Casting Assistant



So I’ll start by asking you to state your job title, the industry that you work in and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college.


I work in the entertainment industry as a casting assistant. And I, man, this is when the math comes in. This is why I work in entertainment. Um, I graduated in 2016. So it’s been four years. 


Perfect, perfect. Are you–are you a freelancer? Or do you work for a company as a casting assistant?


Um, so it’s actually been a combination. This past year, you know, the industry was in a lot of flux. So I was previously working in a permanent position with a casting office in New York. And when I was furloughed, I was freelancing with a bunch of different casting directors and casting offices. And right now, I am still freelancing, but I’m in a long term position with a specific project.


Wonderful. Awesome. And have you worked in the entertainment industry since you graduated from college?


Yes, I did. Yes, I have. 


Wonderful. Um, could you give us just sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?


Um, so a lot of it is administrative. But it’s very heavily focused in, inner communication, and communication with different parties–agents and managers who represent the talent that we’re interested in–different members of creative teams, so that can be directors, producers, screenwriters, play writers, different people on the production team. And then there’s also the aspect of the actual audition. So it’s a lot of preparing documents, reading scripts, [indestinguishable] that for characters that the actors will use in the auditions. We also write the character breakdowns. So for the roles that we’re casting, we help write those character descriptions. We, in the audition, you know, we are reading with the actors, and we’re also giving direction to the actors based on what the team is looking for. And then we also see a lot of work–we go, you know, we saw I should say, shows at theatres, also watching a lot of movies and TV, just trying to find new talent. And whether it’s actors or, you know, directors or, you know, like screenwriters and playwrights and stuff like that. So, it’s a very all encompassing job. You know, its function is administrative, but as far as like getting the bigger picture, look at it, it does involve a lot of the interaction with different people who are involved in the project, as well as agents and managers, and yeah, and just and just kind of being like, the central hub of a lot of the goings on.


Amazing. That’s fascinating. And this is a clarifying question for me, just because I’m really interested, this isn’t on my list of questions. But so when you are doing that work, and are you working for, like, like, is it a casting agency–that like works with various projects for theatre, TV, whatever? And or are you working for like, say, like, a Netflix type, like some sort of organization that actually produces or makes the content?


Yes. So casting is–so casting professionals get hired by people to do our job to find actors to audition them and to get them booked, and to get them on set. So there are different casting offices of varying sizes, and theatres, even some production or some like, network and studios have like in-house, so they don’t have to hire out unless they’re like doing like a search, like nationwide, or, or internationally. But typically, like the last– the office that I’m currently working at, they get hired by different networks and studios and streaming companies to cast their projects. Does that answer your question? 


It does. Yeah, yeah. That’s great. That’s very helpful. Can you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?


I mean, 100%. Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of–because a lot of the people dictation is via email, as well as, you know, reading the scripts and writing character descriptions and like, you know, depending on the type of project. If you’re working in theater, I would say the writing is really just going to be email based, it’s not so much like writing character descriptions, because a lot of those roles are established. So unless it’s a new work, you’re not having to make edits to the descriptions that are already already available. But for TV, you know, sometimes film I guess, is closer to theater, because it’s a lot more set. But for TV, you know, you’re casting new episodes every week, you’re having to write new character descriptions, you’re reading new scripts, you’re, um, you know, like that, that is going to be a lot more creatively writing. But yeah, the emails and the communication is really like, 100%. Like, that’s consistent. 


Wonderful. Thank you. And you’ve, you’ve kind of answered this already. But um, what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents? It sounds like, email, these character descriptions, like a lot of communication that these various people–are there any other sort of genres or types of documents that you consistently write that you haven’t mentioned?


Um, I mean, the documents are usually like contracts. So not necessarily things that we are producing but that we’re sharing, and are responsible for getting like answers or filling in the blanks of like, whatever talent needs it. Um, but other than that, and it’s really…yeah, I mean, though, yeah, it’s really just like the character descriptions and emails, I think. There’s also kind of like note taking, um, so for different meetings, like, I’m responsible for taking notes for them, and then sharing that information if necessary. Um, and that’s a skill, I realized, they haven’t exercised in a while, slash I’m not even sure if I ever really particularly had it. Um, and that is really, really valuable, because they rely on, you know, if they’re moving quickly, and we’re working on like, different, you know, projects we’re working on, we’re looking at different documents, and I’m taking notes like, some of those, they refer back to like when we’re writing writing an email to the team, and they’re like, What did they say in that moment? It’s just that–the notes! The notes are so important. Um, so yeah, that’s, that’s an interesting one that I was introduced to in this job that I’m in right now, that is a skill that I’m trying to sharpen. 


Awesome. That’s really interesting. I agree. It is a really challenging skill, even now. It’s a totally different kind of writing than we ever do, right? 


Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. 


So, um, the casting–the sort of character notes is something I’m really interested in, because I needs to do this, if I’m understanding it, right, it seems to sort of blend like a very creative way of thinking and writing with a very administrative task. Like the goal is still administrative in some ways, even though it’s art. So I was wondering if you could maybe think about a recent project where you had to write those and, and sort of talk about the process of it for me. 


Yeah, it’s funny, because I, I’ve always loved like writing, like creative writing was one of my first loves. So in all the offices that I’ve worked in, especially more recently, as an assistant, like they’ve always just foisted that responsibility on me once they realize that, like, Oh, she’s good at this, like, she can do this. Um, and yeah, so really, so when you get the script, sometimes there are at least, like a breakdown of the characters that are featured in the script, usually ones that you know, are not going to be like background or extra, it’s like the roll set of lines. And so we are we’re, so we are kind of tasked of figuring out, especially if you’re working on like, an episodic like a TV show at figuring out which of those roles that we’re going to be responsible for casting because some of them they’re like, you know, some of those roles have like two lines and like we’re not gonna be responsible for that, that’s going to be local casting, you know, for wherever it’s shooting, they can cast you know, like the two liners. For the offices that I’ve worked in, were usually responsible for TV shows. And for films for passing like the kind of like heavier roles, like the ones who have like, one or two scenes and like, when I worked on you know, I worked on in NCIS, New Orleans. So like, you’re responsible for casting like the victim, like the some victim’s family member and like the villain, and like, those are like our usual like, cast of characters that we had to cast. So when we have the scripts, we have to figure out what are those roles that we’re going to be casting, and it’s taken me a little bit, umm, working in different offices, and just working in different types of media, whether it was theater or for film or for TV and figuring out, like, what is going to be most helpful for the actor, and something that I always try to do is show the arc of the character. Because even if they may be introduced one way, how they end up can be a little bit different. And you don’t want to, like do this by like, spoiling it per se, but like, the more information you can give the actor showing, like, acting as the foundation for the material that they’re going to have to prepare for the audition, the better. I’m so like, the first, you know, the character description usually looks like the character name, the age range that they’re playing, their ethnicity, and their gender. And a lot of that has been shifting currently, because of social justice movements, as far as like incorporating different descriptors of like race and ethnicity, as well as gender. Um, so like, that’s going to shift, and it hasn’t like happened in a very, like, all encompassing way, yet, but I know that a lot of people are shifting how they’re writing their breakdowns to be more inclusive, which is really great.


That’s really cool. And really interesting. So it’s not that necessarily the act of casting more diverse actors is happening, it’s the way that you described them. Could you talk a little bit about like, how one might shift, like, what you might someone might have written a few years ago, as opposed to now?


Yeah, um, so like, you know, a couple years ago, it could have been, like, you know, it could have been like a role that was for a business person, and they would have been, like, 30s to 40s. White umm, like, woman. And now, you know, if we were to submit that now, and we couldn’t justify reason why it had to be a white woman, the studio and network, we have to send these breakouts to approve would not approve it. So now, it’s really a matter of opening it up from the jump, so that it would be like 30, 40s, you know, any ethnicity, any race, any gender. And usually, there’s like, at least when I was working with CBS, for NCIS New Orleans, there was always something at the end of our breakdown, that would be all ethnicities and genders are, are open to to apply or open to be considered. And that’s like CBS’s like language, but like, every studio or network has something similar to that. And in the language that we include in our breakdown, where it’s like, all, everyone is open to any of the roles unless specified. So like, even if like the writers, or the director, or the producers, like wanting somebody to be white, like we had to be able to justify why they had to be white, or whatever ethnicity or whatever, gender, whatever. 


That’s fascinating, and a really satisfying thing to hear when we think about, well, who we’re so used to seeing on TV.


Exactly, yeah, and like seeing that shift again reminded me, at least as a casting professional, like how much influence we have, as far as like the kind of people that we can read for these roles and the kind of people that we send for consideration. You know, if we open it from the jump that gives us so much more playing room to work with, and gives us so much more opportunity to like, you know, be able to find someone they may not have considered originally. So it’s really exciting for us too.


Thank you. That clarification is really interesting. 


Yeah, yeah, of course. Um, so then to go back to your original point, as far as like how the character description is written, and, like I was saying, it’s about finding the arc of the character. So like, how they start in the first scene, to like, how their thoughts or ideas or actions change in the middle to kind of how, how the character kind of looks like at the end. So I think it’s really fun to like highlight those kind of like, kind of like three major moments, as well as like, any specific interactions they have with other characters, how they might feel about other characters. And, you know, kind of internally where the character is–like, you know, how they may be perceived versus how they actually are. It’s very, it really is like one of the more creative parts that especially for me as an assistant that I get to do, so it’s really It’s really fun to get to like, kind of be a part of interpreting what we get from the directors and producers and screenwriters on–put that with what’s in the script, and then kind of turn it into something that’s digestible for actors, and for agents and managers who are looking at this trying to get a sense of the character without having read the script, because a lot of times they don’t have access to the scripts. So it’s really just us. And you know, it’s our breakdown and the sides the, the material that they’re given to prepare for the audition. That’s all the context they have. So that kind of makes the character description that much more important.


Yeah, it’s so fascinating, because it feels like you’re, you know, in many ways you’re being asked to summarize, right, like, really distill this, but also, you’re performing this really complicated analysis about like, hmm, you know, this is the sort of exterior of the character and this is the interior of the character that that’s really interesting. It sounds really challenging. How did you know how to perform that kind of writing?


Um, that’s a good question. I’ve never thought about that before. I guess it’s just like, you know, I have a background in theater. You know, I was doing theater all throughout my education, from elementary to high school. I was also doing community theater, and I studied theater in. In college, I was just a general theater studies major. And a lot of the time is spent analyzing characters and analyzing why a character does a certain thing, like there has to be a justifiable reason for every action a character makes, everything that they say everything they do every thought that they have, you have to be able to have a reason for it. So I feel like that’s, first and foremost, you know why I was able to grasp it so quickly, because I already had, I already like, as someone who’s a really big reader and writer at a young age, you know, and still kind of identify as such, like now even though I don’t read and write as much. Umm, you know, I always kind of wanted to dissect the characters and wanted to understand why it is they do what they do. So especially for someone in casting where the actor is kind of like, first, you, when you’re reading a script, it’s just like, understanding these characters and understanding what their arc is. So we can find the person who can play all of those points. Like, it’s not about finding a person who can play like, one part of the character really well, but not so much the others is like, they have to be able to hit all of the major peaks, all the, like, all the peaks, all the valleys, like every aspect of that character. Um, so yeah, I really feel like it was my, the work that I did in my theater classes of like, analyzing scripts, and, you know, whether I was like in a show or in an acting class, and like performing scenes, like, you know, that was all about just like, head in the book, like head in the scripts, like, just trying to figure out, trying to answer the question, why? And trying to answer that, you know, the motives and, you know, the thought process process behind it.


I love that. That’s wonderful. Thank you. And this is sort of the flip side of that was, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer?


I will say, again, something new that I was introduced to with this job that I currently have. So when we have an actor that we really like, we send them for approval to the studio and network. And the way that the company that I’m working with right now, they accompany the materials of the actor, like when they’re sending for approval, we send like a picture or we send the link of their read for the role or like any demo material from like, other projects that they’ve done. And we also include, like a little blurb of like, their credits and like things like that. And this was the first time I’ve been asked to do something this because usually, like an agent or manager when they’re sending along an actor’s material, so they’ll include like a little blurb, but I was, you know, the associate I work with, like, yes, we write our own blurbs and I was just like, I don’t even know what that means. I don’t have what the blurb is. So it was again, like that practice of like summarizing, um, but it was also like in such a specific way as to how like the company like uniformly likes to write them as far as like, what kind of credits to include what kind of, you know, awards that you need to highlight if they’ve received them. Things like that. And it was kind of a weird kind of paradigm shift in my mind of taking the skills that I’ve had from writing breakdowns to writing, like this kind of like blurb for, like an actor, and like, some of these actors are like, very celebrated, like, have a bunch of roles and have a bunch of like, you know, awards and whatever, whatever. So I was just like, how do I like condense this into, you know, like, a three paragraph, you know, or three, three sentence paragraph. So that was a really interesting challenge that I kind of, like first came up against, um, and I feel like I’ve, you know, been tightening it up, like I have, this past week, we had to turn out like four different approvals in like, 30 minutes. And so I had to, like, prepare all that information and, and write all those paragraphs, because I’m the one writing the paragraphs, and so I was able to do it and I was just like, I’ve got it, like I understand now! Um, yeah, that was, that was definitely an interesting one, as far as like, less creative and more a little bit like analytical and, like, more administrative in that way. And, and then I guess, in another way, something that always gets me is the emails, like, I feel like, there’s no right way to ever send an email like, especially the more that you’re sending emails, so like more important people like the keener your eye has to be looking at the details, looking at how it can be interpreted, like, being super, super clear, but also like not overloading them with a lot of information. So that’s something I feel like will always take more practice. And it’s different with every creative team you’re working with, it’s different with every casting team you’re working with as far as like how, what they need and how they should get the information. So the emails is a really big thing as well. 


That’s, that’s fascinating. So it sounds to me, like the, you know, character notes and emails, when you’re suddenly communicating with people in a new project in a new company, and that they’re always at least–or I should say, the blurb, maybe–this feels especially persuasive. Like it’s, you know, you’re it’s the way you’re describing it, you’re like, I’m trying to figure out what’s the most compelling thing, right, here for this particular audience. And, and so when you’re writing–learning to write these blurbs or learning to send emails to maybe like a high level person in a new organization that you haven’t communicated with before, what did you what do you do to sort of overcome those challenges? Are there strategies or tactics you take?


Yeah, I would say, I always like, you know, I’m huge with like filing emails. So when it comes to like me having to write like an email for an executive, or like, looking at previous blurbs and stuff like that, I always just go back to using like examples from like, previous emails that have been sent out by other people, and just modeling it after them. Because like, there is something a little bit formulaic about it, um, you know, as far as, like, the format, or–the format alone is like a really big part of how we structure our emails. So like, if I least get the format down, they can, like “jush” it or adjust it or whatever they need to do to make it look like presentable in their mind. Because that’s the thing too, like, I feel it’s a little bit hard to make it uniform, because we, we know what needs to be said, but we all kind of interpret it in different ways. So we, I mean, we each kind of have our own little like flavor, it’s how we like write work, you know, connect different ideas together. So, you know, as long as you hit like the–or as long as I hit, like the major points of like, of importance and have the format right, I feel comfortable, like sending it off to approval internally, so they can get their eyes on it and adjusted as they need to see it. Um, but I rely really heavily on using other people’s work as an example. And I guess for me also, there’s like the, in the same kind of vein, it’s just a reminder to like, keep it simple because like I personally have a problem of getting a little too like wordy with some of my descriptions on some of my blurbs and things like that. And it’s just like a reminder that, you know, the less that they need to read the better. Like, they don’t want to sit and read like this long email. They don’t want to like, sit and have to like, look at this blurb that’s like five sentences long. Like, you know, just hitting them with the most important stuff like as soon as possible, like, it’s going to benefit the both of–it’s going to benefit all parties. So for me, the reminder to like, keep it simple is something that goes through my mind. 


Wonderful. Yeah, that’s that makes perfect sense. And I think it’s, it’s one of those challenges that can often feel counter to like academic experiences.


Yes, yes.


You had mentioned sending some of these for internal approval, and that sort of hits on my next question about, does anyone oversee your writing? Who and sort of how does that work?


Yes, so for me on my team, um, so I’m the assistant. And then there was an associate casting director above me. And then there are two casting directors, who are like leading the team for us. So when I’m writing something, I always send it directly to the associate, um, who basically is like–we are kind of our own internal team, amongst like our casting team. We work most closely together, like she’s the one who’s often like delegating tasks to me. She’s the one who I usually–I always go to with questions. So like, I always send my work to her first to get her eyes on it, because I’m still new to the to the company, like, I’ve only been there for a month or so. So I’m just like, I’m doing a lot better about like, figuring out what people’s preferences are, what their taste is, but like, even so–even if I had been there for like years, I would always just send it to the associate, just to get her eyes on it before we then send it to the casting director. The casting director for us has final say, as far as like how things need to be presented and how they’re going to be sent out. So they’re like the last step, or the last like person that like, would need to see eyes on anything, but they’re like, the most important person to have eyes on something before we send anything out.


