Communications and Professional Development Manager

Arts, Government & Military

Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKER:             Do I consider myself?

SPEAKER:             Yes.

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

SPEAKER:             Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Legal Administrative Specialist

Government & Military

I’m a legal administrative specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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

I think it was 2011, so I guess, seven years.

How long have you worked in your current field?

In this job, two years and a month.

OK. And could you just provide me with sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

OK. Yeah I take telephone calls from veterans. I assist all veterans and dependents and survivors of veterans. So it’s a couple different kinds of people. I assist them with understanding a specific subset of the benefits that veterans can receive. So, it’s a service-connected disability compensation, veterans wartime pension, which is a needs-based, benefit based off the income and medical expenses that a veteran is handling. Then there’s also two survivors-type benefits. One is called dependency and indemnity compensation for a survivor of a deceased veteran who passed away due to a service connected disability or in some way related to their service. Or survivor’s pension wishes–the survivor’s version of the veterans war time.

I see. OK. And could you estimate maybe in a given week how much of your job requires writing?

About 50 percent of it. A lot of calls can be answered by just by finding information that they–that they’re asking me about. But sometimes I have to help with claims and their benefits and things like that because while I help them understand their benefits I also have to help them understand what we’re asking when they are making claims about their benefits and things like that and take their answers.

I see. OK. So yeah could you talk a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you most often have to write?

OK. so there’s two main types of documents that I will write. One is a report of general information. It’s kind of a–when there is evidence or a statement being made by a veteran or if there’s evidence being gathered or responses for information that we’re asking about — a couple other uses for it too. But that’s generally what that’s for. The other is a VA inquiry, which is essentially when something’s wrong–like if there a date of birth incorrect or if there’s something that’s not fitting or guidances or something like that something is out of the ordinary, it’s the action taken to escalate and correct.

I see.  So could you talk a little bit about the primary audiences and purposes of those?

Primary audiences–like who’s receiving who’s receiving? 

Yeah.

OK. So both of them go roughly to the same place. So while I work at a regional office I’m on national lines, so I can get somebody from Georgia or I can get somebody from the Philippines or I can get somebody from Virginia or even in England or something like that if they’re a U.S. veteran, calling. And I help to route where it’s going to go as well. So if someone should be handling their claim in Connecticut, I help get them to get the information to the regional office that would be handling their jurisdiction.

I see. OK. And the purposes of communication–can you talk just a little bit about that in more detail?

Sure. So say we’re asking for some–that is an example of it — I think that might help make things more–make more sense. So for the reports of general information, if we’re asking for, like if somebody wants to add a dependent, which they can in some cases at a higher level of compensation for, we need certain bits of information. If they submitted an application with part of the information we would need for that, like the name and the place of birth but not the date of birth of the child, and didn’t put the social security number, I could take that response and send it off to the regional office. The group that’s processing claims so they have all the information they need.

Perfect.

And it seems at first that it would be easier to get in contact with the person directly, but the reason I exist in this job is so that they actually have the time to actually process the claims. If they did my job too, they wouldn’t’ have the time to do  it.

Got it right. OK. That makes a lot of sense. Yet that example works really nicely. Could you walk me through the process for the writing of one specific maybe recent document or recent project done, sort of start to finish for everything from how it arrives to you to any planning or preparation and then drafting and if there’s revision or editing? Sort of what that whole process looks like?

Sure. It’s not often extremely long. Drafting a document to say something like that it’s not usually much more than a page at a time. It’s a lot more bite-sized information. So it’s usually just taking a little bit of information here and there. But so if I see that they were sent a letter, and they’re calling about their claim and I think they were recently sent a letter asking for the Social Security number and–say we’re asking for a bit of information about their claim. Let’s say they have hearing loss and they have a heart valve issue or something like that. Maybe it’s something related to Agent Orange. They’re claiming. So we would ask for information a lot of times about where they had gone to see doctors when they first noticed they had this disability. We might be asking for service treatment records, if they–if they were difficult for us to obtain through normal federal federal channels. Sometimes we can’t get them in certain cases. There was a fire at the National Archives that destroyed some records. So sometimes we have to try to work around that–[indecipherable].

Okay. It’s interesting, yeah.

So we’ll try to gather the information that is needed. So I’ll usually see a development letter and it’s asking for very specific information. And I’ll read through it with them and ask them, Can you provide an example of your service treatment records? If they say yes, then I’ll know that they’ll be sending those along. It could give me periods of treatment that they’ve received, medical treatment, I’ll know the places and dates they did it. I can note the period of time they first started having any disability, things like that. And it helps to get the claim moving forward, so that we don’t have to wait on the information necessarily through the mail–taking ten days here to get their mail, so they can respond, and then they get back to us–it could take way longer. When they can just call us, and a lot of times we can just identify some of the information.

Perfect. OK. That makes a lot of sense. So how do you know how to perform these types of writing?

I mean there is a training process once you’re in this position and they kind of go through what you should be doing, how you should be handling it, how about it to the right people. But, I mean, having a college education is a requirement in any…for the most part. Everybody who I work with has a college degree or something along those lines. So having a background in writing and all of that just so you are very clear about what you’re doing and what you’re asking, is very helpful.

Gotcha, gotcha. Has there ever been a time when you were writing in this job that you felt unprepared as a writer?

No, not as a writer. There–there can be certain things that you don’t really feel like you’re prepared for. But not the writing portion of it.

Ok, ok. Does anybody oversee these reports or any of the writing that you do?

To some degree–there is a…while it’s happening, no. I do get monthly reviews. And part of it is based on correspondence that I send. It’s a mixed bag of review. So it’s–it’s kind of it’s based on: Did you do the right thing? Like, when you, when you–and somebody mentioned something on the call, did you take the right action, and by doing this write up? And when you wrote it did you write it correctly? And did you send it to the right people? 

OK. 

That’s kind of a basic rundown.

Gotcha. OK. So it’s much more about content and sort of decision making than it is about writing style or tone or anything like that?

Yeah, it’s not really descriptive writing from an academic point of view. It’s more about being direct and having business writing and being very clear about what it is you’re asking.

Perfect. Yeah, absolutely. How long do you typically have to compose one of these–like an average correspondence?

