How to Become a Writing Tutor: A Passion and Necessity in Today’s Culture

The following has been adapted from my final paper for PWR 616: Technical Writing.

Tutoring isn’t simply editing a paper for someone according to your own personal preferences about writing. It’s giving others the skills to analyze their own writing and not be afraid of it. Other significant aspects of tutoring are having empathy for the person you’re tutoring and being able to encourage them while also critiquing their work and thought processes.

A tutoring session is a space for students to learn without judgement. Wrong answers aren’t wrong, they’re just not headed in the right direction. These answers can be led onto a better path by suggestions and allowing the student time to think through a solution. A tutoring session is a guiding force in a student’s life amidst chaos of school, sports, and other extra-curricular activities.

Tutoring is not something that should be taken lightly or jumped into without the proper training.

Things that do not qualify you to be a writing tutor include:

•Being an English major in college
•Taking a literature class that you enjoyed in college
•Writing a book
•Your love of writing
•A Shakespeare tattoo

Things that can qualify you to be a writing tutor include:

•Previous experience, such as in a Writing Center or as a teaching assistant for a writing course
•Proof of proficiency in writing (test scores, grades, any awards or distinctions)
•A teaching degree
•Completion of a writing tutoring class—many colleges require these classes for their tutors
•FBI and Child Abuse Clearances
•An understanding of learning styles
•A passion to help others learn and succeed

A balance of empathy and boundaries is necessary for writing tutors. While you may be the first person a student sees after a trying day at school, offering support while not becoming unhealthily involved in your student’s personal life can provide healthy lines for you and the student.

Be careful not to veer in the opposite direction. Not getting involved in a student’s life doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with them. It can be helpful to share that you also had tutoring during your academic career, or that certain subjects don’t “click” with you.

Vulnerability and allowing your student to see you as a person can help. The same idea should be true for your attitude towards your students. They are people dealing with their own lives at school and at home.

Now we’ve got the empathy and skills needed to become a writing tutor. Let’s sprinkle in a dash of descriptive approaches as well. While prescriptive versus descriptive approaches are usually terms applied to linguistic studies, they also apply to writing tutoring.

A prescriptive approach “describes when people focus on talking about how a language should or ought to be used,” while a descriptive approach “focuses on describing the language as it is used, not saying how it should be used,” (Reynolds, Amy).

In other words, a prescriptive approach is like a prescription. It’s a set of solid, inflexible rules about language and how it should be used when writing. Prescriptions can’t be altered without serious consequences, just as prescriptive rules of language incur lost points and lead to dejected students.

A descriptive approach to language and writing allows for more creativity. Language can be putty in a student’s hands. Taking a descriptive approach to language, and ultimately writing, allows students to get their words down on paper and start the writing process. If students are too worried about grammar rules, where commas go, and properly formatting a paper, they may never begin their assignment. Loosening those binds frees up mind space and lets creativity flow.

As an undecided undergraduate at Bloomsburg University, finding the English major and becoming a writing tutor were beneficial points in my college career. Taking the required writing tutoring course and other linguistic courses as an undergraduate led the way to me becoming a writing fellow in charge of an entire class of developmental writing students.

The fellowing experience was a significant reason I was hired as an independently contracted writing tutor, who later became a communications coordinator and freelance writing tutor. While these are all sources of my professional growth, tutoring also helped me find my place at college and in the world. Returning to campus after an extended leave was scary. The writing center, my colleagues, and training courses were not. Working as an independently contracted tutor gave me a twinkle of light in a dim world where I hated my full-time job and needed a creative, reassuring outlet for my passion.

As David Wood says in his research, “tutoring is an outgrowth of helping. Helping is an innate human propensity—we’re born to help. When people … see somebody else doing something that they themselves can do, and see them getting frustrated by not being able to do it, then there’s a perceptual invitation to get involved. Some of us feel the invitation very strongly,” which sums up how I feel about tutoring. I R.S.V.P. to that invitation immediately. I love helping students see their potential, and being present for the confidence they gain after mastering a new concept.

