In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, Stephen King writes, “In many ways, Eulah-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors.” The Village Voice and Eulah-Beulah’s of the world are not models for good tutors. A tutor is not a babysitter or a critic, not an editor and chiefly not the writer.
Sometimes looking at what something is not, helps to clarify what it is. A tutor is a reader and needs to avoid becoming the writer. Writing is a form of thinking—on paper—and the tutor’s role is to help writers to think about their writing. It’s the physical evidence of critical thinking. Understanding how writers organize information and helping them to rethink that information and organization is part of the tutor’s job. One task needed to accomplish this is distinguishing higher-order from later-order issues and prioritizing higher-order issues first. Focus on the 3-4 most important aspects of the paper that could be problems. These issues might not be noticeable to writers and tutors will most likely need to bring them (skillfully) to their attention.
Once writers become aware of the issues in their papers, it’s up to them to devise solutions. Tutors must trust writers are able to do this and not do their work for them. By asking questions that help writers to revise and improve, a tutor guides them to think through their work and come up with better choices. At the same time, this tactic insures a tutor’s comments aren’t overly directive. Questions that are open, not closed, work best and allow writers to think more deeply about their topic.
Clarifying the big issues in a paper doesn’t involve proofreading, editing for grammar or word choice—a topic that writers often focus on. Leaving this later-order concern until last is smart tutoring. It avoids spending time on sentences that writers will eventually cut. Sentence structure, grammar and punctuation do have their place in the tutoring session, after dealing with the higher-order concerns. At this point, resist the temptation to become an editor. It’s best to note repeated errors, explain the rule, and correct one error as an example. Help the writer find and fix the additional errors. Writers won’t learn if tutors do all the correcting.
A tutor should be specific about what works well in the paper and what needs improvement. Thinking through ways to ask the right question is essential. What’s the author’s position? The writer's position? What other evidence might support this? Does this example support the writer's main idea? And always remember to give positive feedback. This is a good example! You really nailed the conclusion! Stephen King’s how-to book about writing warns us, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it…”—that person shouldn’t be a writer's tutor.
Image Source: StephenKing.com
Image Source: StephenKing.com