Getting Your Money's Worth from Style

This exercise was contributed by Paul Fyfe.

Characters and Actions
Refine principle and practice
Time: 50+ minutes

This exercise taps into the primal rage of anyone who has been bilked by the bureaucracy, has written a letter of complaint, or who just wants their damn money back. It connects to students on the level of their personal experience, gives them a skill-set to apply out of the classroom, and, best of all, shows how ENWR skills can work to generate tangible results: cash money. The exercise can work with a variety of scenarios; two templates are provided here: a letter to an insurance company and a letter to UVA’s parking services. Both of them come from actual ENWR students who asked our class for help; you could easily generate raw content from problems your own students might have encountered.

Sell the exercise: promise students that by the end of class they’ll be using their ENWR skills for cash. Explain the scenario with some basic details and deliver students copies of a drafted letter. You may need to seed, tweak or worsen it, as necessary. Before the end of class we’ll have revised a working copy to send.

1. Problems of style: Break students into small groups and have them isolate what they think are problems in the appeal. Come back together to discuss their findings, and list on the board. This example has some incriminating character and action phrasing, as well as unclear demands. It leaves loopholes. Some information may be superfluous, other key details missing. Your examples may vary.

2. Focus on the audience: Ask the class who is likely to receive and read this letter; probably an unsympathetic and underpaid clerk, not the glad-handing boss. Ask students to put themselves in their audience’s shoes: what, if anything, would be convincing? Why should they care? What can they ultimately fail to argue with?

3. Hone the argument: if this is like an “insurance claim,” then the “claim” needs to be clear: what are we after? What is the deliverable that we want? Articulate the goals of the letter as an argument for reimbursement, requiring a strong structure of support. Remind the class how the audience changes not only the point of view, but also the support necessary to be convincing.

4. Tools for the job: looking back at the list of problems, generate from the class a revised list of strategies that could be effective: where to put the claim; characters and actions that incriminate them, not you; topic strings to focus on the problem; key information and details; articulate clear “next steps”; etc.

5. Make the appeal: Return the students to their groups to discuss strategies and write a revised version. Have them report back by reading some examples. Point out especially strong uses of an effective style.

6. [If possible] Send the letter: Get the class invested by having the letter actually written and sent by the person having the issue. Check in with that person before the end of the semester, and celebrate, as necessary.