Tech Start-up Entrepreneur

Business, Computers & Technology

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

A: My name is Aaron Gotwalt, I am currently heading into my next project, so I don’t have a job title right now. In the past I’ve been a CEO, I’ve been a CTO, I’ve founded several companies. I graduated from college in 2004. 

Q: Great. And could you tell me a little bit about your field in general and the kinds of companies that you’ve started and worked for?

A: Sure. When I was a sophomore in college at Penn State, I founded a company called Elexio, with a friend of mine from high school. Elexio in 2002 I think was, when I think about it in hindsight, was trying to do something interesting. We built a web editor that ran in your web browser, so similar to something like Wix or Squarespace or something like that, and we did it in 2002. The technology was interesting, the people I was working with didn’t understand that possibility, and so though we had something kind of cool, it never lived up to its obvious potentials that you can see in hindsight. Sort of the thing that moved me to San Francisco, I built a company called CoTweet in 2008. CoTweet was an enterprise social media management dashboard for large companies. So our first clients were companies like Ford and Microsoft and JetBlue. And you had this, you know, as social media was gaining steam ten years ago, large brands were suddenly forced to try and figure out how to approach those platforms. And in CoTweet we built them a product that they could take their existing customer service approach to dealing with email and then apply that to social media, and so we built that. You know, it was a classic startup story where I moved home with my parents at 27, and I borrowed money from my grandparents to come out to San Francisco multiple times to try and find funding. We did that and then, probably the most unlikely thing happened, we sold the company about nine months later to ExactTarget, who then subsequently went public and then was acquired by SalesForce. 

Q: Oh interesting, interesting. Wow, okay. That’s fascinating. What a history. 

A: That gets me to eight years ago [chuckle]. And then in the past eight years we built a company called SeeSaw, which was a mobile social network focused on decision making, helping you decide if you know, what to buy, or where to go. And that, that was an interesting learning experience in just how difficult it is to get people to use new applications. And I think we executed really well, but it was a hard, hard lesson. I then built a company called Projector, and Projector was a little bit of a different space, it was a tool for developers, when we were trying to improve push notifications that go to your phone. We thought at the time that most people get far too many, and they sort of reach this noise threshold where you start ignoring them altogether, and so we attempted to build technology to filter those notifications down to the ones you actually want under the hypothesis that it’s good for both you, the user, and good for the company who isn’t necessarily trying to annoy you, but doesn’t have tooling to get more sophisticated at that. So we built that, we ended up shutting it down. I think we learned– Apple in particular does not have a long term vision that supports this, so it was a difficult learning project, but we learned a ton about the space and how complex it is for large organizations to manage those things. 

Q: Oh how interesting. And that’s the project you’ve most recently stepped back from?

A: Yeah.

Q: Great, wonderful. So a lot of these questions are sort of framed in a way that speak to a specific job, but you should feel free obviously to pull from any of these experiences. And just sort of talk more generally, you might be thinking about across the long term how writing has worked, things like that. So whatever way it makes sense for you to think about these questions and answer them is great with us, we’d love to hear about any of these experiences. So first let’s just start with sort of thinking about your role as an entrepreneur, as CEO of an organization, working with these sort of very technical startups, could you estimate in an average week how much writing you do, like percentage wise?

A: You know, I think over time it’s gotten to be higher. When I started, you know, I assumed that my engineering output was how I should measure my own velocity, so you know, I think when you have an engineering skill set, you can look at your output and you can kind of quantify it, and something I’ve learned over the last ten years or so, is that when I don’t know what I’m doing, I will default to just engineering things, even things that aren’t necessary, because they allow me to feel like I’ve accomplished something without necessarily getting anything done. And in truth, my real value is higher when I’m writing and figuring, sort of answering hard questions, than when I’m necessarily just building something. So I would say that my shift has moved towards writing, I think, especially you know I, I’m talking to a couple different companies right now, including one run by a friend of mine, and they’re 70 people right now, and they are in I think six time zones, and only 30 percent of them are in San Francisco. And in order to, you know I think there’s a growing trend toward decentralized organizations, which puts new pressures on the ways that you communicate and sort of build both a company culture and makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on, and that shift goes hand in hand with requiring that everybody’s a good communicator, and has strong writing skills. And I think that even as I’m, you know, whether I build something next or I go work somewhere, I think this shift towards decentralization sort of, it drives this idea that writing skills are really essential and are going to only be more central in how you do your everyday work.

Q: That makes perfect sense to me. And I’m wondering, you know, in the roles that you’ve had, there’s this obvious internal communication that you’re talking about now, particularly in these decentralized organizations, and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the breakdown between internal written communication versus external communication, what those different types of writing look like to you?

A: Sure. I mean, you know, internally we have tools like Slack. Slack isn’t the first tool that does short group messaging, but in terms of its dominance at least in the tech enterprise, it’s pretty strong right now. I think it’s one thing to text your partner or your mom or something like that, you can send without thinking, but the moment you have a team of three or four people, and you’re sharing sort of text space, even that becomes, there’s this whole art I think of communicating clearly and not having accidental secondary meanings to people when you’re using a chat tool. So I think there is an art to utilizing group texting in a way that’s productive for a team, that allows you to communicate whatever thing you’re trying to communicate without creating secondary problems in the text. I think there’s a common pattern where you will Slacking back and forth with a group of people, and then communication itself will break down to a point where you have to jump onto a video or phone call, and I’ve certainly done that, and been a part of situations where that happens, but that’s like a every hour, every day kind of thing for most teams. And I think it comes down to there are certain limitations to having multiple people typing towards each other at the same time without being able to really process what you’re saying. You know, like, I’ll write an email and then I’ll reread that email before I send it. For the most part in texting you don’t do that. And I think that that can create confusion because you’ll say things before you really realize what you’ve said. And as opposed to just saying it out loud, you know, where we have audio cues, we have vocal tone, we have facial expressions that you might pick up on you know when we’re sitting across from each other, you just, you’re faced with these cold letters. And so you can have really bad consequences in a work environment from people misunderstanding what you’re trying to say. So I think there’s even at that smallest scale, there’s a skill in writing that could be developed further, even though, I don’t suggest that colleges start teaching like, Office Emoji 101 or something. But you know there is this, how do you communicate professionally using tools that feel very much like the tools that you use to talk to your friends? You know, so I think that’s a component. So a lot of internal communication at least in the organizations I’ve been in in the past ten years have shifted from formalized communication via email to more nonformal communication in something like Slack. A trend that I’ve seen over the last five years is that, increasingly organizations are talking to their partner organizations via similar tools including Slack. So now, I used to think of email as sort of like the way a company talks to another company, and texting tools like Slack as a way that companies talked to themselves. And now increasingly that barrier’s being broken, so it’s companies talking to other companies via these texting tools, and I think that creates all sorts of new and probably interesting legal challenges, because you don’t have the sort of review that would normally go into a message where I’m sending an email to the vice president of something in some other company. So I think this shift towards deformalizing company communication probably has some really interesting challenges wrapped into it. And then there’s sort of the, you know, all the way to the other side, which is, you know, writing for public conception about your company, and that’s something that I care a lot about. I know that’s the one that’s probably changed the least. But writing blog posts, writing copy for your website, I think there’s a real art to that. I think something I’ve developed over time is, what am I trying to say? I think that there was this, when I graduated from college, I wanted to impress you with my language, and sort of these complex sentences and interesting styling, and I read some author and I’m trying to take some flavor from them into this blog post about my company. Over time I think I’ve learned that you really do want to write it in the simplest way possible, and that the simplest way and the least, you know putting up the fewest barriers to understanding allows you to communicate your ideas as clearly as they will be. It cuts down on difficulty if you have a reader who’s reading from a second language, or maybe not fully understand the technical concepts involved – with a lot of what I’ve done, there’s sort of technical layer to it – but I really love reducing complicated ideas to really understandable phrases, and I think that’s something that I’m trying to develop personally, and I hope that other people will develop too. It’s not about writing in this, you know, very complex paragraph-long sentence, it’s trying to reduce this to, “This is exactly what this thing is.” And yeah, so that’s another facet of this sort of writing development that I think I’ve done.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense to me. And I think it’s a process a lot of people go through, whether they sort of do that consciously or articulate it, yeah. Could you walk us through, we’re particularly interested in writing process, I was wondering if you could think about a recent writing project, it doesn’t need to be large-scale, but it can be, and just sort of walk us through the steps that you take from the very beginning, sort of thinking about the writing project, all the way through to calling it done and sending wherever it needs to go?

A: Would you like in sort of office collaborative kind of example? 

Q: That would be wonderful. That sounds great.

A: Probably a year ago, after Projector, I was sort of experimenting with a couple different ideas, and one of them was a health privacy project. We did some technical experimentation and then learned, we learned some interesting details about the lack of privacy in healthcare data, and we wanted to write about that as sort of a mechanism for explaining why our company exists, and what it’s all about. I believe my partner in the project actually started the draft, you know, we started with an outline. We had data that we were trying to present, it wasn’t, you know, research-grade data, but it was you know, some observations that we had made while studying some things. 

Q: I’m sorry to interrupt you Aaron, just for context – who is the sort of imagined audience for this document?

A: That document was for health tech professionals.

Q: Perfect, okay, great.

A: It was for health tech professionals, I think that’s perhaps the most interesting thing, is that it was health tech professionals, but it was more importantly to communicate why our company exists to people who aren’t health tech professionals. So you have this multiple audience problem, where we needed to seem reasonable to both audiences.

Q: Yes. And as you were envisioning – sorry, I don’t want to derail you too far – but just for context, so where were you envisioning this landing such that those multiple audiences would access it?

A: Ultimately our corporate blog. 

Q: Great, okay.

A: And the scope of this work was like, we had discovered some data over two weeks, and we were going to put it out within a week, it wasn’t, you know, we weren’t, this was not a stop the presses kind of event, but it was significant. So we started, we had the data, and my partner at the time wrote a draft, I think I just rewrote it altogether. And I think the audience problem was the problem that we ran into. We wrote, I think the first draft of it ended up being very much geared towards people who are trying to understand our company but didn’t cover the technical aspects of it, and so we rewrote it. We brought the engineer who had been responsible for the data side back into this discussion to try and sort of shape the narrative around the data and make sure we understood when we were making representations about the data, that those representations were accurate. You know, so it ended up just being kind of a back and forth, we used Google Docs I think for it, where we would write and then add annotations and then write, and then add annotations. And ultimately then we sent it to an editor to have a clean up and an external set of eyes. I think when you’re writing this kind of a thing, you oftentimes develop blind spots because you assume that the audience will understand the words you’re using. So we sent it to an external editor for some feedback. And then ultimately published it. It wasn’t a long process, it was probably a four or five day process.

Q: No that’s great. That’s really really useful. Especially the collaborative writing aspect is really interesting to me. So you obviously do a lot of different types of writing, some as you mentioned sort of internal, some client-facing, and some more public-facing, and moving between those types of writing is obviously its own sort of challenge. So I’m wondering sort of how do you perceive that you learned how to perform these very varied types of writings?

A: Some of it is that I think I was exposed to great writing teachers. You know, I did not have– so I went to a private Christian school for K-12 and I would say that really their only strong suit from that education in its English department, which was pretty consistent, the rest of it was pretty bad. And then when I got to college I was exposed to some really great writers and writing teachers. A lot of it was creative writing, nontechnical, but that I think got, it triggered something in me, I think I learned something from that. I think some of my development has been because I’ve been annoyed by other people being bad at this, and so my professional development has been to no longer just rewrite it and not tell you. But you know, I think there was a phase where I was embarrassed by the communications leaving my company, and I was just going to take charge of it, you know, because we sounded dumber than we were [chuckle]. I don’t know what to tell you, I think there’s some aspect that’s just sort of like, you have these standards in your head for how you think you would sound, how you think the company should sound, and you’re willing to do whatever you can in order to make that standard the way that it is. 

Q: That makes sense, that makes perfect sense. So sort of to that end, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer? 

A: Huh. I don’t have a good answer for this question. 

Q: That’s okay.

A: Yeah, I mean maybe that’s sort of the danger of being in startup land, is that you’re never really prepared for anything, and you’re just doing it anyway. It’s probably like, you know, a college writing course, you know, you’re in this 413 and the paper’s due on Friday, and whether or not you feel prepared for it, you’re shipping it. I think I’ve gotten better at getting prepared for projects that I’m not that great at, whether that’s bringing in the right people, or getting second opinions, or becoming more confident in the core skill set that I have. 

Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense to me. 

A: One key thing is that, you know, I think that most professional writing that I am exposed to, it has some form of collaborative behaviour to it, you’re very rarely writing in a complete vacuum. 

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. Are there challenges that you’ve experienced that are specific to collaborative writing? I mean, there are some that we sort of assume, but does that process typically go smoothly for you? Are there certain things that you do to ensure that it goes well? Are there certain things that present unique challenges for you particularly in collaborative writing?

A: I would say that collaboration just in general depends on a certain maturity to be able to accept that you’re wrong about things and I think that’s something you develop over time if you’re lucky. I’m not sure that there’s some, you know, way to do that other than to just accept it at times. I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought. Could you re-ask the question?

Q: Sure, so the challenges that are unique to collaborative writing, and you said you have to be mature enough to be able to accept that you are wrong [chuckle].

A: Oh, yeah. So I think a core challenge in collaborative writing is that it gets back to that question of the audience. You, when you start writing, have some idea of who the audience is going to be, and if you’re collaborating with somebody else and you’re doing something that’s nontrivial, they may have a very different idea of who that audience is, and so you could both, if you’d set out and tried to write at the same time, could write very different pieces that communicate effectively the same information, and I think unifying that audience view is tricky. I think that even if it’s just you, understanding who your audience is, your first audience in a piece, is oftentimes very difficult in a professional setting, because there’s rarely just one, and sometimes the needs of the audiences that you’re dealing with are really competing with each other. And then when you add another writer into the mix, it can only further muddy it, so I think that’s a core challenge.

Q: That makes a lot of sense, that makes a lot of sense, yeah. You talked about this sort of researched or sort of, the blog project that you collaboratively wrote, and you talked about the timeline there, but could you talk a little bit about how long you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: In startup land, that could be hours or minutes, or it, you know I think, you know, there’s sort of how long you have and then how far ahead of it being due that you actually start it. You know it’s probably like any college paper – you know you have to write the midterm paper when you start the class, but you don’t start writing it until the week before, or the night before if you’re really bad. And I think that’s the crux of it – how much linear time you actually apply to it, you know, I think when you have more complicated things that you’re putting out that require research components or graphics or, you know, those sorts of things, it can take a while. It’s interesting, I just observed a friend of mine – the same friend of mine’s company wrote a very complex blog post about how they developed their product and how they run their organization. That blog post took at least two or three weeks and it had probably eight writers total involved. This is the same decentralized company that I was mentioning earlier. It’s clear that it took a lot of writing and they went so far as to acknowledge that there was no soul voice or soul lead writer to the piece. And I think that represents a really interesting model for how things are going to go eventually. But you know, I think that two to three week, you know, from the time that everyone agrees that something needs to be done towards this end for public consumption to that, you know, that’s about right. You know I think difficult professional communication, one-on-one communication via email is a thing where you know you need to send this email, and because of other distractions, it might take you a day or two to really coalesce your thoughts and make sure that it makes sense. And then all the way down to Slack or something like that, where you typed it before you really thought about it, and then [crosstalk 26:18] about immediately. 

Q: Right, right. So you talked a little bit about the writing that you remember being asked to do as a highschool student, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the writing you recall from college, and also sort of how well you think your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you have to develop now?

A: So I don’t think my college program was particularly, it wasn’t intentionally shaped to support me professionally. When I left the school of Information, Science, and Technology at Penn State, part of my thinking was that I could learn the technical side of it faster than they could teach me, and so my goal was to learn and to be exposed to things that I couldn’t teach myself. And so I spent a lot of time in the English department, and a lot of it was in creative writing and literature, which has no clear direct path towards this, you know, it’s not in the standard issue prep for being a technical person, but I think that those things actually really did help me a lot. They taught me about nuance in language that I don’t think I would have picked up on otherwise. I think writing, in prep for this I was walking yesterday and I was thinking about how, I suppose that there’s innate skill to writing or to communication, but I think that it’s a practiced skill more than it’s an innate one. You know, on the nature and nurture thing, I think that people can become pretty good writers, maybe not Pulitzer Prize winning authors or something, but you know, you can be a pretty good writer by writing a bunch, you just have to write a bunch. And I think that that, you know, my college process or my college education forced me to write a lot, and so I got to be a at least somewhat better writer, not a great writer by any stretch, as my graduating thesis will attest. Yeah.

Q: Great. That’s really useful and really interesting to hear, and I’m wondering too – are there things looking back that would have sort of given you a more direct application? Are there things that you wish you had been taught that would have helped you to be, maybe make the transition a little bit more quickly or more seamlessly into workplace writing?

A: I think I took one technical writing course and I may have late dropped it because it was really bad, at least really bad relative to thought– like I enjoyed my English classes, you know, and the technical writing one by comparison just felt dead. It was a very mechanical kind of project, and I think that good professional communication is not exactly mechanical. I think I, in college I assumed that like I was writing something that was fun, or I was writing corporate communications, and the modern corporate communication ironically turns out to need fun or people won’t read it. Like you have to have, like I think that good corporate communication may not be telling you hard-hitting jokes, but there’s a sense of humor and a sense of personality to it that isn’t dead, and I don’t think I picked up on that in college. I assume that college writing courses for professional writing have evolved since the time I was there, it’s been a while, but I think that finding something that’s in that middle space would’ve been really helpful. You know I think thinking about the audience is something that I didn’t do a whole lot of when I was in college, and I think that that does really come down to it, it’s almost, it’s like you have this idea that you’re trying to communicate, so that’s your starting point, but then you have, the really hard part is figuring out how to communicate to the people who matter most to you, and that’s different than how do you write a really good piece. In fact sometimes you have to take away the good parts in order to help them understand what you’re saying. So yeah, those are things that I think I wish I would have been exposed to. I’m not sure it was anybody’s fault, I think that when you look at corporate communications from the ‘90’s, it’s pretty dead, you know, it looks like a lawyer wrote it. And there’s still a place, as my lawyers will attest, for communication like a lawyer, but I think that corporate communications has loosened up and you can see that across the whole stack ranging from public communications to you know, tweets from companies, to internal Slack communications, to you know sort of this shift in formality in professional communication.

Q: That’s so interesting, yeah, that makes a lot of sense Aaron. This next question is extremely broad and it will also vary from writing project to writing project, but I wonder if you could talk generally about what you feel is at stake in your writing?

A: Um well, I mean, let’s start you know sort of Slack, which I know doesn’t count as writing in the traditional sense, but you have a team that you’re working with – let’s imagine you’re working with ten people – and you have this transcript of everything you’ve said to these people that stays for forever, and so any offhanded, unintentionally in-bad-taste joke lives for forever, and it lives for forever in this digital system, and it lives for forever in people’s memories to some degree or another. So there’s this reputational stake for making sure that you don’t do something really dumb. It’s sort of like digital photos on the internet, like you know, don’t take photos that you don’t want people to see of you ever, because they will somehow find their way into the public space. And I think the same thing is sort of true reputationally for writing, like you know, you don’t have a secret conversation off to the side anymore. So I think that getting good at writing, getting good at communicating your ideas, even in those really little things, is surprisingly essential. And sort of on the positive side, those little things allow you to build trust with people that you may not see face to face. I think this decentralized thing, decentralized organization means that increasingly, you’re building trusted relationships with people you work with, you know, 24/7, who you might see a couple times a year if you’re lucky. And so these asynchronous text communications turn out to be essential to that relationship, they are the relationship that you’ve got. So figuring out how to communicate your ideas and to sound level-headed even when you’re frustrated in communicating these things is really difficult. Um, you sound like you were going to interrupt.

Q: No, no, please. 

A: And I think the same thing is true for anything that goes publicly, you know, blog posts have a tendency to live for forever thanks to the internet archive, so you, you know, your words stick around for a while. At the same time I think, especially in the public space, there’s a higher volume of communication probably than ever, so in some ways maybe the stakes are lower, you do a lot more writing, at least I do a lot more writing than I used to. And I think that there is this general trend towards writing in this professional space being a really key component of it. I also think it’s interesting is, in a technical organization, the further up you go from being sort of a first line engineer, the more writing the less engineering you’re doing, because the writing becomes the, you know, the engineering is sort of the last step, but the writing is the coordination towards those goals. I’ve been reading up on, I’ve developed a fascination with Roman history, and sort of when you start thinking about military strategy and how you’re going to attack some town, or fight some battle, you think about the soldiers who are out there swinging their swords, but more broadly you think about this unit and this unit needs to move over here, and then you think about the person who’s responsible for that, you know, it’s this person is responsible for all of these units and you’re going to attack from this direction. And in an engineering organization, as it scales it becomes more and more like that as well, and the communication really is the work, there isn’t even a second thing that you’re doing, you’re communicating, you’re taking input from people, you’re developing a strategy, and you’re directing what happens.

Q: That’s a fascinating comparison. Yeah that’s really really interesting. In many ways you may have already touched on this, or you may just point me back to something that you’ve already said, but I’m curious what you would identify as the most difficult thing about writing in the types of positions that you’ve held?

A: I think the most difficult things I’ve dealt with actually come back to sort of group text communication. Unintentional consequences, misunderstandings over choices in words, accidental things that I didn’t intend as offensive that were read as offensive. And luckily I don’t have any truly cataclysmic stories about that, but I think that you, you know, if you work in an environment that communicates via that, you know, over the course of a month, you will end up apologizing to at least a handful of people within, that were accidentally communicated. But I think that those are really the hardest ones, because you have more a traditional process, the more external your communication is, the more formalized your communication is, the more checks and balances you have to your writings, you might catch that you said something horrible. It’s those places where it’s written but it’s impulsive that you can really get yourself into trouble, and you can, you know, it can also, it’s like a double edged sword, it can be very powerful, it allows to cut through the process and get things communicated very quickly, but then you can accidentally communicate the wrong thing very easily. So I, yeah, I think that the most difficult sort of day to day writing thing turns out to maintaining an even keel and dealing, you know, especially when you’re under stress or you know, frustrated with your team, or something like that, to be able to communicate in an even way that doesn’t create side effects via group texting turns out to be very difficult.


Q: That’s really interesting and I think that’s one of those things that our students really don’t get much of. You know, you talked about that you assume professional writing at the university level has improved since you were there, and while I’m sure in some ways it has, I think that it has not caught up–

A: I was being kind.

Q: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think this sort of informal writing that happens is the piece that’s still missing though. It really isn’t addressed as much as it should be when the bulk of the communication, and like you said, in many situations, the most complicated sort of communications is going to happen that way. Shifting just a little bit, I’m curious whether anyone has helped you formally or informally since the start of your career, sort of post college, with your writing?

A: I have a handful of friends who are better writers than me, who for, whether it’s personal blog posts or professional work that I think really matters, that I don’t want to screw up, that I will send to review confidentially before I send it out. That’s about it. I would imagine there probably could’ve been more support, it would have been nice, but that’s sort of the limit to the support that I have.

Q: Okay. And when you think about, typically this question would be about the organization you’re currently with, but I think sort of looking more broadly at the world of technical startups would be useful – could you speak a little bit about how you feel writing is valued in that world?

A: Yeah, I’m going to focus on external writing for this answer. I think that it’s highly valued, but it’s under invested in. You know, I in a past project worked with a CEO, I was the CTO at the time, and the CEO very much wanted to do some really interesting writing projects, but he was not a good writer, and wasn’t really willing to invest in making that writing better. What ultimately ended up happening was I took over the writing project, because we had these deadlines that had been at one point set very reasonably, but getting to a consistent product turned out to be very difficult. So I think there is this understanding, at least in tech startups, I can’t speak to a broader audience, but I think that companies are aware and teams are aware that writing and communication is really essential. And yeah, there’s real value there. I was looking, I have a friend of mine who’s hiring for a project manager position at a larger company, and the job recs are essentially just writing skills, and some vague idea of the technical spaces they’re working in. I think that communication skills in larger companies are really the skills. Technology is assumed to be learnable more than communication is. 

Q: Yeah, I think that that’s really true but it is really interesting. I’m wondering how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus successful writing now?

A: I think now the end product is a lot, simpler isn’t the right word, right? It’s more like it’s, what’s the word I’m looking for? The writing is effective now, not just loquacious, or something, you know, like you have these words and syntax and structure that you read growing up, and so you’re trying to match that, or to sound very smart in how you’re writing. I think the real power and magic is saying a very complicated thing in a very simple way, and maybe in a much shorter way than college – like I think college writing was like, “Well it must be at least 15 pages, so stretch it out, and up the margins,” [chuckle]. It’s sort of the wrongest possible metric for being done and being successful. I think taking a complicated idea and communicating it really clearly in the simplest way possible is the success now. Nobody really wants to read a ten page blog post, you know, they want to read three, four pages and then like some breakout if they want more information. But that blog post may summarize what you’ve been working on for two years, you know, so you have to really edit the mess out of that in order to get to that point. And in that situation you have to edit out a lot of things that are really interesting, so it, you know, I think part of that success is getting comfortable ignoring or you know, reducing a month of your effort to a single word in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph, you know, it’s tricky.

Q: Absolutely, absolutely. And yeah, it could represent so much work, but also it could represent what you think is the most important or interesting thing, and knowing your audience means sometimes that goes, yeah.

A: Yeah, that’s really hard.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually just have one last question. Would you say that you are a successful professional writer?

A: I am a learning professional writer. It’s funny, I’m in the middle of, I’ve had some time off the last couple weeks and I’m in the middle of writing some personal stuff, and my partner is, she’s a writer, and she’s a better writer than I am, and so based off of her feedback, I am not a successful writer yet [chuckle], which I accept. You know, I think that this process, you know, I’ve been doing this now since 2002, which says I’ve been doing it for a little while, 17 years, 18 years, something like that? I’m clearly more of an English person than a math person. But I think I’ve gotten better over time. I think that some of these things probably are more, you could probably teach them better at college and saved me some time and effort, and some of them you only learn because you practice and you fail, and I’ve mostly done it the hard way, but I’ve gotten better at it, I’d like to think so.

Q: Beautiful, thank you so much!

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Registered Nurse

Sciences

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

A: I’m a registered nurse, I’m a dual position, so I work in the local hospital just as what they call a float nurse, so I’ll come in and work wherever they need me for the day, but I also work in the outpatient center that’s connected to the hospital, and there I work in their anticoagulation clinic. So I consult with patients who are primarily on a medication called warfarin, and we do education and we do blood tests, and then we give them a warfarin dose to be taking until they see us the next time. So that’s what I do. And I graduated from college ten years ago. 

