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University Tutoring: How to Tutor Writing

Updated on May 9, 2013

You’re goal should be to produce better writers and thinkers, not better papers.


Writing comes easily to only a few. Most of us mortals, no matter how prepared, find ourselves chained to our keyboards at 4AM, desperately rewording prose and deleting extraneous information. But not everyone has the skills to write a good paper, and everyone needs a peer to review his or her work. This is where you, the writing tutor, come in. There are many components that must work in harmony in a college level paper, and it can be just as overwhelming for you, a peer tutor, to make educated comments as it can be for the student to write the paper.

The following information will help you prepare to tutor writing or become a better writing tutor.

Facilitative Approach

The facilitative approach forces the tutee to think about the solution to a problem, rather than simply giving her the answer. When you use the facilitative approach, you point out the problem and ask questions that lead the writer to come to her own conclusion. Find out more about the facilitative approach.

Higher Order Skills vs. Lower Order Skills

Most students who see a writing tutor for the first time will claim that they only need you to check their grammar. However, you are not a copy editor-- you are a tutor!

Grammar should always be subordinate to higher order skills such as

  • thesis concerns,
  • ideas,
  • and rhetoric,

unless the poor quality of grammar inhibits the reader from accessing the author’s ideas (this is sometimes the case with ELL students). Ideally, the student has come to you early enough that he or she can go and make the initial changes, and come back for a second or third tutorial so that you can focus more on grammar and style. If you notice that a tutee is consistently repeating a grammatical mistake, explain the rule and encourage her to recognize and fix other repeated mistakes on her own. Even when discussing grammar, use a facilitative approach rather than a directive approach.

English Language Learners

ELL students do not have a learning disability; English is their second, third, or even fourth language. There are special certifications for ELL tutors, but often, especially at small schools, any writing tutor might find herself working with an ELL student. These students are tremendously thankful and rewarding to work with, but the challenges of working with ELL students can be overwhelming.

  • Try to choose one or two grammar rules per tutorial.
  • Explain the rule, and encourage the tutee to recognize and correct that specific mistake as they read the paper to you.
  • Point out inappropriate word choices throughout the paper, but ignore any other grammar mistakes.

Tutor or Psychologist?

I’ve found that many tutorials are actually less about the paper than about the student herself. Often, tutees are more interested in venting about the professor, or are simply overwhelmed with the stress of midterms or finals. In one tutorial, right before Christmas break, my tutee burst into tears over a philosophy paper on “How to be a Good Person.” In these cases, you become a friend first.

  • Listen to what the student has to say and offer encouragement.
  • If she is overwhelmed, help her to organize or prioritize and reassure her that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • If the student is frustrated with the professor, try to keep her on task, and patiently steer the conversation back to the paper.

Your tutee could also have a disability that she may or may not choose to share with you before the tutorial begins. In almost all cases, the student has come to you because she is somewhat uncomfortable writing, and may feel embarrassed. It is your job to be sensitive to all of these possibilities, and to adapt to your tutee’s individual needs. The very best thing that you can do for a student is to make them a more confident, thoughtful writer, who approaches writing with enthusiasm.

Managing Your Time

Most tutoring centers schedule hour long tutorials. This may seem like forever for your first couple of tutorials, but as you become more comfortable working with the tutee, you will come to realize that 60 minutes is surprisingly short. To plan your time effectively, break the hour down like you might break down a paper. In the simplest of terms, you need an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Enthusiastically greet the tutee and introduce yourself.
Address the tutee's draft or generate ideas for a draft.
If you haven't already, make sure that all sources are properly cited.
Establish a personal connection and a positive learning environment.
Have the tutee read her draft out loud.
Reiterate or summarize all the main points of tutorial.
Examine the prompt.
Focus on higher order skills rather than lower order skills like grammer.
Address any questions the tutee might have.

Set the mood….

In order for the tutorial to be successful, the tutee must leave the tutorial feeling confident and empowered. She must trust the advice that you gave her and feel comfortable asking questions. Set a positive and friendly mood that is conducive to learning-- you should never come across as condescending or distracted.

  • Smile and greet the tutee with enthusiasm.
  • Don’t make her wait until you are finished checking your Facebook, or finishing your homework.
  • Pay attention to your body language and nonverbal cues.

Establish a personal connection.

Find out something about the tutee:

  • is this her first time seeing a tutor?
  • Is she a freshman?
  • What is her major?
  • Is she part of a sports team or involved with another campus activity?

Questions such as these will not only give the tutee a chance to open up and talk about something other than the paper deadline looming in front of her, but it will help you to understand where she is coming from. If the tutee is a math major, she may feel uncomfortable writing, and you know that you need to overcome this obstacle and perhaps provide a very formulaic, straightforward “mathematical” approach to writing. If the tutee mentions that she is on the basketball team, perhaps you can congratulate her on a recent win or ask how the last game was.

To complete the circle and help the tutee feel comfortable with you, share something about yourself.

Where to Begin

Before you even look at the tutee’s paper you need to know what class the paper is for. Is it for a writing class or a business class? Who is the professor and are you familiar with his or her grading style? These factors will affect the expectations of content and style, as well as the attitude the student has towards the paper.

