As an associate microbiologist for corporate microbiology at ConAgra Foods, Ashley Malchow performs routing testing for the company's manufacturing facilities and conducts research in challenge and shelf-life studies for new and current products. These tasks are an important part of ConAgra's food-safety initiatives.
Writing is also a vital part of Malchow's job. Creating protocols, writing reports, and assisting in the development of project proposals all depend on strong writing skills. Any report or protocol that she creates must be clear enough that other microbiologists can understand or even recreate her projects.
"My biggest challenge," says Malchow, "has been writing to multiple audiences and attempting to tailor information in a way that each audience can understand. My writing may go through three different people before being approved, so I’ve always aimed to please the first person reviewing the work and edit as the draft was passed from person to person. That approach led to sentences being taken out and added back in later according to the personal preferences of each reader."
When Hurley Write, Inc. conducted an onsite writing workshop at Malchow's workplace, she was skeptical. She'd been burned before by writing classes that didn't cover the type of writing she does.
Writing in the real world
Malchow was pleased to find that this workshop exceeded her expectations. "Well organized" and "comfortable," the session offered concepts that "were easy to follow and demonstrated how writers create scientific reports from beginning to end, with exercises using excerpts from reports within our organization," she recalls. The use of real-life examples allayed her concerns about the course's applicability.
Malchow chose to focus on the three topics she found most important in her work: critical thinking, developing a writing strategy, and organizational strategies.
"I choose those three topics because I think they are the very foundation of good writing," she says.
As participants learned new concepts, they practiced them by editing early drafts of internal reports that workshop participants submitted. One of Malchow's reports happened to be included.
"This actually ended up being the best feedback," she says. "Not only did the instructor comment on what could be improved, but others spoke about certain aspects that I had never thought about. This was a prime example of not catering to my audience. It was eye opening."
Malchow also appreciated the open, communicative atmosphere fostered by Hurley Write.
"Anyone could throw out ideas or answers without judgment," she recalls. "Outspoken people had a chance to voice their opinions; the more reserved could take notes and ask questions during breaks. The instructor always made sure that the concepts made sense to the participants before moving forward to the next topic."
Critical thinking leads to better results
Now, Malchow knows how to look at her writing with an objective eye. She also feels that her writing is more clear and concise.
"I always just tried to get by with the basics of a report," she says, "but now I can incorporate ways to think critically and organize the report structure while keeping in mind my audience and the ethos and pathos that I convey in my writing."
She uses her newfound skills in multiple ways: writing reports, recording work instructions, or constructing effective emails .
"My writing is more structured," Malchow confirms. "I try to plan ahead and implement different techniques. I don’t think I have changed how I work with others directly, but I did stop and slow down to think about how my writing can affect others’ opinions and viewpoints."