Reading Between the Lines: A Behind the Scenes Look at the Writer’s Workshop!

Nicole Letendre ’23
Chief Features Editor

            Students at the College of the Holy Cross have found the Writer’s Workshop to be a safe space for growth in all kinds of writing, from lab reports to literary analyses. Located on the second floor of Dinand Library, this space provides students with a place to consult with their peers on their latest writing assignments, receiving helpful feedback and some new insights. Assistant Director of the Center for Writing Gabe Morrison reveals, “Students find value in the Writer’s Workshop at many different parts of the writing process—it’s helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of while brainstorming; it’s great to have the accountability of meeting with someone to get writing done while drafting; and it’s useful to observe how a reader is interpreting a piece of writing in the revising process.” The Writing Center acknowledges that writing is a process; students are constantly learning and developing new skills and approaches to their own writing process. Director of the Center for Writing, Professor Britt-Smith, states, “The overall philosophy of the Writer’s Workshop and the Center for Writing is: Writing is never “just” writing and that ALL writers have more to learn. We focus on the writer, not just the writing. Our mission statement: We welcome students of all identities and majors to collaborate on any and all writing projects. We empower students to take ownership of their writing through peer with peer sessions, and we aim to inspire students’ confidence as they develop effective writing habits at Holy Cross and beyond.”

            The Writer’s Workshop hires several strong writers, from various academic disciplines, as peer consultants, who walk students through their own writing process in one-on-one Writer’s Workshop sessions. Students typically come in with an assignment, in any and all stages of the writing process, and peer consultants are responsible for coaching students through the next-steps or potential roadblocks of their paper. Peer consultants reflected about their role, the inner workings of the Writer’s Workshop, and why you should stop by! 

What does a typical Writer’s Workshop session look like?

Andrew Chan ‘22: All writer’s workshops generally follow a similar guideline. To begin, the consultants usually get acquainted with their client. They’ll ask a series of basic level questions to get acquainted with a client. Then, consultants will ask a series of questions relating to the assignment and oftentimes ask to see a prompt for the assignment. The consultant would then lead the client through a “read aloud” in which the writer or the consultant will read whatever is on the paper out loud (if there is no draft, the consultant will begin talking about creating an outline of the ideas of the writer). After the read aloud, the writer and consultant will work through the paper together, identifying areas that would like to be worked on amongst other things. Before the session is over, the consultant will make a plan with the writer so that the writer has a clear plan in their mind to do after the workshop. The summary of the session can be sent (at the discretion of the writer) to their professors, highlighting their work outside of the class.

What assignments do the Writer’s Workshop typically assist students with?

Meghan Gavis ‘22: Consultants at the Workshop are trained to help with any type of assignment for any course. After being a consultant for three years, I have worked on a wide range of assignments, from biology lab reports and political science op-eds to art history analyses and graduate school applications. Consultants can help students adjust the basic principles of academic writing to fit specific disciplines and assignment prompts.

What preparation should a student complete before coming to a session?

Meghan Gavis ‘22: Students often think that they have to complete a full draft before booking a Workshop session, but peer consultants can help at any stage of the writing process. Together, we can read and understand the assignment prompt, brainstorm ideas, restructure a partial draft, or polish a final product. The only way students should prepare for a session is to consider what they would like to accomplish with the consultant and to arrive at the Workshop with a positive attitude! 

Why did you decide to work as a peer writing consultant, and what is the most rewarding part in the role?

Ariana Zandi ‘23: I decided to work as a peer writing consultant because I wanted to learn more about the writing process and help my peers overcome some of the roadblocks, like procrastination and time management, that I’ve struggled with as a writer. The most rewarding part in the role is being there to listen to students and talk with them through the writing process. Writing can be a daunting task and as a peer consultant, I’m here to help the writer clarify their thoughts and argument. 

            Andrew Chan ‘22: I decided to become a peer writing consultant to help others who consistently felt “stuck” while writing. I know how frustrating this feeling can be as I’ve often struggled with it myself. I believe the most rewarding part of writing is meeting new people across different grades and learning about the variety of different writing styles that are out there. In addition, I live for those “a-ha” moments during the process when students feel confident in their writing. 

            Claire Goldsborough ’22: As a first-year I interviewed in the hopes of becoming a writing consultant in order to find my niche in the college (which I have!). The Workshop was one of the first places on campus where I felt like I was really able to contribute and connect to others. Especially through the pandemic, the Workshop has afforded me a continued opportunity to maintain my connection to the campus community. The most rewarding part of my job is that it allows me to be a safe point of contact for first-years, who in addition to writing, may need support as they adjust to college life.

What has been the biggest challenge in your role as a peer writing consultant?

