This is How I Work

Dr. Eva Lantsoght has created a blog focused on “the process of doing a PhD,” among other topics (including, get this, reinforced concrete), and about a year ago, she invited me to write a piece for her “How I Work” series.

Writing this short piece allowed me to think about what my PhD means to me. As someone who chose what is now referred to as an “alt-ac” path, I do ponder my life choices at times, and wonder if earning this degree was worth it.

I’m happy to say that it was, but not for any of the reasons I would have guessed.

Was it worth it?

I get asked every now and then if earning the doctorate was worth it. If I could do it all over again, would I?

That’s a tough question to answer.

On the one hand, the actual act of earning the PhD is not something I would do again for any amount of money. You could promise me my own private island in the Bahamas with a never-ending supply of Nutella in exchange for the degree, and still I would say no.

If you’re curious as to why, it’s because the entire process of earning a doctorate* can be summed up with this. This man is ostensibly describing what it’s like to serve as a committee member for a student’s dissertation. (For those not in academia: doctorates in the humanities require each student to have a Chairperson, known as the first reader, and two additional professors serving as readers two and three. This team is, in theory, supposed to guide you and support you as you write your dissertation, and ultimately help you produce worthy scholarship.)

Read the first two points of his position very carefully.

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Got it? Do you see what he did there?

He is essentially saying, “First, if/when your committee members make suggestions, take them.”

Then, he says, “Second, don’t just take their suggestions blindly! After all, this is your dissertation.”

Welcome to the hell that was my dissertation process. We’re talking about four years of “Think for yourself! But, do as you’re told. But, think for yourself! But do as you’re told.”

I suppose in theory the process should work just fine. Your committee gives you guidance, you consider it, you implement the changes that make sense to you and advance your work, and you thoughtfully decline to make other changes that don’t, perhaps in conversation with your committee members where they are so proud of your demonstrated ability to . . . HAHAHAHAHA.

Oh, it so does not work that way. I spent years with my committee members doing number 1: they marked up my chapters and I was expected to make their changes, period, full stop, end of sentence.

Then, I would meet with my advisor to discuss any changes I had opted not to make (which weren’t many, if I’m honest. For the most part, my committee’s feedback was sound; but there were times when I respectfully disagreed and had this crazy idea that that was acceptable), and she would scold me for disrespecting the time and expertise that my committee had extended . . . and then turn right around and scold me for not thinking for myself!

Imagine doing this for four straight years. No amount of Nutella could make this productive.

I’m not alone

For a long time, I thought that the problem was within my institution, but the more I engaged with others, the more I saw that my experience was not unique.

Take a few minutes to scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see countless posts about earning a PhD was an overwhelmingly negative endeavor.

Recently, I read this. I immediately understood exactly what she meant. So did a lot of other people, judging by the number of responses she got:

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Also, this request for help and support. Again, the stress that this person is feeling is not unique to them.

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The #withaphd community online overwhelmingly echoes such sentiments, ranging from “what did I get myself into” to “this is taking the kind of toll on my mental health that is making me seriously considering closing my laptop and walking away forever.”

What’s the upside?

So, after the years of stress and frustration that culminates in a degree that not only does not guarantee a job of any kind, but potentially makes me overqualified for many jobs, do I regret it?

Honestly, no. Of course, I think the process needs to change, in a large-scale way. I hate how much I inwardly cringe when I hear someone excitedly saying that they got into grad school or are considering a PhD. I want to tell them all to run, fast, in the other direction.

I want to tell them that, if there is anything they can conceive of themselves doing with the next 8-10 years of their lives, then they should do that thing instead, whatever it is.

But I do regret the path I chose?

I certainly don’t regret the confidence I have now with my abilities. And I don’t mean that I think I’m any smarter or more able to write or teach writing than I was before I went to graduate school. I’m talking about that inner knowledge that yes, I can kick some serious butt in the academic and business worlds. It’s the kind of knowledge of self-worth that shines through unsaid.