We used to have less time — we had calls times that we had to meet a very long time. This couple of months they got rid of that, thankfully because I I personally felt like that was not a good policy to be rushing people off the phone. That is really what it resulted in. Can I understand why they had it? They didn’t want people saying on the phone forever, and people not being addressed. But now that they have taken that out, I technically to a large scale have as much time as I need, but it doesn’t really take a long time to do these because it can be anywhere from a sentence to maybe a large paragraph. But not usually much longer than a couple of sentences.

Gotcha. All right. And what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create when you were a college student?

I remember a lot of them were more lengthy writing, analytical writing, extrapolation of what I thought something meant. Less with…there wasn’t really much direct in how to compose an email, which is funny you didn’t think that it was something that was all that important. And I figured it out–it’s not something that we really went over with like how to just be very direct and say what you mean and how to avoid being confusing. It’s something we went over actually one time I had it in college, and it was not in English composition class of any kind. It was in a psychology class. I’m trying to remember the words used here. But it was, it was about the different meanings of sentences, like what it can mean–like what you can accidentally say when you’re trying to say something. The word isn’t coming to me.

It’s interesting. Yeah, that’s that’s especially interesting that it was in a psychology class that that even got touched on. What was your major?

Psychology.

Ok, yeah. Do you think that any of your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you do now?

Not especially, not directly, but having an understanding of how to–spell, how to type, how to–how to do a great deal more writing than I really need to do now, it’s very good practice.

Gotcha. Is there anything–you mentioned you know talking maybe about direct address and e-mails–is there anything else that you wish you had learned in college or practiced in college to prepare yourself?

As far as writing?

Yeah.

I guess just being sure how to be clear and–like a lot of it is more focused on–a lot of what I’ve learned in writing classes is how to think critically about whatever the subject matter was. So it was usually more centered around whatever we read than whatever we were writing about. I suppose to some degree the writing is just a tool to get from point A to point B, so it makes sense.

Yeah that’s interesting. That’s really interesting. So, as we sort of switch back to the writing that you do now, could you talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing?

Yeah, well if I state things incorrectly then quite a bit. There have been situations where I’ve caught things on files where it has–it’s resulted in the award of several tens of thousands of dollars to people who deserved it. So, quite a bit is at stake. People could potentially if I state something incorrectly if the evidence isn’t getting from them to the group that’s processing the claim, they may not ever get that. They might not even realize the important thing that they just kind of said in conversation, how important that is, and I might need to translate that over to them.

Oh, that’s interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that process? Like when you say that you’re sort of translating that for a different audience? Could you talk a bit more about that?

Yes. I’ll do my best to do it. I–I want to try to respect the privacy of the people–

Oh, of course.

I need to be careful…but essentially sometimes people will say things, like–To, to understand this I’m going to give you a better understanding of certain types of veteran benefits. So there’s something called a presumptive benefit, where if you were there and you have this disease, we assume it’s because of this thing. An example of that would be exposure to Agent Orange. Another big example is exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. So if you having, let’s say, if you have diabetes mellitus, and you were in Vietnam during the time when they were spraying Agent Orange, then we can assume that there is a causal link between the two. So there are certain special subsets where that applies.  However, for that to work, you have to be able to show that you were in Vietnam during that time, or another affected area. So with that being said, if they don’t know how to link–like if they don’t know how to show that they were in Vietnam during that time, which will be difficult for certain groups, say naval–if you’re far enough out you at sea we might not be able to consider you presumptive. However if you were inland when you were dropping troops off really close to the shore, we may still be able to do that. You have to be able to show things like where your ship is stationed and things like that. So I help people do things like–there was one where he’d mentioned a newspaper article that mentions people in his unit. I helped him kind of pull that together, show where somebody in that unit was–that there was an accident or something that occurred, so that I could help place him where he was.

Oh that’s really interesting. OK.

These can kind of be lengthy conversations when this kind of thing comes up because I try to help them figure out how to piece it together.

Right. And it’s interesting because of course like I’m thinking about recent veterans when we started our conversation. But of course you’re dealing with all veterans, so yeah, yeah. And that that documentation of that memory might not be there. So that’s really interesting. Yeah. So there’s, there’s definitely a research component to some of this it sounds like?

Yes.

Yeah, interesting.

It’s usually somewhere between three minutes and an hour, and it can be really between that amount of time. It’s closer to a smaller amount. I’d say  the average call time is probably around six or seven minutes. But there are the outliers that are much greater.

I see okay. That’s really interesting. So what would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your position?

Most difficult? I guess just making sure you’re hearing things that they’re saying while you’re trying to get it all down because people speak quicker than is easily gathered and written down. So while you’re trying to make sense of it all and they’re still saying something, you might miss something important.

Gotcha. That makes sense. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally on the job?

On the job? No. Well…somewhat. So there are in my position there are…there’s like a one step up from where I am, called a lead legal administrative specialist. They can kind of help steer you in the right direction, but I don’t think they’re really there to be writing it for you, but more to give you guidance about how you should handle it.

OK.

So that’s probably really unclear. So, more of a–is this a situation where… like should I do a VA inquiry that I mentioned earlier or should I not do that and instead do another action? It’s more of what they’re there for; they’re not really there to write it out for you. But they will help you phrase it if you need them to, but I’m at the point where I don’t really need it anymore.

Right. Is that because they understand, like, the terminology better than say a person who’s just new in your position? Is it mostly about phrasing? Or is it more about like persuasiveness?

Phrasing, not so much persuading. But, yeah just to make sure you’re using the right terminology.

Perfect. OK.

Yeah, in government writing. You’re going to find that most of the things that are said involve at least two or three or four acronyms per sentence, so making sure you know which system is which. And what’s going on there. And a lot of times they will refer to old systems that now are controlled by a different system. It’s nightmarish and confusing when you’re new.

I can only imagine. Yes. I just have a few questions left, so I’m wondering if you could describe how you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

In this career specifically or in general?

In general. 

