Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

Miann Wilson was a student in my Fall 2014 First-Year Seminar course.

In addition to my ongoing writing assignments, I am an adjunct professor in the Journalism and First-Year Seminar departments at Columbia College Chicago. I have taught half a dozen or so different courses over the past two decades. Each one took a couple of semesters before I felt at ease with the material and its presentation. Here I share some of the lessons I’ve learned that may smooth your own teaching semester. And, please share your advice as well!

* First-day introductions. Yes, it’s hokey, but do it anyway. I used to skip this exercise in the mistaken belief that they all knew each other, but they don’t. Commuter students in particular have a difficult time making campus connections.

If you simply tell students to introduce themselves, they will rotely give their names, hometowns and majors. Period. Ask them to share the best day of their lives or to reveal something surprising about themselves. I often ask my First-Year Seminar students whether rabbits should be allowed to vote.

(The question is not totally bizarre: Later in the semester, we discuss the rights and responsibilities of humans versus non-humans, and, ultimately, in the Mary Shelley novel “Frankenstein,” who is guilty of the crimes–the creature or his creator?)

* Repeat, repeat, repeat. When I was a younger teacher, I thought saying something once was sufficient. It isn’t. I repeat assignments, summarize lectures, review student work in the classroom for good and bad examples (anonymously, of course). I comb celebrity and trending news to reiterate a point or concept. Sometimes I feel as though I am driving myself to catatonia, but I also get better papers and fewer missed deadlines.

* Plan for syllabus mishaps. No matter how hard you prepare or how much confirmation you do, on some days plans go awry. Maybe your speaker cancels at the last minute. Maybe the DVD you intended to show won’t play. Always have an extra lesson plan or activity ready (handouts photocopied, presentation loaded onto a flash drive, a local field trip figured out, etc.) just in case. You will thank me for this one.

* Relax. It’s scary to face new students at the beginning of the semester. Remember, they are afraid of you as well. They also trust you. You are their expert. It’s okay if you show them nine ways to properly use a comma but forget the tenth one. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t need it to live satisfactory lives. And after a few class sessions, you’ll be able to tell apart Kristin, Christy and Chrissi.

* You are not entertaining. Year ago, before I came to Columbia, I had a story assignment to interview graduate students about their teaching experiences. One of them said: “From the deadpan faces in my classroom, I learned that I am not nearly as funny as I think I am.” You aren’t, either. But the students can be funnier than you ever imagined. Enjoy the laughs.

Bailey and Joey are supportive of my writing.

Bailey and Joey are supportive of my writing.

Writing is a solitary enterprise, which may explain the vast number of organizations dedicated to the craft. Should you join one or more? Maybe. Some writers enjoy, or even crave, the occasional company of kindred souls. Others feel no need to engage.

My experiences have been both rewarding and frustrating.

On one hand, I have met fascinating people, picked up job leads, and learned skills that make me more profitable.

On the other, some groups are more inclusive than others. Some people are downright catty. I once engaged in getting-to-know you conversation with another attendee at a gathering of journalists. In so doing, I mentioned I had freelanced for the Chicago Tribune for more than 20 years. “Boy, you’re in a rut, aren’t you?” she exclaimed. Her remark stung–I’m proud of my long-time association with the newspaper. That’s not the only reason I shortened my relationship with that organization, but it is indicative.

Different writing groups have different objectives and formats. To help you find a compatible match, here is a rundown on the various types:

* Critique groups read your work and then offer commentary and advice. Groups usually are small and meet at homes, coffee shops or libraries. You can also find critique groups online.

* Niche groups serve writers of specific genres. If your primary interest is romantic novels, for example, you may find Romance Writers of America to be more relevant than a group of generalists or nonfiction writers. Other niche organizations are the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

* Professional journalism organizations often provide career development programs, networking opportunities and conferences. They sometimes sponsor service programs such as an annual communications contest for high schools or scholarships for college students. Some professional groups, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, have qualifying standards for new members.

* Accountability groups get down to business. Members set goals, say, sending 5 query letters each week or finishing to more chapters, before the next meeting.

* Create your own group. My favorite writing group is an assemblage of remarkable women who have become some of my dearest friends. Most of us met in a writing class at a local community college, and we decided to stay in touch. A few came along later. At first we operated as an accountability group. Now we mostly keep up on Facebook, but still get together for a pitch-in dinner once a year. We cheer each other on in all endeavors, whether a hard-won assignment, a new boyfriend or a health crisis.

