In this post: opportunities for non-fiction writers, a talk from one of them (me), and an invitation for all of them (you) to this month’s regular Stranger Than Fiction meeting.
Stranger Than Fiction September 2015
Thanks to all who side-stepped one of these lovely late summer evenings we’ve been getting to come along to September’s Stranger Than Fiction session. Without any text to discuss, we had a lively few hours sharing our problems and progress and the occasional opportunity. Autumn is here now though, and with it lots of non-fiction action.
Stranger Than Fiction October 2015
Our next meeting is at 7.30pm on Thursday 22nd October 2015, upstairs in the Wash Bar on the Mound. If you want some feedback on the project you’re currently writing, let me know and we can discuss details. We normally aim to circulate submissions a week ahead of each meeting, to give everyone a chance to read them ahead of the session, so the October deadline for sending in a chapter or two is Friday 16th October. And as a rule it’s a good idea to have attended someone else’s feedback session first before putting your own work up for discussion, so that you know what to expect.
Scottish Books Trust opportunities
There are a couple of SBT schemes of potential interest to STFers. The annual SBT Mentoring Scheme is accepting applications for 2016 now, with a deadline of 28th October. “If you are a published writer who has completed a substantial amount of content and you need some additional support, mentoring could be for you. Mentoring can bring a fresh perspective to a project, help you develop your skills and grow in confidence as a writer.” There are a number of conditions of course, but the scheme is explicitly open to narrative non-fiction authors. Details here: http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/writing/scottish-book-trust-training-awards/mentoring.
The SBT is also running another Next Chapter Award. The Next Chapter Award supports an emerging writer over the age of 40 yet to publish a full-length work for whom finding time and space to write has proved especially challenging. It includes a cash bursary, mentoring and a two-week writing retreat in Spring next year. The deadline for applications is 4th November, and narrative non-fiction authors are again explicitly included. details of that here: http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/writing/scottish-book-trust-training-awards/next-chapter-award.
Weegie Wednesday non-fiction talk
For my sins, I am giving the keynote talk at October’s Weegie Wednesday. It’s at 7.30pm on Wednesday 14th October 2015, in the CCA bar on Sauchiehall Street. I will be expanding on the short talk about Stranger Than Fiction which I gave at the Salon earlier this year, mostly to talk about the absurd flukes and chances which have informed my career path so far. Needless to say it would be lovely to see some friendly faces in the crowd; but in any case Weegie Wednesday is a networking opportunity worth travelling to Glasgow for.
STF Christmas 2015
We don’t have a formal meeting in December. In the past I’ve hosted a Christmas social for STFers and partners in my flat, although last year life got in the way and I had to cancel. If you’re on our mailing list you will have received an email looking into various alternatives and asking for your feedback. I am happy to host again, but it should not all be down to me. It’s important that STF is directed by all its members, not just by the guy that sends the emails!
And finally … Krakow
Rather surprisingly, I have been chosen to represent Edinburgh UNESCO City of LIterature in Krakow UNESCO City of Literature next week! There was a short application window, and I can only assume that there were no other applicants, or that no one else was free to go next week! But more probably, it is because of the work that Stranger Than Fiction does in putting non-fiction writers in the frame. I am quite sure that the existence of STF, and the numbers of those attending and following its activities, has made a huge difference to the credibility of non-fiction writers in Edinburgh’s literary panoply. So to the Polish Consulate, to City of Edinburgh Council, to Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and especially to you my fellow STFers, thank you for my trip! (It’s not a holiday – I do actually have to write stuff about the two cities and their literary heritage.)
If you’re on our mailing list, please let me know your views on a Christmas social. Please let me know if you’d like to get some feedback yourself at the October meeting. I hope to see you at Weegie Wednesday AND at Stranger Than Fiction this month. And if you’re in Krakow next week Mon-Thu, get in touch! Above all, and as always, best of luck with all your non-fiction writing.


