Writing

The following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). My first post described CLTL, next were two interviews with former CLTL students, Ken, Sheila, and Veronica. This final post of the series, “Can literature change lives?” provides several empirical studies that appear to validate the ability of humanities education to assist individuals struggling through poverty and drug addiction—two major, interrelated factors in most crimes. Overall, these studies bolster the eponymous tenant of CLTL: that reading literature changes lives for the better.

The Clemente Course and Hope House

Reader Social issues such as crime and poverty go hand in hand, yet individuals affected by both are unique personalities. CLTL uses literature and writing to stimulate students’ minds and reduce their chances of reoffending. The overall goal is to use literature for social change. Beyond work with criminal populations, Earl Shorris’ Clemente Course in the Humanities has taken a similar approach to humanities education as CLTL. The Clemente course focuses on all urban poor rather than just criminal offenders. Instead of literature, the eight-month Clemente course teaches logic, art, history, and moral philosophy. According to Shorris, the intensive study of the humanities is an effective way to move people out of poverty and into community engagement and meaningful work.

Similarly, at Hope House, a California rehabilitation centre utilizes volunteer, female Stanford professors to teach classes in philosophy and the humanities to groups of fifteen to twenty female addicts and ex-convicts who have been placed in a residential drug and alcohol treatment program (The Hope House Scholars Program). This Clemente-derived course focuses on classic texts with an emphasis on political and social issues, borrowing much from the successful Clemente model. A study done by program founders Debra Satz and Rob Reich revealed that approximately seventy percent of the women who participated in this program remained drug free and out of prison, far better than the national average for rehabilitation programs.

Humanities in Perspective

In Portland, the Humanities In Perspective (HIP) Program has been offered to impoverished individuals for the past five years by the Oregon Council of Humanities in collaboration with Reed College. As a comparison group for the course, HIP was also introduced to a group of incarcerated inmates at a nearby medium-security correctional facility. Like Hope House, the HIP program follows the Clemente Course paradigm—in this case, a progression from ancient classics to twentieth century American literature.

In the Fall semester students read key ancient Greek works drawn from texts in history (Thucydides), philosophy (Aristotle & Plato), poetry (Tyrtaeus & Sappho), and drama (Sophocles & Euripides). In the Spring Semester readings are drawn from more contemporary texts including Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Martin Luther King, and Toni Morrison, exploring four central themes: knowledge and virtue, power and justice, love and desire, and social responsibility.

In 2005, the Portland group of urban poor and the incarcerated inmates completed pre-course and post-course surveys. The Portland group reported increased self-esteem, verbal abilities, and open-mindedness, while the incarcerated group reported increased desire for civic involvement, literary reading, and goal setting.

Can literature change Lives?

Changing Lives Through Literature was also the subject of an empirical research study (Jarjoura and Krumholz, 1998). This study compared a group of 32 former CLTL participants with a control group of 40 regular probationers. A follow-up analysis indicated that only 6 of the 32 men in the reading group (18.8%) were convicted of crimes after their experience in CLTL. In the control group, 18 of the 40 men (45%) had reoffended. According to these results, CLTL graduates were three times less likely to reoffend.

Currently, new versions of CLTL are being adopted by academic programs such as the English department at Curry College and the English department at the University of Rhode Island. Curry College is considering having their English majors intern with CLTL as a unique educational experience.

Further psychological Evidence

Research from the cognitive science of reading literature (alternatively called Cognitive Poetics or Empirical Studies of Literature) provides the important theoretical and empirical backdrop against which to set the effectiveness of programs of CLTL and the Clemente Program, potentially explaining why CLTL works.

