Every time a student checks in at the front desk of the Writing Center, we ask them the same questions. But that is the only thing that is the same for every session.
Where do we begin? I ask: "What are we working on today?"
Simple enough. Not everyone knows what they need, what exactly to expect from the Writing Center, or what the most pressing issue is. But everyone knows what they brought in to work on, and we can use that as a starting point. A one-page response, a three-to-five-page analysis, and a ten-page mid-term paper each carry their own built-in set of possibilities.
How can we narrow these possibilities? I ask: "When is it due?"
Before we even consider the possibility of spending our time brainstorming or looking at organization and cohesion, we need to know how much time we have to work with. For example, if this ten-page paper is due in an hour, brainstorming is out of the question, and we're probably not going to have enough time to consider reorganization. Instead, we're probably going to be looking at formatting issues, clearing up any citation confusion, or looking for any distracting grammar or punctuation problems.
However, I don't want to rule with an iron fist, so I ask: "What did you want to look at today?"
At this point, we should have a pretty good idea of what is possible. If a ten-page paper is due in an hour, and you are questioning their choice of topic, I'd suggest working on what you have and coming in earlier next time: we help writers at any stage in the writing process. If you bring in a three-page paper that's not due for a week, and you are worried about grammar, I can explain the importance of addressing early-order concerns first. We want to avoid sanding an edge if we're going to chop off that chunk with a chainsaw. I can only make suggestions, though.
I want to make sure you are comfortable with the agenda we set for the session, so when our time is up, I ask: "Do you feel better now?"
I want to make sure you have gotten something out of the session. If we didn't get to look through everything, I want to make sure you feel good about what we did accomplish. I want to know that you understand what we went through, that you are prepared to go through the rest of the paper looking for any similar issues--and that you are walking away with a better understanding of your choices as a writer.