Perfect. That makes perfect sense. And, and then this–I’m sure the answer to this will vary–how long do you typically have to complete a writing project. And so maybe a better way to frame that is, what’s the shortest amount of time you might have for a writing project, or the longest for a different kind of project?


The shortest, I would say, has to be the blurbs. And that’s usually like, anywhere between, I had to do one in 15 minutes, versus like, maybe an hour. But they, they may give me an hour, but they hope to have it in sooner. And then the longest would probably be the character descriptions. And that could be like, anywhere between two to three hours or a day. But the time frame is always going to be very, very, very short. Because we’re working very quickly. And like, especially like, you know, the show that I’m working on right now is, is a little different, because it’s being filmed like a movie. So you know, there are different characters that are being focused on. So it’s like being shot in different chunks. So we have a little bit more time before, like, we have to deal with stuff that’s happening a little bit later on. But when I was working on NCIS, like that was like we were shooting–we were casting new episodes every week. So like everything just kind of worked like a machine. So it’s like we had to have the material that we needed to prepare, ready, before our casting concept call, you know, on whatever day and like that’s, and that’s assuming that we even have the scripts on time, because sometimes the scripts wouldn’t come until, well, maybe like, the day of the meeting. So that would like truncate the schedule even further down. So yeah, it’s it’s hard because like, we are having to wait for materials, we’re having to wait for approval, like, you know, even if I get it out, you know, really quick, like, there’s still like so many other things that, like, we need to say yes, or, you know, I can’t write it until I get the script. So I’m waiting on that. And like, sometimes you have you’re given an outline before you’re given like an actual script. So like if that was the case, like I would write a character description based on the outline we received. And sometimes the script would be completely different. Like one character disappears and is not in the script any longer or the role has like a completely different shift, and now they’re downsize, or they were the villain and now they’re a victim. Like, you know, different things can change between that line and the script itself. And sometimes there are edits to the script as well, that happen while, you know, while we’re auditioning or happen while they’re shooting, so, like, for another show I worked on, you know, we were casting for a, you know, casting for an episode. And we found an updated script. And it was like, oh, now we have four more characters that we have to cast. So we had to, like, do a quick turnaround of like writing the breakdown and getting it approved and posting it to send to agents’ managers. So the timeline is often not up to us. But um, but it is, it can be really demanding. So the timeline that we have to then like, write these things, um, it becomes very dependent on like, when we get material.


Got it, that makes sense. And it sounds pretty stressful.


Oh, yes, it can be–it sure can be.


So you had mentioned–you say you were at your theater major? What’s the actual title general…?


General theater studies.


Perfect. And what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student?


Um, I mean, there was like, the traditional, like, you know, research papers that we had to do for our theater history classes. And like our, you know, some of the technical theater classes, we had to do some research papers. But the things I remember the most were, like, for the directing class that I did, we had to have like a director’s book. And I don’t even really remember what was in it, but it was a lot of different, like, specific pieces for, you know, how we have to explain how we wrote something or, um, or not wrote something, but how we directed something, and like breaking down the scene from a director’s point of view, um, you know, having a reflective piece about our process, like directing the scene. So that was a lot more creative, so to speak. Um, and like, I remember, for our acting classes, there was a lot of writing, but none of it was necessarily like, a traditional, like, paper. It was more so like, you know, we had to write about our characters, and like, our character background, and we had to write about, you know, the scene and what that scene meant in the context of like, the whole play, but also like, in, you know, a more like, specific view of like, the character’s journey in that scene. So it was a lot more, you know–it wasn’t really like, left side thinking. It was really like, a lot of right, right side thinking of the brain. I’m trying to think, like, we had to do reviews. I remember that we had write reviews for the shows that we were seeing at the university. So that was also interesting. Um, yeah, that’s really all I remember.


Yeah, that’s really interesting. And so I guess you you spoke to this a little bit, and one of the earlier questions about, you know, some of the work and thinking that you had done as a college student, sort of helping with that analysis of reading the scripts and being able to make sense of it and understand what’s going on with a character. Are there other ways that you think your college writing experiences prepared you to write in this world you’re in, or didn’t prepare you?


That’s a good question. How did it prepare me or didn’t it prepare me? [pause ] I mean, I think that a lot of it is about, like, analytical, like reading and processing, and being able to articulate not just your opinions, but like, what actually goes on. Because so much of what I do is, you know, reading the scripts and having to regurgitate like what I read and like, what happens in what scenes but also like, you know, how that relates to whatever characters that we’re going–that we’re responsible for casting. And then there’s also the aspect of like, when I see new work, when I’m seeing a, you know, show, when I’m seeing, like, a piece of theater, when I’m seeing a TV, you know, or a TV show or a movie or whatever, you know, we all love to like, share our thoughts and you know, about like what it is that we saw, so like being able to learn how to articulate that is a skill that I feel like I was introduced to in my writing, as far as like in the English classes or in the theater classes, when we had to talk about the different pieces that we were introduced to and like, you know, what they made us feel and how–you know what it is that we learned from it. I would see that really helped and just kind of honing that skill for me and at least not being afraid of it. Um, but yeah, I feel like, I don’t know, I feel like, if there was like a class on like, how to write–or not a class, maybe like, something a little bit shorter, or like a master class or something of like, how to write emails, I feel like, that’d be so helpful, because like, there are so many people who literally don’t know how to write an email of any nature. Um, so I’m just like, anything like that, that is going to be a lot more applicable for people who are going to be in school and like, going to be interning or, you know, applying for entry level jobs. A lot of that is going to be administrative, a lot of that is going to be email-based. You know, and those communications are so so, so important. So I feel like the more people feel prepared for that, the better off we’ll be like for those entry level jobs and internships. 


Wonderful. I agree with you. Yeah, I know, that was a real struggle for me as a, like, young person right out of college. I just, yeah–oh, I can write a 20 page essay on Jane Eyre, but I can’t write an email my boss, right? And this next question is a little bit abstract, a little bit more abstract than the others, but could you talk a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?


Um, yeah, I feel like it’s a little bit, it’s honestly more concrete with mine, where it’s just like, if we write the character description wrong, it doesn’t get approved. Like if we, you know, are interpreting the character wrong, like, it won’t get approved. So like, it’s, it’s a bit more concrete that there’s like, a definitive like roadblock–like a definitive obstacle. But it’s also like a matter of when you’re, you know, asking these actors to tape for these roles, or when you’re in the room with them and directing, like, if you don’t understand what it is that the creative team is looking for with the role, if you don’t understand the characters arc in the story, and you’re giving them the wrong direction, then nobody’s going to be happy with the results. And we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and keep auditioning people like, that was something that came up with this TV show that I did, where we were passing the lead for seven months, eight months. And that wasn’t necessarily because we weren’t auditioning the right people. Um, that was more of interesting, an interesting, like, I guess, like, like, a circumstance where it was a new work, and the creative team just couldn’t make up their mind about what it is that they wanted and couldn’t like land on someone. So it’s also like something where you have– where we have to accept that, like, some of those faults or roadblocks won’t be on our part, it’ll be on the creative team, but because we are servicing them, like we just kind of have to go with the flow and have to like, you know, if they ask for something specific, we have to find it. If they ask to see more people, we have to see more people. So like that is something where, you know, if that means we have to rewrite the breakdown, if that means that we have to look at the break down and actually see what the parameters of this role is, and not just like, what’s written in the script and what’s written on paper, but like, where are actual boundaries? And like, where are the ways that we can be more creative and think more outside the box? So, yeah. Yeah, I would say that that’s kind of, it’s kind of always evolving in a little way. And we just kind of have to–anticipate it the we did as best we can, but also accept that like, sometimes we may just have to go back to the drawing board. Um, but yeah, I feel like that’s–did I answer your question? 


It totally answers my question. That’s interesting, because I see what you mean–like it , this idea of like, this is much more concrete. Like there will be a stop if it doesn’t work the way they want it to. Interesting. And I have just a few more questions. I want to be mindful of your time. But even though I could hear you talk about this all day, what is the most difficult thing about writing in your field? Or in your specific position?


I would say the difficult thing is trying to please everyone, honestly, because even if I’m just writing internally, you know, in writing and sharing my work internally, that’s for people, like, including myself, for people that need to all say yes, before we send it off, and then when we send it off, that’s so many more people that all have to agree on it. Um, and like, sometimes they really is, like, you know, the stakes are low, and like, it’s really not that big of a deal. But other times, it’s like, a point of contention of like, how are we going to present this character? How are we going to present this idea, like, you know, what is most important and what is something that needs to be rewritten and, you know, all kinds of things like that, um, and it is like nerve wracking, especially with, again, the emails when you’re sending them to so many people who, you know–we sent an email before the break on, of some new readings that we got from local casting. And we like, did it in the same format, had a nice little intro paragraph, we sent it off. And the director was like, please don’t email me these, like, I don’t want to see these readings, like, just send me your favorites. And like, that will be that, and it’s just like, you know, like, you know, it is a new show. And, you know, it is our first time we’re doing parts, so we’re still trying to get a hang of like the process, but it is also like, you can do be doing everything right on your end, everything that’s always worked, and you send it off, and then you get like an email like that, and you’re like, Okay, like, readjust. Give back, like, that’s totally fine, we’ll be sure to do that moving forward. But yeah, there’s no telling, when you’re dealing with creatives, there’s no telling what kind of mood you can be sending an email to, and, and these creatives have no problem, like letting you know if something is not to their fancy, if they don’t want to receive that email, if, in fact, an email is like the worst thing they’ve ever read, and they’re very upset about it, like, they–they just have, you know, so much at stake in the project, and they want everything to be perfect, and they want everything to be a certain way. And sometimes that goes against other creatives, and sometimes it goes against what our processes so that we have to–we then have to readjust and, um, you know, and see to whatever it is that they’re asking. So yeah, that I think the most difficult part is like, creating something that every one is going to be amenable to. And not just like in the results, but just like, again, like how the information is presented, what kind of format it is in, and like all kinds of things like that.


Yeah, that’s really interesting. Especially because it’s it’s so obvious from listening to you talk that like you–while you have the same internal audience consistently, meaning long term projects, your external audiences are changing. So you’re sort of constantly having to figure out that audience and what they want and how they prefer things. So, how do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer if at all over the course of your career so far? 


Um, I mean, I definitely feel more comfortable with churning out character descriptions, like, I feel like I understand how to get that information quickly, where before, I felt like I had to, like read the whole script, and like, really sit with it. And now I’m just like, if I see three scenes, I know how this is gonna how this can go. So I can like figure out how to write like a solid, you know, break down. Like, even if it has to be adjusted, edited, fine, like it’s at least a good foundation for them to be able to work off. Um, and yeah, I feel like it is also the matter of like, I feel like I’m getting better at articulating my opinions when it comes to like, reviewing new material. Because sometimes I’m just like, Oh, yeah, like they like, I thought it was great. And like, sometimes I can be good enough, but like, you know, there is one show, a new musical that I saw, that my boss at the time, he’s also an artistic director of the off Broadway theater. And he was like, Hey, I just heard about this new show. Like, I’m kind of interested in it. Like, what were your thoughts? Like, you know, could that be something that we produce like at, you know, my theater and I was just like, oh, like, you know what? Like, having to think about it beyond just like the, Oh, I liked it, or I didn’t like it, you know, and how to actually, you know, articulate those opinions in a way that’s like, digestible and helpful, you know, for, you know, somebody who might be looking at it produce like in their in seasons coming up or, you know, whatever it may be. And so I feel like I’m getting better at that, because it’s not that I don’t see a lot of shows, it’s that I don’t often talk about them beyond, you know, that first layer. So I’m trying to, like, challenge myself to do that more. Yeah, I think those are the two strongest, and just like also my email writing, like sometimes I sit and laugh about, like, the kind of emails that I would create as an intern, in my first casting internship, like, in 2015. And now I’m like, like, I feel so much stronger about, like, my communication via email. And, you know, even if I still have to get eyes on it, and it’s not anything I’m not, you know, like, comfortable with or confident and at times. 


Wonderful. That’s great. And just a couple more questions. The first is, to what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization, or, or in the field as a whole? And of course, we’re thinking about, like, everything from explicitly creative in your field to maybe like, subtly creative to then like, very administrative or logistical? And do you see that it’s valued?


Very much. So I mean, people really take that as a sign of intelligence, like just how well you’re able to write, um, again, like, especially with the emails, but even like, you know, for me, just being responsible for writing the breakdowns, like that always, like, makes me feel a little, like self important–not self important, but it makes me like, proud of myself that, like, that’s something that they from the jump, like, knew that I could be counted on for and could be relied on for. Because it isn’t an easy job. And it’s not an easy–like something that people want to do. But knowing that, like, they trust me to be able to do that, and that it’s something that they are often just like, very happy with, like, makes my feel better. But the emails for sure, for sure, are just like, you know, it’s there’s, as you know, there’s nothing more frustrating than getting an unhelpful email. Um, so like, when it comes to crafting them, it’s just like, there’s nothing more important than getting an email like 100%, right? Like there’s, there’s nothing more important. Um, and then like I was saying, too like, with the note taking as well, like, I’m realizing now that that’s like, really a skill I need to like sharpen, because of how important I realized that it is like with this particular team. So yeah, the, the writing of it all is very important with how we how we communicate, and how we process information and how we share that information. 


Excellent. Excellent. And my last question, how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus now? And do you think that you are a successful workplace writer?


So with the successful writing as a student, so you mean, like, how I would have defined it as a student versus how I would define successful writing now or how I would…


Great, great clarification, how would you have defined successful academic writing as a student as opposed to how would you classify successful workplace writing now as someone in the workplace like, what are the distinctions, in terms of how we think about successful writing in those two places?


Mm hmm. As a student, I feel like successful writing would have been like, would have been like, thoroughly and accurately like, analyzing the theme, or the the subject or the topic from your point of view, and being able to back that up with like, you know, facts and, you know, sources and like things like that, um, and just being able to have like a strong point of view that is based in fact, that also can be personalized. Like, it wasn’t a matter of just being able to regurgitate facts and whatever, but also being able to put your own spin on it and have it be like, personalized and authentic to you and your experience. Um, and then in the– like in the career that I’m in right now, successful writing is like…It’s kind of weird, but I guess it’s kind of like this idea that your writing can be passed off as someone else’s, in a weird way, like kind of like any–you’re kind of like a ghost writer, like as an assistant, I sometimes feel like a ghostwriter. Because I write all this stuff. And I don’t necessarily get credit from it outside of like my internal team. And it’s just like, the casting director who like then shares that information on the wider distro. And it’s like, no one will assume that she took the time to write that like, clearly that was like someone else’s, like usually the assistant or associate’s work. Um, but for me, it kind of feels like if she’s sending it out with her name, that means like, it’s good work, like that I kind of like ghost wrote for her. And like, it successfully passed off as something that she would write. So for me, it’s kind of that ability to adapt to who it is you’re writing for, which for me would be the casting directors on my team, and having it be good enough for them to send on a wider distro.


Wonderful. This has just been a delight to hear about your work. Thank you so much. I’m sorry, went a little longer than I had told you. So I really appreciate your time. 


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Member Services Representative



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


Sure. So I currently work for So-fi or Social Finance, which is a FinTech company. I am a member service representative for them. And I graduated with my undergrad in 2015. 


Wonderful, and how long have you worked in that field?


Brand new–three months, four months. 


Awesome. Wonderful. What were you doing before that since you graduated?


Hospitality and event management. So, much different than what I’m doing now. But all customer service based so. 


That makes sense. Yeah. Could you tell me just sort of your primary job functions briefly? 


Sure. Yeah. So I basically work in a call center. So I’m talking to people all day, kind of troubleshooting any issues they might have with the app or like logging into their profile or issues with like transactions they may have? And I also service, our Invest product as well as our credit card. 


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


This typing count? 




Okay. A lot of it. I don’t–I mean, there isn’t a single call that I take that doesn’t involve writing. I have to notate every single thing that I do. 


Perfect. Okay. And so, yeah, what kinds of documents–what do you use to document those calls?


I use Google Docs to like take notes, or Google Keep rather, which is like a little note taking–I was unfamiliar with it before this job–so I take notes in that. And then I usually transfer those notes into two or three different systems that we have. So like, one tracks a certain thing, one tracks with the profile one tracks, like every call that we get. So 


Gotcha, and what is the primary purpose of that documentation?


