handbook: conferencing with writers

Returning Drafts and Scheduling Conferences

Conference Sign-Up

Students sign up for conferences on the day you give back the drafts with your comments. When you visit class to return the drafts, you will also pass around a conference sign-up sheet. Some fellows have found it helpful to send the conference times to students over e-mail in advance, so they have a chance to look at their schedules.

Regardless of the scheduling method you use, you should present the following information to your students:

  • Your name, phone number, and/or e-mail address
  • Where you will hold your conferences and how you can be recognized (i.e., red baseball cap)
  • If you use a hard-copy sign-up sheet, include a list that explains which students are assigned to which Fellow, in case they have forgotten your names
  • More conference slots than students, but not too many more, since you want to avoid long periods of waiting between conferences
  • A space where students who can’t make any of the offered conference times can leave their names and contact info so you can make alternate arrangements
  • For a sample sign-up sheet, see the appendix to this handbook or download one from the Writing Fellows website.


Remember to schedule your conferences leaving enough time to allow students to revise their drafts in response to your comments before handing in the final version to the professor.

You will most likely want to schedule 25-minute conferences, with 5-minute breaks in between, allowing you to complete two conferences per hour. That time frame, however, is not set in stone. You may well discover that you need more time for some students than others — one person may really need 30 minutes, while another person may be ready to depart after 20 minutes. Try to be flexible, while also respecting students’ schedules. And remember that no conference can address all the writing concerns that a writer might have; you simply don’t have time to spend an unlimited number of hours with each student. Besides, overly long conferences run the risk of overwhelming and frustrating the writer you are trying to help.

tips from Fellows:

“Scheduling 25-minute conferences into 30-minute time blocks that allow 5 minutes after a conference to prepare for the next one has worked out quite well. I try to schedule no more than 4 conferences per day or in a row because after that it can get a bit taxing.”

“I would not schedule more than 4 or 5 conferences in a row if you want to keep your brain from turning to mush. When you get no breaks for that long, you’re not at your A game when helping your students. I like to have 10-15 minutes between every conference, but that is usually impossible. When you have a bunch in a row, make sure you give yourself time before the string of conferences to look over at least your endnotes for all of the students, so that you can show that you remember the papers and are invested in each one.”

“I recommend scheduling 45 minutes for conferences so you have adequate time to prepare in-between conferences. Bringing photocopies of the students’ drafts and your endnotes with you to meetings is also helpful, as it allows you refresh your memory of a student’s paper while you wait for him or her to arrive, and it ensures that you will be prepared if a student forgets his or her draft (it does happen!).”

Setting the location

You can hold conferences in any easily-accessible public space that is quiet enough, feels comfortable and safe, and where you can find a table and a couple of chairs. You might have success in one of the following locations:

  • The Writing Center
  • One of the libraries
  • A residence hall dining room (i.e. Pop’s Club or Frank’s Place)
  • Memorial Union (and Union South, once it finally reopens)
  • One of the State Street coffee shops
  • The Student Services Tower in 333 E. Campus Mall

Where should you not hold conferences?

  • Dorm rooms
  • Apartments
  • Any private living space
  • Any location after 9:30 p.m.

Note: if you choose to use the Writing Center for your conferences, you should check in with the receptionist at the front desk. You also need to make sure the Center is open at your desired meeting times. The Center’s hours are 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday; during Weeks 1 – 5, the center closes at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Conducting Conferences

General guidelines

You will receive plenty of guidance in English 316 about strategies for conferencing. There is no single right way to conduct conferences; every conference is slightly different, and every tutor has to develop his or her own personal style. However, we do have some basic suggestions.

  • Try to ensure that student writers (and you) are as comfortable as possible. Students won’t know what to expect when they show up for their first conference; you may be surprised by how many are nervous about talking to you. Stand up, introduce yourself again, use the writer’s name and ask if you aren’t sure how to pronounce it or if she uses a nickname (”Do you go by Rebecca or Becky?”). You can make some small talk (the weather is an old standby; Madison’s climate lends itself to a lot of friendly commiserating), begin by asking how the writer feels about the assignment or, more generally, how the class is going. You can also use information from the draft’s cover sheet to jump-start the conference.
  • Before you begin sharing your own insights, always, always ask the writer what he or she is most interested in working on. And write down what the writer says! Asking sincere questions and listening carefully to the answers helps send the message that you care about what the writer thinks. Getting this message across will make the rest of the conference much easier.
  • Your goal for each conference should be to talk about two or three important issues related to a draft, and to help student writers consider options for revision. You will not have time to discuss all parts of the draft in great detail, so you have to choose the issues that seem most crucial. For example, if a draft jumps abruptly from one point to the next, you may want to use some of the time in the conference to rework some of the transitions. However, if the draft has an even more pressing problem — say it doesn’t fulfill the assignment and/or fails to answer the question the professor has posed — then you don’t want to use up time talking about transitions until after you have raised the bigger concerns.
  • Your comments can be a starting point for conversation, but don’t simply reiterate your comments unless the writer asks for clarification or elaboration. Comments generally focus on what’s working and what needs revision; conferences tend to feel most productive when they focus on how to make those necessary revisions. Conferences are ideal for working interactively; they’re a great chance for writers to actually work on an element of a draft — writing a new thesis statement, reordering paragraphs, adding topic sentences — with you there to give them immediate feedback on the new work.
  • Writers are more receptive to criticism when they feel that their work is valued and appreciated. As with comments, it’s a good rule to open conferences about drafts by pointing out good things, saying what you liked, what worked well, etc. Launching immediately into a laundry list of problems can be overwhelming and discouraging for the writer you are trying to help.
  • Try to keep your own talking to a minimum. Ask questions. Listen carefully to the answers. Take notes. Ask more questions. Again, listen carefully. Often writers will say wonderful, articulate things that belong in their papers but haven’t made it into their writing yet. The best moments in conferences often come when students say something really insightful that’s nowhere in the paper and you get to ask, “Is that in your paper? Do you say that anywhere? Write that down!” If they smile sheepishly and say, “What did I just say?” you can repeat their own words back to them rather than worrying that you’re writing the paper for them. The goal is not to give students the perfect words, but to help them find their own.
  • Bring extra pens and blank paper. Taking notes for students during conferences and then giving them the notes at the end works well for many Fellows. It’s also a good idea to urge writers to take their own notes: “Are you going to remember this? Do you want to write that down?” And don’t forget to give them time to write those things down before moving on to the next point.
  • Watch your body language. Sit next to or at the next side of the table to writers, not across the table from them; this way you can both look at the paper right-side up at the same time. Keep the draft between you, so you both can see it.

tip from a Fellow:

“My research project involved observing Writing Center instructors during conferences. From that experience and talking with them afterwards, I was surprised with how helpful they were for both my research and for improving as a peer tutor. Watching them at work conferencing and discussing the conferences with them afterwards was a tremendously helpful experience in providing me with insights and ideas about how to approach my own tutoring, so don’t overlook the value of chatting with WC instructors. Plus, they are so friendly and encouraging of Writing Fellows that talking with them really helped me to feel a part of the supportive writing tutoring community at UW-Madison.”

Missed conferences

Occasionally, a student won’t show up for his or her conference. Don’t take it personally; it happens to everyone. As with late papers, you can exercise discretion in how you handle students who are late or who miss conferences, but be sure to have talked about this issue with the professor before you start holding conferences.