An American Editor

March 23, 2015

On the Basics: Coping with Emergencies

Coping with Emergencies

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

A combination of losing Internet access twice in not quite two weeks, hearing from a colleague with a health crisis, reflecting on a health crisis for my husband a couple of months ago, and seeing extreme winter weather create all kinds of headaches for people recently made me start thinking about how editors and writers in general, and freelancers in particular, handle — or should handle — emergencies.

Of course, we can only plan for emergencies but just so far, since emergencies by definition are unpredictable. The problem could be almost anything: a technology meltdown, one’s own or a spouse’s/child’s/parent’s illness (whether short- or long-term), equipment failure, whatever. But there are ways we can do business from day to day that provide at least some, if not the most, protection against the unknown and unexpected as possible.

Having reliable e-mail and Internet access these days couldn’t be more essential to having an editorial business, no matter what services you offer. Losing that connection for even a few hours could mean losing out on hearing from a new client, losing a current client by missing a deadline, or not having access to tools you need to work on a project — fact-checking resources, online style sheets or manuals, cloud-based versions of software, etc.

I get my Internet access through a landline with the local phone company. A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly had no phone service — there was a busy signal instead of a dial tone when I picked up the phone — and thus no Internet or e-mail access. Voicemail worked, but I couldn’t use the line for outgoing calls or to connect to the electronic world. I could make calls (starting with an irate one to the phone company) with my cellphone, but it’s a somewhat “dumb” phone that doesn’t have Internet connectivity.

While I was lucky not to be on deadline for anything that day, I do have several clients who send me work to edit or proofread on demand and expect to at least hear back from me with a “Got it, will do shortly” message, if not to get the actual finished work back that same day. Not being to communicate electronically was beyond frustrating.

The first time this happened was on a Friday afternoon and the line was fixed by Monday morning, so the impact on my work life was minimal, although the aggravation and frustration were still maximal. The line went out again on Thursday, and the phone company wouldn’t commit to getting a repair person out until the following Monday. The repair department doesn’t work after 5 p.m. on weekdays or at all over the weekend. That meant not just a disconnected weekend, but almost three work days without Internet access. Despite going somewhat ballistic with the phone company, there was nothing I could do but stew about it. For various reasons, I couldn’t spend the day somewhere with Internet access. I could still get writing, editing, and proofreading work done; I just couldn’t get online.

The line got fixed sooner than promised, but it was still a sobering experience.

When my husband had surgery last fall that involved twice as much hospital time as we had been told to expect (I stayed with him the whole time, making dashes home in the mornings to change clothes and pick up the mail), I was reminded of several years ago, when I had postsurgery complications that resulted in several months of recuperation. Luckily, I was already freelancing full-time and used to working at home, but that was before cellphones and laptops made it a lot easier to get work done. This time, I could communicate with clients from the hospital via my laptop and cellphone. If I’m struck down again myself some day, I’ve figured out how to use the laptop from a horizontal position and probably would have a smartphone or tablet that would be even easier to use if I couldn’t sit up and use my desktop computer.

