Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Writing Business

An English Ph.D. turned entrepreneur offers writing workshops to companies and nonprofit groups

By Susan Basalla May
Chronicle of Higher Education
March 11, 2009

Academic couples face stresses known to few other professionals. For both partners to find satisfying tenure-track positions in a place where both would like to live requires such ridiculously good fortune that one hardly dares to hope for it.

More often, the fickle academic-job market requires sacrifices, whether that means living far away from a partner or spouse, or accepting a short-term position instead of pursuing the tenure track. And even when one half of the couple works outside academe, it can still be difficult to negotiate a good compromise.

For David Lipscomb, an English Ph.D., the desire to live in the same city as his wife, Debra, a journalist, inspired him to take a leap into entrepreneurship. In graduate school at Columbia University, he had a part-time job teaching writing to business workers. That job unexpectedly provided both the experience and the contacts he needed to launch his own business, Rock Creek Writing. Today he runs workshops for professionals who do a significant amount of writing in their work, whether they are employed by FedEx or a foundation.

The work, Lipscomb says, is enormously flexible, intellectually satisfying, and, in a good way, not all that different from teaching undergraduates. For those struggling on the academic job market this year, Lipscomb's story offers a fresh perspective on the work-life challenges that all academics face.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

I was teaching high school in New York City when I enrolled as a part-time M.A. student at Columbia. At first, getting my M.A. was really about boosting my credentials as a high-school teacher a job I loved. I was, in that wonderfully fitting phrase, a "terminal master's" student. But graduate school made me fall in love with scholarship in a way I hadn't expected. A big part of that was working with Edward Said as my adviser and seeing up close how scholarship could be very much engaged in the world. It felt right to go on and get the Ph.D.

Question: What motivated you to start Rock Creek Writing?

I have to admit that the strongest motivator for starting my own business was that I wanted to live in the same city as my wife, Deb. After finishing my Ph.D., I had taken an appointment as a visiting assistant professor at Wake Forest University. It was a great job, but it was six hours by car from Washington, D.C., where Deb works as a journalist. And as hard as I tried, I couldn't get a tenure-track job in the D.C. area. In fact, the only tenure-track offer I got was in northern Wisconsin, and there was no way Deb was going there. I know that many academics choose to tough it out and live far away from their partners, and I applaud that kind of professional commitment. I just didn't want to live that way.

Also, I knew I had nonacademic options. When I was finishing up my dissertation, a communications company, Ketchum, sent an inquiry to the Columbia English department asking if anyone might be interested in teaching a business-writing course for Ketchum's junior staff. I had absolutely no experience teaching business writing, but my dissertation was pretty much done and I had a job offer from Wake Forest. So I had a window of time, and I was curious.

I discovered, to my surprise, that teaching "professionals" gave me many of same little joys that teaching high-school and college students had. And after the long, isolating hours writing the dissertation, and the seemingly endless job search, I found it refreshing and energizing to be helping people solve immediate, concrete problems. The professionals I taught that summer kept in touch with me while I was at Wake Forest and they became the basis of my network when I decided to start my own business.

So I jumped off the academic track, moved to D.C., and started running writing workshops for different companies and nonprofit groups. I still kept my foot in the academic door by adjuncting in the Georgetown English department, primarily teaching introductory courses. Then in the summer of 2005, I launched Rock Creek Writing.

Question: What, exactly, do you do for your clients?

For the most part, I design and teach writing programs for organizations whose success depends on the quality of their employees' writing. That means I'm usually working with people who were hired at least partially for their writing skills, whether at nonprofits like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, companies like FedEx (its corporate-communications department), or the public-affairs departments of government agencies. So the skill level in those groups is usually pretty high not really that different from the skill level in some of the classes I taught at Columbia, Wake Forest, and Georgetown.

The primary reason that organizations hire me is that they want to do a better job engaging online and mobile readers. One nonprofit organization, for example, recently hired me to teach its staff members how to make their online writing tighter and more scannable, and how to design Web pages that will prompt the kind of immediate responses that the Internet makes possible including donations and volunteering. I showed staff members the latest research on how people read online content, gave some basic principles, coached them as they applied those principles to their work, and then evaluated that work. It's exciting and rewarding, when it goes well.

Question: In what ways has your academic training been helpful in running your own business?

Well, one of the key things that differentiates Rock Creek Writing from the competition is that we gather the latest research on how people are reading today whether the research is from the cognitive sciences in peer-reviewed journals or from eye-tracking studies performed by the new breed of "usability" experts. My academic training helps me sift through material and make the most of it. Right now I'm planning to give more of a nod to that background by changing the company's name to Red Pen 21 taking that old red pen that you remember from school and updating it for the 21st century.

Also, I've spent enough hours teaching to know that students learn best if I give them the opportunity to apply new knowledge to whatever they bring with them into the classroom. So I try to design workshops that start with the participants' current work and introduce any new concepts in relation to that work. I don't spend a lot of time lecturing or showing PowerPoint slides. I structure the class so that participants must apply what I've taught them to their current work challenges and I devote a lot of time to giving feedback. For anything I do well in the classroom, I owe a lot to the people at Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.

Question: What lessons have you had to learn, or skills have you had to acquire, to be successful in your work?

The toughest skill to master for me has been marketing. We've been lucky that almost all of our business has come to us through word-of-mouth, so we haven't had to do a lot of marketing. That's likely to change with the recession.

Lately, the toughest challenge has been separating work life from family life. Part of that is by design, since I have two kids under the age of 4 and I've chosen to work from home. I have a separate office, but it takes a lot of discipline something I don't always have to stay focused on my business and not spend the whole day with Max and Ella.

Question: What advice would you give current graduate students who are considering starting their own businesses or working outside academe?

I guess the first thing I'd want them to know is that there are a lot of us who've made the leap and we're doing just fine. In fact, we're often helping one another out. The person who hired me at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had also been an adjunct at Georgetown before she made the leap into the nonprofit world. She's quite happy and professionally satisfied as well.

When I was in graduate school and when I was teaching at Wake Forest and then at Georgetown I often felt as if working outside academe was considered "selling out" or worse, "giving up." So it's been a wonderful surprise to get to know other Ph.D.'s who are using their knowledge and skills to do all sorts of meaningful, satisfying things beyond the ivory tower.

For those who are thinking about starting their own business, I suggest talking to people who are already running their own businesses in areas similar to what you'd be doing. And don't be shy. Take advantage of LinkedIn and other networking resources. People still make business decisions based on personal connections. Forster forgive me, but "only connect" isn't a bad motto for someone who wants to start a business.

Susan Basalla May is an author, with Maggie Debelius, of "So What Are You Going to Do With That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia, recently released in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press. (Full disclosure: Basalla May learned about David Lipscomb through Debelius, who has a full-time job at Georgetown University's Writing Center but works, on occasion, under contract for Lipscomb's company.) For an archive of previous Beyond the Ivory Tower columns, see