Archive for category Business Writing

How to Correct Two Common Mistakes in Business Writing

The way something is written can say as much about the subject matter as the content itself. Applied to business communications, writing style and tone help reinforce a brand or company culture, while a logical flow of information creates both understanding and credibility.

To keep your readers’ eyes on the content you create—whether it’s a blog post, newsletter, or simple internal communication—proofread (at least twice) for both clarity and correctness.

You don’t need to know all the rules of grammar (and their wonderful exceptions) to edit your own content, and it won’t take much time. All you need is to recognize the most common mistakes, and know what trips you up as a writer and a reader.

Writing: If you’ve collaborated with someone on a document, were changes made to your portion of the writing? What feedback do you receive?

Reading: As a reader, what do you find jarring? Where do you get lost? Confused? Do you feel lost and confused right now?

Chances are that the prose suffers from one or more of the two most common mistakes in business writing –homonyms and sentence structure.

Homonyms

These are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings. In the sounds-like category, the “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” offenses get the most attention. Other examples of homonym errors, briefly, include board/bored, where/wear/ware, lessen/lesson, to/too, hole/whole, role/roll.

The homonym errors involving contractions are most common because those are the words used most often in our communications (or, um, intended to be used). A good way to figure out the proper usage and spelling is to read the sentence as though the contraction were written out, mindful of whether there is a verb that would indicate two words joined together, as the contraction form.

Reading the entire sentence, or clause if you’re confident, is important because it gives context for proper usage. Here are some examples:

Its

Its is possessive; it’s is a contraction for “it has” or “it is.”

It’s (it is) a lovely day.

The dog licks its paw. (No contraction here. Adding the apostrophe [it’s form] would mean The dog licks it is paw. No.)

Your

You’re (you are) going to be so excited when you see your new walk-in closet.

Their

With their tutus and ballet slippers in hand, the little dancers sit backstage, waiting there until they’re called for dress rehearsal.

Their is possessive, there is a place, and they’re is a contraction for “they are,” whether you’re writing about tutus or technology.

Whose

Who’s (who is) going to the game? Whose vodka is this? The latter is the possessive form. And the vodka is mine.

Run-ons, Comma Splices, Sentence Fragments

Sometimes writers have a lot of ideas and they to cram them into a single sentence it makes it difficult for the reader to take in all those words without a breath between them but somehow meaning is agreed upon between writer and reader and the reader responds to the writer but may address only one of the ideas presented in the original communication because the other ideas got lost in the need for a single sentence per idea and a break between them whether it’s a semicolon to separate clauses that can stand alone or the use of a coordinating conjunction or breaking the content into separate sentences and for fuck’s sake a few different paragraphs too.

Independent clauses (ideas) need to be treated as such. Does the content read as a complete sentence? Two sentences? Can you make three? If the sentence (the thought) isn’t complete, make it so. Read the sentence aloud—how often did you pause for breath? Add commas and coordinating conjunctions (and/but/so) in those places to separate ideas.

Here’s how to untangle the unintelligible:

This is getting to be a long post_maybe I should create a checklist instead. {fused sentence—two whole sentences joined together}
This is getting to be a long post, maybe I should create a checklist instead. {comma splice—two complete and independent thoughts on either side of the comma}
This is getting to be a long post, so maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected using a coordinating conjunction}
This is getting to be a long post. Maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected by creating two separate sentences}
This is getting to be a long post; maybe I should create a checklist instead. {corrected with a semicolon}

In just about every industry where writing and communication play a key role in bringing a product to market, the subject matter is highly technical, scientific, subjective, or abstract, making it even more difficult to convey information clearly to create meaning with a target audience.

Simple business communication tools like email and instant messaging mean everyone creates, contributes to, or writes a business communication or two, no matter their role in a company.

Keep homonym errors and faulty sentence structure out of your communications, and you can keep jackasses like me from deleting you’re sales pitch because it’s grammar steels clarity from it’s message.

