Week 5 - Presentations

This week, I asked the students to print three copies of their final, get into groups of three, read together, and critique each other’s writing. I was getting over a cold, so I tried to do as little talking as possible.

Afterwards, Tina Lee joined us for the final presentations. A few folks volunteered to read, and we went around the circle listening to each other, and commenting from time to time. I asked the students to take one more pass at their final drafts before turning them into me.

And just like that, the class is over. I always wish I had a few more weeks with the students, but it is what it is. Now they’re off to summer internships or overdue vacations, and I’m off to bed. <3

Week 4 - Synthesis

Last week, we worked on our final projects and Karyn Campbell joined us as a guest speaker.


Warm-up exercise

Think back to the day you applied to SVA.

What have you learned since then?

… about design?
… about yourself?

Write a letter to your younger self. Go for 10 minutes.

Guest lecture

Karyn talked about her work on Etsy Studio, shared stories about how she got into design, and went around the room to see what questions the students had. See the class notes for details.


After Karyn left, the students paired up to talk about where they are in the writing process, and to get feedback from their peers.

Week 3 - Structure

This week, we talked about form and structure, planned our final projects, and looked ahead to the students’ second year (thesis work).


Warm-up exercise

I assign Pam Houston’s Corn Maze as reading for this class, because it’s not only a beautiful essay about writing, but it’s also a great example of well-developed structure. Building on that piece, we follow Pam’s method of writing glimmers to open up this week’s class:

“Write down all of the things that have arrested your attention lately… Set them next to each other. See what happens.”

Write three glimmers:

  • Last 24 hours
  • Last 10 years
  • Anytime

Go for 10 minutes.

What I love about this method—describing things that catch your attention—is the richness of visual descriptions that come from memory. I also find that her method encourages me to practice paying attention and trusting what I find interesting.

Pam talks about keeping her glimmers in a file. Once you have a few of these vignettes down, you can look back at them and see how they connect. You can also reference them later when you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about, or need more descriptive words to fit a particular situation.

Structure and thesis discussion

We watched Kurt Vonnegut talk about the shape of stories before my brief lecture on form and structure. After that, we talked about what a thesis is, how you might structure design artifacts in a process book (SVA’s term for a full-project history), and what the students are planning to write for their class final.

Somewhere in there, I tried to stress the importance of collaborating (even on solo projects!) by asking peers for feedback and offering thoughtful feedback in return.

Next week, we’ll continue workshopping our final projects. Karyn Campbell is also going to join us to talk about her work at the intersection of writing and design.

Week 2 - Voice and tone

This week, we talked about the differences between voice and tone and spent time editing together. Robyn Kanner also joined us to talk about her work on MyTransHealth.


Warm-up exercise

Imagine you’re hosting an event.

How would you invite:

  • a friend or peer?
  • a grandparent or older family member?
  • a famous artist, designer, or author?

Set a timer. Go for 7 minutes.

The exercise demonstrates how you naturally shift your tone to suit the situation. These invitations all sound like they came from you—they’re in your voice—but your tone shifts depending on what’s appropriate for the audience.

Storytelling exercise

Write about a time you did something out of character.

Go for 10 minutes.

Voice and tone basics

I love this quote from Cheryl Strayed:

“Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again.”

She emphasizes that to be a better writer, you have to read a lot and study what you’re reading.

Your voice is your personality. It doesn’t really change much from day to day.

Your tone shifts to fit the situation and the reader’s mood. It’s how you show empathy. It comes down to the words you choose (diction) and the way you respond to the reader’s feelings.

When I’m writing, I think about someone sitting next to me, and what I would say to them in person. It helps me imagine what they might be feeling as they’re going through a particular situation or flow on a website.

People may be feeling all sorts of emotions when they read your writing. Consistency is less important here than helping the reader find what they need and showing you care.

Most of this section is straight out of my book—with thanks to my coauthor, Kate Kiefer Lee. I recommend checking out her work for MailChimp, too:


My biggest tip for editing if you can’t show your work to somebody is to read it out loud. It helps you catch clumsy words or sentences that are too long. And it immediately makes your writing more conversational.

If you’re not sure how to write something, say it aloud to yourself and record it or transcribe it with your phone. When in doubt, write things like you would say them in conversation.

We talk about editing in the second to last chapter of Nicely Said, but if you’re really curious about editing, I recommend reading The Subversive Copy Editor.

On Tuesday, we’ll write some glimmers, talk about structuring longer pieces, and spend time working on final projects.

Week 1 - Principles

We had a great first class! For those of you following along online, I’ll do my best to recap the activities each week. I’ll also post my slides and notes from the students for your reference. (Thanks in advance to the folks who volunteered to share notes!)

This week’s update will be a bit longer than usual, as I need to explain the structure of the class and some of the methods we use. Similarly, I lecture more in the first week than I do in the following four classes.


Warm-up exercise

I open each class with a timed writing exercise. I find these quick, structured exercises to be an interesting and effective way to dive in and start writing. I don’t agree with the adage that you need to write every day, but I also want to counter the idea that writing needs to be a big event. Jotting down notes, writing tweets, using speech-to-text to transcribe your thoughts, answering emails, and texting all qualify as practice.

One of my goals with the first week is to gather input from everyone about what they’re hoping to learn. Writing is stressful for most people, so I decided to switch things up this semester with a hopes and fears exercise.

I passed out two colors of sticky notes and markers. Then, we took 7 minutes to write down hopes and fears:

  • What are you hoping to learn in this class?
  • What do you want to accomplish with your writing and your thesis?
  • What are you afraid of or nervous about when it comes to writing? And your thesis?

If I were doing this kind of exercise with a client, we would go through each sticky note and put them into groups. To save some time, I clustered the sticky notes after class. You can find a summary of the notes here.

Writing and content basics

Next, I gave an overview of the class and my take on writing in general. I tried to weave in some recent work for good measure. After that, we talked about the kinds of things we’ve been reading and writing lately (e.g., cover letters, email, blog posts).

Values and principles exercises

We worked through two other exercises together: writing about someone we admire to get to our own core values, and looking at sites we admire for inspiration. I try to make it clear that this course is a series of starting points, and these exercises help us articulate what good writing is as a group. I added the attributes that we came up with to the slides for future reference.

Next week, we’ll talk about developing your own style and look at the differences between voice and tone. After that, Robyn Kanner will join us to talk about her work on MyTransHealth, and how she uses Twitter to share her work (and feelings!) with a broader audience.