A Correspondence Writing Assignment

Yellowed business letter, written in 1925 by a Rivets companyThis week I am sharing the second writing assignment in the series of assignments I designed for my technical writing course. The series focuses on tasks related to a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo.

Once they establish a company name and focus, students are ready to undertake messages related to their companies. In the scenario for the second writing assignment, students deal with changes they need to make to support an influx of new employees, hired with the investment funds provided by the incubator.

The goal of this assignment is to help students learn about the differences between letters and memos by designing guidelines for the ways that their companies will use the different kinds of correspondence. Specifically, in order to fulfill the assignment, students have to be able to explain how letters are different from memos.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel & Selber and Stuart Selber.

Background

You will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.

The Scenario

Using the investment funds from the Ut Prosim Incubator, you have just expanded your company by hiring 20 new people. When there were just a few of you, it was easy to make sure everyone presented a consistent message. Now that there are nearly two dozen people making contacts, you will need to be more proactive to ensure that your company correspondence with clients, vendors, local regulators, and the public represents your company consistently and professionally.

To address this need, you will write a memo to all employees that explains the letter-writing style and format that your company follows and include a sample letter that illustrates the style and format as an attachment.

For your assignment, write the related documents:

  • the memo explaining your letter-writing style and format
  • the letter illustrating the style and format

Relevant Details

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Explore the characteristics typical of correspondence in your field.
Think about the documents that you have seen from businesses in your field as your own. You can search the Internet and the textbook for examples as well. Consider characteristics of these documents such as the following:

  • Are they formal, informal, or somewhere in between?
  • How is the company’s contact information conveyed in/on the document?
  • Does the document take advantage of any special features to establish a company brand?
  • What sets the documents apart from those that would be created by people in a different field?
  • What sets the documents apart from those of competitors in the same field?
  • What strategies does the correspondence typically use to emphasize important information?

Step 2: Decide on the general style your business will follow.
Decide on the expectations you will set for your company’s correspondence. Brainstorm a list of required information, details on the typical look and feel, and other features you want employees to include in the letters that they write. Include everything from how to open the letter to the closing and expectations for signatures. If there is specific information that should always be included in letters, model how that information should be included and demonstrate it in your example.

Be sure to consider how to emphasize important information and create organizational structures in your letters (relying in particular on Markel & Selber, Chapter 14). Additionally, create a letterhead format for your company, using appropriate details.

Step 3: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
You will write a memo to all employees in your company that explains your company’s style and format for letters. Use the information from Markel & Selber, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 4: Compose a letter illustrating the style and format your company will follow.
Use the information your gathered in Steps 1 and 2 to write your example letter. Be sure to demonstrate how to emphasize important information and how to organize the letter in a way that makes it clear and easy to read.

For the content of the letter, you can use placeholder text. See the article, How to Use Lorem Ipsum Dolor Placeholder Text, for examples. If you prefer, you may use real letter text that you write as well. Despite the use of placeholder text, be sure that the required layout and format is clear and that any specific details required (such as the signature expectations) are demonstrated.

Step 5: Write a memo to all your employees with the details on your company’s letter style and format.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. Attach your example letter, and point to it as examples of your style as appropriate. You may add annotations to your letter, like the examples in the textbook, if you choose; but be sure that you connect your annotations to your memo directly.

As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 to check your work.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 2.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your correspondence should be polished and professional.

Step 6: Check the drafts for your example letter and your memo for correct use of memo style and format.
Be sure that you include the appropriate headings and expected features for correspondence. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 14 (on page 386 of Markel & Selber).

Step 7. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 8: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 09/05 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your bio by September 6. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 9: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 09/05 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by September 10 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 10: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 11: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Correspondence Project finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Fulfills the purpose or goal of the project.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Letters

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective letters, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 14 of Markel & Selber:

  • Uses letterhead stationery for the first page.
  • Includes the date.
  • Includes the complete and correct inside address.
  • Uses the appropriate courtesy title.
  • Includes an attention line, if appropriate.
  • Includes a subject line, if appropriate.
  • Uses the appropriate salutation.
  • Capitalizes only the first word of the complimentary close.
  • Includes a legible signature legible, with the writer’s name typed beneath the signature.
  • Includes an enclosure line, if appropriate.
  • Includes a copy and/or courtesy-copy line, if appropriate.
  • Uses one of the standard letter formats.

For Memos

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective memos, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 14 of Markel & Selber:

  • Uses the identifying information that adheres to your organization’s standards.
  • Includes a specific subject line.
  • States your purpose clearly at the start of the memo.
  • Summarizes your message, if appropriate.
  • Provides appropriate background for the discussion.
  • Organizes the discussion clearly.
  • Includes informative headings to help your readers.
  • Highlights items requiring action.

