Writer to Writer Interview: Heather Ann Thompson

The first interview I listened to from the Writer to Writer series was Shelley’s Manis’s interview of Heather Ann Thompson. In addition to being a member of the University of Michigan’s Department of Afro-American and African Studies, Department of History, and the Residential College, Thompson regularly writes about the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for high profile news sources including, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and The Washington Post. Her work, ranging from exposing prisoner mistreatment in a South Carolina jail to unwarranted policing policy, indubitably helps illuminate injustice within the American justice system.

         What I found most compelling to me as a minor in writing was Thompson’s emphasis on ensuring the accessibility of her writing to all audiences. As our nation navigates the current politically turbulent times and grapples with the consequences of past and current institutional and systemic discrimination, writing, such as news articles, social media posts, academic articles, journals, and more, can—intentionally or unintentionally—serve as an accessibility barrier for communication and knowledge. Her interview served as a reminder of one of my greatest personal lessons from the Miw gateway course: writing is an art and its value is derived from its ability to effectively, productively, and genuinely communicate to audiences.  

         When I was a younger writer, I often times found myself believing that using sophisticated, complex words and grammatical structures meant stronger writer. The series of academic articles and readings assigned over the years inundated with in-field jargon and weird grammatical presentation reinforced this perception. Consequently, I would attempt to improve my writing by creating unnecessary, super complex sentence structures, spending too much time searching on the Thesaurus website, and squandering my time on “sounding right.”

Needless to say, I was wrong. Very wrong.

         Now, as I come to the end of my Capstone course, I have realized that I measure the strength of writing not in sophisticated word choice or unusual sentence structure, but in effective communication, concision—and perhaps now: accessibility. What does it mean to have a well-written piece if audiences can’t access its meaning and purpose? That’s not to say different audiences can’t have different interpretations. But, writing, especially the forms I want contribute to in policy, law, and social justice, should not perpetuate barriers to the information the piece seeks to communicate.

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