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Monday, February 03, 2014

Hand over the scuba gear.

We’ve all had them—the good writers. The ones who really know what they’re doing, who know what they’re talking about, who know the basic rules of grammar. The ones that make us draw a blank, a complete white wall of nothingness because—really—it is so tempting to stay at the surface level grammars and word choices and citations that we resist putting on our scuba gear and really diving in.
But perhaps “diving in” is the wrong metaphor. “Diving in” might imply that we, as consultants, are initiating that first jump in the water, pulling the client in behind us…and I don’t think this is the answer to “how to help a good writer.” In fact, I think we should do the exact opposite: hand that scuba gear right over to the writer. 
From my experience in being both a consultant and a client in these situations, I think that stepping back and letting the client take control is extremely important; if a writer shows a high level of comprehension about her topic, and if the reader isn’t distracted by blatant issues related to organization, grammar, or sentence structure, I would bet that the writer already has ideas about what needs revision—and this writer is gonna be frustrated if it’s never brought up.
Besides being a good way for the writer to get her concerns out right off the bat, this is a huge weight off our chests. Now that the client “has the floor,” we have a few moments to catch our breath and readjust to the new situation. 
Okay, so now what. How exactly should we “adjust” for this kind of writer? Sometimes we get off the hook—the writer tells us that she hates her last three paragraphs and thinks that they are repetitive. Great, so we spend the rest of the session talking about writing concisely. But sometimes the writer isn’t so sure about what exactly is wrong. In a session I’ve had before, the client mentioned that she had read everything so many times, it all seemed to blur together. So what can we do in that situation? How can we make that good paper even better? Consider this:
1) Is the writer doing “final polishing”? Even a strong paper can benefit from sentence-level revision, and although the writer knows how to stylistically manipulate grammar, sometimes multiple revisions gives birth to strange punctuation.
2) Or we can compare apples to apples. Which parts of the paper were the strongest? Why? How can these techniques be applied to other paragraphs?
3) Or what about Audience Awareness: sometimes a paper is very strong but has not taken into account that the audience is inter-disciplinary, or doesn’t require great formality, or is wanting to know about the author personally, or already knows everything about the topic and is wanting to discover something new, etc, etc.
4) Conciseness should also make this list. I have yet to meet a writer—even really good ones—who can convey their ideas most concisely every. single. time.

These are just a few ways to start a session with a “good writer.” Like every semester project that we procrastinate two months on, starting is the hardest part of these sessions and, once started, the conversation seems to propel itself. So instead of blank white walls of nothingness, give the client the scuba gear, take a minute to readjust, then get that conversation going.

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