Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

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

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

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

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. 

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

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

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

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

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

For example. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent.

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Program Specialist, Records Management

Government & Military

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:07

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

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

Tell me about what that is. 

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

Can you search descriptions too?

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

OK.

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

9:13

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

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

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

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

10:09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure. 

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

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

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

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

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

18:32

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

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

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

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

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

That’s really interesting. 

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

Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27:47

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

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

So for each of those things? 

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

33:37

Right. OK that’s perfect. 

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

Nothing is too specific. 

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And can you clarify what that term means?

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

that is being… Yeah yeah.

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

Yeah. 

Okay yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49:03

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

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

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

Overall?

Overall.

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

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

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

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

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

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Graphic Designer, Unnamed Govt Agency

Government & Military

Graphic Designer – Unnamed U.S. Government Agency

00:02     Speaker: Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

00:04     Speaker: You bet. So, I’m the graphics branch chief. I work for a government agency. And again, to be clear, I’m not representing the department that I work for any sort of capacity.

00:15     Speaker: Thank you. Could you state how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

00:19     Speaker: I graduated from college—I took a circuitous route to graduate from college, but when I graduated was 2004.

00:26     Speaker: Great. And how long have you worked in this current organization and in the field as at large?

00:34     Speaker: I’ve worked in the field for over 10 years. In fact, depending on how you define it, even before my college time I was working in the field. In my current position, I’ve been here for four and a half years.

00:47     Speaker: Great. And could you provide a very brief job description of your primary job functions?

00:52     Speaker: Sure. So, what my primary job function is—I lead a team of graphic designers and now a copyeditor, oddly enough, here at my government agency, providing support for any sort of communications needs that those folks have. This includes a lot of public facing material, a lot of internal facing, like events support—things of that nature. Really, you know, really my job is first and foremost about the care and feeding of the people who work for me. But the other sort of main responsibility is ensuring that the products that my team are putting out there are, you know, high quality, that the writing is good, that the visuals and aesthetics are in really strong shape and [inaudible].

01:37     Speaker: That’s great. And did you come to this—could you tell me about your sort of route to this position?

01:43     Speaker: So, so coming out of high school I took sort of a circuitous route to get to college. I ended up getting an associate’s degree in Digital Design from Nova, after a number of years. And this I did it simultaneously with working as an IT guy at The Washington Post, where I worked with newsroom IT. I decided that was really wasn’t for me. So I did a career change. I went to West Virginia University for graphic design, so I have a bachelor’s in fine arts—a BFA in fine art with a concentration in graphic design, which is a really long title. So yeah, and from there I got a job out of college with an education company based in Herndon working on product development. From there I moved on to NASA as a contractor where I supported their headquarters organization with the graphics and so forth where they needed it. I moved into management in that position and then here in my current agency where I’m Fed (federal employee), yeah I do what I described.

02:50     Speaker: Perfect. Okay that’s useful. Could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

02:58     Speaker: It’s not 100 percent, but it feels like it’s close most weeks. For a field like visual design a lot of folks especially in college especially subsequent college think that writing is like mathematics in that is something you can kind of—kind of get away with not knowing how to do. And one of the through lines I think that will come out during this interview is that is couldn’t be farther from true—that while it is correct that mathematics are not terribly relevant, writing on the other hand is—in a lot of ways—is actually more critical than aesthetic skill, depending on the work. It’s not that—you know, that’s probably hyperbolic a little bit—but there is that idea that, and this is something that Mike Monteiro of Mule Design out in San Francisco has espoused and I’m 100% behind this idea, that I would rather have a mediocre designer who can sell the heck out of what they’re doing than have a great designer who can’t. And a key part of selling your ideas of getting your ideas out there to be adopted and so forth, like a key ability in that skill set, is the ability to write about that meaningfully. To be able to describe in writing and a lot of cases why you did what you did. You know, you know, we added this symbol to represent this element of this thing or to work, the sort of, you know, tying this connection to this other branded element that is, blah blah blah blah blah. Right? The ability to actually write, you know, ad hoc ad copy, right? We here, you know pride ourselves on being sort of full spectrum designers. And sometimes that means doing things—it’s a little—that are a little outside of what would normally be considered design work—sorry, graphic design work—but what is becoming well within scope for, you know, what is becoming increasingly the nature of design, right? That it’s not just about making visuals the little super sweet, right? It’s about making products that are really functional. And if you can’t write about those things meaningfully and if you can’t capture and write—if you can’t sort of identify like, hey, you like this copy that we got is kind a rough, right? Or this is speaking about something in a way that is not plainly written, dovetailing to the other side of the—the other piece of the puzzle here. Then you do design work no matter how pretty it is, right, no matter how handsome it is—is going to be not as good. In the federal government there is an additional layer of complexity as you would expect in that, you know, to quote Al Gore, plain writing from your government is a civil right. And there’s—there’s federal legislation and so forth. Some agencies are better than others at this. The one I work for is not the best. We’re also not the worst at following the Plain Writing Act and really trying to be very plainspoken and very approachable and also accessible in our writing. One of the—one of the things that’s sort of a through line for a lot of this sort of these sort of rules from the government is that it has some halo impact—some halo effect on other on other people in that plain writing is helpful for people who are, you know, who are sort of on, you know, different sort of cognitive spectrums. Right? You need a plain writing that—it’s something that no matter where someone’s coming from their background they should be able to pick up because that’s who we should be writing for. Right? We shouldn’t necessarily—like, where it’s appropriate, we should be writing very technical language, and believe me we do. But most of the time we should be defaulting to plain writing and that is incredibly important and it’s also an extra level of difficulty right. It’s harder to write less. I forget the name of the French philosopher but he basically wrote a 20-page letter to a friend and said, “My apologies for the length of that letter. If I had more time I would have written less.” And that is absolutely the case and writing is hard enough; plain writing is even harder. And that—but that’s the standard that we have both a legal and ethical obligation to follow.

07:16     Speaker: Great, great. That’s really interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about the forms and types of writing or the kinds of documents that you most often create, including primary audiences and purposes?

07:30     Speaker: So one of the bread and butter pieces that we do a lot of is what we write we’ve called design briefs, and we actually write them in two different phases. We write an initial design brief and we write a sort of final design brief. We follow some of the principles of what’s called human-centered design, which is this idea that rather than design rather than just kind of rolling up our sleeves and cracking our knuckles and getting it right into Adobe Creative Suite, we instead do a fair amount of research. We do a fair amount of sort of market evaluation and so forth to really make sure that we’re aiming at the right target. One of the tools to that is an initial design brief which is basically someone who has called us up and said, hey we want—we want a ham sandwich. We want whatever it is that we want, right? And we write—basically leveraging what we know about a customer already, which in a lot of cases is a fair amount—

08:29     Speaker: And to clarify, customers are always internal or no?

08:34     Speaker: Customer is—internal to the agency, but the audience may not be internal. No, that’s a great clarifying question. So, we support folks here in the building. But we do not—but we’re never going to take a request from the general public because it’s just, that’s just not—yeah. Right. So we get a request from someone here in the building saying, hey, we want to talk to someone from X group, right? We think that we need this. They don’t always say it like that. They usually say, we need this. And in some cases they’re right—in some cases they maybe need to you know—we would maybe want to encourage them to broaden or in some cases narrow the scope of their thinking. And the initial design brief and the final design brief —these are actually really useful tools in both showing our work from a design perspective. But also just really as a persuasive tool that we really do understand what the customer’s asking for but also that you know we understand what the customer is asking for, but we recommend delivering something else entirely in some cases. Where someone will come asking for something fairly small and unremarkable and we will say, hey like maybe there’s a better way to approach this, right? We’ve looked at your—not competition, right, because we’re in the federal space—but we’ve looked at what your counterparts in other agencies are doing. We’ve looked at what’s happening and the public space out in the broader world. And we said, hey, maybe there’s an opportunity to do this bigger or better, right? Or maybe the answer is you know, we had a customer who said, we really want to have this bang-zoom fireworks, super big product launch for this new tool. And then after we sort of said OK, we did a little bit more digging, we did a little more research on that and then we came back and said, hey, um, you’re asking for this crazy huge launch, but at the same time you’re saying that this isn’t a big deal you want to keep this on the down-low. Let’s re-evaluate this, right? This is a very extreme example but that that written design brief, bringing it back around, that written design brief was a key component of that persuasion. Right? So that’s one of the main piece big pieces of writing that we do. Another big piece of writing that we do is we don’t always have the opportunity unfortunately—we don’t always have the opportunity to pitch things in person. Sometimes things just don’t merit that sort of treatment. Sometimes it’s just—it’s a rush, sometimes people are teleworking or are based in completely different cities so doing it in person is not really an option. So, in a lot of cases we have few pitches in email or the like in a Word document or something like that. You know, we have to, essentially we have to bottle something up and we put the message in the bottle and we set it on the on the waves towards the senior leadership and we hope that no one takes the message out of the bottle and changes what’s written on it and puts it back in. But we kind of like we set it adrift on the waves and hope that it is passed up the chain and then we get feedback and pass backed down the chain again. And because of that sort of very, you know, hierarchical relationship, we have to not only describe what we’re trying to achieve right and how we did it and why we did it why it’s important. We also have to write it in such a way that it’s almost almost [inaudible] right? Where the folks who have a little bit more subject matter expertise, a little bit more sort of technical expertise—maybe that’s a better way to categorize that—they will see it one way. And then the farther it gets away from sort of that technical realm into the larger strategic realm there’s still a meaningful message for these folks. It’s still very plainly written right? That talks about, like, oh they, you know, they want us to feel like they want us to feel like the this office that’s needs a new logo is very, you know, stable honorable and very sober and you know not necessarily, you know, fresh and innovative. Right? They want like very—by the numbers, or vice versa. And writing that is difficult, and is suffice it to say, not something covered in design school.

12:47     Speaker: And are there specific strategies they used to try to reach both of those audiences in the same document?

12:52     Speaker: I think strategy is probably overselling it. I would say that it’s like obscenity—you know it when I see it? That you know, it’s we have a we have a feel for it but I wouldn’t say that we have any sort of—there’s no like work hard and fast rules, there’s no sort of overall like, we discussed that—we just sort of, we just kind of do it and then we kind of bounce it off each other and see how does this—does this look right to us? Does this read correctly? So, we do it in a large part by feel, not by prescription.

13:21     Speaker: And is that something you feel like and you develop a feel for over time?

13:27     Speaker: Yes, 100%. And that’s one of the big things that we really focus on during our onboarding process is that ability to write—know how to write to the audience because again not something covered in Design School, but also is more difficult here than other places of employment. The culture here at this agency is much more—requires that a lot more than other than other places I’ve worked. I’ll say that.

14:00     Speaker: Perfect. You talked a little bit about this but maybe you can be a little bit more explicit about one specific recent project or type of project. And walk us through the process of how that sort of assignment or task comes to your group all the way through it is complete and you sort of send it off.

14:19     Speaker: Sure. So let me give you a good example of something that we just wrapped up. So the organization that I work for actually, we just were in the process of re-orging, in the process of redoing the branding for this organization. So, the way that this came in was from the deputy secretary that I work for and basically said, hey, like we’ve got the new office. Let’s review the branding. I don’t like the old logo. Let’s redo those. And that was essentially the entirety of the request, which…yeah. So, in his defense, he knew exactly what he wanted. Right. Go make it happen. So we took that sort of initial request and we wrote that initial design brief that I mentioned earlier and basically said, Okay this is where we think that we have, this is what we think we need to do. And then we went out and we looked at some comparable agencies. We looked at some of our counterparts across the federal government and then we looked at all— sort of tried to define all the different ways it’s all these sorts of problems. We then sort of narrowed those ideas down a little bit and focused on the final design brief, which was a three page document which basically said look who is the who is the audience who is the customer. Right? Which is not always the same thing. You know, what sorts of goals are we looking for? What constraints do we need to worry about? What’s the timeline? What are the deliverables? And really just that you know, who, what, when, where, why, you know? We got signed off an approval on that from the from my boss’s boss. And yet so we then let the design team loose on it. And during that process we showed—we had a couple sort of iterative reviews where each time there were there was descriptive language on the slide essentially, saying like hey this is what this is, gesturing [inaudible] There was a PowerPoint deck that had no logo and there are little text blocks with little leaner lines sort of pointing to different pieces of it saying this is why we did this. This is what this represents. This is why we use this colorway. This is why we use these fonts. This is what the symbol indicates. And then yes, so a couple rounds of that—we ended up just now getting approval on the direction.  And the next and final step is essentially to take that approved design, flush it out into a variety of different products. But most saliently also create a brand guide which is another written piece which is basically a I would imagine probably going about 10 pages long and it’s going to be a written document that shows, here’s the logos, here’s the colors, here’s the fonts, here’s why this matters. Here’s the mission vision values of the organization, like it’s intended to be sort of a you know something we give to new hires, as well as a sort of a crystallization in writing again by designers, which isn’t necessarily ideal, but it is what it is. A bunch of writing by designers about the organization that becomes sort of the canonical almost home plate for the organization.

17:38     Speaker: Got it. That’s really useful. How did you know how to perform the kinds of writing that you currently perform?

17:46     Speaker: Um I don’t know that I do know how. So, it’s a lot of it is just hard won experience, a lot of it is, you know, I have bruises to show for it and it’s not something that used to be—that was a focus prior to me taking the reins to run the team. And I think at that I’m 100 percent sure that it was the right direction to go. If only because of the very tangible results we’re seeing. You know it used to be that this was you know a team that did not always have the best ability to express itself in writing or you know verbally. And that sort of started to change right, or that has changed it’s continuing to change is a better way to characterize than. Previously the team, you know, who are but are very bright capable folks were really focused on what we call production design that didn’t actually require all that much like design skill, like not much aesthetic skill as much as like you know putting text on tent cards? And one of the reasons I was brought on board—one of the things they told me in the interview was that opportunity to help continue the transition of the team from that production mindset to that design mindset. And all along that journey it really became apparent that we needed to we need to be doing more writing and do better writing.

19:18     Speaker: Interesting. That’s great. Okay. Can you describe a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

19:28     Speaker: So, like, I’m trying to think of a time I felt prepared. [laughter] That might be easier. I mean you know joking aside, I don’t know that I have ever felt that it is a real source of strength. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I had the complete—you know I don’t have an abundance of formal training in that. You know, I was obviously—I have some sort of, you know, inborn ability in that area. But you know this is not something that was particularly well covered in college either at NOVA or West Virginia. It is not something that has been particularly well covered in any sort of incidental training that I received as a Fed or as a designer previous to being a Fed.  And, you know, it has felt like a muddle in a lot of cases. So, in that sense I do not feel particularly well prepared. I feel capable, but not prepared, essentially if that makes sense?

20:29     Speaker: Yes, it does, it does you. Is it fair to say that you know what you need to do to figure out each project and be successful in it even if you don’t necessarily have that going in.

20:41     Speaker: Yes. Yes.

20:44     Speaker: Are there things that you do or strategies that you utilize to overcome writing challenges? Let’s say there’s a new type of document or an audience or something like that. Are there specific things that you do to try to get yourself ready for that?

20:59     Speaker: Sure. So, the first the most intense the primary method that I use is blatant theft from the writing of other folks. You know, giving credit where it’s due obviously, right. But you know really relying on, you know, when I go out is just like, OK who has done this well. Right. We’re not calling this theft; we’re calling it benchmarking, right? Or we’re calling it, you know, something else, but, you know, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s pretty blatant in some cases. And you know like you know we had an unfortunate situation where we had a, you know, an employee had to go. And I was like, this is not going to be fun at all. So I did two fairly simple things to sort of get me prepared to write that really unpleasant email. The first was I went back and look for other situations where—

22:00     Speaker: And I’m sorry, to clarify, this is an email to HR? Or…

22:03     Speaker: This was an email to my team saying, hey, we…this employee had to go—

22:10     Speaker: I see.

