Director of Business Development

Business

Director of Business Development

54:18

 

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

 

A: Yes. So my job title is Director of Business Development; I work at Flourish agency, we’re a full service, creative agency that really specializes in the direct-to-consumer space, and I graduated from undergrad in 2009 with a degree in political science and business.

Q: Great. And how long have you been in your current field? Since 2009, or?

 

A: No, I transitioned from the corporate/private banking world at JP Morgan in 2016 to the ad agency world. This is now my second agency in the last two and a half/three years, and yeah, that’s it.

 

Q: Great, okay excellent. Can you provide just a brief description of your primary job functions?

 

A: I lead and manage all agency new business and organic growth initiatives company-wide. So any opportunity to grow organically with our current client base is a small portion of what I do, but my primary focus is prospecting, developing relationships, and ultimately, earning business from brands that we want to be in business with.


Q: Okay, okay. How frequently are you required to write? So maybe, if you could estimate even in an average week, what percent of your job actually requires writing?

 

A: I would say I send upwards of 40 to 50 varied types of written messages every single day, that’s across social media, so LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, as well as emails. And another portion of my day is, obviously with any active opportunities that we have that we’re currently working to pitch or develop a stronger relationship with, we write pretty long and sophisticated presentations of which I probably am responsible for like, somewhere around 25 percent of. So I’d say most of my day is, maybe 30 to 40 percent of my day, maybe even more on some days, is probably focused on actual writing.

 

Q: Great, okay. And obviously it will vary from project to project, but typically how long do you have to complete a writing project?

 

A: It’s very quick turnaround. So, when prospecting or reaching out to current prospects or clients, minutes, you know, probably no more than 15 minutes are spent. With presentations, it probably ranges from, you know, we have such a large bank and I have a lot of experience to pull from it, the stuff that I’m writing is usually just modified in some ways or customized to the approach that we’re taking with that opportunity. But probably a couple hours, maybe two, three hours at most. And then usually, I kind of take over the reigns near the end once everyone’s contributed, and make sure that things are formatted and grammatically correct and consistent across each presentation.

 

Q: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. My next question you’ve sort of answered, but just to clarify – could you sort of list off the forms or types of documents that you most often complete? So you mentioned sort of prospecting emails, social media, these presentations – anything else that you write often?

 

A: Um, no, outside of like actual managing social media accounts, the things that I listed, you know, outward prospecting efforts and in presentations, it’s pretty consistently that, sometimes some internal communications. But no, I would say my role is pretty focused on those things.

 

Q: Okay, that makes sense. And who are the primary audiences and what are the primary purposes of those communications?

 

A: So, the primary purposes are to create relationships and ultimately move them through a funnel over a long period of time. So most of my sales cycles are between 16 and 18 months, sometimes longer. And the goal is to really create a consistent touchpoint throughout that journey. Obviously if I have never spoken to someone and they, you know, are consistently being reached out to by dozens of people like me, my goal is really to create innovative ways to get through to them. So, while writing is a piece of that, I obviously do a lot of things that aren’t writing based. And categorically, most agencies have like maybe three to four wheelhouses that they specialize in. Currently, for me, the prospects that we’re actively working are mid to large size universities, very health-focused consumer brands, like health foods to a little bit more of like the pharmacological products that are maybe sold for infants, or certain, you know, health issues that’s still readily available over the counter to you as a consumer, very focused cause-related work – so we work with, in northeast Ohio alone, probably 15 of the largest nonprofits, but also actively seek that out nationally. And then, those are the last spaces is our prospects in brand that obviously look and feel and map to our experience in the brands that we actively work with or have worked with, in like the hardware and home improvement space, so everything from [6:35 inaudible] brands, to raw materials, to other products that would be readily accessible at like a Home Depot or Lowes.

 

Q: Oh that’s really interesting, okay. Yeah, that’s really, really useful. And so when you are writing to these prospects, your audience is almost always a prospect I assume?

 

A: Um, yes. Or a former client, or a connection of a former client. So clearly the best way in is to have someone, you know, not just in trying to apply and earn a job, but also in the sales world, is to have someone to actually personally introduce you or make a connection. So I’d say a lot of my time is doing that, versus trying to just establish a cold relationship. But an equal amount of time spent obviously just proactively prospecting on my own.

 

Q: That’s useful. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. How did you know how to perform the types of writing that you’re actually performing?