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What Satan Taught Me About Content Marketing

Remember that English teacher who taught you to write five-paragraph essays? The pattern was simple: introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Tell them what you’re going to tell, tell them, and tell them again.

From this basic structure, the writing assignments evolved. They moved from exposition to more complex arguments, pages instead of paragraphs, primary and secondary research, visual rhetoric, a companion video or slide deck.

For me, it all came together in a paper on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, arguing for an interpretation of Satan as epic hero that differed from popular criticism. My desk was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of my efforts—the primary text (PL); a position to take; a list of key points, supporting data, and examples from the text; a somewhat annotated bibliography of my research sources; what might pass for a flowchart that laid out the argument and possible objections; and a rough outline of the paper.

That desk doesn’t look much different today.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Those same writing and research processes from academia are useful tools for any kind of business writing, but especially for creating collateral such as white papers or case studies, or posts aligned with defined blogging strategy, or the email messages used in a lead nurturing campaign.

As content marketers, our most fundamental goal is to persuade an audience and motivate them to take action. We take a position—our unique selling proposition —and we develop, support, and defend it.

Sure, it feels good to say our main goal is to inform, educate, and nurture our audience, but a business needs to keep the lights on.

Each message in the customer lifecycle, from marketing to sales and services, is another piece of evidence in support of that position. Its effectiveness in getting, closing, and retaining customers is more measurable now than ever.

The ROI of our efforts is splashed in bright colors across the pie charts and graphs of our CRM dashboards.

While the simple five-paragraph structure is hardly feasible (or desirable) in our marketing communications, the exercise is. The creative process of writing that paper for English class can be adapted to help content marketers develop a messaging framework, and then use it to produce content that’s consistent and value-based, across marketing channels.

From 5 Paragraphs, 5 Concepts for Content

Whether writing a post on the company blog, a case study, or a status update, marketers can deliver an effective and consistent message by keeping in mind five basic concepts:

  • Audience
  • Argument
  • Appeals
  • Evidence
  • Opposition

Audience. The art of persuasion is equal parts writer and reader. Good content is adapted for a target audience, never one size fits all.  Not only do we need to create content for a specific buyer persona, but we also need to set expectations for that audience, and deliver a content experience that meets those expectations.

In B2B marketing, there are often multiple people involved in the decision-making process, each for different reasons. Segment that house list for targeted communications. Offer content relevant for the end user (how a specific functionality saves time), and something for the business decision maker (how the complete package saves money).

Argument. Again, the Unique Selling Proposition. Who should buy your product and why? How will they benefit? Do existing customers feel good about their purchase decision, and will they stick around? A product or service can’t be the best at everything for everyone, so this core concept should focus on what differentiates that product or service from others in the marketplace.

Appeals. To persuade and motivate that target audience, look to the Aristotelian rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • Ethos refers to the appeal of the speaker’s character or authority. It’s how we position the “About” page and our online company profiles, what we put in our bios. A good example of ethos in advertising is celebrity endorsements.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It can be used to convey feelings of confidence and integrity in a brand and trigger the desired response.
  • Logos is logical appeal. This persuasive strategy is usually marked by facts, figures, and data.

The most effective content combines all three appeals.

Evidence. This one is closely tied to logical appeal but worth calling out on its own. General statements only bring an audience so far. Providing credible evidence to support a claim shows the buyer how other people just like them have realized tangible benefits from a product or service. And it doesn’t need to be boring. The statistics part may be a bit dry, but things like video testimonials, case studies, and online communities can turn this evidence into a more interactive experience for the audience.

Opposition. What are the opposing viewpoints in your marketplace? The reasons for not buying your product or service? If the price point high, for example, then provide some quantifiable ROI data from current customers. Opposition to a change in process or technology? Reinforce the benefits of making the change with evidence, and remember that change brings about feeling of both excitement and fear. Build on the former while addressing the latter with a solid nurturing program.

