Instructional Librarian, University
Date of Interview: February 7th, 2017
Q: So, would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?
A: Sure, so I’m John Danneker, I am the director of the Odegaard Undergraduate Library at the University of Washington in Seattle, and I graduated from undergrad, I’m assuming that’s what we want in this case, in 1998. So it’s coming up on almost 20 years.
Q: Great. Can you provide just a very brief description of your primary job functions?
A: Sure. I’m the administrative department head for a large, on-campus library here at UW Seattle, so I am basically tasked with making sure that we do everything in terms of the needs of the undergraduate students for the university, and their experience in the teaching and learning realm in particular with libraries and other resources. Basically the job responsibilities is to be the eyes and the ears for anything that is going on undergraduate-related, and figure out ways that the libraries can work within that. I have an incredibly talented staff of almost 50 people here within the building, libraries-wise, from librarians to undergraduate students who work with us to make that get done.
Q: Great, thank you. Could you describe the primary audiences to which you write in your job, and the primary purposes?
A: Sure. They’re varied, actually. Audiences for me can be anything from internal staff emails – I write a lot of those – and those are not only within my division, but then across the entirety of the libraries, and the libraries has about 350 employees. So some of that might be things geared towards all of them, it might just be localized, and then we have other partners with whom we work regularly to support the students. So they might be people in learning technologies and IT, or somebody in the university writing centers, or things like that. So those tend to be emails, occasionally memos, if it needs to be something that is a little more formal. I write a lot of letters, recommendation-type letters, and/or other memo-type things of that nature, and that’s probably a lot of my primary writing, I would say. There are occasionally sort of position arguments that need be made as well, about various high-level decisions because of the number of people that we serve and the size of the building that I’m in. So occasionally there might be some of those types of things as well.
Q: Great, thank you. You talked a little bit about this in describing the audience, but what forms or types of writing, or what kinds of documents to you most often write?
A: If you were to break it down just in sheer volume and number, I would say that emails are probably the first, and then some sort of reports, be they kind of committee reports or task forces or those types of things. Those tend to be the two most frequent things that I’m writing.
Q: Great, okay. And were you familiar with these genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them when you got into the workplace?
A: You know, it’s really interesting – as a student I think you use email for different things potentially, but it’s also true that over time it feels like it’s become more formalized into, even if this is an email, this is like a more formal way, it’s not like a social media-ish type of way of communicating with people, although I do a lot of that as well, and even professionally we do a lot of that as well. So I don’t think anyone really taught me how to structure businessy-type emails and things. I think a lot of that was being in the workplace, having good mentors, having good people who modeled things well, where it was like, “ah, okay, I see.” And learning things like– when you’re writing kind of an argumentative paper, it’s one type of presenting your evidence in one way, but then also there’s the politics sometimes that come out of the workplace of, you know that there are certain things that you and this person know, and you may or may not choose to make all of that evident within a particular email or something like that, because you want to phrase or shape how things are going to be perceived based on the audience.
Q: Great, excellent. How frequently are you required to write? If you had to break down percentage-wise in a given week, maybe what percentage of your job is writing?
A: Wow, that is a great question. I would say easily 50 percent at least. There’s a lot of other communication – so I have a lot of meetings, but probably the written time that I spend actually writing or consuming writing or drafting writing and things like that, of all types, whether again it’s the emails or reports or whether it’s even academic papers that I’m working on, I would probably say it’s about 40 to 50 percent of my, any given–
Q: –great, okay, okay. I’m going to ask you a little bit about your writing process, and I guess it’s probably helpful to think about maybe one of the more complex or longer things that you write, one of the reports, or one of the cases where you’re trying to bit persuasive, but maybe you could just tell us a bit about your writing process, including how those assignments or tasks sort of begin, how you’re given them, or how you develop the need for that, and then what steps you take sort of all the way to completion.