 

A: I think I have a pretty natural skill set of communicating in writing the way that I communicate when I speak, and I think in the worlds that I’ve operated in, at least since I came out of the banking world – which is obviously a lot more formal, there’s a lot more regulation, and to be honest, the writing that we did was only internal, they didn’t allot a lot of external communications being written in email – and in the agency world, there’s so much jargon, there’s so many acronyms, there’s just so much fluff, and I feel like being concise, direct, and speaking to people the exact same way I would speak to them in person, you know, succinctly, I think is important. And leading with value I think is a key in sales overall, but really, you know, if I’m one of 40 people that have reached out to this really influential person at an organization that day or that week, the only way I’m going to cut through is either saying or doing something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary that they happen to see at the right moment, or they have to be in the phase where they’re actively looking to buy, or we already have to have an established relationship or connection and I’m simply following up at that point. So it really just trying to cut through the clutter and be as direct and concise and as personable as possible.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting, because you’ve only been doing this a few years, so I feel like it’s useful that it’s so fresh to you, and I’m wondering, was there a time early on in this sort of world that you’re in that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

 

A: Yeah, my comfort level of knowing exactly what to say– everything is trial and error in sales. If you’re not getting traction, everything’s trial and error. So you have to try new things until you realize what works, and then even when you find out what works, you have to constantly evolve the way you do it, and try to constantly be ahead of the rest of the crowd. And while I’m new to this space, the core skills that have made me successful throughout my career in technology, private banking, and the agency world are all very similar. So, what I did when I transitioned to the agency world, one, it was a very methodical transition, but two, I had a very strong foundation to bring with me that most people in the agency world do not possess, and for me to learn the lingo and the types of things that are important to my prospects and internally was really the only thing that I had to learn at that time, and then just constantly evolve the way that I communicate. So it probably took six months before my comfort level was like kind of churning, but here’s the thing, you know, I’m lucky to be in a position where, if something doesn’t work out and no one responds, no harm is done and there are so many other countless prospects in each category that I can put my energy into that you try not to spend too much time beating yourself up for what could have been, instead of just focusing on the now. And at a year, I mastered is probably the wrong word, but feel like I can run with the best of my peers in the category and in the industry.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah that makes a lot of sense. When you were trying to overcome those early challenges, and you know, it sounds like most of that was really just learning the language, learning sort of the way things are done here, not the actual act of communicating well, right – were there certain things that you did to get yourself acclimated in that six month period?

 

A: Like a high volume of internal meetings and interviews with just my team. So I was at a 150 [inaudible 11:33] agency, and just getting as much as a downlook from them constantly knowing that I was probably only digesting ten percent or twenty percent each time we spoke, but over [11:43 inaudible] pulse for one, their view of the position and what they would like to see, and obviously take what you can and then kind of come up with what you think is the best step, and a lot of times it’s very aligned to the overall goals of the organization, and a incredible amount of podcasts and just everything I could listen to audio-wise to get my hands wrapped around it, and then over time it’s really being a part of–  you know, I’m actively managing, am the quarterback of every external relationship, that doesn’t mean that I am the reason they’re doing business with us, but I’m the opener and definitely a closer, and in this world, collaboration’s everything, like, it’s not selling a product. It might take months to strategize and come up with a formal recommendation to present to someone, and I had a very small, you know, maybe twenty percent input on that, and the subject matter experts are really the ones guiding that, and I’m just constantly focused on the story arc, and the way that we communicate, and what we communicate, and just the gut feeling of whether this is something that will earn us business. And I think the higher volume of meetings and conversations and sales opportunities and pitch opportunities I have, in my role, you just, you learn to add those conversations to your arsenal, and my knowledge is a mile wide, versus their knowledge being a mile deep, and I think what makes a successful salesperson is being competent in how you deliver things, even if you’re not confident that you are the subject matter expert in that situation. So at least being able to talk the talk enough to continue the engagement.

 

Q: That’s really interesting, yeah. I wanted to go back to one thing you said there – when you were talking about writing those presentations or having some input on those, the pitch, a formal pitch to a potential client, you talked about story arc – can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that?

