Every Sentence Is a Question

This is a great post that breaks down a really common problem in student writing. It’s written from the perspective of a teacher, but the concepts covered in this post can be helpful for writing tutors and students as well. Check it out! 🙂

The Incompetent Writer

Me, teaching
If you teach Composition, or a general essay-writing class, perhaps you worry that your students don’t always make clear, easy to follow arguments.

Perhaps they hand in essays that often — to put it bluntly — don’t make sense. Their papers may display some interesting ideas; the students may appear to have worked hard and done some real research. Yet when you read those papers, sentence by sentence, you have to stop and scratch your head before you understand the logic of what they are trying to say.

If this is the case, read on: this post is for you.

This is the sixth post in the series: How I Teach College-Level Writing.

The previous posts are here:

  1. The Intro
  2. The Theories
  3. The Diagnosis
  4. Why I Teach Cool
  5. The Essay, The Problem

(Thank you to everyone who has read the posts so far!)

Now, I’d like to…

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The Puzzle of Paper Structure

Figuring out the organization of a paper really is like a puzzle! You’re looking for the connections between ideas that will make the paper coherent and memorable, but sometimes those are difficult to see the first (or second) time around. Some interesting thoughts here 🙂

The importance of being concise

Wordiness is a problem that many people struggle with in their writing. If this applies to you, ask yourself, “Is this really necessary? Am I just phrasing my sentence this way because I think it makes me sound intelligent?” If you are a writing tutor who is working with a wordy paper, try to help the writer to think about these questions as well. Another pair of eyes can often spot wordiness more quickly than the writer can.

There are certain grammatical constructions that lend themselves to wordiness. For example, writing in passive voice or excessively using “to be” verbs can increase the length of the sentence, but decrease the linguistic impact. As Strunk and White write in The Elements of Style:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

It can be difficult to follow this advice because sometimes it seems like teachers formulate assignments that encourage students to add “fluff” on order to meet a word or page count. It’s important to remember that it is the content of the paper that really matters. If your paper isn’t meeting the word count, you need to take a close look at it. Are you explaining your points clearly? Could you elaborate on any of your content to increase the reader’s understanding? Do you need more information in order to complete the assignment adequately? Asking these questions will help you to write a paper that is meaty, not wordy.

The art of persuasion

Let’s talk about how to write a persuasive paper. This is a common assignment for first year college students, but sometimes writers are not sure how to approach this type of paper. Here are some tips for writing/revising persuasive papers:

First, pick a side. It is essential to know what you are trying to persuade your reader to believe and why. It’s good if your opinion is somewhat controversial; the point of a persuasive paper is not to reiterate an opinion that everyone believes.

It’s also important to watch your tone. You want to be sure of yourself, but not overly argumentative. Have your ideal audience in mind and write (or revise) in ways that will appeal to this audience. This can be a balancing act: you don’t want to turn your readers off with an abrasive or condescending tone, but you also don’t want to sound too tentative. Many writers hedge their opinions with phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion,” but you should avoid these. Your audience knows your paper expresses your opinion; what you need to do is give them the reasons you think the way that you do on the subject.

To do this, you must back up your points with creditable facts. You may have personal experience that relates to the topic of your paper, but remember that you cannot base a persuasive paper on personal anecdotes. While it may sometimes be appropriate to include this element, your paper needs a solid foundation based on facts and information from people who are experts in the topic. Remember that you are writing to an audience who is either undecided or disagrees with you entirely. You need to anticipate the reasons that someone could disagree with you and answer their concerns. Professors often refer to this process as “including counterarguments.” It’s important to do this in order to create a persuasive paper.

Try to put yourself in the audience’s position and think “What would I find persuasive if I held the opposite point of view?” It’s helpful to find someone (such as a writing tutor) to play devil’s advocate. As the writer, it can be difficult for you to catch faulty logic or facts that aren’t sufficiently persuasive, but having someone question you and take the opposing side can help reveal these gaps.

As a tutor, keeping this points in mind will be helpful when working with a persuasive paper. Playing devil’s advocate can help writers see when they are using fuzzy logic or including insufficient support for their points. Tutors can also help writers to develop and maintain an appropriate tone for the paper.

