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



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

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017


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


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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Senior Supply Chain Manager

Business, Government & Military

Senior Supply Chain Manager, Consulting Organization for Government

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017


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

A: Sure. I’m a senior manager in advisory services in the government and public sector at Ernst & Young, and it’s been 12 years since I graduated from college.

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

A: Sure. I predominately provide consulting services, more around – I’m in supply chain management – it’s around performance improvement, so how can we enhance a particular agency’s internal supply chain. We’ll go in and maybe do a current state assessment, and identify what are they doing today, and then looking at leading practices, and help them to get to a future desired state.

Q: And are all the clients government agencies?

A: Predominately yes. My focus is on the federal government. I can also work on the commercial sector, more if there’s any downtime, but there hasn’t been at this point.

Q: Okay. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, maybe you can estimate sort of in a given week, what percentage of your time is spent writing?

A: Sure. So definitely write on a daily basis. We’re always working on a particular– there’s always a document or some end product that we’re working towards, and it’s a process of writing to get to that, whether it be through interviews, or drafting different documentation and materials. So it’s not always that I’m physically actually actively writing, but probably anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the time that we’re actually pretty much writing.

Q: Got it. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? What are sort of the typical genres of writing that– ?

A: Sure. So we have informal, where I’m writing emails, and that might just be on a daily basis, whether it be to a client, or it could be internal to team members. I work on draft work products for a client as well. Then we have more formal-type products that we work on – one’s external-focused, so with a client focus. We have final deliverables that we’re always working towards. I also write white papers, which is more around thought leadership in a particular topic or area, highlighting case studies. And then I do proposals or responses to requests for information from the federal government, and then–

Q: Are those, sorry to clarify, are those two different things?

A: Yeah. The government issues a request for a proposal, which is the second half. The first half is a request for information. Government doesn’t always issue a request for information, it’s more if they’re trying to find out from industry what’s possible. What are the current service offerings? How would you go about doing a particular strategy? They might want something in particular with supply chain and to look at, maybe it’s a holistic end-to-end supply chain transformational project. A lot of the times the government’s trying to identify what small businesses can perform the work. But as a large business, either we work with a small business to respond to them, or we try and articulate why it’s important to have a much larger business perspective, because we have the reachback support across– I mean, Ernst & Young has 210,000 employees, so we have reachback support across the entire world, and we can leverage other leading practices, other experiences at federal governments that smaller businesses might not have. So that’s the first piece, and then once the agency identifies really what do they exactly want, then they issue a request for a proposal, and that’s the formal documentation that they are intending to award a contract with real dollars tied to it. And then that is our formal response as to how we would actually go about doing the work. We put in– typically you’ll have resumes, past performances, where have we done something like this before. Then we also build up a whole entire pricing volume, where we’ll say based on what individuals, what labor categories, what’s the price for that labor category, how many hours, and you really build that whole entire cost proposal out.

Q: Excellent. And does that complete the sort of different types of genres, or are there anything else that you– ?

A: Yes, the other key one is formal documentation, it’s around internal doing performance reviews. It’s every six months and then at the end of the year we have formal, documented performance reviews. I’ll also put in there that I do and develop training documentation for both clients, but also internal to the firm, so that’s another major, major work product.

Q: And are those, they’re documents that the trainees are using, as well as lesson plans that you’re using?

A: Yes. So it’s the training content as well as the trainer guide materials. Yep.
Q: Perfect, okay, great. Some of these are obvious from what you’ve said, but could you describe sort of the primary audiences that you usually write to, and what the primary purposes are of your sort of most typical kinds of writing?

A: Sure. So, take it from the client side – it’s more around the service delivery. So we’re on contract for x particular service, and so we’re always looking at, okay, what are our methodologies and approaches that we’re using in order to develop that work product? We might be doing and performing research, and also providing with the client with guidance and advice on a day-to-day basis. We look at it from an internal standpoint, so I typically have a team of individuals that I’m overseeing and guiding. So I’m providing daily guidance, whether it be written through email, we use a lot of Skype or Sametime, sometimes it’s even text messaging, in order to communicate to the team as to – or through phone as well – what are the key activities that we’re working on, provide direction, provide written feedback to every team member who’s working on a team. It’s required by the firm that if you work on a project for more than I think it’s 40 hours a week, that you’re required to have written, documented feedback. And then, I’d say the other area is around coaching and mentorship, which is more informal. But if you gel well with an individual and kind of respect them and look up to them or they look up to you, take them under your wing or you take– basically providing that advice and guidance throughout their career.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with the typical writing genres that you work in now when you were a student?

