Often when I tell people that I work for the Denison Writing Center, they ask, “so what, exactly, do you do there?” I usually give them a quick platitude, which is direct and to the point, “I help students with their papers.” It is true that as a consultant, my job is to “help” students write papers because there is no magic formula that can turn a rough draft into polished final copy. Every student and every appointment has a new set of criteria and goals with plenty of obstacles to resolve. No two students have the same background or experience in writing, and each student must be helped with an open mind and with the understanding that everyone’s writing style is different. And that is part of every student’s writing journey—finding their voice in their own writing style. Whether they come to the Center to discuss a lab report on cellular biology, a resumé, or a survey of East Asian art, students know that they leave the Center having had the opportunity to talk about their work—its strengths, its weaknesses, and its typos. They also understand that even if a consultant only finds a few mistakes or makes a couple of suggestions, their paper is that much better.
I wouldn’t call myself a “typical” consultant, an English or creative writing major with a concentration in literature. I am actually an economics major, with a double minor in political science and Spanish. But that is the essence of a liberal arts education and peer tutoring. Writing is not a tool used exclusively by professionals who have “writer” or “editor” in their title. It is something used by everyone in all fields and occupations. I have come to learn that my work as a consultant has not only expanded my interest and curiosity in the topics that students bring in, it has prepared me to think critically and communicate effectively with my peers on both a personal and professional level—in a way I never imagined myself doing.
There are a few universal steps that nearly all consultants try to work into their sessions. The first is to create a friendly and comfortable environment where the student feels calm and confident. I think we all have experienced the stress and unrivaled anxiety (and sometimes dread) that accompanies peer review and paper swapping. I think most students are initially apprehensive about being identified as a “bad” writer by their peers, even if they are quite capable ones. A friendly comment at the beginning of each session—even simple questions like “how was your weekend”—can go a long way in alleviating that pressure. The second is to remind them that we, as consultants, primarily focus on “big ideas” as opposed to smaller grammatical or syntactical issues. While a paper that is aesthetically pleasing and flawless grammatically might impress a grammarian, it is unlikely to gain the admiration of readers if it cannot convey an idea or thought clearly.
The Center extensively trains its consultants to bring out the “best” elements of any type of paper, and it is a powerful resource and learning tool for both consultant and student. Students come out of the Center knowing that they have improved as writers, or have learned a new writing strategy, or have mastered a new citation style, while consultants leave the Center having learned something new or even realized an aspect of writing where they too need improvement. My own experience at the Center has certainly taught me the merit of constructive criticism both in receiving it and giving it. Writing, after all, is a continuous process, and there is always room for refinement and reflection.