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Teaching Guide: Teaching the Writing Center's Regularly Scheduled Tutorial

Most of the materials in the paper version of the RST packet are duplicated in this online version. However, because the RST's are one-on-one tutorials, writing consultants will vary the assignments and their sequences to match more precisely the pedagogical needs of their novice writers, so feel free to adapt materials as you need to. As you do so, consider jotting down the variations and alternatives you use, so we can add them to these resources. In addition, as you have points you'd like to share with consultants in the future, please consider adding your insights to the compendium of advice here. Click below to read about:

RST Goals and Goal Setting

During the semester, you might work with individual students on a number of writing assignments designed to prepare them for CO130 (Academic Writing) or COCC150 (College Composition). Setting some realistic goals at the beginning of the semester is a good way to get started with each tutee.

Begin with the sheet that lists common goals for all tutorial students; add to those some specific goals appropriate for each writer. Take into account that students' needs and interests will vary: some students will be extremely practical about getting through the required comp course; other students may want to work toward longer-term goals for writing on the job. Use the form to guarantee that students understand the common goals and then to record any individual goals you set together. Be sure to have each student sign a "goals" form. Then sign and date the form and file it in the folder you'll keep with the student's work during the term.

Revisit the goals periodically to help measure progress during the term but especially at the midterm and semester reviews.

Goals Common to All RST Writers

Back Back to Goals and Goal Setting

To help you prepare for your next composition course, the tutorial typically focuses on the types of writing done in the first two essay assignments for COCC150. At the end of the semester, you and your tutor will collect the pieces you agree are the strongest examples of your writing. The Writing Center Director will then read through this portfolio of your writing to look for evidence of writing strengths, including the following, specific features:

Other Goals to Consider

Back Back to Goals and Goal Setting

Although the Writing Center tutorial depends upon some common goals, you may have other concerns or desires for your writing and yourself as a writer. Listed below are goals that past RST writing students have identified. Think about your own writing and your sense of yourself as a writer, and choose goals from the list below that speak to your needs.

My additional goals are to:

Defining My Own Goals

Back Back to Goals and Goal Setting

Although check lists are convenient, they cannot do justice to the range of experiences and understandings with and about writing that people bring to a tutorial. To help you define and articulate goals on your own, consider the questions listed below. After you work with the questions, you and your tutor can work to turn them into goals statements. Work with your writing tutor to create steps you can take to meet that goal.

Advice about Assignments

We include links below to each assignment and some of the context you might keep in mind as you begin working with your tutee on each writing task. As you work with your student, either you or the student may suggest changes as fit the student's needs and circumstances.

You will not be able to complete this entire list of assignments, so plan to spend more or less time on narrative to help build a student's confidence or to work on detail and focus. Similarly, spend more or less time on summary for those students who need more practice with critical reading and writing. Keep in mind that we would like to have two academic pieces and the postscript in the final portfolio to evaluate the student's readiness for the next composition course.

Teacher Advice: Getting Started - Listing Topics to Write about in the Tutorial

We believe students will engage quickly with the tutorial if they can begin by writing about a topic they are interested in, have experience with, or have studied formally or informally (through a hobby or scouting, for instance). Use the activity to stress the authority of the student: everyone has life experiences other folks are interested in reading about. But don't necessarily limit students to experience-based topics. Students are often excited about writing on topics in their majors or even ethical concerns. Be prepared to ask questions to help students flesh out the list. The more topics they list, the more likely they are to find good starting points for their tutorial writing.

Also, although the first two papers are described as narratives, if students generate topics that lend themselves to non-narrative development, don't hesitate to use those topics. Story-telling is often the most comfortable way for writers to get a paper started, but let the topics or the questions students want to answer about the topics dictate the form of the paper. Help your tutees, though, by jotting down a key question that the paper could answer.

Getting Started: Listing Topics to Write about in the Tutorial

The questions you'll answer: What are some of the topics I know the most about? What am I an expert on? Are there other topics I know enough about to write on them even if I'm not an expert? Be sure to draw on the various life experiences you have that readers will be interested in hearing about from you.

You're answering these questions for yourself and your tutor. The two of you will decide which topics to pursue in at least the first papers you write.

The goals are (1) to generate a list of at least ten topics you could write about without doing any research; (2) to list topics you would be comfortable writing about and then sharing your writing with others.

Teacher Advice: Narrative One - Personal Piece on a Significant Experience

This first assignment is designed to get your student writing. The primary goal is to give your tutee an experience of success by asking him or her to do something that is probably familiar. Therefore, this assignment will ask the student to do a "planned journal entry" about a significant experience. It is planned, because the student should do some prewriting exercises before beginning to write (primarily focusing on finding what s/he wants to say and developing it). It's a "journal entry" because at this point the writer shouldn't worry about writing for an audience or sounding "academic."

This assignment will be useful to your tutorial sessions in several ways. At the most basic level, it should help you get to know your student. You'll gain some insight into into an experience that the student feels has been important in his/her life. You'll also get a sense of how familiar your student is with academic conventions of writing. Although the assignment is designed to "free up" the student, s/he will probably still be somewhat concerned with "performance" - so whether or not the student has one main idea, has developed his/her ideas, uses complete sentences, etc. - may tell you something about what s/he knows about the basics of writing. Finally, this piece of writing gives you a starting place for the more academic assignments that follow and something to refer back to when discussing differences in format, process, and so on, for personal vs. academic assignments.

