Giant Squids, Robotic Narcotics, Constipated Dragons? Here’s my card!
Like a timid squirrel, my initial experience with the writing center was a long and delicate matter. I would run up to the door, sniff around, look around, and then run off for a time to hide nuts in a tree. Eventually, my nuts dutifully stored, I brought a research paper into the writing center and was instantly in love with everything about the place. “Yes,” I said, “these are people I would gladly share a scavenged meal with.”
Sometime later, I decided that I would bring a piece of fiction into the writing center. Why not? After all, it is free and hey, just maybe, if my writing is any good the tutor will enjoy the chance to take a break from working on academic writing to read some fiction. Well I am still not sure if my writing is any good, but my suspicion that a writing center tutor would enjoy the chance to work on some fiction was correct. Since that fateful, and cliché-ly phrased day I have been occasionally taking creative writing to the center.
In most cases the tutors I worked with preformed with admirable grace in smoothly adjusting and adapting their tools and style to work with fiction writing. Since then I have become a profit of ill-repute, shambling through upbeat creative writing classes with a coffer in hand, declaring that the almighty WC is near and ready to be your friend. Yet most fiction writers see themselves as students whom the academic types look down upon. The general feeling among the fiction writers I have spoken to is that the writing center is not for us; it is for students writing academic papers who need the help. After all, we have workshops.
Writing workshops are fantastic if, and I put a heavy emphasis on IF, the right components come together to make for the right environment. Stuff like good professors, and dedicated peers willing to do more than simply scan your story to ensure that whatever minimum standards of credit that a professor has set are met. Yet even with all the help showering down on you like naked men or women or whatever you like to have shower down on you glistening in naked glory, workshops can still fail to help you improve as a fiction writer.
And alas, what a beautiful coincidence it is that comfortably fitted into a snug area of the library is a coven filled with delightful believers ready and willing to help fulfill your un-met needs. Workshops are essentially all endgame. Even worse, at least for those of us with a competitive streak, it is very hard to look at a workshop opportunity as exactly that, a workshop opportunity. I would never dream of brining a story into a workshop that I wasn’t already sure was excellent. (I must note here that this is only possible after horrendously beating my doubts to a bloody death.) But the thing is is that it can be incredibly hard to get to a place where you feel confident enough to trounce into a workshop beseeching the humble folk within to gaze upon all the glory that is your story. Depending on your style, (lets say like King who writes from the gut or like Tolkien who spent more time world building than writing) it can be sometimes be difficult to shape the never ending wet stream of vomit that is character ideas, and settings into a coherent and lovely piece of art.
Creative writing classes aren’t about sitting down and just talking out what you are trying to do. Typically people read your story and after the class talks about it, while you sit dutifully silent, you get about twenty rushed seconds to ask questions. There is never a, “lets sit down, let me pitch this thing to you,” exercise. Which is sad, because this can be enormously helpful. Truthfully, sometimes it’s easier to get someone to listen to that crazy dream you had the other night than actually sit down and listen to you pitch a book or story. Maybe this has to do with this weird divide that exists where you are either another filthy artist who should get a real job or “Good show Sir!” worthy. I am getting off topic. My point is that there is a huge middle ground before you get to work shopping in fiction where having a smart, kind and qualified person sit down and work with you, help you explore the ideas that you are trying to lay down into not just clear prose, but art, is something that is invaluable to us mortals.
In my experience I found that the WC, already so filled with skills and tools and friendly faces, can and will provide the same debilitatingly delightful help that it already offers to the eager pupils with academic papers, to fiction writers.
With a break from my long winded and clarity defiling blathering, simply put, my plan is to investigate how writing center tutors can adjust their style, technique, and tools to work more proficiently with writers who enter their domain with fiction.
The perceivable personal value of my many years of writing fiction and taking creative writing classes can assuredly be contested, yet in my experience I have found that using the trusty tools we writing tutors keep in our belts, I have been able to improve my writing process dramatically. Well my experience with tutors who adapt to work on the fiction I have brought in has been remarkable; I think that with a few slight adjustments the writing center can become a fiction writer’s best friend. The kind who always welcomes you with hot tea, warm cake and a smile, no matter how long you have stayed away.
One of the strategies for revising sentence-level errors that we have talked about in class is the “Rule of 3.” The strategy can be applied to any sentence-level error that occurs repeatedly in a paper, regardless of what that error might be. A couple of scenarios in which it would apply include when the student struggles with passive voice, nomializations, comma usage, or wordiness, but the technique is by no means limited to these example.
The strategy can be summarized in three steps.
- The first time the error occurs: Explicitly explain to the student that the error occurs, show them where exactly it happens in the text, and correct it for them.
- The second time the error occurs: Point out a specific place where the error occurs, but then let the tutee try to fix the error on his or her own.
- The third time the error occurs: Point out a general area of the paper where the error occurs and have the student identify places where they make the error. Tell them to focus on this section of the paper as part of their revision.
Let’s say in a tutoring session, after first addressing all of the tutee’s concerns, you notice that the tutee repeatedly nominalizes throughout the text.
Tutor: I’ve noticed that throughout your writing you have a tendency to nominalize, which means that instead of using a strong verb, you turn that strong verb into a noun and instead use it along with a weak verb. This happened several times in the third pargraph of your paper, so why don’t we take a look at that? In this sentence, you wrote “I often have to make changes to my thesis during the revision process.” Here, you use “changes” as a now along with the weak verb “make.” You could correct this nominalization by saying something like “I often have to change my thesis during the revision process” or “I often have to revise my thesis after my initial draft.”
