We help you tell your school's best stories.

Fun Stuff for Smart People

Posted: December 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Mental FlossFrom the Winter 2014 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly:

As a kid, Jessanne Collins ’01 created her own food ‘zine by stapling together recipes and food stories; she called it Eater’s Digest. Later, as a pre-internet teenager in a tiny Connecticut town, she remembers devouring her monthly issue of Sassy, where edgy fashion photos and hip music and lifestyle stories opened a world of unimagined possibility.

Last year, Collins’ love affair of magazines brought her to the helm of Mental Floss, an offbeat, brainy and wholly delightful magazine that’s unlike any other on the newsstand. Recent issues have included stories about the Senate’s secret candy stash, designing the perfect space suit and the guy responsible for inventing the word “twitter.” (Spoiler alert: It was Chaucer.)

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 30).

Case Study: An experienced team, combined with creativity, helps meet client goals

Posted: December 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

honor rollGrinnell College’s publications office was in the midst of a major transition this past summer. The timing was challenging: one of their largest print publications, the annual Honor Roll of Giving, needed to stay on track for a fall mailing. In order to meet that deadline, the school needed someone who could manage a major portion of the project, deliver great writing about its generous alumni, and meet a tight deadline.

When Grinnell asked if I could take on the project, I immediately connected with other experienced higher education writers, researchers, and transcriptionists to help out. We laid out a detailed and ambitious plan that covered every piece of the project, with a color-coded spreadsheet that we updated daily.

Over the course of less than six weeks, we coordinated and conducted dozens of phone interviews. We collected high-resolution photos and transcribed many hours of recorded interviews — hundreds of pages.

Every Monday, we compiled and sent a high-level executive summary for Grinnell’s staff to reassure them that everything was on track, and to make sure we made any necessary course corrections earlier, rather than later. And together, the team wrote, edited, and fact-checked 36 distinct stories about giving at Grinnell, each with nuance and thoughtfulness.

Because the interviews were often with high-end donors, we also vetted every single story with the sources for their approval. And they were thrilled: a sampling of source comments included “Perfect!” “Terrific,” and “Don’t change a word.”

Thanks to the disciplined work from everyone on the team, the completed and vetted stories, complete with photos, headlines, pull quotes, and contact information, were submitted before the client’s deadline, and the Honor Roll arrived the in alumni mailboxes in November.

Code word: girls

Posted: December 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

smithFrom the Fall 2014 issue of the Smith Alumni Quarterly:

Kimberly Scott ’91 knows that thousands of young women of color would love to tap into well-paying, fast-growing technology jobs. But she also knows that to do so, they must have a deep understanding of computational thinking: a distinct and methodical approach to problem solving.

Moving these young women from interest to action is no small task. Even as the opportunities for technology careers increase, girls and women of color lag behind. White men, for example, are nearly five times more likely to earn a computer science degree than women of color, even though research suggests their initial interest in the topic is nearly equal.

As founder and executive director of CompuGirls, Scott has stepped forward to turn the tide and keep girls excited about high-tech careers. Through the program, Scott, and associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, merged two of her passions.

Read the rest of the story here (PDF, p. 28).

The Blazing Mind: writer, novelist, poet, essayist Siri Hustvedt ’77

Posted: December 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Siri HustvedtFrom the Fall 2014 issue of St. Olaf Magazine:

When Siri Hustvedt was longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for her latest novel, The Blazing World, it was an honor that represented the culmination of a lifetime of work and study.

The book has critics swooning: The New York Times called the book a “spirited romp,” and NPR lauded the work as a “complex, astonishing, harrowing, and utterly, completely engrossing.”

Hustvedt is the author of five other novels, including the international bestsellers The Summer Without Men and What I Loved, which won “Best Book” in 2004 from the Prix des libraries du Québec. She also writes essays that explore diverse topics, including philosophy and neuroscience. In 2012, Hustvedt received the Gabarron International Award for Thought and Humanities.

Read the rest of the story here.

Steal My Best Idea

Posted: December 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off

First, a word about Moleskine notebooks.

As a writer, I can’t not love them. They’re so compact! They’ve got such a great backstory! I can totally imagine myself writing Hemingway-esque prose while staring out across an ocean!

In fact, I once spent $250 on a Kickstarter campaign so I could get eight custom-designed Moleskine notebooks.