A: Sure. So a couple that come to mind – we have things like annual reports that we have write, of course it’s a big division within a big sort of support unit, and so that is a process of– it’s an assignment, if you will, an assignment that comes down from certain parts of the library system, and also with the general knowledge of, “these are the types of things that you need to be doing annually”, just to make sure that people are aware. The audience for those tends to be internal, but it is also sometimes used as an external document. It could be for fundraising purposes, it could be excerpted, it could also be things that are being used to make persuasive arguments with different departments as far as funding that’s not fundraising, but more like departmental funding requests and things like that. And also working with partners, I’ve found this kind of document to be really, really useful. So it’s a process that takes months usually, in that people are starting it early, and I think people– because I’m not the sole author of this, this is more of a compiled document, and so a lot of my work within that is making sure that I have division heads within my building who are responsive to deadlines, seeing what they need, working in terms of getting the sheer data available, and making sure that we are able to compile all of that, and giving them also a structure has been really important because we have so many different divisions. So what we tend to do is to have a– this is going to be responsive to this particular framework, in our case it happens to be a strategic plan framework. And so each division within my library is then writing things based on that known framework. And then it’s my job, ultimately in the end, to write kind of the forward and afterword and types of things, and then also find that common voice. So it’s writing but it’s also editing at the same time, and I find it really challenging but fun [laughter]. But even with the number– because you have so many different voices coming in, and that’s really great, but then you want to try to make it feel like a through-composed document ultimately in the end. So from start to finish I would say yeah, it probably takes a couple of months, and that’s like everything from data gathering, it’s not constant writing clearly. And I, like anyone else, I am a crammer, so even though I know that a deadline is say, the end of August, for this or whatever it might be, I’m going to get most of my best work done, let’s put it that way, within the ten days before a deadline. Although I have learned over time that just for my own personal style, I am not somebody who can work up to the deadline. So I tend to be a– I set myself a deadline that is several days in advance of the actual deadline, then I throw it away and don’t think about it for a day or two, and then I come back to it and I say, “all right, now semi-fresh I going to see what I can do to clean this up a little bit.”
Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense. What do you usually find when you do that? Does your perspective on it change significantly in that day or two period?
A: It does. I’ve found that sometimes for me it’s finding the common threads, and because again– and what I’ll oftentimes do is take those pieces, make them into like, “Okay, I’m going to find the voice that I want to use throughout all of this,” but then it may be that you need– it’s like finding good research that is then going to help lead your writing, and kind of make you realize the holes that are there, that, “Oh, this hasn’t been addressed at all, this could be my new– there’s a new piece of this that I’d want to do.” So for me, it’s related to that but different, in that it’s kind of what are all of these, like what are the things bubbling up? What are the themes that are inherent in this, but only when you see it as a corpus? And then when I can see these individual pieces all coming together, it helps me to be able to think, “Ah okay, here’s my, this is my hook, this is my angle for this particular document this year.” And interestingly, that’s probably a process that I use with a lot of other long documents that I write. When I’m doing an academic paper of any length, for publication, if it’s a study or if it’s– and I tend to be, when I do those, I’m not somebody who writes a lot of, I don’t do as many data-driven studies as some might, mine tend to be thought pieces or those types of things. So I’m using sources in different ways, and so it’s oftentimes kind of melding and pulling these ideas together and then thinking, “What isn’t here? Or what is the idea that I can pull out of this that seems to be the overarching, main topics for people?”.
Q: Great, thank you. Obviously this is going to vary from document to document, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?
A: Wow, yeah, you’re right it could vary so much. I mean, it could be everything from good relations among staff, depending on how I’m writing to various departments and things like that. It could be the failure or success of our budgets for two years, based completely on how persuasive certain pieces of an argument are and how much– I’ve learned, especially here in this present work environment, being at a R1 institution, and where we have a lot of evidence-based and data-driven decision making, that I can feel all I want, but just saying that “I feel this way” or that “we feel this way” is not going to necessarily make a hill of beans difference to some people who need to make those final decisions. So I think that that’s always an important piece to consider. It’s not life or death, no one is living or dying based on what I’m writing necessarily, but it tends to be very relationship-oriented and very partnership-oriented. I could misspeak, and completely sever or damage a relationship for years to come. There’s sometimes if it’s an email or something like that, then I have to do things like think about the various angles. And again, life is political sometimes, even when you don’t necessarily want it to be. So it’s making the best case for what we need to be doing in terms of what the student needs are, what the faculty needs are, and those kinds of things. So figuring out, I guess occasionally if there’s a small bridge that you have to burn, but I try not to do that ever.
Q: Right, right, okay. Does anyone oversee your writing?
