USF Writing Studio

Archive for November, 2014


On Writer-Centered, Non-Directive Consulting

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Prior to coming to the University of South Florida, I wrote and edited web copy, press releases, blog posts, and social media updates for businesses. Whenever a client or colleague requested feedback on a piece of writing, what I provided was very directive. I routinely marked up documents with notes along the lines of, “Fix this,” and “Remove that.” Because of my background, the Writing Studio’s philosophy of conversing with writers about their text instead of marking it up and asking questions instead of giving suggestions was foreign to me.

During my first few weeks as a Writing Studio consultant, I made a conscious effort to adhere to the non-directive, writer-centered style of tutoring rather than slip into the more familiar editing-based approach. The adjustment was difficult not only because it required unlearning an old habit and forming a new habit, but also because most of the writers wanted me to be more directive. A few writers even acted irritated that I wouldn’t simply tell them what to do with their work, so I had to learn ways to consult in accordance with the Writing Studio’s philosophy without leaving writers feeling unhelped.

Over the past few months, I’ve adopted techniques that make it easier for me to feel comfortable assisting writers while remaining non-directive. Here are the methods that have proved the most useful:

Having the writer read. The first couple of weeks I felt nervous during my sessions, especially if a writer seemed unhappy. Because of this nervousness, any time a writer seemed hesitant to read her work out loud I’d say, “Or I could read it if you’d prefer.” I quickly realized almost all writers will have me read if I make that an option. It seems that reading aloud benefits writers–they often catch their own mistakes while reading–so I now ask writers to read without framing it as a choice.

Embracing silence. Allowing stretches of silence in the consultation became easier as I felt more comfortable. Early on, when I would ask a writer a question and he would sit there staring at me like I was entirely unhelpful, I would cave in and make a suggestion. Now, I wait. Most of the time the writer will come up with an idea. If the writer says, “I don’t know,” I’ll ask, “What if you had to guess, or say anything, even if it isn’t what you will use?” Many times the writer is being silent not because he is clueless, but because he is lacking in confidence. The idea a writer finally puts forth after moments of silence is often a good one.

Paraphrasing what I’m reading. Instead of pointing out a problematic sentence, phrase, or word and telling the writer to replace or rewrite it, I paraphrase the sentence. Usually I’ll say, “When I read this, I think you’re trying to tell us that…” If the meaning I am getting is not the meaning the writer intended, she will usually spring into action and start writing down (or speaking) an alternate way of stating her point. Sometimes the writer goes a direction I would not have predicted, reinforcing that had I been directive, it could have limited rather than helped her.

Speaking in generals, not specifics. I quickly realized that asking, “Do you think you should put a comma here?” and pointing to the spot that needs a comma is really the same as saying, “You need a comma here,” except there’s a question mark at the end of the sentence. Now, when I mention grammatical errors or organizational issues, I will point out the issue by speaking generally about the entire sentence or paragraph. I say something along the lines of, “There are some missing commas in this section–do you see where?”

Mentioning patterns. Often, writers make the same mistakes over and over throughout their work. Once I have pointed out an issue, I refer back to the first instance of that issue when it comes up again. The writer will often begin making changes herself with little direction if it is an issue we have already addressed. For example, instead of saying, “This paragraph’s first sentence is not a topic sentence,” I would say, “This paragraph appears to have an organizational issue similar to what we discussed in the previous paragraph. How would you like to address it?”

Overall, I have learned an immense amount about writer-centered consulting during my short time in the Writing Studio. I am grateful for the experience because not only does it make me a better consultant, it is helping me become a better composition instructor to my students and creative writing workshop partner to my colleagues. I look forward to learning more through my Writing Studio experience in the coming semester.

By Jessica Thompson, MFA in Creative Writing

Writers’ individual differences: Reflecting on my researcher and consultant “selves”

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Hello, fellow consultants. It’s been nearly two months since I started working at the Writing Studio, and as an advocate of reflective practices, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences with different writers. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the way in which my “researcher self” and the areas I investigate influence how I understand the sessions, the writers, and my own “consultant self”. My main area of research is related to students’ individual differences (especially learning strategies and beliefs) and how they impact second language learning. Even if the context of the Writing Studio is different in the sense that the sessions are not classes, and our role is not to teach, I still found interesting associations.