 

A: Yeah, we’ve all seen awful presentations, right? And in the agency world, they are truly a piece of art. It’s not something that can be in Keynote or Powerpoint, it’s a fully designed presentation through InDesign, you know, we have a foundational deck that I created and our team created when I came on which we call our capabilities deck, which is really the foundation for any early stage conversation. It’s the makeup of who we are, some of our personality, obviously the aesthetic and the design is there, like very high design across, case studies, just additional thinking and high level strategic flies that we can drop in and out based on the type of opportunity or the position of the person we’re speaking to, or something they may have said early on that they want to learn more about of how we approach that. Pitches are that plus a very custom approach, but the look and feel and the tone of how we communicate is consistent. So it looks the same, obviously the flies have different content, but at that point what we’re really focused on is it’s not solely about us, but it’s our thinking and it’s creating an overall story arc that allows them to see that one, obviously we’re the right caliber and have the right experience, two, we understand the challenge that they have laid out or the challenges of the industry, and kind of bringing them through that as we’re discussing the challenges, really putting our frameworks, our processes in place, and telling them along the way how we would approach this and why we would approach this and in some cases, taking it to the extent of doing a speculative creative that shows them the caliber of the work or early stage ideation, which is kind of a BS thing in the world because essentially they are getting free work from, I don’t know, four or five agencies or more, and it’s just laying it out in a way that is insightful, energizing, obviously intellectual and factual-based, but with a ton of energy. And the presentation in a pitch is obviously something that we’re narrating and we’re presenting, so the dynamics are much different, but you always have to be cognizant that the things that you’re sending and putting them after the presentation if you provide them with a copy – it has to live on its own, because the real decision takes place when you’re not in the room – and so it’s a fine balance between making sure that it’s not word soup, and it’s not logo or diagram soup, or process soup, but also there’s enough there that someone could draw the same assumption that we call back during the presentation when they’re meeting with their team or other team members or a board at some point. And understand the rationale on their own as well.

 

Q: That’s really, really interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense but it’s something I’ve not experienced and not thought too much about in the past. I’m wondering, I mean that feels like such a specific way of thinking and way of crafting, was that something that was new to you? Or have you worked in sort of genres like that before you got to the agency? Have you done work like that before?

 

A: Yeah, I think being a natural and effective communicator in presentations are obviously, has always been a sweet spot, whether I was actively doing those right before I transitioned I don’t think is relevant. But I know what’s relevant and energizing to people, and in sales, you win because you have a natural ability to size up a situation, read body language, read between the lines, and obviously not just cater to them but understand what’s important for you to address. And I think you instinctively see what has been presented in the past, so I got there and clearly, they’ve been pitching for 70 years so they know what it looks like, and I did a full assessment of where they were at, and they just weren’t, you know– we started foundationally with revamping our capabilities deck because it’s the foundation for every deck we create after, and we were not effectively communicating us, it was very scattered. And most agencies, while they create these beautiful brand strategies and messaging and content strategies for others that are usually very concise and straightforward, agencies fall to the same issues that their clients do in they don’t focus on themselves. And so the first step is to do that, and then the second step is, you roll out that iteration to the specific customized presentations, and I know what they look like, and I know what they should feel like, and I know what information is relevant and what information’s not relevant, based on what I’ve seen, you know, based on what I see when I’m reading it as an unbiased person. And also when I’m in the room practicing and presenting with our team, it really gives you an opportunity to be very critical, and because I’m only making up probably 10 or 15 percent, you know, maybe the opening and a strong close near the end, my goal is really to provide active feedback to the team, and help them self discover to a certain extent what is necessary and what’s not, and I think once people have seen it once or twice, it becomes very easy to replicate it. So we finally had an opportunity after let’s say ten months at my first agency to do it the way that we wanted and push the wrong people out of the situation and really just managed it closely, and it went so phenomenal, and it was a huge swing out of their weight class and we won a substantial piece of work, and so from then on, we had a pulse for what that looks like and feels like, and you just try to replicate it in different scenarios moving forward.

 

Q: That’s fascinating. Yeah, that’s really, really helpful. Thank you. Is there someone who oversees your writing at the agency, or no?

 

A: So it’s a little unique. So at my first agency, 150 people, we had a whole team of copywriters, right? Junior level, senior level, and then creative directors that came from either the art director or design background, or came from the copywriting. Usually it’s a 50/50 mix, because you need both. At that agency, we also had a proofreader. So while it was a first swing by each of us kind of contributing our piece, and then probably a partner overseeing the overall and giving their very direct input throughout the process and managing it very closely with me, ultimately the copywriters and the creative directors would take it and bring it back to us for rounds of revisions, and would really have, they had their entire hand in writing it the way that is on our brand and tone. At my current agency, we have two creative directors, one that comes from the copywriting and once comes from design, and even when the one from the copywriting background isn’t involved in one specific opportunity, she’s has a heavy hand in helping us revise it. And there’s a lot of us that I’d say in the grand scheme of the world, were probably B+ writers, but [21:20 inaudible]  salesman,  and so when we get it that far down the field with the content, it’s usually one or two people that have a hand in helping us revise it before it’s finalized.

