Spotlight on Madison Writing Assistance: Voices from a Community Writing Assistance Program

Community Writing Assistance, Events / Monday, April 14th, 2014

By Elisabeth Miller with Nancy Linh Karls

Elisabeth Miller is the TA Coordinator of the Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) program and has had the great pleasure of working as an instructor at nearly all of MWA’s locations over the past four years. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison and is a Ph.D. candidate in Composition and Rhetoric. Nancy Linh Karls is the Director of MWA. She also serves as the UW-Madison Writing Center’s resident Science Writing Specialist as well as Director of the Mellon/Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps. 

Whether it’s a resume, a job application, a grant proposal, a college application essay, a letter to a landlord, a medical memoir, or even a zombie apocalypse novel, Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) can help with it — and with much, much more! Offering free, one-to-one writing assistance to Madison residents of all ages, MWA seeks to meet people where they are: in their neighborhoods and on writing that matters to their lives and livelihoods.

In this post, we hope to give you a window into the exciting range of writing assistance happening off campus through MWA, the community-based arm of the UW-Madison Writing Center. In addition to some background on MWA’s history and current structure, we offer a glimpse into the perspectives of the instructors, partners, and patrons who sustain this rich program. Finally, we invite you to join us for this spring’s annual Celebration of Writing!

MWA: A Bridge between the University and the Community 

An MWA instructor and a writer hard at work on a memoir.
An MWA instructor and a writer hard at work on a memoir.

Nearly 20 years ago, MWA (formerly known as Community Writing Assistance) began with a small group of volunteers from the UW-Madison Writing Center, who set up tables and “Writing Help Here” signs at community centers and libraries across town. Since those early days, MWA has grown significantly through the generous financial support of the Evjue Foundation, the UW-Madison Anonymous Fund, and — most recently — Altrusa International. The program is currently staffed by experienced, paid instructors, many of whom hail from the UW-Madison Writing Center, including Ph.D. students from Literary Studies and from Composition and Rhetoric, as well as from African American Studies, English Language and Linguistics, Creative Writing, and the UW-Madison Writing Fellows program.

With its mission “to help Madison-area residents use the written word to live rich and productive lives,” MWA has distinguished itself as a robust source of writing support by helping writers learn rhetorical strategies and develop skills they can apply to current and future writing projects. Functioning as a strong bridge between UW-Madison and the local community, MWA is open to everyone at seven libraries and community centers across the city:

Our one-to-one sessions take place all over Madison. (Created with Google Maps).
Our one-to-one sessions take place all over Madison. (Created with Google Maps).
  • Central Library (201 West Mifflin Street)
  • Goodman Library (2222 South Park Street)
  • Hawthorne Library (2707 East Washington Avenue)
  • Lakeview Library (2845North Sherman Avenue)
  • Meadowood Neighborhood Center (5734 Raymond Road)
  • Pinney Library (204 Cottage Grove Road)
  • Sequoya Library (4340 Tokay Boulevard; funded by the Friends of Sequoya Library until December 2013)

In addition to its one-to-one sessions, MWA offers selected group workshops by request, including college essay application workshops for high school students at the Urban League and at the Middleton Public Library, a resume workshop for third-shift employees through UW Continuing Studies, and a grant-writing workshop for the Healthy Classrooms Foundation.

Instruction with an Impact: MWA’s Value for Our Instructors

Logan Middleton, MWA instructor. Photo courtesy of Logan.

Instructors who work with the MWA program frequently identify it as one of the “most meaningful, impactful, important” and “transformative, even life-changing” elements of their educational experiences, influencing how they envision their own roles in college and university teaching, research, and service. One instructor shares, “My work with MWA has allowed me to get some ‘real-world’ experience, and it truly has enriched my life on many levels. Meeting people from all walks of life, including a homeless man who just got out of jail after a 26-year sentence and who had as his goal to write pieces for Madison’s Streetpulse newspaper, provides such a unique perspective.” Another instructor recounts the effect of MWA work on his own research: “It became natural to talk about my proposal with community writers. In doing so, I found myself switching codes between a vernacular vocabulary of writing and gardening and the language of literary studies — the terms of formal analysis and critical theories.”

Logan Middleton, a former UW-Madison Writing Fellow who has worked at several MWA locations, shares, “I’ve come to more deeply appreciate the diversity of Madison’s many communities, from the west to the south to the northeast, all the different tones, timbres, and cultures that make the city so vibrant. MWA is just as much about writing as it is an exchange about local activism, community resources, and the pulse of Madison proper.” He also reflects on the relationships that are formed in MWA: “That former clients stay in touch and often return to share news about job offers, opportunities, or other developments reinforces to me that the work that MWA does not only makes a tangible difference in people’s lives, but serves to connect them as well. Writing unfolds here on a grounded, practical level, and I’m very fortunate to have the privilege to be a part of it.”

