Stars to Steer By

John Maust: The Importance of Encouraging Writers

John Maust is president of Media Associates International (MAI), a publishing training agency based near Chicago, Illinois. John directs MAI’s global training programs to strengthen Christian publishing worldwide and to foster the development and publication of gifted local writers. John became president of MAI in 1998 after more than 20 years of experience as an editor, author and journalist. He graduated from Ball State University in 1975 with a B.A. in Literature, followed by an M.A. in Communications from Wheaton (IL) College Graduate School in 1978.

You have had such a varied career in publishing, including working for a newspaper and a magazine, as well as publishing three books of your own. In what ways did your English literature degree help to prepare you for these various endeavors?
John Maust 2.jpg

Within weeks of graduating from Ball State, I got a job as a 20-year-old editor of a small-town weekly newspaper in nearby Dunkirk, Indiana. Editorially, it was a one-person operation. So, for the first time in my life I had nightmares: would I find enough to fill the newspaper?

Fortunately, we never published any blank pages, and the work got done through long hours, hard work, a finely tooled typewriter, and more than a few prayers. I look at that experience as a time of real growth both as a person and as a communicator. They say you learn to write by writing, and that was surely the case at this newspaper.

Next came graduate school, followed by work as a magazine news editor, and then as a roving reporter and writer trainer based in Lima, Peru. There, this English major learned enough Spanish to meet and marry my beautiful wife, Elsa, of 32 years.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been helping to equip and encourage Christian publishers and writers in the Majority World as president of Media Associates International.

My English degree helped prepare me for all this simply through the act of reading—reading widely from the best authors and doing so critically. Almost unconsciously, one
begins to absorb and understand the difference between good and not-so-good writing and literature—skills needed by any editor.

Similarly, I began to learn there’s a wide chasm between the almost right word and the right word—as Mark Twain quipped, “it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” It’s hard work,  crafting words to say exactly what you mean.

Finally, I learned about the skill required for boiling down an immense amount of information and ideas into a concise piece held together by a unifying theme that could be expressed in one sentence. Readers want us to write clearly and concisely.

You are now the President of MAI, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping authors around the world to write and publish Christian literature for their local audiences and communities. Why did you move into the world of non-profit administration, and how do your writing and communication skills come into play in your current job? 

John Maust.JPGI didn’t go looking for work in non-profit administration. It came as a surprise. When
the founding president of Media Associates International began making plans to retire, he invited me to succeed him. And here I am after 19 years. It’s encouraging to look back at the bits and pieces of my life—including the years at Ball State—and to see how God put them together into what I’m doing now.

Today, instead of books and articles, I’m writing more grant proposals, Board reports and emails. Not so exciting perhaps. But I face the same need to write clearly and concisely, and maybe even more creativity is required to keep these reports from being deadly boring.

In my work, I have the privilege of interacting with gifted men and women who are creating excellent “homegrown” content for readers in places like South Sudan, Laos, Peru, Bulgaria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Helping these friends write and publish stories that would not otherwise have been told is a bit like uncovering buried treasure.

By the way, I vividly remember my Ball State course on “The Modern Continental Novel” because it exposed me for the first time to the (translated) work of international authors and the world of words outside American and British borders. 

As someone who has worked in writing and publishing for nearly 40 years, what advice would you have for current English majors who are worried about their future employment prospects? What can English majors do now to prepare for future success?

To be effective in the workplace, you need to be an effective communicator—both spoken and written. An English major is better equipped than most in this regard.

Employers in business, mass media, education, social services and other fields will value your English-major skills to think critically and creatively and to express yourself clearly.

Through reading of fiction and nonfiction, you are also developing a greater sense of empathy for others, plus a broader worldview and a sense of how ideas shape culture and history. In this way, I think that being an English major makes you a better person by giving you valuable tools both for work and for life.

If you are thinking about work in publishing or writing, there is no better major than English Literature. Both now and in the future, keep on reading, and keep on writing. It’s a corny saying but true: “To write good readin’, you need to read good writin’.”

An awful lot of people in our world live without hope. Your published and spoken words, hammered into shape with faith and hard work, can shine a ray of hope and leave a legacy for future generations.

Pat Grabill: A Love for the Written Word

Pat Grabill graduated from Ball State with an MA in English in 1968 and pursued a teaching career for 30 years. After retiring from teaching in 2004, she worked as a technical writer for Precisely Write in Indianapolis and also became President of the Watercolor Society of Indiana, where she made use of her English skills and her love of art to promote painting in Indiana.

preview-full-unnamedWhy English?

I’ve always been a good student. Not a great student—although I have had some great moments—but a good student. When I graduated from high school in 1961 (yes, I’m old), I really wanted to go to college, but my dad wasn’t sure. So he picked my school—Purdue—a great choice for me, as it turned out, and he also picked my major, elementary education. Not a good choice. I would have been a barely adequate elementary teacher, so I changed my major to Secondary Education/English. I graduated four years later with many, many semester hours in literature, writing, linguistics, and rhetoric and went on to spend 30 classroom years mostly at the high school level. I retired in 2004 having taught all secondary grade levels and loving it. While my undergrad degree was at Purdue (Boiler Up!), I studied for my MA degree at Ball State (Go, Cardinals!)  I taught freshman comp in the BSU English department as a TA while doing my own course work. I wrote my Master’s paper on “The Myth of the West in Steinbeck’s Fiction.” I remember it well. I wish I still had my copy. I had some great teachers at Purdue and at Ball State, and I am grateful for the time they took with me.

