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Module 5: Public Writing
Length: 1500 words (including author’s note)
Hitherto, you have been writing for an academic and professional audience; discourse communities and communities of practice. The kinds of documents that define professional writing (including instructions, guidelines, procedures, and information sheets) are held together by a sense of organizational obligation. This doesn’t mean that readers are actually obliged to read professional documents; rather, readers encounter professional documents in a context where most of what they read is processed through the needs of the workplace (or the school- school and work are, for the purposes of this assignment, synonymous). Hence, workplace documents are designed to meet typical workplace values (like efficiency and effectiveness).
Public audiences do not encounter texts with this same sense of obligation. They read because they want to read, not because they have to. Public audiences may read for pleasure or because something catches their interest or attention. Public writing is writing that we read on our own time, as members of a broader public. We’re not paid to do this reading, and, in a sense, the time and energy we spend reading, as public readers, is an opportunity cost that could be spent elsewhere. Keep that in mind as you compose for a public reader.
Before we begin, I would like to suggest that we avoid using terms such as general public or general audience to talk about this work. Although these terms are pretty common, I don’t think they’re very accurate. There is no general public; there are only more or less contingent or local groups or publics. Even the broadest kinds of public writing, such as The New York Times or Time magazine, are written not for people in general but for groups that share certain broad values or beliefs (such as a commitment to civil society- you probably won’t find an aboriginal tribe discussing the latest New Yorker cartoons). People who don’t share such a commitment may read The New York Times, of course, but it is not written with them in mind.
I’ve tried to diversify your options for this unit as much as possible. Here are some ideas:
The Translation. A translation is simply a journalistic representation of some recent development within a field. Regular translation articles in scientific fields are published every Tuesday in the Science section of the New York Times. They invariably report on some recently published article announcing a discovery or finding. Translations are also published in social science fields and, on occasion, in the humanities.
The Profile. A profile is a biography for a newspaper or magazine of a “star” academic or other important person in a knowledge-related field. The person profiled will have made some significant contribution to an academic or other field, yet will not typically be well known to the public. A profile may include selections from an interview either with the person profiled or with that person’s colleagues, allies, and rivals.
The Op-Ed. An op-ed (opinion/editorial) is an argument developed for a broad public audience on an important issue. If you choose this option, you should be sure that your op-ed relates to your field or discourse community. Don’t simply write an opinion about what interests you. Examples of op-eds relating to academic and scholarly fields include a whole series of op-eds on evolution and “intelligent design.” Some op-eds advocate understanding an issue in public life within the terms of a specific field. For example, an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times discussed the usefulness of what Brooks called “cultural geography” in understanding regional conflict.
The Campaign. Political campaign literature is an obvious example, but so are other kinds of writing directed toward specific public audiences. Campaigns seek to inform, educate, and motivate specific constituencies. Campaign literature is a bit like marketing or advertising, but it’s not only that; it seeks to disseminate information from the community of experts (the discourse community of which you are a part) to that segment of the broader public that that community serves.
What each of the above four options have in common is that they will require you to distill the discourse community values and values you’ve studied and the community of practice concerns you’ve addressed into what you consider to be most important. In doing so, you will necessarily omit some details and elaborate others. The challenge lies in making the best possible decisions about what a public audience wants to know, what a public audience needs to know, and how best to convey those ideas while using an adequate- but not overly complicated- lexicon that does justice to your argument and research but is also intelligible and interesting for a public audience. For the purposes of this assignment, you can assume a “public” audience of your classmates- educated and intelligent people with some level of knowledge about your field, but not an overwhelming familiarity with the project and company specific details and terms you might want to use.
Though not lengthy, this document is likely to be challenging in specific ways. Popular genres are various yet tightly constrained. Most important for this class, your example of public writing needs to transmit some specific knowledge — that is, knowledge that tends to be closely held by your discourse community — to a targeted public audience. This is not a chance to abandon your discourse community or write just about what concerns you; rather, this is an opportunity to put your discourse community into a larger context of public need and service.
Although genres of public writing vary greatly, they have some things in common. In addition to the overall features we look for in AWD, we will look specifically for the following elements:
- A concise introduction (or lead) that sets the stage for the rest of the document, including both its subject and its context.
- Appeals to audience investment: these may include a human-interest dimension, careful use of tone (including humor), invitations to understand the academic field and its importance for them, and so forth.
- Effective highlighting of salient details from your research.
- A high level of clarity.
- A responsible and careful attention to possible counter-perspectives, qualifications, and limitations.
You may find that some of the values you are trying to exemplify conflict with each other. For example, you want to explain your point concisely to a non-expert audience. This calls for a kind of language use that tends toward generalization. Yet you also want to attend to counter-perspectives and so forth. Yet how can you do both? How can you be responsible toward the nuances of the field while maintaining a rhetorical stance consistent with appealing to a general audience? This dialogue among values will constitute the major rhetorical challenge of this project.
The public writing document will need to have two versions: the final, formatted and designed version that appears as if the document were circulating in public, and a Word document, fully cited according to the standards of your field. While the total length will vary according to your chosen genre and format, the author’s note plus the draft should be approximately 1500 words. If you have an idea for an intensely visual project or something that requires a great deal of design work, please email me and we might be able to come to an agreement on a reduced word count.
The draft version of the public writing document should include an author’s note. The author’s note should be at least 300 words, and include the following information:
- Title of publication where your public document would circulate
- Brief examples (from the project) of jargon explained and/or expert terms/knowledge conveyed
- Explanation of specific appeals to public readers (connect your project to other interesting things being written; again, imagine a discourse community, but a public one)
- The author’s note counts towards the 1500 word length of this assignment