From turf equipment to alumni, Marshall uses AP Style to tell stories

Story by Linsey Armstrong, NewsNetNebraska

As a high-school student excelling in advanced-level English classes, Jessica Marshall did not expect an Honors Introduction to Writing course to be her first bad grade in college. This “reality check” left her in tears. Upset at a poor mark, Marshall felt especially down since she prided herself on being an excellent writer. Despite this roadblock, she persisted in enhancing one of her greatest strengths – writing.

Jessica Marshall currently serves as the director of written communications at the Nebraska Alumni Association. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Alumni Association.

Jessica Marshall began her college career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an Advertising and Public Relations major, with minors in Psychology and English. She knew from the start that PR was her calling. She continued to follow that path past graduation.

During school, she was purposeful in her course choices. Classes such as news writing and editing balanced her coursework and helped her build a strong writing foundation. She knew writing was a large foundation of public relations and wanted to best prepare herself for her future career. These courses offered her many exciting challenges, including interviewing attendees of the Nebraska State Fair. Marshall still laughs about the alpaca farmer she interviewed from Joplin, Missouri. This exercise challenged her to go beyond her comfort zone and connect with others different from herself. Writing courses, such as these, have aided her greatly in her career as a public relations professional. She became more aware of the writing process and needs of journalists as she pitched stories, products, and press releases.

After college, Marshall began her professional career as a Public Relations Writer at a local advertising agency, Swanson-Russell. A go-getter throughout college, her tenacity helped her land the position prior to graduation. During her four-year tenure, she took on more responsibilities and demonstrated her competence and creativity. A couple years later, she was promoted to a Public Relations Associate position. It was in this position she worked on what she deemed the “hallmark of journalism writing” – 100-200 word product descriptions. These small segments of copy needed to differentiate products in saturated markets. They also had to speak to the audiences of the publication. Thus, they proved to be a fruitful challenge for Marshall to continue developing her writing skills.

A unique feature of Swanson-Russell is its client base which is limited to certain industries. Coming into the position, she wasn’t an expert on outdoor equipment and landscaping, but these were her clients. She quickly realized the importance of knowing her subject matter. In order to be a better writer, Marshall took it upon herself to know the products and industry she promoted. It was this determination and attention to detail that allowed her to be promoted quickly in her career to a PR associate. In that position, she “pitched” presentations to clients and frequently researched relevant topics. Beyond writing and editing, she also assisted in managing accounts and setting timelines.

Though she no longer writes about turf equipment and engines, Marshall has found a new challenge in her current position. As the director of written communications at the Nebraska Alumni Association, Marshall is the voice of the organization. Before she was hired, the NAA did not have a consistent tone or style of writing. Marshall was instrumental in creating a brand identity and written style guide for the organization. This process required thorough reflection and brand development. The Nebraska Alumni Association’s style is cheerful and conversational. It uses contractions and

The Nebraska Alumni Association’s style is cheerful and conversational. It uses contractions and sprinkled in exclamation points in its writing. “If it’s brand-related, I keep things a little bit lighter and get to be friendly and approachable,” Marshall explains. From membership acquisition materials to a quarterly magazine, she oversees and writes hundreds of copy pieces every year. Her significant attention to detail continues to be beneficial in this project endeavor.

One of the greatest challenges in her role is not editing out a voice. Whether writing for a staff programmer or editing a freelance magazine article, Marshall is careful to maintain a writer’s voice. “I don’t like to edit out a voice, but I edit to make things more concise and readable. I think that also helps translate the same message from medium to medium,” says Marshall. Beyond editing the work of others, she constantly writes communication pieces and edits them herself.

One set of guidelines she holds close at her job is the AP Stylebook (she’s particularly fond of the online version, thanks to its quick search feature). Marshall greatly values the consistency the AP Stylebook provides to writers, across platforms. Editing is an important process for any writer, Marshall explains. “It really stinks to read bad things,” she laughs.

Her favorite AP Style rule? A guideline she learned in a college editing class, reminding writers to keep things simple. Why use “utilize” over the word “use?” Some criticize AP Style for “dumbing” things down. Marshall argues it actually makes writing easier to digest and read. She notes that always keeping the audience in mind is vital for making communication more meaningful.

As a piece of advice for young editors, Marshall has one tip: practice, read, and practice some more. She knows that only after familiarizing yourself with others’ writings – and knowing your own strengths – can you begin to be a successful writer. Her current role brings many exciting challenges. From writing in the voice of another staff member to adapting communication for various platforms, she exceeds expectations. Ever-changing technology and new organizational advancements keep Marshall on her toes, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.


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