22:11     Speaker: And this was you know so you know a couple previous supervisors. Right? And I still have all their e-mails, right? So I went back and saw how they distracted when they had that same sort of—when I had come up. So, again blatant theft. And I also reached out to a couple of colleagues and said, hey, like do you have any sort of examples of how the heck you wrote this? And part of that feedback was, you know, call a meeting, discuss it, then send the email. And that was really valuable feedback. Because it wasn’t just about how to write it. It was what is the best way to transmit this writing. So between the blatant theft and asking some colleagues, you know, how they would approach it and how they would write it and the messages they would try to carry through because it was it—was a complicated situation and it wasn’t just your standard issue, “this person wasn’t doing their job; they have to go.” It was substantially more complex than that. So that really narrowed the scope of who I can reach to for assistance. It had people who kind of had kind of experienced this very government-y sort of unique situation. Sure, and I’m sure there’s privacy issues around that

23:25     Speaker: There are also privacy issues.

23:27     Speaker: Right, gotcha.

23:29     Speaker: So yeah it was a it was a pretty narrow needle that we had to thread they eye of. But between you know using the language other people had used and asking other folks like how would you approach this as well as sort of my own sort of values and principles about how I want to talk about people. You know blending those three things together got me to a situation that was—I wouldn’t necessarily say I was happy to happen send, but it was, I think it was in a pretty good place.

23:59     Speaker: You think it was the best version of it— I felt like it was the best

24:01     Speaker: Yeah. Okay. All right. Does someone—is there a specific person who oversees your writing?

24:08     Speaker: Not really. In a lot of ways, like you know my supervisor actually comes to me for writing advice because she knows that because it’s also partly—that’s also something that we’re trying to one grow—you know, to give me that give you more opportunities, as well as recognizing that as you know the office we call graphics you know begins to you know hopefully transform into something called communications. That’s something that’s going to be increasingly important. As we broaden the scope and mandate of what the office (inaudible). So a lot of ways I am a supervisor of that, which is extra pressure considering again a pretty strong lack of formal training. So in addition to that in that same vein like the organizations style manual, like I wrote half of that, which is maybe not ideal. And in the process of revising—luckily in the process of revising that I had some you know really capable professionals that you know really kind of took what we had had previously and really kind of ran with it. But at the end of the day you know I kind of am the supervisor of the writing rather than having other people look at it.

25:22     Speaker: Yes, okay. This will obviously vary from project to project, but how long do you typically have to create a writing project?

25:32     Speaker: Oh I mean so the initial design brief should take a couple of hours a few hours. And that’s usually about like single page. And the final design brief —the actual writing of i probably less than a day.  And like I said, that’s about a four page document.

25:50     Speaker: And can I clarify something? That final design brief —is it a second or later draft of the initial design brief or it’s completely different?

25:57     Speaker: So the audience for the initial design brief is internal to the graphics.

26:01     Speaker: Right. Okay.

26:02     Speaker: The audience for the final design brief is the customer. So it is an iteration is a revision version but it’s usually—it’s much more fleshed out, it’s much more—like it’s much deeper and it’s written to a different audience.

26:17     Speaker: That’s great.  Okay that makes a lot of sense. What kinds of writing do remember being asked to create as a student?

26:25     Speaker: I mean I had a couple English classes.  I mean within my sort of core curriculum for being for being visual—not much. I had to write an artist’s statement my senior year, which I hated. So I did it as a Mad Lib because I’m an off person. But yeah. No there was not —I’m actually I’m genuinely struggling to think of—like, we had to do some amount of copywriting for our senior capstone projects, but even then that was not—that was a fifth of what I write in a typical week these days.

27:06     Speaker: Wow, interesting. So is it fair to say you do not feel like college prepared you for writing in the workplace?

27:11     Speaker: I would say that’s absolutely true. You know, especially given—to be fair that’s also given my degree program.

27:17     Speaker: Of course.

27:18     Speaker: And you know it’s—it’s a fine art program. You don’t ask your painters do a lot of writing right? You typically also don’t your graphic designers to…

27:26     Speaker: Yes exactly. Would you and the sort of veers off, but it’s related to that—would you say that the organization you currently work for is atypical in the sense that it asks designers to do more writing than the average designer might do in a different kind of organization?

27:44     Speaker: Let me give kind of a complicated answer to that question. I do feel like this organization requires more writing than most comparable organizations. I do also feel that this is closer to what it should be. As far as a lot of organizations I think don’t do a lot of writing and it’s to their detriment. Here we do more but in part I think that’s actually a virtue and not a flaw.

28:09     Speaker: Tell me more about that.

28:11     Speaker: Sure. So going back to the previous answer we talked about design briefs, we talked about you know the ability to write meaningfully and sell your designs, the ability to do that sort of thing. And a lot of designers I don’t feel like have good skills in that department. You know and that included my team when we started doing these types of things. And I think it’s to the detriment again you’d rather have a good a good designer who can sell a bad one who can’t. And again that ability to sell and sell in writing right?  I think it is a key skill. And I think a lot of designers—private sector public sector you know whatever—don’t have an ability and I think that actually harms their career.

28:56     Speaker: I believe that. That makes a lot of sense. When you think about this this writing as a virtue in this specific work, especially the designers who work under you, is it just that they’re better at selling externally and justifying—that might not be the right word but—

29:11     Speaker: Close enough —externally to clients to customers.

Speaker: Or do you think that there’s some inherent shift in thinking when they’re writing about the design they’re doing. Am I might be reaching here.

29:21     Speaker: Yeah I don’t know. I think that for me I have the blessing/curse of generally writing how I speak. I don’t know whether that’s true for everyone. I think for some folks who have sort of different learning models they may get more out of it in doing it—writing it out. And I have people who actually prefer to write rather than speak. I need them to be good at both, or at least passable in both and hopefully, you know, really good at one if they’re only passable in the other. But you know I think it’s entirely possible that that’s the case.

29:54     Speaker: OK. What would it have been useful for you to learn or do as a student to be better prepared to—sort of jump right in and excel in the kind of writing that you actually do now?

30:08     Speaker: Persuasive writing would be huge—copywriting like writing, like at least a passable ability to write ad copy and to write headlines and like make a person—persuade not just coworkers but also your audience because in the design school there is this presumption that that this is actually just Mad Men and we’ve got people whose job is doing visuals and we’ve got people whose job it is write headlines. Increasingly that is not the case. And you know here I’ve got people in various and sundry different technical fields who you know how to do technical writing in that area. They don’t have a first idea how to sell their ideas other people how to write persuasive how to write for persuasively or even write meaningfully in a lot of cases about what it is they’re up to. In a way that is plainly written and meaningful. So, I think the ability to write persuasive writing about your own work, ad copy as sort of an ad hoc sort of situation—you wouldn’t necessarily need to go super deep on that, but like you’re not going to have a marketing office, a lot of the time, right? My past three jobs—yeah, none of them have had marketing offices that were like meaningful resources for the ability to actually get to [inaudible]. So that just may be the way my career journey has taken me. But you know they—actually also my internship. None of them had a meaningful marketing or advertising sort of presence. So in a lot of cases it was about the designer and the subject matter expert sitting down and going, Okay, well, let’s, you know, crack our knuckles and then kind of roll up our sleeves and had we had more of that as sort of a more formal education experience and trying those skills out and so forth rather than just “make it look cool”—and make it meaningful too, sure, but make it look cool. I think that would have that would have set me and my cohort up for success.

32:13     Speaker: That’s useful.  Okay great. What is at stake in your writing?

32:20     Speaker: Well, I mean in the most extreme interpretation, right, if we suddenly lost all ability to do you know any sort of like you know competent writing, we would probably exist for about another year or so and then it would cease to exist because no one would want to work with us. You know the less hyperbolic end of the spectrum, you know it would be kind of a slow grind kind, of slow a slow death—would be that idea that like you know we can only pitch in person, right? We can’t, you know, send an email saying, Hey this is how we want to do this. Right? We were also in a lot of cases have a much worse outcomes for a lot of sort of like—a lot of decisions that sort of feed into larger decisions. We have a situation where someone wanted—someone was being really picky about a particular vocabulary word—it was rake versus roue, if you were curious. And basically saying, we don’t want to say rake, we want to say roue and here’s why. And I’m like OK, so it’s all about us. So, you know I’m something of a librophile, right? Yay, words. Words are great. So, thank you for sharing. But it was basically along the lines of like, this person has a complicated legacy. And while this person, you know, we don’t necessarily want to be pejorative in our descriptions. We also have like eight business hours to get this up on the walls. So it is, you know, if you want to talk about delaying this and notifying the head of the agency that we are delaying this—if that’s on the table then we can discuss, but if we can’t and I suspect it isn’t, then we really just kind of these need to proceed right. And kind of giving the Reader’s Digest version of that email, but that was a challenging e-mail to write.

34:17     Speaker: Yeah.

34:18     Speaker: And, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that that you know had I not been able to write that e-mail right and get that point driven home and do so in a way that was not just persuasive but also successful in persuading them, then we’d be in a situation where we be reprinting stuff all weekend and we would have a much worse outcome, especially from a production standpoint—that also obviously opens opportunities for risk as well. Right. You’re changing something at the 11th hour. All it takes is one hiccup up and all of a sudden you know you blow the schedule and then you have to be the one telling the head of the department, we had to delay the schedule because we couldn’t figure out how to get it up on the walls.

34:56     Speaker: Right. Right, right. Okay.

34:58     Speaker: So, the stakes are high a lot of the time yeah.

35:03     Speaker: Yeah, okay. What’s the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

35:13     Speaker: I mean—I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that the writing is inherently challenging. I’ll say that. You know bar awkward situations, you know, like I would say that this this writing is—not any more or less challenging except for that sort of, you know, the—we have that sort of —we have something that helps us—helps remind us of the importance of plain writing. That’s about as diplomatic as I can and in that sense it’s a little more challenging, but really it’s something everyone should be doing anyway, right? So I wouldn’t—I would say that the challenge level is appropriate. Not that it is particularly challenging—just like it is challenging but that is because good writing is challenging, and that is the way that it should be.

36:05     Speaker: Excellent point. Has anyone helped you with your writing here formally or informally?

36:11     Speaker: Sure. So, we had a detailee from one of the bureaus and she was fantastic and she’s a writer/editor with 30 years of experience give or take. And she was a fantastic resource to help sort of guide my thinking. There’s a number of things that I have really passionate opinions on and some of them are writing related. You know I’m a guy who you know thinks that we should just shut down the department before we get rid of the serial comma. But a lot of my—a lot of my sort of strong strongly held opinions are related directly to typography, which makes sense, given my background. 

Speaker: Sure.

36:50     Speaker: It’s like the serial comma. But you know she really helped guide my perspective, especially on plain writing. Like I thought that my plain writing was pretty good before.  But she—I would say helped me see some areas where—I had—there was really an opportunity to do much better. And my writing, just by virtue of just being nearby her, in a lot of cases, had improved as a result.

37:13     Speaker: Right. OK. And has there been any formal training in writing since you’ve been on the job?

37:19     Speaker: No, not for me, no. But for folks on my team, yes, absolutely. We sent a few people—in last year we sent three different people to multi-day classes at nearby training providers.

37:33     Speaker: Great, okay. Excellent. How do you believe the results are improved as a writer from the start of your career through now?

37:41     Speaker: Like I said being around really capable writers and editors and this was true in my previous gig and as well as the education the curriculum company and here as well. I’ve had the opportunity of working with—in some cases supervising—copywriters, copy editors, and they have been, you know, universally fantastic folks to work with. I’ve been very lucky. But you know being near them also helps guide my writing. You know, I recognize also that that is an experience that I have a lot of other folks don’t. So, you know, a lot of ways I try to model my own sort of advice and coaching on what and how those folks guided me and saying, hey there’s a bunch of ways we can do this let’s talk about why we’re approaching this the way that we are, right? And helping—sort of, not quite Socratic method, right? But kind of helping to sort of like frame, like why does this stuff matter? And, you know, what approach is going to be the most impactful for the audience and so forth.

38:42     Speaker: So it sounds to me like when you’re working with their team you’re not just guiding them—obviously in their design—but also in their writing, but also trying to instill the value of how it will be beneficial to them to develop as writers.

38:53     Speaker: Yes, yes that’s a great way to think about it.

38:55     Speaker: OK. All right. That’s useful.

38:56     Speaker: So it’s not just about—it’s about why you’re doing it. And it’s also about—why from sort of like a philosophical standpoint—it’s also why from a “what’s in it for me” perspective as well.

39:08     Speaker: How would you say writing is valued in the organization as a whole?

39:12     Speaker: Poorly, [if I’m] being blunt. Generally, it could be better. Again, not speaking my official capacity—

39:21     Speaker: Of course.

39:24     Speaker: To be clear. Different agencies—I would say—have different place different values on plain writing and different agencies place different values on the ability to—or, the choice maybe is a better way to think about it—how to communicate meaningfully with the public about their work. I would say that both the leading light in this space is probably NASA. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also does a fantastic amount of work. 18F, which is part of the General Services Administration also does really good work. If I name some more people I would start narrowing down who I work for.

40:00     Speaker: [laughter] Sure.

Speaker: But, you know, all those agencies or bureaus do a ton of excellent really plainly written, really meaningful work. [inaudible] is uneven. A lot of their—they do a lot in the housing market. This is the independent bureau that Elizabeth Warren set up. And they do a lot of meaningful work in the housing space. They’re public facing documents are fantastic. Their bank-facing documents—hmmm…

40:29     Speaker: Interesting.

40:29     Speaker: Yeah. And it really, you know, they have different approaches to these audiences. They want to be, you know, friendly and cheerful and approachable and so forth. To banks they want to be very prescriptive and saying, “this is what you will do.” Right? And that comes out and how they write.

40:46     Speaker: That’s really interesting.

40:47     Speaker: It’s very obvious. Once you see documents side by side, and it even goes back to the aesthetic, which is also interesting as a designer.  The public facing documents are these very open—lots of whitespace, lots of green, now blue. And, you know, but their documents that are bank-facing are much more standard word documents, which is really interesting.

41:11     Speaker: Yeah, that is very interesting. And this is why I asked that question how do you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now, and would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?

41:23     Speaker: So, as a student, like I said, there was not that much writing, to be honest. So, success was—I mean it’s not even that it was easier or harder—it just wasn’t the thing we were evaluated by, in a lot of cases, especially within the degree program. Like in your English classes, sure. But really it was just not a thing that was, you know, that was evaluated in a lot of ways, for grades and for graduation and so forth.  The second part of question, was?

41:55     Speaker: How would you how would you define successful writing here?

41:58     Speaker: Yes.

41:58     Speaker: And would you call yourself a successful writer?

42:01     Speaker: Sure. So successful writing here is pretty well defined. We have to with the federal government. You know people have what is what’s called—what’s called a core qualification which is basically like if you [inaudible] this, you don’t you don’t get to be a fed anymore. And, you know, at the sort of, like, you know, fully successful level, which is the lower grade, which is weird, fully successful essentially defines it as like you were able to achieve meaningful communication outcomes for sort of essentially items of sort of like mundane complexity and sensitivity, and the outstanding version, which is the highest grade, right? Essentially defines it as even with incredibly delicate subject matter and incredibly difficult you know time factors and audience difficulties and speaking to executives and so forth, right? You are able to—not just—the ability to communicate is almost assumed. It’s can you achieve the outcomes you set out to achieve? It’s not —you’re not evaluated on the quality of your writing you’re evaluated on whether you get the outcome you want, which is which is interesting. It’s an interesting approach.

43:08     Speaker: It’s a very interesting approach. And is this for—maybe both —but is this for like individual yearly evaluations or is it for moving up in the ranks as a Fed?

43:20     Speaker: The first one primarily. There’s obviously a causal relationship between doing well in your annual [inaudible] and getting promoted. But this is really for the formal performance evaluation cycle, which is yearly. But you know with my team and hopefully with other people’s teams, you know, that’s not something that you only talk about once a year. Yet we talked about it basically every week or every month at the very outside. As far as their ability to sort of again you know, “hey, like, the way this was written, like, we didn’t get what we were hoping for there. Let’s talk about what’s going on there.”

43:52     Speaker: Yeah.

43:53     Speaker: Not “you screwed this up,” but I was sort of like—you know, maybe it was information we didn’t have, maybe that was something that [inaudible] larger political situation going on—lower case “p” or upper case “P.” So, it’s not necessarily, you know, you know, as much as like—okay, what could we have done to get the outcome that we wanted. And in a lot of cases the answer is the way we wrote about it was maybe a little lacking. So, like that’s a great and it’s a critical tool to get the outcome that we want from those communications.

