What Happens in Those Writing Support Appointments Anyway?

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.


Think pen and paper are obsolete? Think again.


In distance education, many students type lecture notes on their computers, rather than writing on paper. After all, students use laptops to watch lectures, answer assessment questions, and participate in class discussions. It’s only natural to use the same device for taking notes, too, right?

Not so fast.

Last year, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, studied how the two note-taking methods affect student assessment performance. The results? In short, they found that taking notes on a laptop can “negatively affect performance on educational assessments.”

If you’re reading this, perhaps you’re already nodding your head in agreement: Of course computers can harm learning—think of all those tempting and distracting online games and Facebook memes! But what’s really fascinating about Mueller and Oppenheimer’s experiments is that they relied on computers that were disconnected from the Internet. Without even a working web browser, students were free to focus on the lecture content. Nevertheless, those who took longhand notes consistently outperformed their high-tech peers when tested for conceptual recall. But why?

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that, when people type notes, they tend to write as much as possible, almost to transcribe every word. Those who take notes by hand are forced to summarize main points, and that process strengthens their understanding. Even when Mueller and Oppenheimer specifically told participants not to take verbatim notes, they still wrote far more words than longhand note-takers. The old quality-over-quantity standard strikes again.

So, how does this apply to distance education? Online instructors might encourage their students to grab a pen and sit back, away from their computers, to watch a full-screen lecture video. At first, students probably won’t like being separated from their keyboards and trackpads. But who knows? Maybe they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they see their next quiz scores.


Mueller, P. A., and D. M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159-168. Web.

Analyze My Writing

analyze my writing word cloudThanks to another mention by FreeTech4Teachers.com, I have looked into this Analyze My Writing engine. In the past we have talked about Wordle and Tagxedo, which are both fine word cloud generators, which in addition to making long pieces of text look pleasant, highlight most commonly used words in a chunk of text. The idea behind these is that you can manage and introduce large boring text without scaring off your readers/audience, and possibly generate some conversation in the process.

With Analyze My Writing, you can go several steps further and analyze your own writing or another person’s writing and “gain a wealth of information about your text including word and character counts, word and sentence lengths, the readability of your text, and other analyses”. The site offers a few pre-selected sources for your viewing convenience.

Why use it?

You may want to use this to gain insight into your own writing style, find words and phrases you mostly use, and see if your writing appropriate for your audience (according to AMW, of course). If your sentences are too long, and you intend your writing to be more of the bite-size consumption, then it’s possible you went off wrong somewhere. The opposite is true as well, if you are shooting for some decent, journal-style article, or just even college level writing, and the analysis tells you your piece is at a high-school level, well, it’s time to spruce up your writing (and maybe contact our Writing support to seek help). I see how this could be helpful to students if their instructors find their writing is not up to par yet.

As always, let us know what you think about this piece, whether more info is needed, or if you would rather read about some other things, like exotic flowers and Middle-Eastern recipes! 🙂

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