The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Brainstorm with Brown: The Honors Writing Coach We All Needed

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It was six years ago when Sarah “Dixie” Brown was hired by the Commonwealth Honors College to help students improve their writing skills through lessons in prose and sessions in Elm room 229. Before she settled in her UMass Amherst office, she was helping college students all across the nation with their writing assignments, beginning at sun-drenched Stanford University to our next-door neighbor at Mount Holyoke College. 

An adverse effect of the American education system is that it’s taught students to fear writing, scapegoating long papers for all the stress and anxiety that accompanies high school. The Honors writing coach is here to bust this myth. Before each session Brown will ask students if they want gentle or critical feedback. She’ll then address what they need help with and work from there. 

Brown has read, heard, and seen it all, which is why she’s the perfect person to teach us what’s right and what’s wrong. One of the biggest problems, she says, is lack of transitions. “They’re doing what I do, and they write for themselves, but they don’t realize how very confusing that is for the average reader,” she explains. 

It can be hard for members of the Honors College to understand that not everyone perceives their writing like they do. This is why it’s important they see Dixie before they’ve even begun. “If I ruled the world as the Honors writing coach, I’d have people come in and just brainstorm with me and talk about their ideas before they have anything written,” says Brown. 

Oftentimes the best work stems from hours of research and outlines before we even put our pen to paper…or better suited for COVID, “fingers to keyboard.” With so many resources at their disposal, it can be easy for Honors students to forget about their support networks. But the writing coach offers something unique: comfort and criticism. 

Before the pandemic began, Brown’s office was imbued with scents of chamomile and chocolate, a stockpile of crackers and cookies, and an electric kettle waiting to be poured. Elm 229 was more than just her office; it was a place where ideas were to be had, tears were to be shed, and writing was to be done. 

Brown reflected on her own experience of being on the receiving end of the so-called corrective pen. “When I wrote for [children’s literary magazine] Cricket, a story would come back covered with red, and at that point I had already been teaching for years. It was like a gut punch,” she says. “It made me so mad, but their suggestions always made the story so much better.”

Another piece of advice she offers in utilizing her services is to “come early and often.” As both a high school teacher and college writing coach, Brown has seen her fair share of under-preparation and suggests that the best papers are the ones where planning comes first. Writing shouldn’t feel like a burden, though; it’s these planning sessions that make for a happy student when professors compliment their work. 

The Honors College writing services are open to all CHC students who want feedback, assistance, or just a place to brainstorm ideas. Students can book an appointment with Brown on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, anytime from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., for either 30 or 45 minutes. Directions on how to schedule an appointment can be found here, and Brown suggests that students email their work prior to their session. 

 “You’re not just at the Commonwealth Honors College to [learn how to] secure a good job,” she reminds us. “You’re there to become a lifelong learner. That’s my hope.”