44:28     Speaker: That’s great. And sort of the final piece of this—would you call yourself a successful writer in this specific organization and in your specific role?

44:37     Speaker: I would say that, you know, the—looking at how my performances appraised I think objectively yes. Looking from a sort of personal feelings perspective, I think that there are all there are lots of ways I could be better. And I’m always on the lookout for those opportunities to get to have an even better hit rate.

 

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Content Manager

Business
Interview–Content Manager

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

Speaker:              I’m currently a contributing editor for a lifestyle parenting site called The Every Mom. I –how long as it been? I graduated grad school in 2008, so I’ve been there, I guess I would say , fairly in the workforce  since, then though I’ve worked prior to that as well. But since then my career line has switched.

Speaker:              Could you tell us a little bit about that switch?

Speaker:              Sure. I got my master’s in education, early childhood education and special early childhood education. And I taught  in New York City, in Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami. And then when we moved here to Chicago five years ago , I struggled finding a teaching job since my license had then expired  from New York and we had never been long–anywhere and long enough for me to actually get a teaching license in that state. So after having the babies I kind of shifted a little bit trying to figure out what I could actually do with the skills and the experience that I had. And since then it’s been a climb to try to actually figure out what I can come to and how it can be functional how we work with family life. And you know obviously make  some sort of income to actually have it all be worth it as well.

Speaker:              That’s great. That’s really useful. And so how long have you worked in your current field? I know the position is relatively new, right?

Speaker:              Yes. The position itself I just started in April. Prior to that I was a staff writer at another parenting Web site called Romper, which is under the Bustle Media Group. And that I had it for a year prior to that I was just freelancing. So it’s been a bit of a climb to be able to  actually get the staff writing job and then decide at that point–yes, a consistent writing job , but do I really feel  connected to it? You know, it’s important in the way that I want it to be important? And do I have the–my–a large part of my issue  after  motherhood is do I feel creatively challenged? And so after having that job for a year I decided that I didn’t–it, you know, it didn’t hit all of those marks. And so I started looking again and I came across this one.

Speaker:              That’s great. OK. And for this job that you’re currently in could you give me just sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

Speaker:              I do a lot of writing. Since it’s a lifestyle Web site it’s very kind of colloquial, you know blog writing. We do research based pieces, which I am assigned to largely because of my education background and because I have the knowledge on that. So that’s actually you know helps out and it feel good that I’m good. You know throw away an entire  private education at NYU for no reason at all. And then we do a lot of I do a lot of content management. I work with other writers and people who want to contribute or submit pieces on developing their writing in order for it to be –I guess you could say read or relatable or acceptable to a larger audience. A lot of the time people who submit very personally to the point where  it’s not exactly accessible by an outside audience. So we work a lot on that.

Speaker:              That’s great. That’s really useful. Yeah.

Speaker:              Could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

Speaker:              I would say probably 80 percent.

Speaker:              Okay, great.

Speaker:              And maybe even slightly more. Okay . Because, social media writing, like all that stuff. I would consider to be writing. But it’s so different and so not what my experience in writing had been prior and not what, you know, my English degree had ever taught right.

Speaker:              So you–do you manage social media for the site as well or you contribute to it?

Speaker:              I contribute a lot on Instagram captions and Instagram stories and Facebook write ups. Beyond that I don’t do much of the photo sourcing and stuff like that. But just for making sure the copy is on point.

Speaker:              Okay. Okay. And so in addition to those what other forms or types of documents do you most often create?

Speaker:              I would say the blog writing is the largest chunk of it on the actual Web site content that being–in addition to that probably e-mails, is, you know, a good amount of writing that I would not have normally considered writing.  But you know as I see it now in a–actual jobs email writing has a huge thing and not only does it take a lot of time, but it has to be very specific in the way that it’s written in order for it to be effective and for it to, you know, ease the strain of your job.

Speaker:              When you’re thinking about those e-mails that you typically write at work , who are the primary audiences and what are you usually trying to accomplish with them?

Speaker:              I would say that there’s you know a good amount of e-mails between our team but those aren’t the ones that I would really feel any sort of pressure about. The ones where I’m working with the writers is the biggest thing. I also work with a lot of PR firms that are looking to push their own experts, like doctors and psychologists and pediatricians into obstetricians and all of those you know what we’re looking for experts to weigh in on certain subjects.  But the ones with the writers this is probably where it is because I feel a sense of wanting to guide them and to, you know, to help develop their voice in the way that I never had someone do for me. But I also, you know, for the sake of efficiency you have to be quick and you know not long winded and that’s not a strong suit of mine. [laughter] So that’s that’s been something that’s been difficult for me to manage because I have that sort of perfectionist nature to my–to basically every kind of writing that I do. Sometimes you know the inbox can seem like such a weighty thing in the morning.

Speaker:              Absolutely, yeah.

Speaker:              Could you maybe think of a recent project a recent writing project that’s not formal-formal but a more formal than e-mail, and tell us a little bit about the process of writing it from beginning to end?

Speaker:              I’m working on a piece right now actually about rediscovering yourself after motherhood, and that’s been–because it’s something that is very important to me , it’s been one of the one such taking I’m looking at the open the browser window right now has 35 revisions on it  already. But the process, you know, usually I do a bit of notetaking. Sometimes certain sentences just come to me and I just jot them down quickly and then kind of of expand based on that and play around with it reorganize , make sure you read it try to cut down words because that’s always something of mine that I need to work on and then make sure that it’s successful in a way that has actionable points that are relevant to a larger audience.  I think that personal writing in that way can seem so overwhelming because you want to share your story but you also need to make it accessible for somebody else. Otherwise there’s no there’s no point in having them read it. And you know there’s not going to be, obviously, in a  workplace we rely on clicks, and we rely on traffic, and we rely on the content being interesting enough that when we promote it on social media that the audience is going to want to come to the website and actually read it. So that sort of stuff weighs on me, as well. Then for this particular one I’ve reached out to my editor a couple of times just to see, you know, where she thinks that there needs to be more explanation or a better transition. She told me that it’s perfect as it is, which only frustrated me even more.  So I reached out to the managing editor of our sister site just this morning to ask him what she thought as well. Because I’ve been convinced there has to be something wrong with it. You know I appreciate a lot of input and I appreciate the critique and criticism and all those things. I think feeling as though I’m not a writer it’s something that has stayed with me and I’m not sure why that is. And even though it’s my job now I think because it’s maybe a different sort of writing that I’m used to or that I’ve learned or it that I’ve grown up loving in terms of literature. You know it feels it always feels less than.

Speaker:              I think that’s a very familiar feeling to most people. Yeah.

Speaker:              When you think about these types of projects that you’re working on–this is sort of a broad question–but  how did you know or how did you learn how to perform them?

Speaker:              I would say a lot has to do with just doing it, and then, you know, like, I said asking for advice constantly. But I also am a serial researcher. And you know I really look into books obviously as another part of it. But I look at a lot of resources that have to do with copywriting and social media writing and, you know, captions that convert and you know what sort of format  is a good way to organize blog posts. And you know how to draw the reader and all that stuff. I end up reading so much of that that I don’t actually have time to read anything I want to read.

Speaker:              Right. Right.

Speaker:              Because I’m so so concerned with being good at what I do.

Speaker:              Uh huh. And so this really transitions well into this next question. You know, what I’m especially interested in is the points at which people feel unprepared or less than right feeling like they’re not up to snuff in terms of their writing. When you came into this job and you felt that–it sounds like to some extent–what did you do other than–are there things that you did other than research to overcome those challenges or at least make progress?

Speaker:              I think for my particular path , the part that was really big was making sure that I went in a–I went about it in a manner that made sense.  And by that I mean you know first being able to freelance, you know, a few pieces here and there for websites that are big bigger not so big. But being able to get good feedback on those and learn a little bit more about how to write for an audience, a little bit more about what it means to write content online, and then be able to go into that staff writing job at Romper which you know writing wise was very very easy work, but content –you know the content was simple and straightforward and it was, you know, a lot that was based on search engine optimization. So–but being able to learn that part of it then how–you know, how to use keywords effectively in your writing. Where, where the links are supposed to go where, you know, where you want your–what you want your heading to look like, why you want your headings to look  like this. All those things fell into place over there. And so along with the research that I was doing when I was at Romper I didn’t do any social media at all, but I watched a lot of theirs. And then by the time I got into this job I felt a lot more comfortable in that I maybe didn’t have the experience but I had the knowledge on how to go about it.

Speaker:              That’s great. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You talked about asking for feedback from an editor both your direct editor and a sort of parallel editor. Would you say that–is there someone who oversees your writing direct directly ? Does that primary editor oversee your writing  usually?

Speaker:              My–yes–she does. My managing editor does directly oversee it. The funny part about that is that she doesn’t have a writing background.  She has a marketing background, and it seems to be, you know, there’s this toss up between those two worlds because writing wise I’m like, well, you know this is what makes sense and she’s like you know marketing wise this is what we need to do. So there’s a bit of a conflict between the two worlds, as it is now that I see it. Now that online writing is becoming such a thing in that–you know it’s kind of like the primary way people are gaining information and also outputting information. The dichotomy between the two is something that I find really fascinating.

Speaker:              Yeah, absolutely. That’s really, really interesting. And how would you say –I mean I can see this dichotomy and imagine how it might play out, but how do you think that she judges the success or the quality of the writing that you’re handing her?

Speaker:              I would say directly based on stats.

Speaker:              Oh, wow, that’s really interesting.

Speaker:              I think she personally appreciates my writing and she’s told me that and, you know, she says that many times and even if my pieces don’t do very well she still likes them. But in terms of being the managing editor of the website and my boss she has to look at how it converts.

Speaker:              That’s fascinating.

Speaker:              How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?  You talked about this this piece you’re working on now about finding yourself after having kids as being a longer term project. Is that–but that’s not typical?

Speaker:              That’s not typical. I tend to take a longer time–longer being maybe a week–on the personal pieces because it takes me a longer time to be able to wrap my head around all the emotional stuff like you know in blocks around there and she is fine with that. She gives me leeway on that. But in terms of the more, what would I–I don’t know what you would call the more flat subject  pieces, like the one that I’m working on next is you know dental care for toddlers and infants. Those sorts of pieces I’m expected to put out about four to six a week. And I work three days.

Speaker:              Oh interesting.  Right. OK. So two a day. Wow.

Speaker:              Yeah. 

Speaker:              OK. So now how to shift and look backwards a little bit. I’m wondering what kind of writing you remember being asked to create as a student and the ways in which you think those experiences sort of set you up or didn’t to work right in the workplace. You mentioned being an English major, right?

Speaker:              Yes.

Speaker:              So what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to do?

Speaker:              I think it–you know I don’t remember so much about it –I remember you know English comp being–that that freshman English comp class being based on forming argumentative essays I think? You know in a pretty traditional paragraph format–not the five paragraphs essays that you’re used to in high school, but being able to organize and set up a paper in order to make a point. I think was the focus of that. And then as we got into more literature it was always based on analysis for the most part, so using that kind of you know here’s here’s my point , let’s prove it  sort of set up. That’s what I largely remember the English side being. I also was a psychology major as well.  And I think on that site it was more of a lot of analysis as well.  But also just kind of research based presentation of not facts but maybe a concept or an idea.

Speaker:              OK. Yeah. And how do you feel like those writing experiences prepared you for the kind of work you do now, if they did at all?

Speaker:              I’m sure they did in that I was probably able to kind of get a feel for my own writing.  And I was also able to get a feel for how fast I write. Sean always would make fun of me in college because you know we’d have a 20 page paper and I’d start it the night before and he’s like, basically clearly you just work well under pressure and you can’t plan you know worth a damn, which largely seems to still be true. So I think the reason that I can convert, you know, these articles pretty quickly is that I’ve kind of learned how to let go of that perfectionist stream, especially when the writing itself isn’t something that I’m truly connected to or that I feel so strongly about.

Speaker:              Yeah, yeah.

Speaker:              You know whereas like the personal pieces take a little bit more time because it’s so directly connected to me.

Speaker:              Right.  And that makes a lot of sense to me. Are there certain things that it would have been useful for you to learn or to do as a student to be even more prepared at this stage?

Speaker:              I always think that, you know, if I could go back to college now what would I focus on. But I really do find this online content world really really fascinating. I mean I know colleges now have started to gear towards that a little bit. Obviously when you know when we’re in school it wasn’t even a thing right. You know, people–I mean they like live journals, like that–you know, like nobody had blogs that wasn’t a thing, like social media didn’t exist. None of this was relevant. And so I don’t find that the education I had at any fault in not preparing me for the world. I don’t think anybody expected writing to have changed so quickly [inaudible]. You know, it’s really just–it’s been a whirlwind, if you look at it. I think now going forward schools can do a lot to, you know, point kids in the right direction because it seems as though even, you know, fields that are more scientific or anything–like when you’re publishing now you’re doing it online. You know you’re writing interest articles to gain, you know, funding because it draws people in and they feel connected to it and that’s how you get research money. Like all that stuff is so interrelated now that it’s become relevant in every field.

Speaker:              Right. Yeah, absolutely it has. That’s really interesting. Yeah, and I do feel like there’s some flexibility that we really should be teaching now even more so than the content because we have to assume that this writing will continue to evolve, right? Thinking about like how do we teach them about the writing world now but also how do we teach them to sort of evolve with that, which I think comes a little bit more inherently to some people, right, than than others.

Speaker:              Right. For sure.

Speaker:              So this is sort of a shift back to your current writing. Could you tell me a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?

Speaker:              What do you mean by that?

Speaker:              What–why does your writing matter? And what would be the effect of your writing succeeding or failing?

Speaker:              That’s hard because, you know, I feel like as a writer you always feel like you’re writing doesn’t matter.

[laughter]

You always feel like, clearly this is stupid and whey am I’m doing it?  I think it’s important –I think the personal work is important because it’s vulnerable and because it has the ability to connect to people and to make them feel less alone. And I think in that sense of parenting that’s very, very important. I think that informative articles are important because so many people rely on Google for information. And there’s been so much–quote unquote, I hate using this term–but fake news. You know that you kind of want to provide that little piece of reality and you know instead of fear-mongering and instead of using click bait headlines and things like that, you know just kind of reassure people that, hey you know this is the actuality of it, and you know yes you should talk to experts. But also here’s a little bit of a rundown say don’t freak out for the rest of the day.

Speaker:              Right. Right.

Speaker:              You know, I think that’s relevant  because it’s becoming–information is so widely spread now and a lot of times–you know, 85 percent of the times it’s incorrect . So it feels important in that sense. If the writing itself were to fail –I mean it fails in two ways it fails by not being important to the reader.  And it also fails in not being–or the reader not being able to reach it, and that you know that part of it lands on marketing and search engine option optimization and you know getting traffic to your website and things like that, which are everyday struggles for us.  But it also you know when an article falls flat, when it doesn’t get a lot of views and we know it’s good stuff it’s can be really upsetting because we know it’s not getting to the people that we need to get it to. And so it’s not helpful. You know, it doesn’t help that it’s out there. It has it can only help if the person who needs it is reading it.

Speaker:              That’s great. Yeah.  What is the most difficult thing about about writing in your specific position?

Speaker:              For me. It’s writing in a less academic  tone . Because I’ve done so much academic writing my entire education and most of my career , it’s really hard for me to be conversational in writing and that’s, you know, a lot of the comments that I get in terms of edits actually make this less stuffy? How can we make it less academic sounding, how can we make it sound less boring ? You know how can we make it seem like you’re talking to your friend? And I really struggle with that.

Speaker:              OK that’s great. That’s interesting.  You mentioned the feedback that you get from your editor. Other than that feedback , has anyone helped you with your writing in the workplace?

Speaker:              No.

Speaker:              How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer in this current sort of field, so maybe since you started freelancing till now?

Speaker:              I think a lot has been on my  own kind of , you know, transformation–my own side research and what I do to try to implement those things in my writing. But I really do  wish that I had somebody to , you know, kind of just develop me. But it’s you know like we were talking about before it’s –the people that are the higher ups in my –in our company, aren’t writers by profession. Or by background. And that can be  frustrating  because at some point it feels less professional than it should. But I think that’s also the nature of just being a part of a website like this.

Speaker:              What do you mean by–  Where–

Speaker:              Oh, I”m sorry. Go ahead.

Speaker:              No go ahead.

