A Competitive Edge: Writing Consultants in the Job Search

This column was submitted by Steven Inglis, Writing Center Alumnus, Class of 2011.

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at Nationwide’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC. As part of a team that functions as a liaison between the company, its clients, and the Federal Government, I quickly found that the skills I used and taught as a Writing Consultant were invaluable to my job. The more I thought about it, the experience gained writing, editing, mentoring, organizing endless drafts of papers, and working with clients (both teachers and students) provided skills that are applicable and transferable to any job.

Current Writing Consultants: many of you already have (or will soon be searching for) internships and job opportunities for this coming summer. Although this may seem like a long time from now, I encourage each of you to realize the value of the experience you are gaining and how it can be cited on your resume, in interviews, and finally used in the workplace. From my own experience, I can say without reservation that working as a Writing Consultant helped me most with the following:

First and most obviously, writing and editing. From simple e-mails to high-level industry documents and letters to Congressmen, my supervisors were impressed that I could not only draft an error-free document the first time around, but also demonstrate an uncanny attention to detail when peer reviewing. I could provide substantive recommendations on organization and presentation of an argument or message. This is something we work with daily as Writing Consultants, and a skill that is vital to a majority of jobs. Consider this: a 2004 College Board survey found that 86% of responding companies would frown upon poorly written job applications, and 80% of jobs in the most rapidly expanding service sectors required writing skills. This certainly lends credence to their claim that writing is increasingly a “gatekeeper” or “threshold skill” in the job market. For more, see Writing: A Ticket or a Ticket Out (CollegeBoard 2004).

Second, organization. Writing consulting will teach you how to stay organized during even the most hectic situations, which I came across frequently during my internship. I am sure many of you have experienced how stressful it can be to have sixteen drafts to read and track, sixteen appointments to set up, and professors to keep regularly updated, all on or near the week(s) you have your own midterms and essays to tackle. Stressful as it may be, this offers considerable perspective and helps build habits that can be carried forth throughout your career.

Third, communication. Writing consulting is a client-based process. It helps you learn how to communicate with professors on a professional level, as well as with other students at a peer and mentor level. Likewise, mature and respectful interaction with clients as well as coworkers is inherent to any and every workplace.

Although this list goes on, I feel the message is very clear. Rare is the occasion that you will encounter a job posting that leaves out key qualifications like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘effective written and verbal communicator,’ ‘strong writing skills,’ and ‘highly organized.’ Indeed, as a Writing Consultant, you will continue to develop all of the above, which you can draw upon in interviews (to help you land the job) and in the workplace (to allow you to excel at the job).

As for me, I was happy to be offered a highly regarded full-time position with that same Nationwide office in August. Speaking from experience, I am confident that your work as a Writing Consultant will give you a significant edge in the job hunt and allow you to stand out as the “real world” approaches.

Wonderful Wordle

Wordle is one of several tag cloud  sites that can be fun to play with and may have useful potentials for writing and reading.  A tag cloud or word cloud image functions like a visual concordance that reveals word frequency through font size. Most of these sites have various tools for adjusting the image, font, orientation and number of words processed so that a variety of “readings” are possible. Here’s a word cloud made from our WAC Program page that portrays writing as the foundation of a program involving curriculum, consultants and faculty. Other permutations of this image left the word “writing” looming ominously above the other words, perhaps suggesting a potentially crushing descent.

Wordle WAC

And here’s a word cloud I made with Maria Rajtik’s newsletter submission “Feedback: A Grade is more than a letter”

 Rajtik essay

Word clouds can also enhance literary discussion. One word cloud I made for Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” surprised me by demonstrating that the name of John was the most prominent word in the story even though the tale is about a woman being subjected to the “rest cure” of the celebrity Dr. Weir Mitchell.

Yellow Wallpaper

Others have been Presidential Inauguration speech word clouds to provide interesting insights into their rhetorical patterns and even the economic prognostications of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke have been fed into word cloud generators to see what comes out. This new digital tool could be usefully applied to famous speeches, editorial essays, mission statements and even personal writing. To create effective word clouds Smashing design magazine suggests a few “good practices” .

