So You Want to Tutor? Get Them Talking.


This is part two of the series, “So You Want to Tutor?”

  1. Prove It
  2. Get Them Talking

Establishing rapport, in this case, isn’t about selling knives, makeup, or used cars. It’s about breaking the ice a bit, and establishing a common ground. A bit of rapport doesn’t mean finding out their favorite ice cream and their relationship status. You’re not here to be best friends, you’re here to help.

The primary aim is to get them talking and to find out what assignment they’re working on, what class it’s for, how much time they have to devote to the project before its due, what grade they’re shooting for, and other aspects that may be piling on the stress for them.

So besides getting them talking (which is very important), it’s about arming you with the bare minimum of knowledge you’ll need to actually help the student. Rather than charging into the assignment with a red pen, ready to bleed the page, find out a bit of background. This isn’t a novel, and you only have got an hour or less, so a chunk of exposition here does just fine.

Be Aware of Entitlement

As I learned during my tutor training, there are some who will come to tutoring expecting to be given the answers. Maybe this has something to do with our lecture/notetaking format in classes, but this is not your responsibility as a tutor. Your job isn’t to know and give all the answers, but to show them as a successful student how you find the answers when you need them.

Your training may go differently, but ours focused quite a bit on this – on fighting the attitude of entitlement. I believe it was valuable training, helping put up a wall to prevent you doing things you shouldn’t.

The main problem with this training is although it may be true, and it may be helpful to know that you should “teach them to fish” rather than just giving the answers, it ultimately doesn’t help to approach a student assuming that they’re just here to get test answers from you.

Some students may have an entitlement problem, sure, but it doesn’t help to assume this. This might just be a result of not knowing to expect – especially if they haven’t tutored before, or haven’t had a good one.

It’s best to keep a balance between the two perspectives. On your end, become solid in the idea that you are here to help the students learn how to be successful students, or in other words, learn how to find the answers they need. If you only have them for up to an hour, you can’t fix their grade for them – but you can give them some tools that allow them to do this for themselves. On the other end, the social side where you, as a student, are helping a fellow student – don’t get all defensive if they ask for answers, or sit back in their seat expecting you to move the session forward.

Keep Them Talking

Many if not most students will take on this passive attitude at the beginning of a session, especially if they’re not used to having you as a tutor yet. This may tempt you to talk a lot just to get the ball rolling, but refrain. In order to “teach them to fish”, we need their participation. In fact, if we were to weigh the entire session on a verbal scale, it would probably best if they were talking 90% of the time, with you only making small remarks to direct or advise. At worst, it should be 50/50. The thing to avoid is the opposite, with you talking 90% of the time and the student only speaking the other 10%. This most likely means they aren’t engaged in what’s going on, which means the session is not as effective as it could be (if not completely useless).

Reading Aloud

One of the tricks I would use when tutoring writing was to have the student read the paper out loud. I handed them a pencil (NOT a red one) and encouraged them to make notes of changes as they found things. As they read, I would never interrupt, but simply be marking awkward passages or wording with underlines or circles, just to make note of it for later. This was very important – You’re not making editing marks, showing exactly what’s wrong, but simply highlighting the areas that need attention.

Don’t interrupt. This is important so, DON’T INTERRUPT. Most students will be just a little embarrassed at reading their paper aloud, even in a private setting, so let them work through it. If they are allowed to keep fumbling through reading their paper aloud and eventually realize they aren’t being judged for anything (not the writing, not their articulation, nothing at all), they will relax. They’ll become comfortable with the situation. And best of all, they’ll be talking.

Talking leads to participation. Participation leads to engagement. Engagement leads to LEARNING…


So You Want to Tutor? Prove It.

man helping boy study

This is part one of the series, “So You Want to Tutor?”

  1. Prove It
  2. Get Them Talking

One day while making my way through the campus swarm I actually noticed one of the school billboards about the Writing Center. I suddenly decided that tutoring writing was my dream job. It was this kind of far-off dream, something I could attain only if I became a Rock Star among English majors. I was confident I could do the job (to some extent), but not that I could get the job.

