College Writing Center 101


by Megan Elliott

You’ve gone to class, done the reading, even participated in class discussions. So far this semester, things have been going great. But now you have to write. Maybe it’s a two or three page essay in response to an assigned texts for one of your classes. Or perhaps it’s a major, 20-page research paper. It doesn’t matter, because you’re terrified. Perhaps you’re worried that your writing isn’t up to a college level. Or it could be that you don’t really understand the assignment. Or maybe you just have a classic case of writer’s block. Where do you turn to in such a time of crisis, with a due date looming and a severe case of anxiety causing you to lose precious sleep? Never fear – this is exactly the kind of situation that the tutors at your school’s writing center are trained to deal with.

Nearly every college and university has a writing center where students can go to get help with a variety of writing problems. Usually staffed by other students, these centers are a valuable resource for any student, especially those who are returning to school and may need a refresher on some of the essentials of academic writing. At many centers, you’ll simply be able to walk-in and see a tutor; in some cases you might have to make an appointment. The session with a tutor will likely be one-on-one, and the meeting may last as long as two hours, or be as short as ten minutes. Whatever the set-up is, the tutors at the writing center can help you turn your writing into something your professor will actually enjoy reading.

Here are a few brief tips to help you to make the most of your college’s writing center:

First, realize that the college writing center is there to help all kinds of students, including you. When I worked as a tutor in my university’s writing center, it wasn’t unusual for me to encounter students who felt that coming to us for help was something to be ashamed of, or that it was a sign that they were “stupid” and didn’t know how to write. But usually, a college’s writing center is open to students with all levels of skills, from non-native English speakers with straightforward questions about grammar and vocabulary, to graduate students who are looking for a second set of eyes to go over their work. Tutors are happy to work with students of all levels, and with all different kinds of backgrounds – it makes the day that much more interesting. The most important thing to know about writing is that every writer can benefiit from constructive feedback and criticism, and that is exactly what writing centers provide.

You can visit the writing center at any stage in the writing process. Writing happens in stages, from brainstorming ideas, to outlining a paper, writing and revising drafts, and proofreading the final product. You can (and should) schedule an appointment at your school’s writing center at any point in the writing process. A good tutor can help you develop ideas for a paper, point out weaknesses (and strengths) in a rough draft, or explain to you some of the finer points of properly citing sources. But be aware that all writing tutors bristle at the following words: “I just need you to proofread/correct my grammar.” The writing center is not an editing service. A tutor may notice that you have a problem with possessives in your paper, or that you use the passive voice too frequently. He or she may explain to you how to fix those errors, and discuss ways to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. But don’t expect a tutor to silently mark up your paper with a red pen and then send you on your way. Which brings us to the next tip.

Your session at the writing center should be a dialogue. Your tutor is not your teacher. She’s not here to give you a grade — she’s here to make you a better writer. Most tutors are gifted and enthusiastic writers themselves, and are truly excited about helping others improve their writing skills. Tutors will want to talk to you about your writing process, how you generate ideas, what interests you about the class and the assignment you’re working on, and any other concerns you might have. They might spend more time asking you questions than providing simple, straightforward answers. The goal is to get you to think critically about writing and communication. Often, things you have written will seem crystal-clear to you, but a discussion with a tutor will reveal a hole in your argument or points that could be better explained.

Make multiple trips to the writing center. If you come to the writing center looking for quick fix, you’re likely to be disappointed. But if you realize that becoming a better writer takes time and dedication, you’ll probably get a lot more out of your visits. That’s right, I said visits. As in more than one. No one starts turning out Hemingway-esque prose overnight, and if you really want to become a better writer, making multiple trips to the writing center to talk about your work will be helpful. Some centers might even allow you to schedule a weekly, recurring appointment with the same tutor. Meeting with the same tutor is a great strategy, because you get to work with someone who, over time, develops an understanding of your unique needs and writing style.

Be prepared. First, if you have a draft of your paper, print it out and bring it with you. Having a hard copy for the tutor to look over is a lot faster (and easier on the tutor’s eyes) than looking at a file on your laptop’s 13-inch screen. This also allows you to jot down quick notes in the margins of your paper. And, if you have the assignment, bring that with you as well. Knowing what the professor is looking for will help your tutor guide you in the right direction. You’d be surprised how many problems with academic writing can be traced directly to a simple problem – a student’s confusion about what their professor is really asking them to do.

Finally, keep an open mind. As an older student arriving on campus, you bring a significantly different set of skills and experiences to the classroom than do your younger counterparts. You may be returning to school after many years in a job that required extensive writing. Or you may be unnerved at the idea of being tutored by a graduate or undergraduate student many years younger than yourself. But rather than view these situations as negative, think about ways to turn them into positives. If you’re already an accomplished writer in one field, a meeting with a tutor may help you to identify ways to apply the skills that made you successful in your career to your academic writing. A younger tutor may be able to advise you on new trends in academia, such as using gender-neutral language, or the most effective ways to use the Internet for research.

In my experience as a writing tutor, older students were among the most dedicated and receptive individuals I worked with, since they usually came to the center with specific goals in mind and eager to learn. As an online handout available from the University of Kansas Writing Center points out, for returning students, “sentence-level skills may be superior to those of traditional students, but that is small consolation when trying to juggle real-world writing experiences with the expectations of academia.” A good tutor will be aware of the unique needs of non-traditional students, and find ways to address those needs in a tutoring session so the student can develop as a successful writer. As Robyn Parry noted in an article for Writing Lab Newsletter, adult students should realize that the writing center is “a useful tool that can help them make a smooth transition to formal education – and to writing.”

Online Resources

OWL: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.
Features numerous handouts on frequently asked questions about academic writing.

Ten Ways to Prepare for a Trip to the Writing Center.
A former tutor offers some tips about how to make the most of your trip to the writing center.

Writer’s Handbook from the University of Wisconsin, Madison Writing Center. Covers common types of writing assignments, as well as grammar, style, and citing sources.

Megan Elliott is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, and a former writing tutor.

See also Proofreading Your Writing Assignments and Mastering the Writing Process.