Writing for work

The two work-related but extracurricular activities I have found the most rewarding are speaking and writing. I wonder why more people don’t give one or both a try. Ten years ago I wrote my first blog post for CoolData.org and only finally ran out of steam in 2018. By then it had led to two books, some interesting travel, and more. It’s now time to start over, with CoolOps, and see where it takes me.

And where can it take YOU? If you’re interested, just start writing. A blog our journal article is a better place to start than a book, but it’s up to you.

The best way to start, and stay started, is to seek out motives that seem selfish. The type of motivation I’m thinking of is intrinsic, such as personal satisfaction, as opposed to extrinsic, such as aiming to have a ton of followers and making money. It’s a good selfish.

Here are six reasons for writing about your work, followed by a few pieces of advice.

1. Documenting your work: One of my initial reasons for starting a blog was to have a place to keep snippets of knowledge in some searchable place. Specific techniques for manipulating data, for example. Today my needs are different, less technical. But I would still like a place where I can find that expression of an idea I once had.

2. Developing your thoughts: Bring focus and clarity to your ideas by writing about them.

3. Solidifying your learning: One of the best ways to learn something new is to explain it to someone else. I had an uncertain grasp of multiple linear regression when I launched CoolData, but the exercise of trying to explain data mining concepts was a way to get it straight in my own head. If I were to re-read some of my early posts, I would find things I would disagree with. But the likelihood of being wrong is not a good enough reason to avoid sharing and learning.

4. Making professional connections: Through my writing I met interesting people in university advancement, non-profit, and data analysis. It wasn’t very long after I started blogging that people would approach me at conferences to say they had seen one of my posts. Some of them learned a bit from me, or more likely I learned from them. A few even found time to contribute a guest post.

5. Sharing knowledge: This is obvious. Many advancement professionals share online already, via listservs and discussion forums. The fact this sharing goes on all the time makes me wonder why more people don’t try to make their contributions go even farther by giving them an enduring home.

6. Building toward larger projects: If you keep at it, you will end up with a considerable body of work. Writing can feed conference presentations, discussion papers, published articles, and books. But start with the realistic goal of getting your thoughts worked out, and let the bigger projects grow out organically. Don’t worry about gaining an audience. I don’t know how many followers a blog about higher education advancement ought to have, and I don’t worry about it.

A few bits of advice, take it or leave it:

1. On covering your butt: Your employer might have an opinion about your discussing work-related issues on social media. Clear the idea with someone. When I changed jobs, I disclosed that I intended to keep up my blog. I explained that connecting with counterparts at other universities was part of my professional development. There’s never been an issue.

2. On “permission”: Beyond ensuring that you’re good with your employer, you do not require anyone’s permission. You don’t have to be an authority in anything; you simply have to be interested in your subject and enthusiastic about sharing. You can’t prevent small minds from interpreting your activity as self-promotion, so just keep writing. In the long run, it’s the people who never take the risk of putting themselves out there who pay the higher price.

3. On writing: Writing well can help, but you don’t need to be an exceptional stylist. Sub-par prose will turn me off if I find it in a novel but not when reading information that will help me do my job.

4. On email: I used to think it was rude not to respond. Today things are different: It’s just too easy. I have received many interesting questions from readers and opportunities to connect, participate in projects, and so on. But just because you make yourself available for interaction doesn’t mean you have to.

5. On protecting your time: Regardless of how small your audience, eventually people will ask you to do things. Sometimes this can lead to interesting partnerships, but choose wisely and say no often. Be especially wary of quid pro quo arrangements that involve free stuff. I’m less concerned about high-minded integrity than I am about taking on obligations. It’s your free time; make sure your agenda is set exclusively by whatever has your full enthusiasm.

6. On the peanut gallery: Keeping up a positive conversation with people who are receptive to your message is productive. Trying to convince critics who are never going to agree with you is not. When you’re pushing back, you’re not pushing forward. Keep writing for yourself and the people who want to hear what you’ve got to say, and ignore the rest. This has nothing to do with being nice or avoiding conflict. I don’t care if you’re nice. It’s about applying your energies in a direction where they are likely to produce results. Focus on being positive and enabling others, not on indulging in opinions and fruitless debates with trolls.

Some say “know your audience.” Actually, it would be better if you knew yourself. Readers respond to your personality and they can get to know you only if you are consistent. You can be consistent only if you are genuine.

Your overarching goals are not to convince or convert or market, but to 1) fuel your own growth, and 2) connect with like-minded people. Growth and connection: That’s more than enough payoff for me.

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