Writing centre helps students polish their prose

(Edmonton) It’s only the first week of school, and already many may be feeling signs of paper phobia or test-taking terror. If it’s prose you’re panicking about, relax: the University of Alberta has the “write” stuff to help you succeed.

Tucked away on the lower floor of Assiniboia Hall, the University of Alberta’s Centre for Writers sits, waiting for students seeking to improve their skills. From essays to dissertations, lab reports to poetry, writing tutors will equip students with the knowledge and skills to polish prose and guide grammatical skill. The centre averages about 5,000 appointments a year, of which about 30 per cent are with first-year students. But the centre’s services aren’t just for first-years; Lucie Moussu, the centre’s director, makes it clear that international students, grad students, faculty and staff are welcome to bring in their written work for review. Just don’t ask for an editor.

“We’re not going to edit students’ papers,” she said. “We really try to improve the students’ writing skills in general, not just that one paper that they bring to us.”

No red pen here

Moussu says her student tutors receive intensive training before they see their first page. As students themselves, they can empathize with the pressures of classes and writing. She says there are no judgments made and no marks given for papers. Whether students are good writers seeking a few pointers to improve their skills, or struggling scholars needing anything from a point in the right direction to ongoing assistance in getting a handle on grammar and style, the tutor’s sole objective is to help them become better writers. Moussu encourages students to talk to a tutor no matter where they are in the writing process.

“It’s a pretty welcoming and relaxed environment, and the students enjoy that very much,” she said.

International students welcome

Moussu is mindful of the challenges that international students face, and ensures that tutors have the skill sets to work effectively with them. Methods used to teach English as a second or additional language tend to neglect content and style for the sake of grammatical accuracy, meaning students focus first and foremost on grammar and spelling before they work on developing content in their writing. She is excited by a co-operative program designed to benefit incoming foreign students seeking to enhance their talents.

“This year and last, we’ve been working with the international student office, providing a two-week workshop program for new, incoming international students,” said Moussu.

Workshops: Come for the food, stay for the learning

As much as the centre is about the pronouns, predicates and prepositions, it’s also about the pizza. Moussu says the centre holds workshops throughout the semester on various topics guided by student interest. Among the workshops to be covered this year are ESL writing and chocolate, cupcakes and writing for in-class essays and short-answer exam questions, and brownies topped with quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing.

“It’s amazing and students love it,” she said. “They enjoy it because it’s very informal; they don’t need to register—they can just show up and there’s useful information and food.”

Advice for the writer at heart

“This is not a remedial place, it’s for everybody,” says Moussu. She points out that no matter how proficient a writer someone is, having a second pair of eyes on the assignment always helps. Even students who haven’t begun the writing process and are unsure of how to proceed can take advantage of the free help the centre staff or campus librarians can provide.

“We are all here to help students and are more than happy to do so. That's what we're here for,” she says. There is a lot more to the learning process at the university level than students may realize, says Moussu. It is about learning the new language and new knowledge of a chosen area or field of study. She says the writing is complex and likely completely different from their writing in the high-school context. Helping students navigate that transition is part of what she and her staff do.

“It’s really learning to belong to a community of people who speak the same academic language as you do,” said Moussu. “Writing is part of that, and writing for biology is not the same as writing for philosophy.

“It’s a completely different approach to writing.”

Related links

Week of Welcome 2012