From the Archives: Speaking of Stance


We’re digging in the archives today and wanted to again share a wonderful piece written by Writing Program faculty member Phoebe Zerwick.

I’ve been talking with my students all semester about stance. It’s a tough concept to explain. How does a writer find the balance between argument and tone that works for the audience? This month, an article about abortion that I’ve been working on for more than two years was finally published in the December issue of Glamour magazine. And as I read over it, for possibly the hundredth time, I realized that it makes a terrific tool for talking about a writer’s stance.

I started in July, 2012 just as a new law that mandates an ultrasound before abortion and a 24-hour waiting period took effect in Virginia.  The Falls Church Healthcare Center, about 10 miles outside of D.C., was generous enough to open its doors to me and allow me to interview women who were either waiting for their ultrasound or there for an abortion. I wanted to get beyond the political rhetoric and get to the voices of real women facing an unwanted pregnancy. And because I wanted to provide readers with a nuanced discussion, I headed next to a crisis pregnancy center in Norfolk, Va., where pregnant women can get an ultrasound and counseling – but not an abortion. I did the rest of the reporting by phone, eventually talking with 20 women about the ways in which the ultrasound shaped their decision about abortion.

rstanceThen it was time to write, and this is where the question of stance came in. I tell my writing students to avoid the first person, that is, unless there’s a compelling reason to insert themselves into the text.  My admonition to my journalism students is even stronger: they are to leave themselves out of their writing. I knew before I started my reporting that abortion is one of the most polarizing topics in our culture.  But I found that even in the world of experts, there were no neutral sources to help me interpret my findings; the researchers are either for or against abortion. So it was up to me to find the middle ground. I wanted transparency. I wanted readers to know exactly how I had found the 20 women who made up my small sample. And I wanted my readers to trust what I had to say and feel that they had learned something new about a subject most of us have made up our minds about. I decided that the best way to enter into this fraught conversation was by writing as honestly as I could – in the first person. I did so sparingly, using the first person just four times. Here’s an example: “The more stories I heard, the more I could understand how both sides have become so convinced they are right.”   I would describe that as a stance that’s factual, friendly and a little removed from the fray — as compelling a reason as any for writing in the first person.

Phoebe Zerwick, November, 2014

Slavery, Politics, and English Grammar

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George

Image of Slave Auction

“Slavery19” by “Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.” by Armistead, Wilson, 1819?-1868 and “Picture of slavery in the United States of America. ” by Bourne, George, 1780-1845 – New York Public Library, “Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro.” by Armistead, Wilson, 1819?-1868 and “Picture of slavery in the United States of America. ” by Bourne, George, 1780-1845. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Orwell made plain the ways in which those in power use language and grammar to obfuscate, conceal and abdicate responsibility. Grammar remains as political as ever, as Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth, makes clear in her op-ed piece in the Oct. 21, 2015 edition of The New York Times.

You may have heard of the hoopla over the way a new textbook widely used in Texas depicts slavery as “bringing millions of workers” to the American South. Rockmore shows us how the textbook, published by McGraw-Hill Education, distorts slavery even further through its grammar.  “But it is not only the substance of the passages that is a problem,” she writes. “It is also their form. The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.”

Today’s guest post was written by Writing Program faculty member Phoebe Zerwick.

Heard It Here






This semester, Prof. Phoebe Zerwick’s community journalism students are getting out there and sharing the stories of Winston-Salem through a brand new website called Heard it Here. Within the first few weeks of the semester, students have written articles about various Winston celebrations and events, upcoming initiatives in the city, and neighbors who are making a difference in the dash.

Check it out! There’s some really great work coming out of JOU 276 this semester!


