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Monday, July 16, 2012

What the Heck Is Professional Writing? : Guest Hijacker Callie Leuck

           I could be anywhere between Las Cruces, New Mexico and Houston, Texas as you read this, so don't mind me--I'm driving.  Here today behind the wheel of my blog is Callie Leuck from Write On!

What in the heck is "professional writing" anyway?
A professional writer's struggles in explaining professional writing
By Callie Leuck, writer, dreamer, and Oxford comma enthusiast

"I just have one more question and it's kinda broad," Courtney Elsten, a professional writing student from my alma mater, asked me as she wrapped up the interview for the alumni profile she was reporting. "What does professional writing mean to you?"

That had to be a question from Michael Salvo. I got that quick, panicky feeling I'd had four years before in Introduction to Professional Writing at Purdue, when Dr. Salvo had leaned forward on the very first day of class and said, slowly, deliberately, "So. What is professional writing?"

Answering this question is a personal, basic, and necessary challenge. Unlike many other professions or fields, the question What is professional writing? is inherently a test of skill. When you ask a writer "What is [insert type of writing]?" the answer s/he gives is an example of her/his skill. It's like asking a rock climber to "scale that rock over there," a musician to "play something," a comedian to "say something funny."

Dance, monkey, dance.

It would be just like Dr. Salvo to send his current students off to ask alumni that same question. I imagined him leaning back in his chair, the corners of his mouth quirking up in that impish smile, and suggesting to students planning interview questions for alumni, "You might ask them what professional writing is."

Because even though we've matriculated, we're not beyond the echoes of the first time that he asked us that very question -- echoing out of the mouths of potential employers, interview subjects, friends and relatives, and every single person at every dinner party or happy hour we ever attend. And Dr. Salvo knows that.

It's a question I still think about a lot because I know that the answer is something to do with simplifying the complex; explaining the seemingly-unexplainable; and communicating with clarity, often concisely, and sometimes (if I'm very lucky) beautifully. And so my answer to that question must be all of those things because professional writing (and my personal love, science writing) is, at its core, highly effective communication. So if I can't somehow communicate clearly what I do, reduce all the complexities and strangeness that is professional writing to some kind of basic yet meaningful explanation, then how can I hope to ever do so for any other thing? How can I hope to write about some wonderful yet esoteric science if I cannot explain the purpose of my own dear profession?

I think that what I do a lot as a writer is speak for people who don't or can't speak for themselves. Or maybe they're just really bad at articulating their story. (Note: I am using "story" in a general way to describe any type of narrative writing, but mainly I am talking about nonfiction.) I think a lot about narrative and storylines, and I think the ability to tease those out of the beautiful mess that is life is maybe not a skill that everybody has. Maybe not everybody goes around thinking What is the story? Where is the story? Is this a story? Sometimes I think a story is one thing and it turns out to be another.

Here's what I like in a story: a compelling narrative with fascinating science woven throughout, and a nonscientific audience enjoying it.

I find it amazing how some of the same basic skills in writing are so applicable to seemingly-different products of writing. Communication. Clarity. Conciseness. Narrative. Those things alone basically describe every type of writing I have done, although I personally prefer my work to also be entertaining and beautiful whenever possible. But you can't always have it all.

So what did I tell Courtney when she asked me to define professional writing?

I was not articulate. I was not concise. I was not prepared. I should have been, but I wasn't. For all the many times I've struggled to answer that question, you'd think I'd have something ready. Luckily, Courtney was able to pull a quote out of my ramblings:

"I think Professional Writing is high-quality communication, and just being really thoughtful and deliberate about it."
Thank you for making me not look like an idiot, Courtney. And thank you for repeatedly calling me "successful" in your report.

I'm constantly refining my explanation of what professional writing is, and specifically what science writing is. I'm getting closer to something true. Maybe ask me next year. I'll get it someday, Dr. Salvo. Probably.

