Dear John

A “friend” of mine must have recently made a donation in my name to the Republican Party because I’ve been getting letters from the likes of Dino Rossi and John McCain.  Last Monday’s was “From the Desk of John McCain.” 

Hard to believe, but a reputable institution of higher education pays me to teach writing on occasion.  I last taught a writing seminar in the fall of 2007 and I’m not scheduled to teach another until the spring of 2009.  So, to stay fresh, I’ve decided to grade the letter “From the Desk of John McCain.” 

When I assess my students’ writing, I always start with three or more strengths.  Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes, not so much.  Next, I identify what I term “next steps” which helps create more positive momentum than the more conventional “weaknesses.”  I limit myself to three “next steps” so as not to overwhelm the student or presidential candidate.  Often, as in today’s example, that requires prioritizing.  Finally, I close with a summary sentence and the only thing some students and presidential candidates care about, the almighty letter grade.

Dear John,

I enjoyed reading your letter.  It’s obvious you spent a lot of time on it, which is admirable given the fact that you have been traveling a lot lately.  Among other strengths, the following four stood out.  First, you do an excellent job of masking your age.  For example, when you refer to your “vision for our country,” when you explain your need to “hit the ground running” given the “Democrats’ battle-tested fundraising machine—fueled largely by liberal special interest groups” and when you promise to “listen to the people of our nation,” the subtext is obvious, you can still see, run, and hear.  You subtle dog, all I can say is I’m down with that anti-aging literary trifecta.  Very nicely done.

Second, as I’ve emphasized in class, you do a great job of using details instead of vague generalities.  One of several examples is when you ask for “a generous contribution of $2,300, $1,000, $500, $100, $50, or $25 today.”  That’s much clearer and more engaging than your initial draft references to “heaps of money” and “bucketloads of cash sometime soon.”  

Third, you graciously acknowledge your readers intellectual limitations by zeroing in on three main ideas—keeping taxes low, cutting wasteful government spending, and ensuring our troops come home victorious and with honor—and then repeat each main idea three times.  Nice application of the KISS principle—Keep It Simple Senator. 

Finally, I was touched by the warm “Dear Friend” salutation (that’s the first line in the letter) and could hardly believe the “Monday Morning” date when I received it in my mailbox that same afternoon.  The fact that you hand delivered it shows extraordinary care and commitment.

At the same time, as always, there are a few next steps.  First, your postscript, “Please make a generous contribution of $2,300, $1,000, $500, $100, $50, or $25 to support my campaign to become your next president” is an exact restatement of the second to the last sentence that almost immediately precedes your postscript.  Postscripts should communicate an altogether new point, something you forgot until the very last minute.  For example, “Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein.”

Second, and more importantly, try to pay closer attention to the internal consistency and logic of your arguments.  For example, on the top of page 2 you write, “I know the voters want more than petty partisan bickering.”  But then only four sentences later you write, “Whether it’s the rising costs of food and gas, the mortgage crisis, out-of-control government spending, the war in Iraq, or soaring health care costs, the Democrats’ proposed solutions to these problems have proven time and again that they are out-of-touch with the beliefs of most Americans.”  Since your letter is in effect a monologue it doesn’t necessarily come across as “petty” or “bickering”, but it’s clearly partisan.

Third, in terms of the substance of your ideas, I want to encourage you to highlight other issues—climate change, domestic and international poverty, the need for a national energy plan—that are of interest to many voters.  Also, when you say you want to “keep taxes low” you should follow through more and explain what governmental programs you intend on cutting and why. 

In short John, this letter shows genuine improvement.  If you continue to work hard, and show this type of progress, there’s a chance you may pass the course.  To borrow from the last African-American presidential hopeful, I’m going to “keep hope alive.”  Please come to office hours if you have any questions and remember you have one week from today to resubmit for a higher grade.

Ron

Final Grade:  C-

4 thoughts on “Dear John

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