 

Q: That’s great. That makes a lot of sense, yeah. The next question is about process, and I’m wondering if you could pick, maybe you could actually speak to the social media writing that you do for the agency, and talk just a little bit about, you know, how maybe one recent example, how that looks start to finish. Like how do you decide what’s going on there? How is it crafted? Is there revision? How does that work sort of start to finish?

 

A: Yeah, and this is probably not the best example because one, we’re small and two, social media in a perfect world, and I believe in the power of it, and I would even say that we should invest 100 times more in it than we do, but at this point, it’s meant to be like a fact checker, kind of like a check box. One, it’s just meant to show a little personality. If someone we’re already in conversation with us or in the early stages of vetting and they happen to likes Instagram and uses it heavily, if they were to check us out it’s visually engaging, it shows some personality, it’s consistently showing our brand, like we, it’s consistently designed, all which I do in an app in about five minutes a day. We show our culture a little bit, and it’s meant to be more smart sarcasm and wit, is kind of the energy and vibe that we give off outwardly, I don’t know if that’s necessarily like the type of people we are, but it’s usually energizing, it has a little bit of a wit to it. And when I’m writing, it’s pretty plain, you know, we’re leveraging some type of quotes, or writing about a client and keeping it short and sweet, and just really trying to boost people’s awareness in our active community of what that is, and then I think over time, it could lead to more organic reach. But it’s pretty straightforward, it doesn’t, I don’t have a ton of input, I think I’ve, we all know what social media looks like, and we know what the popular people on social media post and the copy they write, and you just try to mimic something that looks and feels authentic to you, and is still obviously, you know, lighthearted.

 

Q: Sure, that makes a lot of sense. That’s useful. Let’s talk then maybe about the process for, you had mentioned that it’s still just sort of a matter of 15 minutes sometimes, but maybe a first or second pass at reaching out to a potential client – what does the process like that look like? Does someone give you contact information, is that someone you seek out? Like how does that process start and where does it go from there?

 

A: Yeah, so it’s as simple as early stage assessing the case– so we take a look at what we’ve done, that’s number one. Okay, we’ve done this. And you start kind of bucketing them, and I think we ended up in those categories that I mentioned, right? And it’s just a gut thing. If I were to call someone today in a certain category and you pick one, do I, is there something that relates to them strongly that they would want to have a conversation? Not to say that you need to have direct category experience, but it’s a massive piece of, you gain an upper hand if and when you have that. So the goal is start categorically, and then really start finding brands. So that’s a pure collaborative effort. I would say I’m responsible for 95 percent of it, and I take some input from members that have ideas occasionally, but at end of the day I’m the one that’s driving it fully, and my previous agency I managed a smaller team where I was the head and they were responsible for kind of like executing some of that, and then it came to me, and I was really the one that was still prospecting. And then, once you determine the brand, you have a list, you know, you dig into them a little bit more. You kind of learn more about their brand, sometimes maybe it takes you seven or eight minutes, and whether they are someone that has worked with an agency or currently works with an agency because that’s a great indicator that they would work with you as an agency at some point, whether today or a year from now. And then it’s kind of navigating the hierarchy of the position, so like, literally using everything. Using Google to search for the different types of agencies or any type of press releases or anything that would give way to new decision makers or organizational changes or work that they’ve done historically or recently, LinkedIn to really navigate the complexities of who, you know– some organizations have 20,000 employees and I’m trying to find the right one, it’s based on title, and over time you really learn what you’re looking for based on the size of the organization and the type, and sometimes you’re reaching out to the CEO and sometimes you’re reaching out to like, mid level brand manager as a first point, and sometimes both. And from there, then obviously there are a lot of paid databases that give you contact info, but that stuff is the basics. Once you decide you’re going to reach out, understanding the right cadences, and understanding kind of how to hack through to that. So I think when I talked about constantly evolving what I do, I rarely send a cold written email any longer, outside of maybe a [26:49 inaudible], I record videos on a thumbnail of me, literally saying and articulating the exact things that I would say in an email, except they see an attachment, very straightforward language about trying to cut through the clutter of their inbox, and would love the chance to connect at some point. And then they see a video, and if they open it, my response rate’s through the roof. The same thing goes for, obviously at some point I do write lengthy emails, especially to people that I’ve already been in conversations with. Calling is still a major piece, right? So calling them, trying to cut through and get through gatekeepers when possible, you get them out of office when they’re on vacation and they happen to put their cell phone in there, you immediately gain an upper hand, like there are all very small field tactics, but then leveraging Instagram and Linkedin and Twitter, like DM’s. Like those are the most, you know, Linkedin has become what I would consider email used to be in the professional world, right, and people are almost at this point kind of becoming numb to it, right? Email replaced mail, and cold calling kind of always is in there as relevant if you’re using it the right way, and LinkedIn has kind of replaced email at this point in some ways, and now you have this beautiful thing called Instagram, and obviously have to be very cautious with what you say and how you say things, because you are reaching out to people on their personal profiles, after you [28.25 inaudible]. But the response rates in the digital age, especially with any of us that are like, a little bit older millennials or gen-Z or even people that are just actively involved in the tech space Gen-X, if you position it correctly, even though they may be a little hesitant, or may even make a joke about you reaching out, obviously I would call that out, “I understand I’m reaching out on your personal profile, trying to the clutter, would love the opportunity, here’s a little bit,” and usually when they respond, it gives you a direct opportunity to speak with someone and the same thing with Twitter. Sometimes LinkedIn brings the same type of result, but it’s a combination of all those things, and even mail in those cases kind of cutting through the clutter of like, sending them something like very high design, well [29:22 inaudible]. They’re all pieces and writing plays a factor and it’s across the board, whether you have to be very very detailed and articulate, whether you have to be very high level and playful, you really have to adapt what you’re saying and when you’re saying it depending on where you’re at in the process with them.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. That’s super useful and really, really interesting, Josh, thank you. The next question is a little bit more broad and it’s what is at stake with your writing?

