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Lessons learned

June 24, 2014

At this time of year, we celebrate four-year journeys — through high school, or through college, to graduation. Now I’m celebrating four years in a continuing journey of education: employment as a grant-writer. So it’s a good time to look back.
I help prepare and submit our programs’ reports to funders, which frequently ask us to reflect on “lessons learned.” As for the lessons I’ve learned, these stand out:

• Just as it’s harder to defend a championship than to win it, when it comes to grants, managing and keeping the grant are harder than winning it the first time. That’s among the first things my boss told me, and I saw soon how right she was.
• Grant-writing is about story-telling (as is so much of life generally, even if we don’t always appreciate it). Yes, it’s a specialized form of writing. But at its heart, it’s about research, editing and writing to tell stories about your programs and the people they help — stories that your funders should understand easily and find compelling.
• Although much of the job involves pecking away at the computer keyboard in your office, grant-writing is about more than just solitary researching, editing and writing. It’s also about building and maintaining good relationships — with your funders; with your colleagues; with the staff members in your organization’s programs, on whom you rely for information when writing grants and reports.
• And being a grant-writer is about being a resource. Colleagues will look to you to answer questions about grammar and style, or to help with various writing, editing, and proofreading projects. Or they’ll need to look up applications or reports about a program, which you have in your files, for conversations with donors. Be ready — and be helpful.
• The most important lesson of all: There are always lessons to be learned. Make sure that you continue your education.

Back to work

January 6, 2014

If you’re looking for a job, this post is for you.

For nearly 20 years, I was a newspaper copy editor in Milwaukee, where I was born and grew up. Then the Journal Sentinel began cutting its staff through buyouts. In the summer of ’09, a round of buyouts didn’t yield enough cuts for the company, and that August I was laid off, among dozens in the newsroom who lost their jobs.

One year later, I landed in a rewarding position: grant officer/writer for the Columbia St. Mary’s Foundation (http://www.supportcsm.org), which cultivates philanthropic support for the health-care system serving the Milwaukee area. When I told this to Susan Older, whose Displaced Journalists online community (http://displacedjournalists.com) shines light in a gloomy time for journalism and employment, she urged me to write about it, to show out-of-work journalists that we should and could survive, even in a wretched economy. So I wrote this for Susan, for my friend and fellow writer Julie Weber, who writes a blog that I recommend (http://jewliweb.wordpress.com) –- and for you.

I knew that I could do the job with the foundation. And I wanted to do the job, as I would be writing applications for grants to support programs such as free health clinics for the poor. I would be telling important stories about a vital resource, and how it could be brought to people who lacked access to it. Like journalism, the foundation would call on my communications skills to comfort the afflicted. For me, it was the right opportunity at the right time.

Yes, before making that case and getting the job, I needed to hear numerous résumé critiques and make revisions, to do lots of networking and to profit from luck. Most important, however, was that I could talk about significant transferable skills from journalism: writing, editing, research, working on my own and as a member of a team to meet deadlines. (That set complemented one from my background as a scholar in American history and political science.)

Earlier, I had put those skills to work for scholars who had me edit their grant applications. More recently, I used the tools in volunteer work for two nonprofit groups. I sought out the work after getting excellent advice from a grant officer who was kind enough to give me an informational interview – build a track record, he said. So I did some cold-calling, got a lead from a networking contact, consulted Web sites listing volunteer opportunities, and found Make A Difference –- Wisconsin (www.makeadifferencewisconsin.org) and Daystar Inc. (www.daystarinc.org). The former recruits and trains volunteer instructors who present seminars on basic financial literacy (how to handle credit, make a budget and manage a checking account, for example) to teenagers. The latter operates a long-term shelter for women who are recovering from domestic violence. My work for these groups was very gratifying because it enhanced my credentials and references, showed initiative, gave me a chance to do some good work, and allowed me to add nonprofit experience on my resume.

In the meantime, I was taking courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College for a certificate in information design and publishing: introduction to digital media, Web site development, Photoshop and InDesign. The coursework was a step toward another important credential (I need just two classes to finish), it showed employers that I wasn’t standing still during unemployment, and it let me meet instructors and students who gave me job leads, contacts and valuable advice.

All these things put me in a good position to get the job that I’m fortunate, grateful and proud to have. I’m glad to tell this story again, and to share some advice that I hope will be helpful, even if it isn’t new to you:

1) Get out there and network, network, network. And network on the Web, especially on LinkedIn. If you’re not on LinkedIn, get busy and get connected.

2) Get some retraining. Go to school or seek resources on the Web that will add to your knowledge.

3) Do volunteer work. You will feel better for it, you will help someone with your skills, and you will make good networking contacts.

4) Seek out informational interviews with people who work in jobs or at companies in which you’re interested. They can give you valuable information and lead to job contacts.

5) Identify transferable skills and promote them. Journalists: remember that grant writing requires the type of skills that you have honed for years. So does RFP (request for proposal) writing. Think of how you can communicate important messages, for your own cause and for others you make your own.

