Communications and Professional Development Manager

Arts, Government & Military

Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPEAKER:             Do I consider myself?

SPEAKER:             Yes.

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

SPEAKER:             Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

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

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

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

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. 

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

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

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

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

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

For example. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent.

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Commercial Director

Arts

Commercial Director
32:54

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

A: I am a director of commercials and short films and documentaries, and writer of them occasionally, I am a freelancer, so I work for various different production companies, and it’s been eight years since I graduated college.

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

A: My job consists of finding clients, either by word of mouth or by me contacting them directly or them contacting me, they will present me with a problem, it’s usually called an RFP, a request for pitches, and what that means is that a client somewhere out in the ether needs a video of some kind. And they usually have a series of problems or objectives that they’re trying to hit with that video, occasionally it’s a commercial, sometimes it’s a longer form piece, but the majority of my work is for corporations who are trying to get something out in the world, right? So it’s either marketing or advertising or something along those lines. I’m contacted by various production companies, who give me these RFPs, I write something to try to accomplish those goals in an abstracted or metaphorical way, it’s presented to the company, if they like it, which they frequently do, they will contract my services to create a video for them. That usually means there’s a three week-ish scripting process – that’s even with documentaries, all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, they all have about three weeks of preproduction, larger things will go up to three months – where the client and I find harmony in our various approaches to what they’re trying to enact. Then we have anywhere from one to five actual production shooting days, where the seven-person pre-production team that I’m kind of leading creatively and my producer’s leading logistically, we ramp up and hire anywhere from 20 to 70 people to shoot a commercial or a short film. And then there’s about anywhere from a month to three months of postproduction time where we are actually in the edit and crafting the narrative that we have created and attempted to shoot in reality, but never hit the mark, and it’s called “finding it in the edit” – we spend a lot of time making sure that what we did and did not get on the actual days of shooting are made as perfect as they can be. Throughout that time, I’m in constant contact with the client and also the production companies that I’m working for, refining our idea, figuring out how to overcome various obstacles, either we can’t shoot at the location we wanted because they had a shoot previously and one of the gaffers accidentally flooded the whole space so they’re not shooting anymore, to the person who is going to be the star doesn’t want to do it unless we quadruple their salary and we just don’t have the money for it, to things as drastic as, “The CEO just saw the script and hates it, what are we going to do? We’re shooting in two days,” – which happened to me a couple months ago, and was not fun. But, yeah, that’s my job. I essentially write and direct commercials.

Q: Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Seventy?

Q: Okay. What forms or types of writing, or documents, modes of writing, etc., are you most often finding yourself completing?

A: The majority of the writing that I do that I would call genuine writing, that’s not emailing – I do a lot of script writing – so I’ll either, as an individual or with one or two cowriters, create various pitches and pitch decks where we show our ideas in as beautiful and comprehensible a way as possible, with images and words, or I’m actually, if those pitches are approved, writing those scripts and making sure that they’re as good and tight and fast and fun as possible. When I’m not in that mode, a lot of my writing is communicating with either producers, art directors, and cinematographers about what exactly the vision that I see for the piece needs to be from their end, so it’s a lot of turning visual language into actual language so that various people in various different departments with various different skill sets can all be on the same page. Or talking to my editor in postproduction, giving he or she notes about what exactly they’re missing, or what they’re hitting or what they’re doing very well or what needs to change, talking to composers, giving notes about that, and then the most important part, and frequently least fun, is responding to client notes and making sure that the efforts that we put forth as the creative arm of the team are understood and embraced by the more logistically-minded members of the client side. So it’s a lot of emails, scripts, pitch documents, so essentially big, I would call them aesthetically-oriented slideshows, and responding to notes and questions and concerns from various members of the team.

Q: Great. Can you talk about who typically are the primary audiences to which you’re writing?

