Jeremy Price

Not all students can independently apply classroom lessons to their writing or instinctively emulate more accomplished writers, and sometimes perfectly bright and literate students can’t seem to get started on their essays at all or put together more than a few decent sentences. A tutor can help in these cases, and even those students who learn to write with comparative ease often discover that intelligent and empathic one-on-one instruction is more than just marginally helpful.

In fact one-on-one work is especially useful, and sometimes indispensable, when it comes to writing. But knowing why, as well as how to maximize that benefit, while avoiding any danger of exacerbating a student’s problems, requires a more than cursory understanding of the writing process.

The Writing Process

Writing is not a simple or rote activity, but a complex interaction between a writer and reader in which the writer must anticipate the reader’s needs, especially the need for clarity, and balance it against his or her own objective, the fulsome expression, or revelation, of ideas. These interests have to be balanced because in a sense they conflict: the more a writer tries to say, the greater the chance that he or she will say it poorly enough that the reader can’t understand. But they are also interdependent, since clarity is the means by which revelation occurs, and revelation, in turn, is the goal of clarity. In other words, to write is to manage a dialectic—the reader’s demand for clarity on one side, the writer’s aim to reveal on the other—and to do so both internally, anticipating the reader’s need for clarity, as well as dynamically, calibrating its function over the course of an uneven process, from first notes to final draft.

Clarity and Revelation

This dialectic is not as mysterious as it sounds, but an observable fact that anyone can identify, just by writing down a couple of sentences and then revising them, to add a new idea, while making the first ones more clear. By taking note of this process as the mind moves through it, one can observe either element in the pair both resisting and subsuming—as well as advancing on, while being subsumed by—the other. When a writer is experienced and the project is simple, these two aspects of the writing process can be so fully integrated that they appear to be fused. But when a writer is working at the limit of his or her grasp of the subject being treated, revelation and clarity do not appear fused at all, but rather seem to be orbiting each other at a distance, and over the course of the project, as mastery over the material is gained, to be drawing closer together, until at completion they merge.

Premature Demand for Clarity

The job of the writer is to sustain this dialectical interplay by keeping it as fluid as possible until it has spiraled down to its resolution point. In a literate person who is struggling to write, however, this dynamic has broken down, as the internalized demand for clarity has drawn too near the resolution point relative to the aim to reveal, destroying the generative tension between them.

In this circumstance, the technique that restores balance to the process is extreme permissiveness in composition: a suspension of the rules of handwriting, grammar, syntax, spelling, argument, and so on, all the elements of good, clear writing. Often this technique is called free-writing, and its effect is to reduce the demand for clarity and permit unfettered expression (which are really two sides of the same coin).

Inability to Be Clear

This loose approach to composition is the first and for many students a difficult step, although usually is relieving when taken. What comes next, however, is almost always harder, as the internal demand for clarity—so strong that it had made initial composition too slow, or even stopped it—turns out, after free-writing, to be too weak to support effective revision.

For the student this moment of truth can be disconcerting, even painful. It was that weakness, after all, and the desire to conceal it, that compelled the internalized reader to be so intolerant in the first place. The student may feel desperate upon realizing how much hard work a longer and rougher first draft requires, or overwhelmed when considering all the rhetorical choices that a less constricted approach to composition has opened up. Often he or she is feeling both.

The Quandary

The problem is this: there is no way for a student to move forward without opening up his or her process through a form of free-writing, but without having confidence in that process, or someone providing guidance, he or she fears—and may actually find—the consequences of making that leap are worse than being stuck. No wonder many students refuse to free-write with the imagination and seriousness they demonstrate in discussion. Why would they, having no one to receive their ideas and at the same time sensing their inability to manage the conveyance of those ideas by themselves? The road from an idea to a finished essay is long, winding, and sometimes treacherous, and for most students, a series of due dates for preliminary drafts are landmarks too few and far between.

Student Ambition

Also important to bear in mind is that this weakness is, of course, a judgment, based on comparisons to the ability of peers, the expectations of teachers, and the student’s own ambition. A student who is ambitious is more prone to struggle with writing than one who isn’t, since extreme pressure on one side of the dialectic or the other is what produces an imbalance, while an even distribution of pressure becomes more and more difficult to achieve as the total amount increases.

For anyone who writes seriously, these imbalances are unavoidable; indeed, a functional definition of success as a writer is simply having developed sufficient confidence in the writing process to manage the degree of imbalance incurred by the chosen project.

Especially ambitious students can experience extreme imbalances because they will choose a project with a very high degree of difficulty, or will interpret their assignment as entailing one. Usually, if not always, however, this choice is made intuitively, in accordance with the student’s sense of possibility, so that really it is not a choice at all, and simply convincing the student to scale back the degree of difficulty leads to dissatisfaction and in any case offers only a one-time solution.

At the same time, it is important to note, strong denial of ambition—enacted either as refusal to write or as disinterest in expending the effort required to improve—can be as indicative of ambition as are enthusiasm and engagement. In these cases, the student is struggling with anxiety about the difficulty he or she anticipates, or is uncertain about the genesis of the ambition being denied and concerned about protecting his or her autonomy. These problems are real and reasonable, and the tutor ought to confront them with patience and seriousness.