The goals of this assignment are:

How to respond to this assignment: At this point, don't worry about grammar/mechanics, except as they seriously interfere with your understanding (i.e. "I'm not sure what you mean by this word," or "I'm not sure I understand what this sentence says"). Use a readerly response - "Gee, I'd like to hear more about that" - without getting into rhetorical terminology yet (focus, development, etc.). Most of all, be encouraging!

After the initial reading, talk about the next "audience" for this essay (other students/friends, an advisor or teacher who wants to know more about the tutee and his/her interests). Without worrying too much about academic conventions, talk to the writer about how to help those readers understand the experience based on some of your initial responses. This may include looking back at the question s/he is answering - purpose. Then, ask the writer to read the piece aloud to two other people s/he feels comfortable with (ideally, people who haven't yet heard the story) & let them ask questions about things they don't understand or want to hear more about. Ask the student to use those responses (and yours) to revise for next time.

Narrative 1: Personal Piece on a Significant Experience

At every stage of our lives, we're able to look back and identify experiences that shape our lives. This first piece is a chance to think back on one of those experiences and explore its significance by writing about it.

The question you'll answer is, "How has this experience changed me?"

You're answering it for yourself. Of course, your tutor will also read it. Eventually, you'll use the same information to write an essay about the experience for an academic audience. But for now, you're just using writing as a way to get your thoughts down on paper.

The goals are (1) to decide on a single experience you want to write about (maybe by trying out two or three to see which one is most interesting to you), (2) to remember as much about that experience as you can, and (3) think about what significant change this experience caused, and try to describe that change in writing.

If you're having trouble getting started, you might try some of the "Generating Ideas" exercises in the back of your resource packet. Your tutor can suggest additional ways to help you get going on this - feel free to ask!

Teacher Advice: Narrative Two - Academic Piece on a Significant Experience

This assignment is the first time you're asking your student to bridge the gap between "writer-based" and "reader-based" prose. The model(s) you've discussed should help the writer begin to see the difference between personal writing and academic writing, but don't expect this to translate easily into their own writing.

The goals of this assignment are:

Suggestions for responding to this assignment: Continue to be positive and encouraging. Start the session by discussing what the writer has done well. Then, start to talk about how this piece compares to the conventions of academic writing you've been discussing. You might compare this draft to the last piece & talk about what the student decided to change and why. Then you might compare it to the other (academic) piece and talk about relative strengths and weaknesses. The goal should be to come up with a revision plan together. As always, stay focused on the big stuff & only discuss sentence-level editing if the other elements of effective writing are relatively strong or if sentence-level errors distract from the meaning.

How long to stick with this assignment: You want the writer to get a sense of academic conventions, so it will be most effective for most tutees if you can stick with this through one or two revisions. On the other hand, this is the starting point and not necessarily a piece that will end up in the student's portfolio. Don't feel like this has to be "perfect" - just stay with it until you (and the student) see a significant difference between Narratives 1 and 2. Also, look out for signs of fatigue or extreme boredom (they've been working on this essay for much longer than they've probably worked on any other piece of writing) and be sure to use that as a factor in deciding when to move on, too.

Narrative 2: Academic Piece on a Significant Experience

For this essay you're going to use the same situation that you wrote about in Narrative 1, but this time you'll revise it for a different audience. Using the "academic" piece you read as a model, as well as the suggestions you've received from your tutor and from other students on the web forum, revise your piece to reflect the academic conventions of purpose, focus, development and organization.

The question you'll answer is the same as last time: "How has a this experience changed me?"

You're answering it for an academic audience. In other words, like (name of person whose narrative they've read), you want to say something about a significant experience in this paper that has implications for your advisor, your teachers, or other students who want to get to know you better. In order for your audience to hear what you have to say, though, you need to give it to them in a form they'll understand. That includes conventions like a thesis statement-one main focused idea-sufficient development, complete sentences, etc.

The goals are to make your point as strongly as possible by (1) staying focused on one significant experience, (2) keep to the purpose of showing how that experience changed you, and (3) showing the change rather than just telling your readers about it, by using vivid, concrete details.

If you're having trouble getting started, try some of the exercises in the "Generating Ideas," "Finding/Expressing Main Ideas," and "Developing Ideas" sections at the back of this resource packet, or ask your tutor for ideas.

Teacher Advice: Summary

Students in the tutorial often have very weak reading skills, so you may find that you need to break down summary skills to have students practice just one or two skills in the first attempt and to add more skills in subsequent attempts. Students also tend to move quickly toward a précis or thumbnail summary and need to be pressed to write a detailed summary.

The goals of this assignment are:

Suggestions for responding to this assignment: As always, praise strengths as you move students toward careful reading and translations of key points into their summaries. You may find that two drafts of a single summary will exhaust what students can learn from working with that piece of writing, so be prepared to move to a new article whenever students need a change to be able to make more progress.


