I think I was born a writer because it seems as if it’s always been easy for me, like a fish to water. Well, actually, it’s more likely I was born a reader. Ironically, I struggled significantly learning to read in school. Back then, elementary schools introduced learning to read in the 1st grade; today, they practically have a spelling test ready the minute the child can sit upright without help. I’ll never forget that spelling the word “something” correctly was my mental block. But I got’er done. Eventually. Therefore, the old adage that “readers make better writers” truly does apply to me.
I began reading books for pleasure fairly early, around 7 or 8 years old. The reason I didn’t start earlier was because I associated reading with school and thought it would be boring. But one summer night, I stayed up all night and read Paul Bunyan from cover to cover. You know, the one about Babe the big blue ox. I picked it up to read because I wasn’t sleepy yet, but didn’t want Mom to know I was still awake so late. I didn’t intend to stay up all night, but I couldn’t put it down (lightbulb moment). When I finished the book, I rolled over onto my tummy, looked out my window, and watched my first sunrise break over the wheat field behind our rented house. I was hooked – on reading. . . and sunrises.
My next reading conquest was tackling the 3.5” thick, “The World’s Best Fairy Tales,” comprised of all the original stories by Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, and more, such as The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, The Princess & The Pea, and other dark tales. It’s a collection of 70 fairy tales that still sits on my office bookshelf. Of course, I opted to not read it all at once. These tales definitely were never really meant for children, but I devoured it, nonetheless.
As far as my career, other than a couple years as a reporter and in public relations, it’s true that I’ve never had a role focused solely on content. However, without the skills and knowledge that come from a formal education in journalism, I wouldn’t have as much success as a marketer. Since more content projects is one of my goals for new clientele, I decided to document my journey from journalist to digital marketer to illustrate not just my skills, but also my experience, resourcefulness, and how I arrived at digital marketing. There’s no other place to start but the beginning.
Early Unexpected Success
The first time I received a compliment on my writing was all the way (way) back in the 5th grade. Our assignment was to write an essay on a topic – a topic I can’t recall. But like an obedient average 5th grader, I completed the hand-written assignment and turned it in without much thought.
Each classroom at my elementary school, called Marvin Elementary, had a kiva where an entire class could gather to sit together. ‘Kiva’ is a Hopi word used to refer to specialized round or rectangular rooms found in modern Pueblos that are an important Southwestern architectural form. Modern kivas are used by ceremonial associations, and archeologists assume that ancient kivas served similar functions. Ours had three or four step-down “levels,” and could hold at least 30 – 40 kids. I always liked to sit at the very bottom, right in the middle.
We gathered in the kiva one afternoon to talk about the writing assignments we turned in a few days earlier. The teacher began by gently breaking the news that the quality of work was less than expected, but one essay stood out. As an average student never called out nor called upon, I would not have imagined, not even in a million years, that it would be my paper that stood out. Not only did she compliment sentence structure, punctuation, and composition, she also used it as an example of how to format essays, from penmanship to formatting (I skipped lines).
“This is how I want you to complete essay assignments,” she said. (Me: [blank stare] [does not compute] [gasp!] [what do I do?] [GASP!!] [NO!TheyWillAllThinkI’mATeacher’sPet!]) Accusations of being the teacher’s pet was a fate worse than the dentist. But when she smiled at me, I smiled back in that “aw shucks,” 5th-grader kind of way. Then she read my essay to the whole class. I wore my Teacher’s Pet label proudly.
Unanticipated Success yields a Defining Moment
It wasn’t until the end of my high school Freshman year that success caught me off guard again. This time, it was a UIL essay writing contest. The irony is, I didn’t sign up to participate – my teacher chose me to participate in this event, then told me I was going. Um, ok. [shrug]
Since the contest involved receiving the topic during the test itself, there was really no way to prepare. It was probably the first and only “test” in my entire life that I went into not worried or sweating, because I didn’t really care. Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t care, I would do my best regardless – but I wasn’t worked up about it as if my whole future was at stake.