To track our members and like kind of what they do and what they need help with, as well as like, basically, how we assisted them or they’re the issue that they were having.


And who’s who’s going to read those documents? Who are the audiences, once you put those into that–those systems? 


I mean, it could go up as high as like, if the CEO wanted to read it. So it really ranges. Like our associate managers, our managers, people along my level as well. So it’s open communication for basically the whole company, if they wanted to go into the program to look at it. 


Gotcha. Okay, that makes sense. And is–that’s the primary type of writing that you do?


Mm hmm. 


Are there other types that you frequently do?


Um, I’ll do like evaluations and stuff like that. Or I–we have an internal communication system called slack. So I use–we, that’s basically our form of communication between like peers, as well as managers and internal.


That makes sense, you’re more likely to use slack than you are by email, if it’s internal?


Nine times out of 10, yes, which is new for me, because I was an email queen in my last job. But we also have like, we also have a chat forum that we have to communicate with members on, so that’s another source, emails, sometimes more internal emails, than like member emails, but still they’re emails.


And when you think about maybe the documentations about the calls that you take, how did you know how to perform that kind of writing?


Training. Like, I, like I said, I’m brand new to this. So I had no idea what I was doing. It was a lot of like, watching other people do it, learning from them, and then basing off of like, my notes style of taking, so I usually overtake notes, and then kind of delete things away as I need to. So that’s, that’s how I learned. 


Gotcha, gotcha. And what was the most challenging thing about writing those?


Um, I think for me, it’s keeping up with the customers like when they call in and they rattle off 13 things within a minute. And like having to hear it all, type it all, and troubleshoot at the same time. That can be pretty overwhelming at times. But it’s a skill that I’m like, learning more and more. 


Wonderful. Yeah. Thinking over your career as a whole, not just in this job or in this field, has there ever been a time that you  felt unprepared as a writer? 


Yeah. Specifically, like in the positions that I’ve been in before I, I was a manager, which I feel like is a very relative term in the world. But I didn’t do like a lot of contract writing in my undergrad or in high school for that matter. Like it was a very brief overview if you do anything like that. So I feel like that was one big thing that I didn’t super understand and kind of had to acclimate to in each position that I was in. I’ve definitely been more of a formal writer, like proper grammar and stuff like that ever since. So like, the adjustment of seeing people who use improper grammar or…like abbreviations or like put “ppl” instead of people. That’s been an adjustment. But those are probably the two biggest weird things for me.


And does anyone oversee your writing? I know, we talked about like, those documents could go all the way up. But is there someone who’s sort of looking at your writing consistently or not necessarily?


Yeah, we have a quality and assurance team that goes in and double checks us. It’s not, I mean, it could be as frequent as a couple of times a day, it’s typically every couple days that they’ll go in, listen to our call. And then from there, they usually will go to the note and make sure that we have documented everything properly.


Gotcha. Okay. And so when, when they’re thinking about the quality of your writing there, it’s really just have you captured everything that took place in that call,


Right. Yes, that and like, they want to make sure that you’re not over noting, under noting, they want to make sure that you have like, legible grammar for the next person coming in. So they understand what the problem is, as well as like making sure that you articulated every single–not every single thing that you talked about, but like making sure that you have noted the account, so if the next person calls in, they know exactly where to pick up from, instead of like having to troubleshoot something you already did or start the process over.


That makes sense. And how long do you typically have to write–to go from like, the notes that you took during the call to actually putting them in? Is that like, wrap it as soon as you hang up the call you put in those notes?


Yeah, so it’s, typically you get like 45 seconds to a minute. So it’s pretty challenging. There, you can be like strategic and like, if you place a member on hold, obviously catch up on your notes and kind of like debrief. But it is, it is pretty fast. So it’s, it’s a lot to handle.


That sounds stressful. 




Okay. Um, like looking back at your undergrad, what kind of writing Do you remember being asked to do as a student?


I mean, there was like, the papers every once in a while that we had to like read something and then write a paper on it, or like notetaking was huge for me. I was a pen to paper kind of person, not an electronic kind of person. So I do remember taking a lot of notes and being pretty thorough in that. But I remember papers, that was like the biggest thing of like, read this information, spit it back out at me how you want it to sound and what you got from that, basically.


Yeah. And then are–do you think that your college writing prepares you for the writing that you do in the workplace?


In ways, yes. I mean, I haven’t written a paper since college. So I don’t necessarily think that they’re super conducive to the real world. I think it’s a good way to like learn the information and then retain it. But I couldn’t tell you like, any of the, like, any of the papers that I wrote, or like my final that I had to write, that was like 25 pages. I couldn’t–I could not tell you like, I don’t do any of that nowadays. So like the note taking that I did take–more, it more assisted me in any position that I’ve ever been in.


That’s really interesting. Yeah. Are there other things that you wish you had had to write or learn to write in college that would have been helpful?


Formal emails? I feel like especially in customer service, and like the event industry, like you’re constantly talking to people, you’re constantly like, communicating with them. And I feel like it was way missed. I mean, obviously you go through like the grammar in elementary school and then you pick up on the English in Middle School in high school, but like, it really did not hit me until I had like my first job out of undergrad where I really realized, Oh, I can make a template for this. And then I can just change things around for every email, or, Oh, like save me some time. And I can do this template and then in intermix this one like–definitely time saving skills would have been something to learn as well as like, learning how to write a formal email.


Yeah, totally.


Or a resume. 


Yeah, exactly. I feel even even having graduated from college. 20 years ago, I had the same experience. Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing that we haven’t evolved to teach that.


That is pretty crazy. I didn’t realize that.


So this is sort of a more abstract question. But what is at stake in your writing, like what could potentially be problematic if you don’t do a good job at writing in your current position?


I mean, I would receive coaching. They’re pretty–they’re pretty positive company. So they’re not gonna, like, sit you down and be like you to do this. So they’re very proactive and like trying to coach you to do better. In previous positions, though, I mean, it would have been detrimental. Like, if I wrote an email incorrectly, or I used a wrong, like, word or didn’t follow up on something that I was supposed to like, it could have been really bad for an event.


Perfect. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally in the workplace?


Not really, I mean, at the job that I had before this, I was an event manager. And I had a really positive boss right above me who was like my senior. And she–the way that they wrote emails with this company was just different than I had ever experienced. They called it like “bubbly.” So it was like, it was all about weddings. So it had to be like more bubbly, and it had to have like a little more fluff to it. So like, I had to learn the way that they wrote emails, as opposed to coming from like a corporate job where it was very like to the point. But it was totally just like, throw you to the wolves. And like, you’ll figure out our format basically, before that job.


Gotcha. That’s really interesting. Yeah. Um, how do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over your career so far?


I think being in the several different positions that I have been in with customer service has helped me become a stronger writer. I also will say that I think that technology has made me a weaker writer, because I rely way too much on auto correcting for grammar, as well as spelling. So I try to do my best to not fall into that pit, but it happens sometimes. I will say that that last job with the positive coach that I had, that I was telling you about, she really helped me learn the difference between like, somewhere right in the middle between like a very formal business email and like a too casual  email. So I feel like she was a big factor in how to find that sweet spot.


That’s great. Yeah. Um, to what extent do you think writing is valued at the company you’re with now?


It’s highly valued. It’s between like, the internal communication that we have daily, and I work from home now. So there’s no, there’s no talking to people in person, like, sure, I can hop on the phone and call someone or hop into a Zoom session. But like, it’s not–it’s’s absolutely important. Like I can’t even stress the importance enough, that writing really is the only way that you get across and like, if you don’t take notes, or you improperly note something, the next time the member calls in, it’s just going to be a crappy experience for them. Because they’re gonna have to go through the whole entire process again, and then it’s doesn’t look too good on us. It doesn’t look too good on you. So it’s definitely extremely important where I work.


Excellent. And the last set of questions. So how do you define successful writing now, as opposed to how you would have defined successful writing as a student? And would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?


So when I was a student successful writing was like completing the paper. It was making sure that there was 350 words, if there needed to be 350 words. As an adult, an established professional, that means nothing. It’s honestly, in the position I’m in now it’s the less words that you can use the better. So how effective can you be with less words as opposed to more. So I do feel like I’ve–I do feel like I’m a pretty established professional when it comes to writing. I do still have like the ability to write formally if I need to. But I also understand like, how this company works is not extremely formal. So I, I’ve built the skills to be able to do the extremes and the in between.

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Law & Law Enforcement

Speaker 1  0:02 

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

Speaker 2  0:11 

I’m currently legal counsel with the Ministry of the Attorney General of the province of Ontario, provincial governments, here in Canada. It has been since 2000. It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college. Actually 11 years since I graduated from college.

Speaker 1  0:29 

Okay. And how long have you worked in your current field?

Speaker 2  0:33 

In my current field, I’ve worked for two years at my current job six months.

Speaker 1  0:37 

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

Speaker 2  0:44 

I’m a lawyer.

Speaker 1  0:45 

Great, very brief. And can you tell us just a little bit about the law that you practice?

Speaker 2  0:50 

I do commercial law. So I focused specifically on loans to small businesses, and also the the insolvency side of those loans, if the loan recipient doesn’t pay back their loan.

Speaker 1  1:02 

Okay, great.

Speaker 2  1:04 

Mostly contracts and general commercial legal advice

Speaker 1  1:08 

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

Speaker 2  1:18 

What lawyers sells is words, whether it’s whether it’s their legal advice, or the contracts they draft. Most of my legal advice is given via email or via memos. So I would say that 80% of my job has to do with writing.

Speaker 1  1:34 

80% interesting. Okay, great. And could you tell me a little bit, the bit about the forms or types of writing or the kinds of documents that you most often draft,

Speaker 2  1:46 

Most often would be contracts, I also draft court filings like notices of application and notices of motion and factums and court orders. But on a, on a day to day basis,  most of my advice comes in the form of fairly detailed professional email memorandums.

Speaker 1  2:09 

I see, and who are the primary audiences and what are the primary purposes of say, those those email memorandums?

Speaker 2  2:17 

The primary purpose is to take a fairly technical legal point and translate it into business advice that the business people with my clients can use.

Speaker 1  2:26 

Perfect. Okay. That’s really interesting. And are there specific strategies or ways of thinking that you use as you’re trying to distill that information and sort of uncomplicate it for a different audience?

Speaker 2  2:40 

One of my favorite ones, is actually a lesson that they taught us in my college writing class, which is when you look at a sentence you wrote or a paragraph you wrote, ask yourself, Is this how you would explain it to a child; if I explained something to a 10 year old, you can explain it to anybody. And that means that an executive who’s been reviewing briefing notes for 10 hours and really wants to go home, can look at whatever you wrote for them and think, okay, I get that. It’s so easy, especially when you get to be a specialist in a particular discipline to just use the same jargon that people in the industry use or use lots of abbreviations or take shortcuts to get the point across. But the information is only as good as what the reader walks away with, right? You can write the smartest analysis in the world. But if the reader doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, it might as well be bad analysis, because the the reader hasn’t left with an understanding of what the reader needs to

Speaker 1  3:54 

 Right, right.

Speaker 2  3:57 

If you sacrifice some of the technical details for the sake of clarity, that’s usually a good trade.

Speaker 1  4:03 

Huh, right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And, and how did you know how to perform these types of writing when you when you first started doing them?

Speaker 2  4:13 

Practice and negative feedback take you a long way <laughter>. You’re not born with the ability to write clearly. You, especially as a junior lawyer are placed under immense time pressures to deliver work product in an area you’re just barely beginning to get to know. And because of that the work product can be rushed or sloppy or just not as clear and precise as it could be. And when when you see how the end users of your written information react to that. It teaches you a lot about how you can do your work better and how you can present things in a way that practically useable whoever’s reading it, know, if if I, if I slaved away all night over a memo, and it was too long and complicated, and it didn’t begin with an executive summary, and I put it on the desk of a senior partner who only has 30 seconds to look at it, they’re going to be pissed off because they can’t get the message in 30 seconds, and they’re gonna tell me about it. So the more the more you go through those types of interactions, the more you focus your own practice.

Speaker 1  5:28 

That’s really interesting. Yeah. And you’re actually sort of speaking to my next question, which is, can you describe a time in your career, that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

Speaker 2  5:39 

I mean, I would say that I feel unprepared as a writer every day, the practice of law is very fast paced. And you don’t always have the time to research the latest cases on the topic or understand all of the facts of the background matter, or take the hours and hours that it sometimes needs to be able to polish a piece of analytical writing. I think… I can’t remember there’s a famous quote, and I can’t remember the source of the quote, the quote, it I feel like it’s Oscar Wilde, or one of those white writers that everybody quotes. But he said at the start of a letter, I’m sorry, this letter is so long, it would have been shorter, but I didn’t have enough time. It takes longer to edit and polish a piece of technical writing than it does to produce a lengthy pieces. Usually shorter pieces better and more helpful for people. So I guess that’s a long way of saying I feel I feel unprepared to give my best quality of work every day, because it takes a long time to write a short and clear email. At best I get 90% of the effectiveness that I should have when I’m in a rush.

Unknown Speaker  6:53 

Yeah, absolutely. When you talked about sort of getting negative feedback from your higher ups, are there other things other than paying really close attention to that feedback? Are there other things that you did to overcome those early challenges when this was all new to you?

Speaker 2  7:14 

I found other people in my firm whose writing style really spoke to me or inspired me and tried to mimic some of their habits. Reading, reading other people and picking up tips from them can be really helpful. In the college setting, you can ask your professors for any essays from previous years and see how they, they are structured and they are worded or you can see what your peers are doing. In the law firm setting, that say you’re asked to write a legal opinion on a statute of limitations issue, you can go into the firm’s document database and read all sorts of legal opinions by all sorts of different people. And they all have their preference for how they’re structured, and what kind of writing style they use, and whether they lead with a summary, how they cite their sources, etc. And if you read enough, you can take part away from any of them. So for me, it was about getting advice from people who had done it before some of that advice was asking them what they think about certain concepts or certain approaches. But some of that advice came without them even knowing, just from me reading their work and taking stuff away.

Unknown Speaker  8:32 

That’s really interesting. Yeah. And who oversees your writing? I imagine that and it varies clients versus other lawyers in the firm. But is there is there one person who you would say, most directly oversees your writing or not really?

Speaker 2  8:53 

As a beginning lawyer, you were usually doing assignments for other lawyers, who would pass those assignments on to their clients; there wouldn’t be supervision as a, once you get more senior, you’re reporting directly to the client. So nobody’s overseeing your writing. It’s just whether the client can make sense of it or not. But as a junior, you’d be, you’d be creating content for the senior partner on the file, who would take that content and put his or her own spin on it and put it out to the client. So that was a good opportunity for feedback. But it was assignment based, and it was a big firm with 150 lawyers, so the person I would report to would be different for any given assignment.

Unknown Speaker  9:46 

How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?

Speaker 2  12:28 

Depends on the magnitude of it. Usually, the urgent questions are pretty simple. Not always, sometimes, urgent questions are really complicated. And you have to limit the scope of what you were asked to advise on. But usually a simpler thing will require a same-day response, or next-morning response, and something a little more complex will be a longer term project for you can get back to them by the end of the week or the beginning of the next week. Part of being a lawyer is about managing your clients expectations. Your clients have a business problem, and they don’t know what the law is, and they don’t know whether it’s a simple question or a hard question. Unlike an assignment, you can go back to the lawyer and say, I can’t deliver this as fast as you want me to, what would you like to do?

Unknown Speaker  13:23 

Right, okay. Um, and what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? And in what ways do you think College Writing experiences prepared you or not for you to work in the right in the workplace?

Speaker 2  13:39 

I was an English major. I did my minor in Canadian Studies, which is a very, very interdisciplinary program that brought in political science, history, economics, public policy. In both of those disciplines, my primary type of written product was a research essay. As I went on in college, I realized that an essay succeeded or failed, not necessarily on the quality of ideas or the quality of research, but the structure by which that information was conveyed to the reader. And again, like, like the example of the minister reading 10 hours of briefing notes in a day, these professors or research assistants will read 200 essays in three days. And they’ll all have interesting ideas. But some essays just sort of throw those ideas at the reader completely, regardless of any structure or sense of organization. And those ideas just bounce off the reader. The successful essays make it very clear from the first couple of sentences, what the reader is going to walk away with and why the reader should care. And once I figured that out, my performance improved in school dramatically. And, that lesson, which is to, to put a structure and put a frame around your information has been incredibly useful for professional writing.

Unknown Speaker  15:11 

That’s really, really interesting. Are there things that it would have been in addition to this, this really useful thing that you did learn as a student…Are there other things that would have been useful for you to do or learn as a student to prepare you for the specific kind of writing that you do now at work?

