Help a new writing tutor.
April 14, 2005 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Any advice for a new writing tutor?
posted by Doug to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I’m the new writing tutor at my school. Besides being woefully incompetent, I’ve received very little training or resources. I’m looking for two things: advice for a writing tutor, and any resources (handouts, worksheets, etc.) that can be found online. The handouts I’ve been given were clearly mimeographed, and are all but unreadable.

I’ve been told the students I’ll be working with will have a wide range of needs, including help with basic grammar, and more advanced concepts like creating a proper thesis statement.
posted by Doug at 12:01 PM on April 14, 2005

You might want to take a look at some of the documentation available at a writing center's web site, like Purdue University's Online Writing lab, they have some great handouts.
posted by gnat at 12:14 PM on April 14, 2005

Handouts here, and here.

I went to the writing lab all the time as an undergrad and found it extremely valuable. I was told that the students who went to the writing lab were [too] often the students who already wrote fairly well and less often those who really had problems. For me going to the writing lab was the difference between an A and a higher A, os it was definitely true in my case. I'm sure this varies by school, though.

The most helpful thing I remember a tutour ever doing is saying "Ok, what's the purpose of this paragraph in supporting your thesis" and after I answered going through each sentence and saying "How does this sentence help to accomplish that purpose?" and "How could the sentence do that more effectively?" paragraph by paragraph. What was helpful about this was that he didn't tell me how to change the paper, he listened to what I was trying to do (in other words "what's the purpose" wasn't code for "is this relevant?" but more about making my purpose explicit (because there generally was a purpose) so I could think about how to pursue it more effectively.).

I thought the writing lab was great. I'm only sorry that were I teach now the "writing centre" is seen as a sort of "remedial help" kind of thing and is mildly stigmatized and not well staffed.
posted by duck at 12:15 PM on April 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

This is the Writing Center I work at ... our online guides section is pretty general, though. It's the Writing Center for two departments, one of which is largely grad students in a humanities-ish discipline (library science; we use APA citation mostly) and one of which is undergrads doing technical writing (engineering students), so our online resources are vague because they are trying to cover both bases.

Are you the tutor for one department in particular? Or is it a high school? What is the citation style that is most likely to be used? I have a bunch of APA links I could send you, but you can find them yourself as well, I'm sure.
I only use books for the citation stuff and for the non-native English speakers. Sometimes I get questions on things like the use of the versus a, which I only know intuitively, so I have a couple of book recommendations if you think you'll have questions like that.

My job may be different since it's mostly grad students and I don't know what your audience is, but feel free to email me with questions.
posted by librarina at 12:18 PM on April 14, 2005

Just to add some perspective as both a former tutor and a teacher that sends students to the writing lab -- don't fall into the trap of just proofreading the papers. Students learn nothing that way. Try to identify frequent grammatical problems, show the student how to spot and correct them, and then get them to correct their own paper with your guidance. Also, make sure you look at and understand their assignment. My students who have had bad experiences with Writing Centers complain that they were told to do a paper a certain way, which unfortunately was not consistent with the professor's requirements. I wouldn't give advice on brainstorming or content unless I see, and understand, the actual assignment prompt, and I usually tried to restrict myself to issues of grammar, support, and clarity.

Also, the best advice I got is to be realistic about the amount of help you can provide. You probably can't get a student to turn a D paper into an A, not unless you rewrite the paper yourself (don't do that). Your realistic goal is probably an increase in one grade level.
posted by bibliowench at 12:32 PM on April 14, 2005

Yes, exactly what bibliowench said about instructors' requirements. I rarely read for anything other than internal consistency, explanation of thesis and arguments in support, etc. And I always ask to read the assignment description, and usually ask more questions about what (the student thinks) it entails.
posted by librarina at 12:45 PM on April 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

I've done this sort of thing on a freelance basis, and I learned to draw a pretty clear distinction between students who really wanted to improve their writing or learn something... and those who just wanted to get an acceptable grade on their paper and be done with it. It's the difference between real, actual learning and simply satisfying the requirments. If a student wants one of these things and you're trying to provide the other, you'll be beating your head against the wall.
posted by Clay201 at 12:58 PM on April 14, 2005

Heh, I was woefully incompetent when I first became a writing tutor too, so i feel your pain...(almost all the tutoring I've done has dealt with organization and argumentation, fwiw.)

One thing I've found incredibly helpful is to start out by asking the student to go through and draw lines breaking their paper up into an introduction, body, and conclusion, then to underline the thesis statement in the introduction, the most important sentence in the conclusion, and the topic sentence of each chunk of the body. I tell them that if their organization and argumentation are sound, I should be able to get the gist of their entire argument simply by reading the underlined sentences in sequence. This exercise is partially to help them figure out for themselves where they haven't been clear, and partially to help give me an idea what they think they are arguing.

When I started tutoring it was hard for me not to just read the whole paper in silence and then bust out with a big list of comments at the end. I've found it works better to constantly ask them questions as you move through the paper (as duck said). If something seems out of place, or doesn't relate to their thesis statement, bring it up as soon as you notice it and ask them to explain it. The more you can get people to talk about what they've written, the greater the chance they'll spontaneously spit out some insightful point that ties their whole argument together (or at least helps them out somewhat). Sometimes I even take notes on what they say - people can be more articulate in spontaneous speech than highly structured text.

