uwaterloo

Write For Your Audience

There are many ways in which communication fails. Very often, this is because the writer (or speaker) forgets to take the audience into account. This is becoming increasingly clear in English 408A, the course on Media Writing that I'm taking this term. The current chapter we're discussing is Copywriting and Advertising. Batty and Cain have a lot to say about this, but the most important part of writing effective copy is to "always put the reader first" (p 159). I've attended lectures and presentations where the speaker is often from business management, speaking to technical developers, where much of the message is lost because they're using the specific jargon of the business environment. Those of us in the audience spend our time trying to figure out what euphemisms like business process excellence, and synergy really mean, rather than trying to follow the speaker's line of thought.

While Batty and Cain are talking about writing copy that sells products, the same theories apply to speeches where you want to influence others. I read a great blog post by John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, which suggests that great leadership has a strong storytelling component.

This is also one of the key points of Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen. With a great story narrative, a speaker can weave together the elements that would have been dropped into technical bullet points. They will be more memorable if related with a good story.

Formulas For Writing

I'm really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they've been quite varied. Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week's assignment tends to take a different approach. It's a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It's far different from creative or essay based writing which I'm familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don't see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I've been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I've never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I've often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It's something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn't swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I've been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I'm not quite ready to give up on them yet.

Ancient Writing and the Odyssey

How are texts passed down through history? In my English 301H class, we're studying a modern english translation of The Odyssey, by Homer. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Odyssey and the Iliad were both composed some five hundred years before the alphabet was developed and became used in ancient Greece. Five hundred years of oral recitation and recomposition passed before the poem was codified in writing. How are texts transmitted and recomposed through time? While I have mentioned the recent edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how some of the language has changed, the question itself dates back much further, to the time of the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Academic scholars today believe that the sack of Troy was a historical event, which took place around 1300BCE, roughly five hundred years before the Phoeneicians introduced the alphabet to ancient Greece.

There are several theories about how the version written down came to be. The Odyssey's complex structure was originally thought by scholars to have been formed during the recording of the poem into writing. Newer theories suggest instead that the complex structure would have aided the bards in the recitation of the poem, as a form of mnemonic. This theory suggests that the Odyssey was not recited word for word, but re-composed from a common template, every recitation a new work of art. As the recorded version contains over twelve thousand lines of poetry, I can easily see how the composition of the poem during recitation, based on a structured skeleton could be preferable to the rote memorization of a lengthy poem.

I don't know how many times it was edited after being first committed to written words, but there are signs that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus commissioned a revision of Homer's works, from 546-524 BCE. This is presumably the source of the "canonical" Greek text of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The further heritage of the text is interesting, when one looks at the number of texts which use Odysseus and his journeys as the source for further writings. The Romans called him Ulysses, and portrayed him as a villain. Odysseus appears in Dante's Inferno, and James Joyce's Ulysses has many things in common with the voyages of Odysseus.

Classes start again

It feels as if I just handed in my final paper for last term, but it appears that classes start this week. This term I'm taking English 408A - Writing for the Media, and English 301H - Honours Literary Studies. 408A is being taught by Andrew Deman, while 301H is being taught by Murray McArthur. I haven't yet had McArthur for any courses, so that should be interesting.

The course texts look interesting. I've scanned through the first chapter of Batty and Cain's "Media Writing: A Practical Introduction," and it seems to be an actually useful textbook, which is a pleasant change from some other courses I've had. I haven't yet read any of the companion text for 408A, Jenkins' "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide" but it seems to contrast nicely with "Media Writing," with more of a focus on non-traditional media. Page one includes an image from "Bert is Evil" with Bert from Sesame Street fame posed next to Osama Bin Laden.

For 301H, the major literary text being studied is The Odyssey, by Homer. The particular translation is by the late Robert Fagles, which is presumably a modern translation into more modern language than others, while still maintaining fidelity to the greek text. Along with Ulysses, the course readings include excerpts from Aescylus' Agamemnon, Canto 26 from Dante's Inferno, the Telemachus, Calypso, and Lotus Eaters chapters from Joyce's Ulysses (not surprising, as McArthur is a Joyce scholar), and finally, Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses.

I'm not entirely sure what to expect from this course. The calendar description merely states that through lectures, discussion, and presentations by visiting faculty, this course provides Honours students with an enriched survey of the discipline of literary studies. Topics of discussion will be drawn from bibliography and research methods, critical approaches to literature, literary history, genre studies, rhetoric, media perspectives, and other areas of scholarly interest. This seems to me to be rather vague, and from what I can tell, each offering of this course tends to be rather different.

The course syllabus for 408A states that This course examines the genres and strategies of both journalism and public relations. With a strong orientation towards rhetorical and linguistic theories, this course will cover audience concerns from both within and outside organizations. While this is perhaps a shorter description, it is also far more concrete in nature. I fully expect a number of written assignments on a regular schedule in this course.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this term progresses. Hopefully I haven't signed up for more than I can comfortably handle. I just need to make sure that I carefully manage my time this term, something much easier said than done. My toddler turns three at the end of the term.

