Special Collections Librarian

Education

Special Collections Librarian

28:23

 

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

 

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

Q: Okay, and from undergrad what year?

 

A: From undergraduate in 2007.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Excellent. No, no, that’s great.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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


Q: Sure, sure.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: Um, yeah. What aspects of it?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: Yeah, it is publicly available.

 

Q: Oh interesting, that’s cool.

 

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

 

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

 

A: In the UK, yeah.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: There’s a specific form, okay.

 

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

 

Q: I see, okay.

 

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

 

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

 

A: Yeah, I have.


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: So more formal?

 

A: Yeah, more formal.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

 

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

 

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

 

A: What do you mean by at stake?

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Yeah.

 

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

 

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Marketing Director

Business, Education

Marketing Director, Educational Software Company

Date of Interview: February 24th, 2017

Transcript:

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

A: I am the senior field marketing manager for analytics and student success initiatives at Blackboard, and I graduated seventeen years ago [laughter].

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

A: My primary job functions include setting up campaign management for all outbound marketing campaigns around our analytics and student success products at Blackboard. So that is developing strategy, go-to-market strategy for those products, lead generation, demand generation, awareness campaigns, event management, there’s some writing involved, there is some contractor management involved as well.

Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: I would say 20 to 30 percent of my job requires writing. We don’t have copywriters in house on staff. We do utilize them for larger projects that require a lot of writing, pages and pages and pages. Normally what I’m doing is writing either campaign briefs, or strategy documents, or powerpoint presentations. But then also I’m responsible for some of our outbound copy, as well, that you would see appearing in marketing emails, as well as smaller brochures or flyers that might appear at a trade show or that a salesperson might leave behind at a sales presentation.

Q: Great. And that 20 to 30 percent that you mentioned, does that include email communication or no?

A: Yes.

Q: Great, perfect. What forms or types of writing or what kinds of documents do you most often complete? You mentioned a few of them there.

A: A lot of my time is spent writing internal communication. Explaining what types of campaigns are going on, explaining strategy, those types of just internal business types of documents. But a lot of my writing also involves that outbound communication that our prospects and clients are seeing, and that’s primarily in the form of marketing email communication. There’s some writing that occurs or you’ll see on what we call data sheets, or a marketing flyer, a sales slick, that sort of thing. More often than not, I tend to prefer to let a professional writer handle some of that, but if I need something quickly and cheaply, I’ll do it myself.

Q: Could you describe the primary audiences that these types of writing are most often reaching and the primary purposes of these types of documents?

A: Sure. The audiences range from technical positions, or persona as we call it, within higher education institutions, primarily open enrollment style institutions, community colleges, state school systems. Also then more higher level persona within those institutions: presidents, provosts, senior directors, and vice presidents usually involved in enrollment, student success, student retention, sometimes academic affairs as well.

Q: And the purposes of those documents are primarily sales oriented?

A: Sales and marketing oriented. Either making someone aware of a product or a solution or an offering, making them aware of a change or an enhancement if they’re already a client or a user of that product and solution, or just general awareness of what Blackboard is doing in a particular area, particularly around student success or student retention.

Q: Were you familiar with these types of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did that affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: Not in that particular type of writing. I never imagined, especially when I was a student, that I would be writing to that particular audience. And funny enough, now that I think about it, I don’t know exactly what audience I was planning on writing to. I know I was given the impression that I’d be writing to a business audience, but at that time I didn’t know exactly what that meant and who those people were. I found throughout my career that as the audiences change, you have to adapt to those audiences and sometimes change your tone and sometimes change the way things are presented, depending on what the audience is.

Q: And you mentioned as a student, sort of what you were imagining as– did you study marketing and business as a student?

A: I studied journalism and public relations. So there was a little bit of a connection there. At the time I thought I was going to be in public relations, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. I got into marketing because I was advised that that is one of the easier ways to get into public relations. Nobody got into public relations right after college, especially from someone who was going to a small college in the countryside of Pennsylvania. So to find myself in marketing with then what would gradually evolve into a role of public relations, and 17 years later I’m still in marketing [laughter]. It still hasn’t happened. So there was a lot of instruction around crisis management, more journalistic style of writing, more about just sort of corporate overviews or how a corporation might be doing something well for the environment, and how you would position it for the press, you know, those types of things. I never really really took any courses or study around marketing writing or even how to write internally within business, regardless of what business that would be.

