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Writers at Work: “How do you imagine that will unfold?”

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Seeing Need and the Power of Imagination

The leader’s peculiar gift is to help followers imagine how their work makes meaning. The leader makes personal how the organization’s work helps others, solves a human problem, makes the world better/more beautiful/safer, for starters. From that position of ownership (note that leaders may appear anywhere in an organization, position does not equal leadership) the leader imagines the next steps needed to move the organization forward. The leader acts on that vision and invites others in.

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If you accept that the writer’s art is at least partly a reimagining or reordering of life, then you may be willing to consider the work of writing in business. Can writers in business look forward to how next steps unfold and then follow that thread backward to make those steps happen?

I say, “Yes.”

But not just because I do this for a living. [Full disclosure: I do this for a living]

It’s because writers in training are blind to this side of the life/work/art equation.

That’s a premise I’m toying with as I consider how entrepreneurship and professional writing fit together. I’m working through an entrepreneurial focus to the next Freelance Copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—Saint Paul, and I want to help English students see beyond self-focused essays and creative writing. A necessary starting point is inviting them to use their writerly tools to imagine life from that leadership/ownership/need perspective. I believe this can shift ownership to the writer and provide useful insight for right now.

Julian Sanchez’s tweet as the Senate report on CIA torture was released gets at this very concept:

Imagine forward and trace backward to locate solid actions. That is the leader’s gift—and possibly the writer’s.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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What happens when we say stuff?

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An Epistemology of Writing

I just realized I run my college writing courses in ways possibly dissimilar to how others do it. We have texts, of course, and readings. We have my dry lectures, which I try to turn to discussion (with limited success). We have examples of excellent copywriting and we talk about why they work and when they don’t. We have questions. We have answers (some from me, many from the class). We have cordial fights and the occasional snark (more remains unsaid, I think). We have yawns and longing looks at the clock.

And we have assignments.

You have my attention.

You have my attention.

A portfolio addition due ever Saturday night, five minutes before the stroke of midnight. Way to ruin a perfectly good weekend, right? (Ahem: for the record, one need not wait to start an assignment until 10pm on Saturday night).

It’s the assignments—these portfolio additions—that are the real teachers. I try to direct. I try to offer my small ways of thinking, but the real work of this education happens deep in a student’s brain pain: where sparks fly and catch the dry tinder of panic: “What do I say—and how?”

So it has always been with me: I learn as I write. I often don’t know what I think until I write it. Or say it. Just ask Mrs. Kirkistan. But when I research a topic and begin writing about it, all sorts of synapses fire and connections meet and angels sing and the sun shines on my keyboard, where doves and baby deer have collected. Especially after three cups of coffee.

And this is what I depend on in my class: that the threads of our discussion will come together in the doing thereof—the writing of copy. This capturing of a brand, or a dream. The useful words that direct and possibly encourage as they launch into a reader’s mind.

But this: just doing an assignment dampens the angels singing. This class is less about getting my grade and approval and more about creating something you will proudly show to Ms. Creative Director or Mr. Small Business Owner who can hire your magic for their capitalistic endeavors. I can already see those who get this concept. Their work shows it.

Bless them.

And bless all the rest of us, too.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How You Say: Not Just “What” But “When”

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A word is a fuse. Light the fuse.

I’m teaching a freelance copywriting class at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. Yesterday was our first day and I wanted the students to begin the shift from writing papers for professors to writing words to make a difference. I maintain that excellent copywriting is the very opposite of spewing malarkey and hype. Especially today, when anybody who can read and/or listen and absorb marketing messages has their BS meter set on high all day long.

The best copy doesn’t call attention to itself. The best copy is nearly invisible and absorbed without realizing it. The best copy latches on to or illustrates a larger idea and leads the reader to the idea threshold. The best copy is emotive and rational. If it can be silly too—all the better.

We talked about the differences we perceive in writing for non-profit, mission-driven organizations and for-profit organizations. At first glance we might think one organization is all about mission and the other is all about money. But that is a mistaken notion: for-profit organizations can be all about mission and non-profits can be all about fundraising. Examples abound in each category.

One of the things I love most about teaching these particular students is the sensitivity to mission. They are cool with the notion of using your writing skills to help others. Many are considering starting work with non-profits, but that is not unusual for many studying the liberal arts. These particular students are often eager to trace their motivations for helping others back to some of the ancient texts that drive much of this school’s mission.

But one thing that is not so clear is that mission-driven work exists in both non-profits and for-profits. One’s mission comes largely from within. Our job—that thing we get paid for—is an outward-focus of the mission we bring with us. A copywriter with a sense of wanting to help others can find a home in any number of organizations, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. And using that copywriting skill to bring a reader to a life-changing realization can be a primary motivation for the whole task of writing.

I would like to see more copywriters with that motivation.

My go-to example is the quiet laugh from the writer in this four-minute film. Listen for the laugh. Think about what that laugh says about delivering the right words at the right time:

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Get a Job. Or Don’t.

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Rethinking My Standard Line on Employment

What to say to folks starting in this job market?

I’m gearing up to teach a couple professional writing classes at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. I’ll be updating my syllabi, looking at a new text or two. I’ve got some new ideas about how the courses should unfold and about how I can get more discussion and less of that nasty blathery/lecture stuff from me. I’ll be thinking about writing projects that move closer to what copywriters and content strategists do day in and day out.

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Yeah: don’t bind your legs when you really need to take action.

One thing I’m also doing is reconsidering the standard advice for people on the cusp of a working life. I usually tell the brightest students—the ones who want to write for a living and show every indication of being capable of carrying that out—to start with a company. Starting with a company helps pay down debt, provides health insurance (often) and best of all, you learn the ropes and cycles of the business and industry. I’ve often thought of those first jobs out of college as a sort of finishing school or mini-graduate school where you get paid to learn the details of an industry (or industries). Those first jobs can set a course the later jobs. And those first friendships bloom in all sorts of unlikely ways as peers also make their way through work and life. You connect and reconnect for years and years.

But I’m no longer so certain of that advice. While it’s true that companies and agencies and marketing firms provide terrific entry ramps to the work world, they also open the door to some work habits that are not so great. Every business has its own culture, of course. Sometimes that culture looks like back-biting and demeaning and discouraging. Sometimes the work culture can be optimistic and recognize accomplishment and encouraging and fun. Mostly it’s a mix of both.

But one thing I don’t want these bright students to learn at some corporate finishing school is the habit of just doing their job. By that I mean the habit of waiting for someone to tell them what to do. Every year I watch talented friends get laid off from high-powered jobs in stable industries where they worked hard at exactly what they were asked to do. And most everyone at some point says something like:

Wait—I should have been thinking all along about what I want to do. [or]

How can I be more entrepreneurial with my skill set? [or]

What exactly is my vision for my work life?

Some of these bright writing students are meant to be entrepreneurial from the very beginning. Though a rocky and difficult path in getting established with clients and earning consistently, it may be a more stable way to live down the road. Maybe “stable” is not quite the right word for the entrepreneurial bent—“sustainable” might be more appropriate. The quintessential habit to learn is to depend on yourself (while also asking God for help, you understand) rather than waiting for someone to come tell you what to do.

I’m eager for these bright, accomplished people to think beyond the narrow vision of just getting a job. The vision they develop will power all sorts of industries over time.

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Image credit: arcaneimages, via rrrick/2headedsnake

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