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I have been a Writing Center consultant for a little under a year and a half now. I like to think that I’ve grown from the jittery, unsure, and shy consultant I started out as. I had a definite grasp of comma rules, the use of semi-colons, and what complete sentences looked like. I could sort of tell when a sentence sounded awkward or when a paper didn’t really follow its thesis. But the bigger picture of writing great papers flew completely over my head.
After that first semester, though, I knew how to look for verb tense continuity and general flow of ideas. I was better at assisting clients in their brainstorming stages, and I learned more of how and why each grammar rule worked the way it did. I was definitely becoming a better writer, but I didn’t honestly take a lot of time to look back and see whether or not I was helping the clients become better writers.
In retrospect, I know I was scared to look past what I knew to be true and certain. I didn’t want to tell someone something fundamental about the structure of a paper and have it be wrong. I didn’t want to feel like I’d failed the client when they sought my help and advice. But, ironically, by focusing on the lower-order concerns, I definitely failed more than a few of my peers. I gave them the mechanics that they needed to edit their paper, but if the meat of that paper was rotten, then I was still doing them a disservice. No matter how primp and pretty it looks, bad meat is bad meat.
So I had to evaluate myself. I needed to look at what kinds of issues I focused on when looking at someone else’s paper. I knew that I tended to be a comma freak, so I would always point out comma errors. If I didn’t understand something technical or fundamental in the paper, I would ask the client about it, but I wouldn’t always necessarily prompt him or her to elaborate more on those topics within the paper itself. I caught myself giving global praise about sentences or paragraphs, and I wouldn’t try to instigate any sort of conversation about the paper. So I had a general idea of where I needed to improve.
A lot of my process is laid out in Jay Simmons’ (2003) article “Responders are Taught, Not Born.” I recognized the different patterns of my advice, similar to Simmons’ “global praise,” “sentence edits,” “word edits,” and a little bit of “reader’s needs,” which all focuses on nit-picky edits as well as vague feedback on sentences or paragraphs (686). But I wanted to work on a strategy that was similar to both Simmons’ “text playback,” which looks at the overall organization and flow of the different parts of the paper, and “writer’s strategies,” which analyzed the effectiveness of the different methods to utilize in writing. So I paid more attention in my consultations. I tried to focus more on the bigger picture of the paper. Were the ideas solid? Was there enough evidence to support their claims? Was the tone appropriate for the audience they were writing to? Did their paragraphs support their thesis?
Once I started practicing these strategies, I became more aware of the clients’ papers. It was like that optical illusion with the old woman/young lady portrait. Once I looked hard enough a few times, I couldn’t stop seeing the higher order concerns. I was still able to look at glaring mechanical issues, but I felt better as a consultant. I knew I was giving my peers the best advice I could give them. I felt like was encouraging them to critically think about different aspects within their papers, causing them to grow as writers.
I feel like every now and again I do need to re-check myself and make sure that I’m not slipping in to my old habits. But now that I know what to look for, I feel so much more confident as a consultant than I was a year ago.