Teaching Writing

Framing the Writing Center for Your Students

writing center student close up

By: Alisa Russell

Alisa Russell is a Master’s student in the Teaching Writing and Literature program at George Mason University.  She works as an administrator in the Writing Center, a research assistant for Writing Across the Curriculum, and a teaching assistant for First Year Composition. Her current research interests include the Writing About Writing movement in composition theory/pedagogy and Writing Center training and strategies for working with multilingual writers. You can reach her at

As a recent Writing Center tutor, a Writing Center administrator, and a current teacher of First Year Composition, I am uniquely positioned between the worlds of the Writing Center and the classroom. This position gives me a type of fluency in both languages – that of the Writing Center and that of a classroom teacher – and I can see spaces where the two languages do not necessarily align. One of these disjointed spaces can occur in how professors talk about and conceptualize the Writing Center for their students and how the Writing Center attempts to create its image and goals for student writers in all disciplines.

As a tutor, I was privy to insider student information that only comes from the one-on-one, peer setting of a Writing Center session. That insider information, along with my own ethnographic research, made it clear that professors have the greatest amount of influence over why, when, and for what purpose students visit the Writing Center. When and in what manner we mention or encourage a student to attend the Writing Center has a great affect on the goals and motivation for a session, the outcome or success of the session, or if the session happens at all.

However, only once I began juggling thirty-eight student writers in my own classroom did I understand why professors and Writing Center staff might not be talking about the Writing Center’s services in the same terms. In the ever-running-short-class-time, it seems completely natural to suggest a visit to the Writing Center to fill in the gaps for what we do not have time to cover in class. For example, I’ve found myself encouraging students in a brief end-of-class comment to visit the Writing Center to cover citation use because I simply do not have the time or stamina to review every rule in detail. We can also represent the Writing Center as a place of remedial assistance; we get a stack of thoroughly disappointing papers, and either announce to the whole class that some visits to the Writing Center might be worthwhile, or even write the words “Go to the Writing Center” on a couple of the more dire cases.

Unfortunately, these kinds of offhand mentions of the Writing Center as a back-up plan or a place of remediation do not allow students to take full advantage of the Writing Center’s services. Even with casual mentions or a note in the syllabus, students do not understand all the Writing Center can offer a writer, or when and how they should use the Center. Since professors can wield the greatest influence over students’ conceptions of the Writing Center’s services, I would like to offer some suggestions for how to frame the Writing Center for your students, which will hopefully lead to more fruitful sessions and improved learning.

  1. Writing Center sessions are a conversation. 

Many students come to the Writing Center thinking the tutor will “doctor” their paper or give them the missing answers that they need to receive their desired grade. However, the Writing Center tutors strongly believe that students need to maintain autonomy and ownership over their writing and their ideas, so they often use the 45-minute space of a session to engage in a discussion about the student’s assignment, goals, ideas, roadblocks, and needs. The tutor and student will read through the paper together before negotiating what areas may need improvement. They then learn from one another about writing conventions, subject matter, and process practices. Through the interdependent learning, the paper usually improves. Because the learning happens through questioning, conversation, and maintained student autonomy, it will more likely transfer to the next paper instead of only reaching the paper at hand. Reminding students to expect this kind of social, interactive learning as opposed to a hand-it-over approach can help them better prepare ideas or issues they want to discuss in the session, and it can also remove that moment of shock that can happen when students realize their tutor won’t silently edit their paper.

  1. The Writing Center helps at any stage of the writing process.

Not many students know that they don’t have to bring in an almost-ready-to-turn-in draft or a paper bleeding by the red pen. Instead, they can work with a Writing Center tutor before they’ve even put a word down. These brainstorming sessions, which include discussing the assignment prompt or a brief outline before the drafting process, can enrich the development of ideas and organization from the start and discourage off-topic papers. Students can then follow up with a rough draft, in which the tutor and student can further clarify claims, evidence, analysis, and transitions, before bringing in even another draft to examine grammatical and syntactical concerns. A student can benefit from multiple sessions covering the many stages of writing, or they can pick and choose the stages that they most need another experienced writer for. For example, one student may need to talk out her ideas with the tutor before drafting, but then feel confident to go the rest of the process alone, while another student may want to work with the same tutor through brainstorming and several drafts. Either way, the sessions are meant to be used in whichever ways the students want – encouraging students to use the Center for whichever stage or stages necessary will lead to better papers and better learning in the end.

  1. Writing Center sessions seek to construct transferrable knowledge about writing.

While many students may be very focused on (and stressed about) the paper or assignment they bring in for a particular session, Writing Center tutors always work in strategies to improve the student’s writing beyond the one particular paper. Generally, tutors attempt to meet the writer where she is by eliciting what the writer would like to work on, reading the paper aloud, and then negotiating an agenda for what issues need to be addressed in the session. However, when addressing those issues in the session, the tutor will often put the paper aside, set up examples for the tutee, talk through ideas, discuss and practice different writing strategies and approaches, etc. Then the tutor will come back to the paper and let the student apply the new learning. In this way, the student is able to realize, name, practice, and transfer knowledge all in one 45-minute session, which means she is more likely to remember and execute that knowledge on the next paper. It’s important to note that this guide of tutoring improves the writer in the long-term, but it can limit how many issues the tutor and tutee can cover in one session. As a result, if a paper needs more extensive revision, the student may want to make several appointments. Reminding students that regularly visiting the Writing Center can help them improve as writers on the whole – as opposed to doctoring the one assignment – will better prepare students for the expectations and limitations of a session.

  1. Writing Center sessions provide valuable feedback that is vital for all writers.

So many students come to the Writing Center because they “are not good writers.” Tutors hear this phrase over and over. While the Center is a wonderful resource for those who do especially struggle with writing or are behind the curriculum, it is also a place for all writers at any level or stage of writing to receive instructive feedback. Writing is a social activity – from creating purpose out of exigency, to writing as a response to others, to publishing for an audience – but it is also social in the composing process itself. Having another set of eyes on one’s work is crucial to produce effective writing, no matter how advanced the writer. Emphasize to students that a trip to the Writing Center is not a sign of weak writing skills, but it is instead an integral part of communicating their ideas effectively.

So the next time your class is approaching a major writing assignment, consider carving out some space to explain how the Writing Center can benefit your students, improve their development of the assignment, and lead to long-term writing knowledge. You may even want to note a few of the points here on your syllabus. Either way, framing the Center positively for your students will lead to better learning and better writing.