A: Oversee is a really interesting question. So I answer directly to an associate dean within the libraries, and I feel that we have a great relationship in that if I have a particularly sticky or thorny thing that I’m trying to figure out in my writing, I could definitely consult her. I’m really lucky in that we happen to have the Writing and Research Center for the university, the main writing center for the university, is here in our building, and a lot of our research librarians are also at least minimally, if not fully trained to be writing tutors. So I happen to have a lot of people on my staff where I can say, “Here’s what I’m trying to do,” or, “Can we talk through this particular thing?” or whatever. So I’m in a pretty privileged position in that way, because I realize not a lot of people have that access to that necessarily. I have kind of a direct person who’s been my direct supervisor, but then at the same time I have a lot of people that I would consider colleagues that I can bounce my writing off of.
Q: That’s helpful, that makes a lot of sense. How would you say that the success or quality of your writing is judged or assessed?
A: That also sort of depends on the type of writing. I think that when I’m writing sort of the standard emails and partnerships and working among our staff and things like that, I mean it’s do we get the results that we need to in order– again, I always try to base it– for me, it’s having the central focus of the needs of the students and faculty and things like that. So ultimately, is what I’m writing and what we’re planning or doing serving their ends? If that accomplishes that, then I think that that’s pretty good writing. And also the same thing with say, performance evaluations for staff, I’m responsible for a lot of those types of things, either authoring them directly or being a reviewer for others who are authoring them. So, is that staff member going away with a real good sense of how their performance is affecting a larger whole, are they seeing the system [?15:22] , and are they an acting member in that, in terms of playing a role in setting goals and thinking about where they fit within the organization moving forward? So if we do that, and if we have people doing that, then I say, “Okay, this is successful, this is a good attempt at this.” Then, you have your other things like obviously a peer reviewed article is– people are either going to like it or they’re not, based on the review, and then you’re going to have to do some editing work and things along those lines. Sometimes those are just completely external and harder to pin down in terms– as you know all too well [laughter], as you are in this realm all the time. So I think it just varies greatly.
Q: Okay, that’s great, okay. Have you had any training or education specifically in writing since you’ve graduated from college? I know you have a graduate degree in library studies, but how much, if any, actual focused on writing, either within that or separately have you had?
A: I might be sort of the odd duck here, because I haven’t been in a classroom setting formally for writing learning, or I can’t remember any specific job trainings that I went to or anything like that. However, in a previous position I was very, very involved with an integrated writing program with librarians working with writing professors, and a freshman writing program in particular. So for me, I learned so much through working in that program, just because it made me think a lot more about the arguments that we make, certainly as students are trying to figure out how to make an academic-based argument, but then it also becomes a very applicable thing and transferable for them if you make it so. I guess sometimes they need to make it a little more obvious, and I think the shortcomings of having that kind of upbringing, if you will, into this is that people can sometimes get pigeonholed into thinking the world is going to function like this. But you can always learn how to have different powers of persuasion, if you will, or how to employ different research more effectively. I think we’re seeing it on a national scale right now, with questions of information and data and media literacies, right? And getting people to understand the value of those sorts of things. So some of it’s been formal, some of it’s been through association with other people who were doing it more formally, and others has just been kind of information people are, I think in some ways, they have to be thinking about. Because it’s what we do that enables that kind of communication, ultimately in the end, so that we can’t be thinking of ourselves in a vacuum, because ultimately if somebody wants information, and they’re coming to us for that, they’re going to be using that to some end or another. So thinking about their final products and what they’re trying to achieve is always an important thing.
Q: Great, yeah, absolutely. Getting back to your sort of writing process, is there anything that you do to prepare to write, whether that’s an email – obviously you spoke to this idea of making sure that the researcher data is available depending on what kind of longer form piece you’re working on – but are there other preparations that you take?
A: Yes, particularly if I’m responding to a prompt. I’ve learned over the years to make sure I understand what that prompt is, and understand what the pieces are that somebody is really looking for. Especially since, as you can probably tell, I’m long-winded [laughter]. I know that sometimes I need to be a little more thoughtful about presentation of the idea, and so I will try to do things like either idea mapping, or sort of thinking about– I draw a lot, so I actually, one of my more interesting things, at least for me it’s interesting in the writing process, is a lot of people draft, and then do a lot of revision, and draft and revision of– I don’t tend to do that quite as much as some other folks, so I do almost visualize things in a way. I will sometimes draw ideas and sort of how they flow from one another, and then that helps me to structure. It’s not as often with emails, say necessarily, but it could even be something like that, where it’s like, “All right, this is a high stakes important thing, and I need to make sure that I hit all of these points.” So dropping those things in the right order– another place where this works great for me is on, like I said, I write a lot of recommendation letters or I have to review those kinds of things, and thinking about the ways that the presentation of the facts or data are going to be the most impactful to that person I think are really–
Q: That’s super interesting, especially the drawing component of it. That’s really interesting.
