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Master of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing

Choosing a Form

In the introduction, we saw that a professional writing portfolio (PWP) can be defined as a purposeful collection of writing assembled to demonstrate specified writing capabilities to a professional audience. And we compared a PWP to a three-dimensional or amplified résumé. If you have experience creating résumés, you are probably aware that certain criteria determine the form of the résumé. The criteria for choosing a PWP form are similar to the criteria you would use to choose a particular résumé form. In both instances, the form ultimately chosen depends on the intended purpose and audience. We will examine three possible PWP forms, which parallel the three standard résumé forms: historical, functional, and targeted. Even though these PWP forms are presented as three separate options, in reality writers will benefit most by creating all three forms. It is also most beneficial to create them in the order presented below.

The Historical PWP: What have I done so far?

Most people think of a résumé as a chronological account of personal, educational, and professional qualifications and experiences. This definition most appropriately applies to a historical résumé. It is quite helpful to create a historical résumé first. Why? Because before one can plan for the future, one must assess the past. For this reason, when putting together a PWP, it is best to start with the historical form. The historical PWP is very similar to the folio in that it represents everything the writer has done, from past to present. Notice that it represents everything, but is not everything. In the historical PWP, the writer attempts to demonstrate his/her growth or writing experiences over a period of time.

This kind of demonstration serves two specific functions. First, and foremost, it serves the writer. Pulling together a historical PWP allows you to see yourself from a distanced viewpoint, somewhat objectively. When assembled, the collected works literally tell a story about you that answers the question, “What have I done so far?” And in telling that story, you can see what influences have impacted you, thus making you who you are today. This story is especially useful for self-evaluation. Second, the historical PWP allows outside observers to see where the writer has been, and how that writer has evolved over time. Higher education administrators and professors can use the historical PWP to assess student writers, courses, and departmental programs. Professional audiences can use it to understand the writer’s ability to master new concepts or to better grasp the writer’s individual style. Consider the case of Joanne McKinney:

Joanne McKinney is a technical writer in her third semester of the PTW program. She is currently employed at an educational facility where she writes textbooks. In her senior year of high school, Joanne decided that she would continue to study writing. For that reason she is including her final term paper as the first historical PWP piece. Later, in college, Joanne took several writing courses that really improved her writing ability and affected her writing style. She selects two or three pieces from that time to include. From her first job as a newspaper reporter, she includes a front-page article. From her second job as a magazine reporter, she includes a series piece on quilting. From her graduate work in the PTW program, Joanne includes a technical report and a rhetorical theory paper. Then, from her present job, she includes a chapter from a language arts textbook. As a result, Joanne’s historical PWP clearly represents her life as a writer.

The Functional PWP: What can I do? For whom?

Even though most people start with the historical résumé, the functional résumé is probably the most widely used. Moving from the historical form to the functional form is a natural progression because once you have determined what you have done, you are better able to determine what you can do. Compared to the historical form, the functional résumé focuses more on capabilities than work experiences. For individuals with numerous abilities but little work experience (all together, or in a desired field), the functional résumé is particularly helpful. Like the functional résumé, a functional PWP provides a more versatile platform for the writer to demonstrate what she/he can do, and for whom.

Joanne has recently become interested in medical writing, finding it more appealing than her current job. Joanne’s historical PWP would be ill-suited for medical writing because it would require employers to infer that journalism, technical reporting, and educational writing command all of the skills needed for medical writing. Instead, Joanne needs a PWP that focuses on her capabilities as a medical writer.

When assembling a functional PWP, the question “for whom?” must be addressed first because it will affect what materials will be included. The functional PWP is the first one of our three forms to place a critical value on audience. However, at this level, the term “audience” is still a rather broad concept. While the general audience is determined, the specific members or groups within it are not. Regarding her new interest in medical writing, consider Joanne’s general audience:

At present Joanne is not aware of a specific job opportunity, she just knows that she wants to get into medical writing. She does not yet have a preference within medical writing (i.e., cardiology or oncology). Therefore, Joanne’s broad audience is the medical writing community, or employers of medical writers. So, she creates a functional PWP aimed at that audience. Should she decide that she prefers cardiology, she would then gear her functional PWP towards cardiologists, or employers of medical writers specializing in cardiology. Either way, her audience does not yet have a true face. It is field-specific, but not organization- or position-specific.

The Targeted PWP: What can I do for YOU?

Going back to the résumé analogy, the targeted résumé is tailored for a particular position. It is precisely aimed at a specific company or individual, and seeks to demonstrate the individual’s qualifications for a particular position. In the same manner, the targeted PWP is prepared with an exact position in mind, perhaps for a scheduled interview.

Joanne, after much networking, has discovered an open position as a medical writer for an obstetrician researching the correlation between prenatal diet and fetus growth. The position does not require subject matter expertise, but does require a general understanding of pregnancy trimesters, the ability to interpret data into writing, and the ability to write clear and logical research reports for medical journals. Joanne’s targeted PWP would demonstrate as many of her qualifications as possible that meet or exceed the requirements of the position.

To briefly review, we have seen that a historical PWP is used to demonstrate a writer’s growth and experience over time and should contain materials that communicate growth and experience. Then we moved on to learn that functional PWPs demonstrate capabilities. Functional PWP materials should reveal capabilities that are valued by a field-specific audience group. Finally, we stated that targeted PWPs are created with a specific position or interview in mind. Its contents demonstrate the writer’s qualifications for the position offered.

Now that you have an understanding of the possible forms of the PWP, you can begin to select the writing samples that best demonstrate your abilities.

Updated 11.8.2008