A: I would say the main one that I was familiar with was like a work product development. I went to Lehigh University, and specifically majored in supply chain. The supply chain department was very heavily focused on case studies, and that really I think helped us to get acclimated to what to expect from doing our research, from presenting materials, from developing a final potential work product. Granted, those work products differ based on whatever project that you’re working on. I would say the other things, no. So back to, even in a client work product, at Ernst & Young I learned that there are what we deem as “bad words” that pose the risk to the firm that I wouldn’t have thought of before, either through academia or even in my past life where I worked for the Boeing Company for seven years. You can’t use the words like “ensure”, like, “we’ll ensure that we will do this.” Well, legally, anybody could come back to you and say, “Well if you ensure, like you absolutely will do this, and how can you ensure it?” or “We will provide the best resources available.” Well, you think that it might be the best, but somebody could always say that, well in a firm of 210,000 employees, they could always say, “Well, this person technically might be better than Matthew is, so why did you have him and not this other person?” That I would have never thought of.

Q: Do you think that that’s internal to Ernst & Young, or is that supply chain on a larger scale?

A: I think it’s on the Big Four accounting firms. It wasn’t the case at Boeing. Now, not to say that it hasn’t evolved, now that is a broader topic, but that was new to me coming in. And it makes sense once I hear the legal ramifications of it, but the firm is very risk averse, and that helps to also justify it a little bit more. And I would say that academia didn’t prepare me for giving performance reviews or feedback, because really it’s more project-focused, versus you work with other individuals on teams but you’re never, because you’re peers, you’re not giving them feedback and critiquing somebody. So I understand why that doesn’t happen, but that I wasn’t prepared for either. But that is an evolution of, as you make it up into a career, I mean you go from the worker bee to managing and overseeing, and that’s the natural progression of any manager or leader is developing those skillsets.

Q: And are there – I’m jumping ahead a little bit here – but are there specific things early in your career when you were more at that sort of worker bee level, strategies that you used specifically for the kinds of, we’ll talk about overall strategies in a minute, but strategies for adapting to genres of writing that were new to you?

A: Yeah, I think from proposal development, I mean when that was new, it was more let’s start to look at previous proposals, really you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Or where you know that you did something really well, let’s leverage that. At least at Boeing, and even at Ernst & Young, you get scored on your proposals by the client, and therefore you can look back and say, “Okay, these areas were technically compliant,” or “They really liked how we laid this out.” You get to know a particular client.

Q: That’s really interesting, I didn’t realize that. So is that only if you win the– ?

A: No, everybody gets scored on their proposals.

Q: Oh, interesting, okay.

A: And then you can request a debrief. Now, when I was at Boeing, your proposals are, I mean the one was 40 billion dollars, so there’s of course, you are spending a year of your life just going into a proposal development when you’re looking at selling hundreds of aircraft, it’s a lot more at stake than – I mean not to say that what we do is not important as well – but when it’s a million dollars or a few million dollars, it’s not as big of a loss whereas, there are so many clients out there who are going to buy a Chinook or an F-22 or something like that, that we can sell to [laughter] as America.

Q: Yeah, okay, alright, that makes sense, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process, both how tasks or assignments sort of come to you, and how you prepare and the steps you take from the beginning of a project to the end? And if it’s useful, you can pick just any typical writing project that you think might be a good example.

A: Sure. Usually it’s a work product of some sort with a client, is the typical type now. The challenge is that that varies from project to project. But usually there is a more standard process and methodology to it. We would, if we use an example like I talked about earlier, where we go in and maybe we’re doing a current state assessment of an organization’s supply chain and trying to help them to get to what their desired future state is, we don’t have any foregone conclusions when we’re going into it. So it’s trying to figure out, okay, first, you want to perform research on the topic and really know the key areas that are important to the client. Usually it’s in your statement of work, so you know what’s in scope, but you still reconfirm that with the client, and making sure that these are the targeted areas that they want to focus on. And then from that, developing an outline, as to okay, here’s our plan of attack, here are the key components that we’re going to focus on. From there, I would meet with my internal leadership to make sure that they are in alignment and that they can provide guidance and editorial process, even say, “No, let’s not focus on this particular area, let’s tweak this area.” Meeting back with the client, making sure that they’re on the same page – because the earlier you can meet and define what your deliverable is going to start to look like in that shell, and you can help to shape it, the more time that you save on the back end. The earlier that you can lock down yes, we want to work on or focus on these particular areas, then increase less rework potentially. From there, then really it’s going through and developing that first draft, so to speak. My style is more overly verbose, I don’t think as much about like, let me just do a brain dump on these key areas and do research and pull in information. Some of that research may be from client interviews as well, in order to understand their current state. And then from there, it is just going through the editing process. I go back through my whole entire document and redline it, and really figure out where do I need to focus on streamlining and consolidating and being articulate. And then that goes through a final editing process back up through my boss for comments, and then we will work with the client to see the final draft, they’ll provide any comments, and then we’ll deliver the final, final–

Q: So the client actually will give you feedback before they see the official final version?

A: Yes, that’s our best practice, because otherwise if you just throw it over the fence and they’re not happy with it, then usually there are very strict timelines as well incorporated into the contract as to how much time they have to review it, how much time we have after they review it. Sometimes we might only have two days, and if they completely say, “This is not what I wanted or what I was looking for,” – I don’t want to be up for 48 hours straight working on something [laughter]. So yes, to the extent possible, we work with them and share the near final draft.

