traci's lists of ten

Traci's 42nd List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Prepare for a Trip to the Writing Center

Posted to NCTE-Talk, WCENTER, WPA, and TechRhet on 02/21/02.

Back in the days when I was tutoring in the Writing Center at Virginia Tech, I could always tell who the prepared students were. They came to the tutoring session ready to work: both with the right attitude and with the right resources. Thinking back on those days, I formed the following list of things that a writer can do to prepare for a trip to the Writing Center.

I composed the list as if it were a student handout, essentially a list of things that students can do before they visit a tutor along with an explanation of why to do them. The list could easily be rewritten as a checklist of things for writers to do to prepare for a student-teacher conference or for discussion of a draft with a peer review or writing group.

  1. [PLAN AHEAD] The very first thing that you need to do for your tutoring session is make an appointment early in the process (or drop-in the writing center early, if your school has drop-ins).

    WHY? Tutoring sessions work best if they are far enough ahead of the paper's due date for you to think about the tutor's advice and let her suggestions affect the text. If you wait until the day that the paper is due, the ways that the tutor probably can help you are more limited because your time to reflect on the tutor's advice and make changes to the text is very limited. After all, it's just a matter of hours till the paper is due. Depending upon the kind of questions you have, you might take a draft to the Writing Center a week or more in advance. You might go even earlier, before you have a complete draft, if you need advice on focusing your paper. The rule of thumb is that the sooner you visit the writing center, the more time you'll have to take advantage of the tutor's comments.

  2. [YOUR QUESTIONS] Before you meet with your tutor, re-read your paper. As you read, write question marks in the border or jot out questions in the margin anywhere you are unsure of the writing or have a question (whether it's a question about grammar issues or the content of the paper).

    WHY? You're the best judge of your work. After all, you are closest to the writing task. If you can, put the paper away overnight before you re-read it so that you have a little more distance from the piece. Your goal is to try to read your paper as someone who hasn't see it before. As you read your paper, you might ask questions such as the following:
    • Does this example work?
    • Do I need it to be more detailed?
    • Should I use more examples here?
    • Is this paragraph too long?
    • Should I break it in half?
    • Am I using the semicolon correctly here?
    • Does this sentence make sense to you? It seems funny to me.
    With your questions worked out ahead of time, you'll be ready to go in the session. And that means that you'll be able to use your time more wisely -- you won't have to waste time figuring out what you want the tutor to help you with, so you'll be able to spend more time finding solutions (rather than trying to figure out what the questions are).

  3. [REFLECTION] Once you've re-read everything you've written, spend a few minutes reflecting on the piece. Jot out answers to the following questions before your session:
    1. What part of this draft is the strongest?
    2. What part of this draft will you work on next?
    3. Imagine at least 3 things that you might do to change this text: jot down what they are and why you're thinking of doing them. Begin your response with "What if" -- for example, What if I cut the second paragraph completely? I wonder if that would make the focus clearer.

    WHY? Along with the questions that you've jotted down (#2), your reflection on what you've written will help your tutor know where to start. She'll know what you're thinking, which will help her focus her comments. You may not give your tutor your reflective notes, but once you've thought about them and written them down, it will be easier for you to share your ideas with your tutor in conversation. These notes are almost a rough draft for the beginning of your tutoring session. They should contain the major issues that the session will focus on. You can also ask the tutor to comment on your perceptions of the text -- does she agree that the strongest part of the draft is the same thing that you identified? If not, the two of you can talk about why your perceptions differ and how differences affect the session.

  4. [RESOURCES] Get the mechanics together and carry them with you to the session: have the assignment, the book you're responding to, any outside resources, your grammar handbook, model essays, grading rubrics, previous drafts, notes, and so forth.

    WHY? One of your tutor's first questions is going to be what are you working on. If you have the assignment that your teacher has given you, the tutor will know exactly. The other resources just help with the process. Your tutor may not use them, but if you have them, they can come in handy. For instance, if you have a question about whether you're paraphrasing correctly or relying too much on the original text, the tutor can look at the original and your version. If a grammar, punctuation, or mechanics question comes up, the tutor can point you directly to the relevant information in your book.

