Advice to Writing Assistants

How to Have a Successful Experience

Though we'll be talking to you at length about the logistics of writing assisting in training, we'd like to take a few moments here to discuss the challenges and the potential problems of writing assisting, and how you might avoid them.

What might go wrong in writing assisting? Usually it's the small stuff that adds up to an unpleasant experience. For example, students don't hand the papers in, or they hand them in past the due date. The professor hasn't given you enough turn-around time. Or the professor hasn't made his expectations clear, so you end up commenting on thesis sentences when he was particularly interested in having you remark on style. The list goes on.

These challenges can all be met - primarily by staying in close conversation with your professor and with the director of the program, Stephanie Boone. Talk with your professor as soon as the term begins, so that you understand his expectations and he understands yours. Try to meet with him when you pick up the papers, to see if he has any special directions to give you. Also try to meet with him when you've finished the papers, to discuss your responses to the students' work.

Reading the Paper: A Few Tips to Get You Through

OK: let's imagine that you've just picked up your first batch of papers. You've settled in at your desk, and you're ready to read twenty papers on Hobbes' Leviathan. You pick up the first paper and pause: should you read it through once before commenting on it? Should you use pen or pencil? Should you maybe read a couple of papers, so you can see how the writers are handling the assignment? In short, how should you proceed?

You should understand that every writing assistant has his or her own way of reading papers. There is no right way, no wrong way. In time, you'll find a habit of reading and responding to papers that works for you. Until that happens, you might want to consider using some of the many techniques that have worked for writing assistants in the past:

  • Re-read the assignment, if the professor has written one. Make careful notes regarding what, precisely, the professor is asking the students to do.
  • Read through all (or several) of the papers once, without marking. This strategy helps you to get a sense of the range of essays you'll be reading.
  • Read through each paper twice: once to get the gist, the second time to respond. This strategy helps you to see where the writer is going before you jump in with your advice.
  • Respond the first time through, but in pencil. That way, you can erase your remarks if something the writer says on page four changes the way you feel about page two.
  • Take notes, on the side. Sometimes writing assistants want to keep a running commentary of their reading responses, but don't wish to share these responses with the writer. Keep a pad and a pen nearby.

Prioritizing Your Goals: Developing Your Agenda

OK: so you've read the paper, remembering to read in the ways we've instructed you to: as a common reader, to know the writer, and to prepare your response. Now its time to develop the agenda for your response.

Unlike tutors, who can get input from their tutees regarding the goal of the tutoring session, writing assistants are on their own in determining the aims of their response. Occasionally the professor will have cued you to look for and respond to certain issues in the students' papers, but more often you're left on your own to determine what advice to give.

In the process of crafting your response, you'll come up against three important questions: What does the writer need to revise? Which of the paper's problems is most in need of revising? And finally, how do you facilitate (without directing) that revision?

We hope that the advice offered earlier in the Web site has prepared you to diagnose the paper's strengths and weaknesses. But what do you do when there are several matters to address? Do you address them all? Won't the writer feel overwhelmed if you return the paper to him with ink all over it?

Of course he will. Accordingly, when a paper has many problems, you'll have to prioritize among them, limiting yourself to commenting at length on just three or four. What's the rule of thumb? In general, a weak argument or thesis is more devastating to a paper than a weak paragraph or a poorly written sentence. After all, we can help writers to compose lovely sentences, but, if the ideas are flawed, those sentences don't add up to much. As we've stated in the "Advice to Tutors" section of this Web site, we recommend that you prioritize in this way:

  • First: Ideas/Argument/Thesis/Overall Structure
  • Second: Structure/Logic of Particular Sections
  • Third: Individual Paragraphs
  • Fourth: Syntax and Grammar

Of course, you should be flexible. Some professors don't want their writing assistants to comment on a paper's argument. They prefer their writing assistants to devote their attention to the paper's overall structure, or to its style. Moreover, you should remember that every paper is different and calls for different approaches. Sometimes, for example, the problems of a particular paragraph seem important to the larger argument that the writer is trying to make. You may in this case decide to begin with that paragraph. Again, be flexible. Let the paper suggest to you the form your response will take.

Getting Down to Business: Crafting Your Response

Once you've determined your agenda for responding to a paper, how do you craft a response so that you facilitate, rather than direct, those changes?

We hope that the advice we've given you elsewhere in this Web site will prepare you for crafting a response. We will also be giving you ample opportunity to practice formulating responses in our training sessions. Here, we'd like simply to offer these tips for responding:

  • Don't forget to praise the writer. Here's an interesting bit of information for you: A study held at Texas A&M University (Sam Dragga 1985) found that only 6% of the comments on student papers praised something well done. Another study (Harris 1977) found that praise tends to be even more sparse in margin comments - .007%. Always be sure to find time to praise the writer, both in your summary comments (for general excellence), and in the margins (to point to a particular sentence, or paragraph, or point that is especially well-written).
  • Spend time crafting your questions. Don't waste time writing questions in the margins of student papers that can be answered with a simple yes or no. If you want to take issue with something the writer has said, don't simply write, "What do you mean?" in the margins. He'll be likely to respond, "What do you mean, what do I mean?" Instead, try to pinpoint the precise nature of the problem. For example: "You attempt to discredit Nietzsche's brand of nihilism in The Antichrist by arguing that this nihilism is at odds with Christianity. Wouldn't Nietzsche argue that this is the book's strength?" These kinds of questions are both leading and open-ended - that is, they move the writer to re-think her statement without telling her what, exactly, she should say.

Summary Notes vs. Margin Notes: What Goes Where?

Student papers provide the writing assistant with two places to make comments: in the margins, and at the end. Which remarks go where?

There's no hard and fast rule for this one. In general, though, you might want to keep the following in mind.

Margin notes tend to include:

  • Facilitative questions that challenge very particular points;
  • Specific suggestions for change;
  • Grammar notations;
  • Praise an idea or turn of phrase.

Summary comments tend to:

  • Begin with praise for something well done: an interesting "take" on a topic, a particularly strong moment in the argument, or a readable prose style.
  • Remark on the essay's argument, often asking writers to consider certain points more deeply and thoroughly.
  • Comment on the argument's structure: Is the organization of ideas clear and efficient? Is the idea presented in a manner that is logical? Are there gaps in the logic that must be attended to?
  • Address the matter of the paper's style.

Again: every paper is different. In some cases, you may want to begin with a discussion of a paper's style - especially if that style creates a problem for the argument. Be flexible, and let the paper show you what to do.

Establishing the Proper Tone

Perhaps the most significant difference between tutoring and writing assisting is that writing assistants (usually) don't meet the writer face to face. Typically, the whole of your interaction with the writer occurs in the margin and summary comments. Accordingly, you must establish an appropriate tone.

A good writing assistant will learn how to give feedback that is clear (but kind), succinct (but thorough), firm (but facilitative). You will need to develop a way of responding to student papers that is very precise, because if you use language carelessly you risk confusing the writer, or even offending him.

Learn to critique without being critical. It's very important that you give the writer a solid sense of how you understood his paper, as well as what he needs to do to improve it. However, you need to convey this to the writer without being critical. In other words, provide sharp observations, but leave the "ouch" out.

Managing Your Time

The question we most often hear from novice writing assistants is, "How much time should we spend on a paper?" The answer is, "As long as it takes." Some writing assistants spend twenty minutes on a paper; some spend an hour, or more. On average, a typical five-page essay (one that's not overcome with problems) takes about a half an hour to read and to respond to. If you find that it takes you an inordinate amount of time to read and respond to student essays, arrange a chat with the director.

Finally, in managing your time as a writing assistant, be kind to yourself. Try not to read too many papers in one sitting. Remember to get up, walk around, stretch a little, shake out your hand. You'll respond better (and more efficiently) if you keep your head clear and your energy high.