Probably the most persuasive studies come from Professors David Miall (English) and Don Kuiken (Psychology) at the University of Alberta and Keith Oatley (Psychology) at the University of Toronto. Their collective research outlines how reading fiction allows us to script, or rehearse, scenarios that we do not normally encounter in our day to day lives. In doing so, reading allows for inner speculation about how we ourselves would react in the fictional situations characters face, causing readers to empathize with characters. Furthermore, the plot structure of fiction involves a surplus of cognitive activities like planning and imagining. All of these simultaneous cognitive activities lead to, as Miall and Kuiken state, “larger implications for the self”—which means that characters and plotlines transcend the experience of reading itself and simulate experiences that motivate readers towards self-change.

Oatley’s studies further this argument, his work demonstrates that engaging in fictional worlds improves our empathic abilities—that is, fiction reading was positively correlated with the ability to empathize with others. Fiction reading thus increases understanding of the necessary and appropriate social interactions of everyday life.

Ultimately, I believe Oatley and Miall’s work provides the psychological backdrop explaining how CLTL works: it offers disenfranchised readers the opportunity to enjoy and reflect on the emotional benefits of the reading experience, while also choosing to make more socially appropriate decisions in regarding their futures and their interactions with others.

In conclusion, I’d like to recognize an excellent new essay by CLTL facilitator, Dr Erin Battat, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s American Studies program. Please leave comments or read there other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds:

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

Has the Torch Been Passed? A Review of the 2008 Annual Conference

A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

The following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). My first post described CLTL, next were two interviews with former CLTL student, Ken and Sheila. This fourth post, “Interview with Veronica,” discusses the importance of writing in the CLTL classroom and highlights the last of three interviews I conducted during a February trip to Boston.

Writing and CLTL

Writing is used in many ways in the Changing Lives Through Literature classroom. Some facilitators begin a class with writing, while others schedule writing periods in the middle or at the end. But, according to long-time CLTL facilitator Tamlin Neville, feedback is of central importance for CLTL writing assignments:

Students write more easily than they speak.  A quiet student may shed her reserve when she takes up her pen.  One who speaks distractedly may become a different person on the page, composed and able to organize his thoughts. . . . with writing, teachers enter into a one-to-one relationship with a student.  This is a place where a teacher can really listen and attend.

Professor Taylor Stoehr, Ken’s facilitator, has his students begin and end the class by writing for ten minutes on a question raised by the text.  Stoehr collects the work, adds his comments, and returns it, typed and printed, to the students. In this way, each student’s work is “published” once Stoehr distributes copies. At graduation, students receive a booklet of their own writing plus an anthology of class writings.

CLTL allows students to see reflect on their lives through novels, short stories, memoirs, poems, discussion, and writing. According to Stoehr:

These students have been told they are incompetent readers and writers, and this tends to make them so. But the incompetence is superficial in most cases. Their speech skills are usually more than adequate and often superb . . . A student’s own writing helps them objectify their experiences, and this, in turn, opens the way for change.

Veronica

The West Roxbury courthouse women’s CLTL program is specialized for women suffering from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Veronica, a single mother, was more reserved than my previous interview subjects, Ken and Sheila. Yet Veronica’s shyness is nothing compared to her crippling inability to communicate before taking CLTL. Veronica told me, “I would never talk to nobody before; I never got along with nobody.” She continued:

In front of the class everyone would get a chance to talk about their problems. I have never opened up to people like I did with Adita, the people In my class, and Leigh, the teacher. I got to learn a lot and become closer with people. Now I’m very open.

The opportunity to share her thoughts and feelings in reading/writing group environment changed Veronica’s ability to communicate with others. But she also told me about some other positive benefits of CLTL, specifically benefits for her daughter:

I never used to read before, now I read, I have a library card for the first time ever. I write more, read more, talk more. Reading keeps you out of trouble. I even read more to my daughter now. She loves animal books!

Volunteers like Adita Velasquez, Veronica’s probation officer, and Leigh, the Boston English professor who facilitates Veronica’s course, used a structured program of reading and writing to effect the positive changes for students in the West Roxbury program. But, as Veronica puts it, “we’re finished but we’re still not finished.” Each year, Leigh collects and publishes the best writings from the CLTL group. As in the men’s Dorchester programs, this is the first time Veronica have ever seen their writing in print.

