What follows is the last posting devoted to a political speechwriter in Pittsburgh who was also, not so long ago, one of our Creative Writing majors here at Slippery Rock. In this post she describes how she has applied her instruction from the English faculty to her ongoing activity as a political writer.
The subject didn’t recall much from her first stint in college about writing instruction; like speech writers for the FAA and President Carter I also interviewed she dialed back further to her “high school English classes,” where she “learned a tremendous amount … because those were sort of the formation of developing your own style of writing.” When she began doing political writing in Pittsburgh, before returning to Slippery Rock, she purchased “a copy of the world’s greatest speeches,” which she then proceeded to analyze for structure. Such study also increased her awareness of how technological developments have altered political speechwriting. The development of the railroad system, for instance, allowed politicians to give the same speech “at every whistle stop along the way,” while television meant “you only have to give it once and everybody’s going to hear it.” Modeling and the close analysis of those models was also a curricular approach recommended by a newspaper reporter in Kittanning I profiled several months ago. If the models are of writing of the kind the student wants to do, or is preparing to do professionally, then the motivation is there to perform the analyses well.
To her credit, when the subject returned to college she recognized that her writing courses could teach her techniques and processes that would help her political writing. When writing a brochure for her Technical and Scientific Writing course she realized that the repetition of words or phrases she matter-of-factly placed in speeches to help a listener follow and recall the main points could backfire in writing aimed at readers, who might be put off by the same approach. If you say the same thing three times, without varying the wording, “they think it’s a typo. The different groups that we’ve asked to preview pieces, you know, they’ll actually sort of circle it on there and say, you know, you forgot to omit this line. They think it’s a mistake, not a device.” In College Writing II and American Literature, she learned how to do something more than a Google search. “There will be a Google search that will tell me that Time magazine has an article about a certain topic from eight years ago, but nobody ever taught me how to go track down that magazine.”
Such practice was essential for students, the subject believed. “When I was in high school it was pretty common to go into the library and look up something on microfilm, and it’s not any more. I am positive if you told the students about fifty percent would say, ‘microfilm, what?’” The subject was also adamant about the value of writing for distinct audiences, thinking that stipulating such audiences in the “parameters” of assignments would be one way to combat students’ tendency to focus on the instructor as the only audience that mattered. A sense of audience was also important in raising student awareness of the value of correct usage. This rung true to me, as students can assume their instructor is just picky about such things, whereas it is necessary for students to see the connections between their usage and the overall persuasiveness of what they have written. Decontextualized exercises on “rules” won’t do it, we know, but the real-time reactions of diverse readers might.