 

A: What is at at stake? Can you clarify what you mean by that?

 

Q: Yeah, I mean, what happens if your writing succeeds or fails? And obviously we have sort of this idea of the financial stake that is really obvious in sales, right? So I would imagine that’s the primary thing that’s at stake in your writing, but are there other things that you feel come from that writing in a sense, like, are there other consequences of your writing?

 

A: Sure, yeah. So the obvious that you noted, so like in a presentation, right, just making sure that things are grammatically correct and punctual, you know, spelled, and the right punctuation, I actually have a rule of thumb that people in the agency world spend like a ridiculous amount of hours just going through every minute detail to make sure that there’s not one grammatical error. And my thought is, if someone doesn’t want to do business with us – clearly put your time in and try to create a strong product – but if someone doesn’t want to do business with us because of a missed period or comma or one misspelled word, then like, we don’t want to do business with– like pardon my language, fuck them. Like, they’re not the right fit, clearly like, they’re missing the overall point. But as far as like, the day to day contacts, it’s a really sensitive balance. You never know if you’re actually getting through when someone hasn’t had an active relationship with you. But if they have– clearly I document literally every piece of outreach and conversation ever, going back, every small email, everything is in a CRM, chronologically updated in Salesforce, and I have a very meticulous follow up schedule according to when the next touchpoint makes sense, whether they’re in the funnel and I’m trying to convert them, whether I’ve never talked to them, it’s always detailed. But you are aware of brands that are very well suited for you, and you really feel passionate that if you were just able to get through, it would make sense. Sometimes you don’t know if the points of contact, even if I believe that there’s right cadences and know they are, you never know how they’re perceived on the other end. And you’re just always conscious of being seen as generic, or creating a barrier of them just literally blindly deleting or avoiding you because of the things you’ve done and said. You know, you must balance that as a salesperson with, there’s so many opportunities out there that you can’t dwell on every opportunity, and it’s like an internal struggle that you physically feel even though you would never say it outwardly to your team, you just know that everything you do is going to be interpreted somehow, and obviously you move on and you try not to dwell. But also, from a personal perspective, the world’s very connected, and I’m not representing only my agency, if anything I think in the digital era, especially using those other mediums besides email, you’re representing yourself, and clearly want to be as articulate and sound as smart as you possibly can and know that the people that you’re potentially connecting with are connections of your connections, you constantly have to be aware of what you say and respecting that relationship without bastardizing it. And also, you never know who you’re going to come in contact with, or who knows who, and their point of view or feelings about the things you’re saying, so you just, through trial and error and through being able to read people on each medium and understanding the complexities, you just have to be constantly aware. And I would say especially on Twitter, and especially on Instagram, with different gender dynamics, clearly I am a white male that is a tenacious human being, and it’s not likely the first time I’ve reached out, and so I have to be very compassionate and understand the situation that I’m putting them in by reaching out to them. They have the opportunity to ignore it, but still, there’s still an emotional and professional reaction that takes place if they do read it and when they do read it, because everyone checks their Instagrams DMs. So just constantly aware of the things that I’m putting out in the world, and how I’m portraying myself, and obviously my company and my organization as well, but, it’s much more personal. It’s knowing that, you know, clearly you have influence but, you don’t want to obviously be perceived negatively or as if you’re intruding on their own personal space.