GirlReadingIn conclusion, I’d like to recognize an excellent new essay by CLTL facilitator, Dr Erin Battat, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s American Studies program. My next post will align the insights I’ve gathered from my work with CLTL with several similar projects that seek to use humanities education to help impoverished or disenfranchised populations. Please leave comments or check other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds:

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

Has the Torch Been Passed? A Review of the 2008 Annual Conference

A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

 

One of my best friends is a professional grant writer. He started out of university working as the manager of a small theatre company, from there he moved on to event planning and grant writing for a local non-profit organization, and from there he got a job as a grant editor at the Office of Research for a university. His grant writing skills secured him this university position and, more broadly, grant writing skills are a huge asset for anyone with an interest working in academia or the non-profit sector. Put it this way: a grant is monetary aid and grant writers have the ability to solicit that aid.

Research

Before writing, a successful grant writer needs to do the right research and answer the right questions:

  • Which grants should you apply for?

Where are the guidelines for the grant?

What are the guidelines for these grants?

  • What types of projects will they fund?

When are applications do?

What are the application components?

  • What, according to each foundation, makes a successful grant?

Are there successful examples of funded grant proposals?

Is there anyone with whom one can discuss the criteria for successful applications?

A grant will be immediately dismissed if it breaches the guidelines set out by the funding body. This is why collecting successful examples of funded grants, reading those examples, and researching why they were successful is so important for grant writers. A successful grant writer will make contacts with funding bodies, ask for advice, make contacts, and network in order to write the best grant possible. Not every grant you write will be a success, in fact, most probably won’t. But don’t be discouraged. My friend the grant writer told me that most of what he learned about grant writing was the result of rejection. He would receive a rejection letter and then follow up with the funding body. They were always happy to answer his questions; like so many things in life, we learn from our mistakes. 

Writing

I’ve posted previously on writing an effective business profile, why self-editing is difficult, and how to effectively self-edit. But I’ll expand and refine some of those points in the context of grant writing. In terms of the audience, imagine that you’re a grant reviewer and you have to read through stacks of proposals to decide who will receive this grant. As that reviewer, you don’t have time for inefficient grant proposals. So, grant writers, get to the point! Be straight-forward, effective, and—based on your research—ensure that you’ve answered the key questions set out by the grant guidelines. Grants1

Similarly, and (again) based on your research, pay attention to the verbiage used in the granting agency’s guidelines. If the guidelines ask for a mission statement, a methodology, and a budget, don’t label your subheadings “Our Vision,” “How we’ll do it,” and “Where we’ll spend this money.” Remember that grant reviewer? She doesn’t have the time to read each grant proposal in depth. Grant reviewers are ostensibly scanning these proposals and making a yes pile and a no pile—grants in the yes pile earn a more thorough reading. Using the verbiage from the grant guidelines will immediately catch a reviewers attention, showing them, most importantly, that you’ve followed their guidelines.

A well-written proposal outlines ideas in a clear, linear, simple manner. So also ensure you’ve had your grant proposal proof-read by a few people so, although they’re not familiar with the guidelines, they can point out disjointed sentences or lapses in logic or reasoning.

Ethos

Ethos is the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution. It’s your mission, your vision, and your values all rolled into one; it’s how you present yourself. You want to demonstrate a responsible, professional, and knowledgeable ethos to grant reviewers—why else would they give you money? So, aside from following the guidelines, demonstrate your research in your proposal. Show them that you’re aware of who they’ve given past grants to, who has worked on similar projects, how your project will sustain itself when grant funding runs out, and how you’ll prove the tangible and measurable benefits of your project.

