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What Does Writing Mean to You?

Tutoring can make every writer feel valid and valued when we honor their unique voice.

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By: Alaina Heetderks (’20)
First-Year Tutor

“What does writing mean to you?” 

As I look at the back wall in the Writing Center’s B429 classroom, student responses to this question fill the wall. Each colorful dot demonstrates a unique answer—none being the same. From time to time I find myself reading through the dots, seeing how writing plays a role in others’ lives. 

“Writing is a way to get your message to the world.”

“Writing is making emotion visible.”

“Writing is art with words.”

“Writing is personal.”

While everyone has different ideas regarding what writing means to them, a common theme embodies them all: expression. This expression can be found in every writing assignment, taking on countless forms. Whether it’s the stance on an argument, a proposed solution to a challenge, or an opinion on a subject matter, a writer’s thoughts, values, and identity are displayed through their writing. 

The only way that a writer can truly express themselves is through their authentic, everyday voice. Everyone thinks differently, speaks differently, and reveals themselves differently. It’s only fitting that their writing would, too, be reflective of their individuality found within these differences. There is no “correct” way to format one’s expression—just as there is no “correct” way to create a piece of art. In no case should someone feel as though they have to alter their voice to conform to an “acceptable” mold or standard within writing. It doesn’t matter how something is said—it matters what is said. 

Kanjing He, a writing center tutor at Penn State, defends that the definition of  “good writing needs to take a lot of things into consideration, including good thinking, communication, structure, clarity, purpose, voice and correction.” The sad, yet common, view of  “good writing” is currently confined to a grammatically-perfect structure that is all too limiting of individuality. The type of writing that has been deemed as socially acceptable pressures writers to think in a certain manner, stripping them of their natural voice. What is the message being told to students, who, having poured their all into an assignment, have it returned to see all the ways in which it fell short of the rubric’s set guidelines? Is the way they presented their thoughts wrong just because it isn’t to these standards? Too often do students internalize a grade they get and begin to rethink how they can alter their voice to appease a grader. Kanjing goes on to encourage that both tutors and writers “need to focus on the value of differences, such as bringing in different identities to expand the inclusiveness of the writing center as well as of American academic settings.” I also think this mindset is crucial to have, not just within a writing center, but throughout entire educational systems.

Going back to what students wrote on their dots, it’s easy to see that writing holds varying significance to each individual. Heavy constraints placed on students (from teachers, rubrics, standards, etc.) may result in a loss of their appreciation for any form of writing. If we can’t write in a way that we want, for a reason that we want, writing is no longer a form of self-expression. I was losing my own enthusiasm for writing before I became a writing center tutor, as I had felt for a long time that I was limited in what I could or couldn’t write for an assignment. In my time as a tutor, I’ve seen just how important it is to embrace the uniqueness within each voice, and the rewarding feeling a student gets when they feel heard and validated. In every session I have, one of my main goals is to preserve the student’s voice—and I wish to find others doing the same.

Why You Should Write: Telling Your Own Story

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By: Alison MacGillivray
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center Co-President

In my humanities class, we learned about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We watched her TedTalk on the dangers of a single story. She grew up in eastern Nigeria, but upon coming to the United States to continue her education, she was disappointed when there was only one narrative being told about Africa: Africans were impoverished, ill, and sad. It was a drastic comparison to the US, where people were perceived as innovative, intelligent, and healthy. Adichie shared her frustration about the misconceptions, but in a sense, she understood. She explained that if she grew up in America rather than Nigeria, she would also believe the popular stories. The stories focused on stunning safari landscapes, but mostly on starving children, victims of AIDS, and villages waiting for white saviors. She cites this misconception as a result of Western Literature and then the beginning of Africa’s European narrative. She began to tell her own story of growing up in Nigeria, and when her American professors told her that her stories weren’t “authentic” enough to Africa, she rolled her eyes. She knew her own story and wasn’t going to let a white folks tell her to change it.

She brings up the idea of single stories. These are stories that eliminate your accomplishments, your good days, your bad days, and reduce you to a singular moment. A person’s identity is washed away when we promote the idea of a single story. The question is often raised among my peers: “Why should I tell my story? No one wants to hear it.” My answer has always been the same. “You matter. I want to read your story.” That is a cliche response, though, and the recipients know that. Adichie has given me a new perspective and a new answer to give.

As a teenager in high school, it is easy to be represented by a single story. Teenagers are lazy. We’re messy. We don’t sleep well, we don’t try hard, and we aren’t as good as the generations before us because we don’t walk uphill both ways to school through 10 feet of snow… in the sleet when it’s 10 below. Celsius. We know that teenagers are not defined by these ideas. By sharing your story, you are helping to break this idea.