 

Q: Absolutely, yeah that’s a really interesting answer. And this sort of might lead into this next question, and that’s what’s the most difficult thing about writing in your specific position?

 

A: Umm, avoiding redundancy in the wrong ways. So like, the hardest part is if someone doesn’t respond three or four times, and then you, you know, it’s days or weeks or even a month before you’ve maybe touched them two or three times, and it could be longer, because you really have to play your cards right and understand the season, and understand the timing, and understand like the history of who they’ve selected as an agency and where they’re at on potential projects. And, I think the hardest part is, most people, let’s say 90 plus percent people have no recall of me reaching out at all. Ever. And so allude to previous points of contact in some cases, sometimes I just play the cold card again, because today might be the day that they’ve spent five minutes on their email, or on their phone. And it’s just making sure that the story of first contacts through when they decide to reply or decide to, even if they say no, you know, a reply is a great understanding ‘cause it allows you to know how much effort you’re going to put into something. So it’s just really avoiding generic outreach and putting us in a light that won’t allow us to kind of deliberate, you don’t want to ever, in any situation, make it seem like I mass-customized a piece of outreach, and I don’t. Even though I have a lot of similar emails that are being sent, they’re very customized in the sense that like, I’ve just become very good at and efficient at changing the things that need to be changed, but that’s years and years, dating back to the beginning of my career, knowing how to do that. But to them, it seems like a very focused email. Avoiding that redundancy is huge, especially because sometimes, in most cases, I could reach out for ten straight months. Most of my big wins I’ve reached out for ten months, nine months a year, and then after that period of time, they finally respond, “Josh, I really appreciate your persistence in reach out. I’ve been meaning to get out to you. I’d love to talk tomorrow.” So like, for a year, they weren’t in a buying position. They weren’t in the state that they were ready to talk to someone. But the day that they were, my email happened to come through around that time, and they remembered me somehow. Or I seemed like someone that they wanted to talk to even if they don’t recall anything. And that’s the opportunity. So just knowing that there’s a fine balance between continuing to repeat the same things because they’re your value propositions, but not churning and burning emails with the same type of copy or messages with the same type of copy. Everyone has email history, like, in one second they could see all your Twitter DMs, all your Instagram DMs, your Linkedin messages, so if I send six in a row, like clearly that conveys a message. And if they’re all the same, that looks even worse.

 

Q: Absolutely, right, okay that makes a lot of sense, yeah. This is more about sort of your development as a writer. Has anyone helped you in the workplace formally or informally develop as a writer?


A: I am someone that just picks up things from other people, so I think I was, like I said, like a B– compared to you, Brian, and my wife, I’m a C writer. Compared to the rest of the world, I’m a B+, right? So in the grand scheme of things like I say, we jokingling, but like, truly there’s a upper echelon of people that are so incredible and it’s an art, and it’s a subject matter; they’re subject matter experts. And clearly I wouldn’t presume that I could be immediately be as great as them. I think I’m an effective communicator, but those are things that I’ve picked up over time, that I’ve picked up from subject matter experts or other people, but, also just being with Sarah– I’m really focused on transitioning careers at this point into something that has been on my mind for years, and just going through a cover letter and a resume with her, the bulk of the things that I wanted to communicate were there, but like, what she did and what she helped me with while working through those things, it’s an art. And the end product is significantly greater than where I would have ended. So I think, just organically picking things up from people and knowing, at least how to translate my spoken word into writing format, and then also, obviously collaborating and being around people that are very strong writers.