Speaker:              I was going to ask you , what do you mean by less professional than it should.

Speaker:              You know there’s still that part of me having  gone through an English degree, having gone through a master’s program, having worked with university writers for so long as a writing tutor. It –it doesn’t feel like writing a lot of the time. It doesn’t feel like the writing that you’re used to. You know, and that’s that has a lot to do with the fact that I resist change  in every corner. But it’s–you know, like, we were talking about the field of writing has changed so much in the last 10 years that  you kind of–and this is me speaking solely for myself here–but I judge people that don’t know how to write, in the sense of how I’ve learned. And in the sense of like education-based writing. You know, the girl who started our company is–she is excellent at being able to reach her audience she’s you know had a very successful personal blog, she has you know 50,000 Instagram followers and she’s grown the Every Girl loves websites , you know, to millions of page hits a month, but  for some reason I still  don’t feel like that’s  writing.

Speaker:              Right. That’s really really interesting to me. And that leads me to the next question which is, like,  I can see how you view the writing here. How do you think the organization as a whole values writing ?

Speaker:              I mean it’s definitely an  integral part of the website. They push out, you know, the Every Girl pushes out, I think four posts a day, and we do too at this point. We’re working on moving up to three. But it’s you know that’s all the content is writing–in social media too. So it’s extremely important. And they’re very, very effective  at it.

Speaker:              Right.

Speaker:              But it’s a totally different kind of writing than I’m used to. So you know I have trouble grasping that part of it. Like, you know it’s it’s very informal writing, I should say . It’s conversational, you know, there’s –you know, abbreviations and, and and you know little phrases that people, the kids nowadays  use. [laughter] But then, it’s like, you know, for me it’s like well can I take it as seriously as I take say the Times of the Atlantic or something like that? Like what –you know, what’s real and what’s better? And there is no better  really. It’s more in terms of you know are you able to write for your audience?

Speaker:              Right. That’s great. That’s a really interesting way to think about it.  And this is actually just our last set of questions so how did you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing in your current position, and would you say that you are a successful writer in your current position ?

Speaker:              As a student I think , you know, I solely went off of what my professors comments were and what my grades were in order to judge what the writing was and I was always pretty good at academic writing. This I find a lot harder . Would I consider myself successful? I think  maybe I’m, you know, maybe I’m at the beginning of the path where I will someday feel like that? But I think–I think I can be effective  in the writing that I’m doing. You know I do get comments from people that say that, you know, that the  article  was helpful to them or it meant a lot to them or they could relate. And I consider those things a measure of how successful it was .

 

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Management Analyst

Government & Military

ManagementAnalyst1_September2018 – 9_9_18, 10.37 AM.mp3

Q:                           Would you please state your job title and where you currently work.

A:                            Sure, so my title officially is Management Analyst One. But that’s just kind of like a generic title that I had to have. But what I really do is a project manager and technical writer and engagement leader for several projects And I worked for Land Development Services with Fairfax County government.

Q:                           And how long has it been since she graduated from college, from undergrad?

A:                            It has been 10 years.

Q:                           How long have you worked in your field?

A:                            Well I guess just one year really. A little over one year.

Q:                           Could you provide any brief description of your primary job functions.

A:                            Sure. I help review written documents. I help brainstorm and create documents as well. I help coordinate project… different people who are working together… project management. I help with product management so there’s a whole bunch different subject matter experts basically throughout Land Development Services and I’m like the non-technical person who helps all these technical people get connected and communicate and show up to meetings.

Q:                           Could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing.

A:                            Yeah like 90 percent probably.

Q:                           What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete?

A:                            Sure. Well so I usually am not the sole person writing the documents because it’s usually technical experts writing them and t hen I work alongside to help make the language better, clearer, etc. I edit afterwards but usually, technical bulletins and standard operating procedures, guidelines, manuals. I work on site code research and development. The specific division I’m working in. So we work on a lot of like code and policy language to make sure that you know it’s… we work with like the county attorney’s office to make sure that our language, when we update ordinances is legally sound language. Like ” shall” has been interpreted differently 10 different times over the past 10 years and so as that changes we have to adjust our mandatory language so “shall” becomes “must”.

Q:                           Who are the typical primary audiences and what are the typical primary purposes of those documents?

A:                            Absolutely so they all have different audiences but a lot of us a lot of the documents we’re working on are intended for the public and they’re available online to the public so we also have to make sure they’re accessible, which is another you know that’s like the final step before it published gets. But most of the people who actually use these documents though are developers or you know like architects and different land development firms. Primarily industry people and then also the people who work here use it to help determine whether a site plan is correct and whether or not it needs to be changed.

Q:                           So one of the purposes is to serve as a guide to the developer or to the folks reviewing? Are there other… what are the purposes for instance if it’s the public viewing these documents?

A:                            Sure. So we actually had a public forum recently at the Providence district center where a number of concerned citizens came out because w e were… one of my main projects and that w e were working on has this public facilities manual it’s a 700 page manual that is being completely you know… not completely revised but changed in a lot of ways. And they’re concerned that certain technical changes might impact for example the definition of a flood plain could could impact whether or not somebody gets flood insurance or not. You know, what kind of coverage they’re allowed to have. If something changes with the tree preservation ordinance of the tree chapter and it could determine whether or not they’re allowed to remove the tree from a certain part of their property. So those things can directly affect the public. But I mean only the public who are directly involved in like fixing up their land and coming in and working on stuff with the county would be necessarily be directly affected by that because a lot of county citizens have no idea that this even happens. I didn’t know before I started. So it’s really you know a lot of citizens who are deeply involved in the community.

Q:                           Okay perfect. Yeah. Could you walk me through the process for a specific project or even just the general type of project and including everything from sort of how that lands on your desk, what steps you take until it’s published or finished.

A:                            Sure. So I guess get to start with the public facilities manual, and what would be called the PFM. So the easier way saying over and over again… about a month into working here my boss Jan asked if I could just start doing some research for this project to find out what other public facilities manuals a t other jurisdictions look like you know and see if they have you know forwards and introduction and they how format their documents and if they have a list of definitions they have an index you know stuff like that. So I started doing research and then once that research was all put together she n noticed that I was kind of really into this project and so she asked me to start also coordinating with all of the project leads and trying to get all t heir input together. So we had these committees called technical. advisory committees They all did the direct edits initially to each of the different chapters, there’s 13 chapters. So that’s kind of the next step is we went to all these teams of subject matter experts doing the direct editing of the chapters that already existed. And then once they were done with that, myself and a couple other people who are leads on the project, sat down with each individual chapter’s subject matter experts and we went through each and every single it and decide whether or not it should stay or go or if it’s something we need to work on in the future. Whether we can do it now or if it has to be done or if it shouldn’t be done at all. So that took several months. And then after that, once we got those edits done we had to go to them and to get the edits that we had agreed to to get those vetted by both industry members so that we’re involving them, the public we went to them and we have shared those edits. We had a steering committee which was internal county staff who had kind of like a third set of eyes doing a quality check and what we had done…

Q:                           Who weren’t subject matter experts?

A:                            Exactly. So we had several different committees that looked at everything after the subject matter experts and u s had already agreed on edits and would suggest more edits would say no we can’t do that you know. So several different layers of vetting which led up to most recently we created a board package, which is all of these chapters coming towards the end of the project here getting ready to present to the Board of Supervisors, which is basically the last stop before the product is complete.

Q:                           Got it.

A:                            So it’s you know a year and a half to a year long process of making sure everything has been seen by the public and vetted by subject matter experts and vetted by the industry.

Q:                           That’s super complicated. That’s really interesting. This is a broad question: how did you know how to perform these types of tasks in this kind of writing?

A:                            That is a very good question. So I think a lot of it honestly came from being in the [Masters of Fine Arts program] and doing the fellowship part of it where I was you know helping in the Writing Center and helping when I was a teacher, you know that one-on-one experience of helping other people with their writing made it easier for me to sit down and figure out how we can help the subject matter experts with their writing. You know there were some technical subjects that I had no clue what they were talking about. So obviously for those, other folks were that to help direct that.

Q:                           Can you describe a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

A:                            Sure. When I first started working here I had never heard of a technical bulletin and I’d never heard of a standard operating procedure, I’ve never heard of… you know I ‘d never done any code writing or policy writing I thought “oh that’s only stuff that lawyers do. ” So that was a steep learning curve. For the first month I definitely didn’t know that I’d be able to make it, especially because on top of learning all these new types of writing I was also being thrown into the world of land development services that I didn’t even know existed.

Q:                           So what did you do to get up to speed w ere that there certain strategies you utilized to try and get your bearings?

A:                            I just read a lot. I read a lot of the standard operating procedures. I read a lot of the technical bulletins. I’ve studied how these documents have been made in the past and you know tried to find a consistent way for how they are written so that I could try to model that

Q:                           Who oversees your writing? Obviously there’s a lot of reviewers for certain projects. Is there someone who directly oversees the work that you do or does it depend on the project

A:                            I would say probably my immediate boss ends up being the final person to look at any documents that I do, but then there’s basically three people above me who usually end up being the final people to sign off. But I’d say my immediate boss is the one who definitely reads through everything, again whereas the other two whether they have the time, may or may not.

Q:                           Your immediate boss do you know her title?

A:                            I think she i s just the chief of the branch, which is site code research and development.

Q:                           And how do you think that she judges the success or quality of your work?

A:                            I mean I know for the most part she trusts that I know how to how to write well and you know I make sure that I provide really strong feedback, and if I don’t understand something I’m clear about that. So I think that adds to why she believes that what I say is correct

Q:                           So should I take from that that she also she doesn’t know the content, she’s not the subject matter expert in every area of course right?

A:                            Actually pretty she knows most of it.

Q:                           OK. But when you say “she trusts me, ” does that mean that if there’s some question about whether or not you put the research in or something like that, she would just sign off on it because she knows that you have?

A:                            Right and if she questions something like “Oh you made this change. Were you the one that directly thought this change  should happen or was the subject matter expert who actually. you were wrong? ” t hen she’ll be like let’s talk about this. We need to change that. So she will definitely question something if she knows that it’s not technically correct

Q:                           OK. I think that’s interesting. And this also of course will vary from project to project. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? This revised at PFM you said was like up to a year and a half, but I’m sure there’s a lot of variation in that.

A:                            Yeah. So it really depends on what the item is. When I was when I first started here I was just a technical writer and it was a part time position. And then I would often get board packages that other people had drafted and those usually need a turn around of like you needed to be done yesterday.

Q:                           OK.

A:                            So those close were very quick to turn around, but things like standard operating procedures where you know they’ve been doing it for years and years and years and they just now want to record it so that they can pass down that information in the future. Those don’t really have a timeline.

Q:                           OK.

A:                            So it really depends on what the document is.

Q:                           OK. And to clarify the standard operating procedures are for what procedures?

A:                            Sure. So those are internal procedures. You know like how to “how to write a standard operating procedure” is actually one of our standard operating procedures. It’s like an internal guideline.

Q:                           Gotcha. OK. OK. What kinds of writing you do remember being asked to create as an undergraduate student?

A:                            As an undergraduate student, I primarily remember being asked to write research essays.

Q:                           What did you? study

A:                            I studied English with an anthropology/sociology minor. So definitely not anything that I do now. The research part though is helpful, having learned those critical analysis and research skills for those essays is a applicable.

Q:                           Yeah, how do you see those skills translating the way you learned to do that for a literary essay or some other kind english essay into the kind of research you do know?

A:                            Well honestly even just figuring out how to enter and search terms correctly and how to judge sources correctly — those s kills I think directly apply to what I do now. I think it would apply across the board no matter what job you’re getting even if you’re not getting a writing job specifically. I think knowing how to figure out i f a sources is real or not. And you know how to search for those sources. Those are really important skills.

Q:                           Great. So you said the research element is one of the college writing experiences sort of prepared to w rite in the workplace. What other things, thinking back, would have been useful to set you up more easily for success in the workplace

A:                            Yeah I would say an internship like having that even be a mandatory requirement of a program, I think really would have helped me. When I was an undergrad, it was just kind of a word that was tossed around it wasn’t really anything that people thought you seriously had to do and since I didn’t have any money really, I couldn’t just say “Oh yeah I’m going to take my summer to go work for free somewhere when I could be making money. ” So that wasn’t even an option, but I ended up doing an internship when I was in grad school. My last semester because a lower smaller workload. And I think that honestly really was influential in learning more about how writing is done in the workplace.

Q:                           That’s interesting. W hat was the internship if you don’t mind me asking?

A:                            I worked with Split This Rock which is a nonprofit in D.C. for writing and social justice, and I helped them do a lot of different organizational stuff for their annual literary festival, or semi annual. So I think that really helped me kind of figure out how to do more formal writing. I had to communicate to a lot of different organizations to try to plan the festival.

Q:                           What is at stake in your writing here

A:                            What is at stake. Well if for example the code writing, if something ends up being written incorrectly and going all the way through the board, it could be a legal matter that we could be sued over. So it’s pretty, can be pretty serious.

Q:                           Yeah absolutely. I mean is there anything else at stake when you think about the writing that you do here?

A:                            Not too much else. Yeah I think that’s the main thing.

Q:                           What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing either in this field or in your specific position?

A:                            Sure. The most difficult thing. I would say the most difficult thing is listening, closely listening because I’m not a technical expert at all in this field. These are all engineers that I’m working with who have years and years of experience. And when they talk about things they are using jargon, using acronyms that I for the most part have no idea what they are. And if you don’t understand something you do I have to stop sometimes and say “What is that? What are you talking about? ” because if I’m going to write about it, I really need to know what you’re talking about. So that I’d say is the most difficult thing, is really just kind of trying to figure out what I’m writing.

Q:                           How did you learn… like that’s a really specific skill to be able to take technical expertise from someone else, not even from yourself and to translate it into some other form. How did you develop that skill??

A:                            ? Well? so my undergrad I went to as a small liberal arts private school heavily focused on building critical analysis skills. I think that definitely is why I’m able to take these ideas that I learned nothing about previously and can kind of break it down into layman’s terms to understand what is being communicated.

Q:                           OK. Has anyone here in your current position helped you with your writing formally or informally?

A:                            Yes so actually the county attorney who we’ve been working on with this project held a course for code writing. That was very helpful and insightful to kind of see how you can turn 347 word sentence, which is out there, and you know try and break it up at least until a sentence with subsections, use formatting maybe to try to make it more legible or even cut back some of those words because they’re just extraneous and make it something more concise. So he was very helpful in that aspect because you know legal writing can be just like staring at a brick and there’s writing on the brick but you really can’t see it because there’s just so much going on.

Q:                           How do you believe evolved or improved as a writer over your career?

A:                            Well I think I’ve improved significantly actually just in the past year. I had never really used writing guides before. I mean other than you know the MLA guide to make sure my references are correct or something. I never really use any reference guides actively before and now I have the AP Stylebook and I got the Gregg Reference manual is the one that the county requires.

Q:                           Is it mostly for like government employee type writers or not necessarily?

A:                            Not necessarily. I don’t know who chose that one, but that’s the one we use. So definitely using those has been insightful and my grammar has always been ok but it’s never been 100 percent. But what this job has taught me to do is like if I don’t know whether something’s correct and it sounds wrong, I take the time to like look it up and make sure what I’m doing is correct. And as a result I’ve learned a lot more about how to write well.

Q:                           Did you have experience editing before this position?

A:                            I mean I was the poetry editor [a literary. journal] But poetry doesn’t really use the same sort of.

Q:                           To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization and or in local government as a whole?

A:                            Well so part of the reason why there is no technical writer position that I could be titled as, is because there are no technical writers in the government really. They had to create these positions and title it something else because there was no position for that, which I found interesting because I think you probably need that. So but this was created just a few years ago. It’s still kind of developing. But our group we work in, there is another technical writer, who filled my position when I got full time, so the two of us work now in this branch we’re very supported. We basically, there’s 300 or so engineers in this department and all of them are able to send us anything at any time. So we’re definitely utilized and appreciated because there are only like 3 humanities majors in the entire department. So yeah I didn’t know that it would be like as supportive as it is but it’s an incredibly supportive. Like [supervisor] brags to people that she has writers in her branch.

