Prose Blossoms With a Pro's Help

December 24, 2020

Former Editor Guides Ashbrook Scholars in Taylor Essay Contest

This fall, nineteen Ashbrook Scholars seized an opportunity to hone their writing skills with the advice of a professional writer, editorialist Kevin O’Brien. After retiring as deputy editorial page editor of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s daily newspaper, the commentator offered his help to Ashbrook. He says he admires the small undergraduate program that, among other things, draws notable speakers to the Ashland University campus, offering students and the community at large opportunities to hear thoughtful perspectives on politics. O’Brien asked the Ashbrook faculty, “How can I help?” They suggested he assist political science professor Jason Stevens in guiding Scholars through the multi-stage Taylor Essay Contest.

O’Brien expected the quality of the research and thinking behind the essays to be high. He’d attended last spring’s Ashbrook colloquium with National Review writer Kevin Williamson. “I was impressed by the questions the Scholars asked. They had done their homework; they knew . . . what Williamson stood for. They had a really intelligent conversation with one of the smartest political commentators on the scene today.”

Yet experience warned O’Brien to expect less from the Scholars’ writing. As his own children went through school, he saw they were not taught the writing craft as he had been taught. He’d also seen young reporters entering journalism with inadequate writing skills. Neglect of writing, he noted, parallels a recent neglect of reading, as consumers prefer “to get information in small bites,” through TV, online media, and Twitter.

O’Brien learned his craft in an earlier era. Stories were to be based on thorough reporting; and writing style aimed to “invite the reader in and keep him in” until the finish. While working as The Plain Dealer’s city editor in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, O’Brien had enjoyed mentoring young reporters. Instead of merely scrawling, “Rewrite!” across their stories, he would suggest specific revision strategies.

Plain Dealer Columnist
Kevin O’Brien

Hence, O’Brien read the first drafts the Scholars submitted with an editorial eye, often making copious comments in the margins. Mid-month, he met the writers in a seminar, where he, Stevens, and the contestants themselves discussed ways to improve each essay.

The initial submissions were better than O’Brien had expected. More impressive was the patience Scholars exhibited during the seminar, as their work was critiqued in front of their peers. Discussion was lively, with Scholars questioning some criticisms, conceding others. A session planned for two hours stretched to four.

When the revised drafts arrived, “every single essay had improved,” O’Brien said. Some of the writers showing most improvement were those whom O’Brien and Stevens had advised to do the most work—to “rethink a premise, come at it from a different direction, rework it where the logic had broken down.”

Jason Stevens agreed: “The second draft is usually better than the first, but this time there was a noticeable jump in the writing competence. O’Brien really spurred the Scholars to perfect their work.”

O’Brien’s advice helped Sophia Leddy improve an essay critiquing harsh drug law enforcement methods. She’d opened it with a fictional account of a no-knock drug raid. O’Brien advised her to shorten this story, “condensing it to the most important point.” He also asked Leddy to address the average reader’s likely objections to her advocacy of more lenient policies.

Dennis Clark had learned to be “clear and thorough” when writing academic papers. Now, O’Brien asked him to work on tone, advising that writing that engages a reader’s emotions can convey an argument more effectively. O’Brien proposed ways to use “word choice, sentence structure, and rhetorical devices” to energize his essay, Clark said.

Judging the final essays, O’Brien applied an objective test. He ranked each entry on a 10-point scale in four areas: “quality of the writing; quality of the insight; persuasiveness of the argument; and appeal to a general audience.” The essays scoring the highest points turned out in almost every instance to be those Stevens also found strongest.

Stevens said he found the decisions challenging, “because the essays were so good, and because there were so many of them.” This contest drew twice as many submissions as in previous semesters. Stevens planned to email “some students whose essays did not make the winning group to encourage them to keep working on them and submit them next time.”

When that time comes, Stevens hopes O’Brien will again “share his tricks of the trade” with Ashbrook’s developing writers. The retired editor is willing. “All they have to do is call,” he said.