Keep It Positive: The Art of Affirmative Advising (a manual for online faculty and writing centers).



Keep It Positive: Advising in the Affirmative

By Alicia Rasley, University of Maryland University College Effective Writing Center


Writing center tutors and advisors serve a special role with student writers. We’re not their peers in the classroom, as we have a special expertise and a lot of experience. But we’re also not their professors; we’re not here to judge them or grade them or, heaven forbid, contribute to their moral development. Our mission is to use our skills and experience to help them improve this paper and also to improve as writers.

There’s another complication when advising online, as we do at the online writing center where I work.  We have no in-person interaction. Usually, we have only the papers themselves, not the students, to work with— so we can’t use smiles and facial expression and vocal tone to convey our friendly intentions. We have only our typed words.   That makes it even more imperative that we use our words carefully to imply friendliness, helpfulness, and confidence.  And that means that we have to (as we remind the students) know our audience and what will work best with them.

Let’s think about what it’s like to be a student coming to a writing center for help (and in the case of the my writing center, a student in an online class coming for help).  These are seldom students who are confident about their writing ability (the confident students seldom ask for help, even if they need it!). They might have gotten a bad grade on a paper, or been referred by their professor. They might be ESL students (non-native-speakers) who are aware that their writing is not entirely fluent. They might be native-born students who have been warned they are ill-prepared for college courses. They might be math or science majors who have never felt comfortable with a writing assignment.

Just keep in mind that most students who think they need our help are feeling the pressure of negativity. They are defensive because their professor gave them a grade lower than they think they deserve. Or they are anxious because they now know their writing isn’t up to the expected level. Or they might be weighed down by years of poor grades and poor evaluations. Or they might be affected by society’s pervasive biases:

  • “Boys are good at mechanical tasks, not verbal tasks, so most are not good writers.”
  • “Most girls aren’t logical enough to organize a college-level research paper.”
  • “Those who grew up in an oral culture might excel at spontaneous oral expression, but they’ll never manage the structured aspects of academic writing.”
  • “Students from inner city and rural schools will never overcome their educational deficits.”
  • “Adults simply can’t learn to be fluent in a second language.”
  • “Young people right out of high school don’t have enough life experience to have anything to write about.”
  • “The brains of older students aren’t malleable enough to learn new tasks.”
  • “No one with learning disabilities can expect to conquer the complex issues involved in putting together a good paper.”

You probably have heard these or other not-so-subtle verdicts, and so have the students who come to us for writing advice. They might believe them, but we can’t. We have to avoid the generalizations and concentrate on the specifics of this student and this paper and this assignment. And most important, our tone and word choice must reflect our confidence that this student writer can make this paper better and learn to be a better writer.


Top Ten Principles of Positive Advising:

  1. Student writers own their own writing. We’re here to help them achieve their best, not to dictate what and how they should write. Our purpose is to help them find control over their writing, not take control away from them.
  2. Students are capable of making unbelievable progress, given incentive, aid, and desire. I have seen an isolated international student go in two semesters from belligerent silence and barely literate prose to being a classroom leader and the best writer in the class. I’ve seen a student in the lowest remedial writing class respond to her professor’s comment (“That paragraph was so sad, I found myself crying”) by honing the paper, overcoming all sorts of grammar issues, and eventually winning a freshman essay award. Far more often, I’ve seen students improve from getting Ds in the beginning of the semester to getting Bs at the end—not that dramatic an improvement, you might think, but enough to go from fear of academic probation to hope of Dean’s List, from the prospect of flunking out to “hey, maybe I could handle grad school.”
  3. Students want to learn. They wouldn’t be in college otherwise. And many have made immense sacrifices to get here—they might have left their families and homes, or they might be working two jobs to earn tuition money, or they might have had to silence the negative lessons of a lifetime of underachievement. They are ready, willing, and able to learn, and we just need to make sure we’re their ally in that quest.
  4. We are not here to judge or grade. The professor will grade this assignment and this student, but we’re not here to assess, just advise. Most important, we must avoid making moral judgments. Hey, maybe this student really is a slacker who wants us to do his work for him. Maybe she’s just trying to slide by on her family connections. But we can’t know that, and even if we could, it’s not our problem. For those of us who also teach courses, there’s actually a great liberation in the realization that here in the writing center we simply have to help students learn more about writing, and that we’re not responsible for their moral development or final grade.
  5. Empathy is essential, but so is humility. We can’t know every student’s individual needs, so we have to use what we know of ourselves and other writers. That is, some students out there might respond to “tough love” or “calling their bluff.”  But we certainly can’t tell that from their papers. We do know what kind of approach would work with us, and has worked with other students and colleagues.  Always consider, “How would this feel if it were happening to me?” But we should also know that we’re not the measure of all things, that we will not always get it right, that we can’t be all things to all students. So…
  6. First, do no harm. Yes, we aren’t going to be a great success in every encounter, with every student. Maybe we don’t explain things in a way that this student understands, or we’re focusing on what the student considers irrelevant issues in the paper. But with a positive, open approach, we can make this encounter pain-free even if we can’t assure its helpfulness. This will make it much easier for this student to return to the writing center with the hope that the next advisor can be more compatible.  This is, by the way, a good reason to end each encounter with an invitation to return.
  7. Shame is the enemy of education. Many of our students will be all too acquainted with being shamed, with feeling inadequate. If we take a rebuking, admonitory, or exasperated tone in our advising, we could be pushing that “shame” button. And that makes many students shut down. They need to feel confident of their ability to learn and improve, and that’s something we can affirm, increase that confidence with the right tone and the right approach.
  8. As advisors, we are particularly sensitive to the power of words to affect the reader. Words are, after all, what we have in these encounters. But we are more capable than most of choosing words and assembling them to fit various purposes. We wouldn’t be writing center advisors if we weren’t good at this! We can anticipate the conscious and subconscious effect of our sentences. We are confident enough in our own skill to experiment with different word choices and different sentence order for different purposes.  Most important, we believe that our words can have emotional, psychological, and educational consequences, and we know we have the awareness and empathy to make those positive for the students.
  9. Our aim is better writers, not just better papers. Let’s face it. We could just rewrite the paper for them, and they’d get a better grade! But if we do that, we’re not helping them to be better writers. It’s a difficult balance, because many, if not most, students learn from models and examples, and it’s tempting to just write out a great thesis for them to show them how it’s done. But they’ll actually learn more about how to write a thesis by being shown an example and then having to write their own version.  So we should always stop short of doing it entirely for them, so that they can learn from the process of writing and revising.
  10. Not to get too mushy, but in our position, we’ll never lose by acting with love and hope. We don’t need to worry that students are trying to take advantage of us or deceive us or cheat us. We are fortunate that students are never our adversaries because we are not their bosses or competitors or judges or parents. We’re just here to help, in the hope that we can make at least a bit of a difference. And we can.