 

Q: Great, okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Do you remember–

 

A: And I went to a very, very good high school, so like, the number one ranked public school in Ohio for like, I don’t know, ten out of fifteen years. And that’s not like a [40:09 inaudible] point, but I remember my high school teachers saying – I was like a, I think that I was really a B or B+ student consistently through high school – and they said that like, “Our C students, you’re going to go to college and the majority of you will be in the upper echelon of writing students because of the education that you’ve received.” And it was true. I went to a small school, I was planning on going to the naval academy, but ended up at a small school, and this B+ writer was an A+ writer among other people, except maybe the top tier of actual writers, because I received such a stellar education. And from there, it was just, you know, I don’t know how much I’ve evolved, but I think I’ve just learned how to communicate a little differently.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah, that’s really, really interesting. Do you remember or either in highschool, but I guess more specifically in college, what kinds of writing were you asked to do?

 

A: I was in political science and was pre law, and just like, not going to the naval academy like a month before, and deciding to back out, I decided to back out of attending law school, like a [41:13 inaudible] and got my MBA instead, and everything worked out great. But in college, I had like two or three professors that were, like one was the former head of the entire political science program at Xavier, one was a Harvard law grad and worked on the federal circuit, and they were extremely influential. And the writing that we did for those courses, in liberal arts you have a lot of gen ed classes and bs stuff, but it’s pretty bland, and if you just do your work, you’ll get through it. But in those classes, your writing was everything. You know, you might only have one or two papers a semester, and two four hour long, handwritten or typed exams, with a plethora, like a crazy amount of case histories, and really taking a current case and dissecting it based on the things that are already in law at this point. And I really honed my ability for rational thinking and strategic thinking at that point, I think it took me from someone that thought he was a pretty good writer at communicating simply and concisely to, here are these things that have already taken place, and I had to rationally connect the dots between the two of them, and I think my writing skills probably doubled during about six different classes [42:41 inaudible] over my junior and senior year.

 

Q: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, that’s wonderful. Do you think that those experiences prepared you to write in the workplace?

 

A: I think in some way. Transitioning right from that and being like law-focused to going to the MBA world, where I still was in a lot of business classes and it was a focus in college, during my MBA, I think the same type of strategic thinking and writing was critical. So, here’s our recommendation, here’s why historically, here’s the rationale behind it, and then, you know, kind of being succinct in summarizing the recommendation again, and it’s very similar to what I did: here’s the idea and here’s the answer, here’s the historical and rational context behind it, and leading it ultimately to your final points. And I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways, and I think that’s almost identical to how we operate in the agency world of, you know, here’s us, here’s the recommendation, we’re going to walk you through a long version of why, we’re going to show you how we’ve done it ourselves, and then here it is, very, very straightforward on one or two slides. Here’s the whole picture of what we want to do and why we’re going to do it.

 

Q: Hmm, yeah I can see the mirror there, yeah. Are there things that would’ve been useful for you as a college student that you didn’t get that would’ve better prepared you?

 

A: I don’t think a lot of college courses focus on careers. I think they focus on academia, like the academic version of what subject matter these students are studying versus how that translates to an entire industry or job function. And while it’s difficult obviously to focus specifically on a role, I think it’s much easier to focus it on an industry, and push people to– you know, what I loved about my two law professors were, they were literally pushing us and running the course as if we were at a top tier law school. It was an identical [44:58 inaudible], and now that maybe doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the real world, but it prepared us for the next logical step in our lives. All of us were very serious prelaw students. I had a lot of marketing classes, and I had one where we did do a pitch and worked through things, but I don’t think, at least at a small liberal arts school like ours, there wasn’t a ton of– it was an expectation, some professors probably were much more critical than others around the actual grammar and in writing skills overall, and some were less and more focused on the answers, and the thinking. And I just think equipping students to sell themselves and understanding how to communicate ideas, recommendations, values that they believe in, values that they bring to a certain subject or field, I think all of those things are really important, and I wish that someone would’ve spent more time maybe pushing us to do that. Especially, I would say like of all the things I’m an expert at, is networking and interviewing, like jokingly. But I love that the most in this world, and I’m phenomenal at creating a story arc of me personally and professionally and kind of combined. And I honestly think that if some students– like most people suck at selling themselves. They’re more focused on responsibilities than values they’ve delivered and results, and I think that that’s the case in a lot of business writing at least, is a lot of people spend too much time on the details versus communicating the value and the overall idea, and I think students probably, especially as they’re headed in the real world, not resume writing, but like, communicating the specifics of why in their story arc, and having a story to tell, I think that’s always important. And it starts on a piece of paper as an outline, and then you tell it enough that you kind of grow it and evolve it over time, and feel more confident in it.

