On lucky breaks and saying yes

Yesterday Zeldman wrote,

The first thing I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. The year was 1995, and I was tinkering at my first website. The medium was raw and ugly, like a forceps baby; yet even in its blind, howling state, it made me a writer, a designer, and a publisher — ambitions which had eluded me during more than a decade of underachieving desert wanderings.

I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

The Maker Makes – on Design, Community and Personal Empowerment

I would be the first to admit I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I stumbled across the web in 1996. At 21 I was pregnant, out of work and with no realistic chance of going back into the job I had been doing. Working as stage crew is not compatible with newborn babies. I had left school at 16 with terrible GCSE results to study dance and all I had ever intended to do was in the theatre in some capacity, it was all I really knew.

Teaching myself HTML, then Perl and Linux systems administration might have been an odd choice, but the web saved me. It enabled me to go back into work in 2000 in a technical role; to use skills I never knew I had; to make wonderful online friends at a time when I was terribly isolated from everything I had known. As I learned things I wrote about them. It seemed obvious to me as I had learned everything I knew from things other people had written, and given freely, that I should also write – just in case it was helpful to someone else.

I helped people out in forums – at the time I used Dreamweaver and the active Macromedia forum had been really helpful to me, so I picked off the easy questions that I could answer and answered them. Paying back the help I had been given.

In time I was offered the chance to write a couple of chapters of a book. I didn’t see the articles I was writing as really writing, I was just making notes to help other people. As I’ve already explained I had no real qualifications, not even traditional qualifications in another subject, and this left me feeling pretty scared. Was I about to be “found out” as this unqualified fool who had the nerve to write an actual book! I said yes. I kept saying yes, and somehow here I am 10 years later and working on the fourth edition of the CSS Anthology. I frequently hear from people who feel one of my books really helped them to get started in this business, and that is a wonderful thing.

However you will not find techniques out there with my name on them. I’m not the inventor of a CSS trick or technique that everyone uses. All I have ever done is worked out how to do things and then written down what I did, in a way that someone who hasn’t worked it out yet can understand. I keep a list, it contains interesting things that I have done at work, that I think would make a good article, presentation or blog post. When I have time I write one up; include them in a book I’m working on or pitch it as an idea for a conference presentation.

So what I do now is not so different to what I did then. I do interesting things in the course of my job and I write – and speak – about them. That path is open to anyone. As Jeremy points out, there are always sites looking for article submissions and conferences needing speakers. If you have something interesting to say – whether it is a new technique or just a good explanation of something useful – then pitch it! If you have no writing track record then your own blog is a good place to start. If you have no speaking track record then look for local events that need speakers for short presentations.

Make 2012 the year you go out and do it. Don’t complain about the “same old faces” – be a new face! If you have something to say you will be most welcome. Don’t worry if you have nothing ground-breaking to talk about, there is always a place for well written tutorials and practical conference sessions. Pitch your work to the places it best fits. Say yes a lot, especially to the things that scare you, and be part of making the web better for yourself and for the people who will be helped by what you contribute.


Chris Cox December 31, 2011 Reply

Y’know what they say about assumptions…

I’d always assumed you came from a CS background; now I find out you’re a poster child for self-directed learning. As a self-taught designer/developer, I find that very encouraging.

I wouldn’t worry too much about being one of the “same old faces” – I personally will stop listening to the same old faces when they have nothing interesting to say, and I don’t think that’ll be any time soon.

Deb Teakle December 31, 2011 Reply

I too am a self learner and love hearing stories about how others got started. I’m not ready to ‘get out there’ yet but will definately start by making a list of interesting things to write blog posts about.

Happy New Year!

Peter Wilson January 1, 2012 Reply

I’d add that approaching mid-sized properties about guest posts – even if unpaid – is a good first step.

The mid size property is less likely to have a strict style guide for you to follow, so you can focus on your content.

You’ll almost certainly get a good reaction on the mid-sized property and you’ll feel more confident approaching a bigger one.

Simon Mackie January 3, 2012 Reply

This is a great post, Rachel! We’re certainly always looking for talented new writers for our websites and our books, and I’m sure other publishers are, too. While it’s true that certain well-established names do have a bit of “star quality” about them, I’m much more interested in commissioning writers who have something interesting and relevant to say.

CC Bass February 25, 2012 Reply

Hi Rachel, I’m so glad I stumbled into your website and read this great post!
I’m a mom and hoping the web will save me too. Thank you for passing your knowledge on, thank you!

Leave a Reply