Once I was talking with a colleague who said that his daughter competes in dead-lift competitions, and can lift some extraordinary amount of weight. On the outside, you might not look at this petite woman and think she could do something so badass.

But she knows. And that makes all the difference with how she carries herself throughout each day.

That inner knowledge of her badassness shines through in everything that she does.

That’s how I feel about earning this degree

Earning my PhD was not a difficult physical endeavor. There are people who struggle through much more difficult experiences in a whole variety of ways. But this isn’t a competition.

The result is that I hold dear the simple knowledge that I know, despite anything my committee or anyone else may think, that I am worthy, that I am smart, that my propensity for kindness and compassion are strengths, not weaknesses, and that I know that I can set a major goal for myself and see it through, no matter what.

That is worth everything.

Feel free to put my innter-badassness to work for you. Reach out for a quote on content writing for your next blog or project. 

 

*I restrict my critique to the study of humanities; I understand that degrees in the sciences might be a bit different, and by different, I mean better. I sure hope so.

The Drama of the DMV, aka Why You Need Precise Words

I recently moved to a new state. I need to update my vehicle registration and get a new driver’s license. I did this a few years ago and don’t remember it being all that difficult, and so wasn’t prepared for it to be that hard this time around, either.

I went online to my new state’s DMV website to figure out if I needed to get my license first and then my vehicle registration, or the other way around.

Wow, does the person responsible for my state’s DMV website like to write. There are words upon words upon words all over this site.

I spent – no joke – at least three solid visits to this site, reading carefully, and copying the sections that pertained to me into a word doc, so I could create a series of steps that I needed to get all of this done.

My goal was to compile a list of documents that I needed to gather, plus the order of operations as to where I needed to go and when.

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This is a fraction of the dense text I had to wade through, on only one of the several pages I needed to consult. 

This should not have been that hard, and at first glance, aside from needing to wade through all of those words, it wasn’t.

I put together my list of required documents. I added a few extra that I have at hand, so I show up loaded for bear.

I saw that I needed a vehicle inspection prior to getting my license. So, the order of operations was clear: inspection first, appear at DMV second. Got it.

Today, I went to a nearby Jiffy Lube and asked if they do vehicle inspections. “No, only the DMV does inspections for registration,” the man there said.

“Only the DMV?” I asked.

Yep. It’s essentially one-stop shopping, which isn’t a bad thing, I suppose, except, remember that part where I went to the website several times and read through it with a fine-toothed comb?

Somewhere in all of those words, it either didn’t say that you had to get your registration at the DMV itself, or it says it somewhere on that site but is so buried, good luck to anyone trying to figure it out.

How about, instead of all of those words upon words upon words, the DMV offers a simple checklist for people just moving here from out of state. Provide an order of operations, along with the list of necessary documents. It shouldn’t require reading through multiple paragraphs of dense text plus going back and forth between several pages to find the necessary information to accomplish a simple task.

This experience made think about what I do with my writing business, and why I have chosen to call my business “Precise Words.”

I have been given a lot of advice from people in the writing community about how I need to have a niche for my writing to take off. Choose a specialty, they say, perhaps personal finance, or wine, or pet care, or…?

I’ve been lucky to have worked in a variety of different fields, including personal finance, wellness, real estate, travel, retail product descriptions, direct mail fundraising for nonprofits, and blogging for small businesses as varied as air purifier companies to landscape businesses to commercial packaging plants. I’m working on adding wine writing and more real estate and travel writing to my portfolio.

“Precise words” IS my niche. Plenty of people think that in order to write effectively, you just write down all of the things in your head and shove it at people.

Please do not do this.

The result of that approach is the DMV website with all those words that don’t really say anything you need.

My skillset isn’t just about knowing which words to use, it’s about knowing when to use fewer words. This is important. This is also a skill that comes with training, education, and lots and lots of practice.

There’s a saying that when you hire someone to provide creative services, you aren’t hiring them for the minutes or hours it takes them to provide the work; you’re hiring them for the decades of practice and experience they have put in to honing their craft.

