I’m a legal administrative specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And how long has it been since you graduated from college?
I think it was 2011, so I guess, seven years.
How long have you worked in your current field?
In this job, two years and a month.
OK. And could you just provide me with sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?
OK. Yeah I take telephone calls from veterans. I assist all veterans and dependents and survivors of veterans. So it’s a couple different kinds of people. I assist them with understanding a specific subset of the benefits that veterans can receive. So, it’s a service-connected disability compensation, veterans wartime pension, which is a needs-based, benefit based off the income and medical expenses that a veteran is handling. Then there’s also two survivors-type benefits. One is called dependency and indemnity compensation for a survivor of a deceased veteran who passed away due to a service connected disability or in some way related to their service. Or survivor’s pension wishes–the survivor’s version of the veterans war time.
I see. OK. And could you estimate maybe in a given week how much of your job requires writing?
About 50 percent of it. A lot of calls can be answered by just by finding information that they–that they’re asking me about. But sometimes I have to help with claims and their benefits and things like that because while I help them understand their benefits I also have to help them understand what we’re asking when they are making claims about their benefits and things like that and take their answers.
I see. OK. So yeah could you talk a little bit about the forms or types of documents that you most often have to write?
OK. so there’s two main types of documents that I will write. One is a report of general information. It’s kind of a–when there is evidence or a statement being made by a veteran or if there’s evidence being gathered or responses for information that we’re asking about — a couple other uses for it too. But that’s generally what that’s for. The other is a VA inquiry, which is essentially when something’s wrong–like if there a date of birth incorrect or if there’s something that’s not fitting or guidances or something like that something is out of the ordinary, it’s the action taken to escalate and correct.
I see. So could you talk a little bit about the primary audiences and purposes of those?
Primary audiences–like who’s receiving who’s receiving?
OK. So both of them go roughly to the same place. So while I work at a regional office I’m on national lines, so I can get somebody from Georgia or I can get somebody from the Philippines or I can get somebody from Virginia or even in England or something like that if they’re a U.S. veteran, calling. And I help to route where it’s going to go as well. So if someone should be handling their claim in Connecticut, I help get them to get the information to the regional office that would be handling their jurisdiction.
I see. OK. And the purposes of communication–can you talk just a little bit about that in more detail?
Sure. So say we’re asking for some–that is an example of it — I think that might help make things more–make more sense. So for the reports of general information, if we’re asking for, like if somebody wants to add a dependent, which they can in some cases at a higher level of compensation for, we need certain bits of information. If they submitted an application with part of the information we would need for that, like the name and the place of birth but not the date of birth of the child, and didn’t put the social security number, I could take that response and send it off to the regional office. The group that’s processing claims so they have all the information they need.
And it seems at first that it would be easier to get in contact with the person directly, but the reason I exist in this job is so that they actually have the time to actually process the claims. If they did my job too, they wouldn’t’ have the time to do it.
Got it right. OK. That makes a lot of sense. Yet that example works really nicely. Could you walk me through the process for the writing of one specific maybe recent document or recent project done, sort of start to finish for everything from how it arrives to you to any planning or preparation and then drafting and if there’s revision or editing? Sort of what that whole process looks like?
Sure. It’s not often extremely long. Drafting a document to say something like that it’s not usually much more than a page at a time. It’s a lot more bite-sized information. So it’s usually just taking a little bit of information here and there. But so if I see that they were sent a letter, and they’re calling about their claim and I think they were recently sent a letter asking for the Social Security number and–say we’re asking for a bit of information about their claim. Let’s say they have hearing loss and they have a heart valve issue or something like that. Maybe it’s something related to Agent Orange. They’re claiming. So we would ask for information a lot of times about where they had gone to see doctors when they first noticed they had this disability. We might be asking for service treatment records, if they–if they were difficult for us to obtain through normal federal federal channels. Sometimes we can’t get them in certain cases. There was a fire at the National Archives that destroyed some records. So sometimes we have to try to work around that–[indecipherable].
Okay. It’s interesting, yeah.
So we’ll try to gather the information that is needed. So I’ll usually see a development letter and it’s asking for very specific information. And I’ll read through it with them and ask them, Can you provide an example of your service treatment records? If they say yes, then I’ll know that they’ll be sending those along. It could give me periods of treatment that they’ve received, medical treatment, I’ll know the places and dates they did it. I can note the period of time they first started having any disability, things like that. And it helps to get the claim moving forward, so that we don’t have to wait on the information necessarily through the mail–taking ten days here to get their mail, so they can respond, and then they get back to us–it could take way longer. When they can just call us, and a lot of times we can just identify some of the information.
