USF Writing Studio

Archive for March, 2015


Navigating the Compression Sessions

Monday, March 30th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Compression sessions, for those of you who have been part of them, are fun and challenging at the same time. For the unaware, compression sessions are part of the new set of initiatives kick-started by the USF Writing Studio at the turn of the year. 25 minute sessions instead of the regular 50, with a maximum of 2 sessions in an hour instead of the regular one and things pick up a lot of steam right from the word go. 
From experience, I get the sense that most writers are unsure of how to navigate through these sessions and maximize their output from the studio. They come in with more than 2-3 issues to address and you as the consultant (and someone with the experience of navigating through these sessions) are often faced with the need to make judgement calls on what can and cannot be achieved in the ambit of this short, 20-25 minute session. This often comes as disappointing news for the writer, but most of them (barring one or two from my personal experience) take it well. So once the ground rules are established, it is often an optimization process in the head as to what takes precedence for discussion and what doesn’t. 
The most common types of feedback sought from me have been structural and grammatical in nature. Grammatical feedback often referring to sentence level interventions is one that requires a lot of tactful navigation from the consultant and I have often found myself treading dangerously through the thin line between elucidating my stand on the difficulty of the task at hand and sending back the writer disappointed. Sentence by sentence intervention is often impossible and it’s important to let the writer know what the temporal limitations that these sessions entail. The focus is strictly on finding specific patterns of errors and zipping through the writing piece so as to achieve maximum output from the session. It is often considered wonderful if the writer comes in a set of questions in his/ her mind to be addressed during the session. If they are still insistent for sentence level edits (which some of them have been with 8-10 page long essays), I have learned to cautiously direct the writer towards other tools that may be present for them to address sentence level edits such as Grammarly, in the interest of greater good. 
A few writers have also approached me with the need for structural feedback (Is this all flowing together?). These I feel are the most challenging ones as a writing consultant in that the short nature of the compression sessions makes it almost impossible for us to read through the whole piece and figure out the placement of each train of thought in sequence. Therefore, I often ask the writer to divide the writing piece into many keywords (say, two keywords per paragraph) which convey the main essence of it. This is often helpful even during the regular sessions, as it can be used as a guide to refer back and build up your own decision tree for the topic at hand. Structural feedback pertaining to flow of thought could be very easily dealt with in this manner.      
In summary, the compression sessions make you think on your feet and there is a lot of responsibility to make that 20-25 minute session as productive as feasible for the writer. I haven’t seen a writer who has left the space unhappy (as yet!), some writers have also showed up for their second and third appointments. It was all wonderfully giddy feeling in the head until a writer pointed out to me that she felt she felt she got more out of the compressions than the regular sessions. Food for thought, maybe. 
By Nikhil Menon, PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering 

A Personal Statement of Confession

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | 2 Comments »

CONFESSION: Personally, I don’t love writing. You might think that could pose a problem for me as a writing consultant. However, I *love* talking to people, and I *love* stories. That is probably why I like my job so much, and, more specifically, why I enjoy helping students develop their personal statements.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first started at the Writing Studio (we called it the Writing Center back in those days) in the winter of 2013, personal statements were probably my least favorite type of consultation. You know why. They are too often formulaic, boring, and/or generic—reading like a not-so-funny mad lib instead of revealing the personality and uniqueness of the applicant. This is not the students’ fault. Most of them have never written a personal statement before, and you know they are practically given directions that look something like this:

Instructions: Please fill in the (blanks)with your information to create a unique personal essay that demonstrates your qualifications and interest in being considered as a candidate to our program.

Para 1: I’ve known ever since I was a little (boy/girl) that I wanted to be a (nurse/doctor/dentist/etc).  (School or program here) is awesome. Please pick me for your program in (name a field of study or professional discipline).

Para 2: I am qualified for your program because: I took (list 3 classes in your field of study), participated in (extracurricular activity) and (service or professional student organization), and I shadowed (name of a doctor or professional you know) at ( organization/hospital/institution/etc).

Indeed, I dreaded these mad libs and felt pretty useless in my ability to help students improve their essays until one day last summer when everything changed. I met Andy.*

Andy was a student from Cuba who was working on his application to dental school. He brought in a complete draft of his personal statement, which looked unremarkably like the mad lib above. He wasn’t really looking for help with his content, he told me; he was more worried about grammar because English was not his first language. When we read his statement together, he mentioned that he had nearly completed dental school in Cuba before moving to the U.S. to pursue his education, but he didn’t say why he left. Out of curiosity, I asked what prompted his move.