Metaphors for Writing

Sometimes I’ve found the clearest way to explain an element of the writing process is through a metaphor. Here are a few that I’ve found particularly helpful:

Many writers struggle with transitions—it can be tricky to figure out exactly what a transition is! It can be helpful to think of a transition as a road sign. It reminds you where you are and helps you figure out where you’re going. That’s what a good transition should do.

Another way to visualize transitions is to think of them as “hooks” instead. (One of my English professors always describes transitions this way). In the first sentence of a new paragraph, you want to “hook” on to a word, phrase, or idea from the previous paragraph, so the reader can see how they are connected. Good transitions make it clear why writers chose to organize their papers in the way that they did. The connection and flow between ideas should be natural, almost effortless. Thinking of transitions as hooks can help a writer to visualize this more clearly.

Along with transitions, writers also tend to struggle with the problem of “dropped” quotations. Ideally, writers will “frame” a quotation or a paraphrase of another writer’s words with their own words and ideas, but sometimes this doesn’t happen. This can give the paper a choppy feel and can overwhelm the writer’s voice. A metaphor that I like to use in this situation is that of a peanut butter sandwich.

Just like a sandwich has two pieces of bread with filling in the middle, a paragraph should have the writer’s own thoughts at the beginning and end—no open faced sandwich. You don’t want too many quotations in a paragraph, because just like too much peanut butter makes it difficult to chew and swallow a sandwich, too many quotations make it difficult to digest a paper’s ideas.

If you have a metaphor about writing that you’ve found helpful, feel free to share it in the comments! I’m always looking for new metaphors to help explain concepts to the students I work with at my school’s writing center.

Citation styles–A guide for the perplexed

Citations… everyone’s favorite part of a research paper, am I right?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer or a writing tutor, it’s important to be familiar with the appropriate citation style when you’re working with a research paper. If a professor has specified a particular citation style in an assignment, make sure that the paper uses that style! Otherwise, stick with the style that feels most comfortable for the writer.

Here’s a brief summary of the differences between the major citation styles:

APA style is very date-focused. For this reason, it’s often used in the sciences because the date a work was published is more relevant to these disciplines than to the humanities. The basic form of APA in-text citations is Author (date) when the reference is woven into the sentence or (Author, date) when the reference is at the end of the sentence. When referencing more than one publication, the correct form at the end of a sentence would be (Author, date; Author & Author, date). Only use the author’s last name and use semicolons to separate the works. An “&” sign is used instead of the word “and” in a parenthetical citation to link multiple authors of the same work, but if you were to use the authors’ names in the main part of the sentence–for example, “Smith and Browning (2000) conducted a study”–you would use the word “and.”APA only requires page numbers when you are using an exact quotation from a work, and in that case they are inserted in the parenthesis like this: (Author, date, p. 1). The basic form for a book in the reference list is Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Date). Title of book: Subtitle of book. Location: Publisher. Only capitalize the first word of a book title and the first word of the subtitle; everything else in the title is lowercase. Only titles of journals are in title case (i.e., with the “important words” capitalized). Obviously, there is far more to APA style than I can summarize in a paragraph, so I would recommend using a resource such as the APA Publication Manual. More online info can be found at apastyle.org or the Purdue OWL website.

MLA style is more people-focused than APA (which explains why it is favored by the humanities). MLA uses the author’s complete name the first time it appears in the body of the paper (parenthetical citations don’t count) and just the last name after that. MLA also requires page numbers for summaries and paraphrases as well as direct quotes. A typical MLA in-text citation would include the author’s name woven into the sentence and the page number in parenthesis afterward; alternately, at the end of the sentence it would look like (Author date). A reference in the Works Cited for a book would look like this: Author, Firstname. Title of Book: Subtitle of Book. Location: Publisher, year. Medium of Publication. For more information on MLA style, consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or online sources such as the Purdue OWL.

Chicago is less common than the MLA or APA styles, but it is often used by history majors. Some people say that Chicago style combines elements of both APA and MLA in a flexible way, but I’m not as familiar with this citation style. However, I do know that in a paper Chicago will have footnotes and a bibliography or end notes and a bibliography, but no parenthetical citations. The bibliography is in alphabetical order and the end/footnotes are numbered in the order of their appearance in the paper. For more information on Chicago Style, try looking in The Chicago Manual of Style (or the website).