The Tutor

The role of the tutor is to manipulate therapeutically the student’s writing process in order to activate and ease it. At the outset, the tutor intervenes to disempower the internalized reader, restoring the generative tension between revelation and clarity. But over the course of the tutoring relationship, what the tutor must do is work to establish the student’s ability to stand with confidence in relation to the writer’s dilemma: when to satisfy the aim to share, when to meet the demand for clarity, and how to resolve the tension between them. Training in writing mechanics as well as ideational guidance are necessary components of this work, but even more important is assistance with their management and integration—help not with writing per se, but with the writing process.

Critical Thinking and Technical Expertise

Problems in writing manifest themselves across academic disciplines. But unlike particular subjects, success in which depends on a set of cognitive abilities often referred to as critical thinking, writing comprises these skills. To compose original syntax and build paragraphs that persuade is precisely to perform logical sequencing, practice empathy, and exercise judgment of multiple factors, including relevance, fairness, and credibility. In another sense, however, writing is not as much a manifestation of cognitive skills as an irreducible skill itself. An unassailable argument can be poorly expressed, after all, while scintillating prose can be marred by poor reasoning.

A Second Dialectic

The tutor’s aim is to help the student enlarge the points of connection between these two aspects of the act of writing, to the extent, optimally, at which they suffuse the process and the finished product. The goal of writing is a perfect homology of excellent thought and fitting phrases, of content and form. Therefore the goal of tutoring is to enable a student to achieve that homology by promoting the best possible function of the critical-thinking-and-technical-expertise dialectic, each element demanding more of the other as the two converge.

Grades and Grading Rubrics

The student, or more often, his or her parent, may ask that special attention be paid to one aspect of this second dialectic or the other, saying “Her ideas are great, but she can’t express them,” or “His writing skills are fine, but he can’t think of anything to say.” Neither of these statements, however, suggests how the problem can be resolved. Rather, they are reflections of grading rubrics, scorecards that subdivide essays into components that fall into one of two general categories: content (critical thinking) and mechanics (technical expertise).

Grading rubrics are evaluative tools, not instructional or even diagnostic ones. In other words, they exist to rank the products of writing and to explain those rankings, but are not helpful to improving the writing process. A grade is only a grade, whether accompanied by an explanation or not.

A Common Pitfall

A student whose grade explanation indicates that he or she needed to improve the content of an essay was just as likely to have been struggling with mechanics as with ideas: he or she may be making simplistic arguments precisely to avoid the need for more advanced technique. By the same token, a student whose essay is scored low on mechanics is just as likely to have been struggling with critical thinking as with grammar. Mechanical errors almost always reflect convoluted thought rather than failure to carefully look over one's work; the same student can often write error-free when the concept being expressed is simpler. For this reason, tutoring to a rubric is usually a waste of time and may even exacerbate a student's problems, as the odds of laying emphasis on the element in the dialectic that needs to be powered down are as much as one-in-two.

Process Before Product

In any case, critical thinking cannot in actuality be taught in an immediate fashion, but must be embodied by one cognitive act, such as writing, or another. Likewise, to impart the set of guidelines and techniques that constitute writing as an irreducible skill is not useful except as dynamic, integrated, and actionable input sited in the writing process. Therefore, therapeutic concern with the health of the student’s process is more central to the tutor’s job than is technical instruction or ideational guidance. The health of that process is measured in terms of its fluidity and by the progress toward integration of form and content that it achieves, as well as by grades received—although certain arbitrary factors, usually spelled out in the assignment, may affect the correlation of grades and process health.

The Pedagogical Paradox

But if the tutor’s principal job is not to train the student in the mechanics of writing, or to shape the student’s ideas for a certain project, what exactly transpires during a tutoring session? Nothing, of course, but explicit instruction in the mechanics of writing and rigorous discussion of the ideas at stake in the project!

The responsibility of the tutor is to improve the health of the student’s writing process—and do nothing that would further impair it, as training in mechanics and assisted ideation can, if divorced from the writing process. But to manipulate the student’s process without technical instruction or ideational input is impossible. Therefore the tutor must site both forms of guidance within the student’s process with the aim of helping him or her to realize their integration, while taking into account not only the stage in the writing process at which the project stands but also the student’s general development.


These two dyads, clarity/revelation and thinking/expertise—each pair a dialectic, separate from but interdependent with the other—move together, through time, over the course of any writing project. At a project’s inception, the elements of each pair orbit each other from a distance. At its completion, each pair, and in fact all four elements, converge. At inception, the writer is alone. At completion, a connection to the reader is made. This is the writing process.

If the function of this dynamic is blocked or slow and viscid, a tutor can help by repositioning the elements which have fallen out of balance and then teaching the student to maintain its proper operation. The second part of this intervention is the more difficult, in which the student must be taught to stand with confidence inside the writer’s dilemma as the trade-offs it presents cycle toward resolution.

© Jeremy Price

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