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Compression Sessions: Managing Short Writing Consultations

August 9th, 2016

When I first started Compression Sessions, I found them to be more stressful than the regular, fifty-minute appointments.  The Compression Sessions seemed rushed, and, in the allotted fifteen minutes per session, I felt like I wasn’t helping the writer in a significant way.  However, over the past few months, I’ve discovered some methods for ensuring that Compression Sessions are as productive as possible.


1. Manage expectations
This goes for both the consultant and the consultee.  As a consultant, you’re not going to be able to address every issue within an entire essay, and it takes some time to get comfortable with that idea.  Instead, focus on the most critical, pressing issue(s), as well as what the student wants addressed.

At the beginning of the session, it’s important to clarify what a compression session entails, and what the writer can realistically expect out of it.  Compression sessions are tailored to short documents, and specific issues.  Writers will bring in five or even ten page documents, so setting clear expectations initially can help lessen disappointment.

2. Don’t rush
It may seem paradoxical, but take your time.  If you gloss over a document quickly, it often becomes difficult to make any real improvements.  Instead, focus in on certain problem areas and go slowly.  Even if you and the consultee only get to a small portion of the paper, at least that portion will show true improvement.

3.  Cut down on intake and outtake
Usually, consultations start off with a review of the assignment, questions about the writer’s concerns, etc.  Luckily, we have an intake form.  This form helps focus the writer by asking them to choose one main issue to address.  It also helps to minimize intake time.

Similarly, the end of a standard session is reserved for outtake.  Even in a compression session, it’s important to leave the writer with some lasting takeaway of what to work on.  However, given the time constraints, outtake is an area that can be proportionally shortened.

4.  Manage disappointment
Sometimes, at the end of a session, a writer will be disappointed when they haven’t gotten through much of their document.  They might see an empty waiting area and ask if they can take the next session.  The answer, unfortunately, is no.  It’d make for an awkward situation if another student walked in a minute later for a session.  And ultimately, if the sessions are taking longer than fifteen minutes, the student brought in a document that would have been better suited to a full session.  When in doubt, blame it on the bosses!  Say something like, “Studio rules only allow for fifteen minute sessions.”  In the end, it’s not your job to justify the length of a session. 

Happy consulting!

Helping Writers Assess Their Blocking Tendencies and Writing Attitudes by Wendy Duprey

August 3rd, 2016

Maintaining My Focus During a Session by Marian Conklin

July 20th, 2016

Photo by Anupam Mukherjee on flickr.com
I love the Writing Studio, love working with writers, but, like everyone else, I have days where I don’t want to go to work or, worse still, shouldn’t be at work. I may be unwell, sleep-deprived, or preoccupied with something else. Whatever the reason, on those days I have to work harder at being present.
When I’m not at my best, my focus shifts inward and I find it difficult to connect with the writers and their writing. I become distracted, bored, negative. I don’t care much about outcomes and all students seem like whiners. Tutoring becomes a job. I have even dozed off momentarily during a consultation (and hoped fervently that the client didn’t notice).
To avoid this situation, I have learned to ask a lot of questions during the consulting session. Asking questions places me in the role of listener and observer and places my focus on the client, where it belongs.
Between sessions, I find that getting out of my chair and walking somewhere during my 10-minute breaks is much more effective than checking my phone or net surfing. My mind needs a break.
If I still cannot focus, depending on the writing situation, I might suggest that the writer spend 5 – 10 minutes free writing, drafting or revising a paragraph, or creating a reverse outline while I give the writer some privacy (by taking a quick walk). This method benefits both writer and consultant.
When pressed for time, I suggest we both stand and move around for a seventh inning stretch. This is a particularly helpful approach when I sense that the writer is as disengaged as I am. Physical movement increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, and this tactic saves valuable consultation time.

Of course, the best method is prevention. When under stress of any kind, I work on getting regular sleep and balanced nutrition, and hydration. I take the time to chat with coworkers or friends. In other words, self-care is essential for anyone in the service industry, and writing consultants offer a highly personalized service.

