1. The first question has to be how did you come to do this? What set of circumstances led you to become a web-based impresario of the written word?
While pursuing my M.A. at Case, I worked in the writing center, taught English 150, tutored at the nursing school, and took the course on how to teach technical writing. At the writing center, I observed that many students left feeling anxious because only a small part of their documents had been improved; they had a genuine desire to learn but felt vulnerable knowing their writing was imperfect. I saw that as an opportunity. I could provide a service and help them develop writing skills at the same time. At the Case nursing school, I worked with many ESL students and had my first experiences with science writing and APA dissertations. Combined with the technical writing class, I realized just how great the need for writing assistance was, especially outside of traditional English classes. I do credit my husband for actually setting things in motion; he insisted I buy the website and hosting the same day I told him about the idea. But the idea itself was a product of my time at Case.
During the start-up phase, my target market was too diffuse: academics, business, law, ESL. I quickly realized that I needed to carve out a niche and establish a name for myself by focusing on a specific type of writing. Academic writing seemed the most logical choice (and the least likely to carry additional liability) given my background. I also needed to learn the business aspects of administration, marketing, and accounting. Fortunately, the nature of an internet-based service allowed for much inexpensive trial and error; I was able to experiment with marketing because I had very little overhead. In 2009, I invested in a dynamic website (i.e., clients can upload documents into personal accounts, and I no longer have to generate invoices and process payments manually). And that’s where Polish My Paper stands today.
2. Your website has a clear emphasis on educating the client. How is Polish My Paper like a composition class (or not like)?
Polish My Paper and the educational material on the website will always be a work in progress; much of the content serves the purposes of educating the client and attracting additional traffic to the website. Perhaps the closest analogy for the service would be a virtual writing center. For all clients, Polish My Paper is the last stop before their documents will be evaluated by much harsher critics: an instructor, an advisor, a journal editor, peer reviewers, an admissions director, a grant panel, a potential employer, government agencies, potential investors or clients, etc. Like grading assignments in a composition class, I work through the document and leave comments to challenge presentation, question inconsistencies in logic, offer other resources (I’ve read so many psychology dissertations that I’ve started to recognize prominent scholars in certain fields), and/or suggest alternatives for phrasing and organization. Unlike a composition class, I also proofread the document and leave comments with a link to the Common Errors Guide when an error appears frequently. In this way, I function somewhat like a tutor; I am able to teach to the unique needs of individual clients. After receiving a polished document, clients need to manually integrate the changes in order for it to be complete. Although I have no way of knowing whether a client reads any given explanation for an error, I have observed improvements in the documents of returning clients.
3. Could you talk about the range of both projects and skill sets that you encounter in your clients?
Perhaps the aspect that I most enjoy about what I do is the diversity of projects. Essentially, I get paid to be a lifelong learner. Today’s schedule includes an acting manual and an economics manuscript about blood donation. Last week, I read a manuscript on genetics and diabetes as well as a dissertation on the relationship between addiction and personality. I have read medical and other scientific manuscripts; psychology, religion, political science, art education, nursing, computer science, economics, and other dissertations; self-help books; cookbooks; college and professional application essays; CVs for the U.S. and Europe; business letters and proposals; and many other documents.
Skill levels fall everywhere on the continuum. Some clients only need minor changes related to tense and prepositions, for example; I once told a client that it probably would not be worth the expense to have me complete the document because errors were so nominal and infrequent. Others require major overhauls of content, grammar, presentation, etc. The most challenging and time-consuming documents are those that were written by ESL authors and that deal with complicated, field-specific topics; not only do I have to make linguistic sense of the text, I also have to attempt to convey their ideas, which often represent advanced study in fields in which I have no expertise, as accurately as possible. However, I have much more sympathy for (and am more willing to help) an ESL writer who is trying but lacks the skills to convey meaning than, say, a native speaker who submits a shoddy draft with the expectation that it be perfected with little effort on her part.
