We Know—But We Don’t Know


As a tutor in the Writing Center, I am tasked with the job of helping individuals improve their writing. When you say it like that, it seems like a simple concept, but it really is so much more.  On any given day, I could help a student from any discipline with any number of different types of papers, and that particular student could have any number of different problems in his or her paper.  As a result, being a tutor can actually be a very stressful job; I’m sure the tutors reading this can testify to that fact as well.  Personally, I find tutoring ESL students to be particularly challenging for one exact reason—I know, but I don’t know.

When tutoring an ESL student, nine times out of ten they know more about grammar than I do.  My grammar proficiency comes from speaking, reading, and writing the English language for the entirety of my twenty-two years on this planet.  I’m sure I had a grammar course at some point, but I often wonder if the lessons stuck.  Therefore, I am frequently in the position where I have to say a sentence something like this, “Well, here’s the thing, when I read this sentence I can hear and see the correct way you should write it, but I don’t really know how to explain it. Can I get back to you on that?” I really hate saying that sentence, and I’m sure other tutors do too.  So, here is my advice on how to deal with situations like these in a Writing Center setting.

  1. Do your homework. When working with ESL writers, there are certain grammatical errors that have a tendency to pop up.  For example, the use of articles can be especially tricky.  Therefore, it would be a good idea to brush up on how and when to use articles that way you can have a ready answer when your tutee asks you “why?”  One great resource I happened upon in my Writing Center Theory class was an article called “A(n)/The/Ø Article About Articles” by Sharon K. Deckert.  Also, it’s always a good idea to have access to a computer that way you can look up rules, tips, and tricks on the Internet and share that source with your tutee.
  2. Read the paper aloud. I know you’ve probably read this in every tutoring how-to book and article, but it really is a useful tool.  Just like native speakers can hear the nuances that need to be included in writing, a lot of the times ESL writers can hear it too.  If the writer has been in the country or around English for an extended period of time, then they can likely recognize the sound of the intrinsic patterns that the English language has.  Also, if they hear you stumble over a particular section, then they know that is a part of the paper they need to work on.  A good idea would be to make sure they have a pen, and you can ask them to mark on their paper where they think you stumble in reading their words. Once you are through the paper, you can both go through the marked passages and work to correct them.
  3. Be honest. If you don’t know, then you don’t know. It is better to admit you are not sure and then work with them to find the answer, than to tell them wrong information or brush aside their concerns.  Sharing your writing with another person can be nerve-racking, so in order to make the exchange as positive and beneficial as possible you should be open and keep communication flowing.

To wrap up, my final big of advice is to keep cool and be positive.  I’m a writing tutor, but that doesn’t mean I can work miracles.  My goal going into any appointment is to make sure the tutee walks away with a new confidence in their writing.  One session may not perfect their paper, but it should be able to help their morale and hopefully make them excited to continue writing.




Know limit, and write right.

Writing effortlessly is a craft I wish to master, but I doubt that it will ever happen. Famous and/or talented writers have their own struggles in writing their masterpieces. I, who write on demand and mostly when assigned to, also find it even challenging. Although it requires a great effort (since writing is not my forte), I find my solace in knowing that writing has become less terrifying. It is easier now that I understand how to evaluate my own text from global (such as content, focus, genre, development, awareness of audience) or local (such as paragraph, sentence, word levels) concerns. Now that I have found my strengths and recognized my weaknesses, I have managed to figure out the best ways that work for my writing process.


-Find what works!


I am an acute procrastinator and more often than not, keep putting off what I can do until much later. However, taking 3 or 4 classes a semester and juggling multiple writing assignments has taught me that being a ‘deadliner’ is a huge no. In addition to that, I have a limited attention span and get easily distracted. These often make me end up browsing other websites that are unrelated to my assignment when doing my research.

My first attempt to stay focused was by setting aside a few hours during night time on weekdays and longer hours on weekends to compose my writing. Having a time limit did not work well for me since I ended up checking the clock most of the time just to see if I had reached the said hours. My second attempt which focuses on page length, word count, or a required content is the best method for me. Choosing only one to focus on in each sitting helps me write more effectively.


-Plan your ‘sittings’!