I can’t tell you exactly why this happened. I think I had some kind of weird vision in mind, probably involving collie dogs, coffee shops, and turtleneck sweaters. I put it on this pedestal in my mind, something that I wanted but would probably never happen. I set the dream aside, and decided to try for good grades instead.

I took advantage of some class extra credit by taking a research paper to the Writing Center for feedback. It was awful. The tutor I saw really didn’t seem to want to be there, or have any interest in helping me. They were completely wrapped up in the task of pointing out flaws and problems, which was kind of helpful, but their attitude surely wasn’t.

I was annoyed, but didn’t think too much of this experience. I chalked it up to my being a “difficult person”. The next week, however, I heard more horror stories. Students were leaving the Writing Center with nothing but frustration and anger. Some had left in tears.

This isn’t natural. Sure, it can be hard to receive critique, but that wasn’t the issue. The real issue here is that the Writing Center had somehow employed people who didn’t WANT to be helping students improve their writing. Naturally, since they didn’t want to help, they really didn’t.

No matter how difficult a person I can be, I would make a much better tutor than some of those currently working there. I was filled with anger. Not the kind that starts fights, but the kind that fuels the fire and gets stuff done. I made sure to receive very high scores on my next few papers, set to work editing some of my best stuff for a makeshift portfolio, and (after standing up straight and sucking in a long breath) forced myself to ask teachers for letters of recommendation.

Apparently there isn’t as much competition to tutor as I had believed, because I was hired for the next semester. Over Christmas Break I began reviewing my people skills. I wasn’t trying to change my entire personality in one vacation, just a bit of review on how people work and the best way to get through to them. I read books on giving honest criticism, books on people in general, and evaluated some of my more recent mistakes.

I started training, and I was extremely nervous. I mean, what can be more nerve-racking than trying to tell someone what’s wrong with their writing?

I began helping students, awkwardly at first, but you know what? I never sent anyone away in tears. Every day I got better. I picked up some good tricks from my boss, other good tutors, and my own experience. Every day I struggled with the thought, “what makes me think I’m good enough to tell people how to improve their writing?”. This was the consolation that kept me going:

Taking your writing to someone for critique is a difficult thing. Many people don’t know who to go to that will have the knowledge and sensitivity to be helpful. They should be able to bring their work to someone who genuinely wants to help: They deserve it.

I tutored writing for a few semesters, and then tutored psychology and web design after that. One semester I held my tutoring sessions just down the table from my supervisor, where she could hear all. At the end of the semester she asked me if I was considering a career in education, and if not, I should. The way she put it, I was a natural. I was quite surprised! That surely isn’t what I had thought when starting out, but you have to admit – she had credibility.

If you want to teach, tutor, or in any other way help people, don’t let yourself get intimidated by anything. Not the people who are better at it than you, not the difficulty of working with people or their children. Let your desire to help people drive you to do what is necessary to get there, because frankly – there aren’t enough tutors or teachers in the world who truly WANT to be there, and there never will be.

There are always others who are better than you at writing, photoshop, nutrition, math, grammar or woodworking. But maybe that struggling student doesn’t need the “best”, they just need someone to help them troubleshoot a problem and get unstuck. Do you want to help them?

Go for it. There’s a demand for you.

There are real benefits to tutoring;

  • You become better at your work, in the process of explaining how and why you do things.
  • You escape your own world and problems for a while, being in the moment and helping someone. For those who struggle with anxiety, there is almost nothing greater.
  • You aren’t a douche. You’re giving back, and that’s awesome.

It doesn’t really pay that much. Most students won’t thank you (though some will, and it’s the best when they do). But some students will leave your table re-energized, emboldened to approach their work again when just moments ago it had been nothing but a source of great stress. Things that had seemed impossible before are now quite simple, and they can start to tackle the problem – all because someone with a bit of experience bothered to give them a half hour.

