December's Freelance Blog: Year-End Review

man with binoculars looks at 2019 numerals

When your year starts with a layoff, you know it’s going to be a roller coaster. Let go from a job I really thought was The One (I know, I know) I realized that its whole purpose was to set me back on the path I should’ve committed to after my first layoff.

I can see this realization dawning throughout my blog posts for the year. In a lot of ways the year has been about noticing all the ways, large and small, that I’ve managed to self-sabotage; and then learning to correct them, getting my feet underneath me again.

For example, during my 8-month self-employment stint in 2016, a lot of the same problems from my first stint (2009-2012) kept cropping up. I didn’t feel confident in my selling skills, so client-getting felt challenging. When someone did hire me, I didn’t feel confident doing the work, either.

When you’ve lived your entire life feeling defective, you naturally think you’re just kind of muddling along in the world, doing the best you can while not really fitting in. What was really the case was that all along, I had tried to fit my square storytelling peg into a round data-oriented hole.

ADHD is an interest-oriented neurology, and as time went on, I grew to realize that business isn’t one of my interests. Data is interesting to me in some respects, but I’m more interested in the unpredictable and immeasurable, the things about us humans and nature overall that can’t be quantified or controlled.

Of course, this isn’t helpful to driving business growth. But the people who make the business decisions are ultimately still human, and it’s this humanness that I’ve always tried to appeal to through marketing. Clients who hire me get this, too.

So, while I’m still working with marketing clients, I’m not chasing; I’m welcoming. In the meantime:

My return to my journalism roots

By July, with a few new articles posted that I either felt proud of or felt I could’ve improved — i.e., I wanted to be able to devote the time to improve them — I realized that my decision in February to “do something different” was really my heart calling me back to the thing I was really good at doing: storytelling.

While I dealt with some impostor syndrome around whether trade journalism could really be considered “real” journalism (criticism for writing “PR fluff” had stuck with me), I soon came to realize that a good part of what I loved about it was the chance to help people do their jobs better.

In fact, that was always my favorite part of marketing. In marketing, the white papers I was proudest of were those I’d written to help digital forensic examiners testify in court about how vendor tools work.

In fact, I learned years later — the month before my last layoff, probably the time I needed to hear it most — that one of those papers had helped a deputy attorney general to develop policy.

The more I write this year, the more I see how the law, digital technology, and social issues intertwine. I may not write “hard hitting,” but my filter-less, focus-less ADHD brain helps me make connections and see a much bigger picture.

One thing I did do in the name of professional development was to take a few free Poynter Institute refreshers. In their course “Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics,” they outlined a list of questions meant to help journalists assess their performance every three to six months; to identify past challenges and think about ones they’re likely to encounter in the future. My list is slightly paraphrased but serves as a good year-end reflection:

Best story / story I’m proudest of

For journalism, I think it’s between these three:

  • Facebook’s Privacy Manifesto: What Does It Mean for Digital Forensic Investigations? My first piece of true journalism in seven years — not counting pieces written on employers’ behalf — turned out really well, with the right blend of sources from different digital forensics backgrounds.
  • Investigating Non-Consensual Intimate Image Sharing. This was a tricky piece to write because most of the problem is legal, not procedural. I had some great attorney sources along with a law enforcement source who each provided very unique perspectives. It ran long — I had to cut chunks out that I was sad not to be able to print — but I copied them into a followup piece that I’m hoping to sell this year.
  • Hacking My ADHD. This was a not insignificant departure into first-person narrative journalism, and I really enjoyed it. A lot of first-person is written in “confessional” tone, and I’m not a big fan of that, but I believe in sharing experiences to help others make sense of theirs. That’s a theme that feels like it’s emerging for 2020, too.

On the fiction side, I finalized one novella and completed a second, and you’ll find them both in my upcoming novella collection coming later in 2020 from Running Wild Press.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Forensic Focus Legal Update (Part 1 and Part 2), my collaboration with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C); SEARCH, the National Consortium of Justice Information and Statistics; and attorneys from around the industry.

I’d been wanting to do something like this since I started with Forensic Focus, but it required the right confluence of legal experts to make it truly shine. I found that synergy with the NW3C, which I think comes through on the upcoming podcast we’ll be sharing.

Speaking of which…

“Stretch” accomplishment of the year

podcast microphone in box

It was a little bit of a leap for me this year when Forensic Focus asked me to host and produce a new podcast. I don’t listen to podcasts as a general rule — I process information best through reading and writing vs. listening* — and I’d never before done audio file editing, which documentation and tutorials weren’t helping me grok.

It was hard to make mental room for such a new thing. I had no point of reference for any of the skills except the actual interview, and even that managed to psych me out because recording makes me self-conscious. (I currently have raw audio where, after twice flubbing my own script, I’m silently working to pull myself together while my interviewees wait. It’s a little bit painful.)

But I prevailed — you can read more about that process here — and on the whole I’m pretty proud of what this is becoming. You can listen and subscribe here — be sure to catch up with our three episodes featuring DFIR Training’s Brett Shavers, DeSales University’s Joe Walsh, and Teesside University’s Graeme Horsman on a variety of topics from mental health to academics. Early in the new year we’ll also make available our latest episode with the NW3C legal experts!

* I’m a good listener, but it takes extra effort to actually process what’s being said. If I’m too tired or distracted to make that effort, I end up making people repeat what they’ve said.

My biggest disappointment

A couple of stories fell short of my own standards: for instance, writing stories with fewer than the minimum three sources I strive for, or with an overreliance on other articles. I mean, by internet standards, I’m probably fine, and my clients and readers aren’t complaining. I just think (pretty much perennially) that I can do better.

I’d also like to have sold more non-DFIR-related articles as well as short stories, but I struggled to find time to pitch. Likewise getting a consistent crowdfunding momentum rolling. I’m working on correcting that particular time problem in the new year, which I’ll write about more in a forthcoming blog post.

Most helpful source

I can’t play favorites here. Most of my sources have been helpful both on the record and behind the scenes, helping me understand different issues as I shape stories. I can tend to over- and underestimate the significance of different things, so the guidance — whether on background or on the record — is enormously important. Big thanks to all my sources, even if I couldn’t name you!

Source I angered most

Yep, this is in the Poynter list! Its presence there might mean it’s an area for improvement: I strive not to anger sources. This isn’t grounded in people-pleasing (which I do struggle with, but not in this context) so much as in the desire to be as accurate as possible. As in legal writing, tech writing relies on very precise word choices, and editing for efficiency’s sake can alter a sentence’s entire meaning.

Journalism, of course, places story above all else, including sources’ feelings (or egos), but technical accuracy is a hill I’ll die on. Having said that, if I were going to anger a source for any reason, I’d hope they’d be willing to work through it with me. But I’d understand if they didn’t, and I’d seek out sources who are a better fit.

Best story idea I haven’t been able to pursue yet

A few, but I’m working on those. Stay tuned!

I may be focused on journalism, but I’ll still discuss your marketing project if you need content support for your website, blog, white papers, case studies, articles, or email. Contact me for more information — or if you have a cool story idea you’d like me to work on!

Feature Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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