Throughout and as a result of my experiences in ENG 491, I have increased my awareness of various types of professional writing, as well as the possibility of the various audiences these types might have. In the process, I believe I have increased my skills in at least a limited fashion in a number of areas of deficiency, some of which I was aware of, such as basic document design skills, conciseness, and lack of confidence in my argument (hedging my bets, as it were), and others in which I thought I was doing a fairly good job, such as organization. Where I feel I’ve most improved, though, are in two unconnected areas: (1) collaboration and (2) the larger principles behind successful design, which has affected not only the documents I produce, but also my approach to helping develop applications in my current work position.
I will attempt to address each of these areas of improvement in turn, using examples from the various readings and assignments in the course. I will also note the varying degrees to which various areas are still in need of improvement.
As I mentioned in my initial writer inventory, most of my day-to-day writing consists of emails, PowerPoint presentations, and policy and procedure documentation; any other types of professional writing tasks are rarely, if ever, required. For this course, I have written my first blog entries and analysis memos, critiqued and redesigned others’ documents, collaborated on a step-by-step instruction manual, and fashioned a cover letter/résumé specifically targeted to a job listing. In addition, through the course readings, I have become more familiar with report and proposal writing.
The common thread when approaching any of these types of writing is the consideration of audience. In my daily work, I have a fairly consistent type of audience, co-workers, particularly those who work on very closed related tasks to mine. Having worked in this environment for some time, I was pleasantly reminded that audience must always be considered in any communication. This course has required me to put myself into the shoes of others whether writing a fictitious letter in class as an unhappy contractor to an equally unhappy client or as a concert production executive seeking to make amends with the city council. The out-of-class assignments also gave me the opportunity to address my documents to a variety of audiences: the blog entries were aimed at my classmates, nearly all of whom shared a different educational emphasis than mine; the analysis memos were literally directed to the instructor of the course, though the analysis was done in light of the texts’ usefulness for my work colleagues; my documents for Projects 1 and 2 focused on the analysis and redesign of a work document, so those were indeed aimed at my colleagues, while Projects 3 and 4 were quite different. As it resulted in LEGO instruction manual, Project 3 had an audience of interested Lego assemblers, while Project 4, the job application packet, was directed to the Human Resources Department of General Dynamics Information Technology in reference to an electronic publishing position there.
When I began this course, I recognized that I had a number of deficiencies in my writing skills. The first of these was a fairly dull style in visual presentation. I was always tempted to use the boilerplate templates of any given document that I was to create (for example, I used the same PowerPoint master for slideshows for more years than I care to admit). I felt that I had a good eye for what others produced, but lacking that same eye for my own documents, I have played it on the fairly safe side. Looking over my documents from this course, I can see that I have made some small improvements in this area. In particular, I am proud of the Project 2 document redesign, in which I applied many of the very concrete suggestions found in Chapter 12 of the Markel text, particularly with regards to white space and adding some color (via shading) for visual interest and contrast. Similarly, I feel that I did contribute some consistency in revising the initial layout of the Lego instruction manual, which had some spacing problems and almost no contrast in typeface and size in its rough draft. That said, it is obvious that for the less visually interesting documents, such as the analysis memos, I was less concerned with the layout and design as I was with the content of the writing, as I did resort to Word-provided templates. Even in those more text-intensive documents, though, I did attempt to create as much contrast and interest as tastefully possible, even if by something as modest as bolding the numbered list item in the “Ten Tips” blog entry. So while my visual style is still a fairly understated and conservative, I am now more prone in work documents to add more visual flair, relying less on previously produced formats, while paying even closer attention to the proper use of white space.
While my writing in the past has been criticized for being too terse, I find that I struggle more with conciseness, which is a great value in professional writing. Often I struggle with keeping sentences both short and clear. While I am still a firm believer in complex sentences where necessary, I have made a conscious effort to keep sentences as short as they can. My growth in this area, though, has not been linear: one of my later analysis memos (not included in this portfolio) bore the instructor’s markings of “long sentence”. I do believe, though, that I’ve made progress in this area, which has been bolstered once again by the recognition of audience.
Another area in which I’ve made progress, though with occasional lapses, is that of confidence in my argument. In a course that I took just prior to this one, I was continually marked for not standing firm behind my propositions; I had a tendency to use expressions like “it seems that” or “the data appears to show.” Though the class as a whole certainly had a tendency to be unforthcoming in discussions, I found that when I had an opinion, I felt quite comfortable sharing it. For example, the critiques of some of the reading material, such as the Norman text or the Wired article became rather pointed, as did the feedback on the award-winning website regarding Hiroshima. I think most of my work reflects this growth in confidence, though even in the rough draft of my last project, a classmate pointed out that my cover letter contained the rather unsure sentence “I hope my past experience…will qualify me for this position.” (The emphasis was not in the original, though I might as well have been!)
An area in which I was unpleasantly surprised to find that I was having difficulties was that of organization. As I have always been proud of my pursuit of clarity, it was quite embarassing to have the organization of my first project completely questioned during the peer review. Reading through my classmate’s comments, though, I saw that I indeed was a bit adrift, to the point that I lacked a clear thesis. I found her suggestions quite helpful and indeed did a drastic rewrite of that project. Sadly, the instructor comments on that project also noted some problems with organization which I have attempted to remedy with another, more limited, rewrite, though I am still not particularly happy with it. That said, for later projects and analysis memos I took much greater care to ensure that my documents were structured logically and flowed more naturally for my reader, even for more non-traditional documents like the Project 3 instruction manual.
The one area that I did identify in the initial writer inventory as being a weakness which I do not seem to have impoved on is that of speed. I am still a slow, or more generously, an overly-deliberate writer. While I did find that by the end of the course, some of the in-class writing exercises came a lot more quickly (and easily) for me, even as I write this, I find that I have consistently underestimated how much time I expect to spend on a given writing assignment.