Powerful Partnerships: MWA’s Value for Our Library and Community Partners 

Chris Wagner, Staff Librarian at Goodman South Madison Library and long-time partner of MWA. Photo courtesy of Chris.

Over the years, we have worked hard to establish strong connections with our library and community partners, who provide the necessary space for our sessions, manage each site’s appointments, and are vocal MWA promoters. Their efforts allow us to provide over 500 sessions each year, focused on individualized, quality writing instruction across our multiple sites.  Chris Wagner, Staff Librarian at Goodman South Madison Library, writes, “People [at these sites] are hard at work trying to live their lives as responsible citizens, workers, students, business people, helpers, and neighbors. MWA recognizes that ‘ordinary’ people have a need to communicate information in a host of different ways and need help doing it. MWA helps to do this hard work better.” She generously shares, “Of all the auxiliary adult services offered . . . Madison Writing Assistance remains the most valuable one from the perspective of both staff and patrons.”

Robin Krueger, Staff Librarian at Pinney Library, notes, “MWA provides something we staff people just can’t — a whole hour of one-on-one help in a quiet, private place.” Our Allied Drive community center partner, Ryan Estrella, notes that residents’ requests for job help are so numerous that he wishes MWA could provide 40 hours of assistance a week, explaining that “The one on one time during these meetings is crucial to the success of the program because there is a lot of education that takes place that many other programs fail to provide.”  Staff librarians at Lakeview Library concur, calling MWA “an absolute treasure for our neighborhood.”

“A Life Source”: MWA’s Value for Our Patrons 

One of MWA’s youngest patrons wished her instructor a Happy Valentine’s Day! Photo courtesy of Sarah Dimick.

Finally — and centrally important for us — MWA services matter in the lives of the patrons who use our services. Patrons’ responses to satisfaction surveys provide us with some insights into what they value most about MWA. Patrons have called MWA a “life source,” expressing appreciation for the support of MWA instructors, whom one patron calls “the most caring writers/teachers who listened and gave me support, hope, and confidence.” Other patrons describe instructors as “patient” and “knowledgeable” while being “approachable,” “friendly,” and “down to earth.” One patron recently noted that she most appreciates the ability “to be accepted unconditionally, as you reveal the most personal secrets of your life. To feel that possibly you had a purpose and there were many who understood and helped you put it into words!” She writes that these “caring, respectful” instructors offer “support, hope, and confidence . . . to continue to write my life story.”

Many patrons find MWA support for computer literacy skills especially valuable. As one patron shares, “In today’s world everyone can benefit from basic writing and computer skills to more advanced. So many people do not have the opportunity to get those on their own.” Another patron asserts that MWA is “great for seniors. It’s better than crossword puzzles. You have to think hard to remember detail. You have to do research and look up dates. You will be surprised how many times it makes you smile.”

You’re Invited!: The City-Wide Celebration of Writing

Goodman South Madison Public Library is the site of the 11th annual Celebration of Writing. Photo courtesy of Madison Public Library.

We close with an invitation to learn more about MWA by sharing in some of the vibrant writing happening across the Madison community! All are welcome at the 11th Annual Celebration of Writing, co-sponsored by MWA and Goodman South Madison Library, on Monday, May 5, 2014, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. Come to meet other writers and enjoy refreshments. Attend a 30-minute writing workshop led by accomplished local authors, on topics from memoir writing to picture book writing to fiction writing. Chat with an MWA instructor about your own writing in progress. Then share your own writing of any kind — poems, short stories, raps, editorials, essays, song lyrics, personal reflections, or academic writing — at our Open Mic. We hope to see you there!

For more information about the Madison Writing Assistance program, feel free to contact us at or visit the MWA website.

21 Replies to “Spotlight on Madison Writing Assistance: Voices from a Community Writing Assistance Program”

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post, Elisabeth and Nancy! When we talk about the Wisconsin Idea on campus, I always think of Madison Writing Assistance. As an instructor, I appreciated the opportunity to connect with the Madison community beyond the university. I’m glad to hear the program is thriving!

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post! MWA shapes and is shaped by a rich community of writers right here in our city of Madison. I’m consistently impressed with the diversity of experiences that writers bring to the table, and I find that as an instructor, I often leave having learned more about writing’s purpose in community life than I initially expected. Nancy and Elisabeth, thanks for all your hard work!