Q: Okay. Could you describe your writing process, including how tasks or assignments are given to you, or sort of appear in your life, any preparation you take before writing, and the steps from the start of the project to a final version of a piece of writing? And if it’s useful, you can choose one specific kind of–

A: Well so I’m involved heavily in my own strategy, so I do a lot of planning, and I’m aware of what’s coming up in terms of my output over the next, let’s say 90 days. I know when I’ve got a brochure coming up, I know when I have an email campaign, I know when we have a big event coming up that we’re going to need collateral for, and so I plan that way and I look at what’s coming up and what I’m able to do myself, and what I’m going to need help doing. I do a lot of research in terms of what has been written before for these audiences. I take a lot of time and I go back, and I look at things that have done well. So we have resources here and members of the team who are able to catalog those best practices. Whether it’s an email that it performed well, or a digital ad that performed well, or flyer that is really hot and everybody loves to receive it and there’s some action taking off of that. So I’ll look at those things, and I’ll study how our people are positioning the communication toward that particular audience, because I’m not a member of the higher education community, and I’ve never been a member of the audiences that I’ve written to, so I have to immerse myself in that world and try to understand that person. And then you sort of take a look at exactly what is the instance, not every bit of communication’s going to be the same – an email doesn’t sound the same as a flyer, doesn’t sound the same as a boilerplate company description, doesn’t sound the same as something that you would put in a powerpoint presentation – so you got to think a little bit about what the occasion is and what you are trying to get across. Then also there’s the instances where I am trying to drive somebody to do something, whether it’s fill out a form, or give me their contact information, or download a study or a white paper, or sign up to attend a webinar, or if I’m just telling them that Blackboard is going to be at an event and you should come and visit us and it’ll be really great. So there’s all these little nuances to that that you have to think about and you have to plan through because it’s not all the same. But then keeping that common thread of this is how you talk to a president or a provost at a higher education institution who’s running a state school system, that sort of thing, you’ve got to keep that in the back of your mind of course.

Q: Absolutely. And then in terms of, if your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach making those changes or improving from one draft to the next?

A: I’m really open to it because it’s a lot of trial by error for me. Regardless of what industry I’ve been working in, that’s the way I learn what works best. I am by no means an expert and I am by no means a copywriter, and I’ve found over the years that as resources have become more and more limited– where when I started after college, every business I worked at had a team of business copywriters who were trained to do what a lot of us marketers are doing today. So you would rely on them and not really even deal with revisions or, you know, there might be some stylistic changes. I’m more than happy to have somebody look at my work, especially somebody who’s more keenly familiar with who I’m trying to communicate with, and give me feedback, because otherwise I’m just sort of making it up as I go and hoping for the best, and that’s not what I really want to do.

Q: Gotcha. So those comments that you’re often seeking, they tend to be about audience?

A: Audience, yeah absolutely. I mean surely, if I’m working on something long enough, I will miss a word that I misspelled, or some grammar, or something like that that I wasn’t familiar with, and that’s always helpful as well. But a lot of times, the revisions are more audience related. Like, “Oh, this would be more effective, or this is not what we say, and this is–” because what I’ll try to do, I think I tend in my writing, particularly to this audience, which has been new to me for about a year now, I’ll overcompensate a little bit. So I’m talking to somebody in the academic community, so I’ll try to make myself sound smarter than I am, and so the writing comes across fake and phoney. A president of a university is a person too, and they’re going to respond differently to something that sounds fake and phoney than something that’s a little bit more organic. So people will tone it down a little bit, and you know, “Back off of that a little bit, or maybe you rephrase this, and you don’t have to sound so stuffy about this particular research study, it’s not that big of a deal,” and so that’s been interesting as well. And I think that applies to any of the industries that I’ve worked in before. I think I would tend to overcompensate to try to make it sound a little bit more professional. But I’ve learned over time, these are people too, and they respond just like any other human responds to something, and there’s a time and a place for that too. But there’s also a time and a place to sound like a normal person and communicate like a normal person, so try to put that into the writing.