Student Spotlight: Lorrie McConnell

Lorrie McConnell is a student of the Master of Professional of Professional Writing (MPW) program at Chatham University and a Technical Documentation Designer within the Education team for Netsmart Technologies, living in Pittsburgh. A few decades removed from her undergraduate Business Administration degree from Slippery Rock University, she enrolled in Chatham’s MPW program in the Spring of 2017 and is expected to graduate Summer of 2019.

After completing her undergraduate degree, she worked in banking for a few years until accepting a position with a Pittsburgh based higher education software company. This was her introduction to technical writing. While her undergraduate degree taught her to think, she had to teach herself to write on the job. With the company’s products in the higher education space, Lorrie always wanted to pursue an advanced degree, but life was happening.

Eighteen years into her career she decided now was the time. With her daily work being remote (her Netsmart office is in Missouri), she wanted an online program in which she could still visit the campus. A review of the MPW program with both it’s Technical Writing and Web Content Development concentrations proved to be a great fit. These classes would allow her to balance her self-taught skills with writing industry best practices.

Each of the classes she has taken translates seamlessly to work she performs on a daily basis. Lorrie said, “I have been reading a bit about relevance. My writing needs to be relevant for my industry and clients. I am pleasantly surprised each time my coursework directly relates to a project I am completing at work or a request from a customer.”

Lorrie’s advice for individuals considering the MPW program is that it has so much to offer for non-writers as well as career writers. The projects within the classes allow learners to select the subject matter. For instance, if your comfort zone is education, nursing, or technology, you can apply the writing principles discussed in the class to that subject matter.

“The best thing about the MPW Program at Chatham University is the more I read and study, the more my mind opens. I have new inspirations all the time for better ways to approach my work as well as new ideas for how to deliver content to my end users. These inspirations would not have happened without the MPW program.”


Current Student Spotlight: Madison Butler

Madison Butler is a student of the MPW program at Chatham and a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. Before attending Chatham’s MPW program, Butler attended Penn State to study Print Journalism and graduated from their program in 2015. In the Fall of 2016, Butler enrolled in Chatham’s MPW program and is expected to graduate this semester.

Butler felt she learned a lot from Penn State’s communication program, but she wanted to continue her education in order to expand her knowledge of writing styles.

“I was drawn to this program because it was unique,” Butler said. “I have always bounced around a lot in terms of learning new skills. I liked that Chatham offers a program that can be completed online and with a variety of classes. This is something that fits really well with my personal style of learning, so I was really excited to begin the program.”

Since beginning the program last fall, Butler has taken a wide variety of classes in the program. She’s explored grant writing, technical writing, blog writing, and social media writing. She’s also taken classes in web development and design and information architecture.

“I was most excited to learn about the more technical styles of writing because I think the formats are widely applicable and can be used in several industries,” Butler said. “These are also specialized styles of writing that you don’t learn about.”

Butler really enjoyed the web development classes with Professor Charlotte Scott since it was a new skill for her, and she plans to learn more about it on her own. Classes with Professor Mike Lavella in information architecture were also of interest for Butler during her time here at Chatham.

“All of these [classes] were extremely helpful in expanding my knowledge of web design and development, which has made me a better writer and blogger,” Butler said.

The skills Butler has learned from her coursework at both Penn State and Chatham have helped Butler in many jobs. Butler said she worked at a flower shop developing social media, design, branding and marketing, and customer service.

Butler said, “I’ve used my knowledge from the MPW program in each position I’ve held. I think the position I used these skills in most was, surprisingly, at the flower shop I worked at. There, I ended up writing product copy, developing a social media presence, and writing a business plan for the owner.”

Butler currently works as a freelance writer. She writes for Graphic Policy, a site focused on comics, and Sidequest, which focuses on videogames.  She’s also currently working on a project of her own where essays dive deep into media; it’s called Critsumption.

“This program has given me tools to be more effective in my workplaces, and to implement more effective practices and methods of communication. It’s pretty amazing that the professional writing field encompasses so many different jobs,” Butler said.

Butler is currently looking for a full-time job outside of the writing she does already. She wants to pursue a position in journalism or social media marketing.

