The paper you’re reading has lost you: the commas are out of control, the word choices are weird, and that last paragraph doesn’t seem to have a point. It can be hard to know if lack of time was the culprit or if the student has not yet mastered the writing skills needed to express their ideas at the graduate level. Either way, a referral to online writing support is something you may have already done after struggling through a confusing piece of writing. Sometimes the paper comes back greatly improved; other times you may have wondered what exactly was discussed in that appointment.
Students contact us for a variety of reasons. Often it is because an instructor has suggested or required it, but some students are aware their writing skills aren’t that strong and their papers would benefit from some feedback. Even very capable writers can learn from having an objective reader check for clarity, so writing support doesn’t have to be remedial.
Once a student does reach out to us, what happens?
We set up an online web conferencing appointment and ask them to send their assignment description, draft, and specific areas of concern ahead of time. We read the draft, note suggestions, and then meet with the student to have conversation about their paper. By replacing the previous method of providing written feedback and sending the paper back, these conversations have allowed deeper explanations and hands-on practice of revision (making major improvements, especially focusing/ developing ideas) and editing (fixing mechanics).
Most students, and sometimes instructors too, want to focus on mechanics because those errors are the most easily identified and can be addressed with specific corrections. However, a better starting point for improving thinking and writing is working on answering several questions. Does the paper address the prompt? Does it have a thesis? Do paragraphs have topic sentences and supporting evidence? Are transitions used to show the idea relationships? Once these higher order of concerns are tackled, the grammar, formatting, and citation issues are next in line.
Writing tutors make it clear to students we are not proofreaders and editors. Instead, we help them identify the sentence error patterns in the first part of the paper: this is a comma splice, and here are a few ways to fix it; these word choices could be more academic; this type of citation needs a signal phrase for better source integration. After practicing a few corrections with them, we ask students to apply what they’ve learned to the rest of the draft on their own.
Usually they do; sometimes they may not. Most, however, are pleasantly surprised at how helpful it is to talk through the basics of writing a good paper and better understand the difference between revising and editing. They are learning the vocabulary needed to discuss good writing and how to use the writing process more effectively. Hopefully, on your end as an instructor, you see are seeing the positive results as well!
Lori Rand is an Online Writing Specialist for the Student Academic Success Center.