4. What is your typical client like?
There really is no “typical” client; I have worked with high school students, undergraduates, stressed grad students, struggling junior faculty, tenured professors, and even businesses. Especially with grad students, I have often become a source of support when they feel discouraged or frustrated by the multiple revisions that their advisors inevitably insist they complete. In one case, I polished documents for four different members of the same family. I have clients who live a few streets away in Los Angeles and throughout the U.S. as well as clients in Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, and China. If I had to identify one commonality among them, it would be the desire to improve their work before having it scrutinized in public.
5. What seems to be the chief difficulty for most people? Is it some deep-rooted fear, like going to the dentist? Do the specialized requirements of particular fields cause problems?
Difficulties are probably best categorized (and, clearly, generalized) by client type. Although I am not opposed to working with any type of client, I am trying to focus my market on graduate students and professors. Especially in the internet era, high school students (or, more specifically, their parents) and undergraduates seem to have a poorly developed sense of boundaries and unrealistic expectations. When I first started, parents of high school students would call at 3 a.m. with some type of essay emergency. My husband, who is in medicine, found it amusing that I would get “paged” as often as he would. Likewise, undergraduates, undoubtedly, are impeded by procrastination. I have begun to discourage undergraduates from submitting documents by requiring a 24-hour turnaround period. On numerous occasions, I have checked my morning emails to discover that an undergraduate uploaded a document at 2 a.m. and requested that it be completed by 5:30 a.m. for a class at 8 a.m. As any instructor of composition knows, this attitude leads to poorly written documents.
By contrast, graduate students seem to struggle with confidence and meeting unclear or conflicting expectations from multiple advisors; they are required to master not only their field of interest but also a writing genre and a citation style that are often completely new. In scientific fields, some have difficulty changing to a more objective writing style, using passive voice, or writing without excessive use of personal pronouns. The statistical sections often prove quite challenging, especially for students who have no background in statistics other than a single, required graduate class. ESL graduate students also find it difficult to choose appropriate tenses and unintentionally use idiomatic phrases. Professors sometimes struggle with making their ideas accessible and understandable to outsiders (like someone offering a grant) and, amusingly, masking personal annoyance in their responses to reviewers with whom they disagree.
6. You have a special ESL section. Do non-native speakers make up the bulk of your students/clients? Expertise in a number of languages is a characteristic of your website. Is this to ease native speakers of those languages? Are all the end products in English?
About half of my clients are ESL speakers; some are studying in the U.S., some aspire to study in the U.S., and some are in other countries and are either hosting conferences in English or trying to publish manuscripts in American journals. All of the documents that I polish are in English, but the translations of the website’s pages that are available help non-native speakers understand what they can expect from the service. Given the spectrum of ability that I see, I also suspect that the translations function as the first step in developing relationships with ESL speakers; the pages make it clear (both in their content and by their existence) that we respect them for trying to communicate complicated ideas in another language and recognize that doing so is difficult. I once had a foreign professor submit documents in the “student” category because he was so self-conscious about his writing. I believe these clients—many of whom are brilliant in their fields yet very aware of their language deficits—feel less vulnerable and are more willing to trust us if we make an effort to communicate in their language too. Another major benefit of the translations and ESL content in general is traffic; I began adding more ESL content to optimize the website. Some clients have found the service by looking for idiom definitions.
Christina Davis has a B.A. in English and music from Kenyon College and an M.A. in English from Case Western Reserve University. At Case, she taught undergraduate courses in composition and was nominated for the Dean’s Excellence in Teaching award. She also tutored both native speakers and ESL students at the Case Writing Center and Case School of Nursing. Her coursework included composition and rhetoric; the rhetoric of science; and the teaching of business communications. Professional experience includes writing, editing, and translating for The Freedonia Group among other companies. Additionally, Christina has tutored for the SAT with Academy Customized Test Prep. Since establishing Polish My Paper, Christina has polished numerous personal statements, dissertations, manuscripts for publication, coursework, and other documents for students, researchers, and businesses around the world. She has also written the content for a number of medical websites and is thoroughly familiar with scientific terminology. Christina and her husband are currently enjoying life in Los Angeles and the arrival of their first child.