Writing Centers in Professional Contexts

Writing Centers in Professional Contexts

by Michael Erard, University of Texas at Austin

How does the writing center model translate to the professional context? Since March of 2003, I have worked in the Cain Research Center in the School of Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin, providing a wide range of editing, writing consulting, and writing skills development resources for faculty and staff. Though I work in a university setting, I do not deal with student writing, and the writers I deal with work for professional stakes: publications, tenure, grant money, and the positive regard of their peers.

My official title is “editor,” though my writing center colleagues will recognize what I do as writing consulting in a professional context. If I hold writing center values tacitly and have introduced writing-center style practices to this setting, it is because I spent 5 years as a graduate student writing consultant at the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin and also made some forays into writing consulting in the private sector.

However, this position has required me to adapt my usual modes in this new setting. I hope this article can serve as a preliminary report on a writing center in a professional context, providing guidance to people who are interested in exploring the usefulness of the writing center model out of the teaching mission of the university. I also hope it will be useful to those who, like me, are committed to using the humanities to intervene outside of the humanities classroom.

Institutional context

Let me first sketch the place where I work.

Faculty population. The School of Nursing currently has 83 faculty members, 28 of whom are tenured or tenure-track. All of the tenure-track faculty and some of the non-tenured, clinical faculty do research and teach graduate students; the remaining faculty teach mainly undergraduates.

Research as priority.
The commitment to writing at the school is strengthened by the priority of the research enterprise in the school and in the field of nursing in general. In 2004, the School managed about $22 million in total extramural funding, $19 million in long-term research projects in health promotion and disease prevention. It is ranked the 7th highest recipient of money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the highest ranking of any nursing school not affiliated with a medical school or health science center. As a result, the School’s most highly visible product next to the nurses it graduates is writing.

Commitment to support for faculty. In 1995 the current dean, Dolores Sands, strengthened the research focus of the school by centralizing grant and faculty support functions under an associate dean of research, a position now held by Alexa Stuifbergen. In 2001 the school received a $5 million endowment and renamed the research center the Cain Center for Nursing Research, which currently employs a full-time grants specialist, a full-time administrative assistant, a research scientist, a full-time statistician, a half-time budget specialist, and a half-time editor, which is me. The center, which assists current researchers and helps develop research capacity among faculty, is unique among schools of nursing and the various colleges at the University of Texas at Austin.

Types of writing. Grant proposals and research articles are the most obviously important, but so are alumni newsletters, annual reports, posters, and web sites. I also consult on applications for fellowships and awards. Other types of documents are significant though overlooked as rhetorical texts, such as the descriptions of research studies with which researchers woo prospective research subjects, or handbooks related to outreach and service projects. These I’ve also helped with.

Ecology of writing. Texts and writers are related to each other through a host of organizational issues, cultural attitudes, and personal commitments to writing, all of which together I call “the ecology of writing.” Some aspects of this ecology:

  • student writing (dealing with non-native speakers and writers of English, the grading of writing, the design of writing assignments, other curricular issues)
  • squaring curricular goals with current approaches to writing pedagogy
  • coordinating local needs with resources across the university
  • ego investments in being seen as a particular kind of writer/researcher

Writing-related issues I deal with (I deal with a range of writing-related issues, some of which are centered in texts but, as writing center experts know, also which are often not):

  • questions on style and usage
  • clarity, concision, and cohesion within texts
  • hedging in scientific writing
  • English as a Second Language writing issues
  • adjusting to different audiences (e.g., the difference between a research article and a note for the public)
  • multiple authorship: dealing with other authors, setting up writing collaborations, researching interdisciplinary standards of “authorship,” and providing editorial support when authors have dropped out
  • dealing with reviewers and reviewers’ comments
  • dealing with editors
  • legal aspects of publishing (e.g., how do the new patient privacy rules affect what information can be included in articles?)
  • scheduling time for writing
  • how to write e-mail
  • designing writing assignment and grading student work
  • helping staff with their ghostwriting
  • revising the writing

The accidental writing center

From March, 2003, to April, 2005, I have worked as the research center’s editor, where I assist the research enterprise by writing and editing grant proposals and editing research articles. During my first year I worked with 36 authors on 83 separate projects; during the second year, I worked with 30 authors on 89 projects. The first year, 14 were grant proposals; the second year, 17. The majority of the projects have been research articles, though I spend extended time on proposals, which can be hundreds of pages long. During the first year, 12 of the 14 research proposals I worked on were destined for the NIH; 16 of the 17 in the second year were going to NIH.