On a more positive note, I am quite pleased with the progress I have made in collaborative work during this course. In the past, I have never enjoyed group work not merely regarding writing, but of any kind. I find that groups are often lopsided in their abilities and dedication, so I was encouraged from the beginning by the instructor’s assurance that even in group work, individual efforts would be fairly compensated. In the past, I have been either the person who sits back and lets someone else run the group if that person has a strong personality or a much better command of the task at hand, or the person who insists on doing as much of the group work as possible to ensure that it is to my own satisfaction. Recently at work the phrase “space and trust” has been bandied about; “space and trust” is what I had very little experience with in group work until this course. I can attest to quite a positive change in my approach to group work just in the short course of this semester. For example, the first in-class exercise group that I worked with in the course was one which was tasked with rewriting a particularly bad business letter; I had great difficulty understanding the letter and was very uncertain as to how to “fix” it. As a result, I stayed to the side, as it were, and let one of the other group members do the lion’s share of that task. I maintain, however, that by the second half of the course, I had a much better feel of properly working as part of a group.
For the collaborative Project 3, I had strong ideas of how I wished to approach the project, aiming for simplicity of construction and hence description, so I did offer that early to the group. They were receptive, fortunately, so the next major task was the division of duties. We were all in agreement, that it would be best for one person to each take the lead on a given component of the manual, with assistance from a second person and subject to review by the entire group. At the time, I was most interested in the basic layout and design of the manual, though I was also strongly interested in how we would incorporate the graphics. When another team member volunteered to do the first draft of the layout, while I honestly was hoping to do that myself, I was able to let it go, take the responsibility for the graphics instead, and trust him to make good decisions with the layout. I was glad that I did so, as I was generally quite happy with the result, though I did make a few suggestions, primarily concerned with contrast and consistency, which were indeed incorporated into the final product. Similarly, I had very limited involvement in the creation of the presentation portion of the project, though I have strong opinions on PowerPoint presentations. I limited my input to suggestions on what I believed was essential to included, as well as general review comments. The resulting presentation was shorter and less detailed than if I had done it entirely myself, but to be quite honest, I recognize that this is arguably a good thing. In sum, the entire project was a good example for me of how to offer the critical level of involvement in a group task.
Similarly, for the in-class “box” project, I was afraid that working with two non-native English speakers might be problematic, in addition to my general tendency to think through a problem on my own before working with others. Given that we were expected to quickly find a common story for the disparate elements in the box forced me to work on the fly with my teammates. I was fortunate that one of them was quite creative, so I found quickly that what I could bring to the group was to let his imagination run, but not too far, stopping him along the way, asking him to repeat his thoughts, and forcing some organization and limits to the ideas suggested (given the time restrictions). While I feel that I was not the major player in that group, I’m happy to report that I don’t believe I should have been and that the limited part I played was still a valuable one.
Also on the subject of group work, I had some pleasant surprises regarding peer review during the revision process. Generally at the undergraduate level I have found that students are quite reluctant to critique each other’s writing and hence offer very little helpful feedback; I am as guilty as anyone else on this count. But ranging from the above-mentioned major revisions of my first project to some pointed observations regarding my cover letter in the final project, I have the comments of my classmates, when offered, to be insightful and instructive.
Finally, while I found the Norman text to be a bit redundant and self-congratulory, I also found it to be of great value in rethinking what the proper purpose of design is, particularly from the perspective of the user, or reader. This has impacted not only the writings for this course, but also the writing I do for my current job, and even beyond that, how I approach the actual specifications for our internal applications which we continually develop. I now approach those tasks with much more clarity, which helps not only the developers, but even more so the end users of the applications.
Before concluding this self-assessment, I would like to offer just a few, short comments about the documents which appear in the portfolio:
- Project 1 – In my review of this policy statement, I made a strong argument that the apparent purpose of the document was not that for which it was actually used; in addition, the document lacked visual flair.
- Project 2 – In redesigning the document, I attempted to give it a clear purpose, aiming it more directly at the actual audience; in addition, I followed the guidelines in the Wysocki and Markel texts to add more visual interest.
- Project 3 – I was very happy not only with the design of this document, but also with the collaboration that produced it. I feel it was a well-thought-out approach to the project and that I contributed much of its initial direction.
- Project 4 – I dread creating resumes and cover letters for real employers, let alone fictitious ones, so I appreciated the task of working through that dread; the peer review was helpful in keeping me on task in addressing my audience.
- Analysis Memos – I feel I did a good job in not only summarizing the texts in question, but getting to the heart of the matter, particularly for my current work situation, keeping the memos easily readable for my colleagues.
- Blog Entries – I enjoyed these greatly and was a little disappointed when they were abandoned in favor of other work later in the semester; I feel they showcased my ability to speak more informally, yet just as profesionally, regarding related subjects of interest.
In reviewing the syllabus of ENG 491, I see that the course objectives were: “to study the basic features of professional writing genres and learn how to modify these features in response to a specific audience and rhetorical situation; write usable, persuasive, clear, accurate, and readable documents for intended audiences and purposes; and understand the visual elements of professional documentation, including graphics and page design/layout.” As evidenced by the work that I have submitted, as well as my explanation of that work in this self-assessment, I believe I have met those objectives. In addition, my attendance has been as faithful as my work travel schedule would allow, I have not been tardy for any classes, I have participated in discussion as much as I could, and I tried to maintain a friendly, yet professional demeanor not only in class discussions, but also in my writing, particularly in the more informal area of the weblogs. Based on those considerations, I hereby respectfully argue for a final course grade of “A”.