Not all, but many students come to the writing center frazzled, worried, and unsure about their writing. With desperate eyes they hope the tutor can help them figure out what their next steps should be or how to make what they have acceptable to a professor. They fear the red pen signaling mistakes and failure, but Sarah Kenny, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan-Flint’s English program with a dual-concentration in English literature and Composition and Rhetoric, says: “I believe in being error positive. Errors are a way for people to learn and grow as writers.”
I’ve watched Sarah blossom as a tutor, and she indeed empowers the writers she works with to see “errors” as opportunities. A student who visited the Writing Center quite regularly was often relieved to see Sarah’s smiling face since writing caused the student a great deal of anxiety. The student often complained they wished they could be a writer, but in Sarah’s natural, relaxed style, she countered “If you write, you are a writer.” It’s one of the things that makes Sarah such a successful tutor. She’s patient, kind, and puts things into simple perspective. Students that get the treat of working with Sarah quickly realize writing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. It may feel like a destination in the moment when they have to turn in a paper, but Sarah has a special knack for helping students appreciate the larger goal of seeing themselves as writers and debunking the myth of what it means to be one.
Sarah said “active listening” is one of the key tools she includes in her toolbox to help students “hone their writing skills” and see that they are growing as writers, one paper at a time. Interestingly, if you watch Sarah tutor, you might expect that she’d always wanted to be one, but when I asked Sarah why she wanted to be a tutor, she said: “At first, I didn’t. I just took the class to fulfill a theory component to my graduate program. I had some fixed ideas about writing and tutoring. However, it was the theory and readings from the class that made me change my mind. I realized writing was much more than just formulaic, analytical writing. I saw tutors helping students with all kinds of writing, academic and creative. I also saw just how important it was to help students see their errors as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and be a catalyst for growth.”
Sarah loves writing, especially the final stages of editing. For most people, editing is the most dreaded part of the writing process, but for Sarah, talking about the editing stage brings a smile to her face. “I’m a detailed person. I really love the follow through on a project and seeing the finished piece.” However, she adds editing is quite different from revision. “Revision happens throughout the writing process as one works through their ideas, but editing, is the final stage when you get to pay close attention to the details and I love that part.”
I asked Sarah how she helps students balance the challenges between learning to revise and edit their work.
“Well, first, I want to help them figure out what content they want to write. One of the best techniques for tutoring that I learned was learning how to be quiet while a student gets the chance to work that out for themselves. It’s really rewarding to see students who were regulars in the writing center and who struggled with writing improve over time. I got to see their confidence grow as they believed in themselves. Once they figure out what they wanted to say, I could help them notice what patterns of ‘errors’ they may have to help them learn to spot and ‘edit’ them for themselves. This made it a much more positive experience as they learned to do it on their own. Sessions like those have taught me a lot about writing, how to help others, and even develop my own writing.”
Sarah has been a writing center tutor since winter 2018. Sarah is a gifted tutor and writer. She’s served as the prose editor for Qua for two years, collaborated to write a book “Renaissance Matters” with Dr. Kietzman and fellow classmates: James O’Dea, Darlene Carey, (also tutors in the writing center) and Taylor Mata and Margaret Dikos. The book is “A young adult novel about identity and self-discovery using themes and characters inspired by British Renaissance literature.” The book will be completed this summer. She is also currently co-facilitating a flash fiction workshop this semester for the Creative Writing Circle in the Writing Center.
Sarah is an invaluable asset to the Writing Center. Her compassion, warmth, and friendliness have made many students feel at ease with themselves and their writing. Her career goal is to become an editor. As a future editor, I have no doubt that authors will shine and grow because of Sarah’s kindness, editorial expertise, and emphasize on being “error positive.”