Putting these concepts together in an internal corporate essay, so to speak, with an introduction, supporting ideas, and conclusion helps clarify positioning, communicate value, and motivate the audience to the next step in the sales cycle. Those ideas make up the parts of the whole, the overarching narrative told through our website, blog posts, social media efforts, sales collateral, and customer service.

It’s worth noting that the essay outline mentioned earlier wasn’t so much an outline as a collection of sticky notes and pizza napkins that could be rearranged while the argument in my paper developed based on new research and perspectives.

The corporate narrative should be organized this way, too—it’s a fluid process as we learn more about our audience and how they interact with our communications, or introduce new products and functionality.

A messaging framework based on audience, argument, appeals, evidence, and opposition helps content marketers tell a consistent and compelling story. It may not be the same as writing about Satan, sex, and the phenomenology of sin in Paradise Lost, but the same concepts of argumentation that we learned in English class can inspire a content strategy that adds color to the marketing dashboard.

This blog post originally appeared on B2Bbloggers.

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On Craft, Career, and Cabernet

Driving downtown to meet some writer friends, I roll down the windows, hoping the breeze will carry away the acronyms of my day (ROI, KPI, CPM, CPA, FFS), sprinkle in a few verbs, and drop them into a marketing plan.

I pull around to the back of the building, find a spot in the bank parking lot. My ride these days is a minivan, and it doesn’t fit in the compact parking spaces along Broadway like the little black car of my graduate student days.

It’s been five years since then, my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

This whole writing thing—the impulse to create, revise, destroy, and begin again—is something that stays with us long after the MFA program, no matter the shape of our postgraduate careers. The craft and its dialogue are our pomegranate seeds, and those of us who ate at that old table would never really leave.

Tonight I crave the company of this community, the way it keeps the spirit of writing pure and its language real.

We’ve followed the trail of pomegranate seeds across the river and to another table. This one is dimly lit, filled with MFA alumni rather than students, drinking Cabernet instead of the viscous vending machine coffee on campus, gathered again to discuss current writing projects, curse creative hurdles, and pray for manuscripts submitted.

“It depends on how we define ‘professional,’” one of us would say, “and of what we’ve become the master.”

We’re discussing whether a creative writing degree has any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching, and if so, how those skills might transfer. Participating in that conversation are a software developer (genre: screenplays), a local magazine editor (genre: poetry), a PhD student/professor (genre: fiction), and a marketing director (genre: fiction), all of us MFA program graduates. An interesting mix of viewpoints, to say the least.

Ours is just one of many conversations contemplating the merit of creative writing programs and the MFA degree. Popular arguments against it include the perceived homogenization of writing or the studies heralding a poor academic job market. Most certainly, the fact that academic jobs advertised in the English discipline have declined by 39.8% from 2008 to 2010*  is cause for concern.

But the graduate writing experience amounts to more than “sedentary toil/And…the imitation of great masters,”* sealed with an advanced degree that may or may not lead to a professorship.

In fact, the degree is but a byproduct of an MFA program for the majority of those who attend them, writers driven instead by the craft itself, its exploration and promise of perfection. In an article contemplating what brings people to the table some 70-odd years after the first MFA program (Iowa Writer’s Workshop) was founded, poet/attorney Seth Abramson cites a recent survey finding that “fewer than 20% of MFA applicants consider the credential itself to be their top reason for pursuing a graduate creative writing degree.”*

Given that an advanced degree is typically required for teaching college-level courses, this sentiment signals a new generation of writers with designs on a nonacademic career, seeking the MFA experience in order to further develop the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market.

Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  His logic makes sense: the routine entry-level tasks that help an MBA break into the job market are being outsourced overseas, and there’s an increasing demand for the kinds of people who can provide the “high-concept” thinking and strategy behind these inputs.  Pink writes*:

…that something first must be imagined or invented. And these creations must  then be explained and tailored to customers and entered into the swirl of commerce, all of which require aptitudes that can’t be reduced to a set of rules on a spec sheet—ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct.