Speaker 2  15:33 

That’s a good question. So law is a very collaborative discipline. Lawyers deal with novel problems all the time, and are asked to answer new types of questions all the time. And they usually practice in not always, there’s a small town full of practitioners that a lot of the time law is practiced in a law firm setting with lots of really smart colleagues around you. People describe law as a very collegial field, which means that everybody is willing to give their time to help each other out. So one of the things that I’ve loved about working as a lawyer is when I’m struggling with something, either a concept or the way I articulate that concept and write it, I can just go a couple of doors down and ask people, hey, what do you think about this? Or do you have five minutes to talk about this, I have an idea in my mind, but I’m not sure how I can phrase it in a way that the client will understand. Or can you take a look at my notice of application, I have to send it into court tomorrow and I need a second set of eyes. So those …  it’s tough to write well, by yourself, all the writers have editors or assistants or second readers or peer reviewed journals, taking a look at what they do. And as a lawyer, I learned that there’s no shame, or it’s not a failure, if you have to go ask your peers for help. It’s part of the process, it’s part of what makes your work better. It’s part of taking an idea from something that’s just hanging around in the back of your mind to something that’s out on paper that everybody can understand. So I didn’t I didn’t do that in college at all, I never, I never took a first draft and sent it to a friend for their edits or commentary. I never sat down in the dorm common room with a friend and talked about the paper I was working on. But since becoming a professional, that type of collaboration has been indispensable, and it’s gotten me through some of my toughest assignments.

Speaker 1  17:42 

That’s so interesting. That’s really, really useful. Yeah. And could you this is a big question, but could you describe what’s at stake in your writing

Speaker 2  17:52 

<Something> could shut down their company, you’re the person they call. They’re not all of my legal advice is big, quote, unquote, bet the company kind of stuff. But sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s facing a $10 million lawsuit that could literally end the company and getting asked how do we respond to that? What, how strong is this claim? What can we do? Should we settle it? Should we fight it? The questions, we also get asked a question, so if the if the client if our if the person who received this loan, needs to make a change to the payment deadline, did they do we need an original copy of the document they signed to change the deadline? Or can they send us a scan? Sometimes it’s very small administrative questions. But at the top end of the scale, they can be massive. So it really just depends on the day. And one of the things I like about being a lawyer is the type of writing you do and the type of challenge you’re asked to respond to is so diverse from day to day.

Speaker 1  19:03 

That’s really interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And what is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

Speaker 2  19:14 

The fact that most of the people who read my writing, have no interest in what lawyers do. And so nobody calls their lawyer, because they’re having a great day, and they just want to chat. They call when there is a problem. And it’s usually a type of problem that they don’t understand, because law is very technical and specialized. So people have a huge headache in their business life that’s been percolating for a month, and it gets bad to the point where they realize they have to call legal and pay the exorbitant fees that lawyers charge just to get rid of the fee. So nobody, nobody wants to make the call in the first place. And they don’t know what the lawyer does, and they don’t want to have to deal with it. But at the end of the day, they’ve asked for legal advice. So they might get an email or a memo or a draft contract that tries to solve their problem. But they’re not legal specialists, they don’t even want to think about the problem in the first place. And you have to make it very clear to them, what you as the lawyer are trying to accomplish and why it matters to the client. So the biggest challenge is taking your technical knowledge and the technical way to solve the problem, and totally reframing it. So it becomes option A or Option B in business language, not in legal language. So it’s become a set of options that the decision maker with the client can choose. And in order to choose them, they have to understand them, you have to, you have to turn a legal problem into a business solution.

Speaker 1  20:53 

That’s interesting. And yeah, very, very well said, that makes a lot of sense. Um, has anyone helped you directly with your right as with your development as a writer, either formally or informally in the organization, and you talked about asking for advice and going to look at old files, looking at the work that other lawyers have done, but has anyone sort of given you direct formal or informal development assistance.

Speaker 2  21:20 

So as a junior lawyer, when you’re working for a partner, they, like I said before, lawyers work in words, words of medium that we use, so everybody’s a nerd about writing style. And they are not shy about sharing how they feel about your particular writing style. So you’ll get back first drafts with tons of red ink on them. And sometimes that will turn into a conversation about how we approach the challenge as writers. But an interesting thing about that is I realized after enough of those interactions, that a lot of what people had to say about my work, were just style choices, individual opinions, or preferences. It wasn’t necessarily any objective advice about what good writing is, or what good writing is, it’s it’s advice about what the person giving it thinks good writing is. So you take pieces of that away, and you accept some of that advice and reject some of that advice. And at the end of the day, you come up with your own style. So lots of people express their opinions about my work. Nobody sat down and mentored me for a month about sentence structure, paragraph structure, format, etc. But the feedback came from hearing what worked for people and what didn’t work for people and then taking pieces of that away and forming my own style.

Speaker 1  22:56 
That’s really interesting.

Speaker 2  22:58 
It I’ve been, I mean, I’ve been doing, like, from college to grad school to the field, I was in before law to law school to now I’ve been doing technical and academic writing for 15 years. And I feel like I’m good at it. But I don’t feel like I’m as good as I could be. It’s still a work in progress. And every time I get a draft back with red marks on it, I think, okay, what did I do wrong? Is there something I can change about how I structure assignments like this? Is there something I can change about my sentence structure? Am I using m-dashes way too much? The answer is always “Yes.” You’re never done. It’s always a it’s always a process. Writing is a practice. And the thing about practice is, you have to do it all the time. No, you’re not. It’s, it’s a work in progress. always

Speaker 1 23:50 
We have just a couple more questions. And I feel like you’ve spoken to this, but I’m gonna go ahead and ask it more directly. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization and in your field as a whole?

Speaker 2  24:00 
Incredibly highly?

Speaker 1  24:05 
It seems inevitable, as you said, sort of trafficking in words. So yeah, um, and how would you define successful writing as a student as opposed to successful writing in your current position?

Speaker 2  24:25 
One of the frustrating things about being a student and I’ll go back to what I said two questions ago, is that sometimes you’ll get a bad mark on a paper. And it’ll be a bad mark for reasons related to how you wrote the paper, not necessarily the content of your paper. And that isn’t an indication that you wrote a bad paper. It’s an indication that the decision maker who graded it didn’t like the style of your paper, right. So as as much as research and teaching assistants and professors try to be objective and try to be neutral about how they grade things, they inevitably have their preference. Sometimes you’ll just get some someone who doesn’t understand your style of writing that doesn’t appreciate it. So as much as it would be nice to say, “in college, it’s simple because there’s a grade at the top of your paper. And in professional life, it’s hard because there’s not.” I mean, in both cases, you can’t, you can’t be sure that if somebody liked or disliked it, it’s directly because of your writing style. There’s so many other factors in play, and everybody has their individual opinion. So for me, success in college was, if I felt that I put in my best effort in the circumstances, right? There were some papers where there were four other things due that week, and like, my girlfriend was sick, and I had to be in another city for an appointment or whatever. And there just wasn’t all that much I could put in. So I got a B and I still put in the best effort I put in the very time compressed circumstances. And I think that’s that’s a nice way to define success, because it doesn’t depend on what somebody else, on the mood somebody else’s in when they’re grading your paper. But what matters is if you put the work in, if you feel like you’re improving, if you feel like you took lessons from previous negative feedback and tried to respond to them. That’s how you know you’re on the road to somewhere you want to be.

Speaker 1
Right. And based on those criteria, would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer now?

I mean, I’m still trying… the time pressures; as much as it feels like college is a really busy time, it’s probably the most flexibility you’ll ever have with your schedule. So that that gets worse and worse and the deadlines get tighter and tighter and you’re never able to devote as much time as you would want to. But I’ve definitely gotten better at being able to turn out a high quality product on very tight deadlines, and I’m proud of that, but it’s still tighter the deadlines get the harder the process is and I’m better but it’s harder. So you’re still you’re still working toward something but never all the way there. It’s always a work in progress.

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Software Engineer

Computers & Technology

Speaker 1  0:02 

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

Speaker 2  0:08 

I’m a senior software engineer at a small software company in downtown DC. What was the last one?

Speaker 1  0:17 

How long has it been since you graduated college?

Speaker 2  0:20 

I guess it’s 12 years now.

Speaker 1  0:23 

Okay. And how long have you worked in the current field?

Speaker 2  0:26 

11 and a half years?

Speaker 1  0:29 

Can you provide a very brief description of what your primary job functionsare?

Speaker 2  0:33 

Mostly designing and building web applications. So everything from databases to API’s writing a lot of code. I also have a lot of interaction with clients, I’m often going out and talking to clients providing consulting services, chatting to them getting a good idea of what they need, what they want to build. And then I get to go off, plan it all out and then get to build it. It’s fun.

Speaker 1  1:10 

And you can include coding and all of the stuff that you do that way in this next question, can you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing? Zero to 25%, 25 to 50; 50to 75, or 75 to 100?

Speaker 2  1:26 

Um, I would probably say, either 50 to 75, or 75 to 100. It’s hard to say, I’m definitely writing a lot of the time. Because yes, I’m programming. So most of that is right now words and you no syntax. As I say, I do a lot of requirements gathering. So in that situation, I’m talking to people, I also do a lot of talking to workmates planning things out. And the more I’m saying that I’m talking myself into 50, to 75%, but I do always try to document things I, I write summary emails for maintenance that I do, and I, I create my own tasks before I work on anything as well. So there is quite a bit right.

Speaker 1  2:17 

And when you say requirements gathering, is that simply getting needs out of from your clients? Yep.

Speaker 2  2:24 

Yep, mostly sitting down with clients getting an idea of what it is exactly they’re looking for a lot of the times, they’re not totally sure. So you really have to kind of know what questions to ask pull that information out of them. The most fun part of my job is like when I ask someone a question, and they’re just astounded that they’ve never been asked that question before, but they’re like, Oh, of course, I didn’t even think of that. And then when you have conversations with that, obviously, I have to go away and write all that down. So that anyway, it’s a contract between me and the client that this is what we decided they need.

Speaker 1  3:01 

So this speaks a little bit to that. What forms are types of writing? Or what kinds of documents do you most often complete for your job?

Speaker  3:09 

I would say definitely requirements, documentation is a big part of it. Meeting summaries, as well, creating tasks that people are going to work on whether that’s myself or I do a lot of the back end work. So we also have guys who are doing the mobile apps and the web apps. And I try to go out of my way to really write down exactly what they’re going to be doing so that when they come to build a thing, it’s all clear for them. And it’s it’s easier for them to work on. Apart from that emails back and forth from clients questions that have or questions that I have, again, mostly requirements based or given updates on the stuff I’m working on.

Speaker 1  3:54 

Okay. So would you say that in your primary audiences tend to be clients and colleagues? Or do you have any other additional audiences you write to?

Speaker  4:01 

I guess that’s it. I know, other people in my work tend to… they have been creating blog articles recently, but but I haven’t done any of that myself just yet.

Speaker  4:12 

And so you’ve talked a little bit about the requirements gathering purposes, but a primary purposes for other types of communications, maybe particularly like the emails you’re sending?

Speaker 2  4:20 

Yeah, I would say, addressing client concerns, given status updates on the things that I’m working on. Definitely questions that I have regarding stuff that I’m working on, or stuff that I intend to work on soon. The other emails, yeah, now that’s pretty much it.

Speaker  4:42 

Could you walk us through the process of maybe one specific recent project or type of project that you’ve had, specifically addressing how you get a writing assignment or task given to you what your preparation is, and then then the steps you take from the time it’s assigned to towards completion?

Speaker  4:58 

As an example client that we’re currently working with and using him here in DC, they have an old legacy system that has been kind of holding them back for a long time. And I’ve been doing a lot of work for them over the past three years, getting some of that data out of their old Oracle database and putting it up to the cloud. Most recently, they’ve been asking me to come back and and and finish that up, we did the the main bulk of it from stuff that someone else had already got rid of. So recently, because I haven’t been working on it in a while, it’s a case of me needing to refresh everyone’s memories, what it is exactly that we’re going to be doing. And the steps that I intend to take when I come to the office, what I need from them, you know, the access to the network, credentials for the systems that I’m going to be using, and then basically the steps that I intend to take when I’m actually doing the work for them.

Speaker  6:03 

So during the process in any of the writing that you’re doing, how to you or your colleague/ clients, whatever it is, you’re writing to, or with, make the writing go more smoothly improve the writing kind of stuff?

Speaker  6:15 

And for me, it’s always a case of targeting the right into your audience, knowing the limitations of you know, people’s knowledge that particularly technically, lots of people don’t understand the software side of things. So always try to keep it as simple as possible. I love bullet points, every email in my field should have bullet points, there is no need for power house. So do try and keep things clear and concise, avoid technical terms, and I would never use abbreviations. Definitely try to use words that people are actually going to understand.

Speaker 1  6:58 

how did you know how to do these kinds of writing?

Speaker  7:02 

It’s really funny, I was speaking about this, just at the weekend, a friend, a friend’s friend, who’s a professor as well. And she was talking about the importance of communications, she worked in medicine, and she was a professor of medicine, and trying to impart on the kids that she’s tutoring, like how important written communication is. And as I say, I always go back to the fact that when I was 11, just getting into high school, this was in Ireland, that I found it so funny that we had English literature and English comprehension is two different classes. And I remember we were doing English comprehension, practice, or whatever. And it was reading a newspaper article. And then there was a list of questions. And it was like, you know, how did someone feel about this? And how do you know that? And I was like, it says, it says right there, and I started writing the answer, and I’m like, this gotta be wrong. It can’t be the actual answer. And I guess in in that way, it’s always been a natural thing for me that that I read information, and then I write it down for myself or for whoever I think I need to pass it on to. And that side of the comprehension and rewriting in your own words has always been natural to me in some way. But definitely, it helped that I went to a good high school where this was a specific class.

Speaker  8:40 

And as far as the the coding program and stuff goes, did you have formal education that?

Speaker  8:44 

I had done one programming class in my first year in college, which I always explained to people was on a Friday afternoon. And so it was not in attendance most of the time. But I basically learned how to program on the job. I was recruited by my brother, who, you know, has also put me that he thought I would be good at this. And I’m glad I came across the Atlantic to learn it with them. Yeah, I basically learned it all on the job.

Speaker 1  9:18 

Can you describe a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work? For instance, is there a writing task or a skill that your current job asks of you? That you’d not be asked to do before?

Speaker  9:28 

Um, I would say, possibly, the first time I assisted with a, an RFP, like creating a proposal for an RFP, think RFP is is a request for proposal from I think it was National Jewish Health in Colorado, and having never done one before, and my colleagues who had certainly put together sales proposals before but but wouldn’t have been familiar with the technical side of things, that was definitely a bit of a challenge. But then I tried to approach it with the same skills and the same way of going about it that I write things anyway. And you know that that worked out for the best.

Speaker  10:16 

So in overcoming those kind of challenges, can you think of specific steps that you took perhaps looking at previous documents by other writers in your workplace? Asking questions, more senior writers, collaboration, professional training, anything like that?

Speaker 2  10:30 

Yeah, absolutely.Asking questions of the people who had created proposals before. Say, yeah, doing a bit of research, googling how to how to structure proposal and what companies are expecting. Similarly, I guess another example, would be writing a cover letter recently. And you know, I’d never written a cover letter before last week. And so I was mostly doing online research of, of how to structure it and some ideas of what to include what not to include how to phrase things, and so on.

Speaker 1  11:09 

Does anyone oversee your writing?

Speaker  11:12 

Actually, yeah, it’s funny. So the company that I work for, as I say, I’m directly in contact with a few companies, afew nonprofits, and although I do communicate directly with them, I do often run things past my boss, just in case have them, take a little look at it, make sure everything’s okay. And it usually is, but it never hurts to have another set of eyes that look for sure.

Speaker  11:42 

And the title/role of your boss that would oversee your writing?

Speaker 2  11:47 

Is the president and founder of the company.

Speaker  11:51 

How would you say that they judge the quality or success of your work?

Speaker 2  11:55 

I would say one of the things I’m always complimented on most in my work, is my written written communication. Definitely the it’s, it’s highly regarded, I’m glad to say.

Speaker 1  12:10 

how long typically do you have to complete a writing project?

Speaker  12:13 

Um, I would definitely hope the absolute maximum of two hours for any document that I would be putting together, whether that is like detail heavy requirements, stuff, or just like, obviously, shorter emails should take 10 or 15 minutes. Yeah, I can’t think of anything that I’ve worked on recently that has taken more than a couple of hours absolute maximum.

Speaker 1  12:40 

What kind of writing Do you remember being asked to write as a student? In what ways do you think your college writing experience did or did not prepare you to do the kind of writing you’re doing now?