Reflections from a Graduating Tutor

6012307955_2e4980a322_z“My time at the writing center has really shaped how I view myself as a writer, and writing in general. Everyone needs to learn how to write well–it doesn’t matter if you’re going into business, science, literature, or something else, being able to clearly express your thoughts to others is a necessity in every field. I came to realize this after encountering numerous students who would, after reading through a paper with me, shrug and say something like, “I’m going into _______ field, so I won’t need writing after this divisional English/First Year Seminar is over.” I wonder where this rumor, that writing is only needed as a correlate to studies that involve reading literature, began? Resumes, job applications, and company memos all require writing, as do scientific research papers. One of the reasons why I love writing is because it is such a flexible skill–you can literally use it for anything. As my senior year comes to a close, I cherish my time tutoring in the writing center because it taught me how valuable writing can be, and how important it is to write well, no matter where you are going in life. Although I am an English major, I am most likely not going to pursue any higher degrees in English studies. However, I know that whatever my future brings, being able to put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop keys) and write with eloquence and clarity will help me along the way.” -Catherine

Better Business Writing

Good writing is not reserved for the English classroom these days. According to a recent article in Time, the business world is starting to pay more attention to the writing skills of their current (and potential) employees. “Consider a recent Grammarly study of 100 LinkedIn profiles. In the same 10-year period, professionals who received one to four promotions made 45 percent more grammatical errors than did professionals who were promoted six to nine times.” Did you know that our new Interdisciplinary Writing Minor is perfect for students who want to further develop their writing skills to use in a variety of fields and professions?

A bit more from the article – great tips for business and  beyond.

10 Tips for Better Business Writing

1. Get to the point. Avoid phrases such as “The purpose of this report that I am submitting today is …”

2. Replace passive “to be” verbs with lively, active words.

3. Provide concrete, compelling examples to back up your statements.

4. Use an organized story structure with a logical beginning, middle and end.

5. Don’t let your sentences go on forever. Hint: lots of commas are a sign of trouble.

6. Understand your reading audience. Peers, stakeholders and top execs each require a different tone and approach.

7. Leave time for revisions. Always read a document thoroughly, and then set it aside. Read it again the next day, and then make any necessary adjustments.

8. Don’t go crazy with fonts, boldface and italics. Your documents should be inviting and easy to read.

9. And don’t go crazy with capitalization. For example, capitalize the proper name of a company, but not a reference to “our company.”

10. Shoot for relaxed authenticity. For example, a judicious use of self-deprecating humor can help engage the audience.

Writing in the Sciences

shutterstock_172355312Think writing is only important for folks going into English? Think again.

An increasing number of professors in the sciences are realizing the importance of teaching budding biologists, physicists, and chemists how to write. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, “Science requires an increasingly large amount of writing, whether researchers do it through articles for the popular media or grant proposals and research papers. Given the highly technical subject matter, scientists need special guidance when it comes to writing for a non-expert audience…

“Even though most of their efforts may seem to be concentrated in the lab, scientists spend a lot of time writing. “Scientists need to know how to write to get their work published and get grants—it’s an important skill that people assume they already have [once they reach a certain level], so no one ever teaches them how to write well in these specific formats,” said Kristin Sainani, a health policy professor at Stanford University who teaches both undergraduate and online courses about writing in the sciences.

So what do you think? Is it important to learn to write in your specific discipline?



National Geographic Feature

01syriagreensboro.adapt.1190.1Our amazing Phoebe Zerwick (associate teaching professor in the writing program) recently had an article published in National Geographic. In “Fleeing the War, ” Phoebe shares the story of a family who fled from Syria and is now building a new life in Greensboro. It’s a wonderful piece that brings a human element to the war-torn country of Syria. Definitely worth the read.

Still Searching for a Valentine?

8435321969_c1eea0631a_oStill looking for that perfect valentine? According to a recent (totally unscientific) article by Elite Daily, if you’re looking for a lover, you might want to find someone with a book in their hand.

“Ever finished a book? I mean, truly finished one? Cover to cover. Closed the spine with that slow awakening that comes with reentering consciousness? You take a breath, deep from the bottom of your lungs and sit there. Book in both hands, your head staring down at the cover, back page or wall in front of you.”

If you found yourself nodding along with that statement, you may in fact be easier to love.

“According to Psychologist David Comer Kidd, at the New School for Social Research, ‘What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.’

This is proved over and over again, the more people take to reading. Their ability to connect with characters they haven’t met makes their understanding of the people around them much easier.

They have the capacity for empathy. They may not always agree with you, but they will try to see things from your point of view.”

And what exactly are these people reading? According to Facebook, Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Rings top the list.

And remember, if you need help telling your sweetie just how much you care on Valentine’s Day, the Writing Center will be selling handmade cards all next week.