Communications Director

Government & Military

Communications Director, Congressional Office
23:27

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Sure. So my name is [name redacted], I am the communications director for the House Natural Resources Committee Democratic Staff. I graduated undergrad in 2005.

Q: Great. And could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Yeah. I, as communications director, I am in charge of managing our proactive outreach to the media, I pitch stories about things that a ranking member Congressman Grijalva, who’s my boss, is doing legislatively. We have a really broad jurisdiction that covers mining laws, logging laws, federal land in general, including the National Park Service, so it’s my job to make sure that what we’re doing and his priorities get in the news as much as possible. So I do all the proactive pitching, along with a press secretary that I oversee. In addition, I draft a lot of our op-eds, I make sure that all of our press releases are good and accurate and thorough and well-written. I draft most of those myself, some our press secretary does. Other than that, it’s my job to keep up good relationships with reports that we work with, even if I’m not pitching them that day. Being effective is not just about writing, it’s kind of about maintaining a network and knowing that I can pitch people on an idea kind of on a moment’s notice, and that they’ll take my call and that they know that I’m reliable and trustworthy. So the writing element of my job is sort of a combination of the day-to-day business of writing press releases, emailing reporters to kind of get them hooked on an idea that I want them to be interested in, and then the sort of longer term projects of writing op-eds, pitching op-eds, staying in touch with opinion page editors. So it’s sort of a mix, it runs the gamut. And very rarely, I’ll help write or edit or both a report that we’re doing just to make sure that not only is the information accurate, which is part of the job of the policy staff, but that it’s clear and actually well-written and would convey the information that we want conveyed in a really clear and useful way. So any writing that needs doing that’s sort of public-facing, that reporters or the public will see that is not just for internal consumption, at one point or another in the process I am involved with.

Q: Great. Okay, excellent. And it sounds like you do a lot of writing. Is it possible for you to estimate maybe in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Well, in terms of work product, probably 60 to 75 percent in an average week. Because a lot of what we do is done first via press release, just as a way of getting information efficiently, and then if it’s sort of high profile, or I need to make sure that people are on things right away, then I will do some follow up phonecalls. But that’s sort of based on the writing product that I’ve already put out. So that’s sort of ancillary to– a lot of my work starts with writing and then goes from there.

Q: I see. That makes sense, yeah. I can kind of guess the answer to this, but could you dig into the primary purposes of some of these communications? Like what are you working to accomplish with these documents?

A: Sure. So I mean generally, one of our press releases will be along the lines of, “Congressman Grijalva and/or some combination of democratic members of the committee wrote a letter to the president today to say x, y, and z, to urge him to take a policy position, or to release information, or to drop this idea or pursue that idea, or stop doing something they disagree with.” Or we could just as easily be trying to get something out of the interior department, which we oversee, so we could be writing a letter to the interior secretary. Or, just as an example, just yesterday in fact, Congressman Grijalva and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Homeland Security to try to compel a new environmental analysis of our border enforcement program, which includes the potential construction of a border wall. So rather than calling 50 individual reports and saying the same thing, it’s my job to write a release that explains what we’re doing and that makes it newsworthy, which we always think is sort of self evident, but to a reporter who has ten things they could be doing that day, it’s my job to be clear and quick and useful and understand their needs and meet them as best as I can. And luckily, I used to be an environmental reporter, so I kind of understand a lot of what might grab their eye and what they need to show an editor to get approval to write a story like that. So I try to write them as close to a news article as I can, and I kind of have those professional skills in my back pocket. So that’s releases, but that’s a lot of what I do.

Q: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. That’s perfect. Do you mind telling me what you studied in school and whether you were familiar with these writing genres when you were a student?

A: That’s a funny question actually – there really is no one way to do a press release, people have different ideas and different writing styles, and people certainly bring their different ideas about how to do it to their– some press releases are shaped much more by the preferences of the member of Congress you work for. So my way of doing it is sort of a product of my journalistic training, but not everybody who is a communications director, certainly not on Capitol Hill, has that background. Some people did PR, some people studied political science and then they sort of fell into policy work, so it’s really hard to say that there is one model. So what I do is I try, like I said, to kind of write a press release as much like a finished news story as possible without going overboard and without overwriting, because generally people’s eyes will glaze over if you just go on and on and on. So I try to cut to the chase as fast as possible, I like to think I know how to write a good headline and a pretty snappy lead paragraph. The idea is to provide them with the news and not make them look for it, do that as fast as you can, and then give a quote that actually sounds like something they could plug right into a story rather than trying to– I think some people sort of make the mistake of kind of like, bait your interest but not tell you too much, but that doesn’t work as well in my experience. Anyway, I could go on and on, but that’s kind of how I operate.

Q: That’s great, that’s super interesting. Thank you, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? The first part of this is how writing assignments or tasks are given to you, though it seems to me that the answer to that is the news and the actions in the office dictate when those tasks come to you, but if you could tell me a little bit about how you prepare, steps you take from start to completion? And if it’s useful you could just pick a typical project like a press release or some other project.

A: Sure. Well the process sort of depends on what I need produce. Like for a press release, it’s a fairly straightforward process – I usually start with knowing or finding out something that we’re doing, a lot of which is somewhat staff-directed, because members of Congress can’t be everywhere and do everything. Usually a member of our staff will say, “Hey, here’s an idea, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we write this letter? Or why don’t we set up this meeting that will be open to the press? Or why don’t we call for such and such to happen?” And then we’ll kind of run that decision up the decision chain, and once it comes time to actually make the thing happen that we want everybody to know is happening, I have already been in contact with the relevant policy staff and with everybody that sort of needs to give me the information, so I have all the data and it’s kind of my job to put it into a workable order for public function. So in a way, I’m almost the internal news gathering service, like I need to know everything about what it is we’re going to do. Sometimes I need to call multiple people to make sure I have all of that information. Now it’s pretty rare that that’s time-consuming, because we all work in pretty close proximity, but sometimes I need to go around and call a policy staffer and our chief counsel and our staff director and get different parts of what I need. And again, having been a reporter, I’m fairly comfortable doing that, like my work method makes sense with that in mind. I am already good at calling people, talking to people, asking the right questions, kind of trying to be efficient with my use of information. So anyway, for a press release, that’s usually most of what goes into it, and then sitting down to write it is not, I mean at this point in my career, it’s not much of a slog. I know pretty well what the news is, and I know pretty well how to communicate it. The one question that I always have to ask myself is how much background to go into, because I’m always tempted to try to make everything as much of a story as I can, and what I mean by that is that rather than just kind of saying, “This is what happened. Here’s Congressman Grijalva’s quote, period,” – that’s what some offices do. They just kind of put it out there on the line as bluntly as possible and sort of leave it at that. And sometimes that works, especially if you know your local news market, and you know they’re not going to care about 75 percent of what you write anyway, you can kind of take that tack just blurting it out and trusting that they’re going to call you if they want more. In my case, because our jurisdiction is so broad and so weirdly distributed around the country, I have to think on the one hand, if he still represents that district back in Arizona, and they kind of have their own take on what we do, there’s the dessert, I kind of think about, are they going to care about this story if it’s not the dessert? And can I try to make them care about it anyway? Or, alternately, there are all these publications on Capitol Hill that care about Congress, so is this a story where I can present an angle that is about Congress that is not just about the environment, that I can get sort of a general political reporter interested? So I’m kind of trying to balance all of these things as much as possible, and it’s sort of an art and a science, but I really just do a lot of it by feel at this point. I have been on Capitol Hill since 2009, so I just kind of have a voice that I’ve developed over the years that my boss trusts at this point, and so after a while, you just kind of get a feel for what works best and what reporters are looking for, and I’ve just kind of come to trust it at this point.

Q: Absolutely. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. For a press release or something like that, could you talk a little bit about, does it go through multiple drafts? Does anyone else give you feedback once it’s drafted or, I assume you’re the final say on it and you’re the drafter, so how does that work?

A: So there are drafts, I mean there’s often a process of me writing a first draft, and once I’ve gotten all this information that I need, then sending the draft itself back to the people I sort of initially talked to, to say, “Okay, here’s this information we’re asking you for, why do we want it? Okay, I’ve got it, here’s my press release, does this actually say what we think we want to say? Does this make sense or am I missing something?” And so policy staff will look at it and they’ll offer suggestions, and usually they’re fairly minor, although once in awhile I’ll either have left a factoid that they realize that, “Oh no, wait, it’s important that we add this,” or whatever, if they have suggestions. And then typically they will go to the staff director who’s sort of the, well, the head of the committee staff, it’s sort of the committee equivalent of a chief of staff, so he’s sort of really the final appeal on everything the staff is doing. He’ll take a look at it, it’s very rare that he has significant rewrites, but he’ll often say, “Okay, well, for whatever reason, let’s remember to thank this person, or let’s remember that this thing happened two months ago and we need to point to it again because it’s relevant context for such and such a reason.” It’s kind of his job to be the institutional memory, and make sure that everybody’s satisfied. So yeah, there’s certainly a revision process, and like I say, it’s rare that there are significant rewrites, but there’s often a fair amount of give and take before something actually goes out.

Q: Gotcha, okay. And how long does a writing project like that, a press release like that, how long does it usually take start to finish?

A: Usually, once we know what we’re going to say, it shouldn’t take more than, I mean a representative sampling I think would run the gamut from half an hour to half a day, but it’s very rare that it, it’s not like I’ll start drafting a press release one day and then I’ll be like, “Oh boy, that took a lot out of me,” and you know, “Be ready to send it tomorrow.” To be effective, we need to be able to get these things out fairly quickly.

Q: I see, okay, great. And could you describe what is at stake in your writing?

A: Well, to a great extent, my boss’s reputation [laughter] would be one of the biggest things. I mean, I think at the same time, public perception of the issues that we oversee. It’s not like it’s just writing on need, but I think a lot of what we do, there aren’t many members of Congress who just work on environmental issues all day every day – you can’t find more than a handful. And so if we do a good job of not only policy-wise but PR-wise, we are able to get a lot more people aware of what’s happening in Congress. And if we do a poor job, then people either think the democrats aren’t doing anything, or they don’t care, or they’re bad at what they’re doing, and we can do all the good policy work in the world behind the scenes, but if no one knows it’s happening, or if they hear the wrong message about it, or if they kind of don’t know what to believe, or if they think that our message is unconvincing, then a lot of our hard work goes to waste, and that’s ultimately on me.

Q. Gotcha, that makes a lot of sense. That’s really interesting, it’s one of those things that I guess I always knew, but have never heard it articulated like that, that’s great, yeah. In what ways would you say that your academic background prepared you to write in this role?

A: I mean for both press releases and for op-eds and for generally anything else I write, my baseline is the schooling I got in journalism in undergrad, and that actually helped a lot more than you might think because, like I said earlier, a lot of what I try to do is write a press release the way I would write a news article, and knowing how those are structured and kind of knowing what reporters sort of expect out of a press release and recognizing, “Okay, here is the most important piece of information, here is the most important piece of context, here is the useful reference to some third party source of information,” – rather having to kind of read it a couple of times and sort of be searching for what’s important, or not really knowing how this is supposed to flow, I just sort of, I like to think at least now, I have enough training and I have enough experience and I sort of have enough of this under my belt that I can communicate with reporters via written work product without having to get on the phone and sort of talk them through what I’m trying to get them to see. And that started in journalism school because, obviously I had to practice writing about stories and I was actually a journalist after I graduated for four years before I came to the Hill, so I used to do a lot of the work that the people I now communicate with every day are currently doing. So I like to think I know what it is they need.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Are there ways in which you were unprepared as a writer when you entered the workforce?

A: To some extent, I’d say, I’d like to think of myself not just as school-taught but self-taught, as far as writing is concerned, and I’m sure a lot of people who write at least partially for a living would say the same. In my case, I’ve always really, my real ambition was to be a novelist, and it still is, actually, and so I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction. There’s not a lot of art into what I write [laughter] on a daily basis, because you kind of need to modulate your writing to suit the purpose, and with a press release, or to some extent, an op-ed, although those are slightly different, what you need is to kind of get to the point, you don’t need a lot of flowery language. With an op-ed, it’s a little bit different because you’re not just laying out bare facts, you’re kind of making a little bit more of an emotional as well as an intellectual argument. You’re kind of appealing to people’s sense of their values, you’re not just kind of telling them something that happened. So you need to be able to draw that out in a way that is persuasive but also sort of follows a lot of the journalistic canons, for lack of a better term. And so that, I don’t think I was as prepared for by school. There’s no class just on op-ed writing, you kind of have to learn that tool yourself.

Q: Right. Are there practical things that you did to gain those skills?

A: Well, for my own part, I actually, because I was always interested in politics anyway, I spent a fair amount of time on online political chatboards, even when I was a teenager, kind of honing my persuasive writing because I thought it was fun and interesting. I didn’t get to use those skills very often in college because it just wasn’t necessary or I wasn’t called on to do it, but I did it a lot anyway, I did it with friends, and I sort of did it recreationally. And so I didn’t necessarily write at exactly op-ed length and exactly op-ed format, but a lot of the skills I was sort of developing on my own just because I sort of found them useful and interesting and kind of intellectually stimulating to kind of write persuasively, being able to use outside information, and not just kind of have to say, “Well I think this,” but, “Here’s why I think this, and here’s the information that I used to reach this conclusion, what’s your response?” to kind of put people on the spot, to challenge people with an argument and see how they responded. So when it came time to start writing op-eds professionally – and to be clear, I draft these, it’s not just me just ventriloquizing through my boss – but over time we can sort of reach a, not exactly a mindmeld, but sort of a point at which I know what he would say and I know how he likes to say it, and I’m following his voice and he’s kind of hopefully using me as someone who can put what he says into as good a written form as possible. It’s what he’s paying me to do, so I should be good at it [laughter]. So anyway, yeah, that was something that I think I’m just sort of lucky in that I am now paid to use some skills that I wanted to develop anyway.

Q: Excellent, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Have you had any formal writing training or education since college?

A: Formal? No, not at all [laughter]. I mean, I never went to grad school, I never did any sort of creative writing certificate or anything, no.

Q: Okay, okay. Would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say that, as I say, we have a press secretary, but I have intentionally retained and been allowed to retain a lot of the formal writing duties, because I want to, and I seem to think I’m meeting the needs of the office, so I’m glad.

Q: Right, absolutely. And this is the last question actually – what skills would you say are the most central to writing in your specific role?

A: So one, accuracy, needless to say, but I think the sort of underrated one that people may not think about is speed. Because we don’t always have all day to get from, we want someone to know this is happening, to people actually knowing it’s happening, my job is to get a lot of information and then synthesize it, but when it comes time to actually write it down and get it out the door, it also needs to be done quickly, which is something you can learn in journalism school, and sometimes there’s more or less emphasis on it. But in my job in particular, if I take until three o’clock to actually get a press release out the door, it may as well just not have been written at all, because then people don’t know if anything happened, and I miss the news cycle. I can’t just treat it as a creative writing exercise, I need to be cognizant of the news cycle, and reporter’s schedules, and editing bad lines, and the fact that people sometimes need to get something to their editor by one o’clock, even if the publication doesn’t come out until the end of the day. I need to be able to meet as many deadlines as possible, and I need to be able to write something and get it out the door as fast as I can in a lot of circumstances. So yeah, being able to craft at least a serviceably good press release quickly is probably more important in this PR context than I would imagine a lot of others. Because if you have corporate PR that’s about, “Oh, we just released this product,” I mean, you can probably tell people one day just as much as the next effectively [laughter]. But in our case, it’s a little different.

Q: That’s great, thank you so much!

A: Yep, sure thing.

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Illustrator

Arts

Illustrator, Self-employed

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

22:11

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Okay. I’m Meera, I am a freelance illustrator and writer, and I work for myself, and I graduated eight years ago.

Q: Okay, great. So, could you tell me a little bit about your background as a writer and an illustrator, how you’ve come to work for yourself, and what kind of projects you typically do?

A: Sure. I worked as an editor at a technical publishing company straight out of college. I started as the intern, I became an assistant, and then I became an assistant editor, and I worked there for six years. I edited papers written by electrical engineers, so that would go into a journal of [inaudible 0:59], all scientific, research-based, and about two years after I started doing that, I started painting, just as a side thing, as a way for me to feel personally fulfilled because my day job wasn’t doing that. And I slowly continued to freelance while I worked for about four years, and I actually just left my job a month ago and I am full time freelance now. And I have one book out, I’m working on my second, and I also take on editorial illustrations [inaudible 1:39]. I don’t do much freelance writing aside from the books right now.

Q: Okay, great. So some of these questions will feel a little bit clunky because you are not working in a formal position with a hierarchy in a business, but we’ll just sort of work around that. So could you provide me with a sort of brief description of the primary tasks you perform day to day?

A: Okay. So I do a lot of email, I would say that’s probably 70 percent of my day is pitching myself to magazines and publications in order to get editorial work. And I am beginning to pitch article ideas, as I’d like to start freelance writing more aside from the book. And I also pitch myself as an illustrator so I can take on projects with these publications. I do a lot of email, talking with my editors, talking about my agent about book proposals, about current projects, working with the marketing team to get publicity for my writing project, and I would say maybe 10 percent of my time is actually making work, which would be painting or working on my book writing, and I would say another 15 percent would be doing research, which is just to say [inaudible 3:16] other people’s work, reading, looking at illustrations, doing some sort of market research for what I want to work, who are the art directors I can reach out to, who are the editors, so I have connections to any of these places, who can I contact, etc.

Q: Great, that’s excellent. And I am getting just a little bit of wind, if it’s at all possible to turn your body, that would be great.

A: Oh, sure.

Q: Cool, thank you! Sorry.

A: Yeah, I’m sorry! Is that better?

Q: So you sort of anticipated this next question, which was the percentage of your job that requires writing. So it sounds like a really large percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Yeah, it’s mostly writing. That’s what I’m doing day to day, yeah. Just like being an illustrator also.

Q: Yeah, and so you talked about email, are there other forms or types of writing or documents that you complete? I know that you’re working on a book manuscript, so email and the book manuscript, are there other kinds of writing that you do?

A: Yeah, I do a lot of contract work when I have a commision, so I read a ton of contracts, which is excruciating, and I used to just sign anything, really, because it was so daunting to go through it, but I stopped doing that because I don’t have the day job, and I have to make sure I’m not signing away all the rights to my work or that I’m getting paid correctly, or that, you know, I do a lot of financial royalties, checking royalties, and checking agreements and things like that. So a lot of it is contract, and the other thing, as I mentioned, is proposals. So with that is always writing about a budget, about a timeline, a schedule, revisions, how much work I’m going to put into something, and what the client can expect. So there’s a lot of legal writing that goes into it too.