This model of centralized grant support and research development for faculty has proven itself economically effective. The cost of most positions (unfortunately, I do not have particulars to provide) in the Cain Center for Nursing Research are covered by indirect costs. Moreover, the Dean’s commitment to long-term capacity building in research by faculty has proven fruitful, given the NIH rankings.

The typical way this work proceeds is that faculty send me their documents via e-mail, I make corrections and queries with the “track changes” function, then e-mail the documents back. I log the arrival of each project, the author’s name, the title, and the date I mail it back. About one-third of the time, I contact authors during the editing process via email, phone, or face-to-face; otherwise, the work proceeds without any contact.

I have learned that getting instructions directly from the author herself (most of the faculty are women), not second-hand, is crucial. In one instance, I received direction through the chain of command – incomplete direction, as it turned out. I have also been encouraging authors to consult with me at earlier stages of writing projects, with some promising results. Perhaps not surprisingly, for much of my time so far, the faculty I work with most often are not the ones with the most difficulty writing or publishing, but the ones who are confident in their writing that they lose no credibility by admitting that they have reached the limits of what they are able to do alone.

I also provide a wide range of writing-related services through a variety of formal and informal channels:

  • running an occasional writing group
  • designing and teaching seminars on various writing topics for faculty and staff
  • providing informal curricular support
  • guest lecturing at the graduate-level writing class
  • serving on mock review committees for grant proposals
  • maintaining a list of outside editors whom students can use (as I do not look at graduate or undergraduate student writing)
  • answering questions about American Psychological Association manuscript requirements
  • counseling authors on the niceties of dealing with journal reviewers and editors, and negotiations with coauthors
  • writing the occasional school-wide document, such as a fundraising video and the biannual research report
  • managing the publication of conference proceedings

While I do not run a writing center in the strict sense that most people are familiar with, my work is more similar to writing center practice than the writing resources that existed here previously.

As in most faculty settings, individuals were not provided any editorial resources for research articles, writing curriculum issues, or other documents, though they were free to collaborate informally and hire writing help they paid for themselves. There was one exception: Most grant proposals were sent to a freelance editor, very experienced and widely respected, who lives out of state and visits two or three times a year. Because of the distance, few opportunities for building long-term relationships with this editor existed. Thus, the focus on writing was overwhelmingly on creating perfectly clean, persuasive text. Writers were fit into a single model of invention and revision and not encouraged to explore modes of research, discovery, drafting, and revision that suited individual styles and preferences. Because of the distance, limited time, and training backgrounds of the writers and editor alike, no sustained attention was paid to writing as a rhetorical practice or the structure of scientific writing. I have tried to remedy this to the degree possible by guest lecturing in graduate classes on a rhetorically- and linguistically-based approach to scientific writing.

My investments in texts varies according to their purpose. It varies very slightly, however. I am directly invested in the success of grant proposals, but less invested in the success of research articles, in which I participate more as a traditional tutor. However, researchers must present their findings from previous funding before they can seek new funding. On the whole, therefore, I have a higher stake in the texts more than your typical consultant/tutor does.

So how does this model differ, and how well does it work?
Here I describe this writing center-based model in terms of Peter North’s two classic articles of writing center theory (North 1984, 1994). The writing center where I was trained focused on writing as a process, not on product in which the correction/proofreading of texts takes center stage. In my current position I have had to adapt this approach.