By now you've already practiced "summary" by reading other students' essays on the Web Forum and identifying the main idea. The process for an academic summary is similar - to read something by another writer and identify the important ideas in that piece. The only differences between what you've already done and your next assignment are that you'll now do this for a published writer, your summary will be longer, and your audience has changed.

The question you'll answer ("Purpose") is: What are the purpose and main points of this writer's essay?

You're answering this question for ("Audience") a group of people who have not read the essay you're summarizing. Therefore, you'll need to think about how to represent all of the main ideas of the piece (complete) fairly (objective). Keep in mind that your reader will want to know more than just what the essay is "about" - she or he will want to know what the author says about his or her topic and how each idea within the essay is connected to the rest of the author's points.

The goals are: (1) to read and understand the essay thoroughly enough to be able to represent it accurately to someone who has not read the original and (2) to practice using the conventions of academic summary (your tutor will discuss these with you).

If you're having trouble getting started, take a look at the "Summarizing" section in the back of your resource packet. You might also read the section on "Reading Strategies." Be sure to use your notes on the article itself and your two-column log (if your tutor has asked you to do one) for ideas. Before starting to write, take a look at the sample summaries in this packet and any notes you made on them when you discussed them with your tutor.

Teacher Advice: Summary/Response One

This first summary/response is designed to help students make the connection between their own experiences and the writing of others, as well as to start working on critical reading strategies that will play a large role in their success in CO150. Since you've prepared them for this assignment by having them read & respond to several responses on the web forum, the next step is to talk about the differences between that kind of informal response and an academic summary/response. You can do this by showing them a sample essay written for CO150 and talking about the differences, discussing the conventions of academic summary, and reviewing what they've already learned about writing an academic essay.

Note: The essay you assign can be critical to the student's success on this essay. If you choose an essay that is not an argument, be sure to point that out to the tutee. You might also generate a key question that the student can respond to with an argument. You and your tutee should look over the collected readings on selected topics--cultural snapshots, science & technology, environment, and current controversies--to choose a prompt essay you're both interested in. If you can't find one, have the tutee do some browsing in the journal room in the library to find a starting prompt. Working on a topic and using an essay that the student cares about will help the student respond meaningfully to the essay, so choose carefully!

The goals for this assignment are:

Suggestions for responding to this assignment: As always, be positive and encouraging. Let the student talk about how s/he approached the assignment and why s/he approached it this way. Encourage him or her to compare this experience with the experience of responding on the web forum informally, directly to the writer (different audience). Have the student compare the summary to the original essay (by doing a backwards outline of the original essay, for example, and then looking at the summary to see if it captures all of the main ideas). Then, you might ask the student to compare his or her own essay to a sample essay & discuss relative strengths and weaknesses. Come up with a revision plan together, if at all possible. Focus on the major writing elements through at least the first revision, and then look at sentence-level revisions as necessary.

How long to stick with this assignment: The sample semester guidelines have this essay going through three revisions. Depending on your student's reading/writing ability, you could do more or less with this assignment. Again, the essay doesn't have to be perfect, so work with it as long as you and the student think it's productive. Be sure to balance the benefits of further work on this essay against the benefits of reading more essays for practice (especially if you think reading is the main difficulty). The general guideline is that this essay is "finished" when the writer has produced an accurate summary and a focused response that is developed with some relevant personal experience.

Summary/Response One

So far, you've written an informal narrative and an academic narrative about a significant experience, and responded informally to some other students' narratives. Now it's time to write an academic response to an academic narrative. This kind of summary/response is an assignment you'll see in CO150, and is also common (in varying forms) in other disciplines like education and business.

The questions you'll answer ("Purpose") are (1) What are the purpose and main points of this writer's essay, and (2) Do you agree or disagree with one of his/her points based on your own experiences?

You're answering these questions for ("Audience") that same academic audience as for the last essay you wrote (Narrative 2). This audience is more specific, in that they have not read either the essay you're summarizing or your previous narrative. You'll have to give them enough information so that they can understand the author's essay by reading only your summary.

The goals are (1) to accurately summarize an article using the conventions of academic summary (your tutor will discuss these with you), (2) to provide a focused response to the article with a clear thesis statement, and (3) to develop your response using examples from your personal experience that are clearly related to examples/ideas from the article itself.

If you're having trouble getting started, take a look at the "Summarizing" section in the back of this resource packet. You might also revisit the section on "Reading Strategies." Be sure to use your notes on the article itself and your two-column log for ideas. Before starting to write, you might look again at the sample summary/response in this packet & any notes you made on it when you discussed it with your tutor.

Teacher Advice: Summary/Response Two

The second summary/response is one of two essays that will constitute the student's final portfolio (which will be evaluated to determine whether or not s/he moves on to CO150). This is similar to the first summary/response, but the idea is to move beyond the narratives to summarizing a different kind of academic essay and to incorporate (an)other text(s) into the response. If their discipline lends itself to this, you might try to find (with the student) some kind of essay that ties in education with their discipline. (If this seems like it will be too difficult or will unnecessarily complicate the assignment, pick something else.)