Q: That’s really interesting. Do you mind telling me briefly about the previous industries that you’ve worked in?

A: Sure, oh wow, there’s been a few. So previous to my current role, I was writing to lobbyists and lawyers and very senior officials at government contracting offices. So there’s, again, a whole other level of pretension that I felt like I had to deal with, and I needed to sound like they– and I needed to talk like a lawyer, and I needed to sound like a lawyer, and that’s just wasn’t necessarily the case as well. They also were human beings, and they respond to things like a normal human being does and you have to keep that in mind. But I also had to make sure that things were professional and very streamlined. These are people who are very busy, and they have their busy, busy day, and you have to consider that as well in terms of what you’re putting in front of them. Are they really going to read the whole thing? And how to get the most important points in front of them quickly. I think I learned that the most in that role. And prior to that, I was working in the wholesale capital asset and commercial goods industry, which is a whole other beast altogether. And all those people have a whole other style that you have to sort of get in line with. These are people who go to flea markets and swap meets and buy bulk truckloads of merchandise to resell on ebay. So that was a different style and a different tone and I had to learn how those people communicated with one another. I relied on people in the industry or people that I was working with to help me do that.

Q: Great, that’s really helpful. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project, one of the more formal writing projects?

A: Well, we’re just all so busy all the time that I would like more time to do what I do. I probably spend a lot less time than I should on some things. Particularly if it’s just an outbound marketing email communication, I’ll probably write it the day or two before it’s supposed to go out, which I don’t advise anyone to do, but that’s just sort of the nature of the game sometimes because there’s so much going on. So with something like that, I feel comfortable enough that I can do that, have somebody look at it, have somebody from the email marketing team say, “Hey, maybe you should make it only one paragraph, not two paragraphs, that works better for us in terms of email performance. It should have more than three links in it, or it needs a better call to action.” And we can get that done quickly. If it is a series of emails or if I’m writing landing pages for a webinar series or promotion or something like that, I will take additional time and I’ll build in the time to have other people look at it, and spend time with me, and test it out, and try it out, knowing that there probably will be a good bit of revisions going back and forth. But the funny thing is there that people that are reviewing it aren’t necessarily the official reviewers of that copy, you kind of have to make do and you have to say, “Hey, can you look at this, I know that you’ve done something around this topic before. Can you take a look at it? Or do you think this would work?” So you’re just sharing it with colleagues, you’re sharing it with other members of the marketing team, sometimes you’re sharing it with salespeople who are more of the subject matter experts. There’s no real official copy reviewer here, and I haven’t had that in years and years, I’d say. You make do and you try to work it out the best you can, and get the help that you can, until you get to the point where you feel comfortable enough releasing it to the public.

Q: That’s super interesting. Do you feel like it’s a better system?

A: No, no. I loved having a team of copywriters who I knew were trained and who were able to adapt their writing style and their writing skill to any industry and any audience, because that’s what they were brought in to do. I do miss that, I miss that a lot, because there’s sort of that level of comfort there that’s gone now. I’ve had things go out with spelling errors, and I’ve had hell to pay for some of that because you work at some of these organizations and you’re basically embarrassing the entire organization if you send even an email communication out to 300 presidents of a university and it has a spelling error in it and you’re supposed to be working in higher education – it’s ridiculous. It happens now because there’s no one who is officially assigned to making sure that that doesn’t happen. You just have to do the best you can, but there’s so much going on all the time that stuff like that gets missed. I don’t think stuff like that got missed when there was a team of writers who was responsible for making sure that that didn’t happen. And I do miss that.