How was your summer? Glad it’s over? Sad it’s over? Either way, you can’t stop progress or the changing of the seasons. I always think that the temperature drops instantly with the last explosion of the Festival Fireworks and we’re plunged, like it or not, into the mists and mellow fruitfulness of the autumn program of Stranger Than Fiction meetings.
STF Summer Social
It was nice to meet up with many STFers at the Summer Social last month. About a dozen of us turned up at the Spiegeltent in the Book Festival, and promptly split into two groups of those who did and didn’t want to go in and see what Neu! Reekie were doing in the Unbound program. We became, I suppose, two non-fiction factions. A good time was had by all.
STF September 2015
We reconvene this month for the serious business of drinking and talking on Thursday 24th September 2015, meeting as usual at 7.30pm upstairs in the Wash Bar. It’s not too late to submit a chapter or two from whatever you’ve been writing over the summer, if you’d like to get the constructive feedback of your peers. Get in touch and I’ll book you in. Besides any contributions from members it will be a chance to catch up on what we’ve all been writing, to exchange news of opportunities and get the advice of other non-fiction writers on the problems which beset us all. Hope to see you then.
We’ve submitted a proposal for an event to the Edinburgh International Science Festival for their 2016 program. Breaking away from the conversation format of our previous contributions, we’ve come up with a panel game called Stranger Than Fiction, based loosely on all the other panel games but with particular reference to Call My Bluff, Would I Lie To You and The Unbelievable Truth. We’ll be telling each other and the audience a pack of lies in the form of short talks about various aspects of science and scientists. Hidden in the talks will be a number of truths which the audience will be challenged to spot. If I’m not making myself clear, here’s a random example of The Unbelievable Truth, which will give you a better idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzk6v5oL4iI. If our idea is accepted, we will need the help of all STFers to come up with short, witty, mendacious scripts.
Society of Authors
STFer Sue Lieberman has drawn my attention to a forthcoming visit by Society of Authors Media Consultant Kristen Harrison. Kristen visits Edinburgh about twice a year, and is interested in offering an advisory workshop to a small group on one of her next visits. It would be a 1.5-2hr session for a group of no more than four people. Would any STFers be interested in taking part? Sue has already had a consultation with her and says, “I can really recommend Kristen. She can cover issues to do with marketing and your writing “presence” in the public eye, including use of social media and your website profile. I had an individual phone session with her recently, and it was excellent. She did her homework, grasped “who I was” very quickly and came up with advice that was thoughtful, and tailored to me. A group session has additional benefits in that people can exchange experience and help each other.” If you want to know more, get in touch..
Other literary networking
Besides Stranger than Fiction, other literary networking events are also gearing up for the autumn. Weegie Wednesday is on Wednesday 16th September 2015, from 7.30pm in the CCA on Sauchiehall Street. I will be going along, partly because it’s a great chance to meet publishers and fellow writers and partly because I am to be a guest speaker (about Stranger Than Fiction and my own non-fiction work) at the October Weegie Wednesday. If anyone wants to join me next week, get in touch.
After a summer hiatus, the Edinburgh Literary Salon is also back this month, on Tuesday 29th September 2015 from 6pm, downstairs in the Wash Bar. Apart from the opportunity to hobnob with your fellow literary Edinburgers, two committee members from Weegie Wednesday are also coming through to see how we do things in the east. Edinburgh and Glasgow really are not that far apart, and I think there should be much more cross-pollination than there is at present. (I’m doing my bit – I’m from Glasgow and I bloomin’ LIVE here in Edinburgh!)
Let me know if you want to put a piece of work up for discussion this month or at a future STF session. I hope to see you soon at Weegie Wednesday, Stranger Than Fiction or the Edinburgh Literary Salon, or perhaps at all three. As always, best wishes for all your non-fiction writing.

If we were a football club, we’d be coming to the end of a great season. We’ve celebrated our fifth anniversary in the PLLG (premier league of literary groups), and finished the season with a great win at our July meeting: 2-0. Two really good submissions, both about food, both sparking lively discussion. How much emotional and descriptive detail do you put in or leave out? Is the reader always right? Should you dumb down? Should you include pictures? Should you include jokes? Should you fictionalise your material? (Surprisingly enough, a resounding No from us non-fiction writers on the last point.)

