This will be the last writer profile derived from the interviews of Slippery Rock graduates I did from December, 2008 to February, 2009. When I began this blog I hoped readers would chip in by relating writing experiences of their own. That has happened in the comments to some extent, but not as much as I would like. We have linked to blogs by our graduates that do discuss their writing. I live in hope that folks will alert me to more of those, and that we can actually run a few postings by writers who are “going public,” or who do a lot of work-related writing. In the meantime, enjoy this last profile.
The subject is not employed but is a single mother currently working towards a Masters degree in English. Consequently, her samples of persuasive and/or public writing include letters to school district officials, the editor of the local paper (two published and two not sent), a course assignment, and a letter to a family member following a death. The letters to the editor address local issues concerning child care and the treatment of females. “I never wrote letters to anybody before I started school. [She completed her degree in 2007, after first starting at a two-year college during the 1980s.] Because I was quiet and I would just fume a little bit. Because I never thought that people would respond or care. And then when I got in school I began to see that people write to each other all the time, or call each other about different things, and they do actually respond; they might not agree. And a lot of people do care. So that’s when I really started writing. … Once I started school and I had to write, write papers, and write a lot of things, then I knew how to do it, I knew what words to use, how to phrase things. How to get a point across with … subtly even.”
The letters to school district officials primarily involve her youngest son with chronic asthma, who has therefore been considered truant on occasion, and who has had some difficulty with bullies. In these letters, the subject described trying to establish “a business kind of tone.” “If I’m writing to anybody in the school district, I’m more formal. So I avoid contractions, my sentences will be longer, I’ll use vocabulary … to impress upon them that I’m just not a stupid person, that I get what’s going on.” She called attention to examples of a methodical presentation of the issues, and the use of words like “pediatrician” and “environmental allergies.” “I will reread this and edit it until I am extremely satisfied with every single word. And I’ll change words if I don’t think it expresses exactly what I mean.” The emphasis in the letters to the editor was similar but not quite the same: to tamp down the emotion, to emphasize logical argument, but also to avoid clichés. In contrast, her letter to an aunt whose mother had just died contained a direct emotional appeal, with shorter sentences. “This sentence: ‘When I think of your mom, I think of the words sweet and silly.’ So I’m more, it’s more, very informal but that is a playful sentence.”
The subject’s process involved both composing and revising at the computer, using Word as her sole piece of software. She had abandoned writing in longhand because “when I’m typing and my thoughts are going fast I can type pretty fast, but when I’m writing and then my hand cramps, from writing so much. Then I get irritated if I have to go back on the paper from writing and scratch things out and put an arrow, put a carat, a code word, that frustrates me.” When revising she is deliberate, sometimes leaving the computer “for a while and might come back to it a day later because I’ve thought of something else, or I want to change something. … When I do the letters to the editor that might take me a week.” The subject credited her professor in the Writing About Literature course for making her methodical when revising. “I thought I was an okay writer as an undergrad at BC3 [Butler County Community College], and when I wrote my papers, I think I got As on all of them. But when I came here, you know how he does his thing, … you get it back and he gives you a grade that he would have given you, I didn’t even make a C. So I really had to start thinking, just not putting things down. … I had to think of what to write first, and second, and third, and it had to be right. It couldn’t just be off the top of my head.” She also discussed mastering syntax and usage through experiences in a variety of courses. For recommendations, she suggested more use of models, both of stronger and weaker writing.
She is still using and refining her research techniques for academic papers, but characterized her letters to the editor and to school officials as “sort of reaction to either another letter to the editor or a letter I got in the mail or an event that happened, so I don’t ever require research.” Sometimes she would refer to the district’s student handbook or to the newspaper itself, which she reads “from front to back.” In the letter to the editor about restoring the pediatric unit of a local hospital she also drew upon her experience working in the hospital’s cardiology unit for seven years. As an undergraduate she learned to use the library’s databases and to evaluate web-sites. Since she became a graduate student she has learned to quiz the reference librarian, to use inter-library loan, and to organize research by asking a question and identifying the thread she wants to pull out of numerous articles.