Q: Ten? 

A: Yes.

Q: Great, great. And have you worked in nursing for that entire ten year period?

A: Yes.

Q: Wonderful. And can I ask just a clarifying question – what types of medical issues might someone have if they were taking that medication that you work with?

A: Um, there’s a couple, but primarily it’s people who are more likely to have blood clots or have had a blood clot, so that includes people with atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heart rhythm, which can cause a stroke if you’re not on an anticoagulant, or people who have blood clots, it’s called a DVT, deep vein thrombosis, or PE, pulmonary embolism, who need to have anticoagulation until their body is able to break that blood clot down, or people who have genetic predisposition for blood clotting, or people who have like artificial heart valves that can more easily clot of they’re not on an anticoagulant.

Q: Gotcha, thank you. This will obviously be a little challenging because you mentioned that you’re a floater, so you’re doing different types of nursing tasks day to day when you’re in the hospital, but could you give sort of a brief overview or description of your primary job functions?

A: Sure. I’ll speak to the floating nurse part first. So when I come into that day, I am assigned between three and five, sometimes six patients for the day. I need to assess them, I need to administer medications and treatments, decipher lab values. I’m in constant communication with the other members of the care team, which are other nurses, like my supervising nurse, the physician who is of course in charge of the patient, as well as any consulting physicians, and then auxiliary healthcare team members, like physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, that sort of thing. So we all work together during the day to bring all those treatments to the patient. And then of course notifying the physician if there’s anything out of the ordinary that’s going, and then all the documentation of everything that all those people have been doing [chuckle] during the day as well. So that’s what I do when I’m floating. And then in the clinic setting, it’s really, it’s different, and it’s really, I like the dichotomy there because I kind of get to do two different things. So in the clinic I see one patient at a time, which is different in and of itself, and then I have to ask them a series of interview questions related to the medication that they’re on, warfarin. First we talk about what other medications that they’re on, then we discuss if they’ve had anything abnormal over the past few weeks since it’s been, or however long it’s been since they were last seen in our clinic, we talk about if they’ve had any issues with bleeding, because it’s an anticoagulant so it make you bleed more easily. And then of course, we talk about if they’ve had any other clotting symptoms as well, because that would mean that the blood levels aren’t correct, either – hopefully they’ve been in the emergency room in either of those scenarios, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. And then we talk about other things that affect the medication, so diet, alcohol intake, smoking, that sort of thing. And then after we go through all that, then I check their blood level, which is called the INR, and it helps us know if that medication, the warfarin medication, is therapeutic. And then if it is therapeutic, then we continue the current weekly warfarin dose that they’re on, and if it’s not, then we address if there’s a reason why it’s high or low, if it is, we correct that through counselling and then give them a new medication dose. If there is no reason, then we have to correct the medication dose anyway to try and get that level more therapeutic. And because I’m a registered nurse, I have to have it cosigned or I have to consult with my supervising nurse practitioner or pharmacist that I’m working with that day. So usually I go through all that, everything, and then I just run out to them quickly and discuss the case with them, we come up with a warfarin dose for them, and then I give that information to the patient and we send them on their way. And then if I haven’t already made the note of that visit while I’m talking to them, I finish up the note after that. And that’s it.

Q: Perfect, thank you. Either in terms of those notes or if there are additional writing tasks, could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Um, on the floor probably maybe like 25, 30 percent. In the clinic, I would say it’s probably higher than that, maybe 50 percent.

Q: Great, great. So could you tell me a little bit about the forms or types of writing, or the documents that you most often complete? Sort of what are they, what form do they take, but also who are the audiences and what are you trying to accomplish with them?

A: Sure. In the hospital, everything is documented on our online charting, electronic medical record. So it’s a series of, like when I’m doing an assessment, it’s a series of clicks basically. We do something that’s called charting by exception, so we can assess the patient and then just say, “This system,” for example neurological, “is within normal,” so there’s nothing unusual there. But let’s say for example the patient has a history of an old stroke, then I would not say everything’s normal, because maybe they have a residual drooping of one side of their face. So then I would check that, and then I would also want to check that this is an old thing, and it’s not something new. Because if it’s something new, then we’re going down a whole other line of assessment and notifications and checking the patient to see if the patient has had a new stroke, et cetera. So basically that documentation is click click click click click all the way through. If there’s a note that I want to add in there, like that discussion of it being an old stroke, it’s just another quick right click to add a little comment basically. So it’s clicks and comments. And then I will also write a short note usually, at least once a shift, just to talk about my care of the patient, if there’s anything abnormal, usually if it’s a pretty good healthy day for the patient, it’s a real quick note saying, “I assumed care of this patient at this time, this xyz happened,” excuse me one second, [interviewee talking to her child]. Sorry [chuckle]. Can you remind me what I was saying [chuckle]?

Q: Yes, you were talking about the click system. Oh no, you were talking about writing a note once a shift to talk about it.

A: Okay, yeah. So it might just be a little blurb about my care of the patient that day. But, if something abnormal happens, which often something abnormal’s happening because the patient’s sick and in the hospital, then I would speak to that maybe more in detail than just the standard assessment boxes that I can check about the patient’s abnormality. Like so if the patient had that facial droop, I would of course be writing a note about what time I noticed that, who I notified, and our hospital is a stroke hospital, so we would call this alert, and the patient would go off to a series of tests to see if the stroke is a true stroke and if it needs any further treatment. So it just goes down this long sort of path of all the other things I have to say about what happened. But because I just feel like it’s better to have that note in there too, just to cover everything that I have done. A lot of times it is double documenting, but I am of the thought that it’s better to say more than to not say enough about whatever has happened to the patient during the day. 

Q: Absolutely.

A: So, go ahead.

Q: Oh no, I was just going to say, yeah. So this might feel like a silly question, but because I don’t know that world very well, so why is it better to say more than less? What are you trying to accomplish with those notes?

A: Well, so you asked me who my audiences were, the people that might be reading this later, number one, would be the nurse that’s following me, so she or he’s going to want to know went on. I will of course give that to them in report, but if they want to reference that to see what has happened, a lot of times it’s easier to pull up a nurse’s note than it is to like filter through all those sections of clicking that I did before. It’s just, I can make it more succinct I guess in a note, and just kind of give the highlights of whatever the issue was that was addressed. And then the other people that might be the audience for that – physicians, I don’t really know actually how much physicians read nurses notes [chuckle] it’s just so much information and they’ve got enough going on. I know that physical therapists and social workers, everyone else on the team might reference that. And then of course, we always think in the back of our minds about the possibility that if something ever came up that went to court, we want the people that are prosecuting to know that we have done everything we can, and just to say like, “Hey, I did it. I followed all the steps and all the protocols of what needs to happen when something abnormal like this goes on in the hospital setting.” So they say, the acronym CYA, so just cover your ass when you’re in healthcare because you want everyone to be safe number one, but also to know that you’ve done everything you can and again, that saying, “if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.” So it has to be shown in your documentation what you did for the patient.

Q: Great, great. Thank you so much. Other than those notes and the click through system,  where you’re leaving comments, is there any other kind of writing or documents that you work on?

A: Yes, thank you for reminding me [chuckle]. In the clinic setting it’s a lot different, I really enjoy it actually, because when there’s a new patient that’s come to the clinic, you do an intake, so you have to get to know the patient and sort of what their medical history is, as well as what brought them to be on this new medication of warfarin. So that interview, it’s a longer visit because it’s the first visit with us and we do a lot of education there as well. And after I get their whole story of what brought them to me, then I have to sort of write that out as succinctly and sort of pointed toward our specific medication as possible, as that first admitting note. And then subsequent visits we sort of have a template that we use and we change it for variations from the normal. So they’re all again, in the computer, we use a specific computer program made for this type of clinic, but we do our own writing of those notes. The first note is different because it’s sort of like a narrative, versus the other notes, which I guess are also narratives but they’re a template that we just sort of fill in what we need to for the patient.

Q: Okay. Gotcha, that makes perfect sense. Could you walk me through the process for a recent project or sort of one of the typical things that you write that you mentioned? Just sort of start to finish, even if it’s something, maybe the actual click through and comments makes sense because it’s something that you do so frequently. What is the process like from start to finish, how long does it take, and sort of what steps do you take?

A: Sure. Maybe I actually will speak to that admitting note, because it’s probably the most writing. 

Q: Oh great, yeah.

A: So like I said, the patient comes in, I sort of just ask them like, “What brought you here?” And then most people really like to tell you everything that’s gone on, so you just listen, sometimes that takes a really long time [laughter], but listen to them, and then try to draw out specific pertinent medical history, because that’s what ends up going in the note. I take notes while they’re talking, and then I have a sort of a loose paper that guides my questions as well if I’m forgetting something. So after I take the notes, we do the visit, I do the education, we do the blood test, all that stuff, send them on their way, then what I often do if the patient has been in our hospital – which often they have because our hospital is the only one in the county so most of the people that are coming to the clinic have been in our hospital and were referred to use from there – I’ll actually look up their most recent hospital admissions as well, just to see if there’s anything else that was mentioned in their physician notes that maybe the patient forgot, or a lot of times patients have a really good understanding of what’s happened, but maybe they don’t have the right verbiage, so I like to go into the physicians to see what was the actual diagnosis, or what was the actual procedure that happened, because they might give me layman’s terms but I don’t want to assume that what the patient has told me went on is actually what was you know, the medical term for that. So a lot of times I’ll just like go in and double check any pertinent history in their electronic medical record, and then I sort of come up with this narrative. We use something a SOAP note, so situation, objective, assessment, and plan. So situation, “This is a 70 year old patient who comes to our clinic,” and the narrative is the same for each of these new patients but then you say, “because they had a blood clot in their lower left extremity. They came to the hospital on this day, they were started on warfarin on this day, here’s their past medical and surgical history, allergies, the medications they’re currently on,” and then we talk sort of specifically toward warfarin. So we’ll say you know, “They didn’t miss any warfarin doses since they started on the medication. This is what they’ve taken so far. They haven’t had any issues with bleeding,” or maybe they have, “they still have swelling in their lower extremity,” that would be normal. We’ll talk about other symptoms of clotting to make sure that we’ve said that they don’t have any other symptoms of clotting. We’ll talk about their diet because diet can affect the levels of warfarin in your blood, and we’ll talk about alcohol and smoking, and if they have been sick lately. So that’s all in the situation part of that note. Objective stuff, we will say they have — that usually we leave blank except sometimes we will put in weight and height and that sort of thing. Assessment we will say after we’ve done the blood test, whether it’s therapeutic, not therapeutic, and whether they have or do not have signs of bleeding and clotting. And then in the plan part of the note, we will say, “This is what we told the patient to take with their warfarin for this so many days until they return to see us.” And then in that initial note I will always also document, “We covered all this education,” and I like list all the different things I did with them, “and it took me this long to have this visit with the patient,” because that’s something the billing people have to know. And then that’s it.

Q: Okay, that’s excellent. And so is it just a sort of, you write it and it’s done? Do you ever return to those to revise them? 

A: Um, the only time I would return to revise them is if I just forgot to put something in there which happens frequently, so just add an addendum on the end of that. I do return to those notes, I wouldn’t say frequently, but sometimes if I’m looking to see maybe did they have this medical history, like let’s say it’s been a couple years since they’ve been in our clinic, and all of a sudden it pops up that they have this history of diabetes, and I never knew that before and I wanted to look back and see, did we know that when they first came to the clinic? So we I might look back and see, we have several places where we document their medical history, but sometimes if I can’t find it anywhere I’ll look back at that initial note to see, did we know it then, or is this actually a new diagnosis that they’re telling me about for years after the fact? So I do reference those occasionally, or maybe I wanted to know more of the story, like we have a chart that says why they’re on the medication, but sometimes you want to know a little bit more specifics of why they’re on, so I might look back at that note to see, what was the story? Like what actually, how did that all come down in the beginning that they started on the medication?

Q: And as you are thinking about writing those notes, like the more narrative pieces of it, is there anything that you avoid saying?

A: Well I can talk of course about being a nurse versus someone with a higher, like a prescribing power. Like I can’t say any kind of diagnosis, this goes for anywhere that I’m working, like I couldn’t say that, “I believe that they are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation,” or a blood clot or whatever. I always have to say, you know, “They were found to be in xyz diagnosis when they were admitted to the hospital,” or by their primary care, whatever. That’s never something that I say, even if I know, like that these symptoms might be present. I can’t say that they are diagnosed with, under my license. So if I’m going to say something about diagnoses, I will always tack on where they got that diagnosis from. Past medical history is a little bit less like that, but for a new diagnosis, you would definitely want to say you know where they got the diagnosis from. I’m never currently in that moment diagnosing anybody, nor would I say that in a note.

Q: Okay, I see, that’s useful, yeah.

A: I’m trying to think what else. You certainly don’t, like if the patient’s warfarin has been mismanaged by another physician, like let’s say they used to go to a different clinic and that clinic told them to do ridiculous things, and it made them issues, I’m not necessarily going to– we try to be very diplomatic. So I’m not going to say, “it’s this clinic’s fault that xyz happened,” but I would say, “the patient was told by this clinic to do this with their warfarin, and here is their INR today.” I will give the beginning and the end, but I wouldn’t say, “and it’s their fault.” Because again, we’re not going to throw other healthcare providers under the bus, but we do need to document what has happened and what the effect of that may be.

Q: That makes perfect sense. Is that more of a sort of community standard? Or is it a legal concern that you want to be cautious of?

A: I would say, I mean I was never taught about a specific legal concern that says, “don’t throw your other healthcare providers under the bus,” but I think it’s just kind of standard in medicine. Like if something really terrible happened of course there would be follow up about that, and we have certainly, if a patient comes to use in a dangerous situation, we absolutely follow up with wherever they came from, and like, “Hey, what the heck happened?” But we again, would write that in a diplomatic way. We wouldn’t necessarily write you know like,”We called this other doctor and yelled at them because they messed this patient up,” [chuckle] kind of thing. But at the same time, while you’re being diplomatic, you are highlighting and what should always highlighted in healthcare is the patient’s safety, so that is like a running theme of all documentation that we do, is showing what we did to keep the patient safe, or to get the patient safe.

Q: Excellent, excellent, thank you. So this next question feels a little bit broad, but how did you know how to perform the types of writing that you currently perform?

A: In the clinic setting, it’s certainly been a learning process. I think mostly just from reading other people’s intake notes, and when I first started there, I had to sit in with those initial visits and follow up, and my supervisor would read those notes afterward and you know, tell me if I needed to change anything. In a broader sense, we learn all of that in nursing school from very early on, I would say maybe the first or second semester of nursing school we’re learning about how to write a patient note. I learned on paper, this is before the computers were really up and running, so we would like write out our notes and sign them on a piece of lined paper, and then our instructors would check those. And I believe we had some sort of maybe a couple of days of reading examples of notes and how you might write them. I certainly remember practicing and submitting many notes throughout nursing school to be looked at by our instructors.

Q: Gotcha, okay. Has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

A: Um, probably that first year of nursing, I was just, it’s just overwhelming. All the preparation does not you prepare you to just start working in the hospital. You just have to go in a start doing it. So I definately, I had some excellent preceptors when I was new to nursing, and we would stay two hours after my shift was over sometimes [chuckle], like going through all my documentation and double checking everything, I had one lady that was, she was insane, and she was always like dotting my i’s, crossing my t’s, everything. But it’s good I think to start that way, and then, you know, some of those things like dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s may not be the most important thing, but it’s good to be completely thorough I think at first just to get your grips on it. As far as now, I mean there’s certainly been some times where, I will run by a note with the nurse practitioner that I work with, if I want to make sure that I’m wording it correctly if it’s kind of a touchy situation. Like we have a lot of times in our clinic, you know, you as a patient, you’re entitled to your own decisions and opinions and it’s your body, but a lot of times we’ll recommend something, like, “You need to go to the emergency room,” and the patient outright refuses. And so in that narrative, I want to make sure that I’m saying that we educated the patient on the risks of not going to the emergency room, and that the patient refused or declined our suggestion, and I want to say that in a way that shows that we are trying to keep the patient safe, and so that if there’s ever a situation where that patient, God forbid something happened to them, and then they said, “Well, they didn’t tell me that,” then I can look back at that note and say, “Well actually I did tell you that, we told you should go to the emergency room,” kind of thing.

Q: Right, right. Gotcha, okay.

A: But that’s the kind of thing I would run by my supervisor just to make sure that I have that wording in a way that makes the most sense and speaks concisely to the issue that is at hand.

Q: Perfect, okay. Does anyone oversee your writing?

A: In the clinic, my supervisor does. She doesn’t read all my notes, she would only read it if brought something to her attention. They are signed off on either by her our medical director. And then in the hospital setting, there’s again, there’s just so much in the hospital setting, there’s so much information, that I don’t know that anyone specifically looks at my charting. I think that they do random audits, where there’s like a whole department in the hospital for auditing and looking at nursing documentation, so they will now and again audit certain parts of your charting to make sure that you are completing it as you’re supposed to. As far as, in my ten years of nursing, I have never had a note brought back to me about you know, whatever, edits or whatever like that. But there certainly have been times where an auditor will call me and say, “Hey, you forgot to chart your pain reassessment, can you please do that?” And so then I will go back in and do that for them.

Q: Great, okay, okay. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? Like you know for the average sort of notes on a patient, for instance if you’re on the floor. 

A: On the floor, just a couple minutes probably. I don’t spend that much time unless it’s a significant issue that needs to be typed out in which case, maybe five or ten minutes. They’re not long, I mean I don’t know that I write paragraphs about any of my patients, even if it is a big issue, because again, you can accomplish a lot of the information intake by clicking through the checkmarks. But yeah, not very long.

Q: Okay. 

A: [Interviewee speaking to her child]. Alright, go ahead.

Q: Sorry. So you talked a little bit about this, but other than practicing those notes, are there any kinds of writing that you remember being asked to do as a student?

A: Hold on just a second [interviewee speaking to her child]. Go ahead [chuckle].

Q: If you need to cut this short, we understand completely. 

A: Oh it’s fine, we’re good. 

Q: Okay, so I was asking about, were there writing tasks that you completed as a student other than notes that you remember doing? Other than those practice notes that you mentioned?

A: We do, in nursing school they’re big on care plans, which involve something called a nursing diagnosis, where we would talk about the symptoms a patient has, and how we would go about managing those symptoms and then what we would look for as a favorable response to that, and sort of a goal that they would accomplish through that response. Again, it’s all very vague, not vague, but you’re skirting around the actual diagnosis because you can’t say the actual diagnosis. So we would do a lot in nursing school. You wanted just specifically nursing school or like undergrad in general?

Q: No, in general sort of your undergrad education.

A: I mean, we were all required to do a, I don’t know if it was creative writing class, or some kind of writing class, no it wasn’t creative writing, I think it was just like English 101. Just basic papers, I remember my English 101 lady was really into animals, so we did a lot of animal papers [laughter]. And you know, I was just remembering, in nursing school then we did do a research writing course, where we had to research a specific study and sort of write about that study or about several studies just to sort of gain familiarity with how to read through a clinical study. So we did do that, not very much of it, I don’t think we did – I think maybe we did one or two big papers over the course of that semester, but that was something we had to do as well.

Q: Gotcha. And in what ways do you think that the writing you did in college prepared you for the work that you do now?

A: You know, those care plans were kind of annoying, but they did help you learn that language of how nursing speaks to the condition of the patient. And sort of all the auxiliary things that happen around the what the physician might be addressing. So I think that was good in that respect, it’s definitely an approach you have to learn. The research writing was good because it, like I said, it helped me gain familiarity with how to read through a trial or something like that. I don’t think that the English 101 was particularly helpful for nursing in particular. I really enjoyed it, because I also enjoy creative writing, but I don’t think it was very helpful. It’s asking you to write a lot of things, to be as verbose as possible, and that is not how it is in medicine [chuckle].

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. So just a few more questions. Is there anything that would have been useful for you to do or learn as a student that you didn’t do?

A: I think if perhaps there were more scenarios kind of offered, like, “How would you write about this? Like you are telling the patient to go to the emergency room, and they don’t want to go.” Like having that kind of practice would be good, because I think that sort of thing happens a lot in healthcare where you have to say, “I recommended this, and the patient didn’t want to do it,” kind of thing, sort of to cover yourself. So I think that kind of practice would be good, because I think it’s sort of broad and you have to say that in multiple different scenarios. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else. Yeah, just different scenarios like that I think would be good, or just to read that sort of scenario. Maybe we did read them and I just don’t remember [chuckle]. 

Q: Could you talk a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?

A: Well ultimately, the patient’s safety, but that’s more in your practice than it is in your writing. I feel like my writing comes second to the actual care of my patient, and sometimes that makes me stay extra after my shift is over, because I want to give the care to the patient first, and then write about it later. But in an ideal world, you can do both of those things at the same time because the patient isn’t having any issues at all [chuckle]. So what is at stake? Of course, your license is at stake because if you don’t again, document something you did, that something bad happens to the patient, that will come back to you in a court scenario if you haven’t documented appropriately, even if you did do it, and you didn’t write it down, it will come back to you. So that’s probably the biggest thing that’s at stake in my writing. Also just sort of my reputation kind of in a way, because like I said, the nurse that follows me is going to want to read what I’ve been doing. So if I come in after I know what’s been a train wreck of a shift for the nurse before me, and there’s nothing written down, of course maybe they’re still working on it, sitting next to me while I’ve taken over, but I would want to know what has happened. Or like let’s say it’s been a couple days since this incident happened for the patient, like I want to be able to go back and look and see what actually happened, because nursing report is excellent I would never want to give that up, but as a story gets passed along when you’re in shift report, things might get lost or missed, and like I want to go back and look and see, okay what exactly did happen? You know, where are we at in this process of getting the patient past this event that happened?

Q: Gotcha, gotcha. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your job?

A: I would say being succinct but also accurate. So I want to gather all my data and be able to present that accurately so that it is helping everyone involved in the situation.

Q: Great. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

A: I think I’ve definitely become more succinct, I mean I enjoy writing a good story about a patient but I also have to sort of rein it in a little bit sometimes. So I think I’ve gotten a little bit better at that, and knowing what’s important to say and what’s not important to say in a note.

Q: Okay. And just two more questions – first, to what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization or in your field?

A: I think that it’s valued secondary to actually keeping the patient healthy and safe. I think it is certainly valued but I’m trying to think how to say otherwise, yeah. Yeah, I’ll just leave it at that.

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. And would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: Um, I think so. I think people read my notes and can follow what’s going on which is important. 

Q: Excellent. And is there anything else that you would want people to know about the writing that you do at work?

A: I think I’ve said what I wanted to say.

Q: Okay, thank you so much.

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Logistics Specialist

Business

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

My job title is logistics specialist. I work at Metrica Inc. It’s a government contractor. It has been, let’s see, I graduated December, 2016 so, yeah, roughly two years.

Okay. And you’ve worked in this current field for the entire time?

Yeah. I’ve worked here a year and six months now. So most of the time yup.

Okay. And can you provide a very brief description of what your primary job functions are?

Essentially, there’s a lot of them, but the primary ones is essentially managing subcontractors on the ground in other countries from the treasury. Essentially, the treasury has projects ongoing a bunch developing countries and we have subcontractors out there just assisting in a support role for interpreters, or anything. If they a cell phones, if they need something printed officially, if they need really anything we help them out on the ground there in the third world country.

Okay. Great. Can you provide an estimate for a weekly average of what percentage of your job requires you to do any kind of writing? Zero from 25%, 25 to 50, 50 to 75% or 75 to 100.

It’s about 50% writing.

Okay. What forms or kinds of writing or documents are you most frequently required to complete?

Well yeah first and foremost definitely email writing and just being concise. Because if you’re constantly having back and forth between treasury, subcontractor, us. Definitely email writing, but also reports and assessments, and memos is also a partial portion, which none are very lengthy, but they just need to be concise. You get away with a lot of just using templates keeping it, so you’re not recreating the wheel every time.

Sure. And for those kinds of documents, who would be your primary audiences and what would the primary purposes be?

For memos it would be for actually sending and advancing money. That would be going up through our financial guy here, and then to a project manager and then off to headquarters. In terms of the email writing, it would be some going directly to our subcontractor in another country, some directly to the treasury. And then some internally, obviously just amongst, just for creating policies.

Okay. And so when you’re writing to a fellow subcontractors, or even to the treasury, can you give us a clue into the kinds of goals that you’re forming in the writing, what purposes you might be writing about?

What, what was that? Sorry, restate that question.

Sure. Just when you’re writing to either subcontractors or the treasury, typically what’s the purpose of those correspondences?

Essentially we have a task system that comes out of the treasury to us within the treasury there’s probably five teams. Each of them use this system called Tims, and that’ll create essentially a task order that we have to … that has a end and do date, where we have to make sure that everything, all the deliverables in that task order’s completed by the due date. So whatever’s in that task order, may it be, we need an interpreter from x to y, we need a new laptop, we need office equipment because we’re moving offices, we need … everything in that, well eventually, it comes to me. Then I create it in a way that the email can be clear and concise to our subcontractors who are multi-lingual in other countries and essentially and bullet points are your friends. And I pushed it onto them and then they get working on it.

Great. Great. And then with as much level of detail as you’re comfortable sharing, could you maybe walk us through the process for one particular recent project or type of project from the time that the assignment is given to you through your preparation and then any steps you take until it’s complete?

Okay. Do you mean general products or you want to go through a certain tasks?

Any specific project you’ve done recently that involved a writing component is fine.

Let’s see here. The most intensive project that I’ve had to deal with would be, so we had a advisor in Mongolia. He was working on a project that was actually creating a citizens’ budget for this country of Mongolia for their Ministry of Finance to essentially pass out and trying to … I couldn’t even give you the background on what exactly they wanted to do with it. But he needed our support to essentially make the publication, for the publication, look for people on the ground that had experience writing Mongolian. So yeah, so he had a bunch of different stuff that we had to do, and it also entailed keeping up on their budget because that’s another thing that we manage.

Now in terms of actually having to write, let’s see. I mean, again, a lot of it’s just through email. I’m not really writing full on reports. But I would say a good thing to mention is also the creation of SOP, just standard operating procedures. I’ve had to do that for just something as simple as our mailing policy, or because we’re always sending stuff. We’re sending laptops. So it’s just like, here you go, you log onto DHL, here’s our account information, here’s everything you need to know. This is how you should code it. This is how you should … what account to charge.

SOPs have been a part of my writing, which I mean it all just has to be clear. It can’t be wordy. It needs to be easy to follow, easy, bulleted, easily numbered and concise, and that’s really all I can in much detail explain those.