So you want to tutor/teach? Do it. Do what it takes; It’s a righteous profession. Let those who only want the campus job go flip burgers or man a computer lab and leave the tutoring to those with a genuine interest.

photo from City Year

Novel Ninja: Crediting Yourself

picture of my blog about Crediting Yourself at Ali Cross's Website
Ali Cross is a Fantastic Young Adult Author and avid blogger who runs – an online community bent on keeping writers motivated.

Today Ali Cross has been kind enough to feature another blog by yours truly. This one is about Crediting Yourself: an aspect to life that I have found to be crucial for motivation and success. Check out the post at or – and if you’re a writer yourself, consider joining the dojo!

Six Movies I Wish I’d Written

Having finished Fox Fire, I’m forging straight on to my next novel. I’ve been writing off and on for fun since High School, but I have almost no experience in actually finishing novels (I love being able to put “almost” in front of that now). This next is called Chasing Clouds, and it is a romantic comedy for Young Adults, with a fantasy twist.

Chasing Clouds is going to be short, paced like a movie – which means the inspiring moments most often come while watching some of my favorites.

movie poster for 500 days of summer
500 Days of Summer

#6 500 Days of Summer

As the movie will tell you in the beginning, this is not a love story. It’s a moving on story. It’s a story on how to deal. Without giving too many spoilers; you get to see Summer from the hero’s perspective in several ways, through different lenses. We see how he fell for her, how he hated her, how he missed her, and how she was totally bad for him… and good for him. Plus it’s super funny – a Romantic Comedy for guys.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: The comedic element. The non-traditional format; the story is non-linear, showing which “Day” it is with each new scene, telling us how long it’s been since the first day he met Summer. The theme of the movie as it follows this character, being a romantic movie that guys can totally identify with that isn’t just about “winning the day and the girl”.

movie poster for stardust

#5 Stardust

Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s YA Novel, this is a bright-eyed young man who is swept up in an epic fantasy adventure, all in the name of love. Neil is one of my favorite authors, first because of his pure skill with words, but secondly because of the beauty in his ability to genre-bend.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: I love the Romantic Twist, as we watch the hero grow up. The plot itself, the magical elements of the setting, are seamlessly tied up in the romance which develops throughout the story. This delivers an emotional punch that I am, frankly, jealous of.

dvd cover for hitch

#4 Hitch

My favorite modern romantic comedy. That genre (distinctive from “chick flicks”) is a dying art, and Hitch is one of the best examples of the past decade. Not only do we get to see a likable side of Will Smith that we don’t get from his usual “Swagger Sci-Fi Hero” characters… but the movie is exceptionally well-written. It takes the basic idiot plot (where the emotional pinch is supplied by a character’s dishonesty) and makes it into something plausible and believable. This is one of the classics of our generation, a movie I’m sure will be watched for ages.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: It’s constant laughs from the very start, and remains engaging throughout. The dialog is fun and snappy. We get to see a vulnerable side to all four of the characters who we are hoping to see end up happy, which endears us to them. (I guess Sara’s friend is another, so that makes 5 people we’re invested in.) It accomplishes all of this in record time. Best of all, I just love the mood; it’s a great UP movie.

blueray cover for source code
Source Code

#3 Source Code

Newest movie on this list, Source Code was a delightful surprise. I expected just another thriller, something Bourne-esque. I got a whole lot more from it. This movie started off interesting, and had me at the edge of my seat. It’s like Groundhog’s Day meets the Twilight Zone, or the Matrix, and somehow squeezes a charming romance into everything that is going on. I was sobbing by the end; always an endearing quality for a movie, especially when that sob is a happy one.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: The concept is different, the thriller element mixes well with the romance, and it pulls off a 9/11 patriotic element without coming off cheesy, which I was surprised to find myself totally loving.