Perfect. OK. That makes a lot of sense. So how do you know how to perform these types of writing?
I mean there is a training process once you’re in this position and they kind of go through what you should be doing, how you should be handling it, how about it to the right people. But, I mean, having a college education is a requirement in any…for the most part. Everybody who I work with has a college degree or something along those lines. So having a background in writing and all of that just so you are very clear about what you’re doing and what you’re asking, is very helpful.
Gotcha, gotcha. Has there ever been a time when you were writing in this job that you felt unprepared as a writer?
No, not as a writer. There–there can be certain things that you don’t really feel like you’re prepared for. But not the writing portion of it.
Ok, ok. Does anybody oversee these reports or any of the writing that you do?
To some degree–there is a…while it’s happening, no. I do get monthly reviews. And part of it is based on correspondence that I send. It’s a mixed bag of review. So it’s–it’s kind of it’s based on: Did you do the right thing? Like, when you, when you–and somebody mentioned something on the call, did you take the right action, and by doing this write up? And when you wrote it did you write it correctly? And did you send it to the right people?
That’s kind of a basic rundown.
Gotcha. OK. So it’s much more about content and sort of decision making than it is about writing style or tone or anything like that?
Yeah, it’s not really descriptive writing from an academic point of view. It’s more about being direct and having business writing and being very clear about what it is you’re asking.
Perfect. Yeah, absolutely. How long do you typically have to compose one of these–like an average correspondence?
We used to have less time — we had calls times that we had to meet a very long time. This couple of months they got rid of that, thankfully because I I personally felt like that was not a good policy to be rushing people off the phone. That is really what it resulted in. Can I understand why they had it? They didn’t want people saying on the phone forever, and people not being addressed. But now that they have taken that out, I technically to a large scale have as much time as I need, but it doesn’t really take a long time to do these because it can be anywhere from a sentence to maybe a large paragraph. But not usually much longer than a couple of sentences.
Gotcha. All right. And what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create when you were a college student?
I remember a lot of them were more lengthy writing, analytical writing, extrapolation of what I thought something meant. Less with…there wasn’t really much direct in how to compose an email, which is funny you didn’t think that it was something that was all that important. And I figured it out–it’s not something that we really went over with like how to just be very direct and say what you mean and how to avoid being confusing. It’s something we went over actually one time I had it in college, and it was not in English composition class of any kind. It was in a psychology class. I’m trying to remember the words used here. But it was, it was about the different meanings of sentences, like what it can mean–like what you can accidentally say when you’re trying to say something. The word isn’t coming to me.
It’s interesting. Yeah, that’s that’s especially interesting that it was in a psychology class that that even got touched on. What was your major?
Ok, yeah. Do you think that any of your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you do now?
Not especially, not directly, but having an understanding of how to–spell, how to type, how to–how to do a great deal more writing than I really need to do now, it’s very good practice.
Gotcha. Is there anything–you mentioned you know talking maybe about direct address and e-mails–is there anything else that you wish you had learned in college or practiced in college to prepare yourself?
As far as writing?
I guess just being sure how to be clear and–like a lot of it is more focused on–a lot of what I’ve learned in writing classes is how to think critically about whatever the subject matter was. So it was usually more centered around whatever we read than whatever we were writing about. I suppose to some degree the writing is just a tool to get from point A to point B, so it makes sense.
Yeah that’s interesting. That’s really interesting. So, as we sort of switch back to the writing that you do now, could you talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing?
Yeah, well if I state things incorrectly then quite a bit. There have been situations where I’ve caught things on files where it has–it’s resulted in the award of several tens of thousands of dollars to people who deserved it. So, quite a bit is at stake. People could potentially if I state something incorrectly if the evidence isn’t getting from them to the group that’s processing the claim, they may not ever get that. They might not even realize the important thing that they just kind of said in conversation, how important that is, and I might need to translate that over to them.
Oh, that’s interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that process? Like when you say that you’re sort of translating that for a different audience? Could you talk a bit more about that?
Yes. I’ll do my best to do it. I–I want to try to respect the privacy of the people–
Oh, of course.