A: Well, the meat of the writing, the audience would be, you know, the scripts themselves, the audience is general, whoever the client is trying to attract. So you know, males from 18 to 45, women who are in their 70s, whatever it is. But unfortunately, that’s not the bulk of my writing. The bulk of my writing is either inter-office interactions, where we’re all sort of trying to make sure we’re on the same page and moving in the same direction, or messages between the production company and the client, where it’s sort of a delicate balance where everyone’s trying to find harmony, and both sides, which are sort of frequently at odds, need to find harmony and embrace the final product, and a lot of times the onus of making sure and massaging that harmony falls on me. And so that’s a combination of being as charming as possible and as forthright and kind of steadfast in my vision as possible. So it’s a very delicate balance.

Q: So, with both the creative aspect and this sort of more inter-office communication, business-type stuff, did you feel like you were familiar with those styles of writing when you were a student? And if you were, how do you think that affected your approach now that you’re doing them professionally?

A: I was lucky enough to study creative writing and so a lot of my education was workshopping. So it was taking what other people had written, sitting down in a room, and dissecting it, and saying, “You know what, the opening was great, the middle I kind of lost you, but by the end, you had me and I think if you spend another week and a half on this short story, this thing will really sing.” And having that basis of knowledge as to how to speak to people in a critically constructive way that finds what’s good, tries to slough off what’s bad, and really help them find their vision while also hearing that same kind of criticism about my own work – that I think was the most important aspect of my college education in terms of moving into the professional world. Things like tone shifting, where obviously, when I’m writing a commercial, most of the commercials that I write are silly or absurdist, so when I’m scripting, I try to let myself go as weird and silly and open as possible. But then when I’m talking to a client, I have to obviously button myself up and be very direct, straight-forward, and professional. So it’s a lot of tone shifting when I’m actually doing the writing. But I think– yeah, is that answering the question? That was pretty close [laughter].

Q: Yes, yeah, totally. So you hit on this a little bit during your first question about describing your job, but can you kind of run us through an overview of your whole writing process, from the time you get an assignment, any kind of preparation you do before writing, and then all the way to completion of that project?

A: Okay, since I’m sort of varied in my employ, I’ll keep it just to commercials. Usually the way that it goes is I’ll get a call, and it’s like, “Hey, are you available?” And if I am, “Yes.” “HP,” for example, “wants to let people know that their servers are faster than everyone else’s and they want to make something that is funny. They have no idea what they want to make, but their competitors are doing this and this, and this is what HP used to do.” I’m usually armed with that information from the outset. What I’ll first do is research as much as I can about what their competitors are doing, and what they themselves have been doing during their campaigns, and then I’ll try to think about what they’re missing, or really, selfishly, what I really always think about is what I would like to see, because if we’re being honest about advertising, nobody wants to see advertising. So I try to think, what would be a thing that would make me happy if I was forced to watch it before I could get my inflight wifi? And then, find the harmony between how that makes – for example, this is not a real example, but – how that makes HP’s servers clearly faster than everyone else’s and would bring a smile to a 12-year-old me, but also make a 55-year-old guy who’s just got off a flight from Shanghai and really just needs to send an email to his wife to let her know that he’s about to come home, how to find the harmony of all those things. And then I write up usually around five different templated ideas, about a paragraph or two paragraphs, for each of them, with a couple of– there are various resources online where you can find stills from films or I usually have, whenever I am coming up with an idea, because commercials are a very visual medium, I’m always coming up with visuals as well. So I’ll either contract a storyboard artist, or just find images that create the right mood, and then present those things to the client to see if they like it. Then once that’s achieved, it’s usually a phone call that’s around an hour long, where they tell me that they kind of liked it but they also hated a lot of things that I did. So I have to go back to the drawing board a little bit, reassess, write a script, send the script over, do a revision, do a revision – you’re always contracted for two revisions, but you always go until at least five – keep going, keep sending emails with each revision, where they’re winnowing down what they want, you’re winnowing down and fighting for what you think is really important, and making sure that you’re navigating that space where, there’s a lot of times that as conversations continue and continue and continue about an idea, people can lose the thread of what was even good about it, so the onus is always on me to maintain that sort of, whatever the crystal was inside of the cabinet, to make sure that it’s unbroken when it gets to the final destination. And then yeah, basically from there it continues, then we do the shoot once the script is approved, and then the same process basically starts over again once the client sees the edit, where they had an idea of what it was, usually they’re not as experienced in production as our team is, they have an idea of what they were expecting, what they see is slightly different, they’re almost always happy, which is nice, because it means I get to keep working, but it takes another series of, “Here’s what we made,” then they send notes, then we respond to the notes, then we make a revision based on our responses, and it’s just making sure that everyone is happy with the product, while making sure that people with bad ideas or sort of– there is a sort of sickness in this type of work, where you’re mixing business and creativity, where a lot of people involved sometimes feel like they have to say something, and they have to make a criticism, so there are sometimes extraneous notes, just so that– sometimes on the client side there are 15 people involved who are all supposed to give notes, and really, one person is leading the team, but person number 13 feels left out, so they always toss a curveball in, and you have to navigate that stuff by again, just charm and a lot of “in our professional opinion” sort of phrasing, where it’s like, again, just massaging and making sure that people aren’t leading themselves off of a cliff because they think they know what’s best.