Sure. You say you do a lot of email writing. Aside from the concision and clarity, are these typically formal emails or do you consider them to be informal?

Oh no. Yeah, they’re all formal because they’re going to the treasuries so everything has to be very formal.

Yeah. Are there any particular decisions you have to make when you write formal emails, considering who your audience is? Do you do any kind of drafting process, or what?

Yeah, so there is a drafting process. If it’s something that’s very important that it’s going all the way up to their operations manager in the treasury. It’s a constant, I’ll draft it, send it to my senior log spec, senior log spec give me some feedback. Then I’ll send it to the project manager and he’ll have some feedback and then we’ll send it out. Just to make sure you know more eyes on it the better it’ll be. Just in terms of editing and what the message we actually want to get out is.

I have, for my own personal procedure, I have templates for certain things. So say I have a template for interpreters in a certain country. Everything that I need to say to the subcontractor is already there. It’s just I need to input the different dates, or any other additional information which I have space for, and that’s already in my template. Does that answer your question?

Yes, very much yeah. Thank you. Coming out out of college and moving into this position, or into this field in general, how did you know how to do that kind of writing? How did you know how to write successful emails or standard operating procedures that type of sort of thing?

Well, I mean I did go through business writing in college, but it wasn’t that intensive. I believe it was only … yeah, I believe it was only one class towards the end of my actual major. And they went through creating a report, formal email writing. But yeah a lot of it creating SOPs it’s just learning and just learning the terminology inside your office because every organization has different terminology. Say even if I do some other work on a different contract the terminology is different there too. I think that’s the most important thing, which I don’t know if you can really show that to students or put them in a real life situation.

But yeah, just the terminology and the way an SOP is created. Obviously there’s, for my circumstances they was already SOPs to base this off of. I just needed to update it with the changes that have happened over this year, or last year. So a lot of it is really on job training for for SOPs at least. Email writing it’s a constant work. You just get better at it as you go.

Great. Can you think of a time, maybe early in your career where you felt maybe unprepared as a writer at that new job?

I would say when I first started here I was … you want to stick away from the big long paragraphs. I think that’s a lot of feedback is, at least amongst the organizations we work with, is people hate when you just send up a big long email. That’s just a big long paragraph because people just don’t have time to go through and look at it all and try to actually capture all the information that’s in it. It’s obviously as I’ve already said the more concise your the better.

When I was unprepared. Yeah. I mean the SOPs in general, and just being able to write formally that that took some practice. And that’s all that I learned here really. I wouldn’t say I was super prepared for the actual formal writing, and things that you need to do on a day to day. That’s just a lot of on the job training.

Great. When you have those moments where you kind of feel like you need to learn on the job, are there specific steps that you took to overcome those kind of challenges? Looking at other templates or past documents or collaborating with other writers or, or anything like that?

Yeah, so I mean I’ll bounce things off obviously my senior log spec, just the way that he writes things, and just because he’s worked on other contracts that are similar. That’s a great thing. I was able to have a resource there. But there’s a lot of things just that you can access. Udemy I’ve gone and done a few videos and courses, which is good. They’ll … they try to incentivize you to do all that.

Are there specific Udemy courses that you’ve taken that you really like?

I couldn’t tell you the exact name of them because there’s like a million. But yeah I go on there or Excel of course as well just to do just learning more things just basic quick tips that would make you quicker. And yeah, I mean typically if … it’s not just my organization, they’ll just have … if they want you to hit a certain amount of certifications, or do certain amount of trainings per, every six months and you have goals that you set, try to hit all those that really helps.

Great. And I think you mentioned somebody in that position before, but can you talk a little bit about who specifically oversees your writing, and what their job title or role in the company is?

Okay. Yes. Senior logistics specialists, and then also my just project manager. He’s The PMP, so he oversees the entire contract with the Treasury. But a lot of it I don’t have to go to them to draft every single email obviously. I think I’ve excelled because of my email writing in this role. Where I’ve seen some people struggle is that we have a lot of people who speak multiple languages. And when English isn’t your first language, then obviously it’s just going to be way harder to write a concise email in English. I think that is where I’ve definitely been able to write my own emails and not always have to draft them if they’re going to the treasury because it just takes forever.

Sure. And in those moments for maybe more formal documents, when you do go to a supervisor for feedback, how do you think that they judge success or quality of your work?

Well, when it’s a really solid email, they’ll literally send a good job on this. Yeah, if it’s solid, there’s nothing wrong. It’s very clear the message that we’re trying to send. And everything is contractually legal, and they’re using the exact terminology that they want, then yeah, they’ll send a job.

Okay, great. And this can depend from email to maybe a longer project, but on average, how long do you say you typically have to complete a particular writing project?

It depends on the writing project. If it’s an SOP they’ll give me multiple days to complete that. If it’s an important email it needs to be out by … within an hour. And then other emails it’s just a constant feedback and those are quick within 20 minutes.

Sure. Great. You mentioned taking a business writing class in college, and maybe this applies to some other courses you took, but what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create when you were a student?

It was basic memo reports which they based a lot of it on your heading being correct and other formal things that I don’t … that you typical don’t need to worry about. It’s more, I would just say getting the right words and verbiage, and just being able to write formally. We also worked on our resume in that class, which was a bigger portion of it than the actual email or thing. But yeah, it wasn’t too intensive. It was pretty much the basics. They’d have us memos, reports, however those are defined.

Sure. Do you feel like you were that those modes of writing that you learned in your education prepared you or did you feel unprepared when you entered the workplace?

Let’s see. Well, yeah that was just one class there. I did take other writing courses, like creative courses, which obviously helps a ton. I think that just being able to write, being able to write is something that typically people don’t try that hard on these days, and is incredibly important [inaudible 00:17:07] like I am right now. Yeah you need to be able to write. It’s definitely … you need to be able to get your points across.

Is there anything in particular that you feel like you got out of those creative courses?

Being more descriptive. I mean just having a way better vocabulary to use in your emails, to be descriptive, and not just sending the classic boring three letter adjectives, or just … I would say descriptive would be the thing.

Okay. Sure. Is anything in particular that you think would have been useful for you to learn or do when you were a student that would’ve better prepared you?

Yeah, it’s tough. I mean like writing courses are incredibly important and especially if you’re in a business role or any sort of role like I’m in. I would say definitely more emphasis on formal writing, formal writing style. Especially people, my generation, tend to direct incredibly casual because that’s 90% of our day to day via text message. So yeah the formal writing would be a good emphasis. And also email writing, just being able to write concise email.

Okay, great. Can you say a little bit about what is at that stake in the writing that you do? You know, negative consequences, for poor writing or even benefits for really successful writing.Oh yeah. There’s a incredible consequences for poor writing. Just not even just having the habit of editing, which a lot of people miss on just don’t go through it enough or just didn’t really edit ever. Being able to go through your emails and actually knowing your processes for editing, and just things that you miss was big. Sorry, what was the question again?

Just basically what’s at stake with your writing, so if something fails in writing what are the consequences, or if something’s really successful, what do you guys gain?

Yeah, I mean obviously the good feedback. You need to be able to be polite and also be descriptive and tell them exactly the point. But also you need to do it in a way that you’re talking to a client you’re not talking to, well, depending on who I’m sending it to. If I’m talking to the treasury, you’re talking to your clients. So getting that positive feedback or just being clear through email then the more positive feedback you’ll get from your actual organization and your clients.

Great. And is there a danger that maybe too inform an email or inaccurate documents could damage the relationship between your company and treasury or elsewhere?

Oh yes. It happens every day. If something’s not seen it definitely damages the relationship and it just doesn’t look good on us. Just looks like we aren’t we aren’t having that attention to detail that is so incredibly necessary.

Sure. And what would you say the most difficult thing is then about the kind of writing you do in your field?

Let’s see the most difficult. I guess just keeping the structure. I guess one of the most important things and one most difficult is just keeping the structure of your email corresponding with the actual timeframe of what’s the action you’re trying to get out of? I don’t know how to put that, but just essentially creating a structure in a way that it makes sense reading it paragraph from paragraph, like a essentially just creating a good schedule email. Not going from subject to subject and creating that actual schedule on your email. I don’t know if that-

Sure, yeah. The cohesion. Yeah that …

Yeah.

Has anybody helped you with your writing since you left college either formally?

Other than the classes, and courses I’ve taken on Udemy … let’s see. And my sister of course. But no. I mean no. I haven’t outreached to really anywhere other than people inside my organization to bounce things off of them. No I haven’t. Not exactly. No.

Do you consider a collaboration with your colleagues to be important to your writing process?

Oh yeah, definitely yeah it’s crucial.

Just a couple more questions. One, how do you believe that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career?

I would just say, how have I evolved? I would just say keeping my structure and my bullets all concise. I don’t know exactly how I’ve evolved because I’m not … Nothing I’m doing is incredibly creative. It’s all more sticking to having that same exact formula that the treasury will expect coming their way. So yeah nothing too creative. It’s just keeping it all the same. So it’s all in the same language so to speak.

Yeah. Are there things that you feel maybe more confident in your writing now than maybe on day one?

Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely. Just doing it every day. You’re going to spend more time with terminology saying, do you agree, or do you concur, or do you … just the actual terminology getting better. Is that agreeable? Is that … that’s definitely a the thing is just creating that vocabulary.

Sure. Great. Two more questions. First, to what extent do you think that writing is valued in your particular organization and in your field as a whole?

It is highly valued in mine. The actual project manager that started last here was here for senior logistics specialist position, which they oversee everything and all the reports, and constantly edit templates, constantly editing all the documents that we put out to the treasury and he’s now the project managers. So I think that was something that he really excelled in, just being clear. And he’s now at the top. So he’s a prime example of that. Obviously, that’s not the only thing. There’s a financial side to our contract as well and what you need to know, but I believe it’s highly, highly valued.

Do you feel that that’s consistent across your field in general? That that’s not special necessarily to just your company?

No. Yeah, I mean definitely across. You’d be surprised how many people mess up just the simple tasks of emails. And what kind of loss that creates in value that leaves. But yeah, it’s definitely across the board a pivotal thing to have.

Great. Thank you. And final question, how do you define successful writing as a student versus how you define it now in the workplace, and overall would you say that you consider yourself a successful workplace writer?

Yeah, I would say where I excelled in being a writer as a student, and now I think in my career now is playing close to detail in editing. People always think about writing, but they don’t think about the editing portion. The document isn’t done once you’re done writing it. I think going back [inaudible 00:26:06] scrubbing is where people make them from bad to good in terms of that.

Okay.

Yeah. For student versus … I believe it would be all the same. I mean, if you’re a good writer as a student, you should be good in this role. I believe that attention to editing is key.

Great. And you, you consider yourself to be successful as a writer at this stage in your career?

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Great. All right. That’s it. Thank you.

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Communications and Professional Development Manager

Arts, Government & Military

Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian

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

SPEAKER:             Oh that’s a lot of math! My current job title is communications and professional development manager at Smithsonian affiliations. Been there for 10 years, and I graduated in 2001, so that’s what, 17 years since college [laughter]?

SPEAKER:             Right. And how long have you been in this field?

SPEAKER:             Wow this field – forever. This is the field that I knew I was going to be in, so I started interning and volunteering in museums when I was in high school.

SPEAKER:             Great, great. Can you provide a brief description of what your primary job functions are?

SPEAKER:             So, that’s an interesting question when you talk to people who work in a quasi-governmental situation because we have many hats. So my primary responsibilities would basically be to provide consistent messaging for the Smithsonian to our Smithsonian affiliate. So that’s in different cities or states where we have affiliates, it’s clear what their relationship to the Smithsonian is and there’s no brand confusion. So I also get to tell stories about how the two organizations, or all the organizations, work together to enrich local neighborhoods. So I do a lot of storytelling online and offline.

SPEAKER:             Great, thank you. Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing – zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50, 50 to 75 percent, or 75 to 100?

SPEAKER:             75 to 100 percent. That’s pretty much what I do.

SPEAKER:             Great. What forms are kinds of writing or documents do you most often complete in your job?

SPEAKER:             Mostly they are– so I do press releases, I do blogs, I write newsletter copy and marketing material. I also write project proposals and things like that. So it runs the gamut from sort of conversational writing and blogs, to more focused journalistic writing, to more sort of commercial business writing. So it’ s a lot of different things.

SPEAKER:             Great. And so for those kinds of documents, who would you say typically are your primary audiences?

SPEAKER:             So I have two primary audiences – one is in an internal audience, which is the collective Smithsonian, to raise awareness of what we do and how our affiliates are; and then our external audience is to our Smithsonian affiliates and potential affiliates, so those organizations that are in partnership with the Smithsonian.

SPEAKER:             Great. And the purposes are goals for those kinds of documents with those audiences?

SPEAKER:             So the purposes or goals f or talking to affiliates is to make sure that they know what resources are available to them from the Smithsonian, and how important their collaborations are and how they impact local communities.

SPEAKER:             Great. Could you perhaps walk me through the process of one specific recent project or kind of project, starting from a writing assignment or task is given to you, what kind of preparation you do, and then the steps you take from the beginning of the project to completion?

SPEAKER:             Sure. So the biggest thing that I have going on actually coming up this weekend – it starts about a year in advance and said it’s called Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day. And for that there are a ton of organizations actually involved in it. So the best part of it is that I get to tell stories about a bunch of different things on a bunch of different platforms. So not only am I writing a press release, I’m also planning social media, and I’m doing that both for internal and external people. So I always start out writing an outline of what I want to talk about, and why I’m writing, and who I’m writing for, because sometimes it can be very different. So we usually do two kinds of press releases. S o one will be sort of one from our office that says, “This is what we’re doing and it’s very exciting and this is when it’s happening. ” But then there’s a template that I have to write that can be used by our affiliate organizations where they have to fill in information that I can’t fill in. So I have to write it with blank spots and make sure that it still makes sense at the end of it. And so that I lay out in sort of her very different way than planning a social media strategy, which is definitely more conversational, so in that way I try to identify the most interesting stories that I can find that are going to happen on that day, or around the topic and things like that. And then I map it out on different days, and try not to overlap themes, and then I go into the creation of actually writing the spots and drafting or, you know, scheduling them.

SPEAKER:             Great. So how did you know or how did you learn how to do this kind of writing?

SPEAKER:             So the public relations with press releases I sort of learned in college My minor was mass communications, so I did, you know, the minimum required to say that I had a minor in college. So I had taken a few classes on public relations, but as an art history major I knew that I loved writing, and you know, everything was basically an essay, so I knew how to write things. It wasn’t until my first job after grad school that I actually was hired as a public relations officer, and I got to actually produce and write these kind of things, and talked to journalists and pitched stories and everything, and that was back in the day when there actually wasn’t really– nothing was being done on social media  or really online, so you actually had to take, you know, people out to lunch and write these things and submit them in person or mail or anything like that. So I had to learn on the job for a lot of that, and then it just sort of grew from there. For social media, that was absolutely being forced into something [chuckle] because we didn’t have anyone else to do it. So I had to learn as I went along and I feel like I’m still learning that.

SPEAKER:             Great. So you know, you’ve talked a lot about learning on the job, especially you know, sort of in the advent of social media and how that has affected, you know, your job now. Can you think of a specific time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

SPEAKER:             Oh my gosh yes. I still feel that way sometimes. I think it’s always a learning experience and you know, things change all the time. So with social media it’s just it changes so quickly, and the fact that you have to be clever on the spot is something that I’ve had to really get used to, because I’m used to drafting and redrafting, and checking and making sure everything makes sense, and you don’t have that luxury a lot of times when you’re doing stuff on social media.

SPEAKER:             Great. So when you find yourself in those moments where you’re kind of learning or adjusting or feeling unsure about you know, these new kinds of writing, what do you feel is productive in terms of overcoming those kind of challenges? What’s your strategy in those situations?

SPEAKER:             Research. I look at what other people are doing. I hire interns because they usually have a, you know, a hand on the pulse of what’s going on because they’re much younger and they’re just living it every day. And I try to go to meetings with– we have a central group of social media people and learn from them and really just try to  read and research as much as I can to try to understand it.

SPEAKER:             Great, great. Does anybody formally oversee your writing?

SPEAKER:             Yes, yes. I do have an associate director that will review things and which– actually I get more than one person to review i t because it’s always good to have different eyes on it.

SPEAKER:             And so their title associate director – could you briefly describe what their role is in the organization?

SPEAKER:             So she oversees our day-to-day operations and make sure that we are following the organization’s goals and strategies. So she is right underneath our director, so she helps us with our day-to-day work.

SPEAKER:             Great. And so you mentioned sort of accuracy there. How else would you say she judges the success or quality of your written work?

SPEAKER:             Well I think sometimes she has a better viewpoint on the bigger picture. I’m usually a lot of times working on a specific project, so I know that project in detail, so sometimes that’s how it connects to a lot of other things. She helps bring me that kind of viewpoint to mix in to what I’m writing

SPEAKER:             Great. So how long do you typically have to complete a writing project from start to finish?

SPEAKER:             That’s a tough question because it really depends on what I’m working on. So, you know, if it’s a press release, depending on where it’s going to go, I try to do those a couple of months in advance. The farther out I can schedule social media the better, but sometimes that’s the day of. And I’m working on some project proposals right now that are probably due in a few months, so it really just depends on the project.

SPEAKER:             Sure, sure. S o you mentioned, you know, some essay writing in art history and stuff like that. Are there other specific kinds of writing you remember being asked to do as a student? And if so in what ways do you think your college writing experiences has prepared or did not prepare you to write in your job now?

SPEAKER:             So it’s funny. So when I was in grad school I had to write a dissertation and I’d never written anything that long in my life. So learning how, you know, how long that took and the research involved in writing something that is like a book was tough. And so when I got my first job, I knew how to write academically but I had to learn on the job how to not write academically, and be more concise, and in public relations training you gotta get to the point ‘ cause nobody wants to read an academic paper. So I had to adjust to that. And then when I started working in social media you have even less space to work in that you have to adapt to. So I think that was huge for me as well.

SPEAKER:             Great. What do you think would have been most useful for you to do or learn when you were a student that you think would have kind of helped you ease that transition into your job now?

SPEAKER:             Wouldn’t it have been really nice if I could see into the future and know that social media was coming   ‘Cause it just didn’t exist [laughter]. So I think being able to better anticipate how seeing the immediacy of everything now where, when you’re doing public relations, everything happens online first. You don’t get that luxury of preparing a statement, you’ve just got to be ready to write something. You know, I think that would’ve been great to learn is some sort of crisis communication because we did, but you know, you had time [chuckle].

SPEAKER:             Sure, yeah. So I mean this kind of leads us to our next question and you’re talking about the immediacy of public relations in the social media sphere – what’s at stake then with your writing, particularly when you think about the immediacy i n which you need to kind of churn out a message?

SPEAKER:             Oh you don’t have time to fact check as much as you’d like, and you know, sometimes you are wrong and you have to address it. So having your facts straight beforehand or having a really solid social media plan is really important, and because that’s not a primary sort of goal in our office, we wing it a lot of times, and so we have to be really careful that we have at least looked into the facts of it and s o that we don’t have to go back on and say, “Just kidding! “

SPEAKER:             Right. And so for your non-social media writing that you do, what are the sort of best case scenario results for successful writing versus the consequences for maybe unsuccessful pieces?

SPEAKER:             So I mean, best case is that it gets to the Smithsonian secretary’s desk if he sees– he read something about the impact the Smithsonian is having in a local community because of our affiliates. And the worst thing is when I get something wrong and I have an affiliate call me and say you know, “This is a great story but you’ve misrepresented what we do, ” and that has happened to me before So as much fact checking as you can do, sometimes people just get it wrong

SPEAKER:             Sure. Do you feel in those sort of circumstances that either your organizational or your personal reputation is sort of stake with writing?

SPEAKER:             No I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way, I think of it as a learning experience more often than not. I’m not in a position as a journalist or anything like that where my reputation could be at stake. It’s more of a for me, a client relationship that I don’t want my affiliates to think that I was either making something up or trying to show them in a light that they’re not in or anything like that. So I feel more probably upset that our organization may look bad more than it affecting me personally, if that makes sense.

SPEAKER:             Sure, sure. What do you think the most difficult thing is about writing in your particular position?

SPEAKER:             I have too many people that have to review it so it takes forever [chuckle]. But really I think it’s determining which audience I’m really writing for, because we do have a lot of stakeholders. So sometimes I have to write for multiple audiences in one document and that gets hard.

SPEAKER:             Oh yeah, definitely. That’s great. So what are you most looking at in order to make those kinds of decisions when you have so many people reviewing your writing, or so many different potential stakeholders? What are the kinds of things that you think about before you put pen to paper?

SPEAKER:             Well I’m always thinking of the end goal – why am I writing it, what’s the ultimate outcome I want to see, and who am I writing for? And usually if I can get those things down and put the content in there, most of my editors are really just reading it to see that it flows well and there’s no grammatical errors or I haven’t turned too conversational, because sometimes that happens, in that I’d be used to writing a blog then have to go write something else and I get too whimsical.

SPEAKER:             Sure [chuck le]. Has anybody hoped you with your writing formally or informally since college?

SPEAKER:             Oh sure, yeah. I try to get out to a continuing education class, I’ve taken a couple in public relations over the years, some marketing classes, social media, just to– because I don’t assume that I know everything and you know that things haven’t changed. So I need to go in there and get refreshers in a lot of things. I do some sort of updating online because you have to.

SPEAKER:             Sure., that’s great How do you believe that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career so far?

SPEAKER:             I’ve learned to be much more concise. I think the biggest feedback ever got in college was that I   was very descriptive and I could write, you know, a super long essay about something and finally get to the point, and that was fine for some things, but for business writing and for public relations writing, a lot of times I need to get to it in a page, and so I’ve had to learn and it’s been really helpful in a lot of the things that I do to be concise and get to the point.

SPEAKER:             Great, thank you. To what extent do you think that writing is valued in your particular organization and in your field as a whole?

SPEAKER:             I think it’s huge. I think it’s an incredibly important piece especially in our organization, because we have to tell the stories of the Smithsonian’s impact in local neighborhoods to basically make sure people know the worth of our program and that width through all of our affiliates. We are definitely engaging people that may not ever engage with the Smithsonian in their own hometowns. And that goes for people outside of the Smithsonian as well as inside, because we are not a museum, we don’t have a collection, we don’t create exhibitions. Our product is the people and the things of the entire institution. So, you know, we have to be able to be good storytellers and to really write persuasively to get Smithsonian people to want to work with us, and to collaborate with our affiliates, and to make our affiliates feel special when things do go out there, that we are telling the right stories about their communities.

SPEAKER:             Great. And you feel that that’s consistent across public relations as a discipline, too?

SPEAKER:             It probably varies. I think a lot of other people at the Smithsonian, you know, they are more specific to one organization or one exhibition and theirs is more probably project focused, mine usually is more general and talking about the sort of whole state of our affiliate network.

SPEAKER:             Great, sure, sure. So last two questions here. First, how did you define successful writing when you were a student versus how you define success for writing now?

SPEAKER:             That’s funny [chuckle], that’s a great question. In college I got an A or I passed, and my paper didn’t come back bleeding with corrections – that’s how I knew, you know, when I finally got a paper back that kind of looked like how I turned it in. So that was nice. And in the business world it’s sort of similar actually, in that when I have to have it reviewed, everybody writes back and just says, “Good to go. ” I mean that’s ideal is that I’ve nailed it the first time so things can move quickly and I’ve gotten the message across as clearly as possible.

SPEAKER:             Great. And would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?

SPEAKER:             Do I consider myself?

SPEAKER:             Yes.

SPEAKER:             Yes. Do I consider? I would say like 80 percent of the time because the sort of unfortunate situation in my office is that we all wear a lot of hats, so I don’t get to really focus on one thing. So a lot of times I don’t have as much time to devote to writing the best stories and I’m really just trying to do something as quickly as possible so that we have something out there. If I had more time I would have loved to be able to write more and tell  better stories.

SPEAKER:             Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Legal Administrative Specialist

Government & Military

I’m a legal administrative specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And how long has it been since you graduated from college?

I think it was 2011, so I guess, seven years.

How long have you worked in your current field?

In this job, two years and a month.

OK. And could you just provide me with sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

OK. Yeah I take telephone calls from veterans. I assist all veterans and dependents and survivors of veterans. So it’s a couple different kinds of people. I assist them with understanding a specific subset of the benefits that veterans can receive. So, it’s a service-connected disability compensation, veterans wartime pension, which is a needs-based, benefit based off the income and medical expenses that a veteran is handling. Then there’s also two survivors-type benefits. One is called dependency and indemnity compensation for a survivor of a deceased veteran who passed away due to a service connected disability or in some way related to their service. Or survivor’s pension wishes–the survivor’s version of the veterans war time.

I see. OK. And could you estimate maybe in a given week how much of your job requires writing?

About 50 percent of it. A lot of calls can be answered by just by finding information that they–that they’re asking me about. But sometimes I have to help with claims and their benefits and things like that because while I help them understand their benefits I also have to help them understand what we’re asking when they are making claims about their benefits and things like that and take their answers.

I see. OK. So yeah could you talk a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you most often have to write?

OK. so there’s two main types of documents that I will write. One is a report of general information. It’s kind of a–when there is evidence or a statement being made by a veteran or if there’s evidence being gathered or responses for information that we’re asking about — a couple other uses for it too. But that’s generally what that’s for. The other is a VA inquiry, which is essentially when something’s wrong–like if there a date of birth incorrect or if there’s something that’s not fitting or guidances or something like that something is out of the ordinary, it’s the action taken to escalate and correct.

I see.  So could you talk a little bit about the primary audiences and purposes of those?

Primary audiences–like who’s receiving who’s receiving? 

Yeah.

OK. So both of them go roughly to the same place. So while I work at a regional office I’m on national lines, so I can get somebody from Georgia or I can get somebody from the Philippines or I can get somebody from Virginia or even in England or something like that if they’re a U.S. veteran, calling. And I help to route where it’s going to go as well. So if someone should be handling their claim in Connecticut, I help get them to get the information to the regional office that would be handling their jurisdiction.

I see. OK. And the purposes of communication–can you talk just a little bit about that in more detail?

Sure. So say we’re asking for some–that is an example of it — I think that might help make things more–make more sense. So for the reports of general information, if we’re asking for, like if somebody wants to add a dependent, which they can in some cases at a higher level of compensation for, we need certain bits of information. If they submitted an application with part of the information we would need for that, like the name and the place of birth but not the date of birth of the child, and didn’t put the social security number, I could take that response and send it off to the regional office. The group that’s processing claims so they have all the information they need.