It was then that I learned about the politics of medicine in Cuba. I also learned that when Andy moved here, he had to start all over in every way. He had to begin a U.S. undergraduate degree before even applying to dental school, he had to learn English from scratch, and he had to completely support himself financially throughout this process.  After listening to his story I was both shocked and touched by the sacrifices he’d made to pursue his dream. I felt like I knew Andy personally, and I wanted him to be a dentist. Moreover, I knew that this was the story he needed to tell; this was the person that the admissions committee needed to see to ensure his shot at an interview. 

Andy was hesitant at first, but agreed to take a second stab at the statement.  After several more drafts, he wrote a truly amazing essay. When I say amazing, I don’t mean that the writing was spectacular or even unflawed. His statement was amazing because he was actually in it. His story and personality transcended the text of the page, created the presence of a unique person.

I am convinced that all of our students have a story. I am convinced that they are each unique and passionate about something. I know there is a reason that they feel motivated to pursue the career/scholarship/internship to which they are applying. My job is simply to get them to tell me about that. I do this by asking questions and listening. I do this by reflecting back to them what I hear them say. I do this by trying to see them as a person, not just another applicant. If at the end of a meeting with a student, I have a sense of who they are, if I can get a taste of their passion and personality, I know I will be able to help them convey those qualities in their personal statement.

I love talking to students and helping them find their stories. It is the best part of this job because it is enjoyable and because it really helps them with their writing.

By the way, Andy received interview invitations from ALL of his top schools, and, after interviewing with the top choice, he was admitted into their program. I know all of this because he came back and told me, thanked me. He believes his personal statement was a key component of his success. What he probably doesn’t realize is that his personal statement was a key component in my success at becoming a better writing consultant.

Not Always the “Yes” Boi: When Writers Want You to Enlighten Them

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Consulting isn’t just about making writers better students, it’s about making them better writers. For the most part, the writers I’ve worked with over the last semester and a half have had the same vision for themselves as I have – to figure out the writing process and work through it. But once in a while, there are those silver-tongued, manipulative gems who want not just your input, but your brain added to their work.

“You can enlighten me,” they’ll say. “I can learn from you. You are a feminist with so much knowledge about gender discrimination.”


“You understand these theories better than I do and since you are doing your Master’s in Women’s Studies, you can analyze these things better.”

Possibly true.

“So I’ve done my best on this paper and I’m hoping you can add some more information to it. If you help me, I know can get a good grade.”


It’s easy to get taken in by the flattery. I’ve found myself falling for it often enough that I now use the rouse to get my writers to engage more with their work. But being on the receiving end as a tutor isn’t pleasant in any way. I find myself caught in a bind where I need to be polite and professional without shutting down my writer. How do you let writers know that you’re trying to help them help themselves without shutting them down?

Not a simple question, but here’s my tactic. I usually inform the writer that I am happy to give them reading material on anything I may (seem) to know more about. Usually, they don’t want to do the extra reading so they come back with the quintessential “why don’t you just tell me?” Challenge accepted. “True, I could. But topics like this are usually very subjective and up to interpretation but so-and-so has critical insight on the very subject you are addressing, so that’s definitely something you should read.” Segue accomplished. After a little tug-of-war, if things aren’t going anywhere I resort to a more serious approach. “This is a Writing Studio; we’re supposed to be working on the writing process. I can’t really be tutoring you on a topic of interest.” As can be imagined this doesn’t sit very well with writers, so I follow up with the fact that the only reason I know what I know is because I’ve done the readings I recommend. So asking me to add to the paper isn’t really fair to me because I’m not getting the grade. Fortunately, so far this approach has worked wonders. While writers still leave with a prickly after burn, they’re quick to recognize that they are asking for too much.

There’s a world of difference between asking for help and feeling entitled to it. I keep this in mind. Often I have to remind myself of this, especially under such circumstances. Sometimes, students think that writing studios are supposed to help with the piece itself. It helps to clarify that we really are only supposed to help with the process of writing it. And if they expect more, well we’d love to help you, but tough luck (and good luck)!

By Sam Obeid, MA in Women’s and Gender Studies
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