What All Writing Teachers Might Learn from Writing Centers


  1. Reading for Potential

Reading for potential, rather than for problems, is not just a practice but a mindset. It means reading charitably, looking for positive elements to build on, rather than looking for what is wrong with an essay or needs fixing. We tend to gravitate toward fixing because it feels simpler than higher order revising and more immediately helpful. It’s also likely what we got from our own teachers.

Some strategies that help you read for potential are to

(1) identify what works for you as a reader; say, “As a reader, I’m engaged by…”

(2) look for moments in an essay that the author can productively expand/elaborate on

(3) aim to reflect back the best qualities of the essay, not the worst

Ultimately, remember that the person behind the writing is more important than the writing itself. It is easier to start another essay than to rebuild a person’s confidence.


  1. Considering Higher Order vs Lower Order Emphasis

When the bulk of a student’s reading and writing experience consists of reading and writing text messages, writing an academic paper means using a kind of foreign language. Some lessons from Writing Center approaches to working with ESL students are applicable to more and more native speakers. In particular, what students often want to work on in their writing is grammar. The question becomes how can we help students with their grammar without proofreading and editing their papers for them.

Part of this reluctance to provide language feedback is revealed in looking at the history of Writing Center pedagogy. The UNC Writing Center website explains how several texts in the early 80’s formed this attitude toward ESL students. In particular, Reigstad & McAndrew’s division of the writing process into “higher order” and “lower order” concerns, valuing content and organization before grammar and punctuation, and North’s declaration that “In a writing center, the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction…our job is to produce better writers not better writing” (North, 69).

Of course, for all writers, ideas cannot be separated from the language used to express them. All young writers are language learners, still at the start of a long process of understanding how vocabulary, sentence structure, discipline-specific expressions, and effective argument work to express convincing ideas. Suggestions like these, the UNC Writing Center website (link), while geared for ESL students, can be helpful for teaching a student about this relationship between grammar and ideas.


      3. Hospitality and Community

Whatever the atmosphere, writing can be stressful. Teachers and students alike should work to make the experience as painless as possible. Successful Writing Centers establish a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere that is encouraging rather than prescriptive. One way to develop that atmosphere is through language that emphasizes “we” or “readers and writers” to encourage group mentality. Another is to acknowledge the variety of learning styles and multiple intelligences by striving to vary approaches to learning to accommodate that variety.

Successful writing centers are staffed not just with good writers but also with good communicators. Consultants should come from a range of disciplines and be comfortable with a writing assignments across a wide landscape of audiences and purposes, making it clear that writing is not just the domain of English majors. In some cases, skills such as mindfulness or relaxation techniques may just as or more important to successful writing than, say, an eye for recognizing split infinitives. As with most teaching, a caring heart may be just as vital as a sharp mind.

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