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Michelle Baker is the Corporate Writing Pro. She’s on a mission to help professionals communicate more clearly. She teaches subject matter experts, primarily scientists, how to act like writers, and she instructs management how to behave like writing instructors so that the entire organization can communicate collaboratively and clearly.
While Michelle continues to offer advice on her blog, Keys to Easy Writing; coaching and editorial services for academics; and training, both live and online, she is directing her attention toward management. Look for her forthcoming book, Everything You Know About Managing Your Staff is Wrong (When You’re Teaching Them How to Write).
MO: Can tell us the story of why you founded Corporate Writing Pro?
Michelle: I needed an alternative. I earned my PhD in 2008, right when the market crashed. So I could either take a series of teaching positions with short-term contracts, live in rental properties, move my family around the country, and make do on a very small salary that would not cover my student loans and that would not give me the freedom to write, or I could stake out my own territory.
Unlike some academics, I’ve always bridged the worlds of business and academia. I was an accountant before I went back to graduate school. And then I worked as an accounting consultant, I founded a transcription service, and later I started contracting with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, teaching biologists how to write more clearly. So I’ve seen the internal workings of many different industries.
Teaching composition at the university, I was constantly frustrated at how hollow the lessons were. They didn’t connect to the real world – and students knew that. Literature is different. I can make that real. But composition never clicked.
I mean think about it, when was the last formal writing class you had? English 101? And how old were you? 18-19? Or was it high school?
And yet today, how much writing do you do? The professionals I work with spend 75% or more of their day writing. And they’ve never received ANY formal writing training. That’s crazy. Somebody has to fix that.
MO: Do you really think that the key difference between associates and executives is the ability to communicate clearly?
Michelle: I saw it firsthand when I worked as an accountant, fresh out of undergrad. I was surrounded by people who were great at numbers. They could crunch all day. And the partners knew what they were doing, too. I mean, you’re not going to make partner unless you know how to audit a bank and file a tax return. But frankly, some of the managers were better accountants than some of the partners.
That didn’t matter. Those managers were never going to make partner. And I can look at the firm’s website today and show you which ones didn’t make it. They didn’t know how to explain things. They couldn’t talk to clients, they couldn’t break it down, you know?
I mean, I used the word litigant one day in front of a manager and his client, and he made fun of me. He didn’t know what it meant. I felt like I was back in junior high school, getting picked on because I was a geek. He’s not on that website today.
MO: What inspired you to write a book and has the process been easier or more challenging than you initially anticipated?
Michelle: I’m currently (trying!) to write 3 books, so I’ll assume you’re asking about, Everything You Know About Managing Your Staff is Wrong (When You’re Teaching Them How to Write).
I don’t know if inspiration is the right word. I kind of feel like that’s what I’m here to do. I have an idea for a book or a journal article almost every week. I just need a patron to handle my finances so I can write and teach other people how to do the same.
And the words easy and challenging don’t really apply either. I can’t explain it. It’s just ….
It’s being in the zone, you know? I mean, there’s a process, like I explain in my teaching. There’s the 6 stages, and you just start. You brainstorm, and then you select. And while you’re working time just doesn’t exist.
I don’t know what else to say.
MO: Can you give us any easy tips toward improving our communication skills?
Michelle: Yes, Here are two:
1) Break it down. Most writers try to do it all simultaneously. There are 6 stages in the writing process – brainstorming, arranging, selecting, writing, revising, and editing. Devote yourself to each, one at a time.
2) Capture your brainstorming. Today’s business environment has gotten really good at working collaboratively during the initial phases of a project. But too often, we leave a meeting or a conference call or a Skype or a webinar, and we’ve done a lot of good work, but when we try to write up the results, we’ve got nothing.
I know of no artist who faces an easel without a palette of color mixed and ready to apply. Why do we continue to confront a blank screen? The notion that the words are going to magically appear from our brains is arrogant. Prepare your palette.
MO: Whose writing do you most admire?
Michelle: That’s such an unfair question, because it depends on the genre. As a defender of the American language, HL Mencken. As an orator, Martin Luther King, Jr. As a literary stylist, A.S. Byatt. And I’m going to stop there.
MO: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
Michelle: My PhD. It’s such a complicated process, from the colloquy to the comprehensive exams to the proposal to the dissertation to the defense. I acquitted myself with dignity.
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