Q: Great. And you talked a little bit about this when you talked about redlining your own work and getting feedback from above you, but are there specific approaches in revision – in that stage when you have a draft but you’re trying to improve it – are there specific strategies or approaches that you take during that time?

A: My strategy’s more I review the document from start to finish, and I will just go through and figure out, I mean I’ll go through the rewriting process from line one. With that said, I will usually not write the executive summary, I’ll save that until the full document is written, and then let the document kind of materialize those key findings, and then pull that out and make sure that that’s up in your executive summary. If there are certain areas where I’m struggling with as to it’s taking me too much time to rewrite or to really the words just aren’t flowing, then I’ll flag it and come back to that paragraph or section. That’s more my process, was there anything else that you– ?

Q: No, that’s great, that’s great. So you talked about how sometimes the deadline will be really tight, based on the client’s responses, but for a typical writing project, say like a medium-sized proposal, how long do you typically have for something like that?

A: Unfortunately with the federal government, things are sometimes very quick timelines. You can as little as five days to turn around a proposal, which is really then all hands on deck, and you job for the most part everything you can. Not as realistic, usually it’s closer to sometimes two weeks to three weeks, which still isn’t a lot. Now, this might be going to much into the business side of it, but usually then if we see something that comes out and it’s a request for a proposal and we only have x number of days as a shorter window for it, as a business, we take a step back and say, “Okay, has somebody else been shaving this? Is somebody else in the marketplace having these conversations, trying to shave that work? Or is this really that they don’t know, they haven’t had conversations before?” – not to say that it’s wired for anybody, but if it’s more of a, does anybody else have a competitive advantage in this, and what’s our probability of winning it by not having the context? Do we know who’s the buyer? Have we been in their office? Do we understand what they do, some of their paying points so we can resonate with them? And if we know what the other competition is, we might not bid on it at that point. So we try to focus more on building those relationships and anticipating these proposals, so that we’re already aware of their paying points and have had conversations with them and to help to kind of talk to them about some of the things that we’re seeing in the marketplace, and really things that they might want to consider as a potential solution.

Q: Excellent. This is another point of clarification for me – so when you talked about the sort of first stage, pre call for proposals, the request for information – does that go out to specific organizations, or to anybody who might be in the market to pitch a proposal?

A: That’s a good question. It depends. Sometimes it can just be up to if a potential client has no idea of what’s even in the market space, that could just be full and open to anybody. They may, because the federal government has small business targets for their contracting, they may just be putting it out there to really focus on small business first, just to see if– and at that point, if it goes small business, we wouldn’t even see it because we’re a large business. And then there are even further subsets of that – there’s an 8(a), there’s woman-owned, there’s small disadvantaged woman-owned businesses, there’s a whole slew of different levels that they can specifically reach out to.

Q: I see. And so when you mentioned maybe a call for proposals with a very tight turnaround, and as a business you would look at it to say, “Has it been shaped by an organization that is likely to win that business?” – is that a product of a request for information? Or not necessarily?

A: No, a request for an information point, no. We make the decision on – if we find out that it did go to small business, a request for information – we can, if we obtain that piece of information, we could still reply back to them to try and shape it and to say, “Have you really thought about it this way?” or “We think of it in this context, and it’s much bigger than, we would recommend you’re focusing on this lever, but really in clients with similar problems we also see that they have these other areas that you’d want to focus on.”

Q: That’s great, okay. What is at stake in your writing?

A: Reputation [laughter], credibility in the space – my credibility as a supply chain professional in the federal government space is probably the biggest thing that’s at stake for sure. The other thing is, even internally with my writing focusing on performance reviews, is just really building that relationship with individuals and being fair, open, honest to them.
Q: And that’s a big part of the culture at Ernst & Young, is that a fair– ?

A: Yep, no that’s fair. People is our number one focus, because if you do not have happy employees, and you don’t treat each other nice and well, then they’re not going to want to continue to work for you. And if they’re not empowered, then they’re not going to be doing as good of a job as they could be. So it’s really heavily focused on people.

Q: Excellent. Who oversees your writing? Could you give me a brief description of their title and their role in the organization? It’s probably not the same person every time, but–

A: It’s not always, but there is always somebody more senior. Now that I’m a senior manager, it would be the next level up is a partner, principal executive director. Therefore anything that I write that is a true deliverable needs to be reviewed by them at certain points if– based on the dollar threshold of the work that we’re performing, we also have a quality executive that is assigned to the project and any deliverables. When I say the word deliverable, it is specifically written in the contract that you are contractually required to deliver this particular work product, this particular document, whatever that end product is. And that quality assurance executive has to review it and make sure that we are in alignment with the firm’s quality standards. So there’s a whole other level of review on major, major work products.

