The role of the writing tutor in the student's learning process

This is exciting new territory for me, as I’ve spent my adult life as an editor, which is very different from being a tutor. As an editor, my work was not really in service of the writer, but in service of the publication that employed us both. As a tutor, my work will be entirely in service of the writer and his learning process (and my own learning process, too).

A tutor’s first role is to help the student writer feel at ease in the tutoring session and feel comfortable with the idea of writing and seeing herself as a writer. Next, the tutor can help the writer clarify her purpose and her audience. If the writer has an assignment with detailed instructions, the tutor can help the writer be sure she understands the instructions and knows how to meet the requirements of the assignment. If the writing assignment is less prescriptive, the tutor can chat with the writer about possibilities for topic, genre and tone. Either way, the tutor can ask friendly, open-ended questions to help the writer figure out how she connects with the writing assignment and what she finds most interesting about it. Before the writer sets pencil to paper or fingertip to keyboard, the tutor can help the writer gain a sense of confidence that she’ll be able to do a good job with the writing assignment and find it interesting and worthwhile.

The hardest, most agonizing part of writing for me is just getting started. Staring at a blank page or screen can fill me with dread, and I think that’s true for many writers, if not most, especially inexperienced writers. A tutor can save an anxious writer from having to face that intimidating blank canvas alone. For a writer who doesn’t know how to get started, a tutor can discuss options and help the writer identify what methods or actions might be most helpful for him to get his energy, ideas and words flowing. This year, I’ve discovered how helpful, even essential, it is for me to work with a mentor on de-cluttering and organizing all the stuff in my house. My mentor has even modeled putting me, the student, in charge by starting each session with the question, “What would you like to work on today?” I’ve made wonderful progress and have developed the motto: “Friends don’t let friends clean alone.” Just as my home-organizing mentor has helped me get over feelings of fear and inadequacy even to begin a task that’s difficult for me, a tutor can help a writer break out of isolation and anxiety about writing.

The presence of a tutor can help a writer stay aware that she’s writing for an audience and see the need to have her writing make sense to readers who haven’t been privy to the writer’s internal logic and thought processes. By asking a writer to paraphrase aloud the assignment, subject matter or main point, a tutor can help the writer clarify her thesis. Questions and comments such as, “What made you decide to put this sentence/paragraph after the previous one?” or, “Help me understand the connection between this sentence/paragraph and the next one,” can help a writer think more clearly about organization and how the writer is supporting her arguments.

At this point, after the “higher order” concerns have been addressed, my inner editor is tempted to take charge of the paper or the laptop and start cleaning up spelling, punctuation and grammar. But the budding tutor in me knows that what the writer really needs is for me to keep my hands to myself and offer the kind of non-threatening questions and comments that will help the writer become an effective reviewer and corrector of his own work. As an experienced editor and capable writer, though, I have to say that I still don’t always catch all my own goofs, and it’s incredibly valuable to have a second set of eyes on my writing. So maybe a writer would appreciate having a tutor – without actually touching or taking control of the writer's work – just point to overlooked errors.

Finally, a tutor can guide a writer away from the common tendency toward harsh self-criticism and help the writer recognize and appreciate the strengths of her writing and her writing process. So when, at the end of a project, a tutor asks, “What do you enjoy about what you’ve written and how you went about it?” the writer can answer, “Quite a lot! Thanks!”


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  2. Marybeth~I’m always impressed when I read someone’s writing and the grammar and punctuation is impeccable. Skill in that area of writing is worth its weight in gold and I’m sure your talent will come in handy working with writers this semester. I believe an editor provides a valuable service for writers and it’s interesting that you don’t feel that way. I’m sure editors approach the editor/writer relationship differently than tutors do the tutor/writer relationship, but both work to improve the writers' writing. Of course, as you mentioned in your post, a tutor is in a discussion guiding the writer and the writer is in charge. I suppose, that’s not the case with most editor/writer relationships—I imagine in most circumstances an editor gets that last word.

    With your editing experience, you have so many tools available to you—tools I’d love to have in my toolbox! I feel more comfortable with my ability to explain higher-order concerns and less at ease with the later-order concerns. Grammar and punctuation rules can be tough to explain. Could you suggest any resources with clear descriptions of the rules?


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