Arguing the Point, Not Arguing with the Writer

By November 6, 2012Peer Writing Tutoring

I am not, by nature, a confrontational person. With that in mind, one of the hardest things to do in a tutorial, for me, is to respond to a writer who doesn’t want to listen to what I have to say. It doesn’t happen very often (and in some cases, the writer undoubtedly has a point that supersedes mine), but it can be very frustrating to work with a writer who has their own ideas for how the paper needs to go and expects only approbation from their tutor. It can be difficult to know when, if at all, you should argue with a student during a tutorial. Of course, no one wants to out and out “argue” with their writers, but if a writer tries to refute one of your suggestions or explain away a difficulty in the paper without acknowledging your qualms, what should you do? Where is the line between being an understanding and thoughtful tutor, and “giving in”?

Sometimes, pointing out an inconsistency in a paper can just turn into a rationalization from the writer rather than a real change, and how can you argue with “that’s how the professor says it”? Other times, the author responds with silence or throws it back on you, expecting a more concrete answer or a more directive statement. In both cases, it’s hard to stick to your guns and still respect the writer’s choices, but most confrontations are fully preventable.

One way to keep tensions from boiling over – or from dragging out what can be a quick explanation into a fifteen minute argument – is to choose your words carefully. Be specific about the issue you see, explain why it’s a problem in that paper, and show your writer how it affects their overall point. If you are clear and concise about the problem, the writer will be less likely to misunderstand the point you are trying to make and more likely to see a way forward in their own writing.

As for silent or uncooperative writers, it may be that they’re just confused by what you’re saying. Keep talking, keep asking questions, and see if you can shift their thinking, rather than just their wording. Writers want a good reason to change this essay that they’ve invested a lot of time in, so explain why it’s worth their while to take another look at that hole in their logic.

For that matter, make sure you’re addressing the right problem. Maybe you’re suggesting changes to a writer’s syntax in a paragraph that really has a problem of logic. Ask the writer to clarify what they meant – they’ll often generate a phrase in their own wording that improves on what’s in the paper.

The writer may be uncooperative because, well, the paper’s due today and you’re asking for a wholesale overhaul. Think about the real world considerations at stake, and see if you can impress upon the writer the importance of bigger points while still helping them work on this paper, on this day, as best as you can.

If you absolutely can’t prevent an argument over whether a change needs to be made or not – ask yourself how important it is to the paper, and how well you can defend the need to change the point. If the change is so minor that you can’t convince the writer why it matters, it’s probably not worth arguing about in the first place. If, however, the logic or the central concept of the paper is at stake, maybe that sort of problem needs to be discussed for a full half hour. Don’t be afraid to change the agenda if the essay or the writer calls for it; that’s what we’re here for, and the writer will thank you.

So, tutors – any tips for when a tutorial just isn’t working out? And writers – have you had an appointment like this and what should we be doing?