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Working with the Student: Strategies for Addressing Structural Problems

1. The Backwards Outline

When a student brings in a draft, a great way to begin the discussion about structure is to ask the student create an outline of his paper from the draft. You may want to create a similar outline while reading through the paper yourself. After the student has finished, ask him to explain the outline to you. Be sure to ask why each paragraph is placed where it is. If appropriate, ask the student what effect it would have if various paragraphs were switched. Be constantly checking, with the student, that the paper is organized logically and that that logic is present on the page. Asking questions is key. I’ve had consultations with papers that appeared very messy and illogical when I read them, but the student had a clear idea of why each paragraph was where it was. As Jeff Brooks says, “Get the student to talk. It’s her paper; she is the expert on it.” Encourage creativity and depth of thought. Even when a student has logically structured a paper, there may be a better option available. (See also Backwards Outlining for more information).


2. The Verbal Explanation

Many students can make connections when they speak that they fail to make in writing. Often times, asking a student what to verbally explain and defend their thesis will provide a more elegant structure than what is on the page.


3. Freewriting and Transition Work

Freewriting is always a useful tool, and working on structure is no exception. You may ask the student to look at their outline and freewrite transition sentences between each paragraph (also see stitching). This will force the student to think about the logic that connects their paper, and it will provide them with something concrete that they may be able to use once the consultation is over.

Freewriting may also be useful more broadly; you may ask the student to write a brief summary of their argument, or to brainstorm different possibilities for structuring their paper.