So, if you have a website with all those words, and you aren’t sure it’s saying the things you really need it to say, don’t be like the DMV. Reach out to me and let me help. I can use my writing precision to help you say exactly what you need to say in the clearest, most effective way possible.

 

 

 

The Power of Precise Words

PenI’ve had the privilege to do some copywriting for Nathan Yates at ForwardView Consulting. Not too long ago, he asked if I would write a guest post for his blog, about the power of precise words.

He said he thought that would be a great topic to write about “because many clients don’t initially want to pay for website/brochure copy or blog posts . . . until they struggle writing everything themselves.”

I hear that, Nathan. In my experience, clients typically fall into two camps:

  • They are perfectly capable of writing their own content, and they know it, so they don’t want to pay someone else to do it. Except the business takes their attention in so many other directions that writing content tends to fall low on the list of priorities.
  • They think they can write the content themselves, but really shouldn’t. They have have the ideas, but not the writing skills or experience, and their talents are best used in other aspects of the business.

Nathan and I both see the same end result. As he astutely put it: “We ultimately write the copy once the client gives up after a few weeks, but that creates a long delay.”

So, I put together this piece about how hiring a copywriter can actually save you time, money, headaches, stress, and generally make you, and your business, look terrific.

I hope you check it out, and feel free to reach out to Nathan or to me to discuss what we have to offer!

My Favorite Client

I have a secret: I have an all-time favorite client. I know, I know, clients are supposed to be like children, right? It’s bad form to have a favorite? Yet, one of them stands out from the rest and always has: The Marine Toys for Tots Foundation (TFT).

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Years ago, I worked for a direct mail agency. We specialized in direct mail fundraising campaigns for nonprofit organizations. While at this agency, I was the writer of record for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. I wrote fundraising appeals for them for years, and that remains some of the work about which I am the most proud.

TFT was easily my favorite client, for many reasons, in no particular order:

  • They were easy to work with. Let me tell you, the Marines run a tight ship (no pun intended). They are on time, always. They do what they say they will do. If there is a deadline, they will meet it. If they say they will send you source material, they send it (as opposed to saying “oh, just have the copywriter come up with something.” Ahem.).
  • This is the charity that sells itself. The bottom line is that it’s just not hard to rally people around the cause of children, toys, and Christmas. This is a cause that transcends religion, race, politics, gender, and anything else that tends to divide people. I have yet to meet the person who can’t be bothered to provide a simple, new, unwrapped toy for a child at Christmas. We all know the impact that doing so can make on a young life. We all know how easy it is to share our own bounty.
  • The low program expense ratio. To this day, close to 98% of donations received go toward the mission of providing a little Christmas to as many needy children as possible (Source). When you donate to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, you know exactly what your money is going to buy. Many donors find that comforting.

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Even though I have moved on from that agency, and have not written for Toys for Tots in some time, I still think about them every year when I trim my own Christmas tree, because I still have, and treasure, the Christmas ornaments given as favors at the annual Toys for Tots Foundation kick-off luncheon. Hanging those ornaments on my tree, I remember each family’s story I was privileged to read about and then to write about in an effort to support a very good cause. I am grateful for the opportunity to play a little part in helping make those families’ holidays special.

P.S. You can read some of my work for TFT on my Samples page.

My Story

Just over ten years ago, I made a decision.

I had been working at my job, writing direct mail fundraising letters for nonprofit organizations, for five years, and I was bored. Not of the work itself – I loved the writing. I loved telling stories, finding the meaning behind the ask, and making connections between organization and donor. I especially loved putting pen to paper, which I did, literally. I would frequently gather up my research materials, a fresh notepad and my favorite pen, and head to the conference room or the kitchen or even a bench outside to scratch away at some ideas that I carefully shaped into stories that become fundraising appeals.

Eventually, though, I wondered what else there was out there for me to do. I had expanded my role quite a bit from copywriter and editor, to freelance coordinator, to ad hoc public relations representative for my agency. I wrote articles for publication, edited fundraising letters that come in from freelancers, and carefully selected new freelancers to test on different appeals. But, after several years of similar mail plans, of membership packages, and of checking calendar proofs, I was ready for something more.