These stories become increasingly dangerous for students when they are restricted to smaller scaled ones. There are stories of how black students, AP students, and disengaged students are within an academic setting. School performance, race, age, gender do not impact one’s personal story. By producing and promoting your own story, you are successfully breaking this cycle. Students have so many stories just waiting to be told, and my role as a tutor has enlightened me on this. Our school’s curriculum limits assignments that allow these stories. I’ve seen the most creative work in Moth stories, but these aren’t assigned to upperclassmen. When it is time for juniors and seniors to write college essays, an initial excitement arises until the students realize that their audience is looking for specific qualities and specific answers. Once again, creativity is stripped away. An assignment cannot possibly promote creativity when it has a restrictive rubric.

Still, I encourage everyone to write. While there isn’t much time to write in a teenager’s busy life, it’s not impossible. When a thought comes to mind, open the Notes app and type it out. Scribble it on the back of math homework. Or, go further and use a journal. It doesn’t have to be expensive or new. Every night, write down a quick summary of your day or what you find most thought-provoking at that moment. I know each and every student in my school has a story to share. Everyone must find value in their own writing and in their own stories.

Optimizing Writing Time: The Power of Planning

Spending more time planning than writing might be counterintuitive, but it can help reduce anxiety around writing.

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By: Izzy Nichols (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

What is the first thing you do when faced with a blank page and a serious writing assignment? Often times, we jump right in and try to fill the page as fast as we can. There is nothing more anxiety producing than a blank page, staring back at you, with a deadline that seems to be approaching rapidly. So you just start typing. Anything. 

According to Courtland Bovee and John Thill in their book Business Communications Essentials (2015), writing should be tackled in a three step process: planning, writing, and completing. In the planning phase, you should focus on analyzing the situation, gathering relevant information, and getting organized overall (this is when you would develop a detailed outline). In the writing phase, the message is composed, and you carefully adapt the information to appeal to the audience. In the final stage, what the authors call the “complete” stage, this is where you revise, proofread, and produce the message.

What is surprising about this model is the recommended amount of time suggested to spend on each phase. The authors suggest that as a rule, writers should use roughly half of their time for planning, one-quarter of their time writing, and the remaining quarter for editing and completing the work. Using only a quarter of your time for writing seems counter-intuitive. We all just want to fill up the blank page as soon as possible. But as the authors argue, by devoting more time to planning, the writing process itself is faster, more efficient, and less stressful. 

As stated before, part of effective planning is creating a detailed outline. Therefore I would like to spend a little bit of time talking about how to create a “map” for your essay. According to The George Mason University Writing Center, outlines help to organize our ideas, visualize the structure of a paper, and develop the main points. Having an outline also makes it easier to see how each paragraph will connect back to the thesis and the main points of your argument. The first step is to write a clear thesis or purpose statement as a guide. Then, organize your outline in a way that best fits the requirements for the paper. Carefully read the assignment description, and make sure the structure of your outline addresses every requirement.  

The next step is to create a list with all the main points you want to make, and add any evidence and research that will help support those points. Just to try to organize your main ideas into a bulleted or numbered list. Under each point, indent and include the points you will discuss in each paragraph. You do not need to write full sentences in an outline, but make sure to include enough information to help you remember what you were going to say when you come back to the outline when writing your paper. The last stage is to carefully revise, edit, and make any changes to your outline that will help the paper flow better. It is important to not rush this stage. Remember, at least fifty percent of your time on task should be spent on planning. So don’t be intimidated by a blank page. Take a deep breath, commit to do the appropriate amount of planning, and know that it will help make the writing process more efficient and less stressful.

Through the Looking Glass: Gaining a Fresh Perspective on Education Through Writing Center Work

The competition for grades and scores is contributing to student anxiety and an increase in opportunity gaps.

UnschoolingBy: Savanna Cowley (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

Out of the several formative tutoring experiences I’ve had over the past year and a half, one particular classroom visit sticks out to me as representative of something much greater than Writing Center work. After a rather loud conference with the teacher, they pointed me in the direction of one student who was struggling to start the assignment due at the end of the hour. I gingerly walked over and started a conversation with the student, who was obviously embarrassed to be called out in front of their peers, and together we decided to scrap the topic of their paper that didn’t particularly interest them. A few days of rigorous work and great connection went by before we turned in the essay. Needless to say, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had done my job very well. 