So here are some positive tutoring techniques I’ve acquired from experience and learned from my many wise and compassionate colleagues:


Describe Before You Prescribe:

Sometimes just saying what this paper is or what you see will help focus the writer on the aspects of the paper which are most important:

This looks like you’ve already made a good start! I see this is a comparison/contrast essay. Your topic of the two types of commercial leases is a good one because, as the professor requested, these two have something to do with each other but are not identical.


You can take advantage of this “description” paragraph to subtly reiterate what the paper is supposed to involve, and to set up for later suggestions (for example, you might later remind the student that she needs to have a paragraph about “tasks”):

Congratulations on your progress in writing this career-exploration assignment for EDCP100. I see from the assignment requirements that this paper can be built on aspects of the profession, like the tasks, the opportunities, and the salary.


Another example:

This is all very interesting! I see you’re supposed to explore how a company will handle opening an office in a new country. I was intrigued by your findings of the cultural differences and your thoughts about how to deal with them. I can see how you can develop this into a comparison/contrast analysis.


Just describing what the paper is, what the writer was trying to accomplish, what the purpose is, can courteously keep the focus on the writing task, while acknowledging the student’s progress just getting to this point.

What a controversial topic! Pretty brave of you to tackle stem-cell treatment and the ethical and biological issues it brings up.


What a timely topic now!  With the recession going on, probably most of us are concerned with job security. So I can see how this topic lets you explore both the problem and the solutions of late-career layoffs.


Natalie, I learned a lot about the use of poured concrete in construction while reading your paper. Clearly, you have extensive knowledge of this topic. I didn’t realize that concrete has become such a versatile material to use in houses. Nice work! J  I was really interested in learning more about how poured concrete can be used in fixtures. You mention that concrete can be used to make bathtubs and sinks, and I was hoping you could say a bit more about that, and what the result is like?  Thanks!


You can make some observation about the type of paper or project, from your experience:

Synthesis essays are difficult sometimes to organize, but they’re great training for upper-level courses. They help us to evaluate sources for credibility and logic.


Annotated bibliographies are sometimes a pain to put together, but they really are a big help when we start writing the research paper. We can just look at the bibliography and remember which sources are useful and why!


Praise Works

Allow yourself to be impressed. If you’ve read a couple thousand student papers, you might have to refresh your sense of wonder. We do get jaded!  But try to train yourself to look for something to praise in every paper, like the topic choice or the title.  Just one “good job!” can bolster the writer to regard your suggestions-to-come as helpful.


Don’t be smarmy—students can tell false praise. So make sure that the title really is good, or the topic choice is a smart one, so you can praise truly, and be specific about why this is praiseworthy:

This title really draws me in and makes me wonder what the other three placements were!


You chose a great topic. It’s especially timely this year, when so many people are out of work and needing suggestions about how to make a good impression in an interview.


Also use praise as an opportunity to point out what the student is doing right. After all, the student might not know what they’re doing right, and they need that if they’re going to do it again!  Writers have to know their strengths as well as their weaknesses, so if there’s anything that is better than the rest of the paper, point it out.  So say what’s good and –very important– why it’s good.  Letting them know why this works will help students learn to analyze their own writing for the effects it will have on the reader.

Your paper has a tight focus on the incident and what it meant for the industry.  Good!  The thesis previews the development of information in the paper. In fact, the way you’ve written this thesis, the paper almost organizes itself.


I think your intro does a good job of defining the context of your topic!  I wasn’t sure what you meant by “study groups” in the title, but as soon as I read your introduction, I understood what you were examining.


I like your use of headings to organize the points of your analysis of the organization’s problems. That makes it easier for the reader to follow the development.


Tell what they did right and why it’s right:

I found your points really valuable for understanding the creation myths, and I like the way you end the paper using that keyword “create”—it’s like closing the circle of the paper.


Compliment by describing:

I loved the interview with Clara Windmiller. The interview situation so much makes history seem vivid and real, as it affected a real person.


Here, I just want to say, this is a really good paragraph opening, stating not just the topic of the paragraph but making a specific point, and making it in an interesting style:

One of the challenges of going global is, obviously, distance. Distance is challenging to new businesses, not only in a geographical sense, but also in what economist Wilfred Beckerman calls a “psychic distance” (Isenberg, 2008, p 108).


You’re a trained reader, and what you observe and describe might help the writer figure out what’s been put in the text (and to decide whether it should be kept or not).


Tell me more!

The three most appealing words in the English language are: Tell me more!  Use this to encourage writers to expand and amplify their thoughts—but be sure and get specific about what you need to know.