The goals for this assignment are:

How to respond to this assignment: At this point, you can start to discuss the idea of a "dual audience" - the audience that you posit for the essay and the audience that will evaluate the essay (i.e. the Writing Center Director). You'll have already discussed the conventions of summary/response, so you can ask the student to evaluate his or her own draft based on those conventions. However, this kind of revision might not take place until the second or third draft - the first draft or two you might be concerned primarily with helping the student decide on a focus for the response. Near the end, be sure to talk about conventions for incorporating material from other texts into the student's own writing (quoting, paraphrasing, etc.).

In the end, ideally the student will produce an accurate summary & focused, developed response that is informed by some of the reading he or she has done during the semester. If this seems overwhelming, though, you might work on another agree/disagree response like Summary/ Response 1 (You might also need to do this if you've been working on assignments for other classes, since you may not have been able to get to as much outside reading). Similarly, if the student seems to be working with ideas that don't fit the summary/response format, you might suggest a more inquiry-based paper, where two or more texts interact, rather than having the student respond only to one. In that case, you may want to use a modified Inquiry/Public Literacy assignment sheet (from CO150) rather than the one in the student's resource packet.

Summary/Response Two

This assignment will give you more practice working with the summary/response format. This time, you'll be summarizing one of the articles you've been reading in the last few weeks. You'll also have the opportunity to use other articles you've been reading in your response, if that seems appropriate.

Purpose: (1) Summarize the purpose and main points of this writer's essay, and (2) Agree or disagree with his/her points based on your own experiences and reading.

Audience: The same academic audience as for the last essay you wrote (Summary/Response 1). This audience has not read either the essay you're summarizing or the other essays you've read. You'll have to give them enough information so that they will understand what you're saying about these other essays.

In this case, you have a secondary audience--the Writing Center Director will read this essay as part of your final portfolio. S/he will use it to evaluate your progress and decide if you're ready for CO150. So, you'll want to show him/her that you understand the academic conventions of writing that you've been talking about this semester with your tutor. Be sure to ask your tutor if you have questions about the portfolio or the evaluation process.

The goals are (1) to accurately summarize an article using the conventions of academic summary, (2) to provide a focused response to the article with a clear thesis statement, and (3) to develop your response using examples from other texts and/or your own experience that are clearly related to examples/ideas from the article itself.

If you're having trouble getting started, take another look at the "Summarizing" section in the back of this resource packet. You might also revisit the section on "Reading Strategies." Be sure to use your notes on the article itself - you might also make a two-column log for ideas.

Tutorial Postscript: Advice for Teacher

This is the second "essay" in the student's portfolio. Unlike the second Summary/Response, which the student will have time to discuss with you and revise several times, this will be done in one week, primarily on the student's own. In discussing the assignment, though, you should focus on the fact that the student has plenty of practice getting a main idea across to a specific audience using personal experience (narrative) and examples from texts. The only thing that is different about this task is it is a different kind of main idea (essentially, an argument). You should also start from a discussion of who the audience is for this essay, and what the student thinks that audience will expect.

The goals for this assignment are:

More on setting up the assignment: In the tutorial session in which you discuss this assignment (week 14), you should first talk about audience. Give the student some time to analyze the audience (the Writing Center Director) and talk about how that will affect his/her writing (in terms of evidence, format, etc.). Then ask the student to make some connections about things s/he has learned that will be useful in this assignment (concrete detail, making sure textual evidence is relevant, etc.). You might get the student started writing while s/he is still there, so you can answer any questions that come up. You might also couch this as a "less formal" assignment (a postscript is a one-on-one communication - it's like a letter, only to a more "formal" recipient) to ease any anxiety.

Be sure to encourage your tutee to use the strategies you've discussed throughout the semester - you don't want the time constraints of this last assignment to push your student back into a last-minute process. Suggest prewriting exercises, outlines, or any other techniques you've discovered. Also, remind the student that the web forum is available for them to give and receive feedback from other students. They should plan to post a draft to the forum a few days early and read at least one other draft (both to respond and to get ideas for their own draft).

Responding to the assignment: Remember that at this point you are strictly a "coach." You should talk to the student about choices s/he made and why. If the student has any specific concerns, you could discuss them together. The writer should be encouraged to bring the essay on disk, so any last-minute changes can be made during the final tutorial session. Primarily, though, your role is just to pass the portfolio on to the Writing Center Director for evaluation.

Tutorial Self-Evaluative Postscript

You're almost done! Your final task is to write a "postscript" to your portfolio, in which you talk about why, based on this final assignment and your progress this semester, you think you are (or are not) ready to register for CO150.

Purpose: To make an argument for why you feel you are (or are not) ready to register for CO150, using evidence from your experiences this semester and the papers you've written.

Audience: The Director of the Writing Center. Be sure to think about what this person's expectations are likely to be. Why might s/he want you to answer this particular question? What kinds of things will you need to show? What kind of development will this person expect?

You're also, though, answering this question for yourself. It might be a good idea to do some prewriting for this essay, like you did for Narrative 1. This may help you recognize all that you've learned in the tutorial & how your writing has changed, in addition to helping you gather your thoughts for the essay itself.