Here is a word cloud of the first 100 words of “The Richmond Promise”


A Word cloud of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party speech is revealing…

Palin Tea Party

What texts come to your mind for word cloud analysis?

Check out these other word cloud sites and start your own experiments:

Free online word cloud generator



Many Eyes

Academic Blogging: Impressing a Professor in 350 Words


image source: Creative-Commons licensed image from xkcd

My colleagues are, increasingly, reading blogs and assigning them in classes. “Weblogs,” the full name for this medium, appear in every class I teach. I use them for weekly reading responses, warm-ups for formal writing, and even for graded multimedia projects impossible on paper.

A blog like this, rather than a closed discussion list at a course-management system like Blackboard, provides students with several real-life advantages. First, the secondary audience for a blog, one far greater than professor and classmates, enables writing for publication in the real-world Internet, rather than what we techies often call a “walled garden.” Second, blogs resemble the sorts of collaborative tools coming into use in the workplace. Finally, blogs are not bound by the conventions of print, and that enables them to do things impossible on paper.

How to Get Started

In planning the workshop on academic blogging, I decided to first write what journalists call a “nutgraf,” or a few sentences that sum up the focus and claims the writer will make. Here’s mine:

 Academic blogging opens a new and easily used venue for student and faculty writers. A blog provides a number of advantages when compared to traditional papers, such as the ability to embed photos and videos, the use of easy-to-manage feedback from other writers in a class, and an informal style that tends to help writers still learning to write for the academy. Blogs also pose certain problems, and in my blog post I will outline them as well.

Now that you have my nutgraf, how about  those problems? From my experience with many student bloggers, here are some issues that hurt their assessment when I ask them to blog.

Paper-based thinking: Blogs and other Web-based media do not need double-spacing and they do not tend to support paragraph indents. Instead, single-spacing, left-justification, and one blank line between paragraphs suffice.

Unclear focus: preparing a nutgraf avoids the sort of rambling monologue that can afflict a new blogger. Keep in mind, readers, that your readers choose to visit your site. Keep them informed and stay focused. For this reason, blogs rarely cover more than a single topic.

Broken links: Non-working links hurt all sorts of Web texts, but a blogger should take extra care; one’s reputation depends on providing accurate references to other materials. In print, an analogous mistake might be a severe error in a citation, such as providing the wrong title for a printed work.

To avoid such errors, be certain that every link works when you preview or publish the post. Note that links to on-campus resources requiring a university log-in will not work off campus. Check all links from a computer at home or find a public version of the material.

Clumsy links: Also beware of pulling in URLs (Web addresses) like this:


Instead of testing readers’ patience, if the post needs a URL rather than a link from text (as I have just done) consider a Web site that can make long URLs short. These “crunched” URLs persist, and I have had good luck with bit.ly and tinyurl.com. I used the latter to shorten that monster address above:


In some classes, and for formal projects published online, you may not be permitted to do this. Check with your professor and a handbook for documentation. Both MLA and APA formats now give advice on how to shorten a URL for publication.

Microsoft Word & Blogging: Word is designed for printed documents, no matter what appears under its “save as” menu. Word works wonders on paper, partly because the software enables dozens or even hundreds of fonts, sizes, and margin-changes. But Word does this through hidden formatting codes.  We never see them when cutting and pasting to a blog, but in some blogging software, these typographic phantoms cause nightmares.

I just typed this line into Word: “Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.”

Here is what I got when I copied the text from Word and pasted it to the editor of Google’s Blogspot:

@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
<div class=”MsoNormal”>
Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.</div>

Oh oh. Normally, this is not a problem, if a blogger does not put any bolds, underlines, or other formatting into Word. If those features appear, however, it may take hours to untangle the mess. I have encountered lines that do not want to single-space, strange changes of fonts, and more.


Random eye-candy: Why use a photo, video, or other illustration in a blog? They can emphasize an argument and save you words. In every case, they should be placed close to the material referenced.

