© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I've been writing for publication for nearly 40 years. What started as a sideline in 1983, developed into a mainstream business in the 1980s and 1990s, and around 2010 became my primary source of income, which until then had mostly come from consulting and training. Considering that I failed Years-11 and 12 English in high school, my writing career was quite unexpected. In fact, even now, there are days when it doesn't seem real. After all, "Published authors are other people! How did I ever become one?" Not only do I like writing, for the most part, I actually enjoy it! And when you get paid for doing something you enjoy it's not really work.
For some background on my writing career (with tongue-in-cheek commentary), see "Rex on English and Writing," a piece I wrote when I launched my blog in December 2009.
My guess is that most writers started out as avid readers; I know I certainly did. In that vein, take a look at my essay "Books by My Bed" from October 2010.
In this essay, I'll describe my efforts with regard to writing, editing, publishing, and proofing.
In late 1982, I bought my first computer, an IBM PC, a year after that model debuted. Knowing that once I got my permanent residency Green Card I would go into business for myself, I set about teaching myself various computer-related topics. Very quickly I identified the C programming language as the topic on which I would base my future. [In hindsight, it turned out to be an excellent choice.]
Several months into teaching myself this language, being naïve like most first-time authors, I thought the world was ready to read my writings on the subject. After all, thought I, "What better teacher to have than someone with an enquiring mind and who just learned the subject matter three months earlier?"
At the time, there were two mainstream IBM PC-related publications: PC Magazine and Softalk for the IBM PC. I sent off letters to the editors of both, and not long afterwards, the editor from Softalk, Craig, called me to say that he was interested to talk further. Here's the (lightly edited) initial letter I wrote to him in August 1983:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I have been a subscriber and avid reader of your magazine "Softalk for the IBM-PC," since its inception. I would like to contribute to your magazine, and I feel I have the necessary equipment and ability to do so. I have written a significant amount of end-user documentation, and designed and conducted many education classes for all levels of computer users, as well as designing and coding systems. One particular area I would be interested in is reviewing software products.
I own an IBM-PC with 64K and 2 double sided disk drives, MX-80 printer with Graftrax, IBM monochrome screen, PGS HX-12 color screen, and FTG light pen. Software includes PC-DOS V1.1 and V2.0, CP/M-86, BASIC interpreter, small-C:PC (a subset of 'C'), the IBM MACRO assembler, and the CALC-86 spreadsheet.
I use this configuration for consulting, tutoring and for personal research and education in various areas including compiler and language design; and interactive and color graphics, particularly as it applies to computer aided education. I plan to add hardware and software on a regular basis.
Please advise me if you can use my services in some capacity. I look forward to the possibility of contributing to your fine magazine.
Yours Sincerely, Rex Jaeschke
As I was an untested author, Craig assigned me several products to review to see my writing style and my ability to deliver on time and to a certain word count. Once I passed those tests, he committed to a 3-part series, The C Spot, that introduced the C language to readers. At the end of that trial run, I continued with a monthly column.
Magazines often have a 90-day lead time; that is, the author needs to submit an article 90 days prior to the publication date. When my first column installment finally appeared in print, I had an idea: "Wouldn't it be great to syndicate that column to a second, non-competing publication with some adjustments/customization for that second publication's audience?" I did just that, and my writing career had begun! Not being one to sit around and wait for things to happen, within 18 months, I'd dreamed up an idea for a new publication, which launched in 1985 with me as editor.
Magazine Columns and Features
During the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote a number of regular (typically monthly) columns, each around 3,000 words. These included:
- Softalk for the IBM: C columnist. As mentioned above, this is where I got my start. Thanks very much, Craig, for taking a chance on me. Unfortunately, the publication ceased operation within a year of my joining.
- DEC Professional: C/C++ editor of the column "Let's C Now," with final articles appearing in Digital Systems Journal. This was the magazine to which I syndicated my Softalk column. I spent 12 years working with them. Thanks, Linda, for the big hand up!
- The Programmers Journal: C columnist. For one issue, I wrote a piece discussing whether a programmer should learn C. The title was "To C or not to C; that is the question," which, of course, paraphrased Shakespeare's famous line, "To be or not to be," and the front cover contained stylized versions of the letter C with a Shakespearean art theme.
- The C Users Journal: columnist
- NT Developer: contributing editor
- Enterprise NT: columnist
- VC++ Professional: contributing editor
- Computer PR Update: This short-lived sojourn took me into a very different world, that of public relations. While it was a learning experience, what I learned most was that that direction was not for me!
