Carolyn Daughters is one of my favorite people in Denver, and it's a multi-bonus as her friend that she loves good coffee, knows English grammar better than Strunk & White, and can help even the saddest piece of writing (be it lowly email or ragged novel draft) find its heart and speak to the world with clarity and conviction.
Despite our toddler choosing this particular day to channel her inner wildebeest in the comfort of Carolyn's home, we were still able to talk with Carolyn for a few moments about coffee, Colorado, and the interlinked crafts of writing and marketing strategy.
How did you become a Coloradan?
Back in 2002, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and my good friend Laurie lived in Colorado. I’d visit her often. One of my favorite things to do was climb mountains. Growing up, we weren’t a hiking family, and I was in my 20’s the first time I went on a real hike. On my visits to Colorado, Laurie and I hiked long and hard and earned our 360 degree views. At the top, I felt so small. It was humbling and aspirational. I saw Colorado as this amazing place where people greeted each other and waved as they passed. People left work at 5. Back in DC, we’d work until 8 or 9 and order in dinner. We worked weekends. Colorado was a culture shock. It felt different, laid back and relaxed. I felt freer and lighter here. So I moved here.
HOw did you become a writer/editor/marketing strategist/teacher?
Back in the 90’s, I worked at the Pentagon as an editor and writing instructor. It was my first job out of college. Later, I did proposal work, marketing, and PR for another company, then led a team of tech writers at INRI (Northrop Grumman) and a large team of writers at Lexis-Nexis. I also spent 4 years in grad school at the University of Virginia. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked full-time as a freelance writer, marketing strategist, book editor, and writing instructor. These experiences have enabled me to jump into most any kind of writing work.
These days I do a lot of small business marketing and brand strategy, corporate writing instruction, and fiction and nonfiction book editing. Many traditional writing courses focus on grammar and punctuation, but I focus on the art of argumentation. I mean, what’s the use of knowing how to use a comma if you can’t structure your thoughts in a compelling way? (Of course, once you’ve built a strong argument, you should figure out how to use that comma …)
I have two key communication rules. First, almost everything we write is intended for an audience. Emails, reports, blog posts, website content, novels, ... We’re almost always writing for others, so it makes sense to take their needs into account. Second, you don’t have to write a “winning” argument for that argument to be effective. Instead of going to war with readers, engage in a dialogue. Sometimes it’s enough to get someone to see your point of view or think about something in a different way.
WHAT KIND OF PROJECTS DO YOU TYPICALLY WORK ON?
Lately, I’ve been leading a lot of corporate marketing and branding workshops and writing workshops in Colorado and around the country.
Companies with unclear messaging often need foundational structure and support.
The workshops I lead help clients focus their message and get the entire team on the same page. From there, I create a marketing strategy for my clients to help them communicate with their target audience and grow their business. That strategy identifies their value, key differentiators, and competitive advantage. I basically help them increase awareness about their business and convert prospects into customers.
SHARE THE MOST INTERESTING STORY FROM YOUR LINE OF WORK.
One of the most rewarding things I do is help companies solidify their identity and communicate their value to their target audience as effectively as possible. I recently led a two-day marketing/branding workshop for a client, and at first the 12 team members in attendance couldn’t understand how the workshop could last more than 1-2 hours! However, during our two days together the team shared their ideas and passions, and together we built a marketing strategy that the entire team stands behind.
The teams I work with always have a lot to share, and it’s my job to guide their conversations and capture ideas and insights that help to shape the company’s direction. Brand sessions sometimes feel like therapy sessions for the attendees. Most attendees leave inspired with a renewed focus on contributing to the success of the business.
WHAT RECOMMENDATIONS DO YOU HAVE TO SOMEONE LOOKING TO BECOME A WRITER/EDITOR?
I never planned to be writer. I never took AP English in HS. I was a political science major in college until a professor suggested I become an English double major. I write well because I’ve always read voraciously. And because for more than half of my life I’ve spent most hours of most days writing.
My teachers in school and professors in college always marked up my papers and pointed out areas for improvement. And I paid attention. My mentor at the Pentagon, John Beasley, took me under his wing. He pushed me to excel, constantly challenged my writing and editing decisions, and didn’t give praise lightly. What I’ve learned is that if someone smarter than you gives you advice – take it!
If you want to become a writer/editor, then spend your waking hours reading and writing. And revise, revise, revise. Write the ugly first draft and then give it shape and form. Make it beautiful. When I was teaching at the University of Virginia and CU Boulder, I required my students to revise every paper at least three times. When I edit fiction and nonfiction books, I mark up the pages and comment extensively, all with the goal of helping authors tell the best story possible. Smart, ambitious people can become excellent writers and editors – but their work ethic has to be spot on. They have to want it.
WHAT BOOKS DO YOU RECOMMEND?
I love Strunk and White from a “how to write” perspective. From a fiction writer’s perspective, I love The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I believe it’s important to understand what good stories look like and how they’re told.
In my free time, I read 19th-century British novels, books by Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Dickens. I love the Modernists and Ezra Pound’s maxim, “Make It New!” I love colonial literature and fin de siècle novels that feature the New Woman. I also love good mysteries – Elizabeth George, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle. I guess you might say I love books.
What are your coffee rites?
I start every day with coffee. I wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for the past 20-plus years without coffee. For me, it’s an early-morning pleasure. My boyfriend makes it for me about half the time, which is a bonus. I like a medium to full-bodied blend made with the espresso machine or French press. I’m loving the Woodsong Sumatra I’m drinking right now.
If you could have coffee with anyone, who would it be?
Barack and Michelle Obama. It’s a nostalgic thing, I’m sure. We would sit on my tiny balcony in RiNo (River North Art District, Denver) and sip our Woodsong Sumatra and take in the scene. We would look at the gentrification and the exodus of artists and people of color and the slapdash buildings seemingly constructed overnight, and we’d do more than just commiserate. We’d build an ambitious, forward-thinking strategy and then turn strategy into action.
Barack and Michelle are idea people. More than that, they give a damn and get things done. They aren’t perfect, and they have flaws like everyone else. But I believe they represented and continue to represent the sort of hope that we need. That I need. There on my balcony, we would sip our coffee, and they would show the way.
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