Director of Customer Support


Director of Customer Support



Q: So would you please state your job title and where you currently work?


A: Okay. My job title is I’m director of customer service, or customer support, and the name of the company that I work for is called Global Phone or GPhone.

Q: Great, and could you tell us just a little bit about what the company does?


A: We provide a business phone service, as well as calling cards.


Q: Excellent, okay. And how long has it been since you graduated from college?


A: I graduated in 1975, so over 40 years.


Q: Okay, great. And how long have you worked in your current field?


A: In the current field, I’ve been in this company since 2002. Previous companies I’ve been involved probably in customer support, also in a telecom type of environment, probably since, the maybe late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s. And just to go back to one of the questions, so my undergraduate degree was 1975, but my master’s degree was late ‘80’s, or early ‘90’s, I think. See, I can’t even remember at this point, but–


Q: That’s okay.


A: It’s been that long, long ago.


Q: That’s useful though. Okay, okay. And could you just provide sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?


A: I would say that it is to manage a small team of individuals or reps who also deal with customers, usually over the phone or over an email, as well as working with coworkers in trying to support the customer.


Q: Excellent, and could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?


A: It’s probably maybe 30 percent, I’m going to say that most of my work is over the phone, you know, definitely communication is a large part of the role, but with the internet and emails, I’m starting to see less people necessarily just calling us. They will often send an email and we will communicate via email.


Q: Interesting, okay. And in addition to email, are there other types of documents that you write?


A: Hmm. I want to say, you know, at one point, definitely writing let’s say teaching documents, or learning manuals for people who are new on the job, but I would say most are– it’s primarily emails. But sometimes, as I say, training tools for coworkers.


Q: Okay. And if we just sort of think about the emails specifically, who are the primary audiences typically?


A: I want to say it’s the end user, so a customer.


Q: Perfect, okay. And what are the primary purposes most often of those types of emails?


A: It’s, I want to say, to update them on any information regarding troubleshooting with problems that they’re having, whether it’s a technical problem, or if it’s let’s say more accounting or business-related type of problem, so, and as well as, “Hey, how do you use the services?” So a lot of my job, at least I try to sort of use the email as an opportunity to teach the end user how to best use our services. And so–


Q: Gotcha, that’s really interesting, yeah. So could you walk us through the process of maybe a recent writing task? So even just an email – sort of start to finish, if you think about like one specific correspondence recently, how you began, if there’s any preparation or steps you take prior to writing, what that writing process looks like, and if there’s any sort of revision or editing that happens?


A: Umm, hmm, let me think. From beginning to end, I’m just trying to think of a scenario that would best describe it. So, I don’t know if we can skip to the next question, or if you want me to think about this for a couple of minutes?


Q: Sure, we can absolutely skip ahead. And if something comes to you and you want to go back to it, that’s great, yeah, totally fine.


A: Sure, okay.


Q: So how did you learn how to perform these types of writing that you do in your work?


A: I want to say here probably repetition was a big factor. So it’s, you know, I think a lot of it too is, “Hey, I have something written up already,” and I know what I need to communicate to the end user such that, “Oh, I have it already written, let me cut and paste, and let me edit the documents or the email such that it is customer-specific, or issue-specific.” But I would say that, generally speaking, you know a lot of times, a lot of the information is in fact something I’ve used before. And I just, you know, copy and paste it.


Q: That makes sense, yeah. Has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?


A: Hmm. I’m going to say that any time that there is an issue that is, let’s say more technical in nature, I will often either get somebody else to assist me, or really sort of assign it to, “Hey, this is the best person to respond.” So we have, let’s say IT type of people here, or engineers, who are better equipped to address those questions that are more technical in nature, especially if the recipient of that email is also somebody of a technical nature. So I would say in those instances, I don’t feel equipped, where I feel challenged in answering or writing something. So I want to say anything that’s highly technical, I–


Q: And you said, oh sorry–


A: N, go ahead.


Q: Oh I was just going to say, so you said, either you assign it, but sometimes you get help with it. What does that look like, if you ask for assistance with something like that?


A: I would say a lot of times, they will sort of write something out and again, I will cut and paste, and edit. So the content of anything technical probably originated with somebody else.


Q: Got it, that makes sense. And are there any other strategies or things that you did maybe when you were new to the job to get acquainted with this kind of writing, and to learn how to perform it?


A: Well, I think a lot of it too was it, there’s, you know, in terms of dealing with a customer, there’s often almost like a formula involved, in terms of, you know there’s a greeting and a closing at least. And so it’s, you know, that was always pretty standard, and it’s still standard to this day, where, “Hey, we receive an email.” I always, you know, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the email.” And always try to close the email in terms of, “Hey, is there anything else we could do?” You know, getting that confirmation back from them, “Hey everything is closed, everything is done.” But, you know, trying to sort of almost look at what they’re asking about, and sort of, “Hey, let’s answer those questions that you have,” as sort of the body of my response. So, I mean, there are times when I’m, you know, when I see an email from somebody and it’s let’s say in a paragraph format. A lot of times I will break it out in terms of, here’s the question, and put “Q1: Here is the question from your verbiage, and here’s my answer to you, A1. And Q2.” So it’s easier I think for them to read, easier for them to understand, because it’s not in that paragraph format. So sometimes I do that, and it’s also a way for me to make sure, “Do I understand what the customer is asking about?” So it’s a way of rephrasing what they’re saying in a simple type of question, and then trying to respond in a, “Here is your question,” even if it’s, “Hey how much does this cost? That’s your question. A: This is how much it’s going to cost you, and stuff. What are the steps? Hey, I need to make a phone call, how do I dial? How do I use your service?” And try to outline it for them, step by step. Sometimes I’ll cut, you know– a lot of our customers there’s, you know, will go into our portals and try to do things, and I try to encourage that, because it allows them not to always rely on me. And I will sort of do a lot of cut and paste, and sort of embed pictures within my response back to them, and try to put things highlighted and, you know, circle it red, so they know this is where you need to focus. And you know, thinking, “Hey, not everybody is a learner by reading, there are some people who are learners by pictures.” And it also leaves them with that document again, so they can in fact do it themselves, if that opportunity comes up again. So it’s sort of definitely looking, whether it is an email or a phone call, as an opportunity to sort of, let me learn something about the caller or the person emailing me, and what is it that I can teach them? What information can I share with them such that, they use our service, and use it more than maybe they had used it before, as well as, making sure that they’re always calling, they’re not always emailing, because I’ve provided them some degree of tools to be able to fix their problems or utilize our services better.


Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah, that’s really interesting. The next question is, does anyone oversee your writing?


A: Not really. Generally speaking, no. So I mean, there may have been times when I’ve asked somebody else to look at something, especially if it’s you know, more of their, “Hey somebody has issued a complaint or something and I need to respond to that.” But I’m going to say, generally speaking at this point, I don’t have somebody looking at my writing, both in terms of content and style or anything like that.


Q: Okay. How long would you say you typically have to complete a writing project. So if a request or an inquiry comes in over email, how long do you typically have to respond?


A: I usually like to respond same day, if at all possible. So either same day or 24 hours. So if it’s going to take me longer, I will often let them know I may need more time. But [chuckle], generally speaking, within 24 hours. I like to have at least one touch.


Q: Gotcha, gotcha. So now, the next couple questions asks you to look back a little bit. So thinking back to your undergraduate days, what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student?


A: I would say for the most part, it involved reading something and reporting on it, or having some sort of general topic and reporting on it. I’m trying to think in terms of my undergraduate, and to a lesser extent, in grad school in business, where you know, it was definitely much less writing-involved, for the most part, except in a couple of management classes. But you know, I think I tended to have a very, almost formulaic outline approach to writing, and it’s sort of, “Hey, what are my general topics?” You know, one, two, three, and four. And then looking at those topics, and sort of, having some sort of sub-information, a A and a B and a C. I used to do a lot of outlining prior to writing something, and you know, have an introductory paragraph that somehow refers to those issues that I’m going to be discussing in greater detail, and then again, it was my conclusion, reviewing what I discussed, you know, summarizing what I had said before. So I would say that I would just sort of sit down and start with an outline, and try to build that outline, and then, it’s trying to find the evidence to support the points that I wanted to make, and cite them, if need be.


Q: Okay. In what ways do you think your college writing experiences prepared you, or not, for the kind of writing that you do now?


A: Well, I definitely feel I’m prepared, I mean I don’t think that the writing that I do now is as challenging as what I did as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. I mean I think it’s overall at a lower level, for the most part. I mean it’s much more day-to-day types of conversations, rather than items that require, you know, a lot of reading and researching, in contrast to what I did in college, so.


Q: That makes sense, okay. This is sort of a broader question, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?


A: Okay, say that again? I’m not sure I understand the question.


Q: Sure, yeah. So the phrasing might be odd. So what is at stake in your writing? And what I mean by that is really, why does the writing you do at work matter, and what would be the consequence if you didn’t do a good job with that writing?


A: You know, I think what’s at stake is making sure that whether it’s the company brand or my own personal brand, you know, sort of comes through in how I communicate with people. And, “Hey, I’m in customer support, I’m in customer service.” And I definitely want to have that mindset coming across to whoever’s receiving that email that, “Hey, I’m trying to help you,” versus, “I’m just trying to get through an email,” sort of thing. So in general, I would say that to me, that’s what’s at stake, is that it reinforces whatever brand that it is that I think we should be displaying to our customers on a day to day basis. You know, they sort of go, “Hey, this person really is interested that I have good service.” And you know, in terms of consequences, you know, I would imagine [chuckle] that one is, I would say the consequence would probably be some sort of retraining, trying to emphasize that point more so than, “Hey, you’re out.” But in general, I think it’s more of, “Hey, let’s retrain on this and what it is that you need to do to be a better communicator, and a communicator of that brand.”


Q: Right, right. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?


A: I think sometimes it’s, can I state the information in a simple enough manner such that it’s easily understood by the customer? I mean, I see this, I do this a lot, and it’s sort of second nature to me, but– so sometimes, some of the words have a lot of meaning to me don’t always carry that meaning towards the customer, and you know, example, “Hey, we’re going to change how we terminate the call.” And so, you know, what does that mean? And it’s a matter of, do I go into that level of detail, or do I simply say, “Hey, we’ve made some changes that we think we’ll help with the call connection, can you please try again?” So sometimes, you know, it’s things that, as I say, carry meaning for me and I understand because I’m in this world, often don’t carry the same sort of meaning to someone who is even less technical than I am. And making sure that they understand this and can learn from it as well, and you know, sort of, “Hey, let’s not get frightened by it, this is an easy thing to do, we can fix it.” So I would say that might be at times a challenge.


Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense, it sort of goes back to what you had mentioned earlier about this idea that like, in a lot of ways, you’re sort of the technical translator, to taking–


A: True.


Q: –trying to figure out how much information they need, and you know, how to parse that into terms that someone who doesn’t have all that background has.


A: Mhmm.


Q: Has anyone helped you with your writing, formally or informally?


A: In the immediate run, maybe not, maybe sometimes, you know, I’ve written something, and I’ve had my kids, sort of, “Hey, can you review this or make it better?” But in terms of my work overall, not a lot. I do remember having you know, somebody asked me to write, I belong to an organization called the American Association of University Women. So I joined a few years ago, and we have a newsletter, and it was, “Hey, can you write something up about yourself?” So it’s like, you know it’s one of those things, you know, that’s tough for me to do, and you think, “Oh, what do I say?” So I wrote a few things that I think Colleen sort of reviewed it and sort of punched it up a little bit and go, “That works, it’s done.” It’s sort of the hardest interview question in the world is, “Tell me about yourself.” Which I’m sure we have all heard and, so it’s a similar thing, and you know again, it’s brief, it’s just a few things that you should mention that are unique about yourself, but it was sort of hard and I know I ran it by the kids and stuff, so–


Q: Right, no that makes sense. That’s great. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?


A: I’m not sure I have, to be honest. You know, in some ways I don’t think I’m as strong as a writer as I was 10, 20 years ago, to be honest, and–


Q: And does that go back to this idea that– sorry, go ahead, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.


A: No, no, not at all. I just think that the type of work that I’m doing, it’s just quicker, and yeah, I’m sorry, hold on. [Silence]. Yeah, I just think in general, I think a lot of when I maybe first started here was more involved in putting documentation together well, that’s sort of done. I, you know, haven’t done as much of that as I did before. Or there’s less reading involved, you know, intense reading, than maybe I had before. So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m as, I think I was a better writer 20 or 30 years ago, I think it was easier for me in terms of more challenging writing. But you know, on the other hand, I think I have a great understanding of who my customers are, and I think, you know, I’m relatively good at trying to explain things to them. So you know, a lot of our customer base, while they’re very, you know, very intelligent, very well-educated, you know English may not be their first language, so I want to make sure I’m understood, in a pretty general way.


Q: Right, right, that’s interesting, yeah. So I have just a couple more questions.


A: Sure.


Q: To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?


A: I don’t know. I think it’s valued, I’m not sure it’s, I think some of the softer– you know, “Hey, this is a pretty technical type of company,” and so I think those who have technical skills and maybe more valued than if they had great writing skills. So I don’t know, that’s at least my humble opinion. So you know, but, on the other hand, you know, I think being able to communicate’s pretty important [chuckle]. So I think it’s important, I think it is important, and I know when I first started here, before I first started here, as part of my interview process, I had to take a test. And there was one part of the test was, “Here’s a paragraph, edit the paragraph.” And we’ve moved away from that, and I think there was value in doing that. I’m not sure I thought that to be the case when I was being interviewed [chuckle], but in hindsight, I think it was probably a good way to screen candidates, because it did assess a certain writing ability. So, you know, we definitely have moved away from that, but you know, I think it’s much more of, to me, “Hey, can you write?” may be a good indicator of, “Hey, what kind of employee are you, or will be? Are you, again, reinforcing the brand that we want to have in this organization?” Can I put you on hold on the phone, hold on one, oh, nevermind, they got it, they are gone.


Q: Okay.


A: So yep, so but yes, it’s I think it’s– clearly they thought, “Hey, it is important.” And maybe we’ve moved away– to me, it’s important based  upon, “Hey what sort of employees, what kind of team do you have within the organization?” and all, so.


Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense.


A: I don’t know, I’m not sure I’m answering your question–


Q: No, you are!


A: –but I think you know, writing is valued definitely, but I think it’s value is perhaps is not as obvious as having technical skills. So and I think that’s sort of what I’m making so it’s, on the surface, I’m going to say it’s considered less valuable than being technical, but I think when you think about it, it’s I’m sure everybody would say, “Hey, it is very important.”


Q: Right, right. Excellent. And my last couple of questions here: first, how would you have defined successful writing as a student, versus successful writing now?


A: [Silence]. I think in both cases, I would say that successful writing means, “Have I effectively communicated the point that I wanted to make?” So and I think that is true, whether I was a college student, or working after 30, 40 years since graduating as an undergrad. I would say it’s different in that I definitely think I was exercised more when I was in college than I am now. So, you know, I think it took a lot more effort, the writing muscle definitely needed to be exercised a lot more. The expectations were probably higher as well, in terms of communicating my point.


Q: That makes a lot of sense. And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?


A: I’m going to say yes, for what it is that I need to write. So if somebody said, “Hey, Aída [sp?], do some sort of ad.” Maybe a little bit more challenging, you know, versus, you know there are, “Hey, reread our website.” Which, maybe perhaps I’ve done, you know, and “Hey, I read and let’s say caught errors,” that maybe somebody else would not have caught. But in terms of creating it in the first place, that may be more difficult for me today than maybe it would have been 20, 30 years ago.


Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah.

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Labor & Delivery Nurse

Sciences, uncategorized

Labor & Delivery Nurse


Q: Would you please state your job title, and where you currently work? And I know, you know, we talked just before starting to record, about how you just transitioned jobs, so if you could just give us the context for your old work versus your new work?


A: Okay. My old job title was as a registered nurse, I recently graduated from Frontier Nursing University with my masters in nurse midwifery. So my new job title is as a nurse midwife, but I’m going to be speaking I think to my last position as a registered nurse with Inova Alexandria Hospital on labor and delivery.

Q: Wonderful. And how long has it been since you graduated from undergrad?


A: I graduated from undergrad in 2014, May of 2014.


Q: Okay, okay. So about four years. And how long have you worked in nursing?


A: Eight and a half years. I had my associate’s before I had my bachelor’s.


Q: Great, okay, perfect. So could you provide sort of a brief description of your primary job functions as a floor nurse?


A: So as a staff nurse on labor and delivery specifically, my primary job would be to care for generally one to two patients in the labor, delivery, and recovery setting, which can be everything from giving emotional, physical support to the laboring woman, providing them with medications, whether it be for pain control or to augment labor, to stop labor. We also had a high-level NICU at our hospital, so I would care for high risk antepartum patients – so patients who are pregnant but not trying to deliver at the time – and generally your function there is to provide medication and monitoring to assess the wellbeing of mom and baby, and the safety of them, and hopefully to stall their labor if you could. And we also have three operating rooms, so we also cared for and circulated in c-section cases, and had a recovery unit for that.


Q: Wonderful, okay. Could you estimate, in an average week, what percentage of that job required writing?


A: How many words together counts as writing [laughter]?


Q: I’ll say two [laughter].


A: Two, okay [laughter]. Okay. How many hours in a week?


Q: What percentage of the week?


A: Umm, let’s say maybe 20 percent of my working time?


Q: Okay, and could you tell me a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you were writing?


A: So most of the writing that takes place as a staff nurse is on an electronic medical record, where we joke that it’s an elaborate billing system, because it is [chuckle], but they try to make it as easy for the billers to use as possible, and as easy for you to not get yourself in trouble as possible. So they do a lot of like, selecting options for charting, so it’s like a column where you select options, you can type in things like, you know, blood pressures, or temperatures, and then you can select options for pain levels, or assessment findings, like color of the skin, they’ll give you options like, “appropriate for ethnicity, warm, dry, clammy, red, hot, weeping”, like tons of different options. And then also an option to click and write a comment, so if you were writing something that was a like deviation from expected, you’d probably want to put a comment to explain why, or what you did about it. And there’s also notes you write that are more narrative. Generally you would write a minimum of one of those a shift, but depending on what you were doing that shift, especially if it was a more complicated patient, you could have like ten.


Q: I see, okay. And so, could you tell me a little bit more about what those narrative pieces sort of look like or sound like?


A: You have to be really careful when you write a narrative in the chart, because you definitely don’t want to double chart, because that’s a waste of your time, but also because you are trying to make sure that you’re staying consistent. And it’s really easy when you’re using click boxes to fill in your answers to, if you’re not being careful, just fill in like your normal answers, like the standards, and then if you write something different in a note, and it contradicts what you already charted, it makes it look like you’re not competent. So you’re trying to make sure that you’re being consistent with what you’re writing unless it’s actually discussing a change. And you have to be careful when you’re writing it to not, as a registered nurse, not make any medical diagnosis, and also not to like throw any other providers under the bus. So a lot of the notes were intentionally vague, in writing things like, if I was concerned about a patient, let’s say she had chest pain after delivery, and I was concerned, and I took some vital signs and everything was normal, and her bleeding was all normal, and everything was great. But I’m still going to definitely go the physician, and let the physician know, “Hey, she’s having chest pain. This is her blood pressure, this is her heart rate, this is her temp, this is what her bleeding is like.” And if they say like, “I’m not worried about it.” And then I’m like, “Well, don’t you want an EKG?” If the provider’s like, “No, I don’t.” Okay, so I don’t want to write a note that says that exactly, because it makes them look like they’re not doing their job, even if I feel that way. So I have to write, for example, that note would say, “Patient complained of chest pain.” I might like list the vital signs, “Provider notified, no new orders,” [laughter].


Q: Interesting. So this vagueness is to make it cover yourself while making sure you’re not throwing someone else under the bus?


A: Right. To say, “Look, I did my job. I followed through, but I can’t speak to whether this other person did.” And if it’s really a safety issue, I mean to be 100 percent honest, there’s obviously a chain of command you follow. So if I really didn’t agree with what that provider said, there’s another physician above that one that I can always go to. So I don’t want to like, speak to them [crosstalk 6:53] with that, but that’s like a really easy example of how and when you would write it.


Q: That makes perfect sense, yeah. And to be clear, you talked about this system being sort of like an elaborate billing system. Obviously the billing folks aren’t the only audience, who else would look at these notes? Both the narrative and the sort of standardized pieces?


A: I would say your most common audience for that would be your other nurses. It’s really common when you start a shift to kind of – you get a report, generally we would do bedside handoff, so you would discuss the patient’s care side to side, at the bedside, with the patient so they can speak up if they’re awake – but then it’s a really good idea to go through and take a look at the notes. And especially when you’re working with a patient who’s been there for a long time, it’s really easy for stuff to get missed. So going through and reading the narratives can say a lot more about what has and hasn’t happened, and what’s been tried and what hasn’t been tried, and how things are responding, than just looking at the – we call them flowsheets – like the excel spreadsheet that has values in it.


Q: I see, okay. That makes a lot of sense. And to clarify, those narrative pieces – it sounds like they’re relatively brief, even though they’re pretty important?


A: Generally. There are probably some nurses who write longer narratives, but most of what you should be writing should be like, especially nowadays, should be easily found in the flowsheet, and that’s the prefered way to document, because it’s an easy way for the system to keep track of what’s going on, and you can’t do metrics, for example, from notes. So if someone in the background from the education department is trying to track a new kind of epidural medication, for example, and I’m just writing notes about a pain level, you can’t just pull that up and track it. So I’m only writing notes about things that, or making comments about things that are maybe a deviation from normal, or it’s something that really needs to be explained.


Q: Got it, got it. And one more follow-up question. You said you also have to be careful not to make any sort of medical diagnosis. I didn’t realize that that was a position that a nurse is in. Can you talk a little bit more about that?


A: Yes [chuckle], so in nursing school, you learn a lot about nursing diagnosis, which just really a fancy way of describing symptoms. But making a medical diagnosis is practicing medicine, and that’s reserved for people who are licensed to practice medicine, so your nurse practitioners, midwives, physicians, etcetera. So if you are handling a patient who looks like they have the flu, and they clearly like, have the flu, as a nurse I can’t write a note that says, “Patient presents with the flu,” unless it’s been diagnosed by a provider. I can say, “Patient presents with fever, runny nose, body aches,” you know, malaise is a nursing diagnosis, which means not feeling well [laughter]. So I can describe it all, but I can’t say, unless it’s been diagnosed by somebody else, I can’t literally say that they have the flu.


Q: That’s fascinating. Okay, okay. I’m sure that makes writing especially tricky, because you’re sort of talking around this really obvious thing that you know, right?


A: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.


  1. That’s really interesting, okay. So, as you are writing these sort of typical documents – let’s talk about that narrative piece, because that seems like you have sort of the most leeway in those–


A: Yeah.


Q: –when you are writing those, is there any preparation or steps that you take prior to writing?


A: Yeah, and especially depending on what the note is talking about or how maybe sensitive the issue is, I am probably going to be looking through the previous notes to make sure that I’m not, again, contradicting something really obvious, unless I have to. So, a big example was for a while, we had some anesthesia staff who would use an incorrect method of measuring a patient’s temperature – not that it wasn’t like, it was a fine measurement for temperature, but our unit had made a policy against using this temporal scanner, because we didn’t find it to be as accurate – and we had some anesthesia staff who were still using it because they liked it, and it was faster, and it would give them slightly warmer values on a patient coming out of the operating room; and one your risks after having surgery is having a low body temperature. So having anesthesia write in their flowsheet that the temperature was 97.4, and I’m getting a temperature of 96, I need to make sure that I see what they charted, what time they charted it, and then I have to be careful with how I chart it, and I might want to explain like, in my note, you know, “rechecked temperature after anesthesia, value 96.0 orally,” and make a note explaining what I had to do thereafter, without having to say like, “they were wrong or used incorrectly equipment,” or something like that. So I have to like, review what they actually charted, when they charted it, and make sure that my note kinda goes along with it without, you know, saying anything negative. So it’s a lot of previous chart review.


Q: And when you’re trying to be really diplomatic in these notes, what are the repercussions if you were not diplomatic? If you did call someone out for something like that?


