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One-on-One Coaching at Rutgers Gives Professional Writers an Edge

Hands typing on a keyboard

“Every writer I know has trouble writing,” Joseph Heller, the best-selling author of Catch 22, once observed.

Most professional writers would probably agree. Writing for a living can be both exhilarating and exasperating, particularly when deadlines loom and fussy clients must be satisfied.

Rutgers WPx – the Writing Extension Program at the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick – offers a menu of one-on-one personal coaching options, both online and in person that can help writers defeat the demons that often plague them. Coaching can assist writers with focusing their thoughts, identifying problem areas, building critical skills, and even managing relationships with their clients.  

Dan Spink, WPX director, said that individual coaching courses were added to WPx’s course selections about five years ago “when we realized the need for specific, real-world workplace training in our market.”

Coaching, versus group instruction, enables instructors to focus on students’ individual projects, Spink said. “One-on-one is the most motivating to students and the most productive teaching venue. Students always provide the highest evaluations to this format because they get the most out of it in the time spent.”

Currently, WPx offers 12 one-on-one, in-person coaching classes and 13 online coaching classes. Courses include Grammar and Writing Skills Inventory for those seeking a professional analysis of their writing skills; Project Coaching in business, technical, fiction or nonfiction writing; Business Writing; Speech Writing; Grant Writing; Technical Writing; Professional Writing Tutoring; and Coaching in Editing. WPx also offers Grad School Writing Coaching, for those in any field of study.

Most students in WPx classes are typically five or more years out of college or graduate school “and have reached a point where they must begin to influence their peers or higher level management.”

WPx also offers corporate training, and has worked with companies like Sanofi-Aventis, the pharmaceutical firm, to train scientists for senior management advancement.

WPX’s coaches come from the ranks of seasoned writers familiar with the challenges of making words work.

One instructor is Robert Stewart, whose varied career as a teacher and writer gave him a good foundation for coaching. A Rutgers alumnus, he started out as a public school teacher and later taught leadership and management development for the federal government and private industry. He’s worked in journalism, corporate communications and also authored four nonfiction books.

Stewart first began writing speeches in 1998 for then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s re-election campaign. His clients have included federal officials, members of Congress, presidents and CEOs of major corporations, foundations, and national trade associations, and notable figures in network news and entertainment. In 2008, Stewart was asked to draft a speech for then President-elect Barack Obama – an assignment he figured was a possible “try-out” for a job.

In 2009 after hearing about the WPx program, he approached Spink about teaching a classroom course on speechwriting.

“Later, we realized it would be better as a one-on-one coaching program,” Stewart said. “A coaching course lets me work with the student on specific objectives that will advance his or her abilities and understandings of writing memorable speeches – memorable, as in inspiring and well-received.”

Stewart says he deals with the gamut of issues facing speechwriters, from their level of experience in their organizations to the occasionally strained relationships between them and their clients.

One coaching student was just beginning a speechwriting job for a state agency head.

“My coaching focused a lot on managing the speechwriter/executive relationship, as well as on the writing process,” Stewart related. Another time, he was commissioned to coach 17 U.S. Air Force officers whose jobs entailed writing speeches for the two highest officials in the Air Force.

Stewart said his students could be anyone from a recent college graduate who aspires to write speeches or a current speechwriter who wants to advance his or her skills.

His coaching incorporates fundamental rules of speechwriting, such as “doing your homework on the audience for the event – who are they, what are they expecting to hear and what do they know about the subject matter?  Good speechwriters also must understand the topic they are writing about and the issues surrounding it.”

Coaching enables him to work on the details with students so their words resonate with audiences. “Make the pace, tone, voice, narrative and words interesting from the first to the last words,” Stewart coaches. “You want the audience to sit and listen, instead of checking their iPhone messages or doodling on the program.”

But it’s not just speechwriters and others with “writer” in their titles who need the kind of coaching that Stewart and other WPx instructors provide, says Spink.

“Writing skills are extremely important to every managerial level in any profession,” he said. “Communication skills are the most promotable skills in any industry. Most of our clients sign up for WPx training because they have been or are seeking advancement.”

For more information on WPx’s one-on-one coaching and group courses, go on the website or contact Spink at

-- Sandra Lanman


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