Summer Break and Autumn Restart
It was a good meeting to end the first half of our year on, and many of us stayed on in the Wash Bar long after the game was over. We take a break from formal sessions now until September, but watch this space for news of an informal social get-together towards the end of August. Our next regular session is on Thursday 24th September, at 7.30pm in the Wash Bar. If you want to use that as a deadline for getting on with your current non-fiction project over the summer, go for it! Let me know if you are thinking of submitting an extract for feedback in September, or indeed for later in the year. We have four more sessions left in 2015 before we take another break over Christmas.

Writers’ Essentials
At the July session we also discussed our possible contribution to the Writers’ Essentials novel-writing course. The consensus was that we non-fiction writers often have a greater sense of readership than novelists, because we are often writing to a publisher’s brief, a commission for the publisher’s target market. Even in the case of self-motivated non-fiction such as memoir, at Stranger Than Fiction the discussion often turns to a consideration of readership and marketability. STFers have a greater awreness of their readers than many writers. Sarah Hull of Writers’ Essentials is also interested in collaborating on other fiction-nonfiction events separate from the course.

We spent some time at the meeting brainstorming ideas for our contribution to next year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival. Having contributed panel discussions for the last two years, it’s been suggested we could aim for something more structured now. So far our events have looked at writing about science, and w are after all writers, not scientists. But perhaps we can also draw on our writerly skills to present actual science in an accessible way, just as we do when we’re writing about it. What about a quiz show format? Or a cookery show format to present the science of food? Or an exploration of the science of book production – paper, parchment, vellum, the mechanics of book-binding? These were all suggestions last night. What next?
Thursday 6th August, 3pm: EISF are holding an information event where we can find out more about the festival and the sort of contribution they are looking for.
Tuesday 1st September, 5pm: EISF’s deadline for proposals. In my experience this need not be a detailed proposal, but should at least give enough information for them to think, “Ooh yes, we want something like that.”
Somewhere in amongst those dates, it would useful for any interested STFers to get together and come up with an idea. I imagine a couple of brainstorming sessions, one before and one after the information event, would be useful. Please let me know if you would be interested in helping to devise our event, even if you don’t want to be part of it on the day next April. You don’t have to be a science writer, just a writer with ideas!

Diary dates
STF summer social, late August
STF September 2015 meeting, Thursday 24th September at 7.30pm in the Wash Bar

I hope to see you at an EISF brainstorm or at one or all of these dates! But in any case, good luck with all your summer non-fiction writing.
Best wishes,

Happy Birthday Us!
Thanks to everyone who came along to celebrate our fifth anniversary this month. There was, as promised, cake – for those of you who missed it, this is what it looked like, although not for long: I had little more than the silver foil base to take home afterwards.

STF 5th anniv cake 1

Since that first meeting in May 2010 attended by founders Gillian Jack and Sharon Whyte, and Helen Caldwell and Richard Beatty, STF has had 51 meetings in 5 different venues and discussed the work of 22 authors in 36 submissions. We’ve also staged 2 public events, and our mailing list has grown from that first group of four to inform 70 non-fiction writers of our monthly sessions.

We are Edinburgh’s non-fiction writers’ group, and we play an important role in the literary life of the city. Thank you to everyone who has ever come along to a meeting, to everyone who hopes to in the future, and especially to all the authors who have allowed us to review their work in progress. It’s been an honour.

Stranger Than Fiction May 2015
Besides scoffing cake we had a very enjoyable session giving Reta feedback on her memoir. We first discussed an extract from it a year ago, and it was interesting and encouraging to see the impact which that first session had on the material we discussed this month. Thanks for sharing, Reta.