When Personal Statements Get Really Personal by Sandra Carpenter

July 13th, 2016

Image by u m a k on flickr.com
Most of us have experience working with students’ personal statements. More often than not, I find myself pushing the students to share a little more. To be a bit more specific. To share something captivating to hook the committee into reading the rest. What happens, though, when the student’s shared some of their most personal and painful moments in their first draft? How do you navigate this vulnerability, especially if you’ve never worked with this student previously?
I’ve had a couple of consultations where I have had to navigate learning a lot about a writer in a very short period of time. We often ask the writer to read their statement out loud in order to engage themselves in the revision process, and they almost always oblige. Even if it means reading a painful experience out loud for possibly the whole studio to hear.
When they navigate past the hook and into the details of their pasts, I am often tempted to keep moving along as if it were a normal consultation: give suggestions for clarity; point out misplaced modifiers; reorganize thoughts. I, however, do not think that this stoicism in the consultation does the writer and their work justice. So, in the past few experiences, I have allowed myself to react, respectfully, of course. I will nod, mhmm to demonstrate they’ve said something powerful, and even stop the consultation if the student seems they need to process.
Students have demonstrated their need for a break in the consultation in a few ways. Sometimes they read certain paragraphs more quietly than others and other times they actually break down and cry. So we stop. And I acknowledge that the emotional labor of writing a personal statement all too often goes unaccounted for. If they’ve shared something painful with me and become unsure of how to navigate the interaction thereafter, I return the favor. We put our pens down and I tell them about how difficult it was for me to share certain things in my statement, but how necessary it was because these experiences legitimately shaped my research interests. I ask them if that is also the case when it comes to their goals, and they have always confirmed that, yes, these experiences were key in leading them to medicine, physical therapy, non-profit management, and so on.
In intervening when discomfort arises, I am not suggesting that we avoid this discomfort during our consultations; rather, I suggest that we work through the discomfort and redirect students’ energies and insights to strengthen their focus and ultimately craft an insightful and honest personal statement.

Observations from iSessions by Lorraine Monteagut

June 28th, 2016

I recently converted to iSessions, and though I had been avoiding it because I’m nervous handling technology, I’m finding that using the iPad allows for more flexibility during sessions. The procedure for iSessions is basically the same as for regular sessions, with a couple variations:

  1. I mark writers’ papers. During sessions, I have control of the iPad, and I use the Notability app to highlight or write on documents as the writer reads out loud or asks questions. This took some getting used to, because we have been trained to let the writer mark their own papers. The purpose of this is not to mark typos or to proofread, but to contribute to the interactive quality of the session and to model how to go about revising a paper. On the screen, a Word document becomes an image, which changes our approach to the document as not just lines on a page, but a whole piece. With the iSessions, it’s easier to see overall organization and structure, the aesthetics that many undergraduate writers neglect. I use the tools in the Notability app to show the writer how I would go about moving things around.
Hint: I still find it useful for the writer to have a print copy to follow along with and mark, so they remain completely engaged. One of our interns, Hannah, is doing research on how to maximize interactivity during iSessions. Given the resources, having two iPads per session may create a more immersive experience for both the consultant and the writer.
  1. Sessions are recorded. One of the capabilities of using Notability is audio recording sessions while marking the documents. At the end of each session, I can email the writer a zip file with the marked document and the recording, so they can review it later. This frees the writer up to engage with the session while not having to worry about taking down everything we address. I’m finding that writers are more open to brainstorming during iSessions, talking about large-order issues and asking questions. I highlight minor issues for them to review later, and I think because they know they can always go back to the recording, they don’t worry as much about the little stuff. This format helps extend the session past the fifty minutes; when writers review recordings, they are learning how to revise for themselves.
Hint: I ask writers if they are comfortable being recorded at the beginning of sessions. Only one has said no so far. I think most undergraduate students are used to this kind of technology and being recorded, but it’s better to check before making a record of the session, especially when the writer is concerned about the sensitivity of material.

I think there are many opportunities for innovation while using iSessions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my sessions develop with these technologies.

Tell a Story: the Personal Statement

May 5th, 2016

I think we’ve all had our share of writers working on their Personal Statements. I’m also sure that each of us remembers (sometimes with dread) writing our own Personal Statements for graduate school. It certainly is a trying experience at best. Personal Statements seem to “break”many of the conventions of academic writing: using first person, a more casual tone, and talking about ourselves – our beliefs and our experiences. I always have advised such writers to start early and expect to edit their Personal Statement more than any other writing they may have done.
I think that the most effective Personal Statement walks a very fine line. In some ways, it is like a cover letter, or other letter of introduction. It is the writer’s chance to let their readers into their circle. It must strike a tone that reflects the writer’s personality more than any other writing, but still remain professional. It is a chance for applicants to let their own voice come through. The remaining application documents are impersonal: GPA, standardized test scores, basic data not unlike what appears on a traditional resume. The Personal Statement is a chance to connect those experiences and those numbers to a real, live human being. That can only be accomplished through reflection and allowing our personality to shine through the page (or screen).
So, I contend that an effective Personal Statement musttell a story, more than any other writing. The story of the writer’s life. I will start suggesting future writers of Personal Statements begin the process by watching the following video. I apologize if you find One Direction trite, but I think that this song strikes a perfect balance of distance and reflection.

