“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” ~Charles Peguy
The meaning of a sentence is dependent on the writer. As readers, we can try to extrapolate meaning; however the true meaning will always be understood by the writer. I use a few different strategies to understand and improve papers on the sentence level. The strategies I use allow participation and input from both student and tutor. Going over the assignment together helps understanding on both sides and, if the student catches their own sentence level issues, it can help the student use what they learned during this session and apply it to other writing assignments.
I am focusing on strategies to clarify meaning at the sentence level. As writers, and readers for that matter, we want sentences to have meaning and to be grammatically correct and complete. We often strive for a certain air of refinement in our writing, but at the least we want our writing understood. The strategies go as follows:
1. Have the student quickly read/skim through the paper aloud. This gives you a global understanding of the paper. Even though the session may be just about focusing on line level concerns, having a global understanding of both the text and assignment can be very helpful.
2. If, while reading, the student comes across a sentence that fouls them up or just reads awkwardly, have the student notate that sentence and move on. As the tutor, if you hear a sentence that stands out to you, feel free to make a reminder for yourself to refer back to that sentence.
3. When the writer has finished skimming, return to those sentences that sounded off to either you or the student and have the writer explain what they are trying to say in that sentence. When you know what the writer is trying to say, you might be able to pinpoint a bit easier what sort of things the writer should work on or needs help with.
4. Do your best to not try to word the sentence how you would write it. Remember, this is the writer’s paper. They have their own voice and that is the voice that should be represented. Obviously, if they have questions on syntax or vocabulary feel free to guide them to the words they want, not the words you choose. Asking questions like “do you know of another word that could be used here?” or “do you know the meaning of this word?” could be helpful in building the writers vocabulary.
This short list is most certainly not all inclusive. There are many more steps to this approach, but this represents the framework for this strategy. Aside from that, there is a multitude of ways to help writers work out sentence level issues with clarifying meaning.
After establishing some rapport and discussing what the student is looking to get out of the writing center appointment, potential dialogue with using this strategy goes as follows:
Tutor: So from what you’ve told me you are looking for some help with clarifying what you’re trying to say in certain sentences. Maybe there are some questions with flow or word choice?
Student: Exactly! I’ve read through my paper and there are just some sentences that don’t sound right. I’m not too sure what exactly needs to be fixed.
Tutor: Alright. No problem. Well because we are both already familiar with the assignment, how about you do me a favor and sort of skim through the paper aloud and you and I will both be listening to sentences that sort of stick out?
(Student reads paper)
Student: So I came across this sentence in the introduction that seemed strange. The sentence is “Based on the fact that he is pessimistic and feels life is not worth it, he is forgetting about his loved ones whom he said he did not want to hurt.”
Tutor: Okay, what didn’t you like about this sentence? Is there something that caught you off guard? Is it too wordy, too awkward?
Student: It seemed too long. I feel like it could be shortened.
Tutor: I agree with you. I think this sentence could be shortened as well. I think some clarification could help too. How would you go about doing this?
Student: Well I think I should explain who “he” is. Also, I could be a bit thriftier with my word choice. I feel like the sentence is cluttered.
Tutor: I agree. Maybe try to showcase in the sentence what was the result of “his” pessimism. What are you trying to say in this sentence?
Student: Well I’m trying to say that because of his pessimism, he ultimately ended up creating a situation he didn’t want to happen.
Tutor: Okay, good. You know what you want to say and you know why this sentence isn’t coming out the way you want. How would you revise this sentence to have it have your intended sound and meaning while keeping your writing style?
Student: Well I was thinking something along the lines of… “The author’s basic pessimism causes him to forget the very loved ones he said he didn’t want to hurt.”
Tutor: I think that sentence conveys meaning more clearly and flows a lot better than the original sentence. Great job! Let’s look at a few other sentences, shall we?
(And the session continues on.)