This is a professional context, not a pedagogical or curricular one. Helping people meet professional goals works very well with a process-driven approach, as long as you’re willing to do product-oriented work as well. Some other immediate consequences:

    • It means giving up the idea of the writing center as liberatory – where I am aims to make people more productive. Reflecting about productivity becomes not a critical enterprise, therefore, but a therapeutic one.
    • In such a context it is true that writers “are really motivated to write” (North 1984: 82) — though not out of a deep love for writing per se, but because of the professional benefits.
    • Feedback loops are closed. In the traditional teaching-mission writing center, the impact of any one writing consultant usually is not readily observable. In my setting, playing for professional stakes leads to professional-style oversight. When I worked with students, the environment was casual but serious, with little to no evaluation of consultants’ work. Here my work is scrutinized.

The pedagogy of direct intervention (North, 2001[1984]:71) remains available — but needs to be reasserted. Many of the people with whom I work had very good reasons for assuming that I would intervene “after or apart from writing” and “[tend] to focus on the correction of textual problems” (North, 2001[1984]: 71). This was likely the model they had been educated with, and given that editorial resources existed out of state, any other model was impractical. As the in-house person I have attempted, with some success, to move the locus of intervention “as much as possible during writing, during the activity being [practiced]” (North, 2001[1984]:71). I try as much as possible to strengthen this.

For the faculty I work with, their professional ethos is partly a function of their competence. In a student-based writing center, students can seek help without fear of being branded as incompetent – after all, they’re students. However, writing interventions in a professional context upset the social hierarchy. I have wondered if some people do not seek my help because to do so would mean appearing incompetent. In fact, people who seek my help most often are perceived to be the most successful, confident writers – they produce many drafts, they have published frequently, and they also help others with writing tasks.

On the other hand, these writing interventions have clear advantages, which I try to make explicit: If peers fear giving their work to colleagues to read because they fear negative judgments, an in-house writing consultant is enough of an outsider to keep judgments about writing separated from judgments about professional status.

The core services are product-driven, not process-driven. In this setting, a pure process model is untenable. Because teaching-mission writing centers are funded by student fees or through departmental budgets, they can – and should – assert pedagogical goals via process-oriented methods. By contrast, the core of my position is proofreading and editing; any attention I can pay to process is supported by my attention to products. Other writing center-style consultants in professional contexts might well have other core activities – the proposal writing center at a defense contractor described in McIsaac and MonPere (1990) coordinates the assembly of large proposals.

The benefits are truly collective, as well as individual. In the professional model, the writing consultant aims to benefit the organization as a whole. The benefits that accrue to a university when I help a student with a piece of writing are diffuse and difficult to locate, whereas my editing of a proposal for a $1.5 million grant has immediate and tangible benefits if the money is awarded, not only for the individual researcher but for the School as well.

“The writing center [can be] the centers of consciousness about writing…a kind of physical locus for the ideas and ideals of college or university or high school commitment to writing (North, 2001[1994]:85).” This is also possible in a professional context – though issues of personal and departmental territories and turf come into play. I continue to make my position central to the ecology of writing here – advocating the needs of all writers, consulting on writing instruction, serving as liaison to campus-wide writing resources & initiatives.

Continue to communicate your role, skills, and position. In the fall I distributed a survey to faculty that evaluated their satisfaction with my services. Response rate was slightly more than 50%. Respondents rated their interactions with me highly, though ranked their knowledge of my full services lower. I took the opportunity to tell them again how I can assist with all stages of the writing process. If your clients have had more traditional writing instruction, or perhaps no formal writing instruction at all, you will need to relentlessly describe your in your description of the

Peer-to-peer tutoring becomes expert-to-expert consulting. This position would be impossible for a non-PhD to do, for the reason one might expect: in order for my advice to be taken seriously in a professional context, I must be as credentialed as they are. This makes me willing to cede content area expertise to them, as they are willing to cede rhetorical and linguistic expertise to me.

However, faculty and staff aren’t the same. Bigger than the disciplinary divide and more difficult to bridge has been that between faculty and staff. My ethos is bound up with being a staff member, which differs from institution to institution. Here the place of professional, non-faculty PhD’s relative to faculty is still under development and is a part of a broader cultural change.

