PWC Q&A: Professor Nathan Whitlock

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 Nathan Whitlock teaches PWC’s Storytelling and Narrative course in first term and the Professionalism Skills: Internship Preparation course in second term. We asked him what he likes about teaching writing, and our usual favourite question about grammar rules!

Nathan Whitlock
Nathan Whitlock

How did you get started in writing? What has been your career trajectory so far?

I wrote stories, reviews, and articles in high school and in university, but didn’t really start writing for real until I got a job as the managing editor of a literary quarterly in my mid-twenties. By that point, I had piles of unpublished stories and ideas for novels, but no real connection to the world of books and magazines. I have made my living as a writer and editor, in one form or another, ever since. I have written about books, movies, music, cars, parenting, ice storms, and more – anything that fits the bill. I have also published two novels, A Week of This (2008) and Congratulations On Everything (2016), and am at work on a third.

What do you like about teaching writing?

I like demystifying the process. I always try to connect an abstract rule or concept to as many real-life examples as I can – especially the idea that writers cannot count on editors to catch their mistakes, for which I can always find a lot of egregious examples. But I also enjoy exposing students to pieces of writing that are fun and surprising, to show that it’s not all about drudgery and sweating the rules of grammar.

What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?

Write for free for a while, than at some point, stop writing for free. Both are important steps. (But don’t ever pay to write.)

What is your favourite grammar or writing rule?

It’s a bit abstract, but every piece of writing should work like a body part – with bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and veins, and skin. Every part has to have some function. I read a lot of work (including my own early drafts) where I can feel the writer going over the same idea over and over again, without adding anything. Like an arm that is all bone. Or the writer leaves out a crucial detail or element – an arm with bones but no muscles to make them work. In my classes, I overuse the word “organic” to describe how a good piece of writing – fiction, non-fiction, even pr copy – should work. Nothing should feel stitched in, everything should work together as a seamless whole.

PWC Q&A: Professor Suzanne Bowness

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 Suzanne Bowness teaches PWC’s Writing Principles: Introduction and Writers Identity courses in first term and the Developing Form and Repurposing Writing course in second term. She also helped to develop PWC and consults on program content as its Curriculum Lead.

Sue Bowness
Suzanne Bowness

How did you get started in writing? What has been your career trajectory so far?

I started out with a Bachelor’s degree in English and History, and then began my career with an internship at the former Saturday Night magazine. I was lucky enough when the internship turned into a job as the magazine’s first Online Editor, and then unlucky enough when the magazine folded. At that time I started freelancing, and have been a freelancer ever since. My business name is CodeWord Communications and I’m a generalist writer/editor with a handful of specialties including higher education, technology, careers and business.

I also furthered my education with an MA then PhD in English, where I wrote my dissertation on the role that nineteenth-century Canadian magazines played in establishing a Canadian literary and journalism scene.

What do you like about teaching writing?

I like introducing students to the wide-ranging media landscape and the different approaches to storytelling. I like helping them to think about their place within the writing world, and teaching them to be bold in trying out new forms. I like see students pursuing their own story ideas for the first time, and to see them take the same enjoyment as I do in structuring articles and putting sentences together.

What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Keep pitching. Keep writing and building up your 10, 000 hours. Try not to work for free, and trade up to paying gigs and then higher paying gigs wherever possible. Read widely.

What is your favourite grammar or writing rule?

I am an advocate for the almost universal eradication of the semicolon. And I’m always repeating the suggestion to never use a big word when a small one will do.

What do you do in your role as Curriculum Lead?

I was involved with PWC from the very beginning, researching the landscape of writing programs out there and helping to develop courses and create what is basically the program that I wish I had taken when I was starting out. As curriculum lead, I gather notes from the industry professionals on our program advisory committee, feedback from students, and tips from the writing world in general, to update the course outlines to reflect the most current standards that students need to know to succeed in the writing field. I also help more generally with program administration, with tasks such as updating this blog.

PWC Q&A: Program Advisory Committee member Sharon Aschaiek

This year we’re taking you behind the scenes to see how PWC operates and hear from key people on the team. In this post, we connected with a member of our program advisory committee (PAC). Our PAC is composed of writing professionals who advise on what kinds of content we should be including in the program in order to stay current with industry standards. See our list of PAC members here.

Sharon Aschaiek is an experienced writer whose company Cocoa Media serves the higher education sector. She is online at

Sharon Aschaiek

What do you do as a member of the PWC Program Advisory Committee?

Together with the other members of the committee, I help shape the content and format of the PWC program by sharing my knowledge and insights as an independent communicator. Drawing on my experience of running a communication business since 2004, I share my perspective on the key expertise students need to know to excel as a professional freelance writer or communicator. Collectively, our PAC focuses on ensuring the PWC program is current and relevant, and optimally prepares students to succeed.

What are some industry aspects that the advisory committee discusses more regularly?