A: Probably most of the time nothing. The issue’s going to come if they’re– I mean, maybe the physician reads it, but a lot of the times their notes, like I don’t know that a lot of their– like, they have to go look for our notes because the way that their system loads, it’s not as obvious to them. And so they might go through and reread them, and get upset with me, which could damage the relationship, but the biggest risk is if this was audited for court, for example, so if there was a complication and the patient wanted to bring it to court, anyone who’s touched the chart, it keeps a log of everyone who’s logged in and clicked and opened that chart, and anyone who’s written in the chart is probably going to get subpoenaed, and possibly deposed for this court case. And so I have to, you know, show that I’ve done my job, but I also– many court issues end up getting– like if there was incorrect care or something, a lot of times in nursing you’re taught it gets pushed back down to nursing, even if it’s not really in your control, because you’re like the last line of defense, right? So you don’t want to say in your note, you have to prove that you didn’t willfully ignore something, that you gave good, fair care, but you don’t want to provide any ammunition for – this is sounding terrible [laughter] – you know, someone trying to prosecute you saying you didn’t do your job, or the physician didn’t do their job when you know you did. And most of the time, I mean most cases have great outcomes, most cases don’t go to court, but even when they do, most of the situations that are brought to court aren’t because of any negligence or you know, it’s like something crappy happened, that couldn’t be avoided, and it wasn’t in anyone’s control, but no one wants to feel that way, you know? And so you want to make sure that you’re writing these intentionally vague notes so that no one gets in trouble for doing something wrong when most of the time things aren’t being done wrong. Does that kind of make sense?


Q: Got it, yeah that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, that’s really clear actually. That makes a lot of sense. There’s so much nuance to this. So how did you know how to perform these types of writing?


A: That’s a good question [laughter], I need to think about that one. I guess we talked about it some in nursing school, but not a ton. A lot of it comes from working on the floor, and just having to practice when you’re kind of, maybe like one of the first times that you’re put into a touchy situation, where maybe there isn’t a right answer, or you don’t agree, but the person who’s giving you orders isn’t technically wrong or something, and you have to write a note about it, you probably are learning more from your more experienced coworkers. It’s like a skill that’s passed down, because your first intention is just to want to write this like, long narrative note that explains every detail and everything, and then you’re probably doing it with someone with you know, 10 or 20 years more experience looking over your shoulder saying, “Delete that, delete that, delete that, delete that! You already charted that,” [laughter]. So a lot of practice. I do remember starting as a nurse, working in like med/surg–


Q: What is med/surg?


A: Oh, it’s like a medical/surgical floor. So if you’re admitted to the hospital for something, it’s probably where you’re going to go, unless you need like a specialty floor. So if you’re having general surgery for like appendicitis, you’re going to med/surg. If you are– on our unit we did a lot more surgical than medical, but let’s say you have pneumonia and you’re really, really sick and have to go the hospital but you don’t need the ICU, you’re probably going to go to med/surg. So it’s like a general hospital floor. I feel like situations, I remember having to sit there and write notes with people, and you would always seek out like someone you felt comfortable with and saying, “Can you help me write this note? This difficult thing happened.” Like generally then, it had to do with pain management, and you couldn’t get anesthesia to get there on time, or something like that, right?. Patient’s in pain, you’re out of pain medicine, anesthesia isn’t coming, it took an hour, your patient hates you now, you know, something like that [laughter], and you have to careful not to write, “I called anesthesia a hundred million times and they didn’t want to come, because they didn’t like the page,” like, you can’t write that, right? So it’s like going back in time and someone you know, teaching you how to write, okay, write a note for the first time that you notified anesthesia. And then write another note that says, “notified anesthesia.” Write another note that says, “notified anesthesia, anesthesia now in rounds,” you know, and you write it that way. Like these little one line notes that say, “Hey, I did it. Hey, I did it. Hey, I did it.” And as someone showing you, instead of writing one long note, it shows this persistence, for example.


  1. I see, without having to say, “They didn’t show up, I had to follow up.” Yeah, got it.


A: Yeah. It’s obvious by, you don’t have to say it, because it’s obvious by how many times you had to follow up, for example. But that’s like a learned skill from your other nurses.


Q: Absolutely. That’s really, really interesting. Are there other things that you did besides seeking out more experienced nurses to learn how to perform these types of writing?


A: That like I, that I intentionally did?


Q: Yeah, yeah. Are there any other sort of strategies that you utilize to, you know, learn the nuances of this and improve?


A: I don’t know. I guess I can think of a few situations where, a lot of times the nursing managers or the units will have someone specific to call and check up on patients after they’re discharged home to see how they’re doing, and to get like a general idea of what we can do better and what we did really well, for example. And then they would, you know, give you follow up in staff meetings and stuff to talk about, “Well, this patient said that they asked for pain medicine a hundred times and were never given pain medicine,” but I can see from the charting where you called anesthesia, and gave them pain medicine, and reassessed their pain, for example. So you get feedback like that, where you learn you have to prove everything you’ve done.


Q: That’s really interesting, yeah.


A: And there’s a nursing addage of, “If it isn’t documented, it isn’t done.” So that gets beaten into your head as well [laughter].


Q: Got it, yeah, yeah. This is fascinating. Okay, so does anyone oversee your writing? You talked about other nurses reading these, and you talked about how you know, in a specific situation, a doctor might seek out your narrative, or your notes, but is there anyone who actually oversees your writing directly?


A: No.


  1. Okay, alright. And how long do you typically have to complete one of these narratives?


A: So your charting should be done– okay, so the goal is always real-time charting. So real-time charting should be done within two hours of whatever event. But real life, it doesn’t always work like that if you’re in a really, let’s say you’re in a patient’s room and something changes and you have to go have an emergency c-section, well that whole process can take four hours, between the emergency in the room, going for the c-section, recovering the patient, getting them upstairs, and sitting back down, where you haven’t stopped moving, right? So in that kind of case, it can take a little bit longer. I think most of the applications won’t let you chart things that are older than 24 hours, and if you’re writing them really delayed like that, you should start them with like a phrase that says, “late entry,” or something, to show that, you know, if you’re really writing a, like maybe you wake up at midnight, and you’re like, “Oh no! I didn’t write this note about this thing that happened!” So you show up the next morning and you go to their chart and you write, “late entry” for the time it actually happened. And then how much time you’re given to do it – I mean, I guess as long as it takes to write it, I don’t know.


Q: Okay. if you, let’s say, like if it is happening in real time with a typical patient, without any sort of crisis within that, how long do you usually spend you know writing your one narrative for that shift about that patient?


A: Oh, I don’t know, like some seconds [laughter].


Q: Okay, perfect. Some seconds, perfect, okay [laughter].


A: If it’s like a really simple day, I’m not doing anything above and beyond, everything should be captured in that flowsheet. So my note might be like, something about like, it might just be comments I’m making – like in the fields, you can right-click and make a comment about something – like for a slightly elevated temperature, “reassessed in their axillary,” or something like that, you know?. So it could be really, really simple, or you know, “Spouse to bedside”, I don’t know, like really simple stuff like that, if it’s a really simple day, yeah.


Q: Got it, okay. What kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student?


A: As a student, if you go all the way back to the beginning of nursing school, a lot of your writing is in the form of care plans, which is something nursing school really focuses a lot on still, and the idea is to be able to understand and write these nursing diagnoses, which you don’t ever use in real life. But like a true nursing diagnosis goes something like, let me think, like, “malaise secondary to spoiled milk ingestion following something.” It’s like this really silly string of words and modifiers [chuckle] that you just don’t use it, it doesn’t make any sense, no one’s looking for it, but it’s one of those things that the nursing profession really wanted to have included in part of the education. And then your careplan is based on those nursing diagnoses that you’ve made in writing like what the symptoms of the malaise are in that category, and then what you’re doing for it, and what the expected outcome should be following it. And I think the idea is supposed to be like, big picture thinking, you know, like not just saying, “Oh, okay, so they have a fever, let’s just do Tylenol. The end.” You know? High level thinking, like, “Okay, so they have an elevated temperature, and an elevated heart rate, and shortness of breath. And so I’m considering that they might not be perfusing their lungs as well, and so I’m going to follow up with the MD for XYZ.” So it’s to get you thinking like big picture, what are the causes and effects of different things. That was most of nursing school, was these really crazy mind maps and venn diagrams or something, and I don’t know.


Q: That’s really interesting.


A: I don’t think very well like that.


Q: Yeah, so it was more to get you to a certain way of thinking, rather than to you have you practice writing the kind of document you’d be writing on the job.


A: Right, exactly.


Q: Got it, interesting. And so how do you feel like that did prepare you for the actual writing you do at work?


A: I don’t remember it very well, so maybe not great [laughter]. I think it did do a good job of helping you get out of the habit of looking at medical diagnoses though, as a nurse, and get really good at describing what’s going on. Like describing someone who looks like they’re having a pulmonary embolism, instead of saying, “I think they might have a pulmonary embolism,” or, you know? So it does help you with that. But besides that, I don’t know, that kind of felt like busy work.


Q: Got it, okay. And are there things that you wish you had learned in school that would have set you up to be a more effective writer on the job?


A: Let me think for a second. So I did a lot of like educating new hires for example, and training them on the units I worked on for a long time. And I know some of the focus has really changed. When I was in school, there was definitely a focus on, you know, if you didn’t document it, you didn’t do it. And you had to learn how to write in like a paper chart, so you did do a couple examples of writing little notes in paper charts and reading your notes in paper charts, but now the focus seems to be a lot more on the immediacy of charting, because the electronic medical records are everywhere in this area, at the very least. And so for myself, I don’t, I guess maybe more of an emphasis or some more education on how language can be used in like court system, or chart reviews. Or when the hospital can get reviewed by the Joint Commission to makes sure that they’re following standards of care, for example, so you kind of have like a bigger understanding of why you’re charting what you’re charting when some stuff just seems so silly, because you’re just hitting these like charting requirements for the day that don’t have any meaning or impact on what you’re actually doing for the patient, but it’s some bigger company’s proof of what you’ve been doing. So I wish I had learned about what the Joint Commission was, and what they were looking for, so that way I wouldn’t feel so bitter when I was a new nurse about spending extra time filling in these [chuckle] silly paperwork. And I wish that, well the nursing schools it seems like from the nurses who I’ve been training, they really come out wanting to chart everything the moment it’s happening, which is great, but they are so busy charting that they will forget to actually care for their patient. So I find myself saying a lot, like, “the computer’s not your patient,” because that’s what their emphasis is in nursing school, it’s just so hardwired that you have to make sure everything is documented, you know, documentation has to be perfect, etcetera. Which, a lot of what you do is already in the chart, you don’t have to like constantly be in it, you need to be focusing on your patient first. So I wish that was a change too, I wish they really pushed patient first, rather than chart first.


Q: That’s wonderful. Yeah, that’s really fascinating. Um, this next question is sort of a big picture question, we touched on it earlier – but what is at stake in your writing?


A: Oh, I mean, I guess if I am in inappropriate with the kind of notes I write, or if I don’t write something that I’ve done that’s really important, that proves I was doing my job, that proves the provider was doing their job, that we were working as a team for example, and there is a negative outcome, and we all go to court, like I could lose my license [chuckle], yeah.


Q: Yeah, pretty big impact, okay.


A: I mean charting isn’t going to save, I mean I guess in theory charting could really impact someone’s care if you don’t chart that you’ve done something, I mean that becomes bigger with proving that you’ve passed your medications and stuff like that, but as far as narrative writing, it’s mostly going to be proof that I’ve followed up on things, and acknowledged things, and noticed changes.


Q: That makes perfect sense, yeah. And what is the most difficult or challenging thing about writing in that particular position?


A: A lot of times you’re doing so many things at one time, and you’re following up on like if you notice a change in someone’s status, and you’re following up on it, and your provider’s following up on it, and they’re getting specialists involved, and you know, you’re like trying to keep track of everything that’s happening, while also making sure you’re patient’s safe, you could definitely just forget to write something, you know? And that’s your proof that it was done.


Q: Right, okay, okay. You talked a little bit about seeking out more experienced nurses early on in your career – is there anyone else who’s helped you with your writing, formally or informally, since you’ve been on the job?


A: Like in my nursing writing?


Q: Yeah.


A: No, I guess not really. Because no one really follows up on it unless you’re not charting that you did something.


Q: Okay, okay. And how do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?


A: I’ve gotten a lot more efficient [chuckle]. I am really good at saying as little as possible to get my point across [laughter].


Q: And to what extent do you think that writing is valued in that position?


A: I would say among other nurses, you know, you definitely have opinions about how people chart, and there’s definitely lazy charters, which isn’t so much a big deal, unless they’re not really saying things like, that they’ve called case management, or whatever, and it’s making your day extra busy because you’re doing stuff they already did, so. I think it makes a big difference between the other nurses that you’re working with, to know what’s going on.


Q: Got it, got it. So sort of your reputation as a nurse also has to do with it?


A: Yeah, your like reputation as a nurse, and also the, how– how do I say it? Like how easy it is to care for the patient can be impacted by how willing someone was to sit down and type something out.


Q: Got it, got it. Okay. And this is my last couple of questions here. So how would you have defined successful writing when you were a student, versus how do you define successful writing in this job that you’ve recently left?


A: So especially working on my bachelor’s after I had my associate’s, the focus what a lot more on paper writing, and writing, I don’t know, a bunch of, I felt like the same essay again and again. So doing well on the essay, right, was really important, and what really became hard, because I was already working as a nurse, was when you had a word count that you had to hit; you’re getting really really good at mincing your words and being really succinct, and then you’re given a word count that’s longer, like hitting a word count becomes really hard [chuckle]. So the big difference is that, is in nursing you’re– wait, is that what you asked, I’m sorry?


Q: It is. How did you define successful writing then versus now, yeah.


A: Okay, yeah. So then, it was a lot more about hitting word counts, and saying you know, what they wanted to hear, and sometimes just being more verbose. And then now it has a lot more to do with how quickly and efficiently can I say the bare minimum to show that I did my job?


Q: That makes perfect sense. That’s so interesting. And I’m sure that’s– I don’t know how typical that path is for other nurses, but it seems especially tricky, because I guess most nursing in doing a bachelor of nursing have not worked as a nurse in the past? Is that a fair statement, or no?


A: At least in this area, that’s probably true. It depends on where you are in the country. Associates-prepared nurses, I mean this area still has associates programs, and throughout the program some places really rely heavily on associates prepared nurses.


Q: Gotcha, okay.


A: Yeah.


Q: And my final question – would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?


A: Yeah, I think I’m a good note writer. People come to me for help with their notes.


Q: Excellent.

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Human Rights & Discrimination Lawyer

Law & Law Enforcement

Human Rights and Discrimination Lawyer



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


A: I’m a lawyer, I work for a government agency called the Human Rights Legal Support Center, and I graduated in 2012, so that would be six years ago.

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


A: Uh, it’s a mix, I mean I work on human rights files from beginning to end. So the beginning of a file is a paper application, so I might draft that, and the middle of the file is the mediation, so I would attend the mediation with the client, the end of the file is the hearing, so I would prepare submissions for that hearing, attend the hearing, do submissions both written and orally.


Q: Can you provide a rough estimate, in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing? Would you say zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50 percent, 50 to 75 percent, or 75 to 100 percent?


A: I’d say 50 to 75.


Q: What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents are you most often writing for your job?


A: It’s probably 50 percent emails, and 50 percent written submissions on behalf of clients.


Q: Good. And so who would be your primary audiences for those kinds of documents?


A: Emails are either clients or lawyers, so other lawyers on the file, or sometimes if a party’s self represented, it’s self represented party. And then the submissions, the audience is the tribunal, so that’s a single adjudicator who’s appointed to the human rights tribunal.


Q: Okay. Can you talk a little bit about the primary purposes for perhaps your emails that you’d be writing?


A: Yeah, they really range [chuckle]. Some of them are just pure logistics, like, figuring out a phone call, or confirming a client’s instructions. I would say a lot of them are communicating advice that I gave orally or even that I didn’t give orally, I’m just doing it for the first time in writing, so that I can give the clients instructions on how to proceed.


Q: Okay. And then the other more formal court documents, their purposes would be?


A: To try to win an argument [laughter]. So, yeah, whatever that argument is.


Q: Could you perhaps walk us through the process of a specific recent project or type of project, specifically thinking about like how an assignment or task is given to you, what your preparation is like, the steps you take from the time it’s assigned to you through its completion?


A: Yep. I’ll do this submissions because I think that’s probably the best example. There– let me think about this. Sometimes there are deadlines that are imposed by the tribunal, especially if I’m responding to a submission that’s been made by the other side. So in terms of preparation, you know, I get the deadline from the tribunal, I have a certain amount of time, probably about two weeks, to prepare. Sometimes it’s our initiative, and so that’s me sort of sitting down and brainstorming on a file, and figuring out that we need to file something in writing in order to achieve a certain goal. So that’s a lot more flexible, that would be me taking the time to actually think through what I have to do on the file, and then figuring out whether I have an example of that kind of submission already sitting on my desktop. And I would do that in both cases, actually, look for a precedent first, and if I have that precedent, I use it as a rubric for especially the law, I would study the same cases and use some of the same framework. If I had to start from scratch, I would look at cases and figure out how this has gone in similar cases, and then use that background to inform what I do next. And in terms of how I would actually sit down and write it, once I felt like I had enough input to create the output, I would normally just hammer it out. Like I would sit down for an hour or two hours and maybe put headphones on, and create a draft that I would then send to the client to approve, probably go back and forth once or twice with some edits, and then PDF it and file it.


Q: Okay, great. So you talked just there about edits – how frequently in the process is someone reviewing this work and, if it’s an external reviewer, what are they doing to try to help make the writing or the quality of the document better?


A: Yeah, I would say 90 percent of the time it’s a client reviewing it, so their way of making the document better is either correcting me if I’ve gotten a fact wrong, or adding in their perspective on how they want to argue it. You know, normally I have to tell you I don’t accept them, I’m like, “Well I’m the lawyer, I know how to argue it,” so that kind of edit doesn’t make its way through. Sometimes if I’m co-counselling with a lawyer on a file, they’ll review my draft as well. Those edits I think are kind of two categories. One is just for quality, so you know, grammatical or conciseness, or making a point a bit more clearly. And then there is a lot of difference I find depending on the lawyer you’re working with in the style that they write in, so I’m not particularly formal or lengthy in the way that I write, I just state the facts and leave it. But I do work with lawyers who want a bit more formal lawyer language in their documents, and so they’ll edit to add that.


Q: So how did you know how to do these kinds of writing?


A: You take a class in law school called legal research and writing, so they fold the research in with that too. It’s one semester, it’s not that practical I’ll say. And I developed most of the skills on the job. I also did mock trials in law school, and those I found useful, because you’re asked to create draft arguments, and those are reviewed by professionals who are actually practicing, so they start to give you a sense of style. And I would say when I was articling, I got really harshly edited because you’re trying to translate– at least for me, I did academic writing in undergrad, and then you go to law school and you sort of learn what you’re doing, but then you’re out in the world and it’s a really different style of writing. It’s point first, so you don’t take your time to get to the point, you say the point up front, and then explain why your point’s right. And it’s extremely direct, like there’s no dressing on the sentences [chuckle], so you know, the students who are overthinking everything have it just torn apart by the lawyers. So that was definitely a learning experience.


Q: Great. And so you had said that the class wasn’t particularly practical for you. What do you think was like the biggest gap between the way the class presented the writing and then how you experienced it in the real world?


A: Um, I mean the principles were there in the class, like when I look back, they were trying to teach us how to do it properly, I think it was just a lack of practice. And that we were still, like law school the way I did it was still extremely academic. So you’re still reading academic language, you’re still steeped in that in terms of the rest of the curriculum. So you’re just not I don’t think getting enough exposure or practice doing it in the way that you end up having to do it later on.


Q: So can you describe a time in your career that you maybe felt unprepared as a writer in your job?


A: That’s a good question. Let me think.


Q: Is there a particular task or a skill that your job asked you to do that you maybe hadn’t done before?


A: Yeah. I think, I mean sort of I can see the way I’ve built things up. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One is, we draft applications for people who are explaining the kind of discrimination they experienced, and I know the first few times I had to do that I felt like I didn’t really understand how to do that because I didn’t know whether to put it in the first person, first of all. And I also didn’t know whether to make it just about the facts, or to bring in the law. And you know, I’ve since learned how to do that, and how to do it in a style that suits me. But that I think I just, yeah, took some stabs at it, and then eventually read other versions of it to figure out what to do. I also once had to write a factum, which is not what I currently do, but another kind of law that I practiced before, and that was overwhelming because it’s a lot more formal structurally. So you have to put things in a certain font size, create certain margins, cite things extremely precisely, and if you don’t do that, you’ll have it actually rejected when you go to file it. So I definitely felt like I didn’t know what I was doing there and had to look at other examples to figure it out.

Q: Would you say that’s your primary method of kind of overcoming these challenges, is looking at other examples? Or do you have other means of like, if you feel a challenge at work, do you have other avenues of helping you overcome those challenges?


A: Yeah, so looking at other examples, talking to colleagues about you know, specific questions that I might have, and then trial and error [chuckle] I’d say is the other one. You know, sometimes you try something out, and, what I do currently is flexible enough that you’re not going to fail if you do it wrong, you’re just going to learn from the experience and do it better next time.


Q: So, aside, you know you’ve talked about clients of course looking over your writing and also co-counsel and stuff like that, do you have anybody you consider a supervisor that oversees your writing at any point?


A: Not currently. I used to, but not [10:46 inaudible].


Q: Sure, okay. You’ve touched on this a little bit, how long typically do you have to complete a writing project from assignment to completion?


A: Uh, between I would say one week and a month, depending on the project.


Q: Okay. We’ve hit on some of this, and this can even go beyond law school, maybe even into undergraduate writing, but we’re talking about more general writing here as well – what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to do as a student, and do you think that your college writing experiences gave you kind of any preparation for the way that you write now in your workplace?


A: Yep. Stages of writing that I would have done to get me where I am. The first would be undergrad, and I remember that being essays or reflective pieces, and research-based, academically-based, theory-based kind of work. I don’t necessarily [laughter] think that really helped me where I am today, maybe helped me with like reading comprehension in some of the things that I do now, but I’m so far away from theory with what I do that that I don’t see how I really incorporate it now, I guess other than basic grammar and learning how to write coherently. And then in law school, I still was doing mostly academic writing, with that exception of the course and the mock trials. And that, I guess sort of started to transition me into a much more direct writing style, but I know that in the third stage, when I was articling, I still had a lot of work to do in the sense that– then I was being asked to do submissions, so I was being asked to do two things, submissions and research. And it was still probably 75 percent research, 25 percent submissions. So I got enough practice to get okay at submissions, but the– and actually the research teaches you how to write succinctly too, because then you’re writing for the audience of another lawyer, and you’re trying to condense all the research you did into something usable for them, so it has to be something they can plug into the submissions that they’re writing. So I guess that sort of transition learning, in the sense that you still had to dive into a lot of ideas, and express those ideas clearly, but not in a flowery, academic way. It had to be really direct.


Q: What do you think would have been most useful for you learn as a student that would’ve maybe prepared you better for the kind of writing you do now?


A: I think just don’t overdo it [laughter]. Stories can be– everything can be simplified. Principles can be simplified, stories can be simplified. There’s no extra added value in added words, and that that’s okay. I think I thought for a while that using the bigger word made it better writing, but I definitely learned that that wasn’t true.


Q: So I want to talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing, some of it maybe is obvious. But what are the stakes of your writing? What are consequences for really good or maybe not so good writing in your profession?


A: Yeah. Sometimes the stakes are pretty high. So especially those emails to clients, when I’m putting my advice in writing, I have to be really careful with making sure it’s accurate, and also making sure it’s comprehensible to the client. And so if either of those – I mean the accuracy is the key one – but if the comprehensibility is not there, I’m just making work for myself in having to then schedule a phone call and walk through the concept and not– I need to create sort of a record of what’s gone on on a file too, and that record isn’t as good if the writing isn’t clear enough for the client to understand it. And then the stakes for the, I mean the stakes for the submissions are, if it’s not convincing enough, then you don’t succeed in your argument I suppose. And I also think if it’s sloppy, that creates an impression on the adjudicator of your skill and your expertise and can influence the outcome as well. And especially if it’s confusing, I find that when I read arguments that are confusing I find them much less convincing. And so the clearer it is and the better presented it is, I think the more likely you are to succeed.


Q: So it’s interesting, it sounds like, you know, you’re writing in that, since it’s maybe the first impression that some of people are going to get of you as a lawyer, you know, you kind of want that presentation. Is there a certain, I don’t know, trait that you want to be present or visible in your writing for say, adjudicators or your clients or anybody reading your work?


A: Yeah, that’s a good question. I want them to read it and have it immediately make sense. So that, and I’ve read good writing on both sides. So sometimes I read the other side’s submissions and I’m like, “Oh shoot! That makes perfect sense to me and I’m trying to advocate against that.” So you should read it and immediately buy into what’s being said so that it’s hard to challenge that perspective, or for the other side to get under the skin of it, because it’s so obvious in the way that it’s written that it must be true or the right approach.