As I originally designed the assignment, it also included an email message. Students were to write an email to their co-founders, asking them to review the memo and letter and offer any advice for improving the message. I like the idea of asking students to demonstrate an understanding of the characteristics of email messages in addition to letters and memos. Given the other work in the course however, I decided that adding an email component would be too much. With more time for the unit, I would certainly consider including it.

The next assignment in the sequence focuses on technical description in a rewrite of an assignment I designed to ask students to think about diversity in the workplace. Come back next week to read more, and if you have any feedback for me, please leave a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Incubator Info Sheet Assignment

Black fingers typing on a computer keyboardIn my last post, I described my plan to organize a series of assignments for my technical writing course around a fictional business incubator. This week, I have the first of those assignments to share with you.

For the series to work, I need students to choose a company that they will focus on for the assignments they will write. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo. In the scenario, their information will be combined with that of other new companies that are joining the incubator for a presentation at the first meeting of all the members of the incubator.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Background

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes. You can read more about the incubator and how the projects connect on the Writing Projects Overview page.

The Scenario

During your first week as an Ut Prosim Incubator member, you receive the following memo:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: CEOs of New Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Your Company Info Sheet

Date: August 27, 2018

Welcome to the Ut Prosim Incubator! We are all so happy to have you join the Fall 2018 class of entrepreneurs.

I know you are still settling into your office, so our first all-company meeting will not take place for a few weeks. At this meeting, you will introduce your company to the other members of the Incubator.

The meeting will be informal, but we do want to prepare handouts and slides to share with attendees. We will also post the basic information that you provide on the Incubator website, for the possible research partners on campus, potential investors, and the public.

Please send the following information to me by September 7:

  • Your Company Name
  • Your Company CEO (use the name you want to appear in official documentation)
  • Your Company Mission Statement (a statement of your company’s goals and values)
  • Your Company Overview (explain what you company does, including whatever research you do, products your create, or services you provide)
  • Your Company’s Target Audience (who are the customers you serve or hope to serve)

Do not worry about formatting or design in your response. We will format the information for all the companies according to the Incubator’s branding and style guidelines.

We will send out a meeting announcement once a place and time have been confirmed. In the mean time, if you need any help settling in, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your business.

Decide what your company will do—will you focus on products or services? You will focus on the company that you imagine for the entire term, so choose something that you know well. Sure, you can be creative, but create something doable that you have experience with (or at least strong knowledge of). Additionally, your focus must directly relate to your major.

As long as you comply with those two stipulations, you can focus on anything you want to. You have capital, staff, and resources to do whatever you set your mind to.

Step 2: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
Review the memo above and decide who the audience is for the memo you have to write and for the information that you have to gather. Use the information from Markel, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 3: Determine the information that the memo requests.
Work through the memo above and find the information that you have to provide in your response. Once you find the list of requested information, decide on your responses. You are creating your business, so you get to create the answers for all the requested information. Don’t get stuck on perfectionism at this point. Compile your ideas, but know you can always come back to revise.

Step 4: Write a memo to me with the details.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Even though sophisticated formatting is not required, ensure that your answers are easy to find and read.
  • Check your draft for the use of plain language.
  • Ensure that you follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you create your responses, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 2.
  • Be sure that your memo makes a good impression with accuracy and correctness. It should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft for correct use of memo format.
Be sure that you include the memo headings (To, From, Subject, and Date). For more details on memo format, consult Chapter 14 of Markel.

Step 6. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 08/29 Peer Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your memo by August 30. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group by September 4 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in Steps 4, 5, and 6 above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your response in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Info Sheet memo finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

Your project should meet the following criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Uses memo format with the appropriate headers.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

Credit: Ut Prosim Incubator logo created with “Incubator” by lastspark from the Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

So far the assignment has gone well. The biggest challenge I have had to deal with (other than the typical questions about due dates and the like) has been ill-chosen companies that do not actually relate to the student’s major. Many of the students are new to the memo format, but the peer feedback activity and the revision time they have should take care of any issues that come up.

