Writing Tips

Jonathan Christensen:

In 1998 I loaded up on student loans against the advice of Amherst College’s financial aid advisor, and left our shores for jolly old England. In my first week at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, I was told to choose subjects for my tutorials. These are one-on-one meetings with professors once or twice per week. I told the faculty advisor that I wanted to steep myself in history and literature to accompany the feeling that I got from wandering the storybook campus. He said he had just the tutor for me. And with that, I ended up studying English Romantic poetry with the late Jonathan Wordsworth, who was a great-great-great nephew of the famous poet William Wordsworth.

The way tutorials work is that you meet your tutor, you discuss a subject, and then the tutor assigns one or more essays for the next meeting that will require some additional reading and research to complete. Then at that next meeting, you read your essays aloud to the tutor during the first 10 minutes. The tutor gives direct feedback on your writing, and you move on to repeat the process from the top.

On a cold day in January, Professor Wordsworth’s study smelled like the scout’s cleaning supplies and old books. I sat across from him at his computerless desk sweating and stumbling through a timid technical analysis of a poem by Coleridge. I knew I had blown it. My writing sucked. Professor Wordsworth told me firstly, I needed to write more about how the poems made me feel rather than all their technical details, and secondly, I might want to take a bit more time to proofread my future essays. In that moment he was Dumbledore—kind, intelligent, and insistent that I do my best.