Q: What would you say the most difficult thing about writing in your field is?


A: Condensing large amounts of information into short, persuasive sentences.

Q: Has anyone helped you formally or informally with your writing since you’ve left school?


A: Yep, I mean I had the articling year when, that was a mentoring relationship. Other than that, it would just be feedback that I get from co-counsel. Generally, if they’re giving me feedback, they’re more senior, so that would be informal, but I would still try and learn and adopt from it.


Q: You’ve talked a little bit about that ability to kind of be succinct, so if this is redundant you can say so, but if there’s any other ways in which this question applies, feel free. So how do you think you’ve most evolved or improved as a writer so far throughout your career?

A: Yeah, it’s similar to things I’ve said before I think. Learning how to be direct and not being– learning how to simplify things instead of complicate them, I guess [chuckle], yeah.


Q: Okay, just a few more questions. And again, this might be obvious because we’ve talked about this a little bit already, but to what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization as well as the discipline or field of law as a whole?

A: Right. Valued, I think it’s very valuable, whether or not it’s valued by everyone [chuckle] is an interesting question. I think everyone has different approaches to how precise they feel they need to be; and I’ve definitely read submissions that are all over the place, and full of spelling errors, and not formatted properly. So I’m not sure if everyone in the profession sees that the real value in that being a vehicle to persuade people. And I know– I think I like writing, is part of the reason why I put energy into making something flow properly, and just read well. But I do know, especially the work I do, is before a really informal tribunal. So you could, to get a certain request granted, you could file three lines, or you could file three pages. And I’m in the camp of people who would file three pages, just in case, and also because why not? So I guess, I prefer email over the phone, but there are definitely people I practice with who would prefer the phone over email. So, where I might email a client to create a paper trail of what I’ve told them, I have colleagues who would call. So I definitely think it’s valuable and a really key component of practice, but there are definitely people who practice differently and, you know, still succeed, and rely on writing much less than I do.


Q: So, last question. How would you define successful writing as a student, versus what you consider to be successful writing now? And would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer, why or why not?


A: Okay. I think successful writing when I was a student I understood as being thoughtful and reflective and, to be honest, wordy. Like a lot of the academic language was something you were supposed to be using and deploying in an academic context, and about toying with ideas instead of settling on them, just sort of batting them around. In my profession now, I see, I think I’ve mentioned, I see successful writing as being succinct, and persuasive, and not necessarily simple, but able to condense big concepts into basic language. And do I consider myself successful? I think, you know, I’d like to think that I’ve come to a place where I have the tools I need to succeed when I sit down to write something. I think when I read the things other people have written in my field, I always try and learn from that, and implement their tactics to enhance mine. But it is one of the things that I really enjoy about my work, and I think that because of that, I’ve been able to succeed because I like doing it, so.


Q: Great, thank you so much.


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Special Collections Librarian


Special Collections Librarian



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


A: So my job title is special collections librarian. I work at Marymount University main campus in Arlington, and I graduated from my master’s degree in 2010.

Q: Okay, and from undergrad what year?


A: From undergraduate in 2007.


Q: Okay, great. And how long have you been in your current field?


A: Um, so since, what would it be? About 2008, yeah.


Q: Okay, perfect. Could you just give me a brief description of your primary job functions?


A: So my job is part time, as I said, as a special collections librarian. So Marymount is a very small university, so a small library, and quite small staffing, which means I pretty much in my role do a little bit of everything. So I sort of liase a lot with teaching faculty to get suggestions for like, new acquisitions of special collections materials that they might be interested in us buying, that then they’ll use in teaching. And then all different aspects of collections stewardship that would go through that, so it’s kind of selecting, working with book sellers, purchasing, cataloguing, doing any basic preservation, materials like marketing and promotions, so, like small exhibitions, and occasionally events. And, oh, and then I’m also responsible for the sort of disaster planning for all the physical collections in the library itself. So that’s just sort of like an add-on task, really. So yeah, I think I’m rambling, but that’s about it.


Q: Excellent. No, no, that’s great.


A: Oh, and donor relations. Yeah we have one main family that are donors, and then seeing any other potential donors, to where their donation would fit into special collections comes through me.


Q: I see, okay. That is a little bit of everything.


A: Yeah. ‘Cause I’m a one man band, so yeah.


Q: Right, right. So in a given week, could you estimate maybe the percentage of your work that requires writing?


A: Um, good question. So, [interviewee talking to interviewee’s child] Um, I would say that almost–  I would say that yeah, actually probably a really high proportion involves writing in some form of another, because the amount of work I do that’s actually practical, like doing some preservation or something is very, yeah, five, ten percent of my time. So I would say yeah, probably some form of another, it’s like 90 percent of the time is some form of writing. So yeah, I don’t know.

Q: Great. That’s okay, a ballpark is fine. So, could you tell me a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you most often write?


A: I think that’s more of an overestimate actually, but let’s say it’s over 50 percent, yeah, because there’s a lot of reading as well. But let’s just say yeah.

Q: Sure, sure.


A: So the types of things I write – so let’s see, a lot of emails, I suppose there’s things like meeting agendas and minutes, what else? Oh, I was saying about the, what do you call it? The disaster plan, so some, oh and something that, so that’s– yeah kind of like policy documents, like internal policy documents that I write, and then, yeah like contributions to like the collection fund or [inaudible 4:27], cataloguing policy, or, you know, annual reviews, so those sorts of documents. And then other writing, I guess it’s not prose, but let’s see, if I’m cataloguing, or I’m doing the metadata that’s associated with that, and then so a little bit of writing in terms of, for promotional outreach so, submission that involves writing captions, you know, a bit of advertising material like Facebook, and Twitter posts to promote what we’re doing, so yeah, sort of various aspects–


Q: Yeah, really various. Yeah, and it seems like it’s a pretty good mix of internal and external audiences, is that a fair–?


A: Yeah, I mean I think– so it’s pretty much all sort of what we call– mostly all around the Marymount community, however, I suppose it’s internally intensive, library employees, like working documents or policies, and then an external audience would be, for sort of start with faculty but still part of Marymount, and then yeah, and then a sort of little bit externally if I’m going to– communicating with book sellers, or other libraries, or staff at other libraries that are part of the WRRC, the Washington Research Libraries Consortium.


Q: Right, okay, perfect. Could you walk me through the process, sort of start to finish, of a typical project or a recent project? Maybe the disaster plan, since that’s an annual writing project usually?


A: Um, yeah. What aspects of it?


Q: So everything from planning, to any research that goes into it, to drafting feedback revisions, anything that sort of happens along the way, from the beginning of that document, and it sounds like you probably starting with something, a draft, each time, but, to how it’s considered sort of final at the end there?


A: Okay, umm, I suppose it’s just a very small thing, but something I was doing very recently is we just changed the name of the room where our special collections are kept, and we’re changing the, so there’s lots of bits and pieces to do to sort of update that on everything, but one of the things to do is rewriting the policy for the room itself. It’s very short, like very short document, and I suppose what was involved with that– well I was looking at what it was existing, how it was originally, and then updating it how the room could be used now, so I [inaudible 7:32] a draft, [inaudible 7:33] my supervisor, who’s the collection manager, and then it also went to the university librarian to check. So what tends to happen is my manager tends to spot occasional grammatical errors, as well as content, and then it’s sort of sent for final approval and feedback from those two librarian, and then it sort of be sent back to me for edits, and [cross talk 8:10]–


  1. Perfect, okay. How did you know how to perform these types of writing? Everything from writing that metadata, to writing a disaster plan, to writing a caption for an exhibit – it’s a lot of different forms.


A: Ah, okay, yeah, I suppose– um, yeah I mean, I suppose I look a lot of how other people have done it. And so sometimes I look– so particularly with caption writing, I’ve looked at sort of style guides– there’s one I remember that I still occasionally refer to now, books produced by the V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. And that was incredibly slow, because it just kind of, um, yeah, took me through each stage of the information that I was trying to like– oh yeah, because the caption was short, so it’s really important that what you’re putting into an audience and everything, so, yeah, so looking, yeah, examples elsewhere, and then, yeah, looking for yeah, writing guides if they are available.


Q: Is that V&A guide a public document?


A: Yeah, it is publicly available.


Q: Oh interesting, that’s cool.


A: And then, one thing I’ve found is the style– you know, obviously American English is different to British English, so it’s almost like, when I was first here, I made a really, really conscious effort to look at how things are written here, and try and write in that style, even though I didn’t kind of look at a style guide for American english. But then, I’ve sort of now being here long enough, by that it starts to come naturally because I’ve spent, because you’ve been here more than two and a half years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading American English, and then I started to pick it up and use it in my writing.


Q: And did you– sorry to interrupt, did you go to library school in the UK, or?


A: In the UK, yeah.


Q: In the UK, okay, right, right.


A: So yeah, can you repeat the original question? I’m losing track.


Q: Absolutely. How did you know how to do these types of writing?


A: Um, yes, I suppose looking, yeah, as I said, at examples as were, and then, guides if possible for writing a type of document. ‘Cause one thing I did find when I started working is that even basic things like, “How do I take minutes in a meeting?” I was like, “I don’t know how to do this!” So if there’s ever been any kind of like internal training offered, which sometimes there has been by previous employers, then I’ve done that. But normally it’s just looking at what’s been done before, and how it’s done, yeah.


Q: Perfect, yeah. You sort of just did, but if you don’t mind, describing a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?


A: Yeah, this happens quite [inaudible 11:30] [laughter], like because it’s new, I don’t know, like a new style of um– yeah, I’m thinking of an example– I suppose I should say I’m also dyslexic, and this was just picked up when I was at university, so it’s also made me, perhaps like not particularly confident in my writing ability. But I suppose, as I already talked about, in terms of like writing captions, as it were, that’s something I need to do a bit of research about. So let’s see, cataloguing, there’s particular protocols for you know, how you should write things. In a way that’s easier, ‘cause that’s kind of set out in a kind of guide, yeah, cataloguing guidelines.


Q: There’s a specific form, okay.


A: Sort of like format and [inaudible 12:25].


Q: I see, okay.


A: And then, but yeah like also, just recently doing a policy document at work again, so just looking how they’ve written them elsewhere, and then ask for feedback, as well.


Q: Yeah. Have you found that you’ve gotten useful feedback in your current position?


A: Yeah, I have.

Q: That’s great, good. You mentioned the sort of head of the university library – is that the person who would typically oversee any writing that you do?


A: Um, no, it would normally be– [interviewee talking to interviewee’s child] Thank you! Um, it would normally be my supervisor, who’s the collections manager, yeah.


Q: I see, okay, perfect. And do they see everything you write? Or just certain documents?


A: No, it’s more, yeah, key things like for instance, recently I was making updates to the special collections pages on the university library’s website, so that would definitely have to go by my manager, just to okay that. So it’s those, yeah, kind of policy documents, and anything going on the website–


Q: So more formal?


A: Yeah, more formal.


Q: Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Um, I’m sure this varies a lot from project to project, but how long would you say you typically have to complete a writing project?


A: Um, oh gosh, yeah it varies a lot. It depends what it is, because it could be something that’s, you know, quite concise and it’s done in a Word draft, it’s done in a few hours, or it’s something that I’m chipping away at over a few weeks. So, but generally it’s quite short, like in the workplace, it’s usually quite short timescale that I’m working on something.


Q: Yeah. So now sort of looking back toward your undergraduate days, what types of writing do you remember being asked to do as a college student?


A: So I did a joint honors degree, which it may not be called that here. So I studied psychology and sociology, so I did notice that the, yeah the type of writing we did was slightly different. So the essays were, kind of came up in both. In psychology, there was lots of short, sort of small experiments we do, so they’d be written up as a sort of, yeah, report, like a very miniature research paper I guess. And then, I’m trying to think. Other writing– and then presentations, so writing for that, and obviously writing in exams, and then it would tend to be either essays in exams, or long questions, yeah.


Q: And in what ways do you think that writing prepared you, or it didn’t, for the kind of work that you do now?


A: Um, yeah, I don’t think it really prepared me at all [laughter] for the writing I did after university. I think I got a good basis of like, how the written style that those– ‘cause I was sort of aware of the differences between those two academic subjects, the writing style, and I think I had a good basis for how to write in those fields, and got familiar through reading journal articles, and you know, and the rest, but I don’t think it prepared me for workplace writing. ‘Cause again, you know, it’s usually quite, it’s not exactly technical, but it was academic writing, it wasn’t applied as in the workplace.


Q: Yeah, exactly, okay. What are the types of things that you wish you had learned or done as a student that you think would have prepared you better?


A: I think, so, I suppose like the different styles of work, covering some of the different, maybe different formats of writing that you could be asked to do in the workplace. So, you know, from the basics of, you know, how to, you know, format meeting minutes, and how to record that, to how to, yeah, different styles of ways of writing reports and writing like concisely, or, you know, writing in a way that, what am I trying to say, it’s I suppose like in plain, not like simple language, but like in plain language, because it sort of is– academic writing is not how, you know, you kind of, um, not that you’re writing for a lay audience at work, but you don’t need to overcomplicate it, you want to make it easy for people, not oversimplify, but make it understandable, so yeah.


Q: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


A: So I think there was a lot of support at university in terms of writing for, you know there was like, like very good career center, in terms of like writing CVs or resumes, and like application letters. So that I had lots of support with writing on, so writing to get a job, but not so much the writing once you were in the job, yeah.


Q: Excellent, yeah. What would you say is at stake in your writing at work these days?


A: What do you mean by at stake?


Q: Why does it matter and what would be the consequence if you weren’t effective?


A: I suppose, one thing I suppose is being understood clearly, and I think I’m more aware of that because I’m British working in American culture, so I’ve become quite like, “Am I using the American way of writing something so there’s not confusion?” What’s at stake, I suppose– it’s not so much where it’s kind of like a dry policy document, but I think I am quite aware when I’m writing something, like for social media or a you know, a promotion for a little exhibition, I kind of think, I see other people’s examples, and I think, “Oh they’re really good at writing that in like catchy or like fun way,” and I’m like, that does not come naturally. And I was like, I don’t know if they just do it more easily, or whether they spend more time on it, but I’m kind of like, “Okay, I can write this dry policy document no problem,” but like actually experience in writing something entertaining or drawing people in, I don’t, yeah, that’s hard.


Q: That’s interesting, yeah. That actually leads into my next question, which is, what is the most challenging thing about writing in your position?

A: Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’ve just described. So when it’s not just kind of laying out the information but trying to present that information in a particularly appealing way in a written format.


Q: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned, in previous jobs, like training and workshops and things like that – has there been any other writing help that you’ve gotten, either formally or informally?


A: I suppose formally, I did have a bit of help at university, not really so much my masters but my undergraduate, ‘cause they sort of picked up on the dyslexia when I was at university, and there I had some one-to-one support, so I could go and talk to someone about, like, you know, essay plans, and they check some of my written work, then, you know, was it clear, was it, you know, kind of, yeah, not so much content, but looked at my main argument [inaudible 21:10] and that sort of thing. Other– and then informally, I suppose just, yeah, I ask people occasionally just to sort of check over what I’ve written.


Q: And is that usually for clarity too, not for content, or the other way around?


A: It’s normally actually for– yeah, it’s normally more for, that it’s clear, not that it’s, not so much content, because I just sometimes, even with you know, using like Microsoft or whatever else to write things, I’m sometimes, like I don’t see, I have sometimes difficulty seeing my own mistakes, so I often, yeah if it’s something important, I’ll ask someone to just quickly flip through it.


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


A: I suppose I’ve– good question. I think it’s like, I still feel like it’s very much like a work, like I’m still working on my writing at work, it’s something, ‘cause I feel like there’s often this new thing, new audiences or something that I’m writing for, or in a new format, so I’m sort of, I feel like I sort of teach myself along the way of how to write for it. I don’t know particular report or for a particular audience, um. I think I’m a lot less shy now of just sort of saying, “Hey, I’m dyslexic, please, I don’t see my own mistakes, will you just like have a look?” And people being very receptive to that, and being helpful. I suppose not being shy, [inaudible 23:15], you know. Where it’s like, “Oh God, if I make a mistake, I’m going to get caught out!” And then, you know, you like not really care– I suppose as you get older, not caring so much being judged for how you write, so yeah.


Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. I think a lot of people have that, the older you get, like, no matter whatever you see is your writing failure, it seems like almost everyone has some way that they’re worried about everyone seeing this thing that they don’t feel like they do well, yeah. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?


A: I think, um, yeah, I think writing is, I’d say it’s quite highly valued, because it’s so much about the work that the university– and it has both in the teaching, and then all the sort of support side that goes alongside that. It’s amazing, I mean, I almost find it surprising they don’t offer more guidance, even if, for writing styles, because it is so fundamental to people’s jobs, that there isn’t, I mean my last employer in the UK was very good, and they had lots of other resources that you could use for guidance in all sorts of aspects, you know those kind of like soft skills of having the work of whatever it be.


Q: Was that a university too, your last employer?


A: No, it was a not for profit, it was called the Royal College of Nursing, so it’s like a professional membership organization.


Q: Okay, okay. Interesting. And our last little set of questions: so how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?


A: Um, the first part of that question, I suppose yeah, it was slightly different successful writing as a student, because that was focusing on the– [interviewee referring to interviewee’s child]… It was almost like, yeah like the content was very important, not that it isn’t now, but you know, had you found the most recent, most relevant research, that you put into essay, so you really, you know so they’d almost like, not that, you know, spelling, punctuation, and grammar wasn’t important, but that was just like one aspect in lots of other criteria that then could form your writing. I suppose you get that feedback, you’d get a detailed grade of the different, you know, how you’ve met each requirement, um. And then repeat the rest of the question?


Q: Sure, and how would you define successful writing in your current position? And would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer?


A: Um, successful writing in the workplace I suppose does what it intends to in that it’s understandable for the audience that is intended to read that, whether that’s internal or external. Something I was trying to use to be, without leaving information out, but to be as concise as possible, and not put any unnecessary information in if it is needed. ‘Cause I’ve come across that a lot,  at my current job, some incredibly lengthy documents that no one’s ever going to read because they’re so long, and there’s not even a decent summary at the beginning, so, and the last bit was am I a successful writer?


Q: Yeah.


A: Um, I’d say yes and no. I think, I think I can write well, I just think it takes me, it just takes me quite a bit of time, and this is the same as when I was a student at undergraduate or masters level. It was like I, you know, I could get very good grades on assignments, but I really had to put the time in. I can’t kind of just rush to complete it. So if I’m under a lot of time pressure, there’s [inaudible speaking to child], I mean like with anyone, it’s not going to, yeah, it might not be as good. But I think given the time, and like I was saying, like if I can go away and research a particular style of you know, how to write a particular thing, and look at examples as well, and look at how they’ve done it before, and then drafting, and get someone to check it, and you know, make final edits, I can do a good job. But if it’s something we don’t have time to do that, then it’s harder to write as well.


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Director of Business Development


Director of Business Development



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


A: Yes. So my job title is Director of Business Development; I work at Flourish agency, we’re a full service, creative agency that really specializes in the direct-to-consumer space, and I graduated from undergrad in 2009 with a degree in political science and business.

Q: Great. And how long have you been in your current field? Since 2009, or?


A: No, I transitioned from the corporate/private banking world at JP Morgan in 2016 to the ad agency world. This is now my second agency in the last two and a half/three years, and yeah, that’s it.


Q: Great, okay excellent. Can you provide just a brief description of your primary job functions?


A: I lead and manage all agency new business and organic growth initiatives company-wide. So any opportunity to grow organically with our current client base is a small portion of what I do, but my primary focus is prospecting, developing relationships, and ultimately, earning business from brands that we want to be in business with.

Q: Okay, okay. How frequently are you required to write? So maybe, if you could estimate even in an average week, what percent of your job actually requires writing?


A: I would say I send upwards of 40 to 50 varied types of written messages every single day, that’s across social media, so LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, as well as emails. And another portion of my day is, obviously with any active opportunities that we have that we’re currently working to pitch or develop a stronger relationship with, we write pretty long and sophisticated presentations of which I probably am responsible for like, somewhere around 25 percent of. So I’d say most of my day is, maybe 30 to 40 percent of my day, maybe even more on some days, is probably focused on actual writing.


Q: Great, okay. And obviously it will vary from project to project, but typically how long do you have to complete a writing project?


A: It’s very quick turnaround. So, when prospecting or reaching out to current prospects or clients, minutes, you know, probably no more than 15 minutes are spent. With presentations, it probably ranges from, you know, we have such a large bank and I have a lot of experience to pull from it, the stuff that I’m writing is usually just modified in some ways or customized to the approach that we’re taking with that opportunity. But probably a couple hours, maybe two, three hours at most. And then usually, I kind of take over the reigns near the end once everyone’s contributed, and make sure that things are formatted and grammatically correct and consistent across each presentation.


Q: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. My next question you’ve sort of answered, but just to clarify – could you sort of list off the forms or types of documents that you most often complete? So you mentioned sort of prospecting emails, social media, these presentations – anything else that you write often?


A: Um, no, outside of like actual managing social media accounts, the things that I listed, you know, outward prospecting efforts and in presentations, it’s pretty consistently that, sometimes some internal communications. But no, I would say my role is pretty focused on those things.


Q: Okay, that makes sense. And who are the primary audiences and what are the primary purposes of those communications?


A: So, the primary purposes are to create relationships and ultimately move them through a funnel over a long period of time. So most of my sales cycles are between 16 and 18 months, sometimes longer. And the goal is to really create a consistent touchpoint throughout that journey. Obviously if I have never spoken to someone and they, you know, are consistently being reached out to by dozens of people like me, my goal is really to create innovative ways to get through to them. So, while writing is a piece of that, I obviously do a lot of things that aren’t writing based. And categorically, most agencies have like maybe three to four wheelhouses that they specialize in. Currently, for me, the prospects that we’re actively working are mid to large size universities, very health-focused consumer brands, like health foods to a little bit more of like the pharmacological products that are maybe sold for infants, or certain, you know, health issues that’s still readily available over the counter to you as a consumer, very focused cause-related work – so we work with, in northeast Ohio alone, probably 15 of the largest nonprofits, but also actively seek that out nationally. And then, those are the last spaces is our prospects in brand that obviously look and feel and map to our experience in the brands that we actively work with or have worked with, in like the hardware and home improvement space, so everything from [6:35 inaudible] brands, to raw materials, to other products that would be readily accessible at like a Home Depot or Lowes.


Q: Oh that’s really interesting, okay. Yeah, that’s really, really useful. And so when you are writing to these prospects, your audience is almost always a prospect I assume?


A: Um, yes. Or a former client, or a connection of a former client. So clearly the best way in is to have someone, you know, not just in trying to apply and earn a job, but also in the sales world, is to have someone to actually personally introduce you or make a connection. So I’d say a lot of my time is doing that, versus trying to just establish a cold relationship. But an equal amount of time spent obviously just proactively prospecting on my own.


Q: That’s useful. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. How did you know how to perform the types of writing that you’re actually performing?


A: I think I have a pretty natural skill set of communicating in writing the way that I communicate when I speak, and I think in the worlds that I’ve operated in, at least since I came out of the banking world – which is obviously a lot more formal, there’s a lot more regulation, and to be honest, the writing that we did was only internal, they didn’t allot a lot of external communications being written in email – and in the agency world, there’s so much jargon, there’s so many acronyms, there’s just so much fluff, and I feel like being concise, direct, and speaking to people the exact same way I would speak to them in person, you know, succinctly, I think is important. And leading with value I think is a key in sales overall, but really, you know, if I’m one of 40 people that have reached out to this really influential person at an organization that day or that week, the only way I’m going to cut through is either saying or doing something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary that they happen to see at the right moment, or they have to be in the phase where they’re actively looking to buy, or we already have to have an established relationship or connection and I’m simply following up at that point. So it really just trying to cut through the clutter and be as direct and concise and as personable as possible.


Q: That makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting, because you’ve only been doing this a few years, so I feel like it’s useful that it’s so fresh to you, and I’m wondering, was there a time early on in this sort of world that you’re in that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?