At one time, I had three monthly and one quarterly column on different aspects of the same general topic, C. That was definitely challenging.
There is nothing quite like a looming deadline to get the adrenaline going! On more than a few occasions, I had writer's block up until a few days before a deadline. (However, I never missed a deadline!) Then, the creative juices would start flowing, and away I'd write, often finishing with a piece that had to be broken into two, and sometimes three, parts, which then gave me a break for the next month or two. Sometimes I got creative even without having a deadline, so was able to create a stockpile of spare articles. However, on several occasions, other contributors failed to deliver, and my editor would ask for an extra piece. In one extreme case, most features in an issue were mine!
When writing about computer programming, one device I learned early on reinforced the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words." In my case, the visual was a computer program rather than a picture. After spending hours dreaming up and refining just the right program example(s), it was easy to fill in the supporting narrative.
Occasionally, I'd write a one-off feature for one of various magazines, including the long-revered Doctor Dobbs Journal.
A Newspaper Column
I've always been a great believer in looking for opportunities and then "making something happen." To that end, quite early in my writing career, I proposed to a local newspaper, the Fairfax Journal, that I write a weekly column on home/small business computing. They agreed, and I did that for a year or so.
Each week, I had to introduce a topic, say something useful about it, and conclude it, all in 600 words without being able to rely on readers having read any previous installments. That was the hardest writing I ever did, and it paid the least, by far!
Before the first installment was published, the newspaper sent a freelance photographer to my home to take a photo of me that would appear next to my column. Was he content with a quick headshot or two? Oh no, we spent several hours with me standing inside and outside in different locations and poses with him shooting several rolls of film. The final shot chosen was printed in black and white, and was a closeup of my head. Any of the shots would have sufficed!
Once my column with DEC Professional had been running for several years, I proposed to that publisher that we make several collections of the articles in book form. The timing was right, as they were launching a book-publishing division. The end result was a 2-volume set. Some years later, I produced a new edition designed to support my growing seminar business, and then a third edition followed.
In late 1984, I joined the US committee that was developing the first standard for the C language. This language had been used to write programs that can be ported (moved, that is) across dissimilar systems. As a result, my book, "Portability and the C Language," came out in 1989.
In 1992, I wrote "The Dictionary of Standard C." Later that year, during a lecture tour to St. Petersburg, Russia, I funded a pair of academics to do a Russian-language translation, as their countrymen were eager for technical information. Later, a Japanese publisher produced a version in that language. It was interesting to see how the publishers wrote my name in the Cyrillic alphabet and using Japanese kanji and kana characters.
Not everything I touched turned to gold, however. In fact, several of my very early book efforts were quite forgettable even though more than a few copies were sold!
[If you should ever be tempted to write a book, once you get past the egotistical reasons for doing so, you'll very quickly find that the return on investment for most authors is less than the minimum wage! After a few thousand dollars advance payment, royalties might be 15% of the wholesale price, which is often discounted by 60% from the suggested retail price. As such, the author royalty on a $20 book is around $1.20.]
Starting a New Publication
So, after writing features, columns, and a book or two, what to do next? Why not start a publication and become an editor in the process?
I dreamed up the idea of a quarterly publication, The C Journal, I found a publisher to handle the production and business end of things, and I appointed myself editor. I also wrote a regular column. (While most editors have formal training and work their way up the ranks to that position, I was a man in a hurry. I simply jumped in at the top and made it up as I went. After all, "How hard could it possibly be?" Sometimes you can plan too much!)
As a member of the US C standards committee, the timing was right, the publication was well-received, and it ran for three years before being sold. The new owners published bi-monthly and then monthly, and I continued as a columnist with them for some years.
One of my two business rules is "Never ever hire anybody!" and I've been wildly successful at that. However, when working alone for oneself, one's income tends to be tied to the amount one can charge per hour and the number of hours worked. In general, one cannot build a product that can be sold over and over without staff and an organization. However, that isn't so with intellectual property in the form of writing if one takes the right steps. Soon after I started writing for publication, I wrote my agreements to give my publishers first world serial rights to my materials, and to use those materials in reprints and collections later on. Instead of giving them all rights and then begging to get some of them back later on, I went the other way. They got what they needed then, and I kept the rest.
How then to generate and reuse material? By design, my research for articles merged very nicely with my work on the standards committee, as well as my experience in teaching seminars, and writing books. All four activities reinforced each other giving me more "bang for the buck" for my time and expenses.
Learning about Typesetting and Layout
Once PCs became available, it was only a matter of time before desktop publishing followed, although that needed some serious computer horsepower, higher-resolution graphics screens, and laser printers to really take off.