“My ultimate goal is to be in a position where I’m passionate about the things I’m writing about, regardless of what type of writing it is.”

Butler’s advice for new writers is to write first and edit later. Butler said, “As a writer, I tend to get caught up in editing as I go, which makes my projects take much longer than they should. Writing for yourself allows you to get your thoughts down without worrying about audience reception, and since I’ve started writing for myself first, I find that I’m able to distill my writing into a clearer message that’s closer to my original intention.”

Alumni Spotlight | Linda Naughton

As a single mother with a full-time job, Linda Naughton entered Chatham’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program in the summer of 2015. At the time, Naughton was looking for a program that allowed her to have a flexible schedule.

“I’m from Pittsburgh, so I was already familiar with Chatham’s reputation as a great school,” Naughton said. “The MPW program offered an interesting variety of courses, and I liked the way you could specialize with the concentrations.”

Naughton entered the program in order to improve her writing skills and to learn more about professional writing.

Her favorite class while in the MPW program was Designing Digital Media. “Since so much writing is ending up on the web these days, it’s important to understand the particular challenges and opportunities of digital media,” Naughton said. During the course of the class, Naughton had to create a blog and post regularly to it. The blog she created was called Self Rescuing Princess, and now, over two years later, Naughton says she still posts to it regularly.

A year after beginning the program, Naughton graduated in the summer of 2016.

Naughton has twenty years of experience as a software engineer and web designer. For her job, Naughton writes technical documents and creates web pages.

“I can leverage the skills I learned in the MPW program when writing and when evaluating usability and graphics design,” Naughton said.

In addition, Naughton blogs and writes as a freelance author in her spare time. She said, “The social media classes have helped a great deal when promoting my work as a blogger and novelist.” She’s working on her second novel now.

Naughton says that her dream job would be to combine the two things she enjoys most: software engineering and writing. She’s like to write software technical guides.

Her advice for writers is to write every day. “Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, over the course of a year that adds up to a lot of words,” Naughton said.

How My Creative Writing Helped My Professional Writing

Alison Albitz

I began my undergrad with only one major: a BFA in creative writing. After one semester, I knew that pursuing only one major would mean taking a lot of extraneous courses that wouldn’t necessarily add up to much, so I decided to simultaneously pursue a BA in communication with a focus on print journalism.

This addition initially seemed like a very logical one: I liked writing and felt that I was good at it, so why wouldn’t I try a different style? How different could it be? As it turned out, switching between AP style and MLA, fact and fiction, and no-nonsense and poetry ended up being much more difficult than I had anticipated. Once I began working professional writing seemed like a whole new beast to tackle.

It wasn’t until my senior year of undergrad that I understood that switching between these styles of writing was difficult because I saw them as completely different entities, when I needed to view them as supplemental to each other. As I’ve mulled over the similarities between the three, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

They all have the same end goal

At the end of the day, writing is all about communicating effectively. In journalism, the goal is telling a story or sharing information. In creative writing, the author attempts to get a reader to feel something, understand a character, and see the world from a different perspective. Professional communication is all about conveying information succinctly and efficiently. When I realized that the ultimate goal of these different writing styles is so similar, I began to see that I could use skills I’ve learned in one area to better improve the others.

None of them are allowed to be boring

Whether you’re writing a press release, a newspaper article, or a novel, it has to keep the reader engaged. The art of storytelling is not easily learned, but is integral for maintaining the reader’s interest. Click here and here to learn about the role of storytelling in grant proposals and nonprofit campaigns.

Never assume that one skill cannot translate to other areas

In a newswriting course, my professor constantly reminded us that we weren’t writing creatively when we wrote news stories. In other words, this wasn’t creative writing; this was journalism. However, my creative storytelling skills added to both my newswriting and professional writing skills, and the succinct style of journalistic writing has aided my creative writing, too. Any skill learned in one area of writing is transferrable to others, and trying to limit certain skills to specific mediums only limits the potential for great writing.

