At my writing center, we encourage people to come in at any stage of the writing process, whether they are brainstorming ideas or polishing a final draft. Recognizing what stage writers are at is the first step to helping them move forward. According to the book Concepts in Composition, writing can be thought of as a three-step process: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. Prewriting involves activities like brainstorming (sharing ideas freely), clustering (creating a written list of ideas, using lines to connect concepts, and building out from the center of the page), and freewriting (writing nonstop without self-editing or inhibition to get ideas out on a page). Rewriting is the process of revision and editing, and writing—well, that’s pretty self-explanatory.
A typical session with someone in the prewriting stage will often involve bouncing possible ideas around and trying to ask insightful questions that will help them to make connections and get their creative processes in motion. The session might also involve discussing the nature of the assignment. Sometimes people just need to feel sure that they understand what their professors are asking of them before they can start generating ideas. A session focused on rewriting may focus on higher level concerns such as organization, clarity, or thesis statement, or lower level concerns like sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. A session with someone who is in the process of writing will often combine elements from both of these. People seem to come to writing centers most often during the revision stage, but as a tutor, you will get papers in all states.
It’s important for tutors to remember that writing is a recursive process. Basically, what that means is that instead of being a linear, step-by-step process, the writing process can double back on itself and jump around. Someone may come in with a paper that is a complete first draft, but you end up brainstorming for most of the session. It’s also possible that someone will come in with a partial draft, and instead of talking about how to expand it, you will end up focusing on paragraph development in the pages that are already there. Someone may come in with a “final” draft that needs a major organizational overhaul, including the deletion of several paragraphs. That’s okay. It’s your job as a tutor to be flexible and go with the flow, while also bringing people’s attention to the areas that could be improved. Sometimes you need to go back a step or two in order to go forward.