As I shared in the mentor meeting, one of the greatest difficulties I had at the beginning was being able to work at a paragraph level. I had to get used to this, and especially communicate the writers that this would be the way we would proceed in the sessions, so that they knew what to expect from each session. In some cases, writers easily agreed to work in this way. However, there are other writers who go to the Studio to have their papers proofread, and in such cases, it becomes quite difficult to get them to understand the way of working is different. After a couple of weeks I started getting comfortable with working paragraph by paragraph. Perhaps one of my greatest concerns in working at paragraph level was that it implied not being able to finish revising a piece of writing in a session. I felt that not reaching to the end of the paper would lead to writers’ disappointment and feelings of frustration. However, after all, I began realizing our most important contribution as consultants is providing writers with strategies so they can work on different aspects of the revision process. By explicitly stating they could make use of those tools in subsequent paragraphs, I observed writers left the sessions with a sense of satisfaction, feeling that what we had discussed could ultimately help them become more autonomous and critical of their own work in other situations. As I mentioned previously, strategies is one of my research areas, and the opportunity of working at the Writing Studio enabled me to incorporate some of the aspects I investigate, into my work practices.

A second aspect on which I have reflected both during and after my consultations is also related to one of my main research interests: beliefs. I have observed that writers react to the approach we follow at the Writing Studio in different ways. Those writers who think that our job is to be in charge of their papers and ideas, tend to get a bit frustrated when they find out they need to participate actively in the sessions. Instead, those who believe that writing is a process done in collaboration involving various steps, seem to have a more positive attitude during the sessions. As research has documented over the past 20 years, the beliefs students hold about a task or phenomenon impacts greatly on the actions they take to perform the task, and thereby, on the performance of such task. The experiences I have observed at the Writing Studio are no exception. Even if I don’t have empirical evidence, I was able to see that writers have various beliefs about their role, our role as consultants, and about the writing process itself. Such insights seem to influence the way the session flows, involving their attitude, and our reaction to those attitudes.

Reflecting on these first months at the Writing Studio was an enriching and enlightening experience. As I mentioned above, I was able to see the importance of giving writers tools for them to become more autonomous when working outside the Studio, and to be able to go over the revision process on their own and at their own pace. Moreover, I could see that similarly to what happens in the second language classroom, each writer has his/her own beliefs about the process of writing and about their roles as writers, as well as of our role as consultants. I think it is important to consider these aspects, as this will impact what they end up taking from our sessions.

By M. Matilde Olivero, PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology

The Writing Studio: A Learning Space for All Kinds of Writers

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

The Writing Studio at the University of South Florida can be a place for all different types of writers to find help. Now, many think of our space as the place to tighten up their papers, check grammar and make sure they are following their assignments. That certainly happens. We work hard to make sure a writer is getting the sort of help that they want/need. I find, however, that sessions that talk about other issues tend to more rewarding, both for the writer and the consultant.

A writer came into the Studio a few weeks ago, and he needed a lot of help. He had come in to the Studio as a walk-in the day before, received great advice, and then returned with no progress. I spoke to the consultant from that prior meeting, and he characterized this writer as “the most unprepared writer” he had ever dealt with. I cannot disagree with that assessment. This writer (whom I will call Donavan) had come back to school after a hiatus and found himself struggling to writer papers. He felt totally out of place in the discourse communities his teachers asked him to join. He wanted to succeed, and was not afraid to ask for help. In talking about his writing issues, Donavan showed me the text of his email communication with his professor. Donavan needed and wanted help to succeed in this new chapter of his life.

As in a normal writing session, we talked through his goals for the session and his self-perceived issues. As we spoke, he took out his many sticky notes from the day before, and brought up the reading he had done at the prior consultant’s advice. The pieces were all laid out the day before, but there was just one thing missing: Donavan just could not get himself to write. He claimed that he just sat in front of a computer screen, feeling helpless, and could not type a single word. Everything he told me pointed to some pretty severe writer anxiety.

It was clear that Donavan needed to get some words on the page. At this time I took the opportunity to pool the resources around me. One of the other consultants had a lot of experience with free writing and I sought her advice on how to proceed. I asked Donavan to sit down at our computers. I kept all of his materials back at the consultation table, and asked him to start writing. At first he felt stupid, and every word took forever. At my colleague’s suggestion, I told Donavan to forget about the backspace button and just try to keep typing. After five minutes, Donavan really picked up his pace and after just ten minutes had gone by, he had typed two thirds of a page, single spaced, of his assignment.

The last twenty minutes of the session were spent talking about the work he had just done. I pointed out that once he had double spaced the lines and added in some transition sentences to connect some of his more itinerant thoughts, his paper would be nearly finished. He had only been free writing for 10 minutes. Donavan was a writer that had all the capacity he needed, but no confidence that his voice had something worth saying. He left the Writing Studio feeling immensely better than when he arrived.

This was one of the more unusual sessions I have conducted in my two months at the Studio. But I think it points to the broad utility of our space. We are a center devoted to improving writing and writers of all levels and genres. And we have the experience and expertise to help such diverse writers in many backgrounds of our different consultants. When I think back on this session, it stands as a reminder that each time I meet with a writer, it can be be a profound learning experience, even for students just interested in grammar.

By Andrew Hillen, MA in Rhetoric and Composition
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