It is essential to know the context or rhetorical situation in which the writing is being done before you can respond to it effectively. What is the assignment? Who is the intended audience? What is the writing supposed to do? Even though most students think that grammar, spelling and punctuation are the most important concerns, writing tutors should always start out thinking about global issues.
Some students come to the Writing Center before they have begun to write. In these cases they are usually confused about the assignment or the assigned reading, or they are blocked--unable to think of anything to say. They need pre-writing techniques and strategies, help with the terms and tasks of the assignment, and advice about the writing process.
Sometimes the student will tell you that he doesn't understand an assigned reading or the instructor's assignment. Sometimes you will discover this only after reading the student's writing and attempting to understand why it is vague, or vacuous, or illogical and contradictory.The Assigned Text
If a student comes to you with a problem in understanding an assigned reading, try to help the student become more active in his or her own reading:
Similar problems arise with writing tasks or assignment sheets that you yourself may not be able to understand:
Sometimes you yourself will have trouble understanding the assignment either because the assignment was poorly conceived and/or written, or because the assignment originates in a field outside of your discipline. Under no circumstances should you criticize the instructor’s assignment. Instructors will not want to send students to the Writing Center if we are going to criticize their assignments. See “Tutoring Unfamiliar Disciplines” below for more information about Writing Across the Curriculum.
For more information on dealing with problematic instructor assignments, see "Problems with the Instructor" in "Tutoring Problems."
If the student understands the assignment but hasn't begun to write, often the tutor can help with idea generation and pre-writing (see the "Pre-writing Activities" section below). However, sometimes the problem is more fundamental than not knowing where to begin. Sometimes, the writer is blocked. Some writers always have trouble getting started, and some are blocked only on certain tasks or in certain situations.
Writing Anxiety—If the student seems very nervous or anxious about writing, or expresses a dislike for writing, it may be necessary to explore the reasons for this attitude. Many individuals have had an experience in the past that has convinced them that they are incapable of writing. Often this involves a very strict, ruthless, grammar-oriented teacher.
Correctness—Writers are sometimes blocked by focusing on form and correctness too early. A writer who writes and rewrites the first sentence numerous times in an attempt to get the grammar right before going on to the second sentence is probably overly concerned about correctness in a first draft.
Fear of the New—A writer may be blocked on a particular assignment because he or she has never written anything in that genre or for that audience before. In this case looking at samples or models of successful efforts might be helpful.
Distractions—Sometimes the writer is blocked or writes ineffectively because of the writing environment. Perhaps there are too many kids at home and no quiet. Or perhaps the writer is in the habit of writing while watching television or listening to music.
What if you can't think of anything to say? Sometimes a writer needs an activity, a procedure, a set of rules, a viewpoint, or a new perspective to help him or her discover some ideas to write about. The following are simple but effective techniques that adapt to most topics. Classical rhetoricians called this process "invention." For a Classical approach, see “Aristotle’s Topoi” in the “Lessons from Classical Rhetoric” section. There is no one right way to approach invention. A blocked writer should try several techniques to find one that works.
Brainstorming—This is actually the temporary suspension of the judging faculty. Many writers reject their best ideas before they even write them down. Tell the student to write down everything he or she can think of that relates to the topic, without rejecting any idea. Then help the student go back over the list and select ideas that have a potential for development.
Freewriting—This is another technique that is especially useful for blocked writers. Tell the student to think about the topic and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping to correct or cross out or for any other reason, for five or ten minutes. Afterwards, read through what has been written for ideas that could be developed.
Clustering—This has the advantage of organizing the material as it is generated. Have the student put a term that represents the main topic in the center of a blank sheet of paper and draw a circle around it. Subtopics and related terms are placed around it, with lines showing relationships and inter-relationships. An example diagram can be downloaded here in PDF format.
List making—Lists and informal outlines of all kinds are also useful. Formal outlines are intimidating to most students, but are useful to some. Most word processing programs have an outlining feature that can help students generate and organize material. Two-column lists are useful for assignments that have a pro and con or before and after structure.
The Journalistic Pentad—The traditional five “W’s”: who, what, when, where, and why are appropriate to some assignments, especially narratives about events.
The following two pre-writing techniques are for advanced students. They are designed to generate philosophical questions and perspectives for analyzing and understanding complex physical and social phenomena. Tutors may find them useful for their own projects.
In The Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke proposes a different pentad that collapses the “when” and “where” of the journalistic pentad into “scene,” and adds a sixth category: “agency” or “how.” Burke’s “dramatistic” pentad is an excellent tool for developing insights into political, historical, and literary relationships, but it is complex, and not for the faint of heart.
Burke’s five terms lead to simple questions about the event:
Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
Scene—Where and when was it done? (Context, Background, Situation)
Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
Purpose—Why was it done?
Burke says, “Any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answer to these five questions” (xv). We might also ask “where is the motivation, or from whence does motivation flow?” Burke also combines the terms into what he calls “ratios” which generate simple questions such as the following:
Agent-scene—What does the scene reveal about the agent(s)?
