Tyll Zybura

Read. Think. Write.

Magic questions to ask students about their writing

Tyll Zybura – 27 Nov 2019

In my writing supervision I focus on process instead of results and on reflection instead of adherence to rules to help students experience more agency over their writing when they become aware of their own writing strategies.

What lecturers often do when students come to their office hours to discuss term papers is talk a lot. I know that from my own experience as a student, and it’s what I did myself when I started tutoring students in writing.

Lecturers tell students about their expectations, whether the chosen topic will work or what topic the students should write on, what to be careful about in the research process, which citation style they like and which they don’t, they pass out a handout on referencing and explain it, and another handout on formatting, they complain about the last student who did things wrong, and so on. They talk a lot and they listen little.

All this talk is well-meant but it has two related negative consequences:

  • First, the focus on form and assessment blanks out the process and purpose of writing, so that it solely becomes an exam and not a means of expression and argument, which in turn heightens students’ anxiety and diminishes them as scholars.

  • Second, by ‘hogging the consultation time’ teachers establish themselves as the normative authority on ‘student writing’ and actively discourage the individual student sitting in front of them to experience themselves as an expert on their own writing.

Instead, I’ve trained myself to ask a few specific questions to make the students in my office hour talk about their own writing and then I listen intently to the answers. Often, I find that students already know everything they need about how to write – but they don’t recognize it as ‘knowledge’ because it doesn’t come from me.

Over time, I have filtered out a number of ‘magic’ questions that are especially helpful in making students think about themselves as experts on their own writing. This makes the process of writing, response, revision, and grading as effective and relaxed as possible for my students and for myself.

Questions before the writing process

The following questions are especially relevant in initial consultations, where papers are planned and deadlines are set.

“Have you written papers before? How did that go?”

One of the common difficulties for students is that their writing experiences don’t really build up on each other. Most courses of study want students to learn from previously written papers but they are bad at facilitating this learning: because most papers are ‘one-shots’ without revision-oriented feedback processes, students don’t really get the chance to experience their texts as evolving. The result is that they start every paper from zero.

So, when I ask students about papers they’ve already written, I try to evoke a mental model or a blueprint which they can transfer to the new paper. The fact that most students are suprised by the question and need a moment to actually remember their previous writing tells me that this is not a trivial act.

Asking further about how their writing went, whether they were satisfied with the process and the results, reveals important things about how the student sees themselves as a writer, their self-knowledge and confidence level. Answers vary between “It was a total disaster” or “I thought I did well, but the grade was bad” or “I struggled a lot but the grade was good and I don’t know why” or “It was fun, I know how to do this” – and they all open up obvious paths of inquiry to find out more about the person in front of me and their writing strategies.

“How do you write? Does that work for you?”

Specific questions on the individual writing process signal to the student that I take them seriously in their academic practice. It not only makes them more aware of their own functional strategies of writing, but also establishes that it is okay to write like they do.

Most students carry a heavy baggage of normative writing advice with them. The fact that they don’t adhere to most of this advice causes them stress and anxiety even though their writing is just fine. (See more on that in my essay on Relieving stress in student writing.)

And when we can establish that their existing writing strategies don’t work well, I can ask further questions to identify the exact causes of problems and suggest alternative strategies to the student that they might try. But the conversation always revolves around the student’s own practice and expertise, not mine.

“What grade do you want to achieve?”

Teachers often assume that all students (should) want to achieve the best result possible. But that’s simply not always the case or realistic. I ask students for their priorities and about what they want to get out of the paper, I take their answer seriously without judging them, and I give them as much information as possible on how to achieve exactly what they want.

Some students just need a pass grade, but they need it quickly, for example to remain eligible for financial support. For them, it is legitimate to weigh their priorities and decide for a quick-and-dirty writing process that yields a result which is just good enough to pass. If I as a supervisor know that in advance, I can adjust my supervision accordingly: I would tell students my minimal criteria for a pass grade and ask them further questions to make sure that they actually have the tools to meet them. I also know that they won’t revise their papers, so I don’t have to put effort into revision-oriented feedback.