A: Yeah, my comfort level of knowing exactly what to say– everything is trial and error in sales. If you’re not getting traction, everything’s trial and error. So you have to try new things until you realize what works, and then even when you find out what works, you have to constantly evolve the way you do it, and try to constantly be ahead of the rest of the crowd. And while I’m new to this space, the core skills that have made me successful throughout my career in technology, private banking, and the agency world are all very similar. So, what I did when I transitioned to the agency world, one, it was a very methodical transition, but two, I had a very strong foundation to bring with me that most people in the agency world do not possess, and for me to learn the lingo and the types of things that are important to my prospects and internally was really the only thing that I had to learn at that time, and then just constantly evolve the way that I communicate. So it probably took six months before my comfort level was like kind of churning, but here’s the thing, you know, I’m lucky to be in a position where, if something doesn’t work out and no one responds, no harm is done and there are so many other countless prospects in each category that I can put my energy into that you try not to spend too much time beating yourself up for what could have been, instead of just focusing on the now. And at a year, I mastered is probably the wrong word, but feel like I can run with the best of my peers in the category and in the industry.


Q: That’s great, yeah that makes a lot of sense. When you were trying to overcome those early challenges, and you know, it sounds like most of that was really just learning the language, learning sort of the way things are done here, not the actual act of communicating well, right – were there certain things that you did to get yourself acclimated in that six month period?


A: Like a high volume of internal meetings and interviews with just my team. So I was at a 150 [inaudible 11:33] agency, and just getting as much as a downlook from them constantly knowing that I was probably only digesting ten percent or twenty percent each time we spoke, but over [11:43 inaudible] pulse for one, their view of the position and what they would like to see, and obviously take what you can and then kind of come up with what you think is the best step, and a lot of times it’s very aligned to the overall goals of the organization, and a incredible amount of podcasts and just everything I could listen to audio-wise to get my hands wrapped around it, and then over time it’s really being a part of–  you know, I’m actively managing, am the quarterback of every external relationship, that doesn’t mean that I am the reason they’re doing business with us, but I’m the opener and definitely a closer, and in this world, collaboration’s everything, like, it’s not selling a product. It might take months to strategize and come up with a formal recommendation to present to someone, and I had a very small, you know, maybe twenty percent input on that, and the subject matter experts are really the ones guiding that, and I’m just constantly focused on the story arc, and the way that we communicate, and what we communicate, and just the gut feeling of whether this is something that will earn us business. And I think the higher volume of meetings and conversations and sales opportunities and pitch opportunities I have, in my role, you just, you learn to add those conversations to your arsenal, and my knowledge is a mile wide, versus their knowledge being a mile deep, and I think what makes a successful salesperson is being competent in how you deliver things, even if you’re not confident that you are the subject matter expert in that situation. So at least being able to talk the talk enough to continue the engagement.


Q: That’s really interesting, yeah. I wanted to go back to one thing you said there – when you were talking about writing those presentations or having some input on those, the pitch, a formal pitch to a potential client, you talked about story arc – can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that?


A: Yeah, we’ve all seen awful presentations, right? And in the agency world, they are truly a piece of art. It’s not something that can be in Keynote or Powerpoint, it’s a fully designed presentation through InDesign, you know, we have a foundational deck that I created and our team created when I came on which we call our capabilities deck, which is really the foundation for any early stage conversation. It’s the makeup of who we are, some of our personality, obviously the aesthetic and the design is there, like very high design across, case studies, just additional thinking and high level strategic flies that we can drop in and out based on the type of opportunity or the position of the person we’re speaking to, or something they may have said early on that they want to learn more about of how we approach that. Pitches are that plus a very custom approach, but the look and feel and the tone of how we communicate is consistent. So it looks the same, obviously the flies have different content, but at that point what we’re really focused on is it’s not solely about us, but it’s our thinking and it’s creating an overall story arc that allows them to see that one, obviously we’re the right caliber and have the right experience, two, we understand the challenge that they have laid out or the challenges of the industry, and kind of bringing them through that as we’re discussing the challenges, really putting our frameworks, our processes in place, and telling them along the way how we would approach this and why we would approach this and in some cases, taking it to the extent of doing a speculative creative that shows them the caliber of the work or early stage ideation, which is kind of a BS thing in the world because essentially they are getting free work from, I don’t know, four or five agencies or more, and it’s just laying it out in a way that is insightful, energizing, obviously intellectual and factual-based, but with a ton of energy. And the presentation in a pitch is obviously something that we’re narrating and we’re presenting, so the dynamics are much different, but you always have to be cognizant that the things that you’re sending and putting them after the presentation if you provide them with a copy – it has to live on its own, because the real decision takes place when you’re not in the room – and so it’s a fine balance between making sure that it’s not word soup, and it’s not logo or diagram soup, or process soup, but also there’s enough there that someone could draw the same assumption that we call back during the presentation when they’re meeting with their team or other team members or a board at some point. And understand the rationale on their own as well.


Q: That’s really, really interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense but it’s something I’ve not experienced and not thought too much about in the past. I’m wondering, I mean that feels like such a specific way of thinking and way of crafting, was that something that was new to you? Or have you worked in sort of genres like that before you got to the agency? Have you done work like that before?


A: Yeah, I think being a natural and effective communicator in presentations are obviously, has always been a sweet spot, whether I was actively doing those right before I transitioned I don’t think is relevant. But I know what’s relevant and energizing to people, and in sales, you win because you have a natural ability to size up a situation, read body language, read between the lines, and obviously not just cater to them but understand what’s important for you to address. And I think you instinctively see what has been presented in the past, so I got there and clearly, they’ve been pitching for 70 years so they know what it looks like, and I did a full assessment of where they were at, and they just weren’t, you know– we started foundationally with revamping our capabilities deck because it’s the foundation for every deck we create after, and we were not effectively communicating us, it was very scattered. And most agencies, while they create these beautiful brand strategies and messaging and content strategies for others that are usually very concise and straightforward, agencies fall to the same issues that their clients do in they don’t focus on themselves. And so the first step is to do that, and then the second step is, you roll out that iteration to the specific customized presentations, and I know what they look like, and I know what they should feel like, and I know what information is relevant and what information’s not relevant, based on what I’ve seen, you know, based on what I see when I’m reading it as an unbiased person. And also when I’m in the room practicing and presenting with our team, it really gives you an opportunity to be very critical, and because I’m only making up probably 10 or 15 percent, you know, maybe the opening and a strong close near the end, my goal is really to provide active feedback to the team, and help them self discover to a certain extent what is necessary and what’s not, and I think once people have seen it once or twice, it becomes very easy to replicate it. So we finally had an opportunity after let’s say ten months at my first agency to do it the way that we wanted and push the wrong people out of the situation and really just managed it closely, and it went so phenomenal, and it was a huge swing out of their weight class and we won a substantial piece of work, and so from then on, we had a pulse for what that looks like and feels like, and you just try to replicate it in different scenarios moving forward.


Q: That’s fascinating. Yeah, that’s really, really helpful. Thank you. Is there someone who oversees your writing at the agency, or no?


A: So it’s a little unique. So at my first agency, 150 people, we had a whole team of copywriters, right? Junior level, senior level, and then creative directors that came from either the art director or design background, or came from the copywriting. Usually it’s a 50/50 mix, because you need both. At that agency, we also had a proofreader. So while it was a first swing by each of us kind of contributing our piece, and then probably a partner overseeing the overall and giving their very direct input throughout the process and managing it very closely with me, ultimately the copywriters and the creative directors would take it and bring it back to us for rounds of revisions, and would really have, they had their entire hand in writing it the way that is on our brand and tone. At my current agency, we have two creative directors, one that comes from the copywriting and once comes from design, and even when the one from the copywriting background isn’t involved in one specific opportunity, she’s has a heavy hand in helping us revise it. And there’s a lot of us that I’d say in the grand scheme of the world, were probably B+ writers, but [21:20 inaudible]  salesman,  and so when we get it that far down the field with the content, it’s usually one or two people that have a hand in helping us revise it before it’s finalized.


Q: That’s great. That makes a lot of sense, yeah. The next question is about process, and I’m wondering if you could pick, maybe you could actually speak to the social media writing that you do for the agency, and talk just a little bit about, you know, how maybe one recent example, how that looks start to finish. Like how do you decide what’s going on there? How is it crafted? Is there revision? How does that work sort of start to finish?


A: Yeah, and this is probably not the best example because one, we’re small and two, social media in a perfect world, and I believe in the power of it, and I would even say that we should invest 100 times more in it than we do, but at this point, it’s meant to be like a fact checker, kind of like a check box. One, it’s just meant to show a little personality. If someone we’re already in conversation with us or in the early stages of vetting and they happen to likes Instagram and uses it heavily, if they were to check us out it’s visually engaging, it shows some personality, it’s consistently showing our brand, like we, it’s consistently designed, all which I do in an app in about five minutes a day. We show our culture a little bit, and it’s meant to be more smart sarcasm and wit, is kind of the energy and vibe that we give off outwardly, I don’t know if that’s necessarily like the type of people we are, but it’s usually energizing, it has a little bit of a wit to it. And when I’m writing, it’s pretty plain, you know, we’re leveraging some type of quotes, or writing about a client and keeping it short and sweet, and just really trying to boost people’s awareness in our active community of what that is, and then I think over time, it could lead to more organic reach. But it’s pretty straightforward, it doesn’t, I don’t have a ton of input, I think I’ve, we all know what social media looks like, and we know what the popular people on social media post and the copy they write, and you just try to mimic something that looks and feels authentic to you, and is still obviously, you know, lighthearted.


Q: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. That’s useful. Let’s talk then maybe about the process for, you had mentioned that it’s still just sort of a matter of 15 minutes sometimes, but maybe a first or second pass at reaching out to a potential client – what does the process like that look like? Does someone give you contact information, is that someone you seek out? Like how does that process start and where does it go from there?


A: Yeah, so it’s as simple as early stage assessing the case– so we take a look at what we’ve done, that’s number one. Okay, we’ve done this. And you start kind of bucketing them, and I think we ended up in those categories that I mentioned, right? And it’s just a gut thing. If I were to call someone today in a certain category and you pick one, do I, is there something that relates to them strongly that they would want to have a conversation? Not to say that you need to have direct category experience, but it’s a massive piece of, you gain an upper hand if and when you have that. So the goal is start categorically, and then really start finding brands. So that’s a pure collaborative effort. I would say I’m responsible for 95 percent of it, and I take some input from members that have ideas occasionally, but at end of the day I’m the one that’s driving it fully, and my previous agency I managed a smaller team where I was the head and they were responsible for kind of like executing some of that, and then it came to me, and I was really the one that was still prospecting. And then, once you determine the brand, you have a list, you know, you dig into them a little bit more. You kind of learn more about their brand, sometimes maybe it takes you seven or eight minutes, and whether they are someone that has worked with an agency or currently works with an agency because that’s a great indicator that they would work with you as an agency at some point, whether today or a year from now. And then it’s kind of navigating the hierarchy of the position, so like, literally using everything. Using Google to search for the different types of agencies or any type of press releases or anything that would give way to new decision makers or organizational changes or work that they’ve done historically or recently, LinkedIn to really navigate the complexities of who, you know– some organizations have 20,000 employees and I’m trying to find the right one, it’s based on title, and over time you really learn what you’re looking for based on the size of the organization and the type, and sometimes you’re reaching out to the CEO and sometimes you’re reaching out to like, mid level brand manager as a first point, and sometimes both. And from there, then obviously there are a lot of paid databases that give you contact info, but that stuff is the basics. Once you decide you’re going to reach out, understanding the right cadences, and understanding kind of how to hack through to that. So I think when I talked about constantly evolving what I do, I rarely send a cold written email any longer, outside of maybe a [26:49 inaudible], I record videos on a thumbnail of me, literally saying and articulating the exact things that I would say in an email, except they see an attachment, very straightforward language about trying to cut through the clutter of their inbox, and would love the chance to connect at some point. And then they see a video, and if they open it, my response rate’s through the roof. The same thing goes for, obviously at some point I do write lengthy emails, especially to people that I’ve already been in conversations with. Calling is still a major piece, right? So calling them, trying to cut through and get through gatekeepers when possible, you get them out of office when they’re on vacation and they happen to put their cell phone in there, you immediately gain an upper hand, like there are all very small field tactics, but then leveraging Instagram and Linkedin and Twitter, like DM’s. Like those are the most, you know, Linkedin has become what I would consider email used to be in the professional world, right, and people are almost at this point kind of becoming numb to it, right? Email replaced mail, and cold calling kind of always is in there as relevant if you’re using it the right way, and LinkedIn has kind of replaced email at this point in some ways, and now you have this beautiful thing called Instagram, and obviously have to be very cautious with what you say and how you say things, because you are reaching out to people on their personal profiles, after you [28.25 inaudible]. But the response rates in the digital age, especially with any of us that are like, a little bit older millennials or gen-Z or even people that are just actively involved in the tech space Gen-X, if you position it correctly, even though they may be a little hesitant, or may even make a joke about you reaching out, obviously I would call that out, “I understand I’m reaching out on your personal profile, trying to the clutter, would love the opportunity, here’s a little bit,” and usually when they respond, it gives you a direct opportunity to speak with someone and the same thing with Twitter. Sometimes LinkedIn brings the same type of result, but it’s a combination of all those things, and even mail in those cases kind of cutting through the clutter of like, sending them something like very high design, well [29:22 inaudible]. They’re all pieces and writing plays a factor and it’s across the board, whether you have to be very very detailed and articulate, whether you have to be very high level and playful, you really have to adapt what you’re saying and when you’re saying it depending on where you’re at in the process with them.


Q: That makes a lot of sense. That’s super useful and really, really interesting, Josh, thank you. The next question is a little bit more broad and it’s what is at stake with your writing?


A: What is at at stake? Can you clarify what you mean by that?


Q: Yeah, I mean, what happens if your writing succeeds or fails? And obviously we have sort of this idea of the financial stake that is really obvious in sales, right? So I would imagine that’s the primary thing that’s at stake in your writing, but are there other things that you feel come from that writing in a sense, like, are there other consequences of your writing?


A: Sure, yeah. So the obvious that you noted, so like in a presentation, right, just making sure that things are grammatically correct and punctual, you know, spelled, and the right punctuation, I actually have a rule of thumb that people in the agency world spend like a ridiculous amount of hours just going through every minute detail to make sure that there’s not one grammatical error. And my thought is, if someone doesn’t want to do business with us – clearly put your time in and try to create a strong product – but if someone doesn’t want to do business with us because of a missed period or comma or one misspelled word, then like, we don’t want to do business with– like pardon my language, fuck them. Like, they’re not the right fit, clearly like, they’re missing the overall point. But as far as like, the day to day contacts, it’s a really sensitive balance. You never know if you’re actually getting through when someone hasn’t had an active relationship with you. But if they have– clearly I document literally every piece of outreach and conversation ever, going back, every small email, everything is in a CRM, chronologically updated in Salesforce, and I have a very meticulous follow up schedule according to when the next touchpoint makes sense, whether they’re in the funnel and I’m trying to convert them, whether I’ve never talked to them, it’s always detailed. But you are aware of brands that are very well suited for you, and you really feel passionate that if you were just able to get through, it would make sense. Sometimes you don’t know if the points of contact, even if I believe that there’s right cadences and know they are, you never know how they’re perceived on the other end. And you’re just always conscious of being seen as generic, or creating a barrier of them just literally blindly deleting or avoiding you because of the things you’ve done and said. You know, you must balance that as a salesperson with, there’s so many opportunities out there that you can’t dwell on every opportunity, and it’s like an internal struggle that you physically feel even though you would never say it outwardly to your team, you just know that everything you do is going to be interpreted somehow, and obviously you move on and you try not to dwell. But also, from a personal perspective, the world’s very connected, and I’m not representing only my agency, if anything I think in the digital era, especially using those other mediums besides email, you’re representing yourself, and clearly want to be as articulate and sound as smart as you possibly can and know that the people that you’re potentially connecting with are connections of your connections, you constantly have to be aware of what you say and respecting that relationship without bastardizing it. And also, you never know who you’re going to come in contact with, or who knows who, and their point of view or feelings about the things you’re saying, so you just, through trial and error and through being able to read people on each medium and understanding the complexities, you just have to be constantly aware. And I would say especially on Twitter, and especially on Instagram, with different gender dynamics, clearly I am a white male that is a tenacious human being, and it’s not likely the first time I’ve reached out, and so I have to be very compassionate and understand the situation that I’m putting them in by reaching out to them. They have the opportunity to ignore it, but still, there’s still an emotional and professional reaction that takes place if they do read it and when they do read it, because everyone checks their Instagrams DMs. So just constantly aware of the things that I’m putting out in the world, and how I’m portraying myself, and obviously my company and my organization as well, but, it’s much more personal. It’s knowing that, you know, clearly you have influence but, you don’t want to obviously be perceived negatively or as if you’re intruding on their own personal space.


Q: Absolutely, yeah that’s a really interesting answer. And this sort of might lead into this next question, and that’s what’s the most difficult thing about writing in your specific position?


A: Umm, avoiding redundancy in the wrong ways. So like, the hardest part is if someone doesn’t respond three or four times, and then you, you know, it’s days or weeks or even a month before you’ve maybe touched them two or three times, and it could be longer, because you really have to play your cards right and understand the season, and understand the timing, and understand like the history of who they’ve selected as an agency and where they’re at on potential projects. And, I think the hardest part is, most people, let’s say 90 plus percent people have no recall of me reaching out at all. Ever. And so allude to previous points of contact in some cases, sometimes I just play the cold card again, because today might be the day that they’ve spent five minutes on their email, or on their phone. And it’s just making sure that the story of first contacts through when they decide to reply or decide to, even if they say no, you know, a reply is a great understanding ‘cause it allows you to know how much effort you’re going to put into something. So it’s just really avoiding generic outreach and putting us in a light that won’t allow us to kind of deliberate, you don’t want to ever, in any situation, make it seem like I mass-customized a piece of outreach, and I don’t. Even though I have a lot of similar emails that are being sent, they’re very customized in the sense that like, I’ve just become very good at and efficient at changing the things that need to be changed, but that’s years and years, dating back to the beginning of my career, knowing how to do that. But to them, it seems like a very focused email. Avoiding that redundancy is huge, especially because sometimes, in most cases, I could reach out for ten straight months. Most of my big wins I’ve reached out for ten months, nine months a year, and then after that period of time, they finally respond, “Josh, I really appreciate your persistence in reach out. I’ve been meaning to get out to you. I’d love to talk tomorrow.” So like, for a year, they weren’t in a buying position. They weren’t in the state that they were ready to talk to someone. But the day that they were, my email happened to come through around that time, and they remembered me somehow. Or I seemed like someone that they wanted to talk to even if they don’t recall anything. And that’s the opportunity. So just knowing that there’s a fine balance between continuing to repeat the same things because they’re your value propositions, but not churning and burning emails with the same type of copy or messages with the same type of copy. Everyone has email history, like, in one second they could see all your Twitter DMs, all your Instagram DMs, your Linkedin messages, so if I send six in a row, like clearly that conveys a message. And if they’re all the same, that looks even worse.


Q: Absolutely, right, okay that makes a lot of sense, yeah. This is more about sort of your development as a writer. Has anyone helped you in the workplace formally or informally develop as a writer?

A: I am someone that just picks up things from other people, so I think I was, like I said, like a B– compared to you, Brian, and my wife, I’m a C writer. Compared to the rest of the world, I’m a B+, right? So in the grand scheme of things like I say, we jokingling, but like, truly there’s a upper echelon of people that are so incredible and it’s an art, and it’s a subject matter; they’re subject matter experts. And clearly I wouldn’t presume that I could be immediately be as great as them. I think I’m an effective communicator, but those are things that I’ve picked up over time, that I’ve picked up from subject matter experts or other people, but, also just being with Sarah– I’m really focused on transitioning careers at this point into something that has been on my mind for years, and just going through a cover letter and a resume with her, the bulk of the things that I wanted to communicate were there, but like, what she did and what she helped me with while working through those things, it’s an art. And the end product is significantly greater than where I would have ended. So I think, just organically picking things up from people and knowing, at least how to translate my spoken word into writing format, and then also, obviously collaborating and being around people that are very strong writers.


Q: Great, okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Do you remember–


A: And I went to a very, very good high school, so like, the number one ranked public school in Ohio for like, I don’t know, ten out of fifteen years. And that’s not like a [40:09 inaudible] point, but I remember my high school teachers saying – I was like a, I think that I was really a B or B+ student consistently through high school – and they said that like, “Our C students, you’re going to go to college and the majority of you will be in the upper echelon of writing students because of the education that you’ve received.” And it was true. I went to a small school, I was planning on going to the naval academy, but ended up at a small school, and this B+ writer was an A+ writer among other people, except maybe the top tier of actual writers, because I received such a stellar education. And from there, it was just, you know, I don’t know how much I’ve evolved, but I think I’ve just learned how to communicate a little differently.


Q: That’s great, yeah, that’s really, really interesting. Do you remember or either in highschool, but I guess more specifically in college, what kinds of writing were you asked to do?


A: I was in political science and was pre law, and just like, not going to the naval academy like a month before, and deciding to back out, I decided to back out of attending law school, like a [41:13 inaudible] and got my MBA instead, and everything worked out great. But in college, I had like two or three professors that were, like one was the former head of the entire political science program at Xavier, one was a Harvard law grad and worked on the federal circuit, and they were extremely influential. And the writing that we did for those courses, in liberal arts you have a lot of gen ed classes and bs stuff, but it’s pretty bland, and if you just do your work, you’ll get through it. But in those classes, your writing was everything. You know, you might only have one or two papers a semester, and two four hour long, handwritten or typed exams, with a plethora, like a crazy amount of case histories, and really taking a current case and dissecting it based on the things that are already in law at this point. And I really honed my ability for rational thinking and strategic thinking at that point, I think it took me from someone that thought he was a pretty good writer at communicating simply and concisely to, here are these things that have already taken place, and I had to rationally connect the dots between the two of them, and I think my writing skills probably doubled during about six different classes [42:41 inaudible] over my junior and senior year.


Q: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Do you think that those experiences prepared you to write in the workplace?


A: I think in some way. Transitioning right from that and being like law-focused to going to the MBA world, where I still was in a lot of business classes and it was a focus in college, during my MBA, I think the same type of strategic thinking and writing was critical. So, here’s our recommendation, here’s why historically, here’s the rationale behind it, and then, you know, kind of being succinct in summarizing the recommendation again, and it’s very similar to what I did: here’s the idea and here’s the answer, here’s the historical and rational context behind it, and leading it ultimately to your final points. And I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways, and I think that’s almost identical to how we operate in the agency world of, you know, here’s us, here’s the recommendation, we’re going to walk you through a long version of why, we’re going to show you how we’ve done it ourselves, and then here it is, very, very straightforward on one or two slides. Here’s the whole picture of what we want to do and why we’re going to do it.


Q: Hmm, yeah I can see the mirror there, yeah. Are there things that would’ve been useful for you as a college student that you didn’t get that would’ve better prepared you?


A: I don’t think a lot of college courses focus on careers. I think they focus on academia, like the academic version of what subject matter these students are studying versus how that translates to an entire industry or job function. And while it’s difficult obviously to focus specifically on a role, I think it’s much easier to focus it on an industry, and push people to– you know, what I loved about my two law professors were, they were literally pushing us and running the course as if we were at a top tier law school. It was an identical [44:58 inaudible], and now that maybe doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the real world, but it prepared us for the next logical step in our lives. All of us were very serious prelaw students. I had a lot of marketing classes, and I had one where we did do a pitch and worked through things, but I don’t think, at least at a small liberal arts school like ours, there wasn’t a ton of– it was an expectation, some professors probably were much more critical than others around the actual grammar and in writing skills overall, and some were less and more focused on the answers, and the thinking. And I just think equipping students to sell themselves and understanding how to communicate ideas, recommendations, values that they believe in, values that they bring to a certain subject or field, I think all of those things are really important, and I wish that someone would’ve spent more time maybe pushing us to do that. Especially, I would say like of all the things I’m an expert at, is networking and interviewing, like jokingly. But I love that the most in this world, and I’m phenomenal at creating a story arc of me personally and professionally and kind of combined. And I honestly think that if some students– like most people suck at selling themselves. They’re more focused on responsibilities than values they’ve delivered and results, and I think that that’s the case in a lot of business writing at least, is a lot of people spend too much time on the details versus communicating the value and the overall idea, and I think students probably, especially as they’re headed in the real world, not resume writing, but like, communicating the specifics of why in their story arc, and having a story to tell, I think that’s always important. And it starts on a piece of paper as an outline, and then you tell it enough that you kind of grow it and evolve it over time, and feel more confident in it.


Q: That’s great, yeah.


A: I’m all over the place, I apologize.


Q: No, no, that’s super interesting! And again, it’s sort of not something that we think about that often I think in the classroom, that’s great. I actually have a few more questions, they’re relatively short, I want to be conscious of your time. How do you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?


