Words around town

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 30, 2010

Plenty of classes exist in the city that focus on more professional writing. That’s not to say that what you learn in a fiction or journalism workshop won’t translate to the office — because it will. But there are workshops and seminars based exclusively on the wordsmithery of the professional and business world. Kalo Clarke, the director of the Writing Center at Northeastern University, teaches a class on technical writing at Harvard Extension School. Whether you’re talking about creative or professional writing, “the issues are the same,” she says. “Good writing is good writing. It’s targeted to the intended audience, it’s well-structured, it’s clearly and concisely written. But the genre and audience expectations change as you move among areas such as professional writing, technical writing, marketing writing, creative writing.”

Her teaching philosophy is one that George Orwell would’ve appreciated. “Many writers think sounding educated means using four syllable words where one syllable would do. The result is writing that wastes the reader’s time by being too difficult to unravel and comprehend.” Her technical writing course “is based on the premise that sounding educated means knowing how to use simple, concise language that reflects the voice of one human writing to another saying something worth reading.”

The language Clarke uses to describe her class differs from a creative-writing workshop. Instead of plot, character, and point of view, the technical writing class involves “project management, developing a rhetorical strategy, defining genre objectives, analyzing and adapting to an audience, researching, citing sources, structuring, drafting, editing,” and so on.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some right-brain action taking place, as well. “One way I encourage students to think creatively is through an exercise I call writing on demand,” Clarke explains. At the beginning of class, she poses “some nutty question [the students] aren’t prepared for, like ‘Tell us a secret you wouldn’t want us to know.’ ” Students then write for six minutes without stopping and share what they’ve done. It helps the class get to know each other, think “in creative directions,” and be more aware of “audience adaptation” Clarke says.

Exercises such as these can help in other ways, too. Christine Junge, a former freelance writer (including for the Phoenix), teaches a class called Write Away: A Workshop for Overcoming Writer’s Block at the BCAE. The workshop aims to help people turn the idea in their brain into words on the page. “An exercise is a great thing to do when you’re not quite sure where to go with your writing,” she explains. If you find yourself unable to write that first sentence on what you have to write, sometimes writing something unrelated can oil the brain gears in such a way that you’re able to find the words for what you need to write. And if not, perhaps you’ve found yourself with a weird little story or letter or essay instead. Exercises can be “a way of tricking yourself into writing. You’re getting to the same place, you’re just taking a different route,” says Junge.

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