Evaluating professors and lecturers

As a part time undergraduate student, I've had several years taking courses at the University of Waterloo. Just a course or two per term, except for that soul-sucking term where I briefly managed three courses. Hello full-time student tax credits. Whenselecting courses part time, there is often a number of factors considered.

Does it fit my schedule? Does it match my interests? Does it fulfill any course requirements? Do I have the prerequisites? What do I know about the professor? Will this course be offered again soon? Here are some of the thoughts I have on some of my former professors, and the courses they taught.

John North

Professor North was my first English professor after returning to academia. This was part of a non-degree term I took while switching majors. The course studied poetry and the novel. One of the course texts was C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" which remains one of my favouritenovels. His course was valuable in preparing me for English studies. He introduced me to some techniques for speed-reading, which I have employed with some success over the years. I can't recall if he was a hard marker, but he was certainly fair.

Stan Fogel

Stan is one of those crazy profs of which legends are told. It's extremely fitting that he teaches the summer term in Cuba. His course texts are unconventional, his classes can be disorganized, and the course syllabus may be lacking in some detail, but his classes are certainly memorable. One day his class lecture note was a single yellow post-it note on which was scrawled the single word "parrot". This enigmatic note was left until the end of the class, at which time Fogel told us of a language in which the last remaining speaker was a parrot whose previous owner had passed away. Fogel is the Hunter S. Thompson of professors. Gonzo.

Andrew Deman

I had Deman for the Science Fiction literature course at Waterloo. It was a fun course, and it included a number of novels and short stories which I had not yet had the pleasure of reading. The course followed a historical and thematic sense of science fiction literature. The Golden Age, New Wave, Pulps, Steampunk, Posthumanism, Feminism. An interesting aspect of the course was the suggested reading list, from which I've selected a number of books. This course required regular writing response assignments, which was a valuable way to engage with the materials. I believe the marking was tough, but fair. His availability during office hours was great, and I abused the chance to drop in and chat about science fiction that wasn't covered in the class. With his encouragement, I revised a course essay which I presented at the academic track at the 2010 WorldCon in Montreal. This was a great experience, for which I'm thankful. I skipped a different class so I could attend his PhD oral defense. I plan to take a course on Media Writing with him again in January. I'll also be surprised if he doesn't come across this blog entry.

Aimée Morrison

Another professor I fully expect to find this blog entry is Aimée Morrison. I had the pleasure of creating a selected studies reading course under her guidance. Here's a tip: nothing helps increase student engagement with the material than creating the course yourself. I created an outline and text selections from the works of Philip K. Dick, and then with further guidance, built up a selection of critical resources examining his work, and the wider theme of postmodernism. This course also included a regular schedule of writing small responses which incorporated the readings of the course. More importantly, these were extremely limited in length. Writing to a short length was a great challenge, and I feel it improved my academic writing. It takes greater effort to cover your major points without being sidetracked by literary flourishes, or a wander train of thought. Aimée blogs at the Hook and Eye, and is also on twitter. I look forward to taking another course with her.

Jacqui Smyth

I took a creative writing course with Jacqui. The course was a writing workshop, and in my opinion, had an overly large class size. While her critiques were insightful, the nature of the class means that you're going to get fifteen responses which begin with "I really liked this story," which eats into precious critiquing time. While I understand why she prefers for students not to submit genre fiction, as she would not necessarily be aware of genre-specific tropes and expectations, and therefore she would be unable to fully respond to these works, she was still receptive to them. I suspect that I took the course, and the critiquing, more seriously than some of my classmates. It was a great course nonetheless, and I still keep in touch with some of my classmates.

Tristanne Connolly

You can tell when a professor loves the subject. It shines throughout the course. This was certainly the case with Professor Connolly in the Romantic Literature course I took. Following the literature of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats, one cannot miss the enthusiasm in her lectures. While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was on the course syllabus, with permission, I wrote about The Last Man in my final essay. I would love to take another course with her.

Randy Harris

I took a course on contemporary rhetorical theory with Harris two terms ago, which has had a large impact on how I perceive media influence, and negotiate meaning. Through Harris' course, I learned about rhetoricians such as Perelman, Booth, Burke, Weaver and Toulmin. A very thought-provoking course, and also leading some interesting research in rhetorical computation. This was perhaps the most important course I've taken.

Gray Graffam (Anthropology)

I've had Gray for two anthropology courses. Both were night classes, and were great. Anthropology 101 (Introduction to physical anthropology) was perhaps more interesting, as it deals more with archaeology rather than the sociological implications of social anthropology. Gray has some pretty amazing stories of his archaeological expeditions around the world. I'd love to take more courses with him, but I'm trying to focus on english studies, rather than anthropology.