Stranger Than Fiction June 2015
Our next meeting is on Thursday 25th June 2015. It looks as if we’ll have a submission to discuss; and we are also expecting a guest speaker. Details nearer the time, but both author and speaker will benefit from your presence and your views! I hope you can come along – it’s at 7.30pm, upstairs in the Wash Bar on the Mound.

Stranger Than Fiction on the Internet
As I mentioned before, we now have a proper website address, and should discuss what we want to use it for. In preparation for this I thought it would be useful to know how individual STFers use the internet. I’ll circulate a list of memebers’ blogs and websites some time next month. We can all learn from each others’ use of the web, and perhaps develop some sort of concensus about what a Stranger Than Fiction website might do for us.

Edinburgh Literary Salon
At rather short notice, a reminder that TOMORROW Tuesday 26th May 2015 in this month’s Edinburgh Literary Salon. After raising the profile of non-fiction at last month’s Salon, it will be interesting to see if the poets, who were the butt of a joke or two in April, are out for revenge! Joking apart, it’s always a great evening for meeting writers in other disciplines, not to mention non-writers (agents, illustrators, booksellers, publishers etc) with an interest in the published word. It starts at 6pm, downstairs in the Wash Bar on the Mound.

Keeping your work safe
All three of Keith Houston‘s articles about keeping your work safe on computer and internet are now up on Stranger Than Fiction’s blog. It has been very generous of Keith to share his wisdom with us, particularly as he will soon be leaving Edinburgh (and Stranger Than Fiction). His insights during feedback sessions have always been useful too. Thanks for your good counsel, Keith.

Feedback sessions
We have two more meetings before our summer break in August. If anyone is working on something which they’d like the feedback of their fellow non-fiction authors, get in touch so that we can book a slot for your work! If you’re in any doubt about the value or friendliness of doing such a thing, just ask one of the 22 authors who have already done so. To help you plan, the July meeting is on Thursday 23rd July, and after a break we reconvene on Thursday 24th September.

I hope to see you at the Salon tomorrow, or at our next meeting in June. As always, good luck with all your non-fiction writing.

Stranger Than Fiction was invited to give one of the keynote talks at the beginning of this month’s Edinburgh Literary Salon. Colin Salter stepped up, and here’s what he said:

Non-fiction. It’s odd to be asked to talk about something which is defined by what it is not. You tell people you’re a writer. “Oh, what do you write?” “We-e-ell, it’s not fiction …”

Non-fiction authors are often seen as the chartered accountants of the literary world, just logging facts and figures – keeping the books rather than writing them. But we face the same challenges as fiction writers in telling our stories and constructing clear narratives for our readers. For that reason I think it’s a great pity that we are excluded from events such as, for example, Storyshop in the Edinburgh Book Festival. Because after all, WE tell stories too!

The only difference is that we can’t make stuff up. We can’t un-behead kings in our histories, or invent fantastical creatures for our bestiaries, or write happy endings for the subjects of our biographies or case studies. But we can tell our truths with clarity and as much poetry and drama as any fiction writer.

Stranger Than Fiction is Edinburgh’s non-fiction writers’ group. It was founded five years ago by Gillian Jack and Sharon Whyte, who saw the need for a forum to discuss their non-fiction work with their peers in a way that fiction authors’ groups were already doing. Since then we’ve met almost every month: 50 meetings now in our five years, and we’ve peer-reviewed 35 submissions from 22 different non-fiction authors.

Our members write books on everything from alchemy to zoology via social history, psychotherapy, literary criticism and personal memoir. Peer review is at the heart of what we do, but we also talk about the qualities and challenges of non-fiction in general; and we’ve just staged our second public event doing just that, a panel discussion about the value of science biography, at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

We meet on the Thursday before the Salon, here in the Wash Bar, at 7.30pm. Our next meeting is 21st May. If you’re a writer with a serious interest in writing non-fiction, you are very welcome to join us. We are open to non-fiction authors at every stage of their career – general writers, specialists, widely published authors and first-timers.

Someone asked me what the difference was between Stranger Than Fiction and other writers’ groups. I don’t write fiction at all so I don’t really know what fiction groups get up to; but I’ve been told that we are unusually friendly and supportive, and not as bitchy as poetry groups!

