A closer look at the students who enroll in Certificate in Professional Writing courses reveals a microcosm of Penn LPS Online as a whole: adults from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds pursue professional writing skills in these accelerated online courses. Students pursuing the certificate learn alongside students who are completing the writing requirement for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree as well as those who are just taking an individual course to explore the subject matter. Any individual course may include seasoned professionals and career changers updating their skill sets, academic scholars seeking to communicate their research more effectively, and new or inexperienced writers in search of confidence and expertise.
In other words, anyone could benefit from instruction in professional writing because everyone puts these skills to work. “We sometimes unwittingly become professional writers when we're trying to set up meetings or to communicate an idea or event to others,” explains Valerie Ross, Faculty Director of the Certificate in Professional Writing. “The professional world is all about inducing cooperation in others. Professional writers—in the workplace and other organizations—are continually communicating in an effort to get things done.”
In addition to her role as faculty director for the certificate, Ross is the Director of the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing at Penn, which provides instruction and support for undergraduate and graduate students across the University. “Our program is very research-oriented, which is one of the things that distinguishes us from many other writing programs,” says Ross. “We do a lot of research on the knowledge domains that you have to master in order to be a good writer. We also hire people who have had not only academic but professional writing experience. We continually gather data and test our pedagogical strategies and their effects, and we have regular meetings of our multidisciplinary faculty to analyze and explore our findings.”
The Certificate in Professional Writing courses are taught by Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing instructors who can provide that broad view of writing expertise and the depth of their own experience—which is imparted to students through instructor feedback as well as lectures and readings. “They get a great deal of individual attention in our courses,” says Ross. “Instead of a long paper at the end of the course, we provide many short, frequent assignments that advance your writing skills, and provide you with feedback on all of these assignments, so that we are in nearly constant communication with our students.”
What is professional writing—and why is it important?
At its core, professional writing is any communication that helps employees exchange information; persuade and inform others; and build and document knowledge through various types of writing or what is often called “discourse”—internally, with colleagues and employers, or externally to customers and clients. All of this writing is focused on achieving a desired outcome. That includes the types of text produced by professionals whose job title includes the word “writer,” such as blog posts and press releases, but also everyday communication like emails and text messages. “Genre is a key concept that we feature right from the beginning in our introductory courses,” says Matthew Osborn, Associate Director of the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing. Osborn teaches PROW 4000: Writing for Social Media, which examines different kinds of social media posts as genres. When students observe how a celebratory social media announcement differs from a crisis management response in form as well as content, they can more effectively communicate on those fast-paced platforms without mishap. In PROW 1000: Fundamentals of Professional Writing, students may be surprised to find themselves assigned to write a passive-aggressive text message. “That one that tends to be most transformative for students,” laughs Ross. “They really get a sense of tone, and how you can create tone even with the tiniest snippet of words.”
Many genres explored in the certificate courses fall outside of what we traditionally think of as writing—including charts, images, and formatting. Dana Walker, Lecturer in Critical Writing at the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing, tasks students in PROW 2000: Writing with Data with comparing how two economists presented their data differently in an academic article, a news article, and an Instagram post. “Same data, just writing for different audiences,” explains Walker. “Students are surprised at the rhetorical impact of a slight change in presentation of information in charts and graphs, or what needs to be done to make a table or figure accessible, or how informal or formal they need to be. Those are all choices that a writer makes, consciously or otherwise.”
The small, nuts-and-bolts assignments of the introductory courses lead up to bigger-picture concepts like storytelling, crisis communication plans, and branding or social media campaigns. “I try to shatter that myth of the creative writer who was born creative,” says Fayyaz Vellani, Lecturer in Critical Writing. “There are actual techniques and tools you can use to deliver a good story.”
In a recently added course, PROW 401: Composing a Professional Identity, students are encouraged to think about their career trajectory as a kind of story or campaign: “The new course brings together a lot of threads of other classes in our certificate: thinking about how you actually map out your career, how to put together a campaign about yourself that effectively tells your story,” adds Ross.
What can a Certificate in Professional Writing do for you?
With a wide range of genres to explore, there are as many practical applications for professional writing skills as there are professions—but you can count on practice and support as you develop your abilities in a few key objectives.
1. Make your case
“When we say writing, we’re talking about rhetoric: how you use symbols and words to inform and persuade people,” says Ross. “While there’s no bias in numbers as such, how you construct a table, the decision as to what to include or exclude, what to put first and second, even what colors to use, are all rhetorical choices that will shape how your audience understands and responds to it,” adds Walker. Becoming an effective communicator means understanding the range and weight of those choices and cultivating an awareness of your audience so you can make informed decisions about how to convey information.
2. Think on your feet
According to Ross, one of the defining characteristics of professional writing is that it usually happens on a deadline. “Unlike academics or creative writers, professionals don't have a lot of time to develop their work,” she says. “They have to be highly adaptable and responsive, able to write on the spot and do so crisply, quickly, factually, and persuasively. It's an impressive, seldom acknowledged skill set.”
The best way to get up to speed is to become familiar with the relevant genres—and to practice, so that you can think fast. One of Vellani’s students from PROW 3010: The Power of Storytelling happened to run into a cable CEO one day—and had a brief window in which to make an elevator pitch. “He got angel investor funding because he knew how to tell the story,” Vellani recalls. “Stories happen in doctors' offices. They happen in workplaces. They just happen.”
3. Connect to others
PROW students interact with one another as much as they interact with their instructors, which exposes them to other working adults who have unique insight or even professional opportunities to share. “People finding communities in these online courses, and using these online tools to communicate with each other, has been a feature of the classes that I’ve really enjoyed—and I think students have really enjoyed as well,” says Vellani.
As Walker points out, the online community is also a practice ground for connecting with professionals in other fields, experience levels, and even time zones. “Students learn a lot from each other. They have pretty different strengths and backgrounds, and that gives them lots of practice in communicating with others who do not share their expertise. That is the reality of most workplace writing: learning how to communicate with a wide range of individuals representing sometimes a vast continuum of expertise,” she says.
4. Expand your professional portfolio
While every exercise is designed to increase your fluency in professional writing genres and best practices, some students have turned their assignments into career opportunities: with experience and feedback on writing press releases and social media posts, professionals can make the case for contributing those skills to their own companies, volunteer organizations, or hobby communities.
For others, the writing assignments provide a taste of a potential new career path: envisioning the social media platform for your passion project or side business is the first step toward making it a reality. “There’s a sense that, now that your concept is on a Facebook page, you can actually do something with it—cultivate a following, take a small business online, or begin to develop a community around an issue or interest,” says Osborn. “The digital presence brings their ideas alive. It’s empowering.”
5. Have courage
Professional writing students encounter the concept of the affective domain when they explore how to appeal to an audience’s emotions. In reflective writing exercises throughout the courses, they learn how to understand their own. “The affective domain is such a pivotal piece of a skillful writer,” says Ross. “How much confidence do I have when I put my writing out there? How frightened am I of feedback? What do I do with these emotions I feel as I write or prepare to share my writing? These are important aspects of the affective domain for all learning, but they are really important for writing, because writing is the manifestation, the end product, if you will, that must be done for the work to go on.”
But for the time you’re enrolled in a Penn LPS Online course, you write in the company of a diverse, motivated community—and an enthusiastic support team. “Online turns out to be a really wonderful way to learn and teach writing, and the students are fantastic,” says Ross. “They earn their confidence.”
The Penn LPS Online Certificate in Professional Writing is open for enrollment. To read more about the benefits of Penn LPS Online certificates, visit our feature: “What are certificates—and why do working professionals increasingly find them worthwhile?”
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