  5. [SPECIFY] Be clear about what you can do on your own and what you need help with -- If you have a chance to jot out questions in the margins of your text, point them out to the tutor. Likewise, if you have general questions or want the tutor to ignore something for now, speak up.

    WHY? Again, you can use your time more wisely. If you know that you will look words up and spellcheck later, don't let your tutor waste time circling misspellings. Tell her up front not to worry about spelling in this draft. If your biggest question is about whether the paper fits the assignment, tell the tutor -- don't waste time talking about the details in paragraph four if you're not even sure that the paper has the right focus. If you're working on a research paper but haven't done any work on the bibliographic info other than noting the sources to yourself, tell the tutor not to worry about the citations because you'll fix them later. Don't let your session get derailed by focusing on a topic that you know you're going to work on later.

  6. [TAKE NOTE!] Be sure to bring paper and something to write with.

    WHY? Your tutor can make suggestions, but it's up to you to take the notes. Most tutors do not write on your papers. At most, they may underline a sentence, circle something, or make light marks beside a paragraph. You need to write down what the tutor says so that you have specific details to return to when you return to the paper. It's a whole lot easier to work from notes than to try to remember everything that your tutor said.

  7. [TWO COPIES] If you can, bring two copies or your paper.

    WHY? This process is such a simple thing to do, but it can really help make sure that you understand what your tutor is saying as well as take notes on things you want to reconsider. With two copies of your paper, you can follow along while your tutor works through your paper. You can take your own notes on the things that the tutor suggests right on your copy. The tutor may not do much writing on your paper, but you can make lots of revision notes very easily if you have your own copy. [WORKING ON A COMPUTER: Some writing centers work with your paper on a computer rather than in print. Save your paper in a format that the tutor will be able to open (RTF usually works), and print a copy for yourself. You can take notes on the printed draft while the tutor works through the paper on screen.]

  8. [CROSS-REFERENCING] Number the paragraphs in your paper so you can refer to the passages easily.

    WHY? If you get lost, all you have to do is ask the tutor which paragraph she's referring to. Even if you can't bring an extra copy of your paper, numbering the paragraphs can be a big help. As your tutor is reading along, imagine she stops and says, "You could really use more details here." How will you know where "here" is after the session is over? Ask for the paragraph number. Then when you make a note, you can write, "Need more details in paragraph four." Much better. [If you're working more on sentence-level issues, you might insert line numbers using your word processor. Microsoft Word, for instance, can insert line numbers automatically.]

  9. [FOCUS/DIRECTION] If you're still trying to decide what to write about or how to use the resources and ideas that you have, bring all the options with you, and do some pre-session thinking about the pros/cons of each. Likewise, if you're not sure what to do next in your paper, brainstorm on the options, and do pre-session thinking about the pros/cons of each. Use the tutoring session as a sounding board to get to your focus or choose the direction to take next.

    WHY? If you are undecided about what to talk about next or which resource is the best, your tutor can suggest ways to evaluate your options and choose the best one. You have to do the groundwork though. Do some thinking of your own about what each option or resource has to offer as well as the things that are lacking. If you do some of the thinking before you get to the tutoring session, you can spend your time in the session talking about the choices rather than gathering the details you need to make a choice. Yet again, you can be sure that you use your time in the best possible way.

  10. [SUMMARIZE AND REVIEW] At the end of the session, look back over your notes and create a series of action steps for yourself. Make a jot outline of the things that you need to do, based on the tutor's feedback.

    WHY? This is your final chance to make sure that you have notes on all of the issues that the tutor has raised. You have a chance to make sure that you understand everything and that you have a clear direction on how to continue writing. If there are a number of items, you and the tutor might even prioritize them or structure them to help make the most of your time as you continue working on the piece. For instance, your tutor might suggest that you add more details before you worry about going through and checking for comma splices. Sure getting rid of comma splices is important; but once you add more details, you're going to have to go through the paper again, looking at the new text that you've added.
Originally Posted on the site on February 02, 2002.