Q: So just to go a little bit off track here, in the sort of, after the script is approved, before filming begins, are you, as director, also responsible for say, casting?

A: Oh actually, I completely forgot about that. So once the script is approved, we have the big things that need to happen is, we need to crew up, so I need to hire, I don’t actually do the hiring, but I need to pick a cinematographer, a production designer, all of the cast, and a location. All of those things require a great deal of writing to get to the end of, for you know it’s like, “Hey, we need a production designer,” and it’s not like saying, “Hey, I need an ATM.” Production designers all have very specific sets of skills and their own specific aesthetics. So you need to say, “I need a production designer who’s really good at making things both gritty, very mobile, they need to be good at physical comedy, they need to be able to do gags, and they need to be able to, I don’t know, paint metal quickly.” And then they need to also vibe with whatever my aesthetic is. So I need to craft an email to them, to say, “Hey, here is the mission, if you choose to accept it,” but lay it out entirely for that team. Then I need to do the same thing, but in a much different way, for the cinematographer, the same thing in a much different way for when we’re location scouting. Location scouting is one of the more difficult writing challenges because you basically need to say, “Hello everyone, I need this thing that does not exist, but I hope it exists somewhere. Here are the things that I would love if it had. I don’t know if this is real, but I would love it if there was a dojo that had a trapdoor that led into a basement, and all the walls were green, or if they’re not green, a place that will let us paint them.” And then for something like a cinematographer, it’s even more heady and kind of, you have to use real language to talk about visual language, so you end up, it’s– a good conversation with the cinematographer is essentially just almost like this litany of visual references – be it paintings, or films, or sometimes even short stories or longer stories, or illustrations, or every once in awhile, it’s like, “This sculpture I think I saw in a children’s museum and I know that you grew up in the same town as me, so maybe you saw it. It was like the inside of the heart, and it was beating all the time, and you know how you were kind of going in through the tunnel, do you remember that feeling?” A lot of weird pulling references from all throughout your personal visual history. And then the hardest, hardest, hardest is casting, because it’s similar to the location thing. It’s, “I have an idea in my head about what I would like reality to manifest, I don’t know if it’s there, but here are the parameters that I would like to hit.” So you know, you kind of have to create a wide enough birth that you can realistically find this person, but also be very specific so that the casting director’s armed with the materials that they need to find the right person.

Q: So you talked before about all these revisions that you go through, can you talk a little bit about how you approach making changes when you’re getting feedback from so many different voices? Making sure that, like you said, the vision improves from one draft to the next for your client, but you also don’t lose that key thread?