A: Less fluff, much more succinct, I think is number one. I’ve learned how to communicate way more specifically and effectively. I’ve learned how to take my personal spoken style and the way I am as a human being, the way I just naturally communicate with others in any medium, and translate that to what I’m doing professionally in writing. Depends on the medium, but like, I think if you were to see the things that I write, small, big, across the board, wide range, banking, technology, agency world, you would say that that’s, it’s pretty consistently Josh. That’s my tone, my language, and I think I’ve learned over time how to do it more effectively. So I don’t think I’ve always been that great, but I think, you know, even after working through the resume and cover letter, like, Sarah clearly has input on things, and I just know instinctively that that doesn’t sound like me, or that’s not a way that I would articulate something. I think that’s just how I am, I believe that you just have to be yourself when doing those things.


Q: Great, okay. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your agency and in the sort of field as a whole?


A: In the field it’s maybe the most critical piece. It’s how everything is communicated. So clearly, pitches and different things, like you’re articulating an idea, not just spoken, but also written, and actually written first, and then you adapt how you speak about it. Every brief, every simple operation, from changing a logo or creating a new logo, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, to a full brand new brand strategy or messaging strategy, there could be ten pages of just showing them and creating a guide for how this brand will communicate with the outward world and internally. There are briefs and emails exchanged before those projects are kicked off, there are const and communications that are taking place with prospects and clients throughout the process, the actual work that you deliver oftentimes outside of like a pure design piece is written. And even in that case, it’s written so that there’s context to the entire situation. So, every nuance of advertising, the written word is the most important in so many ways. And specifically at my agency, I believe, everyone believes in the power of it. But it’s kind of siloed, where we all take our pieces and understand that we’re all pretty good writers and hopefully it comes together well in the end and we’re all pretty critical of it, but unfortunately we don’t have the time to value it as much. At my first agency, you have brilliant copywriters that you literally give them a pile of garbage and they come back and give you like the most beautiful piece of art in the world and you have no idea that something could be communicated that way. And when you do read those things and the things that actually make it to the client, versus things that are internal, it could solidify the value that you deliver and them wanting to do business with you. So I think it’s just dependent on the team and the agency. I think it’s always valued, but some places it’s like an unspoken expectation, and other places it’s an art.


Q: That’s great. That’s great, yeah. And our last question actually – how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus being a successful workplace writer now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?


A: I would say I’m a successful workplace writer, and I would say that it’s something that every single day I’m focused on evolving. Like I walk into work every single day knowing that I have to evolve in even one sentence, or half a sentence, or one piece of communication has to evolve in order to continue kind of optimizing the way that I communicate. And the results that it brings – in college, you know, there are just so many different types of writing. One, I wish I understood, someone maybe was able to articulate and walk you through the spectrum of the different types of writing that they could encounter, right? You have your literature classes, and you have your law classes, and you have your business classes, and they all require a lot of different things, and they all focus on writing dependent on the professor, but I think to be able to summarize where they fall on the spectrum on what’s important, I don’t know if I ever had a professor tell me in a non writing-focused class what they’re looking for specifically in the writing, outside of like a specific idea or missed idea in a lot of cases. I also think that understanding the mediums as to which people are going to be writing in this new age, helping them understand that. Everyone has their own interpretation of what’s important, right? Like the things that Sarah says are really important are platforms that I rarely use, or use completely differently, and the way I communicate is completely differently, and I think just having an appreciation and understanding of that, and allowing people to understand like the full range of technology and the way people communicate on those platforms, and if the professors are not subject matter experts, not acting like they are [chuckle], and really people to obviously give them guidance on what that looks like, and I think understanding that whole range in that space I think would’ve been really awesome for me to know, you know. And I think it could have potentially guided me out of law. Had I known in college what a lawyer from a writing perspective, and the volume of documents they write and format and change every single day, I’m pretty sure I probably would have pivoted a little bit earlier.


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Lab Manager


Lab Manager


Q: Okay. So would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated college, as well as how long you’ve actually worked in your current field, if that’s different?


A: Okay. I am the lab manager of a drosophila neuroscience lab at the National Institute of Health. Our institute is the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke, and our unit is the Dendrite Morphology and Plasticity Unit. I’ve been out of grad school for two years, and it’s been about a year that I’ve been at this job.

Q: Okay. And how long has it been since you graduated from undergrad?


A: Graduated from undergrad in 2013, so, yeah.


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


A: So as lab manager, I’m in charge of– well, primarily I’m in charge of ordering materials, reagents, tools, and all of that. Making sure that I keep tabs of how much of each thing we have so we don’t run out, and part of that is keeping up with all the members of the lab, and figuring out where they are in their product so I can predict what they’ll need in the future. And that kind of goes back and forth with helping them design their experiments, and making sure that they have the tools that they need and they’re using them effectively. So technically I’m number two to the PI, so I’m like her assistant and well, manager. And then because we’re a drosophila lab, a large part of my job is just keeping all of our fly stocks alive.


Q: All of your what alive?

A: Fly stocks.


Q: Oh, okay.


A: So we have a bunch of different, we actually have about 2200 lines of flies – these are different, transgenic flies that have different mutations, and we keep them alive at all times so that we can always draw on them if we need to.


Q: Can you tell me a little bit more just about the general work that happens in that lab? That’s super interesting.


A: Sure. So, we research plasticity. So what we do is we genetically encode green fluorescent protein, mostly, or–GFP or TD Tomato is what I’ve been using, because that’s red – Lisa loves that name [chuckle]. There’s also M Cherry, which is a lighter red than tomato, as you can probably imagine. So we encode these tags onto proteins that already exist in their neurons, so that causes either the whole neuron to light up green, or specific proteins within the neuron to light up green or red, and that way we can take images with our very high-powered microscopes. We use confocal microscopy and two photon microscopy, which are very good machines. A lot of laboratories in my institute, they all share one confocal, but we have one to ourselves, because that’s what we do every day, is imagining. We are all about imaging, all about looking at the morphological changes with the mutants compared to wild type. So we’re investigating how those proteins function and how they lead to plasticity, which is the change in morphology based on different experiences.


Q: Fascinating, okay great! Thank you. How frequently are you required to write? And if it’s possible, could you sort of estimate in an average week maybe what percentage of your job requires writing?


A: Hmm, it varies a lot. Sometimes I’m helping with writing publications, and sometimes I’m writing justifications for large purchases. The more a purchase costs, the more writing is required to get it done. So on average, I probably spend about, I’d say an hour and a half on writing justifications for things, and then on some weeks I’ll be spending twenty or so hours on, if we’re like up against the deadline, and we need to get a publication written, I’ll be helping with that.


Q: So those twenty hours could be up to half your week?


A: Yes.


Q: Okay, gotcha. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? Obviously that’s going to be really different, the justification as compared to the publication. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about both?


A: Sure. So with purchasing, that varies but, from when we decide we want to buy something to when we get it approved by our purchasing authority, that’s about, we want to keep it to a week, but it can go as long as six months.


Q: Wow, okay. And for scholarly publication, could you tell me just sort of typically what that runs? Like your actual, your piece of that project?


A: My piece of that?


Q: Yeah.


A: Yes. So the PI will usually write the first draft and then she’ll run it by me or someone else for– the first look is – she’s not a native English speaker – so the first look is to just make sure that the English is correct, and then we move on to the actual writing. So that first process only takes a couple days. The next process is the interplay between the figures and the actual writing, that’s the big thing, because, not just because we’re a microscopy lab primarily, but figures are always the most important part of a paper. If your figures don’t reinforce what the writing says and if the writing doesn’t match up with the figures, then you’re never going to get it published. So it’s not just– so actually what becomes the most important writing is actually the captions for the pictures. The thing that actually describes what you’re looking at – that needs to be letter perfect. So that process is always the longest process, making sure that those captions are correct. The writing of the actual paper is usually pretty much done within a couple months, but the captions and making sure that the figures are correct– sometimes if you decide you want to make your point more clear, you want to change your figure, or if you’ve realized a better way to present it in the figures, you want to change the paper, so that whole process takes about six months.


Q: Gotcha. Can you tell me a little bit about what makes a caption successful?


A: A successful caption makes the figure seem as not busy as possible. The worst thing you want is a lot of pictures and a very little bit of explanation, so it just looks like a busy figure. ‘Cause the risk you run with science is people just tune out. If there’s a bunch of figures with a bunch of subfigures and the caption doesn’t thoroughly explain them, or explain them in a way that’s intuitive, then they’ll just gloss over it, and then you’ve lost most of your impact.


Q: Got it, alright, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah, thank you. So what forms of writing – you’ve sort of answered that – the types of documents that you most often complete. And I can sort of guess who the primary audiences and purposes of these might be, but could you really explicitly tell me? Like for the purchase justifications and for the scholarly publications, who are they for and what is the purpose of them?


A: Very different audiences. I’ve actually had a couple training meetings with people who work in the purchasing office. So these are people who have mostly economics or business degrees, or just regular, some people have English degrees. I like to talk to them sometimes. So they’re not scientists, they work in purchasing. They deal with the government bureaucracy, all the regulations. They’re really good at regulations, understanding those, and figuring out their responsibility. They’re not career scientists, so they’re always telling us, the lab managers who write these justifications, to try to make things as clear as possible. ‘Cause we do have to justify it and explain that this big purchase that the government’s making is worth it for our research. At the same time, we can’t go into too much detail, not just because we don’t want to bog them down with words, but also we need to protect our information, because a lot of the documents end up being public record. So what we need to do is explain why it’s important, and explain why we need it, but also protect the information that’s going to keep our lab running.


Q: Tell me more about that information that you wouldn’t want to be public. Why would you not want it to be public?


A: So ultimately, everything is going to be published, that’s the idea of academia is that everything gets out there eventually. But, of course, you know, PIs want to protect what they made; they don’t want someone else to take credit for it. So the big currency here is credit for the work you did. So if that information gets out, and you know, for every problem that you’re tackling, there’s probably 100 or so researches worldwide who are also tackling that problem, and they’d love to get a leg up.


Q: Got it, got it. That’s a great explanation. Okay.


A: And then the other thing is [chuckle] – and this is something that I probably understand less than I should – there are regulations concerning who is allowed to make purchases, who is allowed to talk to vendors. There’s a lot of regulations about the size of the vendor, and how much information you’re allowed to give them before they make a purchase. An interesting example is, since the Trump administration came in, they put out a very vague “America First” policy, where you’re supposed to favor American companies, which is kind of baffling to scientists because, for one, it’s a global community anyway. And also a lot of these very large foreign companies like Zeiss, which makes microscopes, of course, they are a German company, but a lot of the engineers, the people who install the machinery, the people who maintain the machinery or sell the machinery, they’re all Americans. And a lot of the parts are built in America. So we kind of look at that and think, “Well, that’s overly simple.” And it’s unfortunate because people in the purchasing authority, they also don’t really know what to do with that. So they’ll come to us and say, “If you could, please buy American.” And we’re like, “Well, you need to define your terms.”


Q: Got it, got it. Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And then in terms of the scholarly publication, for those people who might listen to this who don’t really understand how that process works – can you talk a little bit about audience and purpose of those papers that you’re writing?


Q: Sure. So, from our perspective, our audience is the reviewer of the publication. So, the publication will be first read by someone who works at the publication, an editor. And the editor will read it and decide, “Okay, if this is worth looking into, if this is like–” if all the minutiae are correct: grammar’s correct, there’s no ridiculous claims, then they will move it on to the next stage, which is review. They look at what the research is about, and they reach out to people who are in a similar field, although they do make sure they don’t send it to a competitor, but they send it to someone who is in a similar field who is an expert, and then they have at least three of those people read it, give their notes, ask for clarifications, and then it comes back to us. And so our first goal is to get it past the editor, our next goal is to make it palatable to the reviewers. And the reviewers will send back very specific things like, “Hey, we want you to do this specific experiment to prove that what you’re looking at isn’t this other thing you might not have considered.” And sometimes that works out great, it’s something that we actually did, we just didn’t put it in the paper because we didn’t think it was necessary. So that’s the best case scenario, we can just plug that in. The other process is if we didn’t do that experiment and we need to, then we have to spend time doing the experiment, and that’s how you had months and months on to this process, is going back and forth, making sure that everything is– all the boxes are checked, all the possible explanations for what we’re claiming are discounted so that our theory is actually arguably the best explanation.


Q: Great, prefect. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. How did you know how to perform these types of writing when you got into this job?


A: The best way is to read it. And that goes for the academia and for the purchasing. In school, we were encouraged to read as much as we could, as many scientific articles as possible. And I remember an engineering professor – we were talking about patents actually, but patents are also academic papers – and he said, you know, the first thing you do is go to the end, and read the claims, because the claims, and in an academic paper that would be the conclusions. You go to the conclusions, you see what they’re talking about, what they’re claiming, and then, if it’s applicable to what you’re looking for, you then go back and read the rest of the paper. Well, you, talking about the abstract, ‘cause that’s like what you see before the paywall, and then you look at the conclusion, and then you read the rest of the paper. So I feel pretty good about writing academic papers because I’ve read so many. And then when I got this job is when I started doing the purchasing. So what I would do is I went into my predecessors files, and I read what she had written, and I learned how to write it from her.


Q: Great, great. Were there specific things that you were looking for as you read your predecessor’s documents that was especially useful for you?


A: Um, yes. I would say that I looked most for what she didn’t do, because there’s certain things that the regulations say are required, but in practice, most people don’t do. So when I went through and I looked for what she didn’t do, not just so that I know what I can get away with, but just, in a large bureaucracy, the best thing you can do is not stick out. So if you’re doing things differently than most people do, that can be just as harmful to you as doing what you’re not supposed to do. And I have to say that my predecessor didn’t do a lot. So I actually do more than she did, and that’s a personal choice. But yeah, I tended to look mostly for the contrast between what she did and what the regulations say.


Q: Perfect. That’s great, okay. Has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?


A: Oh absolutely [laughter]. The first time I had a purchase over $3500, that’s a new eschalon of regulation, and I had to write– geez, for a micropurchase, which is underneath $3500, is only like about a paragraph per purchase. And then above that, it’s about 5-10 different documents. And a surprising amount of that is actually copy and pasting between documents, it’s just that, at every level of the purchasing, different people need a different type of form. Same information, different format. And that was a learning curve, because I actually had to go down and talk to the purchasing agents, and they were the ones who told me, “Just copy and paste.” And I was like [chuckle], “Okay, good, thank you!” So I felt completely unprepared for that, but I think what saved me was, instead of trying to email people and ask them, I went and talked to them face to face. ‘Cause they’ll be more honest with you face to face than they will over email [chuckle].


Q: Absolutely, yeah. We talk a little bit about what you did to overcome early writing challenges, but are there other things that you did when you entered into this new job at this new organization that were especially helpful for you?


A: Things I did?


Q: Yeah, things that you– anything that you did besides reading and talking to the purchase people that prepared you to successfully write in the job.


A: Hmm. I think, well, yeah I mentioned talking to the purchasing agents, but also just talking to other lab managers, and talking to other scientists in general. I talk to other PIs. My PI is satisfactorily paranoid about everything going right and not sticking out, but she’s also very new to this, her lab is only about five years old. So I would go to our neighbor PI and talk to him about things. He has a more established lab, he’s more comfortable. And he gave me some pointers on things, and also his lab manager.


Q: Oh, interesting. Okay, yeah. Who oversees your writing? Would you just say the PI and the purchasing agents?


A: The purchasing agent would be the direct person to look at everything I write and make sure it’s correct. Usually the PI will just glance at it. She’s very busy, so for one thing, she doesn’t want to look at every $15 purchase and see what the justification is. So yeah, I would say it’s the purchasing agent. They’re not really my superior, but they are my partner in getting things purchased.


Q: Perfect. And I can guess the answer to this, but how would you say they judge the success of your writing?


A: It checks off a couple boxes.


Q: Perfect, okay. Great. Could you walk us through the process for a specific, recent project or type of project, thinking about how that starts, how the assignment, so to speak, comes to you, how you start or prepare, and then the process going from there, in terms of review?


A: Sure, I’ll talk about the microscope purchase. It was my first non-micropurchase, and it started off with a very vague explanation from my PI, saying, “We need a microscope for this specific purpose.” And she asked me to reach out to three different vendors and set up demonstrations for their best microscope for our purposes. And the first one I contacted, he was very perplexed by how vague I was describing it, so he ended up bringing two different models to look at. And it was only when he showed up with these models that my PI took a look at them and said, “Oh, well, this one’s obviously not what I want, this one’s closer to what I want.” And that’s something that you just have to be prepared for, is that sometimes people in charge don’t give you as much information as you need, and what I learned there was to ask [chuckle]. So if your boss tells you to do something and it’s not specific enough, you need to just stop them and say, “Hey, stop what you’re doing and explain this to me in more detail.” Because I definitely wasted some time figuring it out. And so over the course of having these three different demonstrations, I learned a lot about what my PI actually wanted, and what she was willing to give or take, based on what the people in the lab wanted to do. And I also learned about her opinions of the different sales people. And then, once we had decided between myself, the other senior scientists, and the PI, which of the three we were going to go with, then a whole new process started of dealing with the actual purchasing. So this involves figuring out what route you are going to take, because of course there’s a dozen different routes you can take. There’s sole source justification, there’s market research justification, and it was interesting because my PI was under the impression that it was very easy for us to say, “We want this specific model. Get it for us.” But when I talked to the acquisition officer, she explained that that’s not even up to us. We just say what we’d like, and then the actual purchasing department will send out a call for bids. They’ll actually auction off this contract to all the vendors.


Q: No matter how specific you know your needs are?


A: No matter how specific you want, yeah.


Q: Okay.


A: So that created this strange situation where we had all this information, we knew exactly what kind of microscope we wanted, we knew exactly why it was better than the other vendors, but that’s not my job. According to the purchasing department, my job is to just say what they need, and then they’ll take care of figuring out what’s available and what we’re going to get, which is strange, but that’s just how bureaucracy works in the government setting. So I had gotten quotes for all the pieces that we had demonstrated, and those were thrown out, because we’re not supposed to get quotes. Lab managers are not supposed to get quotes from the vendors, that’s for the purchasing department to do. So [laughter], but the funny thing is that I know lab managers get quotes all the time, and also, you know, sales people love to give you quotes. Even if you just say, “Hey, does this come in blue?”, they’ll send you a quote for the whole thing. So it’s kind of unavoidable to get quotes. So this was the process where I ended up with one option that was suggested by the acquisition officer, and then the other method, which was suggested by my PI. I went down to talk to the acquisition officer, and got the details, and the limitations, and then I went back to my PI and I explained it to her, and she was frustrated because that wasn’t her impression of how it worked. And you know, that is important lesson is that, in a bureaucracy this large, everyone has a different impression of what’s possible, what’s proper. And of course, at the end of the day, we have to defer to purchasing, because they’re the ones who control the money. So I went back to the acquisition officer, and I talked to her for a long time about what we need to do, and how best to do it. And so what we ended up doing is basically making a purchase description, which is the initial document that has all the information that gets, you know, copy and pasted out to other documents like the market research, et cetera. We just made the purchase description so specific that only that model from that vendor would work [chuckle]. Yeah, it’s interesting. So actually what’s happening now is– well, that whole process took a long time. There was some back and forth from someone above our local acquisition officer, someone in the COAC, which is the purchasing department for the whole institute. So this is someone I had never met, who’s in a different building, a different campus all together. We had been going back and forth because he was the one in charge of doing the bid. He sends out requests for bids, he sent out the purchase description to a bunch of different vendors–


Q: Can I interrupt you for just a second?


A: Sure.


Q: Is that because it’s over $3500 that it goes to him?


A: Yes, COAC is only for things above $3500.


Q: Got it, okay.


A: So it has, yeah, that’s where you have the whole bidding process. Below that, the threshold you can actually say, “I want this vendor, this item,” and they’ll do it for you.


Q: Oh, I see. Gotcha.


A: Of course, they have their own system of what are called GSAs, government– [directed to person outside the interview] do you know what that is? Government service something? I forget what it is. [inaudible]


Q: Yeah, I used to know it.


A: But it’s yeah, so yeah, certain vendors have pre-arranged deals with the government, and something I learned very early was actually if I know that there’s a GSA for the item I want, it’s better for me and the better for the purchasing agent to just find the GSA version, which usually isn’t even a different vendor, it’s just a different distributor. So instead of buying it from Sigma-Aldrich, who actually makes the product, I buy it from a distributor, because they have a GSA with the government. And I understand why they do that, because most of those distributors are like, small businesses, or women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses.


[person outside the interview]: SWAM vendors.


A: SWAM vendors, exactly. Small, women-owned, and minority vendors, SWAM. So there’s also complicated things with micropurchases, but it’s much more complicated above that threshold. And this is below the, I think it’s $200,000 threshold? Above that there’s even more. Which I was able to look back and see, because the microscopes we own are million dollar microscopes, and I was able to see my predecessor’s documentation on that.


Q: That’s interesting, yeah.


A: Yeah. Which was a lot. And so where was I? Yeah, so the bidding process went through, and I had to then answer questions from vendors. So these are vendors that we hadn’t looked at, but they thought that they have something that would fit, so they would ask for clarification. And you know, occasionally my PI would ask if there was any news, and I would explain to her that I’m getting questions, and I’m making notes of all the questions, so that if we ever do this again, we’ll be able to put even more detail in and avoid this. So it’s funny because there were a couple points when I was told, “Okay, it’s out of your hands. It’s now the bureaucracy taking over.” But of course, they keep coming back to me for questions and clarification, because yeah, the acquisition people are not scientists, so if they have questions from a vendor that has to do with DIC or focal length, they’re going to come back to me [chuckle]. So yeah, it’s been very interesting and very informative.


Q: That’s really, really interesting. So, when we think about audience for that, you’re taking a bunch of information from the scientists, from the PI, and from the people actually performing the work, and then framing that for a couple of different audiences, right? You’re framing it first for the purchasing agents within your organization, and then, one step up, at the COAC? Is that what you said?


A: Yep.


Q: Yeah, and then also for the vendors, right?


A: Right.


Q: Gotcha, okay. Alright, that’s very useful just to sort of clearly clarify that. What is at stake in your writing?


A: Well, at the very basic level, what’s at stake is whether or not we get the piece we need, because if I screw up the justification, then the purchase will get delayed, and then we won’t get the piece we need in time. Which, you know, that’s a big reason why science takes so long, is just getting the pieces you need, figuring– ‘cause sometimes you think you need a piece because you’re doing something no one else has done before, that’s how science works, you get the wrong piece, you don’t know it until you buy it. So keeping up with the pace of the experimentation is number one, and that’s what’s at stake. Beyond that, I’m not sure how drastic it would be with a private sector job, but with the public sector job, there are very serious problems if you do something wrong or if you appear to be acting improprietously. For instance, we had a purchase of a custom antibody – this is a very tightly controlled industry because antibodies are made from the blood of animals, and if you don’t know that, I’m sorry [laughter] – so ordering a custom antibody means that a lot of animals are going to be used and bled just to see if it will work, so there’s– and you know, PITA might say we don’t care, but we care a lot, and we put a lot of safeguards in place so that no animals are bled or killed unnecessarily. So for the custom antibody, we ordered it, and then the vendor actually emailed back and asked, “Would you like us to do a second round? Because the first round didn’t work very well.” And the email actually got sent by mistake to a postbac – so this is someone who is a scientist, a fellow, but they only have a bachelor’s degree, they’re not even a senior member of the lab – and she, not really thinking, just responded, “Yes, please.” Which was actually the right thing to do, but there were a couple of steps to do before that, like getting clarification, getting permission from the COAC, well not the COAC, but the purchasing agent, because not only was it a new round of animals, but it was also about 300 more dollars added on to the price. So that was considered a unauthorized purchase, and that led to myself and the PI being called down to the purchasing department, and they basically gave us a little refresher course, which was actually a very slap-on-the-wrist thing, but that could have been much worse. And if there’s shown to be a pattern of unauthorized purchases, then we could definitely lose our lab, and at the very worst, we could end up on the hook personally for charges that, you know, when the government purchases things, they’re very cheap, but when it falls on an individual, suddenly you see the real price, and it can go up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could end up, you know, not just bankrupting a person, but leading to criminal charges, and then jail time.


Q: Sure, sure. Great explanation. Thank you, yeah. What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field, or in your specific position?