Citation-making websites such as EasyBib or BibMe can be useful tools for writers who are working on reference lists/works cited/bibliographies. However, it is important to be familiar enough with the citation style you are using that you can catch any errors (such as errors in capitalization, etc.) that may creep in. Make sure that the information is accurate, and remember that while these cites may be useful  tools, it is ultimately the writer’s job to make sure that citations are correct.

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.

Helping writers find their voice

One of our goals as writing tutors should be to help writers find their voice. This terminology can be off-putting for those in the sciences, but in reality the concept of voice is just as important for those writing in the technical disciplines as it is for those in the humanities. When we talk about “voice,” we’re talking about an appropriate tone that engages the reader. According to Peter Elbow (a composition theorist who’s written a ton about voice and other related issues), a genuine voice “is the sound of a meaning resonating because the individual consciousness of the writer is somehow behind or in tune with or in participation with that meaning.” Basically, what this means is that when a writer is engaged with the topic, he or she will be able to write with passion and understanding. In Elbow’s view, finding an authentic voice enables a writer to write with power.

This can seem like a difficult task, especially if the topic is something that doesn’t seem to lend itself to that level of engagement. Perhaps the topic is dry, or the voice that you’re writing in isn’t appropriate for the context you’re writing for. Fear not! Sometimes the best solution to this kind of problem is to just write. Don’t get caught up in worrying about whether the things you’re writing are grammatically correct or will convince someone else. Write to discover what you think. This process (freewriting) can be incredibly freeing. Once you’ve done this, use that information to revise what you have. Maybe you’ll be able to approach the topic in a new way. Maybe you’ll be able to figure out what kind of argument will be most convincing to your audience. Find the voice that is appropriate for the situation and run with it.

Okay, you may be thinking, that’s great, but how does knowing all this about voice help me in a tutoring session? If students are having difficulty writing in their true voices, you will be able to see this in their writing. Often, this will manifest itself in either of two extremes: too casual or too stilted. In either case, you can share tips about freewriting. In the case of someone whose writing is too casual, you can encourage him or her to keep the engagement and comfort with the topic, but modulate the language to make it appropriate for the situation. Some students openly acknowledge that their difficulty is writing too much like they speak. Many times in these situations, it is helpful to think of the desired audience and write for them. In the case of an academic essay, the audience is composed of professors and scholars, so it is often helpful to think about ways to cultivate the appropriately formal tone and solid base of evidence this audience demands.

In the case of an overly formal, stilted tone, (the kind of language Ken Macrorie calls “Engfish” because it is a form of language twisted to fit students’ expectations for assigned writing), students need to be reconnected with a more natural voice. Professors don’t like essays that have convoluted sentence structures and a lack of student engagement. To fix this, students need to become more relaxed and in touch with their authentic voice. Having then rephrase sentences in their own words during a session can be helpful because it helps them connect with their voice while letting you make sure that it doesn’t become too casual.

Voice is especially important in a persuasive essay because if you don’t write with an appropriate voice, your audience won’t be convinced. In a session, you may encounter persuasive essays that lack an appropriate voice. Sometimes the voice is tentative or disengaged, while other times the voice is combative or off-putting. In the case of tentative writers, finding their voice can be empowering. Sometimes it’s helpful to explain to these types of writers that they don’t need to qualify every statement with phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion.” We know they think it, because otherwise they wouldn’t be writing it. Instead of qualifying their opinion, they should back them up with evidence and show their engagement with the topic. Writers with an overly combative tone need to learn to moderate their opinions by thinking about their audiences and the way these audiences will receive the essay. This doesn’t mean they are being disingenuous or writing with a “fake” voice; it just means that they are discovering the voice that is right for the situation. Writers can have many real, genuine, voices, and as a writing tutor it is your responsibility to help them find the best voice for each assignment.

Why should I be a writing tutor?

First of all, it’s a really rewarding experience to know that you are helping writers to reach their fullest potential. Tutoring is a really interactive process, and as a tutor, you will often have the privilege of watching something “click” in a writer’s mind. Even when you are working long shifts, knowing that you have enabled a writer to discover ways to improve his or her writing makes it all worth it. You have an opportunity to work with writers at all levels to bring out the best in them. The goal of a writing tutor is to model techniques that will help the writer be more effective in the composition process, as well as to provide another pair of eyes to catch mistakes in grammar, organization, or logic. And sometimes, you’ll learn things too. Besides the knowledge that you absorb through osmosis when reading papers, you will often learn more about the variety of techniques for composition as writers share stories about the way they write and revise.