Grants are monetary stipends and therefore require a budget. My friend the grant editor says that one of the biggest red flags for grant reviewers is when the budget doesn’t add up. If a grant applicant can’t even take the time to balance their budget, how can a granting agency trust them to achieve the goals set out by their proposal. Again, this is your ethos—if you present yourself as someone incapable of doing basic math, well . . . Yet, similarly, your budget needs to make sense. Sure, you can easily balance a budget; but are your projections realistic. So, for example, let’s say you’re proposing to build an computer laboratory for an underfunded local library. Your budget, although well balanced, explains that the lab will cost $500. A grant reviewer will see the fault in your logic right away, and question your research rigor (it would be the same if you proposed a $50,000 lab.)

Aside from demonstrating your attentiveness and research, your grant proposal still has to explain how you’re going to make a contribution to society. So demonstrate awareness of the major political, social, cultural, environmental, academic, or scientific issues that your grant proposal speaks to. You need to show that you’re solving an important problem, and doing so in a replicable, sustainable, effective manner. Therefore, your grant proposal should outline how you’ll disseminate your ideas, who you’ll work with, and what your strategy is for achieving these goals.

More InformationGrants4

Believe it or not, there are college programs available on just grant writing; but, as my friend would say, the best way to learn is to try it. Is there a local non-profit organization that you’re interested in helping. Approach them and ask if they’re looking for a grant writer. There are also a lot of resources online, and when you’re writing your early grants, the Internet will be an invaluable resource for researching the funding organization. Grants3

Not About Verbs

I was going to write today’s post about verbs, but then my Dad called me and reminded me that I promised to write a business profile for him (I’m still going to write the post about verbs, and I promise it won’t be as boring as it sounds.) My Dad is running for the Alberta Construction Association’s Board of Directors and therefore must submit a business profile outlining his experience in the industry and potential contributions to the Board. My Dad isn’t a great writer, so I agreed to write this profile for him without hesitation. But I needed to find out the answers to a few key questions before I wrote the profile and these are the same types of questions that I think anyone needs to ask before attempting a professional summary of this type.

Who is the audience?

An understanding of your audience is essential in professional communications. You need to know who they are and you need to know what they want. My Dad told me that the profile is to be read by voting members of the Alberta Construction Association but that they vote in a minimum number of candidates for three categories: Contractors, Suppliers, and Another Category (he’s not sure of the third category and I sure as hell am not going to go look it up.) My Dad is pretty sure that he is the only candidate who is involved in sales–as opposed to, say, insurance–so he is pretty confident that his experience will be unique in this category. Therefore, his advice was not to worry too much about “selling” him to the audience; he asked me to simply, yet eloquently, explain his credentials, experience, and professional philosophy.

What type of document am I producing?

Before you can set out to create a document, you have to know what it will look like when it’s produced, how long it should be, what the style or tone should be (see my last post)–essentially, you need to know its genre. Fortunately, my Dad sent me sample profiles of last year’s applicants. They range in length from 70-400 words, use fairly professional language, and contain two paragraphs–the first, longer paragraph outlines the applicants qualifications, and the second, shorter paragraph provides some information about the applicants personal life (children, hobbies, etc.)

Who is Sam McDougall?

So, without further ado, I present: my Dad (Okay, okay. Without further ado, I present my business profile):

Sam McDougall is the General Manager of Allmar Distributors Edmonton Branch and has worked in the hardware industry for over 30 years. Starting off as a warehouse labourer at age 17, Sam’s agreeable nature got him a promotion to salesman in the late 70s, and ethical, personable sales techniques has been his mantra ever since. A devotee of high quality customer service and effective leadership, Sam maintains lasting business relationships with contractors across the province—some for over 25 years. Sam’s first Dad blog picrate planning skills have been instrumental in developing business and marketing plans with four different companies, all the while prolifically researching sales and management techniques, marketing strategies, interpersonal relations, economics, and business models. Since joining Allmar in 2000, Sam has implemented a state-of-the-art computer estimating and inventory system, and reinvigorated the company’s staffing system—creating junior staff positions to back up experienced salespeople.

In his free time Sam is a volunteer soccer coach, avid golfer, amateur photographer, and ‘wannabe’ home improvement guru. A proud father of two sons and a daughter, Sam is well known for his sense of humour and sound judgment.