A realization that a paper cannot be completed in one sitting led me to plan out my writing process into several ‘sittings’. The longer the page length and/or the greater the amount of research is required, the more sittings I need to do. Each sitting can be done over the course of hours or days, depending on the number of pages, on how much time I have, and on how many sources are needed. I never write too much in one sitting. For example, my assignment is a 750-word reflective essay and I plan to have 5 sittings for it. My writing will consist of session 1 (400-word text), session 2 (350-word text), session 3 (revising while consulting rubric or assignment sheet if there is any, or consulting my own checklist), session 4 (editing), and session 5 (going through the paper to re-revise and re-edit if necessary).  Whenever I complete a session, I reward myself with a 20 to 30- minute break where I could do one of my favorite leisure activities. Doing this helps me accomplish my mission without lingering guilt due to distractions.


-Just write and write!


While writing, I used to focus on correcting my grammar, choosing more academic words, or varying the transitional phrases. It took several attempts to make me realize that it is a less productive method, as word choices and sentence structure restricted me and I became too focused on those issues during my writing process. Now, in the first few sittings, I just write without caring about the rules of grammar, choices of vocabulary, focus, and organization of my text. Straying from my intended topic or other writing concerns can be addressed during revisions. Doing this helps my ideas flow better and I am able to write more easily.


-Consult the Writing Center!


Being a student again after a long hiatus and facing continuous writing assignments in various genres made my first semester in grad school too overwhelming. Being an ESL (English as a Second Language) writer myself, I experienced discomfort and a lack of confidence with what I wrote, making me question my ability to write. I was then referred to the Writing Center by one of my professors, who told me that the Writing Center could help me go over my paper and see if there were any global or local issues that need to be addressed. These experiences as a tutee, in addition to my experiences as a writing tutor, helped me become a better writer compared to last year; now I have figured out what method works best for me to write effectively, have had a self-made list of questions to assess my own writing, and have become better in self-assessing my own writing.




Avoiding Anxiety during Exam Week

Being an English major who is currently pursuing his master’s degree, one might assume that I have this whole “writing thing” figured out. I am here, on record, admitting that is far from the case. I am no stranger to writer’s block or the everyday anxieties that accompany the writing process. When asked to write this piece I was enthused and the creative juices actively flowed, but as weeks passed and the dead line approached the stress of writing quickly began to take hold. Those great ideas quickly took flight and I was left with a blank canvas that begged to be transformed into the “greatest blog ever written,” which transformed into the “greatest sentence ever written,” and again, was reduced to “the greatest word ever written.” Once you boil it down, writing is simply choosing words to best represent your ideas; however, in this case, that equates to approximately 1,000 words. That is a lot of choices—and where there is choice there is anxiety.

I could easily write this blog and stress the importance of beginning early: “Writing is an exploration where one explores multiple drafts and rewrites mining away the bulk to discover one’s true assertion…” but I won’t. Today is Friday and May 2nd, the beginning of finals week here at Marshall University, is just around the corner. Seriously it is in like two weeks! So, I will save the “start early,” “brainstorm,” and “revise” pep-talks for another day. At this point, if you’re a procrastinator like myself, you really just want to know the “best process” for overcoming writer’s block and breaking through the anxiety to get started on your paper that is most likely due sooner than later. That being said, I will give you my “professional” approach to writing with a fast approaching deadline.

Change up the Medium

I myself am a dinosaur; I refrain from using any technology outside of my smart phone. Although, on occasions—as mentioned earlier—I will set down at my laptop and give it the “good ol’ college try.” However, from my experience, the blue tint of a blank word document only increases the anxiety of writing. If you are really struggling with getting that first paragraph, sentence, or word down I strongly suggest returning to the pen and paper—I prefer a pen and legal pad! I wish I had some strong evidence to support this claim, but let’s be realistic, I don’t have the time to do that research nor do you have the time to read a 15 page essay. With that said, take my word for it and give it a shot. Pull out the five subject notebook and get to work. I strongly encourage the process of writing freely. By writing freely you are putting words on a page and even if they end up being scribbles or marked out, these edits take up space, unlike using the backspace key to erase what you have done. Remember, writing is psychological and if it looks like you have made progress the anxiety will surely start to subside.