Speaker 2  12:53 

I guess, because I did electronics and electrical engineering, I didn’t really have to do that many writing assignments. Most things were, you know, mathematics based, or maybe formula based. I do remember in first year, having a couple of having a couple of essay, assignments and Innovation in Engineering, I think class was called. And it was really a bit of a mix of everything. You were able to throw in references to anything if you felt like they were relevant. I remember having a few jokes thrown in.

Speaker 1  13:35 

Can you think of any specific kinds of assignments in class?

Speaker  13:40 

Um, there was a title of one that was a <…> for years. And now of course, I can’t think of it. What was it? Oh, no, it’s escaped me.

Speaker  13:55 

What do you think would have been useful for you to learn as a student that would prepare you for the kind of workplace writing you do?

Speaker  14:01 

Um, that is a good question. As for me that the thing that’s always missing, throughout, like my applications for college, and then college time, and then since college has been a lack of career guidance, how to put together resumes and cover letters that I would say that would have been very useful. And certainly coming out of college, especially I ended up falling into a position in Edinburgh where I was living at the time that really didn’t suit me at all. And if I received a little bit of career advice, maybe might have done a little better, but then of course, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the US. So yeah.

Speaker  14:50 

What would you say is at stake in your writing projects, for example, what positive outcomes look like versus negative outcomes for unsuccessful writing?

Speaker  14:59 

I’d say the big ones are client relations, client relationships. And I’d say, efficiency of our internal team as well. I think how well I can write things, how well I can communicate things, definitely has a bearing on how smoothly things run in terms of the stuff that we’re building and making sure there’s not bugs arising because something wasn’t properly properly explained, you know, and that I would be doing through writing.

Speaker  15:34 

So coding is a very specific kind of writing skill. What do you think are important skills in being successful in coding versus the other kinds of writing you do, maybe the more, you know, email kind of stuff?

Speaker 2  15:47 

I would the most obvious one is attention to detail. Also, being concise, you know, you can always write 10 lines of code to do something that you could potentially do in three lines. And in that way, as well, learning haven’t been motivated by doing things more efficient than next time than you did them and this time out. And that’s definitely something that I always try to take into my my newer projects, I will remember that I did something a nice way in a past project, and I’ll go find it out, I’ll go take it from there, as opposed to just writing it freehand. Because I know that’s going to be more efficient.

Speaker  16:29 

And interesting, to follow up on the sort of efficiency in in your code and writing, what’s at stake there?

Speaker 2  16:36 

How how well something runs whether you run into transaction failures, whether bugs arise. Yeah, all of that definitely does does come into it, depending on how you write things.

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

Speaker  16:56 

Well, the most difficult thing about writing code is having to know what you’re writing, it’s having to know, languages having to know frameworks happen to know the the tool sets that are available in the frameworks that you’ve chosen, having to learn different third party tools. And it’s usually a lack of knowledge of how a thing works. But But luckily, in my field, there are endless amounts of resources to find those answers. If I just go looking for an answer, I’m always going to find it.

Speaker 2  17:37 

Has anyone helped you with your writing formally, or informally since college?

Speaker  17:54 

Not really, I remember, perhaps, the year out of college while I was in Edinburgh, I was doing an office job in a major financial services company, basically, running a report on the hour and then emailing clients. And I think at one point, maybe I had started an email, hey, as opposed to hi, or whatever. And that’s the only time I can remember anyone pointing out that you need to be a bit more professional.

Speaker  18:29 

How do you think that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer, if you have over your career so far?

Speaker  18:34 

Um, I would definitely say, I’d become more professional. I feel like I have the confidence to know where the balance falls between being familiar and professional with clients. Also, I, I hope that I’ve become a bit more concise and clear with things that I write. And I think that’s something that you just get with practice. It’s something that because of the amount of times I’ve had to do it, I’m a little better at it now.

Speaker  19:06 

And that sort of learning curve for being professional and that kind of how did you how’d you figure that out?

Speaker 2  19:13 

I would say, it was mostly left to myself in fairness, I’ve always worked for small companies. While I’d been in the US, I’ve worked for a couple of startups. I’ve worked for larger company, but of which I was part of a very small team, the software team was just starting. So I have mostly been left to my own advice devices. But then I’ve always just had a manager who I’ve been communicating with directly who, if ever, they thought I phrased something badly, they would, you know, pick me up on it and, you know, give me some advice on it.

Speaker  19:52 

To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization and in your field as a whole?

Speaker  19:59 

As I say, I would say that it’s, it’s very much valued in my current company right now. They’re really trying to build the blog to, you know, put out articles, it’s good for, you know, a company recognition, it’s, it’s good for showing off the talent that you have there. And basically, that your developers know what that are a range of fields, you know, even some of them, they might not be working on day to day, but they’re in the know, you know, they’re keeping, they’re hooked into technology and the news things. And so certainly when the writing about those things that’s valued, and as well, for me personally, the stuff that I do, as I say, hadn’t been, I’ve been complimented, I’d been, you know, given credit for it. So it’s definitely something that people that people care about,

Speaker 1  20:54 

And you think that’s, that’s true across the the field as well,

Speaker  20:57 

I would say so. But it’s also something that’s not expected. And not often. It’s, it’s something that yeah, a lot of people who work in the kind of field that I do are programmers first, and you know, communicators second. So, I would say it’s definitely something that’s valued. And it’s something that when, you know, when people see that on a on a resume, when they see that you’re capable of doing that, or even if you’re emailing back and forth with a potential hire, if they’re good communicators, it’s something that you can tell, potentially, they could be good communicators verbally as well. And both of those things could go a long way to helping them in any job.

Speaker 1  21:46 

Do you think that’s something that like you could get away with, maybe in a larger company, but not so much in a smaller company, if you’re sort of programmer first and not having those sort of maybe client facing skills,

Speaker 2  21:56 

I certainly do think that and as I say, I’ve never worked in a larger company myself. And one of the reasons that it doesn’t appeal to me so much is that I don’t want to just be a worker bee who’s just writing code all day, and doesn’t get to interact with people doesn’t get to suggest ideas or doesn’t get to talk to clients and, and get the information out of them and then get to offer them newer solutions and different things. Because, you know, you’re just one of thousands.

Speaker  22:27 

And final question. How would you define successful writing now, versus how you maybe define successful writing as a student? And would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer now?

Speaker 2  22:40 

I would say, I would say, I’m a successful workplace writer. Now, definitely, I’m happy with emails and requirements, documents and client communication that I put together. How to say it has changed, or how would it?

Speaker 1  23:00 

How would you define your concept of successful writing as a student versus maybe how you look at it now?

Speaker  23:05 

Um, I wonder whether I was ever one of those people who thought that flowery writing was necessarily a good thing. Or, or maybe I realized that, that you know, before that, but that’s not necessarily what people are looking at looking for. As I said, I feel like most of what I learned about writing I learned in high school, so maybe just knowing that you scored higher on the test when you actually answered exactly what they were asking, taught me something about just putting in the information that you need and like cutting back on the nonsense.

Speaker 1  23:41 

Great. All right. Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Thanks.

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University Academic Advisor

Education, uncategorized

Speaker 00:02     Would you please state your job title where you currently work and how long it’s been since you graduated college.

Speaker 00:08     I work at a university near Washington D.C. I’ve worked there for two years. My title is Associate Director and Transfer Coordinator. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in December 2004 and my graduate degree in May 2010.

Speaker 00:28     And how long have you worked in your current field?

Speaker 00:32     I’ve worked in my current field since January 2006. And with a three year pause during graduate school.

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

Speaker: So, I work in admissions which means that I review applications and I counsel and advise prospective students through the application process; If they want to come to the university, I communicate with them about our requirements, about the status of their application and then I am involved in developing our recruitment materials and working on recruitment initiatives and participating in events on campus.

Speaker 01:13    Can you please give an estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing from 0 to 25 percent 25 to 50 percent 50 to 75 or 75 to 100 percent?

Speaker 01:28    I think it varies by season because like for right now I’m out of the office a lot I have to go do recruitment travels at other universities, have to go to college fairs and or just literally go and sit at the table at a community college and hope students approach me with questions about the university or applying or the admissions process or whatever. So if it’s if that’s going on that’s a lot of my job. But if I’m in the office 50 to 75 percent of my time is spent writing and that is mainly the emails that I send to colleagues or prospective students. And also sometimes working on the written content for publications or website.

Speaker 02:14    So you mentioned a few of these but what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do most often complete your job?

Speaker 02:22    The document I complete most often is e-mails. That is how students we can spend hours and we have spent hours revising the content on our Web site. Revising our publications hiring people to help with those things and ultimately it has very little impact as far as no matter how finding will you make the information. Students will always contact you and say I mean I’ve had students who contacted me to say what is your website address. Well I don’t know how they found my contact information if they didn’t find the web site but they really like to just have you reiterate that the email becomes almost a text message because they’re saying when is your application deadline.

Speaker 03:04    You give them that piece of information and they write back and say Can I have the link to the application. Then they want to know the mailing address to and it becomes more like a text conversation and a lot of ways. But anyway that’s the primary method of communication with these students. And that’s my day is taken up by communicating in correspondence with these students through that through that way. But I would say the other large portion of the writing duties that I have to do with anything or publications on our Web site or print publications on our Web site.

Speaker 03:39    So you’d say them that your primary audiences typically are students and then students absolutely.

Speaker 03:45     And mainly prospective students because once they’re admitted to the university, immediately upon admission as transfer students, they are connected with the faculty adviser and they are basically handed off to the faculty adviser to the orientation office. We, our communication with them is actually very minimal. So, the large population of students that I’m working with are students who are increased or their applicants or they’re admitted and in some cases, they are denied, but not many.

Speaker 04:17    So you’ve talked already about the sort of factfinding email responses. Are there other primary purposes for these kinds of communications maybe particularly non e-mail the publications and things.

Speaker 04:29    Yes certainly. I think to guide it sometimes … sometimes with the fact finding yes a student is emailing me ask one specific question and what I have learned is that the best way to respond to with an answer to one question is to provide an answer to the 10 you know were coming. So what I’m sending out I’m responding to their fact finding and then developing templates to use when corresponding with students based on the questions that I know that they’re going to come up with apps when I see that first fact finding I know what else is coming so I’m writing them a larger e-mail with the questions that I can anticipate about what questions about they have about our programs, about the financial aid process, about that sort of thing. But I would say that in the job that I have now and in the position that I had previously the more challenging writing tasks have to do with communicating with student by email when I’m telling them difficult news that primarily has to do with students who have not applied but don’t meet the admission requirement at that time. And they oftentimes will argue with me and I have to explain why we’re standing by our requirement. And then in both my current position and my previous position I dealt with a lot with nursing students who have no idea how competitive nursing is to get into, because that’s much more rigorous than getting into just the general University. So, I’m writing e-mails explaining why these… I’m speaking in general terms about our policies. But what I’m actually doing is this general information sharing about the policy, is actually something that pertains to their personal qualifications because they don’t meet the requirement, but instead of making them feel bad and saying this is your GPA or these are the classes these are the grades you’ve gotten your science classes, I’m speaking to them generally about our requirements and why nursing back members look for strong grades in science classes. So again, beyond just factfinding it’s sharing a wealth of information with them based on their interest or coaching them through certain situations if I have to share bad news.

Speaker 06:42    Could you walk us through the process for one particular research project or type of assignment that you’ve had moving from the way that these reading tests are given to you in the kind of preparation you do to write it and then the steps you take until the process is completed.

Speaker 06:59    Well for me so recently I worked with one of my colleagues to redevelop the transfer web pages on our Web site. And people who work with me understand that I was an English major or that I went to graduate school for writing. So, they’re like oh you’re a writer. We’re really excited to work with you on this project. However, my experience working on these websites or  the decisions I make about how to work on the website and what I think needs to be on the website is not informed by … is not necessarily I don’t look at it as OK I’m choosing what should I put on that page because I’m a good writer and here’s the well written things that I would like to develop five paragraphs about this. ,but this piece of information I’d like to share. My decision about content is going up there is based on the questions for us that I’m getting from students and the way that they are processing the information that or the confusion that they seem to come up against a lot when they are looking at content on our Web site, and actually too much content confuses them way too much and they lose it. So I basically sat down with the person or the transfer pages who said oh you’re a great writer so we’re going to write things so I said No I think we’re basically need to remove everything and just have bullet points and we need to put information in the simplest way. And I said I do not care what you put on them or what they say. I just want it to say you don’t need to have your associates to transfer, here are a minimum GPA requirements to 2.0 and you don’t need to pass specific classes ; and if you have anything else other than that I am happy to work with you on developing that content. But rather than thinking about you know how can we make a page about the GPA requirement, I just want to make information accessible and clear to students so as to get it going against some of my you know writerly inclinations too because I would love to write pages and pages of information and show off my writing skills, but instead I’m like nope just put this thing that’s barely a sentence to indicate information. So in that situation it really truly became a project that started as let’s write all this lengthy content and me actually sitting down and saying I have bullet point information that I want to put on these pages. Here’s some bullet points for a student who is in the process of applying. Here’s a bullet point for students who are admitted. Here’s bullet points for students who have questions about the financial aid process and basically just making that information easy and accessible rather than loading down the pages with text.

Speaker 09:43     And maybe to go back to a little bit some of the skills you talked about and respond to e-mails and sort of considering the audience and their feelings and things like that. How did you kind of know how to navigate these issues and how do these kinds of writing do?

Speaker 10:02     Well that’s a hard question because I so often do think even as someone who has studied writing and taught writing, I have these absolutely fundamental beliefs in me that part of it does come… it just it’s like a talent that you have. It’s when it comes to putting difficult information into [something] easily digestible, and I would even say kind, form because I watch my co-workers struggle to do the same things through e-mail to share difficult information with students via e-mail. You don’t meet the admission requirements, or we didn’t get the document in time to complete your application; You’re not going to get in. Here’s some bad information and it was some unfortunate information about your financial aid. I see co-workers struggle to do that. Do I think that these are co-workers who failed English composition? No. Do I think that I know how to do it because I have a graduate degree in creative writing? No, I really struggle because I  so I have this belief that it’s just I don’t know. This happens to be the skill that I have people will give me e-mails are sending messages and I’ll say absolutely you cannot say that, here is the way that you need to say that. And maybe that’s downplaying or taking my education for granted and thinking like “no I didn’t really think that that”, it cant have anything to do with the fact that I can write these e-mails I’m not thinking critically enough about it.

But it’s interesting to me to watch very well-educated people struggle to share information in a concise way, particularly when it comes to e-mails that we send to students. So, I mean I really don’t know how I do it or even I can’t even pinpoint in my education what it is that taught me to do to do that. But I do believe I do it well because I know from the responses, I get from students, it doesn’t create contentious situations when I’m sharing unfortunate information.

Speaker 12:24     Can you describe a time in your career what you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

Speaker 12:33     Yes, I was asked to create in my previous position, an email to transfer students who had been admitted to the university but had not paid their deposit. So in both of my roles in the job I used to have on the job that I have now I work has a lot of admitted students.

But the moment that a student pays her deposit and confirms their enrollment, as I mentioned before, they are no longer with our office. We’ve done our work. They’ve committed to coming to the university so. So that’s again like I said before I don’t really work at the deposited population very much. My previous job I was asked to come up with an email to be sent from the specific college I worked at within the university that was to be sent to students who were going to be who had not paid their deposit yet to join our college, which was a college of Health and Human Services.

And so my director the Associate Dean said you need to come up with this e-mail that’s going to be sent to convince them why they need to come here. So I wrote in an email highlighted, kind of going back to what I was talking about before about just book points highlight here’s five reasons you should come here, and the dean the assistant dean came back to me and said, “This is not what we want. Transfer students don’t want to know about this. They want to know about faculty research.” So, I want you to go and you interview all of the department chairs find out about the research within their department and then develop an e-mail based on that.

She says what she was tasking me to do is to take a paragraph long e-mail, which is too long in general for how students read e-mails these days, five bullet points long, that might even be too long and that’s how she wanted me to take it and kind of transform it into a page and a half letter with just content about research. I’ve worked to transfer students and never once been asked about research. I’ve been asked by a transfer student “What is a GPA?” I’ve never been asked what is the research that your faculty does.

And in that particular situation I felt unprepared because I didn’t know… it almost felt like someone had it like I’d been given a prompt for an essay and then I felt I was responding exactly the right way and someone was saying no the way that you’re responding to this is completely incorrect. You have to write this entirely different essay; even though I know that my response to the prompt was correct. And because I felt that what she was asking me to do was so not in response to the task we’ve been given. I really really really struggled to do what she wanted me to do and to come up with something… I don’t know how to pitch research to transfer students because I don’t believe it’s something they’re interested in. So, I felt just very unprepared to know how to do that and ultimately very unhappy with what we came up with.