The goals are either to show the Writing Center Director that you're now ready to take CO150 (and be successful), or to make a case for why you feel you should be permitted to repeat the tutorial for one more semester. In either case, you'll want to provide a clear focus (thesis statement) and develop your thoughts with examples from your experience in the tutorial and the essays you've written. If it's appropriate, you might compare/contrast your writing at the beginning of the semester with your writing now.

If you're having trouble getting started, by all means use the resources in this packet, including the section on "Writing Under Time-Pressure." You might also discuss your ideas with a friend, roommate or relative. Try to write a draft early in the week, so you will have time to take a break and have someone else give you feedback before you hand it in.

On Using the Resources for Writers

The RST packet includes a variety of materials that students might find useful as they prewrite and revise papers for the tutorial. As you develop or adapt new materials for your tutorial students, please drop a copy of the sheet with the Assistant Director. We'll regularly update our compendium here. Be sure to note if the material is original, and we'll give you a credit line when we post it on the site.

Generating and Developing Ideas

For many people, the toughest part of any writing task is getting started. Here are some exercises that help with "blank page syndrome" or "writer's block."

Listing: Brainstorm a list of possible topics. If the assignment deals with your own experience, try a list of important events in your life related to the topic. If the assignment deals with material from a class, brainstorm all of the things you've talked about in the class that you remember or that interest you. The important thing is not to censor yourself at this point - write down anything that comes to mind.

Freewriting: Freewriting simply means writing without stopping for a set amount of time. Start with shorter amounts of time (2-5 minutes) and build up "stamina" slowly. Again, as in listing, it's important not to censor ideas at this point; simply write down anything that comes to mind. Sometimes, if you keep your hand moving, you'll come up with details and connections that never occurred to you until you wrote them down!

Looping: Looping is a variation on freewriting. Pick one aspect of your topic to begin writing on. Freewrite for five minutes. Then, read over what you have written and underline the most important or interesting idea or sentence. Start with this idea or sentence and freewrite for another five minutes. Find your "center of gravity" sentence again. If you continue this process, you'll often find you've started a rough draft of the assignment.

Clustering: Write the topic in the middle of the page and put a circle around it. Then, branch out from the circle with associations and details about the topic. Write down anything you can think of, making connections as you see fit (see "Guidelines for Selecting a Subject," next page, for an example).

Cubing: This is another way to look at one topic from many angles (like the pentad exercise). Write for one to three minutes on each of the six "sides": Describe, Compare/Contrast (How is it like something else? How is it different from something else?), Analyze (What parts does it have?), Evaluate, Apply (What can you do with it? How can you use it?), Argue (for or against). All sides will not work equally well for all topics.

Answering WH-questions: Write the five "Wh" questions (who, what, where, when, why) across your paper. List as many questions as you can think of that a reader might ask about your topic in those categories. Write down answers or features of your topic that might address those concerns.

Story Board: This is ideal for narrative assignments. In each "screen," sketch the stages of a story (like a comic strip). Under the sketch, briefly define the action. In a large box below, list at least three descriptive phrases or adjectives which clarify the action.

Invisible Writing: If you have trouble writing without constantly re-reading and editing what you've said, this may work for you. Using a computer, turn the contrast down on your monitor so the screen is blank. Type for at least 20-30 minutes without looking at what you've written. Then, turn the contrast up and, ignoring typos, find out what you have to say!

Finding/Expressing Main Ideas

Some of the prewriting activities in "Generating and Developing Ideas" will also help you decide which ideas are most important. Looping is an obvious example of an activity that can do both, because it requires you to keep finding the "center" of your topic - the most important or interesting thing about it. Clustering can also help you find your main idea. If you find a particular word or phrase that most of your other ideas "branch out" from or connect to, you might try to incorporate that phrase into the main point or thesis of your essay.

Here are some other techniques you can use to find and clearly express your main idea, once you have a first draft:

Analyzing the Assignment: Often assignment sheets contain key words that offer clues about what your instructor is looking for. This is always a good place to start in deciding what you should focus on in a final draft. Re-read the assignment sheet or your notes about the assignment, looking for words like "compare/contrast," "discuss," "analyze," "define," "synthesize," etc. These words tell you what kind of assignment the teacher is looking for. Then, look for other key terms relating to subject matter. For example, if the assignment asks you to "Contrast Freud's and Erikson's stage theories of personality," your main idea needs to include Freud, Erikson, and "stage theories of personality."

Backwards Outline: Once you've determined that you're meeting the requirements of the assignment, you'll want to get even more specific about what your essay says exactly. One way to do this is to create a "backwards outline." (It's "backwards" because it is written after rather than before the draft itself.) To do this, simply read your essay paragraph by paragraph. After each paragraph, determine the main idea of that section, and write the main idea in the margin of your draft. If you find more than one significant idea in a paragraph, write them both down. When you're finished, read over your marginal notes (or "outline") and look for connections - is there one central idea that each paragraph supports? If so, that's your main idea. If not, you'll probably want to look for an idea that most of the paragraphs support and consider dropping or rewriting paragraphs that don't support your focus.

Once you've found your focus, read the following pages on writing topic sentences and thesis statements for help with clearly expressing your essay's main idea.

