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Master of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing

Selecting Content

Materials for the PWP are selected from the Folio. But before choosing from the folio materials, you should determine what qualities/abilities you wish to demonstrate. As you determine them, write down and rank those qualities/abilities.

Note: The context of your particular PWP will usually dictate the qualities/abilities you need to demonstrate as well as the form (historical, functional, or targeted) that you choose. Writing down and ranking those qualities will provide you with a possible organization.

While each PWP will demonstrate the specific qualities and abilities of its particular writer, there are several qualities that should be present in all PWPs. In order to determine what those qualities are, let’s discuss what the Central Arkansas business community has to say. When interviewed, 76 professional writers and business persons within the Central Arkansas area cited writing skills as desirable in an employee or co-worker, or in a PWP. These skills include Proofreading, Editing, Content, Structure, Rhetorical/Audience Analysis, and Workplace skills.

It is to your advantage to demonstrate as many of these skills as possible. However, to try and include a document or work for every one of these qualities would place you back at the folio stage. Instead, try to select works from the folio that demonstrate numerous skills. Even though some qualities may stand out more than others within a piece, you can still highlight the other qualities to demonstrate additional abilities.

A technical report Joanne completed reveals her strength in organization, so she considers including it. With further analysis, she might discover that she uses correct grammar throughout and that she successfully describes a complex subject in a simplified way. It is a good piece to include because it demonstrates several strengths at once.

As you are selecting pieces and noting their strengths, it’s a good idea to record the justification for including them in your chosen PWP form. It doesn’t have to be a formal analysis of the piece (although that would be beneficial), just a few quick thoughts about what each piece says about your writing ability. Later on, when presenting the PWP, you might decide to include a formal analysis, or simply want some script notes for discussing your works; in that case, these preliminary notes can be very valuable and time-saving.

So far, we’ve looked at the qualities that should be displayed in all PWP forms. Now, we are going to address how you might go about selecting the content for each of our three PWP forms.

Selecting Content for the Historical PWP

Understanding that a historical PWP represents everything the writer has done from the past until now and that it demonstrates a writer’s growth and/or experiences over a period of time, you have a framework for selecting your content. Throughout your historical PWP, you are literally trying to tell a story about yourself. In telling that story, one factor that will influence your content is the time period or context (e.g., undergraduate work, work completed for a particular employer) you wish to cover. The time period or context may be predetermined by an outside source (an admissions committee, employer, etc.). Once you have identified the time period or context, you will need to note the key events in your story. These key events could be poignant periods of growth, job changes, major transitions–anything that you would make a point to tell someone about yourself regarding the time period or context identified. With these key events in mind, look for folio materials that came from events or that demonstrate the action associated with the key events. Keep in mind that even though you may be present to narrate the story your historical PWP tells, the content you choose should be able to stand on its own and still tell the same story.

In her graduate-level expository writing course, Joanne has been asked to create a historical PWP that demonstrates how her writing has changed over the period of the course. At the end of the semester, Joanne has completed over 10 writing assignments; some of which were 10 pages or more. To include everything would make her PWP unmanageable for herself and her instructor. Reviewing the events of the semester, Joanne thinks of four points of growth regarding her writing in the course: (1) The way she writes descriptions changed. (2) She gained a new understanding of her writing process. (3) She was challenged to write sentences that showed emotions instead of telling about them. And (4) the amount of peer review offered in class allowed her to better articulate her point. Joanne then looks for writing samples that illustrate these four points. Her first paper, an essay on olive trees, required major revision after her initial draft was returned by the instructor. That experience changed the way she writes descriptions, so she includes that essay along with the first marked-up draft. Next, she includes the long paper she completed on photography because it required such effort that Joanne was forced to determine her optimum writing times. She also picks a short autobiographical essay that challenged her to write about her emotions. Finally, she inserts a letter to the editor that required several peer reviews before completion. In this historical PWP, Joanne would need to introduce the content with a cover essay conveying her reasons for including each piece.

Selecting Content for the Functional PWP

Selecting the content for a functional PWP can be quite intimidating. For most people, the task of laying aside what one has done and focusing on what one can do is difficult. Too often our identities are frozen in our current or previous jobs or careers. This makes it appear improbable that we could be of service in a new occupation. Breaking from this mind set requires deliberate thinking, and is necessary when assembling a functional PWP.

