Let’s get down to business…

Okay, so I’ve already written about why you might want to become a writing tutor, as well as a bit of the theory behind writing centers. This is the post you’ve all been waiting for! What exactly does the tutoring process entail, and how can you prepare yourself for your first tutoring session?

First of all, if your school has an orientation session or something similar for beginning writing tutors, pay attention. It’s the best way to familiarize yourself with your school’s procedures and expectations for tutoring. Secondly, I recommend The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors by Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli. I read this before I started tutoring, and it’s pretty comprehensive. Third, try to familiarize yourself with the basics of MLA and APA citation styles. If you’re really ambitious, a basic knowledge of Chicago style is also helpful but not essential.

Once you’re in an actual session, you can think of it as a three-step process: setting the writer at ease, figuring out what to focus on, and leading the writer through an interactive discussion of the paper. When writers first arrive at a session, they may be nervous, especially if this is the first time they have visited the writing center. During this part of the session, you want to put writers at ease while giving them adequate time to fill out any documentation required by the school. This is the time to ask about the professor, the class, and the assignment, but you can also engage in small talk for a few minutes to make the writer more comfortable.

Next, you want to set goals for the session. I usually ask writers if they have any specific concerns about the paper or if there are any areas they particularly want to focus on. Based on their answers and the amount of time we have for a session, we will spend more time on one area of the paper than another.

Now comes the discussion of the paper. At my school, we usually ask the writers if they feel comfortable reading their papers to us. If they don’t mind reading aloud, we listen and interject comments periodically, sometimes directing them to certain areas or having them reread certain sentences. Often, writers will catch sentence errors while they read without the tutor even having to draw their attention to problems. Other issues such as inadequate information or unclear organization or transitions are apparent to the tutor who is listening, even though the ideas may make sense to the writer.

If writers do not want to read the paper aloud, then the tutor reads the paper out loud. Other than that, the process is very similar. Some writers find it beneficial for the tutor to read their papers because then the writers will pick up on colloquial language or awkward phrasing that they would not notice if they were to read their own paper. Find out what the student prefers and go with that.

One technique that is a favorite among writing tutors is silence. By this, I don’t mean that the tutor just sits there in a session saying nothing. Instead, the tutor asks questions that help the writer see how the paper could be improved and then wait to let the writer come up with an answer. Ideally, the tutor will ask questions to allow writers to solve their own problems. In this way, being a tutor can resemble being a therapist. I’ve been known to ask questions such as “How do you feel about your conclusion?” or “How do you think this paragraph can be improved?” At our school, we strive for a non-directive approach so students can take control of their own writing.

Another helpful technique for tutors is modeling. When you model something, you show writers how to fix a specific problem (such as passive voice or sentence fragments) or how to create a certain element of a paper, such as a strong transition. Once you’ve done this for an example in their paper or a hypothetical example, you have them try it on their own. You are there to provide support and assistance if needed, but ideally they will be able to copy the writing technique once they have seen you model it.

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