Use Writing To Make Yourself Irreplaceable

As this blog’s regular followers will no doubt have noticed, I try to vary Writing Power’s content in a few ways. For example, I try to write posts covering all stages of the writing process, from invention to editing. I also try to place each post on a different point along a continuum that stretches between abstract, how-to-change-the-way-you-think-about-writing posts (like this one) and specific, how-to-use-adverbs posts (like this one).

Finally, I write posts that apply to an array of writing situations: writing in your personal life, writing in an academic context, and writing at work. But what if you don’t do a lot of writing at work?

Well, maybe you should.

If you produce a tangible product, your effectiveness as a worker can be measured in terms of that product. I’ll clarify with an example: let’s say your job title is Balloon Inflater. Your job is to inflate balloons. The standard employee can inflate 40 balloons an hour; however, you are able to inflate 45 balloons an hour. The number of balloons you inflate is a good measure of your productivity; you could ask for a raise based on the number of balloons you inflate each day. You can demonstrate your productivity by pointing to the larger number of balloons floating on the ceiling at the end of your shift, and everyone else can recognize it as well.

In our modern information economy, however, most workers’ effectiveness isn’t easy to quantify because they produce an intangible product. We work with ideas, not balloons. To illustrate the difference, let’s say you are a Human Resources Manager. If you walked into your boss’s office one afternoon and said, “The average worker at this firm sends 30 emails every day. I have sent 45 emails every day for the last month. Based on the larger number of emails I send, I believe I deserve a raise,” your boss would probably gape at you.

Why? Because number of emails sent – unlike number of balloons inflated – does not indicate effectiveness or productivity. The question your boss might have for you is, “What was in those emails? How much did those emails help you to accomplish?” After all, your job title is not Email Sender; it’s Human Resources Manager. And managing human resources consists of complex “knowledge work” that is more difficult to quantify. In other words, a great Human Resources Manager can send 40 emails a day or none, but a great Balloon Inflater must inflate balloons.

Okay, so how does a knowledge worker demonstrate his or her effectiveness or productivity in a way that is easy for others to recognize? By tracking productivity and accomplishments and presenting them periodically in writing.

I suggest that you write a monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly progress report. This report can be quite brief: two pages is a reasonable maximum. If you find that you consistently have more than two pages of progress to report, I suggest making your reports more frequent rather than longer. It’s more likely that your boss would read a single, bulleted page each week than six single-spaced pages each month. Take care to think of your busy reader when composing these reports: headings, lists, and other elements of solid page design will make a positive impression before your reader even gets to the content.

Who is the audience for your progress report? Ideally, you would present it to your supervisor on a regular basis. Your supervisor will likely be impressed with your initiative in preparing the report and keeping your supervisor informed. Moreover, seeing the projects you’re working on and the progress you’re making on them will show your supervisor just how much you get done. Some supervisors don’t seem to understand how much their colleagues do: it’s human nature to overestimate one’s own contribution to a project and mentally minimize the contributions of others. A progress report, however, nips that kind of raise-averse thinking in the bud.

Supervisors may also like your progress report because it helps them look better to their bosses – i.e., they know what their employees are doing. And even though poor supervisors may not read your reports, submitting them regularly provides a solid defense if a supervisor should storm over to you and say, “why wasn’t I told about X?” And later, when it’s time for them to write your glowing evaluation, they’ll have a file full of specific evidence to draw on.

However, it’s useful to write down your progress even if you’re the only one who will see it. Progress reports can provide valuable specifics to polish a resume or bolster an employee self-evaluation. For example, when I worked as a grant writer I kept myself organized by using deadline calendars that I updated every couple of weeks. When I printed out a new calendar, I put the old calendar in a file. When it came time for annual evaluations, I reviewed the calendars. Comparing my list to previous years, I was able to document that I had helped the agency apply to all of their previous funders plus 20 new ones – an increase of 33%. These informal progress reports helped me quantify my value to the organization.

What should the progress report include? It’s useful to categorize the material in a way that will help the reader navigate through the report. Possible categories include: upcoming deadlines, current projects (each listed separately if needed), recently completed projects, updates on previous projects. These, however, are pretty generic. If you want an easy way to devise some great categories, look at your job description, and categorize your progress report according to the broad types of tasks you find there. In doing so, you’ll be laying the groundwork for a raise.

Just as in a resume, focus on what you did, not on what you were assigned. Accomplishments, not duties. Problems you solved, decisions you made, orders you completed, research you conducted, ideas you had…

A note to all of the students out there: this technique isn’t just for our compatriots in the working world. I provided progress reports to my dissertation advisor during the two years I worked on my dissertation, and it made an inherently difficult process a lot less painful. Instead of skulking about in coffee shops avoiding my professors, I used progress reports to engage them early on. By the end of the process, my dissertation advisor was working almost as hard as I was to help me reach that finish line and file in time to walk across the stage at my university’s PhD hooding ceremony.

So, keep track of your progress and make sure people know about the valuable work you’re doing. Pretty soon, you’ll have your own bunch of balloons to be proud of.

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