Narrative, then, is important. But the story needs to do more than just reflect on past experiences; it must also connect each of those experiences to the writer’s future, a future that both requires and deserves admission to the particular institution. The writer needs to connect each of the experiences to faculty members, the program, and the institution. Part of the reflection needs to answer a critical question: “Why can ___________ program best achieve its objectives when they admit me as a student?” Again, it is a deeply personal reflection that will answer this question successfully. The writer must connect with the readers (who may or may not be one of the identified faculty). It should outline what the writer intends to do within the program and after they have finished. And it all needs to relate to the “Story of [the writer’s] Life” to date. It must be a seamless narrative that entertains the readers, connects with them emotionally, and convinces them that the writer will complete the program (with a pretty-specific plan in mind) in a timely manner. It must show that the writer has thought about their experiences to date and show how those experiences (including failures and successes) have shaped them as a person. It must also show how that person belongs at that school.
A Personal Statement should be deeply reflective, completely personal, and eloquently convincing. It should be a window into the writer’s heart and soul, while connecting each part of the writer’s past and future to that institution and the people who make it exceptional.
Make sure your writers allow themselves to speak through their Personal Statements and to let the essay express who they are. Press them to tell their story openly and honestly.
Although they’re selling an editing service, check out this website for more on developing a narrative personal statement:

https://www.essayedge.com/graduate/essayadvice/course/lthree_narrative.html
By Philip Davis, M.A. in History 

When Your Writer Is Writing about You

May 5th, 2016

By Sandra Carpenter, M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies

I often find myself approaching students’ papers through a much different lens than the ones through which I approach my own work. As a feminist researcher, I am in a critical discipline and am constantly dissecting power relations, particularly in terms of identity. So it becomes especially challenging for me when writers bring in projects that reinscribe certain power dynamics that may have a personal effect on my own lived experience. 

To paint a much clearer picture of what I am discussing: I’m a fat woman. I say fat in a reclamatory way that challenges the idea that fat = bad. So it becomes an interesting, sometimes amusing, but always trying, experience when students bring in papers discussing “the obesity epidemic.” Most of us have experienced an instance or two where we feel like the writer is analyzing some part of our lives or experiences, but what happens when the writer is explicitly criticizing an aspect of ourselves that we cannot hide from the consultation? In my case, I can’t shrink my tight fit in the armchair I sit in beside them. As I’m sure you know, the “obesity epidemic” is a popular topic, so I’m faced with this particular challenge often.

What, then, can we do during situations like these? Where we feel like the writer is writing about us? For me, it becomes useful to remind myself of my own growth as a writer (and as a cultural critic). Doing so allows me to somewhat remove myself from the situation—despite the fact that my thighs betray me—and approach the project as just that: a research project. I can then feel especially equipped to suggest opposing points of views that the writer should consider in order to strengthen their own arguments. Much of my growth as a writer and as a researcher has resulted from moments where my reviewers identify holes in my projects and rationale, so I try and do the same for projects such as these.

The Resistant (Insert Major) Student

April 7th, 2016

Countless times throughout the semester, I find myself sitting at the consultation table with a student that is pained to be in my presence, even though they made the appointment with their own free will. These students come from a variety of backgrounds and, more often than not, have come to the Writing Studio to review their personal statement for their intended (insert name) program. In my experience, many are students in the midst of a stress-induced breakdown over getting into their dream graduate program or medical/law school, and they resist conversation with their consultant from a place of self-doubt. On one occasion, a previously resistant student told me I knew “nothing” about medical practice, yet later admitted he was under a lot of pressure from his family to get into medical school and to already conduct himself “the way a doctor should.” 

I try to remind myself that the students who come here with a resistant attitude are trying to cope with the expectations of their future and what the reality is turning out to be. Though this student offered insight into his life and situation willingly, I’ve begun to recognize that “resistance = a chance to connect with the student and check in with them.” By asking the resistant student a question about how their tests are going or for a story of how they came to select this major, I am able to empathize with how stressful this time in their lives is and discuss how some details from their story would make strong points to lead their personal statement with. In doing so, I often feel like their guard diminishes, and this has given me a window to discuss the approach they selected to take in their paper, what information they wanted to include, but didn’t, and so forth. 

