Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Amanda Ayers '14 shares insights on multimodality, collaborative writing, understanding audience and how she transitioned to writing as a professional

Amanda Ayers '14, Research Assistant at Keybridge Public Policy Economics
Hi all! I’m Amanda, Bucknell grad (’14) and former Peer Writing Consultant. I began working last June for a small public policy economics consulting firm located in Washington, DC.  I was excited to be approached to submit a piece to Bucknell Writes because the concept of the blog excited me, and I knew it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the work I’ve done out of school for the last 9(ish) months – more specifically, how my Bucknell experience, particularly as it relates to writing, has shaped the way I think and work here.  

To put it broadly, my current role is to provide preliminary research and analysis – both qualitative and quantitative – to my superiors on a wide range of emerging economic and public policy issues.  The more quantitative assignments I’m given range from processing and analyzing data on the efficacy of an anti-obesity program to narrowing a wide pool of academic studies and public datasets in order to order to assign a dollar value to the loss that cyber attacks impose to society.  Examples of the more qualitative-heavy work I’ve done include tackling the first draft of a literature review to synthesizing responses from hundreds of interviews we’ve conducted.

There are a couple salient features of the work that my firm delivers – which have become increasingly evident over the last few months.  In our capacity as consultants, the “product” we deliver is high-quality, polished material that distills complicated issues to our clients in a way that is both intuitive and, perhaps more important, actionable.  When I say intuitive, I mean our work needs to be methodical and easily understood by audiences that are both familiar and unfamiliar with the topic at hand. By “actionable”, I mean that our client needs to not only be able to make sense of what we give them, but also be able to easily use and act on the information - whether that be to take our material the Hill as part of a lobbying effort, present it in front of key business stakeholders, or circulate it internally within their organization.

Regardless of whether we’re using words or numbers -- or even the medium with which we choose to share the information (a slide deck, a word document, a spreadsheet) -- everything we deliver has a narrative and unfolds a cohesive argument.  For example, one of the most popular ways that we present information is through reading decks; rather than give a client a 5 page report, we deliver our information visually, using PowerPoint slides as our “canvas”.  We call them “reading decks” because rather than be presented, they are meant to be printed and circulated, communicating the same information that a document/PDF could, but in a much more visual and engaging manner.  Each slide contains what we call the “horizontal logic” – an ideally pithy, 2-sentence-max overview of what the graphs/visuals/text in the body of each slide are supporting, located at the top.  In theory, should we string all of the horizontal logics in the presentation together, they should form a cohesive, skeletal outline of the story we’re trying to tell.

When I was first learning to build out a deck like this, my boss suggested the following process: (1) write the horizontal logic of each slide first to produce a general roadmap of my argument; (2) support each logic in the body of the slide with the quantitative and qualitative data we’ve gathered, and (3) when I’m almost finished, interpret only the body of each slide and write down what it is communicating; if what I’ve written down relays the same idea as the logic I had previously written, I know my argument is sound and effectively supported.  As soon as he imparted this advice, I could not help but realize how reminiscent this was of my favorite consulting technique, which I used throughout my time at Bucknell on both my own work and with peers during sessions in the Writing Center: reverse outlining.  This is an exercise requiring a writer to read each paragraph of his/her paper, succinctly summarize the essential purpose of each paragraph in 1-2 sentences, and then string those sentences together.  A coherent string of sentences is typically a clear indication that the paper is well developed, supported, and structured.

I was interviewed as part of a video produced by the Writing Center my senior year – in it, I made note of the fact that by virtue of working there for 3 years and helping my peers, I had simultaneously grown tremendously as a writer myself. I believe that the anecdote I share above is testament to that growth.  With that being said, there are a number of other writing concepts and strategies we frequently discussed in the Writing Center that have permeated into my writing process now, proving themselves over again as invaluable in the “real world”.

1)    Writing is a process. Writing takes time and drafts are allowed to be messy; as a writer, my best ideas often come about when I’m not even actively working on an assignment, and always because I’ve allowed sufficient time for my argument to gel. I find this even more evident now than I did at Bucknell – rushed writing (for me anyway) results in half-baked ideas.

2)    Writing is collaborative. Working in a more collaborative environment has necessitated that I refine my writing process – particularly the early stages. The way that our office is structured, I take the first cut at an assignment, present it to my superior(s), s/he offers me feedback, I implement, and then we iterate until we get the piece where it needs to be.  I almost wish I had done more group writing assignments at Bucknell because when I started my job, I was so used to my own messy brainstorming (which often consisted of a bunch of ideas floating around in my head) -- only to find that no one else could understand it because I hadn’t been accustomed to ever sharing anything but near-final drafts.

3)    Understanding audience is more important than ever.  When I was working in the Writing Center, I often came across papers that exhibited the so-called “data dump” – whereby the writer would attempt to demonstrate everything s/he knew about a topic for a professor, whether or every point necessarily strengthened their argument or fit cohesively into the draft as a whole.  What I’ve come to realize in my job now is the importance of sharing information both selectively and intentionally.  Whereas a professor is often obligated to read every word you write in order to assign a grade, a client simply doesn’t have the time.  Writing in the real world requires brevity and a keen sense of audience - both the client’s position on the topic you’re writing about and how they plan to use the information you’re delivering.  My favorite type of feedback is receiving questions that probe why I choose to do things the way I do – why I choose to (not) include something, why I use a certain word, phrase, sentence, etc. over another – because it forces me to be more intentional.

4)    Reading aloud is still the best proofreading technique!

5)    The more I read, the better writer I become!

6)    Writing can be therapeutic.  Writing isn’t a chore that I set aside for work only – I journal frequently, for example, and find that the benefits are immense. My mind often races faster than my hand can keep up, which forces me to really reflect on one thing at a time and – at least for that moment – not bite off more than I can chew, so to speak.

7)    Medium doesn’t matter.  What’s become more apparent now is that medium doesn’t matter, as evidenced by the reading decks that I discussed above.  I loved that the Writing Center offered to help students on more than just papers – presentations, for example - and hope that it can continue to clear up the misconception on campus that writing needs to be confined to paper (or, for students just entering Bucknell, a 5 paragraph essay). In my job, we’re often telling a story with charts and numbers, and it’s no less of an argument than a traditional paper is – and certainly not two sided (another common misconception).

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