Also, the last paragraph about your stepfather and everyone else being distant is really intriguing, and so sad too. But I did (again!) want to know more.  Was this just your perception because of your illness? Or was he really distant and why? Are your coworkers always distant, or do you have some idea of why they’ve changed and what’s going on?  The way you end the paper just leaves me asking more questions, which means you did a great job getting me interested! And you don’t want to leave the reader hanging, worried about you! Can you just add a bit more that explains what this all means, or what the reality is, or what happened?


The student writer needs to know what’s right as well as what’s wrong. Take some time to develop the “this is right” part, and don’t worry that you’re getting too effusive. Say what’s right and why it’s right, and then move from that not to “what’s wrong” but “what you can do now that could also be right.” The spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, and all that. :) For example:


I like the way you start with a couple examples of the dangers of hypertension in young people. That immediately makes the importance of your issue clear, and the bad results that would come from ignoring it. So often, I think, we think of hypertension as a disease of the elderly, and I think you’re right to focus on its danger for younger people too.  Think about using statistics that reflect that focus (what percentage of younger people face this problem) so that your reader doesn’t get distracted by facts and figures that mostly apply to the elderly. That’s a good topic, but it’s not YOUR topic, which is about hypertension in the young, and some statistics can make preventing that more imperative.


Another example, moving from praise to specific suggestion:

You know, until I read your paper, I didn’t realize how common identity theft is! You do such a good job explaining the scope of the problem and why computer users need to watch out for the danger.  Your examples of people caught up in this crime helped show that it’s something that can happen to all of us.


I just wonder if after you talk about each example, you can characterize what the common problem between them is— how were the hackers able to exploit the insecurity of the system, maybe? Or maybe just say, “Both of these incidents show how easy it is to exploit insecurities in corporate systems…” or something like that? That sets up your thesis about the need for this security. :)


— Another–

I like it that you’re addressing the food consumer as that shows that you have an audience in mind. (That is, you’re not trying to address food manufacturers and dieticians!)  A focused sense of the target audience can really help you organize the paper because you can consider, “What does this reader need to know?” So when you develop the end part with the recommendations, just make sure these recommendations are aimed specifically at consumers, who might not be all that acquainted with the more scientific language!


Sometimes you don’t even have to praise, but just observe something fairly neutral, but couch it in an interested tone, like:

This is such a controversial topic!


I’ve never read this book, so I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about it.


I was intrigued by your take on recividism and wanted to know more after reading your introduction.


Something to point out is when they’ve done something effective, like summarized a scene well or chosen a good example. Again, explain WHY—why is this a good example?


This paragraph is about one really great example of success and image standards, physical height. You found a helpful example of how it really is true that image affects success, and you made it even more striking with that horrific description of the leg-lengthening surgery. Boy, that truly brought home for me how dangerous this is! And that shows better than anything how much pain some people are willing to go through to meet society’s standards of “the right way to look.”  Great work!


One “Great work” or “Nice sentence!” can make the student eager to earn more praise. I remember one student wrote to tell me that a chance line of mine (“You have such a gift for humor!”) helped him decide to write up his grandmother’s funny story and send it to a magazine.

If you are affected personally by something a student writes, say so:

I am kind of embarrassed to admit it, but when you wrote about your father calling you “my little girl,” I cried. That was so touching, and the way you put it revealed the love between you.

Don’t worry about being too effusive. Really, honest praise honestly stated is going to sound just right to the student:

Okay, I have to tell you this!  When I read that line about how the professional establishment is like a dog that steals the dinner ham right off the stove, I just laughed out loud.  I couldn’t get the image out of my mind, some guy in a suit and tie on all fours, gnawing at the ham and growling at anyone who comes nearby. In fact, my husband kept asking me what was so funny!  Just wanted to tell you—you sure kept me entertained tonight!


Put the qualifier first, and the praise second. Not:

This shows a good instinct for source selection, but that the documentation isn’t entirely accurate.


The documentation format isn’t entirely accurate, but this reference list shows that you have a good instinct for source selection!



Notice that it helps to get effusive in the praise part, and this is a good place to use “you” to personalize without sounding accusative.  “You did a great job listing all the major causes of the war” sounds affirming and empowering by showing that the responsibility for the good work belongs with “you”.


Explain when something really works, and have that lead into suggestion for improvement—

Here’s a link to a list of transitions. I can tell you already get the reason for transitions, to make a connection between two ideas. I was noticing that the transition “therefore” in the third paragraph helps your reader understand the connection between your point about law and your next point about professional codes.  You might look at this list of transitions and see if any of them can help make similar connections in other paragraphs.



Focus on Results

Instead of highlighting what is wrong, focus on what the results will be if it’s made right:


Your sentences are too wordy and vague. You can see here how you’re burying your central point under too many adjectives.


Good point about the different types of tastes!  Maybe you can use each of those tastes in its own sentence, which will clearly state your points, as here:


Sometimes just describing what’s there is positive, and then you can add something that is a helpful suggestion to improve what’s already there:

This is so interesting, the adjustments a company must make when doing business in a new culture.


I found your analysis just fascinating. It made me think of other parallels to Othello (Achitobel as Iago, maybe?).  Great work!


Also, use quotes from the paper whenever you can, and don’t just TELL the student to revise, but SHOW how it might be done, always pointing out that this is just an example:

Here’s an example of how you can trim out words so that that essential point really stands out for the reader:

The reason for this injury is that it’s caused by the pronation of the foot as it hits the ground over and over.

…can be trimmed to:

This injury is caused by pronation as the foot repeatedly hits the ground.


Something to point out is when they’ve done something effective, like they’ve chosen a good example. Again, explain WHY—why is this a good example? Then move into what can be made better:


This paragraph is about one really great example of success and image standards, height. You found a really helpful example of how it really is true that image affects success, and you made it even more striking with that horrific description of the leg-lengthening surgery. Boy, that really brought home how dangerous this is!