Why major in English? 

You’ll know more than most people doing crossword puzzles. (A flippant response, I know). You will understand allusions to literature in ordinary conversation, news, plays, movies – conversations that people who are not avid readers may not get. But most importantly — and this is VERY important — you will learn to read critically and write clearly. You will have to read great books, short stories, poetry — all genres — and you will LOVE reading them. You will write — and you will become very good at it, too. Your speech and your writing will become more persuasive, and via your communication skills, you will become a leader. Your parents want to know what you’ll do with an English major, and the easy answer is that you will become language literate in a society that lacks many of those skills. That ability can be money in the bank in this culture where we write MORE than before, both because of and in spite of technology. It’s also true that an English major is great preparation for law school or for many graduate programs. There are also many opportunities in areas of corporate and non-profit communication given technology experience. My advice to you: take all the writing classes you can. You’re already a reader, or you wouldn’t even consider becoming an English major, so become a first-rate writer, too. Learn the concept of audience. Learn to be persuasive. Learn to love the language and to use it correctly.

While I loved teaching, after I retired I went to work as a technical writer.  My job was to write for and edit user Help files for a medical document written by a major pharmaceutical company. Our team’s job was to look at the plan for the program and, from that plan, write user-friendly Help files. It WAS an adventure, to say the least. I received a generous hourly wage, met some really good people, visited often with the software engineers, and learned a great deal about the very specific requirements for tech writing as opposed to regular writing. I’ve also been responsible for writing newsletters for one business and writing and editing for a not-for-profit organization, The Watercolor Society of Indiana, where I am a Board member.

Some years after getting my MA at Ball State, I again attended Ball State as a participant in the Indiana Writing Project, which was life-changing for me as a teacher. Finishing my MA did not finish my participation in learning more. I went on to take 30 hours past my MA simply because I wanted to learn new “stuff.” I applied for an Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant at the end of the 90s because I wanted to study connections between writing and painting, and Lilly gave me $5,000 to spend during the summer on anything I wanted to do to enhance my knowledge of the written story and the painted story. That summer changed my life, too, because I have continued to be a painter. I have a studio in my home, and right now have three different paintings in process and some sketches I’m also working on. I am a past president of the Watercolor Society of Indiana (we have a Facebook page), and currently am Board secretary.

Finally, in answer to the question I posed in the title, “Why English”? My answer is, why NOT English? If you love the language and you love the written word, and you love writing and want to become better at it than you already are, major in English. If you’re good at it, do it. You’ll find a job, and maybe it will even be a job you like.

Tara Olivero: Teacher at Homestead High School and Writer at Book Riot

Tara Olivero is a teacher at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne and a contributing writer at Book Riot. She graduated from Ball State in 2014 with a degree in English Education. In this post, she discusses her job as a high school English teacher and how her time at #bsuenglish helped her find her passion for teaching.

How would you describe your job?

My main career will always be my teaching career – I’m in my third year of teaching in Fort Wayne at Homestead High School. As any other high school teacher knows, it’s an exhausting job but one that’s personally satisfying beyond all compare. I also have two side-gigs outside of teaching. I’m a contributor at Book Riot, which I really love because it gives me a platform for my own writing. And my “purely for fun” job is that I work at an Escape Room in Fort Wayne on the weekends; I also write blog posts for the Escape Room’s website.

What’s a typical work day like for you?

I usually try to get to school between 6 and 6:30, so I can set up all the documents I need and make copies for students who have laptop issues. That’s when I don’t oversleep, of course. I teach five classes of freshman high school English, where we do the standard reading/writing you’d expect. I also teach one class of juniors and seniors in Film Literature, Tara Oliverowhich is essentially how to write thoughtful and critical analysis of films. After school, I’m usually still there until 4 or 5, either running one of the clubs I sponsor (including the school’s Creative Writing Club) or helping the theatre department with costuming. At the end of the day, I’ll finally head home to grade papers, work on my current Book Riot pieces, or pet my cat.

How did your English major affect your career path?

I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have the teaching position I have today without an English major. One of the strengths I bring to the table in terms of serving my students IS my English content knowledge. While I’m always trying to work on improving my teaching strategies, inclusion of technology, etc., I know I never have to worry that I’m not hitting at the heart of the books we read in my classes and the structure and content of the essays my students write.

When I was student teaching, I was overwhelmed with the experience, too. I didn’t realize how stressful it would be until I was already in it, but I knew that I wanted to teach English more than anything. I was armed with so much knowledge from my English classes, and I knew how painful it was to be in non-English classes at Ball State and see that writing was something that plenty of other students desperately needed to work on. All of that made me want to teach English even more. Reading comprehension, critical analysis, and the ability to put that comprehension and analysis into words are some of the most important skills high school students need to master, so I’m honored to have a part in that now.