Q: Interesting, okay, yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?
A: Reputation, for one. You are the voice of an organization always, you’re representing an organization always, and it goes back to what I was just saying – if you make a mistake or something doesn’t come out right, or you’re saying something wrong, it’s really the organization’s reputation is at stake. Nobody knows who I am or where that email came from. A lot of times, I’m writing as a ghostwriter for somebody. I’m writing as the vice president of so and so, and their name is on the email, my name’s not on the email. So you’ve got to think about that always and that’s when it gets really tough if there’s a mistake. And there’s mistakes a lot of the time now because I’m not a professional writer, we don’t have professional writers. And then there’s also the transactional business aspect of it – I’m trying to get somebody to buy something at the end of the day. And so what I’m writing has to be informative enough, impactful enough, interesting enough to get somebody to do that, because that what I’m getting paid to do at the end of the day.

Q: How would you say – I know there’s no one specifically designated to oversee the quality of your writing – but how would you say that, if not your boss and the people around you in the organization, judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: Well, we look at performance metrics really. At the end of the day that’s all that matters to a business, I think. Outside of reputation, they’re going to be looking at the hard numbers. Did an activity that required writing result in new leads being brought in, and new business being brought in? That’s what we look at it. And then we look at, okay, what worked and what didn’t work? And then you sort of filter it back down to the writing. We look at a campaign in a holistic view when something does really well, and then it sort of filters back down later. That’s when I go back and I look at the things that did work, and I’m like, well, “How did I word this? Why did this work? Was this call to action really effective? And I should try to use that again.” But at the end of the day, the business is looking at did it bring in leads that convert to a sale.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: No. No, I mean, informally I’ve worked with some really, really smart people, and again, I think the review process is a training in itself. But no, definitely all informal and nothing that I had had the ability to even– and I never even considered going out and seeking that out. That might be a good idea [laughter].

Q: What challenges did you face when you entered the workplace as a writer in those sort of early years right out of college?
A: I think the fact that there’s so many different styles that you need to consider. The way you write an email or a memo to a CEO is not the same as the way you would write a letter or an email to a coworker or a colleague or a counterpart. Then an email communication is different from an online web communication, and that wasn’t laid out for me. I hear a lot about students today, who are especially in the workforce – people are seeing that students are having those same challenges, that their writing style is almost the same across the board, no matter who they’re writing to, and no matter who’s reading it. And I do remember that being a challenge, and I remember having a tough time pivoting from the way you wrote your assignments in school to writing business communication. It wasn’t the same at all and nobody made that distinction for me at the end of school as I was preparing to graduate and set out for a career. It was more verbal communication that we spent a lot of time on: “This is how you interview, this is how you answer these types of questions, this is how you talk to your boss, this is the proper way to talk to your colleagues,” and things to avoid and pitfalls and things like that. But never really prepared to, “Here’s how you write an email–”. You know, I was thrust into the world of email marketing at 22 or 23, and never had written a business email before or back then, we had fax marketing as well, so I didn’t know how to write a fax marketing that was effective. And then having to present information about how those things did to your boss, that’s also a different communication style. So I think the different styles of written business communication was something that was left out in my education.

Q: That’s really interesting. Can you think of practical steps that you took in those first few years to acquire those skills, or to shift those skills?

A: It was a lot of trial by fire, it was a lot of mistakes that I’ve made. Again, that was a time where I was working with really smart people whose job was to support writing efforts, and working with those people and learning from them, and learning from my colleagues as well. There was people who had been there for a long time, my bosses at the time just say, “No, that’s not how you do this,” or “No, this is what an effective call to action is.” I didn’t know what a call to action was when I graduated college. So learning as I went on the job, on the job training I guess.

Q: Are you able to identify, and you sort of talked about this already, but are you able to identify specific changes in your writing between college and now? And if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Practice. The practice – doing it again and again and again – and I think the more I do it, the better I get. I am by no means a very, very good business writer, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, and enough that I can get an email out and get some people to register for a webinar if I need to. At the end of the day, no one’s going to be asking me to write a white paper or an extensive study on something, nor do I want to, because that’s not what I’m good at and I recognize that. One of the positives of not having a team of writers to rely on is that I do get to flex that muscle a little bit, and learn a little bit, and keep at it, so that I don’t lose that skillset when I need it. So just doing it myself and learning as I go, and making those mistakes, is the thing that keeps me active with my writing. And then it keeps me interested in writing outside of business as well. Now and again I’ll find myself doing a little bit of writing outside of the business world just for my own enjoyment, and kind of break away from that sort of stodgy, very structured business tone that you have to have sometimes.