Writing and communications is a vast career area that touches on almost every type of sector and organization. This means the profession can be affected by a variety of forces and trends. Among the aspects of writing and communications trends and issues PAC members discuss are:

– how new and social media affects writers – how they gather information, how they market themselves, and the new kinds of employment opportunities available to them

– the strong need for writers to be able to translate complex research findings into easy-to-understand content

– in an employment environment that in many contexts features contract, part-time or freelance work, the value of having entrepreneurship skills

– the importance of effective storytelling not only in journalism, but in communications for all types of organizations

– how the evolution of the English language, particularly as influenced by social media and mobile technology, affects the way writers work

– how the shift in the format of communications to including more images, video and audio affects the perceived value of written communications, and the way writers do their jobs

– the importance for writers to understand how to be compliant with Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

What do you think is the benefit of having an advisory committee?

A program advisory committee helps ensure a program teaches the knowledge and skills students need to excel in their field. The PWC PAC provides guidance on how communications activities take place in organizations, what employers expect from their communications staff, what are the core elements of effective communications, and how writers can navigate and take advantage of the range of work opportunities in communications. The PAC is essentially like a direct connection to industry that offers insider information and insights on trends and opportunities in communications in order to best prepare students for the field.

Why did you agree to help out?

I enjoy being part of the PWC PAC because it’s very rewarding for me to help people succeed in a field that has been so good to me. I have been writing professionally since 2000, and have been freelancing since 2004, and my writing career has been deeply satisfying in many ways.

As a writer, I find storytelling to be a fun challenge, and I like being able to share important or inspiring stories that can influence how people think and feel. As an independent communicator, I enjoy the flexibility of choosing my clients, projects and hours. Being part of the PWC PAC allows me to share my passion and expertise for writing and communications, and to provide up-and-comers in the field with a strong foundation for their career.

You’ve also been a guest speaker in the program. What is your best advice to students as they enter the writing world?

As with all things in life, persistence is key. While there are many writers competing for jobs, there are also many opportunities, so keep job searching, prospecting and networking, stay current on trends in writing and communications, and keep practising your writing skills.

Market yourself and your strengths as a writer by consistently blogging and sharing your posts on social media. This not only helps promote your abilities as a writer, it allows you to practise your writing skills.

Whether or not you want to work for an organization or be a freelancer, it helps to have a specialty. Having a niche in an area of communications, e.g. in health-care writing, internal communications or email newsletters, allows you to stand out among employers. It can also help you command higher fees, since you have a specialty not everyone else has.

No matter where you land, be professional. Show up on time, complete every project according to word count and by deadline, be cooperative and helpful, share your (good) ideas, and go beyond your job description. Even if you aren’t (yet) the strongest writer, these qualities can help make you indispensable.

Consider working for yourself. It’s sensible to start your writing career at an organization to gain experience and contacts, and to see if this working style suits you. If it’s not your bag, remember that freelancing is a viable option that is less scary than you may think. Running a writing business lets you practise the skill you love on your own terms and enjoy potentially significant lifestyle and financial rewards.


PWC Q&A: Professor Helena Moncrieff

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.


Helena Moncrieff

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.

PWC Q&A: Associate Dean

Vera Beletzan

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. Vera Beletzan is our associate dean and the originator of the PWC program. We asked her about everything from starting the program to the benefits of an advisory committee to why she likes teaching grammar. 

Tell us about the origins of the PWC program. What need did you see in the marketplace for a program like this?

The Professional Writing and Communications program is part of the Department of English at Humber. We deliver academic writing and professional writing courses across most of Humber’s programs. As part of the work we do, we get to interact with people from a whole range of industries. We began to notice how often, in program advisory meetings for example, the issue of writing and communications skills came up as an identified gap in the workplace.

There was a spotlight on these skills in the media as well. For example, the Conference Board of Canada was publishing results of a study asking employers to give feedback on the preparedness of students coming out of college and university. And what kept coming up as a real need was communication and writing skills, as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills.

So an idea was born. We organized a forum of industry leaders and professionals in the field of professional writing and communication to get feedback on the skills that were needed. We heard that communication departments are ever more critical in the information age, and that there was a growing need for writing expertise, from digital literacy and repurposing content down to the basics of impeccable grammar and punctuation. We also heard a lot about the challenge of finding this expertise.

After doing our research, we developed a detailed curriculum proposal, secured college and then ministry approval, and ran the first cohort last fall. We had a very successful first year. Our students all had great internships across a wide variety of workplaces, and some are still there.

You teach the program’s Grammar Bootcamp (held at the beginning of the year). What do you like about teaching grammar?

I really love exploring language structure – it’s endlessly fascinating that humans can do this amazingly complex cognitive thing that we call language (grammar / syntax, etc.) and communication. The challenge for me is to help students understand how to look with awareness at language – which is hard, as language usually operates on an unconscious level.

