Faculty Feature: Professor Phoebe Zerwick

Posted on: March 27, 2014


Phoebe Zerwick is a Professor of Writing at Wake Forest University. She grew up in New York City and attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate. Like so many students, she initially wanted to be a doctor, and got a Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies in the Humanities, with concentrations on science and nature writing. But she decided not to spend the next 8 years in medical school, and instead took a job for the city government in New York. It was in New York that she chose to pursue journalism. She went to the Columbia School of Journalism, and after graduating, moved to Winston-Salem to start her career at the Winston-Salem Journal. She remained at the Journal for over 20 years before coming to the University.

 What inspired you to become a journalist and what is your greatest achievement?

 I worked for three years after college for the city government in New York City. I found the bureaucracy to be stifling. I had always been interested in journalism; in high school, I imagined myself as a kind of writer, and in college, I worked on the school newspaper. I liked the idea of being out in the world instead of behind a desk, writing and producing something every day. I spent most of my life as a journalist at the Winston-Salem Journal, where I worked for a little over 20 years. Towards the end of my time there, I was the newspaper’s investigative reporter and I did a lot of work on cases of wrongful conviction. My greatest achievement as a reporter, I think, was being instrumental in getting a local man named Daryl Hunt exonerated. You can’t get much better than that or have a better sense of accomplishment.

 Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?

 Writers write. A lot of us think about writing but we never get around to actually writing. If you want to be a journalist, writers write and it requires a lot of discipline. Make yourself write every day. Journalists need to get a job where you are writing all the time, even if it’s not a journalism job. And journalists these days need to have skills beyond writing. They need to know how to function in the digital world. They need to know about taking pictures, shooting video and recording audio for radio. It’s not enough just to be a writer anymore in journalism.

 In your opinion, what qualities does an A paper possess?

 A top tier paper has to be clear, coherent and make good use of evidence. It needs to be well organized and I need to be able to see the train of thought through clear transitions. Spelling and grammar must be correct. In an A paper, I look for something that is original or that has a different take on an idea or through a very unusual connection between a text and their own experience. As a journalist, I want an opening that grabs me and an ending that leaves me thinking.

 But I dislike it when writers use their work as a chance to show off the vocabulary you learned for the SAT. And this could be left from my journalism days, but another pet peeve is the overuse of synonyms for ‘many.’ Plethora and myriad are not the same words as many. And I also dislike plain old sloppiness, which I think of as an over reliance on spellcheck in Word without actually checking the grammar. Sometimes, the word in the essay is not the correct word, and I can tell a student just went through their essay, clicking on any red-underlined word and picking the first correction.

 What is the most common mistake you see in student papers?

 I don’t know if I want to call anything a mistake. I try to get away from that kind of language — error or mistake in writing. A lot of students have been stifled by English teachers who say, “This is the right way to write a paper, this is wrong.” Unless we are talking about incorrect grammar or spelling, I don’t use the language of mistake or right and wrong. Some of the common problems, though, that I see in student writing include lack of detail in descriptive and analytic writing, and an unwillingness to really engage with the text. I assign many research papers over the semester, and I see a lot of random quotes without a context for why that particular line has been quoted. Students must explain their use of evidence, not just use it. Also, lack of transitions is a problem in many student essays. We all think that our readers exist in our heads with us and can see the movement from one idea to the next. This isn’t always the case.

 What tips do you have for students to improve writing?

Go to the Writing Center! Also, I try to teach my students to read widely and see how others writers craft their work. I think reading and paying attention to how other writers put their ideas together is the most valuable way to understand and think about writing. And we practice revision in my classes. We read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, where she talks about bad first drafts, and we learn from that. Don’t beat yourself up if your first draft stinks. That just means you need to leave plenty of time to revise. Don’t put off your writing assignments until the night before they are due.

 The other advice I have is to try to be true to your own voice. Don’t think you have to sound like someone else to write a good paper. Also, find tools to get over your fears. A lot of us are scared of the blank page, and to overcome this, students have to look for resources to help them. If you need a good outline, do a good outline. If you need to talk through your essay before you write it, make an appointment at the Writing Center and talk to a tutor. If you need permission to write stream of consciousness, then do it. But have the discipline to go back and turn that rough draft into something coherent. Find tools to help you let go of the inner critic. All students have something valuable to write about and ideas worth expressing, but so many of us are silenced by ourselves. 


Thanks to Writing Center tutor Julie Huggins for her interview. She will be sharing more faculty features throughout the semester.

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