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FAQs about individual meetings with HWC staff

A major resource the Hixon Writing Center offers Caltech undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs is the ability to discuss their writing with a writing specialist or peer tutor. Talking with a thoughtful reader of your work opens up crucial learning opportunities. These conversations are of use not only when students are struggling, but also when they simply wish to improve their work as writers or get support with a high-stakes writing task.

This frequently-asked questions page addresses the questions that Caltech students typically have about making an appointment with us.

How do I make an appointment to discuss my writing?

All Caltech undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs should be able to access the "Writing Center Scheduling" link via access.caltech.edu. Following this link takes you into our schedule so you can review the times we are available to meet with you.

Caltech visitors and staff who wish to meet with us should email us at writing@caltech.edu to discuss the possibility of arranging a meeting. We accommodate such requests when our resources allow us to.

Where do appointments occur?

At present, all tutoring appointments are remote and are conducted online via Zoom. We can arrange for appointments by phone when Zoom is not optimal.

Once instruction returns to campus and it is safe to meet indoors, we hope to return to meeting students in the physical space of our center, in Center for Students Services 350.

When are you open?

The HWC is fully open for one-to-one meetings with undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs during the fall, winter, and spring academic terms. We have more limited availability during the summer term. We are closed during Caltech school holidays and breaks between terms.

Our hourly schedule varies, and you should access our scheduler via access.caltech.edu in order to review our current availability.

Why would I want an individual meeting to discuss my writing?

You might meet with us for many reasons. Most basically, all writers benefit from getting feedback from a reader on a work-in-progress. The sentences and paragraphs that make sense to writers don't always make sense to readers, who lack the information and context the writer has.

We frequently see students at all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming to preparing an essay for submission. We also see writers working on writing in all disciplines and in many different genres. Here are a few more specific  reasons students work with us:

  • to generate ideas for what to write about
  • to get started on a new project
  • to develop a strong central argument for an essay
  • to work on organizing ideas so that they are easy to understand at the sentence, paragraph, and essay level
  • to discuss how to work effectively with the writing and ideas of other thinkers
  • to figure out how to convey technical ideas or results in clear, effective ways
  • to talk about the visual rhetoric of a poster or other non-essay forms of writing
  • to work on sentence-level clarity and correctness
  • to talk about a type of academic writing that is new to the student
  • to figure out how to tailor a text for its intended audience
  • to get the feedback of a critical reader on a draft
  • to think through feedback a piece of writing has received from other readers

You can bring any academic writing-related concern to a session with us, with the exception of fellowship and study abroad applications, which should be discussed with the office of Fellowship Advising and Study Abroad

What qualifications do your staff members have?

The HWC has two kinds of tutors--peer tutors and writing specialists. The peer tutors are undergraduates selected for their outstanding writing skills; they all receive extensive, ongoing training to become effective tutors. The writing specialists are professional tutors with advanced degrees and college-level teaching experience. We have two types of writing specialists--generalists and STEM writing specialists (see below for more details about this). You can read staff bios on our People page.

I want to see a Writing Specialist. Should I make an appointment with a STEM or Generalist Writing Specialist?

Our Writing Specialists are all professional staff members with advanced degrees in their fields and experience teaching communication at the college level. You can make an appointment to talk with either a Generalist Writing Specialist or a STEM Writing Specialist.

Our Generalist Writing Specialists have graduate-level expertise in English, writing, and communication. They are experts in rhetoric and academic writing who can help you write evidence-based essays, build persuasive arguments, write in academic English, and improve your writing confidence within all writing genres and disciplines. The generalists have a broad familiarity with varied writing practices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and applied sciences.

Our STEM Writing Specialists have advanced degrees in STEM fields and therefore have additional content expertise and experience in addressing specific challenges faced by scientific and technical writers. Those challenges include presenting data or complex methods clearly, making quantitative arguments, creating effective visual elements (e.g. figures, tables), writing highly technical prose for expert readers, and explaining the significance of your research to audiences of differing backgrounds. We do not recommend bringing work in the humanities or qualitative social science to our STEM writing specialists, as these disciplines are outside their areas of specialization.

You can learn more about our Writing Specialists by reading their bios. Make sure to book your appointment with the appropriate Writing Specialist to match your current needs.

What does an individual meeting involve?

A session with us is, most basically, a conversation about your writing. Each session looks different depending upon the goals that the writer brings to the conversation. Typical sessions involve activities like brainstorming, reading aloud, discussing your ideas, posing and answering questions, looking at models, or doing some writing. You should expect to be an active participant in this conversation, and we encourage you to tell us what you hope to get out of the session. From our perspective, every session we have has two basic goals: to improve your current work-in-progress and to promote your overall growth as a writer.

Do I have to have a finished draft to discuss before I schedule an appointment?

No! Writers can make appointments any time from the very beginning to the end of a writing project. You can visit us to discuss how to approach a writing task before you get started. You can visit when you have a few notes or part of an outline. Any time that it would be useful to talk to someone about what your next step in the writing process will be, you can visit us for support.

How do I prepare for a meeting? Will you read my paper before we meet? What should I bring?

The best way you can prepare for a meeting with us is to consider what you would like to learn from the conversation. If you can begin the session by explaining to the writing specialist or peer tutor what you want to write, what challenges you are encountering, and what you want to learn, we can quickly begin talking about those goals.

When you make an appointment in our scheduling software, you'll have the option to attach a draft if you have one. You can also attach one later, closer to the appointment. We will make every effort to review the draft in advance of our meeting with you, and the earlier you submit a draft the better chance we have to review it. However, we may not always have time to review your draft before the appointment, and we may not be able to read long papers in their entirety. Consultations can be productive whether or not prior review of a draft occurs. If you are working on an assignment for a class, you can also upload a copy of the assignment itself.

Who can schedule an individual meeting? 

We welcome Caltech undergrads, graduate students, postdocs to work with our peer tutors and writing specialists. Undergraduates receive priority in scheduling appointments, which may mean that it will be difficult for others to get an appointment during peak usage times (usually mid-terms and finals). We cannot assist writers outside the Caltech community.

How long are appointments? How many meetings can I have per week?

You may make appointments for either 30 or 60 minutes. In reality, appointments will last either 25 or 50 minutes, as our staff members need brief breaks between meetings.

We love to have students visit us regularly! However, to ensure availability for all members of the Caltech community, we currently limit users to a maximum of 60 minutes a day and 120 minutes a week. If there are open appointments, we may be able to accommodate requests for additional meetings.

How much writing will we cover in a single appointment? Should I book 30 or 60 minutes?

Since the goals and focus of each session are different, there is no way to definitively answer this question. A 30 minute session is usually appropriate when you have one specific, limited question to discuss or just want to look at 1-2 paragraphs. If you want to work on more than 1-2 paragraphs of writing, make a 60-minute appointment. In general, you should not expect to cover more than 2-3 pages per 30 minutes. If you are working on a long paper or project, itis ideal to start early and schedule several sessions if you want help with the entire draft.

Sometimes people want to make appointments for a quick question that will take less than 30 minutes to discuss. It's fine to book a 30-minute appointment in these cases.

Does my work need to be for a course to meet with the HWC?

We support writers working on all types of academic writing. This includes writing assignments for Caltech courses, writing related to research projects (e.g. posters, abstracts, research articles), and writing related to academic applications (e.g. graduate school, academic jobs) or research funding. We do not have specific grant writing specialists on our staff who have full mastery over the NSF or NIH grantmaking process, but our STEM Writing Specialists have a good familiarity with the STEM grant proposal genre and can help support grant writers.