This year we’re taking you behind the scenes to see how PWC operates and hear from key people on the administrative and teaching staff. Professor Helena Moncrieff teaches PWC’s Editing for Writers course in first term and the Writing Principles: Advanced course in second term. If there’s a reason our students know their CP style, Helena is it! We asked her how she got started as a writer, and about her favourite grammar rule.
How did you get started in writing? What has been your career trajectory so
I don’t remember not writing. I have clear childhood memories of listening to conversations outside my bedroom window and writing them down. I’ve always liked the rhythm of dialogue. It would be easy to say that’s how I ended up in journalism school, but I’m not sure that at 17 I really knew what I was applying for.
My first writing job was working on a newsletter called Zephyr for Environment Canada’s Atmospheric Environment Service (the weather office). Looking back, it was a great summer gig for a student and gave me a really strong portfolio to get started. My first full-time job was with CKO radio in Ottawa as the city hall reporter. I carried a microphone for several years in Thunder Bay, back to Ottawa and finally in Toronto at Queen’s Park.
That led me to a five-year stint in politics writing speeches, news releases and strategies as press secretary to a cabinet minister. Then it was into a national trade association doing much the same for the insurance industry. It was way more interesting than I expected. Now I run my own freelance business writing a lot of features and op-eds for a nice mix of non-profit corporate clients.
What do you like about teaching writing?
It’s a really good reminder of the distance I’ve travelled in writing. It tells me that these skills are not “natural.” They have to be learned and practised. It is lovely to read student stories after the winter break and see how fluid the writing has become. Even though we take students through a lot of different formulas, I think there is freedom in being unshackled from essay style.
What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?
All experience is good. There are no wrong choices at this point. But don’t write for free unless you see a something in it for you. Your skills have a value.
What is your favourite grammar or writing rule?
Favourite is too strong a term, but I like seeing collective nouns treated as singular. For example, “the couple eats dinner together.” I know that many publications are leaning the other way now, led, I believe, by writers or perhaps just speakers in the U.K. They might write, “The couple eat dinner together.” Some do the same with staff, family, army, band and a batch of other words. On the other hand The Beatles is a band, but I wouldn’t argue with “they are coming to Toronto.” In fact, that would be so interesting, who could worry about the grammar?
There is always a way to write around it. Still, I may have to surrender on this one as the plural collectives become part of the general vernacular.