Non-fiction authors aren’t just authors: they have to be authorities. They are the writers that fiction authors read when researching their next novel! What do we write? Non-fiction, or as we like to call it, fact.

News, reviews and previews! A look back at a busy month for Stranger Than Fiction, but more importantly a look forward to future development, future events and a landmark anniversary.

Stranger Than Fiction April 2015 meeting
We had a very lively meeting this month. Without a submission to consider, it was a good chance for newer members to meet older ones, and to find subject matter and writing issues in common. It almost seemed a shame to interrupt the many animated individual conversations to encourage a more open one on the subject of STF’s future. That too was animated and fruitful. Much of what we discussed applies to items in this newsletter, so read on …

Science Festival success
April also saw Stranger Than Fiction‘s second foray into public events, when we were invited back to stage a panel discussion at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. This year’s theme was science biography – and the panel debated its value in communicating science and engaging public interest in science. It was an interesting exploration of the subject. We were up against some famous names holding concurrent events in the same building; but our smalll audience was engrossed and asked some big questions during the Q&A finale. Congratulations to all the panellists, and grateful thanks to Mhairi Stewart for taking the chair and organising the event.

For the future: Not all STFers write science or even have an interest in it; and looking to the future it would be perfectly possible to apply the panel format (or indeed to devise other formats) to to discuss other non-fiction subjects – for example history, tourism or therapy, to think of just three which are well represented among STFers at the moment. If Stranger Than Fiction wants to continue to expand into public events, one suggestion last week was to have a few events prepared in advance that we can offer to literary festivals or other specialist gatherings. Another suggestion was to prepare a series of STF workshops on particular aspects of non-fiction writing. We certainly have the expertise! If anyone has suggestions for ways to expand in this area, do please get in touch.

Keeping your work safe
I’ve just posted the third of Keith Houston‘s articles about keeping your work safe on computer and internet. This one looks at passwords and online security, and like the first two is full of wise and useful tips. If you missed the first two, there are links to them at the start of the third. I’ll post the fourth and final one next month. Thanks as ever to Keith for giving us the benefit of his knowledge and experience.

For the future: Stranger Than Fiction‘s internet presence is one area of activity which is almost certain to expand in the future. Our website is a WordPress blog. Apart from Keith’s articles it is desperately underused. (Our Twitter account, @edinburghnonfic, is similarly ineffective most of the time.) There is scope for example for guest articles by STF members – book reviews, publishing experiences, first steps in non-fiction and much more. Should we have a non-fiction forum? a members’ area on the website? (Of course, we don’t even have formal membership, and that’s another matter!). Not all of us are up to speed on the business of author blogs, which are such a vital tool of self-promtion these days. Should we devote a future meeting to sharing blog experience and expertise? If anyone has suggestions for blog articles or website developments, I’m listening! (We should probably buy a strangerthanfiction.org sort of address, for example; but since we don’t have memberships we don’t have any vehicle for funding such purchases, another matter for future discussion.)

Literary Salon keynote talk
Those of you on the Edinburgh Literary Salon mailing list will have noticed that I am giving one of the opening talks this month, on the subject of Stranger Than Fiction. It’s a mark of how much STF has done to raise awareness and respectability of non-fiction that we’ve been given this platform. The Salon starts at 6pm next Tuesday 28th April, downstairs in the Wash bar on the Mound; and the opening speeches happen from around 6.15pm onwards. I’m one of four speakers. I hope I do STF justice, and it would be lovely to see some friendly non-fiction faces out there!

For the future: I’ve also been asked to speak about STF at Weegie Wednesday – in November. As far as I know STF is unique and certinly there’s nothing like it in Glasgow. Perhaps as pioneers we should be encouraging the formation of non-fiction groups elsewhere. There was talk, for example, of one starting up in Dunblane at the instigation of an STFer of long standing. I can imagine there might be advantages to writers in having several forums for discussion, and to guest speakers in having several platforms from which to speak or from which to draw an audience.

