“This is Due Tonight” – How I Helped a Writer Improve on a Deadline

By Tony Ricks

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It was an hour past my lunchtime when a student opened my office door and asked if the Writing Center was open. The Writing Center had officially closed the previous week, as the university had now entered Finals Week. That left me, the Writing Center Director, to help. After we arranged a meeting time, I went to lunch with her paper in hand. It was due that night.

Our conversation after lunch reminded me of the importance of one-on-one tutoring in the teaching and learning process. The following story about this writing session demonstrates some goals of my own one-on-one writing conferences, grounded in years of experience teaching and tutoring writing.

This story may be of interest to writers looking for revision strategies, teachers developing peer conferencing activities, or anyone interested in the role of writing in the teaching and learning process. It is based on a journal entry I wrote about the experience. I do not refer to the topic of the student’s paper because I am interested in the process of the teaching interaction. I have also kept the student’s identity from being revealed.

The Story

At lunch, I looked the student’s paper over. It lacked clarity, contained formatting errors, and showed other signs of incompleteness. It was an unfinished draft. It didn’t need to be perfect for me; however, it would perform poorly if I were grading it as a final draft. Besides, I’ve had essays and research papers in the same state—and worse—even upon a deadline. These aren’t insurmountable problems, but fixing them requires more time than I believed this student had.

I addressed the formatting first when we met after lunch. I showed her some formatting functions in Microsoft Word. Then we moved on to the overarching issue: the clarity of her message.

We went to a quiet space in the library where we could explore her writing in detail. After we sat down in the comfortable furniture of the new Learning Commons, I asked her to read the first paragraph of her research paper aloud. The request to read aloud usually surprises people, as it did her. She warned me that she might stop at points and tell me what she meant. This admission was a small breakthrough: she was now thinking more about the differences between the words on the page and her meaning.

To start, I asked her to read only the words on the page without commentary. My reasoning was that I wanted her to focus first on what the text itself was saying. Upon finishing the introduction, we discussed its language and the ideas she hoped to get across. It turned out only parts of her message were getting across in the draft. I told her she could take more ownership of her ideas in the first few sentences, and demonstrated how that might look. I told her she could lead into a source’s ideas after establishing her own, and showed her how that might look.

We used a similar process to review another paragraph. The first sentence contained 13 words; I offered a revision using only six and still keeping the same message. We discussed the other sentences and ideas of the paragraph as well, and explored possible revisions in a similar manner. (Click here for a recipe for this kind of detailed sentence-revision in your own writing).

We ended the session at that point, and I encouraged her to follow a similar revision process with her text until she was satisfied. She left the session empowered to continue writing. She sensed we had improved together upon her current draft. And she now had a new strategy for revision.

Lessons Learned

No two writing sessions are ever the same, but there are patterns. Working with this student, I engaged in a pattern that I often experience as I coach writers one-on-one. That pattern is to prompt writers to change their perspective about what is required in “revision.” To revise literally means to re-see. The goal is to guide others in the complex processes of learning, writing, and speaking for themselves.

We are here to help whether the assignment is due tonight or weeks from now.

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