Q:                           Our last set of questions: How did you define successful training as a student versus successful writing here, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

A:                            Well I guess I always thought that I was a strong writer. But I suppose I never knew exactly how those skills were going to translate into real life. And my writing just for myself in the academic world, it kind of felt that way, whereas here I know that I’m writing for something much larger that actually impacts people’s lives.

Q:                           And so how did you define successful writing as an undergraduate student versus how do you define writing here?

A:                            I mean there were just two completely different kinds of writing between undergrad and what I’m doing now. It’s kind of hard to compare the two. I guess the successful writing that I do here, I have direct approval from somebody. I mean I guess I got that too in undergrad when I got my grades. But I mean it really is mostly I’m the one who holds myself accountable more than other folks because you know [ supervisor] like I said, trusts that I’m getting the actual like editorial part correct. If it’s a technical thing she’ll correct me, but for the most part you know I have to hold myself accountable for making sure I take the time and read the manual if I don’t think something is right you know. So I guess that might be my answer, I think.

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Physician Assistant, Neurosurgery

Sciences

P

SPEAKER: Would you please state your job title and the type of organization where you currently work?

SPEAKER: My job title as a physician assistant in neurosurgery and I work in a hospital.

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

SPEAKER: I graduated from undergrad in 2008, so ten years, wow.

SPEAKER: Okay. And how long has it been that you’ve been working in your current field?

SPEAKER: I’ve been working in my current field since 2014, so about four four years now.

SPEAKER: Okay. And could you provide just sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

SPEAKER: Yeah. Some of my primary job functions are to see patients when they first come into a hospital as a consult or directly. They are trauma patients so patients that have had head injuries, spine injuries, or spinal cord compression. I also take care of patients in the ICU, either before or after surgery, or to manage them medically, and also function in the operating room as a first assist to surgeons, and I help in discharging patients if they have had a complete hospital course.

SPEAKER: Okay, excellent. Could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing of any kind?

SPEAKER: I would say that writing takes I’m going to say maybe 30 to 40 percent of my job. Documentation is pretty important in medicine.

SPEAKER: Oh great. What forms are types of writing does the documentation usually take?

SPEAKER: They are electronic, typed consultation notes or history and physicals. Also daily progress notes, so documenting events that have happened for the patient, anything pertinent, and physical exams. And for OR procedures, brief summary of the procedure itself.

SPEAKER: Okay. And who are the primary audiences for those?

SPEAKER: Primary audiences would be medical billing and coding specialists, hospital administration, other services – so for example, a medicine service – if we are seeing one of their patients, or other services and specialties, so other doctors, residents, PAs and nurse practitioners,

SPEAKER: I see. And the purposes it sounds like could range from anything from billing to just sort of like, what would other purposes be?

SPEAKER: The biggest thing is probably going to be documentation and billing for the hospital, and just as what is legally required in healthcare. But other purposes would be for helping the patient or their families themselves, so things like filling out sick leave or FMLA paperwork, disability paperwork. And then the other biggest is for social workers who are able to read our notes, so that can help them in giving patients support for services outside of the hospital for things like rehab or counseling.

SPEAKER: Okay I see. And could you just tell me a little bit about like the form that that documentation takes? How long are they typically, what are they typically include? How do you sort of approach writing them?

SPEAKER: Yeah. Most of our writing is actually in template form. So it doesn’t really take too much time, and most documentation will include a summary of the patient themselves and their background, specifically their past medical history and things that are pertinent to their hospital stay – a hospital course meaning day-to-day, if the patient has had multiple procedures or surgeries or events like low blood pressure. My writing is kind of like a concise but flow of a course of a hospital stay. They will also include a physical exam, so my exam of the patient and a plan. So plans for all of the diagnoses that the patient has, and documentation that my attendings and surgeons have agreed to plans that I’m making.

SPEAKER: I see. That’s very helpful. When it comes to writing those, is there– you know, we tend to think about writing often as having a process in terms of planning, writing, and then getting feedback or revising, but I would imagine this is sort of a one and done writing situation? You sit down to write it, you write it, and then it’s completed. Is that a fair assessment?

SPEAKER: Yeah just because we are required to document everything that we do and see. But at the same time every day we’re doing and seeing so much, so the writing for me is something that I do as quickly as I can. So it usually takes on a pretty specific flow. I always have it in my mind that I’m going to say like, for example, you know, “Patient is a such and such year old male or female, with this past medical history, who is coming to the hospital for, ” and then I’ll get into my story of the patient’s course.

SPEAKER: Gotcha,. okay So is it fair to say that you’re creating sort of – you’re writing the story, you used that actual word – even though is that a technical word, is that just a word that you use?

SPEAKER: It’s just a word I use. But what we actually call it is HPI – a history and present physical of the patient.

SPEAKER: Gotcha, okay. And how did you know how to perform these types of writing?

SPEAKER: It came when I was in grad school. So when I was training to be a physician assistant, we started to learn how to write these things, and then this is also something that if you were to read out loud, is also the way that we would talk to colleagues in presenting the patient.

SPEAKER: Oh interesting. So it really does translate exactly how you would say you would write it.

SPEAKER: Yes exactly.

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

SPEAKER: Probably in the very beginning, like when I was a student and doing my rotations, and also in the first month or two of my first job. Only because, you know, it was new, and it is a pretty specific style of writing and you’re using so much medical terminology And so sometimes it’s actually a little difficult, if I was to go and talk to a patient’s family I would have to think about that note and translate that into everyday terms. But this writing, I think when you’re first learning in the medical field, you’re having to use such specific language. So that’s probably the time that it was most challenging.

SPEAKER: That’s interesting, yeah. Was there anything that you did to specifically overcome those challenges, actual strategies or steps that you took to improve?

SPEAKER: Yeah I did that when I was a student where I would practice what I was going to say to whoever was training me. And again that would translate from my notes. So I would take that time to write down what I wanted to say aloud in presenting my patient and then I would turn around and be able to write that down as my note. So practicing really helped in that.

SPEAKER: Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense. Does anybody oversee your writing?

SPEAKER: At this point no, no one oversees my writing but my surgeons do co-sign my note but they also, if they feel they need to, they will write something else in the note but never a change to what I’ve written. They would write something at the end for example to say you know, “I’ve seen and examined this patient and agree with the physician assistant’s. assessment Additionally patients said, ‘X Y and Z’ to me personally and for that reason I would also do this as a plan. ” But I think my writing was more so overseen when I was in grad school where we would have to write out example HPI and notes on patients and it would be graded.

SPEAKER: I okay se, e, okay. And was the feedback that you were getting in any way about writing style, or was it more about the content that was in there?

SPEAKER: It was I think both. It would be about content and style. So having something very long- winded is not very accepted in medicine just because again, everybody’s you know trying to also see their patients face to face, or do procedures, or be in the operating room. So sometimes it’s actually a little frustrating to have the requirement to write everything down a certain way, so I think pairing things down is the biggest thing that’s emphasized of how do you make this as brief as possible but still having as much information as possible.

SPEAKER: Got it. How do you do that? That seems extremely challenging with such technical writing.

SPEAKER: Yeah the way that we do it in medicine is for example, if you have a patient that’s there and they’re seen for a gunshot wound to the head, you would write out their past medical history so for example to say you know, “Patient is such and such year old female with a past medical history of hyperthyroidism, six weeks pregnant, diabetes, hypertension. ” And then you would get into your specific story, so how the patient was injured, how they appeared when they came in, what their blood pressure was, and then get right into a plan. But then if you were to see that patient, you know, five days later, you’d have a little bit of leeway and you can just touch very, very briefly on what brought the patient in. So at that time you wouldn’t say “Patient came in at such and such time, ” in this note you would say, “It’s been hospital day five since this happened and here’s what’s happened since. “

SPEAKER: I see, I see, okay. That’s really interesting. And I’m just thinking about like, if you’re writing these notes as someone is in there with a gunshot wound that puts a certain added pressure I would imagine!

SPEAKER: Yeah. So that goes back to, you know, we do have to see patients, you know, face to face and you’re spending time with them, sometimes every hour, to make sure that they’re doing the same things that they were doing an hour ago. Like for example, this patient was talking an hour ago and now they’re not. So what’s changed? What do I have to do? Is something happening in the brain? And then of course you do have to remember to go back and write that down, so that the hospital knows, that other people that may get involved in in the care know that these were the events that happened.

SPEAKER: I see. I see. And how long do you typically take to write up one of these notes?

SPEAKER: When I first started, that would take much longer so I would say, I would think about this for you know 15 minutes, 20 minutes, take maybe five or so to write it down. Now it sounds a little surprising, but you know you might just kind of write down little blurbs on a piece of paper for when you get to a computer. So sometimes it doesn’t take as much thought just because it’s become muscle memory and it would take maybe two minutes to write the actual note.

SPEAKER: Gotcha. Okay, okay. When you think back – this asks you to sort of look way back to undergrad – when you think back to the kinds of writing you were asked to do, what kind of writing were you asked to create as a student? And do you think that those college writing experiences prepared you at all to do the kind of work that you do now?

SPEAKER: Yeah. In college, you know, there was different kinds of notes based on what subject matter. So one of the things for me since I was a biology major was doing lab reports, and in those, the writing, you know, you have to have your grammar correct spelling etcetera, which I think is kind of lost now in medicine I think that if you see somebody misspelling something you just think, “Oh this was probably, they were just very busy had to get to another patient. ” And in the other sense, you know, you really are focusing on the grammar and you know, how your sentence flow is going more in college. And I think it was kind of taught to me after is, “No. Do the opposite. ” You know, get it as clipped and as fast as you can. So that is probably a challenge now, and I think to have been better prepared, maybe to have an assignment where you are having to be as concise as you can be with still providing as much information as possible, would have probably been helpful in undergrad.

SPEAKER: That’s really interesting. Going back to this, you mentioned – it’s super interesting to me – this idea that in a medical note now in documentation, if there’s a misspelled word or some sort of grammar issue it’s really unimportant because it’s assumed that it’s because of a time constraint. Could you talk to just a little bit more about that?

SPEAKER: Yeah I think, well not just that, but in medicine I think, you know, you’re seeing doctors or physician assistants etcetera writing notes, and I think that, at least for me, the assumption is that this person is definitely worthy of their credentials, so if they misspell something it’s not as detrimental as say, something misspelled on a resume, where, you know, you’re actually still trying to prove yourself and compete for a job or a position. And in medicine, we are all already established and we’re already doing our job, and to be honest sometimes medical terminology can, you know, the spelling and the words can be a little complicated. So I think we all give each other a little bit of leeway when it comes to spelling and grammar in those senses. I personally like to have my notes and everything spelled correctly, but I do see it in other people, and I also think it comes with just the diversity in medicine. There’s a lot of providers that have trained outside of the United States and come here to do their residencies or trainings, and then eventually establish themselves to work. So English is not always the first language for everyone in medicine. So I think that plays a little bit into it, and I think that most of us that are in the hospital setting, we know that and it’s just something that we see.

SPEAKER: That is fascinating. Yeah that’s great. Thank you for that explanation. Yeah. Could you talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing?

SPEAKER: Yeah. So all of us in medicine think, “Okay can our note stand up in court? ” Because if you don’t write it down, you can’t say that it happened. And you know, if you do write something down you cannot erase it, if that makes sense. So medical legal is a big thing especially in the area that I practice in this city, it’s very litigious is what, you know, kind of the common knowledge is. So again, like if you have a patient that had some kind of an event it involved an ICU and nursing there, and something that is missed, things like that, you always have to document and chronicle what happened the way that you saw it so that it’s almost as if to say, “this is my side of the story, ” for something like being in court. So that’s something that’s always kind of looming as well.

SPEAKER: Yeah, absolutely. This is my own ignorance, I should know this b ut – let’s say there is some issue and there’s a lawsuit. Do you get sued or does the hospital get sued?

SPEAKER: It depends. I think most commonly it’s the hospital or the organization that you’re with. But there are times where it would be a specific doctor that is named. Usually I have not seen anywhere where a specific nurse or a specific physician assistant etcetera is being sued, but there are times where they are named as a witness or a defendant or something.

SPEAKER: Gotcha. Okay. What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your specific position?

SPEAKER: That’s a good question. I think the most difficult is also the most fun part at least for me, is just being able to shape and write that story of why your patient is here or why you were called to see the patient in a concise and informative way.

SPEAKER: Yeah, how do you do that? I mean because it’s one of those things – I was really interested earlier to hear you use the word story because of course I think of medical writing as so incredibly technical – but of course after hearing you describe it, you’re telling the narrative of what happened So are there certain strategies or sort of ways of thinking that you approach writing that, and why do you think it’s fun for you?

SPEAKER: Yeah I think the way that I approach it is, how do I shape his story into something that’s going to catch someone’s attention? So most of us in medicine, like if I get a call of a consult to say, “Hey this patient has some kind of an issue and it looks like they have a fracture in a bone near the ear, ” I’m immediately checked out thinking, “Why are you calling a neurosurgeon for this? We don’t take care of this. I’m not interested. ” So same thing if I’m trying to talk to a medicine doctor. I’m trying to frame my note that would be appealing to them to say, “Hey this is exactly why we need you, and this is why we hope that you’re going to accept our patient, ” because there is still, you know, some procedure in the hospital involves once a surgical problem is managed and taken care of, you want to transfer your patient to a doctor that can better take care of their medical needs, things that I don’t really manage myself. So you want to try to kind of frame the patient of, “Oh this is a really interesting medical patient now that we’re done with the surgical part of things. ” So having to write something in a way that’s going to make it relevant to other people and catch their attention is a big challenge in writing and I think it’s a challenge that’s kind of fun to try to do.

SPEAKER: That’s fascinating. Yeah I never thought about it like that. So you’re sort of trying tell the story persuasively on behalf of your patients so that they get the best care.

SPEAKER: Yeah exactly.

SPEAKER: But you’re also sort of trying to appeal to these doctors because of course I guess what you’re saying is everybody gets bored, just like any other job at some point. Like Y you want something interesting.

SPEAKER: Like Y you want something interesting. eah I think bored too, but also protective of their workload because, you know, I’m maybe seeing 30 patients on my service and then I’m saying, “Oh my god, ” I’m having five other people try to give me other patients so I’m thinking, “Okay, do I really want this patient that’s not at all really relevant to me? Or do I want the ones that are specifically neurosurgery? Yes I can do something to help you, ” that kind of thing.

SPEAKER: That’s great. That’s really fascinating. Has anyone helped you formally or informally with your actual writing since you’ve been there?

SPEAKER: Yeah I want to say that, you know, just starting a new job at a new specialty in the beginning while I was training, I would write my notes and then of course ask people, “Hey does this look okay? ” And they would tell me things more informally of “Oh, you always want to mention this in a physical exam because in neurosurgery, this is what’s important and here’s why.

SPEAKER: Yeah that’s great. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer if at all over the course of your career?

SPEAKER: I definitely think there has been improvement, especially from, you know, training to now, because not only can I write what I need to and have it be relevant and appropriate, but I can also then take what I’ve written and say it out loud to somebody to like collaborate and treat a patient. And I think that’s definitely improved since I started.

SPEAKER: Okay. And just a couple more questions – to what extent do you think writing is valued in this organization specifically, or in your field sort of as a whole?

SPEAKER: I think writing is valued in the sense that, you know, of course all hospitals or clinics etcetera you need to document things. But I think writing is valued in the sense that every medical provider is you know, going around seeing different patients. So when you have a note that is concise, well written, it flows properly, and it really is relevant to the patient and their illness, that’s pretty impressive in our fiel. So if I read a note that’s very relevant and you know, gives me all the information that I need, I tend to say, “Oh this is like a great note, ” versus, “Oh I’ve read this note but things don’t add up. Let me go dig through the patient’s files and charts and their note from two years ago that has something relevant in that note but wasn’t included in today’s note, ” that I think is what’s emphasized a lot in our field.

SPEAKER: Okay that makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And the last little set of questions – so first, how would you define successful writing where you are now as opposed to when you were a student?

SPEAKER: Yeah I think successful writing, it just goes back to being able to write exactly the way that you would speak it and vice versa. And I think in other fields I do acknowledge that it takes so much more thought. But in medicine a lot of it is muscle memory and flow and template, and you write things the exact same way, it just differs from patient to patient.