I need to be careful…but essentially sometimes people will say things, like–To, to understand this I’m going to give you a better understanding of certain types of veteran benefits. So there’s something called a presumptive benefit, where if you were there and you have this disease, we assume it’s because of this thing. An example of that would be exposure to Agent Orange. Another big example is exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. So if you having, let’s say, if you have diabetes mellitus, and you were in Vietnam during the time when they were spraying Agent Orange, then we can assume that there is a causal link between the two. So there are certain special subsets where that applies. However, for that to work, you have to be able to show that you were in Vietnam during that time, or another affected area. So with that being said, if they don’t know how to link–like if they don’t know how to show that they were in Vietnam during that time, which will be difficult for certain groups, say naval–if you’re far enough out you at sea we might not be able to consider you presumptive. However if you were inland when you were dropping troops off really close to the shore, we may still be able to do that. You have to be able to show things like where your ship is stationed and things like that. So I help people do things like–there was one where he’d mentioned a newspaper article that mentions people in his unit. I helped him kind of pull that together, show where somebody in that unit was–that there was an accident or something that occurred, so that I could help place him where he was.
Oh that’s really interesting. OK.
These can kind of be lengthy conversations when this kind of thing comes up because I try to help them figure out how to piece it together.
Right. And it’s interesting because of course like I’m thinking about recent veterans when we started our conversation. But of course you’re dealing with all veterans, so yeah, yeah. And that that documentation of that memory might not be there. So that’s really interesting. Yeah. So there’s, there’s definitely a research component to some of this it sounds like?
It’s usually somewhere between three minutes and an hour, and it can be really between that amount of time. It’s closer to a smaller amount. I’d say the average call time is probably around six or seven minutes. But there are the outliers that are much greater.
I see okay. That’s really interesting. So what would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your position?
Most difficult? I guess just making sure you’re hearing things that they’re saying while you’re trying to get it all down because people speak quicker than is easily gathered and written down. So while you’re trying to make sense of it all and they’re still saying something, you might miss something important.
Gotcha. That makes sense. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally on the job?
On the job? No. Well…somewhat. So there are in my position there are…there’s like a one step up from where I am, called a lead legal administrative specialist. They can kind of help steer you in the right direction, but I don’t think they’re really there to be writing it for you, but more to give you guidance about how you should handle it.
So that’s probably really unclear. So, more of a–is this a situation where… like should I do a VA inquiry that I mentioned earlier or should I not do that and instead do another action? It’s more of what they’re there for; they’re not really there to write it out for you. But they will help you phrase it if you need them to, but I’m at the point where I don’t really need it anymore.
Right. Is that because they understand, like, the terminology better than say a person who’s just new in your position? Is it mostly about phrasing? Or is it more about like persuasiveness?
Phrasing, not so much persuading. But, yeah just to make sure you’re using the right terminology.
Yeah, in government writing. You’re going to find that most of the things that are said involve at least two or three or four acronyms per sentence, so making sure you know which system is which. And what’s going on there. And a lot of times they will refer to old systems that now are controlled by a different system. It’s nightmarish and confusing when you’re new.
I can only imagine. Yes. I just have a few questions left, so I’m wondering if you could describe how you think you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?
In this career specifically or in general?
OK, so when I was a high school student I wasn’t exactly the best writer, I didn’t really see the value of it until probably junior year. I finally started to take it more seriously. I was not the most serious student prior to that. I became much more serious student in college, and I really worked myself up to a better spot. I got a better mastery of language and writing and ended up really enjoying it. But I did not really see it as valuable at first. I assumed at the time that I probably would have ended up in trade work which I didn’t. So I guess it’s actually a pretty strong transition from a C student to an A-level student in English composition and things. So I think it was a pretty strong transition, and then getting a job where it is a–not a lengthy writing process, but a lot of writing in the short term, is mostly what I do–is just writing answers to things.
Yeah. Do you think that writing is valued in the agency as a whole?
I mean there are training courses in how to–how to be clear and–clear and concise in your requests in emails. That being said I have seen some very unclear, confusing writing, where I’m not sure what they’re asking or I’m not sure what they’re saying. So I think the organization as a whole probably does value it. I think that it needs work for certain individuals, but I think that as a whole they’re trying.
OK. And how would you have defined successful writing as a student as opposed to successful writing in your current position?
Extremely differently. So with English writing being able to…it almost seemed more…it seemed a lot more about the description of the current project. As much as it’s very nice to read a good story and to appreciate it, it seemed more about that than the actual writing process itself at the time. And of course that’s my own personal experience with specific professors. But, in this case it’s just about being extremely clear and trying to…it’s kind of a funny idea, thinking back to college where you’re writing a long essay and you think, this has got to be another page. I really stretch this out. Versus, but really the goal is to cut it down make it make sense. You’re not just stretching it for no reason. In the current position it’s not about a grade, it’s about getting a point across and to make a point a little bit easier, keeping it short is usually better.
And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?
I would think so. I think I’m the second highest rated person in my office. So I would say so.