Q: Interesting, that’s really interesting. So when we think about sort of the primary audiences you’re writing to, is clients a sort of overarching category, or would there be other ways to categorize those primary audiences?

A: I would say clients and potential clients is a big part, but also I guess which I haven’t mentioned – so I do a lot of microblogging, I guess I would call it, because that’s the world we’re in now, so I do have a newsletter that I send out arbitrarily whenever I remember to tend to it, and that is, I would say that’s personal writing. I try to really write from the heart and connect with my audience, and along with that comes the writing that I do on Twitter and Instragram, both social media writing, but I try my best to be relatable and to be authentic instead of somebody that is just trying to sell herself. So I would say that is my most important writing, trying to forge a connection with another person just by being who I am, without manicuring myself.

Q: Yeah, absolutely, which is not an easy task in writing!

A: No. And you feel very vulnerable most of the time.

Q: I bet, I bet. And so when you think about what you’re trying to accomplish with those kinds of communications, can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of those kinds of communications?

A: Sure. On the surface level, it’s essential to me building a brand and becoming a successful freelance artist, I need to have an audience, I need to have followers who hopefully respect me and want to support my work. It is about building loyalty in a sense. And I would say on the deeper human sense, the reason why I even want to be an artist, and why I am doing what I do despite the instability and financial hardships is just the desire to connect with other people. I think my ultimate goal is always to help somebody feel less alone, and I think that you could say that comes from my own desire to feel less alone.

Q: Beautiful. Okay. When you think about the kinds of writing that you do now, everything from professional emails to those proposals and contracts, were you familiar with those genres of writing when you were a student?

A: Absolutely not. I went to school for literature and journalism, and I really wanted to become a hard news journalist. I don’t know why, I think it just seemed very glamorous to me, and by senior year I had done internships at like five publishing houses and I really got a taste for it and I didn’t want it at all. It wasn’t exciting, I felt like journalism had become really compromised and inauthentic, and it lacked appeal for me. So that’s just to say that I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t go to business school, so I don’t know anything about marketing or publicity or legalities or anything like that, and it’s just been completely learning as I go and making tons of mistakes, the same mistakes over and over again. And that’s really what it’s been like, and I’m still learning of course, and I think that that artist part of me that just wants to write books and make drawings has a very casual approach to a lot of the legal writing, especially when I talk to my editor and my agent, I’m not always capitalizing or using punctuation or formal methods of writing, and I think that as an artist you get away with more. I think people let you be casual because that’s you, and you make the work that you make, and they’re not going to nitpick if you don’t capitalize or things like that. But I think that’s been also something to learn when I’m catching myself, because there’s a certain professionalism and etiquette that you need to maintain, and I think that’s been difficult for me to grow into since I’m not used to doing it.

Q: Oh, that’s interesting, yeah. So when you think about a typical writing project, maybe let’s think of one of the proposals seems like a useful example – when you think about that, you take the initiative, you’re not usually responding to a call for proposals, right? You sort of have talked to someone, an artistic director or something, and you make that proposal on your own, is that a fair assessment?

A: For my first book I made the proposal entirely on my own, and it was a wild shot in the dark, and I managed to submit it to an editor, and it was risky because, you know, it was as professional and as detailed and in depth as something that I had ever made. But now, my second time around I have an agent, and I work with her to perfect a proposal, and just to give you an idea, my first book the proposal was I think 10 pages, and with my second book, it was about 40. So yeah. It was a lot more well developed the second time around.

Q: That’s really interesting. How did you, for the second proposal, could you tell me a little bit about how you prepared to write, and the steps you took from start to completion of that proposal?

A: Sure. So first, I pitched a bunch of ideas to my agent, I probably took 20 ideas and she liked one of them, which is the one we ended up going with. And after that, I basically did writing. I did sample writing for what the actual manuscript would represent. And then after that was finished, I created the illustrations that would go along with the manuscript. You basically want to submit 20 pages of what the final book will look like, that is part of the sample material for the proposal. So I did that, and then after that you do the marketing/publicity side of the proposal, which is talking about yourself, talking about what you have accomplished so far, you basically want to convince the publisher that you have an audience that will buy the book. If they give you the money to write a book, you’ll be able to sell it. And so you have to determine your target audience, and other books that are already like it on the market that won’t be competitors, but to show them that there is an audience for the work, and you do a complete marketing plan, who you would pitch the book to, possible publications that would feature it, possible influencers that will write about it, the whole thing. So you basically give them your book and the marketing plan and hope that they like it.

Q: Gotcha, and then when you’re drafting that, does that go through multiple drafts? What is your approach to revision in a document like that?

A: It took us probably five months start to finish to have the complete proposal. And I did I believe four revisions on the manuscript, three or four revisions on the artwork, and I think the same amount for the actual marketing and publicity plan. So that was between me and my agent, the back and forth.

Q: Okay, so you’re writing and then getting feedback from the agent and incorporating that feedback?

A: Right.

Q: And so if we think about, this varies wildly I’m sure, but how long do you typically have to complete a writing project, if it’s something short, say a pitch to an editor for a smaller project, or something like that? What’s the turnaround time for a sort of maybe average writing project?

A: That’s entirely up to me, there’s no deadline, it’s just me who loses if I don’t get it done. So I would say probably one to three days.

Q: Okay, great. And this is sort of a broader question – what would you say is at stake in your writing?

A: I’m sorry can you repeat that?

Q: Sure, what would you say is at stake in your writing?

A: Oh. I would say authenticity. It’s always a constant battle between writing honestly and authentically and writing something you know will go viral or that people want to read, and in my experience, the things that go viral and that people want to read are things that they’ve already read a zillion times before. So it’s the battle between being yourself and being somebody else.

Q: That’s so interesting. Could you tell me a little bit more about what you mean when you say the things that go viral, the things people want to read, are thing they’ve already read?

A: I think that a lot of things that people respond to are the things that they know, but aren’t able to articulate themselves, which makes sense, I mean that’s why artists and writers exist, because hopefully they’re able to say things in a way that people can understand. But I guess today, in today’s world, I find that the things that go viral can be very trite, and easily digestible, don’t require too much thought or effort, and so I think it’s, I mean I guess it’s a form of selling out sometimes, do you want to do what everybody else is doing because there’s proven success in it? Or do you want to do what you want to do, even though nobody might like it?

Q: That is a big question. Okay, yeah [laughter].

A: It is a big question [laughter].

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s really interesting. Okay, thanks. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared to write in this role?

A: I’m going to say that it hasn’t. I will say, I think my academic writing has helped me in general, to be an okay writer, to be able to articulate, to have the alright vocabulary, to understand how to put a sentence together, and to be clear and concise, and that’s all really important things. The rest of it though, for the types of writing I’m doing, has just been practice. I think my academic background at least put me in a position of being a good writer, and then all the practice has helped me manage all the different forms of writing that I’ve had to do.

Q: Okay, great. In what ways were you unprepared as a writer in this role? So you mentioned earlier, like most people, you’ve made a lot of mistakes – could you talk a little bit about the ways in which, as a writer, you were unprepared?

A: The whole proposal process was absolutely new to me and I didn’t know how to convince other people. So as far as writing, I had only ever learned how to use persuasion in literary and academic essays basically, always trying to convince the reader of my argument and how it tied to a book and a theme, but I had never learned how to use it in order to talk about myself and my capabilities. So although I had some sort of background on how to be a convincing writer, I didn’t feel prepared to apply it the way that I’ve had to.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the practical steps that you took to overcome some of those early challenges? I know you mentioned that you do a lot of looking at your peers and thinking about work that might be compared to yours in some way, but sort of practically, what else have you done as a writer to improve or to arm yourself with stronger skills?

A: A lot of it has just been practice, just doing it despite not wanting to do it, or not feeling like I’m doing it well, just doing it anyway. That’s probably the largest. And the second is that I read a lot, I read other people’s pitches, I read contracts, I read advice online on how to write a better pitch, how to write a better proposal, I look at examples, and then I try to apply those. So it’s a lot of just teaching and educating myself from the books and the internet, the sources that I have around me.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Have you had any writing training or education since you graduated from college?

A: No. Not at all.

Q: Okay. Would you say that you’re a successful writer?

A: [Laughter] good question. I would say I guess it depends on how you measure success. I’m successful because I’m making a living doing it, so there’s that. Successful in terms of quality – I would say I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not sure that anybody ever is. So I’m constantly looking to improve.

Q: Fair enough. Okay. And our last question, actually – what skills would you say are most central to writing in the kind of role that you’ve built for yourself here?

A: I think that it would have helped me, it would still help me a lot to have more of a business writing background, I think that is essential to any freelancer, anybody that’s just self-employed and looking to make a living as a writer. And I think that I would have enjoyed and probably benefitted from some creative writing courses, from learning how to develop my voice better and I think, I’m not sure if this is writing-specific, but having some sort of education or courses that made me feel more confident as a writer and less afraid to have a voice, even.

Q: That’s so interesting. Okay, alright, thank you so much!

A: Of course.

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Cancer Nurse Navigator

Sciences

Cancer Nurse Navigator, Oncology Clinic

Date of Interview: April 4th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: So would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: So I am a cancer nurse navigator, I work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at a cancer care clinic, and I recently – it was May 2016 where I graduated with my bachelor’s degree.

Q: Great, and you had an associate’s some time before that?

A: Correct. May of 2006 is when I graduated with my ADN in nursing.

Q: Excellent. And how long have you been in this current job?

A: My current job I’ve been in since November of 2016. So not too long, but I’ve been an oncology nurse my entire nursing career, almost eleven years.

Q: Eleven years, great. Could you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: My primary job functions are really helping patients who are from the spectrum of newly diagnosed all the way to end of life and beyond, even in survivorship, who have peers, to help them navigate the system. Whether it’s local resources, or helping them connect with other hospital systems to make sure that they’re getting the care that they need.

Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write in your job, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing? Anything from emails or very casual writing to more formal things.

A: So daily. We’re daily writing, because I’m seeing patients every day. So even in brief interactions, I do have to document in an electronic medical record, talking about what I did, what I taught them. I would say percentage of it, I mean, it’s not a large percent, I would probably say about 20 percent of my time is in documenting.

Q: Great, okay. And–

A: Which is– oh, go ahead.

Q: Oh no, please go ahead.

A: Well I was saying, which is very different than I think a lot of nurses, especially if you’re a nurse who works in a hospital. I would say that percentage would be much higher. They spend a lot of time behind a computer documenting.

Q: Okay, that’s good to know. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete?

A: Progress notes within the electronic medical record, and then again, email – there’s still email – I don’t communicate with patients via email, but definitely with other staff members, with doctors at other clinics. We also have something, they’re called staff messages, that we can use within the software that we use, and it’s how other caregivers at other sites, and other systems even, can communicate with one another, but it doesn’t go into a patient’s medical record.

Q: Okay, great. And so the audiences, could you tell me a little bit about the varying audiences that you’re writing to?

A: Medical assistants, the doctors, other nurses, and then other clinic staff, so my boss. It could be general, just clinic staff as well – so we have lab techs, there’s pharmacists, pharmacy techs, it’s kind of a wide spectrum. I mean, even our PSRs, which is a patient service representative, which is pretty much who you see when you walk into a clinic, who checks you in. So really, I’ll communicate with all of them on different times.

Q: Okay. It sounds like from the description that most of those communications, that the purpose is informative. Are there other purposes that you’re writing– are you ever trying to sort of make an argument in some way, or is it usually pretty informative or like relaying information?

A: Very informative in this role. Prior to me being a cancer nurse navigator, I was a supervisor of two oncology clinics for four years. So in that role, there was more policies, process changes, I think bigger-picture items that I was disseminating to staff that reported to me. But in my current role, it’s more informal, if anything, just because I’m part of the clinic staff, so it could just be honestly, something as simple as a potluck, like, “What are you going to bring?” [laughter], as far as emails are concerned. Recently, however, there’s a group of nurses within our clinic, and a nurse practitioner that we started a journal club. And as far as a journal, not like a writing journal, but where you’re reading nursing journals and specific areas of interest and, so even those, everybody is designated per month to come up with what journal we want to present, and then you have to write questions for people to think about, like your peers to think about. So in that sense, it’s more informative.

Q: Oh cool, that’s really cool, okay.

A: Yeah, it’s great.

Q: That’s great, okay. Were you familiar with the types of writing that you do in your daily work when you were a student?

A: No, I think as a student, any time you’re writing papers or anything that you had to write, there was obviously, we had to follow APA style, the format for writing. So not so much in electronic medical record, because to me, I feel like what I learned in school – it’s not as strict, it’s much more casual, what you can write in electronic medical record.

Q: In your actual work, it’s much more casual?

A: Correct. And I think I should be careful on how I say that, because I think, I mean, you still want to make sure you’re, like at least when I’m writing, I want it to be concise, and not using a lot of “its”, “the”, “he”, “she”, you know? So I’m pretty concise, but I think there was a difference, there was just more of a focus on a certain style, and bibliographies, and things like that, that I had to make sure the spaces were correct and you had things in the correct order, where it’s not like that when I’m documenting in my current job.

Q: Okay, okay. Could you describe, and it might be useful in this question to think of maybe just a typical writing project, like maybe think of one, because I’m sure that they vary significantly, but in a typical writing project, could you tell me a little bit about your writing process, starting from how writing assignments or tasks come to you, if there’s any preparation, steps in writing or revising, getting feedback, like what’s that typical process look like?

A: In my current job?

Q: In your current job, yeah. And like I said, if you want to think of a particularly specific example, that’s fine.

A: I think I’m going to revert back to even when I was a supervisor, having to write a document to pretty much ask for more staff members. So in that, I think you’re having to follow a very strict guideline of again, how you document within a medical record, being very precise, using data, making sure that you have numbers that correlate your need. So I would say that would probably be my sample.

Q: Okay, great, yeah. And so when you write a draft of something, is there a feedback process – a document like that – or is it just you revising it yourself?

A: No, no, definitely feedback process. And in that process it would have been from my boss, kind of giving it to her, who would look over it and give suggestions, or say, “Yeah, this part’s great, but add this, if this is needed to emphasize whatever the need is based on.” Because basically, when you’re sending something like that, you’re sending it to higher-ups in finance, so it can’t just be like, “Give me a staff member!” You really have to– and even if you have everything laid out and the numbers make sense, and you can still see a real need, you have to realize, you have to be able to speak to that. Because as a finance person who’s looking at that, they’re looking at those numbers, but they don’t understand the clinical side of it, so the actual piece of when somebody’s working in that clinic, what does that look like. So you can’t always write that in your document, so you have to speak to what you’re writing as well.

Q: Great, okay. And when that feedback comes from your boss on a document like that for example, could you tell me a little about the comments? Meaning like, are they high-level suggestions, or are they very specific line edits?

A: Could be both. It could really be both. It could just be rewording something, but typically yes, it’s high-level and wanting to I think cut out any extraneous verbiage that might be in there or things that just don’t pretty much cut to the point of what you need. Yeah, it could be both depending on how much time I’ve worked on it.

Q: Got it, okay. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? That one maybe even, for example?

A: Typically, with that specifically example, I think we had a couple weeks to kind of go back and forth. And even once you submit something, there’s still going to be questions back, where you have to submit additional data. So if there’s a strict deadline, you’re going to go by that. I would think there’s typically, in that role as supervisor, we weren’t ever under very, very tight timelines. So, within a week, you can usually have something done. If not, even several days. It wasn’t really complicated.

Q: Okay, okay. And you mentioned that your boss oversees the more formal writing that you have. How would you say that he or she judges the success of your writing?

A: I would say I think as long as really looking over it, if they can understand it from a high level, looking at the document and say, “I understand exactly what you need and you’re laying out bullet points of what it is that required this.” Basically, I think if they can understand it, and feel comfortable with submitting it, that’s the feedback, and we’re able to move forward.

Q: Okay. Can you tell me a bit about what is at stake in your writing?

A: What’s at stake in my writing – I think any electronic medical record, and I think you hear this in nursing school, is – it’s a true document. So I don’t want to put things in that I maybe assumed the patient felt or said. So if I’m using verbatims, I’m using quotation marks, I’m basically stating exactly what a patient may say. Because ultimately, it has to be an accurate document to reflect, I mean, worst case scenario, if there’s ever a lawsuit, that document should be true to whatever conversations or whatever had occurred at that time, because it could be looked at. And there’s a big thing in nursing where basically, and I think in general in the medical profession, that if you don’t document, it didn’t happen. So you can have all these interactions with patients, and I could talk to a patient all day and educate them on any type of treatment or side effects or whatever it may be, but if I don’t actually put that I did all those things, it didn’t occur. So I think that’s a really big piece that’s at stake.

Q: Yeah. Is that difficult to ensure that you get all of that down every time?

A: I think it can be at times, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed and very busy, because they want you to document in real time – so you have an interaction with a patient and family member, you want to go back and it’s like anything, if you start writing about it right away, you’re going to retain more of actually what occurred, versus you know, an hour or two go by, and you’ve met several patients, and I’m like, “Well who did I tell this to and that to?” So I really attempt to make sure, and in my job can make that happen, but it can be difficult, where if you don’t have that opportunity because you’re so busy and seeing a lot of patients, I will still even revert to writing things down, patient’s names, what we talked about, just to trigger my memory of what we did.

Q: Gotcha, gotcha, okay. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in this job?

A: If I would go back to when I started school at 18 and I took an English class, I would say not at all. Because I feel like I was not engaged as a student, and I feel like, oh I didn’t like English. But as I matured age-wise and also personality-wise, which could be debateable whoever’s hearing that [laughter], I feel like even having the experiences within my job, and again going back to school as an adult who is working fulltime and has a family, I feel like when I took a writing course within the last year, it definitely meant more to me and I was able to utilize what I had learned more in my everyday job. And to me it’s important that, I don’t know, I feel like writing proper and making sure that what I have to say makes sense to whoever is reading that. I don’t know if I answered the question, I’m sorry I got a little bit off track.

Q: No, no, you did. That’s great, that’s great. So that was about the ways in which school did prepare you to write in the workplace, and I’m wondering if there are other ways that you feel school maybe left you unprepared in other ways as a writer in the workplace?

A: Unprepared?

Q: You cut out, say that again?

A: Am I on okay?

Q: Yep, you’re good now, thank you.

A: Do you hear me?

Q: I do.