OK, so when I was a high school student I wasn’t exactly the best writer, I didn’t really see the value of it until probably junior year. I finally started to take it more seriously. I was not the most serious student prior to that. I became much more serious student in college, and I really worked myself up to a better spot. I got a better mastery of language and writing and ended up really enjoying it. But I did not really see it as valuable at first. I assumed at the time that I probably would have ended up in trade work which I didn’t. So I guess it’s actually a pretty strong transition from a C student to an A-level student in English composition and things. So I think it was a pretty strong transition, and then getting a job where it is a–not a lengthy writing process, but a lot of writing in the short term, is mostly what I do–is just writing answers to things.

Yeah. Do you think that writing is valued in the agency as a whole?

I mean there are training courses in how to–how to be clear and–clear and concise in your requests in emails. That being said I have seen some very unclear, confusing writing, where I’m not sure what they’re asking or I’m not sure what they’re saying. So I think the organization as a whole probably does value it. I think that it needs work for certain individuals, but I think that as a whole they’re trying.

OK. And how would you have defined successful writing as a student as opposed to successful writing in your current position?

Extremely differently. So with English writing being able to…it almost seemed more…it seemed a lot more about the description of the current project. As much as it’s very nice to read a good story and to appreciate it, it seemed more about that than the actual writing process itself at the time.  And of course that’s my own personal experience with specific professors.  But, in this case it’s just about being extremely clear and trying to…it’s kind of a funny idea, thinking back to college where you’re writing a long essay and you think, this has got to be another page. I really stretch this out. Versus, but really the goal is to cut it down make it make sense. You’re not just stretching it for no reason. In the current position it’s not about a grade, it’s about getting a point across and to make a point a little bit easier, keeping it short is usually better.

And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

I would think so. I think I’m the second highest rated person in my office. So I would say so.

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Senior Associate of Marketing Strategy

Business, Government & Military


My current job title is Senior Associate of Marketing Strategy and Analysis currently working at [redacted] consulting. And it has been nine years since I graduated from college.

Great. And how long have you worked in this field?

In the field of marketing I’ve been working since I graduated. Here at the government services. I’ve been working for three months now.

Oh, great. Okay. And could you tell me first, just a brief overview of what the organization does, and then a description of your primary job functions?

Sure. So the organization is divided into both a public sector, which is the government side that I work on and private sector, commercial, media, and communications. So my job specifically is working with government clients, specifically with NIH, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, working on a communications project for them. So we are government contractor hired by different government agencies to perform a variety of tasks. They range from technology, communications, marketing development, so anything and everything that we could do for the government we work on. 

Great, okay. And and in terms of your specific job description, how, how does that play out?

So my specific job description is working with marketing strategies. So I am basically brought in to develop marketing plans and strategy to get the word out, for whatever the project or goal is, of the government client. So I do a lot of writing in communications plans, and even writing for tactics, and basically managing the project from start to finish. So building the plan all the way to all the little nitty gritty day to day stuff, and then finishing out with metrics and analysis of how our campaigns performed. 

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

I would say, during the week, a good, huh…if we’re counting everything from like, email communications to like writing of what’s going out to the public? 

Yes. 

I would say like a good 50% of my job is writing. 

Great. Okay, wonderful. Could–you mentioned a couple of those things–could you tell me more about sort of the forms or types of documents that you most often write?

So, on the strategy side, most of the forms that I’m writing are like developmental plans. So very high level overview, giving executive summaries, doing strategic analysis on the project or the client, and then diving in deeper and looking at specific tactics and how we want things to perform. So it’s a lot of like research and translating that into a Word document that my internal team can use, but also something that the client can refer back to. So it’s like a lot of project briefs, and communications plans. And then the other side of the writing is actually writing for the communications that are going out, whether it’s like emails or social media posts, or video scripts. So some of the high level and some of the day to day, and then sprinkled in there are just the daily communications and like emailing with the client, and then emailing like internally with the team. 

That makes a lot of sense. When you’re thinking about this content, just to clarify, like if you’re writing social media posts for a client or writing a video script, who is the ultimate audience for those pieces of writing?

So the usual audience for people that are viewing the video or receiving the email are the general public that are subscribed to receive information from NIH. So for example, the emails go out to a blast of health information subscribers within that network. So they have opted in to receive that. The videos, for example, or social media are more of a broad audience, not necessarily somebody that’s subscribed, but someone that just falls into the net of, you’re interested in a health topic or you might be in the network of somebody that’s interested in health or practices in health and see a video that they shared on their page from us. 

Got it. And, and let’s look at that–if we think about that social media again–what is the primary purpose usually of that kind of communication?

So our primary purpose for social media is really to build awareness and to get shares. We want to get the word out for our messages, specifically for highlighting something that’s going on in the health world, or if there’s like a new resource that’s available, we want people to take that resource and use it, and also share it with their networks. So that can be downloading a resource and posting it in a doctor’s office. Or, say you have a friend that’s suffering from a disease that we just released an article about, and you want to share that information with them? I would say those are our primary goals to build awareness and get those shares and likes out there. 

Great. Could you take maybe a specific recent project or, or even a type of project and and talk a little bit about the process start to finish, sort of how that task comes to you any planning, drafting revision, sort of the whole, the whole process?

Sure. So one of the projects that I manage and work on are the Health Awareness Months for my specific branch of NIH. And what this is, is every month for the different branches in NIH, they feature a disease or something that research is being done on. So diabetes is a big one. Diabetes month is coming up–that is in November. So from start to finish, when we receive this project, we know when it’s happening, so kind of start to build our timelines. And then from there, we want to establish what our goal is for this month. Do we want to build awareness for the general public? Do we want to have partners engaging? Do we just want to get the word out there and have people use this for the month [indecipherable]. So we have a big kickoff meeting to establish what our goals and our objectives are. And then from there, we begin writing our communications plans and diving into the specific tactics and strategy for how we want to accomplish the goals. So once we’ve kind of laid that groundwork, and everyone’s on the same page, we can go into the day to day execution, to get the tactics out to hopefully bring us back analytics and metrics that hopefully are meeting our goals and exceeding them. Then, yeah and then from there, we do a big wrap up, where we create this report, again, more writing that dives into what was successful, what we learned from this campaign, giving a summary of just what our awareness month was. And anybody could use that. So we want to write that in a way that our internal teams can reference, other people at NIH can reference, whether you had your hands in the project or not.