Even before I got into layout and typesetting, I used to add typesetting codes to the articles for several columns, to indicate bold, italic, and such. Eventually, I adopted the LaTeX system, and with that and a laser printer, I could generate very nice-looking documents. In fact, under contract, I produced some reference cards on various topics for clients using that system. I also published a quarterly journal (see later) and my early seminar manuscripts.
Around 2000, I took on a major consulting project with Microsoft, which involved editing a 500-page specification using Word. [I continue in that role 22 years later.] As such, my long association with Word began. In 2007, I helped write, and took on the editorship of, a 6,500-page specification for Microsoft's Office suite that included Word's new docx file format. That specification was also written using Word. Around 2008, I started converting all my seminar materials and some of my books to Word format.
For practical advice about getting the most from your word processor, see my essay, "Making Good-Looking Documents," from December 2011.
Becoming a Publisher
To reinforce a skill that one is trying to learn usually requires an application for that skill. So, in 1987, it was time to launch another new publication, but this time with me as publisher as well as editor. And so was born The Jaeschke Letter. It contained information about my consulting activities and various technical tips, and it was circulated in paper form to my current and prospective consulting clients. In 1989, I got my first email account, after which I distributed issues electronically.
In March 1989, I launched another publication, the Journal of C Language Translation, a quarterly of at least 64 pages, for which I charged US$235/year. Yes, it was expensive! I was publisher and editor. After three years, I handed that over to another person who published issues for three more years. It certainly was a labor of love!
Proofing Manuscripts for Publishers
Once I became established as an author, I started getting requests from publishers of computer science textbooks to proof early and final drafts of books they had under contract. Most were by first-time authors, and more than a few of them were by university professors who had turned their (often not very good) teaching notes into a book. Once I got the hang of things, I was able to proof a manuscript in a relatively short time and actually make it worthwhile financially.
I well remember one instance where it was clear that this professor had taken a book on one topic and replaced various things to suit a new title. It was riddled with errors, which, of course, I pointed out. It took quite a while for the publisher to believe me. After all, four or five teaching colleagues of the author had already given it their blessing, so who was I to question that? I persisted, and after the publisher got another non-armchair expert to review the text, I was found to be the only reviewer who was actually doing his job!
Sadly, the number of titles on the market has very little to do with their quality; it's all about marketing and placement with booksellers. As I discovered, the best way to improve one's text is to find one's own reviewers.
When I started writing columns, the topics were somewhat random, and each stood alone. However, over time, I developed a plan for each series, which eventually led to turning that series into a manuscript suitable for use in a 3–5-day seminar environment. And so, my seminar business was born, and as I got experience teaching each course, I corrected and improved the teaching materials, and added problems for students to solve. As a result, I finished up with a lot of printed material that was only ever made available to paid customers attending my public and private seminars.
Discovering Essays, My Blog
In 1995, when my wife went back to university, she had to take an English class, and she chose to do it on a compressed schedule—eight days over four consecutive weekends—at a local Community College. Not having taken university-level English either, I decided to tag along. As it happened, the theme was essays. For me it was a whole new form of writing and as well as liking to read essays I found I was quite good at writing them.
By 2007, printed magazines were getting slimmer by the issue with many being discontinued or moved to on-line editions only. And with the availability of so much stuff on the internet for free, the opportunities to continue paid writing for publication like I had been doing pretty much dried up.
In mid-2009, I came up with the idea of starting a blog, on which I'd post a 6–8-page essay each month. The subject matter would not be about my work, per se, however. Of course, that is the very blog on which this essay was first published. It debuted in December of that year and has continued ever since.
Learning English Grammar
Having spent half of my elementary school years in a one-teacher school with seven grades being somehow taught in parallel, it is easy to see why I had few grammar skills when I started high school. Of course, by then, one was expected to have said skills, so they were not taught there. Fifteen years after I finished high school and started writing for publication, I still thought that grammar was the person married to grandpa! Imagine my surprise some years later when I learned that grammar was not in fact married to grandpa; they just lived together "without the benefit of clergy" and practiced conjugation.
English grammar can be an awfully dry subject to learn, and I was teaching myself. However, from time to time, I really got in the mood, and the first of my essays on English grammar debuted in July 2013 (English – Part 3: Nouns), followed by November 2013 (English – Part 4: Pronouns), November 2014 (English – Part 5: Adjectives), April 2016 (English – Part 6: Verbs), and October 2017 (English – Part 7: Adverbs). One fine day, I just might get around to covering prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.
