How to Talk to Your Students about Writing Tutoring

How to Talk to Your Students about Writing Tutoring

Think about the students in your classes this quarter. Whom would you send to the Hume Center for tutoring? The student who still can’t write a summary? Or the student who can’t frame an argument? What about your most incisive writers? Would you recommend they see a writing tutor?

Writing centers have the reputation of being remedial “fix it” shops: a place where students can go to have their grammar or sentence errors repaired. But several decades of scholarship and writing center practice have transformed this limited conception of what can happen in a writing tutorial. Professor Andrea Lunsford, founder of Stanford’s writing center, maintains that tutors are among academic writers’ most important collaborators, and can help all writers generate, formulate, and organize their ideas.  She invokes Kenneth Burke, who likened the academy to a lively parlor, to argue that excellent writing emerges not from solitary labor, but through conversation with others.

The value of the writing tutorial

Students are likely to take advantage of the writing tutorial and to profit from it if you explain why Stanford provides writing tutors and why they are effective.

Why students value their meetings with a writing tutor:

  • Tutors clarify the expectations of an academic audience and then help students meet those expectations.
  • As students talk with tutors, their ideas are transformed from inchoate jumbles into defensible sets of propositions.
  • Students gain new insight into their reading, drafting, and revision processes.
  • Students find encouragement as well as feedback in a safe, welcoming space.

The writing tutorial provides an important complement to the traditional student-teacher relationship:

  • When students conference with a tutor, they set the agenda: the appointment time, the learning goals, and the direction of the conversation.
  • There is more parity in the discussion than there would be with an instructor:
    • the student may know as much about the content as the tutor does;
    • the tutor’s objective feedback will shed new light on the student’s writing.
  • In the writing tutorial, students learn from a writing coach without the pressure of a grade.

The writing tutorial at Stanford: what to expect

Where do tutorials take place?

Tutorials take place in the Hume Center or at one of many satellite tutoring locations around campus.   

Who are the tutors?

Hume Center tutors are generalists who welcome students from all disciplines. They may be undergraduate or graduate students or professional tutors with PhDs. All have been trained in effective tutoring techniques, and all are keen readers who love to talk through a writer’s choices and deliberate the effects of everything from diction to argument structure.

Why do students visit the writing center?

The Hume Center supports students writing in any genre and media and at any stage in their process, both within and beyond academic courses.

For example, students may see a tutor

  • to interpret an assignment prompt
  • to brainstorm a graduate school application essay
  • to develop a preliminary outline of a research report
  • to learn strategies of concision and apply them to a draft or
  • to refine the style of a cover letter.

What happens during a tutoring session?

Most tutoring sessions will open with a discussion of the student’s goals. Together with the tutor, the student will then decide on an achievable agenda for the session, given its time constraints. Then student and tutor will move into a combination of reading, writing, and talking about writing. Often the best sessions are those in which the student talks more than the tutor does because the tutee will discover new ways to put ideas into words. As the session comes to a close, the tutor may ask the student to formulate next steps.

There is one thing that tutors will not do for students: line-edit their writing. Instead, tutors will explain a particular writing technique to students—say, parallelism and why it can make their sentences more logical—and then work with the student to revise a sentence to demonstrate the technique. Thereafter, the tutor will ask the student to apply the technique, pushing the student to take responsibility for their ideas and writing. With this approach, the Hume Center believes students will learn much more than if the tutors do the hard work of writing for them.

What you can say to your students

You can help students make the most of a tutoring session in four ways:

  1. Explain Hume’s non-directive, dialogic teaching philosophy to them.
  2. Encourage students to come to a tutoring appointment with a specific, concrete writing goal in mind, such as effective presentation of evidence or acknowledgment of the counterargument, among many others.
  3. Remind students to tailor their goal for the tutoring session to the length of the appointment they set.  If they have just 30 minutes, they might be able to discuss a draft of an introduction and thesis statement with a tutor, for example.
  4. Encourage, rather than require, your students to visit the Hume Center.  When tutoring is required, students can see it as a form of punishment and resent it. (If you ask an entire class to see a tutor, however, this attitude is less likely to develop.)

Final Thoughts

Students often believe they have made their point clearly and thoroughly in writing, but a writing tutor will tell them how and why they have succeeded or failed, and share expert strategies to improve the communication and the writing process. When students collaborate with tutors, they improve the writing in question, take away writing techniques they can apply to future assignments, and come to see writing as an exciting process of discovery and meaning making.

Appointments for writing tutoring can be made at Students can also drop in to see undergraduate peer tutors any time the Hume Center is open.


Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do all the work.” Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood, Eds. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003: 169-174.

Burke, Kenneth.  The Philosophy of Literary Form.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941. 

Clark, Irene L. and Dave Healy. “Are Writing Centers Ethical?” WPA 20.1/2 (1996): 32-48.

Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal 12.1 (1991): 3-10.

McKinney, Jackie Grutch. “New Media Matters:  Tutoring in the Late Age of Print.”  The Writing Center Journal 29.2 (2009): 28-51.

Myers, Sharon. “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction.” The Writing Center Journal. 24.1 (2003): 51-70.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of the Writing Center.” College English 46 (1984): 433-446.

---. “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center.’” The Writing Center Journal 15.1 (1994): 7-19.