Management Analyst

Government & Military

ManagementAnalyst1_September2018 – 9_9_18, 10.37 AM.mp3

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

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

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

A:                            It has been 10 years.

Q:                           How long have you worked in your field?

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

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

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

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

A:                            Yeah like 90 percent probably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Who weren’t subject matter experts?

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

Q:                           Got it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Your immediate boss do you know her title?

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

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

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

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

A:                            Actually pretty she knows most of it.

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

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

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

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

Q:                           OK.

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

Q:                           OK.

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           What did you? study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           What is at stake in your writing here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:                           Did you have experience editing before this position?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT

25:40

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A: No.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Q: Great.

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Communications Director

Government & Military

Communications Director, Congressional Office
23:27

Date of Interview: April 12th, 2017

Transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: That’s great, thank you so much!

A: Yep, sure thing.

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Plain Text Act Assignment

Assignments, Resources

Level: Can be customized for writers at all levels.

This assignment focuses on writing and editing for concision and clarity, particularly in the context of “public” writing. In 2010, the U.S. government put into place the Plain Writing Act, which “requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” You can listen to a federal government employee talk about this act and its impact on his writing at work here [link to excerpt from graphic design manager at unnamed agency]. For this assignment, you’ll explore the guidelines for government employees set out in this law, and then you’ll explore government documents with these guidelines in mind.

  1. Read the guidelines (linked on the left of this page of the Plain Writing Act website).
  2. Online, find two public government documents from two different government agencies. For instance, you might look at a report from the Department of Laborabout women, trauma, and disability in the workforce. You could examine the State Department’s report on Global Food Security. Or you might choose to read about one of the many research initiatives at the National Institutes for Health (NIH). Any two federal documents will work.
  3. Read your two documents and write a paragraph for each summarizing the content. What is this text about? What’s its purpose? Is it making an argument or is it simply informative? Who is the audience and how can you tell?
  4. Then, critique the writing in your two documents in the framework of the Plain Writing Act. In what ways do the texts adhere to the act? Are there places that, perhaps, seem not to be written according to these guidelines? Provide examples in your (approximately 800-word) analysis.