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Let Me Be Clear: A Guide to Clarifying Questions

Hey everyone! Mary and Amy here. This week, we want to take a look at something we think is pretty important for the Writing Center: clarifying questions. What do we mean by that term? A clarifying question is pretty much just that: questions that are meant to clarify something. For tutors, they are an exceptional tool as we work with students in a session collaboratively, but they can be a little uncomfortable if you aren't used to being asked questions about your work. We asked one of our tutors, Callie Partridge, to give us her perspective on these questions and their significance to the MCWC, and we think she had some great points! Let's take a look at what she said:

“What specifically are we looking for in your paper today?”

In four semesters of tutoring at the Writing Center, I have asked this question countless times. Usually, students make appointments in advance and fill out a form on our website that tells the tutor what they want to work on during their session. However, tutors often receive broad phrases on these forms. Some that are very common include “grammar,” “flow,” and “making sure everything looks good.” To students who visit the writing center, this may be a sufficient explanation of what needs to be done. For tutors, these guidelines are only the beginning of the process to finding what truly needs to be addressed during a session.

Students may worry that an in-person tutoring appointment will be awkward and involve thirty minutes to an hour of sitting in silence while one of their peers reads and critiques their paper. However, the purpose of the MCWC is to create connections between tutors and students centered around writing. When students visit the writing center, their tutor’s purpose is not to act as an overly critical editor; rather, it is to work alongside the student, asking questions and making suggestions while reading the writer’s work. Though some silence is likely to occur in most sessions, there will always be conversation surrounding the project at hand -- in fact, we value silence as it allows the student to engage with the piece without the tutor's input when necessary!

On the other hand, students may be intimidated by the idea of being interrogated about their writing by a tutor at the writing center (I know that I was before I got the job!). After all, it might be easy to crank out a paper and set up an appointment to ensure that “everything looks good and makes sense,” but being asked probing questions about the work is a different matter altogether. The fear of not having an answer to the questions – or worse, having the “wrong” answer – is enough to make any student choose an online appointment over a face-to-face meeting. Never fear; I am here to ease your mind, because in-person appointments don’t have to be scary at all. In fact, they are more productive and connected because of the conversation!

The first question that you are likely to be asked in your appointment is the same one that you answer when you set up your appointment: “What are we working on today?” After you (a student who has read this article and now feels ready to answer any question that we may throw your way) explain your assignment, the tutor will likely ask another question. This is probably something along the lines of “What are we focusing on?” or “What specific issue would you like me to look for?” At this point, you can explain what about your writing you are most concerned about, which is probably still pretty broad. Grammar, flow, you name it – it’s still just a start.

The tutor will almost certainly ask you more questions:

  • “Is there a specific section that you’re most unsure about?”

  • “Do you want to look at a certain element of grammar like spelling or sentence structure, or should we just look for patterns that pop up?”

  • “Would you like help organizing the paper?”

  • “What is your thesis and where is it in your writing?”

These are the kind of clarifying questions that help your tutor get closer to the matter at hand. They can seem like trick questions, especially if you as a student aren’t sure what to say. If you aren’t sure, you can simply say “I don’t know.” Maybe you have a general idea of what seemed right or wrong to you, and that can be more productive than you think.

“I don’t really know, but I didn’t feel sure about this section. Does it make sense?” “I just want help with the flow because I couldn’t tell if I put the information in the best order.” “I don’t know exactly what is wrong, but my professor said I needed to work on my grammar.” These may not seem like profound statements to help your tutor out, but they are like a glimmer of light that your tutor will run toward.

“Okay, you aren’t sure it makes sense. What are you trying to say in this section?”

This question is (in my experience) pretty hard to answer. It can come across in a negative way for some, but it is one of the most important questions to ask! If your tutor is asking you what you meant by something, it helps you both. You get to rephrase your ideas in a way that might be simpler and more effective, and your tutor gets a clear idea of what your goal is in writing a particular sentence or paragraph.

Throughout your conversation, the tutor will ask a lot of these questions. It may seem like a lot for a 30-minute appointment. It may even sound like an interrogation or having your work doubted by your tutor. However, the point of these questions is to help your tutor understand the way that they can best help you, and to guide you through thinking through your choices and work. They won’t waste time on things that you really don’t want or need help with, because they try to understand exactly what you’re looking for. Everything that you are asked in the MCWC is for one purpose: helping you and your writing grow while you’re here.

So next time you pay us a visit, remember that the questions we ask are never to criticize you or give the impression that we doubt your writing. On the contrary – we want to value your time and talent, so we ask questions that help us prioritize! Never be afraid to give too many details about your writing in the MCWC. We’re here to help in exactly the way that you need us. We’ll see you soon, and we hope you will be less intimidated and more inspired by our questions and the conversations that come from them in the future!


Thanks Callie! We hope this sheds some light on clarifying questions and the reasoning behind them. Come visit us soon!

Hope this clarified,

Mary and Amy

The Writing Center is located on the first floor of the Leland Speed Library across from the Gore Art Gallery.

Schedule your appointment here!

Come and see us during our hours of operation:

Monday-Thursday: 9am - 8pm

Friday: 9am - 3pm


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