On Writing Tutors

Just yesterday someone asked me to look over an analysis paper written for an English class AFTER it was turned in. So I did. And I was surprised to find out that this person had a writing tutor. And this wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked to do this for someone.

I have to be honest. When I was in college I wrote somewhere between 30-40 papers. Maybe 20-25 percent of those were English analysis papers and the rest were CJ papers. But the topics never mattered, not really. I always knew my worst paper would never score any lower than a high B. This has nothing to do with cockiness or even confidence, it’s simple fact. I wrote more than 90 percent of all of my papers in college between midnight and eight in the morning of the day they were due. Why did I do this? Because it worked for me.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that I know how to write great college papers like I know the back of my hand. It’s just something that was easy for me as it most likely was easy for you. So when someone asks me to read over something I don’t play nice. I give it to them straight. Because what’s the point of being asked for my opinion if I’m going to pretend that it’s something it isn’t? Turns out almost everything I told this person had already been said by the professor.

But it got me thinking about the writing tutor who has repeatedly said she disagrees, and that the paper is excellent. I don’t particularly care what another person says about it because I read it with my own eyes and reached my own conclusions.

So I put myself in the shoes of a writing tutor. See, writing isn’t the same as math or some other subject in which there is a very clear right and wrong answer. One person can reach the exact same conclusion via a completely different route from another person. And that’s okay. And I realized that my philosophy as a tutor would likely be very different from just about anyone else’s. As a tutor, I’d want to be involved with the student as early on in the essay writing process as possible. And time permitting, I’d do the assignment myself. Perhaps without the student having knowledge of this. Because then I’d be in their shoes with a real perspective as opposed to someone who is simply looking at the paper.

But my question really comes down to how much should the tutor help? Let’s say the paper is gone over once with the student and corrections suggested. How many more times should this be done, if any, before the paper becomes the work of the tutor rather than the work of the student? I don’t necessarily have the answer to that, but I do think a tutor has a responsibility to the student to be honest. Be critical. Be reasonable. Don’t give the student ridiculous expectations that can’t be reached. If you work with a student who is really struggling and you’ve reached the point at which the paper is as good as it’s going to be as written by the student, then say that. But don’t give them the idea that it’s better than it is. Because you’re really not helping at that point.

I have no experience with writing tutors, do you?

On this day in 2014 I published Books You MUST Read.


20 thoughts on “On Writing Tutors

  1. Experience is the best tutor there is. Period!
    Read, write, read and write some more.

    I once had to oversee some creative writing for high school students who were entering a competition. I took the job over from someone who decided that the students were no good. I read through some of the writing that had been marked by the previous writing ‘tutor’. On one paper, the student had written, “There was a pregnant pause.” I know it is a cliché, but we learn by imitating and the student had obviously read it somewhere else. The tutor had drawn a heavy line through the phrase and printed in large red capital letters: “A PAUSE CANNOT BE PREGNANT!”

    All English teachers are actually writing tutors. So, yeah, we’ve all had experience with them. When I still taught English, I believed in the ‘read, write, read and write some more’ maxim. It delivered far more impressive results than presiding over a student’s every word and phrase. When they believe that reading and writing just feels good, it will begin to filter through to their scores.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I actually work as a Writing Assistant at a community college and spend my day reading over rough drafts for papers. I have several students who specifically request me to work with them because they like my approach to helping them. First of all, you’re right in what you say about getting involved with the student and their paper. I do that. When I look at a paper, it becomes something I am now working on. Students are supposed to bring their assignment and the grading rubric to a session. I look over that so that I know what I’m looking for as far as content.

    My first priority in working with students is to make their paper readable, because I find that nine times out of ten, the paper in incoherent. It simply doesn’t make sense. I read it to them out loud so they can hear what they wrote, and this is a wonderful way to show a student how their writing is coming across. I find that they catch a lot of their own mistakes when I read to them, and they hear where their writing is garbled when I get tripped up reading, so they know they have to fix those parts. After the first paragraph, I ask them to point out their thesis statement. This helps them know what they are supposed to be talking about in the paper. You’d be surprised how many students go off on tangents and don’t even know what their thesis statement is or where it goes or even how it’s supposed to be written–it’s a statement, not a question or an opinion.