Q: Interesting, yeah. And that quality executive in particular, but also your person who’s above you, a partner that would review it – are they looking at writing style? Or are they looking at more content-based– ? I’m trying to, that’s not–

A: The person who’s above me is looking at style as well as the content. It should be that look on, okay, is this technically sound, and does it make sense? Or does it sound like a second grader wrote it? But yeah, they’re looking at it from that lense, because I’ll get feedback that, “Okay, these paragraphs really need to be either tightened up,” or “It’s not just that carte blanche (23:06?),” like, “Yeah, it looks good, it passes the test.” But the quality executive is more looking for, it’s more of like a legal compliance on again, some of those bad words, more of like the style and are we hitting the key points on the executive summary, and do we have enough detail that resonates with the client to support our theories or our results? So it’s a higher level, but from a different angle on it, which is good. And that quality executive is usually somebody outside of, for me, it’s outside of supply chain. So it’s a good different perspective that they bring to the document.

Q: Wonderful, okay. And how do you think they judge – either the quality executive or a partner – the success or the quality of the writing?

A: If I don’t have to rewrite everything [laughter]. I think that it’s, if we’re able to articulate what are kind of like the key paying points or our key findings, and the key next steps, I think that that is something that they’re looking for. Does it flow well? Does it read nice? Do we think that it’s just going to be shelved? I mean if you’re creating a 40-page document, and it is only text-based and single-spaced font, guaranteed that thing is going to get shelved. And therefore, at least your executive summary has got to be very succinct and concise. Sometimes it’s, can you completely reshape and redesign it so that it becomes something that the client reaches back to and grabs on? And I’ve worked on a few things on revising how we change a– it used to be, not joking, over a 100-page document with all of the logic and methodology and it just got shelved. It’s like, this isn’t what we want, we need the client to be coming back to this and really relying on this on a regular basis. We completely scrapped the whole process and redesigned it, based on what we thought that would work really well and would be tangible with different graphs and charts. So it’s a different style of writing and communicating, and they clenched onto it, and basically they use that type of a work product on a regular basis now.

Q: That’s really interesting. So when you talk about that redesign, if I’m understanding you right, you’re talking both about the physical look of it, and the way the information’s presented.

A: The physical look and the way that the information is presented, yep. The one thing – we changed from a Word document to a Powerpoint presentation. There was a Powerpoint presentation that was in the format of a book, so you could flip through and it kind of tells the story, and you focus on the key areas of interest and key pieces of information that are relevant for specific areas.

Q: Gotcha. So you sort of changed it, is it fair to say that you in a sense changed its purpose? Rather than just being this thing that someone slogs through once, you want it to be a reference guide in some way?

A: Yeah, initially it was still meant to be like a reference guide, but you kind of take a step back and realize people aren’t using– we definitely scrapped a bunch of the information because there was so much on the logic and the methodology behind it they were like, “Just give me the results. What can I see?” And then put that stuff maybe at the very end, if they really still care about it, or put it in the appendix. And if the appendix gets shelved, that doesn’t matter, because at least they have the content that you need them to be focusing on. It’s more of – I don’t even know what to call it – you have the executive summary, but then it’s all your key work products or key documents up front before you get behind all of the background and the minutia that is important behind the process and really validating how you got to all of this goodness, but if you put all of that up front, the reader just starts to fall asleep, essentially. They don’t even get to the important stuff because they don’t know to look that far in advance.

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s great. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college, specific training to writing?
A: I don’t think it’s really been specific for a formal writing training course. There have been things on effective client encounters and some proposal training, and even giving feedback, but it wasn’t like you write down and then somebody analyzes your writing and provides you feedback on how could you better articulate yourself. There wasn’t really anything that I’ve had like that.

Q: Okay. What challenges did you face when you entered the workforce for the first time as a writer?

A: Some of it was really not knowing where to start. You come in from academia and it’s all more, it’s technical based, but it’s conceptual, as to what’s art of the possible, what can you– you’re just learning methodologies. But yet, you come into a company or a firm, and you now have to learn what’s their style, what’s important to them, and then how do you even start to– like proposal – if you’re in college, you’re not introduced to what does it mean to write a proposal? What are the key components of it? How do I write it? Or what’s the flow of it? What’s the right length? What’s the right amount of area on the technical content versus the upfront introduction, versus your bios, all that stuff. So I think it was really just, I had no idea, you don’t know where to start, what to do. It’s more reaching back on either your boss or other subject matter experts in that area to help you and to look at past documents that you can leverage, and say, “Okay, this is kind of this company’s style” – which, everybody has different writing styles, right – but at least from an outline standpoint, you get a better understanding of what is expected of you.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now? If so, what are the things that you most attribute to that shift?

