Tutorials: Working with Student Writers

This guide is adapted from the regularly scheduled tutorial program that was used at Colorado State University in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The goal of the tutorial was to prepare students who did not appear to have demonstrated a level of writing skill needed to succeed in the university's required writing courses. The following activities and advice might be of use when working with students who struggle with writing assignments.

Generating and Developing Ideas

For many people, the toughest part of any writing task is getting started. Here are some exercises that help with "blank page syndrome" or "writer's block."

Listing: Brainstorm a list of possible topics. If the assignment deals with your own experience, try a list of important events in your life related to the topic. If the assignment deals with material from a class, brainstorm all of the things you've talked about in the class that you remember or that interest you. The important thing is not to censor yourself at this point - write down anything that comes to mind.

Freewriting: Freewriting simply means writing without stopping for a set amount of time. Start with shorter amounts of time (2-5 minutes) and build up "stamina" slowly. Again, as in listing, it's important not to censor ideas at this point; simply write down anything that comes to mind. Sometimes, if you keep your hand moving, you'll come up with details and connections that never occurred to you until you wrote them down!

Looping: Looping is a variation on freewriting. Pick one aspect of your topic to begin writing on. Freewrite for five minutes. Then, read over what you have written and underline the most important or interesting idea or sentence. Start with this idea or sentence and freewrite for another five minutes. Find your "center of gravity" sentence again. If you continue this process, you'll often find you've started a rough draft of the assignment.

Clustering: Write the topic in the middle of the page and put a circle around it. Then, branch out from the circle with associations and details about the topic. Write down anything you can think of, making connections as you see fit (see "Guidelines for Selecting a Subject," next page, for an example).

Cubing: This is another way to look at one topic from many angles (like the pentad exercise). Write for one to three minutes on each of the six "sides": Describe, Compare/Contrast (How is it like something else? How is it different from something else?), Analyze (What parts does it have?), Evaluate, Apply (What can you do with it? How can you use it?), Argue (for or against). All sides will not work equally well for all topics.

Answering WH-questions: Write the five "Wh" questions (who, what, where, when, why) across your paper. List as many questions as you can think of that a reader might ask about your topic in those categories. Write down answers or features of your topic that might address those concerns.

Story Board: This is ideal for narrative assignments. In each "screen," sketch the stages of a story (like a comic strip). Under the sketch, briefly define the action. In a large box below, list at least three descriptive phrases or adjectives which clarify the action.

Invisible Writing: If you have trouble writing without constantly re-reading and editing what you've said, this may work for you. Using a computer, turn the contrast down on your monitor so the screen is blank. Type for at least 20-30 minutes without looking at what you've written. Then, turn the contrast up and, ignoring typos, find out what you have to say!

Finding/Expressing Main Ideas

Some of the prewriting activities in "Generating and Developing Ideas" will also help you decide which ideas are most important. Looping is an obvious example of an activity that can do both, because it requires you to keep finding the "center" of your topic - the most important or interesting thing about it. Clustering can also help you find your main idea. If you find a particular word or phrase that most of your other ideas "branch out" from or connect to, you might try to incorporate that phrase into the main point or thesis of your essay.

Here are some other techniques you can use to find and clearly express your main idea, once you have a first draft:

Analyzing the Assignment: Often assignment sheets contain key words that offer clues about what your instructor is looking for. This is always a good place to start in deciding what you should focus on in a final draft. Re-read the assignment sheet or your notes about the assignment, looking for words like "compare/contrast," "discuss," "analyze," "define," "synthesize," etc. These words tell you what kind of assignment the teacher is looking for. Then, look for other key terms relating to subject matter. For example, if the assignment asks you to "Contrast Freud's and Erikson's stage theories of personality," your main idea needs to include Freud, Erikson, and "stage theories of personality."

Backwards Outline: Once you've determined that you're meeting the requirements of the assignment, you'll want to get even more specific about what your essay says exactly. One way to do this is to create a "backwards outline." (It's "backwards" because it is written after rather than before the draft itself.) To do this, simply read your essay paragraph by paragraph. After each paragraph, determine the main idea of that section, and write the main idea in the margin of your draft. If you find more than one significant idea in a paragraph, write them both down. When you're finished, read over your marginal notes (or "outline") and look for connections - is there one central idea that each paragraph supports? If so, that's your main idea. If not, you'll probably want to look for an idea that most of the paragraphs support and consider dropping or rewriting paragraphs that don't support your focus.

Once you've found your focus, read the following pages on writing topic sentences and thesis statements for help with clearly expressing your essay's main idea.