Student: Oh yeah, that totally makes sense. I get how “revise” and “change” are much more active verbs than “make.”
Then, if you notice the error again:
Tutor: So this is another area of the paper where you’ve nominalized. Specifically, there is a nominalization in the first sentence of this paragraph. This time, though, I want you to try to correct it yourself.
Student: So instead of saying “I made the decision to delete an entire paragraph,” I should say, “I decided to delete an entire paragraph.”
Tutor: Yeah that sounds great! You see how “decided” is much more powerful than “made?”
Student: Yeah, for sure.
The third time the error is noticed:
Tutor: Again here I’ve noticed some nominalizations. I’m not going to point these out this time, but see if you can pick some of them out on your own. Then during your revision after this session, you can go back and correct them.
While working in a writing center we are subject to hundreds of different topics that come across our desk and at some point it is inevitable that the students opinion could be challenging to our fundamental beliefs. The discourse could range from a small difference in beliefs to a very strong and passionate one, but as a tutor we are there to help the student to the best of our abilities. Due to the election year we might be coming face to face with a paper that talks about a certain political position. I myself am very interested in politics and have formed opinions of my own, and if I have a paper that is completely disregarding my views it may be difficult for me to discuss the subject matter. But regardless of how different our views are, as a tutor I can put away my own opinion and read through his paper and help them with their mechanics, flow, style, organization, formatting, and grammar. It might be painful to read the ideas presented in the paper, but it’s a price we must all be willing to pay. I believe that the only time we should refuse our services to a student is when they obviously don’t want our services and maybe they are being forced to come to the writing center or other circumstances. Because if a student actually wants our help and is willing to meet with us, regardless of his opinion, they deserve a look.
I always enjoyed learning Spanish – I took the language from third grade all the way up to senior year of high school. I was usually able to pick up on the grammar rules pretty quickly, but it was always a little bit weird having to think about how to use the rules as I wrote. When I write in English, I don’t think about grammar with every word that I put down on the page. Things like verb tenses and subject-noun agreement come naturally, especially since I speak the language every day.
When I got to more advanced levels of Spanish though, we were asked to start writing longer assignments and essays. For the most part, I had learned all of the vocabulary necessary to write meaningful sentences and could apply the grammar rules as needed so that everything made sense. However, a lot of times when I went back to re-read these assignments, translating them into English in my head as I read, my writing sounded impersonal. I would think to myself “If I was writing this for an English class, this is totally not how I would phrase what I’m saying here.” If written in English, it would have seemed monotonous and boring.
When I spoke in Spanish, I never really seemed to face this same block that appeared in my writing. I felt like I was talking as “me.” Part of this is, of course, attributed to the fact that when you are speaking, you can use the tone of your voice to add some personality to your words. However, I also realized that when I conversed in Spanish, there was just more flow. I wasn’t bogged down with the formalities of grammar rules as I was when I wrote. I found that I could add personal voice into my writing by thinking about how I would converse on the subject I was writing about. As I re-read my work, I thought “Is this what I would say if I was speaking aloud?” and if not, I could then think about what I actually would say and write that down instead. This eliminated much of the awkwardness and rigidness that arose from feeling like I was stuck in a strict convention of grammar rules and made my paper sound more like me. I think many students get distracted by the rules of a language, sometimes so much that can’t express their ideas as they would normally. I think my personal experiences with this struggle will help me recognize when tutees are becoming distracted by formal conventions and the strategy I discovered for myself is one that I can share with them.
In writing a four-page research paper in my intermediate level Spanish class, I came to appreciate the complexity of the Spanish language. In high school I never paid much attention to what I was writing in my Spanish classes. I would simply squish my ideas into a preconceived writing model based on what I had learned in my English classes. However, forcing Spanish into a predetermined model does a disservice to the language and to me as the writer. Sentences in Spanish are structured differently than sentences in English. This in and of itself necessitates a different writing model, one specific to the Spanish language.
The basic structure of a research paper is the same whether it’s written in English or Spanish. A thesis statement must be supported with evidence. However, it is the presentation of the thesis and evidence that must be manipulated based upon the language. This lesson – that we cannot force ourselves to work within one specific writing model – is one that will help me in tutoring non-native speakers. First, it is important to know what kind of writing model the writer has used most consistently. Once I know this, the writer and I can discuss how to best manipulate that writing model to fit the one he needs in his paper. If the writing model is vastly different, then that will allow us the opportunity to discuss the differences and to brainstorm approaches to the new or foreign model.
I love French and I’ve been taking it since I was 13. However, I didn’t learn very much until my senior year in high school. Our school hired a new teacher, Madame Harig. She was half Tunisian and half French and grew up in France so she was the real deal. Often, she would get frustrated with how little French we had learned in the preceding years. Madame decided about halfway through the year that she couldn’t possibly teach us everything, so it became her mission to brand the structure of a French argumentative paper in our brains.
At first I felt like Madame’s strict structure was stifling my creativity and it frustrated me. My limited vocabulary already restricted my self-expression in French. I was upset I couldn’t format the paper in a unique way to showcase my ability. I’ve later realized that the strict formatting of papers is a common characteristic of French writing instruction, not just for beginning students of the language, but for native speakers in France as well. Just like I had to translate words and phrases from English into French, I had to “translate” my approach to formatting the assignment into French, or “The French Way”.
When writing in French I had trouble accepting the stricter style for formatting. English is my first language, but I understand that approaches to writing and style differ in various languages, something I will keep in mind when working with non-native speakers in the Writing Studio.