Though industry job openings might not explicitly state “MFA degree required,” the skills learned in graduate creative writing programs are transferable and quite employable.

Is there a large percentage of MFA degree-holders seeking academic jobs? Of course. But, unscientifically speaking, there are just as many who have no desire to teach. The program is driven as much by the trifecta of technique, art, and talent than by any professional goal, academic or otherwise.

Some of us simply focus on our writing. Others go on to become software developers, magazine editors, PhD candidates, or marketers.

Only the writer can determine how best to transfer her craft from workshop into the workplace. Like anything else, it is what you make of it.

The results of a postgraduate survey* from the creative writing program at MSUM , home of that beat-up table in Weld Hall, provides some interesting insight into the professionalization of the MFA degree, even if it’s just a microcosm. Here are some highlights:

  • An equal number of respondents have attained postgraduate employment in a professional/technical writing capacity (44%) as those who hold teaching positions (44%).
  • Of those teaching, 38% have attained the rank of Associate Professor or higher, including one Dean.
  • 48% of the industry-employed MFAers are at or above the mid-management level in their careers.
  • Common job titles include marketing, communications, public relations, and technical writing. The most interesting is perhaps “Teacher, Mortician.”
  • Not reflecting freelance writing, 8% of respondents work full-time in publishing, either as editor, journalist, or publisher.
  • Everyone has published something.
  • 34% of those surveyed did not respond. We like to think it was because they were too busy writing.

Eat Here and Stay Forever

It’s late in the evening. The wine is gone, the crème brulee and coffee on the table, and we realize none of us have actually graduated the MFA program together. We were, in fact, barely classmates.

But we share the same experience of sitting around that table, where together we got to taste the seeds binding our community to its particular craft, to travel that underworld where ideas are translated into art and process is revered over end product.

Exploring the craft of writing before that forbidden lawn  of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar or impractical is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether in teaching, corporate storytelling, or mortuary science.

The MFA graduate develops a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

Sources:

* Modern Language Association. (September 2010). “Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2009-2010.” MLA Office of Research. Web. November 29, 2010. p 1.
*Yeats, William Butler. “Ego Dominus Tuus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. J. Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. p. 66-68.
*Abramson, S. (2010). “The New Face of the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts.” The Huffington Post. Web. Posted: October 28, 2010; Accessed 12/1/2010. Survey conducted by The Suburban Ecstasies.
*Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Print.
* Minnesota State University Moorhead (December 2010). Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program Postgraduate Survey. Conducted online, November 1 – November 25, 2010.
*Tsetsi, Kristen. (2010) “Owning is a sloppy second to knowing.” this i believe. Web. Published March 17, 2010. Accessed March 18, 2010.  Fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

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Misery and Me: Grammar, Copywriting, and Laundry Soap

In an advanced technical writing class as an undergraduate, I remember the professor saying, “This should sound wrong to you all.” She meant simply that we should be able to identify grammatical and mechanical errors by sound (or more accurately, sight) by the time we landed in that class.

It occurs to me now, after so many years and blog posts and white papers and fiction pieces, that I’ve never actually had a formal course focused on grammar. A technical writing course that showed how to put those words into reports and documentation, and creative writing workshops that focused on how those words were used, yes, but never a formal study in grammar.

At this time of night, it’s probably best to lay off the coffee and go watch tv, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether writing is something that can and/or must be taught/learned (that question alone a longstanding debate that requires at least the length of a seminar paper).

Perhaps we absorb writing style and proper grammar more from what we read than what we practice in the typical classroom context that’s often hard to translate to any real-world rhetorical situation. And I mean what we read as in what we’ve always read, long before entering college, the profession, or the writer’s basement studio.