Perfect.

And it seems at first that it would be easier to get in contact with the person directly, but the reason I exist in this job is so that they actually have the time to actually process the claims. If they did my job too, they wouldn’t’ have the time to do  it.

Got it right. OK. That makes a lot of sense. Yet that example works really nicely. Could you walk me through the process for the writing of one specific maybe recent document or recent project done, sort of start to finish for everything from how it arrives to you to any planning or preparation and then drafting and if there’s revision or editing? Sort of what that whole process looks like?

Sure. It’s not often extremely long. Drafting a document to say something like that it’s not usually much more than a page at a time. It’s a lot more bite-sized information. So it’s usually just taking a little bit of information here and there. But so if I see that they were sent a letter, and they’re calling about their claim and I think they were recently sent a letter asking for the Social Security number and–say we’re asking for a bit of information about their claim. Let’s say they have hearing loss and they have a heart valve issue or something like that. Maybe it’s something related to Agent Orange. They’re claiming. So we would ask for information a lot of times about where they had gone to see doctors when they first noticed they had this disability. We might be asking for service treatment records, if they–if they were difficult for us to obtain through normal federal federal channels. Sometimes we can’t get them in certain cases. There was a fire at the National Archives that destroyed some records. So sometimes we have to try to work around that–[indecipherable].

Okay. It’s interesting, yeah.

So we’ll try to gather the information that is needed. So I’ll usually see a development letter and it’s asking for very specific information. And I’ll read through it with them and ask them, Can you provide an example of your service treatment records? If they say yes, then I’ll know that they’ll be sending those along. It could give me periods of treatment that they’ve received, medical treatment, I’ll know the places and dates they did it. I can note the period of time they first started having any disability, things like that. And it helps to get the claim moving forward, so that we don’t have to wait on the information necessarily through the mail–taking ten days here to get their mail, so they can respond, and then they get back to us–it could take way longer. When they can just call us, and a lot of times we can just identify some of the information.

Perfect. OK. That makes a lot of sense. So how do you know how to perform these types of writing?

I mean there is a training process once you’re in this position and they kind of go through what you should be doing, how you should be handling it, how about it to the right people. But, I mean, having a college education is a requirement in any…for the most part. Everybody who I work with has a college degree or something along those lines. So having a background in writing and all of that just so you are very clear about what you’re doing and what you’re asking, is very helpful.

Gotcha, gotcha. Has there ever been a time when you were writing in this job that you felt unprepared as a writer?

No, not as a writer. There–there can be certain things that you don’t really feel like you’re prepared for. But not the writing portion of it.

Ok, ok. Does anybody oversee these reports or any of the writing that you do?

To some degree–there is a…while it’s happening, no. I do get monthly reviews. And part of it is based on correspondence that I send. It’s a mixed bag of review. So it’s–it’s kind of it’s based on: Did you do the right thing? Like, when you, when you–and somebody mentioned something on the call, did you take the right action, and by doing this write up? And when you wrote it did you write it correctly? And did you send it to the right people? 

OK. 

That’s kind of a basic rundown.

Gotcha. OK. So it’s much more about content and sort of decision making than it is about writing style or tone or anything like that?

Yeah, it’s not really descriptive writing from an academic point of view. It’s more about being direct and having business writing and being very clear about what it is you’re asking.

Perfect. Yeah, absolutely. How long do you typically have to compose one of these–like an average correspondence?

We used to have less time — we had calls times that we had to meet a very long time. This couple of months they got rid of that, thankfully because I I personally felt like that was not a good policy to be rushing people off the phone. That is really what it resulted in. Can I understand why they had it? They didn’t want people saying on the phone forever, and people not being addressed. But now that they have taken that out, I technically to a large scale have as much time as I need, but it doesn’t really take a long time to do these because it can be anywhere from a sentence to maybe a large paragraph. But not usually much longer than a couple of sentences.

Gotcha. All right. And what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create when you were a college student?

I remember a lot of them were more lengthy writing, analytical writing, extrapolation of what I thought something meant. Less with…there wasn’t really much direct in how to compose an email, which is funny you didn’t think that it was something that was all that important. And I figured it out–it’s not something that we really went over with like how to just be very direct and say what you mean and how to avoid being confusing. It’s something we went over actually one time I had it in college, and it was not in English composition class of any kind. It was in a psychology class. I’m trying to remember the words used here. But it was, it was about the different meanings of sentences, like what it can mean–like what you can accidentally say when you’re trying to say something. The word isn’t coming to me.

It’s interesting. Yeah, that’s that’s especially interesting that it was in a psychology class that that even got touched on. What was your major?

Psychology.

Ok, yeah. Do you think that any of your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you do now?

Not especially, not directly, but having an understanding of how to–spell, how to type, how to–how to do a great deal more writing than I really need to do now, it’s very good practice.

Gotcha. Is there anything–you mentioned you know talking maybe about direct address and e-mails–is there anything else that you wish you had learned in college or practiced in college to prepare yourself?

As far as writing?

Yeah.

I guess just being sure how to be clear and–like a lot of it is more focused on–a lot of what I’ve learned in writing classes is how to think critically about whatever the subject matter was. So it was usually more centered around whatever we read than whatever we were writing about. I suppose to some degree the writing is just a tool to get from point A to point B, so it makes sense.

Yeah that’s interesting. That’s really interesting. So, as we sort of switch back to the writing that you do now, could you talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing?

Yeah, well if I state things incorrectly then quite a bit. There have been situations where I’ve caught things on files where it has–it’s resulted in the award of several tens of thousands of dollars to people who deserved it. So, quite a bit is at stake. People could potentially if I state something incorrectly if the evidence isn’t getting from them to the group that’s processing the claim, they may not ever get that. They might not even realize the important thing that they just kind of said in conversation, how important that is, and I might need to translate that over to them.

Oh, that’s interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that process? Like when you say that you’re sort of translating that for a different audience? Could you talk a bit more about that?

Yes. I’ll do my best to do it. I–I want to try to respect the privacy of the people–

Oh, of course.

I need to be careful…but essentially sometimes people will say things, like–To, to understand this I’m going to give you a better understanding of certain types of veteran benefits. So there’s something called a presumptive benefit, where if you were there and you have this disease, we assume it’s because of this thing. An example of that would be exposure to Agent Orange. Another big example is exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. So if you having, let’s say, if you have diabetes mellitus, and you were in Vietnam during the time when they were spraying Agent Orange, then we can assume that there is a causal link between the two. So there are certain special subsets where that applies.  However, for that to work, you have to be able to show that you were in Vietnam during that time, or another affected area. So with that being said, if they don’t know how to link–like if they don’t know how to show that they were in Vietnam during that time, which will be difficult for certain groups, say naval–if you’re far enough out you at sea we might not be able to consider you presumptive. However if you were inland when you were dropping troops off really close to the shore, we may still be able to do that. You have to be able to show things like where your ship is stationed and things like that. So I help people do things like–there was one where he’d mentioned a newspaper article that mentions people in his unit. I helped him kind of pull that together, show where somebody in that unit was–that there was an accident or something that occurred, so that I could help place him where he was.

Oh that’s really interesting. OK.

These can kind of be lengthy conversations when this kind of thing comes up because I try to help them figure out how to piece it together.

Right. And it’s interesting because of course like I’m thinking about recent veterans when we started our conversation. But of course you’re dealing with all veterans, so yeah, yeah. And that that documentation of that memory might not be there. So that’s really interesting. Yeah. So there’s, there’s definitely a research component to some of this it sounds like?

Yes.

Yeah, interesting.

It’s usually somewhere between three minutes and an hour, and it can be really between that amount of time. It’s closer to a smaller amount. I’d say  the average call time is probably around six or seven minutes. But there are the outliers that are much greater.

I see okay. That’s really interesting. So what would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your position?

Most difficult? I guess just making sure you’re hearing things that they’re saying while you’re trying to get it all down because people speak quicker than is easily gathered and written down. So while you’re trying to make sense of it all and they’re still saying something, you might miss something important.

Gotcha. That makes sense. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally on the job?

On the job? No. Well…somewhat. So there are in my position there are…there’s like a one step up from where I am, called a lead legal administrative specialist. They can kind of help steer you in the right direction, but I don’t think they’re really there to be writing it for you, but more to give you guidance about how you should handle it.

OK.

So that’s probably really unclear. So, more of a–is this a situation where… like should I do a VA inquiry that I mentioned earlier or should I not do that and instead do another action? It’s more of what they’re there for; they’re not really there to write it out for you. But they will help you phrase it if you need them to, but I’m at the point where I don’t really need it anymore.

Right. Is that because they understand, like, the terminology better than say a person who’s just new in your position? Is it mostly about phrasing? Or is it more about like persuasiveness?

Phrasing, not so much persuading. But, yeah just to make sure you’re using the right terminology.

Perfect. OK.

Yeah, in government writing. You’re going to find that most of the things that are said involve at least two or three or four acronyms per sentence, so making sure you know which system is which. And what’s going on there. And a lot of times they will refer to old systems that now are controlled by a different system. It’s nightmarish and confusing when you’re new.

I can only imagine. Yes. I just have a few questions left, so I’m wondering if you could describe how you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

In this career specifically or in general?

In general. 

OK, so when I was a high school student I wasn’t exactly the best writer, I didn’t really see the value of it until probably junior year. I finally started to take it more seriously. I was not the most serious student prior to that. I became much more serious student in college, and I really worked myself up to a better spot. I got a better mastery of language and writing and ended up really enjoying it. But I did not really see it as valuable at first. I assumed at the time that I probably would have ended up in trade work which I didn’t. So I guess it’s actually a pretty strong transition from a C student to an A-level student in English composition and things. So I think it was a pretty strong transition, and then getting a job where it is a–not a lengthy writing process, but a lot of writing in the short term, is mostly what I do–is just writing answers to things.

Yeah. Do you think that writing is valued in the agency as a whole?

I mean there are training courses in how to–how to be clear and–clear and concise in your requests in emails. That being said I have seen some very unclear, confusing writing, where I’m not sure what they’re asking or I’m not sure what they’re saying. So I think the organization as a whole probably does value it. I think that it needs work for certain individuals, but I think that as a whole they’re trying.

OK. And how would you have defined successful writing as a student as opposed to successful writing in your current position?

Extremely differently. So with English writing being able to…it almost seemed more…it seemed a lot more about the description of the current project. As much as it’s very nice to read a good story and to appreciate it, it seemed more about that than the actual writing process itself at the time.  And of course that’s my own personal experience with specific professors.  But, in this case it’s just about being extremely clear and trying to…it’s kind of a funny idea, thinking back to college where you’re writing a long essay and you think, this has got to be another page. I really stretch this out. Versus, but really the goal is to cut it down make it make sense. You’re not just stretching it for no reason. In the current position it’s not about a grade, it’s about getting a point across and to make a point a little bit easier, keeping it short is usually better.

And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

I would think so. I think I’m the second highest rated person in my office. So I would say so.

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Senior Associate of Marketing Strategy

Business, Government & Military


My current job title is Senior Associate of Marketing Strategy and Analysis currently working at [redacted] consulting. And it has been nine years since I graduated from college.

Great. And how long have you worked in this field?

In the field of marketing I’ve been working since I graduated. Here at the government services. I’ve been working for three months now.

Oh, great. Okay. And could you tell me first, just a brief overview of what the organization does, and then a description of your primary job functions?

Sure. So the organization is divided into both a public sector, which is the government side that I work on and private sector, commercial, media, and communications. So my job specifically is working with government clients, specifically with NIH, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, working on a communications project for them. So we are government contractor hired by different government agencies to perform a variety of tasks. They range from technology, communications, marketing development, so anything and everything that we could do for the government we work on. 

Great, okay. And and in terms of your specific job description, how, how does that play out?

So my specific job description is working with marketing strategies. So I am basically brought in to develop marketing plans and strategy to get the word out, for whatever the project or goal is, of the government client. So I do a lot of writing in communications plans, and even writing for tactics, and basically managing the project from start to finish. So building the plan all the way to all the little nitty gritty day to day stuff, and then finishing out with metrics and analysis of how our campaigns performed. 

Wonderful. And could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing? 

I would say, during the week, a good, huh…if we’re counting everything from like, email communications to like writing of what’s going out to the public? 

Yes. 

I would say like a good 50% of my job is writing. 

Great. Okay, wonderful. Could–you mentioned a couple of those things–could you tell me more about sort of the forms or types of documents that you most often write?

So, on the strategy side, most of the forms that I’m writing are like developmental plans. So very high level overview, giving executive summaries, doing strategic analysis on the project or the client, and then diving in deeper and looking at specific tactics and how we want things to perform. So it’s a lot of like research and translating that into a Word document that my internal team can use, but also something that the client can refer back to. So it’s like a lot of project briefs, and communications plans. And then the other side of the writing is actually writing for the communications that are going out, whether it’s like emails or social media posts, or video scripts. So some of the high level and some of the day to day, and then sprinkled in there are just the daily communications and like emailing with the client, and then emailing like internally with the team. 

That makes a lot of sense. When you’re thinking about this content, just to clarify, like if you’re writing social media posts for a client or writing a video script, who is the ultimate audience for those pieces of writing?

So the usual audience for people that are viewing the video or receiving the email are the general public that are subscribed to receive information from NIH. So for example, the emails go out to a blast of health information subscribers within that network. So they have opted in to receive that. The videos, for example, or social media are more of a broad audience, not necessarily somebody that’s subscribed, but someone that just falls into the net of, you’re interested in a health topic or you might be in the network of somebody that’s interested in health or practices in health and see a video that they shared on their page from us. 

Got it. And, and let’s look at that–if we think about that social media again–what is the primary purpose usually of that kind of communication?

So our primary purpose for social media is really to build awareness and to get shares. We want to get the word out for our messages, specifically for highlighting something that’s going on in the health world, or if there’s like a new resource that’s available, we want people to take that resource and use it, and also share it with their networks. So that can be downloading a resource and posting it in a doctor’s office. Or, say you have a friend that’s suffering from a disease that we just released an article about, and you want to share that information with them? I would say those are our primary goals to build awareness and get those shares and likes out there. 

Great. Could you take maybe a specific recent project or, or even a type of project and and talk a little bit about the process start to finish, sort of how that task comes to you any planning, drafting revision, sort of the whole, the whole process?

Sure. So one of the projects that I manage and work on are the Health Awareness Months for my specific branch of NIH. And what this is, is every month for the different branches in NIH, they feature a disease or something that research is being done on. So diabetes is a big one. Diabetes month is coming up–that is in November. So from start to finish, when we receive this project, we know when it’s happening, so kind of start to build our timelines. And then from there, we want to establish what our goal is for this month. Do we want to build awareness for the general public? Do we want to have partners engaging? Do we just want to get the word out there and have people use this for the month [indecipherable]. So we have a big kickoff meeting to establish what our goals and our objectives are. And then from there, we begin writing our communications plans and diving into the specific tactics and strategy for how we want to accomplish the goals. So once we’ve kind of laid that groundwork, and everyone’s on the same page, we can go into the day to day execution, to get the tactics out to hopefully bring us back analytics and metrics that hopefully are meeting our goals and exceeding them. Then, yeah and then from there, we do a big wrap up, where we create this report, again, more writing that dives into what was successful, what we learned from this campaign, giving a summary of just what our awareness month was. And anybody could use that. So we want to write that in a way that our internal teams can reference, other people at NIH can reference, whether you had your hands in the project or not.

Oh, interesting. And so when you’re writing that, that wrap up report, is that a collaborative piece? Or are you the the specific person who writes it?

It’s a very collaborative piece, because there’s so many different elements and tactics that go into a campaign. So we have people from our digital team, for example, that ran social media, writing their portion, saying which posts performed the best. And then we have somebody that worked on the video, for example. So she’s writing what her findings were in creating that and we have email blast people that are tracking how many opens and clicks. So a lot of the more quantitative and like tactical information is coming from those teams, whereas I’m looking at it from a strategic level to see what worked best, what we might want to do again, and like did this strategy–was it  successful for the campaign. 

I see. And so are you are sort of–do you give those individual specialists feedback on the writing that goes into this report?

I do, in I guess my own way, we’re very much like in the digital age. So sometimes it’s a conversation, but usually, it’s like within a Word document we use, like track changes if we want to, you know, make sure we’re positioning something in the right way. For example, like, if a campaign–or sorry, if a tactic in a campaign didn’t perform that well, we want to make sure we’re positioning it in a way that makes it seem like you know, we’re learning from what we did, it wasn’t a complete failure, there was still some sort of success, trying to find the positive in it. So a big part of my job is making sure that we are spinning things like the right way. Where somebody who’s very much like a specialist and in the weeds is looking at it as like strictly numbers. So yes, that is a–that is a part to kind of review how the overall report is developed and like sent out to clients.

I see. And so it sounds like, in addition to this being a really sort of important informative document, you’re also in some ways, sort of justifying the work that was done even when it wasn’t 100% successful? 

Yes, yeah. 

Okay, that’s really interesting. How did you–this is sort of a broader question, but how did you know how to do this kind of writing?

So this is something that I learned at my previous job. Like, as I mentioned, I’ve been working in the public sector now for just three months. But before that, I was an in-house marketing strategy person. So I worked in the private sector. And my last company was definitely one of those very fast paced, learn a lot really quickly. And a big part of our training in my last company–and a big part of our job was the client relation part and how to speak to a client, how to write to a client. So I’m starting to bring that skill level over here to where I am, because it is part of an experience, having that relationship with, you know, a contractor that you have hired, that’s not an employee of the company you’re at. So at my last job, we went through boot camps with our owner on how to approach situations, difficult or easy, and if you’re caught in a situation where you don’t know how to give an answer, you are–we were trained and taught how to handle those. So while, of course, we never want to lie or tell like a false truth, there is a way of spinning it that makes it look positive, or we have learned from something or this is–there is a brighter side to what we did. And I think that clients become really receptive to that experience, rather than like, we tried this, and it didn’t work. So yeah, that was a big part of, of my last job was was how to interact with with clients.

That’s great. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Um, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer?

Yeah, 100%. Um, I was not a writer in college. My degree is in Information Science. So things that I was writing were code and those types of things. We didn’t write papers in my, in my major. So when I got into marketing, I quickly realized that a lot of it is writing, whether it’s writing plans or writing, like actual text that’s going out into the world. So I have definitely faced some difficult times with, I guess you would call it writer’s block, a writer would call it–that just not knowing where to start or how do you structure something or make it concise and clear to whoever is reading it. So I’ve been lucky to always work with a real copywriter and collaborate with them. But there are times where the copywriter’s not available and something’s got to get out. So I will write it and it could be either, you know, bouncing ideas off of a copywriter. I google things for templates and structure, just to figure it, figure it out that way. Sometimes, it’s just getting words on a paper and then having somebody else look at it, getting another set of eyes. So those are kind of some of the ways that I try to tackle my difficulties with writing because I’m not a writer.

Well, you clearly are, but you don’t feel that way. I understand. Yeah, that’s really interesting. Um, so we talked about how you oversee writing of other people. Is there anyone who oversees your writing?

Um, I do always share something that I’ve written with either a copywriter when they have time or my manager. And usually my manager is not also a devoted copywriter, you know, or like, that’s what their background is. But I will say once you’ve been in a field for however long like, for example, my manager here has been working here for quite some time, understands the nuances of writing for health. You start to develop that skill, and you can tell if a tone is right or wrong. Or are we taking this, you know, approaching this at the right angle? Is it too wordy? So I always do have somebody look at it, whether it’s somebody in content strategy, or it is my manager who’s usually the same position that I am, in just with more experience. 

That makes sense that makes sense. This will obviously vary significantly from project to project. But how long would you say you typically have to complete maybe one of your more substantial writing projects?

Well, that’s a good question. Since everything is always, always last minute. I would say with the bigger projects, which are usually like writing a marketing plan, anywhere from like, two to four weeks. Usually it’s on like the two week side. But ideally, yeah, it would fall somewhere, somewhere between then if we get our timing right.

Okay. Um, and this asks you to now look back a little bit at college. You mentioned you were an Information Sciences. person? Yeah, so what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? You said code? For sure.

Yes. So I was an Information Science major with a business minor. So there was a little bit of writing, but from what I remember, it was writing in my like, English 101 class that you have to take. And on the business side, the biggest thing I remember writing was a business plan. But other than that, I was not a student that was in classes where I was writing term papers or thesis or anything like that. It was usually very, like, technical. So I would say, aside from like, the basic 101 that everybody has to take, the biggest writing piece that I had was a business plan to complete my minor part of my degree. 

I see. And thinking about that business plan, or the writing that you did in that sort of first year writing class in English 101, are there ways that you think your college writing prepared you for the work you do now? Or does it feel really separate, really unrelated?

Um, I think, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think like, the English 101 definitely gave me like the foundation to, like, construct a sentence and a idea from start to finish. But I think that writing the business plan really helped me with the type of work I do today. So a little bit of both, I think the–you know, the 101 type stuff, just help me sound intelligent and be able to formulate a sentence. But the business plan, especially working in marketing, and in like business, really gave me like the, the structure of, this is where you have to start. And this is where you have to do the middle. And this is what you have to do, in the end, not necessarily like the grammatical part of my writing. 

Are there things that would have been useful for you to do or to learn in college to prepare you? 

Oh, um, I’m–trying to…let me think, things that would have been useful. I think writing for like, every day type of communications would have been useful, because you’re not writing papers, for example, when you’re in the working world, at least not in my profession, not in like, I’m not in a research type of profession. So I think that kind of some of those day to day communications and how to write for people in layman’s terms, like, when I’m talking about digital media, for example, I might be speaking to somebody that has never worked with that, or has heard of it for the first time. So I think in like, yes, the day to day communications, it would have been helpful to have some sort of background on that, but also learning how to speak to an audience that you have to pretend like they don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.

That’s really interesting. Yeah, yeah. Um, could you talk a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?

Um, I think that being an expert in what you’re writing in is really what’s important. I feel like if you develop a piece, and it sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about, if there’s typos, if statistics aren’t right, if your strategy is all over the place, it doesn’t make sense. That’s really like what’s at stake for me. For me, I was hired to be an expert in my field. And if I can’t write and communicate in a way that shows that, then, you know, my level of like expertise is starting to be questioned. And with a client contractor relationship, building trust is really important. And if they feel like they’re speaking to somebody that doesn’t get them, doesn’t understand what they do, that can cause a lot of problems. So when I’m writing what’s at stake is just really like making sure that my clients trust me, I’m getting my point across clearly. And it’s making sense. I hope that answers that question.

It absolutely does. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense, yeah. Um, what would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

Hmm. Difficult. For me, what I find difficulty in is writing the communications to go to the public. They’re very specific, they have to be written with a certain tone. And you–there is like a element of being an expert in that field. For example, I work a lot with like diabetes work now. So the way that you talk about it has to be really specific, like you can’t contract this disease, it’s something that develops within your body. So using like those types of keywords, I, it’s something that you’d have to just learn over experience and over time, so I find it difficult to get it right the first time with those types of communications. Whereas on the other end, more of the planning type things I feel a lot more confident in and don’t have as much difficulty in that. Sometimes it just takes me a while to like, get to work and get something out that would be going to the general public.

Sure. That makes sense. I mean, this, you’re an expert in your field, but then it’s like you’re expected to be an expert in this other–totally other area. 

Exactly. 

Um, has anyone helped you during your, the course of your career with your writing?

In a sense of like, outside of the working world, or within, like, within working?

With working, but honestly, either. Yeah, since graduating from college, if you’ve gotten any sort of formal or informal help with your writing, if you could talk about that.

I haven’t gotten any formal help as far as like certification classes, or anything like that. Everything has been pretty much from my own experience. But I think I mentioned earlier, we did do like boot camps, like within the company, that were hosted by the owner of the company, to learn about writing styles, and how to communicate on a client relation level with a contractor. So while it wasn’t like very formal, it was some sort of training that has kind of like, set me up for how I write today. 

Excellent. Yeah. And in addition to that, or I guess, taking that into consideration, could you talk a little bit about how you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

I would say I think I’ve like evolved as a writer, just because I have to do it, it’s part of my daily job. And it’s, it’s a big part of what I have to do. So just practicing and doing it every day. I think it’s really helped me to become better at it. I feel like when I first started working, it was definitely more of like an execution type role where not a lot of writing was involved, it was more like you get a task, and you get it done and out the door. But now that I’ve kind of moved on to a different level, more senior levels, it is a lot more about the strategic thinking and planning. So I’ve had to learn how to write. And that’s kind of how I feel like I’ve evolved, and I feel like it’s just going to continue in that direction.

Right. Um, thanks. Excellent. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?

Um, I think that writing is–I think it’s very valuable, especially because you’re working with a client and like outside source. It’s not something internal, and you have communications that are going out to hundreds of thousands of millions of people. So your reach is a lot more than if you were just working within a small team, and you’re only emailing amongst each other. So I would say writing is a is a really big, big component of what we do here. We are–I’m working on a communications project. So it’s huge.

Excellent. And our last little question or set of questions here: How did you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now? And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

As a student, I guess every student defines their success through their grades. But I will say that as a student my skill level or skill set within technical, math classes and science classes, not in writing. But I would say, you know, I was definitely like an average student when it came to English type literature. But now, because I’m not doing math problems and I am having to write, my success level is definitely a lot higher than when I was in school. I would say that I’m a successful writer, I feel that, especially with communications with the client, writing emails and things like that, I feel very confident. I’ve heard from reviews that I’m doing well, in that sense, and even writing for things for the public. Like, I don’t feel like I would have been able to do that many, many years ago as quickly and as well as I do it now. So if I had to say if I was successful or not in writing in the workplace, I would say that I am.

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Grant Writer/Community College Dept. Chair

Education, Non-profit

Interviewer: Would you please state your last job title and where you worked before retirement?

Grantwriter: A Department Chair of workforce training and development at Delaware technical and community college and, uh, throughout the state of Delaware.

Interviewer: Great. And um, how long has it been since you graduated from college?

Grantwriter: My undergraduate degree was 1968.

Interviewer: Great. Okay. Um, and [00:00:30] how long did you work in the community college world?

Grantwriter: Oh, about a total of between part-time and full time, 25, 26 years or something like that. I don’t know exactly, but around there. More than 20 years.

Interviewer: Wow. Okay, wonderful. Um, and could you provide us with a brief description of your primary job functions in that department chair position?