As consultants, creating a distance between resistance and our feelings can allow us to step back and ask the student how they’re feeling and for details that can redirect the conversation in a positive direction. In the end, some students may remain resistant but can at least leave with a new, thorough discussion in mind if they decide to make changes on their own later. 

By Nancy Roque, M.A. in Library and Information Sciences (in progress)

iSessions, MySessions

March 31st, 2016

This semester I have begun doing iSessions with (essentially) all of my writers. At first, I was a bit skeptical: 1) writers have less responsibility to make note of any changes to their writing, as I am making the changes and emailing the pdf to them after 2) the sessions are recorded which initially added stress about saying something incorrect or giving bad advice (maybe not in line with a professor after-the-fact) and 3) I was thoroughly enjoying the pencil (pen) and paper physicality of the regular sessions. All that being said, I think I can confidently state that I am a full supporter of the iSessions and the added benefits provided to the writers.

Most of my writers have been unaware that their session was an iSession. This tends to result in some confusion at first with getting an electronic copy and convincing them that they will be provided the same services as a normal session with iPad and TV for better visualization. [I had one writer arrive and made aware of the iSession, resulting in her (nearly) shouting, “Nooooo, I want to work with a REAL person, not an iPad!!” To that the deskstaff calmly responded, “She is a real person…she’s sitting at the back table.”]
Once all of the confusion is cleared up and the writing is pulled up on the TV, almost every writer is initially in awe of the capabilities. I have found that, contrary to my initial assumptions, writers are more engaged in the conversation of amending their writing, even though they do not need to write everything down. It seems to me that removing the burden of transcribing allows for the writers to be more attentive to interact with me and discuss potential changes in the writings.
I have been using the app Notability for all of my sessions. [Side note: many of my writers have been so impressed with the app that they take down the name to download later for themselves.] I (luckily) used the app in the last few years of my coursework, and so I have become proficient- there was definitely a learning curve at the start. This allows me to more seamlessly make notes, write out complete legiblethoughts/ideas, change colors for different things (i.e., one color for grammar mistakes, a different color for new opening/closing sentence ideas, yet another color for highlighting and moving sentences/paragraphs). I love colors!! I think the end result is a very visually stimulating revision of the initial writing piece. All in all, I think iSessions make it easier for the writer to follow along with the changes made during the session and make the corrections later by themselves.
Yay, Team iSessions!!

By Melanie Pickett, Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering (in progress)

Online Consultations

March 11th, 2016


When I first learned that I would be doing online consultations I was slightly intimidated, having not had much experience video sessions or Skype in general. My only experience with Skype had been when my mother would video-call my uncle for Thanksgivings or Christmases so that we could see our long-distant cousins in Delaware. My sister and I would crowd in behind my mother and my grandmother who would talk extra slow and loud, perhaps thinking the Skype session required this kind of exaggerated speech. Sometimes my uncle’s face would freeze, his mouth hanging open, mid-sentence and his eyes shut in a blink. A lot of times there were What?s and What did you say?s. I was kind of dreading trying to consult a writer for fifty minutes, knowing well the many hijinks that came with Skype sessions.
On a recent Wednesday evening, I knew I had an online consultation at 8 PM. I printed the writer’s work and opened the plastic bag carrying a brand new headset, carefully laying aside the yellow sticky note that clarified: FOR ANNALISE. I adjusted them and readjusted them, trying to find the perfect fit before signing onto Skype and calling my evening client. At 8 PM on the dot, I called my client, who answered on second ring. And to my surprise, the connection was clear, and sitting before me was a client just like any of my others who come into The Writing Studio. At first, we did have trouble hearing each other, but once volumes were adjusted, we were not interrupted by any technical difficulty.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was not being able to share the document on the screen within Skype so that the client and I could both see the paper together, like a Google Doc. Because of this, we simply had to adjust our language and be specific about what paragraph and which line we were looking at at the time.
My client stated that they hadn’t been in school for about seven years and that they felt like they needed to get back into the swing of writing. We read through their work carefully, line by line, and I was able to provide comments for things that they could choose to do, if they wanted. The session was successful in that the client gained confidence again in their own writing, saw ways of how they could write differently, and even in how I gained a new understanding of a topic I knew little about before this session took place. We used the whole fifty minutes and by the end, the client was asking for my hours and if we could do another online consultation again soon. Gladly, I provided them, and left for the evening feeling the rewards of my job, and also, a new confidence in proceeding with online consultations. 

By Annalise Mabe, MFA student in Creative Writing and Writing Consultant
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