A deep reverence for technology

Emma Patten-Hitt

Being a relative newcomer to freelance science writing — I've been at it since 1997 — I can't remember or even imagine having to use a typewriter to do my job. I mean, retyping over and over again — perish the thought! I can, however, remember a world without the Internet (as well as a world without VCRs and microwave ovens; OK, I'll get it over with, I'm 34), and I have a deep reverence for the way in which technology can improve life. As a freelance, I'm always looking for legitimate technological shortcuts, although I suffer from bouts of neotechnophobia just as much as the next person. Emma Patten-Hitt

Her favorite, most basic tool is her DSL connection.

Perhaps my favorite and most basic technology shortcut is my DSL Internet connection. It never ceases to amaze me that within five minutes I can look up more information than I'll ever need to know about dracunculiasis, remind myself of the different forms of meningitis, and find out how much money I've lost on the NASDAQ that day. For added medical lingo capabilities, I use Taber's medical dictionary on CD-ROM [book and CD-ROM package $61.75 from http://www.bn.com] which is much quicker than thumbing though the dictionary itself.

Now those of you who have a 56K (or less?) modem and are considering switching to a DSL or cable connection, I can tell you that the cost of a DSL or cable, which isn't much anyway ($50 per month at the time I write) has paid for itself several times over. I say make the switch and don't look back. You won't regret it.

'. . . driving and instant communication don't mix.'

Vying for position as my most-loved technology shortcut is my wireless e-mail pager [a RIM 950 from Cingular Wireless, http://www.bellsouthwd.com/demo/index.html, about $200 plus $50 per month for unlimited service]. All my emails show up on my pager because I have them forwarded there. I can read them as they come in, and if they are important or I want to save them, then I forward them to my home computer. Having the device means that I can be at a conference (or getting my nails done) and receive e-mail from clients or prospective clients directly to my hip. I get back with them right away. This reduces the frustration they would feel from not being able to reach me immediately, and they find themselves inexplicably drawn toward giving me more work. This is my theory anyway.

Cell phones are useful. I have one of those too, but I think most clients would rather e-mail than pick up a phone. A small caveat about using these devices while driving: About three weeks ago, while glancing down at my e-mail pager, I managed to cause several thousand dollars worth of damage to my car. Don't let this happen to you! It really is true; driving and instant communication don't mix.

One software program has more than doubled her writing speed.

The advantages of a fast laptop or desktop don't need addressing, but I will say that I recently invested in a new laptop — a Dell Inspiron 4000, replete with floppy, zip, and CD-ROM/DVD drives and lots of gigs [http://www.dell.com — price: about $1,700]. Compared to my old laptop, an antique from 1997, the new one's a dream. It weighs less than 6 lbs and its speed (700 MHz) has greatly increased my productivity at conferences.

I'm not a fan of rushing out and buying the latest software, because I usually stop using it after the initial thrill has worn off. But there is one program — Dragon Naturally Speaking Voice Recognition software — which has more than doubled my writing speed [http://www.dragonsys.ca/, about $100]. You talk into the microphone and watch the words appear in MS Word as you speak. Dragon takes about half an hour to set up and then you improve its capabilities by training it while you use it. I find it's most valuable for pieces in which I am paraphrasing from looking at a hard copy of something as I dictate, which is the type of work I mostly do.

When it comes to putting down my thoughts on paper, as with this piece, the software doesn't work so well — too much hemming and hawing. The microphone that comes with the software doesn't work very well either, so I purchased a $60 SB digital USB microphone made by Telex, model H-531 from CompUSA, which improves accuracy to about 95% (about one error per line of writing).

I suppose I have to mention Palm organizers. I don't have one, so perhaps I don't know what I'm missing, but I shudder at the thought of losing all my addresses and phone numbers to cyberspace, which is what happened to a friend of mine. I'm also way too impatient to keep my schedule by penning that weird alphabet. One model of the Palm offers Internet capabilities, but not the kind I need. So no Palm for me just yet.

Last but not least, I can't imagine my life as a freelance without one of those $15 thingies from Radio Shack that allows you to tape a phone interview, which the man who answers the phone at Radio Shack calls a "telephone recorder." Or an all-in-one fax-printer-scanner with OCR software.

I'm sure I've left out some important technologies (like digital recorders and headsets, for example), but these are the basics that have improved my life as a freelance. Please contact me at emma@emmasciencewriter.com with your own ideas. This will help me update this piece in a year or so, by which time it will probably be laughably out of date.

Copyright 2001 by Emma Patten-Hitt

Emma Patten-Hitt is a freelance based in Atanta, Georgia. Emory University bestowed her Ph.D. (in nutrition, with a molecular biology emphasis) in March 2001. But Emma decided to become a science writer in 1997 while in the lab, just after she had allowed her samples to run off the gel for the umpteenth time. Among her clients: Praxis Press, Reuters Health, BioMedNet, CBS HealthWatch, the American Cancer Society, Doctor's Guide, and others. http://www.emmasciencewriter.com

Jan. 1, 2001