Tending Other People’s Texts: Writing Center Tutoring and MFA Workshops

By Sarah Dimick

Sarah is a Ph.D. candidate in literary studies at UW-Madison, and has taught at the Writing Center since 2013.  Before coming to Madison, she received an MFA in poetry from New York University.

Headshot of Sarah Dimick

Sarah Dimick

Last winter, during a late afternoon appointment, a graduate student in the history department asked me how he might make the final chapter of his dissertation more compelling.1  We’d already discussed what I think of as skeletal concerns: the order of his paragraphs, the clarity of his topic sentences.  We’d already examined his thesis and his conclusion for coherence.  I asked if he was concerned that the intellectual contribution of this chapter wasn’t sufficiently groundbreaking, that other scholars in his discipline might not feel he was making a substantial intervention.  “My argument’s brilliant,” he told me, “but this chapter is totally dry inside.  I want to write the kind of history that makes people turn pages, to write a story where the characters come alive.  How do you do that?”

A few weeks later, I met with an undergraduate student in an advanced physics course who was trying to condense the caption beneath one of the figures in her lab report.  “The challenge,” she explained, “is that I’m trying to say so much in so few words.  It’s like writing a haiku about a gravitational field.  Each word has to be so precise.”

And this past fall, a senior applying to medical school pulled three crumpled pages of paper out of her backpack.  She spread them on the table in front of us, each one containing a different opening paragraph to her personal statement.  “My academic advisor said the first paragraph needs to give the admissions committee a sense of my voice,” she said.  “But after writing all of these, I’m not sure any of them are me yet.  And I’m worried my voice isn’t the kind of voice med schools like anyway.  I guess what I’m saying is that I need to find a voice.  Really soon.  Before this is due on Tuesday.”

The Creativity of Research

"The Craft of Research" laid on top of "Writing Fiction"

Sarah’s worn copies

As Cydney Alexis notes, universities often treat creative writing “as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry,” a pursuit wholly separate from the critical analyses and applications that often grace the tables of a writing center.  But as I tutor students writing course papers and academic articles, I can’t help noting that many of their endeavors are, at their core, creative efforts.  I’m as likely to refer a student working on a history of the dairy industry in early twentieth-century Wisconsin—or a student trying to articulate the setting and conditions that produced a particular cancer cluster—to Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft as I am to refer them to The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams.  So many of the questions I field as a writing center tutor—Is this a good hook?  Is this the right word?  How do you write a conclusion that feels satisfying but not overly tidy?—serve as reminders of the porous boundary between the creative and the scholarly, the easy slippage between the kinds of writing I focused on during my MFA and the kinds of writing that I attend to here at the UW-Madison Writing Center.

Moreover, writing centers and creative writing workshops both cultivate a sustained attention to writing as a craft—writing as a practice, a labor, an art.  They are places where a writer’s development is undertaken as a communal effort, where people believe that gathering to discuss a draft will allow its author to revise it into a more powerful piece.

Three Ways of Looking at Other People’s Drafts

Given these shared commitments, I want to offer an initial list of the ways in which writing centers and creative writing workshops inform each other, through both their parallels and their divergences:

  1. The Rigors of Praise and Description.  On the first day of a poetry workshop I took as an MFA student, the professor explained that we would not be “critiquing” each other’s work.  Instead, we would spend the semester trying to express what we found valuable about each other’s poems and how we might describe each other as writers.  I remember thinking this was going to be an utter waste of time: I wasn’t working a few part-time jobs in New York City to hear other people rave about my first drafts.  As I quickly learned, however, offering substantial, precise praise is a strenuous business: it’s often more difficult to pinpoint why a piece of writing is moving or compelling than it is to diagnose its flaws.  And, as my classmates described the tones and language patterns that characterized my poems, I identified elements of my writing and thinking that had previously escaped me.  Each time I step into the UW-Madison Writing Center, I hear tutors engaged in similar work: in addition to thinking about possible revisions, we describe and compliment drafts because it’s a useful pedagogical practice.
  2. A table filled with bookmaking supplies and coffee cups

    Bookmaking over coffee in preparation for a poetry exchange

    Silence and Conversation.  As a Writing Center tutor, I am trained to ask writers questions.  Part of my work is to engage the writer sitting beside me in a productive conversation, to elicit her own instincts about which revisions might strengthen her draft.  This conversational approach is the precise opposite of how I was trained as an MFA student: in the majority of MFA workshops, writers are instructed to remain silent, listening and taking notes as the class discusses their story or poem.  After the discussion period in a workshop concludes, a writer may be allowed to briefly ask the group clarifying questions.  As a silently present writer in MFA workshops, I learned to sit with feedback on my writing before immediately disputing my classmates’ critiques, and I found that being a fly on the wall as other people discuss your poem grants a rare intimacy to the abstract idea of a text’s “audience.”  But now, as a Writing Center tutor, I value the sense of collaboration that emerges through an active conversation between a writer and a reader.  I’m grateful I can easily gauge whether the discussion is addressing the writer’s own questions about their work.  I think about this distinction often: are there moments in writing center conferences when the practice of silence might be beneficial, and—reciprocally—are there moments in MFA workshops when conversation including the writer could prove rewarding?