Notice that near the end, you get into a more general subject of how the media has persuaded people:

“Manners, accent, clothes, hair, job, home, even personality: All are now seen as objects of individual control that express something important about who we are” (Elliott 486).  All of these are aspects that the media tries to persuade people they have to perfect in order to be successful in a society consumed by its own unobtainable images.  Sadly many people believe this and instead of making their own statistics fall into a growing trend of plastic surgeries or other altering procedures to achieve a success they could have had without changing.  

That part in bold is a really good point, and I think it might deserve a paragraph of its own, with its own topic sentence with states your point about the media, and then maybe explain how that has an impact on viewers. :)


Try to state what will happen positively if they do it the right way, rather than what will happen negatively if they do it the wrong way:


Also you have a citation of “” A couple thoughts here—first, since you’re just talking about the events of the story, and that’s in the Bible, think about whether a reference to a website (rather than the original source material, the Bible) is helpful.  So often using a website as a source (rather than the actual document) can diminish your academic credibility—you don’t want the professor to think that you just read a summary of the real story.


Also you have a citation of “” A couple thoughts here—first, since you’re just talking about the events of the story, and that’s in the Bible, think about whether a reference to the original source material, the Bible itself, will be more useful for the reader.  Using the actual document rather than a website as a source can improve your academic credibility—you want the professor to know that you did in fact read and absorb the real story. :)



Minimize problems to make improvement seem possible and within reach.

If you make a big deal about issues, the writer might feel overwhelmed.  Even – especially— if the paper has many, many problems, try using a tone that says, “This is no big deal. You can fix this.” For example:

You have a lot of sources there! That’s good. The reference page shows how many sources you consulted when you wrote the paper. I’m just going to note a couple issues that jump out at me on your References page:

I use the “couple issues” even when there are five problems on that Reference page. I figure the minimal “couple issues” will sound like something anyone can handle, no problem.


Also diminish your adjectives and descriptors.  Not “You have a lot of passive voice in this paper,” but “There is some passive voice in this paper.”


You never want to sound like you’re chiding or rebuking the student (that’s not a tutor’s role). So always imagine how you’d feel if someone made these suggestions, and if you feel defensive or overwhelmed, what word changes would make you feel more empowered and capable?


You’re acting like your topic is migration in general, and it’s not. The paper topic is the specific migration of the Inuits.


Good idea to focus on the issue of migration. Try this—start with the general (migration in general) and then transition quickly to that specific focus on the one particular migration. That way you’ll be giving the context of migration in general, and also getting right to the specific incident of migration discussed in the source.



I even try to use softer words than “problems” (like “issues” or “glitches”). One positive way to say “You have some reference problems” is to use instead the term “fixes,” that is, focusing on not what is wrong but how it can be made right if  they “fix” it.

I found a few fixes you can make on the references page.



Whenever you think you might be being critical, temporize and soften:


Here is a sentence that just goes on way too long.


Here’s a sentence that might go on too long.



Little language changes to increase positive tone:

Use “and” instead of “but”.  For example:

You have mini-sections that are kind of like the assertion (point),

NOT:  but there really isn’t much support or development after that.

INSTEAD:  and I wonder if you can develop each more with examples and ideas from your sources.

So try to use “And” (additional information or suggestion) instead of “But” (contrasting):

Feel the difference here:

You seem to have done research on your topic, but you will want to be sure you are using your research as effectively as possible.


You seem to have done research on your topic, and you will want to be sure you are using your research as effectively as possible.


Also notice that the “you seem to” has a vague sense of suspicion, like the student is trying to put one over on you and only “seems” to have done research.  So why have it? Just:

You have done research on your topic, and you will want to be sure you are using your research as effectively as possible.




Recurring issues:

Sometimes there’s a kind of big issue (like sentence fragments) which just recurs and recurs. Present that repetition of problem positively, because it really is true—if they find and fix this in every case, their paper will be improved a lot, and they’ll have learned to watch for that.  I try to take them through the process by copying a couple examples of the mistake from their paper, and then showing and explaining the solution, and then suggesting they look for that throughout the whole paper now and apply the same logic as they revise.

This is just one error that recurs, and if you find and fix all these in your paper, you’ll easily and measurably improve your writing. Pretty soon it’ll be second nature! Here’s an example of a sentence that can be fixed and how to fix it:


See? That was easy, wasn’t it?


That gives them the tools and the incentive and the confidence to learn to fix this.  Here’s how I put it recently in a student paper studded with a lot of comma splices and fragments (I first used examples to show what I meant and how to fix):

Now keep in mind, this is something you don’t need to “get” right away. That is, know that this is something you want to work on, and when you get done writing a draft, look to revise these sentence types first.  Look for sentences that have two “clauses” which could be sentences on their own (subject plus verb), and then look for sentences that start with a how-where-what-when type of word like “Instead” or “Besides” or “Although” or “When”.


There are many, many, many of these “subordinating conjunctions,” so don’t bother memorizing them all (or the term— we English teachers need to know that, but you just need to notice in revision).   Just watch out for those, and remind yourself to revise to separate the one element of the sentence from the other.  You’ll find it’s second nature pretty quickly. And remember, if you don’t get it right the first draft, that’s fine. This is really about revising and editing, not drafting.  Always keep in mind, you don’t have to get it perfect the first draft!  Once you learn this revising strategy and start watching to use it as you edit, you can wait until the second draft to fix.


Ask Questions, Don’t Give Commands

Question marks help to affirm the writer’s control and soften the “command” aspect of advising. They also remind the student that the purpose here is to learn information and communicate to the reader. Questions replicate the process of exploration by keeping things open, by helping students gather the confidence to experiment, to explore, to speculate, and being assured that they won’t be punished for a lack of immediate certainty. Our questions could inspire the students’ own questioning.