A: I don’t know if I would say I was unprepared, because in school we didn’t exactly document in a medical record, but you were writing out careplans, and so pieces of what you would have to do within your daily life as a nurse, so it definitely prepared me. The unprepared part, I feel like it’s a given in any, especially as a new nurse – yes, you get a foundation in school about anatomy and physiology and maybe English and microbiology and things like that – however, I feel like you do most of your learning, and how you want to– you learn most, in my opinion, from actually starting as a new nurse. So I’m sure if I looked back to what I wrote my first year of nursing to what I am now, I’d probably be like, “Oh!”, you could see how much is probably grown as far as being concise in what I have to say. So I don’t know, I don’t feel like I was unprepared in my education, in writing in college.

Q: That’s great. So when you think back to those early challenges that I think are very universal to anybody coming out of college and going into the workplace in terms of writing, were there specific strategies that you utilized to sort of learn the things about writing that you felt you needed to learn? For instance, a strategy might be looking at the writing of coworkers, or supervisors, or seeking out training, or anything like that.

A: Yeah, definitely. And so even in my current role as a navigator, yes, definitely looking at other navigators and what they write and what they– yes, definitely utilizing them as examples of what I think is important to put into it. And then also realizing no, I’m not going to utilize what they have, and kind of go with what I feel is important to add in a medical record. So there is definitely that.

Q: Great, okay. And have you had any, I know the most recent college graduation is pretty recent, but have you had any writing training or education since then?

A: No.

Q: Alright. And two more questions. The first is, would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

A: I would say yes. I think yes, I feel like I am deliberate and conscious of what I’m writing and again, want to make sure that what I have to say makes sense, and I use– which can sound kind of strange at times, but I feel like I want to be proper in what I’m writing, because I don’t always see that in electronic medical records. Sometimes you see things where you’re like, “Oh that doesn’t make sense in how that’s–” you know, in what people are using. So yeah.

Q: Great, great. And what skills would you say are most central to writing in your very specific role, and in your very specific organization and industry?

A: What skills in writing – I think definitely understanding medical terminology, understanding– I speak a lot to treatments, so knowing what those things are, knowing the road that people have to be on and really incorporating that into my writing. Because you can look at a doctor’s note, and it has so much information, and so what I do is I feel like I take out the important pieces, where honestly, even if a patient read it, that they would understand really what’s going on, and not so much from a higher level from like a doctor who’s speaking certain medical jargon within their documentation, I will still use certain obviously treatment names and specifics as far as surgeries, if they’ve had biopsies, but really, if a patient were to read that, they would completely understand what I had said. And that’s kind of how I feel the role of the nurse in really important, is conveying that information to the patient in a way that’s understandable.

Q: Gotcha.

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Realtor (Realtor 2) Washington, DC

Business

Realtor (Realtor 2) Washington, DC

Date of Interview: March 31st, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay, so would please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Yeah. So my current job title is a realtor at the Bediz Group, under the Keller Williams Capital Properties banner, I guess, so to speak. I’ve been working in this field, in residential real estate, as a realtor for about five years. And I graduated college from RIT in Rochester, New York back in 2000, I believe, if I remember correctly [chuckles].

Q: And you had mentioned before we started the interview that you’ve worked in a few previous industries before this job – do you mind telling me a little bit about those, for some context?

A: Sure, sure. So again, my concentration in college was advertising photography, with a minor in psychology. So I got out of school doing a lot of different work, essentially, in the Washington, D.C. area, doing graphics, working as a production assistant on small-budget films, working as a production assistant on other people’s advertising jobs in photography, doing my own advertising, and doing my own photography. So basically, pretty much anything I could do to pay the bills [chuckles].

Q: Right. That’s great. And then, do you mind me asking how you got into realty?

A: I got into real estate actually through my photography. In my previous job to this one, just prior to this one, I wound up working in commercial real estate for about five years until I just decided I had to go. It wasn’t necessarily I was looking for a career shift, but I just didn’t want to stay with the company I was at.

Q: Gotcha, okay, great, thanks. Could you tell me a little bit about your primary job functions?

A: So my primary job function now essentially involves a lot of lead generation, in terms of networking with people. And then in terms of kind of like management, in terms of managing the process from – I’m a little overcaffeinated – managing the process from beginning to end in terms of – I’m spacing on the right phrase of how best to put that – but in terms of like project management, essentially. So once I take on a listing, in terms of scheduling all the contractors I’ve involved, and everything else that would be involved in terms of getting the property ready for the market, and then making sure we execute everything on time, as well as also have everything else set up properly, and all contracts and legal documents are signed off on and we’re clear to go, so that the property is fully marketable. And then once we are under contract, make sure that we clear through everything well enough to be able to execute the settlement on time and walk away with a happy client on both ends so that I can continue to get referrals from my current clients. So there’s that, and then on the other side, there’s also the office side where I’m dealing with staff in terms of trying to make sure that things are working on time, working with my graphics person to make sure that we’re getting adverts out in time, and effectively reaching people. I would say as I’ve gotten older, I probably fail more at– it takes me a while to communicate effectively to people. I sit down and I spend a lot of time making sure that my emails are clear and concise as best I can when I’m communicating to clients.

Q: Okay, great, great. How frequently are you required to write, if maybe in a given week, is it possible for you to give me a percentage of what, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Most of my writing is simply just emails. A lot of the contracts that we do are already kind of pre-filled out, and it’s a matter of just plugging in the right data and knowing what data– and also understanding the verbage. You know, they revise a lot of our contracts on a yearly basis, but they’re very small tweaks usually. So just understanding the verbiage and how we might want to tweak it if we need to, given a situation. Actually it’s really hard for me a lot of time to actually handwrite things, because I don’t spend much time handwriting, so when I do have to handwrite, it’s a little trickier for me. It’s weird, it’s a motor skill that has somewhat disappeared. I definitely can’t write legibly for the most part, I have to struggle to, if I’m trying to communicate and write someone a nice note card, it’s a struggle.

Q: I understand that, as someone who writes on the board periodically in class, I’ve found over the years as I handwrite less and less, that handwriting has gotten less and less legible for my students. Okay, that’s great. So what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So you talked about sort of contracts and emails, are there any other written documents that you work with?

A: A lot of texting, a lot of calls, so that’s not really writing, obviously. We do craft of adverts, I usually leave that to my graphics guy, when we’re creating new brochures or new handouts or any type of materials like that. And as I’ve painfully learned the other day, we still make mistakes, because I sent adverts out to Del Ray, and apparently we spelled Del Ray wrong [laughter], which is kind of embarrassing when you’re marketing to a specific market, and you’re saying, “Hi, hello Del Ray, and I own this area,” and then you apparently can’t spell it right. That doesn’t speak very well, professionally. To be honest, a lot of what I do is kind of already preformatted, so when I literally am doing long communications with people that’s very detailed, I usually will cut and paste from an old email or communication that I’ve had, in terms of if I’ve written a letter, or something like that. I literally just cut and paste sometimes, because it makes my job a lot faster and easier, and then just kind of tailor what I need to say specifically from that. So I’ve gotten quite lazy in that way, to do that. And I found myself doing that when I worked in commercial real estate – once I’d gone through the pain of making certain communications that I’ve needed to do that I’m going to be repetitive in, I’ve, literally, you just start copying and pasting and then kind of refiguring out how to retool your messaging through what you’ve already got as a basic outline, essentially.

Q: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. When you find that you’re sort of retooling those things, is it tone, or style, or just the details that you find yourself adjusting most often?

A: It’s just the use of the details. Sometimes it will be the tone, in terms of if I need to tailor it to a much more specific audience, in terms of who I’m trying to communicate, so they do feel like that this is a personalized communication. And I have had made a few mistakes I think, on rare occasions, if I’ve been trying to do an all-nighter, or something like that, sometimes in the busy season, where I will wind up not putting the correct name somewhere, or something that’s very obvious, where people are like, “Well, who’s that?” Oh, yeah. Like they’re like, “I’m not Charlie,” and I’m like, “Yeah, you’re definitely not Charlie, I got that. Thank you for pointing that out to me,” [laughter].

Q: That sort of leads nicely into the next question – so could you describe the primary audiences to which you’re usually writing, and the primary purposes?

A: I mean literally most of my communication is to other agents where we’re vying to secure, in a competitive situation, an offer. Essentially to secure the property that my clients would like to secure. So I draft up everything in terms of the documents and the offer, which include a little bit a cover letter for me where I have to personalize the sales pitch, and then I send that to my clients for them to review and sign off on everything, and then they also are included in the final communication, bcc’d, essentially, on the offer. So they see all of that communication a lot of times. So that’s a good bulk of what I’m doing. And then the negotiating factors – I like to get most of the negotiations done in writing so that we have a good record of things. And [inaudible 9:15] to the process, in terms of being under contract, if we’re still negotiating with various items, I still like to keep that in writing in terms of emails, essentially, to be able to keep a written record of where we’ve come, which has been helpful. I do that a lot because I’ve been in a couple of court cases over the years as well from various businesses where it’s kind of like, you learn that it’s best to have a written trail of your conversation and where things have led to.

Q: Interesting. Yeah, I would imagine your field that becomes really essential.

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? So is there any sort of preparation or brainstorming that goes into a typical writing project? Or do you just sort of sit down? I imagine most of your work is pretty time-sensitive, so–

A: Yeah, if I have to craft up something that’s going to be a little bit more creative, and I’m going to sit down with my designer, I try and think, “What’s the message?” Because I know that I’m not very good at this, I do a lot of kind of repetitive, where I’m going back and, “Did I actually convey the message that I’m trying to convey as concisely as I can and there won’t be any confusion?” And that’s a problem I feel like with a lot of communication, from texting to emails – everyone’s in a hurry and we’re doing it quickly, and there’s a lot of room for error in terms of clarity, in terms of the communication. So there’s a lot of the ambiguity and vagueness I feel like in today’s communication, and in my business, the more I can eliminate any ambiguity and lack of clarity, the better off I am in terms of making sure that we get the end results. Where I’ve had other agents sometimes where they’re like, “Oh, well I thought it was this,” and I was like, “Actually, if you go back and read the verbiage, and if we ever had to take it to court, it’s very clearly stated what our intent is and what the expectation for the end result would be.” So, it’s to my benefit to be as clear and concise as I can to get the results that I want.

Q: Absolutely. Right, right, and it’s interesting because you’re writing to this immediate audience, and then the audience that’s bcc’d, but you’re also sort of thinking about that potential worst case scenario audience of like a legal situation.

A: Exactly.
Q: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

A: Because a lot of what I do relies on kind of a lot of faith in reputation, and so when you, I don’t know, it just relies on that. So when that’s not happening, then you have to revert back to it in a worst case scenario, what do we have, and we have this written communication, and how clear and concise was everything laid out in that, which ultimately, if I ever had to go to court, and I guess that’s kind of the way I always look at it is, if I ever had to go to court, this is exactly where we had, you know, battle out between two attorneys, this is where we would land essentially.

Q: Right. Yeah, that’s really interesting. Do your documents go through multiple drafts or multiple revisions, or is it usually just a sort of, one shot and it’s done?

A: Since most of what I’m doing is kind of cut and paste in terms of cover letters or– so when we do get under contract, and then my clients find a whole bunch of issues with the property that they want to have resolved before they feel like they can move forward, I make the verbiage very clear and concise and kind of go back and I have to research sometimes products, and understanding the process of what it would take to get something done, so that I can understand how to clearly communicate what we want done, and how it should be done, and what the final expectation is. So sometimes I have to kind of go back and review and like, “Does that make sense? Is that actually what it’s called? Is that the process?” Yeah. I don’t know if that helped. Did that answer your question?

Q: It does, it does, perfectly, yeah. And this obviously will vary from writing to writing project, but how long do you typically have to complete an average writing project?

A: Most of what I do is very time-sensitive, and so I don’t usually have a whole lot of time to get anything done, so that’s also probably why I wind up reverting to just cutting and pasting [inaudible 14:15], because I can more effectively piece things together, better than if I had to sit think there and think what do I want to say from beginning to end, and how do I want to have the conversation flow in terms of what I’m writing. When I’m making an offer, like an hour to two hours, maybe? But a lot of that’s filling in contracts and making sure I have all the pieces of the contract that I need. So I don’t know, yeah.

Q: That’s fine, that’s useful, that’s really useful. What is at stake in your writing? You’ve talked a little bit about repercussions, but could you describe what’s at stake in an average writing project?

A: Well, I mean, the end result could be my job or my reputation [chuckles], in the sense that if I leave any liability for my clients in the end of the day, they could be financially liable, which could come back on me, which would result in likely, eventually ruining my reputation in the business, which I don’t want to do [laughter]. So it’s not quite as serious, you know, I think of all my friends who are attorneys, it’s not quite as serious as that, but it certainly is because this is a large investment that people are making, and there’s no room for error in timing and/or expense. I mean, who wants to pay for someone else’s mistake? And I do know somebody in the business who, they actually had to buy a house because they left their clients liable and to make up for the mistake, they literally bought the house, which put them in a huge financial bind.

Q: Wow. I can imagine [laughter]. Wow!

A: And I think that was a way probably to avoid getting charges filed against them.

Q: Oh, interesting. Okay. Does anyone oversee your writing?

A: We do have a legal compliance department within our brokerage, and their job is to make sure that we’re all buttoned up in terms of being legally liable. So make sure that we have all the correct forms, that we have all of our initials and signatures where we need them, that everything’s flowing in terms of the contracts and that we’ve completed. And even down to the point where it looks like we’re facing a potential court case with somebody who has not done what they’re supposed to do, and I need to button up everything and make sure we’ve got our ass covered, essentially, in that manner. And the same thing in my previous job, when I worked in commercial real estate for a major corporation, I would always work with HR and legal to make sure that everything I was doing was in compliance, my messages were very clear and concise, and that we were following all the procedures needed to make sure that we were not putting ourselves at risk in terms of being sued or liable for something. Because I oversaw about 20 people, essentially, in my previous position where I had to make sure, whether it’s an HR issue or something else we were doing was clear. And then even prior to that, I managed a health club for five years as well, an executive health club, so overseeing a staff of about 50 people.

Q: Okay, that’s so interesting. So, especially because you’ve had sort of a pretty varied career in the past 15, 20 years, have you had any training or education specific to writing since you graduated from college?

A: No, and I consider myself a horrible writer, actually [laughter]. So that’s why I probably spend more time at it. I think if I ever got back into a more corporate, professional environment, I think I would definitely struggle with that for a while. But it’s fine, I think it’s like the same as when I got there to my last job. I would spend a good amount of time making sure I was fully prepared for the things I needed to be prepared for, whether it was a court case or whether it was a meeting, or a presentation. So I would probably spend more time than maybe some people would, because I don’t think I had the background that I needed. I had the tendency to put off classes and lessons that I didn’t think were pertinent to me at the time, so starting as early as probably middle school when we were supposed to learn how to type, I was like, “Why do I ever need to learn how to type? I’ll have a secretary that’s supposed to do that for me,” [laughter] – that was probably the worst idea I ever had, that was probably a dumb idea – that was a dumb idea. Because here I am in college, trying to basically peck at the keyboard trying to figure out how to type up these long papers and I’m like, “I don’t know really how to do this,” and even to this day, it’s finally come to me in the last probably 10 years of my life, me now being 40, where I can actually literally type, probably not as efficiently as need to if I was having to, I definitely am horrible at dictation if I have to read my writing or hear what someone’s saying and then type it, it’s not happening.

Q: That’s really interesting. So you’re sort of talking about this already, but the next question is what challenges did you face when you were entering the workplace? And that doesn’t need to be in this job, right, this can be right out of college. But I’m curious about what the writing challenges were, and what steps you took to try to overcome those early writing challenges.

A: I’m trying to think. So I know my last position I did spend a good amount of time looking at resources to try and figure out how do I do what. I even brought up the CEO of the company, just happenstance before I even knew he was the CEO of the company, that we needed better resources at the company, and they did try and link us to kind of like an online library of resources for classes and educational purposes, which is something that HR eventually took on to do where they wanted to help us learn more. And they did start teaching us and doing classes that was helpful, because I did a lot of stuff in my last two positions where I was having to recruit people into the company as well as then hire and train them, and then manage them. Actually there’s a great class at Keller Williams – they’re heavy on classes, and so was my previous position – we would take a lot of classes that the company would offer that I thought was very helpful in terms of– which doesn’t necessarily pertain to writing, but it certainly, I think that continuing education through your employer is very helpful, because I don’t think, had I had to do it on my own, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I mean basic books in terms of idiot guides to like how do you write– and even now, I would struggle if I would have to write a resume, I haven’t had to do it in 10 years, so I don’t know how [inaudible 22:12] [laughter]. It’s kind of like as idiotic as how long it took me to figure out how to do this Skype [laughter].

Q: No, no. Yeah, once you’re out of practice in those things, there is a big learning curve coming back to any sort of new writing, for sure.

A: Yeah. Did I answer your question? I can’t remember what it was–

Q: You did, you did, yeah. And what were the sort of strategies you undertook, and you said you went to the CEO and sort of embraced these classes and things like that. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now?

A: Well I don’t write essays, so there’s that. I know a lot of times people tell me– I think I would struggle if I had to– like I was talking about my friend who’s an attorney who does a lot of work for manufacturers, I would definitely struggle. But then watching him do what he does, he tells me he kind of does a lot of what I do, you basically look for previous evidence of what you’re trying to do, and then you copy essentially that, and then reformat it to the specific needs of what you have at hand. I kind of feel like that’s kind of the era that we live in, where people are doing a lot of probably cutting and pasting, and it’s like okay, this works for what I need, and then I can just kind of fine-tune it down to what the purpose is.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I would say 90 percent of the interviews we’ve done, people have talked about some form of that strategy, in some cases I think people feel very adept in adapting that text and making it feel personal, like we were talking about, and then other folks have voiced a struggle to maintain consistent style or tone, but that they sort of have to rely on that because of time constraints, as you were mentioning, which is interesting.

A: Yeah, but I definitely understand that. I don’t have a good baseline in terms of my educational upbringing, just in the sense that I was never interested in doing anything that I didn’t think was to my benefit at the time, which led to me not paying attention to a lot of classes or even attending classes that I probably should have attended. Just as basic as having a good understanding of proper grammar in a lot of contexts, in terms of, you know I sometimes sit and listen to my friends talk about some of this stuff, and it’s quite embarrassing. I’m like, “Wow, I really should have paid more attention,” and even today, but I have no, it’s like I don’t know what I would do to correct it at this point because it’s kind of like, “Alright, well,” and that’s probably maybe also why I spend more time on some of my communication than maybe I should be doing, just because I’m trying to make sure that it’s clear, concise. And God forbid, I have to actually handwrite a note to somebody, because then I have to think about the correct spelling of things, which I don’t do half the time. I love how our computers can just guess things most of the time.

Q: Yeah. So when you think back, you’ve talked about how you were really not especially interested in things that didn’t seem to have an immediate use for you in college, but were there writing skills that you did learn in college, that you found prepared you for writing in the workplace?

