Lab Manager

Sciences

Lab Manager

52:48

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: All of your what alive?


A: Fly stocks.

 

Q: Oh, okay.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: Yes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: My piece of that?

 

Q: Yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: Things I did?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: It checks off a couple boxes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: No matter how specific you want, yeah.

 

Q: Okay.

 

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

 

Q: Can I interrupt you for just a second?

 

A: Sure.

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Got it, okay.

 

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

 

Q: Oh, I see. Gotcha.

 

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

 

Q: Yeah, I used to know it.

 

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

 

[person outside the interview]: SWAM vendors.

 

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

 

Q: That’s interesting, yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

A: Yep.

 

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

 

A: Right.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: This is in college? In undergrad?

 

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

 

Q: Right [laughter].

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: My year and a half [laughter]?

 

Q: Yeah [laughter].

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Tell me more about that [laughter].

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Got it, got it.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: I think you did a great job. Oh–

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Perfect, got it.

 

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

 

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

 

A: Exactly, yeah.

 

Q: Got it, okay.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: You’re welcome!

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Network Engineer

Computers & Technology

IT Networking Interview

50:00

 

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

 

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

Q: Yes, undergraduate.

 

A: So 2011, so about seven years ago.

 

Q: Okay. And did you attend graduate school?


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: Ballpark writing? Twenty five percent.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Gotcha, gotcha.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: And how do you approach that?

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Interesting. That’s great.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Great! Thank you.

 

A: Yep.

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT

25:40

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Great.

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Commercial Director

Arts

Commercial Director
32:54

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

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

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

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

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

A: Seventy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Like focus groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News

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

Communications Director

Government & Military

Communications Director, Congressional Office
23:27

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: That’s great, thank you so much!

A: Yep, sure thing.

Click here to read full transcript

Illustrator

Arts

Illustrator, Self-employed

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

22:11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Oh, sure.

Q: Cool, thank you! Sorry.

A: Yeah, I’m sorry! Is that better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Right.

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

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

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

A: I’m sorry can you repeat that?

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

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

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

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

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

A: It is a big question [laughter].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: No. Not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

A: Of course.

Click here to read full transcript

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Cancer Nurse Navigator

Sciences

Cancer Nurse Navigator, Oncology Clinic

Date of Interview: April 4th, 2017

Transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Great, okay. And–

A: Which is– oh, go ahead.

Q: Oh no, please go ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Oh cool, that’s really cool, okay.

A: Yeah, it’s great.

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

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

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

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

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

A: In my current job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Unprepared?

Q: You cut out, say that again?

A: Am I on okay?

Q: Yep, you’re good now, thank you.

A: Do you hear me?

Q: I do.

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

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

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

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

A: No.

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

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

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

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

Q: Gotcha.

Click here to read full transcript

About Us

About

The Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences is a project developed by two writing professors–Brian Fitzpatrick (George Mason University) and Jessica McCaughey (George Washington University)–with the aim of better understanding not only how and what kinds of writing happen in various workplaces, but also how our students will ultimately adapt when they enter the workforce.

Despite efforts to better prepare students to transfer their college writing skills to the workplace, the transition is unquestionably difficult—and often publicly lamented. One part of this challenge is that students often have surprisingly limited access to professionals working and writing in the fields they wish to pursue. Even more complicated is the tremendous variation in writing genres, requirements, and expectations from industry to industry and organization to organization, meaning that students often end up encountering a necessarily less-than-specific version of professional writing in the classroom.

In an effort to solve this problem, we developed the Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences, an online audio archive of interviews from working professionals in a variety of different industries. The archive and the research that accompanies it is grounded in “transfer” research from writing studies. Transfer is the act of learning skills in one context (in this case the university setting) and adapting or transferring them into a different context (a job). In the audio interviews collected here, interviewees are asked to discuss how and what they write in their specific workplaces, how they translated college writing skills into that field, what “successful” writing looks like where they are, and what students across disciplines need to develop in their writing as they look towards the future. Interviews also explore new ways of considering central transfer concepts like genre and metacognition.

The archive, which will be available to students, professors, and the public, serves as a learning tool and as an ongoing repository, but perhaps most importantly it is as a crucial link between the university and the “working world,” as students hear the voices of those creating real workplace writing, and are then better able to develop their own writing.

Who should use the archive?

Students
Students can use the archive as a way to learn more about the writing that happens in the fields they are considering, as well as the skills writers in these fields describe as central to their work.

Educators
Professors in various fields are welcome to use the interviews collected in the archive for any number of educational purposes, from “listening” assignments that simply offer their students access to working professionals discussing their progression as communicators in their field to more substantial writing and critical thinking exercises. In the future, our “Resources” page will house curricula, lesson plans, and other suggested uses for educators.

Employers
The archive provides employers with previously unavailable insight from individuals about what it’s like to learn to write in a given job or field. It’s our hope that employers, through both the interviews themselves and the analysis and research that stems from them, will gain a better sense of the struggles their employees face, and will be better able to implement tools, strategies, and processes to help ease that transition.

We hope the archive is valuable to you in whatever form you choose to use it, and we welcome your feedback, especially about other uses and development.

Brian Fitzpatrick: brian@workplace-writing.org
Assistant Professor, George Mason University

Jessica McCaughey: jessica@workplace-writing.org
Assistant Professor, George Washington University

AWWE Wins CCCC Emergent Researcher Award

News

Update: 1/25/2018

We are excited to announce that The Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences is a recipient of a 2018 Emergent Researchers Award, granted by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)!

We are so honored to have been recognized by CCCC and are so excited for what this means for the future of this project. While we are sadly not able to be in Kansas City this year to accept in person, we are thrilled and grateful to receive this award and are excited to work with CCCC in growing our project.

With this grant, the Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences will be successfully funded for at least the next two years. This means we are able to expand our research, invite more interviewees to participate, and bring our work to more students, teachers, and employers.

There are more announcements to come soon, including an expanded second phase of interviews and data collection, more opportunities to participate, new conference presentations and more.

Thank you all for your support — whether you’ve worked with us, participated in our interviews, shared/liked our page, etc, we are so grateful to have you be a part of this project.

–AWWE