Founded in 1790, the Royal Literary Fund (RLF) offers aid to writers in financial distress. Its beneficiaries have included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mervyn Peake, and Dylan Thomas. One of the Fund’s major donors was A  A Milne, who left the rights to Winnie the Pooh to the RLF in his will.

Since 2001, the Fund has used part of this income to encourage writers to use their talents for social good. One of these education programmes is a fellowship scheme that places writers in universities to help students develop their essay writing skills through one-on-one sessions. Lucy Moore, who is in her second year as an RLF Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, shares her experience of the scheme.

‘This is the third year, and my second, of the Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the School of Advanced Study. I began the year addressing new students in late September. I did this last year, too, but without much idea of what either they or I could expect in our sessions; this year I think I communicated it better and noted that several people came to see me, right through the year, on the basis of having remembered that initial introduction.

‘During the year, I gave 75 tutorials to 40 students, over half of whom were doing research degrees. Well over half were mature students over 30. Just over half came for one session, and the rest varied between two and six over the year. Three students last year came for more than six sessions. In 2017–18, I saw 36 students in 80 sessions.

‘This year it has been harder generally to characterise the students I saw. I had more native English speakers than last year, 55% as opposed to 31%. Having not expected any law students on the grounds that ‘legal’ English is sui generis, I found I had six this year, double last year, though all except one were non-native English speakers. There were markedly more history students from the IHR, including my first Garden History students.

‘Working virtually was in greater demand. One student with whom I worked closely last year continued her sessions from her fieldwork placement in Poland. Two others requested that we work long-distance and in both cases it worked quite well with a mixture of email and Whatsapp. The concern is that you might end up just copy-editing a chapter of their work and scanning it back to them—and there are students who would like this service!—but in these cases I felt the desire for advice on how to improve was genuine and was pleased to be able to help in this way.’

‘Two case studies provide illustrations of the effectiveness of the RLF provision. Student A, a native English speaker, came for one session as she embarked on her doctoral thesis, feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead and seeking help with organisation of material and time. She said that she was intimidated by the scale of the work required of her. I rhapsodised about index cards for organising research. We also discussed techniques for demystifying the process: analysing what needed doing first before writing anything, spending enough time between research and writing to prepare and organise her thoughts, breaking the word count down into paragraphs inside sections inside chapters like Russian dolls. She left upbeat, cheerful, and reassured.

‘Student B, working in her second language, came for three sessions over two terms. She is working on her doctoral thesis and her discipline requires quite technical, theoretical, self-referential academic language. Her writing difficulties derive (in the main) from translating into English her original long, complex sentences and passive verb structure. In this first session, we read her work aloud and just tried to work out what she actually wanted to say when we got entangled in overlong, over complicated sentences. In the second session, a few months later, I was impressed to see that although Student B still wanted help fine-tuning her English, she was getting better at spotting mistakes. Her third and final session, a couple of weeks later, saw Student B and I again discussing ways to make her English clearer and simpler but also talking, for the first time, about content and context—how to give the general reader enough background information, for example, and giving facts and ideas a proper narrative flow. It was exciting to see her grow in confidence over the sessions and develop her editorial thinking from the technical to the thematic.

‘Overall it has been a positive and productive year. As far as I can tell, the SAS Fellowship is not one of the busier placements, but the students I have seen have impressed me once again with their passion for their work and their desire to improve it. It has been a real privilege to try and help them achieve their aims.’

Lucy Moore’s books are narrative nonfiction, historical and broadly biographical. The Thieves’ Opera: the lives and times of Jonathan Wild, thief-taker, and Jack Sheppard, house-breaker, her first book, was a double biography of two 18th-century villains. Her most recent, Nijinsky: a life, profiled the legendary Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer.