Every discipline has its own set of writing genres, its own specialized vocabulary and conventions, and its own way of defining issues and supporting arguments. It is impossible for a single tutor to be familiar with the writing conventions of all disciplines. However, there are basic rhetorical principles that apply generally to all writing situations.
Audience and purpose are the two most important rhetorical concepts for the developing student writer. Who you are writing for and what you are trying to do influence every aspect of the writing task, yet many academic assignments do not specify an audience and do not have a clear rhetorical purpose. Without this information to focus the task, your student may have trouble getting started on the writing, or have trouble making decisions about what to include and what to leave out.
Imagine you are going to write a letter describing your experiences in your first quarter of college to the following people:
Would you send the same letter to each person? Would you talk about the same events? Would you leave things out of one letter that you might put in another? How would the language and style be different? This little exercise can show a student writer how much the writing is influenced by who is going to read it.
When you are writing a personal letter the audience is usually one person, often a person you know very well. In such a situation, words come easily, because audience and purpose are well-defined and familiar.
A business writing situation is usually more complex. Often you know the position and responsibilities of the reader, and the purpose of the writing, but you may not know the reader as an individual. Many real-world writing situations involve audiences that the writer must partially or wholly imagine. The ability to imagine different audiences and serve their various needs is an important measure of a writer's fluency.
Academic assignments create a situation in which a dual rhetoric is involved. There is an element of pretense, because the writing is not for a real-world situation. There is usually a hypothetical, pretended, audience for the writing, in addition to the "real" audience, the instructor. The needs of these two audiences are quite different, and the conflict between the two can be confusing. For example, you may be writing an informative report, but you may feel that the instructor already knows all the information you have to present. How do you choose what to include and what to leave out if the reader already knows everything?
Parallel to the problem of dual audiences is the problem of dual purposes. The immediate purpose is to influence the instructor to give a good grade, but the document usually has another hypothetical function related to the assignment.
The following questions will help you identify the intended audience:
The following questions will help you discover the purpose of the writing. Ask the student:
Some writing tasks can be accomplished using "organic" structures in which the writing appears to organize itself, but most academic projects require more formal organizational structures. Those disciplines that utilize strict and uniform writing formats provide students with ready-made structures for their writing, which can even function as pre-writing devices in themselves. However, most writing done in composition courses focuses on developing the student's own ability to structure thought into discourse.
Two special cases require more extended discussion. The first is the underdetermined structure—student writing in which the organization is confusing or which appears to have no organizing principle at all. The second is the over-determined structure—student writing that is all form and no content.
Start with an investigation of the paper's overall purpose. Questions such as the following may help you understand not only the organizational problems but give you some guide to helping students structure possible ways to link the textual "chunks" to their overall scheme. Ask the student:
If the paper seems to leap from paragraph to paragraph without any seeming underlying development or pattern, try approaching it paragraph by paragraph. Ask the student: What is the purpose of this paragraph? What does it do for the reader? What is this paragraph doing? You may discover that the writer does indeed have some underlying organizational principle that is not apparent to you. Knowing this will help you help the student to restructure his paragraphs for linkage and development.
Muriel Harris also recommends asking "Why did you do that?" because "When students answer, they so often help tutors see what is needed or lacking. For example, when a student says that a particular type of support for an argument is there because that's all she could think of, the tutor hears something useful about the need for work on invention" ("Collaboration" 375).
Another question recommended by Harris is "How did you write this paper?" This will usually reveal some of the student's writing methods and strategies, and this information can help tutors decide where the conversation should go next (375-76).
Many students have learned certain very specific formats (such as the five-paragraph essay) for expressing themselves in writing. These students are naturally extremely reluctant to part with these formats, fearing that any other style will be wrong (for this is what many have been taught). Essays of this type may appear to be repetitive, superficial, vacuous and lacking in development. In some cases, students ignore major portions of the topic or assignment because they do not fit into the five-paragraph format.
Exceptions: Students who are very anxious about timed writing tests, such as the GWT, may find that under pressure, the five-paragraph essay is all they can manage. Non-native speakers who are unfamiliar with American rhetorical patterns are another group that may need to rely on this format in order to mimic American organizational patterns well enough to pass such a test.