What is Editing?

Does this seem like an obvious question? Of course the answer is simple, right? Editing is the process of taking a piece of writing and making it better . . . isn’t it? Although the word editing immediately conjures up words like grammar, spelling, and punctuation; here are a few other things that editing entails that might not immediately spring to mind:

  • Perfecting a document’s tone and mood (for example, to make a document sound more professional, or less formal.)
  • Formatting a document to fit a specified word length or typographic space.
  • Ensuring a document is appropriate for a perceived audience.
  • Verifying a document’s claims are true.

Audience and Purpose

As promised, this post is mainly about self-editing, but I’ve begun with the question “Why Edit?” because I think this is the first question with which every self-editor should start: “Why am I editing this document?” Along with that question come tangential questions like, “Who is my audience?” and “What is my purpose?”Once a reader has a clear sense of who they’re writing to and the reason they’re writing, they can establish a methodological approach for self-editing.

So, for example, I won’t edit this blog post as closely as I would edit a printer’s proof that will be sent out for a $70,000 job. If I make a spelling or grammar mistake in this blog post, likely a friend will remind to fix it, or a reader will make some type of quick judgment about my writing abilities. But if I miss an error on an expensive print job . . . well that could make me look really bad at work and, if repeated, could cost me my job. So when I edit a blog post, I know that I have a small audience and a fun purpose; whereas, when I proofread for my employer, I know that I have a large, complex audience (my employers and their clients) and a very serious purpose.

Self-editing

So once you’ve established your audience and your purpose, you’re ready to move on to self-editing. Here are a few tricks that I’ve come across in my experience as an editor that help. They likely won’t all work for you, but hopefully some do:

Create a Style Sheet or Use a Style Guide

There are plenty of excellent resources stylistic writing out there and having one close at hand is the quickest, most efficient, and most reliable way to answer those niggling questions like: “is it 7 or seven?,” “should I use a semi-colon?,” and “what’s the best way to write the date?” (In order: seven, to link two related independent clauses, and October 16, 2008.) But there’s no point in looking these points up if you’re not going to remember them, so that’s why you create your own Style Sheet. A Style Sheet can be a document on your computer, or a crinkled piece of paper on your desk—its main purpose is to be available as a ready reference when you can’t remember one of those little details that always slips your mind.

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_2 Leave some time between writing and editing

The great eighteenth century scholar, critic, lexicographer, and rhetorician Samuel Johnson once wrote that he put all of his writing in a desk drawer for seven years before he would even consider editing it. If he read it after seven years and felt that it was still worthy of publication, he would edit; if he didn’t like the piece, he tossed it away. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the same deadlines as the great Dr. Johnson—after all, back in the eighteenth century, writers had patrons. However, it is a good idea to save time in between those two crucial early writing stages: the first draft and the first edit. A general rule is that the longer and more complex the document, the more time you should put it away in a desk drawer. This isn’t always possible, but, as I mentioned in my last post, when we write, we fill in logical “gaps” that others might not be able to fill in for themselves. Similarly, when you leave a piece of writing for a length of time, you lose the ability to fill in those gaps—which is a good thing because it allows you to read your own writing in the same way that your audience will.

Reading against the grain

Quite frankly, there’s not always time to leave a piece of writing before you publish it. But there are other strategies that can give you a different perspective on those logical gaps and allow you to fill them for your reader. Reading out loud is the best example of this. Reading out loud takes longer than reading silently, and therefore gives your brain more time to process the way you’re using language—again decreasing your brain’s ability to fill in gaps. Sorry for the pun here, but hearing the sound of your own writing allows you to realize when something doesn’t sound right.

Another strategy is reading your writing out of order. Try reading sentences or paragraphs in reverse order. This again displaces your brain from the logical flow of the document and allows greater time to consider portions of your document and focus on how language is used at the sentence level. If you don’t have a day to put away your writing, just read it out loud and out of order, you’ll notice mistakes immediately.

