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