I remember reading books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye as a kid, not because they were assigned, but because the stories were good. Soon after writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz took the place of those fluffy animals and rye fields (which could explain a lot about my fiction writing, it seems).

Reading books served as writing instruction. We absorb the language we’re exposed to, it seems, which is what establishes the foundation for our awareness, understanding, and command of grammar.

Our university courses and professional writing excursions serve, then, as an opportunity to exercise those skills can be developed naturally through a love of works like, in my case, Misery and The Door to December. From there my time as an undergrad studying English resulted in a love of literary works most of my friends have never heard of, and my graduate writing workshops taught that, as creative writers, we have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them.

Long before my consumption of anything book-length, I practiced the strange habit as a child of reading each line of copy on packaged products. Any products. Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, motor oil, bags of dogfood, soup cans, laundry soap.

I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, other than to say that writing is no longer the dominion of the English or communications major. The business world is now an extension of our private worlds. Brands and consumers alike “publish” their writing online everyday through social media, blog posts, and reviews.

Ultimately, the source of mechanics and style that we draw upon in our writing, whether consciously or otherwise, is everything that we’ve read up to the point where we sit down at the keyboard, be it Ars Poetica, the labels on personal hygiene products, or the stuff of nightmares.

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Meaning, Montoya, and PostStructuralism in Business Writing

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya

It’s been a while since the last post, so I thought sharing a bit of my current research project/obsession would be a good way to convey writing productivity simply through creation of another page on this blog. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

The nerd in me would like to highlight that this creates a rhetorical situation of authoring content with two potential outcomes–1) sharing what I think is an interesting element of professional writing, or 2) crafting an illusion of blogging productivity by re-purposing content originally (and 15-minutes-ago-recently) written to help sketch out a research interest.

Either way, here it goes.

Business and technical writing requires that the author and the reader are closely aligned in linguistic interpretation and intended/conveyed meaning.

Understanding Derridean linguistic and poststructuralist theories allows the professional writer to use language and narrative structure to strategically position a product or company in the marketplace.  It also reinforces the need for consistency in internally adopted and externally promoted language to reduce interpretive misses.

The following is a summary of Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”* to help explain the notion of destabilized language and meaning.

Because it relies on the reader and changes due to the arbitrary nature of signs, Derrida presents meaning as decentralized and unstable; this status of discourse, and specifically language, produces a continuous (inter)play of signification.

The instability of meaning based on signs and symbols alone forces consideration of narrative structure as a method of making meaning out of this linguistic interplay. Derrida goes on to show how structure, too, can be deconstructed and destabilized based on author or audience presence, metaphysics, proximity, repetition, and disruption.

Derrida discusses Lévi-Strauss’ position that only nature can be universal, and dependence on social structure is indicative of cultural influence. He concludes that the interpretive process is a posthuman act of creating truth, performed in absence of a collective origin of meaning or affirmation of signs and their signification.

* Derrida, J. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 278-294.
** Image Source: Unencyclopedia.

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Splitting Infinitives with Abandon: The Technician vs. The Artist in Writing & Dance

Freedom of form and expression is a religion for artists, whether they’re writers, painters, sculptors, or performers.

In order to find that freedom and use it purposefully, we learn and master the basic rules, conventions, and technicalities of our art, no matter the medium.

We do this so we can break those rules, make them our own.

Writing lends itself well to an analogy of movement, so let’s compare it to dancing as an example of this study-master-create-destroy relationship, specifically technical/creative writing and ballet/modern dancing.

Both are art forms best practiced on a foundation of technical knowledge, so it will never be a case of either/or but rather and/also—as knowledge and experience grows in one genre or discipline of an art form, it informs our work in other genres. It’s why the technical writer should take a creative writing class, the fiction writer a poetry workshop, the ballerina a modern dance class, the stage actor a ballet class.