SPEAKER: Yeah right. And it seems like – I’m just sort of thinking out loud but – I think in a lot of different fields writing from a template, we start to think that oh the writing feels stale or it’s uninventive but here it’s like it’s necessary that you follow the same format, right?

SPEAKER: Exactly. Yeah it does really matter to have things in the same format because it’s, you know, probably at a level above my head. It’s been talked about and formulated and then dispersed out to “Hey use these kinds of templates, it gives us what we need. “

SPEAKER: Right, right. And then the last question – would you say you are a successful writer at work?

SPEAKER: Yeah I would say I’m a successful writer at work. I do think it could still get better obviously, as I become a better provider and have that experience. But I do think that I’m successful in my writing.

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Software Developer

Computers & Technology, uncategorized

1:06

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

A: Wow. Um, so I am a senior principal engineer and senior director of visualization solutions at Intel corporation. Oh, and it’s been–

Q: Ballpark’s fine.

A: Thirty five years.


Q: Okay, and of that time, how long have you been in your current field?

A: Um, interesting how you would say that. Probably– depends on what you mean by current field, but in software development and whatever, whole time.

Q: Whole time? Great, thank you. Can you provide a brief description of what your primary job functions are?

A: So I manage a team of engineers, software developers, who develop graphics rendering and visualization software used mainly for two purposes: one is to make animated movies and special visual effects using a technique called ray tracing, which is algorithmically something, a compute task that models the physics of light, so you can get photorealistic things out of it, and secondly, scientific visualization used on high-performance computing supercomputers across the world for visualizing and seeing 3D models of processes and effects and cosmology and the weather and all that stuff. So the two things are kind of related, in particular in that in the last three/four years the ray tracing side of things, the need to actually see these processes more like a human sees photographs ever has actually come about, and it gives more insight into the data, like fibers attaching to a molecule, or things like that. So while it probably makes sense in the movies, because you’re trying to match, it actually makes a ton of sense in scientific vis–

Q: So this has applications in all kinds of different disciplines then?


A: It actually does. Gaming companies use our software, Dreamworks, Pixar, Illumination use it for making their movies, but I also work with Stephen Hawking’s team to watch black holes collide – things you can’t physically see but know physically are happening in the universe.

Q: Wow that’s incredible. Could you estimate, basically in an average week, what percentage of your job requires you to write? So zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50, 50 to 75, or 75 to 100?

A: I’m probably not going to use the right one; it’s right around 50 percent. Actually, most of the time I spend writing. So, it’s 50 to 75 I would say.

Q: Okay, great, excellent. What forms or types of writing are you most often asked to complete? Any particular modes or audiences, for example memos, emails, reports, proposals, those kinds of things?

A: Right. Yeah, audiences are varied, from communicating more deeply what I just told you, so lots of Powerpoint but with writing and visuals. And the audience can be technical sales people at Intel, it can be NASA Goddard, who I just visited [chuckle], so it can be NASA large supercomputing centers, or these same companies I talked about, Dreamworks, things like that. Internally also, I have a foot in the technology and the business end of what we do, so senior management’s VPs at Intel, present to them at well.

Q: Sure. So when you’re talking say, specifically or writing to sales folks at Intel, are you basically trying to express to them how they can market this technology, or what’s–?

A: Yes, that, and also, there’s one piece of thing about the technology that we do that is non-intuitive, which is, we do all our great visualization and everything on the processor, not a graphics processing unit or a GPU. So everybody thinks GPUs are by far the best thing for visual processing, but for the type of processing we do, they are not, the Intel CPU is. So we help enable Intel products that are– now Intel has GPUs, but they’re normally not very powerful or not in very powerful processors, from my perspective – I’m not saying Intel processors aren’t powerful – I’m in the data center group, so where your computer there might have two or four cores, sometimes if your boss will upgrade you, you might get six cores, I work with computers with 56 cores, and the technology that we use does require that hard performance to get that quality and the visual effect because as I said, we are essentially doing physics processing, and then turning it into a visual as well.

Q: And so then, and again, you don’t have to go into any details with your meeting with NASA, but when you are meeting with an organization like that, is that similarly sort of sales focused, in the sense that you’re trying to get them to use or participate in a certain process, or is it more informational in that they’re after you to help explain processes?

A: It’s always a little of both. I think again, with my technology, because of that non-intuitiveness– so I will tell you a little bit about my NASA visit.

Q: Sure, whatever you’re comfortable with.

A: There’s multiple NASA major sites, this one’s here in the Washington area, NASA Goddard it’s called. There’s also one called NASA Ames, right out in San Francisco area. NASA Ames completely uses our technology up and down. I was showing the NASA Goddard people what the NASA Ames was doing with our technology. The NASA Goddard people hadn’t heard of our technology, I was introducing it to them for the first time, while NASA Ames had used it for four years, five years, six years, something like that, heavily. So I was educating that their own organization used it, but in a sense selling as well, to say like, “Hey, you know, maybe you guys could benefit like the other guys do.” There’s all these benefits to it. And as a more engineering-focused person, I’m not going to sell them a bill of goods or anything, I’m just going to tell them, “This is how it works, this is why I think it’s good, these are the pieces of how you could use your system with this.” So it’s education with a sales twist I guess. You’re trying to get somebody to understand that you’ve maybe got the greatest thing since sliced bread, but maybe they need to see the sliced bread, you know, maybe they’re used to the other. So it’s a little bit of both whenever I’m talking to anyone.

Q: Sure. Great, that’s really helpful. So, we’ve maybe covered a little bit of this but, and maybe you can use the same example if you’d like, but could you walk us through the process of maybe one specific recent project that you’ve had, kind of going from the time that either assignments are given to you, or the assignment is sort of formulated, what kind of preparation you do, what kind of steps you take in your writing to see the project through to completion?

A: Okay. Well there’s– one of the reasons, so I, I mean whether this is recorded or not is fine, do you want to talk about the books I’ve written, or do you want to focus on what I do day to– you know, are you going to jump to the books, or do you want me to introduce those to you?

Q: Sure, if you’d like to, yeah.

A: Okay. So because the process of the books that I’ve been involved in writing, to me was really interesting, and also very, very detailed. While the content was detailed, the actual process of making sure that that book came out was– one, I have a writing partner, James Rinders, who we hope joins you, and James had written books before, so that was very helpful to me. And then once I understood his background and his perspective, that’s basically a huge learning process, but we mapped out everything. We would sit down, write a bunch of stuff down, you know, white boards, all that kind of stuff. But then we would turn it into an Excel spreadsheet, that– the process of writing a book, for me, after years and years of I think pretty successful software development in a variety of fields, was the most detailed – not the writing part – the saying, “this has to be done by here,” because we’re talking 20-25 chapters, 600-800 page book, deeply technical, but the writing part was close to the easiest. I mean, you would get writers block and all that stuff, but at other times you would just flow and be able to do it. And that was also challenging and enlightening, you wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and then we would share it back and forth. But to me, the thing was the de– was so interesting and unexpected, was the level of detail that we had to go through. Like, if you’re not done on this day, and we were aligning, most of our books were aligned to the release of an Intel product. So we were pre-writing it, and getting the product– so we were writing stuff about pre-launch products– if you don’t know how people build processors and everything, there’s a thing called a stepping, and almost always there’s at least two steps, if not three or four. And by stepping, we mean like, we build one, or we build 100, put them in computers, and try to make them work. And then you find out if there’s a problem, if there’s a performance problem, for high-performance computing, performance is everything, right? So anyway, we were in this process of dealing with the fact that we had a pre-production product that we were trying to write the production manual for. Not really manual, but the production, sort of a technical English version of how to use this thing, and then were learning how to use it as we did it. But the, as I said, so this was all aligned with, “well, product will launch here, we need the book to launch here,” and the detail behind that was really something. We met every week, we met for an hour, hour and a half, just going over the spreadsheet, not writing.

Q: Sounds like a ton of project management.

A: Exactly. Project management up the you know what. We used Excel, I mean Excel was perfect for what we wanted to do. But we would end up sheet after sheet, and we’re here, and then a couple of times, we had other collaborators, we were more editors. So we did two books that were a collective, and managing all those people, one book we had 60 some odd contributors, like multiple per chapter, because of their different expertise, and getting everything from, “well we want to put all your pictures in the thing,” we had to actually program manage getting a headshot for everybody. So it’s very rewarding, but if you’re going to approach doing a book, any kind of book, but in the case of a technical book where you would think, “Well, this person’s a guru, they’re just going to write it, and maybe they need an editor to help them write it,”– interestingly, we both were pretty good at English, I had a Catholic upbringing, all that stuff. So we did have editors who helped us, but they were more asking us questions like, “Should you say it this way or that way?” But anyway, all those books were a project similar in that vein. So I found that really personally interesting when I engaged in the writing. Now in the daily writing of like emails or preparing Powerpoint slides or whatever, the key thing is to think about the message that you’re trying to send. And I don’t always do this, I’m not perfect at it. Often in this hustle-bustle engineering world, you’re trying to get stuff out the door and meet customer demands and all this kind of stuff, sometimes you forget that, and it’s not that you get in trouble, it’s that you end up in a thread back and forth, like, “Oh do you mean this or do you mean that? Do you mean this, do you mean that?” So but for peers, executives, and again, like NASA or whatever, you really have to think about, “What do I want the result to be?” and then work from there. Often you just say, “Oh I know everything about this,” and you just start writing, you think about the education part, but really in the end, if you walk out the door, are they going to forget everything? Usually it’s the classic, leave them with one, two, or three call-to-actions, or just, “I hope you got this.” So that’s one, this is not me, but a manager that I had who’s actually a good friend as well says, “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” [laughter].

Q: That’s perfect [laughter]. That’s perfect.

A: And that’s a good way, you know, it’s not always every time the right way, but think if that is what you need to do, yeah.

Q: So it sounds like you have a lot of diverse writing experiences. So in the book writing world, when you’re doing this heavy collaboration and project management, and then in your sort of managerial role, when you’re kind of maybe giving directives or sort of setting the agenda, do you find that you prefer collaborative writing versus like, when you get to be the point person? Or do you see similarities or stark differences between when you’re in that sort of collaborative author mode, versus when you’re kind of in control of–

A: Yeah, I think there’s actually differences, yeah, I think, yeah, your role of the moment, right? Sometimes, you know, as a manager or technical leader or whatever, you do need the combination of listening to all the inputs but making a decision. Or you’ve already heard all the inputs and something new comes in and you know what to do. And you’re always balancing a sense of urgency with a sense of correctness. If you can get them both, sense of urgency and correct, usually you should go for it, right? Or at least move the ball forward, if it were, and you know, beg forgiveness later. Sometimes you have to do that. Other times it’s the worst thing to do. You have to listen and collaborate. On any kind of book paper – the other thing that my team does is academic papers, even though we’re a corporation, we do the equivalent of academic papers, we submit them to conferences, all that kind of stuff – and those are always, I haven’t seen one paper from my group that didn’t have at least two people, they’re almost never individual, and they like it that way. With a book, I think I possibly could write one myself now, but I still, just, I happened to get a collaborator who we really, we both thought alike, but we thought differently enough that we could you know, finish each other’s sentences, which sometimes you have to do in a book. And if it’s technical/engineering oriented, you basically always need someone to check your work. You know, always, if you want to be credible, it has o look credible, and you can just [speaker makes sound effect 17:06] fly it out there. So it really depends on the circumstances, I would say lean toward collaboration more. When I work with my team and everything, I don’t consider myself a dictator, I get all the input and everything. Now I sometimes drive them to do stuff, but it’s based on what they’ve done already, so usually they agree with me when I like pick a particular project or whatever. So for instance, the annual supercomputing conference is coming up in Dallas in November, and since we’re so visual, our software and everything, it’s great for demos, it’s great for in the booth, and you can show real live stuff. I tend to listen– most cases we try to get external partners, like the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which an NSF supercomputer, Argonne National Laboratory is going to partner with us, and we use their data and stuff. But one thing is, it’s one, hard to actually get agreement, to use that data, scientific data sometimes is held close, and then it’s brought out to the public, so we’re kind of in there. I often suggest, like we’re going to do one of these, you know, the structure of the demo, how the booth’s going to look I often do myself, but then, and say like, “Hey, you know, we’re going to do this,” but then I spread it among the team members to shepherd it to the end, so.

Q: Interesting. So, this kind of brings us luckily to our next question. You talked about how early on, you know, if you think of like, you know,  tapping a guru to write a technical book, you think it might kind of be easy because they have obviously the knowledge base and the technical skill, but you’ve also detailed like how there’s so much more that goes into actually writing than just having the knowledge base, so how did you know how to do the kinds of writing that you’re doing? It’s obvious that you have obviously the technical skill and experience, but how did you know how to then be able write about that stuff in a way that’s effective for your audience and with your collaborators?

A: Well, I mean, I reach back a little to my, you know, education kind of forced, at least the Catholic schools are known for that. I don’t want to necessarily say that public schools aren’t or whatever, but that focus in the end was the right thing, you know, for me. You really end up kind of communicating in various ways, a lot through writing. And having that confidence in writing I actually think is extremely important to get up in front of an audience and speak, which I now do fairly regularly, which I was horrible at at first. Even you know, but, kind of recognizing the key things in the writing, you know, the plot, whatever the, I guess the messaging is the plot, you know, that kind of thing. So you still kind of, you know, if you engage in that educational form, you have a start, but I do think you have to branch out from just– you’re forced these days to branch out into like I said, like a technical paper, you know, as you get in master’s or whatever you’re now writing. You know, whether you’re a biology PhD like my son is – he’s a writer/editor, he does all this similar stuff – because if you can’t communicate your knowledge, you’re basically going to be locked in– it’s fine if you’re a super mathematician– I remember one time I was with a different company – I won’t say any specifics, – but we were going to hire a math guru, and we talked to him and we just said, “If we hire him we’re going to just shove him in a room, and give him formulas,” and you know, write down what he wanted to do. But he was not going to communicate anything, we would have had to communicate for him. So there are people who are very, very good, very [inaudible 21:22] but in the end, you’re going to have to tell somebody what you did in order to get a raise [chuckle] even, or to keep your job. But from that standpoint, you know, there’s just a lot of experience. Some of it’s trial and error, some of it’s like, “Oh, you’re a new manager,” whatever, I’ve been doing it for a while, but when you first go into management, you actually don’t realize how much writing you’re going to have to do, and communicating you’re going to have to do. You kind of say like, “Okay, hopefully it’s not the Peter principle, right?” But you need to think about that, you know, what’s the message? Who am I communicating to? Who’s the audience? All that stuff is extremely important and extremely easy to forget.

Q: Excellent. Again, brings us to our next point. Can you think of a time, maybe early in your career, where you felt unprepared as a writer at work? Is there a kind of task or skill that you do in your current job that maybe you hadn’t been asked to do before, or you didn’t feel confident in?

A: Oh, I think I would say, again I think a lot of people don’t realize this as writing, but translating words– I’m kind of verbal, and I’m somewhat verbal in my writing, I’m not as terse as I should be, it’s one of the little management criticisms I get. Which meant, taking your knowledge and putting it tersely on a Powerpoint slide was, so when I– this is only the last ten years, I joined Intel ten years ago. And I was mostly used to face-to-face conversational stuff, the occasional – I don’t know if you call it memo – you know, emails, basically emailed memos, basically where you know, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, here’s the status.” You know, status reports, stuff like that, where the detail is needed, you know, you could go a little crazy, the occasional trip report, that kind of thing. But when I had to, I was like, “I can’t do it.” I took this job, it was meant to be sort of a communication-oriented job, and the one thing in the whole interview process and everything they failed to mention was, all our writing, all our communication, almost everything is with Microsoft Powerpoint. Everything has to be boiled down into again, same manager, “Give me three bullet points with no more than, five words is better, eight words max, boom boom boom. And that better be your whole message,” and everything else like that. I was like lost. I was just like, “I’m uncomfortable with this.” I was extremely uncomfortable because I like to get the whole truth out, you know, and nothing but the truth, but to do that in five words? You know, how do you do that? And I still struggle a little bit with it today, but I’m much better now, I’m now comfortable. For instance, I gave a Powerpoint presentation to NASA; of course the good news is is over the ten years I’ve got a whole boatload now of presentations in different forms and stuff, so you do kind of want to get that collective thing, but occasionally I have to start from scratch and do something and it’s challenging. But for the NASA thing, for instance, I prepared for an hour on Saturday to go in front of one of the top customers, you know, or partners/customers in the world, rocket scientists literally, and I just did it in an hour, and you know, comfortable enough with what I’ve done. Other times you can take weeks to craft that thing and hone it, and I start doing silly little things like, “Is there a way to remove a word from this?” you know? And you’re there, can you make it either more powerful or communicate it with more white space? It turns out that people hate, when they see a Powerpoint, to see all words on it. At the same time, I do lots of imagery on mine, but that can be overdone too. You know, you have a pyramid that does this that and the other thing, and you think that just gives the message, and people go, “Huh?” So some of the best ones I’ve seen have been these, the only faintest imagery. I’m all about imagery, so I use a lot, but yeah, like the, “line one, concentrate on this,” you know, the build down there. Other things– people tend to hate builds, but if you use them right– you know what I mean by a build, right? Where you really could do it all in one slide, but the slide builds up over time.

