Teaching Writing

When and How Should Your Students Use the Writing Center?

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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

Whenever we assign writing assignments in our classrooms, we often peripherally acknowledge that the Writing Center is a viable option for our students to work with a tutor toward improvement. However, students may not fully understand the extensive options that the Writing Center provides for them. After scrambling for an appointment or not making one at all, the student may bring in a near-final draft for a quick check mere hours before the due date, which fosters little learning and room for growth. Instead, as the instructor and grader of your students’ work, you can steer your students toward when and how they should be using the Writing Center even more convincingly than our website or bulletin boards. Teaching your students when and how to use the Writing Center will not only provide more opportunities for your students to engage in transferable learning, but it will also lead to more fully developed and reviewed writing assignments.

Therefore, consider conveying the following advice below to your students when you mention the Writing Center’s services. Although these points especially apply to the George Mason Writing Center, most Writing Centers provide similar options that can be easily confirmed by a visit to their website or a quick phone call.

Your students should use the Writing Center…

  1. early.

Most students believe they must have a fully realized draft before they see a Writing Center tutor, or, as professors, we may forget to mention the Writing Center’s services until days before the final paper is due. However, students are welcome and encouraged to meet with a Writing Center tutor with only the prompt or a rough outline of ideas. These pre-draft sessions can ensure that your students are first answering the prompt and secondly developing or challenging their own ideas and assumptions before writing. Once students begin drafting, they are continually limited by the growing text. Furthermore, they can also become attached to their words, and that attachment makes extensive revisions more difficult down the road. The cognitive function required to craft sentences also detracts from a student’s ability to develop content; therefore, a session devoted solely to developing and organizing ideas as an answer to the prompt can greatly aid the student in the drafting process and possibly reduce the amount of extensive revision needed down the line. It’s also important to note that our scheduled appointments fill up about two weeks in advance on any given day, so urge your students to plan far ahead when considering the Writing Center’s services.

  1. often. 

Although those early appointments field many problems that could occur in later drafts, students can greatly benefit from visiting a Writing Center tutor throughout their writing process. Whether they meet with the same tutor or a different tutor, bringing in the same assignment multiple times can create an arc of learning and improvement for the student, and it allows the student to receive feedback on different aspects of their paper over time. For example, in one 45-minute session, the student and tutor may realize the draft needs a more focused thesis and more logical organization. Once the student revises these aspects, the next session can validate that work and move on to focus on paragraph development or source use. Through multiple sessions, the student can improve the paper as a whole.

  1. across disciplines.

Many students may feel they cannot bring their scientific research, policy memo, or speech to the Writing Center. While it is true that our Writing Center tutors are not disciplinary experts (most are graduate English students), our tutors are trained to collaborate with the student through conversation in order to analyze disciplinary conventions and genres. In this way, the student and tutor share authority, the student gains autonomy over his/her learning, and the student learns more about the genre through “teaching” the tutor. General writing tutors as opposed to disciplinary-specific tutors can also serve as an advantage because the distance from content allows the tutor to better point out confusing passages or illogical progressions and focus on clarity. These sessions finally foster interdependent learning – the tutor learns content and discipline conventions from the student while the student learns writing strategies and reader reactions from the tutor.

  1. online.

While face-to-face appointments allow room for a rich conversation about writing, our Writing Center understands the demands college students must constantly negotiate, including families, jobs, or distance education learning. Therefore, our Writing Center offers online appointments that simulate the valuable collaboration and feedback that happens in a physical session. One online option is the Email OWL (online writing lab), which allows the student to make an asynchronous appointment by emailing the paper in for a tutor to review and return. The other online option is the Video OWL, which is a synchronous appointment for the tutor and student to video chat and view the paper together simultaneously. (This option requires certain operating systems – check for the specifics.) Keeping online appointments in mind allows your students to still receive feedback even if time and location constraints keep them from physically visiting our space.

For a broader background of the Writing Center’s mission and pedagogy that inform this advice, visit my previous blog post, Framing the Writing Center for Your Students. In any case, your students can make full use of the Writing Center’s resources with your encouragement and guidance.