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Any type of writing can be a significantly intimidating thing for any person to undertake. Writing can be personal, and some might even view it as a reflections of themselves. So, naturally, clients might be either a little intimidated or uncomfortable with letting another person read their paper even before they schedule an appointment at a writing center or with a tutor. Just think, how many times did you feel completely at ease while another person read your unfinished or unpolished work? So, in order to keep the client from accepting everything their consultant or tutor says, staying quiet when asked questions about their paper, or shutting themselves off from the session itself out of fear or discomfort, we need to create a friendly environment in order to achieve the most effective consultation for these clients’ benefits.
But comfort isn’t the client’s main priority. He or she came to us in order to improve a paper. It is our duty to make a client more open to receive criticism in a possibly uncomfortable situation. In a special issue of the Harvard Writing Project Bulletin, Cristin Hodgins explained her opinions on teacher comments. She talked about how more pointed questions influencing her critical thinking and analysis of her own writing benefitted her the most. I think that writing center consultants and tutors can take away a valuable lesson from her experience. I’ve caught myself telling a more nervous client that this or her paragraph looked “good” because I didn’t want to be offensive or discouraging. I know I have even let a few errors slip by because I didn’t feel like the client was up for a discussion about word choice or the flow of ideas. I wasn’t helping my clients at all, and they were left with the short end of the stick and no real foundation for where they needed to go in order to take their paper to the next level.
From time to time, especially if I know that my upcoming client has never been to the Writing Center before, I try to start the conversation off on something completely unrelated to the paper. I ask how his or her day is going, or I’ll compliment an article of clothing that he or she is wearing. Anything to remind the client that I’m a human and a student too. I can relate to them. Sometimes it works to where the client opens up and relaxes once we get down to the issues of the paper itself.
This also tends to help me let my own guard down (because I know I definitely can feel just as intimidated critiquing someone else’s writing, especially in a tense environment) and look at the paper differently. I feel like I can give more solid and relevant advice when I feel like I am on the same level as the client. It’s easier to work up a conversation about the content, organization, and flow of the paper, rather than immersing the consultation in lower-order concerns, like proofreading. Sure, grammar can make its appearance in the discussion, but I feel more inspired to ask the client leading questions in order to stimulate critical thinking and analysis when I believe that he or she is more open to talk about it.
Writing is hard. It’s personal. But we’re all human. We’re proud of what we accomplish. Yet we are all human. We tend to make mistakes. If we can open ourselves up to constructive criticism of our papers (or open ourselves up to constructively criticize the papers of our peers), then I think we can grow as tutors, consultants, and writers in general.