dvd cover for stranger than fiction
Stranger than Fiction

#2 Stranger than Fiction

The narrations about the hero’s life grabbed me from the get-go, especially the fun little quips about Harold’s watch. I love the atmosphere created by the music and the little computer menus that hover around Harold. I was never the biggest Will Ferrel fan, but this movie caught me by surprise when I found that I really loved his character and performance. Another movie that gets me sobbing pretty hard-core, especially a moment toward the end with the author hitting her keyboard. If you go watch it, you’ll know what I mean.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: The concept is fantastic; a man can hear the voice of the author who is narrating his life, and through the narrative discovers that his death is eminent. Once again, I LOVE a good genre-bend. There are a lot of really adorable endearing moments, especially when Harold brings Ana “Flours”.

dvd cover for definitely maybe
Definitely, Maybe

#1. Definitely, Maybe

Ryan Reynolds plays William Hayes, who is going through a divorce. His daughter wants to know the story of how her mother and father met, so he decides to tell her the whole story from the beginning – changing the names of the girls he dated so that she’ll have to guess which one is her mother.

I have this thing where I’ve always enjoyed watching Ryan Reynolds on screen, but that he always gets these crap parts. This is a movie where he doesn’t. He gets to play the lead role, he fits into that role perfectly, and the story is wonderfully written. While it is clearly a Romantic Comedy, I love how the story becomes about so much more; his relationship with his daughter.

All of the movies on this list are some of my favorites of all-time, but this movie retains the most re-watch-ability. Lines like, “Dad? I can’t believe you smoked… and drank… and were such a slut. But I still love you,” get me every time. Having been through divorce, it’s a powerful moment when you can feel that love from someone close again.

Why I Wish I’d Written It: We really get to grow with the hero, to watch his development as he charges into the world as a confident graduate with huge ambitions, and learns that the world (and romance) doesn’t work the way he expected. The bonding story with he and his daughter is moving, and in the end I am totally convinced that he ended up with the right one.

Story Lessons from Thanksgiving Movies

Umm… Spoiler Warning. Just sayin.

Sara and I have (for the most part) gone without TV this month. We decided that there were things we wanted to get accomplished, and that TV was indeed serving as a distraction. So we shut it off for the month, with some built-in exceptions. (E.G. I had just begun a Lord of the Rings watch-through for the first time in years, and wasn’t finished yet. I had also ordered the 1408 DVD for my Halloween treat, and missed the opportunity to watch it during October.)

This Thanksgiving Break, I wrote over 27,000 words, most toward my current novel. In the moments that I wasn’t stuffing my face, sleeping, or writing, I needed a break. The gym was closed, (don’t laugh at me, I go to the gym to get a break, release stress, and listen to audio books) and there weren’t exactly many options open to us. We made a few exceptions and watched some movies.

Movies are one of my favorite ways to get a break from writing, because I can experience a totally different story from beginning to end in just an hour and a half. I can experience setting, character, and plot and if the movie is good – I have a good time.

The Adjustment Bureau

I started things off right with the Adjustment Bureau. I’d already seen this in the theater, and loved it from beginning to end. Basically it’s a Romance with an almost-Matrixy feel, involving these men wearing suits and bowler hats who control the future of human society. Matt Damon’s character (David) discovers these men at work (through a slip-up), and is told that he has to stay away from a girl he likes because “the plan says so”. It’s a classic love vs. fate plotline.

A professional critic wrote a review that warned that the ending was cheesy, and I’ll have to say… yeah, I agree. But it’s the good kind of cheese, the kind that you want extra on that pizza that Kevin orders just for him. It’s the kind of cheese that makes me feel warm and good inside, and I love it.

What I learned from the Adjustment Bureau: People are writing stories that I would have totally come up with, and they’re getting made into movies. I do not have singular tastes, and I should trust my ideas more.

Temple Grandin

Next, I watched Temple Grandin with my family. It is based on the true life story of Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, widely known for her voice on the experience of being autistic. I have been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and was not disappointed; it was riveting, and very educational for anyone who is curious about how autism works.