A: It’s so weird, it’s something that I’ve done for years, and it has always worked for me. And I also, I walk around a lot, and that’s so weird. I’ve already told our staff this when I moved to this job, that sometimes when I’m working on a hard writing problem in my brain, the best thing that I can do is to almost activate a different part of my brain. Because for me, writing feels like one thing and I have to be in the right mode and those kinds of things, but if I can go into sort of like a monotonous task-oriented kind of thing, where it’s just something that I do over and over again, that will sometimes actually help my brain to then structure things. It’s more about structure, I think, than– because initial ideas and brainstorms and those kind of things I tend to not have as much trouble with; I think it’s sometimes the opposite, it’s like limiting it down and not wanting to go too broadly into something. Then that process is kind of like, doing something completely different helps me then to start thinking about structures of how something might be most effective.
Q: Got it, that’s really interesting, okay. How long, you said with annual reports and things like that, it might be a several-month process. But for a typical writing project, what would you say is the average amount of time you have to complete a writing project?
A: I would say average amount of time from start to finish? Like, so the deadline– ?
Q: From start to finish, yeah.
A: –or how much time does it actually take? I think the majority of what I do probably takes less than a half an hour. Of that say 40 to 50 percent of my life, if you were to break that down further, I’d say of that 50 percent, the vast majority of that, maybe not vast, but at least a majority of that is a lot of communicative emails and that sort of thing, or relatively short bursts of reporting on things. So for me, it tends to be a lot of those are within a half hour time range, sometimes an hour. Some of that stuff I can just know if I set aside this amount of time, I’m going to be good on it. But then there’s others that you do a chunk of it, and then you have to come back to it, and it’s going to be something that’s going to take a long time.
Q: Okay. Do you have any recollection of specific challenges you faced as a new workplace writer?
A: Yeah, I was not very good at– I think early on I had to learn how to process things like data that were available in such a way, to use them to inform what I was writing and then present them in a way that if it needed to be the most important thing, that that was then made the most important thing. I tend to gravitate towards long structures, and I’ve had to learn that that doesn’t work for people nearly as well in a workplace setting all the time. So if I do have to write a 25-page annual report on something, then it’s probably good to have a one-page, quick hit summary as well – that executive summary kind of idea – I didn’t understand any of that. I was just like, “Well why wouldn’t people just figure that out from, you know, it’s like I took all this time to write you the 50-page version. Can’t you figure out what it’s like–?” [laughter] “Oh, that’s precisely why they can’t figure out what’s important!” Because when you’re writing 50 pages, everything is important to you or you wouldn’t be writing about it for that length of time. So then having to find the ways to distill that down was really, really important.
Q: That’s great, that’s great. Do you feel that there are any challenges that you still face as a writer?
A: Oh yeah, certainly. I think you always have to be thinking about tone. Tone is really interesting, especially when you live in a very fast-paced, social media driven kind of world that we do all the time. Finding the right ways to phrase things that are, like say for instance, if something needs to have constructive criticism, you need to find a way to do that that is responsive to the person and again, makes whoever the reader is feel like they’re a part of that whatever it is that you’re doing, without alienating anybody. I think that that’s always a challenge right now, is still finding ways to– just because some of the external factors are affecting that person when they opening their emails, or whether they’re getting that report that you’ve written that they’ve been waiting on or whatever else, so that’s definite. And I think I’m always trying to refine ways to visualize things a little bit better for people. I’ve tried to work with incorporating a lot fewer words in certain documents and finding different ways to make things obvious. That could be a data visualization, it could be charting, it could be a number of different things that really will help people to see – or different audiences if there’s multiple audiences who might be looking at something – finding the ways to make that resonate with them I think is always a fun challenge for me. Going back to that annual report idea, it’s going to look very different for my associate dean, who is the person that I have to report it to, and then here’s the cover sheet, sort of, bullet-point list. But then if I’m taking that same thing and extracting it for a fundraising event that we’re doing, yeah I know people are not going to sit there and read, but they’re going to be really intrigued by, “Here’s this cool little snippet of information with this amazing photo that goes along with it that shows these students doing this cool stuff in this building.” So it’s almost the rhetoric of the nonverbal, or not verbal, but I guess the non-textual.
