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Return of the WAs

By Maki Somosot ’12

With 33 current and the same number of former writing associates in attendance, Swarthmore’s Writing Associates (WA) Program’s 25th reunion weekend began in fine style on the evening of March 18 with a keynote speech from William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science Kenneth Sharpe. Rather than focus on ways in which the WAs had supported and improved student writing, he talked about the program’s impact on the WAs themselves. A co-author of the 2010 book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Sharpe said: “One of the unsung blessings of the WA Program is that it has caused you to learn to be better citizen-teachers … by ‘causing you to learn’ the practical wisdom that good teaching demands.”

An overview of the WA program’s history began at the next morning’s session. Panels were organized around a variety of themes related to the practice of writing after Swarthmore, such as writing for graduate school and for professions in law, media, trade, science, policy, and advocacy. Each panel included former WAs who spoke about their personal experiences with writing in their respective fields and specialties.

A common challenge of post-Swarthmore writing for these WA alumni emerged: the need to know your audience and to determine what they want to read. For those in professional fields, complicating this challenge is finding a balance between writing for an audience of laypeople unschooled in a technical subject and providing an informed, comprehensive perspective. Panelists such as Newsweek reporter Ian Yarrett ’09 underscored the importance of “enlivening” the text to help maintain and attract a reader base. For Yarrett, the biggest struggle was “getting out of academic writing mode,” switching to a more “mainstream writing structure and tone” and answering the “So what?” question in every story that he wrote.

“The hardest part is realizing that you can’t ‘caveat’ everything too much,” said Maya Schenwar ’05, executive director of independent news site Truth Out. Yarrett and Schenwar also noted a change of terminology in their writing upon leaving Swarthmore, which tends to promote its own special “Swat jargon” for certain social issues.

The rise of new media has affected the dissemination of writing, reaching a broader target audience with a newfound preference for more personalized, subjective accounts. What do these former WAs take away from their WA background? “The ability to sit down with someone, hand out potentially threatening criticisms about his or her writing, and put those in a positive light,” many panelists concurred. More broadly, irrespective of writing, they have learned to initiate thoughtful and considerate communication with others—a crucial life skill that carried over from the Swarthmore bubble to the real world.

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