Showing v. Telling Sentences

Each of these sentences has two versions. One version is too general and therefore lacks the visual clarity that a reader needs to fully understand what the writer is talking about. The other version of the same sentence uses specific details and makes the image the writer is presenting much more vivid and alive.

Vague: She went home in a bad mood. [What kind of a bad mood? How did she act or look?]
Specific: She stomped home, hands jammed in her pockets, angrily kicking rocks, dogs, small children, and anything else that crossed her path.

Vague: My neighbor bought a really nice old desk. [Why nice? How old? What kind of desk?]
Specific: My neighbor bought a solid oak, roll-top desk made in 1885 that contains a secret drawer triggered by a hidden spring.

Vague: He was an attractive man. [Attractive in what ways - his appearance, personality, or both? Can you picture him from reading this sentence?]
Specific: He had Paul Newman's eyes, Robert Redford's smile, Sylvester Stallone's body, and Bill Gates's money.

After reading the sentences above, rewrite the vague sentences below using your own specific details.

  1. My boyfriend/girlfriend acted like a jerk.
  2. She wears really strange outfits.
  3. The scenery in the mountains was beautiful.
  4. My roommate is very (in)considerate.

Finally, if you've written a draft, go back through your paper looking for sentences where you use good, specific detail. Then, find the sentences that are general and add details that make those sentences come alive.

Focusing Topic Sentences

The following pairs of sentences illustrate broad and vague topic sentences and a clear, focused revised version. Study the pairs of sentences, keeping in mind that a good topic sentence: a) supports the thesis of the essay by stating a single main point in the discussion, b) announces what the paragraph will be about in specific terms, and c) controls the subject matter of the paragraph.

Unfocused: Too many people treat animals badly in experiments. [What people? Badly how? What kinds of experiments?]
Focused: The cosmetic industry often harms animals in unnecessary experiments designed to test their products.

Unfocused: Grades are unfair. [All grades? Unfair how?]
Focused: Course grades based solely on one term paper don't accurately measure a student's knowledge of the subject.

Unfocused: Getting the right job is important and can lead to rewarding experiences. [Note both vague language and a double focus - "important" and "can lead to rewarding experiences."]
Focused: Getting the right job can lead to an improved sense of self-esteem.

Now rewrite the following topic sentences so that they are clear and focused rather than fuzzy or broad.

  1. My personality has changed a lot in the last year.
  2. The evening with her parents was an unforgettable experience.

Note: When looking at topic sentences in your own essay, remember that you first must determine how each topic sentence relates to the thesis of the essay as a whole. Then, after rewriting your topic sentences to be more specific, make sure you check the rest of the paragraph for adherence to that more specific subject. All examples and details in the entire paragraph must directly support the topic sentence.

Thesis Statements

The thesis statement declares the main point or controlling idea of the entire essay. The thesis briefly answers the questions, "What is my opinion on subject X?" and "What am I going to argue/illustrate in this essay?"

1. A good thesis states the writer's clearly defined opinion on some subject. You must tell your reader what you think. Don't dodge the issue; present your opinion specifically and precisely. However, don't just make your thesis an announcement of your subject matter or a description of your intentions.

Poor: The subject of this theme is my experience with a pet boa constrictor. [This is an announcement of the subject, not a thesis.]
Poor: I'm going to discuss boa constrictors as pets. [This is a statement of intention, but not a thesis.]
Better: Boa constrictors do not make healthy indoor pets. [The writer states an opinion that will be explained and defended in the essay.]
Better: My pet boa constrictor, Sir Pent, was a much better bodyguard than my dog, Fang. [The writer states an opinion that will be explained and illustrated in the essay.]

2. A good thesis asserts one main idea. Many essays get into trouble because the writer tries to explain two different large issues in one essay. Pick one main idea and explain it in convincing detail.

Poor: High school athletes shouldn't have to maintain a certain grade-point average to participate in school sports, and the value of sports is often worth the lower academic average. [This essay moves in two different directions.]
Better: High school athletes shouldn't have to maintain a certain grade-point average to participate in school sports. [This essay will focus on one issue: reasons why a particular average shouldn't be required.]

3. A good thesis has something worthwhile to say. Some thesis statements are boring and predictable from the start ("Dogs have always been man's best friends."). Even if you are asked to write about yourself or your own experiences, you can usually universalize the essay's thesis so your readers can also identify with, or learn something about, the general subject.

Poor: The four children in my family have completely different personalities. [This statement may be true, but would anyone but the children's parents really be fascinated with this essay topic?]
Better: Birth order can influence children's personalities in startling ways. [The writer is wiser to offer this controversial statement, which is of more interest to readers than the one above; the writer can illustrate her claims with examples from her family, and from other families, if she wishes.

Also, don't merely state a fact. A thesis is an assertion of opinion that leads to discussion; don't select an idea that is self-evident or dead-ended.

Poor: Child abuse is a terrible problem in our country. [Yes, of course; who wouldn't agree that child abuse is terrible?]
Better: Child abuse laws in this state are too lenient for repeat offenders. [This thesis will lead to a discussion in which supporting arguments and evidence will be presented.]