Many thanks to Lee for letting me hijack his blog today. I am a proposal writer by day, a science-medical graduate student by night, and a writer-of-fiction in the nooks and crannies. I have different outfits for each of these roles, so I'm basically like a superhero but without a cape. However I do have a growing scarf collection. I'll be responding to comments here on this post on Lee's blog because I lovelovelove interacting with anyone who read all the way through my ramblings and has something to say. Thanks again for the opportunity, Lee! --Callie.

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  1. I know Callie!
    Try technical writing sometime. Complete opposite.

  2. I love this post a lot Lee, it's very true that professional writing can sound like it's one big chore forced upon you but it's great to read the sides to both story.

  3. Alex -- I did technical writing for a year for an IT department! It's still about clear communication, even if it's on the less-interesting side of the writing spectrum...

    YeamieWaffles -- I don't think anybody who thought of it as a chore would last very long! :P

  4. I too wrote technical copy. I loved the challenge of taking mundane topics and giving them life.

  5. I got my degree in technical writing. I used it for a few years in Idaho and then moved to a different state and pursued an entirely different career. Just having the B.A. made it nice. However, I get people in my office all the time that want help with reports. "You're a professional writer!" they all say.

  6. Em-Musing -- I can't say that I ever gave life to how-to-use-MS-Word documents, but I agree that it is fun to give topics life :)

    Michael - What I'm talking about is a bit broader than just technical writing, but I sympathize with your plight! :)

  7. Um, wouldn't professional writing be any kind of writing where you are making enough money to be able to say that you are doing it professionally? That is the definition of what doing something professionally is, or have they decided that "professional" writing is something different? I suppose that would make Rowling and King and Gaiman non-professional writers?

  8. I completely agree with you about having a compelling narrative. I think that's what separates a lot of professional writers from the ones who just put pen to paper and hope for fame and success.

  9. Andrew -- that's probably being a professional writer, yes. "professional writing" is a field of study and a profession. I majored in Professional Writing in college. It's not just business and technical writing - it focuses on every variety of writing, with a major emphasis on rhetoric and effective communication. There's some design involved as well. I'd think Rowling and Gaiman would fall under the umbrella - specifically they're mostly fiction writers, though, although I'm sure both of them could effective shift those skills to any kind of writing. Gaiman was a journalist, after all, yes?

    Jamie -- I definitely think a compelling narrative is key, no matter if you're doing fiction, journalism, or (my job) proposal writing. :)

  10. Love your sentence: "...the ability to tease those out of the beautiful mess that is life..." that pretty much says it for me.

    Suspending disbelief, even in a technical field, like helping someone to understand how to work something (like a manual) or infuse another idea into their arsenal (like a theoretical study), is what it's all about. We take the reader from point A, afraid, unsure, and we convince them to point B and then leave them there.

    Or, in my case, have them crave for the next book!

    Great post!

  11. well it is a very hard question :)

  12. Great post. With all the different types of writing out there, I finally have a good and clear explanation of "Professional Writing." Thanks. (:

  13. Hmmm. Professional writing... I love to write and I've never sold anything, so I guess I am not a professional, but I take my writing seriously. All my life I have been a storyteller, have even been paid for storytelling performances. Writing is almost as much a part of my life as breathing. But professional, naw, I reckon not. :) Best regards to you, and yes, that is really a tough question. Ruby

  14. Professional Writing I used to teach it, but I much prefer Creative Writing now. D

  15. Lynn - yes it is!

    Elise - sure thing :)

    Ruby - ...sounds professional to me!

    Denise - teaching creative writing sounds fun.

  16. I suppose there's a difference between "professional writing" and "professional writer," which is to say that you can be a professional writer who doesn't do professional writing, and possibly even vice versa. I was unaware that "professional writing" was, you know, a THING and not just what professional writers do, so this was an enlightening post for me. But the question "What makes a professional writer" would be equally hard, I think...

  17. I wouldn't have been prepared for such a question either. I think you answered it well. :)


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