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Power to the Posse

Posted: January 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | No Comments »

From the Winter 2014 issue of the HHMI Bulletin:

For Bryn Mawr College sophomore Fransheska Clara, going to college wasn’t just a personal goal: it was a family one. Neither her father, who hails from El Salvador, nor her mother, a native of Puerto Rico, had gone to college. And they had come to America—to Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour outside Boston—in the hope that their two kids could get a college education and fulfill a dream that they hadn’t been able to achieve themselves.

Clara was driven to succeed in high school. She got good grades. She was president of her school’s STEM club, a group focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And she spent a summer and a full semester doing internships through the biology and biotechnology departments of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

So when she first heard about the Posse STEM program—which would send 10-person “Posses” of the very best students to top-notch colleges across the country to focus on science—Clara was eager to learn more. The program is designed to identify high-achieving student leaders in urban high schools and send them to college as a group so they can lean on one another for support. The Posse members are also paired with mentors at the colleges and receive significant access to science research opportunities. It is a program tailored to help these students, who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed.

Read the rest of the story here.

Imagine a World Without Failure

Posted: January 13th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

failureFrom the Fall 2014 issue of Denison Magazine:

We are a culture that reveres perfection.

In his autobiography, Founding Father Ben Franklin reported that he “wished to live without committing any fault at any time,” devoting himself to an arduous program of self-improvement. Countless corporate titans have embraced the all-but-impossible “Six Sigma” standards that allow for failure just once in every 300,000 attempts. And comedy empires have been built on our desire to mock failures in DIY (pinterestfail.com), grammar (apostrophecatastrophe.com), and technology (damnyouautocorrect.com).

But humans will never be automatons. Failure and mistakes are inevitable. And sometimes, even beautiful. Some of the most famous works of Michelangelo, perhaps the most celebrated artist in history, are riddled with tiny errors. The point? Even the most amazing talents of all time make mistakes and do things that others might call failures. But then they find ways to transform those mistakes and failures into stunning achievements.

We asked Denison faculty and staff to riff on inventions and ideas born of accidents—and how those accidents changed the world for the better.

Read the rest of the story here.

These 6 Techniques Will Transform Your Profiles

Posted: January 6th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Writing | Comments Off

Nobody knows packaging better than Coca Cola.

I was reminded of this fact when I stopped into a gas station this past summer to pick up a soda. In a single refrigerated case, there were SIX DIFFERENT kinds of regular Coke: 12- and 16-ounce cans, 12-ounce glass bottles, and 16-, 20-, and one-liter plastic bottles.

The point is not that Coke is crazy: it’s that there are lots of different ways to offer what some might say is essentially the same thing to your audience. And they’ll love you if you do it right. (I, of course, was furious that they didn’t have a 12-ounce plastic bottle for sale, because I am insufferable. But I guess packaging really does matter.)

Anyway, experience got me thinking about profiles — the heart of many alumni magazines. So often, we’re tempted to tell profiles in the same one-size-fits-all narrative format (I include myself in this group). But some stories may be better told by breaking things down, building them up, and reshaping them in interesting ways.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent hours collecting samples of magazine profiles that are told by using unique formats and frameworks. Six of them are below.

Format: The Opening Quote
Source: Runner’s World Cover Contest
The details: This format launches the story with a tiny bio and an incisive quote before digging into the narrative.
Why it works: For a package of profiles on similar kinds of people, differentiation is key. Instead of committing to an entire story, readers can scan the quotes to find the profiles that resonate with them most.
Use it here: Got a package of profiles on a half-dozen professors who just got tenure? Ten alumni who are changing the world of technology? This approach is fantastic.
Other examples: HHMI’s “Indispensibles.”

Format: The Dossier
Source: Vanity Fair’s What You Should Know About…
The details: This format mixes quotes and narrative packed into easy-to-read chunks.
Why it works: You don’t need to rely on a super-quotable source, and the format doesn’t demand a clean beginning, middle, and end. This quick read packs in lots of information.
Use it here: Need to cram (what should be) a 1,500 word story into half the space? Drop the transitions and go straight to the best details. This format is also perfect for a wide-ranging interview that would feel too scattershot if confined to a strict narrative.
Other examples: Jason Segel got the VF treatment here. Read the rest of this entry »

Campus Myth Busters

Posted: January 5th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: feature, higher education, Writing | Comments Off

MaunualFrom the Winter 2014 issue of Grinnell Magazine:

Grinnellians have always been able to spin great yarns . Just take founder Josiah Grinnell, who insisted he headed to Iowa because he’d been personally advised by abolitionist Horace Greeley to “Go west, young man.” It turned out that Greeley told Grinnell no such thing (Greeley himself disavowed the story), but Grinnell was such a charismatic storyteller that the tale took on a life of its own. The “go west” myth has been repeated in countless history books and taken as fact for more than 150 years.

That particular Grinnell legend may be the one with the most staying power, but it’s not the only tale that’s been told so often that it’s been accepted as truth — regardless of the amount of truth it contains.

We were interested in finding out what was behind some of the other rumors that have been winging their way around campus for decades, sneaking into College guidebooks and campus-tour scripts for added staying power. Is it true that Quad was never intended to be a dining hall? Did the Federal Communications Commission squash the campus radio station for an entire year because of a well-executed prank?

To find the answers to these and other burning questions, we enlisted the help of archivists, longtime faculty members, biographers, and national research companies. What we discovered surprised us. Sometimes, fiction is just fiction. And sometimes, the rumors are not only true, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Read the rest of the story here (PDF; p. 24).

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, creative team 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 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.