Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Writing Ain’t What It Used to Be

These are exciting times for writers and writing teachers—that is, if you’re open to change. Remarkably, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has published a report urging writing instructors to develop new strategies in harmony with web-based technologies. The NCTE, a leading authority on effective communication, traditionally has served as the guardian of the “five-paragraph essay”; however, its recent publication, Writing in the 21st Century, concludes with a clarion call to create new models of writing and to design curricula and teaching strategies that address those models.

Adding to the credibility of the study is the status of its author, Kathleen Blake Yancey, who is a past president of the NCTE and a distinguished professor English and Director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University. Yancey is a renowned speaker on composition theory, an award-winning author or 12 books and 65 articles and book chapters on writing, and the co-founder and co-editor of the journal Assessing Writing.

Writing in the 21st Century traces the history of writing and writing instruction in America, beginning with a description of how science and progressivism influenced rhetorical theory. By the end of the twentieth century, the greatest movers of writing instruction were the introduction of the writing process and the personal computer in the classroom. Thus ended what Yancey calls the “Age of Composition.”

Today, digital technologies, assembled under the term “Web 2.0,” have created the next great wave. Web 2.0, whose definition remains arguable, refers to the pervasiveness of websites like Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, which have inarguably and irrevocably altered communication in at least four vital ways:
  • Everyone is an author. To count the number of blogs, or online journals, in the world is to state an instantly outdated statistic. At least 113 million blogs have popped up in a matter of a few years, and that number increases with every word you read in this article. Blogs on any topic are available: world leaders broadcasting weekly messages to constituents, couples proclaiming their love for each other, self-appointed consumer experts pushing for more synthetic fabrics, wannabe health authorities countering the best advice of the medical establishment, bikers relating adventures from their most recent cross-country trip, terrorists exhorting comrades to arms, parent groups extolling the virtues of homeschooling, elementary school children ranting about their teachers, and aimless writers advancing pointless arguments. Indeed, Web 2.0 has given the world an attitude that screams “I don’t need anyone’s approval to write the way I see fit.” In turn, this attitude has fashioned new approaches to written expression.
  • Everyone can evaluate. Anyone can stake a claim to immortality by adding a review of a book or CD on Amazon.com, praising or condemning a teacher on RateMyTeacher.com, rebutting postings on any of these websites, or posting their poetry on a number of amateur literary websites. Limited controls at these electronic community bulletin boards ensure that anyone can assert their anonymous opinions about anything they like or don’t. These assessments seem to matter even more than the A’s or F’s that teachers bestow on student papers.
  • Information is easily accessible. A natural extension of the billion-writer planet is the abundance of information on any imaginable topic. Faster than I can type “cut and paste,” students can cut and paste relevant content for their essays. This practice renders obsolete the instructional materials and assessment tools of even the most proactive teachers.
  • Words are not enough. Videos, PowerPoint decks, photos, animation, icons, hyperlinks, and a whole host of other visually stimulating gimmicks accompany most web-based writing. People now tend to read in smaller chunks, clicking on links that depart from the original story they’d been reading. On the surface, this exercise may appear to be the ultimate manifestation of the Attention Deficit Disorder Age. Upon closer examination, however, one would find that readers are not always looking for transitions in stories—by clicking on those hyperlinks, they’re creating their own transitions.

Anyone challenging the assumption that reading habits have changed as a result of Web 2.0 had better take note of the bad news hitting the newspaper industry: The Denver Rocky Mountain News closed, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has stopped printing only to maintain a scaled-down web presence, the Tucson Citizen may soon fold, and many others are facing their demise. People don’t need it on paper if they’ve can get it on the BlackBerry.

How will Web 2.0 affect writing instruction? Who knows for sure, since we’re still trying to define what it means to write these days. But one thing is for sure: the word and the image have become inextricably linked, so we communicators have to deal with this new reality.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Training Remains a Hot Topic

Despite the adage, “In a recession, the first thing to bite the dust is training,” how interesting that training remains a hot topic these days. Businesses seem to be seeking more support for their shrinking ranks to ensure that the best among them get even better. In fact, even individuals are seeking coaches out of their own pocket in a broad range of disciplines. Evidently, these proactive folks believe that they have to be ready for any opportunity that might pop up in these unstable days—and my experience over these past few months have shown that they are popping up all the time and all over the place. Therefore, one must always be “in training,” even outside the training room.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“Lessons Learned” by Harry J. Martin, December 14, 2008) draws the same conclusion. The author, an associate professor of management and labor relations at Cleveland State University, mentions some excellent pointers for employees to keep on top of their game, including:
  • Logging what they have learned and turning into a concrete action plan
  • Seeking help from their peers and managers in tracking and developing their skills
  • Accessing experts in the specific skills they aim to improve.
For sure, companies have to make training real for their staff by conducting post-training assessments and monitoring their skill development. Once the educational opportunity is sought by the employee, supported by the manager, and evaluated by the company, training becomes a winning proposition.

Thanks to Peter Aviles of New York City Transit for bringing the article to my attention.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Message with a Semblance of a Sentence

Four long years ago, The New York Times published “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence” an article by Sam Dillon describing the sad state of affairs in business writing. To prove the point, Dillon relies on the now well-known study by the National Commission on Writing, which asserts that a third of employees in major US corporations write poorly and that businesses were investing as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training. The article cites numerous examples of disjointed phrases, misspellings, improper punctuation, and absent capitalization to support the claim of business executives and writing professors that e-mail has become the main culprit of the downfall of clear, concise, and correct writing.

Not much has changed since December 2004 to improve business writing skills; in fact, even more pressure has come into the workplace to deter staff from writing with a professional polish. Consider text messaging!

Well, we writing teachers might not win every battle, but we keep trying to win a linguistic skirmish here or there as when we can. Here are two tips as a start:
  1. Treat everything you write at work as if it might be read by your chief executive.
  2. Respect your chief executive’s need to receive clear, concise written messages.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New Half-Day Seminars Available

In these difficult economic times (aren’t you already sick of hearing that phrase?), the need for training has not diminished, but the availability of staff has. As a result, several of my clients are calling for half-day classes, programs which may impart a nugget or two of useful information that may help staff back at office.

This request has led me to offer three new half-day programs:
  • Writing in a Heartbeat, which offers tips on writing quickly on demand
  • Making Your E-mail Fly, a revised course that focuses on creating clear, concise e-mails
  • Briefing Briefly, a condensed mini-course on executive summary writing

Clients subscribing to these courses have said that they are right on the mark because they hit the few most important points to create gold standard messages under tight time constraints. If you think any of these programs might be useful to your staff, please reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com.