Speaker 15:43     So what would you do in those situations where you feel the difficulty in reconciling like maybe your expectations  and those of someone else?

Speaker 15:51     I think that that ultimately it feels like to me what I come up with is is like catalogue copy that would be in a university catalog. It’s like a course description. No, I don’t think people would say that a candidate that catalogue a course description of your composition course is marketing copy. Like sure someone could read it and maybe want to go take that course, but it’s not marketing and so what it felt to me was this that we were coming up with… I just went in a mode of, because I didn’t feel like we were responding to the prompt quote unquote that we’ve been given, I then had to think about what does this person who has been asking, who is at the end of the day going to sign off on this, what does she want? So OK. What I think that she wants is very dry catalog copy so how can I go against my instincts to come up with something that is selling a program and instead provide catalog copy?

Speaker 16:53     So who officially is anyone overseas you’re writing?

Speaker 16:59     It used to be…Well the only e-mails I write we have absolutely no oversight. And I think honestly in an office like mine that is a problem because I’ve seen e-mails that my colleagues write, and it is unbelievable.

And I love my colleagues. I think my colleagues are wonderful at working with prospective students. The e-mails that they sent, I absolutely cannot believe whether it’s they’re sharing difficult information or the e-mail just the tone of the e-mail looks like again like a text message or maybe there’s no salutation it. And again, a lot of my co-workers are young so they are a lot of the time if an 18 year old is writing an e-mail, there are 22 year olds responding to that e-mail and so some I think just some etiquette stuff is lost. And I think that because there’s no oversight on the e-mails you can basically do whatever you want and no one is telling them this is not appropriate, what you’re doing. So, sometimes I would say we previously …we no longer we no longer have a director in my office. That person was terminated, and the position is open. So, before she left though sometimes if an applicant called with a question there would be questions about what has been the communication with this applicant beforehand and you would have to provide, “here is a document of what this applicant was told” which happened a lot. Thank goodness. Any time I’m communicating with the student I put things… even if I’m on the phone delivering information to them or giving a significant update… I say I’m going to follow up by an e-mail because I know my boss may company some time and say “what is that what was this applicant told?” And so that is really, that the person overseeing my writing would be my director when someone’s in that role. But it does not happen on a regular basis. And then I’m in the role of overseeing other people’s writings and I will edit a lot of the publications that are developed by our marketing agencies that we work with or someone will come up with a mass e-mail that we’re going to send to transfer students I’ll edit that.

Speaker 19:16     So maybe even in the room with the publications of the university, does anybody double check that before goes live?

Speaker 19:27     So how it really works is someone else is creating that copy and then I’m double checking it before it goes live. That’s really what ends up happening. And that’s actually as far as who’s responsible for why in terms of our publications, that’s also a huge problem that my office is trying to address because we’re working with two marketing firms— people in our office who are responsible for different things and it’s very confusing who is responsible for what in terms of a lot of our publications and that’s creating some problems.

Speaker 20:02     So some of the e-mails have a pretty quick turnaround time for other writing projects. Typically, how long would you have to complete the project?

Speaker 20:10     Well sometimes if we have like a brochure or something then the office working on the brochure or one of the marketing agencies will send it to us and want a turnaround time of two weeks or something. But again, that’s not if they’re sending me a PDAF of the documents so it’s a completed document and I’m just copy editing it. So I’m not responsible for coming up with pages and pages of new content, I’m just editing their content. I’m trying to think right now if I again, if I’m doing content for our Web site maybe the turnaround time is a week or something. But I have never had a project in this specific job that I work in I’ve never had a writing project that I’ve worked on over the course of many months.

Speaker 21:09     What kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student particularly undergrad and in what ways do you think your college writing experience has prepared or did not prepare you for the kind of stuff you do?

Speaker 21:22     Well maybe this gets back to why I don’t think of my education as contributing to my writing skills I have at work, because the writing that I was doing as an undergraduate was… you know my co-workers were saying oh you were an English major, and I’m like well I was a creative writing major. So, what was I writing? A Will and Grace spec script. And then non-fiction article about adult fans of Harry Potter and a short story about god knows what. So so I can’t… That’s what a lot of people when they say you were an English major and you’re a writer, they don’t really understand that I wasn’t a marketing major I wasn’t doing…. But I do believe that my genuine my interest in writing of course has to do with the skills I have now. But it’s funny because I did not take any classes that had to do with marketing copying anything like that and those were all offered at my college and I was like No I’m going to do Intro to Comedy 1 and then Intro to Comedy 2 and then Magazine Writing 1 2 and 3 and then Fiction Writing Intro and then Advanced. That’s what my schedule looked like. So I think that, you know, when I look back on the research papers that I wrote, those are certainly helped me to prepare for times in my job when I had to do projects that involved talking to a faculty member and coming up with a publication about their program.

Sure but in some ways I wish I had taken more classes that had to do with marketing and things like that because I wish that I had a portfolio of my work because nobody at my current job is asking to see my Will and Grace spec script although it was so good! And so and even with my graduate degree I … It’s very difficult for me to think of here is a thing that I learned or an assignment I was given in graduate school and that has made it so that I feel I can excel in this this realm of writing it in my current job.

And that’s why it goes back to what I was saying before, which is so… which is again not very maybe intelligent thing to say or very interesting thing to say but, just the idea of like yes it’s something some people inherently know how to do. I can’t add two and two was really never really good at that. But I can write in e-mail and share some information and have it be, you know pretty effective, so I don’t know.

I really I honestly I know that my education helps me and I struggle to identify exact examples of what I did that helped me.

Speaker Do you think at all that your sort of extensive experience in like writing workshops may have helped you with the kinds of softening language that you use as such?  

Speaker 25:01    That’s I guess what I’m talking about. Like I don’t know. I would feel that I brought that to the workshop that I already knew how to do that. I don’t think the workshop gave me that. I think that you know … and I’m just giving an honest answer to the question. Absolutely. Do I think that an end to be teaching writing to students learning how to help them think through something has that made me better able to think through things? Absolutely.

But I just have difficulty thinking that, feeling like to be very very honest, that the skill level that I have brought to email writing is in me.

This is so ridiculous to say, but the skill level that I brought to writing an email as a freshman in college pretty similar probably to the skill level I would bring now, just because again when I talk about like what I feel to be inherent skills that people have; that’s just the way that I think because that’s always been something that’s easy for me that I’ve always gotten good feedback on like “Oh you’re really good at writing.” And again not good at math; You can’t add two and two. So, I just I don’t know if that’s again a simplistic way to look at it? Absolutely. At some level my abilities as a writer or the way that I perform work have to be informed by the education that I have. It’s just not always clear to me because when I think about my education, I’m thinking about the Will and Grace spec script rather than the actual useful assignments I was doing.

Speaker 26:54     Can you talk a little bit about and you’ve already talked about you know the feelings of your prospective students and also a little bit like the sort of tone of the university at large, that you present in these e-mails…What do you feel like most at stake in your writing/what will be positive or negative outcomes?

Speaker 27:16     What’s always at stake is that every single student that I have…What’s at stake is a loss of the student’s interest in the university because I need to keep them in engaged and interested so that they will come to the university at which I work and pay the tuition. It’s a tuition driven university, and they can continued to grow as a university. So, every interaction is maintaining that connection with them even if you’re sharing difficult information,  I have to be able to share that difficult information and  say “You do not meet the requirements now but we would love to have you next semester.” So, that’s always what’s at stake. Their interest in engagement, because we struggle to find students. We are not like the large university in the area that gets the majority of transfer students where if you go to community college you ask them where they’re going to transfer, they say that local state university. That’s what all of them are going that’s what they tell the counselors. That’s what they tell each other. So, trying to get another university, a small tiny private university, on their radar is very difficult. So if a student emailed me and says “I’m interested; Tell me more.” Literally I just received an email  and the subject line was “Admission requirements” and the body the email said “admission requirements.” That’s all that the email said. That’s an engaged student right there that’s a student who might …. So I have to say “Thank you so much for your e-mail. I appreciate your interest in the university. Could you tell me are you interested in undergraduate or graduate studies at the university?”

Even though I don’t represent graduate students but a lot of times students will just contact the first person they see. So that, whereas I think maybe in some businesses you could delete that email because it doesn’t even read as a real email, that’s an engaged student and I have to follow up on that. So, it’s always what’s at stake? They’re interest in the university and on their interest now in their potential interest in the future.

Speaker” What do you think is the most difficult thing about writing your field or your particular position would be?

Speaker     Sharing difficult information and a lot of times you are dealing with students who are very sensitive. You’re dealing with students… I deal with a lot of students who are not academically successful but do not want to have a conversation in which they actually address that. I’ve had multiple students tell me “ I know I’m really I’m doing well this semester; you know I’ve done really well I’ve gotten a 2.3.” That in my experience would not be a great GPA but they…to get a 2.3, you obviously have to have some grades that aren’t that great and they don’t. They’re very sensitive. Because I also know that many of these students, they are working full time and they’re also going to school. That is a great GPA, with all that they’re balancing. So, I think that the hardest thing in the writing is to is to not offend them or belittle them or you know… because you already feel like you are…You don’t want to come at it from… We do not have the luxury as a university of being like a high tier university, who is turning away students at the door all the time. We don’t have the luxury of turning away anyone. So even, so when I’m dealing with a student who I have to kind of talk to about … you know example: student maybe has a 2.3 GPA and has emailed me to find out why that doesn’t qualify for them for an academic scholarship. How do I keep them interested, let them know they haven’t met the terms for a merit ship based on their GPA and not have tone of the e-mail to be, Your GPA is actually unsatisfactory?

You want to make feel like “I know you’ve done work. You’ve worked so hard and we would be happy to consider you for financial aid if you submit the FAFSA you can’t win this scholarship though.” So, I think that’s what’s really difficult is to walk that line and make the student feel seen and appreciated, while also not wanting to mislead them and say I’ll look into it and see if you can get that three point that academic scholarship when they’re not going to get it.

Speaker 31:34     Sounds like a kind of a difficult balance to strike. How do you navigate that? You know get that information across and maintain that tone like this and interest?

Speaker 31:50     I would say that you do it by… I once remember someone telling me who worked with elementary schools school students you have to sandwich things, you just start with the compliment and you give the criticism and then you get that compliment and that sort of applies in this case like, “Thank you so much for e-mail it’s so wonderful to hear from you again. Insert difficult information here, again.

It was wonderful to hear from you and I really enjoyed corresponding with you! I’m so enjoying working to you.” It becomes… that’s kind of what I was talking before about seeing some of the e-mails that my colleagues have sent where they share difficult information. You realize that is a skill that people some people have no idea how to share difficult information and you can see… because we recently adopted a system where our basically Prospect Management system, we can go and e-mail applicants through the system; so I can go look in and see if another counselor has emailed you through that system I can see what they wrote, so I can see the e-mails that my colleagues are sending to students and they’re not being successful and balancing that act of being open and considerate and also sharing the difficult information. So, I often think “how can I teach them how to do this?” And I don’t know … Right now it’s at the point where I literally have to sit next to them and say “Here is something that you could say.”

So I think that’s a question for myself that I’m still wondering about how do I… I know that I can walk the line. Well how do I do it or how can I teach another person to do it? I don’t know. Because what is also translated [into] for me has been, especially my last job, learning to also do that in person because in my last position I dealt with students all of the time, sharing extremely difficult information as their adviser and they were crying all the time and it was always a challenge for me. How can I make this student feel seen and heard while also sharing difficult information?

Speaker 34:07     So after school, has anyone helped you with your writing in a formal or informal way?

Speaker 34:24     I would say no. I mean sure maybe getting another set of eyes on things. Yes, but I’ve never felt like I’ve gone to someone and said I’m really struggling to come up with how to do this specific task.

Speaker 34:40     How would you say that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer, if at all, over the span of your career?

Speaker 34:48     I think that the biggest thing that I’ve… because what I think the biggest thing that I’ve gotten better at is that notion about sharing difficult information.

I think that from the time that I started my job it was something that I could do but I was always when I hit send on the email a little bit uncomfortable because I thought oh no. Now I stand very strong in e-mails I sends students when I’m sending difficult information or something and I think they might disagree with and I think that that’s also made it so that I’ve improved as far as sharing criticism or difficult information with my colleagues, that has gotten easier to do.

And I would say that because I’ve worked on more publications, my skills that copy editing have gotten better because like I was saying, I do think I had to write that something that I naturally know how to do. But there weren’t a lot of opportunities in school to do that. So now I get more opportunities and can further refine those skills.

Speaker 35:59     To what extent do you think writing is valued in your particular organization or in your field?

Speaker 36:06     I do not think in my office that writing is valued enough. And I feel that was what I overheard someone in my office recently… I was walking by someone’s office and I heard them say to someone else about someone else in the office, “Oh that person is someone who has such a good writer” and I remember thinking “No that person is not a good writer at all.” But the fact that that person was saying that that really to me shows where people’s expectation as far as writing skills in our office they heard they saw that person and they’re like that person is so good at writing even though I think the writing was ineffective had so many problems associated with it. But that’s just not how people see it in my office.

I think …if a piece of writing communicates the message in a minimally effective way then it’s effective. I don’t think we’re always very good at saying how can we do this even better. I think that we don’t do a good job about thinking of our audience. When I was saying before about just putting bullet points on the web site rather than full paragraphs of content, because our audience is a bunch of 18 and 20 year olds, I just don’t think we always do that. And when I think about the fact that we are supposed to bring in new students and yet going back to your earlier question, there’s about oversight , no one oversees our e-mails or trains us. That is crazy to me, because our primary connection with students is through e-mail. That’s how we’re getting the students interest that’s how we’re maintaining it, based on the e-mail they may get. That may keep them interested to come to campus for a visit or decide they don’t like us at all. So, where’s the oversight on that? Who’s training the people in my office? Who… this is their very first job; who’s training them how to write an email to a student after they come to campus and come for a visit?

What should we say the student who just came …what is the template? how do we keep them engaged? So, therefore I feel like there’s not enough writing… there is not enough value at all placed on writing in my office because the thought is: we’re not receiving complaints about the e-mails from the staff so therefore it must be working. But when I think about the impact that those e-mails actually are having on student interest, I cannot believe more value isn’t placed.

Speaker 39:03     Do you think or do you feel that at all that affects your writing or performance or the way you conceptualize your job to not have that environment be more sort of proactive in improving writing?

Speaker 39:16     Well it’s made me think lately about the fact that I don’t do a good job of saying to people here’s something I think I’m good at how can I help you? Because if someone shares an office with me then they are always turning to me and saying “how can I do this?” And sometimes people come to me with things. But I think that it’s I think that it is… in terms of the way that I think about the environment, it’s me it’s kind of made me a defeatist about my skills and abilities to be like “well I can send out this email and it  can be effective and maybe I’ll come across somebody else’s e-mails some day and be unhappy with it but oh well” you know there’s not a high priority placed. And I think it also makes me have a defeatist attitude about the whole enterprise of writing in general in the office because no one’s held accountable for what they’re writing. So, so I wonder about how you change that culture if you’re not the leader of the office. How is it that these e-mails to our students we’re not trained on at all about how to communicate with them … but that also lets you know that the thing I was sharing before about walking by someone’s office and hearing them say oh so-and-so is a great writer. Also, I work in an office where what people’s definition of a great writer is, is or what it means to be a good writer is just universes away from what my idea of good writing is. So, I that’s something I struggle with. They are hiring right now, at the university, a writer, I think to assist with the president to  help with some other things and I am going to be so curious to see what they come up with.

Speaker 41:20     How did you define what successful writing was when you were a student versus how do you define being a successful writer now?

Speaker 41:31     Well so if I… so when you’re thinking about being like an undergraduate successful writing, I was writing fiction so I honestly… like I think a lot about, here’s something happened to me an undergraduate workshop that I think about a lot and how absolutely ridiculous this was. This person who was teaching my advanced fiction writing seminar, I think it was their first time teaching ever, but she was a published novelist, she published a book and you could tell that she was generally unimpressed with most of the writing that we came into that room with; and I went and I was at an art university so theoretically like these are supposed to be the students who really can bring a lot to the table as far as their interest and their abilities or whatever. And this creative writing thing, it’s not… they’re not taking creative readings and elective, this is what they’re studying and so she would have us come into the room. We wouldn’t read people’s stories beforehand. They had to read them out loud to people and then we would discuss them or whatever. When I think about that and the way that she ended the workshop that semester she was like “we need to vote on who had the best story.”

