Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘english’

After a Brief Hiatus

I’ve entered that part of the semester when everything comes crashing down or hits the fan, depending on the colloquialism you prefer. As this semester is my last at TCU, I’m finishing up a 120-page honors thesis that combines research and creative memoir narrative, and on top of that, I have a whole host of projects, papers, and assignments for my other courses. I’ve pretty much been treading water for the past couple weeks, and despite skimming through my PW Daily e-mails every morning, I haven’t really seen any articles or news that has piqued my interest enough to write an entire post on the topic. Plus, I’ve been avoiding the news to an extent lately, because I just can’t take anymore election coverage. My political views aside, I just can’t take anymore analysis of sound bites and nitpicking over semantics or yet another poll.

Instead, today I’m going to talk a little bit about careers with a BA of Writing or any liberal arts degree. I’ve heard over and over, “So what are you going to do with that?” when I mention that my major is Writing. There’s an underlying, snide tone, too, with the subtle hint of, “What an impractical major. Good luck finding a job once you get your degree.” When I started at TCU, I was an art history major. I planned on going to graduate school and eventually becoming a curator or opening my own gallery; I thought this path was practical. After my confusing, inexperienced professor’s confusing teaching led me to change my major to Writing, my then-boyfriend criticized my decision, claiming that I’d never go anywhere with writing, despite writing being my lifelong love and passion. His discouragement and negativity about my major was one of the reasons I left him not much later. And even though the general attitude about liberal arts majors is negative, I refuse to believe that majoring in the liberal arts dooms someone to a life of underemployment or unemployment.

Here’s the thing. I work as a writing associate at the second most selective university in Texas (I’m not bragging here, just pointing out that you have to have a fairly strong application to get in), and I read papers from undergraduate students across the curriculum, from nursing to business to communications to psychology to art history. After a couple semesters and input from my colleagues and professors, I can make a strong claim that a minority of students at TCU can actually write effectively, coherently, and persuasively. The skill of writing well is becoming rarer and rarer on college campuses. Although I do not have a strong theory as to why, the staff at the TCU writing center guesses that about twenty to forty percent of the students at TCU can write well. Let me be clear: I by no means intend to insult the students at TCU, who are on the whole bright, engaged, motivated students who excel in their chosen fields, just not in writing. I hear so often, “I’m so bad at writing; I just can’t do it,” when really the best way to get better at writing is to write. A lot. But how to improve your writing is besides the point.

This paucity of writing skill opens a lot of doors in the career world. Businesses need strong writers who can write technical documents such as white papers or press briefings or even instruction manuals, who can lay out and write a business or marketing plan, who can even write a simple business letter. People have trouble expressing themselves and articulating through the written word; those who have this skill are a commodity. Ada Limon, a poet who spoke at TCU, said she got her foot in the door when she was an assistant and her boss needed her to write a business letter because he couldn’t. Her performance on the letter helped her move up the ladder. So people who major in writing or English aren’t walking into the career world without any marketable skills; indeed, they possess an ability lacking in many college graduates–the ability to write and write well.

I have several career options open to me: trying to break into the publishing industry as a copyeditor or editorial assistant, copywriting or writing promotional materials, editing or writing for a business or firm, and so on. I know how to use language effectively and how to communicate via the written word. I’ve had practice in copyediting, workshopping creatively, tutoring students both online and in person, and managing acquisitions material. That’s a lot of different ways to evaluate writing and to generate content. I try to remain optimistic about my prospects despite the pessimistic reports about the growth of the economy. Somewhere out there is a place who needs my skills. I hope.

So far all you liberal arts majors out there, ignore the naysayers who claim your liberal arts degree is about as useful as a bent spoon. Being able to think critically, analyze and synthesis large amount of information, and write clearly are marketable skills that are absent in much of the business world. And anyway, unless you’re planning to go into academia or an advanced field, a graduate degree is pretty unnecessary, and a liberal arts degree is pretty much one size fits all when applying for a job. Market your writing skills, your thinking abilities, and your range of communication skills.

The value of a liberal arts degree is far more than knowing more than the average person about psychology, philosophy, or anthropology. Many CEOs were not business majors; they were liberal arts majors. Having a degree in business is great, but a liberal arts degree teaches you how to look at the world in a different way. This unique perspective gives a leg up on problem solving and looking at a situation in an original way. I’m currently working on a marketing project about a product we invent as a brand extension, and I’ve found that my training in writing has helped me to think creatively, write snappy and grabbing copy for advertising, and brainstorm. I would posit that problem-solving skills aren’t just in writing majors’ pockets; the whole liberal arts field provides opportunities to hone these abilities.

Hopefully next week I’ll be back with a post about publishing, but I wanted to make a case for the English and Writing majors out there who are looking at graduating within the next year and are planning to enter the job market. Having a liberal arts degree is not a one-way ticket to a life waiting tables, far from it. That degree is a weapon for penetrating the inscrutable, confusing career world with insight and acuity.

