Tutoring an already-strong paper

Your student brought in a beautiful paper. It’s well-written and properly formatted. The grammar is spot-on, and the thesis statement is clearly identifiable. The writing makes sense, and your student knew to put the period outside of the parenthesis in his MLA-style citations! You would slap an A on this paper if it were up to you. This is a tutor’s dream come true, right?

That is… Until you read through the paper, make a few unsubstantial comments, and then check your watch to realize only fifteen minutes have passed and the student is staring at you blankly and awaiting your thoughts. The rest of the session remains. This, in fact, can be a tutor’s worst nightmare if you aren’t prepared with a plan of what to do when such a situation arises.

If you’re a tutor that often sees struggling writers, then this may be exceptionally difficult for you. You’re likely accustomed to racing against the clock, working within a time constraint that is never long enough for you to accomplish all you feel the writer needs. You may also not be accustomed to needing to search for areas of improvement, instead habituated to errors glaring at you. Which means… This is an awesome and unique opportunity for you to become a better tutor!

First things first. Ditch the idea that a paper can be perfect.  If you truly believe a student’s draft is perfect and cannot be improved in any way, I’d actually suggest taking a look at your own approach and how you evaluate a piece of writing. In addition, remember that the purpose of tutoring is to craft a better writer. You can do this with any writer, regardless of the quality of the writing piece he brings in, by identifying the weaker areas in the piece (note that weaker does not mean weak) and teaching the skills that your student needs to become better in that department.

Key Takeaway: If you have a student who is a strong writer with a well-written paper and a desire to improve, you can absolutely find plenty of things to work on with him. Filling the session should not be a problem!

Here are some suggestions:

  • Sentence structure

Many students have a tendency to write each sentence in a similar structure. For example, many statements tend to be “Not only x, but also y.” or “This is because ____________.”

Note: I often see this in students’ topic sentences. Topic sentences are so spread out that it’s tough to catch at first. But many students will begin each new idea in the same way.

As a tutor, you can now task yourself with the challenge of identifying this repetitive structure and then pass the challenge off to your student by asking him to vary it. Ask him why he writes like this and if he thinks he could write some sentences in a different way. Help him to identify the structural commonality, and then see if he can rephrase accordingly. If he’s having a hard time, ask him to express that idea aloud in his own words. That often does the trick, because we speak differently than we write. If he’s still not quite getting it, then provide him with a few suggestions off the top of your head, help him to understand the concept of maintaining content but varying presentation, and see if he can then apply that idea throughout independently now.

  • Word choice

Did your student repeat any words? Did he often use vague words, like “great” and “thing” instead of more descriptive and expressive words? Did you observe any instances of filler words? It may not be glaring or riddled throughout, but there can easily be a few instances of this in the course of a 5-10 page paper.

Note: Don’t forget to evaluate transitional words! I’ve found students have a struggle greatly with these and often rely on “then” and “next” rather than more sophisticated words.

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then your student could certainly work to improve his word choice. You can help him identify these areas, and then ask him what words he could choose instead. Since he’s a strong writer, he may be able to figure this out on his own; he just wasn’t conscious of the issue in the first place. If not, some gentle prodding from you should do the trick.

On the other hand, maybe there were no clear instances of inadequate word choice. Then, ask yourself these questions: Did the students use any words that really wowed you? Did you read any sentences and just feel wildly impressed by the student’s ability to choose the perfect word to express his idea?

If you answered “no” to these questions, then your student could probably still improve his word choice. Many writers have “go-to words” that they immediately look to use in their writing. If you’ve met with this student multiple times, you may already know his fallback words and you can challenge him to expand his vocabulary. If this is your first session, then you can point out a few sentences in which you think the word choice was adequate but not wowing and ask the student if he can think of a more jaw-dropping, eye-catching word to incorporate.

  • Punctuation

Does your student rely on certain forms of punctuation? I constantly used semicolons and wasn’t able to join two ideas without one. My tutor at the time told me that my semicolon use was well done and appropriate, but it was limiting my ability as a writer because I was using it as a crutch.

Do you notice this in your student’s work? It can present itself in a variety of ways. For example, a student may use exclamation points to convey enthusiasm or significance, but this could be accomplished through word choice and tone. Or, a student may frequently use colons to introduce lists, but instead, he could word his writing in a way that anticipates and incorporates the list. Bring this to the student’s attention and see if he can solve this himself. Just making him aware of this tendency is valuable.

  • Writing Process

Ask the student what his writing process was for this piece. Let him know you think it is a generally well done piece of work, and that you’re curious to know how he approached the assignment to yield this end result.

Then, listen to what your student says. There’s a lot that you can do with this information. First, you may have suggestions as to what the writer can do next time. For example, if the student likes to outline his ideas before writing, then you may suggest he create a backwards outline after writing and then compare the two outlines. Or, instead of suggesting new ideas, you might just tell the writer how you think his writing process impacted his final piece. You could let him know that the paper is structured in a really organized way, and you suspect that might be because he outlined his key thoughts and put them in a logical order before beginning the writing process. This will encourage him to do pre-writing planning next time. You can also simply collect this information for the purpose of keeping it in mind; if this student visits you again but brings a sub-par draft, then you can ask if he prepared in the same way that he did last time.

Once you’ve done all of these things, you can (and should)…

  • Talk about the ideas

Ask the student what inspired him to write about this, what he thinks about the topic, how he researched it, how he knows about it, and so on. Just chat like two people conversing. There are a couple of benefits to this. The student is likely to understand his ideas even better as a result of having to express them aloud in conversation. The student may also think about the ideas slightly differently; your conversation may spark a thought that he’d like to now include in his piece. The student may also recognize a conceptual or factual error he made in his writing. Or, you may encourage the student’s interest further and lead him to write more pieces on this area! Tutor benefit: You’ll learn more about this subject, and you’ll build a stronger rapport with this student that will be helpful for you next time (check out my blog post on why rapport matters and how to start developing it from the get-go, here).

This session shouldn’t be about helping the student to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. You should focus on crafting a stronger writer. Clearly, you already have a capable writer in front of you; now give him the tools to transform into an exceptional one! If he’s already exceptional, help to make him mind-blowing! The best writers have at least one weak spot; find this student’s and help to make it better. That’s a wonderful service to provide. If you often see struggling writers, then, as I said, this will be a new and challenging experience for you; good! Now you and your writer, both good at what you do, can become even better through working together.

Photo by João Silas

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