Posts Tagged Research Papers

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.


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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What Milton’s Satan Can Teach Us About Writing Business White Papers

Many of us still recall the five-paragraph format for writing papers that seemed to be a favorite of so many English teachers.

I’m not one of them, having preferred a more natural approach to writing where the argument fleshes itself out along the way. The freedom to play with the transition of ideas throughout the paper rather than how many paragraphs I could produce that–within them–followed yet another structure, the main idea of the paragraph followed by supporting statements. Blah. Yeah, I was docked a few times for format, but to me, it was the writing journey that mattered.

To help us structure our ideas and content, there’s a general rule in writing that goes something like

  • tell them what you’re going to tell them (the Introduction)
  • tell them (the Body)
  • and tell them again (the Conclusion)

Enter the “real-world,” out of academia and into corporate America. The 5 paragraph prescription doesn’t always work, and folks just doesn’t have time for you to tell them three times unless you’re really creative about it.

Turns out the time spent studying composition theory and writing research papers really was a fertile training ground not only for producing marketing collateral such as white papers, but also in writing things like project plans, business cases, grant funding applications, and just about every other form of business communication that goes beyond the transactional.

Who knew that writing “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost” as a pompous young grad student would have a direct tie to my career in the private sector? To me this answers the question so many students in freshman English ask themselves and each other in classroom or on the campus lawn – what does poetry have to do with my degree, or my future career? Why do I have to read Shakespeare? Or Chaucer? Why are there no pictures in these books?

It’s because of the limitless opportunities these works present for students to structure and present their arguments “off the fence,” as one of my professors used to say. To take a side and think critically in order to defend it.

One of my favorite duties at “work” is writing white papers. The most recent are available here and here. The writing process for me didn’t much differ from that of my research writing days. And yes, ever the English major, both those white papers have semi-colons in their titles.

Those that read white papers are looking to solve a business problem, so the content has to be both informative and prescriptive. (Sometimes, the writer must first make that reader aware that they indeed have a problem.) It’s the equivalent of reading up on other critics of a literary work before beginning the research paper, then writing in such a way that the reader is guided in how to read the given literary work based on the writer’s interpretation of it. Other similarities include

  • facts and citations from credible sources,
  • an engaging tone that’s not too dry,
  • addressing potential objections early on,
  • a summary of the paper and its argument in the introduction,
  • and a conclusion that answers the question, “So what?” (Why should a literary work be read this way? Why will the ideas presented help me do business more efficiently or profitably?)

One thing you’ll notice on this blog is that I absolutely love language–the words and their rhythm, texture, room for interpretation. Because of that I’ll include from time to time excerpts of previous papers or short stories that I’ve written. And maybe the occasional piece of marketing fodder.

That said, below is the introductory paragraph from the paper mentioned earlier, “Satan, Sex, & Scripture: The Phenomenology of Sin in Paradise Lost.”  It does three things that are also important for the intro to a business white paper:

1) Establishes the author’s position on what will be the central argument in the paper (Satan’s character represents the Jungian notion of the shadow),
2) Addresses the opposing viewpoint (readers who are drawn to the character show evidence of their own sin),
3) Provides evidence to support the argument being proposed (Satan’s fall and temptation of Eve).

The ancients teach us that true knowledge of the self comes only after an examination of the other side—the vengeful, deceitful, contemptuous recesses of the psyche—in order to discover moral absolutes. As a symbol of evil, the author of sin and death in Paradise Lost, Satan becomes the archetypal, primal human being, in consciousness though perhaps not in form, and embodies the weaknesses inherent in mankind.  Milton’s Satan contains the other, darker, elements of the human psyche, the tendencies toward envy, wrath, lust, and pride that make us complete.  Identification with Satan signifies not the reader’s sin, as some critics have argued, but an active, positive response to otherness, facilitating the incorporation of human darkness which manifests itself as evil when repressed in the psyche.  Through his own fall and temptation of Eve, Satan offers the reader the means to recognize, confront, and consume her shadow, a Jungian signification for the dark or unacceptable emotions and behavior which reside in the unconscious mind.

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