A: Yeah, there definitely was a change. I think it’s more of like, once you have the real world experience, that starts to shape your perspective on your writing, as well as better just understanding the technical jargon, or you better understand the big picture. When you’re in school, you focus on, for me I was focusing on supply chain, but not all of the other components that could be impacted by supply chain. At Ernst & Young, we have tons of just different competencies that we also cowork directly with that I would have never thought, coming right out of school, that, oh, what happens in IT advisory, or cyber security? Or what’s the impact on, okay, we now have cyber security and supply chain, and looking at what’s the risk of, I don’t know, somebody hacking into a tier 3, tier 4 supplier? And can they control that supplier and basically cripple your whole entire supply chain? So now it’s more who else could i work with? How else could that affect a solution, have you, in the proposal? Because I may have just only written from supply chain, but now I know that there are these other components that you might want to lead into a better solution. But I also just think being on the ground and working in industry definitely gives you that better understanding. I was fortunate that in college I had three internships and a coop in supply chain. So for me, I found even when I was in school, that those internships, that work experience, I could relate better to the academia. I could ask more informed questions and I could even challenge the professor, not necessarily challenging a professor, but more thinking about it from a different angle. Example would be in supply chain, it’s very big on Walmart as a case study, where it’s more near-time or just almost just-in-time, where their suppliers push their inventory to them. They’re monitoring on the shelves when they have a low stock. So basically Walmart requires that as soon as they’re low in stock, that they are resupplied with it, so there never is a shortage. Well that’s great, but when you’re at Boeing, and titanium has a three year lead time, and then to manufacture a blade for the propeller, how are you forecasting two and a half, three and a half years out? It’s not the same concepts that you would think about, and it’s not talked about in school because it’s much, much, much more complicated, and you can’t forecast down to, you can’t do just-in-time when it comes to that. I think those perspectives have really helped to shape just my writing and better knowledge around what’s realistic in that particular industry and not just putting out there like, “We’ll be best in class, and we’ll ensure and do xyz,” when it’s not actually executable.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, okay. So when you think about what you were able – my next question is about the ways in which your academic background prepared you or not to write in the workplace – and it seems like those internships and the coop were pretty central actually to the academic work.

A: Yeah, they were huge to the academic work. Trying to think anything else that would– I would say the case studies that we went through as well in school really helped just to give you different perspectives. It was almost like a role play in some instances, where we had negotiations class, and you would be given a I don’t know, I’m a supplier from China and you’re a company in America that’s trying to source this product, and you’ve got to come– here we have our own objectives going into it on a piece of paper, and then we’d negotiate and come back and debrief to the class as to what happened. And it was what are the negotiation strategies? Is there a common element of a win-win versus a win-lose or a lose-lose? So those types of things really helped to just think about the dynamics of interacting with other stakeholders. But yeah, and definitely the internships and the coops really helped me to again, just think about supply chain differently. I worked at different levels in the supply chain, I’m probably going too detailed in the specifics– but it was even working at a warehouse, I was a forklift driver. So understanding logistics, and from a warehousing and inventory management and product placement on the side of the warehouse, and how do you load a truck? And what’s the best way? Or that there would actually be different ways of staging product inside of a truck. And oh, by the way, there are weight limits in the truck, and so you’ve got to be cognizant of how large, how much your freight weighs, and you have to stage it in a certain way so that it doesn’t overbalance on the back end and the front end.

Q: That’s so interesting. Do you think the internships at that level where you’re really understanding how the work gets done, is that typical of supply chain managers?

A: No, I was definitely, I think I was one of the only people at my school that had that much experience. I remember going into the resume writing shops, and they were basically like, “If everyone had this experience, this would be much easier to place everyone.” And I don’t know what it was, but I think I was just right time, right place, or part of it was also that I was able to, spend isn’t the right word, but most people are like, “I don’t want to work in a warehouse, I don’t want to drive a forklift.” Not that I really wanted to do it, but I understood that that’s a part of supply chain, and better to understand what you don’t want to do now, or at least understand that that grunt work, and having a better understanding of it early in your career, and being able to apply it to, okay, understanding that there are implications and impacts in these areas, was important. So I didn’t care that you made $8 an hour or $10 an hour, because I was always went into the mindset of, this is preparing me for the workforce, and I’m learning part of the supply chain. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, but at least I understand more about logistics and what it actually means.

Q: Gotcha, that’s great. In what ways do you think you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Again, like in performance reviews, but that wasn’t more until later in the career, until I’m actually managing somebody else. Proposal writing, we had nothing, no experience on. I feel like those were the big areas. Last year I wrote my first white paper thought leadership piece, which was new, I wasn’t prepared for that. But that was more, I’m more senior in my career now, and I understand these methodologies and this particularly around implementing a category management program in the federal government and doing it best in practice, where I’ve been helping an agency to transform their entire procurement shop around this concept of category management. It’s a huge focus on the federal government lately. The challenge there was you’re writing this document, but it can’t be 10, 20 pages long. You’ve got to be short, sweet, get the reader’s attention, not that, “Yep, okay, we’ve heard these concepts – oh, you’ve actually done this before and you’ve achieved results and here are those results, that’s pretty cool. And oh, we want to call you and contact you and try to get you in.” So there are all different angles that you are trying to hit at, but you don’t want it to come off as “I’m just selling here,” it’s, “Hey, we’ve done this before, we know what we’re doing. This does work.” So that was really interesting writing process. Any external facing publicly available documents, so a client’s work product isn’t publicly available, it just stays with that client. But in this instance, a thought leadership piece had to go through our whole entire score process. So supply chain has an operating reference, I believe, I could be completely wrong with that. But basically it’s a very, very prescriptive – there were well over seven to ten additional people who reviewed and scrutinized every single word in that document.