Now you can look at the prompt together. Before moving on to the tutee’s outline or draft, make sure that both you and the tutee completely understand the professor’s expectations. Some professors love to give long, involved, and sometimes convoluted prompts. If the student hasn’t already, encourage her to

  • underline the important parts of the prompt
  • and restate the question for herself.

Tutoring Learning Disabled Students


Your tutee may come to you at any stage in the writing process. Perhaps she needs help understanding the prompt or organizing her thoughts. For most people, the hardest part of the writing process is simply beginning. Unfortunately, students don’t often come to see a tutor at this stage of the writing process and I’ve noticed that tutors are often uncomfortable if they do. It may seem as though the tutee is “lazy” and has not prepared for the tutorial, or expects you to do all the work.

Rather than resenting the tutee, embrace this opportunity to talk through the topic and find a truly interesting kernel idea that the student can build on for a draft. You can also take this time to encourage your tutee to free write in order to generate ideas.

Most tutees come with a draft of their paper. Never take the tutee’s paper and read it silently while the tutee tries not to awkwardly stare at you.

  • Ask the tutee to read the paper aloud to you, or if she is uncomfortable or unable to read it aloud to you, read it aloud to her.
  • She may notice many of her own grammar mistakes when she hears it out loud,
  • and it avoids any awkward silence.

If the draft is only a few pages, I prefer to have the tutee read through her entire paper before I make any comments. If the paper is too long to cover within the tutorial, I usually pause the tutee after each paragraph to discuss the development of the thesis, her supportive evidence, clarity, correct use of quotes, etc. You will notice most common, major problems in the first couple of paragraphs, and if you won’t have enough time to read through the entire paper together, skip to the end and discuss the tutee’s conclusion before the hour runs out.

Modeling Research Skills

As a peer tutor, it is important to model research skills. Though it may come naturally to you or I, many students don't realize the amount of effort and research, even informal research such as how to cite sources, goes into writing a paper. Asking for help from another nearby tutor is also a way to model good student behavior.


If you haven’t already, now is the time to discuss citations. The professor may have specified a format, but if not, you’ll have to decide between the most popular: MLA and APA. You should be familiar with both formats, but you aren’t expected to have either memorized! Most writing centers have MLA and APA guides, and it is very easy to look them up on the computer. The OWL at Purdue is an extraordinary resource for citation information and for grammar. This is also a perfect opportunity for you to bring the tutee to the computer and model how to look up the information.

  • Always come back to the prompt to make sure that the paper addresses all parts of the question and meets all of the professor’s expectations.
  • Your tutee should have been taking notes throughout the tutorial, but always reiterate the main points.
  • Don’t forget to remind the tutee about what she did well and always check to see if she has any questions.
  • Ask the student if she wants to set up a follow up appointment.

Things to Remember

It is the tutee’s paper;

not yours! You are there to offer advice to the student and make them a better writer, not to send them off with the perfect paper, or even an A paper.

Never speak unprofessionally about a professor,

no matter how much you might agree with the tutee's complaints. You can certainly sympathize, but it is not your place to condemn a professors’ teaching style.

Never predict a grade.

It is not your responsibility to grade the paper! If you are wrong, and the grade is not the A you predicted, the tutee may come back to you, upset and frustrated. Often, the tutee will not leave the tutorial with an A paper. Your tutee may come back and accuse you for her poor grade, but keep in mind that the grade on a single paper is not what is important; it’s the skills that they learn.

Don't write on the tutee's paper.

Resist the temptation to write on the tutee’s paper. Don’t do it! Encourage the tutee to write down everything IN HER OWN WORDS.

Don't ask yes or no questions.

Always ask the tutee to repeat everything back to you in her own words. Never ask the simple yes or no answer “do you understand?” You will almost always receive a blank stare and a nod, and you still don’t know if she understands or if she is simply embarrassed to say that she doesn’t understand.

Writing Tutor Concerns

What happens if your tutee comes unprepared?

If your tutee comes without her prompt, or without the text, you have several options. Ask if the professor posts the paper topics on Blackboard. If so, and there is a computer and printer in your writing center, it is fairly painless to print out a copy. If not, you can try to make do without it, but you also have every right to ask her to go get her materials or reschedule. Your center should encourage students to bring their materials when they make the appointment.

What if you’ve never read the book, or know nothing about the topic?

It’s actually better if you haven’t read the book, or know nothing about the topic! You are the perfect audience because the paper can’t assume that the reader has any extensive knowledge about the book, or topic. The tutee may be so familiar with the material that she leaves out important details, and you can ask for clarification.

What if you suspect that your tutee has plagiarized?

Sometimes you’ll notice a phrase, or even a few sentences, that will stand out from the rest of the paper. It may be that the diction is suddenly elevated, or it just doesn’t sound like the student’s own voice. Before jumping to conclusions, ask your tutee to explain the phrase to you. If she cannot, inquire where she found the information. Remember that the student has not yet turned the paper in to the professor, so she hasn’t actually plagiarized yet! Take this opportunity to non-judgmentally explain how to properly quote, paraphrase and cite information. Most instances of plagiarism come from not knowing how to cite properly. FInd out more about plagiarism.


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    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      8 years ago

      Good hub with lots of good suggestions.


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