A: I think for purchasing, the hardest thing is the audience. Making sure that everything is clear to the people in bureaucracy, the nonscientists, and also people who will see it, the vendors, the actual scientists. So that’s tricky. I say that because, of course, the thing I worry about the most is the bureaucracy, but that’s, I don’t know, that’s like more of a mundane thing. The thing that’s more existentially important is that the audience understands what I’m saying. And then for academia, absolutely the audience, because if the editor doesn’t like it, then it won’t get to the reviewer, and if the reviewers don’t like it, it won’t get publication, and then even at publication, you want it to be readable, so that everyone around the world can read it.


Q: Great, uhuh, excellent. You talked about going back to documents of your predecessor and also talking to the purchasing agents, but has anyone else helped you with your writing formally or informally in this position?


A: Well, for purchasing, we’ve had a couple of training courses, and these are voluntary. I’ve gone to mostly just to meet the people that I’m interacting with over email face-to-face, ‘cause that is very important. But also that they give you insights, like the fact that we’re not supposed to get quotes; like no one told me that, but that’s the thing. And then as far as academia, yeah, that’s what you do from the very beginning of a science or engineering bachelor’s degree. Like I had an engineering degree, it was bioengineering so there was a lot more science involved but, with engineering, it’s all about writing reports. So they teach you from the very beginning how to write a good report. So I’ve had training in school and I’ve had voluntary training at work.


Q: Perfect, that’s great. And that leads really nicely into this next question – what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? You talked about these reports. More than that, what are the ways in which you think your college writing prepared you or didn’t prepare you for the writing that you do now?


A: Okay. So, like I said, my training in undergrad was in engineering, and engineers mostly work in the private sector, where I would say it’s a lot more salesmanship, so making not only strong claims, but also optimistic descriptions of things. Like if you’re going– so the bioengineering school that I went to was actually very new and it was built on the chemical engineering department. So chemical engineers are all about building factories, so if you’re going to ask someone to invest, you know, a couple million dollars in a factory that’s only going to turn a profit after twenty years, that’s a lot of optimistic salesmanship, and you’ve got to have your numbers exactly on. So that was really helpful because it showed me how data is important, but what’s more important is how you present it. So of course, there will be people who will look over these proposals that you’re writing who do know what you’re talking about and will be able to read the data and know if you’re skewing numbers to make things look better. But, sometimes even more importantly, the presentation can’t be too technical. It has to be talking about how much we’ll be making in the future, and how important this is for the economy or the local people.


Q: This is such an interesting idea, that the presentation of the data is in a sense more than the data. Can you talk a little bit more about that?


A: Okay, so I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine loved data, he was a statistics whiz. And he wrote this paper about– the assignment was, you’re opening–


Q: This is in college? In undergrad?


A: This is in undergrad, yeah. The assignment was, you’re going to open a factory that makes glucose testers in Malaysia, or it was some Asian country. Just pick whatever Asian country you want, do a little research the local regulations – which I thought was a great assignment. I picked Malaysia, he picked I think Vietnam, and he had a lot of interesting data. He went through a bunch of government websites, found all kinds of information, he looked at other companies that had built factories there, and it was the most boring thing you’d ever read [chuckle]. And luckily, he actually showed it to me and a couple other kids before he handed it in, and we were able to tell him that this was as interesting as a bag of bricks [chuckle]. Not that the professor wouldn’t know how much work he’d put in, and know how correct he was in his assertions, but we thought the professor might take points off for how boring it was, and also we figured he should just learn this, because if he goes out in the world and writes these kind of reports, no one’s going to listen to him.


Q: Right [laughter].


A: Yeah [chuckle]. So, yeah, it doesn’t really matter how much work you do, if you can’t present it to your audience in a favorable way, then you’re not going to be as successful as you should.


Q: Great, great. What would have been useful for you to learn or do as a student to even better prepare you for the kind of writing you do now, if anything?


A: It’s interesting because the job I do is very specific, because it’s in the government bureaucracy, so there’s a lot of things I think would be very different in a private sector job, which was what I was being prepared for in college. But I guess, looking at the other students in my classes, and what we were all kind of missing was the sense of collaboration. You know, everyone talks about group projects as always one person does all the work, one doesn’t do any work, one person is great at selling it, you know, the archetypes. And that was something they really pushed in engineering, because they said you’ll always being working in a team, you’ll always be working together, and it’s important that you learn how to do that, and that was very important. And they also tried to create situations where we were working with people in industry and communicating with them. So that was all very good. And, you know, that’s kind of what you make of it. Some people didn’t learn as much as they could from that experience, and some people did. Some people made connections and got jobs out of it, that’s up to them. Then when I got to grad school, where it was more science-based, it was still bioengineering, but the people who were in it were more academia-focused – well, it is grad school, so it’s all more academia-focused anyway – and there was no, especially among the kids who were mostly biology background, not engineering, they had no sense of collaboration at all. Because in biology classes, it’s all about memorization and working alone. So when I would approach other students about getting together and doing homework together, they were like, “Well, that’s not okay. That’s not allowed.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is like, really heavy math, so you want to work together about it.” I don’t know, I had a really great experience undergrad. I can’t think of any way that it could be more useful.


Q: That’s wonderful. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over your career so far?


A: My year and a half [laughter]?


Q: Yeah [laughter].


A: I’ve gotten a lot better– and well, this is kind of a personal thing, but I’m sure it’s applicable to a lot of people out of school– I’ve gotten a lot more confident. And you don’t realize it when you’re not confident, but when you are confident, you realize just how valuable that is. Being able to, if something goes wrong, not immediately look at – well, you should look at what you did to see what was wrong – but you shouldn’t hyperfocus on what you did, and how you screwed up, because if you made a mistake, chances are you’re not going to recognize it. So the best thing to do is reach out to someone else, and confidently say, “I made a mistake.” And confidently say, “I need your help to fix it.”


Q: Great, alright. To what extent would you say that writing is valued in your organization?


A: On the academic side, it’s highly valued. It’s essential to be a good writer to get things published, and to have a good eye for how to build those figures. On the purchasing side, I’d say it’s essential, but not highly valued, because, like I said, with the short micropurchase justifications that are about a paragraph, all the purchasing agent is looking for is, you know, “Is their ass covered? Is my ass covered? Does it check those boxes?” So really, that’s just a couple words, and if those two words are there, like “mission critical” [chuckle] – I’m using air quotes by the way – if those phrases are there then it checks the box, and that’s it. It’s a very mechanical way of writing, so I don’t know if the quality of the writing is very valuable, but the clarity is essential.


Q: Got it. That makes sense. So I have just one question left on my form, but before that, you just mentioned something that I wanted to ask about, to follow up on. You talked about writing those figures. So could you talk just a little bit about that process and how you go about that in these academic papers?


A: Sure. So in science, you start off with a question, like “Why is this this?” and then you do a bunch of experiments, and you end up with a bunch of data. So it always starts with the figures. The images and the data are what you start with. So you always, and you know, we’re microscopy so we have very beautiful pictures that we can make look extremely pretty when we try, but even if you’re a surveyor, you’re going to have plots. You’re always going to have plots and graphs, so those are your figures. So it always starts with the figures and it ends with the figures. So number one is making it look pretty. With a plot, you know, even choosing the right type of plot – bar chart versus a scatter plot – those might seem like cosmetic changes, but they’re not. They are extremely important to how the information is conveyed.


Q: Tell me more about that [laughter].


A: So, there’s bar charts that have a bar floating in the column, and then with standard error bars, they’re the little arms reaching out from the top and the bottom of the block. And those are really useful if you have a lot of different conditions you’re trying to show on plot. But if you’re only trying to compare two of them, it’s better to use a scatter, so each bullet is each case that you tried, and you can actually see where it clusters and where it doesn’t cluster. So that’s a really important choice. That will also depend on what N is, how many times you tried it. If N is 3000, you’re not going to want to make a scatter plot, it’s going to look like a mess. And depending on the software you’re using, it might put things that are in the same place next to each other, so it ends up with a really wide bar, which is just hideous to look at. So you have to have a sense of aesthetics when you’re just at the first step of just making the figures to even show your PI and say, “Hey, look at this information.” ‘Cause that’s the first test. If you have information and you want to present it to your PI and it doesn’t look pretty, she might say, “Do it again,” or just, “Don’t show this to me again, it’s hideous.” So of course, that’s where it starts. That’s where presenting science, or any research, starts is with the figures.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. And you really have to have a sense of aesthetics to do this. Is that something that you learned in school, that you learned on the job, or that’s sort of innate? How do you see that skill?


[person outside of the interview: Talk about your resume.


A: Oh [laughter]! I’ll get to that, that’s a really good point. I think I was very lucky for the engineering school that I went to. I went to the University of Maine Engineering School, can’t plug it enough, amazing school. The first class was about data manipulation and linear aggression, and that might sound boring, and for a lot of kids it was. It was taking a very messy equation and then figuring out a way to make it into a straight line, and I loved the puzzle of it. It’s like sudoku for me, it’s just so much fun and relaxing, because once you finally get that straight line, it feels amazing. So you have sine waves, you have logarithmic curves, you have exponential curves, and each of them can be manipulated into a straight line, you just have to change the variables around – move things from one side of the equals side to the other, et cetera. And that was a great lesson in mathematics, it was a great lesson in teamwork, because certain people will have insights on them. There’s countless ways you can manipulate an equation, you can make it even more ridiculous if you want to, just for fun, but getting it down to the most useful, straight line is incredibly important and useful. So that was a great introduction to what you’d be doing, because I do that all the time in my job, and a lot of the scientists I work with don’t have any engineering background, they’re all life sciences. So if they see a scattering of points, they might say, “Well, that’s insignificant.” But, if I take a look at it, I’ll say, “Hey, give me your data, let me play with it a little bit. Let me see if I can make a straight line out of it.” And then sometimes I do. And then they’re like, “Oh! I see it now.” And now that changes the course of their research.


Q: Got it, got it.


A: I mean, that’s one thing. That’s playing with numbers. But the other things that I’ve learned in this job are writing the captions. I’ve learned a lot about writing captions in this job, because we do have these beautiful pictures, and that’s kind of the bait. It gets people to look at the paper. And so you’ll have a beautiful picture of a neuron– our neuron is actually beautiful, it has this sinusoidal curve, like an s, so it’s very easy to find when you’re looking at a bunch of neurons in a brain, so that’s useful, but also it just makes for some great pictures. So you have that, beautiful green or red or green/red/yellow neuron against a black background – gorgeous – and then next to that, you’ll have a plot, or you’ll have some numbers. So you’ve got the bait, and the chaff (? 45:56), and it’s all about constructing that so that the reader enjoys it and doesn’t get bogged down by too much information.


Q: That’s great, great explanation. Thank you. And my last couple questions here, how would you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now? And would you say you’re a successful workplace writer?


A: I won’t say that [chuckle], but I will say– the answer to the first question’s very simple. Writing as a student, you have an audience of one. Writing in the workplace, you have an audience of 10 to 500 [chuckle].


Q: And you would not say you’re a successful workplace writer? But you would say you’re confident?


A: I’m a competent. And I’m getting more confident. I’ve never written a research paper where I’m the primary author, so I wouldn’t say I’m accomplished in that regard. Although I have a couple papers where I am an author, which is, you know, humbling, because I feel like the new guy still, but I am doing a lot of useful stuff, so it is worth giving me that credit.


Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think would be useful to tell me?


A: I think you did a great job. Oh–


[person outside of the interview]: I think coding is a language too.


A: Oh yeah, that’s a good point, I didn’t mention that.


[person outside the interview]: Different codes that you’ve created to help streamline–


A: Yeah, my wife is mentioning coding, computer programming. And that is a form of writing, and I’ve got to say, for someone who is just approaching coding, you need to think of it like a language, ‘cause the same rules apply. ‘Cause, you want to write a research paper, you want it to be concise and simple, nothing unnecessary. And the same rule with coding. You’ve got to find the simplest solution. If you can write it in as few lines as possible is important. Also keeping notes. In coding, there’s annotations. You’ll write a symbol that mutes what you’re writing, so it’s just text, it’s just for the person reading it, the computer doesn’t even care. And that’s so important, because when I got to this job, there were a couple different tools that were being written for data manipulation that were not well annotated. So me coming in cold, the person who had written them had already left the lab, I had to go in and parse through and figure out what they were saying. They had done a little bit of annotation, but I think, honestly, I think the person was trying to hide the things that they did that they knew weren’t the best way to do it. Which is fine, you know, I’ve got to say that, if you’re doing something that’s inefficient, and you know it is, you have to own it, and that’s not a bad thing. If it works, it works, that’s fine. But if you know that there’s a better way to do it, just say so. It’ll help the next person who comes along to improve it. So keeping notes, keeping notes is so important in science. That’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at, is keeping notes of my day-to-day activities in my lab notebook, so–


Q: Are they for only you to reference back to, or will other people see those eventually?


A: Well, if I’m going to leave the lab and someone is going to take over my project, that’s their bible for that.


Q: Perfect, got it.


A: And then for coding, yeah, the tools that have been used in the lab previously were all still in script format. So just like, the code itself, you hit “start” you hit “run”. I have been trying to make it, take it a step further. So I’ve been making gooeys, which are the user interface, so making it like a program that you actually point and click, versus actually interacting with the code.


Q: Is that so that the person who would be running it doesn’t need to understand the code?


A: Exactly, yeah.


Q: Got it, okay.


A: Because, something I noticed right away was– I made a script for generating fly labels; we have like, you know, thousands of viles of flies, and most people hand write their labels. But what we’ve been trying to do is get them to keep a database of them, like an Excel sheet of all the labels. But then they don’t want to deal with copy and pasting each label onto a template, and then printing it off onto one of the sticky labels. So I wrote a script whereby you can just copy from your Excel file and it would generate the template with all the words in place, but because it was in script form, a lot of people just didn’t even look at it. But when I made a gooey for it, they love it.


Q: Oh that’s great. Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense.


A: And the other thing that my wife mentioned was my resume. And I’ve got to say, it’s a funny story. In my graduate school, there were two schools involved. There was electrical engineering department and the biology department – they got together to make their bioengineering program. But there was still a lot of division. And one of the things that the electrical engineers loved was this program called LaTex, which is, it’s called, well it’s known as a what you type is what you get. ‘Cause Microsoft Word is what you see is what you get. You’re actually writing it. But with LaTex, it’s more of a code. You’re coding, it’s like HTML, you put in like dashes for italics, et cetera, and then you compile it, and it spits out a beautiful PDF. The people in the biology side hated it when I wrote my reports in LaTex, but it was actually a requirement from my advisor on the engineering side. And that got me a lot of grief from people, but I learned how to use it, I used it well, and I got my job, I went to interview with the PI, and then later I got the job, well actually, very soon after I got the job, she really liked me. And when I got there and I talked to the people who I was working with, they said, “Oh yeah, you’re the one with that resume!” Because apparently the PI had come out of her office and waved it at people, saying, “Look at this, look how pretty it is!” And so I know that’s why she called me back, well I’m sure that the content was good [laughter], but also– but you know that feeds back into my original point. No matter how good your resume is, if you don’t present it well, it might not get read. And yeah, I mean, content I think was pretty good, I mean I had a really good– I ended up with a 3.9 in my grad school, I didn’t mention my GPA for undergrad because I don’t want to [laughter], but you know, if you have a better grade that’s more recent, doesn’t matter. But yeah, I know that, I don’t know how many people applied, I don’t know how many people she interviewed, but I got onto the list because of that program.


Q: That’s really interesting, okay. That’s great. Thank you so much!


A: You’re welcome!

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Network Engineer

Computers & Technology

IT Networking Interview



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


A: My job title is a network engineer. I work for a company that– I’ve got my contractor. And I graduated college in 2011, so, I’m assuming you’re talking undergraduate?

Q: Yes, undergraduate.


A: So 2011, so about seven years ago.


Q: Okay. And did you attend graduate school?

A: I did. I attended the College of Idaho for undergrad, and the University of North Carolina School of the the Arts for graduate school.


Q: Could you tell me what you have your undergrad and graduate degrees in?


A: So my degrees– [laughter] this is funny, usually for a job interview or things like that, the funniest thing going through my resume is like, “Okay, I see these Cisco certifications, and job experience” – and then they look at education, and it’s like, “Hmm, Bachelor of Arts in Voice and Masters of Music in Opera Performance.” That, it’s probably the weirdest thing when looking at my resume, like, “That doesn’t exactly square with everything else!” [laughter] – that’s why it’s at the end!


Q: Gotcha. Is all of your – we’ll get to this in more detail down the line, but – is all of your background in IT networking sort of learned on the job? Or do you have specific training toward that since your degrees aren’t related?


A: So, basically the path I took – and not to get too much into my life story, or whatever – but basically the path I took is I finished graduate school, and wasn’t quite at the point where I could embark on a fabulous career as an opera singer, so I wound up getting in touch with a teacher who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and moved out there to continue studying with him. Over the time I was in Tulsa I was singing with Tulsa Opera, doing some chorus work and smaller roles with the company, but it wasn’t ever to the point where like, I was a full time opera singer. It was more a aspiration and a source of income on the side while maintaining a day job. I wound up getting an administrative position at Tulsa Community College, and one of the perks that they offer for working there on staff is they allow you to take a certain number of credit hours per semester for free. And I was in that position for about a year and a half, and it got the point where I was getting some success in singing, but I was also thinking about, “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? Will this give me what I want, vis a vie, geographical and financial stability. I want to have a family at some point. Is this necessarily conducive to that?” And finally the decision I had to make was, you know, it really isn’t. And I managed to get out of two degrees in the arts without any student loan debt, and maybe that’s enough of a success story and we should start looking at other options. So at that point I had gotten the A+ certification, which is a very basic, it’s almost kind of considered meaningless at this point, because it’s so generalized and it’s not really specific to any one company or manufacturer. So it’s one of those things that basically it just says, “I have an interest in computers and can Google better than the average bear to solve problems.” So I had gotten my A+ because that was kind of like the foot in the door trying to move into an IT role with Tulsa Community College, but then I started to look at, “Well, I could take classes for free, so what are the options here? Oh, well there’s a class based on the Cisco certified network associate certification. Well, I’ve always liked networking, so let’s maybe explore that.” So I wound up signing up for the course, took the course. They had broken it down into two tests at that point so I took the first test and passed it. Shortly after I took that exam, I came out to Washington, DC because my brother and sister-in-law live here – they both work for the government – and he made me the offer around that time of, “You know, even if this works out the way you want it to, Tulsa is going to have pretty slim pickings for IT positions, even though IT is a growing field, still you are in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Do you want to maybe move to DC and you can hang with us, not have to worry about rent while you are looking for a new job.” It was a god send! And so I was like, “You know, yeah.” The thing about Tulsa is it’s not close to any of my family, it’s not really convenient to, like it’s not a major airport, so trying to get anywhere else in the country is kind of difficult. So it was like, “I don’t really have any ties here, and we’re kind of shutting the door on going any further with music, so yeah, let’s do it. Why not?” So I took the second half of the the second class and the certification path, took the second exam, passed the second exam, moved out to DC, and started looking for jobs, and I actually wound up finding a staff singing as a singer at a church in downtown DC and then shortly after that, found a position on the help desk of the company I currently work for. I was on the help desk for three months as a contractor, and then they brought me on full time at the start of 2016. About four or five months in, someone pointed out that, “You know, networking, if that’s what you’re into, has a few open recs.” And so I applied for the job, got an interview, got a second interview, got offered the job, and moved off of the help desk and into networking about a month later as a technician, and then this past March I made the jump from technician to engineer, which means, you know all those extra hours that I was happy to take on when I was hourly, suddenly I’m salary, and it’s like, “Hmm, I’m not actually paid for this extra time,” [laughter] but it’s a great field to be in, I think, because computers in general, it’s constantly growing. Technology is just changing and there’s always something to learn. If you let it be, it will always be intellectually stimulating. There’s always something new to learn.


A: That’s a great way to think about it, yeah.


Q: That is one thing that kind of scratches an itch that the music world didn’t, because if you look at the opera companies that are out in the world, most of their season is going to be things from the 1700s and 1800s. It’s not to say you can’t find something new with every production, but for me, seeing the same thing put on, I’m like, “I know this story – no really, I know this story! And if you presented it in a new way, I still know this story.” And with technology changing the way it does so frequently, it really appeals to my more intellectual side more so than I think opera did.


A: That’s great. Oh, that’s such an interesting path. So can you give me sort of a very brief description of your primary job functions?


Q: That’s actually kind of a hard question to answer because, networking-wise, you’re talking about the entire internet. So if a ticket comes in saying “I can’t access site X,” well, we only see our half of that transaction, so it’s like, “Well, I can tell you it’s none of our equipment.” And then at the end of that transaction, the customer’s like, “Okay, well I still can’t access site X.” So, most of my job at this– actually it’s changing, since I’ve moved into a more engineering-heavy role, there’s less focus on like the day-to-day handling tickets from the help desk, and more we’re building new things. Like one of the things I’m actually working on right now is a small office/home office router solution for teleworkers because the typical employee will go home and they have a client on their laptop that allows them to form a tunnel back to the company. And that works for the average end user, but some people are more of what we call “power users” and they have like a lab they’ve set up in their home, they’re a full time teleworker, and they need to have, like for example, they need to have a phone on their desk that’s connected back to our infrastructure. So the small office/home office router solution that we offer, it’s not new, it’s been around for a while, but there are certain new requirements in terms of network security and segregation that we’re having to adhere to as part of – it’s called The National Institute of Science and Technology 800-171 Guidelines – not that that anyone really needs to know what the exact guidelines are, but essentially, what it entails is we have to seperate devices on a network. So in order for something in zone A to talk to zone B, it has to pass through a firewall which will make a determination as to “Is device A allowed to talk to device B? How can device A talk to device B? In what ways is it allowed?” – so on and so forth. And what we were offering for the small office/home office router solution just, the hardware was not up to the task. So things were kind of limbo for a while as to, “Well, are we going to move fully to just client software on people’s laptops? Or is this service going to expand?” And finally it was decided, “Well this service is going to expand.” So what I’ve been working on and what we’re hopefully going to start sending out next week – this is what I was talking to you about that fire that I’m trying to put out [laughter] – what we’re hopefully going to start putting out next week is the new hardware for the small office/home office routers which, instead of just being one box, it now has to be two, because the requirements of 800-171 basically requires to use some of the more advanced functionality of, instead of doing routing and switching on one box, we’re using advanced switching and advanced routing functions, so now we have to do them with two boxes. And the advantage of it for the power user teleworker is they have multiple devices that they could plug in, and it’s like extending the network out to their home, as opposed to the client on the desktop making a tunnel back just for their laptop or desktop. So because it’s being handled by this box that has a bunch of ethernet cords that you could plug in any arbitrary device, suddenly you could plug in a phone, you could plug in a video teleconferencing unit. So it’s basically a more fully featured teleworking solution, which we’d hoped we’d be able to accomplish it just with a client on a laptop, because that’s a much simpler way to do it, and it’s much easier to do deliver in terms of, it’s just a piece of software that’ll run on any hardware you throw it, versus we’re now having to actually put together a hardware solution and be putting boxes in people’s homes. So that was sort of the back and forth until finally it coalesced this week and I’m now putting that together. I’d more or less taken ownership of the service prior to this, but the actual building it from the ground up, so to speak, which, I didn’t build a lot of the infrastructure, but I’m now putting together the configurations for the equipment that’s actually going into people’s houses. So that’s sort of what I’m working on right now. But to get back to your actual question of what are my daily job duties, it’s either you’re doing design, or you’re doing troubleshooting of an existing design, and I’m kind of seeing both sides of that now. The tricky thing about networking in particular is everything’s writing on the network in your average enterprise, so oftentimes when a ticket comes through, the first determination we have to make isn’t, “Well where’s the problem?” it’s, “Is this actually a networking problem? Or is it something else? Or is it some other component of this particular service or piece of software, and the network is just tangential to it?” And oftentimes we wind up solving the– because we’re in the best position to troubleshoot that sort of thing, but oftentimes we will get things sent to us, where it’s like, “This isn’t really networking, but sure, I’ll take a crack at it.”


Q: I see, okay, okay. That’s right, that makes a lot of sense. How frequently are you required to write?


A: So, I would say a good portion of my day is reading and responding to emails, and it is one of those things where, you get stuck in that school mentality, “Well, how many pages did I write? What were the requirements of this particular– how would I grade this? Where’s the professor scoring this for me?” And it really doesn’t boil down that simply, but I would say I write, if we do like a page equivalent writing, I would say I write anywhere between two and four pages a day.


Q: Awesome. Could you give me a percentage of your week, ballpark? Like time that you’ve spent?


A: Ballpark writing? Twenty five percent.


Q: Okay, awesome. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? So you talked about that a lot of it is email– are there other sort of larger scope writing projects that you complete too?


