I’m currently a tutor at the Villanova University Writing Center. As someone who loves grammar and also correcting people, it’s pretty much a dream job for me. Yet working there, I can’t help but get the feeling that not many students on our campus understand what we do. Of course, every university is different, and every writing center is different. But having spent a full semester in training and a second semester actually working, I feel it’s time to share four secrets of what it’s like to be a writing center tutor.
1. I won’t correct your grammar (at least, not all of it)
When I ask first-time visitors if they want to cover anything in particular during their session with me, a common response I get is to “check the grammar and stuff.” I have to hide a smile whenever I hear that, as it’s one of the first lessons we learn in our training class: you should never just correct someone’s grammar. To quote the de facto bible for writing centers, our goal as tutors is to “produce better writers, not better writing.” As satisfying as it would be to indulge ourselves in grammar pedantry, we’re taught that it’s not the focus of our job.
Instead of focusing on local errors (the fancy name for individual grammar mistakes), we focus on global errors – the organization of your paper, for example, or the structure of your argument. If your paper doesn’t work on a global level, then spending time pointing out the local errors is not going to help your writing skills or your grade. That being said, if you come visit us for something that needs to be perfect, like a cover letter or grad school application, then rest assured we will make sure it doesn’t have any glaring grammatical errors.
2. I won’t tell you what to write
Writing is like fashion: the stuff that’s really good tends to break the rules. The difference, however, is that you don’t get a bad grade for wearing a controversial outfit.
Each teacher wants something different when it comes to essays. Some are sticklers for grammar, some want a specific structure, and some want you to focus on your own experiences. At my school, there are hundreds of professors, but I’ve only written for maybe a dozen of them. As a result, I can’t tell you exactly what your professor will want. But I can lay out some options for you and share some pros and cons of each approach.
I’ve actually had one of my teachers tell me (very nicely) that she didn’t like the corrections I made to the paper of a student in one of her other classes. To be clear, this professor’s objections were largely stylistic, and did not result in a lower grade. But even if a teacher did dislike parts of a student’s essay, I would still consider our session a success – it’s all about becoming a better writer, not getting a better grade.
3. I get bored
I won’t ever let my boredom show, of course. But sometimes, when professors mandate a visit to the writing center, I’ll see the same essay prompt three or four times in a row. These papers are often written by freshmen on relatively basic topics, so reading papers number three and four from the same class can be tiring.
Additionally, although some papers are more idiosyncratic than others, most papers share the same weaknesses. Usually the thesis is vague, the topic and conclusion sentences are weak (or nonexistent), and the analysis is superficial. It’s helpful as a tutor to be able to recognize these issues and effectively address them, but at the same time, they’re not terribly exciting to work with.
4. It’s all worth it
In the end, no matter what you come in with – an essay I’ve seen a half-dozen times already, a lab report, or a job application – I love the feeling of achievement that comes with a successful session. Regardless of the assignment, if you walk out of our session feeling more confident and capable, then I have succeeded. Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice to perfect. As a tutor, I take great pride in helping those I work with become a little (or even a lot) better.
So if you’re struggling with an essay (or even if you aren’t) at any step during the writing process, come pay us a visit. We’ll look over your essay with you and discuss various ways to improve it. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even help you with the grammar and stuff, too.