Just think of all the great ideas that can be crammed into one of those things, I thought to myself delusionally. That $250 was an investment that was going to pay for itself.

Here’s what actually happened: two years later, I have eight notebooks scattered across my home and office, each with a short, unconnected list of good ideas, then a sea of blank pages.

*snaps fountain pen in half, bangs head on old-school typewriter*

In 2013, I set out to find a better way to collect my best ideas. It’s ugly. It’s digital. And it works. Feel free to swipe the template and adapt as needed.

Every month, I read more than two dozen magazines and publications to get great ideas to pitch to my clients. Maybe it’s a clever twist on New York magazine’s Approval Matrix, or a smarter way to package a series of profiles. By the end of the month, the corner of my desk looks like this:

And at the end of the month, I translate all those Post-Its into something that looks like this:

It’s a simple Google spreadsheet, but there are a few things that really make this valuable:

  • Everything has a link. Many of the magazine stories I want to save for reference are also online, so I do a quick Google search and paste the link into the document.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted: December 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off


A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn that a story I wrote for St. Olaf’s alumni magazine won a silver medal in the “Profile Article” category at the Minnesota Magazine Publishing Association’s Excellence Awards. You can read the story about AIDS researcher Diane Havlir, The Pioneer, here. You can read a case study that describes the process I used to report and write the story here.

Rumor Has It

Posted: November 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Dupre was designed as a riot-proof dorm and was a cast-off design from another collegeFrom the Fall 2014 issue of Macalester Today:

Maybe you were on a campus tour when you heard that Macalester alum and benefactor DeWitt Wallace brought a cow to the top of chapel when he was a student. Perhaps you were strolling past Old Main when a friend mentioned the time that Carleton students ferried “the rock” down to Northfield, then mailed it back—postage due.

Like any school with more than 100 years of history, Macalester has a treasure trove of incredible tales that seem true enough. Tell the stories often enough, and they develop a sheen of authenticity that seems too good to fact-check. Until now.

To find out the truth behind Macalester’s own urban legends, we dug deep into the archives with archivist and special collections librarian Ellen Holt-Werle, called up experts from Macalester and beyond, and scoured the Web for supporting details. The tales you’ve heard are sometimes true. They’re sometimes false. And they’re sometimes not nearly as interesting as what actually happened.

Read the rest of the story here.

Introducing Capstone Communications: FAQ

Posted: November 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off

Screenshot 2014-11-05 at 10.56.44 AMWait, what?

After 10 years working on my own, I recently formed an LLC: Capstone Communications.

How come?

When I started freelancing 10 years ago, I focused mostly on solo projects. Over the past two years, however, I’ve hired researchers, writers, designers, copy editors, and photographers to work with me on larger projects. To make that process seamless for both my clients and for the people who help me complete these projects, I’ve formed an LLC, Capstone Communications.

Are you still writing stories?

Yep. I’ll continue to write alumni magazine stories, copy for donor publications, and other communications materials for colleges.

So what’s the big deal, anyway?

Now I can also take on larger projects. Starting in 2012, with the help of other contractors who have deep experience in higher education, I’ve tackled annual reports, major case statements, gift proposals, and stewardship publications. I found fantastic freelancers and honed my process to perfection so I can deliver more than just words on a page. I can take a project from concept to print — or anywhere in between.

It was important to me to make sure I could get every detail right before I made the jump. Now, if you’ve got bigger projects to manage, but you still want to work with someone who really “gets” higher ed publications, I can help.

Okay, but what about…

Want to know more? Let’s talk. Send me an email at erin@erinpeterson.com

5 Secrets of Case Winners

Posted: October 27th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: higher education, Writing | Comments Off

Every year, I eagerly await the announcement of CASE’s Circle of Excellence awards. (Fact: I’m a nerd.)

I pay particular attention to the awards for general excellence in the general interest magazine awards.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work in the editorial offices of—and as a writer for—many CASE award winners, and I’ve noticed that they often approach things differently than their peers. And while I gathered this information working for alumni magazines, I think many of these lessons apply much more broadly to college publications and communications in general.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from those experiences.

1. Details matter. In all of the best magazines I’ve worked for, details are critical. At the Carleton Voice, for example, we didn’t see headlines and captions as afterthoughts, but as entry points. We spent hours crafting clever headlines. (My personal favorite was a story about the school’s croquet club called “Something Wicket This Way Comes.”)