A: Technical writing was an interesting exercise, and I wish that– I mean I think what I got out of that is essentially that you have to remember, you know, it was kind of fun, you had to remember that if you didn’t write clearly and concisely in a very thorough manner, then someone could miss a step. I mean, technical writing is as simple as, you know, part of it’s like the instructions that people have like when you go to Ikea and you buy piece of furniture and you have to put it together, and you have to remember you’re not going to be there to help them do it, so those instructions have to be very clear, concise, and thorough from beginning to end, and how do you get there? And so that’s kind of a lot of times like my writing now – I’m starting off trying to figure out how to flatter somebody, lay out what the problem is, and then how do we want to get that resolved in the end, but being very friendly in my tone, but stern in the sense that there is an expected end result, and sometimes even consequential in terms of what would be the result if we didn’t have that. So you have to kind of flow that conversation in your writing in terms of figuring out how to keep that.

Q: Right. Can we go back to, you just said the first part of that was, was it flatter the reader? Can you tell me a little bit about that?

A: Yeah, I mean you want to– you have a goal of what you’re trying to achieve, and you want to grease the wheels, you want to keep things going. What are you looking for, or what more–?

Q: I just, I think that’s just one of those things that we all do but don’t articulate very often, so it’s interesting to hear you say that that’s like a conscious step that you’re taking. Does that make sense?

A: Yeah, so I learned in college from a friend of mine who was actually very manipulative that there is, you can kind of joke and go back to Star Wars force. If you’re very purposeful in your life on a continuous basis, which takes a lot of energy and time, you can almost always get what you want in the end, but you just have to be very purposeful about your message and your end result. Whether it’s communicating verbally in a situation, or in writing, but more so, he taught me more in the verbal sense of that. And it worked – I would watch him and it was like 99.9 percent of the time, it worked. So I kind of went with that. So that’s kind of what the use of the flattery is, you know? And at the end of the day, we all have to work together. I have to work with that person again, so I want to make sure that we’re keeping things friendly.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. That’s interesting, thanks.

A: I don’t know if that helped at all [laughter].

Q: It totally helps! Yeah, no, it’s just an interesting, you know, as I said, I think we all do some form of that, trying to establish a relationship as you are working with folks, but we don’t often articulate that that’s part of the goal of the communication because we’re usually more focused on the deliverable or whatever the decision is, right? So it’s sort of interesting to think about that as a secondary purpose, but something that’s always kind of underlying in those emails, in most industries, probably.

A: So managing people for years now, most of my life actually, I’ve learned that you have to do that, even in my verbal communication with employees, and I’ll admit I learned this probably later in my career, that you have to remember that people have feelings. Because I think I was always kind of very stern in my management style, not in terms of the sense that we’re– we’ve all I think had, unfortunately, the boss or the leader in our lives who, because they had pain in getting to their position in life, they want to make your life as painful as possible too, to get to your next step in life. I’ve always very mindful of that, I never did anything like that because I don’t enjoy being treated like crap, and I want to make sure people feel respected and understood. But at the same time, I guess I was also very like, “This is the task at hand, these are our goals, get it done.” And it would come down to, even on a daily routine and basis, my communication with employees and staff about stuff. And it wasn’t until later in my career, I remember one of my employees said to me, “Listen, you seem really very stern all the time.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m not looking to be your best friend. We work together as a team, and I happen to be leading this team, and these are our goals.” And she’s like, “Well, it doesn’t feel good sometimes, the way you come off to us.” And I was like, “Oh, alright. Well that wasn’t the intention.” So I had to kind of reformulate, and I actually had private meetings with all of my staff to ask them what they wanted, what they were looking for. And they just wanted to have more friendly communication in terms of like, “Hey, how’s your wife? How’s the husband? How’s the kids? How’s your day? How’s the weather?” you know, that kind of stuff. And I was like, “Oh, okay,” [laughter], “I can try that. You want small talk, okay, fine.” So I learned to pepper that into my daily communication with people, and kind of let loose a little bit more, loosen up, I guess, more in the workplace. And I’ve actually done that, even in real estate I was very kind of rigid in the beginning of my career with the borderline of client expectations and then their client– you know, I’ve been hired to do a job, I’m doing something, I’m working and they’re my client, I’ve kind of softened that a lot, so we become friends. And that’s actually the most effective way to do my job actually, in terms of long term business. You want your clients to be your friend in the end of the day, if they can, or close acquaintances at some point, so that they feel comfortable to eventually want to pass your services on to their friends and family and colleagues and stay within their sphere of influence and circle of friends, to stay top-of-mind so that you can keep your business moving forward. Which is how I’ve kind of gotten to know Patrick, they hired to buy a house– they wanted to buy a house in Virginia, and it turned out that it was Old Town, but we’ve since become friends, so yeah.

Q: Right, right, that’s super interesting, especially this sort of conversation that an employee had with you and how lasting that impact can be after years. That’s really interesting. So, just a few more questions. In what ways would you say would you say you were unprepared as a writer, coming out of college into the workforce?

A: Again, kind of having a baseline of maybe how to clearly communicate. I mean there was a lot of creative writing in highschool and college, I wrote a lot of my papers spontaneously at the very last minute. It’s weird, the way I work, I don’t know if it’s– it’s changed a little bit, but the way I’ve worked for most of my life in terms of being able to write extensive communication, long, several-page essays, or reports, papers, was to absorb all of the information for a long period of time, and then just spit it back out in a large paper all at once as fast as possible. And then kind of go back and tweak it, and then done. I don’t think I could ever do what you’re doing in terms of being a PhD student [laughter]. Because I’ve known several people who’ve worked on their PhDs and stuff like that, and I have to say I don’t think I could stomach doing all that. So yeah, I think that, just even the baseline, but that really comes down to that being my own fault. The tools were there, I just didn’t take advantage of them. And I got called out by my professors. One of my favorite professors, she actually gave me an “F”, and that was the first time that I think I ever remember anyone saying, “Listen, you can’t just do what you want. This is exactly what I asked for, and you didn’t give it to me. You can smile and tweak it, paint it all different colors, but it’s still not what we asked for. So in the end of the day, you’ve achieved an F.” And I was like, “Wow.” And it was funny because even my classmates were like, “Well he did an amazing job.” And she was like, “Yeah, he did. But it’s not what I asked for so you [inaudible 36:08]”. And I was like, “Wow. That’s a first. Thank you very much,” [laughter].

Q: That’s interesting. So this next question, you kind of answered it earlier. Would you say you’re a successful workplace writer? You said you don’t consider yourself a good writer – could you tell me a little bit about whether you think that you’re ultimately successful though?

A: I’m successful in the sense that I get the results that I’m looking for most of the time, but I’d say the majority of the time, but I am not successful in the sense that, because of my struggles, I’m just horrible at time management sometimes. So that probably adds to my time management crisis or crunch sometimes, in terms of having to write.

Q: Okay. And last question – what skills would you say are must central to writing in your specific job?

A: What skills – I think this is more of a skill of life, it’s– in my career in photography, I had the opportunity to meet– and actually my upbringing is I guess kind of varied in that sense as well. I grew up very average, kind of on the lower scale of middle class, but had a interesting peppered life of adventure, and kind of being all over the place. So having the chance to connect with a lot of people that I may not connect with, or meet people – I shouldn’t say connect like we form long term relationships – but meet people. So I guess as more of a clear example to help out here, in photography, I would meet the president, I would meet CEOs of corporations, I would meet a lot of famous socialites, so sports stars, and usually had to hang out with them sometimes for an entire day. Which it’s funny, because I don’t think I do this well in some aspects, but to be able to just really connect with people is a core life skill that you need to have and a lot of times I think that people, we all have our insecurities and I think that that’s one thing that kind of gets in the way. Not to say I don’t have a whole stack of insecurities [laughter], like I hate to speak in front of people unless I know exactly what I’m talking about and I have a clear, concise path in terms of where I’m taking everyone in that conversation. But if I have to do a spontaneous, quick speech, sure, I’m happy to. Especially if I have to demand something of people in a large group, I tend to do that well for some reason. But I guess just keeping it short, connecting with people and creating an open environment and understanding I think is something that I do well and also goes into written communication as well because I– you know it’s funny, I think there’s always, I know at least working at an office when I used to work in an office, the culture of people would write these nasty emails and then you’d run into them in the hallways, and they’re like, “Oh, hi.” And it’s just kind of like, “Why would you do that? Why are you communicating this way? It’s not going to be conducive to what you’re trying to achieve in the end, you’re making everyone’s life more painful in the process.” So connecting with people is a huge life skill that should be applied in any kind of written communication as well.

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Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Government & Military

Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Date of Interview: March 5th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: I’m a foreign affairs officer, I work at the Department of State, and I graduated from grad school in May of 2014.

Q: Great, and do you mind telling me when you graduated from undergrad?

A: That would be December of 2011.

Q: Perfect, okay. Can you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: That’s a good question. It kind of varies from day to day, but at the moment I’m the lead for my bureau on this intelligence sharing program that we have going on that involves partner countries from around the world. So a lot of that is making sure that when we invite a new country from my particular region to this program, that everybody in the Department is okay with it, and we kind of gather consensus from the US government that everyone else is okay with it as well. Then we manage that process from there, like deciding what they can and can’t be privy to while they’re a part of this program, like who can participate from the country, things like that. In addition to that, I also work on some other smaller counter-terrorism issues, and on the more boring end of things that I do, it’s managing my bureau’s role in this approval process for the use of new funding authorities. In this case, it’s like a new funding authority the DOD was given that the State Department has to– we have concurrence authority on, so they come to us with a plan about how to spend this money, and then we shop it around to the Department, again, making sure everybody’s on board with it.

Q: Okay, okay, alright, that makes sense. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: When you say writing, do you mean official documents, or– ?

Q: Actually anything from a casual email, or a text, all the way through to official documents.

A: I would say probably six out of eight hours every day are spent writing in some form. It’s usually, more often than not it’s emails, or infrequently it’s text messages over this program that we use called Microsoft Link, which is just like an instant messenger program that plugs into Microsoft Outlook. And then for my particular job, it’s rare that I’m rare that I’m writing official documents, but that does happen. When I say official documents, I mean like memos and things like that. It does happen, just not all that often for me.

Q: Okay, alright. So the bulk of it is email?

A: Yeah.

Q: Perfect. And this sort of leads to the next question – what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So email, very occasionally the sort of text communication there, and then you mentioned memos. Are there other kinds of genres or documents that you write?

A: The State Department has a number of different types of memos, like there are certain– they’re called action memos, that you send up to somebody higher-ranking to get them to make a decision on an issue. So it’s like literally framed as, “We recommend that you approve blah blah blah,” and then there’s even a little “approve/disapprove” thing for them to circle, like which one they want to do. But they’re all roughly the same, in that you are usually providing background on an issue, and then explaining your office’s or your bureau’s position on that issue and what you think should be done. But then there’s also stuff like responses to letters from members of Congress, inquiring about a particular issue. Sometimes writing back to NGOs that have written to the Department, although for me that’s very rare. Yeah, that’s all I can think of at the moment.

Q: Great, okay, excellent. Were you familiar with those genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: I was vaguely familiar with them when I was in grad school, but only because I had done an internship at the State Department prior to starting grad school.

Q: Okay. How did that familiarity affect your approach to them when you got into the job?

A: I don’t know if I actually retained any of that familiarity between my internship and when I started working there, other than knowing what they were. It took a bit to get accustomed to the Department of State’s writing style, which is, you know, they emphasis always using the active– staying away from passive sentences, and they place a strong emphasis on brevity, I guess. So it’s supposed to be short, declarative statements and now, it changes with the administration and who’s in charge, but they’ve started introducing new limits on what we can write. So if we’re sending something up to the Secretary of State, they’ve mandated that it not be longer than two pages, which is fairly normal, I guess. Everybody says nobody has time to read anything longer than that, so it’s kind of been unofficial policy to keep things shorter than that, but now it’s getting more officialness, or however you want to say it.

Q: Does that feel stressful? Or are there situations that you could conceive that would require more than two pages?

A: Yeah, just about any issue we deal with could easily take up ten pages so trying to cut it down to that is– it can be frustrating at times because, depending on the issue, there’s just no way that you can cover every single thing that you need to hit upon in a two page limit. The issues that we deal with are so complex and multifaceted that you can’t, it’s just impossible to get everything in a document that short. Luckily, you can supplement those documents with an in-person briefing, so you can go talk to the person and give them additional details.

Q: Okay, that’s really interesting, okay. Could you describe for me your writing process, including how writing tasks come to you, how you prepare if there’s any preparation, and any steps you take from the start to finish? And it might make sense to think about either one of the more complex emails or maybe one of the memos, like something on the formal side.

A: So for emails, I don’t really send out anything very formal, it’s usually just questions to colleagues or responding to questions from my colleagues, and that’s just a very informal style. It’s more like an email that you would write to your friend. But for writing memos– oh sorry, just to backtrack a little bit about the other things that we write – we also have these things called briefing checklists, so it’s for, say the head of my bureau is going to be meeting with a defense contractor, they will task us with writing this briefing checklist, where it’s basically like a rundown of the meeting. Like, “You are meeting with so and so, here’s the context, they want to talk about x, y, and z.” So then you give background on x, and then you have a couple bullet points under that that are written in the first person, but it’s supposed to be what the official should say to the person they’re meeting with. So you get the messages you want to convey, or that you think they should convey, that way. So briefing checklists are probably the main thing that my office does.

Q: Interesting. Okay. Let’s say that that is the thing that you are tasked with writing – I assume that the impetus for that is that this meeting is going to take place. But then as you start to tackle a writing project like this, how do you begin? Or does it come to you at a later stage to review?

A: So my office, we deal with regional issues, so we don’t have any one country that falls under us. So when writing things like this, a lot of it is deferring to the desk or the office that is responsible for that country. So a lot of the briefing checklists I write, they don’t deal with issues that I can directly write on without infringing on the country desks. So what I end up doing is just creating the basic outline for the checklist, and then sending it to them so they can fill in their appropriate sections. And the reason why it comes to my office to begin with is because it’ll deal with two countries, say Iraq and Libya, and those, with the way that my bureau is arranged, they’re not in the same offices, and that makes it a regional issue, so we end up being the coordinators for these papers.
Q: Okay, okay. And so you write the first version of it, to clarify, and then you send it out to fill in those gaps to the people who are more–

A: Yeah. Right.

Q: Got it. Okay, cool. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach those changes or how do you approach improving a draft from one stage to the next?

A: Anything that is written at the State Department does go through a process like that, we call it the clearance process. So you’ll have the initial draft, say the memo, and then you’ll send that to all the relevant stakeholders, so basically anybody in another bureau who also deals with your countries. The State Department’s divvied up into regional bureaus, which are the country desks, and then they have what are called functional bureaus, which are the policy-oriented places – so you’ll have the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And then that bureau is further divvied up to reflect the regional bureaus, so the Human Rights Bureau will have a Middle East team. So then you would then send that memo, if it has human rights content, you would send it to the person on the Middle East team in the Human Rights Bureau who deals with that country, and then they review it, and they either add things or delete things as they see fit. And then you do that with all of the relevant offices, so in the most extreme examples, it could be 15 different offices that you’re sending this to. Unfortunately the technology we have is very archaic, so we’re doing all of this through email, and attaching the Word docs to the email, so you’ll get all of these edits coming back to you that you then have to incorporate into a master document. It’s a very frustrating process. We don’t have anything like Google docs, where multiple people can edit a document simultaneously.

Q: Is that because of security or privacy issues that you don’t use Google docs?

A: Yeah, it’s security issues. I think for a lot of the work we do, Google docs just isn’t secure enough. We can’t be putting these documents on the wider internet. So we do have something called Microsoft Sharepoint – it’s ideally supposed to fill the same role that Google docs does, but it’s so unintuitive and hard to use that just nobody uses it, everybody does it through email.

Q: Interesting, interesting. And so all of those stakeholders who take a look at it, they look at it at the same time? Like they look at the same version and then you incorporate those– ?

A: Right.

Q: Okay, I see. That does sound cumbersome, yeah.

A: Occasionally you’ll get people who are editing on top of other office’s edits, so it does cut down on the work somewhat, but that doesn’t always happen.

Q: Okay. It would seem to me in that process that there might be conflicting edits at some point?

A: Yeah.

Q: How do you respond to something like that?

A: If you’re the one who originally sent the document out, you do have the final approval over what goes in there, so you get to choose. But usually you have to talk to the people who have the conflicting edits and see if they can reach some kind of compromise.

  1. I see, okay, interesting. And the edits and revisions that are coming back to you in those documents from those stakeholders – I would assume that they’re content-edits, not really to style at all?

A: Sometimes it is style, but yeah, most of the time it’s content-edits.

Q: Most of the time, gotcha. Okay, great. How long do you have to write a typical project?

A: For some of those briefing checklists that I mentioned, it’s only a matter of days, and that’s to write it and then send it out for clearance. Things like responses to congressional inquiries can last longer. And then we get reports that are mandated by law that can be due anywhere from 30 to 60 or even 90 days out, so it really varies depending on what the paper is. There’s also voluntary papers that nobody has tasked us with that we just– like we have these things called information memos, which is basically just giving background on a certain issue, or flagging it for the higher-ups so they know that this might be a thing that you’ll see in the news soon or something. And those are just done at, you know, however quick they need to be.

Q: I see, okay. And do they go through any sort of review process?

A: For information memos, the idea behind those is that they are supposed to be from your bureau and your bureau only, so even if they do touch upon another bureau’s equities, you generally don’t clear it with them. Ideally the information memo is supposed to be a direct line between the head of your bureau and the Secretary of State.

Q: I see, okay, interesting. This is a big question, but what is at stake in your writing? It seems to me that the answer could look a lot of different ways depending on the kind of writing, but could you talk a little bit about that?

A: Yeah, again, it would depend on the document type, but it could be something like getting the higher-ups to fall one way or the other on a given issue, or rule on an issue in your bureau’s favor – and I realize that’s very vague and doesn’t really get into specifics. But in other cases, if it’s like a congressional inquiry, it could shape how Congress, if they’re thinking about enacting a law, it could change how it’s implemented, or the exact text of the law, or it could delay or provoke action on Congress’s part.

Q: Right, okay. Who oversees your writing? And I guess what I mean by that is, while you have all these different stakeholders that you talked about, is there a person above you who also has to sort of consistently look at your writing?

A: Yeah, so for my office it’s the deputy director and then the director.

Q: Okay, great. How would you say those two people judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: That’s a good question because by the time it reaches them, it’s gone through so many revisions. The deputy director often just looks at it to make sure that it fits within the Department’s style guide, and then our director – and this varies office to office, this isn’t necessarily how it’ll work everywhere – but then our director does a policy review to make sure that any question that might arise is covered in the text of it.