Aside from the positive feeling that come from helping other people, working as a writing tutor looks really good on your resume. Employers are always looking for people with strong writing skills, and working as a writing tutor demonstrates not only that you have these skills, but also that you are able to use these skills to help others communicate more effectively. For me, working at my college’s writing center has helped me to gain some much-needed experience in a job that’s related to my chosen field, but communication and writing skills are beneficial for almost any profession.

Why else should you be a writing tutor? Because it’s fun. Seriously. You will have sessions that are less than stellar, but overall, you will learn and grow. When you’re working with writers who cares about their work and want to get the most possible out of a session, you will find it’s a really enjoyable experience. If you’re thinking about going into tutoring, I say go for it! It’s okay if you’re not 100% confident. If you really care about helping your fellow students and are willing to give it your best, you’ll do a fine job.

Helpful Terms

Here are some terms that it is useful to know as a writing tutor. You should be able to recognize these terms when you see them in written feedback from professors or in the prompt for the assignment, and you should be able to define them for writers when needed.

Active voice: Places the emphasis on the person who is doing the action, rather than the object that is being acted on. Usually preferred by professors. Example: “The children ate the candy.” Also see Passive voice.

Adjective: “a word that describes a noun or a pronoun.”

Adverb: “a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree.” Many adverbs end in “ly,” so that can be an easy way to identify them.

Conjunction: “a word that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words.” Examples include “and,” “but,” “or,” etc.

Comma splice: Joining two sentences with a comma but not a conjunction. To correct this, you can replace the comma with a period or semicolon, or you can add a conjunction.

Direct object:  “a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase which indicates the person or thing that receives the action of a verb.”

Dropped quotation: A quotation that has been introduced suddenly into a paper with no context. To correct this, you can incorporate phrases from the quotation into your sentence structure, use a Signal phrase, or Paraphrase.

Inclusive language: Language that includes and affirms all people, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. It also avoids stereotypes. A common issue is failing to use gender-neutral language; don’t use “he” to refer to people in general. Instead, use “he or she” or make it plural to avoid the problem. Other words and phrases to avoid: “mankind” or “all men” when referring to humanity.

Noun: “a word that is the name of something (such as a person, animal, place, thing, quality, idea, or action).”

Parallel structure: Using the same types of grammatical units in a list. Example: “I like going to the beach, playing the violin, and eating Mexican food” not “I like going to the beach, playing the violin, and Mexican food.”

Paraphrase: The action of restating someone else’s ideas in your own words. Avoid using the same sentence structure as the original, and make sure to give credit to the original author.

Passive voice: Places the emphasis on the action or the object being acted upon rather than on the person who is doing the action. Example: “The candy was eaten by the children.” Try to avoid this construction in most circumstances. Also see Active voice.

Past tense: “a verb tense that is used to refer to the past.” Example: “Smith wrote.” Not to be confused with Passive voice.

Present tense: “a verb tense that is used to refer to the present.” Example: “Smith writes.”

Pronoun: A word such as “it,” “she,” or “we,” used to replace a noun or noun phrase.

Quote: The action of including someone else’s exact words in a paper. Quotations should always be enclosed in quotation marks. Only quote when someone expresses something so well that you cannot possibly put it better, or if you need to represent an opposing view accurately. Otherwise, Paraphrase.

Signal phrase: Phrases such as “According to Smith” or “As Rogers notes” which indicate you are going to introduce someone else’s words into your paper. See also Dropped quotation.

Subject/verb disagreement: When the subject of a sentence is plural but the verb is referring to a singular noun, or when the subject of the sentence is singular but the verb is referring to a plural noun. This is incorrect and should be avoided.

Summarize: The action of “using few words to give the most important information about something.” Similar to Paraphrasing but fits more information into less space.

Topic sentence: A sentence in a paragraph (usually the first sentence) which lets the reader know what the main point of the paragraph will be.

Transitions: Transitions from one idea, paragraph, or section, to another. The key to good transitions is showing the reader how your ideas are logically connected. An alternate way of thinking about transitions is that they “hook” onto some previous word, phrase, or idea to connect two paragraphs or sections.

Verb: “a word … that expresses an action, an occurrence, or a state of being.”