Who knew that at the grand old age of 60 I'd be writing essays on English grammar and playing grammar policeman? It really is never too late!
Writing as a Business
In December 1984, I started work on a committee producing a 450-page formal specification for a computer programming language. All of a sudden, the use of shall vs. should, and must vs. may became very important.
In 2000, I took on my first consulting project as an editor of a similar document for a different programming language. I started with an almost-complete 500-page specification, so was mostly involved with modifying it over the next six years. [In 2022, I'm still expanding it!] In 2003, I took on a similar project, but this time, I started with a blank sheet, and had to manage the growth and evolution of what became a 300-page specification as well as contribute substantial passages to it. Then in 2005, I started again from scratch, contributing 600-pages to what became a 6,500-page specification, which I am still managing in 2022. In more recent years, I've written several 200-page formal specifications for other programming languages. [One was for Facebook, and covered the PHP language. The other was for Microsoft, and covered their PowerShell tool.]
While I now have a lot of experience in the writing and publishing world, there is always more to learn, and new technology to deal with. I started with a simple line text editor on my IBM PC, and progressed to a full-screen text editor, through a series of ever-smarter editors that understood certain programming languages, committed in a big way to Microsoft Word, and more recently to using markdown on GitHub, a very popular platform for collaborative text creation and editing. Who knows what the next big editing tool will be, but we can be sure there will be one!
The choice of words can make a big difference, and in my world I often deal with people I never meet in person and whose first (or even second) language is not English. As such, I have gotten in the habit of "getting it right" even in casual conversation. I started to realize this one day when I caught myself about to end a spoken sentence with a preposition (something frowned upon by many purists), and rearranged the word order in my brain before I actually spoke it. And as far as the written word goes, I'm a huge fan of the rule set down by Strunk and White, "Less is more!" Basically, don't say in 20 words what you can say in 10! For example, "At this point in time, …" can and should be replaced with "Now, …." Politicians take note!
So, what else is there for me to do with regards to writing? Although I've never written fiction, a few years ago, I was lying awake in rural Germany with jetlag in the very early hours of the morning, and an idea for a series came to me. After an hour or so of thinking about it, I got out of bed and started writing down all my ideas lest I forgot them. It centered on an animated object with a clever name, whose adventures followed my travels. The idea was that each installment would be no more than a page and would be anchored by a photo of that object in some particular situation. Over the next week, I refined the idea quite a bit, but once I got back home to the "real world" the idea was "put on hold" where it has remained ever since. Perhaps I'll revisit it on a cold and rainy pandemic day!
I can honestly say that while I know some general (and R-rated) limericks, I have never had much of an appreciation for poetry. However, I have long been able to invent rhymes and song lyrics. On several, very rare occasions, I even managed to write what turned out to be a coherent poem. Here's a sample:
The Turning Point
A friend once said that life was hard
And man was born to thirst.
For power and love and knowledge
But only then at first.
For as he found the secrets
That unlocked his mystery door,
He surely must be blinded
By the treasures held in store.
And here's a humorous one I wrote for my sister on the occasion of her 50th birthday:
Happy Birthday, Sis!
As you get close to fifty
Things really aren't so nifty.
If you'll give me a minute, I'll explain
Your bum it starts dragin'
And your bosoms they start sagin'
And your hemorrhoids really give pain.
Arthritis sets in and your memory gets dim
And the bags 'neath your eyes start to sag.
And you spend half the day in the bog up the way
'Cos your personal plumbing's gone bad.
I know this sounds awful but that's aging you know.
We all have to do it my dear.
It happens really regular (like you used to be)
And it progresses a little each year.
So, the best advice I can say
Is to pass wind twice a day
And ignore all the gossip you hear.
There's more problems in store on the way to three score.
Which, by the way, will be in ten years!
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, look out!
For the past 40-odd years, I've travelled a great deal, and very early on, I got in the habit of keeping a travel diary, initially in paper form. Edited versions of more than a few of these have ended up as essays in this blog with titles of the form, "Travel – Memories of …." I've also produced an annual newsletter for friends and family around the world. For some years, that was also done in audio form.
Early in 2021, just after I turned 67, I started thinking about the future of my intellectual property, especially beyond my lifetime. When one dies, does that material just get lost forever? In an effort to not have that happen, for the stuff I can sell, I'm investigating doing that. And for that which still has value, but has no sale value (like my recently revised 1989 book), I'm looking at making it freely available on some website.
Oh, just in case you have been thinking about writing a book, YES, it is exciting when you first see your name on a book in a bookstore!