In my next post, I will share a correspondence assignment that is the next step in the course. In the meantime if you have any comments to share on this assignment of the series in general, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

New Assignments in the Incubator

Twelve Wynadotte bantam eggs in an incubator, 6 larger white eggs on the left and 6 smaller partridge colored on the rightThis fall, I am designing new assignments for the  Technical Writing courses that I teach. During the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and activities with you all. The first step in my process was to determine these basic kinds of assignments I would ask students to create:

  • Correspondence (to include letters, memos, and email)
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents (or Instructions)
  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper (a report for non-experts)
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

My next goal was to create an overarching theme for the assignments. In addition to unifying the assignments, the theme allows students to become familiar with one writing scenario that they work with during the entire term. This strategy enables students to jump into writing more quickly, rather than spending time figuring out the background situation for each assignment first. Naturally, there are still rhetorical parameters for students to analyze for each activity, but the information from one assignment helps them determine the details of the next.

For the theme to work, it must support all of the assignments I had planned for students from a range of backgrounds. Students in the course are studying areas such as engineering, computer science, forestry, wildlife conservation, dairy science, and building construction. I needed to find a way that all these different careers would interact and write similar kinds of documents.

My solution was a business incubator that would bring together all these students to help them launch a new business. Not every student plans to go out into the world to create a new business; but the scenario is familiar enough that they are able to play along and imagine how they would work in the situation.

In my posts for the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and how they relate to the theme. This week, I want to share the basic details for the theme and activities that the class will focus on this term. One local parameter that you need to know about is the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim, which translates to “That I may serve.” This motto drives a lot of service projects and outreach at Virginia Tech, so it was a natural addition to the incubator scenario. Students are very familiar with the motto, so I do not need to explain it in the course documents. Here is the Writing Projects Overview, which explains the overarching writing project theme to students:

In this course, you will write a series of connected projects that you will submit in two batches (Portfolio 1 and Portfolio 2). As explained in the Grading Policies and Standards, these portfolios are collections of the original writing that you do in the course, such as memos and reports. As we begin on these projects, I want to explain how the projects are connected. The full details on these projects will be included in the relevant Canvas modules.

What goes into the two Portfolios?

Portfolio 1 will consist of four shorter pieces:

  • Info Sheet
  • Correspondence Project
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents

Portfolio 2 will focus on research-based documents, which will be a bit longer and/or more complex:

  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

So how do the projects connect?

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes.

What is a business incubator?

According to “Incubating Success. Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures” (2011), business incubators are “designed to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services, developed or orchestrated by incubator management, and offered both in the incubator and through its network of contacts” (15).

There is much more to what an incubator does and how it works, but for our purposes you just need to understand that it is a place the provides support to help beginning companies succeed.

So what will companies in this incubator do?

Naturally, starting a company is a complex endeavor that involves many decisions, specific legal and financial work, and a significant amount of planning. For this class, we will assume that most of that work is already done. We will generally assume that your company is happily chugging along, doing whatever it is that your company does. That might be making a product, providing a service, researching innovations, and so forth.

You will define the work that your company does, but beyond that you will not need to worry about that part of the scenario. You will focus more on creating some technical writing documents that relate to the company you create.

What makes the Ut Prosim Incubator special?

Our make-believe incubator was founded by some well-established and successful Virginia Tech graduates who wanted to give back to younger graduates by helping them get started in the business world. They have created a program that supports any kind of company with the one requirement that the company participates in the special projects that the Incubator undertakes as a whole.

These special projects relate to the mission of the Ut Prosim Incubator to reach out and work in ways that support others. The founders of the incubator have extended the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (“that I may serve”) to their own mission and motto, “that I may serve through my business.” To clarify, the incubator asks that member companies participate in programs that support causes like sustainability, environmental stewardship, mentorship of young entrepreneurs, and public outreach and education.

How do the writing projects relate to the Ut Prosim Incubator?

Project Short Description
Info Sheet You will create a short information sheet that introduces your company to others in the incubator. There will be a specific list of information to provide, including your company name, what it does, and your company’s typical customers.
Correspondence Project You will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.
Technical Description

You will write a technical description related to your field (such as a tool that is typically used or a process that is part of your industry). The description will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The description will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company.

User Documents

You will also write the user document that students will use in the diversity initiative described above. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.
Short Proposal You will write a short research proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to the incubator goal of public outreach and education.
White Paper

You will write an informational report for non-experts that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

Progress Report You will write a progress report that updates incubator staff on the work you have done on your white paper.

Poster Presentation

You will design a poster presentation, based on the details in your white paper, that will be part of a poster session that the incubator sponsors for the local community. Like the white paper, the presentation will focus on the incubator goal of public outreach and education. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

So that’s the overarching plan for the term. Everything is in progress, but I’m not far enough along yet to have any feedback from students. I will share more when I do, and next week, I will share the first assignment that asks them to write a memo with the basic details about their companies. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions about the course, please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

[Photo: Incubator-9128 by graibeard on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.