You sure have chosen a controversial topic! And I think you explain the consequences of the controversy well. I just have a few questions:

  • What is autism? Can you give just a really quick definition so the reader can be up to speed on that?
  • What made some people suspect that vaccines might play a role?
  • Why did the researchers suspect that one chemical?
  • What has been the result of eliminating it from vaccines?
  • Can you think of anything else the reader might need to know to understand this complex issue?


Questions reiterate that the writer is the one in charge here, who makes the choices that create certain effects.  For example:

I see that you are giving the counterarguments of those who disagree with your position. That’s a good idea, I think, because it makes you seem fair in considering all angles. Can you make it clearer that these points are not your own? I don’t know, maybe can you start that paragraph with something like: “Some opponents claim that….”?  What do you think?


Some advisors even use question marks after statements (not just questions) to draw the student into speculating.

Now you mentioned that you wanted this to be more a one-sentence thesis, but both sentences here make important points. Can these two be combined by first trimming everything that isn’t necessary? Maybe we can get these down to one concise sentence? Let’s try.


Sometimes students need help with “amplitude” or development, and it can be fun for you and illustrative for them for you to explore the topic and ask questions as you give suggestions. When you ask questions, you are giving a reader’s perspective of what is interesting and worth expanding.

I’m wondering what’s unique about the 60s, why the decade really highlighted the intractable problem of poverty as you’re saying.  For example, why was the decade of the space program, and of civil rights, and of women’s rights, so associated with poverty?  It must be such a sharp contrast, with so much progress being made in science and civil rights, that the 1960s still had that central problem of poverty which especially affected the immigrant community, as you show later.


Can you think about using the thesis to show a contrast between the optimistic events and then the poverty? I’m asking this because poverty, it seems like, was and is always an issue, and how do you make your own focus on the 60s unique?  Well, maybe it’s the contrast between the otherwise great progress in other fields, but little here in this major issue. That’s just a suggestion, but think about a two part thesis, the “positive” –but- the “negative”, like The 1960s were a time of great progress in (name 2-3 things), but  (put in here about poverty).

Experiment with this sort of two-part thesis—often it’s a great way to establish a unique point, presenting both the positive and negative. :)


Try to “give it back” to the writer by challenging her to think deeper, and show the confidence that she can do so:


Think about ways you might draw the reader in. What works for you when you’re reading an article like this? Do you like maybe examples from real life? Or do you think some good statistics might work here to show the depth of the problem? What do you think would work best to intrigue the reader? You know your target reader best—what will work?


What do you think?  Is the most important thing the definition of the job, or the requirements for qualification?  You might try putting the most important thing last. Experiment and see what you think.  Maybe see if you can expand each of those into a paragraph of its own— that will really show how much knowledge you have about this subject, and of course a paragraph about each point will help you reach the word-count requirement. :)



No Shame Allowed!

Also be careful to avoid “rebuking” words.  As I read this (below) over, I felt rebuked by the “but” (“But you’re doing it all wrong!” is the way I interpreted it), and the “Remember” (“You’re so dumb, you have to be reminded!”), and I was really put off by that “you should always,” because it sounded like I was being ordered to outline:

You have a lot of great information, but I think that organization could help deliver that info more logically.

Remember, the whole point of paper organization is to give the reader the information when the reader needs it, in the order the reader needs it, and this draft is really disorganized.  That’s why you should always outline your drafts.


Here’s how I rewrote that so that it feels more affirmative and friendly:

You have a lot of good information about your topic! I never realized there were so many facts and ideas about raising funds for charities.

I think that organization of these points could help deliver that info logically to the reader. The purpose of paper organization is to give the reader the information when the reader needs it, in the order the reader needs it.

You can do that here by identifying all those good points you have and using each as the start of a paragraph. Just try sketching the points in a quick outline, and you’ll be amazed at how easily that lets you see what’s missing (what more the reader needs to understand), move them around to be more logical, and also where you can add development like evidence, examples, facts, and analysis.


Don’t overuse the writer’s name, as it can seem admonitory or accusatory, like “Sam, I know you want to make this the best paper you can. Sam, what I’m saying is, you should stop fragmenting sentences.”

Instead, try just using the name at the start (“Welcome to the writing center, Sam!”) and at the end (“It was great working with you, Sam.”), and in between only when it seems natural and friendly.


Also, the word “you” is can be both positive and negative. It can draw the student in, but also sound a bit like and accusation.  So experiment to use ‘you” in positive ways, not in an accusative way:

You might find that outlining after you write a first draft can help organize your thoughts. You might try that with this paper, just a sentence or so for each paragraph. You don’t need to worry about Roman numerals or all that formal outline stuff! This is just to help you organize.


You could really get my interest right off by using those striking statistics to show that this is a problem for all of us, not just the elderly. Can you maybe add a sentence to that effect to the paragraph with the statistics?



Use Examples and Models to Show (Not Just Tell):

Many if not most students learn from examples, which show more than tell what you are suggesting. But be careful not to be too directive. Give examples and advice, but don’t write it for the students. It helps to make the example close to but not identical to what they might need. For example, the below paper might be about bioengineered food, and my example is related but not exact (“Let’s say this paper is about chemical additives in prepared foods”), so that they can see a model of how a thesis might look, and then apply that to their own subject. Just make it clear that this is an example, not a direct suggestion. I always say, “This is just an example!”

Now when you’re going after consumers—Us!—you might want to start something more “inviting” than a definition. Think about what a regular person, not a professional, needs to get interested in the subject. What will draw that sort of reader in?  I know that I’m always drawn in by something that relates to my actual life. I want to read on because I feel that this topic must be relevant to me.  So let’s say this paper is about chemical additives in foods. We might think of starting with a dilemma that is sure to interest the consumer, like (this is just an example!): “You’re standing in Aisle C of the grocery store, staring at the dozens of jars of spaghetti sauce. You pick one up and read the list of ingredients, but “Tomato” is the only one you recognize…. (and then maybe explain that all those unrecognizable ingredients are food additives?).”

