The Writing Center: Pomona’s Peer-Powered Model

By Sarah Binau ’19

When I was in high school, asking for help with writing meant you were a bad writer. It is (unfortunately) commonplace to be taught that some people are good writers and others are bad writers. But the truth is that everyone starts with a blank page and a wondering mind.

When I started college, I thought of myself as a good writer because I’d done well in humanities-based classes in high school. I soon realized that the label good writer is far from static. My professors were pushing me, challenging my assertions and assumptions. They were unafraid to tear apart what I’d written. I wondered if I’d become a bad writer or somehow gotten worse.

Writing Center signCue my introduction to the Writing Center. As a part of all ID1 (Critical Inquiry) seminars, the first-semester class all new students take, students are required to work with Writing Partners (students themselves) on their assignments. Working with the Writing Partner assigned to my class was my first introduction to the Writing Center, a Campus resource that owes its success to those students who enjoy both the writing process and helping peers make strides in their own work.

It turns out, any Pomona student can sign up for free, one-on-one appointments to work on any piece of writing of their choice. I started taking my papers in for help. I started writing more succinct essays, with stronger theses and more coherently organized support. I felt better about the work I was turning in. I was learning more.

I was experiencing a shining example of what I’d been told was at the core of a liberal arts education: to re-structure the dichotomy of being good or bad at academic disciplines. At Pomona, instead of good and bad writers, there are only people who are becoming better at writing. People from every major, every year, at every stage of the writing process. And the Writing Center is a clear promoter of this goal.

comments on an essayNow I understand that it’s fruitless to see writing as a “one and done” activity, and that it is better thought of as a process that takes time and effort. Most importantly, it is a process that involves other people. People who praise your work, critique your work, or help you get started when you come in without a single word written or idea formulated. And, of course, people who gently sit you down and gingerly show you, line by line, why what you’ve written is a colossal disaster, but that there is still hope in a few of your ideas.

At the end of my first semester at Pomona, I was finally understanding what Anne Lamott meant in her 1994 book Bird by Bird: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You have to start somewhere…The only way [you] can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I made a Writing Center visit (or two) a regular part of my writing process in college.

Writing Center scheduleSince I’ve become a Writing Center regular these past three years, I’ve learned to be more comfortable with that embarrassing, creeping blush I feel when I re-read a “really shitty first draft.” Each time I think, “Who the hell wrote this garbage, and why did they put my name on it?!” And then I take it to the Writing Center and begin to iron out the details. Sometimes it really is garbage, and I move back to square one. Most of the time, however, there are some treasures buried in the rubble, and, with someone else’s help, I can uncover them and leave the rest behind.