Grantwriter: As a department chair, my primary [00:01:00] function was to write grants for government funded programs, state and local government, and then go before a panel of workforce development people to present the reason that they should give us this grant. The grant was–the grants were all for job training and work readiness for unemployed or low-income people or people returning to the workplace. And then when we received the grant, which [00:01:30] I received–[there was ] maybe only one I didn’t get over the 10 years I was a department chair. Um, when we got the grant then my job was to make sure we had the staff, make sure the curriculum goes–there really weren’t many books that would address these specific jobs. Um, hire subject matter experts and make sure that they knew how to teach, manage the budget, um, get the students jobs [00:02:00] after they graduated, and then report back to the, the workforce development board.

Interviewer: Excellent. In a given week, what percentage of your job required writing?

Grantwriter: I would not say that there was any percentage in a given week. The writing when, when it was done was intense. So it might–I might not write anything for weeks at a time. And then for example, [00:02:30] Department of Labor grants would all be due in January. So I had six grants, um, that I would have to have written by January in order to submit. So October through December, uh, the main part of my job would be writing the grants. So it would depend, it depended whenever, um, whenever an opportunity for [00:03:00] a grant arose, that’s, that was when it was very intense work and research for that time period. But other than that, there really was not, um, a lot of–there were memos, there were performance reviews, you know, those kinds of things. But, but the, the intense writing was the grant writing.

Interviewer: Okay. That makes sense. Um, and so just to clarify, so I’m sure I understand that the primary audiences of those grants were the governing [00:03:30] body that was going to distribute the funds and the purpose of the communication was really, um, to secure these funds for these new or continuing programs.

Grantwriter: Right. So for example, we did a certified nursing assistant CNA training. We did medical records, introductory training, we did welding training. So we would–the grants usually had very specific questions. And because my background, I’m proud to say this [00:04:00] because my background was education, unlike I wasn’t a medical person, I wasn’t–that I, I had a good handle on, on curriculum. And after a few years of me writing these grants, the Department of Labor adapted my curriculum style and demand that everybody write their curriculum for review the way I wrote mine.

New Speaker: Interviewer: Huh. Oh that’s amazing.

Grantwriter: I wrote I, and it was a very simple way that I wrote it. It [00:04:30] was just, um, at the end of this unit, the student will be able to, and I listed what the student would be able to do at the end of the work ready industry training at the end of, um, bed making, you know, or whatever. And I was, um, so it was very clear, very concise, and it was all action based. Something that the readers could say, oh, okay, now I know, you know, cause not everybody on the board was a medical person. They were all workplace people. [00:05:00] It was a workforce development board. And they came from all walks of life within the community. So my primary goal was to make my writing accessible to people who weren’t just like me, who were not necessarily in that, in that field. Um, and I don’t know if I answered your question?

Interviewer: You did beautifully. Yes. Yeah, that’s great. That’s really helpful. And so thinking about these grants, you know, you talked about research [00:05:30] and you talked about the way you sort of frame them and structure them. Could you maybe walk us through the process of a typical grant, like from beginning to end, like how you start the project, what those steps are in the middle, if there’s feedback and revision, sort of what that process looks like.

Grantwriter: Yes, it’s a very boring thing–

New Speaker: Not to me, I promise.

Grantwriter: Um, the first thing honestly, um, and I think this is true with any kind of writing that you do business [00:06:00] writing, uh, any kind of variety is you have to know what the reader wants. And the biggest mistake that I think anybody makes, who writes is you write what you, what you want to say instead of what you need the reader to hear. And there’s a real, there’s a real disconnect there. And I’ve been involved with, with people outside of work who want help writing grants and they don’t like it when I slash and [00:06:30] burn because they want, they want to write what they want, what they want to say, not what the person needs to hear. So the first thing you have to do with writing a grant is to really know the funding source because you have to gear whatever you’re gonna tell them to them. Um, I had a situation where I was helping the nursing department write a grant and that was doctors [00:07:00] who were, and they, they wanted, they put in $1 million worth of equipment that they wanted. And I kept telling them this grant is not to outfit your labs. This grant is to get people into the nursing profession. And of course they didn’t get any money because a doctor is not going to listen to me because he just, he wrote a shopping list. He didn’t pay attention to what the–I always [00:07:30] would say you got other people that will have the cookies in the cookie jar is what you have to pay attention to. That’s the biggest thing. That’s the biggest thing is you have to know–that’s your research. You have to know who these people are, what is it that they want. And that’s before you ever, you know, go to the computer. And you have to read every single bit of the RFP really carefully to make sure that you’re responding to the RFP. Not [00:08:00] saying what you wanna say, but responding to the RFP. And that’s, that’s like a big rookie mistake. Um, and then when I write a grant, I think of it as it’s a piece of persuasive writing. My job is to persuade you to give me money and there’s a hundred people asking for this money. So my job is to say why I should get it first and I should get everything that I want. [00:08:30] So my, my approach has always been to start out with this is how much money I’m asking for. This is how many students I’m gonna train with this money. This is how many I’m going to graduate. This is how many hours each person is gonna get. And so here’s your cost hour per student. And then [00:09:00] that’s it. As far as what I’m asking for. Now, the rest of my grant is, is explaining to them why I’m the one who should get that money. So the rest is not about the ask. I’ve already done the ask up front. So now the rest of my grant is to talk about the, the professionalism of my organization and why community colleges are the best to do this type of [00:09:30] training. And um, one of their, the complaints that I used to get at the meetings was that our salaries were high because we have no–we’re a nonprofit, we’re still state funded and so I have to pay the same salaries as everybody else. So I would say knowing that was going to be a question, I would anticipate that and say, even though a lot of our money goes into salaries, salaries aren’t direct contact with students. [00:10:00] We’re not asking for rent. We’re not asking for you for computers. We’re not asking for–because our colleges applying those things. So I would look for the incentives for them to give us the money rather than, uh, the Salvation Army, for example. Nothing against the Salvation Army, but they were, they were one of our competitions, but they were lower paying, but they didn’t have all staff [00:10:30] who are college graduates. They didn’t have staff who were all teachers. And I never mentioned that, but I just always said what we had that maybe other organizations didn’t. So that’s where the persuasion came out.

Interviewer: Oh, that’s great. That’s really fascinating. And in terms of feedback, once you had a version drafted, was it reviewed by someone else or were you really the sole person with ownership of the project?

Grantwriter: I would, um, well it’s, that’s funny because in the beginning, [00:11:00] um, more people looked at it and then they, they would, you know, make some changes. And I had, um, if for different programs, I had a couple of secretaries and so they, they, they would look at it in terms of, you know, run it through spellcheck, although, um, things like that as an English major, I didn’t really have too many issues with that. Um, they, people in the president’s office would look at it real quickly in terms [00:11:30] of, um, budget. But after a while, as I said, over the years, I only ever didn’t get funded one time. Um, it was like okay, just they just signed off on it.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. Um, and so how did you know how to perform this specific kind of writing?

Grantwriter: You know what? I don’t know how [00:12:00] I knew…I’ve thought about that and, and I suppose maybe it’s a skill. I happen to be a very logical person. I could never write a story. In college, I had a creative writing class and you didn’t have to turn things in. It was like people just wrote stuff and then you critiqued it and all that. And in desperation, I can’t even tell you what I wrote, but I did write a, [00:12:30] a story cause I knew I had to write something, the whole semester, but my mind doesn’t work in terms of, of the–I’m a big fiction reader, I probably read two, three books a week. But my mind doesn’t work that way. My mind tends to work in a very logical kind of a way. Um, I’ve done the Myers Briggs and I’ve scored real high on the, the thinking part. Not [00:13:00] so much some of the, some of the others, but I think the Myers Briggs taught me, uh, that I, because I then used to teach it a little bit to some of our students as a way of saying–essentially the people in professional development classes where they didn’t understand why they couldn’t yell at a boss if the boss yelled at them, um, about how other people see things. So even though I knew [00:13:30] I was a logical person, I knew, I learned that I had to appeal to people whose decision making was not necessarily logical. Huh. Was maybe more so I had to, you know, so at sometimes in these grants I will put a little story in about Susie Q became a CNA and then went on to become an LPN or she was with the first time–um, [00:14:00] she was so excited that she had a job where she, um, but not a paycheck and didn’t even mind paying her taxes because she–instead of getting welfare, she was contributing. So, so I think my logic led me to believe that–if that makes any sense–that logically I had to appeal to things besides the logic.

Interviewer: Yes. Yes. That’s a great explanation actually. Yeah. That, that makes a lot of sense to me. And it’s a really interesting way of thinking [00:14:30] of it.

Grantwriter: Because again the pose again, you’re, if you’re writing, I think of it and even in, in teaching, I think in terms of like the SPCA commercials that are on TV or the St. Jude commercials, and I think that those are great ways to teach writing using what everybody has in common with these things. So give you the ask, please send us $19 a month, but the rest of the commercial is for you to–why should you have all the [00:15:00] places you could spend money and God knows everybody has got their hand out asking for clarity–why should you send money to the SPCA? And so they don’t kill you with logic. They show you all these sad dogs and St. Jude’s shows you these children and their, and the children are doing the speaking. And so you don’t do it because it’s $19 a month. You do it because of the appeal. You’re persuaded [00:15:30] by the appeal, not by the logic.

Interviewer: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s–without getting a digressing too much, I’ll say I use those commercials in my writing classes at the university actually. Yeah, I agree they’re–they’re beautiful way to sort of illustrate how to accomplish, how to accomplish what you did as you’re trying to accomplish.

Grantwriter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I, I, you know, I, I think I’ve pretty much figured it out on my own. And as I said, I had a really good back–I mean, in high school I had [00:16:00] a high school that drummed English into your head, you know, usage. And my eighth grade teacher, who I loved dearly, he used to write sentences over a hundred words on the board that we had to diagram. And to me that was always fun. So that’s a talent or an interest or a skill with language is something that comes naturally to me and it intrigues me. 

Interviewer: [00:16:30] That’s great. Yeah. And that sort of speaks to this next question. Was there a time in this role as the department chair that you felt unprepared, um, to write one of these grants? Or did it always, was it always a pretty logical, um, preparation you sort of knew what to do and knew how to tackle it?

Grantwriter: Well, I started out not as the person who did that because they were doing that before I came [00:17:00] in, before I worked there. I started out as an instructor and then because of my background, they would ask me to do the proofing. And I would say, you need to change this. You need to change that. And I’m like, yeah, you’re right. That’s not that, let’s write that curriculum this way with, you know, these with the objectives. Let’s not say that we’re going to teach this, we’re going to teach that little. Let’s say this is what the student’s gonna learn. So, so in that way, [00:17:30] I, I moved into a structure that already existed, but changed that structure. From the, from, you know, from somebody, some people were doing it for years and honestly, people were receptive. Um, you know, you know how people are not accepted, receptive to you changing their writing. That’s very painful. Right? Um, being yourself [00:18:00] editor is much harder than being a writer, editing your own work is the party, but that’s their child. Um, so by the time I was doing it as department chair, it really, it was more agonizing for me to get the word I wanted, the sentence I wanted. Lots of times grants had limited amount of space to write. You can only do so many pages. [00:18:30] So the part that was agonizing to me was to put the most in to those pages. So I would write it and then I would say, well, make this a parenthetical phrase, I’ll make it a whole sentence, because then you could get five less words.

Interviewer: Right. Right.

Grantwriter: And so through being told how many pages only I could submit, it made me a, certainly a better, more cohesive, more focused writer.

Interviewer: Oh, that’s [00:19:00] great. Yeah. How long did you typically have to write one grant? You mentioned this sort of timeline for Department of Labor grants. On average, was it a couple of months, a couple of weeks? How long did you work on each one typically?

Grantwriter: Well, with the Department of Labor, they all came in at once, so you may–and you didn’t have to apply for everything of course, but I would typically have a [00:19:30] couple of months to do maybe five or six grants. But as I said, to be honest, I worked off the grant from the year before because they liked it. It was successful. So I wasn’t always starting from scratch. It was rethinking, refreshing, changing things. But I had developed a structure and again, knowing that these were people who were in the workplace, I wanted [00:20:00] to make it as readable and as concise as I possibly could, so I wasn’t wasting their time because that’s gonna make them mad at me and not want to give me money. [laughter] So I wanted to respect the reader’s time. Um, so I think those were my focuses were outward in order to get a good product inward, if that makes sense.

Interviewer: It does. It does. Absolutely. And now looking back [00:20:30] much further than that, back to when you were a college student. You talked about having a great high school education. Um, what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create as a college student?

Grantwriter: Well, as an English major, I, I’ll tell you that I think the best course that I ever had other than keyboarding, which was once was in high school typing, um, was a class called Language and Communication. [00:21:00] And the book was written by a, I still have it and I graduated in college, in 1968, the book was written by [inaudible]. And it was really about the use of language, how language communicated, which was not something I ever thought about. You know, you were, you were, you were worried about, you know, subject, verb agreement in term papers and, and [00:21:30] APA style–things that are totally useless in the workplace, cares about footnotes in the workplace. Um, but the Language and Communication taught me to focus on, on the relationship between–whether it’s the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the teacher and the learner. Because teaching and learning are not the same thing. And writing and reading aren’t, there’s a disconnect [00:22:00] there. So, um, one of the favorite things in that class was cow one is not cow two, Huh. And, and I always remembered that. And when I was teaching some communication, I used to have everybody draw a dog and then everybody would show their dog. And then we would talk about how, my, my direction, as the speaker gave everybody in the room a different picture of what a dog was. And that’s, [00:22:30] that’s, that’s a thing in communication that, that we have to pay attention to that you don’t interpret by words the way I mean them. And so I have to be really careful with my words. Right. Um, and I’ve never, that course fascinated me. Um, you know, that was an eye opener for an 18 year old. And then I, I had, you know, two semesters of linguistics and there was a lot of writing [00:23:00] in there and the professor just, you know, all of us who were English majors, we all thought we knew how to write because that’s why we are not, we didn’t feel like high school and he just tore into everything. Um, I think my, there, I remember my very first paper, I got a C- or D and it was shocking that I wasn’t anywhere near as good a writer as I [laughter] [00:23:30] and, and as an English major, you know, there was a lot of, a lot of writing. So, um, I can specifically say when I learned about writing other than I learned about communication, and then I know obviously I did because I went from these, you know, C’s and D’s do and I think a B in the, in the linguistics class. But, but you know, I, I think you learn [00:24:00] if you, you’ve got to be, you got to self edit you, you’ve got to, you can’t admire your own work. You’ve got to be able to take a step back and be critical of your own work. And I, and I know I learned that in my linguistics class and then all the other English classes, I know that there were, there were papers, but a lot of them I think were graded more on content. And maybe by then we were all decent enough writers, [00:24:30] or at least I know my own, maybe it was decent enough that it was more based on content as an organization, you know?

Interviewer: Right. Yeah. That makes sense. Are there things, looking back, are there things that would have been useful for you to learn as a college student that would have made some of the workplace writing you ended up doing easier or would have made you more adaptable to it?

Grantwriter: Well, writing [00:25:00] is specific to purpose and academic writing is academic. Um, and as I said, you know, when, when you had to write research papers for any course, it was the focus was on making sure that you can follow, um, because of AP, I forget now, APA Style and that you, [00:25:30] you did your footnotes and you numbered them and you– there was so much emphasis on academic writing that has no transference into the business world. And I think when you’re an academic, lots of academics have never worked in the business world. And so the kind of writing and the kind of publishing that they do is academic. [00:26:00] And, um, you know, when you go into the business world, of course when I was in college, it wasn’t an email, but some of the, the most hurt feelings and that the problems and relationships come from people’s interpretation of an email as being critical or nasty when actually as the writer, you were just in a hurry. And people’s feelings get hurt because you didn’t say please and thank you. You said we’re meeting, we’re meeting at noon, bring your lunch, [00:26:30] and people get all upset because it comes out as a command or rude or you know, and, and none of that transfers to the workplace. Um, because it’s all–now somebody told me, and, and again, I haven’t done a long time since I’ve done academic writing, that there are now programs that will help you with your footnotes and numbering and that kind of thing that, that make it maybe less onerous. But, um, [00:27:00] but I often, I used to think as a, once I started doing workplace teaching, I used to think every teacher, especially every English teacher or every college professor needs to spend their summers in the business.

Interviewer: That’s interesting, yeah.

Grantwriter: And learn how business people write. And how business people speak. Um, and, and it’s not at all the way you write in academia? [00:27:30] Not at all. I would say that that to me is, is um, you know–yeah I learned you learn usage, you learn organization, you learn some of those things, but that’s not necessarily the things that businesses focus on.

Interviewer: Right, right. This is sort of a, a bigger question, but could you talk a little bit about what was at stake in this grant writing?

Grantwriter: What was [00:28:00] at stake was the employment of my staff because it was, everything was grant funded. As I say, we were not on the um, the state payroll, as such. So there was a lot of pressure. I, when I retired it was like, woo! Because it was a lot of pressure. Once you got a grant, say I got a grant that for four or five job [00:28:30] training programs and I would mingle certain staff among those programs because different people could teach work readiness, basic math, um, study skills. I taught a lot of study skills. Um, but maybe there was a time when I had 40 people employed through grants and if you don’t get that grant the following year, that’s 40 people out of a job. [00:29:00] And so the, the pressure with the writing was basically to keep people employed. And it sounds harsh because you’d think, well, what about the people that weren’t getting the training? Well, they were going to get it somewhere else if I didn’t give it to them because the money was still gonna be there, it was just going to go to some other organization. But, but, and also it was the college’s reputation. It was my personal reputation that [00:29:30] was on the line. So the, there were those kinds of things at stake. Which didn’t happen in the other part of the college, you know, they, when I had a program and I was–and I had money in my budget to buy software that was required, the people on the, on the academic side would get a little annoyed, oh yeah, look, you can do this, you can do that. And I would think, yeah, this year! Next year I may not be here and you will be. [laughter]

Interviewer: [00:30:00] What would you say is the most difficult thing about that very specific sort of grant writing? Is it the pressure? Is there something, is it about, as you mentioned, sort of really tailoring toward the reader. What would you say is the most challenging element of grant writing in that position?

Grantwriter: Well, one, I’ll give you an example of a grant that was kind of new to me was the college had–and we have [00:30:30] our college is a statewide institution because Delaware is so small. So we have campuses in each county, but it was unlike most community colleges that are county based. Ours was state. Um, so we had at my campus and I worked at three different campuses, ending up at the Dover campus and each campus had its own culture, which was interesting. Talk about business culture. We had a grant for Upward Bound, which was [00:31:00] a program for high school students and it was my first federal Department of Education grant. So that’s a good example of, of the challenge. And it was who are these people and, and really what do they want Upward Bound to do? To take the educational-ese out of it. And what is it that we’re supposed to actually [00:31:30] do with these students? And I read grants at a previous brand. They were, they were 4-year grants. So you’re talking about a lot of jobs and also now, because it’s high school, you’re talking about a lot of kids, if you lose the grant, those kids–their program is over. So, so the challenge for in a new grant like that was really getting into what the heck are we supposed to do and how do [00:32:00] I express what we’re supposed to do and how do I answer the questions? Because there were like 10 questions that you had to answer. How do I answer these questions? And I’m not even sure I really understand because of the way they’re written. How do I know that I’m responding appropriately? [inaudible] is what they’ve done before. Because when I read [00:32:30] what they’d done before, I didn’t like the way it was written at all. Um, and each question had points, so there were people who do, and you could volunteer you to be a reader and there were people that went to Washington for a weekend once a year on these grants because they were on a staggered basis, but they went there and they read and each question was scored a number of points. So [00:33:00] you really had to make sure that each question was answered thoroughly, that they understood because they were reading so many. And, and if you lost one point per question, you were down to one 90 and you probably weren’t getting funded. So I think the biggest challenge was really figuring out what they wanted and responding in such a way that you were giving them what [00:33:30] they wanted.

Interviewer: That makes a lot of sense. That explanation is really interesting too, especially the point system. That’s fascinating. Yeah.

Grantwriter: Yeah. Because one person could destroy you if they didn’t like what you wrote, out of four readers.

Interviewer: In your role as department chair, as you were writing these grants, did anyone help you with your writing formally or informally?

Grantwriter: No. Because I was, I was the expert. [00:34:00] Um, again, people would look at the budget and, and et cetera. Um, but not– people came to me from other campuses to review their. Rather than, um–and, in fact you could go to a professional grant writer and I, I decided one year that I was with this Upward Bound, I wasn’t going to have anybody writing that would [00:34:30] never happen and I wouldn’t have the money to pay somebody and just have them read, have them review it. And she had done workshops. I had been to her workshop, which we paid a lot of money, but this was so new to me I wanted all the information I could yet. So I went to her workshop, I went to the Department of Education workshop, I did all this and I had her review it and I thought, she’s nuts! Why is she [inaudible]. That’s really sounds very [00:35:00] egotistical. [laughter] But the funny part, I’ll tell you what the funny part is, uh, the, the ironic part is this professional–is she had people paid her to write their grants and she got caught falsifying the postmark. She had gotten a hold of somehow a postal postmark stamp. And so let’s say it had to be postmarked by tonight at [00:35:30] midnight and because she was behind and she got ahold of this stamp and all 10 people that they did the Department of, of Education, figuring out all these 10 grants that came in like a day later than most of the others, even though they have it correct postmark, l were all done by her. And all of those people, they all–none of them got their money. Because they were not factually postmarked. [00:36:00] It’s truly not something you can put, I couldn’t responsibly ever put it in anybody else’s hands.

Interviewer: Yeah. As you think about your evolution as a writer, you–I wish we had more time to talk about your whole career, but as you think about your career, as varied as it was, how do you think you evolved or improved as a writer?

Grantwriter: I [00:36:30] think I’m developed, again, as I know I’ve stressed this before, but I developed a greater appreciation for the reader. Because that’s the only purpose in my writing was for the reader. So, and everything that I wrote, I measured it against accessibility, interest, et cetera, to [00:37:00] the reader, not to myself. And, and I will tell you, um, a person in this area put out a call for somebody to go over his little book that he’d written and I didn’t see anybody else respond. So I said I would, and I don’t know, I’ve never met him. And he emailed it to me and I, and I did it. And I said that I can give you some editorial ideas if you’re interested. I didn’t–I said, I’m pretty tough. And he said, [00:37:30] yes, he would like them. And he took the first couple that I sent and I haven’t heard from him since. I think, I think he’s angry with me, but I explained to him that I’m an advocate for the reader, that there’s no reason for me to write other than to reach my audience. And I think that if I had to pick one thing, it would be, it’s not to hear the sound of my own voice. And that’s what [00:38:00] most of us writers love the sound of our voices, but it was focus on the reader, focus on the reader.

Interviewer: Right. That’s great. I have just a couple more questions and the second to last one is, um, to what extent did you see writing as valued in the community college, you know, in the, the department that you were working with then? Um, how valued was writing?

Interviewer: [00:38:30] Um, I can’t tell you that writing was valued–it was the results of the writing. The kind of writing that I did. You know, I, and I know that’s typical of colleges in general. The president would put out articles, but he didn’t write them. They came out in his name, but he wasn’t going to bother writing them, you know, other people wrote them. Um, he was too busy, you know, doing other things. [00:39:00] Um, and so I would say I got recognition for my results, not from my writing at the college, but again, it goes back to the reader where I got recognition for my writing was from the Department of Labor, from those people who read my writing.

Interviewer: Right. That makes sense. Yeah. [00:39:30] Um, so how did you define successful writing when you were a student versus successful writing as a grant writer? And would you say that you were a successful grant writer? I can tell what I think the answer is, but..[Laughter]

Grantwriter: Yeah, I mean, I just wrote as that, as I said when we first got acquainted through Patrick, um, is that I had just worked on a, uh, I live in the community [00:40:00] that has our own little lake–a manmade lake–and it’s been around for years, and it needs a lot of assistance now. And it costs money. It’s like people say it is like to have a boat. It’s a hole in the ground that you pour money into, and I, and I just finished writing, um, a grant for this. Now I’ve lost track of your question. I’m sorry.

Interviewer: Oh no, that’s okay. Well, well this, I think you’re answering the second part of it.

Grantwriter: Refresh me on that. The question though, so I can get–

Interviewer: Of course. [00:40:30] How did you define successful writing as a student versus as a grant writer and also would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?

Grantwriter: Okay. Okay. So, um, and as I wrote this, I’m almost 90% sure we’re not going to get the money. Um, but not because of my writing. It just because we’re new to this organization and, and there’s maybe others in greater need and we’re private. I don’t know. But, [00:41:00] but I would say I always felt successful as a grant writer and I was, um, because I was pleased again, I agonized over it, but I was pleased with the result of my agony. Um, uh, and after I retired, Delaware, being a small as it is and everybody knowing everybody, my mother, my daughter’s mother-in-law was good friends with [00:41:30] the college vice president for finance. And he said to her, oh, you’re Janet Edwards is —-your daughter’s married, or your son’s married to Janet Edwards’s daughter, and I know Janet and blah, blah, blah. And he said–the most validation I ever got–he said, we have not had anybody who could replace her. He said she was a worker. We’ve lost so much [00:42:00] after she retired–you know, words to that effect.

Interviewer: What a wonderful compliment. Yeah.

Grantwriter: And yes, and it was wonderful and it was, it was kind of gratifying, almost in a nasty way, [laughter] only because again, when you’re not in the academic side, when you are in the more–I should say practical side, but when you’re in there, you got to earn your own keeps side. You’re looked down upon. There’s a, there’s that class distinction among the real [00:42:30] faculty and the, and the people on continuing ed that don’t have credit courses. So that was kind of a vindication, you know, when, when I heard that. Um, the first part of your question was about–?

Interviewer: Defining success. How would you define successful writing when you were a student versus successful writing as a grant writer.

Grantwriter: Right. Okay. I think defining successful writing as a student is whatever the instructor or teacher said [00:43:00] it was. They gave you a grade. If you got an A, you were a good writer. If you got a C you were not such a good writer. I mean I don’t think it was ever in terms of the work that I did. It was in terms of the grade as we were writing for a grade.

Interviewer: And, and in terms of how that shifted to success as a grant writer, was it–

Grantwriter: When I had a purpose, I had a purpose in writing. [00:43:30] It wasn’t for–it was more tied to a goal other than getting through a course.

Interviewer: And would you judge the success of grant writing purely by whether or not the grant was awarded?

Grantwriter: No, no. Because I guess I don’t think we’re going to get this grant. And I, I think, I think the grant was, was pretty well written. Um, because you, you, you’re not always gonna get it. Um, but I, I think I judged it over the [00:44:00] years, again, by the, the reaction of reader. And the fact that the Department of Labor in particular, um, adjusted their, their RFPs cause they liked how I wrote it. So, I mean, I think that that’s about as much of a compliment as you can get when somebody changes what they’re doing because they like what you’re too.

