For every online horror story about blind dates, identity theft and random cyber-havoc, I’d like to think there is another story like mine.
Precisely at the intersection of real life and cyberspace the following things have happened: I’ve stayed with a family in the Borders region of Scotland for a few weeks; I’ve had a “native guide” to pal around with on my trips to Las Vegas; I’ve gotten a free computer from the writer who considered me his “muse” (yes people, his name was Jim); I’ve gotten birthday greetings via MySpace from one of my favorite actors; and I’ve re-connected with a friend from high school I thought I’d never see again (hi Dania, I owe you an email!)
Wait! I’m not done yet! I’ve also been able to reassure an old boyfriend I lost touch with that I did not, in fact, disappear to have his baby in 1992; I’ve hosted a foreign visitor in my home for three months; I’ve been invited recently to visit Kolmarden Zoo in Sweden and meet some cool elephants; and (finally, this is the relevant part) I’ve met and hung out many times with today’s Cool Jobster Kimberly Debus, who was kind enough to stop writing for money long enough to visit My Cool Job and write for free about the worklife of a “Word Alchemist”.
Of course, what all of the above events have in common is not just the Internet, but more importantly the written words that have allowed emails, chats and online games to transform themselves into travel, new experiences and lifelong friends.
But enough about me and my adventures — let’s check in with Kim and see what it’s like to make a career out of helping businesses and people to get their ideas across to others (and isn’t that what we’re all here for?)
When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
The short answer is: I am a wordsmith. The longer answer, of course, depends on whether I’m trying to get you as a client, a date, or just fill you in on what’s going on for me right now.
If you’re a potential client, I tell you I work with businesses to get your words right, both inside and outside your organization. Inside, I help you with clear and useful policies and procedures, training materials, and communication seminars. Outside, I help you sharpen your web copy, marketing materials, presentations, and technical manuals to best reflect both your image and your purpose. I use SEO and readability techniques to maximize your website’s copy, I help distill technical jargon into easy-to-understand prose, and I work with the finest web developers, graphic designers, videographers and printers to get you the best product for your organization.
I know, I sound like I swallowed a marketing textbook. But it works – people seem surprised to meet a writer, and whether they need help with their websites, tech writing, grant proposals, or speeches, they quickly realize they need someone like me. If I’ve seen their brochure or their site, I point out their mistakes, and they realize how lost they really are, word-wise. Of course, I do all of this with a great deal of charm.
If I want a date, I skip the marketing and segue into my “I love language – I love phrases that roll of your tongue and move you with their grace.” I manage to quote Shakespeare, Donne, Thomas, and perhaps a bit of Dylan as I demonstrate the sweet nothings I might whisper into a lover’s ear.
If I just want to fill you in, however, I tell you that I have been doing development editing for Cisco Systems, freelancing for various businesses and non-profits, and branded myself as a Word Alchemist this summer, to both promote my business and give me a snazzy name to incorporate under. I tell you that this is what I’ve been meant to do all along, and it’s about time I made it formal. Oh, and this is where you tell me – if you’ve known me for more than a year – “it’s about time.”
What are the things about your job that you love?
I love that moment with a client when just the right phrase gets uttered and they see that their project really is in the right hands. For one it might be the advertising slogan they’ve been missing, for another it might be the subtle boost to their ego, the credit to their expertise. When it happens, like any epiphany, something changes. And that’s when I get to say, with a gleam in my eye, “and that is the alchemy.”
What are the things about your job that you hate?
Writer’s block. Even if I’m just doing a quick flyer for someone, I hate when the words are just out of reach and nothing flows right. It’s those times when I simply must go wash the dishes or clean the litter box or re-alphabetize my collection of business cards.
What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
While I’d recommend a bachelor’s degree (in anything – because you have to write in college whether you major in English or biology), first and foremost is a love of language and a passion for clarity. Yes, writers like me are creative, but we’re not flowery-prose creative, we’re get-to-the-heart-of-it creative.
I also recommend, no matter where you work, trying to get some experience working on your company’s procedure manual, writing someone’s presentation, offering to do the web copy. My experience is largely proprietary, as I’ve worked for various companies, building my experience ‘in the field’. It’s only now, self-employed, that I can say “yes, when I worked for B/E Aerospace, I wrote our GM’s presentations to companies like Boeing and Airbus.” So – write as much as you can in your job, and then volunteer your services to non profits. Libraries, theater groups, churches, charities – all are looking for free help.
Also start blogging. I am late to the blogging game, but it is invaluable writing practice. Plus, if clients want to see samples of your work, you give them your blog address.
When you feel you can afford to go on your own finally, make sure you have at least one client who can provide bread and butter while you seek out new clients.
What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
As I mentioned earlier, I do development editing for Cisco Press, a division of Pearson Education (and the publication arm of Cisco Systems). As a development editor, I work with the author to make sure the text is accessible, clear, and well organized. Often, the authors are trainers who are translating Cisco’s release guides into self-study guides for the certification tests. They mean well, but there are some passages that, well, don’t necessarily work.
One particularly challenging passage appeared to be written in a language closely resembling English; I figured this out only because I recognized all of the words. The meaning? Not so much. Instead of typing yet another note suggesting the author go back and do it again, I sent him this:
He got the message, and the replacement paragraph was remarkably clearer. English, even. Later in the book, all I had to do was type “pancake bunny” into my comments and he knew he was in for some rewriting.