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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

So You Think You Can Write, or How to Consult Confident Writers

           “Oh, you work at the writing center? I've never been there, because I don’t really need anyone to edit my papers, and I pretty much know how to write already.” We've all heard something along those lines, haven’t we? There seems to be this idea floating around everywhere that you only need the writing center if you don’t know how to write, which we all know isn't true. Nevertheless, this idea is the reason why we rarely see confident writers at the writing center.
            Okay, but what exactly is a confident writer? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s define a confident writer as someone who is comfortable and familiar with the writing process, and who is capable of writing an essay, lab report, personal statement, or whatever without the aid of the writing center. These students are the ones who, because they’re happy with the grades they’re getting, don’t feel the need to come to the writing center for “help.”
Also, I think that we can separate these confident writers into two groups. The first group is those writers who only come in to the writing center because they have to, or their professor is offering extra credit for coming in. At our writing center, we see a lot of writers who fall into this group. Five minutes into their 45 minute consultation and they’ve already mentally checked out. The second group of confident writers has grown out of their original prejudice against the writing center. These students probably started out in the first group, but they’ve discovered that the writing center really has something to offer and they've turned into repeat customers.
            So this presents an interesting question. What can we, as writing consultants, do to make sure that confident writers benefit from their sessions at the writing center? First of all, we need to think about redefining our role within the consultation. More often than not, a confident writer isn’t looking for advice about grammar and mechanics, but rather higher-order concerns such as clear construction of an argument. This changes the dynamic within the consultation so that we need to view ourselves as readers or members of the audience rather than writing “experts.” In the nearly two years that have passed since I became a writing consultant, I've read writing from almost every discipline, and while I might not have any idea what a squeeze film damper does, I have a variety of reading experiences in my back pocket that can be invaluable to someone who’s writing about them.
            When you consult confident writers, think about the types of feedback that you might like to receive if you were in your client’s place, and go from there. For example, when I’m working with a confident writer, I can draw on the fact that I have a handle on grammar, so when I bring a paper in to the writing center I’m not looking for that kind of feedback. At the beginning of an appointment, once I’ve determined whether the student I’m working with is a confident writer, I ask what they’d like to talk about in our session. If they don’t mention grammar, I don’t mention grammar. If you’re busy discussing the merits of the Oxford comma when your client wants to talk about organization, then that student is probably not going to get much out of his or her appointment. And you probably won’t be seeing them again.
            Also, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Challenge the student’s understanding of what he or she is writing. If you notice a hole in their argument, don’t hesitate to point it out and ask if there’s a reason for the gap. If there’s not, you’ll not only help them broaden their understanding of the topic, you’ll have helped them fix their paper without ever giving them the type of advice that might make them feel patronized. When you find something that might need to be revised, use “I statements” to present your advice from the point of view of the reader. Instead of saying “You seem to need more textual evidence to support this point,” say “As a reader, I wasn't able to follow this part of the paper. Is there something from the text that you’re analyzing that would add more support here?”

            Finally, we need to help these students understand that there is not a pinnacle of perfection in writing, and there is always room for improvement. Do you use the writing center for your own assignments? If so, don’t be afraid to share that with your clients and use it to your advantage. Seeing writing consultants as students working to improve their writing will help confident writers get rid of the idea that the writing center is only for “bad” writers. It’s also important for these students to understand that they are expected to progress as writers as they progress in other aspects of college. The writing that they do should not simply be about “getting the grade,” but about going above and beyond to improve. Learning where they can improve and acting on that knowledge will have real-world implications for these students as they enter the workforce or pursue a higher degree. 

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