Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fellow volunteers: What distinguishes civic writing from personal and practical writing?

I walked in to the CWC last week while they were conducting a staff meeting, and was kindly invited to join and share my thoughts on Tiffany's topic du jour: civic writing, particularly the seeming lack of it among those with whom we work in the community.

We have three broad categories -- as you all know -- under which most composition falls, with personal and practical being the most prevalent.

When was the last time you gave someone feedback on a letter to the editor or a public official?

As opposed to the résumé or personal letter? When was the last time any of us composed civic writing, or was our last missive (and the one before that) personal or practical?

When does personal or practical become civic?

I feel that there are primary and secondary purposes for any piece of writing.

In general, civic writing is addressed to a community or a representative thereof, and concerns issues that have a community impact.

A letter to the local utili-naut about a crummy, time-consuming customer service experience, its confusing, redundant billing, and its high rates is practical as it aims for relief in the form of relief an apology and hopefully a change in the way it does things. The desired end here is a positive outcome, which would be that the recipient understands the writer's frustration, hopefully shows some empathy, but mostly, that it takes corrective action to right past wrongs and prevent future ones.

How about sharing a recipe, an instructive task which demands detail, clarity and consideration for possible non-cooks among its readership. That's practical too, but with whom do we share our recipes? Actually, I don't share mine. But if I did, it'd be limited to close friends; maybe some family members. Then, it's highly personal. The instructive, practical side is mean to a personal end. I must feel good simply to share it. The recipient is probably happy to just to receive it and appreciates the gesture, the thought behind it, regardless of whether they ever care to prepare

Wasn't the letter to the utility for personal satisfaction, too? It was impersonal in that the relationship to the reader is practical, consumer to service-provider. Same with plaintiff/defendant to judge letters, even if one must tell a personal story in that letter. The letter itself isn't satisfying, the aim might be.

A letter to a public official about increasing or decreasing funding to entity x or to call for outlawing or legalizing this or that is civic, for sure. Civic writing is persuasive writing, and any combination of ethos, pathos and logos will and can be used, depending on the situation. Take an appeal to emotion, in which one attempts to appeal to the reader by sharing a personal story of suffering due to government action or inaction, an exemplary case of the effect of public policy.

There's an example a personal story whose aim is some sort of personal satisfaction, but in which the recipient has no personal relation to the writer.

In fact, when we write op-eds and letters to editors, the audience is both all and none; it's abstract, because 'community' is abstract.

There are infinite combinations of these three writing types, and it's possible that a piece can never be just one if we really want to nit-pick.

For one, it's all expressive, which is personal at its core. Musicians, visual artists, writers, chefs, architects, performers all get personal satisfaction from doing what they do and doing it well.

Take this blog post, for example:

I enjoy articulating my thoughts on this blog. I hope whomever reads this thinks I've made good points, have started an interesting discussion, and have done so effectively and in a way which keeps your attention. That's the personal element. But is that my primary purpose?

My purpose for volunteering is personal, civic and practical. I can't pick any one over the other. I have talents, I want to share them with the community, and I want to put it on my résumé. It's a three-fer.

Continuing on...

The practical element of this post is that Jeremy asked me to write it in order to elicit responses from my fellow volunteers about this topic. I considered what might be a practical way to do so and decided that a) I'd share a few of my thoughts on it which would hopefully lead to b) other volunteers joining the discussion. Is that the most practical way to get one involved? I'd sure hope. Effective communication, whether instructive or persuasive, has logic to it. We analyze the audience, determine what we want from them, and take the path of least resistance and/or confusion. The practicality of the method I've used will be determined by how effectively it is received, and perhaps from the responses I elicit. You will determine whether this is unfocused mumbo-jumbo, a thoughtful analysis of this issue, or a bit of both.

Beyond what was hopefully a practical method, this post serves a practical need for us volunteers as we think about and engage in what we do at CWC, hopefully making us better volunteers, and for the CWC itself as it hopes to get answers as to why it's not being utilized as a resource for civic writing needs and why.

Furthermore, having a discussion as a group is certainly social, but is this post in any way civic?
That's where things become a stretch and deeper meanings and broader contexts, underlying or implicit, come through.

Why was this discussion even prompted? Is there a better way in which we can serve the community? Or are the types of writing that are most prevalent, personal and practical, simply a reflection upon the needs of the people that come to us for collaboration and assistance? What does that say about the community? What does it say about the CWC, and by extension, SLCC? Or even, the role of higher education institutions within the community, town and gown? See how far off-topic we can get with the civic thing?