The technician (the technical/professional writer, the ballet dancer) versus the artist (the creative writer, the modern dancer).  The latter creates art, while the former creates understanding.

This echoes a concept in an essay I just read for class, if you’ll spare a moment for theory. In “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes proposes that language is a structure that can be redefined or lost entirely for the author who functions to create ambiguity (a means), while the writer is bound to language as a vehicle for clarity (an end).

Applied to the real world, it’s why undergraduate writers with romantic notions of coffee shops, turtleneck sweaters, and dark-framed glasses may perceive technical writing as boring, not as sexy and free as creative writing. (If only they knew it was really us in those dark glasses, jacked up on caffeine and pushing deadline for the script of a video that demonstrates new software functionality, not a wandering soul contemplating the influence of religious and social construct in the coming of age of the heroine in a new novel, which surely everyone will read…)

Anyway, as a creative writer I’ve lived through moments of sheer boredom in various gigs as a technical writer, like creating documentation for an open-source content management system that seemed to bear ill will toward the end user who hoped to create, organize, and manage their content. (This boredom came before I started thinking critically about the theory and practice of technical writing.)

However, I’d argue there isn’t a creative writer out there who wouldn’t savor the precision and power of language involved in technical writing, the first step toward artistry and manipulation of structure.

Getting there requires an understanding of the foundation of the technical aspects of the medium, be it movement or language.

The appeal of creative writing—and I am definitely in support of following this path—reminds me of my daughter’s attitude toward dance when she first started (granted, at 2 ½-years-old). She thought hip hop, jazz, or even tap would be preferable to learning the technique of a plié in the five positions at the ballet barre (skipping third), drawn instinctively to what seemed to be a total freedom of expression in movement in the other disciplines.

The freedom of creativity seems more accessible than rules, structure, and technique, at any age.

Just as the dancer learns basic language, positions, and articulations at the barre and puts them together in combinations at center floor, the writer both masters and challenges the conventions of their genre through practice not only in grammar and mechanics, but also craft and artistry in language and storytelling.

Again, we learn the rules in order to break them and re-create them. The act of creating itself is an act of discovery articulated through a re-creation of the set of symbols (language, steps) we learn as technicians.

In creative writing, this is the freedom to split infinitives with abandon, to fragment our sentences for the sake of authenticity or effect, to prefer ambiguity for our Dear Readers over clarity. It’s how we share what Joyce Carol Oates refers to as “the child-self…a sort of flame that continues to burn throughout our lives, to which the writer or artist is by nature more attentive than other adults.”

Too much precision and “correctness” would extinguish that flame for our reader. But of course, it’s the creative writer’s duty to ensure this ambiguity is a result of artistry, not poor command of language and technique. Working outside genre conventions? Make it a challenge to current thinking in the field, not an oversight.

Artistry is a product of both originality and technical mastery.

The trained dancer is bound to the same paradox of technique and control versus creative freedom and individuality. A good example here is in modern dance–you have to know where a traditional position is and be able to “hit it” in order to break it, as dictated by choreography or spirit of the moment.

This reminds me of a statement in a modern piece choreographed by a beautiful and brilliant master. It was a move aptly named the “oh, s%&t!” because it required not a specific form or number of steps, but rather the dancer (me) had to literally throw herself onto the floor—a move that couldn’t possibly be fully scripted or choreographed, and it varied each time. (Writers, ever revised your work with the same sentiment two times in a row? Didn’t think so.)

Technique came in, though, as the momentum of this throw—initiated by the action of an arm toss—recovered into a very specific turn that led into preparation for the next movement.

Creative writers make this “oh, s%&t!” move all the time. We throw ourselves into our craft and work toward something beautiful, but we cannot predict the finer details of the outcome nor the ways in which our audience will perceive it. The artistic and poetic will always grow out of our technical control, the fulcrum on which we balance our turns of creativity and clarity.

References:
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1983. 185-193. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xvi. Print.

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

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