Interviewer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Grantwriter: A Department Chair of workforce training and development at Delaware technical and community college and, uh, throughout the state of Delaware.

Interviewer: Great. And um, how long has it been since you graduated from college?

Grantwriter: My undergraduate degree was 1968.

Interviewer: Great. Okay. Um, and [00:00:30] how long did you work in the community college world?

Grantwriter: Oh, about a total of between part-time and full time, 25, 26 years or something like that. I don’t know exactly, but around there. More than 20 years.

Interviewer: Wow. Okay, wonderful. Um, and could you provide us with a brief description of your primary job functions in that department chair position?

Grantwriter: As a department chair, my primary [00:01:00] function was to write grants for government funded programs, state and local government, and then go before a panel of workforce development people to present the reason that they should give us this grant. The grant was–the grants were all for job training and work readiness for unemployed or low-income people or people returning to the workplace. And then when we received the grant, which [00:01:30] I received–[there was ] maybe only one I didn’t get over the 10 years I was a department chair. Um, when we got the grant then my job was to make sure we had the staff, make sure the curriculum goes–there really weren’t many books that would address these specific jobs. Um, hire subject matter experts and make sure that they knew how to teach, manage the budget, um, get the students jobs [00:02:00] after they graduated, and then report back to the, the workforce development board.

Interviewer: Excellent. In a given week, what percentage of your job required writing?

Grantwriter: I would not say that there was any percentage in a given week. The writing when, when it was done was intense. So it might–I might not write anything for weeks at a time. And then for example, [00:02:30] Department of Labor grants would all be due in January. So I had six grants, um, that I would have to have written by January in order to submit. So October through December, uh, the main part of my job would be writing the grants. So it would depend, it depended whenever, um, whenever an opportunity for [00:03:00] a grant arose, that’s, that was when it was very intense work and research for that time period. But other than that, there really was not, um, a lot of–there were memos, there were performance reviews, you know, those kinds of things. But, but the, the intense writing was the grant writing.

Interviewer: Okay. That makes sense. Um, and so just to clarify, so I’m sure I understand that the primary audiences of those grants were the governing [00:03:30] body that was going to distribute the funds and the purpose of the communication was really, um, to secure these funds for these new or continuing programs.

Grantwriter: Right. So for example, we did a certified nursing assistant CNA training. We did medical records, introductory training, we did welding training. So we would–the grants usually had very specific questions. And because my background, I’m proud to say this [00:04:00] because my background was education, unlike I wasn’t a medical person, I wasn’t–that I, I had a good handle on, on curriculum. And after a few years of me writing these grants, the Department of Labor adapted my curriculum style and demand that everybody write their curriculum for review the way I wrote mine.

New Speaker: Interviewer: Huh. Oh that’s amazing.

Grantwriter: I wrote I, and it was a very simple way that I wrote it. It [00:04:30] was just, um, at the end of this unit, the student will be able to, and I listed what the student would be able to do at the end of the work ready industry training at the end of, um, bed making, you know, or whatever. And I was, um, so it was very clear, very concise, and it was all action based. Something that the readers could say, oh, okay, now I know, you know, cause not everybody on the board was a medical person. They were all workplace people. [00:05:00] It was a workforce development board. And they came from all walks of life within the community. So my primary goal was to make my writing accessible to people who weren’t just like me, who were not necessarily in that, in that field. Um, and I don’t know if I answered your question?

Interviewer: You did beautifully. Yes. Yeah, that’s great. That’s really helpful. And so thinking about these grants, you know, you talked about research [00:05:30] and you talked about the way you sort of frame them and structure them. Could you maybe walk us through the process of a typical grant, like from beginning to end, like how you start the project, what those steps are in the middle, if there’s feedback and revision, sort of what that process looks like.

Grantwriter: Yes, it’s a very boring thing–

New Speaker: Not to me, I promise.

Grantwriter: Um, the first thing honestly, um, and I think this is true with any kind of writing that you do business [00:06:00] writing, uh, any kind of variety is you have to know what the reader wants. And the biggest mistake that I think anybody makes, who writes is you write what you, what you want to say instead of what you need the reader to hear. And there’s a real, there’s a real disconnect there. And I’ve been involved with, with people outside of work who want help writing grants and they don’t like it when I slash and [00:06:30] burn because they want, they want to write what they want, what they want to say, not what the person needs to hear. So the first thing you have to do with writing a grant is to really know the funding source because you have to gear whatever you’re gonna tell them to them. Um, I had a situation where I was helping the nursing department write a grant and that was doctors [00:07:00] who were, and they, they wanted, they put in $1 million worth of equipment that they wanted. And I kept telling them this grant is not to outfit your labs. This grant is to get people into the nursing profession. And of course they didn’t get any money because a doctor is not going to listen to me because he just, he wrote a shopping list. He didn’t pay attention to what the–I always [00:07:30] would say you got other people that will have the cookies in the cookie jar is what you have to pay attention to. That’s the biggest thing. That’s the biggest thing is you have to know–that’s your research. You have to know who these people are, what is it that they want. And that’s before you ever, you know, go to the computer. And you have to read every single bit of the RFP really carefully to make sure that you’re responding to the RFP. Not [00:08:00] saying what you wanna say, but responding to the RFP. And that’s, that’s like a big rookie mistake. Um, and then when I write a grant, I think of it as it’s a piece of persuasive writing. My job is to persuade you to give me money and there’s a hundred people asking for this money. So my job is to say why I should get it first and I should get everything that I want. [00:08:30] So my, my approach has always been to start out with this is how much money I’m asking for. This is how many students I’m gonna train with this money. This is how many I’m going to graduate. This is how many hours each person is gonna get. And so here’s your cost hour per student. And then [00:09:00] that’s it. As far as what I’m asking for. Now, the rest of my grant is, is explaining to them why I’m the one who should get that money. So the rest is not about the ask. I’ve already done the ask up front. So now the rest of my grant is to talk about the, the professionalism of my organization and why community colleges are the best to do this type of [00:09:30] training. And um, one of their, the complaints that I used to get at the meetings was that our salaries were high because we have no–we’re a nonprofit, we’re still state funded and so I have to pay the same salaries as everybody else. So I would say knowing that was going to be a question, I would anticipate that and say, even though a lot of our money goes into salaries, salaries aren’t direct contact with students. [00:10:00] We’re not asking for rent. We’re not asking for you for computers. We’re not asking for–because our colleges applying those things. So I would look for the incentives for them to give us the money rather than, uh, the Salvation Army, for example. Nothing against the Salvation Army, but they were, they were one of our competitions, but they were lower paying, but they didn’t have all staff [00:10:30] who are college graduates. They didn’t have staff who were all teachers. And I never mentioned that, but I just always said what we had that maybe other organizations didn’t. So that’s where the persuasion came out.

Interviewer: Oh, that’s great. That’s really fascinating. And in terms of feedback, once you had a version drafted, was it reviewed by someone else or were you really the sole person with ownership of the project?

Grantwriter: I would, um, well it’s, that’s funny because in the beginning, [00:11:00] um, more people looked at it and then they, they would, you know, make some changes. And I had, um, if for different programs, I had a couple of secretaries and so they, they, they would look at it in terms of, you know, run it through spellcheck, although, um, things like that as an English major, I didn’t really have too many issues with that. Um, they, people in the president’s office would look at it real quickly in terms [00:11:30] of, um, budget. But after a while, as I said, over the years, I only ever didn’t get funded one time. Um, it was like okay, just they just signed off on it.

Interviewer: Okay. Okay. Um, and so how did you know how to perform this specific kind of writing?

Grantwriter: You know what? I don’t know how [00:12:00] I knew…I’ve thought about that and, and I suppose maybe it’s a skill. I happen to be a very logical person. I could never write a story. In college, I had a creative writing class and you didn’t have to turn things in. It was like people just wrote stuff and then you critiqued it and all that. And in desperation, I can’t even tell you what I wrote, but I did write a, [00:12:30] a story cause I knew I had to write something, the whole semester, but my mind doesn’t work in terms of, of the–I’m a big fiction reader, I probably read two, three books a week. But my mind doesn’t work that way. My mind tends to work in a very logical kind of a way. Um, I’ve done the Myers Briggs and I’ve scored real high on the, the thinking part. Not [00:13:00] so much some of the, some of the others, but I think the Myers Briggs taught me, uh, that I, because I then used to teach it a little bit to some of our students as a way of saying–essentially the people in professional development classes where they didn’t understand why they couldn’t yell at a boss if the boss yelled at them, um, about how other people see things. So even though I knew [00:13:30] I was a logical person, I knew, I learned that I had to appeal to people whose decision making was not necessarily logical. Huh. Was maybe more so I had to, you know, so at sometimes in these grants I will put a little story in about Susie Q became a CNA and then went on to become an LPN or she was with the first time–um, [00:14:00] she was so excited that she had a job where she, um, but not a paycheck and didn’t even mind paying her taxes because she–instead of getting welfare, she was contributing. So, so I think my logic led me to believe that–if that makes any sense–that logically I had to appeal to things besides the logic.

Interviewer: Yes. Yes. That’s a great explanation actually. Yeah. That, that makes a lot of sense to me. And it’s a really interesting way of thinking [00:14:30] of it.

Grantwriter: Because again the pose again, you’re, if you’re writing, I think of it and even in, in teaching, I think in terms of like the SPCA commercials that are on TV or the St. Jude commercials, and I think that those are great ways to teach writing using what everybody has in common with these things. So give you the ask, please send us $19 a month, but the rest of the commercial is for you to–why should you have all the [00:15:00] places you could spend money and God knows everybody has got their hand out asking for clarity–why should you send money to the SPCA? And so they don’t kill you with logic. They show you all these sad dogs and St. Jude’s shows you these children and their, and the children are doing the speaking. And so you don’t do it because it’s $19 a month. You do it because of the appeal. You’re persuaded [00:15:30] by the appeal, not by the logic.

Interviewer: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s–without getting a digressing too much, I’ll say I use those commercials in my writing classes at the university actually. Yeah, I agree they’re–they’re beautiful way to sort of illustrate how to accomplish, how to accomplish what you did as you’re trying to accomplish.

Grantwriter: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I, I, you know, I, I think I’ve pretty much figured it out on my own. And as I said, I had a really good back–I mean, in high school I had [00:16:00] a high school that drummed English into your head, you know, usage. And my eighth grade teacher, who I loved dearly, he used to write sentences over a hundred words on the board that we had to diagram. And to me that was always fun. So that’s a talent or an interest or a skill with language is something that comes naturally to me and it intrigues me. 

Interviewer: [00:16:30] That’s great. Yeah. And that sort of speaks to this next question. Was there a time in this role as the department chair that you felt unprepared, um, to write one of these grants? Or did it always, was it always a pretty logical, um, preparation you sort of knew what to do and knew how to tackle it?

Grantwriter: Well, I started out not as the person who did that because they were doing that before I came [00:17:00] in, before I worked there. I started out as an instructor and then because of my background, they would ask me to do the proofing. And I would say, you need to change this. You need to change that. And I’m like, yeah, you’re right. That’s not that, let’s write that curriculum this way with, you know, these with the objectives. Let’s not say that we’re going to teach this, we’re going to teach that little. Let’s say this is what the student’s gonna learn. So, so in that way, [00:17:30] I, I moved into a structure that already existed, but changed that structure. From the, from, you know, from somebody, some people were doing it for years and honestly, people were receptive. Um, you know, you know how people are not accepted, receptive to you changing their writing. That’s very painful. Right? Um, being yourself [00:18:00] editor is much harder than being a writer, editing your own work is the party, but that’s their child. Um, so by the time I was doing it as department chair, it really, it was more agonizing for me to get the word I wanted, the sentence I wanted. Lots of times grants had limited amount of space to write. You can only do so many pages. [00:18:30] So the part that was agonizing to me was to put the most in to those pages. So I would write it and then I would say, well, make this a parenthetical phrase, I’ll make it a whole sentence, because then you could get five less words.

Interviewer: Right. Right.

Grantwriter: And so through being told how many pages only I could submit, it made me a, certainly a better, more cohesive, more focused writer.

Interviewer: Oh, that’s [00:19:00] great. Yeah. How long did you typically have to write one grant? You mentioned this sort of timeline for Department of Labor grants. On average, was it a couple of months, a couple of weeks? How long did you work on each one typically?

Grantwriter: Well, with the Department of Labor, they all came in at once, so you may–and you didn’t have to apply for everything of course, but I would typically have a [00:19:30] couple of months to do maybe five or six grants. But as I said, to be honest, I worked off the grant from the year before because they liked it. It was successful. So I wasn’t always starting from scratch. It was rethinking, refreshing, changing things. But I had developed a structure and again, knowing that these were people who were in the workplace, I wanted [00:20:00] to make it as readable and as concise as I possibly could, so I wasn’t wasting their time because that’s gonna make them mad at me and not want to give me money. [laughter] So I wanted to respect the reader’s time. Um, so I think those were my focuses were outward in order to get a good product inward, if that makes sense.

Interviewer: It does. It does. Absolutely. And now looking back [00:20:30] much further than that, back to when you were a college student. You talked about having a great high school education. Um, what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create as a college student?

Grantwriter: Well, as an English major, I, I’ll tell you that I think the best course that I ever had other than keyboarding, which was once was in high school typing, um, was a class called Language and Communication. [00:21:00] And the book was written by a, I still have it and I graduated in college, in 1968, the book was written by [inaudible]. And it was really about the use of language, how language communicated, which was not something I ever thought about. You know, you were, you were, you were worried about, you know, subject, verb agreement in term papers and, and [00:21:30] APA style–things that are totally useless in the workplace, cares about footnotes in the workplace. Um, but the Language and Communication taught me to focus on, on the relationship between–whether it’s the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the teacher and the learner. Because teaching and learning are not the same thing. And writing and reading aren’t, there’s a disconnect [00:22:00] there. So, um, one of the favorite things in that class was cow one is not cow two, Huh. And, and I always remembered that. And when I was teaching some communication, I used to have everybody draw a dog and then everybody would show their dog. And then we would talk about how, my, my direction, as the speaker gave everybody in the room a different picture of what a dog was. And that’s, [00:22:30] that’s, that’s a thing in communication that, that we have to pay attention to that you don’t interpret by words the way I mean them. And so I have to be really careful with my words. Right. Um, and I’ve never, that course fascinated me. Um, you know, that was an eye opener for an 18 year old. And then I, I had, you know, two semesters of linguistics and there was a lot of writing [00:23:00] in there and the professor just, you know, all of us who were English majors, we all thought we knew how to write because that’s why we are not, we didn’t feel like high school and he just tore into everything. Um, I think my, there, I remember my very first paper, I got a C- or D and it was shocking that I wasn’t anywhere near as good a writer as I [laughter] [00:23:30] and, and as an English major, you know, there was a lot of, a lot of writing. So, um, I can specifically say when I learned about writing other than I learned about communication, and then I know obviously I did because I went from these, you know, C’s and D’s do and I think a B in the, in the linguistics class. But, but you know, I, I think you learn [00:24:00] if you, you’ve got to be, you got to self edit you, you’ve got to, you can’t admire your own work. You’ve got to be able to take a step back and be critical of your own work. And I, and I know I learned that in my linguistics class and then all the other English classes, I know that there were, there were papers, but a lot of them I think were graded more on content. And maybe by then we were all decent enough writers, [00:24:30] or at least I know my own, maybe it was decent enough that it was more based on content as an organization, you know?

Interviewer: Right. Yeah. That makes sense. Are there things, looking back, are there things that would have been useful for you to learn as a college student that would have made some of the workplace writing you ended up doing easier or would have made you more adaptable to it?

Grantwriter: Well, writing [00:25:00] is specific to purpose and academic writing is academic. Um, and as I said, you know, when, when you had to write research papers for any course, it was the focus was on making sure that you can follow, um, because of AP, I forget now, APA Style and that you, [00:25:30] you did your footnotes and you numbered them and you– there was so much emphasis on academic writing that has no transference into the business world. And I think when you’re an academic, lots of academics have never worked in the business world. And so the kind of writing and the kind of publishing that they do is academic. [00:26:00] And, um, you know, when you go into the business world, of course when I was in college, it wasn’t an email, but some of the, the most hurt feelings and that the problems and relationships come from people’s interpretation of an email as being critical or nasty when actually as the writer, you were just in a hurry. And people’s feelings get hurt because you didn’t say please and thank you. You said we’re meeting, we’re meeting at noon, bring your lunch, [00:26:30] and people get all upset because it comes out as a command or rude or you know, and, and none of that transfers to the workplace. Um, because it’s all–now somebody told me, and, and again, I haven’t done a long time since I’ve done academic writing, that there are now programs that will help you with your footnotes and numbering and that kind of thing that, that make it maybe less onerous. But, um, [00:27:00] but I often, I used to think as a, once I started doing workplace teaching, I used to think every teacher, especially every English teacher or every college professor needs to spend their summers in the business.

Interviewer: That’s interesting, yeah.

Grantwriter: And learn how business people write. And how business people speak. Um, and, and it’s not at all the way you write in academia? [00:27:30] Not at all. I would say that that to me is, is um, you know–yeah I learned you learn usage, you learn organization, you learn some of those things, but that’s not necessarily the things that businesses focus on.

Interviewer: Right, right. This is sort of a, a bigger question, but could you talk a little bit about what was at stake in this grant writing?

Grantwriter: What was [00:28:00] at stake was the employment of my staff because it was, everything was grant funded. As I say, we were not on the um, the state payroll, as such. So there was a lot of pressure. I, when I retired it was like, woo! Because it was a lot of pressure. Once you got a grant, say I got a grant that for four or five job [00:28:30] training programs and I would mingle certain staff among those programs because different people could teach work readiness, basic math, um, study skills. I taught a lot of study skills. Um, but maybe there was a time when I had 40 people employed through grants and if you don’t get that grant the following year, that’s 40 people out of a job. [00:29:00] And so the, the pressure with the writing was basically to keep people employed. And it sounds harsh because you’d think, well, what about the people that weren’t getting the training? Well, they were going to get it somewhere else if I didn’t give it to them because the money was still gonna be there, it was just going to go to some other organization. But, but, and also it was the college’s reputation. It was my personal reputation that [00:29:30] was on the line. So the, there were those kinds of things at stake. Which didn’t happen in the other part of the college, you know, they, when I had a program and I was–and I had money in my budget to buy software that was required, the people on the, on the academic side would get a little annoyed, oh yeah, look, you can do this, you can do that. And I would think, yeah, this year! Next year I may not be here and you will be. [laughter]

Interviewer: [00:30:00] What would you say is the most difficult thing about that very specific sort of grant writing? Is it the pressure? Is there something, is it about, as you mentioned, sort of really tailoring toward the reader. What would you say is the most challenging element of grant writing in that position?

Grantwriter: Well, one, I’ll give you an example of a grant that was kind of new to me was the college had–and we have [00:30:30] our college is a statewide institution because Delaware is so small. So we have campuses in each county, but it was unlike most community colleges that are county based. Ours was state. Um, so we had at my campus and I worked at three different campuses, ending up at the Dover campus and each campus had its own culture, which was interesting. Talk about business culture. We had a grant for Upward Bound, which was [00:31:00] a program for high school students and it was my first federal Department of Education grant. So that’s a good example of, of the challenge. And it was who are these people and, and really what do they want Upward Bound to do? To take the educational-ese out of it. And what is it that we’re supposed to actually [00:31:30] do with these students? And I read grants at a previous brand. They were, they were 4-year grants. So you’re talking about a lot of jobs and also now, because it’s high school, you’re talking about a lot of kids, if you lose the grant, those kids–their program is over. So, so the challenge for in a new grant like that was really getting into what the heck are we supposed to do and how do [00:32:00] I express what we’re supposed to do and how do I answer the questions? Because there were like 10 questions that you had to answer. How do I answer these questions? And I’m not even sure I really understand because of the way they’re written. How do I know that I’m responding appropriately? [inaudible] is what they’ve done before. Because when I read [00:32:30] what they’d done before, I didn’t like the way it was written at all. Um, and each question had points, so there were people who do, and you could volunteer you to be a reader and there were people that went to Washington for a weekend once a year on these grants because they were on a staggered basis, but they went there and they read and each question was scored a number of points. So [00:33:00] you really had to make sure that each question was answered thoroughly, that they understood because they were reading so many. And, and if you lost one point per question, you were down to one 90 and you probably weren’t getting funded. So I think the biggest challenge was really figuring out what they wanted and responding in such a way that you were giving them what [00:33:30] they wanted.

Interviewer: That makes a lot of sense. That explanation is really interesting too, especially the point system. That’s fascinating. Yeah.

Grantwriter: Yeah. Because one person could destroy you if they didn’t like what you wrote, out of four readers.

Interviewer: In your role as department chair, as you were writing these grants, did anyone help you with your writing formally or informally?

Grantwriter: No. Because I was, I was the expert. [00:34:00] Um, again, people would look at the budget and, and et cetera. Um, but not– people came to me from other campuses to review their. Rather than, um–and, in fact you could go to a professional grant writer and I, I decided one year that I was with this Upward Bound, I wasn’t going to have anybody writing that would [00:34:30] never happen and I wouldn’t have the money to pay somebody and just have them read, have them review it. And she had done workshops. I had been to her workshop, which we paid a lot of money, but this was so new to me I wanted all the information I could yet. So I went to her workshop, I went to the Department of Education workshop, I did all this and I had her review it and I thought, she’s nuts! Why is she [inaudible]. That’s really sounds very [00:35:00] egotistical. [laughter] But the funny part, I’ll tell you what the funny part is, uh, the, the ironic part is this professional–is she had people paid her to write their grants and she got caught falsifying the postmark. She had gotten a hold of somehow a postal postmark stamp. And so let’s say it had to be postmarked by tonight at [00:35:30] midnight and because she was behind and she got ahold of this stamp and all 10 people that they did the Department of, of Education, figuring out all these 10 grants that came in like a day later than most of the others, even though they have it correct postmark, l were all done by her. And all of those people, they all–none of them got their money. Because they were not factually postmarked. [00:36:00] It’s truly not something you can put, I couldn’t responsibly ever put it in anybody else’s hands.

Interviewer: Yeah. As you think about your evolution as a writer, you–I wish we had more time to talk about your whole career, but as you think about your career, as varied as it was, how do you think you evolved or improved as a writer?

Grantwriter: I [00:36:30] think I’m developed, again, as I know I’ve stressed this before, but I developed a greater appreciation for the reader. Because that’s the only purpose in my writing was for the reader. So, and everything that I wrote, I measured it against accessibility, interest, et cetera, to [00:37:00] the reader, not to myself. And, and I will tell you, um, a person in this area put out a call for somebody to go over his little book that he’d written and I didn’t see anybody else respond. So I said I would, and I don’t know, I’ve never met him. And he emailed it to me and I, and I did it. And I said that I can give you some editorial ideas if you’re interested. I didn’t–I said, I’m pretty tough. And he said, [00:37:30] yes, he would like them. And he took the first couple that I sent and I haven’t heard from him since. I think, I think he’s angry with me, but I explained to him that I’m an advocate for the reader, that there’s no reason for me to write other than to reach my audience. And I think that if I had to pick one thing, it would be, it’s not to hear the sound of my own voice. And that’s what [00:38:00] most of us writers love the sound of our voices, but it was focus on the reader, focus on the reader.

Interviewer: Right. That’s great. I have just a couple more questions and the second to last one is, um, to what extent did you see writing as valued in the community college, you know, in the, the department that you were working with then? Um, how valued was writing?

Interviewer: [00:38:30] Um, I can’t tell you that writing was valued–it was the results of the writing. The kind of writing that I did. You know, I, and I know that’s typical of colleges in general. The president would put out articles, but he didn’t write them. They came out in his name, but he wasn’t going to bother writing them, you know, other people wrote them. Um, he was too busy, you know, doing other things. [00:39:00] Um, and so I would say I got recognition for my results, not from my writing at the college, but again, it goes back to the reader where I got recognition for my writing was from the Department of Labor, from those people who read my writing.

Interviewer: Right. That makes sense. Yeah. [00:39:30] Um, so how did you define successful writing when you were a student versus successful writing as a grant writer? And would you say that you were a successful grant writer? I can tell what I think the answer is, but..[Laughter]

Grantwriter: Yeah, I mean, I just wrote as that, as I said when we first got acquainted through Patrick, um, is that I had just worked on a, uh, I live in the community [00:40:00] that has our own little lake–a manmade lake–and it’s been around for years, and it needs a lot of assistance now. And it costs money. It’s like people say it is like to have a boat. It’s a hole in the ground that you pour money into, and I, and I just finished writing, um, a grant for this. Now I’ve lost track of your question. I’m sorry.

Interviewer: Oh no, that’s okay. Well, well this, I think you’re answering the second part of it.

Grantwriter: Refresh me on that. The question though, so I can get–

Interviewer: Of course. [00:40:30] How did you define successful writing as a student versus as a grant writer and also would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?

Grantwriter: Okay. Okay. So, um, and as I wrote this, I’m almost 90% sure we’re not going to get the money. Um, but not because of my writing. It just because we’re new to this organization and, and there’s maybe others in greater need and we’re private. I don’t know. But, [00:41:00] but I would say I always felt successful as a grant writer and I was, um, because I was pleased again, I agonized over it, but I was pleased with the result of my agony. Um, uh, and after I retired, Delaware, being a small as it is and everybody knowing everybody, my mother, my daughter’s mother-in-law was good friends with [00:41:30] the college vice president for finance. And he said to her, oh, you’re Janet Edwards is —-your daughter’s married, or your son’s married to Janet Edwards’s daughter, and I know Janet and blah, blah, blah. And he said–the most validation I ever got–he said, we have not had anybody who could replace her. He said she was a worker. We’ve lost so much [00:42:00] after she retired–you know, words to that effect.

Interviewer: What a wonderful compliment. Yeah.

Grantwriter: And yes, and it was wonderful and it was, it was kind of gratifying, almost in a nasty way, [laughter] only because again, when you’re not in the academic side, when you are in the more–I should say practical side, but when you’re in there, you got to earn your own keeps side. You’re looked down upon. There’s a, there’s that class distinction among the real [00:42:30] faculty and the, and the people on continuing ed that don’t have credit courses. So that was kind of a vindication, you know, when, when I heard that. Um, the first part of your question was about–?

Interviewer: Defining success. How would you define successful writing when you were a student versus successful writing as a grant writer.

Grantwriter: Right. Okay. I think defining successful writing as a student is whatever the instructor or teacher said [00:43:00] it was. They gave you a grade. If you got an A, you were a good writer. If you got a C you were not such a good writer. I mean I don’t think it was ever in terms of the work that I did. It was in terms of the grade as we were writing for a grade.

