Writing Centers Research Paper Starter

Writing Centers

(Research Starters)

Writing centers are unique academic institutions. They are places where writers go for one-on-one feedback and assistance with their writing, offering a more personal and less hierarchical form of instruction. In the writing center, tutors work with students to improve not just the writer's text, but the criticial thinking and writing processes that the writer uses in creating a text. The pedagogical approach that a particular center employs may be informed by a number of educational and/or composition theories. This article provides a brief overview of the most common theories and practices employed in modern writing centers.

Keywords: Collaborative Learning; Curriculum-based Tutoring; Directive Tutoring; Expressionism; Humanism; Non-directive Tutoring; Process Approach; Social Constructionism; Writing Across the Curriculum; Writing Center; Writing Theory


On many campuses, the Writing Center is a place that is frequently misunderstood. Sometimes it's lucky enough to be housed in roomy quarters with computers, comfortable chairs, and numerous staff. Sometimes it occupies more humble spaces, perhaps an office in a back hallway or a basement, staffed by one caring tutor at a time. Writing centers are diverse and may seem to serve different purposes depending on the center's clientele, location, and position within the institutional framework.

Most writing centers today share the common goal of assisting individuals to become better writers. To do this, writing centers provide one-on-one consultations with trained peer or professional tutors. These consultations focus on improving an individual's writing and thinking processes. For instance, in a typical consultation, a writer may bring in a draft text for an assignment in an English class. The writer and tutor often begin with a conversation about the purpose of the assignment and what the writer would like to focus on during the session. Then, focusing on the writer's goals, the tutor will ask questions that help the writer clarify ideas or improve the written text. The goal of the session is to use the collaborative process to help the writer understand how a reader would comprehend the writer's ideas and thereby allow the writer to improve the work. This does not mean the final product must be a perfect text.

While sessions may focus on mechancial issues such as punctuation and grammar, most writing centers today do not conduct "fix-it" sessions in which tutors proofread and correct papers so that writers can get a better grade. Instead, if there is a consistent mechanical error (e.g., comma usage), tutors provide mini-lessons on the area of concern and then allow students to find and correct their errors. Thus, it is entirely possible for a student to use a writing center several times without emerging with a "perfected" paper in the eyes of a professor. This can be a source of misunderstanding and frustation if students and faculty expect writing centers to be places that provide editorial services.

Further Insights

The crucial component that makes a writing center different from a classroom is the relationship between the tutor and the writer. Unlike an instructor in a classroom, tutors do not have control over the student's grade; therefore, at least one element of power in the teacher-student relationship does not exist. Many times, tutors are graduate or undergraduate students, classified as the writer's peers, and therefore (possibly) more likely to adapt to the writer's perspective. Tutors can also offer more time to the student by scheduling time to discuss a student's paper several times a week or semester.

Within the context of this more equitable relationship, tutors have a variety of choices about how to interact with the writer depending on the tutor's and writing center's philosophy regarding writing, composition, education, and knowledge construction. A pedagogical decision during a session is whether to take a non-directive or directive approach.


Non-directive tutoring, which encourages tutors to act Socratically and ask writers questions during a session instead of providing answers, is representative of the minimalist tutoring philosophy introduced and popularized by Jeff Brooks. Brooks (2008) writes that the goal of a tutoring session should be to help the writer learn how to write, not to perfect the writer's paper. "When you 'improve' a student's paper, you haven't been a tutor at all; you've been an editor" (Brooks, 2008, p. 169). Thus, he emphasizes that tutors should sit patiently with students and be willing to discuss all aspects of the paper and strategies for effective writing. Tutors should offer support and encouragement and keep the writer focused on the paper. While the end result may be a perfected paper, it does not have to be. In Brooks' view, if students leave a writing center session having a better understanding and better control of their own writing processes, then the session has been a success.

The directive approach involves the tutor serving as a source of authority on the writing style and providing the writer with examples of how to phrase the wording of the text. Modeling is a frequent technique of the directive approach. In modeling, a tutor may demonstrate how to write a text or give examples of the kind of writing expected and then ask the student to do the same. Directive tutoring has been noted as a common and effective practice for professors mentoring graduate students during the writing of their theses and dissertations (Shamoon & Burns, 2008). However, it is not the predominant approach used in modern writing centers. .FT.-Corbett (2011) recommends that when moving tutors to classrooms a more authoritative (directive) approach could be encouraged, but when these tutors move back to the center, we could ask them to resist the temptation to overuse what they know about the course and the instructor's expectations and "hold on a little tighter" to some nondirective methods and moves that could "place agency back in the hands and minds of the students" (2011).

Whether tutors and writing centers choose directive or non-directive approaches depends on the students' needs, the policies of the center, and the philosophies of the individual tutor. Writing centers are affected (as are all educational institutions) by the predominant theoretical conventions and constructs of certain time periods. In particular, theories originating within the fields of composition and education have most impacted the day-to-day operations of the writing center. Major philosophies impacting center work have included:

  • Current traditional rhetoric,
  • Expressionism and
  • Social constructionism

Traditional Rhetoric

In the 1940s and 1950s, traditional rhetoric emphasized the form and structure of the text apart from the writer. In response, writing centers, or writing laboratories as they were called, emphasized instruction in grammar and the mechanics of writing. After receiving instruction on a particular aspect of form, students would practice individually, consulting with a tutor to check for correctness (Moore, 1995; Murphy & Law, 1995). The grammar drills and paper correction led to a perception that writing centers were "fix-it shops" (North, 2008, p. 35) for those who lacked fundamental writing skills. Many continue to hold this perception today.


In the 1970s to 1980s, Expressionist philosophy led tutors to deemphasize the text and instead focus on the writer and the writer's creative processes (Murphy & Law, 1995). Expressionism, which is a philosophy that falls within the category of Humanism, views knowledge as having a stable and permanent existence. According to this view, knowledge can either be learned from others or can be discovered within the self. Expressivists view writing as an important means to self-discovery. Through an intense and personal process, writers are able to discover their inner wisdom and gain a better understanding of themselves and of the world. From Expressionist theorizing was born the Process Approach, a pedagogy that points out that writing occurs within a series of stages. These stages are generally recognized as:

  • Pre-writing (e.g., brainstorming, freewriting),
  • Drafting,
  • Revising,
  • Editing and
  • Publishing.

Although writers might use different techniques with each of the stages and their progression through each stage may not be uniform, all writers are believed to engage in some form of each stage (Trupe, 2001). In a class based on the Process Approach, teachers help writers develop strategies for each stage of the process. In a process-based tutoring session, a tutor observes where the writer is within his or her individual process and then works to move the writer to the next stage. North (2008), an oft-cited spokesperson for Expressionist-based tutoring, writes that in...

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