I like to figure out ways to help students see structure objectively and develop the tools to notice when things go wrong – edit their own work and other people’s work. The more they can notice – the more they can control – the more tools they have for putting text together appropriately for the context. That’s a powerful skill.

You also recruited the PWC’s advisory board, a group of professional writers and editors who provide guidance to the program. What is the value of such a board? 

The role of our Program Advisory Committee is crucial. We are lucky to have a great group of professionals who have the expertise and experience to provide feedback and support for the program. They come from public and private sectors and are really representative of the world of communications. We meet twice a year and always emerge with new ideas and directions. Our PAC members also give generously of their time by helping us secure internships and by meeting with our students in networking events.

How do you think the world of writing is changing today? What opportunities do you see?

Technology is going to keep driving us to be ever more flexible – we are going to have to get faster and better at assessing audience and medium, and packaging information in appropriate, clear, and tight text, sometimes switching “code” multiple times a day. People who can do that will be in demand.

What’s your favourite grammar or writing rule? 

If you think you love a rule, make sure it’s a real rule and not a bogus ‘prescriptive’ rule. For example, “don’t split an infinitive” is a schoolroom rule that actually makes no sense in reality. We don’t say “they waited for the pumpkin more than to triple in size before entering it in the competition.” On another note, I like the Oxford comma, I just do.

PWC Q&A: Student Advisor

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. At and as the heart of our operation is our student advisor, Beth-Anne Chansavang, who helps students navigate the program from application through orientation and any other time in the year that students need her! We got her to sit down and reveal a bit more about her role.


Beth-Anne Chansavang

What does the student advisor do? 


A little bit of everything, which is why I love being an advisor!

I’m the first point of contact for any questions/concerns that the PWC students have–if I’m not the right person to talk to, I’ll usually direct you to the person that is! I’m also here to provide the PWC students with academic and general support.

Additionally, I work very closely with the Placement Advisor to ensure that students are placed with host organizations that are mutually suitable for both the student and the host organization itself.  The Curriculum Lead and I also work closely together, and we both give each other weekly updates as to how the classes are going and how the PWC students are doing.  We also work together to create marketing materials for the program and strategize marketing ideas to expand our program’s reach.

I also organize all of the PWC-related events, including orientation, information sessions, networking session, and holiday events.  If you came to one of our open houses or attended a university post-graduate fairs, you probably met me there as well!

What are some of the more common issues that students come to you about? 

If it’s in the handbook, it’s been asked, which is partially why the handbook exists!

Students are welcome to come and talk to me about (almost) anything, but some of the more common questions are usually about what Humber services are available to them and to clarify what to do about absences and lateness.  Students also frequently ask me for advice about how to approach their professors regarding a variety of issues (and what the proper protocols are).

Some students come and talk to me about their workload and how to best balance competing assignment deadlines.  Sometimes students also ask me how they should balance the competing priorities of school, family, and part-time jobs.

When it comes to placement time, many students stop by to ask if they think a certain posting would be a good fit for them, and I’m always happy to provide constructive feedback (and a confidence boost!).

My favourite part of my role is that some students come just to chat about the program and their lives, and I really love being able to forge meaningful connections with students because these are the experiences they’ll remember and take with them when they graduate from Humber.

Are there any things that students are surprised they can talk to the student advisor about?

A lot of students are very surprised when I say that I want them to check in with me throughout the program, even if it’s just to say ‘hi’.  Many post-graduate students are coming out of a university environment where survey-classes and large lecture halls are the norm.  The PWC cohort is purposely smaller than a typical post-graduate program, and this is to ensure that we’re able to provide students with the best learning experience possible and to ensure that they feel supported throughout the program.

What’s your favourite part about your job? 

I’m fortunate in that I’m able to teach business English at Humber, and one of the reasons I love teaching so much is because of the interactions I have with students and the privilege of seeing students’ ‘lightbulb’ moments.

As an advisor, I’m able to forge connections with the students outside of the classroom.  I’ve been called the ‘Mother Hen’ of the PWC program, and I think that’s actually quite fitting!

What’s your favourite grammar or writing rule? 

Oooh, that there aren’t really any hard and fast rules depending on the context/genre! (<—notice my use of a fragment to answer a question?  I’m okay with that because I’m writing in a more informal context!).

However, I really love finding and correcting misplaced/dangling modifiers–not because I’m good at correcting them, but because I am guilty of making this error, too.  Also, I am loving the fact that popular usage has turned our steadfast grammar rules on their head (notice how I used a stative verb in the present progressive/continuous?  Neither would most people — because it’s 2016, and our language is beautifully organic and ever-changing).

One thing that I’ve learned is that most grammar rules shouldn’t be called ‘rules’ but ‘strict guidelines’.  I’ve had to tell myself not to be in love with a guideline but to be in love with writing, and I try to remind myself and students of this every day. I’m happy to work with students to make the guidelines work within their writing, or at least give them the tools so they understand when these guidelines can be broken.