Then you can go into your point about how the consumer needs to get educated about additives. By making the paper START with something personally relevant, you will be drawing the reader into read the meaty parts of the paper. (Sorry… couldn’t resist using a food pun there!)


You have some great connections between the poem and the Biblical imagery. In literary analysis, it often helps to have the first sentence in the paragraph about a connection to use the literary terminology. That will make it clear that the paper is about the way this poem uses the literary device of imagery or personification— it keeps the paper focused on the literary device use and not the poem as a whole. So here:

It is easy to see why David is made out to be like God.

Think about how you can use one of the words you have used before to indicate the literary device, like “image” or “analogy” or “allegorize”, like:

Dryden also uses the figure of David to represent God.


The character of David is clearly meant as an allegorical stand-in for God.




Self-awareness Is the First Step to Self-improvement:

Also see if you can get the student to specify what they’re worried about, as then you can affirm them for being good self-critiquers, and also give your own suggestions:

You asked about the flow, and you’re right! That’s an important aspect to making a paper easier to read and understand. I see that you want the ideas to flow logically from one to the next. I did see one idea that seemed like it could be better somewhere else.


I had “one idea that seemed misplaced” above there—but notice that I tried to replace it with something a bit more positive. Not “it’s wrong here,” but “here’s where it could be right.”


Focus on the good results the writer can achieve:

It might help just to remember that it’s not just quotes you get to cite, but any fact or figure you get from an outside source. This means you can cite more sources and bolster the credibility of your evidence by showing that it’s based on government or scientific data.

Something I’ve learned is to use specific words when I can— a specific word (“Two pencils” rather than “some pencils”) will increase your credibility as it will let the reader know that you paid close attention.

She flipped the papers over and shoved them beneath a folder. Two pencils rolled off the desk.


That’s going to be more positive and affirming than a “rebuke” like

When you use a vague word like “some” rather than a specific word like “two”, you’ll really decrease your credibility, and you don’t want to do that, do you?


Usually the student will be asked to identify anything they’re worried about. And if they do, it’s good to repeat what they’ve already identified as an issue:

You said you need more development, or at least more organization and words, and the place to set that in motion is the introduction. You are so right! The introduction is where you set up the context and scope—what you are going to discuss and why it’s important.

Now I see from your introduction that you’re going to talk about the Middle Eastern culture, but not just about that, also about the misperceptions of the culture. So let’s keep that in mind:

1) Perception

2) Reality



Affirm the student’s power, and serve as a model by being open to experiment and improvement:

As an advisor, you can recognize the writer’s control, but also bring your own sense of the playfulness that goes into good writing. I like the term “experiment” because it conveys the sense that the writer can change things around and see what works, without losing what’s been written.

Try experimenting with paragraph order and see which works best.


You might experiment with this and see which paragraph order you prefer.


The English sentence is really flexible, and sentence combining is fun to experiment with. Try different sentence order combinations to see which one really conveys your meaning.


Sometimes if you read this aloud, the right wording will just come to you. You’ll  “hear” in your mind it as an alternative. Try reading aloud and experiment with different variations and see if this will help you find just the right word.


Just keep thinking of how you can give the control back to the writer. Make suggestions, but then ask:

What do you think?


Does that work better, or can you think of another way to do this?


One way to give back the control to the writer is to do a model revision of a problem but then assume they will revise the rest of the essay with that in mind. Present yourself as just giving them the revision resources (the example you did and maybe a link to a helpful website).

Your points are good, and the reader will be able to get them if the sentences are just as tight and meaningful.  Here’s an example of a sentence that you can “power up” by trimming and reorganization:

There are many reasons why schools, at least grade schools, also known as elementary schools, might want to in the course of the schoolday make some time to let children have a recess time to break up the academic schedule so they have some time to play, including relaxation, time to destress, exercise, learning to play and share with others.


One way to trim is to reduce the sentence to the bare point, and then add back in whatever you think you really need (like I think “so” is really important here—why should schools do this?):

Grade schools should let children have recess so they can get some relaxation, playtime, exercise, and cooperation opportunities during the school-day.

What else do you think is important here? Just try that—reduce it to the basic elements, and then add back in whatever else will help. But notice how, when you start with the basic point, the sentence will end up easy to follow even if it’s long and detailed.


So as you revise the essay, look for other sentences that could be simplified with simple experimentation like this. If you want information on eliminating wordiness, check out this page from  Christopher Newport University:

Can you just feel how much more helpful that would be than a “rebuke” like:

NOT: You have a lot of vague and wordy sentences that really get in the way of figuring out what you mean. You need to trim out all the deadwood and get to the point. Right now I can’t tell what’s important and what’s not, because there’s so much junk in your sentences.

Sharing Your Experience

Teachers and tutors have more knowledge of how writing and reading work than most, and try sharing that.  We have to be tutors, but we’re drawing on our experience as both writers and readers, so share that wisdom:

I’ve always found that it helps to read over the paper not with an author’s eye, but with a reader’s, watching specifically for what could confuse the reader. Often the writer sort of mentally “self-corrects” without seeing potential problems for the reader.  Here’s a line that confused me as a reader, from the first paragraph:

He was attempting to create a divesting problem within the water computer that he would later resolve. 

Now did he in fact later resolve this? “Would” implies that he actually later did that. Or was his plan to disrupt things so much that only he, the fired employee, could fix it?  If so, you might want to say COULD (was capable to) later resolve. It’s just amazing how much meaning a single word has for a reader, and you might experiment with that powerful aspect of language.

He was attempting to create a divesting problem within the water computer that he could later resolve. 

Try different words and read the sentence aloud, and “hear it as a reader”—think about what each variation would mean if you were reading this. Always remember that you have a whole lot of experience as a reader, and that experience gives you a lot of knowledge that you can use as a writer!