Oh, interesting. And so when you’re writing that, that wrap up report, is that a collaborative piece? Or are you the the specific person who writes it?

It’s a very collaborative piece, because there’s so many different elements and tactics that go into a campaign. So we have people from our digital team, for example, that ran social media, writing their portion, saying which posts performed the best. And then we have somebody that worked on the video, for example. So she’s writing what her findings were in creating that and we have email blast people that are tracking how many opens and clicks. So a lot of the more quantitative and like tactical information is coming from those teams, whereas I’m looking at it from a strategic level to see what worked best, what we might want to do again, and like did this strategy–was it  successful for the campaign. 

I see. And so are you are sort of–do you give those individual specialists feedback on the writing that goes into this report?

I do, in I guess my own way, we’re very much like in the digital age. So sometimes it’s a conversation, but usually, it’s like within a Word document we use, like track changes if we want to, you know, make sure we’re positioning something in the right way. For example, like, if a campaign–or sorry, if a tactic in a campaign didn’t perform that well, we want to make sure we’re positioning it in a way that makes it seem like you know, we’re learning from what we did, it wasn’t a complete failure, there was still some sort of success, trying to find the positive in it. So a big part of my job is making sure that we are spinning things like the right way. Where somebody who’s very much like a specialist and in the weeds is looking at it as like strictly numbers. So yes, that is a–that is a part to kind of review how the overall report is developed and like sent out to clients.

I see. And so it sounds like, in addition to this being a really sort of important informative document, you’re also in some ways, sort of justifying the work that was done even when it wasn’t 100% successful? 

Yes, yeah. 

Okay, that’s really interesting. How did you–this is sort of a broader question, but how did you know how to do this kind of writing?

So this is something that I learned at my previous job. Like, as I mentioned, I’ve been working in the public sector now for just three months. But before that, I was an in-house marketing strategy person. So I worked in the private sector. And my last company was definitely one of those very fast paced, learn a lot really quickly. And a big part of our training in my last company–and a big part of our job was the client relation part and how to speak to a client, how to write to a client. So I’m starting to bring that skill level over here to where I am, because it is part of an experience, having that relationship with, you know, a contractor that you have hired, that’s not an employee of the company you’re at. So at my last job, we went through boot camps with our owner on how to approach situations, difficult or easy, and if you’re caught in a situation where you don’t know how to give an answer, you are–we were trained and taught how to handle those. So while, of course, we never want to lie or tell like a false truth, there is a way of spinning it that makes it look positive, or we have learned from something or this is–there is a brighter side to what we did. And I think that clients become really receptive to that experience, rather than like, we tried this, and it didn’t work. So yeah, that was a big part of, of my last job was was how to interact with with clients.

That’s great. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Um, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer?

Yeah, 100%. Um, I was not a writer in college. My degree is in Information Science. So things that I was writing were code and those types of things. We didn’t write papers in my, in my major. So when I got into marketing, I quickly realized that a lot of it is writing, whether it’s writing plans or writing, like actual text that’s going out into the world. So I have definitely faced some difficult times with, I guess you would call it writer’s block, a writer would call it–that just not knowing where to start or how do you structure something or make it concise and clear to whoever is reading it. So I’ve been lucky to always work with a real copywriter and collaborate with them. But there are times where the copywriter’s not available and something’s got to get out. So I will write it and it could be either, you know, bouncing ideas off of a copywriter. I google things for templates and structure, just to figure it, figure it out that way. Sometimes, it’s just getting words on a paper and then having somebody else look at it, getting another set of eyes. So those are kind of some of the ways that I try to tackle my difficulties with writing because I’m not a writer.

Well, you clearly are, but you don’t feel that way. I understand. Yeah, that’s really interesting. Um, so we talked about how you oversee writing of other people. Is there anyone who oversees your writing?

Um, I do always share something that I’ve written with either a copywriter when they have time or my manager. And usually my manager is not also a devoted copywriter, you know, or like, that’s what their background is. But I will say once you’ve been in a field for however long like, for example, my manager here has been working here for quite some time, understands the nuances of writing for health. You start to develop that skill, and you can tell if a tone is right or wrong. Or are we taking this, you know, approaching this at the right angle? Is it too wordy? So I always do have somebody look at it, whether it’s somebody in content strategy, or it is my manager who’s usually the same position that I am, in just with more experience. 

That makes sense that makes sense. This will obviously vary significantly from project to project. But how long would you say you typically have to complete maybe one of your more substantial writing projects?

Well, that’s a good question. Since everything is always, always last minute. I would say with the bigger projects, which are usually like writing a marketing plan, anywhere from like, two to four weeks. Usually it’s on like the two week side. But ideally, yeah, it would fall somewhere, somewhere between then if we get our timing right.

Okay. Um, and this asks you to now look back a little bit at college. You mentioned you were an Information Sciences. person? Yeah, so what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? You said code? For sure.

Yes. So I was an Information Science major with a business minor. So there was a little bit of writing, but from what I remember, it was writing in my like, English 101 class that you have to take. And on the business side, the biggest thing I remember writing was a business plan. But other than that, I was not a student that was in classes where I was writing term papers or thesis or anything like that. It was usually very, like, technical. So I would say, aside from like, the basic 101 that everybody has to take, the biggest writing piece that I had was a business plan to complete my minor part of my degree. 

I see. And thinking about that business plan, or the writing that you did in that sort of first year writing class in English 101, are there ways that you think your college writing prepared you for the work you do now? Or does it feel really separate, really unrelated?

Um, I think, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think like, the English 101 definitely gave me like the foundation to, like, construct a sentence and a idea from start to finish. But I think that writing the business plan really helped me with the type of work I do today. So a little bit of both, I think the–you know, the 101 type stuff, just help me sound intelligent and be able to formulate a sentence. But the business plan, especially working in marketing, and in like business, really gave me like the, the structure of, this is where you have to start. And this is where you have to do the middle. And this is what you have to do, in the end, not necessarily like the grammatical part of my writing. 

Are there things that would have been useful for you to do or to learn in college to prepare you? 