A: Yeah, you know, it’s always a– you have to be realistic about things. Frequently the first thing that you send is what I think is best [laughter], so I send over the best version of what we have and what we could create, and that’s almost never, it happens sometimes, but it’s almost never accepted as the final version. And so what you do is you just, a lot of times when you’re getting notes from clients, because they spend a lot of their time on the client’s side a lot of time, they’re doing marketing, or they’re working with different teams, or they’re trying to achieve different goals every single day or every single month, that they’re not as versed in exactly what you and your team are doing. So you need to find– the spirit of what their notes are is frequently more important than the actual content of what their notes are. So sometimes it’ll just be like, they’ll be as vague as, “This part doesn’t feel right.” And so what me and my editor have to do whenever that happens is she and I will have to just watch that part over and over again [laughter] to figure out exactly what they were talking about. And frequently, unless the person is kind of phoning it in on the other side, frequently there is truth to whatever the notes are, and it’s just about determining the spirit of a question or a consideration and making sure that we all keep in mind on our side that the other person is, at the end of the day, paying for this thing, and it is theirs more than it’s ours. So really trying to listen and use comprehension to determine not exactly what they’re saying, but what the spirit of their note is.

Q: Great. Typically, how long do you have to complete a writing project?

A: I mean, it’s a hard question to answer, because a lot of times, for that pitch process, where it’s like, “Hey, this company wants something,” I’ll have around four days to put together a pretty comprehensive document that probably takes around 20 to 25 hours of genuine work. Then when it comes to the scripting process, it can be anywhere from 24 hours for a script, to two weeks for a script. It’s all sort of, it goes up and down with, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why things are like that. With the client notes things, you want to respond as soon as possible, usually within the hour. And for things like casting, casting notes, location notes, interactions with or calls for DPs, etc., it is right now – so in the next 30 minutes, in the next 15 minutes, can we have already had that? Because time is always very expensive when you have this many people involved in a process. So sometimes I’ll be in between meetings and I’ll have two minutes and I’ll have to write a 500-word email to someone, and it’s just, when you’re used to it and when you’re comfortable with it, you get into a place where it just starts to flow out. But it’s very dynamic and there’s no set rules as to how much time I have to do any of this stuff.

Q: Great. So we sort of already touched on what’s at stake in your writing, in terms of who you’re writing to and their goals, so I think we’ll move on. I know you’re freelancing, so you’re dealing with people all the time – in terms of the job description or title of the people that typically are overseeing your writing, as clients, who would that be? In a broad sense I guess?

A: Yeah, let’s see – I’m in constant conversation with the head copywriter at the agency, the creative director or the associate creative director at the agency, they’re usually my point people on that side. And then on the client side, they always have strange, convoluted titles like SVP of client marketing, or that’s not right, let me think, I’m actually going to look at an email signature right now and I’ll let you know. They’re always people who are sort of on the VP track it seems, usually it’s a big deal to be able to be giving notes and to be involved in the marketing for a company, because obviously that’s how they put their face forward and they want to put their best people. But there are also some companies that have creative directors of their own, so, I guess it would be creative director, copywriter, senior vice president, or sometimes marketing director, or occasionally people have weird, sort of esoteric titles, like thought leader [laughter], but it’s usually people who are in the upper echelons of whatever company we’re dealing with.

Q: Great. And all of those people, from VP to copywriter, what are they typically – maybe they communicate this to you through their feedback or your communications with them – what are they using typically to judge success or quality of the writing that you provide for them?

A: Everything comes down to the metrics on the end. “Was this a successful campaign?” is judged by how many people saw it, or in worst case scenarios, what the – the word’s escaping me – what are the people that give feedback? Where they’re in a room and they watch something?

Q: Like focus groups?

A: Yes. It’s either what a focus group scores it, or basically the reach of the campaign. And also a lot of times I’m judged on something as pure as someone’s, “Yeah, we liked that!” Because it’s a creative thing, it’s, “Yeah, that was good!” and [laughter], “I enjoyed the final product, so you did a good job writing,” you know?

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

A: No. I still write creatively quite a bit, and so I’m in a sort of loose group of writers that meet every week and we discuss either stories or scripts that we’re writing, and we’re all sort of various different types of professional writer, so that is a type of training, but it’s not a formal type of training, and it’s totally free except I have to buy guacamole.

Q: Great [laughter]. So what kind of challenges did you face your first few jobs as a freelancer, and what did you do to overcome those early challenges?

