Program Specialist, Records Management

Government & Military

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5:07

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

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

Tell me about what that is. 

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

Can you search descriptions too?

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

OK.

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

9:13

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

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

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

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

10:09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure. 

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

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

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

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

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

18:32

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

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

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

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

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

That’s really interesting. 

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

Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27:47

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

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

So for each of those things? 

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

33:37

Right. OK that’s perfect. 

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

Nothing is too specific. 

Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And can you clarify what that term means?

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

that is being… Yeah yeah.

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

Yeah. 

Okay yeah. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49:03

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

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

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

Overall?

Overall.

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

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

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

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

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

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Graphic Designer, Unnamed Govt Agency

Government & Military

Graphic Designer – Unnamed U.S. Government Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20:41     Speaker: Yes. Yes.

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

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

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

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

22:10     Speaker: I see.

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

23:25     Speaker: There are also privacy issues.

23:27     Speaker: Right, gotcha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26:01     Speaker: Right. Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

27:17     Speaker: Of course.

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

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

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

28:09     Speaker: Tell me more about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34:17     Speaker: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaker: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39:21     Speaker: Of course.

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

40:00     Speaker: [laughter] Sure.

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

40:29     Speaker: Interesting.

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

40:46     Speaker: That’s really interesting.

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

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

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

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

41:58     Speaker: Yes.

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

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

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

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

43:52     Speaker: Yeah.

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

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

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

 

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