Tue, 03/22/2016

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Few college students still rely on an analog clock but as the deadline for a paper gets closer, they somehow hear the ticking anyway.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The blinking cursor certainly makes no noise, but when the screen is still blank after an hour of work, its rhythm curiously seems to align with the ticking of the clock.

Dixie Brown, a published essayist and writing coach in Commonwealth Honors College, says that for herself and many others the most challenging part of the writing process is getting started. “The hard, scary part, is facing the blank page,” she confessed. Brown has more than 15 years of writing instruction experience.

As a CHC writing coach she is tasked with helping students overcome the challenges and the roadblocks that come with writing essays, research papers, and an honors thesis.

The CHC writing coach program, which started in September of 2015, currently includes four writing coaches: Brown, Deepika Marya, Yehudit Heller, and Bob Dow.

Students interested in working with a writing coach can sign up for a 30-minute appointment or swing by Elm 235 for a quick question during the coaches’ drop-in hours.

If a student is interested in seeing a writing coach, they are asked to either bring a printed draft or email one in ahead of time. Brown says she starts her sessions with reading the draft along with the student, sometimes aloud. She added that at the start of the writing process, she encourages students to not be too harsh on themselves–that can only make the writer’s block worse.

Writing coach Deepika Marya, who holds a doctorate in English, says that what she likes about writing is that “it’s a creative and demanding process, you only discover the end as you go.”


(Marya talks to students hoping to present at the Undergraduate Research Conference during a workshop about abstract writing.)

 Marya prefers to review a student’s writing in advance of meeting them so she can spend the full 30 -minute session discussing and guiding students to find alternative ways of framing or approaching a topic.  

Brown likes to tell students to “think of readers when you’re writing, take them by the hand.” This is necessary, she says, to help readers follow a student’s argument. Often times a lack of a clear direction to the reader indicates that a student lacks direction themselves, or does not necessarily know the argument they are trying to make.

Marya echoed this sentiment saying that drafting can really help students clarify their own thinking. In fact, she believes that this is what should make writing a learning process.

A problem, warns Brown, is writers being too sure of their thesis. In doing so, they ignore other evidence that might prove their thesis wrong but would also help them better understand the overall concept they are studying. She says this dangerous assuredness leads to tunnel-vision.

What do the writing coaches like about working with CHC students? Both Marya and Brown say they enjoy students’ motivation to be better writers and their reception of feedback. For Brown, that openness is incredibly important to improving writing.

Marya warns against students becoming too attached to the first draft. In fact, her hope is for students to begin to appreciate drafting and do at least two drafts before submitting a final copy. “You have to be willing to revise and reconsider,” she added. “You have to be open and willing .” As Marya puts it, at the end  “writing is about rewriting. That is where you right the wrongs and writing begins to really take shape.”