A year ago, I would have never tutored any one of my peers like that. Being your typical AP student, I was used to muscling through papers and projects that didn’t engage my interests, my only focus on what my teacher wanted to see from me and the steps it took to get to an A. My mindset would influence the kind of work I did with the kids I tutored, who were oftentimes lowerclassmen who had more creative leeway than AP courses did. I would work to get the assignment done and perfect-score worthy, not to connect with the student and build their confidence as writers. 

Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald describe the writing center as a “third space”, an objective place within a school that is supposed to be completely separated from the school faculty and students, both in function and practice. Over a year of sitting in this glass room and observing the values that American schooling enforces onto kids and you start to view this objectivity as a blessing and a curse. 

On the one hand, and from the help of experimental grading from some of my current teachers, I’ve been able to look past measuring my understanding of arbitrary material with letter grades and instead focus on building skills in self-reflection, communication, and critical thinking. I’m being absolved of viewing education as a competition amongst my peers and only seeing my academic achievements on a 1600-point scale.  On the other hand, I am exposed to the immense hurt and abandonment in the building I learn in, seeing the kids who are so often left behind in pursuit of measuring God-knows-what in a way that no one understands. Not everyone is served by this current educational system. In fact, not a single person is and ever will be. 

Competition breeds discrimination. Putting kids up side-by-side and measuring their worth in skills and contexts that are not valuable to everyone is toxic. Thinking about the end result and the percentage of mastery given to a certain assignment has never served a single student during a tutoring session, so how could anyone expect it to serve elsewhere? If grades do motivate, they only motivate anxiety to develop in every kid who could instead be ensured that they are valued and capable of learning. There is no real purpose in our traditional grading system except to serve the students who can afford the “benefits” of receiving high scores and push and hold any student who can’t below the surface. 

For any sort of progression in our battle to end inequity, we must start with the education system. I do not want to be apologized to for a student having a disability, just learning to speak English, or who have been sent by their teacher because they continuously fail assignments they never connected to or understood in the first place. I am done hearing apologies from my peers about what they think are nuisances but are really just the results of a structure that was never built to help them learn; we are the ones who perpetuate it to be so. We must reframe and rebuild our educational complex, and the clarity a writing center offers is the best place to start.

“Good Writing:” An Unfair Standard

When “good writing” is based on a single standard, many students can’t find success and have their voices undervalued in school.

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By: Madeleine Van Delden (’20)
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center Co-President

Being a senior writing center tutor, I like to look back and reflect on the practices of my teachers. In my classrooms, the phrase, “good writing” was thrown around when discussing grammar, punctuation, and structure. More often than not, we would practice editing each others writing with bright markers, cutting out and adding in as we saw fit. Some of my peers hated writing, and I can see why. The feeling of your writing being thrown away in front of you can be compared to hopelessness. Instead of fostering the ideas already on the page, they are replaced with what “should be said.” This has shifted writing away from its intended purpose and causes young students to fall out of love with the subject. 

When English classes start to revolve around only one type of writing, students will start to achieve this standard, a standard that is constantly changing based on the classroom and teacher. Writing with a sense of purpose and thinking outside of the box are no longer welcome in these focused classroom environments. If there is only one type of writing and therefore a single way of thought, the point of my writing becomes mute. Carmen Kynard summarizes this problem in “New Life in this Dormant Creature,” by stating, “we never ask the questions: what the hell students writin? for whom?” When teachers are unable to understand the significance of the writing piece and the context the student is writing in, the barrier between the two becomes worse. 

Once, a student came into the writing center and shoved their laptop to my side of the table. As they took a seat, they let out a deep sigh and asked me to “fix everything.” I took note of their indifference towards the paper and asked them to describe what they would like to work on in the session. But as I placed the laptop between us, I noticed all of the long comments and highlights throughout the page. It was clear that the comments made were not done by the student sitting next to me, but their teacher and peers. I could see the defeat the student must have taken after the correction process and explained to them that isn’t the Writing Center’s goal. Once we got over that barrier, the session changed into something more positive with the student reading allowed their own work and adding in what they felt was needed. The paper changed from something that was clearly written for a teacher into something the student wrote for themselves. 

Both problems (an unfair writing standard and students developing hate for writing) will be difficult to change in a short amount of time across a high school or middle school. The issue is not just manifested within one teacher, but a multitude of teachers over the years of a students education. However, educators can start by using a growth mindset, for themselves and their students, to promote a healthy attitude towards writing. Carmen Kynard reminds us of the systemic pressures children in education are facing and the unfair ways students are expected to write. Students are no longer taking ownership for their papers because they believe what they’ve written doesn’t truly belong to them. As tutors, it is our job to celebrate all writing and all writers.