Agent-agency—What does agency reveal about the agent(s)?
Agent-act—What does act reveal about the agent(s)?
Agent-purpose—What does purpose reveal about the agent(s)?
Burke notes that the scene contains the act, and launches into what amounts to literary criticism in support of his principles. His first example is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. He argues that in this play the scenes both realistically reflect and symbolize the action, and that the plot of the play is an “internality directed outwards” (In this we are getting into a scene-agent ratio, but Burke signaled at the beginning of the section that this was a possibility.) Burke makes similar observations about O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and quotes a scene from Hamlet in which Horatio is worried that the surroundings may inspire Hamlet to commit suicide (3-7).
Burke quotes Carlyle describing the features of the Arabian landscape and drawing conclusions about the Arabian people (Edward Said would see this passage as an example of Orientalism). Then he quotes a sonnet by Wordsworth, noting that the octet is all scene and the sestet is all agent, and that the supernatural quality invoked in the scene is transferred to the agent. Amid other examples Burke discusses a painting by Seurat in which the pointillist technique causes the characters to nearly dissolve into the background. However, he also points out that the artist’s technique can be covered more appropriately by talking about agency. This is an important point, because if painting technique is the agency, then the artist is the agent, and we have shifted the perspective of the pentad entirely (7-9).
Burke notes that the two ratios above are “positional,” in that the scene contains both the act and the agent. This is not true of the act-agent ratio, although the potential for the act may pre-exist in the agent. For this reason Burke characterizes this relation as temporal or sequential. Burke’s example is the resistance of the Russian armies to the Nazi invasion. Did the motivation for this resistance come out of the socialist scene, i.e. the political and economic structure (Scene-Act ratio)? Or did it derive from the strength and character of the agents (Act-Agent ratio)? Burke notes that socialists tended to argue the former, while American newspapers argued the latter. Most of Burke’s work with the pentad is critical and analytical; he uses the terms to interpret literary and political texts. This last example shows the potential of the pentad to serve a heuristic rhetorical purpose, to generate arguments and positions (15-17).
The tagmemic grid is a relatively new invention strategy developed by Richard E. Young and Frank M. Koen. This method generated a lot of interest in the field of composition and rhetoric because it was based in scientific concepts, and because it seemed to be entirely new, rather than adapted from Classical models. The theory proposes that in order to truly know any “thing” or concept, one must look at it from all possible perspectives. Young and Koen express these perspectives with a nine-cell grid that has contrast, variation, and distribution across the top, and particle, wave, and field down the left hand side.
Most composition instructors have found the tagmemic matrix to be too complex for the average student to understand. However, students in technical majors such as Engineering or Computer Science may actually find it more useful than other invention strategies. The following list of questions developed by W. Ross Winterowd from the tagmemic grid may be more useful than the grid itself. These are:
(1) View the unit as an isolated, static entity. What are its contrastive features, i.e., that differentiate it from similar things and serve to identify it?
(4) View the unit as a specific variant form of the concept, i.e., as one among a group of instances that illustrate the concept. What is the range of physical variation of the concept, i.e., how can instances vary without becoming something else?
(7) View the unit as part of a larger context. How is it appropriately or typically classified? What is its typical position in a temporal sequence? In space, i.e., in a scene or geographical array? In a system of classes?
(2) View the unit as a dynamic object or event. What physical features distinguish it from similar objects or events?
(5) View the unit as a dynamic process. How is it changing?
(8) View the unit as part of a larger dynamic context. How does it interact and merge into its environment? Are its borders clearcut or indeterminate?
(3) View the unit as an abstract multi-dimensional system. How are the components organized in relation to one another? More specifically, how are they related by class, in class systems, in temporal sequence, and in space?
(6) View the unit as a multi-dimensional physical system. How do particular instances of the system vary?
(9) view the unit as an abstract system within a larger system. What is its position in the larger system? What systematic features and components make it a part of a larger system?
The scenario below involves an assignment that looks like a straightforward narrative, but invokes cultural conflicts and emotional resistance. The assignment itself is questionable, but the tutor could probably help the student find something less emotionally charged to write about if he or she were a little more sensitive.
T: Hi, what can I do for you?
S: I'm writing this paper about my family. It's for English 095.
T: Let me see the topic. "Write an essay about a family conflict. Describe how the conflict started, who was responsible and how it was resolved."
S: It seems kind of personal. I'm embarrassed to write about it and I don't know what to do.
T: Well, did you think of a conflict?
S: Well, yes. I had a fight with my father. He doesn't like my boyfriend, and he thinks I shouldn't go out with anyone until I finish college.
T: OK, how did the conflict start?
S: My boyfriend called and my father answered. He hung up the phone and started shouting and...oh, I don't know.
T: You don't know what happened?
S: I don't want to write about it.
T: Is there another conflict you could write about?
S: I don't know.
T: Well, I don't know your family. I can't help you think of what to write about.
S: OK. I guess I'd better go.
T: Come back when you think of something to say.