Establish a common issue:

I’m like this too! I tend to write longer sentences. Let’s face it—you and I just have complicated thoughts. :)  Anyway, I always check and see if my longer sentences can be reduced a little. I know that as a reader, I find long sentences are harder to read and understand, and also I find that the longer my sentences go on, the more likely I am to wander into sentence trouble!  So I try to read the longest sentences out loud and then focus on trimming the extra words and simplifying the word order.


Model good writing behavior.

We are writers too, and we know how hard it is sometimes to write well. And we probably have all come up with problems to watch for and ways to improve. When you see a problem you have yourself, suggest what has worked for you—just put yourself in there.


One problem I have is I sometimes have to search for specific nouns, not generic ones like “people” or “things”, and to avoid using pronouns like “it” in important places. So I’m training myself to model that in my comments and suggestions, for example:

So  it the heading might look like this:



Ease up on the absolute rightness of “the rules” and explain why they work here, if they do.

I know we teachers and tutors always say this, but I find over and over that it’s true: Topic sentences at the start of most of your paragraphs can really help both you and the reader mentally organize the material, and make it much clearer that the analysis is your own thinking. That’s something the professor will be looking for, that easy sign that you have figured out how all this fits together.

Here’s an example of such a first sentence from your paper, and how you might give it more power and meaning.

When possible, use formatting—bulleted lists, numbers—to make the information more visually accessible:

The paragraph is the basic building block of a short essay. A good paragraph should have the following qualities:

  • It should be centered around one idea.
  • It should have a clear topic sentence.
  • It should contribute toward proving your thesis.

Of course, it’s easier to say than it is to do!

Also remember to use “bling” like exclamation points and smiley faces to lighten things up.


Have fun even as you talk about boring, basic things like format:

Most college papers are double-spaced. I think that’s so professors can read easily without reading glasses!  So check your assignment requirements to find out, or ask the prof. Just make sure you double-space using the formatting function of your word processor rather than double-return at the end of each line.  To format double-spacing in Word, highlight the whole manuscript, click “Format” on the menu bar, then “Paragraph” on the list, then “Spacing” in the dialogue box, and choose “double”. That will double-space the manuscript. But don’t forget to delete all the extra returns, or you’ll end up with quadruple space, and believe me, you don’t want to end up with quadruple space. :)


Self-deprecate, but don’t undermine your credibility as a tutor. Be self-deprecating about other aspects, like your technology expertise:

Here’s a graphic about clauses, and don’t laugh. It took me forever to make. I’m better with words than with text-boxes, as you can tell!!! :)


Crazy English

Let’s face it. English has some oddities, like you pluralize nouns by adding an S (dog/dogs) and you pluralize verbs by taking the S away (walks/walk).  One way to build commonality with student writers is to acknowledge when this rule or spelling doesn’t make a lot of sense.  This will actually save both of you time, because you don’t have to search for some non-existent logical explanation.

???????? ??????????? ???? ??????? ????????? ? ????????? ????????-???????
( )

So “Its” here is a possessive pronoun, and does NOT take the apostrophe. (Yes, I know that’s confusing—with a noun, an apostrophe means possessive, but not with a pronoun… what genius thought THAT up?) I notice that my grammarcheck picked that up and put the squiggly green line under “it’s” there, and that might be something to look for, as apparently it flags that issue.  Here’s how it looks with “its” as a possessive pronoun:

Freud reduced human consciousness to its basic parts.



Here’s where it gets confusing….  A couple times you use “its”.  This sounds the same as the possessive pronoun “its,” but you actually mean the contraction “it’s,” which is short for “it is.”  This is a very common mistake—I make it too! And the only way to make sure I get it right is to ask myself which I mean.  If  “it is” doesn’t fit there, then I don’t use the apostrophe. But here, it’s “it is one of the most…” so I need it plus the apostrophe S (or just go with “it is”):

 it’s one of the most physically damaging drugs that people can use.

Here actually is the opposite:  Jeremy got addicted to its fast-paced

“Its” here is a possessive pronoun, and does NOT take the apostrophe. (Yes, I know that’s confusing—with a noun, an apostrophe means possessive, but not with a pronoun… what genius thought THAT up?)


Acknowledge the complications here. Grammar, spelling, syntax—these are not always logical and not always easy to grasp, and you can form a little commonality with the student by acknowledging this. This might paradoxically make the student feel less out of control—”So it’s not that I’m stupid. It’s that this is complicated, and even the tutor says so!” It’s important to follow this acknowledgement with some strategy, of course, like:

This is where we tear our hair out!  “S” at the end of words in English can mean either possessive (“the war’s casualties”– apostrophe- S) or plural (“wars”). What happens when you have a possessive (the noun “possesses” the next noun), which is also PLURAL???  Well, you put the apostrophe AFTER the S (“two cats’ fur flying while they fight”). (I know… someone should have designed this language better! J)

What I always do is think: Possessive or plural?  I’ve just trained myself to check whether this word needs an apostrophe.


I had to look this up, because I’m with you: “Rumba”, “samba,” etc., are names of dances, and so I thought they’d be capitalized too. But no—turns out they are not capitalized. I think the style manuals are getting really restrictive these days about capitalization. Anyway, here’s a link to an online capitalization manual that has most of the rules and examples.



Mentioning the Minor

In some papers, relatively minor mistakes can make a big negative difference in the professor’s response to the paper. So if you can find those and show how to fix them, you can really help the student focus on the more important stuff.  For example, in some upper-level courses, only papers with accurate documentation can get passing grades.  So even if that missing period at the end of the APA reference entry might seem trivial to us, we’re not grading the paper. So we might point out not “how important this is” but how the student can avoid trouble by getting this right. Like:

Documentation is such a picky process, and especially in upper-level classes, it’s so important to get right! The best way to do it is to find a reliable manual and follow every step exactly. No need to waste any creativity.