    I continue reading and mark any grammar/punctuation issues. I also look for the transition sentence that leads into the next paragraph. Many students have no idea how to link one paragraph to another. I have them find the key word from the last sentence and tie it or the concept of it into the new paragraph sentence. I’m real strict about citations. Many students think that if they don’t direct quote something they don’t have to cite it. Uh, no…you take the concept of something, you better give credit for it even if you wrote it in your own words. The final part of looking over a paper is MLA or APA formatting. All those pesky little details for giving that confounded credit to a source get scrutinized from quotation marks to putting the period at the end of the source.

    Now, the funny part about all this checking is that I don’t really sit and explain everything I’m marking, I just talk it out with the student as I go along. If I correct their/there I’ll tell the student, “Their means ownership. See the i? Think, this is mine, that’s theirs. Get it?” It works. I also ask questions about vague pronouns. “Their rules…who’s rules? You have to name who the rules belong to here.” Stuff like this goes a long way and students remember it. I had a girl come for a session with me whom I had worked with before, and she said that she read over her paper and actually checked the pronouns herself because she remembered me asking “she, who?” several times on her last paper.

    I try to throw a little humor into the business of paper editing. I have one student who loves to write “Lord of the Rings” sentences. He strings up to 4 sentences together using commas and semicolons and dashes (Oh, my!). When he does this, I start reading using what I call my “epic” sounding voice and follow it up with, “Ok, Mr. Tolkien you need to break it down some.”

    Ultimately, it’s been my experience that most students want help because they know they need it, and they want a passing grade, not necessarily an A, just not a D. They are willing to put their writing on the line and leave with their paper bleeding profusely. It takes courage and fortitude to take that kind of criticism. (btw, I never use red pen, always blue). When students leave me, they know their paper will be coherent, it will have a correctly formatted thesis statement, it will be cited correctly, and it will hit the points in the assignment (if they do what I told them to). They leave knowing that the paper may not be an A, but it reflects the effort they made to make it as good as possible, and that seems to alleviate a lot of their stress.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was a writing tutor in high school and in college, and I was brutal with my students. I wouldn’t tell them what to say, but I’d inform them of their mistakes and ask pointed questions that would hopefully get them thinking about how to correct their mistakes. I would never write the paper for them. While I agree that reading is the best way to become a better writer, I’m also aware that many people just don’t like to read (shocking, I know), yet they’re still required to write papers. I’d usually go through two of their drafts before setting them free to finish/edit everything on their own.
    And when I was in grad school and grading undergrad papers, although they weren’t English papers, I couldn’t honestly pass them when their writing was so poor.
    Again, I agree that reading is by far the best teacher, but some people honestly need the help.


  4. On one of the editor freelance boards I follow, there are regularly college students out there willing to pay professional editors to edit their college papers. And I’m like, wait… what? Isn’t that why you’re in college?


  5. I worked as a writing tutor at my college’s writing center, and one of the things we tried to emphasize was that as tutors, we weren’t there to write students’ papers for them but to help them to write the best they possibly could. A lot of the time this involves asking questions and drawing out their ideas more fully or helping them express the connections between their various points. (For some people, being able to verbalize an idea or identify a problem in a tutoring session is an important step in the writing process). Ultimately, the goal is to help the students gain the tools they need to identify and correct problems on their own.


  6. John:
    Thanks for the like on my Write, Write, Write post. Interesting topic the one you choose. I had never heard about a Writing tutor, here in Latin America will be like a luxury thing. Anyway I liked this part: “I’d do the assignment myself. Perhaps without the student having knowledge of this. Because then I’d be in their shoes with a real perspective as opposed to someone who is simply looking at the paper”. I totally agree with you and add: it’s better to write everything by yourself. Even if you (me) don’t write masterpieces. The process of learning, the path, makes you what you are. The tutor will be good only to give some suggestions and tips, period.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely disagree. Writing cones easy to me, but I know that isn’t the case for so many people. They may not have a tutor, but there’s a teacher or someone who needs to tell them what they’re doing well and what they’re doing poorly. Otherwise the same mistakes will be made.


      • Exactly. You are right. It’s important to have a teacher to learn from and who tells you what are you doing poorly, as I said to give you suggestions and tips. Maybe I wasn’t clear. I tried to say that you don’t need someone to write for you but, to show you a better path, a better way and also, how to be better at writer.


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