Change up the Venue

            Again, let’s be honest, I am a procrastinator. If I am in a room with a television, gaming device, internet, or anything I could be doing other than writing, I will take that avenue. To alleviate the stresses of the technological word, I urge you to “unplug.” Take your writing elsewhere; go outside, go to a coffee shop, go anywhere that switches up your writing routine. Because I am a social being, coffee shops or public places prove to be more of a hindrance than a help so I often set up the fold out table, sit in a rocker, and write on my front porch with my cell phone in an inconvenient place. The fresh air does wonders for me, but if you can handle the busy atmosphere of a public place, go for it! Moreover, writing is not a one-shoe-fits-all process, do whatever fits your personal tastes. I even encourage those of you who have the will power to write in social setting to form a writing group—accountability is also a great way to alleviate the anxiety.

Change up Your Approach

If your experience with writing is anything like mine, the five paragraph essay has been engrained into your head: First, write your introduction paragraph with a strong thesis and road map. Second, write your three body paragraphs. And lastly, write your conclusion. Although this structuring has its purpose and is useful at times, I encourage you to break this habit. Again, when attempting to write an introductory paragraph where you state everything you’re going to do before you do actually do it produces a lot of anxiety. With that said, earlier I refused to talk about brain storming, so sketch out your paper’s body. Figure out the issues you want to talk about and start writing about them and write your introduction last. This particular process has worked wonders for me when faced with a deadline. Once you have a body to the text written, it is much easier to write an introduction that fits your piece and the anxiety that comes with starting is thwarted.

I hope these personal tidbits come in handy as you begin preparing for finals. Again, I am no professional; I am just a struggling writer like yourself. However, I strongly believe these few tips will help you out. If they don’t, I hope they have at least given you a spring board to develop your own framework for developing your own strategy for overcoming the anxieties of writing. And if nothing else, they say misery is company, therefore maybe I have given you some solace by reminding you that everyone is a struggling writer, even the best. You are not alone! Good luck with your finals.



Everyone has self-doubt — but try not to make it an existential crisis when writing a paper

With the end of the semester drawing near, students are finding themselves swamped with papers. In fact, almost every student has at least one paper due soon. As a writing center tutor, I have seen all levels of preparedness: students who wait until the day before the deadline, students who come in weeks in advance, and even students who just want some reassurance that their paper is going in the right direction. As a student myself, I will admit that the deadlines and topics are stressful, but there are ways to prevent unwanted stress and ways to make the process easier. Let’s talk about that!

Unfortunately, there are some students who will wait hours before something is due to actually finish it. If you are the sort of person who can write a ten-page paper on alterity in one hour than you are very extraordinary because most of us need more time. While I have been guilty of doing things last minute (this is college — it’s going to happen) I always advise my students to plan ahead. The best way to begin an assignment is to make an outline. I know, I know an outline. It’s a little extra work, but it will be your guide to getting the paper written. An outline will allow you to see where your thoughts are and how they should progress. While tedious, making an outline for an assignment is the most effective way of starting something.

Most commonly I meet students who have a lot of self-doubt. I can’t possibly write ten pages. This doesn’t sound right. Why did I ever enroll in this class? Everyone has moments where they doubt themselves, but try not to make it an existential crisis when writing a paper. My favorite advice to give to other writers is to always read it out loud. Hearing it will always help you decide if it works well or if it doesn’t. The first draft of anything you write isn’t going to be perfect. Sometimes even your second or third draft won’t be perfect and that’s okay.

Another common issue I see often is that students come in with questions that their professors could easily answer for them…if the student asked. It’s important that I say that most professors welcome questions and will happily assist you if you are in need. I have never met a professor who was unwilling to sit down with me and discuss how to tackle a paper. Even the craziest stick-wielding professor (there’s one in every crowd) will sit down and help if you ask. Don’t be ashamed to ask for the help either. Generally, if you have a question about something there’s at least one other student who has the same question and will benefit from the help.

Lastly, I would encourage students to use the writing center as much as they need to. Don’t feel embarrassed by it and don’t assume that the tutors will look down on you by any means. We’re students too and we’re learning alongside you! If you don’t think we email each other papers and ask for guidance you’d be dead wrong. Asking for help is okay and there is literally a center where we will sit down with you and work on anything you might have trouble in. College is hard and this part of the semester is always the roughest, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer through it alone. Always remember: Outlines, self confidence, and your professors. With those three things you can conquer anything set before you, but mostly you’ll just get your papers written.

