You may think of writing as a lonely activity, something to work at in a hushed, half-lit library carrel. Or you may think of writing merely as a matter of correctness, of getting all the commas in just the right places. Or you may suffer from writing anxiety and feel unable to produce the first word, let alone the first page. These writing challenges, and many others, can be addressed in a meeting with a writing tutor. Tutoring has the reputation of being remedial, of serving students with limited writing experience. But the writing tutorial can benefit all writers—freshman, graduate, or faculty—and represents a significant learning opportunity.
Depending on your institution, tutorials may take place in a writing center, in a residential dormitory, or at the library. Writing tutors may be peer tutors, students like you, or graduate students or professional tutors with PhDs. Writing tutors are keen readers who love to talk through a writer’s choices and deliberate the effects of everything from diction to argument structure. Their services are usually available to you free of charge.
Making the most of a tutoring session
Some schools will advertise their tutors’ areas of specialization and allow you to make appointments to meet with specific tutors. If you’re working on a chemistry lab report, for example, you may feel more comfortable meeting with a senior chemistry major. Some schools also offer multimedia tutoring because composition happens across so many media and modes. You may be able to make an appointment with an oral communication tutor to draft the conclusion of a speech or with a multimedia tutor to reorganize a slide deck.
But most writing tutors are generalists who welcome students from all disciplines who are composing in any genre and at any stage in their process. For example, if you’re not sure what your assignment prompt is asking for, you could bring it in to discuss with the tutor. If you haven’t been able to transform a sheath of notes into a draft, you could work with the tutor on brainstorming a working thesis or on generating a preliminary outline. And of course, if you have a complete draft, you and the tutor might talk about ways to revise and strengthen it.
There is one thing tutors will not do for you: line-edit your writing. That is because excessive collaboration violates university honor codes. And you will learn much less if the tutors do the hard work of writing for you.
Instead, tutors will explain a particular writing technique to you—say, parallelism and why it can make your sentences more logical—and then revise a sentence to demonstrate the technique to you. Thereafter, the tutor will usually ask you to apply the technique to your writing. You must take responsibility for your work.
Ideally, you will come to your tutoring appointment with a specific, concrete goal in mind, one that is tailored to the length of the tutoring session. If you have just 30 minutes, you might be able to make it through a cover letter, but you and the tutor won’t be able to discuss an entire ten-page paper. Instead, you might be able to discuss a draft of its introduction and thesis statement. If you have been able to make a 60 minute appointment, however, you may be able to summarize out loud the argument of the ten-page paper and direct the tutor to the issues that you think need the most attention (such as your transitions, presentation of evidence, or acknowledgment of the counterargument, among many others).
Most tutoring sessions will open with a discussion of your goals; together with the tutor, you will decide on an achievable agenda for the session, given its time constraints. Then you will move into a combination of reading, writing, and talking about your writing, which will vary from center to center and tutor to tutor. Often the best sessions are those in which you talk more than the tutor does because you will discover new ways to put your ideas into words. As the session comes to a close, you should make a plan for what you need to do to finish your project.
How the writing tutorial contributes to your learning
Colleges and Universities support writing tutors for a number of reasons, but among the most important is this one: the writing tutorial provides an important alternative to the traditional student-teacher relationship. When conferencing with your instructor, you may be inclined to take every suggestion he makes because you are afraid that if you don’t, your grade will suffer. By contrast, when you conference with a tutor, you set the agenda: the appointment time, the learning goals, and the direction of the conversation. There is more parity in the discussion than there would be with your instructor. You may know, for example, as much about the content as the tutor does. Meanwhile the tutor’s objective feedback will shed new light on your writing. You may think you have made your point clearly and thoroughly, but the tutor will tell you how and why you have succeeded or failed, and share expert strategies to improve your writing process. In the writing tutorial, you learn from a writing coach without the threat of judgment.
Why meet with a writing tutor? Because you will improve the writing in question, take away writing techniques you can apply to future assignments, and begin to see writing as an exciting process of discovery and meaning making.
Learn important collaborative and team-building skills and provide useful critiques of your peers' documents.
Contrary to the myth of the isolated author in the garret, successful writers do not work in isolation. Writers collaborate extensively. Writers develop their best ideas by discussing issues with colleagues, by researching others' ideas, and by exchanging comments about one another's documents.
Consider these suggestions when critiquing documents in group situations.
In a writing course you have an excellent opportunity to have your work read and evaluated by your peers. Rather than merely imagine how a potential audience might respond to your work, you can meet with classmates and discuss your ideas for writing projects or evaluate drafts.
Below are some common questions to consider when reviewing a peer's paper as well as when reviewing feedback from peers:
- In what ways have you fulfilled the assignment requirements in terms of purpose, length, audience, required/appropriate sources, appropriate persona/tone, and rhetorical stance?
- What makes your thesis arguable, controversial, and/or insightful?
- How does your thesis reflect your paper's purpose?
- How have you advanced your thesis through convincing and compelling ideas?
- How does each paragraph—along with all the sentences it contains—support your main idea?
Follow these recommendations for providing useful feedback on peers' writing.
People are often shy about responding to others' writing. Because they are not professional writers or English professors, some people aren't sure of how to provide helpful feedback. This seems particularly true of inexperienced writers, who sometimes equate writing well with grammatically correct writing.
Develop a "thick skin" and learn how to distinguish between useful and useless criticism.
Responding to your own or someone else's writing is a complex, subjective process. Evaluating your work, your peers' work, and published writing can be extraordinarily difficult. Unlike a math question that has a single correct answer, the criteria for excellence in writing vary according to your communication situation.
So there is this student who has just written a draft for one of the projects assigned to him in his composition class. He is walking to class with a copy of the draft in his hand, knowing that today the instructor has an in-class peer review session planned, and his stomach drops.
He begins more and more to think about the prospect of his own peers reading his work and becomes anxious. He starts thinking that perhaps today is the perfect time to take one of those “free” days that each student gets for absences. He thinks, This isn’t a “real” class, anyway—I’m not going to miss anything . . . . Why is my instructor making me share my writing with people I just met a few weeks ago?