  3. Attuning Yourself to a Writer’s Voice.  My parents read poetry before breakfast each day, working their way through a collection one poem at a time.  Without fail, they appreciate the poems near the end of the collection in a different way than they appreciate the poems on the first few pages, a process I think of as attunement to a writer.  We learn to appreciate voices we linger with over months or years.  During my MFA, I took pleasure in the poetry of classmates I’d learned to read over the course of previous semesters, only gradually developing my capacity to fully appreciate new classmates’ work.  Now, when my classmates publish books, even classmates who I regularly call or visit, reading these collections feels like hearing their voices again after an absence.  I notice a similar phenomenon at work with ongoing students who come to the UW-Madison Writing Center to see me on a recurring basis.  I enjoy seeing their writing strengthen and expand, but I also find that I grow as a reader of their texts, becoming better able to distinguish consistencies and twists.

Sharing Drafts

The author, bent over a series of woodblock images and text

Sarah compiles poetry chapbooks

In both writing centers and  MFA workshops, early drafts are circulated and discussed: there’s an assumption that texts must be tended not only by their authors but also by a larger community of readers and colleagues and teachers.  These exchanges demand a willing vulnerability on the part of the writers, but they also allow writing center tutors and workshop participants the opportunity to impact the development of someone else’s words.  There’s something beautiful, I think, about the act of willingly attending to someone else’s writing, of conversing about someone else’s craft, of engaging in writing as a communal endeavor.

 


  1.  All students described in this piece are aggregates of multiple writers I’ve worked with over the years.

8 thoughts on “Tending Other People’s Texts: Writing Center Tutoring and MFA Workshops

  1. Sarah! What a wonderful post! Also, your writing reads as kind and as patient as you are in person—I love that. Two things stick out to me that I want to think about more. In particular, I love the line where your MFA cohort had to consider “how we might describe each other as writers.” You’re right—it can be difficult to really slow down and identify what a reader might like about a piece of writing but more importantly, *what* makes that piece of writing praiseworthy. I love the idea of defining writers through their writing, and it seems to revise an old paradigm of praise that we as writing center instructors take so seriously. Second, your point about silence makes me think more about needing space—space from the writing itself, the actual feedback, but also the people. As a writer, I sometimes feel the urge to respond to someone’s in person feedback and help them see my intention. But sometimes, in doing that, I end up making an argument for my own point instead of focusing on why and how it didn’t come across in writing. Silence, space, separation—all things we as writers need.

    Powerful connections between creative writing and writing centers!

    • Thanks, Stephanie! I think you’re right that sometimes space and separation can be useful tools. If deadlines allow, I’ve started putting the suggestions and revision ideas I receive on my drafts in a drawer for a week or so before I take them out again to rework my writing. Sometimes, time brings clarity!

  2. Sarah, Thank you for this beautifully crafted meditation on the “shared commitments” of writing centers and creative writing workshops. I appreciate the way this piece acknowledges the “creative efforts” of varied student writers in the university, i.e., not solely or mainly fiction and poetry but including dissertations, personal statements, and even captions for a lab report. You identify three areas that are helping me think more specifically about the pedagogies of workshop and writing center. I think your list might be especially useful for composition instructors who are working on (or already have) an MFA. But I think useful, too, for our English 100 instructors in general, and certainly for my own consideration as a teacher of both composition and creative writing.

    • Thanks, Mary. I’d be curious to hear the MFA students here at UW-Madison reflect on what they needed to alter or retain as they began teaching composition. The fields inform each other in so many ways, but the pedagogies have important distinctions, and I’d be interested to hear how they navigate between them.

  3. Sarah, These are some lovely reflections on resonances between creative writing and writing centers. I’m especially taken with how you put the idea that “writing centers and creative writing workshops both cultivate a sustained attention to writing as a craft—writing as a practice, a labor, an art.” I, too, hold onto the lessons my MFA taught me about attention and about precision—about articulating feelings with care.

    For me, workshop was always a privilege—to sit and discuss stories or poems with a shared respect for the craft—even when I didn’t agree with what was being said. I never felt silenced—but heard in new ways. However, I realize that this is not the case for everyone (particularly due to political factors), and that both dialogue and silence can have their places in a writing practice. There are so many untapped possibilities for sharing methods across the writing disciplines. Thanks for getting us thinking.

    • Erica, I was thinking of you as I wrote this! I’m glad you never felt silenced in the poetry workshops we took together, and I love the idea of feeling “heard.” Perhaps I should think more about the distinction between being silent and being given the opportunity to listen? It’s a fine line, and as you note, political factors definitely impact how that practice is experienced, but “being heard” is perhaps not quite the same as silence. Thanks for helping me think through this further.

  4. Sarah, what a beautiful post! I love the way you describe “attunement” to a writer, a topic that needs a lot more attention. I think a lot about being a benevolent reader and about the writers and situations that compel this sort of attitude while I read. Usually, it’s writers I like to read or compelling student work that triggers this response. But I find the idea that time plays a role in attunement particularly interesting. Perhaps this is why ongoing tutoring sessions can be so productive and fun, because each session builds on a foundation laid in a previous session(s).

    I also agree that “specific, honest” praise (Hughes) can teach as much critique. Writers need to know why and how their words are impacting others. I noticed my training really strongly in a graduate course in research methods I’m currently taking (the first course I’m taking as an assistant professor). We had to critique each others research field notes, and my instincts, rather than critique, were to praise the sections I liked. The professor did point out areas for improvement, but I felt that each student was impacted even more strongly by having us all talk through the sentences or sections that were working well.

    Thank you for this post! I will share it with one of my students who is studying the differences and similarities between WC sessions and poetry workshops.

    • Thanks, Cydney, for these comments and for your article. It was such a useful piece for me as I began to put these ideas together!

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