What skills did you pick up in your major that have proved useful in your job?

The English Department did a bang-up job helping me hone my analytical writing skills. Until I started teaching Film Lit, I didn’t realize how helpful it was that I can actually write well. I’m able to show my students examples of my own analytical writing that they can use as models for specific tasks, which is nice.

The instruction I received in my writing classes also helped me hone my style and build my confidence in my own writing. The voice present in my writing and my passion for literature, both of which grew throughout my time as an undergraduate, helped me land a spot as a Book Riot contributor. For the longest time in college, I was a “quasi” book blogger; I ran a YA book blog but didn’t interact much with the blogosphere because I was intimidated. I feel like I can run with that crowd now and not feel inadequate, which is partially because all of the Book Riot people are lovely individuals and partly because I know I’m now a decent writer when I put in the time and care about what I’m writing.

Is there a particular class or professional opportunity that you remember having a big impact on you?

The young adult literature class impacted both the way I teach English, especially the way I run the student-chosen summer reading activities in class in the fall, and my experience writing for Book Riot as a critical reader of YA fiction. The ideas that were covered in that class – how to talk about tough subject material, how to tie in relevant current events, etc. – were more helpful than I could have anticipated. I also know that the entire education program, but specifically the English education classes, helped prepare me for how to design the best reading and writing lessons that I can.

What advice would you give current English majors?

If you’re trying to get onto a writing staff, be brave and apply when there are job openings, even if you think you won’t be good enough! You never know until you try. Write your passions and your voice will come through.

The Twittersphere is on fire right now, and Book Twitter is one of the greatest social platforms you can engage in. There is so much critical analysis happening in 140 characters, it’s madness. So find some authors, publishers, book bloggers, etc., to follow so you can get in on all of that action. It’ll also help you make connections that can further your own aspirations once you graduate.

Save all of your notes! I had to teach The Scarlet Letter my first year at Homestead, and I knew I had taken such great notes in Dr. Habich‘s class, but I tragically couldn’t ever find them.

Hold Onto Your Passion: Advice from Audra Dittlinger

Stars to Steer By presents Audra Dittlinger, a Marketing Content Manager and Client Experience Director. Ms. Dittlinger began her journey at Ball State in 2001 and officially graduated in 2014 with a degree in English Studies.   

How would you describe your job?Audra Dittlinger

I would describe my job as fast paced, exciting, and unpredictable. It’s a mixture of editing, brainstorming, and creating some amazing content for a start-up company that is growing quicker than we ever thought possible!

What does a typical work day look like for you?

A “typical” work day depends on the day. I am able to work about 75% remotely, with the other 25% happening onsite, usually at our office headquarters. On my work-from-home days, I get up, check in with my team, and work through daily tasks. Since our company is still relatively small, all team members are able to take on multiple positions at the same time. My day may consist of mostly writing and editing, or I may find myself conducting interviews with prospective customers. It’s never the same and it’s certainly never boring. The days that I am able to spend in the office are often charged with enthusiastic co-workers and inspirational leadership. Team meetings are perfect opportunities for us to collaborate and afterwards we all leave the office feeling recharged. It’s a relief, really. A lot of times, meetings can get a bad reputation in the corporate world. In our company, we’re constantly innovating and creating so we all get jazzed about coming together for a meeting of the minds.

How did having an English major affect your career path?

My English major heavily affected my career path. I graduated as a married adult with a 2 year old toddler at home. I was not a traditional student. At the time that I graduated, I was actually going into my 9th year of being an insurance agent. I had known for years that my true love is writing and editing, and that is what I wanted in my life. I wasn’t going to stop until I found it. After multiple freelance gigs, I finally landed my “dream job,” if you will.

What skills did you pick up in your major that have proved useful in your job?

I picked up a lot of useful skills in my major, but I think the most useful was that it really honed my craft as an editor and it allowed me to be more patient than I would have otherwise been. I now have a distinct process when editing, something I could have only learned through my classes as an English major. I now slow down and I perfect my work. I am not naturally patient, but as a writer, I can block out the world and take my time.

Is there a particular class or professional opportunity that you remember having a big impact on you?

I was in a few classes led by Dr. Rai Peterson (Rai, as most English majors know her) and she definitely had an impact on me. I took two classes with her on campus and one online course. She really boosted my confidence and I’ll never forget the first time she wrote “You’re a writer!” at the top of one of my papers. It was one of the first times in my adult life that I really felt that I was moving in the right direction.

What advice would you give current English majors?

My advice would absolutely be this: hold on to what you love. If you really love Sci-Fi lit, hold onto that. If you really love Vonnegut, keep studying him. If you really love to edit, keep finding ways to do it. I let go of something that I loved to do and I spent 10 years of my life running in place and not living up to my potential. As soon as I found my passion again, I never let myself forget that feeling. That feeling is what drove me and what really helped me land my dream job. Don’t let people tell you English majors “have to be teachers.” Prove them wrong. It’s in you.