McCourt School Writing Center
The McCourt School Writing Center aims to help students succeed as writers in the McCourt curriculum and as policy professionals. This mission embodies two core ideas: first, that clear writing demands and enables clear thinking; and second, that for participants in the public decision process, effective writing is a foundation of professional growth and personal influence. Simply put, good writing is a source of power.Back to Top
Writing Center co-directors, Susan Hill and Jeff Mayer, help McCourt students chiefly in one-on-one editorial sessions. These sessions usually focus on class assignments and cover the entire range of policy-related genres (e.g., memoranda, essays, op-ed articles, and research papers).
Discussions deal not only with conventional editorial concerns (e.g., word choice, sentence and paragraph construction, and the structural and functional requirements of different forms of policy writing), but also with issues of context and substance (e.g., students’ objectives, professors’ expectations, the character of policy problems and solutions, and the politics of the policy process).
At professors’ invitations, Susan and Jeff also visit McCourt classes, and thesis and capstone groups, to discuss particular writing challenges in the McCourt curriculum (e.g., writing thesis and capstone introductions and literature reviews).Back to Top
How the Process Works
The Writing Center consultation process is usually initiated by the student, either independently or at the direction of a professor. The student contacts either Susan or Jeff, usually by email, to schedule a meeting—usually, but not always, to discuss a class assignment with a pending deadline. The meeting could occur at the start of a project and focus on issues of overall approach (e.g., understanding the assignment and structuring the argument). More often, however, it occurs after writing has begun and focuses on a partial or full draft of a final product. In this case, the student should append the draft to their initial email. Susan or Jeff will respond by email to establish a mutually convenient meeting time.
Students should allow Susan and Jeff sufficient time to read and consider written products before a meeting. That means at least a day on short assignments (e.g., three-page memos), three or four days on longer assignments (e.g., 10-page term papers), and a week or more on long research papers (e.g., drafts of theses or capstone papers).
In addition, students should recognize that people in a given class will likely have written assignments due on the same day and may be seeking help from the Writing Center at the same time—another reason to give Susan and Jeff as much lead time as possible, even on short assignments.
Meetings last from 20 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the length of the assignment, and usually take place at the McCourt Writing Center during Susan’s and Jeff’s Monday- through-Thursday office hours. However, because professors rarely schedule writing projects with an eye toward Writing Center office hours, Susan and Jeff may also meet students at other times and places, and in emergencies consult with them by telephone or email.
The Writing Center is also a faculty resource. To complement their own efforts to help struggling student writers, professors can encourage or require students to seek Writing Center assistance.
At professors’ requests, Susan and Jeff may also visit classes to discuss effective policy-related writing or to offer guidance on major components of theses and capstone papers (e.g., literature reviews and presentations of results).
Susan and Jeff urge students NOT to think of the Writing Center as a proof-reading or grammar checking service —a resource to be consulted at the very last stages of their writing projects to supply a final bit of editorial polish. The Center’s comparative advantage is helping students write effectively on issues of public policy. So, if you’re confident that all you need is help with grammar, you’d probably be just as well served by a generous and literate friend, or the University Writing Center.
Lanham, Richard A., Revising Prose (5th ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2007), especially Lanham’s Introduction and Chapter 1 on self-diagnosis and revision, and pp. 64-67 on reasons why we don’t write well. The book’s foundation principle, often attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, is that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.
McCloskey, Deirdre N., Economical Writing (2nd ed., Waveland Press, 2000) is a superb short essay on style in general and writing about quantitative analysis in particular.
Miller, Jane E., The Chicago Guide to Writing About Numbers (University of Chicago Press,2004). See especially Chapters 6 and 7 on creating effective tables and charts because writers for the policy development process should understand that tables and charts are important forms of written expression.
Purdue University, The Purdue On-line Writing Lab ( Purdue OWL), http://owl.english.purdue.edu This source includes an immensely rich catalog of short guidance items on issues of style, grammar, citation, and the writing process in general. Visit the website and look around.
Strunk Jr., William and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (3rd edition, Allyn and Bacon, 1979) is the classic collegiate guide to English prose composition. See especially White’s Introduction and Chapter V on “Style”, and Strunk’s Chapter III on “Rules of Composition.”
Truss, Lynn, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham Books, 2003) is a witty and readable essay on punctuation and its fundamental importance to clear expression.
Williams, Joseph M., Gregory G. Colomb, Style—The Basics of Clarity and Grace (4th ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2012) is an excellent essay on the core principles of effective writing.Back to Top