December 20, 2000: Features

Writing Center helps students go from crisis to thesis

by Richard Trenner ’70

In the post-Freudian, intra-Oprah world, “communication” has become a panacea for nearly all human ills. But if communication, like such other big-ticket items in life as love and LBOs, can awaken hope, it can also rouse hope’s evil twin, anxiety. As for anxiety, its most commonly cited source among Americans is neither death nor taxes; it’s a form of communication — public speaking. And writing can’t be far behind public speaking on most people’s lists of things not to do. As Dorothy Parker, the funny, angst-ridden New Yorker writer, put it: “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Writing is tough. It’s a public performance produced in private. It’s subject to types and degrees of criticism rarely if ever directed at such other productions as everyday speech and behavior. It requires many things simultaneously: logical thinking, interesting thinking; knowledge of such matters as rhetoric, composition, organization, and tone; self-discipline; self-criticism; and time, lots of it. Speaking of time, writing, unlike speech, is permanent: It’s there for your well-meaning progeny and dirt-loving biographer alike to “interpret.” Finally, although writing is meant to be read, it often isn’t — at least not carefully.

As for Dorothy Parker, she would have received sympathy but no reprieve at a place like Princeton, where almost everything, from applications and examinations to graffiti and class notes, is elaborately written; where nontenured faculty publish and perish; where, in the words of another New Yorker writer, Richard Preston *83, “throw a rock and you bring down a writer”; and where Eugene O’Neill ’10 and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17, once beautiful but definitely damned as college dropouts, are now eternalized exemplars of Princeton writers. The act of writing, it’s obvious, is ubiquitous and fundamental here.

Why writing occupies so central a place in university life is less obvious, but — to invoke a clause enshrined in many a senior thesis — “that question is [thank God!] beyond the scope of this essay.” So let’s treat writing as a hard, cold fact of life (the academic equivalent of death and taxes) and get on with it.

Get on with it is what we do at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Writing Center, where, since 1994, I’ve been one of “the writing guys.” We don’t ask “why write?” We discuss how to write. We (my colleague Steve Frakt and I) meet with undergraduates and graduate students several times each week throughout the school year.

In the WWS Writing Center, Steve and I work with students seeking various forms of assistance with their writing. The students range from undergraduate majors wanting advice about planning junior papers and senior theses, to doctoral candidates — quite a few of them writing in English as a second language — deep in the process of designing, drafting, and revising dissertations. We have the privilege, rare for writing teachers, of being able to work with individual students closely over a year or more. Our activities, which concern writing related to economics, politics, and social science generally, supplement the more extensive activities of the university-wide Writing Center.

I love the work, largely because of the mutuality of learning that occurs. WWS students have minds the way dancers have bodies: inventive, expressive, quick. This is not to say that WWS students’ writing is always remarkable. But, almost invariably, they’re eager to learn more about writing: both the what and the how. And I learn from them about a broad range of topics. Recently, for instance, I’ve learned about educational reform in New Jersey and Connecticut; humanitarian interventions in Iraq, Kosovo, and East Timor; and the medical devastation occurring in South Africa, where, according to epidemiological projections, AIDS will kill several million people in the next decade.

My learning extends, of course, beyond students’ topics. During sessions in the Writing Center, I try to illuminate the gap between intention — what an author means — and effect — what the reader gets. In helping students perceive and narrow that gap, I’ve thought a lot about what makes writing work and not work. Gradually, I’ve shifted the emphasis of my teaching from what I call the micro level — the surface of the text — to two other areas: the macro level — the clarification of ideas through the interplay of rhetorical patterns and format — and the writing process.

I’ve made this shift because I’ve realized that, although the surface features of the text (diction, punctuation, and style, for example) are of course essential, it’s beneath the surface that success or failure is largely determined. And I’ve realized that, while many writers can eventually produce a good document, the ways in which they go about writing can be efficient or inefficient. A complex, solitary activity, writing is rich in opportunities for detours and dead ends. One of the first things I usually ask a student is, “What steps have you taken to envision and organize your document before you write?”

This form of learning and teaching is highly effective. It’s also highly labor-intensive, and most faculty members simply can’t provide dozens of individual tutorials on the writing assignments they make. Yet writing is the most valued and evaluated academic activity that WWS students, and Princeton students as a whole, typically undertake. Moreover, learning to write well calls for, above all else, detailed, specific feedback and encouragement from a sophisticated reader. It’s for these reasons that the WWS Writing Center and the University Writing Center exist.

Dialogue with student-writers can be difficult. When, for example, ambition seems to outrun possibility, anxiety can develop. So can tears. I well remember one student, whose superb mind was surpassed only by an intense need to put her talents to good use, who went through a period of despair over her senior thesis. She’d done extensive research during a couple of trips to Asia. Yet when it came time to discover the thesis of her thesis and to create a document model, she began to believe that she couldn’t build a substantive thesis from her data. There were anguished moments in the Writing Center because — rare for her — she felt at a loss.

I reminded her that a piece of writing is a made thing; you put it together bit by bit until something coherent begins to take form. We reviewed her research. Slowly — she did all the work, I simply asked questions — she began to find interesting patterns in her data. When she was able to write a thesis statement (a statement quite different from the one she’d originally envisioned), her anxiety drained away. She went on to write rapidly and well. In fact, she received the prize for the best senior thesis in the Woodrow Wilson School that year. While the award was unique, the difficult writing process was not.

I wish there’d been a writing center when I was an undergraduate. The nights I spent in Firestone’s Scribner Room and at my book-cluttered desk were tough. My clearest memory of that time is what I called “the Olivetti sunrise.” Picture a weary sun working its way up over the little blue Olivetti typewriter that my father, Nelson R. Trenner *35, had given me because he knew that I wanted to write.

Richard Trenner ’70, a lecturer in Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, writes frequently for the New York Times and other publications and consults on communication management for research organizations.

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