. Yeah, it’s a pain, but it doesn’t need to be. Once you get your processes set up, keeping track of your cash flow becomes pretty brainless. Here’s my approach.

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