Oh, um, I’m–trying to…let me think, things that would have been useful. I think writing for like, every day type of communications would have been useful, because you’re not writing papers, for example, when you’re in the working world, at least not in my profession, not in like, I’m not in a research type of profession. So I think that kind of some of those day to day communications and how to write for people in layman’s terms, like, when I’m talking about digital media, for example, I might be speaking to somebody that has never worked with that, or has heard of it for the first time. So I think in like, yes, the day to day communications, it would have been helpful to have some sort of background on that, but also learning how to speak to an audience that you have to pretend like they don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.

That’s really interesting. Yeah, yeah. Um, could you talk a little bit about what is at stake in your writing?

Um, I think that being an expert in what you’re writing in is really what’s important. I feel like if you develop a piece, and it sounds like you don’t know what you’re talking about, if there’s typos, if statistics aren’t right, if your strategy is all over the place, it doesn’t make sense. That’s really like what’s at stake for me. For me, I was hired to be an expert in my field. And if I can’t write and communicate in a way that shows that, then, you know, my level of like expertise is starting to be questioned. And with a client contractor relationship, building trust is really important. And if they feel like they’re speaking to somebody that doesn’t get them, doesn’t understand what they do, that can cause a lot of problems. So when I’m writing what’s at stake is just really like making sure that my clients trust me, I’m getting my point across clearly. And it’s making sense. I hope that answers that question.

It absolutely does. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense, yeah. Um, what would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

Hmm. Difficult. For me, what I find difficulty in is writing the communications to go to the public. They’re very specific, they have to be written with a certain tone. And you–there is like a element of being an expert in that field. For example, I work a lot with like diabetes work now. So the way that you talk about it has to be really specific, like you can’t contract this disease, it’s something that develops within your body. So using like those types of keywords, I, it’s something that you’d have to just learn over experience and over time, so I find it difficult to get it right the first time with those types of communications. Whereas on the other end, more of the planning type things I feel a lot more confident in and don’t have as much difficulty in that. Sometimes it just takes me a while to like, get to work and get something out that would be going to the general public.

Sure. That makes sense. I mean, this, you’re an expert in your field, but then it’s like you’re expected to be an expert in this other–totally other area. 

Exactly. 

Um, has anyone helped you during your, the course of your career with your writing?

In a sense of like, outside of the working world, or within, like, within working?

With working, but honestly, either. Yeah, since graduating from college, if you’ve gotten any sort of formal or informal help with your writing, if you could talk about that.

I haven’t gotten any formal help as far as like certification classes, or anything like that. Everything has been pretty much from my own experience. But I think I mentioned earlier, we did do like boot camps, like within the company, that were hosted by the owner of the company, to learn about writing styles, and how to communicate on a client relation level with a contractor. So while it wasn’t like very formal, it was some sort of training that has kind of like, set me up for how I write today. 

Excellent. Yeah. And in addition to that, or I guess, taking that into consideration, could you talk a little bit about how you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

I would say I think I’ve like evolved as a writer, just because I have to do it, it’s part of my daily job. And it’s, it’s a big part of what I have to do. So just practicing and doing it every day. I think it’s really helped me to become better at it. I feel like when I first started working, it was definitely more of like an execution type role where not a lot of writing was involved, it was more like you get a task, and you get it done and out the door. But now that I’ve kind of moved on to a different level, more senior levels, it is a lot more about the strategic thinking and planning. So I’ve had to learn how to write. And that’s kind of how I feel like I’ve evolved, and I feel like it’s just going to continue in that direction.

Right. Um, thanks. Excellent. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?

Um, I think that writing is–I think it’s very valuable, especially because you’re working with a client and like outside source. It’s not something internal, and you have communications that are going out to hundreds of thousands of millions of people. So your reach is a lot more than if you were just working within a small team, and you’re only emailing amongst each other. So I would say writing is a is a really big, big component of what we do here. We are–I’m working on a communications project. So it’s huge.

Excellent. And our last little question or set of questions here: How did you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now? And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

As a student, I guess every student defines their success through their grades. But I will say that as a student my skill level or skill set within technical, math classes and science classes, not in writing. But I would say, you know, I was definitely like an average student when it came to English type literature. But now, because I’m not doing math problems and I am having to write, my success level is definitely a lot higher than when I was in school. I would say that I’m a successful writer, I feel that, especially with communications with the client, writing emails and things like that, I feel very confident. I’ve heard from reviews that I’m doing well, in that sense, and even writing for things for the public. Like, I don’t feel like I would have been able to do that many, many years ago as quickly and as well as I do it now. So if I had to say if I was successful or not in writing in the workplace, I would say that I am.

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Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

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

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

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

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. 

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

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

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

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

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

For example. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent.

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Program Specialist, Records Management

Government & Military

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:07

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

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

Tell me about what that is. 

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

Can you search descriptions too?

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

OK.

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

9:13

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

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

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

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

10:09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure. 

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

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

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

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

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

18:32

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

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

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

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

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

That’s really interesting. 

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

Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27:47

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

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

So for each of those things? 

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

33:37

Right. OK that’s perfect. 

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

Nothing is too specific. 

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And can you clarify what that term means?

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

that is being… Yeah yeah.

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

Yeah. 

Okay yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49:03

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

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

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

Overall?

Overall.

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

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

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

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

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

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Graphic Designer, Unnamed Govt Agency

Government & Military

Graphic Designer – Unnamed U.S. Government Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20:41     Speaker: Yes. Yes.

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

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

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

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

22:10     Speaker: I see.

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

23:25     Speaker: There are also privacy issues.

23:27     Speaker: Right, gotcha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26:01     Speaker: Right. Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

27:17     Speaker: Of course.

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

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

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

28:09     Speaker: Tell me more about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34:17     Speaker: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaker: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39:21     Speaker: Of course.

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

40:00     Speaker: [laughter] Sure.

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

40:29     Speaker: Interesting.

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

40:46     Speaker: That’s really interesting.

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

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

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

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

41:58     Speaker: Yes.

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

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

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

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

43:52     Speaker: Yeah.

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

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

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

 

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Management Analyst

Government & Military

ManagementAnalyst1_September2018 – 9_9_18, 10.37 AM.mp3

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

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

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

A:                            It has been 10 years.

Q:                           How long have you worked in your field?

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

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

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

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

A:                            Yeah like 90 percent probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Who weren’t subject matter experts?

