By Seth Spencer, Writing Consultant
The following is a paraphrased version of a writing consultation I recently had:
Me: So does that make sense?
Writer: …I think so.
Me (not convinced): Okay…let’s talk about this next part. What is your topic sentence in this paragraph?
Me: What are you trying to do in this paragraph? What’s the central idea?
Writer: I’m not sure.
Me (exasperated): I think you’re laying the critical groundwork for this sub-argument you make later in the piece, aren’t you?
Do you see the trend? As my bumbling attempt to interact with this writer demonstrates, it’s easy for writing consultants to fall into the trap of posing leading questions. I asked a number of questions with fairly obvious answers (obvious to me, anyway), and I became frustrated when the writer didn’t understand. Here are a few tips for working with reticent writers so that you don’t make the same mistakes I made.
- Don’t Pose Leading Questions
Posing a question with an obvious answer might seem like a good way to get a shy writer engaged in the revision process, but it isn’t very productive. It does little to challenge the writer the think critically about her writing. Instead, stick with questions of a specific nature (e.g., What is your topic sentence in this paragraph?) even if the writer is unsure of the answer. This leads me to my next tip…
- Be Comfortable in the Silence
I did a terrible job of adhering to this one in my recent session. Due to a host of factors, many writers will clam up or provide one-word responses to the questions you pose. Rather than blurting out the answer to your own question, just ask the question, sit back, and get comfortable in the silence. If she doesn’t know the answer, the writer will look at you, expect you to respond, and a really awkward silence will follow. Don’t fear the awkwardness: embrace it! The writer will eventually say something to break the silence, thus instilling a sense of dialogue rather than monologue within the session.
- Get to Know the Writer
This is a vitally important step, especially for writers who were “forced” to come to the Writing Studio or who were discouraged by a grade or an instructor’s comments. Establishing an atmosphere of familiarity will encourage the writer to open up to you, resulting in a more productive consultation. For example, ask the writer what her major is, how her semester is going, what her impressions of her classes/the university are so far, etc. Small gestures like these foster transparency and cooperation during writing sessions and may even encourage a shy writer to be more vocal about her piece.
I hope these tips provide a little insight into this challenging topic. Getting a shy writer to open up during a consultation is an extremely rewarding experience. After all, as the old saying goes, “Still waters run deep.”