A: The big challenge that I faced when I first started working was I thought of every assignment that I would get as a freelancer as a research paper, and so I would basically be, I would just put too much work into everything, and make these very comprehensive scripts and documents and even emails. For a while I was working for Gawker and I would write these blog posts that were remarkably long, probably too long and too well researched, and I was just putting too much into things, because I was coming out of the university system where that’s expected. And I was a little bit too formal in my writing style. And once I was able to make myself a little bit more casual on the page, things started really coming together.

Q: Great. Are you able to identify any changes in your writing between college and now your time writing professionally?

A: That’s remarkably difficult. I think that I’ve embraced– I was much more interested in form and sort of more obscure writerly techniques when I was in college, and now I’m much more interested in making sure nuggets of ideas come through, regardless of the aesthetic content of them. So I think I’ve become more direct and less obtuse in my writing style.

Q: Great. And you’ve hit on this a little bit in terms of creative writing background, but in what ways do you think your academic and college writing background prepared you for some of the stuff that you’re doing now, in the workplace?

A: Without the creative writing study that I did in college, I wouldn’t have a career. It is the reason that I am able to communicate with any sort of alacrity and why I’ve been able to move through my career very quickly in a way that I didn’t even expect. And it’s only because I’m able to use language better than most of my peers that I’ve been able to make the strides that I have in the time that I’ve been out of school. A lot of the people that are in the same field as me might actually be better at the tangible parts of the job, like being a director and being on set, but I’m much more likely to win the job because I’m a more persuasive writer.

Q: Do you actually attribute even your successes in the inter-office email communication, that kind of stuff, back to some of your experiences in creative writing?

A: Yeah, I do. I think that the workshopping process and the finding ways to be critical of people and also to exalt them, and basically having that as my schooling, has made me a better coworker than I would have been if I didn’t have it, for sure, yeah.

Q: So if creative writing and those sorts of experiences in workshopping left you sort of feeling prepared for that kind of interaction and communication, in what ways did you feel maybe less prepared, going into the workplace?

A: I, because I didn’t take any business marketing or any of those sorts of classes, I was startled by the difference in vocabulary between fiction writers and journalists and sort of everyone else. These sorts of weird acronyms that would come up, like ROI and CRM and PPQ, or whatever they are, really threw me through a loop for a while, and it took me a long time to learn that language because there is a very specific language to this industry. But beyond that, I think that was the biggest hurdle, just the linguistic, just having completely different lexicons and different words for the same things. And I’ve been fighting that still, in terms of trying to avoid the business-minded idiomatic phrasings that a lot of people fall into, like “making the ask” or “the burning bush” or “the view from 30,000” or you know, all of those idiomatic crutches that people lean on in business relationships because it feels safer. That was pretty startling to me, coming from someone who pretty much only reads books, that was all new.

Q: Great. Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer, and if so, why would you say that? What are you judging it on?

A: Yeah, I think that I am because I am able to– I think the big hurdle in workplace writing is not can everything be harmonious and can you get your ideas out, but can you solve a problem exclusively with your writing? Like can you identify something that’s wrong, get in touch with the right person who can fix it, and make them understand exactly what the problem is, without ruffling their feathers or making them concerned about something, or even worse, making them worried about their own job security. And just to be able to have the linguistic skills to be like, “Hey man, I noticed this is happening. Let’s do it this way. How about that,” and maneuver that sort of interpersonal space that is much easier because I am more fluid with language than I would have been had I not studied it in school.

Q: Great. And final question – what skills do you think are most central to being successful as a writer in your particular job?

A: Empathy and speed [laughter]. I need to be able to figure out what people are really saying and react to it very quickly.

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Illustrator

Arts

Illustrator, Self-employed

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

22:11

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

A: Okay. I’m Meera, I am a freelance illustrator and writer, and I work for myself, and I graduated eight years ago.

Q: Okay, great. So, could you tell me a little bit about your background as a writer and an illustrator, how you’ve come to work for yourself, and what kind of projects you typically do?