-Lydia A. Cyrus

Citations, Opinions, and Varied Sentence Structure: Weaponry for Battling the Praxis Essays

In the height of examination season, tensions are heightened at the thought of composing copious amounts of essays, especially those that act as gatekeepers for potential career paths, such as the essay portion of the Praxis exams. Traditionally, these compositions are intended to demonstrate the writer’s ability to construct an intelligent argument, as well as provide personal insight into an issue in an academic, professional manner. In instances such as the Praxis exam, with a limited amount of composition time and the added stress of fretting over eventual scores, it is easy to let the anxiety influence the words that cross the page or screen. However, there are specific factors within these essays for which the judges will be searching, and keeping these essay characteristics in mind will enhance the writer’s potential to meet the criteria set before them.

Generally, the simpler of the two essays is that of the informative composition. This section of the essay portion of the exam will test the student’s abilities to provide information through the utilization of the sources that are provided. There won’t be too many sources from which to pull, so try to avoid worrying about the sheer mass of preparatory text that will need to be read before the composition starts. When it comes to the composing stages of this essay, it is imperative that the writer remember to:

  • Avoid brainstorming for too long.
    • This causes the writer to lose time and can be more distracting than helpful.
  • Keep the sources in conversation with one another.
  • Always use citations.
    • This applies to both essays.
  • Avoid providing personal opinions, unless the prompt calls for this specifically.
    • First person “I” is considered unprofessional in this setting.
  • Keep it informative. Argumentation and judgment should not appear in this essay.

The argumentative essay can be considered a challenge, but when considering the figurative checklist that applies to the composition of this type of text, the actual writing process can begin to transform into that of a map that is created by the writer. However, there are a few minor warnings as to providing personal opinion.

  • While these prompts might ask the writer to utilize their own opinion, the “I” should appear as sparingly as possible. Too much personal voice can make the piece sound too informal.
  • Anecdotes should apply completely to the topic at hand and not veer away in the form of a tangent. Essentially, they should only be used when absolutely necessary.
  • When compiling the reasons as to why the author believes a certain way, be sure to pick the most relevant to the topic and the most important. Trivial issues will hold little water in this argument.
  • Be sure to address the opposing issue. This should come near the end of the piece—somewhere just before the conclusion—which will give the writer enough time to refute the point before ending the paper properly.
  • Do not speak in a condescending fashion towards the opposing opinion.
  • As stated beforehand, ALWAYS USE CITATIONS.

While this may sound insignificant in the grand scheme of composition, the varying of sentence structure is incredibly important. The utilization of complex sentences will demonstrate a control over the craft, as well as present the information in a mature manner. Semicolons are a writer’s best friend! For general punctuation and structural regulations, be sure to remember:

  • Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses.
  • Commas should appear before conjunctions when they are being utilized to connect independent clauses.
  • Simple sentences can be effective, but only when used conservatively.

While these lists might appear to be disorienting, the best way to hone these skills is to practice these types of compositions. Example prompts can be found online; additionally, essays from varying levels of success can be accessed on official websites, such as ets.org. Be ready, future educators! Think of outlining these essays like that of a personal lesson plan!


Do Write in ‘That’ Tone of Voice: Questions to Ask about Audience and Tone

In a recent post, the Marshall University Writing Center Facebook page asserted that, “Writing transcends the traditional college paper assignment.” At the Writing Center, we mostly deal with the “traditional college paper,” but an awareness of tone and audience is often overlooked during the writing process whether or not the piece is for a class or for personal writing. We often see students that assume the audience is only ever going to be their professor and while that may be true in some cases, by considering a wider audience the quality of information present in an assignment or even a piece of personal writing improves dramatically.

            Who is Reading What You’re Saying?

Considering who is reading your writing may influence how you present information. Is it just a professor? If so, what requirements have they given for the assignment? Is this professor an expert in certain fields that you may discuss? How does the professor feel about informal language (more on that below) in a piece? Is this something you’re going to submit to a contest for a prize or a journal for publication? If so, what are their requirements? Do they have other articles you could reference? Does the contest have a theme? Knowing the answers to these questions can help focus not only the information you provide but also help determine the Tone of how you’re saying what you need to say—whether the assignment is informative, argumentative, an analysis, or even a creative piece.

            How Should You Say It?