* Business networking groups. When you join the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or other community organization, you’ll be one of the few writers, perhaps the only one. Other members will be more likely to call on you rather than someone they don’t know to write their brochures, press releases and website copy. My book co-author, Jackie Walker, found me by looking up writers in the member directory of Fashion Group International, a group we both belong to.

Before you sign up, give thought to what you can give. The success of any group depends on the willingness of its members to participate in meetings, serve on committees and ultimately take leadership positions. What you get is proportional to what you put in.

I leave you with another story: A writer friend once served on the board of a professional communications organization. Years later her marriage broke up and she realized she needed to trade her freelancing lifestyle for the security of full-time employment. Another board member from that term tipped her off to an upcoming editorial opening at her company. My friend got the job before it was ever posted to the public.

A 'tweeter' from my front yard

A 'tweeter' from my front yard

I arrived at Tweet Camp Chicago, along with a couple hundred journalists, philanthropists, PR reps, entrepreneurs and one teenager. Some pretty big bylines were among the group. We had heard that Twitter was good for us, but we didn’t know why or how.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” said photojournalist Karen Kring, one of the camp counselors. I tested her by asking if Twitter is something done on a computer or via telephone, and she was kind. The answer: Both.

Bit by bit, byte by byte, the media mavens took us through the mechanics and vocabulary of a Twitterer. Or, Tweeter. Or, just plain Twit. They showed us how to find people to follow and what we want to say. Or tweet. We got pizza and a commemorative t-shirt.

“Twitter is pointless and boring until you join the conservation,” said Scott Smith, who then was an editor and director of content for Playboy.com.

For sure. And then we saw specific examples:

Kim Mance, co-founder of the travel website http://www.gogalivanting.com said she uses Twitter to get quotes for her stories. She puts out a question and then follows up the responses via email. “It’s easy to get a huge stream and a range of perspectives,” she said. “It’s also easy to verify because you can see what’s in their profiles and who they are and where they have been.”

Alicia Dantico, then the social media director for Garrett Popcorn, spent long hours interacting with customers. Sometimes she surprised them by showing up in their offices with tins of freshly popped treats.

The teenager said he knew someone who was practicing to be on a game show and asked people to lob trivia questions his way.

As the day wore on, tapping noises from keyboards grew louder and louder as the campers became confident and tweeted their first tweets. I did, too. Follow me @pmckuen.

Heloise and Pamela, 2009 NFPW Conference

The Pantyhose Trick: Got a run in your pantyhose? Don’t throw the garment away. Simply cut off the damaged leg. Do this every time and soon you’ll have a “good” right and left leg. Don them both, and you’ve got a complete pair! (And two layers of tummy control.)

For more than 50 years Heloise has dispensed household hints such as this, but she’s got a laundry basket of advice for journalists as well.

Heloise writes a daily syndicated column, a monthly feature in “Good Housekeeping” magazine and myriad books. She’s a second-generation investigator, the daughter who took over after her mother’s death in 1977. But today’s Heloise isn’t merely rehashing what came before. She’s constantly testing and updating, and addressing new concerns. After all, Mother didn’t have to deal with how to clean cell phones and whether it’s okay to dry clothes in the microwave.

“Our challenge is the same as your challenge,” Heloise said at the 2009 National Federation of Press Women conference, at which she was named Communicator of Achievement. “People rely on us for accurate information.”

Here are a few of Heloise’ Journalism Hints:

* Ask yourself, what does my audience need? When Heloise composed laundry tips for college students, she didn’t go into the nuances of hand-washing and dry cleaning. For them, that’s TMI.

* Do the research. Heloise and her team spent days investigating the difference between a “leaking” iron and a “spitting” iron. They called multiple manufacturers and talked to engineers. And they ironed.

Look for telephone numbers that don’t start with 800—-those tend to be call centers rather than corporate offices, she said.

BTW, an iron reservoir filled with too much water spills over and leaks. An under-heated iron spits rather than steams.

* Check your facts. A reporter once wrote a story about Heloise that contained an error. When later stories contain the same error, as they frequently do, she knows somebody copied without checking.

“It’s your reputation on the line,” she said.