Know thyself

Ultimately, you’re the best judge of your own writing. And so, for example, you may already be aware that you have a penchant for flowery language, run-on sentences, ineffective jargon, or lapses in consistency. Keep these habits in mind when you’re editing—and write them down as reminders on your Style Sheet. This will allow you to focus on specific errors that you know will be present in your document.

BookRulerAs you may or may not know, I am completing a Masters of Arts in Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo. But I’m also completing an 8-month co-op term as a copywriter, now copyeditor, at a marketing company. Anyone who has spent any time composing assignments for school knows that little typos and errors inevitably sneak through your self-editing abilities. Even if you’ve edited your assignment several times, misspelled words or subject-verb disagreements appear out of nowhere, causing you ask yourself, “how did I miss that?” But, what do you do if you’re getting paid to ensure that those mistakes don’t sneak through? Do you just read “harder”?

The reason that editing your own writing presents a unique challenge spawns from the same reason that we make grammar mistakes in the first place. When you’re writing, you make assumptions about the meaning of your content internally, but your reader can’t make those same assumptions–they don’t have the background knowledge of the subject that you do. So, for example, you might write, “Steven Harper agreed to spend two extra hours debating the economy, but it wasn’t necessary.” But what wasn’t necessary—the extra time debating the economy, or the debate itself? As a writer, you know that you meant that the extra time wasn’t necessary, but your reader might not. It’s difficult to realize, but you should have written, “it wasn’t necessary for Steven Harper to spend two extra hours debating the economy.”

Anyway, without getting too technical, the main reason that editing your own writing is difficult is that humans use language in context–this means that a conversation or a document each has meaning within a specific setting. Conversations occur based on our surrounding; documents are composed based on textual needs. So imagine that you and your friend are in a restaurant debating about Stephen Harper’s perceived need for a debate on the economy. If your friend Cheryl sits with you unexpectedly, she’ll have no idea of the context of your argument—though it’s likely won’t take her long to catch on. But you and your friend will give her a brief update on the conversation because she doesn’t know its context.

In order to effectively write, one has to empathize with an audience—the same way that you’ve updated your friend Cheryl. The difference between conversation and writing is that with writing we’re not always 100% sure of the ongoing conversation–it’s taking place inside of our heads. The human mind is so complex that it can think of thousands of aspects of a thing at a given moment, and all of those ideas want to come bursting out when we discuss or write about a topic. but a writer has to choose the best ideas and communicate them in the clearest way. Yet, when writing, we make assumptions about our topic that are very clear in our own minds, but that our readers may not understand—such as the fact that Stephen Harper’s extra time debating was unnecessary, and not that the debate itself was unnecessary. Either way, we inevitably make these assumptions when we write, and the trick with self-editing is spotting these assumptions and fixing them for your audience.

One of my responsibilities as the copyeditor is proofreading Printingevery document before it goes to print. Proofreading sounds  easy, but you have to keep in mind that I’ve often written these documents’ first drafts, edited these drafts according to internal revisions, read them again upon the completion of internal revisions, read them again in layout, edited them again according to client revisions, read them upon the completion of client revisions, read them again in layout, and then read them again in preflight (a term used in printing to describe confirming that the digital files required for printing are all present, valid, correctly formatted, and edited.) What I’m trying to say is that I’ve often read documents that I’ve written 5-6 times before the final stage of editing, but then I have to proofread them one last time before they go to print— “proofing.”

But, if a typo has somehow appeared in a document at the proofing stage, you’re in danger of missing typos because you’ve read the document so many time you’ve almost memorized. And this is just like a student with an assignment–you read it over and over until you’re sure it’s perfect, but those typos still appear. Well one or two typos isn’t a big deal for a student, but for me it could cost my company thousands of dollars. And, realistically, in the “real world” typos in documents like business proposals, posters, brochures, even emails can cause the audience to rethink the reliability of the document’s source–i.e., you! The next post in this series will outline some tips and tricks for editing your own work.