When choosing images, search for those licensed for non-commercial reuse. You can do this with the advanced options for Google image search as well as Flickr. I’m sure that most other image-sharing sites have ways to find content with Creative-Commons licensing. The candy-apple image appeared licensed for reuse in a Google search.

Bad Tags: Tagging blogs permits readers to aggregate topics by clicking a tag. Huge sites need this. I’ve found that even my blog on virtual worlds and gaming, “In a Strange Land,” needs tags so I can, say, separate how-to advice for folks from general news about the industry.  At the same time, tagging can be tedious when misused. Why on earth, at this blog, would I need to tag this post or any other with “writing”? That is, after all, the focus on the entire blog and its sponsor.

My post has gone on far more than 350 words (it’s at 991 now!), but I think it presents the basics.

The hardest part remains the writing itself. No medium changes that.

Refer to links at this Writer’s Web page for more advice on academic blogging. Good luck with your posts!

Enkindling Experience

My Kindle

I got a Kindle for my 49th birthday and I can’t help but wonder what it will enkindle in me. When I checked the OED for “kindle” I found, as I expected, that the word means to set aflame or to arouse or inspire. The more surprising meaning was to bring forth or give birth. At the very least, the Kindle and other e-readers will bring about passionate discussions of text, meaning, materiality and technology.

Though I am a firm multisensory lover of printed materials that I relish marking up with abandon, I found myself immediately loading my Kindle up with the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Complete Works of Dickens, the King James Bible, the short stories of Poe & Bierce as well as Brave New World, Brave New World Revisited, Chrome Yellow , Wieland and 1984 – a load of books that would fill two steamer trunks and weigh several hundred pounds.  This 7.5″ x 4.8″ e-reader is only 8.7 ounces and could fit in a generous jacket pocket – no steamer trunks or roller-luggage required. Lest the reader think this a shameless promo disguised as a blog posting, let me add another fact: it already broke.

I don’t know what happened, but when I went to dinner at my in-laws and went to show off the Kindle, it wouldn’t even power on though I had half a battery charge when we left the house. When I tried to charge it with the handy wall & computer compatible plug, the charge light wouldn’t even come on. So I’m returning it for a replacement.
When I called Amazon, initially they tried to re-boot my Kindle by remote but when that didn’t work the service agent told me I’d receive a replacement within a day. I was pleased with his service but the remote re-boot reminded me of the ironically Orwellian way Amazon remotely deleted 1984 and Animal Farm from customer Kindles without their permission.

Even with this initial glitch in my e-reader experience, I find myself looking forward to getting a functioning Kindle pre-loaded with the books I already downloaded and paid for. It’s not that I planned to sit down and read them all through, but I thought such a collection in an electronic format might be very useful to reference during teaching. Of course, I could access the same texts online as in the links above, but if I wanted to hold class outdoors or not be posted at the podium, the portable e-reader might be very handy.

Kindle is the trademark name for Amazon’s e-reader but there are several non-compatible competitors like Barnes & Nobel’s Nook, the Literati Digital Reader by Sharper Image or Sony’s Digital Reader. Naturally, due to the ‘wisdom’ of market competition, none of them are compatible. While the “electronic paper” and “digital ink” used in e-readers is the result of R&D attempts to give the most print-like reading experience, I found myself wanting a backlit screen when I began to read it in a dimly lit room.

When I get my new Kindle, I’ll post a follow up assessment of its usefulness for quick reference, powerful searching and annotation of my steamer trunkloads of texts.

19th Century Clues Explored with 21st Century Writing Tools

Usher, Beeble & Swedenborg

Here, avatar Beeble Baxter muses upon the image of Immanuel Swedenborg in Richmond’s virtual House of Usher.

During our pedagogical collaborations in virtual reality, there have been surprising parallels with traditional composition, but finding these parallels is not difficult. More challenging is the invention of an engaging and useful composition in virtual reality for use in our courses to help us to create that balance of challenge and learning that Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD.

Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always fascinated me in terms of its psychological prescience and its manifold intriguing but arcane details. Like many Poe characters, Roderick Usher is melancholic and has surrendered to “the grim phantasm, FEAR” that seems to  paralyze him. Sometimes a cursory reading of Poe moves us to dismiss his tales as merely formulaic, but his details are often doors to the dank dungeons of the human psyche. The narrator of this tale, responding to Roderick’s desperate letter, attempts to distract his friend’s obsessive and fevered mind as they “pored together over” the titles in Usher’s library. In so doing, the narrator gains some understanding of Usher’s disintegrating psyche, but we do not.

However, it only takes a look behind the mention of Immanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) to get a more detailed insight into Roderick’s madness. The full title of the text the narrator finds in Usher’s Library is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from things Heard and Seen.  Swedenborg begins with an exegesis of Matthew 24:29–31 in which he makes the following claim after dismissing the literal reading of the passage:

 “However, people who believe such things are not aware of the hidden depths that
lie within the details of the Word. There is in fact spiritual meaning in these
details, for they intend not only the outward and earthly events that we find
on the literal level but spiritual and heavenly events as well.
This holds true not just for the meaning of phrases but even for each word.”

This passage almost seems to apply to Poe’s tale as well, and so in traditional text we have mirrors of meaning. Roderick’s belief in the consciousness or “sentience” (1st coined in this story) of his house and the influence of the masonry, most specifically the “collocation of the stones”or their particular arrangement, seems to suggest a tendency to find hidden meanings not unlike Swedenborg. The “House” of Usher certainly exhibits the layered meanings that Swedenborg sees in the Scriptures. In his mystified mental misery, it may be that Roderick overlooked or dismissed Swedenborg’s insight in entry 311 where he reminds us that “heaven and hell come from the human race” a concept that might have encouraged Usher to clean up his own haunted palace to end the personal hell he had endured for so long.

It is such detail that suggests virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool for motivating students to dig more deeply into the details of the text and reflect upon their narrative function. Why does Poe bother to list these specific titles? The image of Swedenborg on one of the walls of the Usher library can be “scripted” to provide clues for student research prompting them to ask: how can Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell can help us understand the intricacies of Roderick’s madness?

 And this is but one of the books named by the narrator of Poe’s story, each of which provides its own web of connections and opportunities for research. In “Fall of the House of Usher” the line of exploration can run from Poe to Swedenborg to William Blake whose astonishing hybrids of poetry and image composed via etching and engraving, continue to provide fertile intellectual and aesthetic delight even in the digital age.
The William Blake Archive is one of the first collaborative hypermedia texts to receive academic acclaim and its design provides unprecedented access to the vast collection of Blake’s genius scattered across the globe. Here students can follow the thread from Swedenborg to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes images and text critical of Swedenborg’s views.

When the 19th Century meets the 21st Century in the dark digital hallways of our virtual House of Usher, the possibilities begin to unfold for the bold who playfully pioneer.

Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Individual Conferences & Student Writing

Creating a dialog of growth.

Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Jim Kinney of VCU, a rhetorician who has taught writing for several decades. As he reflected on his teaching during this time, Kinney noticed the greatest improvement in student writing when he used “the Garrison method” of teaching composition. Using a list of specific areas for focus such as pre-writing or invention or organization, Kinney explained that after an initial introductory period, most of the semester involved short individual conferences with students, specifically focused on addressing these aspects of writing.

Intrigued, I googled the name of the method and found that JSTOR had a review of the Garrison method by Jo An McGuire Simmons published in the May 1984 issue of College Composition and Communication. In “The One-to-One Method of Teaching Composition” Simmons offers us a gestalt of the process: “Picture a classroom of students writing. The teacher and a student, sitting side by side, are conferring intensely on a draft of the student’s paper. Two or three tutors may be in the room holding similar conferences. While the other sutdents are waiting for their conferences, they are writing, re-writing and, revising works in progress. What you are seeing is the Garrison or One-to-One Method at work.”