Showing Versus Telling Sentences

Each of these sentences has two versions. One version is too general and therefore lacks the visual clarity that a reader needs to fully understand what the writer is talking about. The other version of the same sentence uses specific details and makes the image the writer is presenting much more vivid and alive.

Vague: She went home in a bad mood. [What kind of a bad mood? How did she act or look?]
Specific: She stomped home, hands jammed in her pockets, angrily kicking rocks, dogs, small children, and anything else that crossed her path.

Vague: My neighbor bought a really nice old desk. [Why nice? How old? What kind of desk?]
Specific: My neighbor bought a solid oak, roll-top desk made in 1885 that contains a secret drawer triggered by a hidden spring.

Vague: He was an attractive man. [Attractive in what ways - his appearance, personality, or both? Can you picture him from reading this sentence?]
Specific: He had Paul Newman's eyes, Robert Redford's smile, Sylvester Stallone's body, and Bill Gates's money.

After reading the sentences above, rewrite the vague sentences below using your own specific details.

  1. My boyfriend/girlfriend acted like a jerk.
  2. She wears really strange outfits.
  3. The scenery in the mountains was beautiful.
  4. My roommate is very (in)considerate.

Finally, if you've written a draft, go back through your paper looking for sentences where you use good, specific detail. Then, find the sentences that are general and add details that make those sentences come alive.

Focusing Topic Sentences

The following pairs of sentences illustrate broad and vague topic sentences and a clear, focused revised version. Study the pairs of sentences, keeping in mind that a good topic sentence: a) supports the thesis of the essay by stating a single main point in the discussion, b) announces what the paragraph will be about in specific terms, and c) controls the subject matter of the paragraph.

Unfocused: Too many people treat animals badly in experiments. [What people? Badly how? What kinds of experiments?]
Focused: The cosmetic industry often harms animals in unnecessary experiments designed to test their products.

Unfocused: Grades are unfair. [All grades? Unfair how?]
Focused: Course grades based solely on one term paper don't accurately measure a student's knowledge of the subject.

Unfocused: Getting the right job is important and can lead to rewarding experiences. [Note both vague language and a double focus - "important" and "can lead to rewarding experiences."]
Focused: Getting the right job can lead to an improved sense of self-esteem.

Now rewrite the following topic sentences so that they are clear and focused rather than fuzzy or broad.

  1. My personality has changed a lot in the last year.
  2. The evening with her parents was an unforgettable experience.

Note: When looking at topic sentences in your own essay, remember that you first must determine how each topic sentence relates to the thesis of the essay as a whole. Then, after rewriting your topic sentences to be more specific, make sure you check the rest of the paragraph for adherence to that more specific subject. All examples and details in the entire paragraph must directly support the topic sentence.

Thesis Statements

The thesis statement declares the main point or controlling idea of the entire essay. The thesis briefly answers the questions, "What is my opinion on subject X?" and "What am I going to argue/illustrate in this essay?"

1. A good thesis states the writer's clearly defined opinion on some subject. You must tell your reader what you think. Don't dodge the issue; present your opinion specifically and precisely. However, don't just make your thesis an announcement of your subject matter or a description of your intentions.

Poor: The subject of this theme is my experience with a pet boa constrictor. [This is an announcement of the subject, not a thesis.]
Poor: I'm going to discuss boa constrictors as pets. [This is a statement of intention, but not a thesis.]
Better: Boa constrictors do not make healthy indoor pets. [The writer states an opinion that will be explained and defended in the essay.]
Better: My pet boa constrictor, Sir Pent, was a much better bodyguard than my dog, Fang. [The writer states an opinion that will be explained and illustrated in the essay.]

2. A good thesis asserts one main idea. Many essays get into trouble because the writer tries to explain two different large issues in one essay. Pick one main idea and explain it in convincing detail.

Poor: High school athletes shouldn't have to maintain a certain grade-point average to participate in school sports, and the value of sports is often worth the lower academic average. [This essay moves in two different directions.]
Better: High school athletes shouldn't have to maintain a certain grade-point average to participate in school sports. [This essay will focus on one issue: reasons why a particular average shouldn't be required.]

3. A good thesis has something worthwhile to say. Some thesis statements are boring and predictable from the start ("Dogs have always been man's best friends."). Even if you are asked to write about yourself or your own experiences, you can usually universalize the essay's thesis so your readers can also identify with, or learn something about, the general subject.

