The importance of teaching specialized writing skills to journalism students

March 20, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
Diana Dawson, director and writing coach at the Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas, coaches a student. (Photo by Jessica Sinn)

Diana Dawson, director and writing coach at the Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas. (Photo by Jessica Sinn)

The University of Texas junior handed me a story about a baseball league for disabled children and sank into a nearby chair. Mercedes Cordero had been through two rounds of editing with her professor but the piece remained troubled by awkward phrasing and lacked the zip needed for publication. Her professor worked with her but he also had lectures to plan, stories to grade and dozens of other students to help.

Hidden in his edits and her frustration was a tale of courageous athletes winning on a different playing field.  But Mercedes had hit the point where she needed help to get that story published. That’s when she walked into the new Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas.

All journalism professors have had to let go of stories that could have been better with more time and direction. Buried leads, mangled middles and painfully awkward sentences are common with beginners or students who simply haven’t yet seen that journalistic light.

Until October 2013, the only recourse at the University of Texas after a professor ran out of time was to send students to a rhetoric-based writing center that works wonders with academic papers but doesn’t speak the language of nut graphs and AP style. In 17 years of teaching the beginning newswriting course as a lecturer, I’d seen students too often return from there with their crime stories written as essays.  Because journalism is such a different language it was as if we’d sent a student from a Spanish language course to someone tutoring Mandarin.

Too many of those students failed a course, changed majors or left college. The opportunity for change at UT came when the language shifted from “weed-out courses” to “student-success initiatives.” Sitting on the University Writing Council, I suggested piloting a small writing center that would focus specifically on writing for the media, not academic papers.  As I drafted the proposal, I kept one special sophomore in mind. The first in her family to attend college, she’d been told she was the best writer from her inner city high school. She knew what she was meant to do. “But it’s like I’m just a guppy around a bunch of huge fish,” she told me. “I can’t swim in these waters so I might as well go home.”

She didn’t need to quit. She needed someone to sit beside her, break down the steps and help her put one foot in front of the other until she had a solid story. She needed to succeed once and to know she could do it again.

Just as that student was considering dropping out and I was pitching my program, undergraduate advisers estimated that about 30 students per year were not making it through the beginning newswriting class with a grade that would allow them to continue in their major. Eighteen incoming freshmen in the fall of 2013 who had said they’d major in journalism and 83 others entering the College of Communication were identified at that time as being less likely to graduate in four years.

Partnered with the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, our Journalism Writing Support Program opened in fall 2013 with me and one student who worked five hours per week. Sixteen months later, I now direct a staff of eight student coaches who, with me, have had more than 600 one-on-one half hour appointments with students.  In the fall, we’ll begin our third funding cycle through the Provost’s Office’s student-success initiatives intended to improve the university’s four-year graduation rate.

Journalism Writing Support Program at the University of Texas.

Writing coaches Nina Hernandez and Maria Roque work with journalism student Jade Magalhaes. (Photo by Cassandra Jaramillo)

We work on a coaching model, which means that we take the students wherever they are, tell them they can succeed and then break down their writing challenge into steps that allows them to do so. In addition, we hold writing boot camps (with free pizza as an incentive) to reinforce core skills such as leads, story organization and tightening writing. No one masters any of this after one lecture and a classroom exercise. Excellence follows practice.

Are we affecting the graduation rate? We don’t have that hard data yet but our surveys of students and faculty show that they all now consider this a critical resource. Ninety five percent of the students surveyed said because of our program they were making a better grade in their writing course and had more confidence in their future as a journalist.

Students who work with us once nearly always return. They’re learning to come earlier in the process to brainstorm the focus of their reporting, organize their piece, edit a draft and, finally, to polish.

One semester into the pilot, faculty members began requiring students to use our services and the administration requested that we expand from a small pilot for the School of Journalism only to a resource for the entire Moody College of Communication.

We remain a work in progress but the progress has been strong. Anyone wanting to attempt something similar might consider what we’ve learned:

  • Hire students whose hearts are as strong as their resumes.  Empower them. I insist on hiring undergrads who excelled in the beginning newswriting course where many students stumbled, had student media experience and had, preferably, already had an internship. When we discuss the program’s mission, I need to see that they care about their struggling peers and not just about adding another line to their own credentials. While they’re coaching, they are also mentoring.
  • Establish your program on a coaching model. You’re there to support, encourage and show students how to be successful. Be friendly, casual and approachable, but don’t mislead them. Find something positive, even if it’s just the kernel of the idea, show them the mess and then help lead them out of it.
  • Realize that you won’t just get the failing students. My first appointment was made by a top student who didn’t want to miss making use of an available resource. I soon realized that the students having the most trouble fought the shame of seeking help. I can now tell them that seven of my eight student coaches used the program before they worked for it. No one knows who’s coming through the door.
  • Enlist the support and feedback of your faculty. Having a few fans early can help the program establish roots. Let them know that your student coaches are “works in progress”, as we all are as writers, and if they are concerned about any advice given to let you know. Constantly ask the question, “How can we better serve your students?”
  • If you have a rhetoric-based writing center on campus, introduce yourself and let them know that you’re supplementing rather than competing. Its leaders can be strong allies.
  • Say “yes” as often as possible. Our program has grown in unexpected directions. I’ve created classroom exercises, have given guest lectures, have done customized workshops for classes and have hosted workshops for student media and student organizations.
  • Know the rhythm of the semester. Before students get their first graded news story back, they think they are God’s gift to journalism. Once reality hits, they’ll book appointments. Your staff needs to spend the first few weeks of every semester introducing the program by visiting classes in person (that reduces the intimidation) and pouncing on social media.

Our success may be anecdotal but those anecdotes are journalism students who were once discouraged and now see that they can succeed. They eagerly complete feedback about our sessions because they say they cannot imagine doing without this resource.

And, yes, the success stories include Mercedes Cordero, who got her story about baseball’s Miracle League published.

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