Q: That’s interesting, that’s really interesting. Other than – you mentioned this idea of sort of not being able to pair down or be as concise when you were a new workplace writer – but are there other big changes that you see in your writing style, generally, as you’ve evolved as a workplace writer?
A: Well that’s definitely one of them, I already mentioned that one, but that’s definitely something that I see. You know, to be honest with you, I think over time you learn different formats and different structures and you then, like I have kind of my tried and true way that I tend to approach certain types of documents. An example would be performance evaluations and things like that, where you know that this is something, that you are building on something that already exists, and the way that you – especially if you’re doing that for say, I don’t know, ten different people – the way that you look at that across the entire body of those, and if you really are kind of in the position that I am where you’re making sure that you have a staff who are all moving towards particular goals, or you want people to be thinking not only for themselves individually, but thinking as a whole group along certain destinations, then I think making sure that you find ways to get those things in with every person is really, really important. So I have kind of templates, for lack of calling it anything else, but it’s not an actual template, it’s more like how this document will be structured to make sure that everyone is getting some pieces of this. It’s what they individually have achieved, and writing as much about that as I can, but then also relating that, and taking those pieces that I get from them, and saying, “This is great in that it looks at this larger goal or larger vision kind of thing that we have.” Finding ways to work those in are really, really important, and I do a lot more of that now than I did say, 20 years ago.
Q: Gotcha, interesting, interesting. So in a sense it sounds like you are sort of building up these tools for yourself in order to develop your writing, like to make yourself more consistent and to make sure that you’re achieving these things that you want to achieve.
A: Yeah, that’s the way I– I think that’s so important right? When you have so many different people, so many different personalities that you’re working with, who are working with you. We’re so lucky to have so many different personalities, right? One size is not going to fit all, so the way I look at it is I tend to talk about tools in a toolkit frequently. Even in writing a similar type of thing for a group of different people, I’ll fine-tune this a little bit for this individual versus that individual, or something like that, or knowing the personalities behind the things as well, like is this person going to respond better to this, or to that? Even though the basic idea is the same, but thinking about the ways that different personalities are going to interpret or play into that.
Q: Right, right, okay. Two more questions: the first is, would you say that you’re a successful writer in the workplace, and why or why not?
A: Yeah, I think I’m pretty good at communicating. Our folks need to all feel that they’re part of a larger whole, and that needs to be again, like I said, grounded in something that is bigger than just what we are doing. So I think that I am successful particularly in doing those kinds of things, in making sure that what we’re doing is based in the best possible experience that we can be creating for our students or faculty, staff, whomever those people are. I think also it really, again, it’s also sometimes dependent upon the audience reception, and the way that different people may take different documents and things like that. But generally speaking, and I think largely speaking, it seems like when I’m writing something, it’s something that I’ve had more thought time with, and as a result, it tends to be a lot more persuasive. Personality is great, but I tend to be kind of somewhere like a forced extrovert, kind of introverted person, a little bit. My job is very external and working with a lot of people all the time, but I think I do some of my best work when I actually have a chance to not immediately respond to something, but then sit back, think about it, and then that’s where I think those effective communications are.
Q: Great, great. And the last question: what skills would you say are the most important to writing in your specific role?
A: Systems thinking is way more important than I ever realized it would be. So realizing again the various readers, and being able to craft whatever it is that I’m writing, and it may be something as subtle as language differences or something like that that I employ when I’m writing. I think that so much of the effectiveness of the writing is largely again dependent upon the relationship that you already have. If you’re forging a new one, it’s one thing, but if it’s a relationship that you already have or you’re trying to move into a different direction or something like that, a lot of it is soft skills I guess. But it’s more people-based, like understanding who the person is and how they’re going to take this, if I’m trying to be persuasive. It might be something else, like you know, if I just really– I’m also, I try to be very forthcoming in what I’m writing if it’s like, “I don’t know what I’m doing here and I need some,” you know? I don’t tend to be somebody who sugar-coats a lot, I’m not going to beat around the bush on something like that, I tend to be more direct. So I’ll just be like, “Hey, I have this idea, I really want to know what you think about this,” or, “I have no idea what to do about xyz, what do you think are some things we might be able to do in this situation?” And then kind of gathering that back as well I think is really something that’s been very important for me in my particular role in what I do.
Q: Excellent, thank you so much!