Poor: The four children in my family have completely different personalities. [This statement may be true, but would anyone but the children's parents really be fascinated with this essay topic?]
Better: Birth order can influence children's personalities in startling ways. [The writer is wiser to offer this controversial statement, which is of more interest to readers than the one above; the writer can illustrate her claims with examples from her family, and from other families, if she wishes.

Also, don't merely state a fact. A thesis is an assertion of opinion that leads to discussion; don't select an idea that is self-evident or dead-ended.

Poor: Child abuse is a terrible problem in our country. [Yes, of course; who wouldn't agree that child abuse is terrible?]
Better: Child abuse laws in this state are too lenient for repeat offenders. [This thesis will lead to a discussion in which supporting arguments and evidence will be presented.]

4. A good thesis is limited to fit the assignment. Your thesis should be focused enough to adequately explore and develop in one essay.

Poor: The parking permit system at this university should be completely revised. [An essay calling for revision of the parking permit system would probably involve discussion of permits for various kinds of students, faculty, administrators, staff, visitors, etc. Therefore, the thesis is probably too broad for a short essay.]
Better: Because of the complicated application process, the parking permit system at this university penalizes disabled students.

5. A good thesis is clearly stated in specific terms. A vague thesis will lead to vague, undeveloped, fuzzy writing. Try to avoid imprecise words ("interesting," "good"); use clear, direct, meaningful words. Also, don't clutter your thesis with expressions such as "in my opinion" or "in this essay I'll argue that ..."

Poor: My opinion is that the federal government should devote more money to solar energy research.
Better: The federal government should devote more money to solar energy research.

6. A good thesis is clearly located, often in the first or second paragraph.

Revise the following, thesis statements to make them more effective according to the criteria above.

  1. In my opinion, applying for a job can be a negative experience.
  2. There are some advantages and disadvantages to the country's new voting machine.
  3. Prayer in the schools is a hot issue today.

Reading Strategies

By this point in your education, you know there is a difference between skimming something and reading critically for full understanding. While critical reading is more difficult, there are actions you can take before, during, and after reading to make it easier.

Before reading:

Writing before you read is a good way to access (bring to the surface) what you already know about the subject. If you do this, what you read will seem more familiar; you will find it easier to make connections between what you already know and the new information you're reading. Next time you have a reading assignment, take 5-10 minutes to freewrite about the subject of the chapter, article or book before you read.

Previewing what you're going to read is another strategy that will help you better understand what you're reading. Previewing involves systematically looking over a text before you read it. Pay particular attention to publication information (Where was this originally published? Who is its audience? Who is the author and what do you know about him or her?), title, subheadings or section headings, introduction (this can range from a paragraph to several pages, depending on the length of the text) and conclusion. Taking a few minutes to preview what you're about to read can give you a sense of the text as a whole, and, again, it will make what you read seem more familiar.

While you read:

Annotating means writing on the text as you read it. This is an excellent way to check and note your understanding of what you read. (If you're not comfortable writing in a book - or if you're using a library source - make a photocopy before you begin reading.) Annotating involves much more than just highlighting a few key phrases. When you annotate, you can: mark the thesis and main points of the text, circle key terms and/or unfamiliar words, write your questions or reactions in the margins, mark confusing sections of the text (so that you can find and re-read them later), and much more.

Making a two-column log is another way to record your reactions to a text as you read. To make a two-column log, take a sheet of paper (or a page in your notebook) and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. On the left side of the line, note significant or interesting passages from the text you're reading. On the right side of the line, record your reactions. Your reactions might include questions about the passage, personal experience that relates to the passage, or agreements and/or disagreements with the point the author is making. This strategy is particularly helpful in preparing for a summary/response assignment.

After reading:

Summarizing is an excellent way to check your comprehension of what you've read. If you can re-state the main ideas of something you've read, in your own words, you've come a long way towards fully understanding the text. See the section on "Summarizing" later in this packet for more on this.

Re-reading is not just something that people who don't understand a text do - most effective readers re-read at least parts of a text, often more than once! Rather than reading the piece straight through two or three times, try re-reading sections that you've marked as particularly important or difficult. Then, once you've worked through those tough sections, go back and see how they fit into the piece as a whole.

Discussing the text with others is another great way to learn more about your reading. If you have friends in the same class, see if they're willing to sit down and talk to you about what you've both read. By all means, participate in your class discussions of the reading. One useful strategy is to come up with a list of questions that you hope will be answered in class discussion. Then, if one of those questions doesn't come up, ask the class yourself.

For more on reading, see the Writing Guide on Critical Reading.