Q: And are those communications folks? Or are they– ?

A: We coordinated it through communications, so I believe it was a branch of– because any externally communicated messages had to go through them. But that’s a whole other level of quality assurance as well.

Q: And is that the kind of writing that, now that you’ve done it once, it’s something that will come up and you’ll presumably do it again in the future at some point?

A: Yeah, I would definitely do it in the future. The challenge with the thought leadership is, it’s not just whip it out, you’ve got to really have a concrete perspective. It is more challenging to come up with that, but absolutely, I would definitely.

Q: Out of curiosity, is that something that you pitch? Or someone says, “Hey, you did this and it went great for you. Do you want to write something like this?”

A: I pitched this. This was a goal of mine was to write this, and we actually, I had additional burning platforms to really promote writing this.

Q: What does that mean, burning platforms?

A: For example, we won a spot on another vehicle, on a contract, and this was a multi-award contract, and we wanted to promote our services under that. So this was one way to get out there to say, “Hey, this is a big thing in the federal government space. And oh by the way, we really know what we’re doing here,” and credentialize ourselves – that’s more what I mean by kind of a burning platform, is something else that is driving the need for, or the business case have you, behind doing this.

Q: So two more questions: would you say that you are a successful workplace writer, why or why not?

A: I’m more of a pessimist when it comes to myself, but I would say since, now that I’m successfully been promoted and made into senior manager at a Big Four firm, to that extent I would say yes. I haven’t had major or really any feedback on, “You need to modify how you write and your style and skill needs to be drastic changes.” And I’ve been able to successfully deliver client work products and reshape work products so that, like we were talking about before, the whole the purpose, not the purposes doesn’t change, but kind of how the client uses it to move forward, make that more successful, and that is attributed to the writing process. It always trying to enhance that process and not just become complacent in what you do. So I think from those perspectives, I would definitely say yes, I’ve been lucky and successful in writing.

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

A: So one I see that people struggle with is more thinking of what’s the art of the possible? When we go into a client, we don’t always know specifically what that end work product is going to look like. Certain times you do, but a lot of it can be just on a discovery basis, and sometimes it’s hard for individuals to not have that very prescriptive, concrete, okay here are all the steps I need to take and here’s what my outcome is going to be. So I would say that that’s the biggest thing in our role as a consultant, is that your job is always changing, what you’re working on is different every single time, or at least in my case it’s different every time. And so really just being able to think outside of the box, and constantly doing other research and improving yourself and seeing where’s the industry leading. And be able to articulate and incorporate that into your work products to provide the client with the best advice and guidance and how they can transform in some instances their future state of supply chain.

Q: Thank you.

A: Sure.

Click here to read full transcript

Intelligence Analyst

Government & Military

Intelligence Analyst, Government

Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016


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

A: I am an intelligence analyst – I work for the US government – and it’s been almost 10 years since I graduated college.

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

A: Well, my job is to write, actually, in an academic fashion. The type of writing I do is quite similar to the writing that I did in college, or how I wanted to write in college.

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

A: Well, we write what are called, generally across US government agencies, “intelligence assessments”. It’s a short brief in which the writing style is journalistic in nature. We’re reporting a trend or stating a– it’s sort of a blend of journalistic and academic because what we’re expected to write is not just reporting a trend or something that we see, but also what we think about it, and what we think a policymaker needs to know about that. So that’s what we’re putting up in the first sentence, and then stating supporting evidence, conclusion. But, unlike say, a newspaper, we have to be very meticulous about sourcing and so I mean, that way it’s very much like college writing. I’m sorry, did I answer too many questions? Am I going to fast?

Q: Perfect.

A: Okay.

Q: How frequently are you required to write? And if you’d give like a rough estimate on average, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: A hundred percent of my job requires writing. I’m expected to produce on a weekly basis.

Q: Can you describe briefly your writing process, including how assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from start to the completion of a project?

A: Well, if you’re an intelligence professional, you’re given what’s called a “requirement”, which is a question: “why is such and such going on?” or “what does this mean?”. And you’re expected to come back with an answer. It’s done in the form of a written report, with your judgement, your supporting evidence, and your documentation, and your sources.

Q: Can you describe the primary audiences to which you write, and for what purposes?

A: Well, people like me across the government, our audience is always policymakers. Sometimes Congress – congressional leaders have access to intelligence. Our job is to write unbiased judgements, considering different sources, often conflicting sources of information, to give a judgement that we believe is unbiased that would help them make a policy decision.

Q: And you can be general here: what kind of things are at stake in your writing?

