Congratulations to "write on!" winners and honorees

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Madison Writing Awards Ceremony
In celebration of writing across the curriculum
Jonathan R. Alger
March 29 2013

Congratulations to all of our winners and honorees!

Your accomplishments today reflect the heart of our institution’s educational mission. In this age of technology and tweets of 140 characters or less, many people question the value of a liberal arts education and high-quality writing seems to be in short supply. Excellent writing requires an immense amount of time, crafting, and precision. It is a time-consuming task that requires intense attention to detail as well as organization and creativity. With the quick and efficient text, sound bites, and lightning-fast communication we see today, the art of skilled writing has perhaps been lost on many. Yet employers constantly tell us that communication skills are vital to success and leadership in all fields—especially good writing. They tell us that in addition to the qualifications they explicitly seek in job searches, they are also looking for candidates who can write and communicate effectively.I have been reading a lot about James Madison the statesman lately, also known of course as the Father of the Constitution and our country’s fourth president. Like you all, he was an avid scholar, reader and writer. He read virtually any text he good get his hands on, but also wrote frequently. It seems especially fitting, given these aspects of our namesake, that we celebrate good writing and its importance in higher education and our society here at James Madison University.

I would argue that written expression is timeless and that we need high-quality writing now more than ever. It is rare and valued. Good writing can educate us, organize our thoughts, tell stories, paint pictures with words, create emotions, or persuade us to make decisions or take action. No matter what you do in your life and career, good writing will be noticed and can make a difference.

When I was at the University of Michigan, I dealt with cases on diversity in education at the Supreme Court level. My experience in dealing with U.S. Supreme Court cases is a good example of how writing can make a lasting impact. For one, we had very precise page and word limits in our legal briefs. Therefore, our writing not only had to be meticulous and compelling, but also concise and efficient. Not to mention that we knew the arguments we were making in two landmark cases could live on for many years to come. Every nuance in word selection, sentence structure, and organization could not be left ambiguous. In matters of law, the most minute details can carry heavy influence. We also had to consider multiple audiences as we wrote—not just the court of law, but also the court of public opinion. We knew that we had to recognize that the Supreme Court justices were human beings with real life experiences as well as experiences with higher education. Thus, abstract reasoning was not enough—we had to be persuasive and to make the arguments real and relevant. I felt like a lifetime of writing up to that point had helped to prepare me for those moments and assisted me in working with a team to craft a message that met multiple objectives. I imagine that you all might have similar experiences in the future.

Like the students here today, I always loved to write. Even as a young child, I not only completed my school writing assignments, but frequently wrote for fun. In fact, to celebrate my inauguration here as president just a couple of weeks ago, my parents brought with them a whole collection of stories and poems that I wrote as a child and that my grandparents had saved. My 14-year-old daughter Eleanor got a kick out of reading some of these “ancient” manuscripts! I did not fully appreciate it back then, but I am thankful now that my grandparents and parents encouraged me to write and saw the value in it.

As I flipped through some of the pages my fingers had touched many decades ago, I noticed some spelling errors and what seemed like trivial stories. But as I looked back at those childhood memories, I was reminded that writing is a process of lifelong learning. We are constantly learning and improving our writing. It is not a task that is learned and then completed after a certain level. It requires constant practice and a dogmatic commitment to communicating the right message.

That is what James Madison University wants for all of you—to use the critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills honed at this institution throughout the rest of your life. Here at JMU, we make a point of opening doors for each other—and that is what we hope your Madison education will do for you. You never know where your writing might take you, or what doors it might open for you.

When I am hiring people, I always require cover letters and I look at them very carefully. I ask myself questions as I read them. Does the person know their audience? Do they take care with their expression? Is it clear? Does it reflect something about this individual? Did they do their homework? Do they pay attention to details? You can discover so much about a person from their writing. Good writers have many of the same attributes as good athletes—they are dedicated to their craft, work hard, and constantly hone their skills to stay sharp and improve.

In my first professional job at a law firm, I worked often with a partner, Jim, who was a brilliant thinker but was very busy and needed help polishing his writing. He would dictate thoughts on a Dictaphone for a legal brief, and then ask me to turn it into a coherent, persuasive brief. His best advice to me was to take what was recorded, but then “make it sing.” Grammar, punctuation, and organization are all vital to a good piece of writing, but figurative language, imagery, soaring phrases, or even just compelling persuasion are all part of the “song” Jim was imagining. That is what I wish for all of you with your writing as you go forward. Take care in it, take pride in it, and make it sing!

Congratulations to all of you!

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Published: Friday, March 29, 2013

Last Updated: Wednesday, June 8, 2016

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