Some writing center theory

Why do so many colleges have writing centers in the first place? I’ve been doing some reading on this, and it turns out that writing centers have been around since at least the 1930s. (In case you’re wondering where I’m getting my facts from, I’m referencing an essay by Stephen North entitled “The Idea of a Writing Center.” It’s in this book.)  In spite of the fact that the idea of a writing center has existed for a while, sometimes people are still unclear about the purpose of these centers. Writing centers deal with issues of grammar and punctuation, of course, but they also deal with issues of clarity and organization, issues that even gifted writers may not always pick up on their own.

If you’ve been thinking that writing centers are only for people who can’t write, you’ve been missing one of the most important principles of the writer center: it’s for everyone. We don’t make distinctions between people who “can’t write” and people who “can write.” Everyone can write! There are differences between writers’ levels of ability, but at a writing center, we’re not there to make a judgment about someone’s writing. We’re not there to grade it. That’s the professor’s job. We’re there to help the writer to improve. Even experienced writers can benefit from sessions at the writing center. I know several writing tutors who schedule sessions for themselves with other tutors because they know that the process is helpful. I’m currently working on a long paper for one of my senior seminars, and I brought it in to the writing center because I wanted feedback from someone else.

I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my classes, it’s that there are no “right answers” when it comes to writing. There are only papers that communicate with varying degrees of effectiveness. You may have a good paper, but you could always have a better one. And that is the reason writing centers exist: to help each writer reach his or her fullest potential, to write the best paper possible in the amount of time available.

Stephen North says that “in a writing center, the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction.” Writing centers give writers the tools to be better writers. This means that in a particular session, the tutor probably will not have time to address all the typos and awkward sentences and punctuation errors within a paper. The tutor may not even be able to address all the higher order concerns such as the organization, introduction and conclusion. However, if the tutor is able to help the writer learn, say, the principles behind strong thesis statements, or ways to create good transitions, then the session has been successful. As a result of the session, the writer will have a better paper than if he or she had never come into the writing center, and the writer will have another tool in his or her “composition toolbox.”


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