Q: Sure.

A: The best builds actually are the ones that have little very little fanciness to them, and just put another bullet point, another bullet point. And again, there’s two sides of that coin, because as I’ve said before, “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em whatever.” Often it’s good in certain cases it’s good for them to be reading this live while you talk, other times they might read bottom up [chuckle], where your message is down here, they’re reading bottom up, and you’re talking about this. So sometimes if you want to lead them somewhere, it’s better, if you’re going to do almost an educational, if it’s more educational you’re going to lead somebody somewhere, then builds are typically good. If you’re reinforcing a core message that they either know or they want to be refined, then sometimes it’s better have everything up there.

Q: Great, thank you. So you’ve talked a little bit about what you’ve already done to overcome those issues, but one thing that struck me when you were talking about sort of your initial discomfort in boiling down something to five or eight words – did you find that your discomfort came from like, your fear of losing, because you’re taking a really complex idea and putting it in so few words, that you were going to misinform somehow? Or was it more kind of in the communication side that you felt like you weren’t able to express yourself or your ideas or your mission as efficiently in those few words?

A: Yeah, I think there’s two things that I’m still, I won’t say struggling, but I still am conscious of it. The other thing with this kind of bullet point communication, if you want to call it that, is the, you’ll often hear somebody, particularly a senior manager or somebody like that, say, “Give me very little, just give me the three words, and just, let’s just talk to it.” I actually found that very difficult. I am very much reading the words on the slide, and then, you know, embellishing. Where sometimes it was, you know, like “What? Question mark,” and then you just, and you know, that’s not going to get you anywhere [chuckle], that you can’t leave it behind and any of that, and you just have a conversation. Again, it’s all about the context, it’s all about where you are. But I still struggle with that. What I find I don’t do too much is actually memorize the slides. The other thing I don’t do, which apparently is really really bad – I almost never rehearse, ever. I just wing it when I go. And that works two ways. One, the rehearsal would make me more nervous that I’m trying to fit within a certain thing, but for me, people say that I’m more real and more enthusiastic when I haven’t done a rehearsal, you know what I mean? So anyway, this is me. I know tons of people including senior managers and stuff, all the time– I actually was good friends with Intel’s number one senior executive, you know, helped them present. He was a good friend of mine, I had him come into my staff and everything, he was there like, “Oh no no, you rehearse four times the amount of time than it takes for you to do, you know, if you have an hour presentation, you rehearse a minimum of four hours,” literally in front of mirrors and all the kind of stuff. And I just can’t do it, my head can’t do it. But so, anybody who reads this, you still might want to rehearse [chuckle] but for me, I found it makes me, people’s feedback normally is is like, “Wow, you were into it!” or “You’re passionate about what you do,” or whatever, “It felt real,” so for me, that’s what we’re–

Q: I find that, for myself too, when I teach, you know, just have just a basic outline of a lecture, rather than have the whole thing in my head, because you’re– if it’s all in your mind already how you’re going to say it, what you’re going to say, you kind of get tripped up in the rehearsal, and you’re not thinking about the things you’re saying. It becomes rote, and you’re not engaged, so you can’t be flexible, you can’t change course, but you also can’t really show a lot of passion about the thing, because you’re not discovering the thoughts as they’re coming–

A: Right, you’re just worried about it, “Did I say everything I was supposed to say?” even though it’s your talk, right?

Q: Exactly, exactly.

A: So, yeah. So that’s one thing I do. But the other thing is is, I do need those clues, I mean, one of the worst things that can happen to me still today is that I physically can’t see the slide, like it’s behind me. I’ve seen people do that, you know, the Bill Gates of the world go in there, you know, and sometimes you have the thing in front of you or whatever, but I really need to see that slide to keep me on track, but then I’ll talk to it. So, anyway.

Q: Great, thanks. So you’ve hit on this already with your book writing and the collaboration, but for Intel, right now, does anyone specifically oversee your writing, or are you kind of– ?

A: Well, at Intel, this will be interesting for you, the people who oversee my writing the most are Intel Legal.

Q: Okay, interesting.

A: Because Intel’s a large corporation, has been involved in, you know, lawsuits because of, whether it’s impressions or whatever, of monopoly, that kind of thing, we actually have to be very careful about utilizing– there’s a couple things we have to be careful about. Not losing or genericizing our trademarks, you know, things like that, so, there’s various trademarks– Intel itself is trademarked, and utilizing that properly within the scope of legal trademarks is usually reviewed. So mostly it’s that. The content itself is not reviewed, you know, they might come back and say, “Boy that was dumbest sentence I ever had.” But they rarely will do that. They’ll just say, “You used Intel wrong here, you used trademark xyz wrong.” We have tons of trademarks, you know, Xeon processors, you always have to use– there’s all these rules. Like you have to say “Intel Xeon processors”, you can’t say Intel Xeon, you can’t just say Xeon, you can’t, you know, all this stuff. And so we have to keep track of that. I’ve learned a lot about that, so mine are normally there. And as far as a monitored no, it’s my job to get– so a review is expected, but it’s my job to either have a peer or somebody on my team work together with me. So I normally don’t do all my own stuff and then go. Someone reviews it somewhere, not because they’re overseeing me, because that is one somewhat standard, and two, the sort of collaborative practice. So I would always have one of my team members, and vice versa. I normally review my team members’ stuff, particularly when they’re going to present like a paper or stuff like that. Actually, I’m required to review their papers, but only for technical like, they accidentally spilled by some IP, some trademark, not trademark but a trade secret, or something not yet patented that we want to do. I normally do it for that. I actually let them collaborate themselves and get the English right and everything, I just sort of– one, I don’t have all that time to do that in what else I do, but for the most part, yeah, Marketing will review when it’s like a conference or anything like that, so it’s, again, depends on the circumstances. For instance, the stuff I did today for NASA, nobody reviewed it, but I used slides that had been reviewed, just the stream and everything I did. So in that weird way, if it’s been legally reviewed, I can use any slide I want in any order I want. It’s not the order with which it is, it’s, “is this legally correct?” And then I can usually do that comfortably. I occasionally go, “Don’t write this one,” [chuckle] no, I try to avoid that, but sometimes you’re asked to do something a day in advance. You know, “Go talk to GM,” or something. And you just go like [speaker makes sound effect 35:05], “this is what you’re going to get.”

Q: So it seems like Legal is mostly judging success of your writing in terms of, does it follow the sort of established protocols for trademarks and legality, all that kind of stuff?

A: Yes, yeah, occasionally, and then if it’s a sort of a Intel-sponsored public event – again we’re actually about to sponsor, you know, be in a separate hotel from the conference and do an Intel thingy – something like that will be reviewed inside out. But mostly they call it legal review. But the person who manages legal review is usually a marketing or communications specialist, like a PR person. They will actually review it for, “Is this just messed up?” So they normally will then come back and comment.

Q: So they’re maybe focused a little more on the persuasiveness of the writing– ?

A: The message. So they’ll come back and say, “This would be better,” particularly if the, there’s usually like a marketing or a sales owner for any of these conferences or one or more, and they typically get some of that stuff. The other thing we write a lot, just so you know, with a technical product, that most people don’t see, even most people at Intel don’t see it, but the people in the know do, are what’s called Q and A’s. So when we’re going to announce a product, or we’re going to have a bunch of demos or whatever, there’s this 40-page thing that says, “If somebody asks this, what’s the answer? If somebody asks this, what’s the answer?” all that stuff. And technically all the people who go the show and represent Intel enough will have read that. But normally they just, and then we document all that. So I might have ten things that I have to provide answers for for the Q and A. Ninety-seven percent of the time if they hear a question in that realm, they go, “Go over, talk to Jim,” [laughter] so they normally won’t answer it even though they’re supposed to. But anyway, that’s actually an important – at least a corporation like Intel – an important aspect of the marketing, sales, and technology. Writing all that down in 100 percent, you know, whole truth fashion, while still having to consider the audience, is a bunch of sales and marketing people, I guess many of them are engineers themselves, who only have a certain amount of time to do things. So again, you have to balance it. But it’s a different style of writing, you know, think what somebody might ask. Often you have the same question, but written in different ways. And sometimes you even give a different answer even if it’s the same question, or sometimes you say, “the answer’s above there,” because you realize, you know, so, it’s pretty interesting. The Q and A’s typically have the same context or same question, but in a different manner, you know, words moved around in how you can question, and you do your best to put two or three of those down for not every question, but a question that could be asked in a funny way.

Q: Sure, yeah, that’s really interesting. How long – and this may vary because you’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of diverse writing projects that you do – how long typically do you have to complete a writing project? Deadlines you typically work in?

A: Yeah, I would say, we are, for one of these conferences or something like that, it can be, probably the shortest is two to four weeks. And often it’s 16 weeks, even if it’s a Powerpoint presentation or whatever. Again, because of one, if every presentation has to be read by an Intel lawyer, believe it or not there aren’t that many Intel lawyers [chuckle]. There’s a lot of them, but there’s not enough to do it, so they have to get them in advance. We also have this notion that I don’t think is a problem revealing of, 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent, and then 100 percent done. So 50 percent is normally the outline/abstract and a flow of slides with maybe the titles on them, and then 75 percent in to 90 percent is pretty close, that’s usually what’s legally reviewed, then it comes back and then it’s, you know, made that way. That’s not for everything, but that’s for one of these Intel public things. And my favorite one which is, there was one Intel event that they held yearly, they don’t hold it anymore, where they had actually the legally qualified, they weren’t lawyers, but legally qualified to review stuff. So I often I had presentations that were 102 percent [laughter] because I would go, “Well, I put this in two weeks ago, and you know, the world changed or something, and I want to add this,” and they actually knew that that would happen, that was fun. So occasionally I get 101 percent or something like that.

Q: That’s excellent. So you mentioned your experience as a student in Catholic school, and it being writing-intensive. Can you think of the kinds of writing that you were asked to create when you were a student, whether high school, college, or whatever, and in what ways do you think your college writing experience, or even if you want to go earlier than that, prepared or did not prepare you for the kind of stuff you do in the workplace now in terms of writing?

A: Umm, yeah I mean obviously grade school through high school, the book report was one of the driving things. When we went towards mid high school is when they would give you more of a research paper type thing, you know, “This is what you’re going to encounter in college.” Or like a creative writing thing or something like that. And then into college, you ended up having that. I remember when I was in high school, and I went to a public high school actually – so I went to grade school Catholic and then public high school – umm, I did feel, obviously it wasn’t hugely prepared, but at least I had seen one or two of these things where you have to do an outline, and structure with the outline, you know, begin filling it in, conclusion, and the whole kit and kaboodle. And in the end, even in bachelor’s degree, I had a seminar course that I needed to pass in order to get out, it was a business management seminar course, and I had to do a whole study on actually a technology company, and I would say– so part of that course was surveying a variety large businesses, it was so that you could do some kind of market analysis when you got out. So the teacher kind of helped with that, but mostly they counted on you having the structure and everything, and I got an A. And it was one of those classic all-nighters, you know, three days before I’m supposed to put on a cap and gown [laughter], you know, typing it up, you know, writing, and then typing, and you know, because I am old enough that it was a typewriter that I was working with, right before computers became super useful in that respect, word processors. And yeah, I felt that that education got me to that point. What I would say though, I ended up mostly going into software development and everything else like that, and for mainly I wrote code for a while, and would have to do a little bit of design, a little bit of writing. Actually now I’m going to reverse myself. There was one big project I did where I wrote a 40-page design document which kind of was like writing the book, but I actually didn’t draw on that until you just reminded me, but I remember this design, “This is who this thing works, and this is how it’s going to work,” and defining the programming interface and all that kind of stuff. So you, yeah, actually and it’s a very similar structure. So I would say there’s some measure of preparedness that I had probably I would say, particularly for a technical person, I’m actually guessing, I would guess and I didn’t have this, is something like a creative writing course actually would be good because of the whole thing about the messaging and everything that I was saying – I think I learned that more on the job and more in response to not doing it well. But if someone is more looking for a technical job I would not eschew things like creative writing. I don’t think you have to take seven years of it or whatever, but definitely take a creative writing course and force yourself– and if you’re going to be technical at all with a research bent, then you’re going to have to write papers. And so I think gaining any of that experience, you know, get over that fear. I would say for me, I kind of eschewed that. I was, every course technical, every, you know, whatever, catching up although again, I had these course where you’re required to do it, which was great. But I think the flip is creative writing. I think that that may actually make some sense in the technical engineering world, just that structure that you have to do to– because I know it’s really hard, actually. I know to be creative you actually, you have to pound your head against the wall. So anyway.

Q: That’s good, that’s something I try to convince my students of. And maybe they’ll believe it coming out of your mouth [laughter]. So you’ve hit on this a little bit, what’s at stake in the writing that you do? I know you talked about like bumping into legal and marketing and stuff like that, but what would you say are the stakes for the kind of writing that you’re doing for your job?

A: Yeah, there’s two or three that I’m thinking of. So one is simply getting it right – effective communication. Clear, as concise as possible, do what I say not what I do, and you know, making sure that you understand the point you’re getting across. Think about that in advance, and you will forget it multiple times, but go back to that. Another thing I would say also in the business setting and the higher up you get, it’s often a good idea to wait ten minutes, particularly if you’re responding to something and you feel anxious about it, either negative, like you’re about to type something negative or whatever. Think about it, and I’ve screwed that up too, it usually doesn’t work out too bad, but it can. Frankly these days you really have to be careful with any discriminatory language at all, not because you should use it, but you just have to make sure that you don’t accidentally use it. Particularly if you are not discriminatory at all, just be careful, you know, with making sure you consider the population that may do it. The other thing, that this is highly related, is, don’t necessarily think that only the four people that you sent your email to will actually see it. Not because the corporate gods are looking at everything, because they may forward it, okay? So, you’re often writing an email as a message to somebody else who’s not on the line, that you expect them to forward it to. They’re not required to, but that happens. So just, anyway, that sort of goes back to the, you’re writing to four people who you think are colleagues, but personal friends, you have to be careful. And then, for Intel, like I said the legal thing is a big deal. If you are going to write something disparaging about a competitor or something, again, that sort of goes back to discriminatory, but in the context of Intel, we’ve been put in front of you know, judges, for being anticompetitive, or whatever the right thing is. So you know, those are the stumbling blocks. But usually in the end, it’s about truly effective communication. The other things are just, you either learn or you, you know, they’re more I guess somewhat mechanical in a way, just make sure you keep your head on straight. But yeah, I mean, I think the other thing for young people is to realize that corporations, even big corporations like Intel, are surprisingly flat. So you might have just joined, you got out of college, bachelor’s, master’s, whatever, you join some company, some VP who’s two steps away from the CEO, even if you’re in 100,000 person company like me, there’s a good chance they’re going to hear about your stuff, okay? For good for bad.

Q: Wow. Right. So that adds stakes to everything you’re doing.

A: Yeah, so your personal career stakes typically, you know, you’re not obviously not completely on the line, you know, if you’re a little huffy with your manager or something like that, or we often talk about bringing out the elephants in the room, if there’s something that needs to be said but you’re afraid management will take it the wrong way or whatever, sometimes you do need to say it. But you know, again, make sure that you’re confident that you’ve done the do diligence. That probably for a young person, it’ll be, “Oh of course this is wrong, or right,” or whatever, just take a moment, think about, “Are there other ways that this could be read? And did I do all the do diligence behind what I’m about to say?” You know, like, “Hey we should go into the gaming market!” or whatever, when the company doesn’t do that, or whatever. Now that may be the greatest thing, you actually might be right, that might be the elephant in the room. Just make sure when the exec says, “Yeah, but what about” and they’re completely right, and you’re [speaker makes sound effect 51:24] like that. So just, again, that’s not afraid to do that, because that’s actually how you move forward in your career, just one more, you know, extra thought, “Could there be a different way this is presented?”