A particularly motivating book that addresses this change in mind set is What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. In his book, Bolles encourages job-seekers to understand the concept of skills. Within the functional PWP, the following truths about skills are especially relevant.

  • Skills are the most basic unit–the atoms–of whatever career you may choose.
  • Skills are transferable, from one career to another.
  • The essence of career-change is not so much the mastering of new skills, as it is the rearrangement of old skills into new priorities, and hence new patterns (195-97).

These truths about skills allow writers to break out of the prescribed mold of student or secretary or journalist or whatever because they draw the focus away from the writer’s job title to the writer’s abilities. Work completed as a class assignment or for a friend or for free is not irrelevant or insignificant. With this mind set, every work says something about the writer. The writer must then determine what is being said.

Bolles likens skills to children’s building blocks stacked in a pyramid fashion, where each block represents a particular skill (197). By changing the order of the blocks/skills, you can change your career. The same principle applies to the functional PWP.

In the functional PWP, you must return to the folio and the historical PWP to look for your specific skill-blocks (abilities). This necessitates that you closely inspect each work with an eye for discovery and ingenuity. It is beneficial to list and rank your abilities in order of preference on paper. This list should be kept with the folio materials, as it will be helpful in creating numerous functional PWPs. The next step is to investigate what skills are relevant and valued in your potential career field and record them.

Since Joanne is interested in medical writing, she looks over her historical PWP and her folio to determine what her skills are and how those skills might be applicable to medical writing. After her review, she lists her skills (writing instructions, composing biographical essays, conducting effective research, writing biological pieces, organizing, and using correct grammar). Next, based on her understanding of the field, Joanne lists the skills needed for medical writing (writing descriptions, understanding biology, conducting research, using correct grammar, understanding anatomy, and being self-motivated). With these guidelines, Joanne remembers that one of her magazine articles on azaleas provided detailed descriptions of the different strains, so she selects it. Then, after re-reading one of her newspaper articles about breast cancer, she notes the amount of research in medical journals it required and decides to include it (and so on…).

Selecting Content for the Targeted PWP

What materials you decide to include in the targeted PWP will depend on the exact job position or interview in mind. The potential job positions or interviews for which you would need a targeted PWP could number infinity. Since no guide could possibly cover that many options, we will focus on where to get the information needed regarding the audience of your targeted PWP. The targeted PWP audience is the most critical factor in selecting materials because that audience will be viewing/screening your portfolio according to their values. It is your job to find out what those values are. In most cases you would already be investigating those values in preparation for your interview.

There are several places where you can find out what skills are valuable to a particular company or group. The first place to look is your university career placement office. It is possible that the company has previously interviewed students on your campus. Second, try the library. Perhaps the company or group is featured in a periodical or daily newspaper. Third, seek out individuals who have or are contacts in the company or group and ask their advice. Find out everything you can about your targeted PWP audience.

Now, go back through the folio, historical PWP, and functional PWP and pull out writing samples that demonstrate the valued qualities relevent to the job you are applying to. Throughout the selection process, continue to go back over the materials to eliminate not-so-relevant samples. Picture yourself as those audience members and try to view the works as an audience member.

Joanne has discovered a 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. Further investigation reveals that the obstetrician prefers to delegate library research to his writer, and that he frequently procrastinates writing research results until two weeks before a deadline. Joanne then creates her values list.

Joanne then begins to select materials. She picks a statistics report she completed in an undergraduate course to demonstrate her ability to interpret statistical data. She then selects three lengthy magazine articles written under a short deadline. Joanne has two children, and therefore is personally experienced with pregnancy trimesters, but doesn’t have a writing sample about pregnancy trimesters, so she writes a short essay on the differences in her two pregnancies. And so on. Eventually, Joanne selects and filters out enough writing samples to suit her.

So far in Step Three, we have examined the criteria for selecting materials to include in your historical, functional, and targeted PWPs. The selection of materials is a critical step because the materials are the substance of PWPs. If the materials are poorly chosen, no matter how impressively they are packaged, the PWP will reflect poorly on the presenter. At this point, you are finished with the most intricate steps (Steps One through Three) of the PWP process. The rest of the steps (Steps Four through Seven) will help you to fine tune what you have done so far.

How many items should I include? You might be concerned about how many items to actually include in the PWP. Well, too much and too little are hard to clearly determine. A general rule is: avoid overkill. Just remember that a PWP is a sample of your capabilities. If you are struggling with this aspect, ask a mentor for his/her opinion.

Updated 11.8.2008