What I learned from Temple Grandin: Mostly that I just really respect the lady, and that I want to read her book “Emergence” as soon as I can. Since this was based on a real-life story, the only plotting lesson I could learn is that life really can supply some of the best inspiration for conflict and opposition.

Return to Me

I’m a guy that likes Romances. Usually I prefer Romantic Comedies, but I can watch something more sentimental if it has some wit to it. I’d borrowed Return to Me months ago from my sister, and eventually got too busy with the wedding for movies. Now seemed like the best time to watch it. She warned me that it was a bit cheesy, but that she loved the old men in the movie. I actually thought it was a really touching story. However (and it’s this part that usually gets me into trouble), the reason the story was so corny was because the conflict at the end was so unbelievable. The whole thing hinges on Grace being unable to confess that she’s had a heart transplant, even though it would have fit really easily into some of the conversations they had.

I’m sorry, what? You can’t tell this guy you really connect with that you had a Heart Transplant? What’s worse is that they continue on this path to drive the entire climax of the film, because when she finally does tell him (after finding out that her new heart was his late wife’s), he walks off. Everything we’ve seen about this character has shown him to be a man in emotional control, who is respectful and considerate and all the things we know most men struggle with. So he walks off without so much of a “Whoa, this is a bit heavy… I might need some time to digest this, babe.”

Now let me come back to what I was saying originally. I thought the movie was charming. It was, for the most part, a great balance of sentimentality with a dash of witty humor. I loved the characters. I loved the dialogue. If these two were mine and Sara’s friends, it would have made a REALLY cute dinner story to tell folks.

I really enjoyed… almost the entire movie. It was just the ending that fell apart, all because the conflict was so impossible to believe. Not only that, but the “Character can’t tell the truth about something” conflict is a horrible choice, and smacks of Disney TV movies.


If you want to see an example of this kind of conflict done RIGHT, watch Hitch. You’ll notice that the conflict was built out of a lot more than just “Hitch didn’t tell her what he does for a living”. It had all sorts of problems; the paparazzi, Alfred’s insecurity, Sara’s strong personality and desire to defend her friend, the fact that their relationship has been relatively short, and the nature of Hitch’s job ALL lead together to make the conflict work.

All the same, if you’re constructing a romance, I would strongly encourage you to look for a different conflict than “this character can’t tell the truth for some reason”.

Cool Runnings

Cool Runnings was one of my very favorite movies as a kid. I haven’t seen it since I was about 10, and I never had the opportunity to watch it until recently when it was found in Sara’s collection. Even then, she put it in and I walked in partway through and got caught up in it. I don’t know why I didn’t put it in myself… I think part of me was afraid the same thing would happen as when I watched Three Ninjas when I was older and realized it was a really, really dumb film. That killed one of my favorite movie experiences, and I didn’t want to taint Cool Runnings in my memory.

Whatever your opinion about cheesy Live-Action movie films from the 90s, this film is still awesome. It was about a laugh a minute, and I absolutely love the ending. The movie peppers in conflict throughout, so that instead of getting one huge showdown of hero vs. villain at the end, we watch the team overcome adversity time and time again.

I loved it! I don’t think stories always need to have everything converge at the end. This felt authentic, despite the funny jokes in bad accents, overall silliness, and corny moving speeches from John Candy. Once again, I felt that the sled-breaking in the end felt somewhat fateful, like a slice of life and deus ex machina all rolled into one. But that’s okay. I could believe it would happen.

So the convergence of all these lessons comes to this; If you want to write any idea or genre and you don’t know if it will be well-received, just go for it. Just avoid the “can’t tell the truth” as a major conflict, and make the heroine’s heart act up and put her in the hospital instead. Makes more sense anyway.

NaNoWriMo Survival: Week One

Here’s the little tricks I’ve either learned or put to good effect this week; I’m posting them as advice to myself, because I am dense enough to have to learn these things over and over.