Tommy Fedrigoni ‘22: Students come into the workshop with a variety of preconceived notions about who we are and what it is we’re trying to accomplish. Among the biggest and most rewarding challenges is demonstrating to a student that we’re not here just to make their paper better, but rather to make them better writers and to improve their paper in the process of that higher goal. While a lot of students come in expecting to find a cookie-cutter editing service that only focuses on the paper itself, I think most leave with an appreciation for the approach we take and the dividends it yields both immediately and down the line.

Claire Goldsborough ’22: I personally find it to be most challenging when a student comes into the workshop pretty close to the paper deadline with a finished paper that needs very little editing. As we read through the paper and this becomes apparent, I have to reel in my worry that I will not be able to meaningfully help the student. At that point, you just have to let the session go organically, helping where you can, and also accept the fact that sometimes all a writer needs is a final soothing read-through with someone else before they turn the paper in—an experience which can make students, especially first-years, quite anxious.  

How do you approach a writing consultation with a student? Do you have a particular mindset or philosophy?

Tommy Fedrigoni ‘22: Fundamentally, most students who come into the workshop are already solid writers—a tribute to the quality of students we have here at Holy Cross and to the education we receive. As a peer, the undeniably most useful service we provide students with is a reader’s perspective, and this drives most of the work I myself do in the writing center. By reading someone else’s writing from an outside perspective, we are able to comment on what we felt their argument, message, and tone were and contrast those perceptions with what the student was intending to convey with their work. Any disconnect between our take on their writing and their own intentions is indicative of an area that can potentially be further improved, and no matter how skilled a writer you are, there is always room for improvement.

Claire Goldsborough ‘22: I approach students as thinkers, first and foremost. A lot of the time, students will jump straight into writing just for the sake of performing school-work to get an assignment done. During my sessions, I find it important to encourage students to take a step back and discuss their thoughts aloud, formulating strong arguments before they write. This is often the most rewarding part of the session for me, because, as the pressure is removed from the student, some really interesting and engaging conversations are produced. This allows students to get passionate about their writing topic, a quality that shines through in their final product.

Andrew Chan ‘22: I approach a writing consultation with a student like any other conversation I’d have normally. During these sessions I always try to keep an open mind. Writing is a skill that is developed over time and as such it’s very important to have an open mind while working with students of all levels. Generally, I begin with a general set of questions I like to ask at the beginning of the session to get started and then the conversation usually branches into all different directions after that. My particular philosophy is something that is taught to all consultants—writing is a process. Understanding that writing is a multitude of different processes—pre-writing, writing, and revising—will allow us to use various tools and techniques that can help all writers across all stages. 

How has this role improved your own understanding of the writing process and made you a stronger writer?

Tommy Fedrigoni ‘22: Seeing the volume of papers and writers that we do, one lesson stands out most clearly from my time in the workshop: there is no one writing process. Great writers have come in with wildly different approaches, from the diehard outliners to committed freewriters and everything in between. I think my work in the writing center has affirmed for me that good writing takes the form of whatever makes you comfortable, and that the act of writing itself is a way to further expand and explore your own ideas on whatever subject you’re writing about. 

Ariana Zandi ‘23: Being a peer writing consultant has improved my understanding of the writing process by seeing how other writers learn and write. Writing and helping others in their writing process has shown me that writing is never a linear process—each time you write there’s something new to be learned. Reading students’ papers has sparked my own creativity in writing as I’m constantly learning from new perspectives and unique styles. 

Claire Goldsborough ‘22: My time at the Writer’s Workshop has made me more empathetic to writers, as I have a better understanding of how vulnerable one can feel during the writing and tutoring process. I am also more patient with myself as I write, and I focus more on actively engaging with my writing as an expression and extension of myself, an attitude that I try to foster in my tutoring sessions. 

Whether you go to the Writer’s Workshop every week, or have never been, it’s an encouraging environment where you can work to improve your writing. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this all-access pass to the Writer’s Workshop, and you decide to stop by! Assistant Director of the Center for Writing, Gabe Morrison, offers some final reflections: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “typical” Writer’s Workshop session. Writers use the Workshop for all kinds of reasons and not always because they’re experiencing writing difficulties. Sometimes it’s just really important to be able to share something you’ve written with another person and see how they react to it; sometimes you just need to confirm that what you think is working in a project is coming across the way you want it to. Sometimes writers have an idea about what they want to change in a draft, but they think differently after hearing a consultant’s interpretation of the project. And sometimes students want feedback on projects that include forms of communication besides academic papers—poster presentations, personal statements, or speeches, for example. I think that’s part of what’s so exciting about the Writer’s Workshop—there are so many kinds of writing interactions and collaborations happening in the space. In all cases, I think the most valuable resource the Workshop provides is the opportunity to get feedback, to learn how someone else is making sense of your work.” 

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