We can’t avoid emergencies, but we can position ourselves to handle them. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you use a landline for e-mail and Internet access but haven’t gotten a smartphone, consider investing in a smartphone. You can still keep the landline. If I understand them correctly, smartphones can provide connectivity without using your landline. I’ll be looking into options for one that won’t cost as much as a regular line that I’d use all the time, because that isn’t what I need; I just want — and probably will need — backup Internet access. Another option might be a wireless phone service.
  • Record your deadlines as a day or week earlier than they really are, so you’re working ahead of schedule. That will save the heart-stopping panic of “Oh-my-God, I’m heading to the hospital and the project is due tomorrow and I have no way of finishing it in time to send it to the client!” or “Oh-my-God, the project is due today and I have no power/no e-mail access and can’t get to a cybercafé!”
  • Update your résumé, website, and any other standing promotional items (brochures and fliers, for instance) regularly, so they’re current whenever someone asks for a bid or you get inspired to send out a query. That way, you won’t lose out on an opportunity for new business that comes in when you’re swamped with current work — it will take that much less time to respond with current information, and you’ll be more likely to make that response than if you have to stop what you’re working on to make the necessary updates.
  • Don’t wait until you need something work-essential that very minute; my version of Murphy’s Law is that things only break down, run out, or otherwise don’t work when we need them the most urgently and have the least time, money, and resources to cope. Whenever you have a few extra bucks, order new business cards, promotional items, subscriptions, etc.; buy extra ink cartridges for your printer(s), new equipment, supplies, print versions of dictionaries and style manuals; pay for a class, membership, conference, or computer/software upgrade; even pay a couple of bills early — phone, utilities, credit cards. If you have a desktop computer, get a laptop as a backup. If you work on a laptop, get another one as your backup machine. If you don’t have a “popout” external hard drive as part of your backup system, get one. If you don’t want a physical hard drive, or even if you get one, be sure to use Carbonite or some other reliable online, offsite backup service.
  • If you’re at all tech-savvy or want to be, consider taking a course in basic computer repair so you can do such repairs yourself. Be sure you have local copies of all files and software programs; it doesn’t do much good if what you need is cloud-based and you can’t access the cloud. If you plan to use a backup computer, be sure to do daily synchronizations. Think about regular cloning of your hard drives.
  • Build up a network of colleagues you can trust to take over projects so you don’t lose clients because you can’t work for a few days, weeks, or months. Know enough about their skills, work ethics, reliability, and honesty to be confident that they can do the work as well as you do, and won’t steal your clients.
  • Have a nearby friend, neighbor, or colleague who would let you use a computer or wifi network if yours goes down.
  • Develop a stash of “evergreen” backup articles — ones that aren’t time-sensitive or can be quickly and easily updated, for those times when you (as a writer) have writer’s block or a new assignment pops up while you’re in the midst of working on another one, or (as a managing editor) an assigned story doesn’t come in on deadline. Writers might even be able to sell those backup articles in and of themselves.

How have you responded to emergencies? What are you doing to be ready if one strikes?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.



  1. Excellent advice. We have some of the possibilities covered but not all yet, so thanks for the reminder — and for spelling things out.

    The most common emergencies here are power outage and equipment failure. We just learned in the past week that our previously working setup to handle both doesn’t cover the next level of surprise (yeah, we have a generator, but it’s no good if you don’t have a fuel can on hand; and yeah, we have three computers for two people, but only one person can work if two computers simultaneously die). I also have informal arrangements with people for backup, but they are all successful editors who always have full plates so are not in a position to respond to my crises; et cetera, et cetera.

    The one thing I’m perennially careless about is not keeping a list next to my computer of work-in-process and contacts, so if I dropped dead today no one would have any idea how to handle what I’ve left undone. That just moved to top of my priority list.


    Comment by Carolyn — March 23, 2015 @ 6:42 am | Reply

  2. I finally got a smartphone after holding out for years. Provided the phone towers are stil working during a power blackout I can use it as a wifi modem with my laptop, or simply use it on its own for basic emails. Even in non-emergencies it is useful if I’m away from home and my normal landline connection, I have only a small monthly data quota but it’s plenty for emails and other basic tasks. Of course I would never want to rely an iphone or ipad on its own as my sole internet device but we are after all talking about emergencies.

    My hard disk backup system is called Dropbox. When I’m working on an important project (aren’t they all?) I move the whole job folder over to my dropbox area then forget about any what-if issues. As a bonus I can access it myself from any computer anywhere, and I can share my large files much more easily than attaching them to an email.

    And for really key information there’s nothing like a list on a piece of paper.


    Comment by Jim Hart — March 23, 2015 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  3. I also don’t bundle my services (phone, internet, TV), so that I am not in a position where everything goes down at the same time.

    And I’ve kept a regular landline phone (in addition to the cordless phones in the house) because they work when the power is out (the cordless ones do not).


    Comment by Gael Spivak — March 23, 2015 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  4. A really good investment is a mobile hotspot. That way, you can use your laptop anywhere! When I go visit my mother, she doesn’t have wifi in her house, so the hotspot has really helped.


    Comment by Lourdes Venard — March 23, 2015 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

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