The Importance of Unhurried Writing

Student writing is often a rush to meet an end goal, but getting writers to slow down through the process can have surprising benefits.

By: Alison MacGillivray (’20)
First-Year Tutor

Occasionally, I have a student come into the writing center, antsy to finally finish their paper and move on. It often confuses these students when, rather than jumping into a stream of corrections and criticisms, I ask questions like: “What is the main idea of this piece?” and “What are you trying to say?”

Students are so wrapped up in the end product that they rush their writing in order to be finished. This rush is the root cause of many problems, such as a limited argument or a string of inconsistencies. In the writing center, we work to encourage taking it back a couple of steps, all the way back to the main idea. Writers who rush find themselves losing grasp of the main idea in their work, as they veer far off topic and don’t allot themselves the time to go back and revise that.

When a student brings an essay into a writing center session, I like to work through each separate paragraph with them. This allows us to encounter every “I don’t know what to say” statement with a plan. As the student finds themselves stuck, I ask the question, “what is the main purpose of this paragraph?” A student often produces the answer that they had been looking for as they walk me through the meaning of their writing.

As Emily L. Loney says in her article, “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center,” moments of pure brainstorming and conversation, though seemingly counterproductive, often produce further development in a piece of writing than simply reading it and pointing out flaws. This open conversation allows a student to create their own original ideas, then use the help of the tutor to put those ideas onto paper. Furthermore, the discussion aids in the fundamental relationship between tutor and student.

When faced with a difficult assignment or prompt, students are so overwhelmed with the complexity of the project that they take hold of the first idea that they have. But as Brad Hughes highlights in his article “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement,” finding the answer to a difficult problem does not come easily, and students should not expect it to. Acceptance of this reality allows the student to open themselves up to the idea of taking their time.

In order to take full advantage of this idea, students need to prepare for a long writing process. Saving all of their questions and concerns for a single tutoring session right before the due date does not provide ample time for this method. The idea of slow writing should not be confused with procrastination. Both are done over a period of time, but slow writing is consistently practiced over this time, while procrastination waits until the last moment to do the work. A student really motivated towards this style of writing should consider visiting the writing center multiple times over a few weeks. Skyline’s writing center tutors adapt their tutoring skills to each individual student, understanding that everyone has different methods of writing. For some students, this slow-writing movement drives them crazy, but for others, this is what they have been searching for.

Works Cited

Hughes, Brad. “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement.” Another Word, 24 Jan. 2011, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

Loney, Emily L. “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center.” Another Word, 12 Mar. 2018, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

In Defense of Constructive Compliments

“Constructive compliments” are often disparaged in traditional academic settings, but it’s worth revisiting their use and implementation in tutoring practice.

By: Catherine Small (’19)
First-Year Tutor

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I was doing an Online Writing Lab session the other day and found myself struggling to come up with suggestions for the student’s paper. Her voice was strong, and it felt unnecessary to point out things like grammar or syntax just for the sake of correcting something. It was then that I realized; why can’t a successful session be comprised of only positive feedback? Of course, it would need to be meaningful positive feedback, but the same goes for critical feedback as well- so what’s the issue?

It is commonly accepted and widely believed that all good feedback must be critical. “The truth hurts,” we say. Conditioned by the educational systems that have raised us, we enter a session intent on seeking out and correcting errors first and foremost. Positive feedback becomes an afterthought; nothing more than “fluff” or filler content to cushion the blow of the important stuff. However, this is a toxic mindset. When we approach a session this way, our feedback can become pedantic and patronizing rather than helpful and constructive; we sprinkle in a “This is great!” here, a “Good description!” there, and call it a day. As Carol Dweck explained in “Revisiting the ‘Growth Mindset’”, while these kinds of empty remarks may “…make [the student] feel good in the moment”, they fail to give them anything specific and concrete they can carry with them once the session is over.

Constructive and genuine positive feedback can help bolster a student’s confidence in their writing abilities going forward. So tell them what they did well- and mean it. Maybe they have a really unique personal voice. Maybe they organized their paper in a really smart way. Maybe they convey emotion really well in their writing. Whatever the case may be, find something you truly believe they did well, and let them know! We often discuss the ways in which poor feedback can have lasting impacts on students, but rarely do we acknowledge the reverse- if one bad session can turn someone away from writing, then maybe one good one can bring them closer to it.

Work Cited

Dweck, Carol. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’.” Education Week. 25 June 2018,