My most productive writing hours are in the morning, before the world has invaded my mind. I think this is true for a lot of creative people—I learned it about myself when I was writing my dissertation, cranking out most of the words that mattered between 7:00 and 10:00 a.m. everyday—and it remains true for me now that I’m writing for startups. Monday morning I rolled out of bed a little before 7:00, threw on a hoodie and yoga pants (yes, I know, sorry), and walked around the corner for coffee.
I could brew my own coffee, but I cherish the morning walk and the brief interactions with familiar baristas as the city is waking up. I use the time to think about what needs to happen in the next few hours, but it’s also a ritual of respect—coffee shops have played a major part in my transition from academia to industry. The cafe where I wrote most of my dissertation also happens to be an active San Francisco co-working space. Over the course of a year or two, I got to know a lot of the regulars, gradually becoming the go-to English PhD. One acquaintance, Wil Shipley, the CEO of Delicious Monster, repeatedly requested help with vexing word problems. Eventually, he handed me a business card: “This is teaching me that I need a writer. Do you do freelance work?” That freelance work for Delicious Monster morphed into a long-term consulting job that began as soon as I had filed my dissertation.
Delicious Monster is a four-person company, which was the best of all possible worlds. I audited their website copy, threw most of it out, and wrote new stuff while working with a design agency to formulate content strategy for a new site. I simultaneously project managed the site launch and the completion and release of Delicious Library 3. I learned more than I ever could have imagined: HTML, code review tools, project management software, design principles.
When you’re trying to finish a PhD, being out in the world can be difficult—time is tight, money is tighter, there’s little psychic space for superfluous interactions—but spending three bucks on coffee each day might have been one of the best professional maneuvers I’ve ever made. I’m extraordinarily grateful for that initial opportunity.
End coffee digression.
After getting coffee, I came home and holed up in my apartment to work. I didn’t shower, I didn’t exercise, and I didn’t tidy up—this is focus time. The first thing on my agenda was to revise a piece that’s part of a project I’m finishing for Medium, a relatively new online publishing platform. Medium was my second major consulting gig. I’ve done quite a bit of project-based storytelling work for them and spent several months in their Financial District office as a full-time contractor.
The project, Team Medium, is a collection of employee profiles that tell the story of the people behind the product on the platform that they’re building. Team Medium has been ridiculously fun: I interviewed each employee a few months back and am gradually publishing four-minute pieces that encapsulate a particular facet of the individual while also offering a broader introduction to them.
Each person fact-checks their post before it goes live. This morning I reviewed the notes left by Xiao Ma, a back-end engineer, on the draft of his profile. Interestingly, Xiao is a computer science PhD who originally considered an academic career. I work with a lot of PhDs in tech; the academic training makes for a very deliberate, thoughtful approach to industry, which I love. I made a few factual changes and even more stylistic ones, then published the piece and followed it up with a tweet.
It was initially disarming to me to realize how visible you’re expected to be when working knee-deep in tech culture. I’ve never been comfortable with self-promotion and for a long time did not have a particularly robust online presence, but I’m learning to think—albeit with a healthy residual skepticism—of social media as the salon of our day, a medium for larger and longer conversations.
After revising, publishing, and publicizing Xiao’s profile, I moved on to Interfolio, a D.C.-based startup that I began working with nearly two months ago. If you’re a humanities or social sciences PhD, you probably know about Interfolio. The CEO, Steve Goldenberg, reached out to me on Twitter after reading “The Invisible Research,” a piece that I wrote about the dissertation process.
I was onsite at Interfolio headquarters in D.C. all last week, so today is about meeting some of the deadlines I set with various teams while I was out there. I joined a video chat with the Accounts team, and we discussed an email outreach campaign that I’m helping them write as well as the webpage to which the email will direct users. Currently, the costs of applying for academic jobs fall to job seekers, the people who can least afford it; this campaign is about raising awareness at the institutional level around ByCommittee, a platform for collaborative review and hiring that is free for applicants.
I revised email and web copy while we were on the call, updating the website as I spoke with Accounts about their content concerns around the outreach campaign. This kind of rapid pace was terrifying when I first began working with startups, but it turns out that it’s exhilarating to be the word person on the other side of a web product. I still believe firmly in iteration, however; after the call, I spent several hours refining the language and content organization on the ByCommittee landing page. Such things never change, nor would I want them to.