All’s Fair in Love and the Writing Center: Adapting to Unfamiliar Genres

Michelle Day, Consultant
At the Writing Center, we always say that we will work on any type of writing. Once, that even meant working on a love letter.
Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I have been hoping I might get to tutor another lovestruck student (no luck yet). But I am now realizing that, having never read, received, or composed a love letter, I have little context for the conventions of that writing genre: how it should be organized, how it should be formatted (do college sweethearts expect a “Works Cited” page?).
Affectionate missives are not the only genre my Writing Center colleagues and I have little experience with. So why do we always ask clients to bring in anything and everything they’ve written and want help with? And how do we navigate unfamiliar genre waters?
Here, I’d like to draw on the expertise of some of my fellow consultants’ blog posts to show how I might approach tutoring a student on composing written declarations of love.
  • On January 22, Scott Lasley wrote about the importance of consultants seeking to learn from a tutoring session, rather than just teach. By being curious and willing to learn, he says, “we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.
  • On January 28, Katelyn Wilkinson wrote a post about how consultants who aren’t “creative writers” can still provide helpful feedback to clients who want to work on a poem, short story, or other creative work. She suggests that tutors first establish the goals of the writer for the piece and give feedback on specific places that do or don’t work toward those goals.
  • On February 4, Lauren Short argues that “just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers.” She encourages writers to experiment with different techniques, genre, and language in order to find a unique writing style—a process we at the Writing Center would love to be a part of.
All of my co-workers’ advice plays into how I would approach tutoring a client on a love letter. Like Katelynn suggests, I would need to first know the client’s goals for the letter. Does the writer want the letter to sound polished and formal or more conversational? Does the writer know if the recipient reciprocates his/her feelings? How vulnerable is the writer willing to be? What is the ultimate message (besides love) that he/she wants to communicate? Asking those questions about rhetorical purpose can give me a framework for evaluating whether specific parts of the letter are working toward that purpose.
Second, I would need to take Lauren’s advice and hep the writer to work within his/her personal strengths and style. Writing in a way that makes the writer feel comfortable would be essential to drafting a heartfelt, natural letter, rather than one that sounds forced and uncomfortable. And, identifying some of the writer’s strengths might help him/her play to those strengths on future writing assignments.
Finally, I would need to remember to learn from and listen to the client. Pretending like I have a complete grasp on all genres of writing wouldn’t make me any more familiar with how to write love letters. So, it would be important for me to focus on my own strengths—examining the rhetorical effects of certain ways of writing—and let the writer be the expert on what the end product should look like
This is a much oversimplified version of the process we go through to provide assistance on unfamiliar genres, and there are likely a lot of other strategies consultants use. How do you approach tutoring on a piece of writing you’re not accustomed to reading or writing?

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