Q: Okay. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from undergrad? And so what was your graduate degree in?

A: Arab studies.

Q: Okay, alright. So, yeah, have you had any writing training or education specific to the work that you’re doing now?

A: No.

Q: Okay. What challenges do you remember facing when you entered the workplace as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I think the biggest hurdle, as I kind of mentioned before, was adapting to the department’s writing style. I think I wrote fairly colloquially before, and that would just, like you don’t get in trouble for these things, but it’s never fun getting a document back from your supervisor and seeing all these edits that they’ve made to it and how they’ve reworded your sentences. But in terms of adapting to that or how I’ve gone about that, it just kind of arises naturally after you’ve been doing it for a bit. It wasn’t so much a conscious effort, but I do sometimes have to remind myself not to use contractions. Now I’m more vigilant for using the passive voice.

Q: Okay, so passive voice is something that you’re conscious of, but the rest of it you think it sort of evolved naturally?

A: Yeah. And I guess when I reread the stuff that I’ve written, I’m always thinking about if I can make a given sentence shorter or more concise.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to – you’ve half answered this – but are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now, and if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Yeah, it’s much drier now [laughter]. This has more to do with content, but when I was out at the embassy in Jordan, writing cables on a given issue, I initially tried to approach it as I would a research paper in grad school, in that you try to bring in all of these outside sources and establish the context before you start getting into the meat of the issue. But the State Department doesn’t want that. Again, cables don’t really have a lot of the– they definitely don’t have the length restrictions that the documents we write back in Washington do, but shorter is still better, so they– everybody kind of recognizes that the people back in Washington don’t have enough time to read say, an eight-page cable about a given subject, so you want it to cover all the bases but also be as short as possible. So there’s no room for establishing the context, you just have to kind of assume that people know what it is. And in some cases, the lengthy background of a given issue doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s more what’s happening, what the proximate events are.
Q: Can you just describe a little bit more about the writing genre of a cable? I think of it as a sort of a memo or a report, but I don’t really much about it.

A: They kind of vary, depending on what the subject is. So sometimes cables, if it’s about a developing issue, like a hot button issue, it can be essentially just a summary of events. So while I was out in Jordan, this controversial Christian writer was shot dead on the steps of the Palace of Justice, and that was a big deal for us, because it had the potential to incite sectarian tensions in Jordan or interreligious conflict. So that was something that we recognized Washington was going to be very concerned about, so as it was happening, we were already writing the cable for it. So in that case, it was a summary of what happened, how people in Jordan are responding, how the Jordanian government’s responding, but that was a very – I can’t think of the term for it – but it was essentially just almost like a news report. But then there’s other cables that are more like think pieces, like, “This is where we think the government of Jordan is going to be in x number of years,” or, “These are the problems that they currently face and here’s how they might address them or what will happen if they fail to address them in the coming years.” Or there’s some that are kind of more like research papers, but you’re not bringing in– it’s more like you’re out there conducting interviews with people and getting the opinions of elites rather than pulling out a book or something and actually citing page x.

Q: Right, you know, I was going to ask you, when you’re giving this sort of overview of the response of people in the area, is that sort of man on the street, are you out there talking to people? Or does it come from the news more?

A: No, the Embassy definitely doesn’t have the capability to do the man on the street stuff, in any way that would be reflective of the actual public opinion. So we do have to rely on polls and things like that. I mean, there’s nothing to stop us from going out there and just talking to a random person on the street, but what you get back isn’t necessarily going to be a reflection of what the broader population thinks. So we mostly relied on people from think tanks, or government officials, or media reports – when I say that I mean summaries of what the media’s talking about. Actually if you’re Arabic was good enough, you could just watch the news and say, “This is what I saw.” But yeah, there’s dedicated people at the Embassy will monitor the media and kind of give summaries about what the salient issues are.

Q: I see, okay, okay. Thank you. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in the workplace?

A: With the style of writing that we do here, it really didn’t. My grad program, even though it was part of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, they didn’t emphasize practical skills that you might use in the workplace, it was much more academically oriented. It was kind of like a prep course for getting a PhD.

Q: Oh, okay, okay. And when you think back to your undergraduate years, were there things that you learned or strategies that you built as an undergraduate that have applied in the workplace?
A: No, not anything that I can think of, other than just honing your base writing skills.

Q: When you say base writing skills, what are you referring to?

A: Just improving your style or sentence structure and composition, things like that.

Q: Okay, great. You’ve spoken to this in a number of ways, but what are the ways in which you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Naturally I am a slow writer, I like to revise every sentence that I write after I write it, like I agonize over things, or I probably spend way too much time doing that. So the pace of writing is what gets to me. Sometimes you have to do a very quick turnaround on a memo or a cable or something, so that’s, I guess it can be nerve-racking at times, but you kind of get used to it.

Q: Okay. And two more questions: first, would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer, and why or why not?

A: How would you define success?

Q: How would you define success [laughter]?

A: I mean, people tell me that what I’ve written is good, like some of the cables that I wrote while I was in Jordan were used in the president’s daily briefing, although I attribute that more to having written about an interesting topic, rather than anything I wrote personally. I think anybody could have written about those things and they would have been used in that briefing. So I suppose I’m a success? And that my papers get accepted usually without being completely rewritten, so that’s about as successful as you can get.

Q: Great, okay. And the last question – what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: What do you mean? Like what kind of skills are you talking about?

Q: I guess I mean, anything, any variety of skills, but when you think about the sort of skills that you had to work to develop, and that might be sentence-level things, like concision, or it might be more conceptual, high-level thinking. Sort of at either of those.

A: For writing cables, I guess kind of improving your style– so when you write cables, and you’re recounting what this government official said, and then what the head of this think tank said, if your style isn’t that great, it’s going to get very boring and repetitive, because it’s just going to be, “This guy said ‘dah dah dah’, and then this person said, ‘blah blah blah’,” – you’ll just be using the same words over and over again. So knowing how to mix it up, I guess. Like knowing all the synonyms for the word “said” [laughter] is very valuable. And this is specific to cables, because all of these other memos and official papers that I’ve talked about are very cut and dry, like nobody remembers a good briefing checklist, it’s just not something that goes down in the hall of fame. But knowing how to write in an interesting way, and frame things– sorry, just to backtrack a little bit – a lot of cables, they’re weird because they’re not written in a narrative or sometimes even in chronological order, so they want the most important things up front, I guess kind of like a newspaper article. So what the Department defines as most important would usually be like– I guess you could rank the order of importance based on the position of the people in government that are being quoted. So in Jordan, if the ambassador met with the king, then that’s what you’d lead off with, even if it occurred a week after another interview that you’re also writing about in that cable. So adapting to that is difficult because you naturally want to write it in a logical order, but yeah, it’s just something you have to work around. So developing and remembering to employ that is critical.

Q: That makes a lot of sense. It is always clear what the priority in that document is, or is that part of the challenge as well? Like remembering to lead with x is part of the challenge, but is it fair to say that you have to be able to prioritize those events, yourself as well?

A: Yeah, and I think, I mean, I’ve only ever worked at one embassy, so I can’t say this for certain, but based on what I’ve heard from other people who’ve worked in multiple places, every ambassador is going to have their own preferences as to how it should be ordered or what it should take, because the ambassador in most cases is the final approver of every cable that goes out. So you’re writing for two audiences: one is the ambassador, and the other is the people back in Washington who are going to read this. So you have to figure out how to please both people, I guess.

Q: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Great. Thank you!

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Vice President, Human Resources

Business

Vice President, Human Resources, Mortgage Company

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay, so would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: Executive vice president of First Guaranty Mortgage Corporation, and I graduated in 1993.

Q: Okay, could you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: I oversee the human resources department, all facilities, corporate administration, and customer engagement.

Q: Gotcha. And how big is the organization?

A: We are 850 employees right now.

Q: Ah, okay. How frequently are you required to write? If it’s possible, maybe you can estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: I would say, especially from email, it’s going to be about 70 to 80 percent of my job.

Q: Okay. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents are most typical for you?

A: So typically either policies and procedures, or emails – formal emails and informal emails.

Q: Could you make the distinction between the two, sort of describe what each might look like?
A: So I guess for me, informal emails are usually reactionary, I’m responding to someone else, whereas most of my formal emails are going to be where I’m trying to communicate to a group, either with my peer executives or to the entire company to make a specific point.

Q: Gotcha. Okay. So you kind of answered this a little bit–

A: I’m sorry.

Q: No, no, that’s great. But so the primary audiences – employees always? Or not necessarily?

A: So primarily internal, so yes, employees, but then different levels of employees. So sometimes it’s going to be other executives – what we have is an executive management team – other times it’s going to be directors, senior directors, and then just the entire employee population as a whole.

Q: I see. Okay. Could you name some of the purposes of those writing – what you’re going to accomplish in those types of– ?

A: Usually they’re directional. So it’s, “This is a new policy to the organization,” or “It’s now time for performance reviews, you need to do this, in order,” you know, “It’s now becoming open enrollment for benefits, you need to do this.” So it’s usually directional.

Q: Okay, perfect. Were you familiar with the kinds of writing you’re doing now when you were a college student?

A: No, I think for two reasons: one, I’m actually old enough that email wasn’t a big deal back then [laughter], it wasn’t a big deal. And then also two, I never had to do– I don’t feel like I always had to write as often about persuasion. I didn’t– having to persuade somebody. I feel like I’m doing that a lot more now than I am [inaudible 2:50].

Q: Interesting. What are the contexts in which you are trying to persuade people these days?

A: So, typically with executives, it’s going to be– we’re a consensus group, so we try to make decisions by consensus, but when it’s my area of expertise, I’m saying, “Here’s the basic information, here’s what I think we should do.” And then I kind of persuade you that that’s the way you should go, rather than, I don’t like to say, “Hey, this is my department, I made a decision, everybody get on board.”

Q: That makes sense, okay. Could you describe your writing process? The question asks how writing tasks come to you, but presumably there, you are initiating them. But maybe any preparation you take before you start writing, and/or what that process looks like from start to finish. And maybe we can think about a typical formal policy piece of writing, rather than an email.

A: Right, okay, so yeah, so policy or even a longer email, I would usually create an outline, just to get my thoughts together, sort of here are my major points, you know, some sort of bullet point, and then fill in the blanks – okay, this is what I need to talk about at that bullet point, and then I would transfer it into an email.

Q: Gotcha, okay. And do you do any revision after you’ve written a full draft of it?

A: Yes. Typically I do my own revisions, I share it with people in my team when it’s their area of expertise to get input on those revisions.

Q: Excellent. And is that input, it’s usually content-based rather than sentence-level style?

A: No, right, it’s content.

Q: Okay, great. And when you’re making revisions on multiple drafts, are there any particular strategies or approaches that you take to improving a piece of writing?

A: I guess really just time. I usually tend to try to walk away from something and come back later on just to get a new context and to look at it from a different eye, a different viewpoint.

Q: Great, great. How long do you typically take to complete a writing project, if it’s something sort of substantial like that that’s official?

A: I would usually say a day. If it’s the end of one day, it’s going to be the end of the next day before I put it out. So 24 hours.

Q: Perfect, okay. Because you’re at the vice president level, the executive level, I’m assuming there’s no one who oversees your writing, is that–?

A: Yeah.

Q: Right, okay. But you said if someone has an area of expertise in the department, you might run it by them?

A: Right, exactly.

Q: Beautiful, okay. And are those, they’re usually director-level folks?

A: Yes.

Q: Got it. And how would you say the success or quality of your writing is judged, either by other people or by yourself?

A: You mean, whether they judge it to be decent writing?

Q: Yeah, yeah.

A: I mean I usually get quite a few compliments on my writing, that it’s persuasive, it’s succinct, it’s to-the-point, which is a big deal in business [laughter].

Q: Great. Yeah, absolutely. Have you had any writing training or education in writing since you graduated from college?

A: I can’t really say that I have, I may have taken, you know years ago I may have taken some sort of writing class just to help persuasive writing, but I would say that was probably ten years ago. So not really.

Q: Gotcha, okay. Do you remember facing any challenges as a writer when you entered the workforce?

A: Yeah, I mean I think early on I figured out that I wasn’t necessarily understanding my audience very well, maybe was too emotional in emails. What I call emotion in the sense that, too many adjectives, sort of almost a slang, almost how I would talk, I was writing, so that was a — luckily for me I think I got over it. I identified it relatively early in my career and got over it. [inaudible 6:48], relatively.

Q: That’s interesting. How did you identify first that you felt that it was not–?

A: Because of reactions I got from people. So, especially in human resources, you are in many cases trying to pacify a situation, you’re trying to calm things down, and I would find that sometimes when people would read my writing, it made it worse. So I would be like, “Okay, that was not my intent [laughter], clearly I need to repeat that,” and that’s where it was– maybe I had too many, sort of, where it felt personal to people. So many times I would be writing to correct a situation, to say, “Your performance isn’t great, this is how we need to fix it” and maybe it came across as personal, like I was personally attacking, so it wasn’t received well.

Q: Absolutely, yeah. And when you tried to remedy that, were there specific approaches you took to sort of change your writing in that way?

A: I think the main point for me, which seems simple but wasn’t simple until you figured it out, was to simply try be in the other person’s shoes. Say, “I’m the person who’s going to read this, am I going to take it the right way?”

Q: Yeah, right, gotcha. Other than what you just talked about, are you able to identify any changes in your writing between college and now, and if so, are there certain positions or things that have happened that you might attribute that shift to?

A: I think my vocabulary’s grown, simply by the nature of my work – HR terms and things that I use more often – I think it’s gotten a lot better. But I also think just from viewing other people’s work, my grammar’s better than it was when I was in college. I think my sentence structure is better. You know, like I say, I think it was more just from seeing it in other’s writing rather than in a class or something like that.

Q: Absolutely, yeah. That makes sense. Out of curiosity, what did you study in college?

A: U.S. History.

Q: Okay, alright. In what ways do you think the writing you did in college prepared you or not for writing in the workplace?

A: I think it gave me the sort of the basic structure of it. Through highschool and college, it’s understanding how to write it structurally. But honestly I think a lot of it I’ve learned since college, it was sort of on-the-fly. Most of the things that I would say I’m good at in writing I’ve learned on my own.

Q: Gotcha, okay. That’s interesting, yeah. And presumably you did a lot of writing as a history major?

A: Yes, yes.

Q: Although a very different kind of writing.

A: Right, right.

Q: Okay. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer? Other than sort of getting compliments, are there things that–?

A: Yeah, I do think so, because again, I feel like I persuade my audience, even when it’s employees. I consider it successful because I don’t get a lot of pushback. So it may be a policy that I know people aren’t going to like, and when I don’t hear a lot of negatives, I feel like I was persuasive.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Are there still lingering writing challenges? Are there ever projects that you’re working on, a piece of writing, that still feel like a real challenge, or do you feel like you’ve really mastered all the genres, the types of writing that you’re doing at this stage?

A: I will say actually to this day, some pieces of grammar are still a challenge for me, commas and semicolons [laughter], some of those simple things are still difficult for me. If something is an emotionally charged interaction– even, so the writing is supposed to be emotionally charged, I’m still not very good at that, because I do come across– it’s almost like I’ve overcompensated, I’m very factual in my writing. I don’t really allow a lot of emotion into my writing, so sometimes that can be a problem.

Q: Could you give me an example of a situation that you think should be more emotionally charged?

A: Probably just expressing sympathy to one of my employees in a loss, or trying to show understanding when somebody– sometimes you would go back and forth in a persuasive argument, and something you may say at the end, “I’m fine with this. I don’t love the idea but I’m fine with it,” and I’m probably not coming across maybe as magnanimous or as feeling as I could, because I still have that sort of–

Q: You’ve really perfected that very specific tone [laughter] for everything else.

A: Right, right. Exactly.
Q: That’s really interesting, okay.

A: That is something I have to work on, and remember that there’s a change in audience. Sometimes I still forget to recognize the change in audience and not word– this person I’m not trying to persuade in that same way.

Q: Yeah, right, that makes sense. And the last question – what skills would you say are most central to writing in your very specific role?

A: I do think it’s about keeping to facts, you know, don’t allow a lot of extraneous information – succinct. I work with an executive who, you write more than three or four paragraphs, you’ve lost him and he’s gone. So it’s fact, fact, boom, boom, boom, loves bullet points. And I think all of the executives, as we communicate with each other, are the same way. You’ve got to be very succinct.

Q: Excellent, thank you.

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Senior Supply Chain Manager

Business, Government & Military

Senior Supply Chain Manager, Consulting Organization for Government

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college.

A: Sure. I’m a senior manager in advisory services in the government and public sector at Ernst & Young, and it’s been 12 years since I graduated from college.


Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Sure. I predominately provide consulting services, more around – I’m in supply chain management – it’s around performance improvement, so how can we enhance a particular agency’s internal supply chain. We’ll go in and maybe do a current state assessment, and identify what are they doing today, and then looking at leading practices, and help them to get to a future desired state.

Q: And are all the clients government agencies?

A: Predominately yes. My focus is on the federal government. I can also work on the commercial sector, more if there’s any downtime, but there hasn’t been at this point.

Q: Okay. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, maybe you can estimate sort of in a given week, what percentage of your time is spent writing?

A: Sure. So definitely write on a daily basis. We’re always working on a particular– there’s always a document or some end product that we’re working towards, and it’s a process of writing to get to that, whether it be through interviews, or drafting different documentation and materials. So it’s not always that I’m physically actually actively writing, but probably anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the time that we’re actually pretty much writing.

Q: Got it. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? What are sort of the typical genres of writing that– ?

A: Sure. So we have informal, where I’m writing emails, and that might just be on a daily basis, whether it be to a client, or it could be internal to team members. I work on draft work products for a client as well. Then we have more formal-type products that we work on – one’s external-focused, so with a client focus. We have final deliverables that we’re always working towards. I also write white papers, which is more around thought leadership in a particular topic or area, highlighting case studies. And then I do proposals or responses to requests for information from the federal government, and then–

Q: Are those, sorry to clarify, are those two different things?