A: Sure. I worked as an editor at a technical publishing company straight out of college. I started as the intern, I became an assistant, and then I became an assistant editor, and I worked there for six years. I edited papers written by electrical engineers, so that would go into a journal of [inaudible 0:59], all scientific, research-based, and about two years after I started doing that, I started painting, just as a side thing, as a way for me to feel personally fulfilled because my day job wasn’t doing that. And I slowly continued to freelance while I worked for about four years, and I actually just left my job a month ago and I am full time freelance now. And I have one book out, I’m working on my second, and I also take on editorial illustrations [inaudible 1:39]. I don’t do much freelance writing aside from the books right now.

Q: Okay, great. So some of these questions will feel a little bit clunky because you are not working in a formal position with a hierarchy in a business, but we’ll just sort of work around that. So could you provide me with a sort of brief description of the primary tasks you perform day to day?

A: Okay. So I do a lot of email, I would say that’s probably 70 percent of my day is pitching myself to magazines and publications in order to get editorial work. And I am beginning to pitch article ideas, as I’d like to start freelance writing more aside from the book. And I also pitch myself as an illustrator so I can take on projects with these publications. I do a lot of email, talking with my editors, talking about my agent about book proposals, about current projects, working with the marketing team to get publicity for my writing project, and I would say maybe 10 percent of my time is actually making work, which would be painting or working on my book writing, and I would say another 15 percent would be doing research, which is just to say [inaudible 3:16] other people’s work, reading, looking at illustrations, doing some sort of market research for what I want to work, who are the art directors I can reach out to, who are the editors, so I have connections to any of these places, who can I contact, etc.

Q: Great, that’s excellent. And I am getting just a little bit of wind, if it’s at all possible to turn your body, that would be great.

A: Oh, sure.

Q: Cool, thank you! Sorry.

A: Yeah, I’m sorry! Is that better?

Q: So you sort of anticipated this next question, which was the percentage of your job that requires writing. So it sounds like a really large percentage of your job requires writing?

A: Yeah, it’s mostly writing. That’s what I’m doing day to day, yeah. Just like being an illustrator also.

Q: Yeah, and so you talked about email, are there other forms or types of writing or documents that you complete? I know that you’re working on a book manuscript, so email and the book manuscript, are there other kinds of writing that you do?

A: Yeah, I do a lot of contract work when I have a commision, so I read a ton of contracts, which is excruciating, and I used to just sign anything, really, because it was so daunting to go through it, but I stopped doing that because I don’t have the day job, and I have to make sure I’m not signing away all the rights to my work or that I’m getting paid correctly, or that, you know, I do a lot of financial royalties, checking royalties, and checking agreements and things like that. So a lot of it is contract, and the other thing, as I mentioned, is proposals. So with that is always writing about a budget, about a timeline, a schedule, revisions, how much work I’m going to put into something, and what the client can expect. So there’s a lot of legal writing that goes into it too.

Q: Interesting, that’s really interesting. So when we think about sort of the primary audiences you’re writing to, is clients a sort of overarching category, or would there be other ways to categorize those primary audiences?

A: I would say clients and potential clients is a big part, but also I guess which I haven’t mentioned – so I do a lot of microblogging, I guess I would call it, because that’s the world we’re in now, so I do have a newsletter that I send out arbitrarily whenever I remember to tend to it, and that is, I would say that’s personal writing. I try to really write from the heart and connect with my audience, and along with that comes the writing that I do on Twitter and Instragram, both social media writing, but I try my best to be relatable and to be authentic instead of somebody that is just trying to sell herself. So I would say that is my most important writing, trying to forge a connection with another person just by being who I am, without manicuring myself.

Q: Yeah, absolutely, which is not an easy task in writing!

A: No. And you feel very vulnerable most of the time.

Q: I bet, I bet. And so when you think about what you’re trying to accomplish with those kinds of communications, can you tell me a little bit about the purpose of those kinds of communications?