The contest was held on a Saturday in Dallas. For me, it was mostly a sit-and-social fest because I only had the one event. Other students had multiple events – but, not me. I had one. Just one. I remember the room, I remember the desk, I remember the chalk board, and I remember the building in which the UIL event was held. But I don’t remember anything about the essay itself, other than the requirement being a persuasive argument for or against something.
UIL contests are always held in the Spring, and I recall that results came in just a few days before the end-of-school awards ceremony date – something else with which I never concerned myself, frankly. I just wanted to do my work and get good grades so I could be accepted at a university. And that’s what I did. I had no desire to “compete” with anyone, and wasn’t bothered by someone getting a better grade on an assignment. I just always did the best I could, really only competing with myself.
Sitting in class one afternoon the final week my Freshman year, my English teacher announced she had received the UIL contest results. It still didn’t register, not really; in fact, I had forgotten all about it. She stood in the front of the class and enlisted everyone’s attention to share the results. I looked up, and she was looking right at me. Then she said, “I have some exciting news: we have a UIL division winner in our class. Congratulations to Leslie Conder for securing first place in her essay writing division!”
Wait. . . what? Seriously? I’ll be darned. Unbeknownst to me, it was kind of a big deal and I had no clue. I seem to recall (at that time, I don’t know about now) it came with a small grant to apply toward college tuition. Then she said, “You’ll be recognized and receive your certificate at the Awards Ceremony on [whatever day it was].” The awards ceremony. On [whatever day it was]. In front of the whole school. [!!!] I had not had attention shined on me like that since the 5th grade.
As for the rest of my high school career, I have no memory of how well I did on other school papers specifically. However, I did graduate with Honors my senior year with an A in my advanced, borderline “gifted & talented” English class most seniors were terrified to attempt. It was the “most challenging class on campus,” with the exception of calculus, trigonometry, and physics. And if you ask me, I would throw chemistry in there, although in hind sight we just had a seriously crappy teacher.
The unexpected win my Freshman year brought awareness to the fact that I have a talent. A genuine talent. Therefore, the UIL experience represented one of the most defining moments in my life, a moment that provided me with a purpose – something to strive for, and something to develop in myself.
The Journey to My Bachelor’s Degree
When it was time to decide on a major/minor for my degree, I immediately knew it would be journalism. I added the Public Relations emphasis because I knew it would provide more options than just being a nosy reporter. I wanted to get to my major courses sooner rather than later at Stephen F. Austin State University, so I took two basic courses at a junior college the summer before my high school senior year and the summer after. Therefore, I was able to graduate cum laud with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from SFA in 3 ½ years, in addition to serving as associate editor, then editor, of the University’s newspaper.
Working at the paper gave me the love of page layout and design, as I had to self-teach programs such as QuarkXPress on an Apple computer. This was back when you had to create the pre-print mockup from which they would create the negative to print the paper. Old school. The days of photo-sizing wheels, cut and paste, and “blueline” print proofs. I still have the negative of my very first front page as the editor.
As graduation neared, I applied like mad to different newspapers all over Texas. This was old school application style – the “innerwebs” wasn’t anywhere near what it is today.
This antiquated procedure begins with combing classified ads, then:
- Write and print cover letter
- Print resume
- Make portfolio copies
- Place in a letter-sized doo-doo yellow 8 ½ x 11 envelope with a piece of cardboard
- Address it
- Put a stamp on it
- Drive it to the post office
Wait three days, then:
- Make sure your answering machine tape isn’t full
- Place follow-up phone calls to make sure [contact] received the packet
- Call and leave a message for [contact]
- Wait for return calls
- Check the answering machine again, even if you haven’t left
- Try to contemplate the possibility of moving back home
I did receive callbacks and went on several interviews in various cities across Texas. Every newsroom was the same: awash in messy gray metal desks with black multi-line phones, gargantuan monotone screen monitors, and dot-matrix printers under a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke. Don’t forget the black ashtray where a burned-down-to-the-filter cigarette is still smoking behind an inch or two of ash.
