[Fresh] Writing papers

John Immerwahr (john.immerwahr@villanova.edu)
Thu, 21 Sep 2000 10:59:19 -0400

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Interview with Ms. Mary Beth Simmons, M.F.A., Director of the Villanova
University Writing Center.

F@N. This is your first year at Villanova and as director of the
Writing Center. What are some of your impressions?

Ms. Mary Beth Simmons. I certainly identify with the class of 2004; we
are all in our freshman year together. Seriously, I have been very
pleased with the heavy emphasis on writing that I see here at
Villanova. Many of our courses have rigorous writing assignments. The
writing is demanding and it should be. No matter what discipline a
student is in, he or she is going to need to be able to write
effectively, so this is something really important for us to stress.

F@N. So how is the class of 2004 doing on writing? How are their

MBS. For the most part they are good. I see evidence of a lot of
solid, traditional high-school training. Many of our students have
mastered the basics and it shows in their writing. They've got the
foundation in place already, and now they are ready to expand and add
new skills.

F@N. What are their biggest problems?

MBS I would say that the biggest problem they have is a kind of
perfectionism. They are good students and they have high standards for
themselves. That is a fine thing but it can hang them up in a few ways.
For some students, there is so much anxiety about writing that they have
a hard time getting started. They sit there staring at a computer
screen until the deadline comes up and then just write something to get
the paper done. Another symptom of perfectionism is that many of our
students don't enjoy revising their paper. Once they have a draft they
think, "OK, that's done, on to the next project." They just hate to
mess up that clean sheet with editorial marks. Actually our computers
and printers can create a problem. The papers look so polished when
they come off the printer that sometimes students get the illusion that
this is a finished product. What we know, however, is that a good paper
should go through a number of drafts, and to write well students need to
start a project early and be prepared to revise and rewrite. That's
where the Writing Center comes in.

F@N. If I went to the Writing Center, what would I see?

MBS. You'll see a big room, with both work tables and lounge areas.
You'd see lots of student peer tutors working with individual students
on writing projects. We've just renovated the center and this week we
are in the process of putting up some art-work, with many pictures
painted by student artists over the years. It is happy place and most
people seem to be having a good time. Many of the students have come
there voluntarily for help, and, at any rate, the tutor isn't giving
them a grade; for the most part the students are relaxed but focused on
getting the job done.

F@N. How do you train the peer tutors to deal with the problems of
perfectionism that you mentioned earlier?

MBS. For a student who has trouble getting started, we work a lot on
prewriting. We have a few different approaches, depending on the
student. In some cases we work with the students on writing outlines,
and that can often jump-start the student to writing a paper. Some
students, however, don't respond well to outlines so we work with them
on what we call clustering. The student starts with an idea, then we
help them brainstorm other ideas that might be related, exploring
connections with where that idea might go. Another very successful
technique is "free writing." We'll ask a student to sit down with a
piece of paper or at a terminal and write for ten minutes without
editing, just to get their thoughts out on paper. Sometimes students
don't do this on their own because they think it is a waste of time, but
it is a really good way to get started. Often they are surprised by how
much of the paper is already in place.

F@N. Suppose a student brings in a draft of the paper. What are some
of the ways the tutors are trained to help?

MBS. The first thing is that both the tutor and the student read the
paper together, so both are actively visiting the paper and they both
have the same frame of reference. Then we take the student through four
steps, looking at the assignment, the thesis, the organization and
development, and finally at the mechanics.

F@N. Lets talk about each one. You mentioned looking at the
assignment. What comes up there?

MBS. Often enough the student will read the assignment and write a
draft of the paper, without rechecking to see if the paper really
addresses the assigned topic. By the time the student has written the
paper, the student may have lost sight of what the professor was
actually asking for. Going over it with a tutor is a really helpful
exercise and often leads students to see for themselves that revisions
are necessary.

F@N. We've heard a lot about "the thesis-driven essay," and you
mentioned that looking at the thesis was the second step. Tell us more
about that.

MBS. Rather than asking what the thesis is, we have the tutor pick out
what he or she thinks the thesis is. If the thesis is strong, the
reader should have no trouble picking it out. We also check to see if
the thesis is thought-provoking, and we try to steer students away from
a more generic thesis. At the high school level, a good thesis can
sometimes be a summary. This won't cut it in college, and it is a big
jump for first year students.

F@N. What about organization and development? How does that play out?

MBS. The tutors try to check whether the logic of the paper supports
the topic. We check to see if the paper goes from easier requirements
to more difficult ones, and we look at the transitions and the use of
evidence. One of the things we try to help students understand is that
learning to be a good writer is a life-long process. Last week, one of
our professors came into the Writing Center for help. He had sent an
article to a journal and gotten some suggested changes from the editors;
he wanted a writing center tutor to help him revise his article. (I put
him with one of our most experienced tutors and they worked very well
together). I really appreciated his visit because it helps make our
point that good writers are always working on developing their writing,
and that even for someone with a Ph.D., writing is process that can
benefit from collaboration with others.

F@N. What about mechanics and proofreading?

MBS. We do go over the spelling and punctuation, but we try to put it
in context. For some of our students, being a good writer means being
able to spell and punctuate. They think, "If you can help me fix my
commas I will have a good paper." We'll help them with mechanics, but
we'll also help them understand that there is much more to it than
submitting a paper with no grammatical errors. As Stephen North has
written, our task is to produce a better writer, not a better text.

F@N. What can parents do to help?

MBS. Parents can encourage students to come to the writing center. The
best thing is for a student to call us at 610-519-4604 to make an
appointment, but we'll also try to help students who just drop in.
Parents can help with student perfectionism, by reinforcing the message
that learning to write is a life long process. I would also encourage
parents to read some of their students’ written work, if the students
are comfortable sharing it. If the student says he or she did a good
job on a paper, the parent might ask the student to send it as an e-mail
attachment. Many of the papers we see are very thought-provoking and
would make for great conversations. There are a number of interesting
books out there, that parents might enjoy reading themselves or
recommending to students. Some books I like are: "If You Can Talk, You
Can Write" by Joel Saltzman, "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott and "Writing
Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. I am just looking at a new book
called "Sin Boldly: Doctor Dave's Guide to Writing the College Paper" by
David Williams. He gives a lot of practical advice in a humorous
fashion. I think what parents will find is that the field has come a
long way since the classics such as “Elements of Style.” “Elements” is
a wonderful book, of course, but a formal discussion of writing often
doesn't speak to the student who most needs help. Parents can find more
about the Center by visiting our website at:

F@N What about becoming a writing center tutor? Is that something
members of the class of 2004 should think about?

MBS. Absolutely. Nothing helps a student improve writing more than
helping others to write. Students who are interested take a training
course during their sophomore year and then become writing center
tutors. They are paid for their work, so it is a great way to combine
learning and earning. It isn't too early to start thinking about it, so
a student who is interested should contact me for more information,
either by calling at 610-519-5358, by email:
marybeth.simmons@villanova.edu, or by stopping by the center to make an
appointment. We are open Sunday - Thursday from 1:30-9:30 and on Fridays
from 1:30-5:30.

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