Interviewer: And, and in terms of how that shifted to success as a grant writer, was it–

Grantwriter: When I had a purpose, I had a purpose in writing. [00:43:30] It wasn’t for–it was more tied to a goal other than getting through a course.

Interviewer: And would you judge the success of grant writing purely by whether or not the grant was awarded?

Grantwriter: No, no. Because I guess I don’t think we’re going to get this grant. And I, I think, I think the grant was, was pretty well written. Um, because you, you, you’re not always gonna get it. Um, but I, I think I judged it over the [00:44:00] years, again, by the, the reaction of reader. And the fact that the Department of Labor in particular, um, adjusted their, their RFPs cause they liked how I wrote it. So, I mean, I think that that’s about as much of a compliment as you can get when somebody changes what they’re doing because they like what you’re too.

Interviewer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

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Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

I’m curatorial associate in the curatorial division of the National Gallery of Art.

And how long has it been since you’ve graduated from undergrad? 

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

Okay, and how long have you been in your current field?

I’ve been in my current field for about 17 years.

Great. Could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

The curatorial department is responsible for three main things: preserving and researching our collection, researching and acquiring works of art to add to the collection, and organizing exhibitions. 

Excellent. Could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your work requires writing? I would say, every single day, so probably about 80%. 

Okay. 

It’s a pretty positive thing, different types of writing. 

Excellent. Could you talk a little bit about those types of writing–the kinds of documents or the types of genres that you–that you most often create?

The bulk of it is email, both informally to internal colleagues, or formally to colleagues and other institutions. We write lots of formal letters to donors to thank them or solicit support. We write formal letters requesting loans of art for exhibitions. We write catalogue essays about the career of an artist or short catalog entries engaging with a single work of art. We write persuasively when we have to submit proposals for say, reinterpreting the authorship of a work of art, to reflect new research or thinking, or maybe a justification for why we should accept a work of art offered as a gift or for sale. We write short texts about individual works of art for visitors to read and brief guides, and longer texts about art for our website. We write scholarly footnoted articles for our academic peers, and then less serious articles for a general audience, like say a newsletter. We write lots and lots of proposals, for exhibitions, and for other projects. 

Wow, you are really shifting between different types of documents all the time. That’s so interesting. So can you talk a little bit–I can guess about the audience and purpose of some of those–but could you talk a little bit about maybe two or three of those types of genres, and tell us about the audience and the purposes?

I think, with the formal letters, that was, that’s a new kind of writing from coming out of undergraduate. Because there’s a tone that I’d never had to write in before, because you’re writing to either people you don’t know well, and are asking a favor of, or maybe someone who is socially prominent. We’ve had to write letters to members of the aristocracy, Vatican officials, and so forth, presidents of governments, that kind of thing when you’re asking for diplomatic help with projects. So formal letters are kind of their own thing. You have to have a very deferential tone, be very clear and concise. But then clearness and concision is useful in all your messages, too. So when you’re dashing off a quick message to a colleague, asking him to get something done really quickly. Our audience is really, really broad, because it’s anyone who walks off the street to see our museum. And then it’s the officials and people I’ve mentioned before that you’re trying to deal with on a very different level. So there’s a lot of planned out correspondence or writing, the sort of long-form editing things for texts for things that we publish. They’re shorter, quick things, if you’re doing say, an interview with someone, or just talking informally with people.

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

A lot–all of it, I would say, actually, because even these letters that we’re writing to people, you’re getting your colleagues to edit them and add bits or help you adjust the tone to make it right. Anything we publish goes through our editors’ office, which is just here for that. If we’re doing a guide, we’ll sit down and kick around some ideas, but there are more detailed drafts as well. So I would say almost all of it except for personal emails.

Great. And could you walk–you talked about review just then a little bit–could you walk us through the process, sort of start to finish, of maybe one of the more complex writing projects that you’ve done recently, starting from how that project sort of lands on your desk all the way through to completion?

So maybe we’ll take like a catalog entry in our Visitors Guide, which is a guide that’s meant for anybody who comes into a museum. And so it’s pitched for a general audience of people who are interested enough to pick up this book. For that, it’s a short text. So you’re writing, you’re trying to get across the most important points about this one work of art in a very, very limited word count. And so we might divvy up the objects among our specialisms. And so if you’re interested in tapestries, and you might write about a tapestry, and then whoever’s doing the research, you might go–go and see what’s been done on it before. What was good about that, what would we like to do now, what kind of new research is out there? So you do a lot of research to figure out what it is you want to say, what are the main points? How does it fit with other things going on to this guide? And then you draft something and then you start passing it around your department. And once you’re happy with that, and your colleagues are, then it might go to the editor’s office, who are editing it for, for clarity for overall tone, because they know what the rest of the book looks like, to make sure that you haven’t used any over specialized terms that [readers] aren’t going to recognize right away. And then at that point the text can get back to you to make sure that their edits haven’t changed the meaning too much. And then after a few sign off rounds, it’s good to go. So there’s a lot of work for maybe 500 words. 

Interesting, that’s about the average length of one of those descriptions? 

For example. 

For example, wonderful, okay. This is a little bit broad, but how did you know how to perform these types of writing?

Some of it is just having good examples to look at. So my senior colleagues in the department all have a lot of experience doing that. And so I would look at what they’ve done before, or I would really listen to the guidance they give me, the feedback, on my writing. And so a lot of it’s just learning, sort of on the hoof as you go.

Some of it’s just being a reader, when you go around reading a museum label on the wall or a text and seeing, Oh, they didn’t say this thing I wanted to find out, maybe they should have said something more about XYZ. And trying to remember that, I think the questions you have when you go and put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s going to be reading whatever it is you’re writing, and trying to anticipate those questions and address them.

Great. You talked about getting a little bit of feedback or advice from your senior colleagues. What does that feedback usually look like? Is it direct feedback on your writing? Or is it more of a general sort of way of thinking that points you toward writing improvement?

A bit of both–often very concrete feedback. So I’ll give a piece of paper as a draft, and it’ll come back with some red marks on it and some rewrites. One of our colleagues is a wonderful writer. And so she will often hit on just the right way of saying something that I hadn’t quite gotten to. And that’s a really nice thing to have. Um, but often, it’s just kind of a general approach to say, think more about how this object was made, or think more about how it was used, or whatever angle that we might want to play up a little more. It could be a little more general that way, or it could be something as specific  as changing a word. 

Okay. Um, could you describe a time–has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

Generally, I think when you’re trying to write a hard email or a hard letter, if, if there’s some sort of conflict, if there’s a loan request you’re not getting and you’re trying to persuade someone, and it is maybe the first time you’re having to write that, that can be difficult. I think writing things like job applications are very difficult, and you might feel unprepared for that. And again, I think anytime I’ve run into feeling unprepared, what I tried to do is talk to people about it, and get some advice and another perspective. And sometimes people can see something, they can see the problem more clearly than I can being in the middle of it. Unprepared more generally, I think coming out of school, I didn’t know how to write sort of very short, brief letter to someone I wanted advice from, or an internship with, or something like that. And so I think learning to have done that would have been a useful thing to help me kind of get kick started.

Interesting. That’s really useful. Yeah. And are there other things that–you talked about looking at models and asking other people for feedback–are there other strategies you’ve used when you felt unprepared or unsure about a type of new writing?

Sometimes looking at writing guides–I don’t usually find those as helpful as talking to people who’ve actually done what it is I’m trying to do. Especially with graduate school, as a graduate student, I would talk to friends and colleagues who were recent graduate students, or very successful ones, either look at their their thesis or talk to them about, how did you handle the introduction. So in most cases, I think people have been more helpful in writing guides. But every once in a while, it’s helpful to look at some of the published guides out there on how to write about art, just to remind yourself of the basic principles, those are fundamental things you want to get across. 

That raises the question, when we think about sort of writing, both writing for museums or writing about art, are there certain sort of tenants or overarching ways of thinking that feel very specific to those disciplines or not necessarily?

I’m sure that that is the case. I’m not totally able to articulate all of it, because I’m only ever worked in this field. But you’re writing about something that’s inherently visual. And so you’re trying not to compete with the visual, but you’re trying to make people engage with the object. Ultimately, all the writing we do, whether it’s an exhibition catalog, or a wall label, or even an email, ultimately, the goal, end goal of that is to get people to really engage with a work of art and have an experience out of that. So I’m not sure–

That’s okay. No, that’s very useful are there–the answer to this may be that it’s sort of not a, an explicit process that you’re thinking about as you’re doing it–but as you are working to have viewers engage with the art based on the text that you’re writing, are there certain ways that you think about language? Or your writing that that prompts that? Or is it more just the ways in which you’re thinking about description and context that you’re offering? I don’t know if that makes sense.

It does make sense. I think, I think try and keep things very clear. If you’re going to use a specialized term, to be really clear in your own mind about why are you using it. For example, if you’re talking about a painter, such as Van Gogh, who uses really thick, thick paint, you might talk about impasto. Because that’s important, that thick application of paint. And so you might explain a little bit about that term, in case they don’t know it. If we’re talking about sculpture, sometimes we’re using foreign terms, there’s a term sketch octo, for really, really delicate, low relief, almost like a cloud form. And so you might introduce a weird term like that, to get them to look at how the carver has worked very delicately over the surface of a hard marble, to make them appreciate it and see what that artist has achieved. But in general, I think trying to be very clear, when possible, drawing their attention to something that they might overlook, or maybe explaining something, you can’t assume knowledge. So maybe explaining what this particular iconography is, if it’s a religious object, explain what that is for someone who might not be of that religion. If it’s something that’s old fashioned that we don’t use in daily life, trying to draw their attention to a point that will make them understand what’s going on, so they can be more engaged. 

Right, right. It must be especially difficult because as you said, your audience is anyone who walks in the museum. Right, exactly. Are there other conversations that you have with your colleagues about–you’re not assuming any knowledge–and yet, you’re really limited in the amount of information you can provide. Is that a sort of ongoing struggle? Or is it something that after you’ve been writing this way, for a while, becomes natural?

I think you get used to it after a while you find your pitch, and you find the sort of tone that you want to hit. But it is definitely an ongoing conversation. And it’s been interesting talking to our colleagues in education, who have to do this kind of writing, very much directed to different audiences–they work with children, they were students, they work with adults, they work with people special needs, they’ve recently begun working with people, for example, who have Alzheimer’s. So trying to work for myriad different audiences, I think they are a little bit more precision–they have the precision of a scalpel when they’re ready for their audiences. We try to do the same thing. But when you are writing an exhibition catalog, you’re assuming a certain level of interest, you’re assuming a certain level of background or willingness to to do the reading to understand what it is you’re writing about.

Excellent. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Does anyone oversee your writing? You talked about the review process. But is there a direct person who sort of views most of your formal writing and signs off on it?

Here at this museum, our editors department will look at everything that goes out. So if it’s something on the website, if it’s a brochure, anything, even the language for wall labels, where it’s not, it’s not under contention, you know, the artist name, the date all that, they still are reviewing it for style, for accuracy, for spelling. So everything will go out, having been edited formally by their office. And then informally, as I mentioned before, my colleagues.

Perfect. And this is going back a few questions, but I’m thinking about all the different genres that you write in. And the sort of complicated mental shifts that I assume are happening as you move from writing a wall label to a persuasive letter to a another museum, or I mean, from one to the next. There are extremely different types of writing. Are there–could you talk a little bit about that transition as you move? I would imagine in a given day, you might be writing in three or four or even five different writing genres. How does that transition work? Is it challenging? How do you sort of manage that?

At some point, you can develop a formula for some things which are formulaic, when you’re writing a, for example, a loans letter, you’re always going to tell them when the exhibition is taking place. You’re going to tell them who’s hosting it, who your colleagues are, that kind of thing. So some of that’s a little bit formulaic, and you can reuse some of that language, which makes that shift a little easier. But you still have to obviously be personalizing the thesis of the show or the reasons you need to borrow the work of art. It is a lot of–it is a lot of mental gymnastics to sort of shift like that. Even writing between two complicated emails, you’re going from one subject to a totally different thing. It could be something to do with the facilities of the museum, asking for some kind of climate control in the space. And then your next message is asking for something different. I don’t know how to explain, you just, you have to learn to multitask. 

Yeah, okay. Okay. Excellent. Um, this obviously will vary from project to project, but could you talk about the length of time, you have to complete some of your more common writing projects? 

It totally depends on the nature of the project. For something like an exhibition catalog, ideally more than a year, because you’re gonna need to research your essay for the catalog entry and write it, edit it. For something like a public lecture, which you’re writing out, even if you’re delivering it without your notes, or just speaking it, ideally, you have a few months for that. Sometimes there’s set deadlines, which recur every year. So we know that every year we’ve got Board of Trustees meetings to prepare a letter for or prepare a document for. And sometimes, you know, emails, obviously, you’re trying to get this off as quickly as you can. So it varies or completely between genres.

Looking back to your undergraduate days, can you talk a little bit about the writing that you recall being asked to do, and how you think that may or may not have prepared you to write in your current position?

We do a lot of research papers, of course, which was very useful, directly applicable. And so we’re sort of doing more sophisticated versions of those now. So learning the principles of that, and the principles to just basic writing, you know, your topic sentence and then your supporting argument below and trying to remember that. And sometimes I get stuck now I keep saying, okay, what’s my topic sentence? What’s my evidence? What’s my argument? Some personal essays we would have to write. And those can be useful if you’re trying to convey something about yourself, say in a job application or a request for promotion, or anything you might be applying for. I think we could have learned more, as I mentioned before, about learning how to write to other people. We did a lot of–we wrote lots of thank you notes. I remember whenever we had visiting lectures or whatever. I think learning to write a good thank you note is always a lifelong, useful skill to have. Learning to read texts, as you might do for an English class, literary literature class, learning to read something very carefully than analyze it is a very good writing skill that I remember being taught in undergraduate.

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

Okay. All right, great. And are there–other than thinking a little bit about approaching different audiences in writing, are there other things that would have been useful for you to learn or to practice, or to be able to do when you were a student that would have better prepared you?

I think learning to write precis learning to write really short, punchy, succinct texts, either, if you’re summarizing something, which you can do for yourself for notetaking, if you’re trying to say, Okay, I just finished this chapter with a novel, I’m going to just write down what it was I read. So I’ve got the plot in my head, because then I can go back and start thinking about other things for the class. But learning how to precis is a really useful skill in this field. If you’re trying to convey some complex concepts to either your lecture audience who come to hear you give a talk or your for colleagues, if you’re trying to make a pitch for an exhibition or a case for something to be able to say, Well, this is what the file says, here are the main points about this object in our collection. Or here’s the conservation history of something, here’s where it’s been treated, or not been treated, or anything like that. This is how some has been studied. If you can reduce down to the main headlines, that’s a really useful skill, and not something I remember doing formally very much in undergraduate.  

Every answer you give prompts me to ask a question that’s not on my list, because the work is so interesting. But could you talk a little bit about writing those public speeches, and how that maybe varies from other genres that you write in?

Oh, sure, it’s, you want to be more conversational, because you’re face to face with an audience, you want it to be–I try to sort of gear it say, to say my mom, so someone who’s interested but maybe not a specialist. You want to tell a story. You don’t want to just be reading off of your notes, even though you may have them. And I often write out really detailed notes, even conversational notes. So even if you’re trying to make a small joke, to win your audience, you might write a little joke in there just to remind yourself, but it’s it’s a very different type of writing because you do have to have a sense that you’re going towards a point, so that you don’t lose them along the way. Because whereas people can put a bookmark down the book and come back later–they’re going to be the audience, they’re either going to stay and listen to you or they’re going to walk away. So if you’re doing a formal lecture, where people sitting down listening to you, you try to have a real sense of a through line, so they can follow you. You try to make it easy for them to follow you. And whether that’s by repeating a point, by telling them up front, we’re going to look at these three things, just sort of laying out a lot of wayfinding signposts for them so they can come along with you. Usually they will, if you can do that clearly and your topics interesting enough. If you’re doing something less formal without notes, like a gallery talk in front of an object or two, often that can be easier, because it’s a little more give and take, you can open up the conversation. So it’s actually conversation, not just one person talking at people. And then you’ve got the work of art there, too, which is also like a third party in the conversation. So for those, you prepare a slightly different way. For a lecture, I like to have it all written down, even to the point where I’m clicking the slide so that I don’t get caught up and then forget to click the slide. But for a gallery talk, I tried to learn everything I can about what I want to say, remember that sort of outline what I want to say, and then just go in, and just see how the conversation goes. 

Great. Um, what is at stake in your writing?

Oh, that’s a very good question. A lot of different things, I think, um, if people are giving you their time, you want to repay that by giving them good information. And that means both information clearly, and nicely presented, but also factually correct, up to the minute researched information. You’re also representing the National Museum. And so you want to do right by that and have your writing be at a high standard, and whether that’s achieving a certain level of collegiality in your messages to colleagues, or, or just producing a paper that reflects well on your colleagues, that’s at stake, I would say. Often, if you are writing for a favor, then that, whether the writing reference for someone or you’re asking for references from someone or asking for a loan, or any of these things–at stake is maybe the success of your exhibition. If you can’t get this major museum to give you something, then maybe the show won’t happen. If the donor is unable to make the donation because you haven’t made a good enough case, you might not be able to do a program or find a work of art. So yeah, so there’s a lot of different things at stake.

Excellent. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?

I think, in general, I don’t know if it’s specific to my  position, I think just writing with clarity. And it can be not getting too caught up in your own words and in your own head, you’ve got to remember, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for someone. And sometimes, if you’ve gotten too attached to a project, or you’ve been looking at it for such a long time, you can forget that  not everyone else has been doing this research, and they don’t quite know where you’re going with it. So I think remembering always to keep that–what am I trying to say? The clear vision of what you’re doing is–it can be can be challenging, I think switching between the different genres, as you mentioned, that can be challenging too. And keeping things fresh. If you are repurposing or maybe a formulaic letter, you don’t want it to sound like that. And you’re probably writing to these people again and again anyway, and you don’t want them to keep receiving the same letter. So but that’s also the same thing with any type of writing, you want it to always feel fresh and interesting.

Yeah, absolutely. Are there certain things that you do–tactics or strategies–let’s say you, okay, I’ve sent this person a letter twice over the past few years, I want to make sure this letter is unique. And yet I still have to convey similar information. How do you approach trying to keep that novel or engaging or personal?

For something like a formulaic letter, I’ll just sit down and write the formulaic letter And then I’ll just start taking out words, and really looking up synonyms if I have to. It may as sort of basic as that. And then other times, it’s just–be aware of your own little personal writing tics. And trying not to keep falling into them, the little patterns. And that’s again, where collaborating with colleagues is helpful, because if you get a slightly more corporate voice, corporate in the sense of a group of people, then sounds less idiosyncratic and a little bit more of what you’re trying to get to.

You talked about getting advice from colleagues, from senior colleagues and  getting feedback on your writing. Has anyone else helped you with your writing here at the museum formally or informally?

Certainly, lots of people have been very helpful informally, in terms of concrete feedback, or maybe general ideas about how to write something. In terms of more formal instruction, our education department has a program called Writing Salon, where members of the public can register and come in and write all different genres–poetry, do some theatrical writing, memoir, all different genres. I haven’t taken one of those. I would like to take one of those. But I haven’t been able to get away from the desk and go do it. So there is a chance to have writing instruction here if you join one of our programs. I’ve not done it. I think I’ve–because I’ve been in graduate school while I’ve been working, we’ve gotten some formal instruction through school. It’s not for the museum here, but certainly while I’ve been working, I’ve had a little bit of formal instruction on how to write a research paper or how to write a grant. But I would say most of it is coming from on the job. And from learning by example, or the help of your colleagues.  

How do you believe you’ve evolved as a writer over the course of your career?

It’s easier to write now. It’s not necessarily starting from scratch, I, I’ve done, I’ve experienced lots of different types of writing now, and so at least have somewhere to start from. And if I get stuck, I can talk to somebody about it. But in general, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do. And so that–since it’s, there’s a little bit less of staring at the blank page, kind of paralyzed. What do you do when you have a blank page, just start writing and you’ll figure it out. I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer, I would hope so. And I would think that would come with having the more experienced reader as well, because part of being a good writer is doing a lot of reading. And so seeing what speaks to you and what works as a reader, you can then apply to your own writing.

Excellent. And to what extent do you think writing is valued within the organization as a whole?

I think it’s valued very, very highly. I think it’s an essential skill. I think it’s–if you are able to work with well your colleagues as a person and then write well, then you’re going to be able to do a lot of different things. So I would say it’s valued really highly.

And our last little set of questions, how do you think you would have defined successful writing as a student, as opposed to successful writing in this current space? And  would you define yourself as a successful workplace writer here?

That’s a lot of questions. Lots of break it out. I think, as a successful student, it would have been, could you answer all the questions you’ve been set in a compelling way? Does your essay have some evidence in it? Can you support your opinions? Is it clear? Is it turned in on time? Turning things in on time is important too! But it’s a bit more, is it original? Are you contributing something original to the conversation? Um,could you repeat the second bit of the question? 

Sure, how would you define successful writing here? And would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?

I would say I’m on my way to becoming a successful workplace writer. A lot of my work is still written for my supervisory colleagues. So I’m not quite yet there, where it’s going straight from my head to the editors office. So I have a lot to learn still about how to write some of the things we publish here, and I’ve written a little bits, so I’ve written some catalog entries. I’ve written some guides for brochures. But I haven’t written an exhibition catalog essay yet. So things like that I’m looking forward to learning to do. And once I can do that, then I would say yes, I’m a successful workplace writer! I think in general, my emails tend to be clear for colleagues, they tend to be friendly. And so in my own capacity, I’d say, probably fairly successful. I guess more generally, success in the workplace here is, is measured maybe in the results. Are you able to persuade people when you need to? Are you able to dash off an email that’s urgent enough, yet polite enough to get, you know, whatever it is taken care of from straightaway? Can you write a lecture that people are going to stick around for 15 minutes sitting there listening to and really interested? Maybe asking questions at the end? Can you write a guide that you can walk through the museum and see people actually opened up in front of the art reading it? So there are different levels of success. You know, can we write, speaking larger for outside my department, can we write grants that enable us to put on public programs? Can we write advertising copy that draws people in to see what we’ve spent all this time working on for them? So lots of different ways to measure the success, I suppose. 

Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you think it’s important for me or any of our other audiences to know about writing in your specific organization and your specific position?

I think a lot of it–well, there’s a lot of specialized skill for writing in the field of art history. I think a lot of it comes down to basic principles of making an argument, supporting it with actual evidence. Because of the nature of the work, sometimes that evidence is maybe visual, or archival or whatever. But being able to write like that, if you can do that, in any field, I think you’ve got a little bit of latitude or chance for success in other fields as well. And I think that’s a very general thing that we have in common with any field is being able to do those things. Writing for this field specifically… I think just be able to write for lots of different audiences. This may be unusual because if you’re working perhaps in a scientific research institute, maybe you’re not writing for the general public all the time. Here we are writing for the general public all the time.

Excellent.

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Program Specialist, Records Management

Government & Military

Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

Yes. So I am a program specialist in records management and I work for the office of the secretary at the Smithsonian Institution.

And how long has it been since you graduated from undergrad?

I graduated undergrad in May of 2005. So it’s been 13-plus years.

OK, and how long have you worked in your current field?

So I have worked in this field at this job for just over four years. But I did work in the field for two years before that while I was doing a graduate program in archives and records management. I worked at the University of Maryland’s with an academic librarian who worked with government records. I indirectly worked in the field for five years before that when I did research with archival records. But I was not working as a library or information professional in that capacity.

So could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

Yes. So I work–basically all the records of the Smithsonian Secretary are maintained for posterity because he is a head of agency of a government agency. So all of his records, anything he signs, essentially anything that has his signature on it becomes an official government record for the Smithsonian. And so that is all organized by me and categorized in different ways in a database and coded and high quality scans are made. And I also keep the hard copy original record, if it’s a printed record and transfer those over to the Smithsonian archives and not go to the National Archives we have our own archives, which is different from other government agencies. So, anything like from gift agreements from donors that will go to different exhibitions for the Smithsonian museums to letter writing campaigns about controversies, of exhibitions of museums, or political controversies–like  recently there was one with members of Congress being upset about Justice Clarence Thomas not having a featured exhibition at the African American Museum, and so a bunch of senators and congressmen wrote letters to the secretary complaining about it, and said things like from a controversy–are highlighted in the collections I handle all of those and then every year I transfer those records to the Smithsonian Archives. And then they are maintained there in a restricted period for 15 years, and then after that 15 year period they are open to the public for research. So that’s an ongoing cycle. 

OK. Yes. And how many museums fall under the Smithsonian? 

There–I should know this number–but there are there, is, like 20 some museums and research centers and the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute all across the country. And there is also the Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

So they are all over the place. But the ones that people mostly they think of are the ones on the National Mall. So there’s a lot of them and as the secretary oversees all of them so all of his records relate to them in some way. And I kind of have a bird’s eye view of everything it’s happening and my main job is basically to organize and maintain the active records.

And once they’re not active any more than they get transferred to the archives.

Perfect. Could you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

So, I would say if we’re including emailing, then probably 40 percent of my job would maybe include writing in some capacity and mostly just communicating with my colleagues about different correspondence that’s going out from the secretary’s office. Because I also handle parts of that, and also I do writing like descriptive writing in the database to describe what the records are that I’m–that I’m scanning and putting in there. And then the more–the more descriptive I am the easier it is for me or for somebody in my position in future to locate those records, so I try to be as descriptive as I can to explain what’s in the records.

5:07

That’s great. That leads into my next question which is about–yeah, what are the sort of kinds or types of documents you create? So, let’s start with those descriptions because that seems really interesting. So what do those descriptions look like and how do they–in what form do they like accompany these records?

Sure. So we use a database that’s like–we have to–that’s run through a vendor and basically it has fields where you can attach records, so I will create a high quality scan of whatever record. If it’s a paper record and if it’s an event like a born-digital record then I’ll just save it as a– like as a PDF file and then I’ll try to–I’ll put like the date which is very important for how you will search the reference later on. And the basic like summary of what the record is like. It’s sort of generic, but like, like keywords that if it’s about a specific person or say it’s about like a certain senator, I’ll make sure to like put their title in or who else was copied on it. And then another–the main way that I search these records is by the codes that we use for them, which are sort of like tags–like a tag that you would see on a website or blog or something like that. And those go according to the file plan that I use.

Tell me about what that is. 