And when I think about writing as an undergraduate I think about that. Because that that’s the headspace that I was in. Of like not what am my learning? How were we workshopping?

Which is which is then of course we’re more of the probably graduate… the graduate school thing but I’m actually taking that back because there was that same environment in grad school of just not this thing that we’re all taking discussing but this this like this idea of “who is the best.”

Now I happened to win back then, so I was very pleased! But then and then actually when I went to grad school the same thing happened, which was in my first workshop, the professor said we’re all going to write the first page of a story and then we’re going to choose one of these first pages to be the story that we continue on with throughout the whole semester. I won that contest as well. However, in both situations, what does that get you to do to be in an environment of like we’re going to choose a winner? That is just so I don’t know how… that’s not helpful.

But that when I think about the environment than I was and as far as like as a student or as a writer, I sort of think back on that on experiences like that as in terms of like, how people were competing rather than what we were learning I guess.

So that’s what I meant I think about my undergraduate writing or writing in college and thinking about like that’s what comes to mind. Like that’s a weird contest that we had with the stories that I was writing; but if you’re asking about research essays that I wrote in college, I think that the fundamental the fundamental thing that I learned that stays with me now that does help to inform my writing is when I was given an assignment in college, I knew that the way to excel was to be genuinely interested in the topic. And so when I do get involved with projects at work, I try to come at it from an angle of what is what about this generally interests me.

Speaker 45:29     And so how do you judge your success now, particularly like in the sort of person to person responses?

Speaker  How do I judge my success? By the relationship that I ended up developing with a student, by you know,  here’s the here’s a student that I’ve been communicating with by writing and when I see them in person is that relationship there today? Do they say thank you so much have you heard from me a lot? I know I’ve not bothered you a million times. That makes me feel like OK that if I’m supposed to maintain their interest OK I’ve done this. But I would say the other way we measure my success is if I’m developing content for the website or coming up with text for a mass e-mail,  are we getting phone calls about it? And it’s hard to judge your success because students call them out or what you send. So I guess I also judged my success by the level of confusion that I see in students.

Speaker                 Do you consider yourself been successful as a workplace writer.

Speaker 46:35                    I do. I do because I because… I know that being able in the realm of admissions or academic advising, it is so much about sharing difficult information and when I say difficult information I do not mean that just the fact that you’re denied.  In my previous position that’s a lot of what it was you’re denied, you’re not getting iN whatever. In this position the difficult information can be the price of the of the university, the tuition.

So I consider myself successful because I know that I still maintain relationships with students and don’t lose them. Typically, after sharing that difficult information and that they constantly, I see my success and that they come back to me with their questions. They will at my previous office students were always coming to us and saying I heard from so-and-so I had a difficult conversation, got a mean email, did this. I don’t feel I’ve received too many complaints from students so based on the feedback that I’m getting, I feel like I am successful and also if success is judged by… if difficult situations are created at work and I need to have a document that I can share with people to say “oh we’re wondering what this dude was told,” I never hesitate to share with my supervisor, “Here’s what I told them and I know that I did it in an effective way.” That’s never. Some people get really nervous that they have to share something they wrote with somebody, but  I stand strong in knowing this is what I told them. Here you go.   

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Social Worker


Speaker 1  0:01 

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

Speaker 2  0:06 

Sure. I work at Neuro Community care in Wake Forest, North Carolina. My job title, I have two, is the Case Manager and Training Coordinator.

Speaker 1  0:17 

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

Speaker 2  0:21 

From undergrad? I graduated 2001. And I got my masters in 2009.

Okay. And how long have you worked in your current field?

Um related to my field, since I graduated college. All my jobs have been social service related, if not exactly, Social Work.

Speaker 1  0:50  

Okay, perfect. And could you provide just sort of a brief description of your primary job functions? Oh, no, I’ve lost you, Jenny.

Speaker 2  1:02 

I sorry, my phone muted.

That’s totally fine. Um, did I miss any of your last answer? Are we? I’m not sure. Actually.

I don’t know. I think it was. I said I 16 years.

Speaker 1  1:15 

16 years. That’s perfect. Okay. So yeah, could you give me sort of a brief description of your current primary job functions?

Speaker 2  1:23 

Sure. Um, so again, I do, I have a couple roles in my job. But my role as case manager is to provide case management services to adults with traumatic brain injuries, and PTSD, primarily then working with veterans and their families who live across the country and have sustained a TBI or acquired brain injury. So that would be like, stroke or MS or something else that’s neurological. And by providing case management, I connect with them on the phone. Usually, we provide most of our services using telehealth model. So over the phone or email, after doing an in-person assessment; so really, we provide a lot of resources and referrals, we connect them to local resources; I help coordinate, what we call a community support specialist in their environment, so in their local community to work one on one with them for life skills, training, and just kind of finding, having more community integration with that one on one support. So it’s a lot of coordinating, and helping them find the resources and then being in touch with the warrior, we call them our most of our clients are warriors. And connecting them and their families to those resources, and then helping just overall, their overall needs that are not being met by other resources. So they usually have their medical care and things through the VA or through other facilities. We’re kind of supplemental to help with more quality of life and community integration. And then I do a lot of training through my job. So I train our new staff who are becoming case managers. And then I work with a lot of our external providers. So we contract with agencies in wherever our clients are across the country, to work with them, they provide that one on one support, and they might meet with the client, like five or 10 hours a week. And then so I do a lot of training with those agencies that we contract with.

Speaker 1  3:41 

I see and how many clients do you work with at a given time?

Speaker 2  3:45 

So my caseload is small because I have a couple different jobs. So I have 13 that are on my caseload. Most of my colleagues have about 30 Oh, wow. Okay. Okay. 13 seemed like a lot.

Speaker 1  3:56 

So that’s, that’s useful. Yeah. Um, could you estimate in the average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

Speaker 2  4:06 

Oh, my gosh, we write… so we document every single thing we do, including every conversation we have every resource we provide, we have a you know, we have a system that we use for tracking our case notes. So Gosh, I I probably write, I don’t know. At least 75%.

Speaker 1  4:34 

Wow. Okay. And you mentioned a couple of them, but yeah, could you tell me a little bit more about the the forms or the types of documents that you write? Oh, Jenny, I think I lost you again.

Speaker 2  4:50 

Sorry, my phone is old and on its way out.

Speaker 1  4:54 

No problem at all.[crosstalk]

Speaker 2  4:58 

Um, yes, so we like I said, we document every, everything related to the client: every single interaction I have, whether it is if I write an email to my client to, let’s say, give them a resource for like, oh, I found this, there’s a adaptive bike riding program in Atlanta, I thought you might be interested. So I’d send them an email with that information. And then I have to go in our database to like, write that I write a case note to say, “sent the client resources list, what it is”  to track that. So that’s a big part of it. But same with conversations, if I talk to a client for, you know, 45 minutes on the phone, or we do team calls every few months with every client, which is kind of a bigger meeting, a team meeting, I’ll talk with them on the phone for however long, we’ll take maybe 30 minutes to an hour. And then I go and document, everything we talked about. And that goes with I mean, yesterday, I text with a lot of my clients, I text a few who are in North Carolina to say like, how are you? How are you doing with the hurricane crabs, you need any resources. And then a lot of them really much prefer texting than email, so I’ll we’ll have a text exchange. And then again, I’ll go document it, even if it was really brief to say, like, “checked in with client clients doing okay, provided him a resource to for the local, you know, evacuation website in case he needs it.” So I would include that. So really, I mean, everything we all the information we share, we do goal writing SMART goals is a big part of our work, is we set goals with the clients and their families. So then, and during those team calls, I’ll go and track where they’re at with their goals. And kind of update those SMART goals. So that’s a that’s a lot of it. Because I do a lot of training, I also do a lot of documents that are in relation to like the training procedure and policies and procedures for to train new staff as well as references of like, how things are done. So I work on that piece as well.

Speaker 1  7:23 

Gotcha. And thinking back to the sort of documentation of all these different communications that you have with the client. Could you talk a little bit about about the audience and purpose of those of that documentation?

Speaker 2  7:37 

Yeah, that’s a good question. Um, a lot. There’s a couple different purposes. So one is the way that we’re set up. We are our funder is Wounded Warrior Project. So they, they have contracted with us to provide these services. So part of it is we have to bill for our time, and we have to account for all of that time. So if I have an hour phone call, I’m going to write a note to represent that. And however long all of that takes is the time that we’re billing for. Some of it is to like to have our, we have to have documentation to back up our what we’re billing for. But also from a social. So that’s, that’s definitely part of it to show to our funder, how we’re using our time. And they may, you know, as our funder, and as kind of our we’re implementing the program, but there are, they’re kind of on the development side, I would say, they have access to our case. And our monthly, we used to do monthly summaries, now we’re going to try annual summaries, so they have access to all of that so they can get up to date with what’s going on with the client. So if for some reason, one of our clients were to reach out to Wounded Warrior Project, which is which is okay, they have you know, they’re involved. WWP is involved on many levels, with services, so they may reach out for various reasons, they can then go check and just be like, get the up to date, the latest news with that warrior, which would be documented in the case notes; so that if they need a quickie review of like, where they’re at, where do they live? what services do they have? you know, who’s working with them? They can go into our database, we all share it, too to to look at those notes. But also from a social services standpoint, like an accreditation standpoint, we’re accredited by CARF, which is like the Commission of Accredited Rehab Facilities, even even though we’re not an inpatient facility, we have that accreditation and they are big on you know, tracking and documenting to show our work. You know, they always say you in social work, I don’t know if I say this everywhere else. Like, if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen, right? I can say like, you know, “well I told them that they should go to, you know, call the utility company to get that, try to get that bill paid and, or, again, try to get assistance, but they didn’t do it”, you know, but if it’s not written down somewhere, then I see, then it doesn’t count. And then, you know, even from a more, you know, our clients are really… many of them have a lot of high needs. And there can be situations I had, like a client I was talking to, a week or two a couple weeks ago, and just in the conversation, she shared some suicidal ideation, just saying, like, “it’s just so hard, I wish I wish I were dead” type thing. So that kind of like, opens up a whole whole series of documents. Yeah, in terms of like, you know, obviously, so I not only on the call would respond to her ideation, and she didn’t, you know, I would ask if she had a plan, or, you know, if she’s, how actively she’s thinking about suicide, and, and what, you know, what support she has in place? Has she reached out to her therapist? Has she called the Veterans Crisis Line? which she had, and, you know, we kind of I went through my response, and then that’s a big one that I would want to have document. Because it was kind of a crisis, documented what she said, as well as what I responded with, I also called my supervisor, and then documented, I talked to my supervisor on this time. So that, you know, it’s all there. And just to kind of cover our bases, if something I don’t know, even if if something did happen, or if there was question down the road of how we dealt with that situation appropriately. You know, we would want to be able to access that document.

Speaker  11:52 

That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And for, I mean, for that kind of documentation, or really, for any documentation of these types of communications is there any sort of specific writing process that you follow? I imagine, it’s relatively straightforward, because you do them so constantly?

Speaker 2  12:13 

Mm hmm. It is, and I would say, try to be like as objective as possible. And there are a couple things that we like train our staff to do;  you know, we were not providing treatment. So we do not diagnose. So I would not say like, “during the call, she exhibited…” I wouldn’t. My background, my background is like clinical social work, and therapy. But in this role, I would not try to diagnose or try to write down like, a you know… because that would just not be appropriate. So it’s really basic. It’s really like, you know, “phone call to warrior to check in on status of disaster preparation, warrior stated he was fine, and has enough water and food, we’ll reach out if there’s any issues.”  Okay. They’re very basic. I don’t know, that was too much to give you the example. But  it’s very basic, as far as like our case, notes. There are circumstances that are more, you know, formal, that’ll do a more formal write up. But for that, it’s really just kind of tracking to make sure that the information is there. We do follow SMART goals format, and have a very specific format that all of us use when developing goals, and writing updates and things like that.

Speaker  13:45 

Is that SMART goals format? Is that something from outside the organization? Or is it something your organization developed for you?

Speaker 2  13:51 

No, it’s definitely from outside have seen it used in lots of service or even medical. It’s like have you know what that acronym acronym is? Now the SMART, it’s like, instead of you I should know this by heart because we talk about it all the time at my job, but it’s Specific, Measurable. Attainable of Time. The last one is like time oriented. I forgot what the R is but, I can definitely share that with you. But it’s really you know, in developing goals, it doesn’t want to be like warrior will go to the gym to work on, you know, weightlifting, it’s very specific, basically, how often the warrior will go to the gym with what kind of support do they need? And what’s the percentage that we expect them tO  what are we aiming for percentage wise and then like the duration, how long are we gonna have this goal? So we all are trained in that and kind of use that; it’s it’s definitely not rocket science, but it we do you follow a certain system just so, you know, we’re all standardized.

Speaker  15:05 

Gotcha, that that’s really interesting. Yeah. Um, so both the documentation and the sort of written goal setting. And actually, the training materials, too, this is sort of a broad question, but how did you know how to do this kind of writing?

Speaker 2  15:22 

Hmm. That is a good question. Um, I mean, I went to a liberal arts college, I feel like I was very focused on all of my classes were very focused on just kind of general, like we used general writing skills. And for all of, in all of my classes, even if it’s not specific to well I didn’t have any classes that were specific to social work, so it’s just kind of a general, like, worked on our skills to express what we needed. So I feel like I had a pretty solid base in undergrad. And then a lot of it has just been over the years with this working with different populations, especially I’ve worked with brain injury for a long time. So I kind of know the language of brain injury, I know the like, you know, there are certain themes that come up a lot. So there’s a lot of you know, a lot of our goals, maybe around certain challenges that come with brain injury, like a lot of folks have different challenges, like with executive functioning tasks, or like organizing, or they have a tough time taking initiative. So I kind of am aware, because I’ve been in the brain injury world for a while, of what, how to focus some of those goals, or what areas maybe, you know, folks want to work on, obviously, we do that it’s very client driven, but I can kind of take their, what they’re saying and help formulate the goals just based on my experience in the field. And then I think like training materials, and things have just come over the years of job experience of, you know, working in social services, where we want to have things really clear cut; I’ve worked on a lot of places that had that same accreditation, that CARF which is not the same as like, there’s a different one for hospitals, accreditation, folks that come out and look at all your binders and look at everything. But with the CARF, I know that they’re expecting, you know, certain policies just to be really straightforward. Like, I think that’s what, you know, there’s, they’re not…they’re pretty concrete, you know, our training information. We work with, our staff have a variety of backgrounds, so some people are social workers, but there’s also people who worked as like speech therapists or worked as occupational therapists or speech OT/REC therapists. Rec Therapist is somebody who actually you can get a degree and get a certification in somebody who focuses on like, adaptive recreation, adaptive sports, for people with disabilities.  So some people are coming from that angle. They’re all related to kind of our disability population, but, you know, speech therapists rights very different than I was trained as a like, social worker. So I think because we’re coming from different places, people have their own style, but we’ve been able to, like, at least provide the basics of you need to cover this information, everybody will have a different style in their case notes, but, you know, follow these basic basic standards, which is kind of what I was describing with, like, keep it objective, keep it, you know, keep it factual. And you can report on what the warrior, the client stated, but we’re not gonna we’re not going to analyze that. We’re just going to report on what we’ve heard. So we do share that kind of standard language, even though people are coming from different backgrounds.

Speaker 1  19:22 

That’s really really useful. Yeah. Okay. I know that was kind of around. No, no, no, no, it was super interesting. Um, it has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

Speaker 2  19:34 

Hmm. Um, that is a good question. Um, no, I mean, I think things that are more Um, no, I always felt I felt prepared. Some things take longer than others. You know, I think case notes stuff like that are very, those tend to be pretty easy. But if I’m getting ready for a presentation or want to, you know, have more of a, I guess, more in depth or if I’m writing an article for a newsletter or something, I would want that to come across more advanced. So that takes me a long time. I’m not like, I never feel like totally awesome. I like when I was writing papers in grad school, like I always, it just takes me a long time to really make it. I guess. It’s not so much the content, I always felt comfortable the content, but just developing like, language that flowed and felt, you know, covered my bases and felt, you know, easy to read, but awesome, mature and sophisticated. That can take me a while. So just because I don’t do it as often. But I make Brian, my husband, edit lots of things, because he’s got much more natural edits than I. He is very good at editing. I do not feel like my editing skills are nearly as sharp as they should be.

 Speaker  21:08 

Interesting. Okay. Are there other than sort of seeking out other people? Are there other strategies that you’ve used in the past when you did feel more hesitant in your writing?

