By Ashley TolbertApril 20, 2017
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Army AL&T magazine Senior Editor Steve Stark and Editor Mike Bold conducted a newly revamped writers workshop March 31, hosted by the Project Lead for Network Enablers in the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications -- Tactical (PEO C3T) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The workshop was a pilot for a new approach by Army AL&T that emphasizes one-on-one interaction.
"We've held an annual writers workshop for the last four years," Stark said. "This year we found an opportunity to work very closely with small groups of subject matter experts at Network Enablers." The organization's leadership, Project Lead Stan M. Niemiec, "wanted to see his people communicate more effectively about the very complex work they do."
That commitment to communication from a project lead is remarkable and clearly motivated the team, Stark said. "The enthusiasm and engagement of his team and the intensive workshop format made for an event that, based on the feedback we received, was extremely useful not only for them but also for us."
Niemiec had a similar assessment. "The workshop not only met my expectations but went well beyond. In the short time since that event, I have already begun to see more focused and better-written communications from my subordinate supervisors who attended," he said. "The difference is striking when compared not just with their previous submissions, but also when matched to their peers who did not have the opportunity yet to attend the workshop."
Stark noted that, based on this pilot, Army AL&T magazine staff intend to do as many as three writers workshops--at no cost to the host--each year to help other organizations within the Army acquisition, logistics and technology (AL&T) community.
The award-winning magazine is a premier source of career and professional news for the Army AL&T community. Stark, himself an award-winning novelist, best-selling ghostwriter and a college-level creative writing teacher, led the workshop with Bold, a writer-editor with more than 30 years' experience at some of the nation's best-known newspapers and news organizations, including the Sacramento Bee and McClatchy News.
The goals of the workshop are to provide participants with a better understanding of how to write persuasively for a general audience; show them how to look at articles more objectively; and teach strategies to communicate effectively about what a program or project does and the difference it makes.
More than one senior policymaker has noted that the Army and DOD in general do a poor job of communicating to taxpayers what they do. "The magazine helps the Army communicate more effectively about what a program or project does, and why it matters to the Army, Soldier and taxpayer. It is also a publication to record lessons learned in a clear, effective way, helping others learn those lessons or solve those challenges," Stark said during the workshop's introduction.
A HANDS-ON APPROACH
Each participant in the four-hour workshop--offered twice that day, in the morning and afternoon--had to provide a 500-word writing sample, preferably describing the work they do. The participants also read all of the samples of the others in their group.
The essays, provided to Army AL&T in advance, were the basis for what the workshop would cover. After hearing an overview of how the magazine's editorial team works, each group provided criticism on each essay.
Morning participant John Pankowski said he was surprised to learn that less-technical writing was preferable. He remarked on the importance of knowing the audience for an article, and on learning that it is acceptable to use "I" and "you" in his writing--something he hasn't done previously because he thought it was too informal.
As participants in each session analyzed the essays and gave the authors their honest feedback, they explained what worked or didn't, how readable the writing was, and how effective it was in getting the point across. Stark and Bold moderated and provided their own thoughts.
"The atmosphere was very relaxed because we were in a class with our colleagues and we felt comfortable giving our honest opinion on their writing," said Tom Curran, chief for the product lead for MilTech.
As part of the exercise, each author had to remain silent while the rest of the group commented on the work, reflecting the fact that "you can't be there with the reader to tell them what you meant," Stark said.
"Good criticism is the most valuable thing you can get to make your writing better. Every writer needs it, regardless of how accomplished they are," explained Bold. "Sometimes when I get feedback on my writing, I instantly get defensive. But then I go back, rethink it and realize that there really is room for improvement. In short, virtually no writing is at its best right out of the gate. Accept criticism gracefully--which after 30 years, I am still learning."
"I'd bet I spent more time on your essays than you did," Stark quipped, describing the thorough, constructive criticism he and Bold provided to each of the attendees.
IT'S ALL GEEK TO US
All of the attendees had highly technical backgrounds, and most were accustomed to using the same technical language in their writing as they do with their peers. However, Stark and Bold emphasized the importance of knowing their audience and the importance of communicating in plain language when writing for those with no knowledge of the subject matter.
"I bring my ignorance to the table as an asset, because I know if I don't understand what you're saying in your article, an ordinary person wouldn't either," said Bold. "That's why we'll constantly be pestering you to simplify and explain everything."
At the end of each workshop, the magazine editors encouraged the attendees to submit articles to Army AL&T and explained how the staff can help contributors craft their articles for a broader audience beyond their own program or PEO. "Army AL&T contributors and the magazine's staff have a symbiotic relationship," Bold said. "You're acquisition experts. We're not. We're professional writers and editors. You're not. We need each other to produce the best articles possible."
MAKING TIME TO 'GET IT WRITE'
Bold offered encouragement for contributors. "When you get your stories back from us with a ton of questions and suggested changes, don't be discouraged. It doesn't mean you've failed. It means that we liked your story enough to invest a lot of time in it, and here's how you can make it better."
This intensive one-on-one coaching was not the only difference between the March 31 pilot workshop and Army AL&T's past writers workshops, which were directed largely at organization and command public affairs personnel. In this new model, magazine staff travel to the command or organization to work with its experts--software developers, system engineers and the like.
"It was very convenient for the workshop to come to us," said Sonya Gadson, operations officer for Network Enablers in PEO C3T. "Everyone's schedule is so busy, it's nearly impossible for everyone to get away long enough" for an off-site workshop. While the magazine staff conceived and organized the workshop, Gadson contributed tirelessly to coordinating the event. She also gamely submitted her own essay. "Luckily, many attendees from the Network Enabler team were able to make it," Gadson said. PEO C3T hopes to repeat the workshop and expand it to other program offices.
Commands or organizations looking to host a similar workshop should contact Stark at 703-664-5636. For those interested in submitting an article to Army AL&T magazine, go to http://asc.army.mil/web/publications/army-alt-submissions/.