A: Yeah. The government issues a request for a proposal, which is the second half. The first half is a request for information. Government doesn’t always issue a request for information, it’s more if they’re trying to find out from industry what’s possible. What are the current service offerings? How would you go about doing a particular strategy? They might want something in particular with supply chain and to look at, maybe it’s a holistic end-to-end supply chain transformational project. A lot of the times the government’s trying to identify what small businesses can perform the work. But as a large business, either we work with a small business to respond to them, or we try and articulate why it’s important to have a much larger business perspective, because we have the reachback support across– I mean, Ernst & Young has 210,000 employees, so we have reachback support across the entire world, and we can leverage other leading practices, other experiences at federal governments that smaller businesses might not have. So that’s the first piece, and then once the agency identifies really what do they exactly want, then they issue a request for a proposal, and that’s the formal documentation that they are intending to award a contract with real dollars tied to it. And then that is our formal response as to how we would actually go about doing the work. We put in– typically you’ll have resumes, past performances, where have we done something like this before. Then we also build up a whole entire pricing volume, where we’ll say based on what individuals, what labor categories, what’s the price for that labor category, how many hours, and you really build that whole entire cost proposal out.

Q: Excellent. And does that complete the sort of different types of genres, or are there anything else that you– ?

A: Yes, the other key one is formal documentation, it’s around internal doing performance reviews. It’s every six months and then at the end of the year we have formal, documented performance reviews. I’ll also put in there that I do and develop training documentation for both clients, but also internal to the firm, so that’s another major, major work product.

Q: And are those, they’re documents that the trainees are using, as well as lesson plans that you’re using?

A: Yes. So it’s the training content as well as the trainer guide materials. Yep.
Q: Perfect, okay, great. Some of these are obvious from what you’ve said, but could you describe sort of the primary audiences that you usually write to, and what the primary purposes are of your sort of most typical kinds of writing?

A: Sure. So, take it from the client side – it’s more around the service delivery. So we’re on contract for x particular service, and so we’re always looking at, okay, what are our methodologies and approaches that we’re using in order to develop that work product? We might be doing and performing research, and also providing with the client with guidance and advice on a day-to-day basis. We look at it from an internal standpoint, so I typically have a team of individuals that I’m overseeing and guiding. So I’m providing daily guidance, whether it be written through email, we use a lot of Skype or Sametime, sometimes it’s even text messaging, in order to communicate to the team as to – or through phone as well – what are the key activities that we’re working on, provide direction, provide written feedback to every team member who’s working on a team. It’s required by the firm that if you work on a project for more than I think it’s 40 hours a week, that you’re required to have written, documented feedback. And then, I’d say the other area is around coaching and mentorship, which is more informal. But if you gel well with an individual and kind of respect them and look up to them or they look up to you, take them under your wing or you take– basically providing that advice and guidance throughout their career.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with the typical writing genres that you work in now when you were a student?

A: I would say the main one that I was familiar with was like a work product development. I went to Lehigh University, and specifically majored in supply chain. The supply chain department was very heavily focused on case studies, and that really I think helped us to get acclimated to what to expect from doing our research, from presenting materials, from developing a final potential work product. Granted, those work products differ based on whatever project that you’re working on. I would say the other things, no. So back to, even in a client work product, at Ernst & Young I learned that there are what we deem as “bad words” that pose the risk to the firm that I wouldn’t have thought of before, either through academia or even in my past life where I worked for the Boeing Company for seven years. You can’t use the words like “ensure”, like, “we’ll ensure that we will do this.” Well, legally, anybody could come back to you and say, “Well if you ensure, like you absolutely will do this, and how can you ensure it?” or “We will provide the best resources available.” Well, you think that it might be the best, but somebody could always say that, well in a firm of 210,000 employees, they could always say, “Well, this person technically might be better than Matthew is, so why did you have him and not this other person?” That I would have never thought of.

Q: Do you think that that’s internal to Ernst & Young, or is that supply chain on a larger scale?

A: I think it’s on the Big Four accounting firms. It wasn’t the case at Boeing. Now, not to say that it hasn’t evolved, now that is a broader topic, but that was new to me coming in. And it makes sense once I hear the legal ramifications of it, but the firm is very risk averse, and that helps to also justify it a little bit more. And I would say that academia didn’t prepare me for giving performance reviews or feedback, because really it’s more project-focused, versus you work with other individuals on teams but you’re never, because you’re peers, you’re not giving them feedback and critiquing somebody. So I understand why that doesn’t happen, but that I wasn’t prepared for either. But that is an evolution of, as you make it up into a career, I mean you go from the worker bee to managing and overseeing, and that’s the natural progression of any manager or leader is developing those skillsets.

Q: And are there – I’m jumping ahead a little bit here – but are there specific things early in your career when you were more at that sort of worker bee level, strategies that you used specifically for the kinds of, we’ll talk about overall strategies in a minute, but strategies for adapting to genres of writing that were new to you?

A: Yeah, I think from proposal development, I mean when that was new, it was more let’s start to look at previous proposals, really you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Or where you know that you did something really well, let’s leverage that. At least at Boeing, and even at Ernst & Young, you get scored on your proposals by the client, and therefore you can look back and say, “Okay, these areas were technically compliant,” or “They really liked how we laid this out.” You get to know a particular client.

Q: That’s really interesting, I didn’t realize that. So is that only if you win the– ?

A: No, everybody gets scored on their proposals.

Q: Oh, interesting, okay.

A: And then you can request a debrief. Now, when I was at Boeing, your proposals are, I mean the one was 40 billion dollars, so there’s of course, you are spending a year of your life just going into a proposal development when you’re looking at selling hundreds of aircraft, it’s a lot more at stake than – I mean not to say that what we do is not important as well – but when it’s a million dollars or a few million dollars, it’s not as big of a loss whereas, there are so many clients out there who are going to buy a Chinook or an F-22 or something like that, that we can sell to [laughter] as America.

Q: Yeah, okay, alright, that makes sense, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process, both how tasks or assignments sort of come to you, and how you prepare and the steps you take from the beginning of a project to the end? And if it’s useful, you can pick just any typical writing project that you think might be a good example.

A: Sure. Usually it’s a work product of some sort with a client, is the typical type now. The challenge is that that varies from project to project. But usually there is a more standard process and methodology to it. We would, if we use an example like I talked about earlier, where we go in and maybe we’re doing a current state assessment of an organization’s supply chain and trying to help them to get to what their desired future state is, we don’t have any foregone conclusions when we’re going into it. So it’s trying to figure out, okay, first, you want to perform research on the topic and really know the key areas that are important to the client. Usually it’s in your statement of work, so you know what’s in scope, but you still reconfirm that with the client, and making sure that these are the targeted areas that they want to focus on. And then from that, developing an outline, as to okay, here’s our plan of attack, here are the key components that we’re going to focus on. From there, I would meet with my internal leadership to make sure that they are in alignment and that they can provide guidance and editorial process, even say, “No, let’s not focus on this particular area, let’s tweak this area.” Meeting back with the client, making sure that they’re on the same page – because the earlier you can meet and define what your deliverable is going to start to look like in that shell, and you can help to shape it, the more time that you save on the back end. The earlier that you can lock down yes, we want to work on or focus on these particular areas, then increase less rework potentially. From there, then really it’s going through and developing that first draft, so to speak. My style is more overly verbose, I don’t think as much about like, let me just do a brain dump on these key areas and do research and pull in information. Some of that research may be from client interviews as well, in order to understand their current state. And then from there, it is just going through the editing process. I go back through my whole entire document and redline it, and really figure out where do I need to focus on streamlining and consolidating and being articulate. And then that goes through a final editing process back up through my boss for comments, and then we will work with the client to see the final draft, they’ll provide any comments, and then we’ll deliver the final, final–

Q: So the client actually will give you feedback before they see the official final version?

A: Yes, that’s our best practice, because otherwise if you just throw it over the fence and they’re not happy with it, then usually there are very strict timelines as well incorporated into the contract as to how much time they have to review it, how much time we have after they review it. Sometimes we might only have two days, and if they completely say, “This is not what I wanted or what I was looking for,” – I don’t want to be up for 48 hours straight working on something [laughter]. So yes, to the extent possible, we work with them and share the near final draft.

Q: Great. And you talked a little bit about this when you talked about redlining your own work and getting feedback from above you, but are there specific approaches in revision – in that stage when you have a draft but you’re trying to improve it – are there specific strategies or approaches that you take during that time?

A: My strategy’s more I review the document from start to finish, and I will just go through and figure out, I mean I’ll go through the rewriting process from line one. With that said, I will usually not write the executive summary, I’ll save that until the full document is written, and then let the document kind of materialize those key findings, and then pull that out and make sure that that’s up in your executive summary. If there are certain areas where I’m struggling with as to it’s taking me too much time to rewrite or to really the words just aren’t flowing, then I’ll flag it and come back to that paragraph or section. That’s more my process, was there anything else that you– ?

Q: No, that’s great, that’s great. So you talked about how sometimes the deadline will be really tight, based on the client’s responses, but for a typical writing project, say like a medium-sized proposal, how long do you typically have for something like that?

A: Unfortunately with the federal government, things are sometimes very quick timelines. You can as little as five days to turn around a proposal, which is really then all hands on deck, and you job for the most part everything you can. Not as realistic, usually it’s closer to sometimes two weeks to three weeks, which still isn’t a lot. Now, this might be going to much into the business side of it, but usually then if we see something that comes out and it’s a request for a proposal and we only have x number of days as a shorter window for it, as a business, we take a step back and say, “Okay, has somebody else been shaving this? Is somebody else in the marketplace having these conversations, trying to shave that work? Or is this really that they don’t know, they haven’t had conversations before?” – not to say that it’s wired for anybody, but if it’s more of a, does anybody else have a competitive advantage in this, and what’s our probability of winning it by not having the context? Do we know who’s the buyer? Have we been in their office? Do we understand what they do, some of their paying points so we can resonate with them? And if we know what the other competition is, we might not bid on it at that point. So we try to focus more on building those relationships and anticipating these proposals, so that we’re already aware of their paying points and have had conversations with them and to help to kind of talk to them about some of the things that we’re seeing in the marketplace, and really things that they might want to consider as a potential solution.

Q: Excellent. This is another point of clarification for me – so when you talked about the sort of first stage, pre call for proposals, the request for information – does that go out to specific organizations, or to anybody who might be in the market to pitch a proposal?

A: That’s a good question. It depends. Sometimes it can just be up to if a potential client has no idea of what’s even in the market space, that could just be full and open to anybody. They may, because the federal government has small business targets for their contracting, they may just be putting it out there to really focus on small business first, just to see if– and at that point, if it goes small business, we wouldn’t even see it because we’re a large business. And then there are even further subsets of that – there’s an 8(a), there’s woman-owned, there’s small disadvantaged woman-owned businesses, there’s a whole slew of different levels that they can specifically reach out to.

Q: I see. And so when you mentioned maybe a call for proposals with a very tight turnaround, and as a business you would look at it to say, “Has it been shaped by an organization that is likely to win that business?” – is that a product of a request for information? Or not necessarily?

A: No, a request for an information point, no. We make the decision on – if we find out that it did go to small business, a request for information – we can, if we obtain that piece of information, we could still reply back to them to try and shape it and to say, “Have you really thought about it this way?” or “We think of it in this context, and it’s much bigger than, we would recommend you’re focusing on this lever, but really in clients with similar problems we also see that they have these other areas that you’d want to focus on.”

Q: That’s great, okay. What is at stake in your writing?

A: Reputation [laughter], credibility in the space – my credibility as a supply chain professional in the federal government space is probably the biggest thing that’s at stake for sure. The other thing is, even internally with my writing focusing on performance reviews, is just really building that relationship with individuals and being fair, open, honest to them.
Q: And that’s a big part of the culture at Ernst & Young, is that a fair– ?

A: Yep, no that’s fair. People is our number one focus, because if you do not have happy employees, and you don’t treat each other nice and well, then they’re not going to want to continue to work for you. And if they’re not empowered, then they’re not going to be doing as good of a job as they could be. So it’s really heavily focused on people.

Q: Excellent. Who oversees your writing? Could you give me a brief description of their title and their role in the organization? It’s probably not the same person every time, but–

A: It’s not always, but there is always somebody more senior. Now that I’m a senior manager, it would be the next level up is a partner, principal executive director. Therefore anything that I write that is a true deliverable needs to be reviewed by them at certain points if– based on the dollar threshold of the work that we’re performing, we also have a quality executive that is assigned to the project and any deliverables. When I say the word deliverable, it is specifically written in the contract that you are contractually required to deliver this particular work product, this particular document, whatever that end product is. And that quality assurance executive has to review it and make sure that we are in alignment with the firm’s quality standards. So there’s a whole other level of review on major, major work products.

Q: Interesting, yeah. And that quality executive in particular, but also your person who’s above you, a partner that would review it – are they looking at writing style? Or are they looking at more content-based– ? I’m trying to, that’s not–

A: The person who’s above me is looking at style as well as the content. It should be that look on, okay, is this technically sound, and does it make sense? Or does it sound like a second grader wrote it? But yeah, they’re looking at it from that lense, because I’ll get feedback that, “Okay, these paragraphs really need to be either tightened up,” or “It’s not just that carte blanche (23:06?),” like, “Yeah, it looks good, it passes the test.” But the quality executive is more looking for, it’s more of like a legal compliance on again, some of those bad words, more of like the style and are we hitting the key points on the executive summary, and do we have enough detail that resonates with the client to support our theories or our results? So it’s a higher level, but from a different angle on it, which is good. And that quality executive is usually somebody outside of, for me, it’s outside of supply chain. So it’s a good different perspective that they bring to the document.

Q: Wonderful, okay. And how do you think they judge – either the quality executive or a partner – the success or the quality of the writing?

A: If I don’t have to rewrite everything [laughter]. I think that it’s, if we’re able to articulate what are kind of like the key paying points or our key findings, and the key next steps, I think that that is something that they’re looking for. Does it flow well? Does it read nice? Do we think that it’s just going to be shelved? I mean if you’re creating a 40-page document, and it is only text-based and single-spaced font, guaranteed that thing is going to get shelved. And therefore, at least your executive summary has got to be very succinct and concise. Sometimes it’s, can you completely reshape and redesign it so that it becomes something that the client reaches back to and grabs on? And I’ve worked on a few things on revising how we change a– it used to be, not joking, over a 100-page document with all of the logic and methodology and it just got shelved. It’s like, this isn’t what we want, we need the client to be coming back to this and really relying on this on a regular basis. We completely scrapped the whole process and redesigned it, based on what we thought that would work really well and would be tangible with different graphs and charts. So it’s a different style of writing and communicating, and they clenched onto it, and basically they use that type of a work product on a regular basis now.

Q: That’s really interesting. So when you talk about that redesign, if I’m understanding you right, you’re talking both about the physical look of it, and the way the information’s presented.

A: The physical look and the way that the information is presented, yep. The one thing – we changed from a Word document to a Powerpoint presentation. There was a Powerpoint presentation that was in the format of a book, so you could flip through and it kind of tells the story, and you focus on the key areas of interest and key pieces of information that are relevant for specific areas.

Q: Gotcha. So you sort of changed it, is it fair to say that you in a sense changed its purpose? Rather than just being this thing that someone slogs through once, you want it to be a reference guide in some way?

A: Yeah, initially it was still meant to be like a reference guide, but you kind of take a step back and realize people aren’t using– we definitely scrapped a bunch of the information because there was so much on the logic and the methodology behind it they were like, “Just give me the results. What can I see?” And then put that stuff maybe at the very end, if they really still care about it, or put it in the appendix. And if the appendix gets shelved, that doesn’t matter, because at least they have the content that you need them to be focusing on. It’s more of – I don’t even know what to call it – you have the executive summary, but then it’s all your key work products or key documents up front before you get behind all of the background and the minutia that is important behind the process and really validating how you got to all of this goodness, but if you put all of that up front, the reader just starts to fall asleep, essentially. They don’t even get to the important stuff because they don’t know to look that far in advance.

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s great. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college, specific training to writing?
A: I don’t think it’s really been specific for a formal writing training course. There have been things on effective client encounters and some proposal training, and even giving feedback, but it wasn’t like you write down and then somebody analyzes your writing and provides you feedback on how could you better articulate yourself. There wasn’t really anything that I’ve had like that.

Q: Okay. What challenges did you face when you entered the workforce for the first time as a writer?

A: Some of it was really not knowing where to start. You come in from academia and it’s all more, it’s technical based, but it’s conceptual, as to what’s art of the possible, what can you– you’re just learning methodologies. But yet, you come into a company or a firm, and you now have to learn what’s their style, what’s important to them, and then how do you even start to– like proposal – if you’re in college, you’re not introduced to what does it mean to write a proposal? What are the key components of it? How do I write it? Or what’s the flow of it? What’s the right length? What’s the right amount of area on the technical content versus the upfront introduction, versus your bios, all that stuff. So I think it was really just, I had no idea, you don’t know where to start, what to do. It’s more reaching back on either your boss or other subject matter experts in that area to help you and to look at past documents that you can leverage, and say, “Okay, this is kind of this company’s style” – which, everybody has different writing styles, right – but at least from an outline standpoint, you get a better understanding of what is expected of you.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now? If so, what are the things that you most attribute to that shift?

A: Yeah, there definitely was a change. I think it’s more of like, once you have the real world experience, that starts to shape your perspective on your writing, as well as better just understanding the technical jargon, or you better understand the big picture. When you’re in school, you focus on, for me I was focusing on supply chain, but not all of the other components that could be impacted by supply chain. At Ernst & Young, we have tons of just different competencies that we also cowork directly with that I would have never thought, coming right out of school, that, oh, what happens in IT advisory, or cyber security? Or what’s the impact on, okay, we now have cyber security and supply chain, and looking at what’s the risk of, I don’t know, somebody hacking into a tier 3, tier 4 supplier? And can they control that supplier and basically cripple your whole entire supply chain? So now it’s more who else could i work with? How else could that affect a solution, have you, in the proposal? Because I may have just only written from supply chain, but now I know that there are these other components that you might want to lead into a better solution. But I also just think being on the ground and working in industry definitely gives you that better understanding. I was fortunate that in college I had three internships and a coop in supply chain. So for me, I found even when I was in school, that those internships, that work experience, I could relate better to the academia. I could ask more informed questions and I could even challenge the professor, not necessarily challenging a professor, but more thinking about it from a different angle. Example would be in supply chain, it’s very big on Walmart as a case study, where it’s more near-time or just almost just-in-time, where their suppliers push their inventory to them. They’re monitoring on the shelves when they have a low stock. So basically Walmart requires that as soon as they’re low in stock, that they are resupplied with it, so there never is a shortage. Well that’s great, but when you’re at Boeing, and titanium has a three year lead time, and then to manufacture a blade for the propeller, how are you forecasting two and a half, three and a half years out? It’s not the same concepts that you would think about, and it’s not talked about in school because it’s much, much, much more complicated, and you can’t forecast down to, you can’t do just-in-time when it comes to that. I think those perspectives have really helped to shape just my writing and better knowledge around what’s realistic in that particular industry and not just putting out there like, “We’ll be best in class, and we’ll ensure and do xyz,” when it’s not actually executable.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, okay. So when you think about what you were able – my next question is about the ways in which your academic background prepared you or not to write in the workplace – and it seems like those internships and the coop were pretty central actually to the academic work.