I took that hunger and curiosity and applied to graduate school. I only applied to two programs: an MFA and a PhD. The MFA program turned me down. The PhD program welcomed me in. Suddenly, I knew what I would be doing with my time for the next five to ten years.

My agency graciously allowed me to shift from full time to part time hours while I gave graduate school a try. That lasted for a time, but the call to explore new options was strong. I eventually left the agency that had been my professional home for five years and jumped in feet first to a new challenge: teaching.

Let me tell you something: teaching is far more difficult a profession than you think it is. My first teaching job was with a community college where I was handed the textbooks, a sample syllabus, and my schedule, and told “Welcome! We can’t pay you much, but we’re glad you’re here.”

That was the extent of my training. I walked into class the first day absolutely terrified. Somehow, I found my way. I even managed to have fun. Hopefully, I taught my students something. In time, I learned how to be a better teacher, but those first few classes, wow. Talk about a learning experience. That job was easily the toughest – yet most rewarding – job I have ever had in my life. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do it.

Because I had some flexibility in my schedule, I began volunteering at the local zoo. Not too long after that, an opportunity opened up to teach at a different zoo, marrying my teaching experience with my volunteer experience into one very awesome yet spectacularly low-paying experience. I stayed at that zoo for more than seven years, advancing over time into positions with greater levels of responsibility.

The call to teach writing beckoned, though, and, quite frankly, so did the necessity of earning a better living. I began teaching for an online university while working at the zoo full time. I did this for two years. Once I knew it was time to move on from the zoo, I began applying for other positions, and was offered one in Miami that was very tempting. I knew, though, that the move was not the right one, for a variety of reasons. I also knew that, moving forward, I was only going to apply for local jobs that did not involve a move, with one exception: if the university where I taught had an opening for a full time position, I would apply.

Within three months of making that decision, a full time position did become available. I applied in September, gave notice to the zoo in October, started my new position remotely in November, and moved to a new state in December. It has now been two years, and I still sometimes look around, shake my head, and ask myself: how did I get here?

Over time, I will expand on this story a bit. I will share more about the different pieces of what led me from a pathway to a traditional academic career to a very different life at a zoo and then back to academia, but still in a somewhat non-traditional fashion.

Throughout the years, though, and throughout the experiences, the constants for me have been: education, both formal and informal; love of learning; love of nature and how it ties into our lives; travel experiences and how they foster a great love of global community; nonprofit missions, and their connection to direct mail; community and customer service; and putting pen to paper to tell a story. These are the themes I will explore in this blog moving forward. I hope you will join me.

What is Precise Words Copywriting?

Precise Words Copywriting is a professional copywriting and editing service specializing in direct mail fundraising for nonprofit organizations, as well as content writing, blogging, and editorial services for a variety of commercial clients.

Statement from Marie:

When I began my professional career, I had every intention of going into book publishing, however, by stroke of luck, a temporary position at a direct mail fundraising agency turned into a permanent one, and I spent the next five years writing direct mail fundraising letters, as well as writing press releases and industry publications, and managing the agency’s freelance writing staff. I was privileged to make an impact on the nonprofit community by using my skills. 

I left the industry to return to graduate school, where I earned a doctorate in English literature, and gained much experience teaching English literature and composition. I also spent a number of years serving in leadership roles at a large cultural institution that focuses on wildlife conservation. As an instructor, and now as an academic dean, I have been privileged to make a difference in the lives of many through working to teach writing skills to others. My academic speciality is in teaching beginning composition, because strong writing skills are necessary to succeed in any field. Every day I am inspired by my students, and am proud to play even a small part in their journey to receive their education. 

As a direct mail copywriter, I am able to continue serving the nonprofit community by writing for causes that are meaningful and important to me. I am also skilled at blogging, with experience writing about travel and automotive services, and my most recent experience includes writing product descriptions/catalogue copy for a major retailer. Please reach out to me today to find out how I can help your clients reach their best donors and customers and continue their good work.