A: Sure. On the surface level, it’s essential to me building a brand and becoming a successful freelance artist, I need to have an audience, I need to have followers who hopefully respect me and want to support my work. It is about building loyalty in a sense. And I would say on the deeper human sense, the reason why I even want to be an artist, and why I am doing what I do despite the instability and financial hardships is just the desire to connect with other people. I think my ultimate goal is always to help somebody feel less alone, and I think that you could say that comes from my own desire to feel less alone.

Q: Beautiful. Okay. When you think about the kinds of writing that you do now, everything from professional emails to those proposals and contracts, were you familiar with those genres of writing when you were a student?

A: Absolutely not. I went to school for literature and journalism, and I really wanted to become a hard news journalist. I don’t know why, I think it just seemed very glamorous to me, and by senior year I had done internships at like five publishing houses and I really got a taste for it and I didn’t want it at all. It wasn’t exciting, I felt like journalism had become really compromised and inauthentic, and it lacked appeal for me. So that’s just to say that I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t go to business school, so I don’t know anything about marketing or publicity or legalities or anything like that, and it’s just been completely learning as I go and making tons of mistakes, the same mistakes over and over again. And that’s really what it’s been like, and I’m still learning of course, and I think that that artist part of me that just wants to write books and make drawings has a very casual approach to a lot of the legal writing, especially when I talk to my editor and my agent, I’m not always capitalizing or using punctuation or formal methods of writing, and I think that as an artist you get away with more. I think people let you be casual because that’s you, and you make the work that you make, and they’re not going to nitpick if you don’t capitalize or things like that. But I think that’s been also something to learn when I’m catching myself, because there’s a certain professionalism and etiquette that you need to maintain, and I think that’s been difficult for me to grow into since I’m not used to doing it.

Q: Oh, that’s interesting, yeah. So when you think about a typical writing project, maybe let’s think of one of the proposals seems like a useful example – when you think about that, you take the initiative, you’re not usually responding to a call for proposals, right? You sort of have talked to someone, an artistic director or something, and you make that proposal on your own, is that a fair assessment?

A: For my first book I made the proposal entirely on my own, and it was a wild shot in the dark, and I managed to submit it to an editor, and it was risky because, you know, it was as professional and as detailed and in depth as something that I had ever made. But now, my second time around I have an agent, and I work with her to perfect a proposal, and just to give you an idea, my first book the proposal was I think 10 pages, and with my second book, it was about 40. So yeah. It was a lot more well developed the second time around.

Q: That’s really interesting. How did you, for the second proposal, could you tell me a little bit about how you prepared to write, and the steps you took from start to completion of that proposal?

A: Sure. So first, I pitched a bunch of ideas to my agent, I probably took 20 ideas and she liked one of them, which is the one we ended up going with. And after that, I basically did writing. I did sample writing for what the actual manuscript would represent. And then after that was finished, I created the illustrations that would go along with the manuscript. You basically want to submit 20 pages of what the final book will look like, that is part of the sample material for the proposal. So I did that, and then after that you do the marketing/publicity side of the proposal, which is talking about yourself, talking about what you have accomplished so far, you basically want to convince the publisher that you have an audience that will buy the book. If they give you the money to write a book, you’ll be able to sell it. And so you have to determine your target audience, and other books that are already like it on the market that won’t be competitors, but to show them that there is an audience for the work, and you do a complete marketing plan, who you would pitch the book to, possible publications that would feature it, possible influencers that will write about it, the whole thing. So you basically give them your book and the marketing plan and hope that they like it.

Q: Gotcha, and then when you’re drafting that, does that go through multiple drafts? What is your approach to revision in a document like that?

A: It took us probably five months start to finish to have the complete proposal. And I did I believe four revisions on the manuscript, three or four revisions on the artwork, and I think the same amount for the actual marketing and publicity plan. So that was between me and my agent, the back and forth.

Q: Okay, so you’re writing and then getting feedback from the agent and incorporating that feedback?

A: Right.

Q: And so if we think about, this varies wildly I’m sure, but how long do you typically have to complete a writing project, if it’s something short, say a pitch to an editor for a smaller project, or something like that? What’s the turnaround time for a sort of maybe average writing project?