Oh, and I second bibliowench's "be realistic" advice. The kind of criticisms I give will often depend on whether the paper is due in a week or in a day, and on where the person seems to be at emotionally.

Hope that helps!
posted by introcosm at 2:47 PM on April 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

people can be more articulate in spontaneous speech than highly structured text.

That reminds me...another useful thing they used to do was say "What do you mean here?" and then when I explained it they would say "Oh that's really interesting and much clearer. Why don't you explain it that way?"
posted by duck at 3:20 PM on April 14, 2005

With my grad students who get tied up in knots I sometimes ask them to read parts of their papers out loud. Sometimes hearing their own voice read an unintelligible sentence or wandering paragraph cuts to the chase a lot faster than me trying to explain why it doesn't make sense to me.
posted by Rumple at 4:07 PM on April 14, 2005

Oh, and we use this online writing guide a fair bit.
posted by Rumple at 4:10 PM on April 14, 2005

With my grad students who get tied up in knots I sometimes ask them to read parts of their papers out loud. Sometimes hearing their own voice read an unintelligible sentence or wandering paragraph cuts to the chase a lot faster than me trying to explain why it doesn't make sense to me.

OOH! that was really helpful, too.

God, I wish I could pick up this conference paper I'm writning and go into my undergrad writing lab.
posted by duck at 4:18 PM on April 14, 2005

While many of these are somewhat specific to journalism, Roy Peter Clark's 50 Writing Tools at Poynter Online are kind of a gold mine. You may find some good stuff on their Writing/Editing index as well. (Disclaimer: Used to work there.)
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:01 PM on April 14, 2005

From my advisor during undergrad I learned a technique that I found invaluable for helping my students. If they bring me anything that doesn't really go anywhere or needs structural help, I have them outline the paper after they've written it. Prepatory outlines are fairly useless most of the time (for me anyway), but once I have my mess down on paper, outlining what I've got really puts me on a good path. It tends to give me more ideas and a chance at writing something with some actual structure.

When I was a writing consultant (heh) in college, we had a really good book called The St. Martin Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. There appears to be a Bedford version too, though I don't know anything about it.

Above all, think of yourself as a professional and don't let people walk all over you. They'll love you for it.
posted by ontic at 5:08 PM on April 14, 2005

My advice is: people want rules they can remember.

I did a lot of writing tutoring in college and I think I frustrated a few students by correcting their work, and showing them the correction, but being unable to generalize the rule they needed to learn for next time.

People who don't "get" grammar feel really lost in a world full of people who can use it correctly without thinking about it. They need hard-and-fast rules to remember, and mneumonics for helping them remember.

I saw a few people really struggle with grammar, finding it illogical and inconsistent. They had all given up on just grasping the logic of it, because let's face it: grammar can be quite arbitrary. Their attitude was "I give up! I don't understand why, just tell me what the rule is."
posted by scarabic at 5:22 PM on April 14, 2005

While reading out loud can reveal egregious flaws, I would caution against giving people the impression that they should write as they speak. A lot of the stuff we speak is incredibly inadequate crud barely held together by pacing, emphasis, gesture... I've seen some people whose writing looked like they'd literally talked into a tape recorder and transcribed it. That can be murder.
posted by scarabic at 5:26 PM on April 14, 2005

Thank you all so much. You guys have exceeded my expectations once again. I'm sure I'll be looking back to this thread quite often. Wonderful stuff.
posted by Doug at 6:15 PM on April 14, 2005

I worked 4 years in a Writing Center here. When I started, it had only been open for a year, so we sort of grew up together.

Some of my more interesting appointments as a peer tutor were with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. You had to explain to them, in simple terms, not only how they're expressing their ideas in a difficult manner, but how the irrational nature of the English language had once again defeated their attempts at sounding out an idea.

In each of my tutoring sessions, I always approached it in a lazy manner, being a college student myself, and all. I would begin reading the paper, and immediately find things that I felt could be corrected. Rather than read the whole thing through, I'd start talking with the student about the issues I was encountering, keeping about 75% of my attention on the student, and 25% on the paper (Ok, recall I'm a college student at the time. If the student I was tutoring happened to be a "hottie", those percentages were adjusted accordingly).

I've since looked back at that methodology and realized that I had unconsciously done the right thing (addressing issues as I encountered them -- not the stuff about the cute girls). By discussing the issues as I came to them, we progressed through the paper slowly, and the ideas that the student was trying to communicate in the paper ended up being explained to me with much greater care, with a better grasp of the vocabulary involved, and with much more enthusiasm. On more than one occasion, I'd tape-record the session, and hand the tape to the student afterward so that he or she could realize for him or herself the kind of issues that belong in the paper, rather than related to some guy working off his tuition costs in a basement office.

Here are some papers some of my peers wrote. Unfortunately, I'm not credited with any of the papers transcribed for the web site (although my technical credit for this paper has apparently been mislaid). I hope that it helps you a little more, Doug.
posted by thanotopsis at 11:24 PM on April 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Writer's Inc. books are incredibly helpful. They are meant for high school students, but their reach extends far beyond that. It has a fabulous list of "rules" as scarabic mentions above. I was an English major and used this quite frequently. It's great for basics, refreshers, or instruction. The author also has some books more specifically for college students, although I'm not familiar with any of them.
posted by crapulent at 7:32 AM on April 15, 2005

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