Other students are extremely motivated to achieve an excellent grade. I can use this knowledge about their aspiration to ask what they think they need to do to get that grade and clarify details on my criteria for excellence, if necessary. Often, these high-achieving students overestimate these criteria and hold their own work to unrealistic standards. And it’s also these students who most suffer from writing anxiety and fear of failure, which can inhibit their writing, so I can discuss strategies with them to overcome anxiety.

Then again, there are students who don’t feel confident to aspire to an excellent grade, or who know that they cannot put their all into the paper because they have a lot of other things on their plate. These students are willing to try their best but they are content with getting a solid grade for solid work. If I know that in advance, I can give them a generous deadline and sometimes I make regular follow-up appointments to discuss their progress and provide intermittent feedback on their work to support the writing process, if they agree that is useful to them.

“When do you have time to write? What deadline can you manage?”

I often have students who come to discuss papers, when they don’t actually have the time to write over the next couple of weeks. They sometimes don’t even realize this: Only when I ask them about this do they see that their schedule is completely packed.

Asking students when they really have the time to work on their writing project helps me to either agree on an extended deadline, or to ask them to come back to discuss their paper another time. And it makes them realize that writing term papers is not about my deadline but about their work.

And if they do have the time to write, asking students about their time-management strategies and how they are going to schedule their writing creates awareness of process again. Since I usually let students set their own deadlines, it requires them to objectively assess their resources and take responsibility for their work.

Questions during the writing process

These questions are more relevant in consultations where I discuss papers in progress. I don’t enforce these consultations but I always make myself available to give support or feedback on snippets of draft text. Some of the most rewarding supervision experiences I had with students whose work I saw grow over the course of successive visits to my office hours.

“What have you written?”

This is one of my favourite questions – I rarely look at draft text that students wish to discuss with me before I have asked them to paraphrase what they’ve written and listend to their answer.

Vocalizing and rephrasing their academic prose into a more conversational register helps them clarify their own thinking and it also makes my reaction more organic and less teachery: I can respond to ideas in progress instead of being perceived to evaluate draft text.

“What do you need from me to make progress in your writing?”

I need students to see me as a resource that they can tap into rather than as an authority who states what’s good and proper and what isn’t. That’s not always easy to achieve, but asking them about what they need to make progress makes them think about concrete issues they have and gives them the opportunity to ask questions they might feel inhibited asking otherwise.

The above question is much more concrete than “Let me know if you need help”, which makes students responsible for first admitting that they need help (which is not easy) and then requesting my support (which is hard). Instead, I just assume that there will be something they might need help with and I ask for it directly in a way that doesn’t raise unnecessary barriers.

The expressed needs of inexperienced writers often concern technical and formal issues, for example the use of theoretical terminology and methodology, grammar and rhetoric, or my assessment criteria. So, asking them directly leads to concrete shop talk and advice where it is actually helpful.

Experienced writers on the other hand, when I ask them directly, often express their need for confirmation that the way they write is good. It bears repeating again and again: high-achieving student writers often don’t perceive themselves as ‘excellent’ or even ‘good’ – their achievements feed on self-doubt, so they need spelling out where exactly their writing strategies create results that meet academic criteria of excellence, how it compares to the writing of other students and how it compares to published professional scholarship.

“What are your next steps?”

To carry the energy and the insights from the consultation into the actual writing process, I ask students to formulate concrete tasks for themselves to follow up on and write them down. Sometimes I help them in breaking down a larger task into several small ones so that it becomes more doable. But I almost never need to suggest next steps myself because students quickly get used to thinking about their own process as theirs when I show myself willing to accompany them on their path (instead of shoving them my way).


Becoming a proficient and confident writer of academic texts requires students to make their writing – both the writing process and the written text – their own. But the usual supervision practice of giving authoritative advice and focussing on results and assessment is highly detrimental to that.

My ‘magic questions’ focus on process and help students experience agency over their writing because they leave the responsibility for both process and product with the writers. It encourages them to realize themselves as experts on their own writing. That’s why a supervision practice built around asking and listening is so powerful.

Now that I have a comment function on this website: I’d love to hear from lecturers and especially from students what kind of strategies you have experienced as helpful in situations of writing supervision! :)

Thanks to Katharina Pietsch for comments and improvements to this text!


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