  1. Start small – a half hour on and five to ten minutes off is a great way to get started, and yeah, even a half hour’s worth of words adds up!
  2. Allow yourself to write whatever, including your current frustrations. Likely doing so will help you through a problem, or at least warm up your writing muscles.
  3. Periodically keeping track of words/time spent is a great way to give yourself a pat on the back and keep you going, but don’t get obsessed with it. Writing comes first.
  4. After you hit word goal, do something else besides writing.
  5. Write in small increments. I know I kind of said this already on #1, but this is a BIG DEAL. Writing in 4 half-hour sessions may be more effective than trying to block out 2 hours of uninterrupted time.


As a writing tutor, I run into this a lot with students. They often feel like they are bad writers, and they obsess with fixing their first draft. Can I share with you a piece of writing wisdom that may transform your life? Do you think you can handle it?

First Drafts are not for fixing, but for rewriting entirely.

Now that I’ve given you the scary part, let me soften it. The second draft is MUCH easier. It’s soooo much easier. The thing is, you already know what you want to say, and now you’re saying it better.

Once you’re able to get past the scariness of “more work”, you may find this fact to be liberating. You mean you don’t have to get it all perfectly the first time? No. Far from it. Stephen King includes an exerpt from his short story 1408 in On Writing. Pick it up in the bookstore and look at it. It’s amazing to see how much this seasoned, professional writer transforms his drafts.

Credit yourself for ANY WORK DONE. This means those pre-writing sessions, or the rants about your frustrations. All work done sitting down, in the word processor. (Sorry, Facebook and other internet distractions don’t count as work, but with a timer they can serve as a great breather! Use your phone or ipod to keep your internet time-wasting under strict control.) This is why I like to keep track of my hours spent writing as well as the words; because those hours are work, even if they were less productive than some. We get paid at our office jobs by the hour, although only an average of 30% of our work day is actually spent on productive work. The rest is pre-work, organization, and activities that help us recharge.

During NaNoWriMo, it will not be to your advantage to make sure that you keep your manuscript orderly and neat. It won’t help you to keep rants out of the manuscript. What will help you is anything that keeps you writing, keeps your hope up, and keeps you sane. Get to it. If you are writing, you’re a writer. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about.

Good luck on Week 2!

Bridging the Gap (Working Backwards)

Sometimes while writing, we know where we eventually want to end up in the story, but get stuck on exactly how to get there. I know my plucky heroine escapes the cyborg ninja, but how? I vaguely know the kind of triumph I want my characters to experience toward the end of the story, but what exactly is this and how does it come about?

As I’ve said in some of my previous blogs, Creativity is Problem-Solving; asking questions, coming up with answers. In keeping with this knowledge, I’m going to impart wisdom I’ve learned from playing the violin; working backwards.

Often violinists will learn and practice a new song from beginning to end. We learn the first few measures and lines, become comfortable with those, and move on until we’ve learned the entire song. The problem with this method is that the beginning, which has been practiced hundreds of times more than the ending, is the best part.

But as we know in both songs and stories, the ending is the most important part. How do we fix this? Practice backwards. Play the last few measures, repeat. Add in the previous line, repeat. Do this until you get back to the beginning of the song – because if any part shines better than the rest of the song, we want that to be the end.

I do both backwards flow-charts and lists. Basically, start with an ending you want; “Victorious, the plucky young hero is invited to join a secret organization.” In a flow chart, you circle this and draw a small line leading to your next point.

Remember, creativity is coming up with questions and answers. Your next question is this; “What has to happen in order for this to be possible?” In my example, the answer requires her to be victorious at something. So my next step could say, “The heroine defeats the cyborg ninja and thwarts his evil plan.” Repeat. What has to happen in order for this to be possible? The ninja has to be on the verge of success. That, and, we need a better of an idea of exactly what his evil plan is.

Continuing on with the list, or flow chart, will help us discover an evil plot for him!

Keep in mind that while outlining and drafting, anything is subject to revision in further drafts. This is a good thing. It’s like those practice sessions on the violin; the ending will become better and more polished as you continue through your drafts.