My First Job – Reporter at the Waco Tribune Herald
I had a job waiting for me when I graduated, and I would start “real adulting” as a nosy reporter at none other than the Waco Tribune Herald. At the time, only a couple of years had passed since the infamous Branch Dividian siege. In fact, a couple of reporters who broke the story – and took shelter from gunfire in the ditch – were still there. These reporters behaved as if they were local “heroes,” and therefore treated me like a plebe. But the minor details on how they were crying for their Moms in that ditch weren’t released, but were shared with me on the down-low by another senior reporter. Knowing that much, at least, made them not as scary, but it didn’t make either one less of an arrogant douche-bag.
As the plebe beat reporter, I was assigned stories having to do with community/human interest, religion, and military. In a vast sea of useless information sent to news rooms, every day I was determined to uncover an actual story in the chaff. For instance, I was the one who broke the story about prisons banning smoking inside the cells or buildings. I also uncovered a gem in the military press releases, where nuclear ice breakers from Russia (!) and the U.S. wound up in the same vicinity at the same time in the North Pole. I found a source, a female sailor who was actually on the ship who shared the details. As it turns out, they had a friendly meeting; several of the sailors from both ships disembarked onto the ice for a meet & greet, where the Russian sailors shared Russian vodka (not kidding) with the Americans.
Shortly thereafter, the city editor tried to stump me by assigning me a weather story. Apparently that’s a sure-fire way to announce to the entire circulation that you’re “the new reporter” – who always get assigned the lame weather story when the layout is short on copy. Well, I wasn’t about to write a lame story, determined to write a real weather news story with sustenance. One thing I knew that February in Central Texas was the weather was in the 80s – in fact, it was so warm that people were swimming in the lake. What’s up with that? I set out to learn why.
Who do you call when you have a question about the weather? Well, you call a meteorologist, of course. I obtained the contact information for a handful of local television station meteorologists, and interviewed the first one to return my call. What I uncovered was one of the first stories explaining the phenomena of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns. It was years before I heard these weather patterns mentioned frequently on the news.
A few months later, I was offered a design and content job at the small public and government relations firm at which I had been an intern. I primarily did design and layout for print, as well as wrote a lot of content and print-ready layout for at least 10 monthly newsletters for businesses throughout East Texas. I still have some of my old portfolio pieces, and in fact tried to land a “desktop design” job when we moved to Dallas – but Dallas was more advanced in terms of the Internet, and most design roles had already moved to digital by then.
Enter the Internet
I did, however, land a job as an account executive at a start-up digital agency called iMC2 (Internet Marketing & Creative Concepts), managing website design/development, display ads, and SEO projects. It was here that I “cut my teeth” on Internet and digital marketing, which ultimately led to joining Travelocity.com in late 1998 as a “traffic-building manager.” I essentially owned everything at the top of the funnel, the digital ad campaigns (pre-PPC – I remember meeting with Google in their infancy), SEO, the consumer email newsletter, and partner promotions.
Since those early beginnings, I have held a variety of roles that have afforded me to continue expanding my skills and experience in digital marketing. I deliberately pursued roles that presented opportunities to learn a new skill, usually the latest marketing trend to gain momentum – whether it was online or offline. Eventually I obtained hands-on experience in almost every tenet of both digital and traditional marketing and advertising. But one component of my skillset has remained constant throughout my 20+ year career, one skill I use that spans across the entire spectrum of marketing: the ability to conceptualize, write, and edit content, almost any type of content. And I love it.
Isn’t loving what you do for a living half the battle? I would be honored to help you with your content. You may review some pieces in my Portfolio on my Website, as well as before and after editing examples (I think I’m a great editor). Contact me to discuss your next writing project.