Assessing Your Reading Strategies

First, take ten minutes to write a description of yourself as a reader. What do you think about before you begin reading? What do you do as you read? What do you do when you hit a section that's particularly difficult or thought-provoking? What do you do once you've completed reading a piece of writing? Do you usually read something all at once or in stages? Try to be as specific as possible in your description of your reading habits.


Then, answer the following questions. Check the following points you described in your narrative of reading habits. Do you ...

  • Read carefully, either with or without skimming first?
  • "Talk back" to what you are reading, noting what does or doesn't make sense, what seems right or wrong?
  • Ask questions as you read?
  • Make notes in the margins or on a separate sheet of paper?
  • Ask yourself why the writer takes the position he or she does?
  • Think about the writer's perspective - what his or her interests are in writing the piece?
  • Ask how the context (i.e. social, economic, political) of when and where the piece was written or published may have influenced the piece?
  • Consider what in your experience or background leads you to agree with or like, or to disagree with or dislike, the piece of writing?
  • Imagine other ways of looking at the subjects or ideas presented?
  • Summarize what you've read?
  • Compare what you're reading with other things you've read on the subject?
  • Stop and write about what a confusing passage may mean?
  • Mark sections that apply to your purpose in reading (i.e., to contribute in class, something that might work in a paper, etc.)?
  • Think of examples that could further support or challenge the author's position?

Adapted from Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz, The Presence of Others. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994: 5-6.


An academic summary contains:

  • the author's full name and title of the work being summarized, typically in the first sentence,
  • the author's thesis (also known as the author's claim or sometimes main idea),
  • all other key ideas from the text (or main ideas)
  • ideas arranged in the same order and with the same emphasis as the original text,
  • (sometimes) a few pieces of key evidence - most evidence is not discussed in a summary,
  • a few significant direct quotations, and
  • author tags indicating that the ideas discussed are the author's and not the writer's.

The trick to summarizing effectively is to paraphrase all of the author's main ideas accurately while avoiding too much detail or too many direct quotations. Some strategies to help you do this are:

  • Before you start a summary, look up key words or phrases you don't understand. It's nearly impossible to summarize a text unless you have a good grasp of its meaning.
  • Re-read the text. While reading, write the main idea of each paragraph in the margins. Then, using those main ideas, summarize the essay as a whole.
  • Alternatively, look for larger sections - groups of paragraphs on a single sub-topic. Summarize each section individually, and determine (and indicate in your final summary) how the sections are related to each other.
  • If you have trouble using too much direct quotation, try summarizing the main ideas of the text without looking back at the original. Then, when you're finished, check your summary for accuracy and make sure that it is complete.

Writing Effective Summary and Response Essays

The Summary: A summary is a concise paraphrase of all the main ideas in an essay. It cites the author and the title (usually in the first sentence); it contains the essay's thesis and supporting ideas; it may use direct quotation of forceful or concise statements of the author's ideas; it will NOT usually cite the author's examples or supporting details unless they are central to the main idea. Most summaries present the major points in the order that the author made them and continually refer back to the article being summarized (i.e. "Damon argues that ..." or "Goodman also points out that ... "). The summary should take up no more than one-third the length of the work being summarized.

The Response: A response is a critique or evaluation of the author's essay. Unlike the summary, it is composed of YOUR opinions in relation to the article being summarized. It examines ideas that you agree or disagree with and identifies the essay's strengths and weaknesses in reasoning and logic, in quality of supporting examples, and in organization and style. A good response is persuasive; therefore, it should cite facts, examples, and personal experience that either refutes or supports the article you're responding to, depending on your stance.

Two Typical Organizational Formats for Summary/Response Essays

1. Present the summary in a block of paragraphs, followed by the response in a block:

Summary (two to three paragraphs)
Agreement (or disagreement)
Disagreement (or agreement)

Note: Some essays will incorporate both agreement and disagreement in a response, but this is not mandatory.

2. Introduce the essay with a short paragraph that includes your thesis. Then, each body paragraph summarizes one point and responds to it, and a conclusion wraps the essay up.

Summary point one; agree/disagree
Summary point two; agree/disagree
Summary point three; agree/disagree

Discourse Analysis Worksheet

Here are some issues you'll want to consider when gathering data for your discourse analysis. You'll want to read through the article at least once before beginning to answer these questions. After reading it once, you may want to read through again, either doing a "backwards outline" of the article (writing the main idea of each paragraph or section next to the paragraph) or summarizing it. Then, once you have a sense of the article as a whole, read and respond to the following questions.