Gender and generational factors play a role; difference matters. Added to the above is the fact that I’m one of nine men out of 140 employees in our building; I am one of four male PhD’s in the school. Negotiating the gender learning curve and learning the culture of the faculty has been a challenge. For instance, an early attempt to set up an online writing group using a piece of pedagogical software flopped, because people wanted more direct interaction. Moreover, as a White man in his mid-30s, I am also aware that I am more comfortable with technology than many of my colleagues, who are 10 to 20 years older than I am. The attempt to move the writing group online did not succeed for this reason, I believe, and it continues to raise eyebrows that I prefer to work paperlessly—e.g., authors send and receive most manuscripts digitally.

The confidentiality of the writer-consultant interaction must be modified. In the writing center where I was trained, the content of consultations was held to be confidential; consultants sent notes to instructors, only if students requested such. In my current context, my supervisors often want to check on the progress of a certain proposal, whether or not an author has gotten in touch, whether or not revisions have been made, and how much work I need to prepare a document to go out. This has required me to limit my channel to my supervisor, and to assure faculty that what occurs in our meetings is not being broadcast – e.g., I do not talk about the roughness of drafts that I see.

Professionals make reluctant students. Think teaching 18 year-olds to write is a challenge? Typically, faculty are responsible and responsive thinkers, writers, and teachers. Yet it is difficult to persuade them that investing the time to read an article on the rhetoric of scientific writing (such as Jone Rymer’s “Scientific Composing Processes”), or attending a 45-minute seminar on cohesion in writing, can help them in the long run. I am still looking for the right mix of “interventions” to be able to help writers in the long run without taxing their schedules, and even worse, by appearing to tax their time.

Professionals, especially scientists, do not understand the rhetorical nature of their disciplines. No surprise here. Some faculty clearly perceive my work as cosmetic and, though they rely on my expertise in language and argument for their funding success, some consider what I do to be not related to the substantive content of specific documents or scientific knowledge. Moreover, the writing courses, particularly for graduate students, are not rhetorically based, which perpetuates the view among professors that an ability to write “happens” mysteriously and is not acquired.

The writing center model is foreign to people over 40. Even professors who regularly send their students to the writing center will probably never have sought writing consulting help themselves, nor are they likely to understand the concepts that seem fairly natural to undergraduate writing center clients. In this the experiences of people starting writing centers on campus is little help, as sending a student to a writing consultant and using one oneself are very different.

To make yourself legible in the professional context, use figurative language from that profession. One of the focuses of nursing research for the last 15 years has been on “health promotion,” which uses health care resources to promote the causes of health, not just to eradicate the causes of disease. I explain to my nursing colleagues that my job here is to “promote the causes of good writing, not just eliminate the causes of bad writing.” If it’s not explained in this way, people seemed puzzled at what I spent my time doing, or what the connection is between editing a paper for APA guidelines and helping faculty design better writing assignments.

In fact, the analogy to nursing practice is one that can benefit compositionists as well. As any composition teacher knows, eliminating errors in writing is an endless task. Promoting the causes of good writing not only gives you a system that is less sensitive to the negative effects of errors, but gives you other desirable outcomes such as increased literacy, increased productivity, and improved quality.


I believe that the writing center model can be productively propagated to organizational contexts with non-teaching missions. I could see it working well in settings where employees write high-stakes persuasive texts for a variety of internal and external audiences. However, people should be cognizant of the factors I described above. As Elizabeth Boquet writes, “the writing center is most interesting to me for its post-disciplinary possibilities, for the contradictions it embraces, for its tendency to go off-task” (Boquet 2001 [1999]:56. I’ve described some of the texture and practice of this post-disciplinary writing center, where the next frontier for the writing center model of writing intervention lays: working among adult professionals.


Bouquet, Elizabeth H. (2001). “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre-to Post-Open Admissions.” In R. Barnett and J. Blumner (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Allyn and Bacon: Needham Heights.

Lee, Alison and David Boud (2003). “Writing Groups, Change and
Academic Identity: research development as local practice.” Studies in Higher Education, 28(2).

North, Stephen M. (1984). “The Idea of a Writing Center.” In R. Barnett and J. Blumner (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Allyn and Bacon: Needham Heights.

North, Stephen M. (1994). “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center.’” In R. Barnett and J. Blumner (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Allyn and Bacon: Needham Heights.

(c) 2006 International Writing Centers Association