In a more recent story I wrote for the magazine about an alumna who balanced law school with mixed martial arts, I wrote a caption that used a quote that didn’t make it into the body copy. The alum said she assuaged her mom’s fears about her high-risk fights by assuring her that she’d “crush her opponents like bugs.” Many of us do interviews and discover we can’t pack all the great quotes into the story; captions are the perfect place to use them.

Great magazines find new ways to pack in interesting details: Self, Runner’s World, and Esquire, for example, boost interest in their boring masthead by adding one-question Q&A’s that their editors, designers, and writers answer. Men’s Health runs a “Top 10” list (last month: top 10 beers) running along the top margins of the magazine’s pages, creating a whole new reason to flip through the magazine more than once. I love the care that these editors take in making every facet of their magazine interesting.

2. Playing with format leads to better stories. There’s no question that there’s a certain reverence for the long-form story, perhaps bolstered by the viral think pieces that appear every so often in publications like the New Yorker and The Atlantic. It’s been helped along by sites like Medium and The Atavist. But in the end, sometimes a long story is just…long.

I do plenty of stories that are 2,500+ words of straight narrative. But I would argue—and I think the best editors would agree—that you can tell a different kind of story by breaking that story into smaller parts, not just through subheads, but through sidebars, interesting packaging, or simply stories on a theme.

Denison does this particularly inventively with a front and cover that bleeds into the first six pages of the magazine (You can see an example here, though its full power comes only when you’ve got the magazine in your hands).

Instead of doing a mammoth feature on an innovative capstone course, Georgia Tech’s alumni magazine is breaking it down into four 1,000-word mini-features over the course of a year, walking readers through the challenging process of creating brand-new inventions.

There are inspiring approaches to stories in magazines like GQ, Mental Floss, and New York. It’s worth studying the best to see how you can use other approaches to tell stories in interesting ways.

3. Knowing your readers makes a difference. Kenyon’s Shawn Presley once told me he surveyed his readers after every issue. He learned, for example, that the most popular stories were campus-based tales about parties and ghost stories and myths. He learned that readers were more likely to read alumni profiles if they were embedded in class notes, rather than placed in the feature well. More important, he used that magazine to create a publication that alumni loved—and that earned critical raves.

4. It’s okay to be funny. In 2001, when the Carleton Voice won a Sibley, my editor and I pored over the judges’ notes. The judges noted the magazine’s photography, design, and story selection. But they also mentioned something that surprised me at the time: the magazine’s sense of humor.

In part, it represented who we were as editors and writers. We were happy to profile the campus Quidditch club or craft a quiz about the wacky metaphors offered up by a visiting campus speaker. It was partly who we were as editors and writers, but that sense of joy and playfulness was also deeply embedded in Carleton’s campus culture. Students were always planning crazy events—24-hour jugglathons, for example—and the president himself loved choreographing the occasional April Fool’s prank.

Those things weren’t part of any strategic plan or capital campaign, but to us, the represented the energy and inventiveness of the campus. And that was worth highlighting. Kenyon does a great job with this, including a totally amazing and stealable Rural Legendspiece on campus myths.

5. Good ideas can always get better. With the stories I am most proud of, there is almost always give and take between the editor as we develop the idea and shape the final story. Years ago, I came up with an idea for a story package about cheating. I pitched it to editor after editor, and got turned down time after time.

Then Denison’s Mo Harmon saw it—and figured out how to make it better. A story about cheating was kind of edgy. But what if the story was about how all the ways that cheating is actually good? It was a brilliant way to take an okay story idea to the next level, and you can see the results in Bluffs for a Better World.

The point is that you never have to accept a boring story idea as given—there are almost always ways to give it an interesting twist.

Bold Experiments

Posted: October 22nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

From the Fall 2014 issue of the HHMI Bulletin:

University research scientists are expected to be pioneers in their labs. A new group of HHMI professors will be meeting those same high expectations in the classroom.

The traditional systems of rewards and recognition and allocation of resources at research universities often encourage an imbalance: most science faculty members are far more focused on their work as research scientists than their work as educators.

“It has been a great, missed opportunity,” says Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI. “Research universities attract some of the brightest young minds in the nation, and they are home to some of the best scientists. They offer a potentially superb environment for engaging students in both the classroom and the laboratory.”

Read the rest of the story here.