  1. What is the article's topic? What is the general subject area that it covers? Does it seem to attempt an in-depth approach to the topic or is it more of an overview?
  2. What is the article's thesis or main idea?
  3. List the other main ideas of the article.
  4. Does the article seem important or central to the field? Why or why not?


  1. Where is the article printed? What kind of periodical is it in? Is it an academic journal, a professional publication (for people in a particular field), or a popular magazine (see "Types of Periodicals" handout)?
  2. Does the periodical suggest a particular kind of readership (gender, education level, political stance, professional interests, level of wealth, hobbies)? Hint: All magazines, in some way or another, limit their readership to a particular "target group." To find out who that is, don't limit yourself to looking only at your article. Flip through the table of contents to see what else is printed in the periodical. Look at submission guidelines, advertisements, editorials and cartoons as well.
  3. When was the article published? Is it timely, out-of-date, timeless (a recognized authority on a topic regardless of its publication date)?
  4. Who is the author(s) of the article, and what do you know about him/her/them? Where is the author employed? What else has s/he written? What kind of authority does he or she seem to have in this subject area?


  1. Is the language used technical (field-specific) or accessible to a more general readership? If technical terms are used, are they explained? Why or why not?
  2. Does the article contain illustrations, charts, graphs, maps, photographs, etc., to illustrate concepts? Are they professional-looking? Can you follow them easily?
  3. Does the article include a works cited list or some other form of reference to other works? If one is present, is it short or long? Does it refer to scholarly works or other kinds of works? Are the works referred to current or out-of-date?
  4. What does the author seem to presume readers wish to know more about? What assumptions does the author seem to share with his/her audience? Provide specific examples of these.
  5. Based on the information above, do you feel you are part of the target audience for this article? If so, why? If not, why not?


  1. Is the text broken into sub-sections? If so, indicate the headings for those sections. Is the text organized in a way that is field-specific?
  2. How does the writer develop his or her ideas? Does the author compare or contrast? Use statistics or other numerical evidence? Use anecdotes? Develop by example? Tell a story? Appeal to authority (other sources) or to his or her own character/expertise? Describe a process? Evaluate?
  3. Explain to the best of your ability why the text is organized and developed the way it is. What does the writer do first, second, third, etc. Why? Does the organization seem primarily driven by content, the writer's argument, or audience expectations?
  4. What does the author emphasize or spend the most time on? Why?


  1. Look back at the introduction and thesis of the article. What seems to have prompted this article - a disagreement within the field? New research findings?
  2. Consider the audience section of this worksheet. What might that particular audience want/need to hear about on this topic?
  3. Is it clear from the article what the writer's position is? Where and how does the writer's position become clear? Does the writer state it in his/her thesis? Is it clear only by implication?
  4. What does the writer expect readers to do after reading this?

Trade Magazines

Look for some of these features to distinguish trade magazines from other kinds.


  • cover depicts industrial setting
  • glossy paper
  • pictures and illustrations in color
  • each issue starts with page 1



  • members of a specific business, industry or organization



  • industry trends, new products or techniques, and organizational news
  • articles written by staff or contributing authors



  • editorial review
  • may have short bibliographies



  • moderate
  • all or most are trade related



  • Chilton's Food Engineering
  • Chemical and Engineering News
  • APA Monitor


Selecting Readings

After you have a chance to work with a student setting goals, brainstorming an authority list, and drafting the initial narrative piece, you should be ready to decide which readings are most likely to interest the student as well as draw on his/her strengths as a writer. We've placed several file folders in the cabinet with original newspaper and magazine pieces you might ask students to read. Multiple copies of most of these pieces are in the expandable files in the same drawer. (Please don't use the original; make a photocopy for the student to keep our collection of originals intact.)

If you and your student don't find topics or pieces interesting or workable, we also have a large number of readers on the bookshelves that you can select pieces from. Again, photocopy the selections students will work with so they have room to mark up the copy as they read and annotate.

If even these resources don't generate much interest, agree with your tutee on a topic and then send the tutee to bring back 4-6 possible pieces from the library or Internet. (Use a combination of sources to be sure you have a range of writing styles and formats to choose from.)

One last reminder: Students find it much easier to write the response part of the summary/response paper when the prompt is an argument. If you can't find an editorial or argumentative piece on the subject the student wants to write about, be sure to frame a question that will move the student toward argument in the response.


Colorado State University Composition Program. (2018). Working with Student Writers. The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/teaching/guides/student-writers/. Originally developed for Writing@CSU (https://writing.colostate.edu).