I have a confession to make.
The time was the fall of 1989. I was a new student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. I was taking a required course in “English Writing I” with Dr. Richard Strojan, one of the best professors I ever had. This was one of my first college classes that I took. I was going to school part time to earn a degree in computer science. I was 24 years old and hated my mediocre factory job. A degree would lead to better opportunities for me.
Obviously, this class was about writing papers. When Dr. Strojan handed back the second paper I wrote, he didn’t have a grade at the top of my paper. All he had was a note, “See me during the break.”
Panic set in. He thinks I’m plagiarizing someone else’s work! Or someone else is writing my papers for me. I’m going to get kicked out of college from my first class and I’ll be a failure the rest of my life!
I approached him at break with an apologetic tone, “You wanted to see me?” I put the paper before him; his note in plain sight. “Yes!” he said.
He asked if I had done professional writing before. “A little,” I replied. I was editor of a stamp club newsletter and I was writing a column for Linn’s Stamp News on EFOs. I had some writing experience. I didn’t consider myself an Ernest Hemingway though (Scott #2814).
He explained that I had a very definitive writing style that came through in my papers. Many papers are barely correct in grammatical terms, let alone content or style. He said, “I can tell you’ve written before and it shows through your work.” I got an A on the paper. Ironically, he forgot to put my grade on the paper because he was busy writing his note to me. That explained the initial lack of a letter grade on my paper which worried me so much. I went on to pass his class with flying colors. In fact, I liked Dr. Strojan so much that I elected to take two more writing courses with him. Outside of my major, they were the best courses I ever took in college. He was an inspiration to me. Had I not gone into computer science, perhaps I would have considered a career in writing.
The question comes up, “Is it easier to turn a philatelist into a writer? Or is it easier to turn a writer into a philatelist?”
There are many people who write in the philatelic press. In my opinion, some are good, many are so-so, and a few are not good at all.
Writing is like art. Sure, anyone can splash watercolors on a piece of notebook paper and call it “art.” Being a good writer takes hard work. Computers can help with spell checking and grammar. A computer cannot create style. Style is what sets apart the good from the bad, in my opinion.
I may be biased by my own experiences. But to me, I think it’s easier to teach philately to a writer than it is to teach writing to a philatelist.
In time, a writer will learn the philatelic terms and how to use a stamp catalog. It’s not rocket science. And as a software engineer by profession (read, “rocket scientist”), I understand a thing to two about rocket science.
Trying to explain when to use first person versus third person, or when to use present or past tense; those are the kinds of things that many people don’t pick up naturally. Sometimes a sentence fragment punctuates a point. A computer can’t create those things. In my opinion, a philatelist has a hard time putting those things to use. That’s why I feel that it’s easier to turn a writer into a philatelist than it is to turn a philatelist into a good writer.