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

Q:                           Got it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Your immediate boss do you know her title?

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

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

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

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

A:                            Actually pretty she knows most of it.

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

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

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

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

Q:                           OK.

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

Q:                           OK.

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           What did you? study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           What is at stake in your writing here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Did you have experience editing before this position?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT

25:40

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Great.

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Communications Director

Government & Military

Communications Director, Congressional Office
23:27

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: That’s great, thank you so much!

A: Yep, sure thing.

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Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Government & Military

Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Date of Interview: March 5th, 2017

Transcript:

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

A: I’m a foreign affairs officer, I work at the Department of State, and I graduated from grad school in May of 2014.

Q: Great, and do you mind telling me when you graduated from undergrad?

A: That would be December of 2011.

Q: Perfect, okay. Can you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: That’s a good question. It kind of varies from day to day, but at the moment I’m the lead for my bureau on this intelligence sharing program that we have going on that involves partner countries from around the world. So a lot of that is making sure that when we invite a new country from my particular region to this program, that everybody in the Department is okay with it, and we kind of gather consensus from the US government that everyone else is okay with it as well. Then we manage that process from there, like deciding what they can and can’t be privy to while they’re a part of this program, like who can participate from the country, things like that. In addition to that, I also work on some other smaller counter-terrorism issues, and on the more boring end of things that I do, it’s managing my bureau’s role in this approval process for the use of new funding authorities. In this case, it’s like a new funding authority the DOD was given that the State Department has to– we have concurrence authority on, so they come to us with a plan about how to spend this money, and then we shop it around to the Department, again, making sure everybody’s on board with it.

Q: Okay, okay, alright, that makes sense. 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: When you say writing, do you mean official documents, or– ?

Q: Actually anything from a casual email, or a text, all the way through to official documents.

A: I would say probably six out of eight hours every day are spent writing in some form. It’s usually, more often than not it’s emails, or infrequently it’s text messages over this program that we use called Microsoft Link, which is just like an instant messenger program that plugs into Microsoft Outlook. And then for my particular job, it’s rare that I’m rare that I’m writing official documents, but that does happen. When I say official documents, I mean like memos and things like that. It does happen, just not all that often for me.

Q: Okay, alright. So the bulk of it is email?

A: Yeah.

Q: Perfect. And this sort of leads to the next question – what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So email, very occasionally the sort of text communication there, and then you mentioned memos. Are there other kinds of genres or documents that you write?

A: The State Department has a number of different types of memos, like there are certain– they’re called action memos, that you send up to somebody higher-ranking to get them to make a decision on an issue. So it’s like literally framed as, “We recommend that you approve blah blah blah,” and then there’s even a little “approve/disapprove” thing for them to circle, like which one they want to do. But they’re all roughly the same, in that you are usually providing background on an issue, and then explaining your office’s or your bureau’s position on that issue and what you think should be done. But then there’s also stuff like responses to letters from members of Congress, inquiring about a particular issue. Sometimes writing back to NGOs that have written to the Department, although for me that’s very rare. Yeah, that’s all I can think of at the moment.

Q: Great, okay, excellent. Were you familiar with those genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: I was vaguely familiar with them when I was in grad school, but only because I had done an internship at the State Department prior to starting grad school.

Q: Okay. How did that familiarity affect your approach to them when you got into the job?

A: I don’t know if I actually retained any of that familiarity between my internship and when I started working there, other than knowing what they were. It took a bit to get accustomed to the Department of State’s writing style, which is, you know, they emphasis always using the active– staying away from passive sentences, and they place a strong emphasis on brevity, I guess. So it’s supposed to be short, declarative statements and now, it changes with the administration and who’s in charge, but they’ve started introducing new limits on what we can write. So if we’re sending something up to the Secretary of State, they’ve mandated that it not be longer than two pages, which is fairly normal, I guess. Everybody says nobody has time to read anything longer than that, so it’s kind of been unofficial policy to keep things shorter than that, but now it’s getting more officialness, or however you want to say it.

Q: Does that feel stressful? Or are there situations that you could conceive that would require more than two pages?

A: Yeah, just about any issue we deal with could easily take up ten pages so trying to cut it down to that is– it can be frustrating at times because, depending on the issue, there’s just no way that you can cover every single thing that you need to hit upon in a two page limit. The issues that we deal with are so complex and multifaceted that you can’t, it’s just impossible to get everything in a document that short. Luckily, you can supplement those documents with an in-person briefing, so you can go talk to the person and give them additional details.

Q: Okay, that’s really interesting, okay. Could you describe for me your writing process, including how writing tasks come to you, how you prepare if there’s any preparation, and any steps you take from the start to finish? And it might make sense to think about either one of the more complex emails or maybe one of the memos, like something on the formal side.

A: So for emails, I don’t really send out anything very formal, it’s usually just questions to colleagues or responding to questions from my colleagues, and that’s just a very informal style. It’s more like an email that you would write to your friend. But for writing memos– oh sorry, just to backtrack a little bit about the other things that we write – we also have these things called briefing checklists, so it’s for, say the head of my bureau is going to be meeting with a defense contractor, they will task us with writing this briefing checklist, where it’s basically like a rundown of the meeting. Like, “You are meeting with so and so, here’s the context, they want to talk about x, y, and z.” So then you give background on x, and then you have a couple bullet points under that that are written in the first person, but it’s supposed to be what the official should say to the person they’re meeting with. So you get the messages you want to convey, or that you think they should convey, that way. So briefing checklists are probably the main thing that my office does.

Q: Interesting. Okay. Let’s say that that is the thing that you are tasked with writing – I assume that the impetus for that is that this meeting is going to take place. But then as you start to tackle a writing project like this, how do you begin? Or does it come to you at a later stage to review?

A: So my office, we deal with regional issues, so we don’t have any one country that falls under us. So when writing things like this, a lot of it is deferring to the desk or the office that is responsible for that country. So a lot of the briefing checklists I write, they don’t deal with issues that I can directly write on without infringing on the country desks. So what I end up doing is just creating the basic outline for the checklist, and then sending it to them so they can fill in their appropriate sections. And the reason why it comes to my office to begin with is because it’ll deal with two countries, say Iraq and Libya, and those, with the way that my bureau is arranged, they’re not in the same offices, and that makes it a regional issue, so we end up being the coordinators for these papers.
Q: Okay, okay. And so you write the first version of it, to clarify, and then you send it out to fill in those gaps to the people who are more–

A: Yeah. Right.

