An American Editor

February 9, 2018

On the Basics: Colleagues Lost and Not Found — Preparing for the Worst

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

No one likes to think about worst-case scenarios, especially for themselves, but we all have to do just that. Any one of us could easily have a crisis, or a colleague could have one, that affects our work. I’ve written about emergency preparation before (On the Basics: Coping with Emergencies, On the Basics: Some Ideas for a Strong Start to the New Year), as has Rich Adin (A Personal Odyssey: Preparing for the Worst), but recent events have hit quite close to home and inspired some new thoughts about this aspect of being a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, etc.

Have you experienced anything like these situations?

  • A usually ultra-reliable colleague hadn’t sent her newsletter column in by the deadline. She didn’t answer a couple of e-mail messages or respond to messages left on her landline voice mail, and her cellphone didn’t work. The only other way to reach her was through a couple of neighbors who had helped her in the past with sending and receiving e-mail when she had trouble getting messages. One of them eventually let me know that the colleague had fallen and died. She lived alone, had no siblings, children or close friends; no one in her professional organizations — we had two in common — had reported anything about her. If anyone had looked after her belongings, they hadn’t checked her computer to notify clients or colleagues about what had happened to her.
  • A client asked me to include indexing in a project that involved my editing the new edition of a textbook and a colleague laying it out, and said their preference would be the person who indexed the previous edition. I contacted the indexer, who was officially retired but said she would be delighted to do this project. About three months later, with the book edited and in layout, I tried to reach her to get the index going. Bam! I found myself up against a virtual brick wall. She didn’t respond to e-mail messages. She was on LinkedIn and Facebook, but didn’t respond to messages on either of those platforms. She didn’t have a website. I finally got her number from the client, but her phone number was out of service. Since I didn’t know this person, I couldn’t even contact anyone who might have been able to reach her or tell me what was going on.
  • A few weeks ago, I woke up with incredible pain in my side. I spent most of the day bent over in misery. I could sit at my desk and get some work done, but could barely stand up or move around, and the pain definitely affected my ability to concentrate. The pain went on long enough that I was seriously considering going to the emergency room.

Preparing for the Worst

Experiences like these reinforce the important of planning for the worst, especially if you’re in business. Clients (and family) depend on us. We can’t afford to leave them hanging, confused, frustrated, and eventually infuriated at our disappearance. A colleague’s Facebook post reinforced this: “… if anything happened to me, I would like other people to have a record of the work I had planned, what I’d finished, what I’d invoiced for, etc., so that clients could be notified of my non-availability.”

Dealing with the Problem

Here’s how I resolved these situations.

  • The newsletter contributor who died: I filled most of the issue space for her article with, sadly, an obituary for her and a short “evergreen” article in my files for the publication. I’ll put a call out for a replacement contributor in the next few weeks; this newsletter comes out every other month, so there should be time to find someone before the next deadline. It won’t be the same — she had a delightful, original writing voice — but necessity rules. I also will bulk up my stash of backup or evergreen articles: ones that are timeless and can be used at any time as needed. I strongly recommend that anyone responsible for an entire publication create such a file.
  • The missing indexer: I had to assume that the unreachable indexer was either incapacitated or dead. Luckily, I was able to bring in someone else who was both available and fine with the original person’s proposed fee. However, what if I hadn’t known other indexers? What if no one I knew had been available? What if a replacement indexer would not match the original rate? We all need to be plugged into networks of colleagues not just in our own fields, but complementary ones, at least if we want to provide services that are different from our own. While those resources might usually only be needed for referral purposes, they also could become part of your “team” for some projects.
  • My painful health issue: That severe pain receded by early afternoon and some online research and colleague/friend input reassured me that the major issues I was afraid of were unlikely, but I contacted the aides who sometimes help with my husband to be on standby and let my brother, who was serendipitously in town for the weekend, know whom to reach for computer input. I’m updating my list of client contact information and deadlines or processes (I work with several editing and proofreading clients on an on-call basis), as well as my passwords, and have asked two colleagues to be keepers of that information in case anything should happen to me that clients would need to know about. (My beloved spouse is computer-phobic and in poor health, so he doesn’t want to and can’t be responsible for anything related to my business or my computers.)

I plan to look at each ongoing project or client in terms of which colleagues might be good matches if anything should happen that means I can’t get work done, and will add their names and contact info to my client/deadline list. I also am more determined than ever to stay ahead of deadlines — including here!

On the personal level, we’re updating our wills, and I’ve asked my in-country brother and niece to be executors.

Preparation and Planning Tools

We all should have systems in place to let those who count on us know of a crisis, whether it’s temporary or permanent. Here are some of the tools that colleagues use to keep track of projects to make their editing lives easier — and make it possible for someone to step in, or at least provide notification, in an emergency.

Excel

iPhone’s Calendar app

Basic paper calendars for scheduling

Toggl for time tracking

QuickBooks for invoicing

An e-mail folder, Freedcamp file, and physical piece of paper to affix to a magnetic whiteboard

Freshbooks cloud-based accounting software to track projects, invoices, time spent on projects, and clients

Zoho for keeping client records, invoicing, and mass communications

Dropbox

http://waveapps.com for invoicing, banking, and accounting

http://www.officetime.net

On the personal level, especially if you live alone or have health issues, consider getting a medical alert system and setting up a way to be checked on regularly, just in case. The colleague who died in her apartment might have been saved if anyone had known she had fallen — she was still alive when she was found (albeit nonresponsive). When my dad died, my mother arranged for a neighbor down the block to check on her if she hadn’t called by 9 a.m. every day. One friend has an agreement for neighbors to check on her if her car hasn’t moved in X days; another’s “warning sign” is that the drapes aren’t open by a certain time every morning. You could ask a friend or colleague to check on you if you haven’t posted to Facebook in X days. Our building mail carrier knows that anything more than two days of uncollected mail implies a problem, and would let the manager know that we might need help. (Just because you live in an apartment building doesn’t mean anyone notices your routine or would act on any change in it.)

What have you done to ensure that clients, colleagues, and friends will know if you’ve had a crisis that requires notifying them or getting help with projects (or in general)? How are you following the Girl Scout mantra of “Be prepared”?

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, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.

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