6) When you see a need for your skills, offer to fill it. You’ve seen many business brochures, PowerPoint presentations and promotional and informational literature that are filled with typos, grammatical errors and infelicities. Fix them. Look at it as a chance to make freelance money, or to do pro bono work that will make you feel good and gain networking contacts.

7) Even though opportunities aren’t as abundant as they should be in this economy, do not –- do not — give up easily. Find a place for yourself. Make a place for yourself.

Where to go?

March 9, 2010

Writers often miss the mark by using where, as in “He told a joke where two guys walked into a bar,” or “I remember a war movie where a general slapped a wounded soldier,” or “It was a year where the Tigers were in contention for the division title.”

Where may indeed be used to refer to a situation or a respect as well as a place, Webster’s says (“Where they were strong, we were weak” and “There is never peace where men are greedy,” for instance). Our sample sentences, however, do not involve any of these.

Use in which in the first two: “He told a joke in which two guys walked into a bar” and “I remember a war movie in which a general slapped a wounded soldier.” In the third, the answer is when or in which: “It was a year when the Tigers were in contention for the division title,” or “It was a year in which the Tigers were in contention for the division title.” (And may the Tigers win it this year.)

Persuade or convince?

February 15, 2010

Some authors use those words interchangeably and write, for example, that “The debater persuaded listeners that the program was flawed.” But there’s a distinction: Persuade should be used when action is involved, and convince should be used when belief is involved. In our example, the audience came to believe that the program was flawed, thanks to the debater, so the sentence should be recast to “The debater convinced listeners that the program was flawed.”  Persuade would be correct in a sentence such as “The debater persuaded listeners to vote to end the program,” which describes how the audience acted.

Say what?

January 31, 2010

Ben Zimmer devotes his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine (http://nyti.ms/curUm6) to “Crash blossoms.” That’s a new term for “double-take headlines” — the sort immortalized in the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Lower Case” feature (“Squad helps dog bite victim” and “Red tape holds up bridge” are classics of this genre).

That prompted me to recall some of the crash blossoms I have seen in decades of working for newspapers, reading newspapers and reading about newspapers, in the Lower Case and other vehicles:

“Here’s one way to lick Doberman’s leg sores”

“Teenage prostitution problem is mounting”

“Third Reich field goal lifts Hawkeyes”

“War dims hopes for peace”

Feel free to share your favorites.

Slightly off topic, but still amusing and worth remembering, I recall a Dave Barry column written for a trade publication years ago — a “guide” to aspiring journalists — in which Barry said that headlines should sound as though Tonto spoke them (“Reagan to Congress: Give me tax cut”) or completely unintelligible (“House unit airs solons’ parley plea”). Seriously, we would all benefit from headlines that are not so cryptic as to be problematic — and from much-needed changes in modern newspaper design that would allow for more space to write something decent.

If there’s no will . . .

January 18, 2010

Sticking with a football example — and, during the NFL playoffs, why not? — leads to another writing tip. Here’s the hypothetical (which could become reality, as the Vikings play the Saints for a Super Bowl berth): “Facing a critical third down at the Minnesota 23, Brett Favre had his pass intercepted by Darren Sharper.”

The issue is volition, that is, a conscious or deliberate decision or act. We can be sure that Favre didn’t intend his pass to go awry; writing that “he had his pass intercepted,” though, implies that he did intend it. Recast the sentence along these lines: “Facing a critical third down, Brett Favre threw a pass that Darren Sharper intercepted.” When you write that someone had something done or had something happen, be sure that the person intended the result.

No penchant for basis

January 14, 2010

Back to blogging. In this edition, a caution on the use of penchant and a plea to avoid on a/an _____ basis.

People often employ penchant when they want to say that someone or something has a strong tendency to do something: “Adrian Peterson has a penchant for fumbling.” But penchant means “a strong liking or fondness; inclination; taste,” Webster’s says. Peterson might fumble a lot (too much for Vikings fans), but clearly, no running back has a strong liking or taste or preference for losing the football. Better: “Peterson fumbles frequently,” for example.

On a/an _____ basis shows up in such sentences as “Walton’s knee injury will be evaluated on a daily basis, coach Tom Pigskin said,” and “The company updates information on a regular basis.” It suffices to say that “Walton’s injury will be evaluated daily, Pigskin said,” and that “The company updates information regularly.” I don’t hope to blog on a frequent basis; I hope to blog frequently (as frequently as I can).

Process excess

December 29, 2009

Back to blogging after time off to complete my final digital media/Web class projects and to have Christmas. My writing tip for today: Avoid the needless “in the process of,” which I saw most recently in the Sunday New York Times Magazine — “Right around the time she [Betsy Blair] was nominated for her Oscar, she was in the process of leaving Gene Kelly.” So: “She was leaving Gene Kelly.” (You’re not in the process of reading this post; you’re reading it.)