Peace of Mind in the Writing Center: Putting the Client at Ease

Having a writing center tutor read your work can be as stressful for a client as having an instructor read it for a grade. Even though a tutor is not grading the work, the client is worried about being critiqued. He will likely be worried that the errors will be so numerous that the tutor might not verbalize it, but will think about what a terrible writer he is. Even I have had these fears almost every time I have had someone look over a paper which I have written. The client may even fear that the tutor will think that he is the worst writer the tutor has ever seen, or read. Since the tutor's role is not to grade the writings but rather to hep the client become a better writer, easing the client's fears is a particular challenge for the writing center tutor. This is especially important since helping the client to become a better writer means, in part, helping him to become a more comfortable, confident writer.

Putting the client at ease begins at the very onset of the session. Introduce yourself to him. Take an interest in him; get to know him as much as possible. Discuss his classes or his interests, especially as they pertain to the paper being presented. This is especially helpful if you two have something in common--classes, majors, professors, hobbies, interests, etc. This helps to bring you to a closer level with the client. The tutor is still the authority in the session, but he is no longer the stern evaluator or grader that the instructor will be for the paper. The tutor can now have a better two-sided conversation about the paper, rather than the client simply timidly listening to a critique.

Continue this interested discussion throughout the reading of the paper. It is okay to pause and discuss a piece you find particularly interesting or well written. If you compliment his writing, the client will often perk up and feel more comfortable about the session. If you take an interest in a topic or comment then the client will be likely to open up more about the topic. He will elaborate more on the discussion, showing his knowledge or research. This can be extremely beneficial for both the tutor and the client. When the client opens up and discusses the topic further, then the tutor can sometimes get a better understanding of what has been written and allows for suggestions to elaborate on the writing. A passionate writer is a confident writer.

It is an even greater challenge when the client is a professional who feels that his writing is not something to be challenged. That is how this type of client will take a critique--as a challenge not just to his writing, but to his professionalism as well. It is especially important to ease this type of client. The more errors found by the tutor, the more confrontational or aloof the client may become. This can be offset by compliments and shows of interest. The client is assured of his overall writing abilities and is better able to see suggestions or critiques as more constructional.

I can use a shortcoming of my own to show how this type of professional client should be handled with more care. A school principal who is also a doctoral student at the university where I tutor came in with a book review. I could tell she was uncomfortable from the start of the session when, seeing that this was one of the longest book reviews that I had ever seen, I tried to break the ice by jokingly saying, "Wow, it's a long one." Instead of laughing, she gave me a glare and proclaimed, Okay." This managed to put me ill-at-ease, which lasted throughout the session. I found her not unresponsive but rather negatively responsive. Every comment or suggestion I made seemed to be met with disdain, making me as the tutor, the authority, less and less comfortable. Of course, as a result, I felt as if I did not do my best as a tutor and as if she did not care about my suggestions. It did not feel like a productive session.

When I saw a few days later that another tutor had the same client for the same paper, I recalled my problems with the session. This particular tutor told me that she started out having the same problems with the client. However, she began solidly complimenting this client on her writing abilities and her strong knowledge of the topic as it pertains to her professional career; she told me that the client noticeably became happier and opened up more. As a result, the client also became much more responsive to the suggestions by the tutor.

Showing an interest in the client's topic and complimenting his writing certainly puts the client at ease, making him more receptive to constructional criticism. As a result of the increased responsiveness, the tutor is put more at ease as well, making for a better, more productive session. This not only helps develop a stronger, continued relationship between the client and the writing center but also promotes the ultimate goal of a writing center -- to create stronger, more comfortable, more confident writers.


  1. Anonymous2:16 AM

    This post reminds me of an experience I had while recently tutoring one of my friends. My friend was asked to argue for or against the notion that employing sheer objectivity in one’s reasoning, decision-making, etc. is always more beneficial than introducing subjectivity to these things. At first, when I asked her what she thought and how she would approach writing this essay, she was hesitant to share with me because she was “afraid of sounding dumb.” She was not confident in her vocabulary and her grammatical prowess, and her idea of successful writing seemed to be arbitrated by these things alone; therefore, she struggled to find worth in anything she wrote.

    At the time, I had not (and I still have not) had much experience as a tutor, but I recall that I began to ask her personal questions—about interests, about passions, about relationships—and then I discussed these with her, interjecting things from my own experience along the way. Long story short, what I found is this: in our discussion, in the exchange of our ideas, she essentially developed all of the content necessary for the paper. I shared my observations with her, and after discussing ideas for possible approaches to organization, I think she finally realized that she did have a “voice” for writing, as she no longer saw writing as laws etched in stone tablets, but rather as a living, breathing exchange of ideas between author and reader.

    Thank you for your post! As I progress in my tutoring, I wish to help disarm student’s notions of writing as law and to foster, in these notions’ stead, a greater appreciation for writing as it really is.


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