A: Well, I mean, a lot. US national security, that’s a very broad concept, but within that is a safety of US military, US assets overseas, safety of our assets and interests, economic forces –  what impact a certain economic trends are going to have on our country – that’s a big part of it.

Q: Two part question: does anyone oversee your writing and if so, a brief or general description of their title and their role within your organization.

A: Well, lots of people receive my writing, and it’s actually very academic in nature too, because often when I write, we actually have a peer review process which, from what little I know, is far more rigorous than an academic peer review process. Say, for example, putting into an academic journal you might have about three or four of your peers read and review, see if your work makes sense, if it’s logical. There have been some things that I’ve had to write that someone from almost every US agency that has some sort of national security role, someone’s had to look at it. I’ve had as many as 36 people [chuckle] put track changes in a document that I’ve written. I’ve also write other assessments that aren’t coordinated but it goes to a supervisor, another supervisor, a supervisor above; there’s at least three levels of review.

Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: Yes, in fact, if you do work in a intelligence job series in the US government you’re going to be constantly retrained. In fact, there are programs where you are trained by other agencies. I’ve been trained by some– there’s an interagency exchange program that the training components within each agency train analysts, give them writing. Also, there’s a lot of other analysis tradecraft classes that you take and how to make a judgement with matrixes. So that’s what every analyst has in addition to probably their basic training. I had a basic training that was eleven weeks of kind of like an academic bootcamp.

Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, drafting?

A: Well I am an all-source analyst, so I do interviews, and just also search for, depending on the type of product I’m writing, it’s primary sources. In this field, depending on what we’re writing, we have what we call “raw intelligence” and “finished intelligence”. Raw intelligence would be an interview or just, say, a message, a cable from someone on the ground saying, “I see this and this happening”. There’s no judgement, there’s no why this is important, why not. So sometimes what we’re, well, we are asked to write a product or report based just on raw or I guess in the academic field, that would be just primary sources only. So there’s actually a very big– it’s very important to many policymakers that they’re getting a judgement that’s only raw information, as it’s called.

Q: You’ve mentioned that revision plays a large role? Can you talk a little bit about what your revision process looks like?

A: Very tedious [chuckles]. I guess I don’t really understand the question, or the revision–

Q: What kind of steps you have to take to revise a document, if you’re getting track changes and feedback from a lot of other people?

A: Yeah, the track changes tool is what we use. I guess I don’t really know how to–

Q: That’s fine. Just essentially, if there are specific steps you have to take to go from one draft to another. If you’re doing additional research, or seeking out new sources, maybe collaborating with others to improve the work to where the changes/comments have directed you.

A: All the time. Intelligence professionals in the US government– there actually are written standards that, it’s not mandatory that you adhere to them, but going through a peer review process, you’re going to have people who are really going to do the best they can to encourage you to adhere to them. A lot of them is that you can’t make a judgement without more than one source from intelligence disciplines, as they’re called. For example, human intelligence would be interviews, and that’s a type of raw reporting, and then another type of source would be from signals, and that’s also considered raw, that we’ve got this raw information coming from a signal. And there’s some people in the review process that will say, “you can’t make this judgement unless the signal is backed up by human, and vice versa”.

Q: How long typically do you have to complete a writing project?

A: It depends. I’m lucky, I’m given an awful lot of– because of my matter of expertise, people are happy that I produce anything. So I can pretty much take as much or little time as I want. But there are some people who, their work is– my work is actually driven on what I think, what I judge the learning curve or the knowledge gaps of policymakers are. There’s some people that, when a policymaker asks them a question, they’re expected to come back within a week with an answer. Those are analysts that have a lot of contact with very high-level policymakers, we’re talking Cabinet-level officials, and they’re going to get questions from them and they’re expected to get back in a week. Me, thank goodness, no [chuckles].

Q: So earlier you talked about different types of documents that you write. Were you familiar with these when you were a student, the kind of writing that you do now? If so, how did this affect your approach coming to them in workplace?

A: Should we talk about my grad school? I went to grad school, I studied intelligence at American Public University which is– should we undergrad or grad school I guess is what I’m asking? What would be helpful?

Q: Maybe you could speak to each.

A: Speak to each, okay. In undergrad, no. The grad school I went to is designed for government and military professionals to do distance learning. So I was learning the lingo there of the types of documents we produce: intelligence assessment, intelligence judgement, raw reporting, not raw reporting. That was the lingo that you were taught in my grad program. Grad school, I actually didn’t go to grad school to– I never thought I’d be working for the US government and as an intelligence professional. I was in undergrad to be teacher, so I had no exposure to this world. It was a total career change for me. But to any undergraduate students that, if you’re going to get something from this, the type of products that you’re producing as an undergrad are very similar to what policymakers are looking for. It’s short papers backed up by a lot of research. That’s what a lot of policymakers care about – the documentation.

Q: Are you able to identify any changes in your writing style between college and your time now writing in the workplace?

