Real Talk: Shannon Okey

“It doesn’t matter WHAT you know if you can’t express it to someone else.”

Ever wondered how your required college composition courses will benefit you once you’re in the “real world”? Ever wondered how important reading and writing skills are to visual designers, nurses, or creative directors at ad firms? I’ve started this series, Real Talk, to give professionals in a variety of industries a chance to share why reading and writing are so critical to what they do.

Today’s we’re profiling entrepreneur Shannon Okey, author of a suite of knitting books and the popular Knitggrl blog, whose publishing company, Cooperative Press, has now published over 60 books, and who founded independent craft showcase Cleveland Bazaar, northeast Ohio’s longest-running independent craft show, providing space for artisans and the community to come together for more than a decade. Aspiring entrepreneurs, take note!

Describe your career.

I have been a full time writer, editor and publisher since 2004, though I did writing work for a travel book series that was never published as far back as 1999. I started a blog about knitting around 2002 and, because knitting books were suddenly VERY popular as the result of one particular book that sold over a quarter of a million copies, suddenly every publisher imaginable wanted to publish knitting books. A friend of mine recommended me to her editor at a NYC publisher, and I walked away with a two-book deal. Over the next few years I went on to write a dozen books about knitting and fiber arts for various big publishers, then got hired to (remotely) edit a knitting magazine in England. After that, I decided to start my own knitting publishing company so I could retain more of the money each book made, and founded Cooperative Press. We’ve published about 60 books since then, and I’m now a board member for the Independent Book Publishers Association.

What kind of reading and writing do you do on an everyday basis?

So much reading and writing! SO MUCH. At the most basic level, I’m emailing with people from all over the world daily. I’m expected to produce content for our social media accounts, I write articles about publishing and knitting for various magazines, and I have to stay current on information in both fields — publishing and knitting. I read a lot of related books, both to increase my own level of knowledge and to see what the competition is doing.

What kinds of reading and writing skills are key to your job/your field?

Critical reading skills are very, very important. Understanding what people want from you in an email is not easy if their writing skills aren’t great. We get a lot of messages from people using our how-to books, for example, that demonstrate they have not read the directions thoroughly. They wouldn’t be having the problems they have if they took a little more time to read. And so I then have to work backward to figure out WHY they aren’t understanding the issue, and how I can write it in a different way so they will be able to understand. We emphasize clear communication in our books and in all our published material (even social media posts!) — what do we want the person reading this to know? Are we presenting the information appropriately? Could we do it better? This is another reason I also read so many related books, magazines and social media — how are they putting forth information? Could we adapt their methods to what we do?

Why are these skills important to being successful in your work?

You can’t be successful in a field that revolves around communicating information to other people if you aren’t willing to put time into making sure your writing and communication skills are the best they can be. I am always so happy when I get a question from a reader that shows they really did make an effort to understand something but we didn’t do a great job of communicating it. It helps to see things from their perspective sometimes so we can improve.

What advice do you have for students, particularly college students in first- and second-year writing courses?

Learn how to write clearly and concisely. We live in an age of digital communication and effective emails are one of the best tools you’ll have in your everyday working life. It doesn’t matter WHAT you know if you can’t express it to someone else. A really good exercise is to take something you know how to do really well (like cooking a certain recipe from scratch), and try to write down how to do it for someone else. Are they able to follow your directions? Do you include all the necessary information? You’ll encounter things like this again and again in your working life — say you need to take a few days off for an emergency and have to let your replacement know how to do a certain task at your job. Can you explain it so well they WON’T need to call you for clarification? You should make that your goal!


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