Sure. So essentially the file plan is just like what it sounds. It’s because the institution is so large, the best way to organize the records is to have like categories that are like umbrella categories that they fall under. So for example, the office of the secretary there are a number of different–like there’s like so there’s like the office of a secretary and then like a few different categories that fall beneath that. And then there are like the Office of General Counsel and the Office of advancement. And then there’s a number of donor organizations that fall underneath that within the Smithsonian like our office of planned giving, like our annual campaign office. And those all fall under like one number code and then the description for it. So if it’s for the campaign it would be 29-campaign. And if I were to look for records from the campaign in 2014 from December, because that sometimes happens, because I’m the records manager sometimes people will say, I’m looking for a letter from this donor. It’s around this period of time, and it’s relating to this. Can you find that in the database? And so then I’ll use those parameters and search by–that’s one way that I would search by the various codes that we associated with it and then you know that the database will just query render the parameters are, and that helps me locate– 

Can you search descriptions too?

You can, can. And also you know the–most databases now–it does it can search by–it can search for documents as well, looking at the text. 

OK.

 So if you are looking for something written about Clarence Thomas, for example, as we used before, I could–I could search for Justice Thomas or just Thomas, and then with that keyword search like I could narrow it down by whatever code. So I could use the code for the National Museum of African-American of History Culture. Or I could use the code for Congress because congressional members were writing about it and if I really want to narrow it down, I can use all the codes I think I might have used. And then it will probably just return one or two records ideally. And ideally one of them is the one that I’m looking for.

9:13

So when you’re writing those descriptions I can see how they’re useful for you.

Are there outside or other audiences as well that you’re writing them for? 

I’m also writing them for the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff that will eventually take over the database. Or not take over–gain access to it because their–like their electronic records archivist will is the one who will be sorting through those records. She doesn’t have access to it right now as far as I know but I think that that’s just because it just hasn’t gotten to that stage.

Sorry to interrupt, to clarify she is the Smithsonian archivist, meaning each Museum has an individual archive. You have the president’s archive and all that eventually goes to her?

10:09

Yes, she is an electronic record archivist for the Smithsonian Institution Archives. And then there were also like archivists for the paper records,  so she will deal with all of the electronic records at least for our office. I’m not sure how many of the other museums she does. They probably have more than one of her. So she’ll be dealing with all of the–like the database. And like all of the metadata that goes along with that and technically what I’m writing in the database, what I’m creating is called the script of metadata and then there’s also a technical metadata that’s behind the scenes. And she’ll be able to catch all that. And that will help her, like you know figure out not just when I created the record, but like– sometimes I can transfer them for example from Microsoft Outlook directly into the database. And like the technical metadata for that was show her like when it was created and sent over from Outlook and left when the actual record was created within outlook soit helps with [indecipherable]…to tell you when something was created. Yeah.

That’s great. Ok, that makes a lot of sense. So that’s one form of writing, these descriptions that accompany these records, and we talked a little about e-mails. Are there other types of documents or forms of writing that you do?

I’m trying to think, honestly, it’s mostly e-mail and it’s like–and it’s most corresponding with other units at the Smithsonian. So I don’t know–I don’t know how useful this is, but one part of my job is–to go back to our example of senators writing about this controversy–perceived controversy at the museum. So when those letters come in then part of my job is to like assign them, like farm them out to the appropriate unit or museum and staffer to respond on behalf of the secretary. So in that case I would send it to our office of government relations and or would copy the press or the director and the director’s assistant of the museum. So in this case it would be that the director of NAAHCM, which is the African-American history and culture museum, and I would tell them the Secretary received this. And we need to respond on his behalf. And then copy me so that I have a copy of it and then that becomes part of the record that holds–the record as it closed out then once we received that response. And then that all becomes part of the secretary’s records that I handle. So that’s a big part of the job. It’s getting people is writing e-mails to other people and then getting them to respond on his behalf.

Do you–is it as straightforward as that or? You don’t give any–you’re not advising them about a response. You’re just asking to respond on his behalf generally?

13:15
Not unless my supervisor, who was the chief of staff, directs me to do so in a more specific way. But generally because they are the ones–they’re the experts in whatever the direction of the response should be or whatever talking points there are for whatever the issue is and they’ll be the ones to do it.

And does every correspondence that comes to the secretary receive a response?

Most of them do. Yeah even ones from–that that it depends on the secretary, I guess. When I started, there were a number of things that would come in that wouldn’t receive a response maybe because it was something that wasn’t that important or it was like a personal request. Sometimes people–I mean people submit all sorts of requests. But like them as people always submit requests for like a secretary signature or something. And I think that when I started, like those are things that my then-boss would maybe not transfer to him because she didn’t think it was like, as important a use of his time. And my current boss, the chief of staff, now does show all those to Secretary and suggests that he respond to those. And so he often does. So that can create more work.

Could you–and you kind of did this for descriptions–but maybe a little bit more detail. And walk me through the process for that type of project. Maybe just like a sort of random example of a description for a document you may be writing that metadata for.

Sure. 

Including sort of how–everything in the process from beginning to closing out? 

Sure. So I don’t know how useful this will be because it’s not like I’m–it’s not like a document writing sort of like where there’s like an introduction.

That’s OK. No it’s its own unique form.

So it’s basically just, literally within the database it’s like with any database where there’s a field–different like fields–and so for the comments field for the document to describe what it is, then I’ll write the date that the document is dated and who it’s from if there’s any–like CCs on it. All write who that is. And if the letter–if the document is from multiple people then there’s like a special way that I can like create–sort of like a document that attaches multiple names to it, so that if I search it by any one of them it will always be of that that relevant document for it. And if it’s referring to an issue that was a previous–that was something that was previously important, then I’ll write a note to refer to X number. And so each document has its own [indecipherable] number too. And so that’s something I’ll write in the upper right hand corner, and then internally we’ll refer to it that way. Like my boss might sa,  can you send me the response to document 3 12 0 1 3 2 and then that’s a quick way I can query it in the database and then I’ll put it up that way. So I’ll try to make that that document like description field as descriptive as I can. And again like–this this is a way that codes that I use or the tags that I use are really helpful, and I try to use as many as I can and I’m actually now when I have downtime that work, in between projects, I have been going through the records that predate my time because they were not descriptive and my predecessor just didn’t put as much time into that. And so I’m adding a lot more codes and a lot more information so that when I go back I have a record like a reference request from somebody and they ask me for records, like this has happened a number of times where I’ll get an email from somebody at one of the other museums or in a different unit and they’ll say, you know we’re looking for, for like a legal issue, we’re looking for records relating to this, this building a lease that happened in 1998. And it’s like during this time and when I try to query that, look for information on it because my predecessor did not have any descriptive information and sometimes didn’t even use any codes for it it’s–I, I just have to hope that that you were like the document keyword search will actually work, or that they used to hide all the scans like the OCR will translate and it will query it for my search. Anyway, so that’s what I’m doing now is going back and I’m adding descriptive information to documents that weren’t there before I came.

Right. Can you talk about what makes and what makes a good document description?

18:32

Sure. So again and because–because I am lucky that the OCR scan is a thing, I always know that that will catch it if I don’t have something else. But I try to just like, if it’s a memo, for example, like we get memos from the White House like every government agency does, that will say what what it’s about and if it’s relating to some law or public–other public record or something like that then office then I’ll just write date, and the date is very important especially for researchers and for people who are asking looking for specific documents within the institution, again, if they send me a records request. They say, I’m looking for documents from the specific date period. That’s really important to have the date there.

Yeah. What else…If it’s about–oh if it’s like a specific type of document, like if it’s a gift agreement or a deed or like an MOU–Memorandum of Understanding between the Smithsonian other institutions. Like sometimes that will happen where you’ll have an MOU with like a university where they make basically an agreement to have some kind of a research agreement. And that’s like– within like one of the museums or something like that like within the Natural History Museum like will pair with like George Mason University or something like that and like their biology department to work on some collection for X number of years or something like that. Those are specific agreements that I keep quite separate.

Yeah. That’s right. Thank you. That’s really helpful.

How did you know how to perform these types of writing? Everything from the e-mails that you’re sending out to request responses to you?

Sure. So the emails are more, like, the learn on the job type thing how people respond to requests that you make of them when you’re asking them to do work for you, which is like something that I really haven’t had to do other jobs before because you’re having to write to people that you’ve never met who work in museums all around the country and kind of use the fact that I work for the secretariat as like the snoot you do for me even if you don’t want to because I work as a secretary as, like, this is something that you have to do for me, even if you don’t want to. And if they don’t respond, which happens a lot, then I have to like send follow up e-mails that basically say that some of them actually, and then I like have to loop my boss into it, which is uncomfortable. So that’s like sort of a persuasive writing I guess in a different way maybe than I learned in college. Because it does–it feels sort of more off the cuff, and trying to read that person and how they respond. You know some people just respond to like a specific request like, this happened and I needed to do this, and please just like send me the result and do it as possible. And other people I’ve learned from back and forth you know interactions with them don’t respond well to that, and they see that some kind of like a challenge up of their like, their title or something. And so then I have to kind of play sort of dumb and pretend like, [pleading voice] I know this is a real bother, but can you please, please do this and it’s like a hassle, but like we just need it done and like once it’s done I’ll close it out and it will be over with and you won’t have to deal with it anymore. And that’s sort of a strange way to interact with people. But that’s that’s kind of how the job works.

That’s really interesting. 

I mean I kind of think that maybe any job works that way. 

Yeah, sure.

It feels a little bit different just because I work in the secretary’s office. And so people kind of think, I think that we have some kind of pull that I actually don’t feel like I do have because that’s not me not my experience with the responses. It’s my least favorite part of my job, I’ll say that.

Okay yeah that’s interesting. Can you describe a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

Yes. Not in my current job, it that okay? 

Of course.

My former job I worked as sort of a public historian and mostly did archival research. We’re writing to–current litigation between Department of Justice and American Indian tribes, and I really enjoyed the research, but the writing– sometimes I was assigned writing projects for that–which would become parts of these big reports that would go to our government client that would use them in litigation. And even though I had done a master’s degree in history and done a lot of writing in graduate school to prepare me for that kind of thing, but because it was writing for the government it was very different than ready for academia. And so I found that like they wanted us to write very straightforward and not use flowery language at all or like, also not insert any kind of bias or argument, which is interesting because it’s something I felt like was stressed a lot and learning how to write at least in college, is like you have to like have an argument. And that’s not really how it is with this. It’s like you’re trying to be as objective as possible so that, you know, so that they can’t be accused of presenting bias in the courtroom or whatever. So you just literally will say things that are not probably considered good writing because you’ll say things you know, the document cites this and has a lot of quotations and like a lot more quotations and paraphrasing I think because you are using a lot of footnotes to actually show what the document says so that you can see that you’re not inserting–inserting your own opinion or bias of a document or an event that happened in history that like it specifically says this or this government officials specifically said this thing. So I feel like I use way more quotations in that kind of writing than I ever would have when I was writing for–in grad school or writing in academia because it was so much more about just presenting facts and not presenting any kind of spin–anything that could be interpreted as spin. And I didn’t– I guess I didn’t feel as prepared for that kind of writing.

And were there certain strategies or things that you did to adapt to that?

Yes. I mean I don’t know how useful this is–it was learning by example, reading through other reports that had been written by our organization for, in this case, it would be other reports that were written about other Indian tribes that we’ve already produced for the client, who were the government clients. So reading examples that were written by other historians at our company and like kind of getting a feel for the sort of boring way it was written, that wasn’t like very interesting to read about. But that’s not what the attorneys–our clients were attorneys–and they were looking for information, and unbiased information present in court.

And so we had to learn to write that. So it’s kind of just by reading other historians’ work before me and like, OK this is how–this is the sort of writing that we do. We’re not–and make sure that we are not saying anything that can be interpreted in any, in any way.

So you are looking really closely at the language that they use to make sure it wasn’t biased, to mimic that?

Yeah. And you know and sometimes I would get–I would get my drafts back from the editors and they would mark things off and say, look no, you can’t–you can’t say this, like you can’t argue an opinion or something. You have to change this. So it was a sort of a constant thing to remind yourself. Right, I have to just present the facts. I’m just saying what I see here. And sometimes that leads you to make a–to make an assumption about something based on all the facts are presented. But you still have to try to present it–which I feel like probably is something the journalists have to do too–like, if everything is pointing one way, especially in this political climate, I think they still have to just say, like these are the things that happened and think what you will of it, so that they are not considered spinning something. So, yeah, I feel like I remember in college I remember taking writing classes or even in grad school when I was writing about historical events and stuff you know you’re supposed to have an argument, you’re supposed to defend it. And that’s not what this kind of writing was, which is interesting. It’s kind of different from everything that we talked about.

Yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. So, going back to your current job does anyone ever see your writing?

27:47

No. I’m not doing, like I’m not presenting like, finished pieces or like reports or anything like that. So no.

Okay. Yeah how long do you typically have to complete a writing project? Maybe you could talk about time for it to go email asking someone to do this task for the secretary and a description for the database.

So for each of those things? 

Yeah.

Sure, if it’s–sometimes it’s a complicated issue. So to use the example we used before the first time I got a letter we got a letter from someone in Congress with this complaint about Justice Thomas and the exhibit at the African-American History Museum, I wasn’t aware of what the issue was so then I had to do a little bit of research and then they referenced like a Washington Post article and things of that I work with them and I read that for a while and then had a kind of like do some background research so that I could craft the e-mail to our government relations people and the museum people and actually explain, this is what happened, we just got this letter apparently this story came out on this date, and it says these things and I link to it. And can you please respond accordingly. I would say–I mean, the actual writing of the email would only take five minutes.But the background research takes much longer, just to make sure that I’m wording it…that’s useful.

And you’re also, I’m realizing as you’re talking, like you don’t know what context they have

and so you’re trying to provide as much context as you can? 

And also make sure that like it doesn’t come off as, I don’t know if you are aware of this important thing that’s happening but like–because they probably do know about it in some way. So then I try to word it in a way that–again, it’s kind of similar, presenting facts and like not saying I’m not saying that you know about this or not but like this is this is what’s happening and now we have to issue a response because this happened–the Secretary received the letter and once that happens and like everybody has to get involved. So yeah. And then with the database stuff, it depends on if there’s late related records like in the case where I said and a reference number or reference document number blah blah blah dated blah, like an example that happened this last week,we got a very generous grant to open a new exhibition. It’s called the Smithsonian Molina Latino Gallery, which will be like a temporary museum exhibition about Latino history at the American History Museum, which will be really cool. So five different donors decided to donate a certain portion of money to make up this total money for a gift, that’s a lot of money, that will fund the exhibition. And so each of them had different gift agreement, and they all came in different times. So the first one came in in June. The last one came in this past week. And so for each of those I look back in the database, look at the descriptive information I have for the first agreement, and then I reference each one, reference also a number of other four agreements and then I went to each one to that so that each document record in the database has all the relevant information. And so–and it also explains how many gift agreements there are so that somebody looking in 10 years will have no idea that that that gift was only one of the five gifts, and the other people who would have given those gifts. Now that’s something that my predecessor didn’t do at all. And I think I would have done it anyway even if she had done it. But I definitely realize now that I’ve been there for a long time and wished that she had done more things like that and I’ve gone back and been very frustrated to have a hard time finding records that other people ask me to look for because she didn’t provide enough descriptive information. So now I try to provide as much as I can. So I would say that probably takes–that that actually took a long time for, for each record to do that with the five. I would say the whole process probably took like 30 minutes of like referencing back and forth, adding the descriptive information to each one. 

33:37

Right. OK that’s perfect. 

Sorry, I don’t know if that’s too specific. 

Nothing is too specific. 

Okay.

So you talked a little bit about this in thinking about argument and thinking about the kinds of writing you did as a historical researcher. But what kinds of writing do you generally remember being asked do as a student, and in what ways and did they contribute to your preparedness or lack of it in your current work?

Sure. So–I’m, from undergrad and writing classes, I remember you know being asked to– like we read different books or like articles and then we were asked to, you know, make an argument based off of them–why we felt whatever way about the message of the story or the message of the book or the way it was presented by the author. And in grad school I don’t know. I feel like that was useful to me to like learn how to be persuasive. Try to learn to be persuasive. And in grad school because I was studying history, I feel like there was more–less emphasis on the persuasive and more on presenting trying to present historical information

that was new and interesting. Like why it should–why it was important because it hadn’t been presented before. Or I had a different idea about the way–about historical facts and I was like trying to present them in a different way. But honestly I think that that’s, that’s mostly because it’s the way that academic programs are structured, and you’re supposed to come up with the new ideas that haven’t been presented before. So I don’t know how natural writing that is. I don’t know that it was for me. And I found it difficult to do that–I have to constantly keep reminding myself, I’m not just presenting facts, I have to, like, I have to present an argument about all of these historical records I’m looking or, you know, monographs by other historians. Because it was what I wanted to do was just present the facts that were there like in the historical records and I did find it frustrating that you have to make an argument about them. And I really just wanted to present–like, this is a really interesting thing that happened and I think that it would be useful for people to know about it. But the way that academia is set up is that you have to have an argument you are making, which I found frustrating. And now in my current job and even in my job before I guess I’m an example of where learning to write and defend an argument wasn’t actually useful because like I had to un-learn when I was writing from my former job, writing reports for it to be used in litigation. So I kind of had to un-learn that behavior, which is really interesting. I hadn’t considered that until right now.

What would have bene useful for you to learn as a student as you think about writing in your career up to this point?

It’s tough because I see why those skills are useful for other fields.Maybe and, I guess I am… sort of an anomaly. And maybe it will be difficult for people like again journalism or something, where people are presenting facts and not like not trying to be persuasive. I guess maybe the one thing that will be useful would be to have a writing class, kind of like discuss those different ways of writing but like there’s this way that we learn how to write and be persuasive and like have, you know, an argument and then spend the bulk of your essay or whatever explaining that argument. And like presenting your–like, making your case and then closing out and saying these are always reasons errors are the reasons why I believe this thing and why it should be changed or whatever. I think it may be useful to have a unit for something in a writing course that would say, you know, in some fields like journalism or, you know, you are–the way that you write is, what’s important is that you’re presenting facts and not presenting an argument or not presenting what could be perceived as spin.

And here are some examples of how that’s not worked out well where maybe, you could show how like a journalist who is not technically a pundit has been accused of being a pundit because they presented an argument about something and didn’t just present the facts. And then you could alternatively compare it with the rest of the way that you’re learning to write in those classes. Like, these are fields where it is really useful to more persuasive writing and like close out your argument.

This made perfect sense. And it leads me to a question. This might be me making a leap, but do you think that this idea of sort of this really concerted effort to write without bias–

I know it didn’t because the government was your client in the past and it was used for litigation. And I assume it is a similar situation in your descriptive writing now that you are are–or any kind of writing you do now in your job now that you’re probably trying to hold back any opinion. Is that a fair statement?

Yeah, that’s true yeah. And because I do work for the government, especially in this environment–this political environment now, and this is a specific example, but in the last few months there was a journalist whose e-mails were hacked and were published basically in the news. And there’s also been lots of government officials in the last few years whose e-mails and text messages have been hacked and have been published. So just in the last year I have noticed that colleagues have mentioned not wanting to put certain things in writing in emails, and so they’ll just come to your office and talk to you instead to avoid having something that we’re writing about perceived as being anti- whatever topic or whatever author who wrote something or said something. So much so that like when I’ve been corresponding with somebody about issuing a response to some letter that the Secretary received about something and then they would just call me instead and say we should we should talk about this on the phone instead of having an e-mail record about it that could be FOIA’d by somebody.

And can you clarify what that term means?

Sure, FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act, which government employees are subject to. So somebody who was interested in reading about the Justice Thomas issue at the African-American History Museum, they could submit a FOIA request to look at all records that discussed that issue in employee–in like government records and they could also FOIA the e-mails of government employees which would mean that any thing that we talked about even if it was to say something like, you know, like, Wow, this is wild. We’ve gotten three of these in the last few days, or something like that, that could potentially be perceived as saying that we disagreed with the premise of the argument or issue

that is being… Yeah yeah.

So, so this writing in the government like has this very specific constraint. It seems like that you’re especially aware because of the FOIA?

Yeah. 

Okay yeah. 

And that’s not something that I’m worried about my database, like the descriptive metadata that I use for the database because that, to my knowledge, that’s not something that could be FOIA’d because they’re not technically–well I don’t know they think it at the records.

They could look, they could point out the records themselves, which are just be the scans, but I don’t think that they would have access to my database. Anyway, that language I don’t censor. Censor’s not the right word. I don’t have the same constraints. I’m trying to add as much descriptive information as I can, sort of in a way that you would use keywords. Like I can literally do a keyword search of the database. And so if I know–like I said, I could search myself, Justice Clarence Thomas or just Justice Thomas or whatever with a date range for parameters and search it that way. And so the more information I put in the more likely I am to get that as a hit.

This is sort of a broad question and we’re kind of in some ways like talking around it to some extent, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?

So I think what’s at stake if I don’t do a good enough job being descriptive I guess is as far as the database goes in that kind of writing the descriptive metadata is not being able to locate records in a records request. So somebody from another unit could ask me for specific records relating to something in a specific time period, and if there’s not, if I or my predecessor didn’t have enough descriptive information in that record then the database will not find it. And if they didn’t. Sometimes they don’t have a scan for it. It will just reference–especially the old ones when the database got first got started in the mid 90s–they’ll just reference a date. And like that it’s a memo, and like initials for somebody who worked there at the time and no scan and no code and so all I know from that is that if I go to the Smithsonian archives and I request to look at records from 1994 that I could search for those records and I could find something with that date and that I can figure out what it is but I have no idea. So that’s a useless record basically–a useless database record that isn’t helpful at all. So the–what’s at stake I guess this is just, losing that information without–if you don’t have the time to just go and spend hours digging through archival records that have been in storage forever. And that haven’t been described or organized basically. So that’s why I try to be as descriptive as I can and add as much information as I can in both the actual writing with the language I’m using in the descriptive fields and then also in the codes that I select, like the tags I’m using.

What is the most difficult thing about writing in your job?

I think–I don’t. I don’t know how useful it is.

I think honestly it’s navigating ego within the different departments or units that I’m having to send up work to.

So because I work with the secretary, he oversees, he’s the head of the agency, so he oversees all of these different museum directors and like unit directors and people who are very high up.  And they weren’t part of an institution–under an institutional umbrella like the Smithsonian–they would be the top person. So if I have to send something to them then sometimes there’s this sort of strange–because I’m–they’re way above my pay grade and I’m sending them work and telling them that they have to do it and that’s a sort of–I talked about that a little bit before, but it’s this sort of awkward thing. I generally try, if I can, just to send it to their assistants who will then forward it to them and then tell them what they have to do to respond to our request. Occasionally my boss will specifically tell me to send it to the museum director themselves and then sometimes they don’t respond. I’ll have to send another e-mail to them making sure that they understand that the secretary wants them to respond on his behalf. And that’s not an option, sort of? But navigating that–trying to choose language that–makes them feel still important. They don’t feel what someone’s telling them how do their job. Yeah. It’s just that sort of, it’s sort of uncomfortable and difficult. It’s something I don’t enjoy at all. I would very happily just work with records all day. Yeah.

Has anyone helped you at work with your writing formally or informally?

No. No. Because I–my work is very, for the most part I am very autonomous and I’m very independent in what I do, and so–because I don’t have anyone supervising the database I basically control that because I’m the one who is–I’m both the creator and like the end user. Yeah. So I’m basically writing for myself and also for people who are the future versions of me.

And because the rest of it is really just emails then it’s just [indecipherable]

49:03

How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

I think it has been a useful skill for me to learn how to just present facts, so that like a reader can draw their own conclusions, depending on what the issue is. Yeah, so, in that way I feel like the kind of writing that earned an undergrad like the essay–that has not been as useful to me as the type of writing I learned after, like on the job, which is probably not what you want to hear, I guess [laughing]

No, it’s really interesting. It’s really interesting. We want to hear it all. I have just a couple more questions. The first is to what extent do you think writing is valued in the organization in the agency?

Overall?

Overall.

Yeah yeah it’s valued immensely. So the Smithsonian is a research organization and a lot of people who work who work there are contributing to scholarship. I mean there are museum curators and there are collections people that just deal with objects and artifacts, but a lot of people like the curators are there doing research. They’re presented to conferences. They’re writing about the objects that they have under the care, and, and really giving a context for why–how they tell the history of something and why they’re are useful for a museum and to give the public an idea about why it’s important to see dinosaur bones from 30 million years ago, or or why it’s important to see now the first telegraph or that was administered in the U.S. or whatever. And also what the science organizations–there’s a lot of science museums and departments within the Smithsonian obviously, so writing is really important. So there’s lots of scholarship and a lot of writing, also like collaboration with, between the Smithsonian other institutions and organizations and other museums. And there’s a lot of writing that goes into that as well. So my specific job is much more related to documentation.

But there’s a lot of writing that goes on everywhere in the institution.

How would you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

I feel sort of like a broken record. As a student I think that I would have defined successful writing as being able to present an argument and defend it. Like, present my case and defend well. And in the workplace, I feel for my specific job –it’s more from my previous job–it was more learning how to analyze information and synthesize it in a way that was useful to them and to the reader and not, not in a way that was trying to persuade them of anything.

And in my current job, I do think I’m a successful workplace writer because I think that I’m able to communicate well with my colleagues. And, again, because I’m not producing like a finished product or something I don’t have that part to contribute to.

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Reflection Prompt: Emotion and Writing Process

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Reflection Prompt: Emotion and Writing Process

Level: Developed for use with first-year writers.

Context: This short reflective prompt asks students to consider a quote from a writer in the archive in context with their own writing process.

Assignment:

It’s no surprise that significant research has been done about emotion and affect as they pertain to writing. Writing can be extremely emotional! One workplace writer in the Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences, a former Grant Writer, says of her writing, “I agonized over it, but I was pleased with the result of my agony.”

A lot of writers feel this agony or something like it. For many, the writing process is one of ups and downs. Emotional hurdles—like fear of failure, frustration that the writing doesn’t seem to be “working,” and even, sometimes, boredom—are very real challenges for most writers, and ones we have to grapple with particularly as we develop as college writers. And yet, most of us ultimately hope to feel, as this Grant Writer did, as though the agony was worth it once we have a successful finished writing project.

Write about your own writing process and the emotions that tend to accompany it. How do you feel about writing? What sorts of feelings come up when you are assigned a writing project? Excitement? Fear? Dread? Curiosity? How do these feelings change (or not) as you plan, draft, and revise? Have you ever felt the “agony” this writer describes? Describe your most successful writing project. How did your emotions evolve along with the project? Do you have (or can you imagine) strategies to help you use your emotions effectively or usefully when it comes to your writing?

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