Speaker 2  21:20 

Oh, yeah, I mean, I think mostly, I’m mostly using other people to kind of review and read through things to make sure I’m getting my point across. And a lot of it comes down to kind of those like, editing, or does this make sense things like that. And, you know, a lot of what we do in our work, is consulting with each other more about content or more about situations like am I covering? Did I deal with this situation correctly? And then I’m it tend, we tend to be less concerned that it’s like, written perfectly, especially when it comes to like, situations with clients, or even like teen calls. I mean, that documentation I’m not too worried about, I want to make sure that the content is correct. And that, like I said, everything that I needed to say, but the actual, like, how it’s written doesn’t tend to be as important. So if I do need some backup, it mostly is done through like, just getting somebody else to read it, and review.

Speaker 1  22:25 

Got it. Okay. And does anyone oversee your writing as a whole?

Speaker 2  22:33 

That’s a good question. Um, I mean, we have supervisors who check in again, I would say, mostly they’re looking at contents, make sure that well, and that it’s there are case notes are in there. And they may have feedback sometimes. But it’s really not as related to how something is written, it’s more in relation to, you know, whether it’s there or whether it has enough. Sometimes those things come up with like, oh, there’s not enough details here. So we need to add more about that situation. You know, and we do really, so when we go and do in person assessments, if we get a new referral, we do a pretty late link the in person assessment. I mean, we visit them for a couple days, so we alone. Yeah, so we’re getting a lot of information, we got a lot of forms during those during that time. And then we turn that into a written assessment, which could be anywhere from like, five to eight pages, or it’s different categories of physical, physical status, cognitive status, psycho social status, like caregiver wellness, like we have different we, and that’s a template that our staff follow, okay, um, for each client. And that, you know, tends to take a little bit of time just to, you know, you could get gather so much information, we’re taking notes so often during that day or two, that we’re with them. turning that into an actual report that is, people can read is, is really, you know, is is time consuming. And we do want that to be well written and to express all the information that we gained. And kind of another piece about that when you were asking, like, what’s the purpose of that another, our supervisors would read it, or funders may read it, or at least want access to read it in case there’s any questions. We also send that to the individuals and providers who are working directly with the client. So the we call what we call the Community Support Specialist, which might be somebody in their community, who’s kind of bringing them out into the into town or getting them more involved. We send that assessment to them, so they have the background information. So it is important that it covers the bases. And some of those people who are providing those one on one services, they may, they come from a lot of backgrounds, it may be like a college student picking up some hours to help out in the community, or, I mean, they’re paid positions, but it may be, sometimes we use home health agencies. And we train them to work specifically in this role. So they’re not providing nursing, but we train them to work as, again, what we call the CSS, and some of them, they’re their education level, or just their background is not the same as ours. So we want to make it, we do not want it to be super, like advanced or medically focused, we want to keep it more basic about what their functioning status is, so that everybody can kind of understand. And we send other documents to them to like one called a safety and wellness plan, which is really basic, it just has, you know, some details about the warrior, whether you know, whether their own guardian, who their caregiver is, as well as any triggers and in the community that we want them to be aware of –so like physical or mental health wise, if we know that they are triggered by fireworks and large crowds, then we would write that in as straightforward as I stated, like, the trigger is fireworks, or loud noises, and how we want them to respond. And like, you know, the client responds by when they do when they are in a large crowd, they get really anxious, they start sweating a lot, they ask to be removed from the situation and kind of what we want that action to take. And that is literally like words, and just sentence fragments to explain as straightforward as possible that how we would want them to respond. If there was like a, you know, a situation that came up.

Speaker  27:01 

That makes sense, that makes perfect sense. That’s really, really interesting. Yeah, so you’re in the same document after that assessment, you’re writing to like, very high level people at the funding agency, as well as the people sort of on the ground working with the clients and basic level. Okay, that’s interesting.

Speaker 2  27:18 

Exactly. And that’s a good way, what you just described is probably why we keep it pretty mid range.

Speaker 1  27:23 

Gotcha. Interesting. And, and for that assessment, that sort of post visit assessment, how long do you typically take to write something like that?

Speaker 2  27:33 

So it varies. But you know, by case manager, depending on how, how fast people can do, but from I mean, myself personally, or it can take a good like, probably a total of like, six to eight hours over. Maybe not that much, maybe five or six hours over, you know, whether I do it in one sitting or over a few days just to combine, there’s just a lot of paperwork. So some of it is like going through all that to do the actual writing assessment. And then it’s getting all our documents like in…

Speaker  28:10 

that makes sense. And then for in terms of the documentation, like say you send a text, I’m assuming the documentation for that is very, very brief. You just jump on the computer, type it in and you’re done.

Speaker 2  28:26 

Gosh, sorry. There you are. Yeah. So text message. Documentation is super short. I same with like, sometimes I’ll call and leave a voicemail, but we still want that document, documented somewhere to say, look, I’m doing my job. Because those things actually do come up. Because sometimes we’ll get like a client or caregiver who like calls and complains, like nobody’s called me for the last like, four months, and we’ve got no services. And then we can be like, Oh, let me look, I called you on June 7, left a voicemail at 12:50. Then I called you on June 30. You know, like, I mean, I’ve definitely used that, in responding to people. So even if it’s like leaving a voicemail or a text message we are writing a quick statement with and it’s all like time-stamped.

Speaker 1  29:14 

Gotcha. Gotcha. And now the next couple questions sort of look backwards at your college writing as an undergrad, what kinds of writing: Do you remember being asked to do and do you think that it prepared you to write in the workplace?

Speaker 2  29:30 

Yeah, good question as an undergrad, um, I do. I do. I I like I said, so I I feel like none of my classes It was very liberal arts focus. So what they it wasn’t as concrete as my jobs have turned out to be. Um, but, um, I you know, just the amount of writing we did over the years of just, I mean, just lots of, you know, just a lot of papers is kind of what I remember. Um, and it’s just the critical thinking skills that get turned into papers, I feel like I i that did really prepare me for for being in the workplace and, and being able to, like, appropriately state write and keep up with what I need to in fact, I mean, I felt like I’m not, I do not write on the level that I wrote it in college. At this point, it’s just a different angle. So I guess that’s good, because I was prepared for kind of more intense writing, and mine now tends to be I mean, it’s all the time, but it’s, it’s pretty standard and basic.

Speaker  30:46 

That makes sense. Okay, yeah. Is there anything you wish you had learned or done in college? That would be helpful for your writing now.

Speaker 2  30:59 

Um, you know, I don’t think there’s any discussions of the, of even the idea of different types of writing. per job, like what you guys are studying, I don’t think there was much talk of that of like, what the expectations would be in different careers. Which, again, I feel like there was like, a general preparation for just the workforce, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t specific to certain types of careers. And again, that may have been because we didn’t even have classes that were, you know, I didn’t take any classes that were nursing or, you know, specific to social work or anything like that. It was more general, like, you know, art since 1960 or whatever. Um, so in that sense, that was just one thing. I don’t know if it was lacking, but it just, it just wasn’t part of part of the the curriculum usually. Um, and I mean, otherwise, I still, I don’t know, if it’s just me, because, but I still in high school or college, I do not feel like my grammar skills have not caught up somehow along the way, I really do. Get Brian to edit very basic things for me that I’ve somehow missed along the way.

Speaker  32:29 

You’re not alone in that. No, I, I teach these workshops out in organizations in the community. And I mean, very, very, very high level people like you all over who still say like, I just don’t know where to put the comma. And you know, yeah, like that, it’s really is definitely not you. Yeah…

Speaker 2  32:48 

Okay, that makes me feel better. Because I, that is an area that I do not excel in. And it doesn’t matter that much for what I’m doing. But it would be helpful if I could like edit my own things, rather than having to send my newsletter to Brian.

Speaker 1  33:06  

This next question is sort of– you’ve touched on this to some extent, but I’m wondering if you could articulate what is at stake in the writing that you do?

Speaker 2  33:16 

Yeah, that’s a good question. Um, I mean, I just want it I think, we want to provide a really good picture,  a really good, honest depiction of somebody’s current functioning level at the time we’re writing the case notes or the assessment. So, you know, I think what’s at stake is like just having it be as, as honest a depiction and as kind of, of the moment so that it can help the individuals who we’re working with, especially when we’re sending information to those folks who are, who are on the ground, who are working one on one to give them as much of an idea about what the issues are, through the assessment, the written assessment. You know, we talk to them a lot, we do a lot of phone calls and team calls and things like that, but I think to have it documented, is really important. So that there is some kind of reference point about the clients functioning level and their needs and any gaps in services, like all of that is documented, as well as if there is a crisis. I think that is, you know, that is really important to have that have the documentation there. So that it’s, it’s clear what the intervention was. And again, it can be kind of a reference point. Sometimes I’ll go if I’m doing like a follow up with or if I get a transfer case, so I didn’t know I didn’t work with the warrior to begin with I will go back and read the assessment that was done maybe five years ago. And it’s really important that that gives me an idea about where they were then. And then when I go to work with them, it gives me a good history of, you know, where they were starting at, when we were providing services and where they’re at now. So, you know, it’s not like, super high stakes, but it is important for the depiction of that of that warrior’s situation and really, to be respectful of their I mean, like I said, most everyone around working with our veterans and you know, to make sure that their their story and their truth is depicted in, even in these kind of case management ways.

Speaker  35:45 

That’s really, really interesting. Yeah. When you when you think about their story being represented, well, what else? In what ways is that? I would imagine that’s very complicated, right? Like, my next question is about what is the most difficult thing about writing in your field, and everything you said, up until now has been like, well, it’s relatively straightforward. It’s important to be, you know, clear, and, and perfect. But, but that seems like a whole other element to sort of this idea of sort of respecting their history and getting that down. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Speaker 2  36:20 

Yeah, and, and, you know, are these written assessments don’t go, they don’t usually go anywhere that, you know, into, like a news story or a, a, you know, something that’s like, really is there to tell their story, but I do think it’s still part of their bigger picture. And I think, especially with the, these diagnoses that we’re dealing with, that is the complicated part. So like a brain, traumatic brain injury is very complex, in itself, just because of it can affect individuals, so completely different. And so you may get one story from the client, who may have no awareness of their injury, or very full awareness of their injury, but can’t express it, because they have aphasia, and their language is really is was affected. So it’s just, and then they may have a very different perspective than their caregiver, who, oftentimes, you know, whether it’s a spouse or a parent, knew this individual prior to their injury, and then post injury are dealing with somebody who’s maybe even personality wise is a very, very different. So they may have a very different perspective, they’re involved in our assessment, so we try to include their information that they share, you know, without making a judgment call on like, who’s correct, you know, one is… whose story we want to tell, but just to kind of get a broader, like, this is where they’re at. Right? And, and it’s just a lot of complexities with that. I mean, again, with the diagnosis with there. And then if how the injury came, I mean, whether or not, you know, we have definitely have some who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, who have just really complex.

Speaker 1  38:24 

Oh, you cut out Jenny.

Speaker 2  38:27 

They have complicated family situations, even like prior to being deployed to Afghanistan, maybe their duration was very complicated to begin with their family life, and then they get back with an injury. And it’s like that much more complicated. And then they have kids, and then they have, you know, PTSD, and they’re, you know, five kids and it’s, it’s just, there’s so many layers. That that can be challenging, I think, to like, hit all the layers, like I was just doing an assessment with somebody else, I was actually training them but I was involved with the assessment there to kind of help observe the new staff do their assessment, and it was such a layered case. Like he had a severe like, spinal cord damage from an helicopter injury while in on like, all these just all over the all over the world. And then on top of that, like his challenges in getting the right care, took years and years for him to get treatment that was appropriate. And he really felt like abandoned by his, by the military and by his team. Once he was injured, he felt like he was kind of like thrown away. And then on top of that, he had severe pain, chronic pain, like 10 out of 10. That gives him like hallucinations because of the pain. He has like PTSD from the pain. And this, what we call, and what’s getting a little more kind of discussion these days is this “moral injury,” which is feeling kind of haunted by things that maybe the veteran the warrior has done, or how they were treated or things they’ve seen. It was just layer upon layer upon layer of this situation, and expressing that in a, you know, appropriate way without being dramatic without being, you know, getting into the weeds of things we don’t know about even you know, we’re not going to talk in too much detail. And we’re not going to diagnose we’re not a therapist, but representing all of that I think can be complex.

Speaker 40:48    

That’s so complicated.  I mean is it a struggle to keep your own emotions out of it?

Speaker 2            41:00    

Yeah, I mean sometimes, I think that is a thing that comes up in the job in general–less so in just documenting it.  I mean that to me–it’s just kind of all part of it. That’s just kind of part of the work and that’s something we talk about in our job.  But the writing piece is kind of part of the job. And all of that can be a little bit hard sometimes–it’s just you know making sure that we’re staying objective but also we’re human and, you know, responding and not becoming robots and responding appropriately.

Speaker 41:34    

That’s really interesting. Yeah, that’s fascinating. I just have a few more brief questions. Has anyone helped you with your writing work formally or informally?

Speaker 2            41:47    

Nope. Again not an area that we focus on.

Speaker 41:51    

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

Speaker 2            42:04    

You know, I feel I just feel like I’m very well versed in what I’m doing now especially like I’m pretty efficient at it and I feel pretty confident in it. I actually think like social work and grad school gave us a lot. We did a lot of case studies. I feel like that was a good prep for my current case management job, even more so than some of my some of my colleagues who I love. But they were trained as like speech therapists–it’s a really different.  It’s just totally different than language. It’s very goal focused very functional writing all about, you know, very specific to speech language. Whereas I think social work in general is more broad.  So I felt prepared for writing about cases, so I think just generally I’ve become more efficient.  I know, I know the work better. I’m more prepared as a, you know, I’m more seasoned as a social worker and the case manager.  So, it just makes all the writing pieces that much more– you know easier to tip.

Speaker 43:13    

All right. OK that makes sense. You kind of answered this a couple of questions ago, but what, to what extent do you think writing is valued in the organization?

Speaker 2            43:25    

I mean it’s a huge part of what we do and sometimes it can be almost frustrating because it feels like we’re doing so much admin more than–like really the biggest value I think is–and I think most of my colleagues would say this–is our delivery of services and the work we’re actually doing with clients is the most important. However, anything we do with clients that we document. So, it’s kind of hand and it really goes hand in hand.  And so we think it is about you because we understand that like we put a big emphasis on these SMART goals and keeping up with those and using those really to track our progress or track the client’s progress.  So, in that way the goal writing and the goal progress updates are really valued because of the measurable. The other things I mean it’s measurable if I give somebody a referral to you know a writing for veterans class or like a yoga studio in their area. But it’s not as tangible as like, you know, 80 percent of our clients met their identified goal of having more–you know, gaining more social capital in their community. Like those are much more measurable. It’s better for funding it’s better for a million reasons–you know, per our funder.  So in that sense that is it is very valued.

Speaker 44:52   

That’s really interesting. Okay. And our last question how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus successful writing in your current work and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

Speaker 2            45:13    

Yeah, I mean, I think, I think as a student I would have thought there would have been more feedback from, you know, more pats on the back, or like concerns coming from like supervisors like constantly looking at, like, is this  written enough or did I turn this in just long enough or did this have the–include everything that it needed? Was it well written? I think more focused –and I think that would have been more focused–as a student I thought there would be more focus on like how well something was written as as a marker of success.  But given that in this field of kind of social work and case management in general, I think success is, you know, I do feel successful in my ability to kind of keep up with it because I think that’s a big piece of it because there’s so much of it just like keeping up with the steady documentation needs and requirements and in that sense I do feel like you know I’m successful and that it’s, it’s very achievable, more so than kind of this like beautifully written, you know, articles about a topic that I would have to research or something like that. This is much more concrete and much more practical for the work that I’m doing, which is a really good fit for kind of what I tend to be better at anyway.

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Tech Start-up Entrepreneur

Business, Computers & Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: That would be wonderful. That sounds great.

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

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

A: That document was for health tech professionals.

Q: Perfect, okay, great.

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

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

A: Ultimately our corporate blog. 

Q: Great, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: That’s okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: No, no, please. 

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

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

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

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

A: I was being kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Yeah, that’s really hard.

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

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

Q: Beautiful, thank you so much!

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Registered Nurse


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

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

Q: Ten? 

A: Yes.

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

A: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Absolutely.

A: So, go ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Oh great, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Okay, I see, that’s useful, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Right, right. Gotcha, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Okay. 

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

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

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

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

A: Oh it’s fine, we’re good. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Okay, thank you so much.

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Logistics Specialist


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about 50% writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, yeah. The cohesion. Yeah that …


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

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

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

Oh yeah, definitely yeah it’s crucial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

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

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Communications and Professional Development Manager

Arts, Government & Military

Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKER:             Do I consider myself?

SPEAKER:             Yes.

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

SPEAKER:             Thank you. Thank you so much.

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