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By Caleb | Writing Center Consultant | September 15th, 2017

What good is tutoring once a writer steps out the door? It’s a perennial question for writing centers. A writing consultant’s mission goes further than helping with papers; instead, the aim is improving writers’ skills and confidence long-term. Some writers might visit with the intrinsic motivation to return again and again with an eye to self-betterment, but many will also choose to drop by only when a deadline looms and a paper could bear last-minute fixing. It would seem writers with such short-term concerns might need a little bit of extra motivation in order to retain what they glean from a session once the fifty minutes are up.


So what’s a writing consultant to do—double down on structured lessons and activities and hope for the best? In fact, it seems the most sensible approach is to focus not on drilling skills or extorting promises, but instead on providing something simpler: breaking the ice.


The research of Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson has shown that, when it comes to providing lessons that will last in a writer’s mind, a consultant’s first goal ought to be building rapport with a writer. Accomplishing this simple task has been shown to outstrip typical non-directive techniques, or teaching without giving away answers, for prompting engagement (a tutor’s bread-and-butter), and there’s a pretty simple reason for this: people learn best when they feel comfortable.


Clearly then, it’s on consultants to capture a writer’s attention and establish a cozy, accommodating environment. This means being a peer first… and being friendly! The upshot is that a consultant who makes sure to keep a positive attitude—and perhaps deploy the occasional joke—is more likely than not to engage a writer throughout a session. Mackiewicz and Thompson say other helpful tutoring practices include avoiding outright disagreement with a writer’s motives as well as employing “negative politeness,” which can entail softening suggestions by using a passive voice or hedging language in order to avoid taking too much control over a writer’s work. According to Mackiewicz and Thompson, the effects of all these strategies appear the most likely to result in lasting motivation, which means a higher chance of retaining ideas and applying them in future writing (not to mention coming back to the Writing Center for more!).


Any student will ultimately succeed on their own terms and by their own determination, but writing consultants who take some time to connect and encourage can help to bring out the best in writers. An interesting question that remains (and is alluded to by Mackiewicz and Thompson) is to what extent this approach will apply to various groups of writers; for example, will some ELL students prefer a more straightforward or less casual approach? And further, how might a writing center’s intentions in establishing rapport be communicated to such a writer?


Mackiewicz, Joe, and Isabella Thompson. “Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring.” Writing Center Journal, vol. 33, no. 1. March 2013, pp. 38-73.,uid&db=ehh&AN=89983582&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Diary of a Writing Consultant, UWO Writing Center Blog