Q: We talked a little bit about ways in which your academic background did not prepare you to write in the workplace. Are there, on the other hand, things from your academic life that you felt did prepare you for writing in the workplace?

A: No, I think it was a lot more preparation to get into the workplace. I go back to– they taught us how to write a resume, they taught us how to write a cover letter, they taught us how to write a thank you note, all the things that people did back then when they were looking to get into the workplace. I don’t know if that’s happening today. I think it was a lot of effort spent on making sure we got you out of here, and got you a job after you graduated, and then you’re on your own after that. And that’s the way I truly feel. A lot of my training was in speech communication. I took speech classes, I didn’t take writing classes. Which, now thinking back as a journalism student, I think I took the standard English and things like that, but there wasn’t, from what I can remember, a specific course of writing that I took to help me prepare, definitely not business-focused writing. I wasn’t in a business school at all. And there’s things I would do differently for sure. Oh gosh, if I went back, the things I would do differently, in terms of my education and what I’d prepare myself for, but I am grateful for the instruction that I got because it got me a job two weeks after graduation. I don’t know if students are doing that these days. But that’s what I feel the emphasis was on. The emphasis was on we will prepare you to do whatever it takes to get you a career outside of this institution when it is time for you to leave.
Q: Interesting. We’ve mostly answered this question, but in what ways were you unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce. Is there anything that you’d add that you haven’t touched on here?

A: Again, I go back to business writing, how to speak to a certain– I didn’t spend time learning different audiences that different industries might be marketing to or selling to. My first job out of school was working at a publishing company that specialized in executive-level newsletters to companies in the Fortune 500 and that sort of thing. Nothing in school prepared me how to write a communication for that type of person, nor the next type of audience that I worked with. Again, I wish I had a little bit more of an understanding of the different types of business audiences that are out there that are receptive to different types of marketing and selling, because it does change. And then knowing the industry that you’re in and what you’re trying to sell. At that time I was trying to sell newsletters about wireless communication and the gaming industry and the cable industry. I knew nothing about those things and you’d have to pick that stuff up because you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about. There was never any preparation for anything like that. And again, it was all just sort of learning about it as I went.

Q: Two more questions. Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?

A: I could be better, I could be better. Sometimes during revisions and proofing and things that I get back from people who’ve looked at my work, I’ll go, “Oh geez, I should’ve known that,” or “Geez, why did I do it that way?” or “Oh, that makes so much sense.” I don’t feel like I do it enough to really, really, really, really, excel at it – I do it just enough to get by. Again, like I said, nobody’s hiring me to write a report a white paper, but I’m deadly with an email [laughter].

Q: And what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: Understanding the audience. Understanding what are they looking at all day long? What are the things that are effective in terms of communication for them? What are the things that bring them in that are interesting to them? What is their day to day struggle like? What does their day look like? What do they have to deal with all day long? So understanding the best way to communicate with them that is a way that doesn’t get lost in all the other clutter and the things they’re looking at all day long, whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s on their own internal communications, or other marketing that they’re getting, or sales messages that they’re getting. You have to understand how to stick out in the fray of all of that, and that it takes a little while to understand that. And again, it’s trial by error. Luckily, when you’re in a marketing organization, you’re constantly being judged in terms of was your output or your activity effective? And so we’re looking at that all the time and we’re making changes based on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of certain types of communication. So I get instant feedback in terms of how something did that I was responsible for writing, and then we take the time, as much as we can, to understand what went right and what went wrong, and then how to make changes for the next time. And I like that, it’s a fun part of the job actually.

Q: Great, thank you so much.

A: You’re welcome.

Click here to read full transcript

Instructional Librarian

Education

Instructional Librarian, University

Date of Interview: February 7th, 2017

Transcript:

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

A: 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!

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