Coaching write of passage
Moody Writing Support Program guides from conception to polish
Sierra Juarez designed a newspaper when she was 4 years old. She gridded out a news section and placed sports on another. She even included a picture of a basketball player and worded the headline, “Spurs Won.”
“I’ve always loved the news. I’ve always known that journalism is what I was going to do,” Juarez said.
But she had never written a news story before registering for Reporting Words, the School of Journalism’s introductory newswriting class.
Her inexperience flamed into anxiety when Juarez reviewed the syllabus the week before classes started. She reached out to writing instructor Diana Dawson, who founded the Writing Support Program in 2013 to help Moody College students access greater confidence in their writing skills.
Appointments have increased 1010%
“(Dawson) made a joke because the program isn’t open for appointments that early in the semester,” Juarez said. “She still made time for me, and we brainstormed. Then I came back when the program was actually open. For that first class, I used the program for almost every step in my writing process because it was still so new to me.”
In May, Juarez graduated with a journalism degree and completed her fifth semester as a program writing coach.
“I could identify with the people who were feeling overwhelmed and not sure of themselves,” Juarez said. “Technical skills are things you can learn, but the confidence is something we’re all very focused on trying to grow in the students we coach.”
Juarez is one of nearly 30 student coaches who have served the program since its launch. They focus on guiding their undergraduate peers from conception to polish, and the quality of their direction is evidenced in exponential growth. In the program’s first year, 209 coaching appointments were scheduled, compared to 2,319 in the 2018-19 academic year.
Dawson began teaching at Moody College more than 20 years ago, and she observed students in her newswriting classes who struggled to adapt to journalistic writing expectations. Dawson advocated for methods to help all students gain the technical traction necessary to pursue their dreams.
“Even students who have been considered great writers often struggle to make the transition from rhetoric to journalism. They’re essentially two different languages,” Dawson said.
In October 2013, her idea for a program was funded as a campus student success initiative through the provost’s office. Dawson started with one writing coach, a few easels to hold signs indicating the program’s nomadic meeting spaces and student-designed notecards which spread among students and faculty to advertise the free resource.
Free pizza was also offered when the program hosted college-wide writing workshops.
“Diana always ordered too many pizzas. The easels were always falling over. It was pretty mom and pop in the beginning,” said Nina Hernandez, the program’s first student writing mentor.
Dawson recruited Hernandez because she was exactly the kind of student the program was designed to serve. The first-generation college student laughs now when thinking back to the days when she describes herself as “such a hard student.” Hernandez said Dawson became a mentor who helped craft her first lengthy feature story for an internship.
“I had to literally figure out how to write it,” Hernandez said.
She grew into a journalist who worked at the Austin Chronicle as a reporter and assistant editor, and now she is a communications officer for the City of Austin. Hernandez credits the writing program, and the opportunity to work as a writing coach, for her transition into adulthood and professional life.
“Diana entrusted me to that position. It made me feel responsible,” Hernandez said. “I had so many people who helped me. I felt like if I could do that for somebody, it would be my way of giving back.”
The program was brought under the Moody College of Communication umbrella in 2015 to provide a writing support resource for every major. Leftover pizzas and tumbling easels are but a memory.
“Not only is all the pizza gone at our advertising workshops, I’m literally sweating because the room is full, and we’re running around from group to group,” recent journalism graduate Ashley Tsao said.
One-on-one, 30-minute sessions open to all
undergraduate Moody College students.
Tsao, like Hernandez, Juarez and most of the writing coaches, was introduced to the program as a student who needed guidance. Empathy is a key coaching tactic, and coaching strategies extend beyond solid syntax and sourcing.
“Once they start talking, they usually have the answers they need. We’re helping them access that,” Robyn Croft said.
Croft first worked as a writing coach as a communication sciences and disorders undergraduate, and she returned in fall 2018 while also pursuing a doctoral degree. A practicing speech-language pathologist, Croft treats clients as individuals, not with a formulaic method, and that transfers to the culture of the writing support program.
“We give them the space and empower them to share their story without the pressure of getting it right the first time. It’s often just what they need to bring that story alive,” Croft said. “When they realize they have the content, and the answer they’re looking for is in them, not in me, that gives them confidence.”
As a newspaper reporter, Dawson also found that conversation was key to alleviating writer’s block. When she or other reporters got stuck writing stories, the best solution was to talk it out.
Eventually, Dawson and one of her editors conducted a writing workshop on managing long-term stories at regional conferences hosted by the Poynter Institute, and she also served as a writing coach for a west coast newspaper. Reporters made appointments to talk through the writing process.
“They’re always amazed when it works. They think it’s magic, but it’s just brainstorming,” Dawson said.
Dawson guides her coaches in similar style. Coaches are listeners who put students at ease and help them translate what is happening inside their brains into words on a blank page. It’s an engaging, hands-on process.
If the last level of mastery is to teach, then therein lies the hidden mystery, the quiet solution offered by the writing support program.
Help, it turns out, is a two-way street.
“Probably one of the best decisions I made in college is to work for the writing support program,” Tsao said. “I felt like I grew into myself there.”