Read as a reader.  It can really help if you just describe what you felt—as a reader—as you read the paper, especially if you felt kind of led off in the wrong direction. This is another of those “easy fixes” that can make a big difference—the writer might just need the problem and solution pointed out.

Your introduction introduces the different types of clinical psychology practices, and I thought that the paper would be about that, about the variety of practices and how they work. However, the paper after that focuses on the problems faced by schoolchildren, and I realized that you’re really writing about the role of a school psychologist exclusively, not all the other branches of psychology.  I was kind of confused, especially as your focus after that first paragraph is so good and confined to school psychology.


So think about making the introduction match the rest of the paper by focusing even the first paragraph on psychology in the schools. Think about, for example, why we need psychologists in schools. You could start (just an example) with something about how teachers can’t deal with all the problems presented by students, and then give an example of a student with a psychological problem that the teacher can’t handle, and end up with a thesis about the importance of school psychologists to deal with issues like this. That way from the very beginning, the reader will be going in the direction you want. :)  I think it won’t take much revision at all, because it’s only your introduction that doesn’t completely match. Match that to your paper’s focus, and I think you have it!


Apply what you know about the writing process, like the difference between writing and revision:

There are many, many, many of these “subordinating conjunctions,” so don’t bother memorizing them all (or the term— we English teachers need to know that, but you just need to notice in revision).   Just watch out for those, and remind yourself to revise to separate the one element of the sentence from the other.  You’ll find it’s second nature pretty quickly. And remember, if you don’t get it right the first draft, that’s fine. This is really about revising and editing, not drafting.  Always keep in mind, you don’t have to get it perfect the first draft!  Once you learn this revising strategy and start watching to use it as you edit, you can wait until the second draft to fix.




Provide Models and Examples:

Many students learn from example, and in fact, a good precise example can go a long way to showing them what your explanations really mean.  So although you don’t want to do the student’s work, see if you can provide examples


This is such an interesting topic! The twenties was a wild decade with so much change going on, and those changes were the causes of so many later changes. Because your focus is on change, I am wondering if you might want to put in a reason for: Economic and social prosperity had become harder for many Americans to achieve, especially African Americans.

An easy way to do this is to put a “due to” at the start of the sentence, like:

Due to … (what? Demographic changes, or the war, or ???), economic and social prosperity had become harder for many Americans to achieve, especially African Americans.


See what I mean? You’re presenting an effect—something that happened—when you talk about the difficulty of achieving. Can you quickly say the cause, why it happened? If you can do it really quickly, you could just say, “Due to several factors, economic…” and fill in the blanks later in the paper. You’re right to keep the introduction short and more generalized than the paragraphs where you go into depth.



Second-language students:

ESL students pose a special challenge. Most tutors are trained to read the papers of ESL (English as a Second Language) students and can identify common problems that are just about inevitable in a paper written by a non-native speaker. So many of the things native English speakers just get right (especially articles) really aren’t very easy to learn as an adult.  So we know that a student from another language culture might drop the “a” or “the” in front of a noun, and it’s no big deal.  But we have to remember that for many professors, this minor issue will stick out as a major marker of non-fluency (and indeed, it is the quickest way to identify an ESL paper).

In fact, I once got a paper to advise that the professor termed “unreadable,” and I couldn’t figure the problem out, as it was a well-organized, thoughtful paper. Then I realized that the lack of articles (a/an/the) branded this “non-fluent,” and would be difficult to get past for anyone who wasn’t trained to read ESL papers.  So I understand now that just helping ESL students with this one minor issue can make an important difference in how their writing is accepted.  I try then to point out that this is a minor issue, easily remedied, that if fixed will let the reader concentrate on the depth and development of the ideas. I also suggest that they ask a native speaker friend to read the paper over just to find these fluency issues. This can give them permission to seek help, but also reassures them that an instance of missing articles does not in fact mean their papers are unreadable.

With ESL students especially, it helps to point out what they’re doing right, and gently suggest “a few ways that will create a better presentation for this good analysis.”  That sort of reassurance can make an impression that lasts far beyond the tutoring time. I once had a student who grew up speaking a native African language and French, and he had a terrible time with articles, as his native language didn’t use them, and in French, they’re linked to gender.  But he had created a useful grid to help organize his source material, and I praised this as a structural tool and asked if I could copy it to show other students how a grid could lead to a better analysis.  He was pleased with the compliment, and agreed with me that anyone who could create such a good grid could surely handle articles.  A few weeks later, he emailed to say he’d gotten an A on the paper, and added, “The professor mentioned how well-organized my material was! I think it was my grid that did it!”  His confidence grew enough that he ended up becoming a mentor to other African students.

You never know when something you say will have the effect of making a student want to strive and achieve and give more.  But I can tell you from my own experience: Praise – given honestly and freely—can transform, especially students who feel lost and inadequate (as we all would if we were trying to learn in a new language).



Affirmative Advising: A Learning Process

Advising in this affirmative way doesn’t always come naturally, especially for tutors trained as teachers!  So you might find it a bit mechanical at first. I know that I have had to train myself to rea

d over my advice before I hit “send”.  I go through each paragraph and, keeping the essential meaning, revise to make the information more accessible and friendly.


Of course, being positive doesn’t mean ignoring problems, just presenting them as solvable and then concentrating on the solutions.  It’s a very pragmatic way of advising, in fact, because the focus is on “what works”—and so the results can be dramatic, both for the student (who might feel more empowered and excited) and for the advisor (who won’t be so cranky!).  Try it yourself in the next few sessions, and see if your attitude and approach benefit from the positive focus.

And by being affirmative, we’re helping our students learn perhaps the most important lesson to learn early in their college careers: In the university, asking for help is its own reward.

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