According to Simmons the Los Angeles Community College Distriect tested and recommended the approach in 1974 leading Roger Garrison to publish  How a Writer Works in 1981 . Simmons notes that “the primary assumption behind the method is that the best way to write is by writing and rewriting. Roger Garrison thinks that the best use of class time, then, is not class discussions, nor lectures on writing, nor analysis of someone else’s writing, but writing.” Each conference is limited to one objective and situates the teacher in a less threatening coaching role, helping the student to recognize his own errors and find his own solutions in a series of personalized “mini-lessons.” Such individualized attention is a potent force in a student’s education and a strong draw for the schools or teachers that can provide it with some regularity.

While the method increases individual student attention and decreases time required for final grading, Simmons notes several challenges to this approach. To be practiced as Garrison recommends, each teacher would need two writing consultants assigned to assist with student conferences. This approach also slows production, potentially limiting the number of assignments possible in a semester. In spite of these potential drawbacks, the Garrison method is meant to be flexibly applied according to the requirements of the context. Teachers could apply the method for a specific assignment only or throughout the semester, or the series of objectives guiding each meeting could be abbreviated.

 Certainly there is no panacea for producing better writers, not classical rhetoric, not grammar, not reading the great books, not even individual conferences. Ultimately, the quality of a student’s writing depends on that student applying the writing strategies he has been taught.  Nevertheless, few pedagogical approaches are as effective, organic or cost-effective as increased interaction between teacher and student.

composition and media: fruitful interplay

A useful assignment for writing classes, especially when studying creative nonfiction, is to assign a reading of Ned Zeman’s 2004 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies” a day or more before a viewing of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man”  inspired by Zeman’s article. Not only does the grisly tale grab student attention and spark engaged debate, each text offers a trove of interesting compositional choices that can enhance student understanding of narrative and the various media by which it travels.

Students take notes on their impressions as they read Zeman’s article and attempt to describe the image of Treadwell that is conveyed before they view Herzog’s film. As we review the article, students notice graphic layout, the clever beginning, the range of evidence, and the variety of specific detail and skillful description. By the time we view Herzog’s film, students have a loose framework for comparison that sharpens their eyes and ears for detail.

Follow up discussion builds upon these observations and moves to include closer examination of each medium, narrative choices, documentary approaches and directorial/authorial intrusion, as when Herzog denies viewers a hearing of the audio evidence yet positions himself within the frame, back to the camera, listening to it with headphones. Though the film is about the wild, technology is foregrounded in Treadwells 100+ hours of video footage where we can see the profound impact of a technology that is a kind of portable audience – or at least a promise of one.

Students can pursue focused research papers inspired by the film, or write critical analyses of each narrative, noting the specifics of how each achieves its unique effect or they can delve into drafting an argument essay about the environmental issues raised in the film, or the concept of authorship, or the the various limitations of each medium for this particular story.

Whether we call the documentary an “adaptation” or not, the interplay of message and media is a fertile space for intellectual exploration and the development of thinking through close reading and significant writing.

Useful Resources for Teaching Essays

I’ve come across several new-to-me resources for teaching essays.  Despite the fact that these sites are variously geared towards “creative nonfiction” or “literary nonfiction,” these resources should be of general use for any writing-related course, particularly considering the malleability of those genre labels.

The first, Brevity, is an online magazine devoted to “the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction.”  The magazine contains lots of interesting essays, but the craft essays might be of particular interest for teaching.

The Brevity site also links to a blog called You Gotta Teach This Essay, which is a forum where teachers “share information on those essays that [they have found] particularly useful in teaching the art and craft of literary nonfiction.”  The entries generally contain synopses of the essays, suggestions for pedagogical approaches, and links to the texts (when possible) or other information on locating the texts.

From You Gotta Teach This Essay, I ended up browsing Quotidiana, a repository of 340 public-domain essays.  Aside from general interest humanities applications, this site might have particular relevance for the CORE course, for History courses, for Women’s Studies (especially given the separate drop-down menu highlighting the women essayists included in the archive), or possibly for Political Science settings.