Stranger Than Fiction May 2015 meeting
Our next meeting is Thursday 21st May 2015. We have one request for feedback already, and will have time for another if you fancy submitting something to the friendly scrutiny of your peers. We meet as ever at 7.30pm, upstairs in the Wash Bar on the Mound. The May meeting will be Stranger Than Fiction’s fifth anniversary. Five years since Gillian Jack and Sharon Whyte saw the need for a forum to discuss non-fiction work-in-progress in the same way that genre fiction writers and other authors have been able to do for decades. I do hope you will be able to come along and raise a glass to celebrate the community of non-fiction writers which they founded and which we all carry forward into the future.

For the future: I’ve been coordinating things at STF for the last three of those five years. I’m happy to take a little of the credit for STF’s steady progress; but I’m also aware of many fine qualities and ideas which I DON’T have and which other STFers bring to the party! It is difficult in an organisation which has no formal structure or membership to do anything other than evolve organically. But I would like to open up the coordination of STF to the input of others. Perhaps those interested could take turns at curating one of the monthly meetings, either folllowing the usual format or according to a particular theme – for example history writing, or shared experiences of blogging. I hope to discuss this more fully at the May meeting, but if you have any ideas or enthusiasm for helping to plan one of our meetings, or indeed a separate special event, do get in touch.

I hope you can make it either to the Salon next week or to our fifth anniversary meeting in May. As always, best wishes for all your non-fiction writing.

This is the third of a series of articles by Stranger Than Fiction member Keith Houston, about protecting your work from the pitfalls of computer and online usage. We’re very grateful to Keith for giving his time and expertise so freely for our benefit. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

Passwords and security

Ask yourself this: if a thief was to steal your computer or other electronic device right this minute, what could they do with it? If you’re logged in to your email account, they could read all your correspondence and impersonate you to all your contacts. (A similar problem exists for social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.) If you’re logged into an e-commerce site such as Amazon or eBay, they can spend your money. Perhaps most dangerous of all, they could read all the files on your device that are not otherwise protected. Quite aside from its material value, an unsecured laptop or mobile phone can be a treasure trove for a fraudster or identity thief.

Protecting your devices and files

The most fundamental part of securing your computer or mobile device, then, is to place some barrier between unauthorized users and your data. Typically, this means protecting it with a password or PIN so that only you, or people you trust, can use it. The details vary as to how to do this, but the following links provide basic instructions for the most common operating systems:

If a simple password isn’t quite glamorous enough for you, there are other, more esoteric means of protecting your device. If your laptop or phone has a front-facing camera, for example, you may be able to configure it to unlock only when it recognises your face. Other computers, tablets, and smartphones have fingerprint readers that obviate the need to type in a password.

Having set up a password or other protection mechanism, you will be prompted to enter that password (or look at the camera, or place your finger on the fingerprint reader) whenever you switch on your device; after it has been woken from sleep; or if you have explicitly locked it. (It is worth getting into the habit of locking your computer whenever you step away from it; phones and tablets, on the other hand, tend to go to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, and lock themselves as a result.) Though it may be frustrating at first to have to unlock your laptop or phone each time you want to use it, it quickly becomes second nature. You wouldn’t want your bank card to be usable without a PIN number, and you should treat your computer and smartphone in exactly the same way.

Even with a password in place, however, a determined thief may be able to access the contents of your computer’s hard drive or your smartphone’s memory card by physically removing it from your device and accessing it directly. For an additional layer of protection, you may wish to “encrypt” your files: this is a process that obfuscates the contents of your files so that they can only be read when some predetermined condition is met, such as the provision of an additional password, the presence of a special USB key, or your computer being physically intact. The following links explain how to encrypt files on various common operating systems:

Though it may sound daunting, encryption can usually be enabled without presenting too many additional obstacles to you, the user, while preventing unauthorised access to your files and other data. If you have protected your computer with a password and encrypted your data, a thief will find it very difficult indeed to access your files.