Q: Got it. Okay, cool. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach those changes or how do you approach improving a draft from one stage to the next?

A: Anything that is written at the State Department does go through a process like that, we call it the clearance process. So you’ll have the initial draft, say the memo, and then you’ll send that to all the relevant stakeholders, so basically anybody in another bureau who also deals with your countries. The State Department’s divvied up into regional bureaus, which are the country desks, and then they have what are called functional bureaus, which are the policy-oriented places – so you’ll have the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And then that bureau is further divvied up to reflect the regional bureaus, so the Human Rights Bureau will have a Middle East team. So then you would then send that memo, if it has human rights content, you would send it to the person on the Middle East team in the Human Rights Bureau who deals with that country, and then they review it, and they either add things or delete things as they see fit. And then you do that with all of the relevant offices, so in the most extreme examples, it could be 15 different offices that you’re sending this to. Unfortunately the technology we have is very archaic, so we’re doing all of this through email, and attaching the Word docs to the email, so you’ll get all of these edits coming back to you that you then have to incorporate into a master document. It’s a very frustrating process. We don’t have anything like Google docs, where multiple people can edit a document simultaneously.

Q: Is that because of security or privacy issues that you don’t use Google docs?

A: Yeah, it’s security issues. I think for a lot of the work we do, Google docs just isn’t secure enough. We can’t be putting these documents on the wider internet. So we do have something called Microsoft Sharepoint – it’s ideally supposed to fill the same role that Google docs does, but it’s so unintuitive and hard to use that just nobody uses it, everybody does it through email.

Q: Interesting, interesting. And so all of those stakeholders who take a look at it, they look at it at the same time? Like they look at the same version and then you incorporate those– ?

A: Right.

Q: Okay, I see. That does sound cumbersome, yeah.

A: Occasionally you’ll get people who are editing on top of other office’s edits, so it does cut down on the work somewhat, but that doesn’t always happen.

Q: Okay. It would seem to me in that process that there might be conflicting edits at some point?

A: Yeah.

Q: How do you respond to something like that?

A: If you’re the one who originally sent the document out, you do have the final approval over what goes in there, so you get to choose. But usually you have to talk to the people who have the conflicting edits and see if they can reach some kind of compromise.

  1. I see, okay, interesting. And the edits and revisions that are coming back to you in those documents from those stakeholders – I would assume that they’re content-edits, not really to style at all?

A: Sometimes it is style, but yeah, most of the time it’s content-edits.

Q: Most of the time, gotcha. Okay, great. How long do you have to write a typical project?

A: For some of those briefing checklists that I mentioned, it’s only a matter of days, and that’s to write it and then send it out for clearance. Things like responses to congressional inquiries can last longer. And then we get reports that are mandated by law that can be due anywhere from 30 to 60 or even 90 days out, so it really varies depending on what the paper is. There’s also voluntary papers that nobody has tasked us with that we just– like we have these things called information memos, which is basically just giving background on a certain issue, or flagging it for the higher-ups so they know that this might be a thing that you’ll see in the news soon or something. And those are just done at, you know, however quick they need to be.

Q: I see, okay. And do they go through any sort of review process?

A: For information memos, the idea behind those is that they are supposed to be from your bureau and your bureau only, so even if they do touch upon another bureau’s equities, you generally don’t clear it with them. Ideally the information memo is supposed to be a direct line between the head of your bureau and the Secretary of State.

Q: I see, okay, interesting. This is a big question, but what is at stake in your writing? It seems to me that the answer could look a lot of different ways depending on the kind of writing, but could you talk a little bit about that?

A: Yeah, again, it would depend on the document type, but it could be something like getting the higher-ups to fall one way or the other on a given issue, or rule on an issue in your bureau’s favor – and I realize that’s very vague and doesn’t really get into specifics. But in other cases, if it’s like a congressional inquiry, it could shape how Congress, if they’re thinking about enacting a law, it could change how it’s implemented, or the exact text of the law, or it could delay or provoke action on Congress’s part.

Q: Right, okay. Who oversees your writing? And I guess what I mean by that is, while you have all these different stakeholders that you talked about, is there a person above you who also has to sort of consistently look at your writing?

A: Yeah, so for my office it’s the deputy director and then the director.

Q: Okay, great. How would you say those two people judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: That’s a good question because by the time it reaches them, it’s gone through so many revisions. The deputy director often just looks at it to make sure that it fits within the Department’s style guide, and then our director – and this varies office to office, this isn’t necessarily how it’ll work everywhere – but then our director does a policy review to make sure that any question that might arise is covered in the text of it.

Q: Okay. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from undergrad? And so what was your graduate degree in?

A: Arab studies.

Q: Okay, alright. So, yeah, have you had any writing training or education specific to the work that you’re doing now?

A: No.

Q: Okay. What challenges do you remember facing when you entered the workplace as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I think the biggest hurdle, as I kind of mentioned before, was adapting to the department’s writing style. I think I wrote fairly colloquially before, and that would just, like you don’t get in trouble for these things, but it’s never fun getting a document back from your supervisor and seeing all these edits that they’ve made to it and how they’ve reworded your sentences. But in terms of adapting to that or how I’ve gone about that, it just kind of arises naturally after you’ve been doing it for a bit. It wasn’t so much a conscious effort, but I do sometimes have to remind myself not to use contractions. Now I’m more vigilant for using the passive voice.

Q: Okay, so passive voice is something that you’re conscious of, but the rest of it you think it sort of evolved naturally?