4. A good thesis is limited to fit the assignment. Your thesis should be focused enough to adequately explore and develop in one essay.

Poor: The parking permit system at this university should be completely revised. [An essay calling for revision of the parking permit system would probably involve discussion of permits for various kinds of students, faculty, administrators, staff, visitors, etc. Therefore, the thesis is probably too broad for a short essay.]
Better: Because of the complicated application process, the parking permit system at this university penalizes disabled students.

5. A good thesis is clearly stated in specific terms. A vague thesis will lead to vague, undeveloped, fuzzy writing. Try to avoid imprecise words ("interesting," "good"); use clear, direct, meaningful words. Also, don't clutter your thesis with expressions such as "in my opinion" or "in this essay I'll argue that ..."

Poor: My opinion is that the federal government should devote more money to solar energy research.
Better: The federal government should devote more money to solar energy research.

6. A good thesis is clearly located, often in the first or second paragraph.

Revise the following, thesis statements to make them more effective according to the criteria above.

  1. In my opinion, applying for a job can be a negative experience.
  2. There are some advantages and disadvantages to the country's new voting machine.
  3. Prayer in the schools is a hot issue today.

Reading Strategies

By this point in your education, you know there is a difference between skimming something and reading critically for full understanding. While critical reading is more difficult, there are actions you can take before, during, and after reading to make it easier.

Before reading:

Writing before you read is a good way to access (bring to the surface) what you already know about the subject. If you do this, what you read will seem more familiar; you will find it easier to make connections between what you already know and the new information you're reading. Next time you have a reading assignment, take 5-10 minutes to freewrite about the subject of the chapter, article or book before you read.

Previewing what you're going to read is another strategy that will help you better understand what you're reading. Previewing involves systematically looking over a text before you read it. Pay particular attention to publication information (Where was this originally published? Who is its audience? Who is the author and what do you know about him or her?), title, subheadings or section headings, introduction (this can range from a paragraph to several pages, depending on the length of the text) and conclusion. Taking a few minutes to preview what you're about to read can give you a sense of the text as a whole, and, again, it will make what you read seem more familiar.

While you read:

Annotating means writing on the text as you read it. This is an excellent way to check and note your understanding of what you read. (If you're not comfortable writing in a book - or if you're using a library source - make a photocopy before you begin reading.) Annotating involves much more than just highlighting a few key phrases. When you annotate, you can: mark the thesis and main points of the text, circle key terms and/or unfamiliar words, write your questions or reactions in the margins, mark confusing sections of the text (so that you can find and re-read them later), and much more.

Making a two-column log is another way to record your reactions to a text as you read. To make a two-column log, take a sheet of paper (or a page in your notebook) and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. On the left side of the line, note significant or interesting passages from the text you're reading. On the right side of the line, record your reactions. Your reactions might include questions about the passage, personal experience that relates to the passage, or agreements and/or disagreements with the point the author is making. This strategy is particularly helpful in preparing for a summary/response assignment.

After reading:

Summarizing is an excellent way to check your comprehension of what you've read. If you can re-state the main ideas of something you've read, in your own words, you've come a long way towards fully understanding the text. See the section on "Summarizing" later in this packet for more on this.

Re-reading is not just something that people who don't understand a text do - most effective readers re-read at least parts of a text, often more than once! Rather than reading the piece straight through two or three times, try re-reading sections that you've marked as particularly important or difficult. Then, once you've worked through those tough sections, go back and see how they fit into the piece as a whole.

Discussing the text with others is another great way to learn more about your reading. If you have friends in the same class, see if they're willing to sit down and talk to you about what you've both read. By all means, participate in your class discussions of the reading. One useful strategy is to come up with a list of questions that you hope will be answered in class discussion. Then, if one of those questions doesn't come up, ask the class yourself.

For more on reading, see the Writing Guide on critical reading.

Assessing Your Reading Strategies

First, take ten minutes to write a description of yourself as a reader. What do you think about before you begin reading? What do you do as you read? What do you do when you hit a section that's particularly difficult or thought-provoking? What do you do once you've completed reading a piece of writing? Do you usually read something all at once or in stages? Try to be as specific as possible in your description of your reading habits.


Then, answer the following questions. Check the following points you described in your narrative of reading habits. Do you ...

Adapted from Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz, The Presence of Others. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994: 5-6.


An academic summary contains:

The trick to summarizing effectively is to paraphrase all of the author's main ideas accurately while avoiding too much detail or too many direct quotations. Some strategies to help you do this are:

Writing Effective Summary and Response Essays

The Summary:

A summary is a concise paraphrase of all the main ideas in an essay. It cites the author and the title (usually in the first sentence); it contains the essay's thesis and supporting ideas; it may use direct quotation of forceful or concise statements of the author's ideas; it will NOT usually cite the author's examples or supporting details unless they are central to the main idea. Most summaries present the major points in the order that the author made them and continually refer back to the article being summarized (i.e. "Damon argues that ..." or "Goodman also points out that ... "). The summary should take up no more than one-third the length of the work being summarized.