  3. I’ll always remember the challenges and rewards—so unique to MWA—that I got to experience when I worked as a tutor. And of course I’ll remember the people, especially everyone’s dear, favourite memoir-writer. What a privilege to have had this experience. Thanks for posting, Nancy and Elisabeth!

  4. Great posting! Every word rings true, and I am a witness! MWA both levels AND raises the playing field so that anyone can make themselves heard, make themselves visible through the written word. MWA is a key service to fulfilling the library’s goal of providing the resources to make it possible for all people to engage fully in the life of their community, civic and otherwise.

  5. Such a lovely reflection of the wonderful work that MWA is doing! I feel lucky to have been a part of it and I even noticed a former writer I used to work with! Thank you so much Nancy and Elisabeth for all of your dedication to making this a sustainable program that is deeply connected to the broader Madison community!

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful overview of an invaluable community resource, Elisabeth and Nancy! The opportunity to teach and write with people outside the conventional university structure was—like a good crossword puzzle—a wonderful, rewarding challenge.

  7. What a wonderful post. MWA has been an invaluable addition to our Wednesday morning job clubs at Meadowood Neighborhood Center. We have had very talented and compassionate individuals come from MWA to directly interact with members in the southwest community. With their help, we have been able to assist many community members with resume writing, cover letter construction, reference sheets, and other writing support. Thank you for all you do. We are extremely grateful to be able to work with MWA. A special thank you to Elisabeth, Virginia, and Logan!

  8. Thanks for this great post, Nancy and Elisabeth! Your discussion of what instructors take away got me thinking about my time on staff and about the transferability/translatability of our Writing Center practices. While I don’t want to discount the differences–the range of writing tasks, the relationships to writing and literacy–what strikes me is the amount of cross-over. It’d be really interesting to think more about the relationship between instruction in various sites.

  9. Thanks for this post! It’s so great to read about the work done by MWA. I particularly liked the variety of perspectives represented in this piece – it’s really important, I think, to hear from writers bringing work to MWA and the librarians at those sites, as well as instructors.

  10. Thanks for this post! It was a great introduction to MWA. I hope I can participate in it at some point in the future.

  11. Thanks for the update! It’s great to see Writing Fellows involved. I fondly remember my shifts at the South Park Street location and participating in the annual celebrations of writing.

    Thanks to all who are sustaining this invaluable public service.

  12. Thank you, Nancy and Elisabeth, for sharing all these perspectives and voices from MWA. This post gave me a better sense of all the moving parts that are required for such an important, meaningful service to be sustainable. I am amazed by all the tangible impacts of writing in people’s lives.

  13. Thanks so much for this post, which gives a really great overview of MWA. I especially liked that you included instructors’ and patrons’ voices here. It’s great to hear patrons’ own sense of how or why MWA is important for them, and to hear from library staff, too.

  14. We at Pinney are so grateful to be able to offer this program to our patrons. The touching stories from successful job applicants are a joy to hear. Thanks to all of the patient and skilled MWA instructors!

  15. I wish I could come to celebrate with you on May 5th. Your work is so valuable and impressing. Community writing center work is one of the things I really hope to do here in Germany one day, too. Thank you for sharing your insights with us!

  16. Love to read posts such as this. Community outreach is a noble enterprise regardless if it is academic or private sector. I personally am involved with a similar project with a local area college. My personal realm of “expertise” is blog development and design, and the tie in has turned into what feels a natural fit. I feel that the display / sharing of what has been written is a important tool, in the sharing of ideas and skills. Thank you for the wonderful post! It gives me further drive to extend the outreach program within my own business.

    Paul Savidge
    Contributing Editor

  17. This was a fantastic re-introduction to MWA! I’ve mostly been treated to quick glimpses of MWA at various introductions to things going in the program, so hearing the voices of the many people involved in the program was a real treat. Also, I think the MWA is a great example of the Wisconsin Idea, a concept which, in its most clear and localized articulations, really aims to describe how various people and programs serve as “a bridge between the University and the community.”

  18. […] Paula and Glenn direct the Center for Excellence in Writing at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Paula completed her degrees at the UW-Madison, tutoring in the then-Writing Lab as part of her teaching assistantship. Glenn received his Ph.D in rhetoric and composition from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and is currently working on a book about writing centers and activism. Both have been influenced by the Madison Writing Assistance Program, a community engagement effort of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center, recently described here: […]

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