A: Yeah. And I guess when I reread the stuff that I’ve written, I’m always thinking about if I can make a given sentence shorter or more concise.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to – you’ve half answered this – but are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now, and if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Yeah, it’s much drier now [laughter]. This has more to do with content, but when I was out at the embassy in Jordan, writing cables on a given issue, I initially tried to approach it as I would a research paper in grad school, in that you try to bring in all of these outside sources and establish the context before you start getting into the meat of the issue. But the State Department doesn’t want that. Again, cables don’t really have a lot of the– they definitely don’t have the length restrictions that the documents we write back in Washington do, but shorter is still better, so they– everybody kind of recognizes that the people back in Washington don’t have enough time to read say, an eight-page cable about a given subject, so you want it to cover all the bases but also be as short as possible. So there’s no room for establishing the context, you just have to kind of assume that people know what it is. And in some cases, the lengthy background of a given issue doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s more what’s happening, what the proximate events are.
Q: Can you just describe a little bit more about the writing genre of a cable? I think of it as a sort of a memo or a report, but I don’t really much about it.

A: They kind of vary, depending on what the subject is. So sometimes cables, if it’s about a developing issue, like a hot button issue, it can be essentially just a summary of events. So while I was out in Jordan, this controversial Christian writer was shot dead on the steps of the Palace of Justice, and that was a big deal for us, because it had the potential to incite sectarian tensions in Jordan or interreligious conflict. So that was something that we recognized Washington was going to be very concerned about, so as it was happening, we were already writing the cable for it. So in that case, it was a summary of what happened, how people in Jordan are responding, how the Jordanian government’s responding, but that was a very – I can’t think of the term for it – but it was essentially just almost like a news report. But then there’s other cables that are more like think pieces, like, “This is where we think the government of Jordan is going to be in x number of years,” or, “These are the problems that they currently face and here’s how they might address them or what will happen if they fail to address them in the coming years.” Or there’s some that are kind of more like research papers, but you’re not bringing in– it’s more like you’re out there conducting interviews with people and getting the opinions of elites rather than pulling out a book or something and actually citing page x.

Q: Right, you know, I was going to ask you, when you’re giving this sort of overview of the response of people in the area, is that sort of man on the street, are you out there talking to people? Or does it come from the news more?

A: No, the Embassy definitely doesn’t have the capability to do the man on the street stuff, in any way that would be reflective of the actual public opinion. So we do have to rely on polls and things like that. I mean, there’s nothing to stop us from going out there and just talking to a random person on the street, but what you get back isn’t necessarily going to be a reflection of what the broader population thinks. So we mostly relied on people from think tanks, or government officials, or media reports – when I say that I mean summaries of what the media’s talking about. Actually if you’re Arabic was good enough, you could just watch the news and say, “This is what I saw.” But yeah, there’s dedicated people at the Embassy will monitor the media and kind of give summaries about what the salient issues are.

Q: I see, okay, okay. Thank you. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in the workplace?

A: With the style of writing that we do here, it really didn’t. My grad program, even though it was part of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, they didn’t emphasize practical skills that you might use in the workplace, it was much more academically oriented. It was kind of like a prep course for getting a PhD.

Q: Oh, okay, okay. And when you think back to your undergraduate years, were there things that you learned or strategies that you built as an undergraduate that have applied in the workplace?
A: No, not anything that I can think of, other than just honing your base writing skills.

Q: When you say base writing skills, what are you referring to?

A: Just improving your style or sentence structure and composition, things like that.

Q: Okay, great. You’ve spoken to this in a number of ways, but what are the ways in which you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Naturally I am a slow writer, I like to revise every sentence that I write after I write it, like I agonize over things, or I probably spend way too much time doing that. So the pace of writing is what gets to me. Sometimes you have to do a very quick turnaround on a memo or a cable or something, so that’s, I guess it can be nerve-racking at times, but you kind of get used to it.

Q: Okay. And two more questions: first, would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer, and why or why not?

A: How would you define success?

Q: How would you define success [laughter]?

A: I mean, people tell me that what I’ve written is good, like some of the cables that I wrote while I was in Jordan were used in the president’s daily briefing, although I attribute that more to having written about an interesting topic, rather than anything I wrote personally. I think anybody could have written about those things and they would have been used in that briefing. So I suppose I’m a success? And that my papers get accepted usually without being completely rewritten, so that’s about as successful as you can get.

Q: Great, okay. And the last question – what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: What do you mean? Like what kind of skills are you talking about?

Q: I guess I mean, anything, any variety of skills, but when you think about the sort of skills that you had to work to develop, and that might be sentence-level things, like concision, or it might be more conceptual, high-level thinking. Sort of at either of those.

A: For writing cables, I guess kind of improving your style– so when you write cables, and you’re recounting what this government official said, and then what the head of this think tank said, if your style isn’t that great, it’s going to get very boring and repetitive, because it’s just going to be, “This guy said ‘dah dah dah’, and then this person said, ‘blah blah blah’,” – you’ll just be using the same words over and over again. So knowing how to mix it up, I guess. Like knowing all the synonyms for the word “said” [laughter] is very valuable. And this is specific to cables, because all of these other memos and official papers that I’ve talked about are very cut and dry, like nobody remembers a good briefing checklist, it’s just not something that goes down in the hall of fame. But knowing how to write in an interesting way, and frame things– sorry, just to backtrack a little bit – a lot of cables, they’re weird because they’re not written in a narrative or sometimes even in chronological order, so they want the most important things up front, I guess kind of like a newspaper article. So what the Department defines as most important would usually be like– I guess you could rank the order of importance based on the position of the people in government that are being quoted. So in Jordan, if the ambassador met with the king, then that’s what you’d lead off with, even if it occurred a week after another interview that you’re also writing about in that cable. So adapting to that is difficult because you naturally want to write it in a logical order, but yeah, it’s just something you have to work around. So developing and remembering to employ that is critical.

Q: That makes a lot of sense. It is always clear what the priority in that document is, or is that part of the challenge as well? Like remembering to lead with x is part of the challenge, but is it fair to say that you have to be able to prioritize those events, yourself as well?

A: Yeah, and I think, I mean, I’ve only ever worked at one embassy, so I can’t say this for certain, but based on what I’ve heard from other people who’ve worked in multiple places, every ambassador is going to have their own preferences as to how it should be ordered or what it should take, because the ambassador in most cases is the final approver of every cable that goes out. So you’re writing for two audiences: one is the ambassador, and the other is the people back in Washington who are going to read this. So you have to figure out how to please both people, I guess.

Q: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Great. Thank you!

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