When It’s OK to Write for Free and When to Just Say No

By Andrea Calabretta

As I writer at the beginning of my career, I once got a job offer by email from the managing editor of an online literary magazine. It read: “We really like the work you’ve published with us and were wondering if you’d be interested in coming onboard as our nonfiction editor.”

My heart gave a little leap. Of course I was interested, and I was so very flattered. I wrote back in the affirmative.

After a couple more enthusiastic email exchanges, the managing editor dropped a bomb. “Unfortunately we can’t pay you at this time,” the editor wrote.

I felt as though the rug had been pulled out beneath me. At the time, I was working a part-time job and freelancing as much as possible to support myself. Now, I was looking at spending additional hours each week volunteering.

My writer friends discouraged me, saying I shouldn’t give away my talents, and the advice I found online said that working for free undervalues the whole profession. I was torn. I certainly didn’t want to contribute to undervaluing my fellow writer, yet I really wanted to do this job. As I’d been drawn into more high-paying assignments in marketing and development, I had left behind a certain amount of creativity. I missed the days of grad school, when I was regularly in dialogue with other writers in my program about their work. I liked the idea of taking a break from some of my more mundane endeavors each week to read stories and help make them better. So I decided to try it out: I would give it six months.

Since then, there have been other instances when I’ve been asked to work for free, and I have mostly declined them. At a certain point, I became too busy with paid work to even consider doing something for nothing, but I still wouldn’t say that all unpaid work is worthless. For a writer starting out, achieving the milestone of a first published clip can be just as valuable as a token payment for said clip. Building a portfolio of work, paid or unpaid, can be the first step toward winning new assignments and making a living wage as a writer.

When considering whether to work for free, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this gig be of value to me beyond the (lack of) pay?
  • Will it allow me to take a creative risk or do something I wouldn’t otherwise get to do in my professional life?
  • Does it have networking or other opportunities that might lead to something more lucrative or compelling in the future?
  • Would another company/organization/outlet pay me for this same work?
  • Can I afford to spend X hours doing something that does not contribute to my income?
  • How does this gig support my professional goals?

As it turned out, I didn’t volunteer at the literary magazine for long. I was soon offered a job teaching writing that satisfied the same creative urge and paid me for my efforts. But I never regretted my time at the literary magazine, nor the opportunities it offered to hone my editing skills and meet interesting people.

Current Student Spotlight | Mike Lawley

Mike could be referred to as a non-traditional student. He is a full-time single parent and graphic artist, who is re-entering the classroom nearly 30 years after receiving his BS in Marketing in 1987. With a solid foundation in Marketing Communications as a creative, he decided it was time to hone is writing skills and formalize his on-the-job experience with a graduate degree.

“When I decided to go back to school I was met with some skepticism from friends and colleagues.

‘Why a graduate degree at this stage of your life? Why professional writing? You have over 25 years in your field! You have been adapting right along with your profession. You learned on-the-job as paste-up moved to the desktop and direct mail moved to e-mail. How does this fit in with your current career path?’

“The last question, ‘How does this fit in with your current career path?’ was the easiest to explain. It doesn’t fit with my current career path. I am looking for a program that will enrich my skill set, broaden my capabilities, and prepare me for new career pathways. All the while, allowing me to continue to grow in my current position. I found that and more with the MPW program at Chatham.

“As I approach my last semester, growing professionally is exactly what I have done with this journey. I have had the opportunity to learn new practices, to realize my current skills are also strong, and most importantly, a chance to learn with professionals from many different backgrounds while providing real world examples from my career.”

With two courses remaining, Mike is realizing his dream of a graduate degree in a classroom that has changed dramatically from the brick and mortar days at IUP.

“Online class was something to get used to in a way. No face-to-face discussion and a lot of the learning felt like self-study. Soon though, relationships developed with classmates as we were lucky enough to all be starting about the same time and shared many classes together.

“If I were to offer any advice to incoming students to the program it would be to build relationships with your fellow students just as you would if you were physically sitting side-by-side. My group was very strong and successful when were had the opportunity to share a class and work together.”

Home: Pittsburgh, PA
Program: Master of Professional Writing

You are welcome to connect with Mike on LinkedIn and Twitter.