A: Yeah, they were huge to the academic work. Trying to think anything else that would– I would say the case studies that we went through as well in school really helped just to give you different perspectives. It was almost like a role play in some instances, where we had negotiations class, and you would be given a I don’t know, I’m a supplier from China and you’re a company in America that’s trying to source this product, and you’ve got to come– here we have our own objectives going into it on a piece of paper, and then we’d negotiate and come back and debrief to the class as to what happened. And it was what are the negotiation strategies? Is there a common element of a win-win versus a win-lose or a lose-lose? So those types of things really helped to just think about the dynamics of interacting with other stakeholders. But yeah, and definitely the internships and the coops really helped me to again, just think about supply chain differently. I worked at different levels in the supply chain, I’m probably going too detailed in the specifics– but it was even working at a warehouse, I was a forklift driver. So understanding logistics, and from a warehousing and inventory management and product placement on the side of the warehouse, and how do you load a truck? And what’s the best way? Or that there would actually be different ways of staging product inside of a truck. And oh, by the way, there are weight limits in the truck, and so you’ve got to be cognizant of how large, how much your freight weighs, and you have to stage it in a certain way so that it doesn’t overbalance on the back end and the front end.

Q: That’s so interesting. Do you think the internships at that level where you’re really understanding how the work gets done, is that typical of supply chain managers?

A: No, I was definitely, I think I was one of the only people at my school that had that much experience. I remember going into the resume writing shops, and they were basically like, “If everyone had this experience, this would be much easier to place everyone.” And I don’t know what it was, but I think I was just right time, right place, or part of it was also that I was able to, spend isn’t the right word, but most people are like, “I don’t want to work in a warehouse, I don’t want to drive a forklift.” Not that I really wanted to do it, but I understood that that’s a part of supply chain, and better to understand what you don’t want to do now, or at least understand that that grunt work, and having a better understanding of it early in your career, and being able to apply it to, okay, understanding that there are implications and impacts in these areas, was important. So I didn’t care that you made $8 an hour or $10 an hour, because I was always went into the mindset of, this is preparing me for the workforce, and I’m learning part of the supply chain. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, but at least I understand more about logistics and what it actually means.

Q: Gotcha, that’s great. In what ways do you think you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Again, like in performance reviews, but that wasn’t more until later in the career, until I’m actually managing somebody else. Proposal writing, we had nothing, no experience on. I feel like those were the big areas. Last year I wrote my first white paper thought leadership piece, which was new, I wasn’t prepared for that. But that was more, I’m more senior in my career now, and I understand these methodologies and this particularly around implementing a category management program in the federal government and doing it best in practice, where I’ve been helping an agency to transform their entire procurement shop around this concept of category management. It’s a huge focus on the federal government lately. The challenge there was you’re writing this document, but it can’t be 10, 20 pages long. You’ve got to be short, sweet, get the reader’s attention, not that, “Yep, okay, we’ve heard these concepts – oh, you’ve actually done this before and you’ve achieved results and here are those results, that’s pretty cool. And oh, we want to call you and contact you and try to get you in.” So there are all different angles that you are trying to hit at, but you don’t want it to come off as “I’m just selling here,” it’s, “Hey, we’ve done this before, we know what we’re doing. This does work.” So that was really interesting writing process. Any external facing publicly available documents, so a client’s work product isn’t publicly available, it just stays with that client. But in this instance, a thought leadership piece had to go through our whole entire score process. So supply chain has an operating reference, I believe, I could be completely wrong with that. But basically it’s a very, very prescriptive – there were well over seven to ten additional people who reviewed and scrutinized every single word in that document.

Q: And are those communications folks? Or are they– ?

A: We coordinated it through communications, so I believe it was a branch of– because any externally communicated messages had to go through them. But that’s a whole other level of quality assurance as well.

Q: And is that the kind of writing that, now that you’ve done it once, it’s something that will come up and you’ll presumably do it again in the future at some point?

A: Yeah, I would definitely do it in the future. The challenge with the thought leadership is, it’s not just whip it out, you’ve got to really have a concrete perspective. It is more challenging to come up with that, but absolutely, I would definitely.

Q: Out of curiosity, is that something that you pitch? Or someone says, “Hey, you did this and it went great for you. Do you want to write something like this?”

A: I pitched this. This was a goal of mine was to write this, and we actually, I had additional burning platforms to really promote writing this.

Q: What does that mean, burning platforms?

A: For example, we won a spot on another vehicle, on a contract, and this was a multi-award contract, and we wanted to promote our services under that. So this was one way to get out there to say, “Hey, this is a big thing in the federal government space. And oh by the way, we really know what we’re doing here,” and credentialize ourselves – that’s more what I mean by kind of a burning platform, is something else that is driving the need for, or the business case have you, behind doing this.

Q: So two more questions: would you say that you are a successful workplace writer, why or why not?

A: I’m more of a pessimist when it comes to myself, but I would say since, now that I’m successfully been promoted and made into senior manager at a Big Four firm, to that extent I would say yes. I haven’t had major or really any feedback on, “You need to modify how you write and your style and skill needs to be drastic changes.” And I’ve been able to successfully deliver client work products and reshape work products so that, like we were talking about before, the whole the purpose, not the purposes doesn’t change, but kind of how the client uses it to move forward, make that more successful, and that is attributed to the writing process. It always trying to enhance that process and not just become complacent in what you do. So I think from those perspectives, I would definitely say yes, I’ve been lucky and successful in writing.

Q: And finally, what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: So one I see that people struggle with is more thinking of what’s the art of the possible? When we go into a client, we don’t always know specifically what that end work product is going to look like. Certain times you do, but a lot of it can be just on a discovery basis, and sometimes it’s hard for individuals to not have that very prescriptive, concrete, okay here are all the steps I need to take and here’s what my outcome is going to be. So I would say that that’s the biggest thing in our role as a consultant, is that your job is always changing, what you’re working on is different every single time, or at least in my case it’s different every time. And so really just being able to think outside of the box, and constantly doing other research and improving yourself and seeing where’s the industry leading. And be able to articulate and incorporate that into your work products to provide the client with the best advice and guidance and how they can transform in some instances their future state of supply chain.

Q: Thank you.

A: Sure.

Click here to read full transcript

Marketing Director

Business, Education

Marketing Director, Educational Software Company

Date of Interview: February 24th, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: I am the senior field marketing manager for analytics and student success initiatives at Blackboard, and I graduated seventeen years ago [laughter].

Q: Okay. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: My primary job functions include setting up campaign management for all outbound marketing campaigns around our analytics and student success products at Blackboard. So that is developing strategy, go-to-market strategy for those products, lead generation, demand generation, awareness campaigns, event management, there’s some writing involved, there is some contractor management involved as well.

Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: I would say 20 to 30 percent of my job requires writing. We don’t have copywriters in house on staff. We do utilize them for larger projects that require a lot of writing, pages and pages and pages. Normally what I’m doing is writing either campaign briefs, or strategy documents, or powerpoint presentations. But then also I’m responsible for some of our outbound copy, as well, that you would see appearing in marketing emails, as well as smaller brochures or flyers that might appear at a trade show or that a salesperson might leave behind at a sales presentation.

Q: Great. And that 20 to 30 percent that you mentioned, does that include email communication or no?

A: Yes.

Q: Great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete? You mentioned a few of them there.

A: A lot of my time is spent writing internal communication. Explaining what types of campaigns are going on, explaining strategy, those types of just internal business types of documents. But a lot of my writing also involves that outbound communication that our prospects and clients are seeing, and that’s primarily in the form of marketing email communication. There’s some writing that occurs or you’ll see on what we call data sheets, or a marketing flyer, a sales slick, that sort of thing. More often than not, I tend to prefer to let a professional writer handle some of that, but if I need something quickly and cheaply, I’ll do it myself.

Q: Could you describe the primary audiences that these types of writing are most often reaching and the primary purposes of these types of documents?

A: Sure. The audiences range from technical positions, or persona as we call it, within higher education institutions, primarily open enrollment style institutions, community colleges, state school systems. Also then more higher level persona within those institutions: presidents, provosts, senior directors, and vice presidents usually involved in enrollment, student success, student retention, sometimes academic affairs as well.

Q: And the purposes of those documents are primarily sales oriented?

A: Sales and marketing oriented. Either making someone aware of a product or a solution or an offering, making them aware of a change or an enhancement if they’re already a client or a user of that product and solution, or just general awareness of what Blackboard is doing in a particular area, particularly around student success or student retention.

Q: Were you familiar with these types of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did that affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: Not in that particular type of writing. I never imagined, especially when I was a student, that I would be writing to that particular audience. And funny enough, now that I think about it, I don’t know exactly what audience I was planning on writing to. I know I was given the impression that I’d be writing to a business audience, but at that time I didn’t know exactly what that meant and who those people were. I found throughout my career that as the audiences change, you have to adapt to those audiences and sometimes change your tone and sometimes change the way things are presented, depending on what the audience is.

Q: And you mentioned as a student, sort of what you were imagining as– did you study marketing and business as a student?

A: I studied journalism and public relations. So there was a little bit of a connection there. At the time I thought I was going to be in public relations, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. I got into marketing because I was advised that that is one of the easier ways to get into public relations. Nobody got into public relations right after college, especially from someone who was going to a small college in the countryside of Pennsylvania. So to find myself in marketing with then what would gradually evolve into a role of public relations, and 17 years later I’m still in marketing [laughter]. It still hasn’t happened. So there was a lot of instruction around crisis management, more journalistic style of writing, more about just sort of corporate overviews or how a corporation might be doing something well for the environment, and how you would position it for the press, you know, those types of things. I never really really took any courses or study around marketing writing or even how to write internally within business, regardless of what business that would be.

Q: Okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how tasks or assignments are given to you, or sort of appear in your life, any preparation you take before writing, and the steps from the start of the project to a final version of a piece of writing? And if it’s useful, you can choose one specific kind of–

A: Well so I’m involved heavily in my own strategy, so I do a lot of planning, and I’m aware of what’s coming up in terms of my output over the next, let’s say 90 days. I know when I’ve got a brochure coming up, I know when I have an email campaign, I know when we have a big event coming up that we’re going to need collateral for, and so I plan that way and I look at what’s coming up and what I’m able to do myself, and what I’m going to need help doing. I do a lot of research in terms of what has been written before for these audiences. I take a lot of time and I go back, and I look at things that have done well. So we have resources here and members of the team who are able to catalog those best practices. Whether it’s an email that it performed well, or a digital ad that performed well, or flyer that is really hot and everybody loves to receive it and there’s some action taking off of that. So I’ll look at those things, and I’ll study how our people are positioning the communication toward that particular audience, because I’m not a member of the higher education community, and I’ve never been a member of the audiences that I’ve written to, so I have to immerse myself in that world and try to understand that person. And then you sort of take a look at exactly what is the instance, not every bit of communication’s going to be the same – an email doesn’t sound the same as a flyer, doesn’t sound the same as a boilerplate company description, doesn’t sound the same as something that you would put in a powerpoint presentation – so you got to think a little bit about what the occasion is and what you are trying to get across. Then also there’s the instances where I am trying to drive somebody to do something, whether it’s fill out a form, or give me their contact information, or download a study or a white paper, or sign up to attend a webinar, or if I’m just telling them that Blackboard is going to be at an event and you should come and visit us and it’ll be really great. So there’s all these little nuances to that that you have to think about and you have to plan through because it’s not all the same. But then keeping that common thread of this is how you talk to a president or a provost at a higher education institution who’s running a state school system, that sort of thing, you’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind of course.

Q: Absolutely. And then in terms of, if your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach making those changes or improving from one draft to the next?

A: I’m really open to it because it’s a lot of trial by error for me. Regardless of what industry I’ve been working in, that’s the way I learn what works best. I am by no means an expert and I am by no means a copywriter, and I’ve found over the years that as resources have become more and more limited– where when I started after college, every business I worked at had a team of business copywriters who were trained to do what a lot of us marketers are doing today. So you would rely on them and not really even deal with revisions or, you know, there might be some stylistic changes. I’m more than happy to have somebody look at my work, especially somebody who’s more keenly familiar with who I’m trying to communicate with, and give me feedback, because otherwise I’m just sort of making it up as I go and hoping for the best, and that’s not what I really want to do.

Q: Gotcha. So those comments that you’re often seeking, they tend to be about audience?

A: Audience, yeah absolutely. I mean surely, if I’m working on something long enough, I will miss a word that I misspelled, or some grammar, or something like that that I wasn’t familiar with, and that’s always helpful as well. But a lot of times, the revisions are more audience related. Like, “Oh, this would be more effective, or this is not what we say, and this is–” because what I’ll try to do, I think I tend in my writing, particularly to this audience, which has been new to me for about a year now, I’ll overcompensate a little bit. So I’m talking to somebody in the academic community, so I’ll try to make myself sound smarter than I am, and so the writing comes across fake and phoney. A president of a university is a person too, and they’re going to respond differently to something that sounds fake and phoney than something that’s a little bit more organic. So people will tone it down a little bit, and you know, “Back off of that a little bit, or maybe you rephrase this, and you don’t have to sound so stuffy about this particular research study, it’s not that big of a deal,” and so that’s been interesting as well. And I think that applies to any of the industries that I’ve worked in before. I think I would tend to overcompensate to try to make it sound a little bit more professional. But I’ve learned over time, these are people too, and they respond just like any other human responds to something, and there’s a time and a place for that too. But there’s also a time and a place to sound like a normal person and communicate like a normal person, so try to put that into the writing.

Q: That’s really interesting. Do you mind telling me briefly about the previous industries that you’ve worked in?

A: Sure, oh wow, there’s been a few. So previous to my current role, I was writing to lobbyists and lawyers and very senior officials at government contracting offices. So there’s, again, a whole other level of pretension that I felt like I had to deal with, and I needed to sound like they– and I needed to talk like a lawyer, and I needed to sound like a lawyer, and that’s just wasn’t necessarily the case as well. They also were human beings, and they respond to things like a normal human being does and you have to keep that in mind. But I also had to make sure that things were professional and very streamlined. These are people who are very busy, and they have their busy, busy day, and you have to consider that as well in terms of what you’re putting in front of them. Are they really going to read the whole thing? And how to get the most important points in front of them quickly. I think I learned that the most in that role. And prior to that, I was working in the wholesale capital asset and commercial goods industry, which is a whole other beast altogether. And all those people have a whole other style that you have to sort of get in line with. These are people who go to flea markets and swap meets and buy bulk truckloads of merchandise to resell on ebay. So that was a different style and a different tone and I had to learn how those people communicated with one another. I relied on people in the industry or people that I was working with to help me do that.

Q: Great, that’s really helpful. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project, one of the more formal writing projects?

A: Well, we’re just all so busy all the time that I would like more time to do what I do. I probably spend a lot less time than I should on some things. Particularly if it’s just an outbound marketing email communication, I’ll probably write it the day or two before it’s supposed to go out, which I don’t advise anyone to do, but that’s just sort of the nature of the game sometimes because there’s so much going on. So with something like that, I feel comfortable enough that I can do that, have somebody look at it, have somebody from the email marketing team say, “Hey, maybe you should make it only one paragraph, not two paragraphs, that works better for us in terms of email performance. It should have more than three links in it, or it needs a better call to action.” And we can get that done quickly. If it is a series of emails or if I’m writing landing pages for a webinar series or promotion or something like that, I will take additional time and I’ll build in the time to have other people look at it, and spend time with me, and test it out, and try it out, knowing that there probably will be a good bit of revisions going back and forth. But the funny thing is there that people that are reviewing it aren’t necessarily the official reviewers of that copy, you kind of have to make do and you have to say, “Hey, can you look at this, I know that you’ve done something around this topic before. Can you take a look at it? Or do you think this would work?” So you’re just sharing it with colleagues, you’re sharing it with other members of the marketing team, sometimes you’re sharing it with salespeople who are more of the subject matter experts. There’s no real official copy reviewer here, and I haven’t had that in years and years, I’d say. You make do and you try to work it out the best you can, and get the help that you can, until you get to the point where you feel comfortable enough releasing it to the public.

Q: That’s super interesting. Do you feel like it’s a better system?

A: No, no. I loved having a team of copywriters who I knew were trained and who were able to adapt their writing style and their writing skill to any industry and any audience, because that’s what they were brought in to do. I do miss that, I miss that a lot, because there’s sort of that level of comfort there that’s gone now. I’ve had things go out with spelling errors, and I’ve had hell to pay for some of that because you work at some of these organizations and you’re basically embarrassing the entire organization if you send even an email communication out to 300 presidents of a university and it has a spelling error in it and you’re supposed to be working in higher education – it’s ridiculous. It happens now because there’s no one who is officially assigned to making sure that that doesn’t happen. You just have to do the best you can, but there’s so much going on all the time that stuff like that gets missed. I don’t think stuff like that got missed when there was a team of writers who was responsible for making sure that that didn’t happen. And I do miss that.

Q: Interesting, okay, yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?
A: Reputation, for one. You are the voice of an organization always, you’re representing an organization always, and it goes back to what I was just saying – if you make a mistake or something doesn’t come out right, or you’re saying something wrong, it’s really the organization’s reputation is at stake. Nobody knows who I am or where that email came from. A lot of times, I’m writing as a ghostwriter for somebody. I’m writing as the vice president of so and so, and their name is on the email, my name’s not on the email. So you’ve got to think about that always and that’s when it gets really tough if there’s a mistake. And there’s mistakes a lot of the time now because I’m not a professional writer, we don’t have professional writers. And then there’s also the transactional business aspect of it – I’m trying to get somebody to buy something at the end of the day. And so what I’m writing has to be informative enough, impactful enough, interesting enough to get somebody to do that, because that what I’m getting paid to do at the end of the day.