Online passwords

So: you’ve password-protected your computer, tablet or smartphone, and perhaps encrypted your data. These are good first step! Unfortunately, however, there are other ways in which an attacker might gain access to your data.

Much of our day to day use of computers revolves around online services: library catalogues, newspaper archives, genealogy sites, email accounts, and more. Much of our important data lives in these services, too, such as emails, documents, calendar events and more. Protecting your computer with a password stops a thief from accessing services to which you are logged in on that computer, but there is always the danger that can discover the password to a particular service and so access that service without having to steal your device at all — and without you ever realising they have done so.

The best way to fight this is to ensure that you use strong passwords for all online services. Google has some excellent advice on choosing passwords, but here are some simple rules of thumb:

  • The longer, the better. Each additional character in a password makes it an order of
    magnitude harder to guess.
  • Deliberately misspell your words. The first place a password cracker looks is the dictionary, so don’t make it easy for them. The best passwords are random strings of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  • Don’t reuse passwords across services. Email addresses, which often serve to identify users of a given service, are easily guessed. If you reuse a single password across accounts and an attacker manages to guess what it is, they now have access to all those accounts.
  • Change your passwords often If an attacker guesses your password, they may choose to observe your activity on a service rather than take control of it entirely. The best way to fight this is to periodically change your password.

It is safe to say that this advice is not universally followed. For reference, the top ten passwords used in 2014 were as follows:

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345
  4. 12345678
  5. qwerty
  6. 123456789
  7. 1234
  8. baseball
  9. dragon
  10. football

If any of these look familiar, then for the love of God, stop what you’re doing right now and change the offending passwords. Lists of common passwords like these circulate among the hackers who attack lucrative services such as email providers, online banking sites, and credit card companies, and your best defence is to pick a password that they’ll have to work hard to guess.

Managing passwords

The problem with all this is that a truly secure password — something like cyHhR4C*VY*8#yr&m&9f, for instance — is intrinsically difficult to remember. And, as we use more and more online services, we have more and more of these brain-twisting passwords to remember, increasing the temptation to use simpler passwords or to reuse the same password across services. Neither of these is a good thing.

Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to use a “password manager”. This is a piece of software (or rather, a software service) that will both generate and remember complex passwords for you. The basic concept is this:

  • You install an application, app, or browser plugin to access the service. You pick a single, strong password to log into the service.
  • As you log in to online services, the service offers to fill in username and password fields for you, and to generate and remember strong passwords for you.
  • The service encrypts these passwords in such a way that they cannot be deciphered by an attacker, even if they succeed in obtaining the encrypted passwords. Only you, with the master password, can access them, so guard it with your life.

There is much more to password managers than this (LastPass offers a decent summary here), but that’s the basic idea. Try Lastpass, 1password, or Dashlane to get started. There’s a small learning curve at first, like the rest of the measures described here, but the reward is much better online security — assuming, of course, you choose a strong master password and keep it safe.

More options

We’re almost at the end of this stroll through computer security, but there’s one last thing worth considering for even stronger protection.

Conceptually, password-based security is simple. The identity of a user is publicly known (or, like an email address, it is easily guessed), but that user can only access a service if they are also in possession of a secret, or “factor”, known only to the service — that is, their password. Recently, however, a number of services have started offering “two-factor authentication”, in which a second factor is required to correctly identify a user.

Most two-factor authentication systems require you, the user, to be in physical possession of some device or token that identifies you personally. If you enable two-factor authentication on Twitter, for example, when you try to log in with your email address and password the system will send you an SMS message with a numeric PIN that lets you complete the login process. Your mobile phone is the second factor: even if an attacker knows your password, they cannot know the PIN Twitter will send to your mobile phone.

Many services now support two-factor authentication (there is a list here) — including, for instance, the password managers mentioned above, which may assuage any concerns you have about using a single password to protect all your others.

Computer security is an enormous (and enormously complex) subject, but the measures discussed above will help you keep your data, files, and online identities protected with the minimum of effort.