A: There are– like documentation, for example, of a service, or a piece of hardware, or like one of the things I still need to put together is, I recently went to Cisco Live, which is Cisco’s big, it’s their big trade show event that they do. They do them all over the world and it’s usually once a year. I still need to write a trip report for that just to talk about what did I learn, what new things are on the horizon, what classes did I attend. So, not quite a book report, but along those lines, along those lines. Then there’s, if we’re putting together a new service that I’m in charge of, here’s the documentation of how it works. I would say that that rolls into the twenty five percent as well.


Q: Okay. And how long, let’s say for that documentation, like how long, start to finish, are you given, and I’m sure it varies project to project, but are we talking hours? Days? Weeks? Months?


A: It really does vary, it’s hard to put a firm number on that, but I would say the expectation is at the conclusion of, for example, an eight week project, you would have probably 5-10 pages of documentation and you’d present– what we tend to do internally, is have a quick 45-60 minute meeting just talking about, “This is the service, this is how it works, this is where you could go for troubleshooting instructions documentation,” that goes into more depth, because yes, I am the service owner, but no man is an island, and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, someone needs to be able to go through this and figure this sort of thing out. Or if I go on PTO, and someone comes in saying, “My widget doesn’t work,” this is the relevant documentation of how that widget is tied into our services, what we manage, and here’s where you would start troubleshooting it.


Q: Gotcha, gotcha.


A: So you don’t have to call me [laughter] while I’m on an island somewhere in the pacific.


Q: Right, right, okay. And again, this will vary between the types of documents, so you could maybe just pick one or two to talk about, but who are the primary audiences you’re writing to, and what are the primary purposes of the documents that you create?


A: I would say the primary purpose for all of our documentation is mostly going to be troubleshooting, just because when you’re putting together an, “as built, this is how service X works,” what you’re really kind of saying is, “This is how service X is supposed to work, and depending on the thing that went wrong that you’ve now got a customer asking you about, this is where you need to start looking. These are the threads you need to pull on. These are the foxholes you need to chase down.” And the audience is generally going to be at least for the majority of my writing, the audience is either my peers, other folks in the networking department, or tech end users. And oftentimes, I think in a sideways sort of way, having studied a field that is very far, far field from technology actually helps in some ways, because I’m kind of having to relate to people who don’t necessarily have the background of– they have no idea what the OSI model is, they don’t know what TCP and UDP are, and they don’t care. From their perspective, it’s just “Service X doesn’t work. Why no work?” and you have to be able to relate to them in a way that’s approachable, that they can understand why service X doesn’t work, how to fix service X from their side, what they would need to do, steps that they can take, and it’s a situation where you have to know what level of detail to give them. Not that you obfuscate or conceal truth or anything like that, but you try and discern from customer to customer how much background that they really want, or do they just want, “Click X, type in Y, and your problem is fixed. Have a nice day.” And that varies from person to person. I tend to be probably more verbose that maybe is really necessary. But that’s kind of my own bug bear of, I really want to see how things work. Like when I was on the the help desk, one of the things that I found frustrating was, you know, we would escalate tickets to the team, or person, or group that owns it, and it just goes into a black hole and I have no idea what happened with it. And I could pull it up after the fact and see their clips (?22:34) notes of what I did to fix it, but that’s never really as satisfying as actually going through the process of, “What steps did you take to resolve this?” So, because of that, I tend to be more verbose and perhaps get a little more technical than is really necessary for the average person, but the reason is I have a personal preference of knowing is better than not knowing.


Q: Yeah, exactly, exactly. When you think about the types of writing that you do in a typical week, how did you learn or how did you know how to perform those types of writing?


A: Honestly, I think most of my writing ability, if you could call that, or my writing style, comes from written a lot of papers in highschool and beyond, and having– honestly, my mom go through it [chuckle] and correct it and give me her suggestions and revisions. I think that’s honestly where most of it reprised from. Totally from parents [chuckle].


Q: Has there been a time in your work life that you’ve felt unprepared to tackle a writing project?


A: I would say yes, at times, because even like when I was on the help desk, there are oftentimes where you’re stuck in the position of, “Well, I know this is an answer they’re not going to like, so how do I word this in a way that’s not just going to anger someone further?” or like, you know, get the, “I demand to speak to your manager!” kind of thing. How do you de-escalate? How do you phrase things in such a way that you explain the problem, but you don’t put someone in the position of being dissatisfied with your answer?


Q: And how do you approach that?


A: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out sometimes. But I think the most important thing is to come from a place of empathy. Like, you know, “I understand your problem, I understand why you’re upset. I don’t think we can fix this on our side.” Like, for example, if there’s a problem accessing a particular site and it’s completely upstream of us– coming back and just telling someone, “There’s nothing we can do,” – you’ll run into people who just won’t accept that as an answer and they’ll want an exception to be carved out, or “if you can’t bring me to the mountain, then bring the mountain to me” kind of thing. And oftentimes it’s just, just coming from a place of understanding and telling them that, “I’ve looked at this as exhaustively as I can and I’ve ruled out everything within our infrastructure, it’s not on our side,” and at least giving them a path of, “Here is the number for the help desk of the place you’re trying to get to, I think it’s an issue that you have to raise with them.” Rather than just saying a flat, “There’s nothing we can do,” you’d say, “I’m very sorry, there is nothing we can do, but here is at least a path where you could pursue this further.”


Q: Perfect, perfect, okay. What did you do to overcome early writing challenges? Like what you talked about, you know, you’re still sort of managing this very specific sort of diplomatic writing, when you know that someone’s not going to like the only answer there is– what did you do, were there practical things that you did to improve, or to get a handle on that kind of writing?

A: It’s one of those things that, for me, is just you have to do it over and over and over and eventually, you’ll start to get better and better at it, at the diplomacy side of the house. And if you build the rapport with someone to– and it’s building that rapport that I think, that’s oftentimes hard for especially people in IT to do, because the stereotypical IT guy is– like they’re in a room in a building somewhere and the door is always closed to that room, they’re very unapproachable. And I’ve always, you know, I end every email with, “Please feel free to ask if you have questions, I will answer them as best as I can.” Just something that lets them know that I’m not just shutting the door on their face, “I’m approachable, please tell me your tale your woe and I will listen!” So that’s been something of a learning experience because it’s one thing to go to, like an explanation path of, we’ll just say, “No, that’s not something that we’ll support,” and come back with, “No, that’s something that we’ll support,” and it’s another to deliver that message but in a way that helps the person understand that you’re not doing this out of meanness, you’re doing this out of an honest inability to assist them further.


Q: Right, right, okay. Is there a person in your organization who oversees your writing, specifically?


A: Um, not specifically my writing, no. In terms of accountability, it would be, like if I said the wrong thing, it would be, you know, going to like a manager, someone above me, to say, “Hey, your employee said the wrong thing,” or, “Your employee said the undiplomatic thing,” sort of thing. But it’s not like someone’s auditing any messaging I put out there. But I’ll often seek that out and ask– like if I’m advising someone on a service that I don’t own, that you know, I’m vaguely familiar with it but not necessarily, I’m not the subject matter expert, I will try and find who the subject matter expert is and say, “Hey, this is what is my understanding of the problem, this is how I’m describing it, does that look good to you?” and ask them if there’s any wording they would change or things of that sort.


Q: That makes perfect sense, yeah. And in general, everything from emails to these documentation processes, or to your sort of post conference travel writeup– how would you say the success of your writing is judged? The quality of your writing is assessed, if it is?


A: I would say the success– I need a moment to parse that bit. One of the things that in general, not just as it relates to work but–I tend to be as exacting as possible in my writing, like for example, even when texting, I tend to use full and complete sentences, which, that’s just a personal preference. I have no problem with people who abbreviate and use the letters “u” and “r” for the words “you” and “are”. But I tend to just write very, as often as I can, complete sentences, and things that flow well, and not to bog down in the technical details too much, but to, again, know your audience, and explain things in a way that reads well, that are nonequivocal, that gets the message across in a way that can be understood. You do get emails every now and then where it’s like, it’s a run on sentence, or capitalization, spelling mistakes, and all that sort of thing, which, as long as you’re still understood, then it’s really not big of a deal. But personal preference on my part is to always be as grammatically correct and make as few typos and that sort of thing as possible, because I think there’s a professionalism in that, and I think that’s a thing that tends to garner you more respect and rapport with the person you’re speaking to. I hope that sort of answers the question.


Q: Yeah, absolutely it does, absolutely, yeah. What is at stake in your writing? In terms of what’s at stake, what are the repercussions if your writing isn’t effective?


A: I don’t think there are any horrendous repercussions, like if I get a technical detail wrong, then chances are it’ll be corrected by someone who actually follows that through and is like, “Oh, no, you’re wrong.” And it’s like “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. That’s fine.” There is the, you know, someone getting upset and wanting to take things up the chain. There’s the risk of, you know, if I write something undipolmatically, then it’s like, I’m saying someone else’s work is incorrect, or they’re wrong about something, and there’s a chance that you might, you know, feelings will be hurt. So you try to avoid that as best you can and just say things like, you know, “I disagree and here is why.” You present a cogent argument where it’s like, “I’m not getting on you as a person, I’m just saying that what you said about service X isn’t quite correct and here’s the evidence to back me up.” Like one of the things I always strive for is that, whether or not people like me personally, my work will always stand for itself, and my writing will always be consistent with– I maintain a consistency across– make sure I’m telling the same story to everybody.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position, even?


A: We touched on this a little bit earlier – just the knowing your audience. Like this person wants to know the A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J of their problem, whereas this person just wants to know, “Did you fix it? Yes? Okay, great.” That’s the trickiest thing to judge I think.


Q: Perfect, yeah. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally?


A: Not particularly. Informally, I would say it’s more the reaching out to a subject matter expert and saying, “Hey, there’s this problem X, which is with a service that you’re closer to than I am. Here’s how I understand the problem, here’s the verbiage I’m using. Does this look kosher to you?” And taking any revisions or corrections they make and incorporating that. And that also helps me better understand the underlying technology behind a particular product or software or service. So I’m very proactive about seeking that sort of thing out, as opposed to just making assumptions. And oftentimes Google is your friend, but Google will teach you about a service or product generally, but how it’s been specifically implemented, you have to go the people that implemented it, and that’ll often give you a more complete understanding.


Q: That’s great. Okay. This is especially interesting for you because your degree isn’t related to the work that you do. But what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to do as a student and do you think that writing prepared you for the writing you do now?


A: I do remember my freshman year, we took a class, it was like Writing 101 or something like that. And the gist of the course was, it was based on six papers, and they were all on like a different tack: like one’s strictly a research, one’s a passion paper, one’s a persuasive essay, so on and so forth. And I remember in another class, my sophomore year, was a poli-sci political economy course, that every two weeks or so, we would have to write a 500 word – exactly 500 word – like two pager on either, I want to say it was some topic in class as it related to some ongoing news story, or I honestly have to go see if I still have some of those papers around to remember what the specific subject is. And then as I moved into– the professor who taught that political econ course, I wound up taking several of his classes. Not so much because I really enjoyed political economy, although I did enjoy learning about the history of politics and how that translates into things that are in the news today, but I wound up taking his classes specifically because I liked the way he presented them. And through all of it, it taught me that how you have to vary your writing style based on, not just what the audience is, but what your intent is. What are you trying to accomplish with this? That I think is one of the things that’s helped me a lot is getting that. Because I took a lot more classes than I strictly needed to in undergrad, and getting that sort of wide-ranging exposure to a lot of different subject areas wound up being very helpful in terms of teaching me how to write both about things are very near and dear to me, and things that are not. And writing about trying to accomplish a particular goal, versus writing to explain something that I’d done, without any, like I’m not trying to get person X to do something, I’m trying to say, “I did thing X, this is why you, person X, should care.”


Q: Right, right. That’s really interesting. Is there anything that would’ve been useful for you to learn as a student that would’ve helped prepare you?


A: I don’t know that you can necessarily make a formal course out of– because most writing that the average person does is informal. And I’m talking about things like email, texts, and I don’t know that you could formalize that into a class of, “How to communicate in the real world.” But honestly I think public speaking, like a Toastmasters sort of thing, maybe a heavier emphasis on that in undergrad would’ve been helpful. Because the best writing to my mind is writing where you can hear the person’s voice and envision them standing in front of you, speaking it to you. Because that’s the way most of us communicate, and I think that translates into our informal writing more so than like a research paper, or an essay does. Because oftentimes research papers and essays are written with a clear understanding that the reader is going to have a lot of background knowledge about the subject matter, whereas the informal like stand and speak, stand and deliver kind of thing, that does away with assumptions and there’s a lot more of a, you know, “I’m going to present this in a way that’s approachable to anybody,” as opposed to an essay, which if you’re reading essays about a specific subject matter, then you already have an interest in that subject matter, so. A course that goes over like more informal writing, which I think the closest thing would be, you know, public speech, might have been a lot more helpful. Like the last speech class I took was in like freshman year of highschool, actually, so I think things that get more towards informal– how to accomplish whatever goal you’re trying to accomplish with informal writing might actually be very useful for kids coming into college.


Q: That’s really interesting. Absolutely, yeah. I want to be mindful of your time, I just have a couple of questions left. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?


A: I think almost any organization, writing is going to be incredibly valuable because you have things like documentation, you have things like making– if you have a whole department that works on a particular service area, the quality of your writing is going to directly translate into how well each of those people understand the aspect of that particular service area, which the writer is a subject matter expert in, or is talking about it in any particular email. The quality of your writing – how well you make yourself understood – is going to directly translate to the effectiveness of the team that handles that service. And of course, the strength of your documentation after the fact – how accessible and how readable it is to people who might be experienced with this service area generally, but not this aspect of it specifically – I think that’s going to be incredibly valuable and you see often enough the pitfalls of not having documentation. So when you suddenly have a service in front of you, or a network in front of you that you have no idea how it’s set up, it’s not documented anywhere, and suddenly you have to go on a scavenger hunt through every single device in the network and map it out, versus, if you’d had a map, then you could have zoomed in and immediately gotten to the root of whatever problem you’re trying to solve, versus having to, “Okay, we have this problem with this service, with connects to router A, switch B, which switch B is on the other side of this wide area network link, which goes through ISP X’s infrastructure, which–” and if you don’t have that written down somewhere, then suddenly anyone who approaches that problem – and it’s not going to be the same person every time, because again, people go on vacation, people leave the company – if you’re documentation’s not there, then the next guy who has the problem is going to have to do this whole process of rediscovery. Whereas if you wrote it down once, and you kept that updated as time went on, it cuts down on the amount of rediscovering you have to do.


Q: Right, right. That’s really interesting. That actually leads really nicely to this last little set of questions, which is this distinction between how you would define successful writing in your specific workplace in your job, as opposed to how you would’ve defined successful writing as a student.


A: Successful writing as a student would be, you got an A or better on the paper. Successful writing is you did not fail the class [chuckle]. Successful writing in the workplace is, I don’t have to write the same thing more than once.


Q: Interesting. That’s great.


A: Like if– a problem that comes up often enough is– I’ll use an example. In our offices we have phones that are, they’re voice over IP phones, so they’re connected to the network, and you’re delivering voice services over the network. In addition to being connected to the network, they also draw power from the cable that you plug in the back, the network cable that you plug in, it’s called power over ethernet. We’ve run into an issue where the switch that they’re plugged into stops granting power over ethernet. And it’s really interesting how it manifests because, we’re not sure what triggers it, but when you plug a phone in, or if a phone’s already plugged in and getting power, it’ll continue to get power. But if you disconnect it, and then try and plug it back in, it won’t be newly granted power over ethernet. And there’s a negotiation that has to take place of, “Hey, I’m a device that needs power,” and the switch has to say, “Okay, you’re a device that needs power. How much power do you need?” and so on and so forth. And that negotiation, that transaction just doesn’t happen, we’re not entirely sure why. And the fix winds up being, is very simple, just go and reboot the switch that it’s connected to. But it’s one of those things where I’ve had to explain that same problem multiple times. And it’s never, I will say that, I’ve never had to explain it multiple times to the same person. So that sort of a kind of limited success, in that it’s an easily understood thing to the point where you don’t have to tell a person more than once, “Did you try rebooting the switch it’s connected to?” But that’s just an example of a problem that comes up often enough that, “Oh, have you tried rebooting the switch?” and more generally in IT it’s like, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”


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


A: I would say the reason that I’ve been able to climb from going as a contractor on the help desk, to full time on the help desk, to moving over to networking as a technician, to a year and a half later, moving into an engineering role– I think a lot of that success has been on the strength of my writing, because I feel I explain things well, in a way that’s approachable to the audience that I’m writing to, that I handle customers fairly well, and can gauge like what level of detail they want, what solution will be satisfactory to them. And a lot of that is just being able to communicate effectively.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. Great! Thank you.


A: Yep.

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT



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


A: Sure. My position title is visual communications specialist, which is also a graphic designer, and I work for the US Department of Transportation at the Office of Inspector General, and I graduated from college in May of 2009, so it’s been about eight years.

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


A: Sure. I design graphics for our office and they’re mostly for external sources. So these are semi-annual reports that go to Congress, magazines that are distributed to stakeholders and just the public, brochures and media kids, and awards for employees, and conference materials – pretty much corporate graphic design is what I do.


Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, if you could estimate on average, what percentage per week of your job requires some sort of writing?


A: So I work a 40 hour week, I would say that I spend at least a quarter of it writing.


Q: And so you kind of touched a couple different forms of writing that you do, brochures and stuff like that – can you talk a little bit more about the kinds of documents that you’re most frequently writing, that you’re most frequently asked to complete in your job?


A: Yeah. They’re usually public-facing documents or websites, so I’ll populate text for our office’s website, and I’ll also do any of the, a lot of media kids, a lot of stuff describing what kind of work our office does, their accomplishments, their mission, that kind of thing.


Q: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by media kit?


A: Sure. A media kit – we’re actually in the process of updating it, but it is a kit that describes the function of our office, the different suboffices within our office, it sums up the kinds of audits and investigations that we do, the number, our return on investment, and the kinds of safety audits that we do. Basically just getting people to understand the importance of our office so that we can keep getting it funded, and I provide a lot of the visual and also the textual content that goes into these materials.


Q: Could you describe the primary audiences to which you’re typically writing, and primary purposes, which you’ve already touched on a little bit?


A: Yeah. The primary audience would be, in large part, the Congress, because we have a lot of committees that are interested in our audits and investigations. We also speak to the department of transportation itself – we’re sort of an independent office within that department. For example, we had to put together a lot of materials for the newest Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, because she wanted to know some background on our office. So a lot of that material that we put together went to her. So our audits and investigations are posted on our website, so that anybody who wants to read about the progress of contracts that the federal aviation administration, can go and read our audits. So those are our three main audience groups.


Q: And typically you said some of your purposes, your goals for writing here is to ensure a continued funding?


A: To ensure continued funding and also to make people aware of our work, because we do a lot of important work. Actually we did an audit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s work on the General Motors ignition switch recall that happened recently, and just trying to figure out ways to make that organization better so that cars are safer. And I think there’s a lot of public interest in that work.


Q: So talking about media kids and the sort of informational and sometimes persuasive writing – were you familiar with these genres of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did it affect your approach to coming to them in the workplace?


A: No, I would not say that I was familiar with any of these genres. Any of the writing that I’ve been involved with at my organization – I’ve also written audit reports and helped write investigative documents as well – and all of those genres were brand new to me. When I was in school, I learned just general editing and document design, but not necessarily for any specific function. So it was definitely something I had to learn on the job – what the style and what the audience and what words I should use and not use.


Q: Can you describe a little bit your writing process, including how you’re given assignments, what your preparation is, and steps you take from the start to the finish of a project?


A: Sure. Generally, I have a boss, but I receive assignments from people all over my office. So they’ll come to me and ask for help on something, and I just talk to them about what kinds of materials they need, whether they do want to involve our writers, because our organization does have dedicated writer editors, but sometimes when I’m working on something– I actually used to be a writer editor, so a lot of people know that I already have writing skills built into the package, and so, depending on how extensive the work is, we might enlist another writer editor, or I’ll do the writing and editing myself. And as far as my process for doing the actual writing, I don’t know – I open up a Word document that’s blank [laughter] and I start typing, and then I kind of – this is a silly answer – I kind of put it away for a while and come back and look at it. I’ll send it to people to make sure it’s clear. Sometimes I’ll send it to a writer editor for an opinion, because I know that they have a lot of experience with that as well, and they provide good second eyes. Finally, I have to pass it around to the people who are hiring me to do this work, and make sure that they are happy with what I’ve written, and generally they are, they just want something that’s succinct and persuasive and targets the audience that they’re looking to market this piece to.

Q: Sure. So do you find yourself typically writing from a knowledge base that you already have, or do you find yourself having to do research to get started on some of these writing assignments?


A: A lot of the work that I do– I’ve been in this organization since I graduated from college, so since 2009, so I have a lot of institutional knowledge about this organization, which helps me, but there are some things that I do have to do research on. I had to write a piece for the web on our federal law enforcement authority, because our special agents carry guns, and there was a need to describe why these agents need to do that, what kind of work they do, and this is not anything I knew. So I had to talk to some investigators and do some research online before I wrote my piece.


Q: If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts – you talked a little bit about kind of passing it to other people you work with – how do you approach making these changes or improving your writing from one draft to the next?


A: Okay. Typically, most of the products I work on have to be reviewed by all of the levels of executives in our office, so I typically send one draft out to the assistant inspector generals, and there’s a group of maybe six or seven of them, and I ask them to give me their comments. Usually they funnel their stuff down to their program directors and they give me stuff. But I make all of their changes and then I send it up to the next level of executive, and then the next level of executive, and it seems to work out well. There are rarely, with the stuff that I do, the public-facing media, there’s rarely a lot of contention about edits. There might be some happy or glad quibbles, but it’s usually pretty smooth. Yeah, I’ll end there.


Q: So in terms of getting comments, are you typically getting comments back on the same document from multiple people at once, or it sort of one stage at a time?


A: I typically get comments from multiple people at a time, and with some of our reports that are like 100 pages long, that can be a little daunting to collect all of those comments, but it gets done every semi-annual period. So yeah, I think that’s all I have to say about that.


Q: Sure, yeah. So what’s kind of your process in terms of, I mean it’s very difficult to get multiple comments on one thing, how do you sift through and decide which comments to take and which to– ?


A: Well, I have a style guide for our semi-annual reports, and I make all edits for accuracy, and then as for style, I go for consistency. And if one person wants to say it this way, but historically we’ve said it this way and throughout our report, I will use the more consistent term. Some people recommend edits that are incorrect [laughter], so I’ll just not make those. And if there is something that seems notable, seems like someone really wants to make this edit but I’m not going to make it, I will call them and have a conversation with them about why I am not making that change, and usually that resolves that problem.


Q: So how long do you typically have to complete a writing project like this?


A: It depends, because a lot of these projects are, some of the projects are congressionally mandated. So our semi-annual reports to Congress are due every semi-annual period, and I have about two months to gather all this data and I also do layout and I edit, and it takes about two months, but I do other projects in between. But there are some other projects that are sort of nice-to-haves – we issue something called Impact Magazine, which is a magazine that compiles a lot of our more interesting investigative cases, like we took down this operation that sold faulty, counterfeit airbags, and we had photos of these rooms full of airbags that would kill people, basically. So that was a case that we highlighted in the magazine. That didn’t necessarily have a hard deadline, because everybody was working on it on the side. So we worked on that for about a year. But as for other writing projects, surprisingly even little assignments, like brochures which have like maybe 1000 words in it – it took forever, because everybody had an opinion on what words to use. But that also wasn’t on a strict deadline as well. For the writing that I do, the time crunch isn’t as present as it is for other forms of writing.


Q: So you’ve talked about this in a couple different ways, we’re at the question – what’s at stake in your writing? We’ve talked about funding, and talked about even just that airbag example. Can you give an example of the kinds of ideas, topics, that are sort of at stake that you guys are trying to prevent, or continue certain things going for the public?


A: Yeah. Well, in light of the budget cuts facing the government right now, we’re definitely trying to make sure that we get as much funding as we can to continue doing the work that we do, and trying to make sure that people understand the safety implications of our work and the financial benefits of our work. As far as the law enforcement thing – there has been some concerns about whether federal law enforcement officers, how many of them should be armed, should they be armed at all? So part of the case that I was trying to make with that piece on our web was to sort of make it clear what kinds of situations our special agents get into, and why they would need to be armed, because if we’re talking about multi-million dollar contracts, or drugs, or smuggling, those situations can get really hairy, and in most cases, having armed agents actually helps save lives. And other issues that we talk about – I don’t know if I have anything else that’s as large, but I’ll do things like create conference materials, and those are for internal, for our managers, for example. And a lot of that design and that writing is to sort of give legitimacy to the conference to make it something that people take seriously and really participate in. So that’s a different kind of persuasion that I do in my work. I think that that’s enough.