Q: How would you say – I know there’s no one specifically designated to oversee the quality of your writing – but how would you say that, if not your boss and the people around you in the organization, judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: Well, we look at performance metrics really. At the end of the day that’s all that matters to a business, I think. Outside of reputation, they’re going to be looking at the hard numbers. Did an activity that required writing result in new leads being brought in, and new business being brought in? That’s what we look at it. And then we look at, okay, what worked and what didn’t work? And then you sort of filter it back down to the writing. We look at a campaign in a holistic view when something does really well, and then it sort of filters back down later. That’s when I go back and I look at the things that did work, and I’m like, well, “How did I word this? Why did this work? Was this call to action really effective? And I should try to use that again.” But at the end of the day, the business is looking at did it bring in leads that convert to a sale.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: No. No, I mean, informally I’ve worked with some really, really smart people, and again, I think the review process is a training in itself. But no, definitely all informal and nothing that I had had the ability to even– and I never even considered going out and seeking that out. That might be a good idea [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer in those sort of early years right out of college?
A: I think the fact that there’s so many different styles that you need to consider. The way you write an email or a memo to a CEO is not the same as the way you would write a letter or an email to a coworker or a colleague or a counterpart. Then an email communication is different from an online web communication, and that wasn’t laid out for me. I hear a lot about students today, who are especially in the workforce – people are seeing that students are having those same challenges, that their writing style is almost the same across the board, no matter who they’re writing to, and no matter who’s reading it. And I do remember that being a challenge, and I remember having a tough time pivoting from the way you wrote your assignments in school to writing business communication. It wasn’t the same at all and nobody made that distinction for me at the end of school as I was preparing to graduate and set out for a career. It was more verbal communication that we spent a lot of time on: “This is how you interview, this is how you answer these types of questions, this is how you talk to your boss, this is the proper way to talk to your colleagues,” and things to avoid and pitfalls and things like that. But never really prepared to, “Here’s how you write an email–”. You know, I was thrust into the world of email marketing at 22 or 23, and never had written a business email before or back then, we had fax marketing as well, so I didn’t know how to write a fax marketing that was effective. And then having to present information about how those things did to your boss, that’s also a different communication style. So I think the different styles of written business communication was something that was left out in my education.

Q: That’s really interesting. Can you think of practical steps that you took in those first few years to acquire those skills, or to shift those skills?

A: It was a lot of trial by fire, it was a lot of mistakes that I’ve made. Again, that was a time where I was working with really smart people whose job was to support writing efforts, and working with those people and learning from them, and learning from my colleagues as well. There was people who had been there for a long time, my bosses at the time just say, “No, that’s not how you do this,” or “No, this is what an effective call to action is.” I didn’t know what a call to action was when I graduated college. So learning as I went on the job, on the job training I guess.

Q: Are you able to identify, and you sort of talked about this already, but are you able to identify specific changes in your writing between college and now? And if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Practice. The practice – doing it again and again and again – and I think the more I do it, the better I get. I am by no means a very, very good business writer, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, and enough that I can get an email out and get some people to register for a webinar if I need to. At the end of the day, no one’s going to be asking me to write a white paper or an extensive study on something, nor do I want to, because that’s not what I’m good at and I recognize that. One of the positives of not having a team of writers to rely on is that I do get to flex that muscle a little bit, and learn a little bit, and keep at it, so that I don’t lose that skillset when I need it. So just doing it myself and learning as I go, and making those mistakes, is the thing that keeps me active with my writing. And then it keeps me interested in writing outside of business as well. Now and again I’ll find myself doing a little bit of writing outside of the business world just for my own enjoyment, and kind of break away from that sort of stodgy, very structured business tone that you have to have sometimes.

Q: We talked a little bit about ways in which your academic background did not prepare you to write in the workplace. Are there, on the other hand, things from your academic life that you felt did prepare you for writing in the workplace?

A: No, I think it was a lot more preparation to get into the workplace. I go back to– they taught us how to write a resume, they taught us how to write a cover letter, they taught us how to write a thank you note, all the things that people did back then when they were looking to get into the workplace. I don’t know if that’s happening today. I think it was a lot of effort spent on making sure we got you out of here, and got you a job after you graduated, and then you’re on your own after that. And that’s the way I truly feel. A lot of my training was in speech communication. I took speech classes, I didn’t take writing classes. Which, now thinking back as a journalism student, I think I took the standard English and things like that, but there wasn’t, from what I can remember, a specific course of writing that I took to help me prepare, definitely not business-focused writing. I wasn’t in a business school at all. And there’s things I would do differently for sure. Oh gosh, if I went back, the things I would do differently, in terms of my education and what I’d prepare myself for, but I am grateful for the instruction that I got because it got me a job two weeks after graduation. I don’t know if students are doing that these days. But that’s what I feel the emphasis was on. The emphasis was on we will prepare you to do whatever it takes to get you a career outside of this institution when it is time for you to leave.
Q: Interesting. We’ve mostly answered this question, but in what ways were you unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce. Is there anything that you’d add that you haven’t touched on here?

A: Again, I go back to business writing, how to speak to a certain– I didn’t spend time learning different audiences that different industries might be marketing to or selling to. My first job out of school was working at a publishing company that specialized in executive-level newsletters to companies in the Fortune 500 and that sort of thing. Nothing in school prepared me how to write a communication for that type of person, nor the next type of audience that I worked with. Again, I wish I had a little bit more of an understanding of the different types of business audiences that are out there that are receptive to different types of marketing and selling, because it does change. And then knowing the industry that you’re in and what you’re trying to sell. At that time I was trying to sell newsletters about wireless communication and the gaming industry and the cable industry. I knew nothing about those things and you’d have to pick that stuff up because you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about. There was never any preparation for anything like that. And again, it was all just sort of learning about it as I went.

Q: Two more questions. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I could be better, I could be better. Sometimes during revisions and proofing and things that I get back from people who’ve looked at my work, I’ll go, “Oh geez, I should’ve known that,” or “Geez, why did I do it that way?” or “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I don’t feel like I do it enough to really, really, really, really, excel at it – I do it just enough to get by. Again, like I said, nobody’s hiring me to write a report a white paper, but I’m deadly with an email [laughter].

Q: And what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: Understanding the audience. Understanding what are they looking at all day long? What are the things that are effective in terms of communication for them? What are the things that bring them in that are interesting to them? What is their day to day struggle like? What does their day look like? What do they have to deal with all day long? So understanding the best way to communicate with them that is a way that doesn’t get lost in all the other clutter and the things they’re looking at all day long, whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s on their own internal communications, or other marketing that they’re getting, or sales messages that they’re getting. You have to understand how to stick out in the fray of all of that, and that it takes a little while to understand that. And again, it’s trial by error. Luckily, when you’re in a marketing organization, you’re constantly being judged in terms of was your output or your activity effective? And so we’re looking at that all the time and we’re making changes based on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of certain types of communication. So I get instant feedback in terms of how something did that I was responsible for writing, and then we take the time, as much as we can, to understand what went right and what went wrong, and then how to make changes for the next time. And I like that, it’s a fun part of the job actually.

Q: Great, thank you so much.

A: You’re welcome.

Click here to read full transcript

Business Analyst

Business

Business Analyst, Mortgage Company

Date of Interview: February 23rd, 2017

Transcript:

Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: So I currently work at a company called First Guarantee Mortgage Corporation, and my current job title is business analyst, human resources and corporate enterprise services, and it has been about nine years since I graduated college, and then I did a master’s degree, which it has been two years.

Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Primary job function would be developing financial models and analysis that connect all our different departments together. I also do some forecasting with the budget and our main revenue driver, which is loans.

Q: Perfect, okay.

A: What was the rest?

Q: Oh, just primary job functions. Does that cover it?

A: Okay, yeah yeah.

Q: Perfect. Okay, that’s great. How frequently are you required to write? If possible, could you sort of estimate what percentage of a given week might be taken up by writing?

A: I would say probably 20 percent. And that would be a) fielding emails and then b) making bullet points on finance models that I develop to say, “From year 15 to year 16 we had a 16.4 percent increase in revenue,” or  “Our loan profitability went up in these different sectors.” So I make little bullet points underneath the Excel models that I develop and they’re short, concise, mainly numbers with just little finance terms thrown in there, but it’s really small writing. Then the other portion would be writing emails.

Q: Perfect. And just to clarify, like in these models you’re building in Excel, is it all numbers?

A: It’s mainly all numbers, and some of them don’t have little, cute bullet points underneath it. I just do that so it’s a quick look-in for someone like our CFO who I forward them to, so he could just look and see that, from year 2015 to year 2016 our revenue went up by a margin of x amount of dollars or x amount of percent. So it’s not a whole lot of writing, but it’s very concise, to-the-point writing.

Q: Right, okay. So you mentioned a CFO, are there other primary audiences that you’re typically writing to, or primary purposes that you’re writing to?

A: My other primary audience would be my boss, who’s the VP of HR. I write some emails and stuff to him and correspondence, and then models will also go to him, and then go to the CFO or CEO. I try to make sure that they’re clean and buttoned up before they get to that point, but, yeah, that’s my main audience. I also work with other outside consultants – right now we’re working with the company Corporate Executive Board, and then we’re working with Gala, and I’ve worked hand in hand with those consultants on developing metrics and looking at different portions of our company. So I write a lot of emails, reaching out, asking for clarity on little tidbits of information with different templates that I’m filling out. So that would be another area where I write actual sentences [laughter] would be in these models, templates, which is different than a model created from scratch. A template would be, say, I work with a company called McLagan, and we basically benchmark our company against the whole mortgage industry. So I have to write a little brief synopsis on what I entered in and what I think about the data. But it’s not real long writing, it’s just kind of a couple sentences about changes or things that I’ve noticed.

Q: And what’s the purpose of that? Is it to be persuasive or just informative?

A: It’s mainly an informative one- our company and things that I’ve noticed over the months, or related to the template that I’m filling out. Then they use that to actually write white paper pegging us against all other companies in the mortgage industry to see where job title correlates with salary, and see where– and it changes demographically, so they do all different companies and all different areas, and then they’ll do analysis comparing all of, let’s say an accountant in DC would make $60,000 whereas in Florida they might make $40,000.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with these very specific writing types when you were a student?

A: Can you clarify that?
Q: Sure. I was going to go by age but that doesn’t really work – like as a student, were you familiar with the genre of a professional email? Probably. But were you familiar with the sort of writing that you do in these models when you were a student?

A: I think– that’s a good question. The thing that I had to make a big change with with the models was being short and concise, because no one wants long, flowery, literature-type questions. I started out as an English major, so at the infancy of my writing in college, it was based around trying to be a little bit more, not persuasive, but descriptive and, not flowery, but now with the business analysis it’s more short, concise, to-the-point. I have to do that in emails too.

Q: Could you describe your writing process, as in, how do writing tasks or assignments sort of land on your desk, how do you prepare, and what steps do you take from the start to completion?

A: So I’ll usually write something and then I’ll kick it off to like a director of something and ask for feedback, and just see if that makes sense. Then I’ll ultimately get it back, or they will make changes to it. It basically goes through one revision, and then it’s off to the CEO or CFO or VP of HR.
Q: Got it. And is that sort of an informal, “Hey, tell me if this makes sense, give me a little feedback,” or it a more formal, sort of mandatory review process?

A: It’s informal but we’re also– I’m collaborating with the directors on these projects so we kind of both work on it together. It’s not so much– it’s both of our work and we’re both collaborating and putting different pieces together that make up the whole thing. So we kind of revise each other’s work.

Q: Perfect, that makes sense, great. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, and you’ve said really only one revision, is there a specific approach that you take to improving it from that first draft to the final version?

A: Yeah, I look at what ultimately makes intuitive sense, and then make sure its kind of grammar as best as I can, and that’s about it. I don’t really have any other source or person to tap on to review it, unfortunately.

Q: Okay, great. How long, and I’m sure this varies project to project, but how long do you typically have to complete a writing project? And I know that’s different in email to the writing that goes along with these models, but–

A: Yeah, some of the templates I’ll usually have about a month or two, and the reason for that is it takes many weeks to synthesize all the data and collect it, and collaborate it, and basically make heads and tails out of it. So the writing really comes at the end of that portion – I don’t know what I’m writing about until I actually aggregate all the data and aggregate all the spreadsheets to see what it looks like and maybe do a graph or a separate model out of it, and then I write from that. So I’m writing what the input saw.

Q: Got it, interesting. What is at stake in your writing?

A: What’s at stake would be not clearly addressing what our true numbers are at the company. So I have to really be diligent and clear and concise on saying our revenues went up, because everyone wants to get paid every week [laughter]. So we have to make sure that those are accurate numbers to the best of our ability and, you know, upholding our fiduciary responsibility to the clients and stakeholders.

Q: Perfect, okay. You sort of spoke about this, but who oversees your writing? You said the CFO eventually and also your VP of HR? Does that sort of– ?

A: Yeah, that’s kind of the overseeing. A lot of times I do projects for separate directors and different people within the company, that they don’t even see my work. So it’s not– for instance, I don’t really bounce the majority of my work off of my boss, the VP of HR, because I’m writing for the director of compensation and benefits or training and organization or customer engagement, so all these different audiences. So I really don’t have any– I kind of am my own revision, revise my own work, which can be scary because it’s always nice to have a separate set of eyes on it.

Q: That makes a lot of sense though.

A: But I’ll often do a revision or two myself, and maybe sleep on it a day or two, and then come back and revisit it and do other work, just to see if it makes sense and see if that’s what I really want to get to before I send it. Now if it’s a deadline, then guess what? It’s going out, that’s just the way it is [laughter].

Q: How would you say the success or quality of your writing is judged?

A: I would say it’s judged by a) if it initially looks kind of neat and clean. Other than that, a lot of the people have finance backgrounds so they’re not really astute on all the commas and periods and stuff. If it makes sense and you’re getting good points across, that’s the main thing. So they’re the ones that really judge it.

Q: Yeah, okay. Have you had any writing training or education since finishing your undergraduate degree? You mentioned your, is it MBA?

A: Yeah, MBA. So I did a lot of writing for that, for my master’s. I hired a tutor to really read over the papers. She was a professional writer, so I kind of hired her to revise all my papers before I sent it, but it was varying. You had some difficult professors and then some easier professors, but I think my writing there– you go through so many different statistics. I had to write a 34-page paper on statistics and a lot of it was Excel sheets and graphs that I had to plug into it, but then you had to do a explanation of all of what everything means. Statistics – is it correlated? Is there positive correlation? Negative correlation? And really spell it out. The nice thing with statistics is, they have a basic format, like a scientific format that you can use and refer to online, so there’s a way of clearly expressing the correlation of different statistical data points, which is nice. Because you kind of use that as like a rough template.

Q: Got it. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Are there other things that you’ve felt you learned as a writer as a graduate student?

A: I learned that it’s better to be short and concise and not as flowerly and literaturian is the best I could relate it to. But I think that if you make sense and you’re to-the-point, a lot of professors appreciate that rather than kind of rambling on. Oftentimes we’d have a paper that had to be 15 pages and you’re thinking, “Well, how do not ramble on just to fill this up?” and a lot of professors would say, “Hey, if you’re a page or two below that, I’d rather quality not quantity,” is what they would say. So that was nice to kind of abide by that rule. But you have to make sure it’s good writing, too [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you first entered the workforce as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I would say some challenges would be I ask a lot of complex questions, and sometimes I have to really consider my wording with emails with my fellow coworkers. Especially when I first started, I had to reach out to a lot of C-level people because I was working on an org chart of the company. I would send our chief revenue officer, who’s been there for like 20 years, and say, “Hey how many people report to you?” and everything, and you’re a little nervous because they don’t know you from Adam and you’re new, so you really want to make sure that you address it quick and to-the-point. I found it was difficult to not ramble on and, you know, well, “Here’s a little intro about me,” or something. “Why are you asking me these questions?” [laughter]. “What’s your business?” So that was my thing, is trying to be to the point but also address what you want answered.

Q: Are you able to identify a change in your writing from say, college to now? And if so, what do you attribute that shift to?

A: I would attribute that shift to reading a lot more. I’ve read different types of scientific books and some literature-oriented books, so I think I’ve synthesized a little bit of those writing styles and genres into my everyday work. So I think my writing has gotten better because of looking at these different sources and trying to read a lot.

Q: Would you classify your writing as– it seems in many ways like it is scientific writing to a certain extent, is that a fair assessment?

A: It is. It is scientific, and then I do, you know, regular emails and regular writing. Some of the scientific portion I try to be – I don’t want to say clear and concise again – but I try to just state what needs to be stated, and no more, because that detracts and deludes from your main point.

Q: Yeah. Are there other ways, other than the sort of graduate school classes that we mentioned, that you think your academic background prepared you for your professional writing?
A: Prepared me for my professional writing, like my classes that I took?

Q: Yeah, yeah.

A: I would say that both undergrad and grad prepared me well in the sense that I was able to write for different audiences. So I had a marketing professor that was kind of lax and chill, and then I had a psychologist that I worked with and he was a very stickler and would never hand out any type of grades and everyone’s papers would come back red. So I would run my papers through my editor four or five times, and say, “Hey I got a B+ on my last paper. You need to up your game or you’re not getting paid [laughter]!”

Q: This was when you were in grad school?

A: Yeah.

Q: Okay, that’s funny.
A: Yeah, so I would say that writing in grad school for all these different professors that all came from different disciplines and backgrounds really– and I would talk to the professors and even talk to former students and say, “What’s this professor’s writing style?” – more or less saying, “What do they identify with?” – “Oh, professor Ed, he’s real easy, just make sure you turn something out.” And then other ones were a little bit more challenging so you really had to think twice about turning something in. But writing for all those different classes to statistics, marketing, psychology, organizational leadership, leadership classes, really developed different writing skills.

Q: When you think back to your first years out of undergrad, because there was some sort of career between that and grad school for you, right? Did you feel unprepared to write in the workplace right out of undergrad, or would you say you felt pretty prepared?

A: I felt prepared in the sense that I graduated college, but I also felt that my writing could have been maybe a little bit better than what it was and what it has become. So I would say I didn’t struggle, but had to dedicate– it took more effort and energy for me to turn something out versus now, I could maybe sit down and turn out a piece of work a little quicker.

Q: Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I would say successful in the sense that I’ve managed to make my writing, the little bit that I do, execute good. I’ve been able to pass along that work to our VP of HR and our CFO and CEO to make strategic decisions to drive the company forward. So we’re still driving forward, the train’s still going down the tracks, so that’s good [laughter]. I think that it’s imperative to keep making sure we’re concise and to-the-point.

Q: And the last question: what skills do you think are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: I would say not overanalyzing basic data, because it’s easy to look at things and get caught up viewing it differently, but you also have to just look at what you really want out of the data, and what your goal is. You set out a goal before doing that, and then try to achieve that. So for me, it’s maybe even just doing a little bullet outline. Outlining what you want out of a model, and then clearly going after developing those type– not developing a model to go right after what you want, but developing in the sense that it may produce or lend information that you don’t really want [laughter]. So you have to look at the good and the bad. And then be honest in your writing too, because sometimes it’s easy to manipulate with our growth, company growth, and I look at retention and do data analysis and see what our cost-per-hire is and everyone wants the cost-per-hire to be low, but sometimes it goes up. Costs for everything is going up, so you have to be real in your data.

Q: Okay, thank you.

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