The Response:

A response is a critique or evaluation of the author's essay. Unlike the summary, it is composed of YOUR opinions in relation to the article being summarized. It examines ideas that you agree or disagree with and identifies the essay's strengths and weaknesses in reasoning and logic, in quality of supporting examples, and in organization and style. A good response is persuasive; therefore, it should cite facts, examples, and personal experience that either refutes or supports the article you're responding to, depending on your stance.

Two Typical Organizational Formats for Summary/Response Essays:

1. Present the summary in a block of paragraphs, followed by the response in a block:

Summary (two to three paragraphs)
Agreement (or disagreement)
Disagreement (or agreement)

Note: Some essays will incorporate both agreement and disagreement in a response, but this is not mandatory.

2. Introduce the essay with a short paragraph that includes your thesis. Then, each body paragraph summarizes one point and responds to it, and a conclusion wraps the essay up.

Summary point one; agree/disagree
Summary point two; agree/disagree
Summary point three; agree/disagree

Discourse Analysis Worksheet

Here are some issues you'll want to consider when gathering data for your discourse analysis. You'll want to read through the article at least once before beginning to answer these questions. After reading it once, you may want to read through again, either doing a "backwards outline" of the article (writing the main idea of each paragraph or section next to the paragraph) or summarizing it. Then, once you have a sense of the article as a whole, read and respond to the following questions.


  1. What is the article's topic? What is the general subject area that it covers? Does it seem to attempt an in-depth approach to the topic or is it more of an overview?
  2. What is the article's thesis or main idea?
  3. List the other main ideas of the article.
  4. Does the article seem important or central to the field? Why or why not?


  1. Where is the article printed? What kind of periodical is it in? Is it an academic journal, a professional publication (for people in a particular field), or a popular magazine (see "Types of Periodicals" handout)?
  2. Does the periodical suggest a particular kind of readership (gender, education level, political stance, professional interests, level of wealth, hobbies)? Hint: All magazines, in some way or another, limit their readership to a particular "target group." To find out who that is, don't limit yourself to looking only at your article. Flip through the table of contents to see what else is printed in the periodical. Look at submission guidelines, advertisements, editorials and cartoons as well.
  3. When was the article published? Is it timely, out-of-date, timeless (a recognized authority on a topic regardless of its publication date)?
  4. Who is the author(s) of the article, and what do you know about him/her/them? Where is the author employed? What else has s/he written? What kind of authority does he or she seem to have in this subject area?


  1. Is the language used technical (field-specific) or accessible to a more general readership? If technical terms are used, are they explained? Why or why not?
  2. Does the article contain illustrations, charts, graphs, maps, photographs, etc., to illustrate concepts? Are they professional-looking? Can you follow them easily?
  3. Does the article include a works cited list or some other form of reference to other works? If one is present, is it short or long? Does it refer to scholarly works or other kinds of works? Are the works referred to current or out-of-date?
  4. What does the author seem to presume readers wish to know more about? What assumptions does the author seem to share with his/her audience? Provide specific examples of these.
  5. Based on the information above, do you feel you are part of the target audience for this article? If so, why? If not, why not?


  1. Is the text broken into sub-sections? If so, indicate the headings for those sections. Is the text organized in a way that is field-specific?
  2. How does the writer develop his or her ideas? Does the author compare or contrast? Use statistics or other numerical evidence? Use anecdotes? Develop by example? Tell a story? Appeal to authority (other sources) or to his or her own character/expertise? Describe a process? Evaluate?
  3. Explain to the best of your ability why the text is organized and developed the way it is. What does the writer do first, second, third, etc. Why? Does the organization seem primarily driven by content, the writer's argument, or audience expectations?
  4. What does the author emphasize or spend the most time on? Why?


  1. Look back at the introduction and thesis of the article. What seems to have prompted this article - a disagreement within the field? New research findings?
  2. Consider the audience section of this worksheet. What might that particular audience want/need to hear about on this topic?
  3. Is it clear from the article what the writer's position is? Where and how does the writer's position become clear? Does the writer state it in his/her thesis? Is it clear only by implication?
  4. What does the writer expect readers to do after reading this?

Trade Magazines

Look for some of these features to distinguish trade magazines from other kinds.







Selecting Readings

After you have a chance to work with a student setting goals, brainstorming an authority list, and drafting the initial narrative piece, you should be ready to decide which readings are most likely to interest the student as well as draw on his/her strengths as a writer. We've placed several file folders in the cabinet with original newspaper and magazine pieces you might ask students to read. Multiple copies of most of these pieces are in the expandable files in the same drawer. (Please don't use the original; make a photocopy for the student to keep our collection of originals intact.)

If you and your student don't find topics or pieces interesting or workable, we also have a large number of readers on the bookshelves that you can select pieces from. Again, photocopy the selections students will work with so they have room to mark up the copy as they read and annotate.

If even these resources don't generate much interest, agree with your tutee on a topic and then send the tutee to bring back 4-6 possible pieces from the library or Internet. (Use a combination of sources to be sure you have a range of writing styles and formats to choose from.)

One last reminder: Students find it much easier to write the response part of the summary/response paper when the prompt is an argument. If you can't find an editorial or argumentative piece on the subject the student wants to write about, be sure to frame a question that will move the student toward argument in the response.