Q: Sure, great. That’s fantastic. What would you say the most difficult thing about writing in your field or your particular position right now would be?

A: Um, one, it is most difficult? It’s not really difficult, the legal thing is more of a hassle, I think. Really it boils down to the sense of urgency, or the, basically, you were asking me how often, you know, what kind of time I do. Sometimes, you know, that’s a real mix bag for conscientious writing your presentations or whatever, technically you’re supposed to be told in advance, like, “In three weeks you’re going to go to meeting X and do Y,” right? That’s like 90 percent of the time, 85 to 90. Ten to 15 percent of the time, it’s you know, “We know you’re the expert in this area,” or, “We know you know about this,” or, “You complained about something, we want to hear it,” and it’s the next day. And so it’s more the, all those considerations I just said here, is when they get squashed, where you’re not comfortable anymore, that you have done your do diligence and everything because of it. Now typically, in the right circumstances, you can, not fluff it off, but you can just say like, “Consider that I’ve only had a day to,” you can say that, okay? But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’ve been invited to a key customer technical meeting, where you’re the expert ,and you’re supposed to come in as if you thought of everything for the last seven years, and you’re just telling them that. Where actually you only had, the person said the night before, “Oh crap, this person should be there.” So that’s a difficult circumstance that you sometimes have to go through, and it works about 75 percent of the time, and 25 percent [chuckle] you get whacked. Just be aware of that, and again, have good relationships with your peers and your management who know that you are technically skilled and everything, and you just got kind of thrown under the bus.

Q: Right, yeah. Great, that brings us to the next um, has anyone helped you with your writing, either formally or informally, since you left school?

A: Oh yeah. I mean, well I would say again, James was very, very useful. I do think I had the basics, and I think maybe even he might say that I helped him. He helped me more, by the way. But yeah, the partners, collaborators, managers. A good manager will help you with this context, you know, this move for conciseness, powerful concepts, you know, I’ve definitely had managers, friendly peers, all that stuff. I think something I did learn after I left is this notion of collaboration, actually asking for help. Often you think you’ve been directed, particularly when you’re younger, your manager says, “Go such and so and do a trip report. Go out, meet a few customers, come back, give me a trip report, tell me what you found.” And you actually go do that and never had anybody read what you wrote or whatever, and you handed it to your manager. Other thing you can do is, typically when a manager wants that, he wants to forward it somewhere, just like I just said. So what you actually can do is, write up the outline, write a few key points, and hand it to the person who asked for it, and say, “I’m not done yet, but this is the direction I’m taking, is it okay?” So you feel like you’ve been dictated to or whatever, often the right approach back is just to say, “Can you just look at this, make sure I’m on the right path?” Actually it feels like that’s hard to do, or you don’t think of that, but that collaborative nature to– and then they’ll give you guidance, they actually feel good, they feel like a mentor as opposed to like a manager or whatever, and people like that. Now some people will be jerks, but that’s a very tiny percentage. So I would say, you know, even if you did everything I said here, creative courses, everything, “I’m good to go!” the review and the breadth of reviewers is actually something that’s, and again I forget it sometimes with timing or whatever, but it’s way better to pass it by either a friendly reviewer or the person who wants to see the end result. Because typically, particularly in the business world, they want to see the end result because it’s going to help them communicate, they don’t have all the time in the world. They’re giving you an opportunity, you know, and if they’re giving you that opportunity, and you have a good enough relationship, you can always just show it at 50 percent.

Q: Sure. That’s great, that’s fantastic to hear. Just a few more. How do you feel that you’ve most evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career?

A: Oh I think that yeah, probably the biggest thing is, and again, I think this is where the creative writing is attempting to reduce the verboseness, which tends to turn something more powerful. The problem is, of course, if you overdo it, then it tends to be confusing, right? And then you might have a lot of big words in there and it doesn’t mean anything. But yeah, the notion of thinking about the message – really important. And then delivering that message in the fewest amount of words. And that’s not always the right thing to do, you know, you’ve got technical papers and things like that, where you literally have to prove that you know everything, you’re basically writing a proof, that’s a lot different than writing, not an opinion, but a fact-based communication. So I think the biggest thing that I look at when I write is trying to be more concise, and I’m still working on it, and I will be until my grave.

Q: Yeah, I think it’s always an ongoing process, but that’s fantastic. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your particular organization and then in your field as a whole?

A: That’s a great question. I think it is. I’ll give you one anecdote. You know, I think it is, but I also think it’s, in a way it’s expected, right? So there’s an expectation that everybody can do it, and at the same time, I think that everybody are very nervous about doing it, right? So there’s an expectation that you’re going to do it right. But for me, the biggest thing that shocks me is that, this is mostly for the books, when you have done a book like that– so after I did the first book, I didn’t realize that something was going to happen. So the book was Intel-oriented, it was sort of around an Intel technology, but it was a technical book. Intel wanted me to sign books [laughter]. They wanted to give away books, they would buy the books, we would go to these conferences, and then like I’m this weird kind of 15 minutes of fame celebrity? But what shocked me was the number of people who would line up and thank you, and shake your hand, and be thrilled, from all over the world. So for me, I just thought, well I mean, I’m happy I did the book, I think it does what it’s supposed to do, it educates, it talks about our thing or whatever, but actually the value to the community outside Intel was very high. So James and I would often – he was a pro at it because he had done it before – but again, when it first happened it was new to me. And I’ve done a total of four books at this point, and each one just shocked me. I went and did a talk in Seoul, South Korea, shortly after I did one of the books, I was talking in my technology area, but then they had arranged the book thing, and everyone in the conference, I mean it was a volunteer thing, but everyone in the conference lined up like out the door, and they’re like, I literally go like, “Are you sure that these people care that much about this?” [laughter]. So what I say is, is it is valued, it’s certainly valued, if you do it right, then it’s valued outside. It’s a very tiny, you know, I forget, I think I’ve sold maybe 10,000 books total, something like that? But when those people, and they were getting it for free, but they also could have walked away with the getting it free. But they were like, “Thank you,” and then they would say like, “Can I have one for my buddy?” That was always funny, like, “Uh, I know I only get one book, but Joe Blow had to be at something else or couldn’t come with me,” and sign it. So you would do that, it’s you know, both a nice gesture and kind of nice, but then throughout that conference, they’d like wave the book at you, and “Hi,” and you know it was, and anyway the bottom line is, is that’s my anecdote, not really about me, but about other people, of valuing somebody who took that time to do that.

Q: Exactly. You don’t always, and not in every field where you get that kind of like instant feedback.

A: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Q: You know, if you spent your life writing scholarly stuff you’d [crosstalk]–

A: And we would, yeah, and we had like a website, you know, and occasionally we would get a question, but often we would get like, “Wow, I read chapter blah-blah-blah, and now I know more, and just wanted to let you know.” And so that was always fun.

Q: That’s great. Yeah, even just to have that quantifiable appreciation is [crosstalk]–

A: Yeah it’s really nice and I actually didn’t expect it. I actually thought it was, you know, at a way good for me, but also, mainly good for Intel in a way, I wrote it. I knew that it would be something I wanted to achieve, you know, a bucket list kind of thing, and yeah, when you asked that question, you know, that’s what I think of, of the response on the outside. And the same thing with, I know with the papers and stuff that my team– I’ve actually been co-author only on paper and my team has done otherwise, they’re really deeply technical, but those folks are, you know, sort of considered rock stars out in the world when they go and they do a presentation, and then people gather around you, and it’s– so even when you write something, if you write an important paper, seminal might be a strong word, but if you write an important paper that people get out of it, then they have very high praise for that. And the only reason they have high praise is because the paper communicated to them, it was written well. If it wasn’t written well, I won’t necessarily if they don’t have high praise if you’re a technology guru or whatever, but if it’s written well, then they respect you more.

Q: And it’s going to hit a lot more people too.

A: Exactly.

Q: Excellent. So very last question – how did you define successful writing when you were a student, versus how you maybe define successful writing now? And would you say that you consider yourself a successful workplace writer?

A: Okay. I think the student one’s easy and rote [laughter]. If I got a C minus, or a D plus, A, whatever, if that, and you know, I do think when the professor says something like “well written” or “liked it”, just that other little extra. You know, the A or B or whatever’s good, but if they say like, you know, circle something, “I really liked this part, you really got it.” So that was, I think that extra note maybe back, or even sometimes, you know, God forbid you had to read it in class, or you had to share it as a team member and a team member would say that, that’s good, because I don’t think people do have to do that. And now I think, yeah, the satisfaction’s a little less overt other than the one I just talked about it, you know, people wanting you to sign a book or something. But it, right or wrong, you left a meeting and they said, “Thanks, we really got it.” Or, for instance, my NASA meeting today is, is, “We’re going to download your software and start using it.” That’s, you know, that’s pretty good feedback. So, I think the answer is, is pretty successful, always working on it, stumble across those non-thinking mistakes a lot, not always, but you know, it is one of these things where I’ll have to go back and remember to do what I said to do. But I think yeah, I think it’s– sometimes all it takes is, you can tell when, there’s almost always a “thank you”, but when it’s a sincere thank you, when you really feel that, that’s when you get it, you did a presentation, you did a talk, you wrote something, or somebody goes like, “Wow that’s good, I really get it,” okay? And you don’t always get that, and very often you get this, “Ah, okay, thanks for presenting,” you know, “Checkmark done, Jim presented this week.” That’s sometimes what happens in the workplace. Other times when they think they’re going to give a checkmark, and they go like, “Wow, you enlightened me,” or whatever, or, “Wow, really thank you. We didn’t get it.” Hopefully you get that 30 percent of the time [chuckle]. I think if you do get it 30 percent of the time then you’re winning, yeah.

Q: Alright, thank you.

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Shifting Voice In New Writing Spaces Assignment

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Level: Can be customized for writers at all levels and disciplines. 

Context: This assignment focuses on recognizing the shift in rhetorical strategies when writing within different media and writing spaces, particularly within academic, professional, and online modes.

Assignment:

It’s natural for us to change how we speak to different audiences within different contexts – the diction and tone of how we’d talk to a good friend is different from how we’d address an employer, a professor, a grandparent, etc. However, when we are asked to make the same shifts in our writing voices, many of us struggle to adapt to varying audiences. In the AWWE interview with a Content Manager and Contributing Editor for a lifestyle blog, we hear about how many of us learn to write a specific kind of “college” academic writing in school, but sometimes struggle to write engagingly and authentically in less formal spaces:

I’ve done so much academic writing my entire education and most of my career , it’s really hard for me to be conversational in writing and […] lot of the comments that I get in terms of edits [are to] actually make this less stuffy? How can we make it less academic sounding, how can we make it sound less boring ? You know how can we make it seem like you’re talking to your friend? And I really struggle with that. […] But it’s a totally different kind of writing than I’m used to. So you know I have trouble grasping that part of it. Like, you know it’s it’s very informal writing, I should say . It’s conversational, you know, there’s –you know, abbreviations and, and […] little phrases that people, the kids, nowadays  use. But then, it’s like, you know, for me it’s like well can I take it as seriously as I take say the [New York] Times of The Atlantic or something like that? Like what –you know, what’s real and what’s better? And there is no better really. It’s more in terms of you know are you able to write for your audience?

For this assignment, you will select three writing sources related to your discipline. One will be a scholarly journal article, one will be a trade magazine or professional blog article, and the third will be a top post on a subreddit related to your field. For example, in Psychology, you might select the scholarly journal Developmental Psychology; for your trade magazine article source, you may visit Psychology Today Magazine, and for a subreddit source, you may visit a top post on r/psychology.  If you are interested in a field like Finance, you might instead opt for visiting The Journal of Corporate FinanceForbes Magazine, and r/personalfinance, respectively. Note: for the reddit post, you should choose a top rated post (sort by Top) in the sub’s history and also read some of the most upvoted comments. This is one metric we can use to determine “effectiveness” or success of writing in that mode.

Next, for each of these three sources, you will be asked to analyze the tone and style of writing that is generally accepted within each of these writing spaces.

Consider:

Scholarly Journal

  1. How would you describe the typical structure of an article/post here?
  2. How would you describe the overall tone of the writing? Is it formal? Informal? 
  3. Do you notice any kind of specialized terms or jargon being used? If so, what are those terms?
  4. Do you find this easy or enjoyable to read? Why or why not?
  5. Who do you think the audience for this piece is? How can you tell? Are there any words/ideas expressed here that you don’t understand?
  6. What do you think about the author (who they are, their interests and qualifications) based on the way that they’ve written this piece?

Trade Journal

  1. How would you describe the typical structure of an article/post here?
  2. How would you describe the overall tone of the writing? Is it formal? Informal? 
  3. Do you notice any kind of specialized terms or jargon being used? If so, what are those terms?
  4. Do you find this easy or enjoyable to read? Why or why not?
  5. Who do you think the audience for this piece is? How can you tell? Are there any words/ideas expressed here that you don’t understand?
  6. What do you think about the author (who they are, their interests and qualifications) based on the way that they’ve written this piece?

Subreddit

  1. How would you describe the typical structure of an article/post here?
  2. How would you describe the overall tone of the writing? Is it formal? Informal? 
  3. Do you notice any kind of specialized terms or jargon being used? If so, what are those terms?
  4. Do you find this easy or enjoyable to read? Why or why not?
  5. Who do you think the audience for this piece is? How can you tell? Are there any words/ideas expressed here that you don’t understand?
  6. What do you think about the author (who they are, their interests and qualifications) based on the way that they’ve written this piece?

Overall

  1. What are the biggest differences you notice between this source and the other sources?
  2. What are the biggest similarities (if any) that you notice?
  3. What do you think is most important to consider when writing in formal contexts?
  4. What do you think is most important to consider when writing in informal online contexts?
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Reflection Prompt: Emotion and Writing Process

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Reflection Prompt: Emotion and Writing Process

Level: Developed for use with first-year writers.

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

Assignment:

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

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

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

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Authenticity in Social Media Activity

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Level: Can be customized for writers at all levels.

Context: This activity asks students to consider the concept of “authenticity” in social media writing, and in their writing more broadly. Through this activity, students will learn to identify and interpret writing “personas,” personal and business, as well as consider goals and purposes in online writing. It also asks students to grapple with their own online personas and representations. Instructors might ask start the conversation in class by asking students how they interpret the two quotes below. The individual writing and reflection piece can either take place immediately after this discussion in class or can be assigned as homework.

Assignment:

The topic of “authenticity” is one that troubles many writers, particularly those writing online. Two of the interviews in the Archive of Workplace Writing Experiences mention the struggle of being “authentic” on social media:

A Freelance Illustrator states:

“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 Instagram, 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.”

A Business Development Director at a creative agency explains that:

“…we all know what social media looks like, and we know what the popular people on social media post and the copy they write, and you just try to mimic something that looks and feels authentic to you, and is still obviously, you know, lighthearted.”

Considering the quotes above, as well as your own social media experience, answer the questions below:

  1. What does the concept of “authenticity” on social media mean to you?
  • Why do you think these two writers place importance on trying to craft authenticity? Why is “achieving authenticity” challenging?
  • Many writers have an online writing “persona,” which may or may not represent them truthfully as they are in real life. How would you describe your own social media persona? What does your online persona’ life look like, and does it adequately represent your own? What does your persona care, as evidenced by how and why you post?
  • Businesses also, ideally, craft a “persona” related to their brand that they work to show consistently online. This persona may be formal and business-like or it may be more casual, appearing to interact “like a friend.” Find a brand that you follow or interact with on social media. How would you describe the “persona” of this organization? How did you come to that conclusion? (You might cite here language, tone, images, etc.)
  • Using this same organization’s feed, can you determine the audiences you think they’re trying to reach? How can you tell?
  • What purposes (yes, multiple!) do you think they’re working to achieve? What clues you in to these goals?
  • Would you say that the brand is “authentic” online? Why or why not?
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