Q: Who oversees your writing? If you could give a brief description of their title, their role in your organization.


A: Yeah. The person who oversees my writing is, and like I said, I have a boss, but he doesn’t necessarily work with me on all of my projects, because I’m almost like an independent contractor in my office, so I have a lot of different bosses. But my direct boss, he is the director of the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs, and he’s an attorney. He doesn’t necessarily have a writing background, but he certainly has a handle on writing. And everybody else who oversees my writing doesn’t necessarily have a writing background either, but they have been in this organization for decades, so they know what kinds of products we put out and what kind of language we generally use for Congress or for the public.


Q: So those that do oversee your writing, how would you say that they typically judge the success or the quality of what you give them?


A: That’s a good question. The main thing that they’re looking for is something that people can understand, and that sounds really basic, but I work with a lot of accountants and investigators who definitely don’t have a writing background, and they’ll send me data, and I have to translate that into something that people want to read and can understand. And I think because the executives and other folks that read my writing are often slightly removed from the weeds of the data that I’m putting together, they’re a good judge of whether whatever topic that I’m discussing can actually be understood. And I think that’s the main criterion that they use.


Q: Have you had any formal writing training or education since you graduated college?


A: No.


Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer, including what kind of practical steps did you take in the office to overcome any early writing challenges like unfamiliarity with writing style, or form?


A: Yeah. I would say the main challenge that I faced entering the workforce as a writer was learning the interpersonal side of writing, because I took editing classes and I knew where to put my commas, but the hardest part was making a case for changing someone’s document, because people feel very strongly about their writing, and some people take it very personally. There was a lot of personal growth that had to happen for me to present my edits in a way that wouldn’t be conceived as personal attacks and sort of do a little compliment sandwich, “You know, you put periods at all the ends of your sentences. That was so awesome! But there’s no point to this,” [laughter]. So learning how to do that, and there were some cases where there was definitely some disagreements between me and the teams about what they wanted to see written down. Another part of the interpersonal skills I had to learn were knowing when to step back, because there are some cases when people are going to go forward with what they want and I could make my case, I would make my case once, and I would make it one more time, and it would be out of my hands. And so it’s sort of taking this zen approach to, like I don’t own this, I’m just trying to help. That was definitely something I had to learn, because I had to step back from the idea of, “But that’s wrong!” [laughter] – that was not the best way to do it. And so other than interpersonal skills, learning style was really just a matter of continued exposure to the materials that we produced, and just reading a lot of the materials that we had, and just working through revisions with people so that it sounded right, so getting my ear to be trained, and that’s pretty much it.


Q: Are you able to identify any change in your writing between college and your time in the workplace? And if so, to what would you attribute the shift?


A: Yes. I think that my writing is a lot more clear, it’s a lot more paired down, because I think in college I was writing, I was like, “Yeah, adjectives! I want lots of adverbs everywhere!” and I realized how much that obstructs the flow of reading sometimes. What I write really tries to get to the point as quickly as possible, and my writing has followed that pattern since that’s what I do every day.


Q: In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in the workplace?


A: Well, I was just talking about writing flowery essays, but I do feel like– I was an English major, I majored in professional writing and editing, and I do feel like it gave me a solid knowledge of how to put a piece of writing together, like how to structure ideas so that I group like ideas together, and how to make sentences flow, one to the other, and just basic grammar. And a lot of that I find is actually very difficult for a lot of people to do, especially accountants, who are used to crunching numbers and counting beans. And so just having that basic foundation was very useful for my writing career.


Q: So then in what ways did you feel unprepared as a writer going into your job?


A: I wish that, as part of the English curriculum, someone would have sent me to charm school, or dealing with difficult situations [laughter], like I didn’t know it was going to be so fraught with interpersonal issues, like people are always involved, and if you don’t know how to deal with people, you’re not going to succeed in this role. So I think that’s something I never would have guessed when I was an English major, but I think that, if I were to tell myself to go through college over again, I would take more public speaking, I would take more negotiations classes, and anything along those lines.

Q: Would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?


A: I would consider myself a successful workplace writer, and I consider myself successful because I am able to make recommendations for how our writing is put forth, and I’m able to convince our executives and the people who get to approve or disapprove of my writing, to go with what I put forth. And so it’s part writing the thing well, and the other part is convincing people that that’s what we need. And that’s how I measure my success.


Q: And finally, what skills do you think are most central to being successful in writing in your specific role?


A: So I already talked about the interpersonal part – I can’t emphasize that enough, because we do have writers who are more stubborn, like grammar nazis [laughter] – their edits are not taken as kindly, just because they’re not able to give and take. Another skill is being able to take complex technical ideas and distilling it into something that anybody can understand. That’s really the bulk of the job, it’s like being a translator. And let’s see, what else? I mean there’s also software skills, I mean I don’t know if you want to hear about that, but just things like making sure changes are tracked meticulously, because there’s some people who are very nervous about their writing being changed, and just being very respectful when approaching people’s work, so that they know exactly what changed in it. I think that’s it.


Q: Great.

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Commercial Director


Commercial Director

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

A: I am a director of commercials and short films and documentaries, and writer of them occasionally, I am a freelancer, so I work for various different production companies, and it’s been eight years since I graduated college.

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

A: My job consists of finding clients, either by word of mouth or by me contacting them directly or them contacting me, they will present me with a problem, it’s usually called an RFP, a request for pitches, and what that means is that a client somewhere out in the ether needs a video of some kind. And they usually have a series of problems or objectives that they’re trying to hit with that video, occasionally it’s a commercial, sometimes it’s a longer form piece, but the majority of my work is for corporations who are trying to get something out in the world, right? So it’s either marketing or advertising or something along those lines. I’m contacted by various production companies, who give me these RFPs, I write something to try to accomplish those goals in an abstracted or metaphorical way, it’s presented to the company, if they like it, which they frequently do, they will contract my services to create a video for them. That usually means there’s a three week-ish scripting process – that’s even with documentaries, all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, they all have about three weeks of preproduction, larger things will go up to three months – where the client and I find harmony in our various approaches to what they’re trying to enact. Then we have anywhere from one to five actual production shooting days, where the seven-person pre-production team that I’m kind of leading creatively and my producer’s leading logistically, we ramp up and hire anywhere from 20 to 70 people to shoot a commercial or a short film. And then there’s about anywhere from a month to three months of postproduction time where we are actually in the edit and crafting the narrative that we have created and attempted to shoot in reality, but never hit the mark, and it’s called “finding it in the edit” – we spend a lot of time making sure that what we did and did not get on the actual days of shooting are made as perfect as they can be. Throughout that time, I’m in constant contact with the client and also the production companies that I’m working for, refining our idea, figuring out how to overcome various obstacles, either we can’t shoot at the location we wanted because they had a shoot previously and one of the gaffers accidentally flooded the whole space so they’re not shooting anymore, to the person who is going to be the star doesn’t want to do it unless we quadruple their salary and we just don’t have the money for it, to things as drastic as, “The CEO just saw the script and hates it, what are we going to do? We’re shooting in two days,” – which happened to me a couple months ago, and was not fun. But, yeah, that’s my job. I essentially write and direct commercials.

Q: Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Seventy?

Q: Okay. What forms or types of writing, or documents, modes of writing, etc., are you most often finding yourself completing?

A: The majority of the writing that I do that I would call genuine writing, that’s not emailing – I do a lot of script writing – so I’ll either, as an individual or with one or two cowriters, create various pitches and pitch decks where we show our ideas in as beautiful and comprehensible a way as possible, with images and words, or I’m actually, if those pitches are approved, writing those scripts and making sure that they’re as good and tight and fast and fun as possible. When I’m not in that mode, a lot of my writing is communicating with either producers, art directors, and cinematographers about what exactly the vision that I see for the piece needs to be from their end, so it’s a lot of turning visual language into actual language so that various people in various different departments with various different skill sets can all be on the same page. Or talking to my editor in postproduction, giving he or she notes about what exactly they’re missing, or what they’re hitting or what they’re doing very well or what needs to change, talking to composers, giving notes about that, and then the most important part, and frequently least fun, is responding to client notes and making sure that the efforts that we put forth as the creative arm of the team are understood and embraced by the more logistically-minded members of the client side. So it’s a lot of emails, scripts, pitch documents, so essentially big, I would call them aesthetically-oriented slideshows, and responding to notes and questions and concerns from various members of the team.

Q: Great. Can you talk about who typically are the primary audiences to which you’re writing?

A: Well, the meat of the writing, the audience would be, you know, the scripts themselves, the audience is general, whoever the client is trying to attract. So you know, males from 18 to 45, women who are in their 70s, whatever it is. But unfortunately, that’s not the bulk of my writing. The bulk of my writing is either inter-office interactions, where we’re all sort of trying to make sure we’re on the same page and moving in the same direction, or messages between the production company and the client, where it’s sort of a delicate balance where everyone’s trying to find harmony, and both sides, which are sort of frequently at odds, need to find harmony and embrace the final product, and a lot of times the onus of making sure and massaging that harmony falls on me. And so that’s a combination of being as charming as possible and as forthright and kind of steadfast in my vision as possible. So it’s a very delicate balance.

Q: So, with both the creative aspect and this sort of more inter-office communication, business-type stuff, did you feel like you were familiar with those styles of writing when you were a student? And if you were, how do you think that affected your approach now that you’re doing them professionally?

A: I was lucky enough to study creative writing and so a lot of my education was workshopping. So it was taking what other people had written, sitting down in a room, and dissecting it, and saying, “You know what, the opening was great, the middle I kind of lost you, but by the end, you had me and I think if you spend another week and a half on this short story, this thing will really sing.” And having that basis of knowledge as to how to speak to people in a critically constructive way that finds what’s good, tries to slough off what’s bad, and really help them find their vision while also hearing that same kind of criticism about my own work – that I think was the most important aspect of my college education in terms of moving into the professional world. Things like tone shifting, where obviously, when I’m writing a commercial, most of the commercials that I write are silly or absurdist, so when I’m scripting, I try to let myself go as weird and silly and open as possible. But then when I’m talking to a client, I have to obviously button myself up and be very direct, straight-forward, and professional. So it’s a lot of tone shifting when I’m actually doing the writing. But I think– yeah, is that answering the question? That was pretty close [laughter].

Q: Yes, yeah, totally. So you hit on this a little bit during your first question about describing your job, but can you kind of run us through an overview of your whole writing process, from the time you get an assignment, any kind of preparation you do before writing, and then all the way to completion of that project?

A: Okay, since I’m sort of varied in my employ, I’ll keep it just to commercials. Usually the way that it goes is I’ll get a call, and it’s like, “Hey, are you available?” And if I am, “Yes.” “HP,” for example, “wants to let people know that their servers are faster than everyone else’s and they want to make something that is funny. They have no idea what they want to make, but their competitors are doing this and this, and this is what HP used to do.” I’m usually armed with that information from the outset. What I’ll first do is research as much as I can about what their competitors are doing, and what they themselves have been doing during their campaigns, and then I’ll try to think about what they’re missing, or really, selfishly, what I really always think about is what I would like to see, because if we’re being honest about advertising, nobody wants to see advertising. So I try to think, what would be a thing that would make me happy if I was forced to watch it before I could get my inflight wifi? And then, find the harmony between how that makes – for example, this is not a real example, but – how that makes HP’s servers clearly faster than everyone else’s and would bring a smile to a 12-year-old me, but also make a 55-year-old guy who’s just got off a flight from Shanghai and really just needs to send an email to his wife to let her know that he’s about to come home, how to find the harmony of all those things. And then I write up usually around five different templated ideas, about a paragraph or two paragraphs, for each of them, with a couple of– there are various resources online where you can find stills from films or I usually have, whenever I am coming up with an idea, because commercials are a very visual medium, I’m always coming up with visuals as well. So I’ll either contract a storyboard artist, or just find images that create the right mood, and then present those things to the client to see if they like it. Then once that’s achieved, it’s usually a phone call that’s around an hour long, where they tell me that they kind of liked it but they also hated a lot of things that I did. So I have to go back to the drawing board a little bit, reassess, write a script, send the script over, do a revision, do a revision – you’re always contracted for two revisions, but you always go until at least five – keep going, keep sending emails with each revision, where they’re winnowing down what they want, you’re winnowing down and fighting for what you think is really important, and making sure that you’re navigating that space where, there’s a lot of times that as conversations continue and continue and continue about an idea, people can lose the thread of what was even good about it, so the onus is always on me to maintain that sort of, whatever the crystal was inside of the cabinet, to make sure that it’s unbroken when it gets to the final destination. And then yeah, basically from there it continues, then we do the shoot once the script is approved, and then the same process basically starts over again once the client sees the edit, where they had an idea of what it was, usually they’re not as experienced in production as our team is, they have an idea of what they were expecting, what they see is slightly different, they’re almost always happy, which is nice, because it means I get to keep working, but it takes another series of, “Here’s what we made,” then they send notes, then we respond to the notes, then we make a revision based on our responses, and it’s just making sure that everyone is happy with the product, while making sure that people with bad ideas or sort of– there is a sort of sickness in this type of work, where you’re mixing business and creativity, where a lot of people involved sometimes feel like they have to say something, and they have to make a criticism, so there are sometimes extraneous notes, just so that– sometimes on the client side there are 15 people involved who are all supposed to give notes, and really, one person is leading the team, but person number 13 feels left out, so they always toss a curveball in, and you have to navigate that stuff by again, just charm and a lot of “in our professional opinion” sort of phrasing, where it’s like, again, just massaging and making sure that people aren’t leading themselves off of a cliff because they think they know what’s best.

Q: So just to go a little bit off track here, in the sort of, after the script is approved, before filming begins, are you, as director, also responsible for say, casting?

A: Oh actually, I completely forgot about that. So once the script is approved, we have the big things that need to happen is, we need to crew up, so I need to hire, I don’t actually do the hiring, but I need to pick a cinematographer, a production designer, all of the cast, and a location. All of those things require a great deal of writing to get to the end of, for you know it’s like, “Hey, we need a production designer,” and it’s not like saying, “Hey, I need an ATM.” Production designers all have very specific sets of skills and their own specific aesthetics. So you need to say, “I need a production designer who’s really good at making things both gritty, very mobile, they need to be good at physical comedy, they need to be able to do gags, and they need to be able to, I don’t know, paint metal quickly.” And then they need to also vibe with whatever my aesthetic is. So I need to craft an email to them, to say, “Hey, here is the mission, if you choose to accept it,” but lay it out entirely for that team. Then I need to do the same thing, but in a much different way, for the cinematographer, the same thing in a much different way for when we’re location scouting. Location scouting is one of the more difficult writing challenges because you basically need to say, “Hello everyone, I need this thing that does not exist, but I hope it exists somewhere. Here are the things that I would love if it had. I don’t know if this is real, but I would love it if there was a dojo that had a trapdoor that led into a basement, and all the walls were green, or if they’re not green, a place that will let us paint them.” And then for something like a cinematographer, it’s even more heady and kind of, you have to use real language to talk about visual language, so you end up, it’s– a good conversation with the cinematographer is essentially just almost like this litany of visual references – be it paintings, or films, or sometimes even short stories or longer stories, or illustrations, or every once in awhile, it’s like, “This sculpture I think I saw in a children’s museum and I know that you grew up in the same town as me, so maybe you saw it. It was like the inside of the heart, and it was beating all the time, and you know how you were kind of going in through the tunnel, do you remember that feeling?” A lot of weird pulling references from all throughout your personal visual history. And then the hardest, hardest, hardest is casting, because it’s similar to the location thing. It’s, “I have an idea in my head about what I would like reality to manifest, I don’t know if it’s there, but here are the parameters that I would like to hit.” So you know, you kind of have to create a wide enough birth that you can realistically find this person, but also be very specific so that the casting director’s armed with the materials that they need to find the right person.

Q: So you talked before about all these revisions that you go through, can you talk a little bit about how you approach making changes when you’re getting feedback from so many different voices? Making sure that, like you said, the vision improves from one draft to the next for your client, but you also don’t lose that key thread?

A: Yeah, you know, it’s always a– you have to be realistic about things. Frequently the first thing that you send is what I think is best [laughter], so I send over the best version of what we have and what we could create, and that’s almost never, it happens sometimes, but it’s almost never accepted as the final version. And so what you do is you just, a lot of times when you’re getting notes from clients, because they spend a lot of their time on the client’s side a lot of time, they’re doing marketing, or they’re working with different teams, or they’re trying to achieve different goals every single day or every single month, that they’re not as versed in exactly what you and your team are doing. So you need to find– the spirit of what their notes are is frequently more important than the actual content of what their notes are. So sometimes it’ll just be like, they’ll be as vague as, “This part doesn’t feel right.” And so what me and my editor have to do whenever that happens is she and I will have to just watch that part over and over again [laughter] to figure out exactly what they were talking about. And frequently, unless the person is kind of phoning it in on the other side, frequently there is truth to whatever the notes are, and it’s just about determining the spirit of a question or a consideration and making sure that we all keep in mind on our side that the other person is, at the end of the day, paying for this thing, and it is theirs more than it’s ours. So really trying to listen and use comprehension to determine not exactly what they’re saying, but what the spirit of their note is.

Q: Great. Typically, how long do you have to complete a writing project?

A: I mean, it’s a hard question to answer, because a lot of times, for that pitch process, where it’s like, “Hey, this company wants something,” I’ll have around four days to put together a pretty comprehensive document that probably takes around 20 to 25 hours of genuine work. Then when it comes to the scripting process, it can be anywhere from 24 hours for a script, to two weeks for a script. It’s all sort of, it goes up and down with, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why things are like that. With the client notes things, you want to respond as soon as possible, usually within the hour. And for things like casting, casting notes, location notes, interactions with or calls for DPs, etc., it is right now – so in the next 30 minutes, in the next 15 minutes, can we have already had that? Because time is always very expensive when you have this many people involved in a process. So sometimes I’ll be in between meetings and I’ll have two minutes and I’ll have to write a 500-word email to someone, and it’s just, when you’re used to it and when you’re comfortable with it, you get into a place where it just starts to flow out. But it’s very dynamic and there’s no set rules as to how much time I have to do any of this stuff.

Q: Great. So we sort of already touched on what’s at stake in your writing, in terms of who you’re writing to and their goals, so I think we’ll move on. I know you’re freelancing, so you’re dealing with people all the time – in terms of the job description or title of the people that typically are overseeing your writing, as clients, who would that be? In a broad sense I guess?

A: Yeah, let’s see – I’m in constant conversation with the head copywriter at the agency, the creative director or the associate creative director at the agency, they’re usually my point people on that side. And then on the client side, they always have strange, convoluted titles like SVP of client marketing, or that’s not right, let me think, I’m actually going to look at an email signature right now and I’ll let you know. They’re always people who are sort of on the VP track it seems, usually it’s a big deal to be able to be giving notes and to be involved in the marketing for a company, because obviously that’s how they put their face forward and they want to put their best people. But there are also some companies that have creative directors of their own, so, I guess it would be creative director, copywriter, senior vice president, or sometimes marketing director, or occasionally people have weird, sort of esoteric titles, like thought leader [laughter], but it’s usually people who are in the upper echelons of whatever company we’re dealing with.

Q: Great. And all of those people, from VP to copywriter, what are they typically – maybe they communicate this to you through their feedback or your communications with them – what are they using typically to judge success or quality of the writing that you provide for them?

A: Everything comes down to the metrics on the end. “Was this a successful campaign?” is judged by how many people saw it, or in worst case scenarios, what the – the word’s escaping me – what are the people that give feedback? Where they’re in a room and they watch something?

Q: Like focus groups?

A: Yes. It’s either what a focus group scores it, or basically the reach of the campaign. And also a lot of times I’m judged on something as pure as someone’s, “Yeah, we liked that!” Because it’s a creative thing, it’s, “Yeah, that was good!” and [laughter], “I enjoyed the final product, so you did a good job writing,” you know?

Q: Great. Have you had any formal writing training or education since college?

A: No. I still write creatively quite a bit, and so I’m in a sort of loose group of writers that meet every week and we discuss either stories or scripts that we’re writing, and we’re all sort of various different types of professional writer, so that is a type of training, but it’s not a formal type of training, and it’s totally free except I have to buy guacamole.

Q: Great [laughter]. So what kind of challenges did you face your first few jobs as a freelancer, and what did you do to overcome those early challenges?

A: The big challenge that I faced when I first started working was I thought of every assignment that I would get as a freelancer as a research paper, and so I would basically be, I would just put too much work into everything, and make these very comprehensive scripts and documents and even emails. For a while I was working for Gawker and I would write these blog posts that were remarkably long, probably too long and too well researched, and I was just putting too much into things, because I was coming out of the university system where that’s expected. And I was a little bit too formal in my writing style. And once I was able to make myself a little bit more casual on the page, things started really coming together.

Q: Great. Are you able to identify any changes in your writing between college and now your time writing professionally?

A: That’s remarkably difficult. I think that I’ve embraced– I was much more interested in form and sort of more obscure writerly techniques when I was in college, and now I’m much more interested in making sure nuggets of ideas come through, regardless of the aesthetic content of them. So I think I’ve become more direct and less obtuse in my writing style.

Q: Great. And you’ve hit on this a little bit in terms of creative writing background, but in what ways do you think your academic and college writing background prepared you for some of the stuff that you’re doing now, in the workplace?

A: Without the creative writing study that I did in college, I wouldn’t have a career. It is the reason that I am able to communicate with any sort of alacrity and why I’ve been able to move through my career very quickly in a way that I didn’t even expect. And it’s only because I’m able to use language better than most of my peers that I’ve been able to make the strides that I have in the time that I’ve been out of school. A lot of the people that are in the same field as me might actually be better at the tangible parts of the job, like being a director and being on set, but I’m much more likely to win the job because I’m a more persuasive writer.

Q: Do you actually attribute even your successes in the inter-office email communication, that kind of stuff, back to some of your experiences in creative writing?

A: Yeah, I do. I think that the workshopping process and the finding ways to be critical of people and also to exalt them, and basically having that as my schooling, has made me a better coworker than I would have been if I didn’t have it, for sure, yeah.

Q: So if creative writing and those sorts of experiences in workshopping left you sort of feeling prepared for that kind of interaction and communication, in what ways did you feel maybe less prepared, going into the workplace?

A: I, because I didn’t take any business marketing or any of those sorts of classes, I was startled by the difference in vocabulary between fiction writers and journalists and sort of everyone else. These sorts of weird acronyms that would come up, like ROI and CRM and PPQ, or whatever they are, really threw me through a loop for a while, and it took me a long time to learn that language because there is a very specific language to this industry. But beyond that, I think that was the biggest hurdle, just the linguistic, just having completely different lexicons and different words for the same things. And I’ve been fighting that still, in terms of trying to avoid the business-minded idiomatic phrasings that a lot of people fall into, like “making the ask” or “the burning bush” or “the view from 30,000” or you know, all of those idiomatic crutches that people lean on in business relationships because it feels safer. That was pretty startling to me, coming from someone who pretty much only reads books, that was all new.

Q: Great. Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer, and if so, why would you say that? What are you judging it on?

A: Yeah, I think that I am because I am able to– I think the big hurdle in workplace writing is not can everything be harmonious and can you get your ideas out, but can you solve a problem exclusively with your writing? Like can you identify something that’s wrong, get in touch with the right person who can fix it, and make them understand exactly what the problem is, without ruffling their feathers or making them concerned about something, or even worse, making them worried about their own job security. And just to be able to have the linguistic skills to be like, “Hey man, I noticed this is happening. Let’s do it this way. How about that,” and maneuver that sort of interpersonal space that is much easier because I am more fluid with language than I would have been had I not studied it in school.

Q: Great. And final question – what skills do you think are most central to being successful as a writer in your particular job?

A: Empathy and speed [laughter]. I need to be able to figure out what people are really saying and react to it very quickly.

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Archive Creators Present at 13th Annual Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Conference in Granada, Spain


Brian Fitzpatrick and Jessica McCaughey, creators of the Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences, presented the archive and early research from its interviews in July 2018 at the 13th Annual Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Conference at the University of Granada in Spain, along with researchers from around the world interested in Organizational Studies. The talk, titled, “The Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences: An Exploration of Written Communities of Professional Practice,” was well received, and we hope that this might be an early step towards expanding the archive to include the voices of workplace writers from around the world. Stay tuned!