Once you have an audience in mind, how to say what you want to with your writing becomes more apparent. Specific formats have individual conventions and requirements—the Modern Language Association (MLA) handbook is different from the American Psychological Association (APA) guide. While this may seem obvious, these considerations have a major impact on tone. For example, the MLA format allows for having yourself (an “I”) in the writing; it’s based in the English department and the conventions of the guide reflect that. It places an emphasis on narrative and authorship and that is reflected in the whole format. By contrast, the APA guide is based in psychology and scientific pursuits; it occludes the author as part of the larger narrative of science and fact-based research. The year, and therefore the relevance, of the article is paramount as it shows where in our understanding of a certain topic the reference falls. Additionally, the style of the citation and the specific assignment will impact the “how” of communicating your thesis or story. In some disciplines—particularly the sciences—a passive tone is preferred in relaying information:

The mixture was heated.


We heated the mixture.

The second sentence is in an active voice—something that is more accepted in creative and academic writing in the humanities. These small differences in tone can make a large difference in the presentation of an idea. Other things that may impact tone are the subject matter itself, whether literary devices like metaphor, simile, or puns are acceptable, whether or not contractions are allowed and other considerations that may or may not be part of the formal assignment sheet.

These considerations will help dictate the overall structure of an assignment or personal writing piece. By being aware of them, you can structure your own voice to the circumstances and write in “that” (the accepted) tone of voice.



MU Library’s Tools

All of these search engines can be found on the site: www.marshall.edu/library/


Searching for Sources in Summon (Step-by-step)

Step One: Find Summon Search Bar on the right side (see Figure 1).

Step Two: Search for your topic

  • Remember, be specific with your search. (If you’re searching “Assisted Suicide” for instance, try to think about what it is you want to know about this topic, like for instance “Assisted Suicide in US” would make this much more specific.)

Step Three: Use the Summon Search Engine

  • Looking at the image below (Figure 2), you can continue to specify the topic. You can do this by adjusting the filters (on the left side of the figure) like the type of articles, year, and the discipline.
    • This will help if you are looking for “Assisted Suicide in US.” You can change the filters so that the search engine only shows you journal articles in the public health discipline and choose a specific time period say 2010, for instance. By doing this, you are decreasing the amount of information you have to look through.)

Step Four: Create a RefWorks Folder

  • Also in the image below (Figure 2) you can see in the top left corner the words “RefWorks.” This folder is very beneficial because the information you are finding can be put into the RefWorks folder to be read later. Creating an account is free since you are a student at Marshall.
  • Using this folder after you have created an account is easy. There is a symbol beside the titles of articles on the right in the Summon search window. You click this and the article will be put into your folder.



Using Borrowing Programs such as EZ-Borrow/IDS/ILL

These programs are book/article lending programs that students have access to. These books and articles are normally from other schools. This program is beneficial because it gives students the option of receiving materials needed even if the book or article are not available in Drinko or Morrow.


How to Use EZ-Borrow:

  • Again, this is billed into student fees, therefore students will not have to pay to sign up.
  • In order to sign up, use the 901 number assigned to the student.
  • EZ-Borrow is for books, therefore, you can search titles of books in the search bar at the top of the window.
  • Always check to make sure Marshall’s libraries do not have the books before using the lending program.

How to Use IDS-Express:

  • Create an account. Click first time user button then fill out the information requested.
  • Once an account is created, you may search for the journal article, book, newspaper article, etc., to try to find the piece you are looking for.
  • Something that might be good is to have a title of a book or article in mind. To be more specific with these sites are better.


Other Resources Available:


Ask a Librarian: This is very valuable. Use it. You can click this on the Libraries homepage and you will find a chat box where you can ask where to find sources. If you are going to use this chat, make sure you have specific questions about a topic. (Figure 3).


Ask a Librarian Chat Hours:

Monday – Thursday: 10 am – 6 pm

Friday: 10 am – 5 pm

Saturday: Closed

Sunday: 2 pm – 6 pm


Writing Center: Another valuable tool to use. There is the option of scheduling an appointment with a tutor who can help with the writing process or the option of scheduling an appointment with a research librarian. Both are very educated in research paper writing. Use these tools. (Figure 4).


Types of Appointments:

  • Face-to-face – this is meeting one-on-one with a tutor.
  • E-tutoring – this is uploading a file that the tutor will provide feedback to within 24-hours.
  • Online – this is meeting in an online chat with one of the tutors.


Writing Center Hours:

Monday – Friday: 10 am – 3 pm (Face-to-face, E-tutoring, and Online) 7 pm – 9 pm (E-tutoring and Online ONLY)


To make an appointment visit: marshall.mywconline.com (do not type in www.)




Figure 1.


Figure 2.




Figure 3.



Figure 4.


-Katie W.