As it turns out, even a president can be a bad writer.
The 10th annual Undergraduate Scholars Forum at Westminster College kicked off Thursday morning with a keynote address. Then, more than 200 students presented masters-level research on a variety of topics ranging from machine learning to the optical properties of alum crystals and causal mechanisms of the January effect in small capitalization U.S. stocks.
One research topic discussed by senior Ian Pletenik was a bit personal and involved the letters of John and Abigail Adams.
"I wanted to take a look at the difference between letters written at home, versus letters written while traveling," he said. "Letters are a form of media that can be used over any distance, and I wanted to see how the setting and context effects the writing style."
Pletenik said a traveling writer is less effective at making their letters personable.
"Abigail Adams' letters to her husband are much more personable," he said. "Because she was stationary and wrote from the comfort of her home, she was able to be very descriptive and animated in her letters. John's letters, on the other hand, lack substance and emotion. His letters also tend to neglect mention of his personal well-being, and he fails to provide meaningful updates."
This stark difference in the quality of the Adams' letters, Pletenik said, comes from the couple's ability, or inability, to spend time writing them.
"John's traveling lifestyle and demanding job hindered his personability," he said. "He had limited time to craft meaningful letters. They are concise, short and infrequent. In the time he does take to write letters, he must focus the context on describing the unfamiliar situations around him. A majority of that context was new to Abigail."
The problem of providing context in unfamiliar situations is one faced by many traveling-letter writers, Pletenik said.
"Writers on the move tend to use home as a touch stone and point of reference," he said. "It helps bring a familiar context into an otherwise unfamiliar situation."
Pletenik said, to John Adams' credit, his language did comfort Abigail.
"John uses lots of 'real time' language and vocabulary in his letters," he said. "This helped Abigail to understand his current well being. He also references home, traveling and war."
In the end, a letters personability comes down to several factors, Pletenik said.
"More time to write equals more vivid emotional descriptions, and that leads to personability," he said. "A traveler's ability to make a letter personable is limited."
Even with the rise of instant communication methods like text and email, Pletenik said he believes there always will be a place for the classic pen and paper.
"I don't think letter writing will ever be replaced," he said. "It's an art."