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Consultation on Drafts

The majority of students we see at the Writing Center come with drafts. Most come wanting the Fellow to “see if a paper flows” and tell them what needs to be done to improve it. You may need to encourage the student to articulate his concerns more specifically. You’ll also want to be sure the student understands you aren’t there to “correct” the paper; the student is the author of the paper and needs to play an active part in the conference.

Many tutors like to have students briefly describe what they have written before actually reading any of the draft. Doing so gets students talking about their writing, and when they talk about their papers, student who just want their papers “fixed” often discover for themselves where the paper’s problems are. In addition, there can be a discrepancy—sometimes a significant one—between what the student thinks he has written and what he has actually written. Many students are more articulate about their ideas when they speak than on the written page, and therefore a quick conversation can frequently give you a sense of what the student really wanted to say. The Fellow, working as a mirror, can also point out problem areas she hears in a student’s description by saying, for example: “It sounds to me like you haven’t found a clear focus yet. Can you tell me exactly what your thesis is or point it out in your paper?”

The Basic Guide to Consultations on Drafts outlines some useful strategies for getting students involved in reading the draft. One not mentioned there, however, is reading the paper out loud to the student, or having the student read it out loud to you. Students can often hear problems in their writing that they cannot see. While you don’t often have time to read an entire draft aloud (it would have to be a very short paper!), this can be a good strategy for working on an introduction or a particular section that the student wants to focus the session on.

When working on drafts, argument and organization (we might also call them thesis and structure) should be your top priorities. But you may also notice worrisome sentence-level problems and wonder how you can address them as well. One approach is to link global problems—with argument or organization—to related sentence-level problems (passive voice or run-ons, for example). Students who overuse the passive voice are often not yet confident enough to take ownership of their argument; those with run-ons may not have a sense of the borders between their ideas. In other words, the same issues may manifest themselves at both the level of argument and structure and at the level of the sentence. In both cases, students may find it useful if you can make your point by using concrete examples.

No matter how experienced you become, you will still have occasional frustrating sessions. Most tutors feel strongly that last-minutes visits are among the least successful sessions since a paper due the next day (or that evening!) cannot be significantly revised after the consultation. Be frank with students—who may be a bit panicked—about what they can realistically revise within their timeframes: “If your paper is due first thing tomorrow, we’ll need to focus on one or two priorities for revision. Let’s see what we can do about clarifying your thesis this afternoon.” Let students know that they can receive more help, and perhaps more useful advice, if they come at an earlier stage of the writing process the next time. Students are welcome to return to the Writing Center with revised drafts, if they have time before the final paper is due. The student who arrives with a draft and plenty of time to do significant revision should be congratulated on her foresight and energy.

See also the Basic Guidelines for Consultations on Drafts