A: That’s entirely up to me, there’s no deadline, it’s just me who loses if I don’t get it done. So I would say probably one to three days.

Q: Okay, great. And this is sort of a broader question – what would you say is at stake in your writing?

A: I’m sorry can you repeat that?

Q: Sure, what would you say is at stake in your writing?

A: Oh. I would say authenticity. It’s always a constant battle between writing honestly and authentically and writing something you know will go viral or that people want to read, and in my experience, the things that go viral and that people want to read are things that they’ve already read a zillion times before. So it’s the battle between being yourself and being somebody else.

Q: That’s so interesting. Could you tell me a little bit more about what you mean when you say the things that go viral, the things people want to read, are thing they’ve already read?

A: I think that a lot of things that people respond to are the things that they know, but aren’t able to articulate themselves, which makes sense, I mean that’s why artists and writers exist, because hopefully they’re able to say things in a way that people can understand. But I guess today, in today’s world, I find that the things that go viral can be very trite, and easily digestible, don’t require too much thought or effort, and so I think it’s, I mean I guess it’s a form of selling out sometimes, do you want to do what everybody else is doing because there’s proven success in it? Or do you want to do what you want to do, even though nobody might like it?

Q: That is a big question. Okay, yeah [laughter].

A: It is a big question [laughter].

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s really interesting. Okay, thanks. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared to write in this role?

A: I’m going to say that it hasn’t. I will say, I think my academic writing has helped me in general, to be an okay writer, to be able to articulate, to have the alright vocabulary, to understand how to put a sentence together, and to be clear and concise, and that’s all really important things. The rest of it though, for the types of writing I’m doing, has just been practice. I think my academic background at least put me in a position of being a good writer, and then all the practice has helped me manage all the different forms of writing that I’ve had to do.

Q: Okay, great. In what ways were you unprepared as a writer in this role? So you mentioned earlier, like most people, you’ve made a lot of mistakes – could you talk a little bit about the ways in which, as a writer, you were unprepared?

A: The whole proposal process was absolutely new to me and I didn’t know how to convince other people. So as far as writing, I had only ever learned how to use persuasion in literary and academic essays basically, always trying to convince the reader of my argument and how it tied to a book and a theme, but I had never learned how to use it in order to talk about myself and my capabilities. So although I had some sort of background on how to be a convincing writer, I didn’t feel prepared to apply it the way that I’ve had to.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the practical steps that you took to overcome some of those early challenges? I know you mentioned that you do a lot of looking at your peers and thinking about work that might be compared to yours in some way, but sort of practically, what else have you done as a writer to improve or to arm yourself with stronger skills?

A: A lot of it has just been practice, just doing it despite not wanting to do it, or not feeling like I’m doing it well, just doing it anyway. That’s probably the largest. And the second is that I read a lot, I read other people’s pitches, I read contracts, I read advice online on how to write a better pitch, how to write a better proposal, I look at examples, and then I try to apply those. So it’s a lot of just teaching and educating myself from the books and the internet, the sources that I have around me.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. Have you had any writing training or education since you graduated from college?

A: No. Not at all.

Q: Okay. Would you say that you’re a successful writer?

A: [Laughter] good question. I would say I guess it depends on how you measure success. I’m successful because I’m making a living doing it, so there’s that. Successful in terms of quality – I would say I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not sure that anybody ever is. So I’m constantly looking to improve.

Q: Fair enough. Okay. And our last question, actually – what skills would you say are most central to writing in the kind of role that you’ve built for yourself here?

A: I think that it would have helped me, it would still help me a lot to have more of a business writing background, I think that is essential to any freelancer, anybody that’s just self-employed and looking to make a living as a writer. And I think that I would have enjoyed and probably benefitted from some creative writing courses, from learning how to develop my voice better and I think, I’m not sure if this is writing-specific, but having some sort of education or courses that made me feel more confident as a writer and less afraid to have a voice, even.

Q: That’s so interesting. Okay, alright, thank you so much!

A: Of course.

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