Session Notes: perhaps my most challenging consultation

This last Summer, I was engaged to do a little private writing consulting. The appointment was perhaps my most challenging yet. The student wanted help on a genre for which I haven’t previously consulted. It was a rhetorical act, in fact, which I would never, nor could ever be expected to perform. The assignment was the writing of a Maid of Honor speech.

Fortunately, I’m a generalist. I know how to advise on putting together a sentence, building a paragraph, and constructing a narrative regardless of discipline. Moreover, having attended one or two weddings in my time, I also know a good deal about the genre’s form and function. Of course, the session needed to be conducted considering the current age of global pandemic.

The session was a rare in-person consultation. Since the pall of Covid 19, writing consultants, like many educational institutions, had pretty much taken their sessions online. But even before then, I’d often consulted electronically with students out of state. As professional consultants, we were navigating technical things like which portal was being used, the connection quality, and from which terminal the document was being displayed. To be able to meet in-person was a rare pleasure.

We held the session in my kitchen at home. But that is not to say without precaution. We sat separately, Janus-like, with the student facing one way and I facing the opposite direction. This was an effort to apply social distancing to what is normally done in close quarters.

I have plenty of reasons to be careful. I’m north of fifty, an ex-smoker, and medicating for high blood pressure. Therefore, I wasn’t going to malls, restaurants, or hairdressers. I was working from home, shopping online, and avoiding even the occasion for a handshake. The student, however, was like “I just came from a party at which I hugged everybody.” I had a lot more to fear from her than she had of me. I took comfort from the fact that, despite having three potential strikes against me, I was in good health, and started the session in the usual way.

I opened with asking the student the standard questions. Fortunately, I had consulted with her once previously, so she knew the vocabulary and the drill. I started with what draft is this? “First,” she said, with confidence. I found this refreshing. Sometimes they hedge – especially undergraduates – portraying themselves to be at second, or even third when clearly, they are at first. What are you looking for? “General feedback,” she said. Thankfully she didn’t ask for help on grammar. So many of them do, so few actually need it. When is this due? “This weekend,” she said. Although she couldn’t see my face, I suppressed an eye roll. With so little time, there is only so much we can do. Do you have specific questions, or shall we simply give it a close read? “I want a close read,” she said decisively. Sometimes the student focuses on superficial issues in specific sections while ignoring or resisting feedback on fundamental problems, but that wouldn’t be the case here. Despite the fact we would only have time for a single session, I was happy so far.

Her answers meant we were going to be able to get right to the text, which isn’t always the case. In fact, there are only a few occasions for which I wouldn’t actually start with the text. For example, if the student was at something less than a first draft, I would keep the discussion at higher level objectives like strategy or order of information. Because if the student brought only a few sentences, or worse, bullet points, there wouldn’t really be much of anything there to read. Similarly, if it looked like the student didn’t understand the assignment, I wouldn’t touch the text. In such cases, doing much more than a cursory glance at the writing would simply confuse us both. This was not one of those times. Therefore, we were able to get to the writing and have a conventional session. 

I used the standard process in which the student read her own work aloud while I listened and took notes. She would read an entire paragraph without interruption. “Not speed-reading” I told her. “But read in the style and manner of your most generous audience member.” We would then discuss the writing, starting with any questions the student might have, and then moving to my observations. Once we’d exhausted the section, we moved on to the next paragraph. Fortunately, the student came with a lot of content.

Her writing was a robust first draft with all the right moving parts, but a critical flaw. She had an ice-breaking hook, a couple of funny stories about the bride, another about the groom, and a sentimental conclusion. However, after encountering a lengthy introduction in which the student introduced herself, described how she met the bride, and detailed what she thought on their first meeting, I could see the problem. The writer clearly thought the speech was about her; the bride was simply a featured character. Getting the student to change major characters would take finesse.

Gently, I tried to correct her misconception. “It’s not about you. It is about the bride” I told her. “Your audience,” I happened to know a bit about the upcoming wedding, “is predominantly on the groom’s side. They won’t know who you are. Therefore, they won’t be immediately invested in what you have to say.” But I wasn’t getting anywhere.

The student shrugged. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be upstaged by her best friend at such an occasion. She understood she had a captive audience and was therefore more than happy to tell them about her favorite subject – herself. But I knew that was the one thing the assembly wouldn’t care about. They would want to hear about this young lady the groom was marrying. I had to change tactics if I was going to have any success. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to encourage a recalcitrant writer to consider revisions.

I appealed to the formal aspects of the occasion. “The maid of honor speech is to glorify the bride, to edify the matrimonial union, and to tell the audience something they didn’t know about this young lady who has caught the heart of their son, brother, or friend.” “It can be funny,” I continued, “but only in as much as the joke is on the happy couple.” The student looked at me dubiously. We only had one session, and we were burning through the hour. Time to bring out the big gun.

I appealed to her vanity. “Your speech will be remembered,” I said casually, “to the extent the bride and groom are featured.” That caught her attention. “Give us more about the bride,” I said, “and less about yourself,” in an attempt to give her a practical ethic for the piece. “They will value you because you bring good news about couple, things they didn’t already know.” The student warmed up to the thought.

We were going to be able to achieve real revision, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes a student isn’t actually looking for meaningful feedback. Sometimes, a student has come out of obligation or the need to check off a box for their instructor. Sometimes a student just wants to be complimented on their writing. In such occasions, there is little a consultant can do. But here, the student’s reticence was a little easier to overcome.

She’d merely been a bit over-invested in her work, which she got over quickly. But who doesn’t love their own writing? I know from personal experience the difficulties of editing my own work and the pain of cutting entire paragraphs. Once we overcame her desire to feature herself, she was willing to revise great swathes without complaint. That is when the work of revision really started.

Fortunately, she was confident in her writing, knew her subjects well, and had a lot of good memories to work with. Every time I suggested she needed more content about the bride or groom, she was able to recall charming stories out of her long history with them both. She had all sorts of vignettes literally at her fingertips and effortlessly produced new content in-session.

Nevertheless, this was a challenging session. I had to completely ignore the impossibilities of the situation (I would never give a maid of honor speech) and give my best feedback. It was also a challenge because I had to remain silent for what seemed like long periods while she composed. Feedback from my first semester teaching Freshman English was that I had to stop talking while I had my students write, that if my students had to decide between producing content or listening to me, they’d do neither well. I’m still working on that one. We eventually ran short on time.

We weren’t going to cover everything, so as we ran out of time, I turned the topic to the student’s next steps. Because a single session sometimes isn’t enough time, especially to cover lengthy texts, there is usually discussion of a writing plan. Fortunately, there are many tools, exercises, and practices we can recommend.

As we ran out of time, I recommended a version of the highlighting exercise. It is a standard tool for enabling the writer to graphically see how many subjects they have packed into a single paragraph. I adapted it here to a slightly different purpose. “Give every sentence about yourself a yellow highlight,” I proscribed. “Then highlight every sentence about the bride or groom in green.” Then I restated the reality of the genre requirements: “Give us less you, less content about yourself, less yellow, and more about the couple, more green.”

That’s usually the end of it. The student goes away, and I move on to the next subject. However, in this case, I attended the wedding and reception. I was there when my daughter delivered her speech. She indeed featured the bride and roasted the groom. I was so caught up in the moment, I didn’t even think to make a recording.

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