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How to Boil Water

I never took the freshman and sophomore comp courses at TCU; I tested out from AP testing (thank God). I got to skip out on the repetition of how to write an essay, how to analyze a source, how to do research and cite sources, how to write about literature. But I have read the course outcomes for freshman and sophomore comp. Because TCU’s accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), requires these course outcomes, these lower-division courses have the following outcomes listed:

ENGL 10803 Introductory Composition: Writing As Inquiry

1. Students will demonstrate the ability to write in a range of genres, using appropriate rhetorical conventions.

2. Students will demonstrate competency in reading, quoting, and citing sources as well as competency in balancing their own voices with secondary sources.

3. Students will demonstrate the ability to employ flexible strategies for generating and revising their writing.

ENGL 20803 Intermediate Composition: Writing As Argument

1. Students will demonstrate facility with the language and analysis of argument.

2. Students will demonstrate the ability to write an argument for a specific rhetorical situation.

3. Students will demonstrate competency in using sources (primary, secondary, digital) in argument construction.

4. Students will demonstrate the ability to use computers effectively as a communication mechanism.

In my cyberliteracy course, my professor asked us to rewrite these course outcomes to reflect relevant and useful skills in writing and composition. These courses often focus on a narrow set of writing skills, particularly geared toward academic writing that has little application outside the university setting. My group and I discussed some of the issues with these course outcomes as they do not prepare students for what the writing world is like beyond the college campus. We argued that the first course’s three outcomes could be shortened simply to, “Learn to write in an effective and appropriate manner with clarity and precision.” Instead of focusing so much on the academic composition side, introduce students to publications online through blogging and social networking. So much of getting a job these days, in publishing or otherwise, depends on your online presence and proving that you know how to express yourself. Many entry-level positions involve maintaining social media for the company, and being able to compose anything from a tweet to a blog post is essential. Also, these classes do not teach essential digital skills such as effectively using a search engine or using online databases such as JSTOR or Academic Search Complete. We are leaving students illiterate in the world of Google and Wikipedia. We thought that if students want to continue in academia after undergrad, there should be a separate course for academic writing and instead have the intro comp classes focus on more utilitarian forms of writing such as technical writing, magazine writing, newspaper writing, business writing, etc. Students should walk out of a freshman comp class and understand how to write for a variety of positions and workplace demands–even composing a memo or writing a brief business letter.

The sophomore comp class should continue with how to develop an online presence through social networking (LinkedIn, e.g.) and continuing to find online publication avenues. Rather than focusing on a competency in using sources, focus instead of the ability to analyze sources for their accuracy, reliability, and meaning. I come across so many writers in my job at a writing center who cannot analyze a source for its meaning and implications. They can summarize a source but not take it a step further and say what they can infer from reading a document. Also, students should learn more difficult software such as InDesign. So many jobs expect students to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite–particularly Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and InDesign. Composition should involve some visual rhetoric as well–showing students how to build an effective website, how to edit an effective photo, how to create an effective ad or page. These are all useful skills. Of course we should never drop the ability to effectively express oneself and have a practical use of grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling, but the intense focus on the academic essay is not helpful to students who want to go out into the “real world.”

Also, this type of formal writing does not prepare students for the times they will need to write personally. Personal writing and creative nonfiction are some of the most difficult genres to master. Being able to write about onself, especially in a concise and clear manner, is a difficult task, one professional writers struggle with. Expecting students to walk into college knowing how to write a good personal essay (even when admissions expects a good personal essay in five hundred words or less–ask a professional writer to do that and they might throw something at you)  is unrealistic–a good amount of maturity and deft handling of English is required. Instead of forbidding students to use “I” in essays or address the reader as “you” or to use contractions, teach students the importance of communicating, getting your message across, because the point of writing is to communicate, to spread information, to tell someone something you want them to understand. Rather than leaving students in the dark on the real applications of publication and writing, give them the tools to walk out of college and enter the real world.

This lack of real world preparation is a controversy in universities. Some people see the university system as overly indulgent and too focused on the curricula of esoteric learning removed from real life. Others argue that the university system is designed to teach the ability to think critically and not a technical school for vocation preparation. The whole point of the university, some argue, is to learn for the sake of acquiring knowledge, not to get a job after graduation. But students expect a bachelor’s degree to be the key to a job after school (at least they used to). Not teaching students tools to be effective in the workplace leaves them at a disadvantage, especially when they are competing with more experienced and skilled workers already out of school. We can still teach writing, composition, and rhetoric while supplying skills necessary for “real life.” These skills are as basic as boiling water–universities that don’t teach students how to express themselves and publish online are leaving students in the dark about how to create an online presence, find jobs, and showcase their skills.

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