While that's an undertone and a prompt, this is for practical purposes.

Society and its civic structure effect nearly all writing because it effects each of us deeply. However, it seems that it's rarely the reason why lots of people are writing, or at least coming to us with their writing. Always in the background, rarely in the foreground.

Why we're not getting a lot of civic writing is another matter entirely; it's a symptom of apathy and civic inactivity. Hell, people vote. Whatever happens in the interim will be on the news for us to think about, but not act upon.

Besides, if we have writing to do, it's gonna be to share that secret recipe or a complaint to that utili-naut.

Can we accept that there's nearly always a civic element to our writing? Nearly any topic on which we write can be directed to have a civic purpose, even if it did not start out that way.

Writing itself -- not just as a writer for whom writing is an exercise and thus an end in itself -- is practical, because its better than semaphore or Morse code or phoning or telling one or lots of people the same thing in person. We can revise and edit our writing, not worry about large crowds and really present our most organized, clear, focused thorough and eloquent self.

And the topics, they can always be given a civic spin. Change the audience, change the context, voila, civic writing.

Unfortunately, it's rare that a civic purpose is the primary purpose.

So, fellow volunteers:

What writing is civic to you?

When is it civic enough to be labeled as such?

Are these categories too rigid?

Should we have a different way of categorizing the writing we work with?

Perhaps we could label the purpose of a piece in descending order. Or, we could give them numerical values: "This piece was 60 percent practical, 30 percent personal, and 10 percent civic."

Absurd? Well, what do you think?

Thanks for reading. Here's looking forward to your many and profound responses.

Yours in writing and in volunteering,

Jeff Dixon


chanel said...

One of the core beliefs of the writing center (and I am paraphrasing) is that no piece of writing—or type of writing—is more important than any other.

If we look at writing as something to be categorized, weighing one project against another in importance, we are going against that core belief.

I am not saying we should never try to determine the purpose of a piece of writing, I think that is an essential part of the writing process, but if we worry about what type of writing we are seeing and how much of it is civic, then we are—in essence—saying that civic writing is more important than other types of writing. I tend to agree that all writing has multiple purposes, but more importantly, every piece of writing has a very important purpose in the life of an individual writer whom we help.

So, here is one more voice in the conversation. What do you all think?

J.E. Remy said...

I totally agree with Chanel regarding the importance of writing: not type or style of writing is more valuable than another. Further, part of me wonders if it isn’t impossible to place any one label on a piece of text. Is it practical, personal, professional, civic? Is it an essay, a narrative, prose? The borders between style and purpose are fuzzy at best. And this is part of the reason I’m glad Jeff agreed to start this discussion. We may feel, at times, that civic writing is the lonely cousin of writing types, rarely brought to coaching sessions and writing groups. But, what if it isn’t?

Is a novel, written with the intention of making civic change, personal writing or civic writing? Is the This I Believe workshop a workshop on personal narrative or a form of civic discussion? Are we already helping people with civic writing, but viewing that writing from a lens that suggests it’s something different? What is civic writing? Does it matter? If so, why? If not, why not? Should we eliminate categories, or just look at them in a new way?

Susan Abney said...

Many years ago on Saturday Night Live, there was a skit called "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy." My posts will likely mirror some of those random deep thoughts so I will call my post "Random Thoughts by Susan Abney."

When I was driving recently, I came to a stop sign that said "Stop THE HATE!" Though this is not a traditional form of civic writing, it does accomplish some of the goals of civic writing. It was effective in it's message and for that person, it served some type of personal and practical purpose. I think that civic writing can take on many forms. Not just by way of letters to the editor, to your senator or even letters of compliment.

Civic writing for me, is a voice. People choose to share their voices through many different avenues. I am not sure if one is more acceptable than others.

Perhaps the education need lies in helping people understand their options in expressing their voice concerning civic matters. In order for a person to write a letter to an editor, that person usually needs to be a reader of that newspaper or magazine. I believe that nearly all people have a voice that should be heard. (as long as they agree with me)

The saying "the writing is on the wall" applies to civic writing. Civic writing comes in many different varieties. Some methods might be more socially acceptable that is true, but I think that we as writers, need to recognize it in it's many different forms.