 

Q: That’s great, yeah.

 

A: I’m all over the place, I apologize.

 

Q: No, no, that’s super interesting! And again, it’s sort of not something that we think about that often I think in the classroom, that’s great. I actually have a few more questions, they’re relatively short, I want to be conscious of your time. How do you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

 

A: Less fluff, much more succinct, I think is number one. I’ve learned how to communicate way more specifically and effectively. I’ve learned how to take my personal spoken style and the way I am as a human being, the way I just naturally communicate with others in any medium, and translate that to what I’m doing professionally in writing. Depends on the medium, but like, I think if you were to see the things that I write, small, big, across the board, wide range, banking, technology, agency world, you would say that that’s, it’s pretty consistently Josh. That’s my tone, my language, and I think I’ve learned over time how to do it more effectively. So I don’t think I’ve always been that great, but I think, you know, even after working through the resume and cover letter, like, Sarah clearly has input on things, and I just know instinctively that that doesn’t sound like me, or that’s not a way that I would articulate something. I think that’s just how I am, I believe that you just have to be yourself when doing those things.

 

Q: Great, okay. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your agency and in the sort of field as a whole?

 

A: In the field it’s maybe the most critical piece. It’s how everything is communicated. So clearly, pitches and different things, like you’re articulating an idea, not just spoken, but also written, and actually written first, and then you adapt how you speak about it. Every brief, every simple operation, from changing a logo or creating a new logo, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, to a full brand new brand strategy or messaging strategy, there could be ten pages of just showing them and creating a guide for how this brand will communicate with the outward world and internally. There are briefs and emails exchanged before those projects are kicked off, there are const and communications that are taking place with prospects and clients throughout the process, the actual work that you deliver oftentimes outside of like a pure design piece is written. And even in that case, it’s written so that there’s context to the entire situation. So, every nuance of advertising, the written word is the most important in so many ways. And specifically at my agency, I believe, everyone believes in the power of it. But it’s kind of siloed, where we all take our pieces and understand that we’re all pretty good writers and hopefully it comes together well in the end and we’re all pretty critical of it, but unfortunately we don’t have the time to value it as much. At my first agency, you have brilliant copywriters that you literally give them a pile of garbage and they come back and give you like the most beautiful piece of art in the world and you have no idea that something could be communicated that way. And when you do read those things and the things that actually make it to the client, versus things that are internal, it could solidify the value that you deliver and them wanting to do business with you. So I think it’s just dependent on the team and the agency. I think it’s always valued, but some places it’s like an unspoken expectation, and other places it’s an art.

 

Q: That’s great. That’s great, yeah. And our last question actually – how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus being a successful workplace writer now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

 

A: I would say I’m a successful workplace writer, and I would say that it’s something that every single day I’m focused on evolving. Like I walk into work every single day knowing that I have to evolve in even one sentence, or half a sentence, or one piece of communication has to evolve in order to continue kind of optimizing the way that I communicate. And the results that it brings – in college, you know, there are just so many different types of writing. One, I wish I understood, someone maybe was able to articulate and walk you through the spectrum of the different types of writing that they could encounter, right? You have your literature classes, and you have your law classes, and you have your business classes, and they all require a lot of different things, and they all focus on writing dependent on the professor, but I think to be able to summarize where they fall on the spectrum on what’s important, I don’t know if I ever had a professor tell me in a non writing-focused class what they’re looking for specifically in the writing, outside of like a specific idea or missed idea in a lot of cases. I also think that understanding the mediums as to which people are going to be writing in this new age, helping them understand that. Everyone has their own interpretation of what’s important, right? Like the things that Sarah says are really important are platforms that I rarely use, or use completely differently, and the way I communicate is completely differently, and I think just having an appreciation and understanding of that, and allowing people to understand like the full range of technology and the way people communicate on those platforms, and if the professors are not subject matter experts, not acting like they are [chuckle], and really people to obviously give them guidance on what that looks like, and I think understanding that whole range in that space I think would’ve been really awesome for me to know, you know. And I think it could have potentially guided me out of law. Had I known in college what a lawyer from a writing perspective, and the volume of documents they write and format and change every single day, I’m pretty sure I probably would have pivoted a little bit earlier.

  

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT

25:40

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Great.

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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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