Best Questions for Writing Conferences

Best Questions for Writing Conferences

One of my favorite parts of my job is meeting with students to help them with their writing.  Writing, in many ways, is a highly individualized skill that depends on each person’s life experiences, reading habits, observation skills, logical thinking ability, etc., so the most productive teaching method is usually the one-on-one conversation.


Before I had much of a strategy, those conversations used to sound like this:

Student:  Could you help me with my paper?
Me: Sure!  What do you need help with?
Student: Everything.
Me: Umm, well (nervous laugh), that sounds like a lot to cover in one conversation.
Student: Well, could you just read this and tell me if it’s okay?

I’ve come to realize that student writers often simply don’t know where to start asking for help. Or sometimes what they think they want is for me to grade the paper before I grade it.  I know I have to resist the desire to line-edit the paper; if I did that, most students wouldn’t get the chance to think deeply about their OWN writing.

And the next essay would bring them back to my desk with the same pleading looks.

I’ve developed some go-to questions for these conversations. (And by “developed,” I mean that I listened to what words kept coming out of my mouth.)

Because most writing in my current course is analytical, this post will focus on questions I ask in that particular context.

The following are some of the questions that I’ve found to be most effective for discussing analytical writing:

1. Where are you struggling?

This is generally my opening question, where I’m trying to head off the desire of the student to have me correct the paper. If the student’s answer to this question is “everything” (see above), I go to the next question listed here.

2. If you could pinpoint the one thing you think you need the most help with, what would it be? 

I believe that one of the most important parts of growing as a writer is developing the ability to identify your own problem spots, so I guide students through this question and try to be patient as they think about what part of the writing is most troubling.  I don’t want to waste part of the writing conference by talking to the student about what he or she already knows how to fix.

3. Tell me what you think you are trying to prove–no, don’t read it–just tell me without looking at your paper. 

Sometimes I ask this question, and a student will immediately reach for their essay to read what they have written there.   But I want to know if they understand their own argument enough to simply talk about it with me.  I find that if a student can’t have a conversation about her argument, she probably doesn’t understand it well enough and will then lack the confidence to pursue a seamless train of thought throughout the entire paper.

4. Is there anything else that you noticed?

Some students struggle to meet the minimum length requirement, which for me is always a particular word count. I’m not glib about choosing this requirement; I have found that a certain length is necessary to fully develop and support an evidence-based argument.

When a student is struggling to meet the word limit, I emphasize that it’s not words he needs to add, but ideas.  If we are analyzing a particular text, I will point the student back to the text:  Are there any other scenes in this novel or lines in this poem that could help you prove this thesis? What evidence have you not included? Which also leads to the next question:

5. Is there any evidence that you have left out knowingly? 

Sometimes our tendency is to simply ignore evidence that we perceive as contradicting our argument. I work with students to develop a better habit in argumentation: that of facing contradictory evidence head-on.

If there is no way to get around the evidence, then the student needs to revisit the thesis.  No one really likes to do this, as the entire argument may unravel, but a revised or new thesis can actually breathe life into the essay (consequently making the rest of the essay easier to write).

Sometimes, however, the evidence is only apparently contradictory, and then the student has an opportunity to show the doubting reader why the thesis is still correct. (In fancy argumentation terms, we call this the “concession and refutation.)

6. Could you develop this part more?

Sometimes paragraphs are just underdeveloped.  Perhaps the student has not fully explained her thinking or connected the paragraph to the thesis. Perhaps the paragraph could use more evidence. My preference as a teacher and as a reader is to avoid bloated paragraphs, but sometimes they’re just way too skimpy.

7. Could you split this paragraph?

One organizational feature of student papers is really LONG paragraphs.  Partly this comes from being told at younger ages that an essay must have a certain number of paragraphs (it doesn’t). I try to emphasize the purpose of a paragraph: to present and explain ONE idea.  I like for students to think about paragraphs in terms of function rather than length.

Once students understand that the purpose of a paragraph is to deliver one idea, we can discuss the idea of focusing each paragraph.  If I see a paragraph that is the better part of a page long or longer, we stop and talk about that one.  We read it through and figure out how to make it more focused, which usually involves splitting it into at least two parts.

8. How does this part relate to your argument? 

I like to think of this as the “connective tissue” of analytical and argumentative essays:  each paragraph must point the reader back to the thesis. In other words, each paragraph is a little argument that exists to serve the big argument.  If a body paragraph seems underdeveloped, the connections are usually missing or weak.

Although each student essay will inspire a unique conversation, these are the questions I hear myself saying the most.  I would love to hear your suggestions for your go-to questions for writing conferences!


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