A: Between college and workplace – yes, actually. It would be pretty pertinent here in the DC area because I imagine that a lot of students in this area will be recruited by the US government. The biggest gear shift you need to take is– if you want to work in the intelligence field for the US government, it’s good to have good academic chops. The documentation is important, but there are writing styles that are different. The consumers of your reports are going to be looking for something that’s a little bit more journalistic. They want the bottom line up front. That’s something that you’ll hear a lot and that’ll be a common constructive criticism that you’ll receive. In academia, academic papers that you read, they want to take you on the journey with them through the paper and show how they came to this great conclusion, which is fine, and it can be very interesting if it’s well written, but that won’t fly with a policymaker who doesn’t have the time or doesn’t want to– they want to know the news. But it’s better– unlike the news, it’s analysis upfront, it’s not just reporting an event. What they want to see is this blend of an event, and why that event is significant in one sentence upfront, and then, if they care, they want to see how you documented it. They’re looking for people with strong liberal arts background, strong writers, but you do have to learn to do things the opposite way, if that’s helpful.

Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared?

A: I’d say it was what I had described before, being able to write backwards, write the opposite way I did in school.

Q: Do you face any challenges now that you’re a more experienced workplace writer?

A: If you want to try and teach this in writing courses in universities, I actually would reach out to the Director of National Intelligence or even CIA because the analytic standards that we’re supposed to write to, they do publish those and they’re probably available. I’d say the biggest challenge in government is everyone’s interpretation of those standards, and it’s very controversial. I have people review my writing, they review my pieces based on “did you meet this standard?”, or separating analytic judgements from just data – that’s a very important thing. You have to show what you think, your judgment, and then show the data and show how you came to that. But these standards, there’s lots of debate and every time you write something. People will tell you, “you didn’t do this standard the way I understand it,” and so that can slow a lot of things down and that’s very challenging. So I recommend asking or just googling at the Director of National Intelligence the website, the analytic standards or something like, whatever they’re called now, you’ll find it, it’s interesting the way things are done. So you’ll get to see it.

Q: So thinking back to when you first started, are there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that other writers had completed, or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: My brain was a little fuzzy when you asked that question [chuckles].
Q: Sure. Thinking back to when you first started in this position, were there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that coworkers had written as examples, or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: Yeah, I went to stuff that was already written because it is– the US government is really trying to standardize the style that intelligence analysts use and so that’s honestly the best thing you can do is look for something that’s been written and well-received and try and emulate that format and that style because that’s what the US government is trying to do. Are they successful? I don’t know, but yeah.

Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you elaborate on–

A: [Chuckles].

Q: –why that is? Or I guess maybe what it–

A: Well it–

Q: What it means to you to be successful in your career– ?

A: What I, it’s hard because I don’t– the one problem in the US government is you don’t receive much feedback from– the people who appreciate the information and the analysis are never going to give you feedback on your writing, and the people who are reviewing your writing, for example, the peer-reviewers across the agencies, especially when you have to do a review across more than one agency, they’re going to rip you apart more than necessary, which is– so I guess judged on my success, you’re going to get very little feedback– and of course, policymakers are, because what you’re writing is influencing their decisions, they’re not going to tell you what they think or what they’re thinking more than, “well that was, that’s important, that seems important, thank you, thank you for raising my awareness about that” – that’s really about all you’re going to get. I guess the fact that someone even [chuckles], in the US government someone actually is reading and commenting even a little bit, that is a major success, so.

Q: So with that level of feedback, is there anything in your writing that you use specifically to judge its success, or anything that your boss uses to judge the success of your writing? Any traits or markers in your writing that make you or your boss say, “this is a successful piece”?

A: This is actually something the government’s been trying to do better. They are trying to make intelligence reports more interactive. Most of these things aren’t public, but it is popular to have online feedback forums with each agency websites. You go to the reporting and the analysis on events and after you read an article there will be a feedback form that– and the first one is, like, “was the assessment that the analyst was making, was it clear?” and that is the best thing. In fact, today I actually was teaching a class on this to trainees and I actually did use a paper I wrote and I actually had a trainee say, “oh, this is really clear!”, and so that that, it was very good feedback. And that’s probably the best– if a policymaker felt like they understood what you wrote after reading the first paragraph or two and they said, “I understand this, this is good”, and then throw it in the shredder and go– I mean, that actually is good, that’s good feedback. It is, so, yeah.

Q: Last question, and maybe you can speak to this especially since you said you’ve been teaching: what skills, abilities, or traits in a writer do you think are most central to being successful in your specific– ?

A: To put a lot of effort into the research, that is the most important component. I actually wish that when people would look at my— as I’ve been saying, the difference between academic writing– academics, they try and take you on the journey. You see their literature review up front, and we have to do it the opposite way. I actually kind of wish that people would look at all the stuff, all the sources we looked at. So that’s actually the most important trait to have, to be really curious and keep diving and just pursue every lead you have. That really is the most important thing in writing to me is the research that you’re willing to do. We use the process that is taught in universities; you come up with your hypothesis, and prove it with the research, and so it’s that effort that you’re willing to put into the research is the most important thing to me. So, yeah.

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