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Frequently Asked Questions

We offer writers the choice to meet in person or online.

When you sign up to meet with us, select "face-to-face" to meet with a tutor in person, in the Hixon Writing Center. Select "online" to connect remotely, via Zoom.

The Hixon Writing Center is located in the Center for Student Services. We are on the third floor, at the north end of the building.

The HWC is open for one-to-one meetings with undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs during the fall, winter, and spring academic terms. We remain open during the summer with slightly reduced hours. We are closed during Caltech holidays.

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

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

Our support of writers differs from that offered by generative AI tools in several major ways.

We are human readers who can explain the rationales behind our guidance. When you ask a generative AI tool for feedback on your writing, it makes a guess about how a human might respond to your question. A human respondent can actually tell you about their experience of reading your text and exactly what aspects of your writing created that experience.

We can be clear with you about when we are sure about the guidance we can offer you and when you have asked a question we cannot answer. Generative AI tools can mislead writers, because their answers to questions are often presented in a confident manner, whether or not they are accurate. These tools lack the ability to assess the accuracy of their advice. Unlike generative AI tools, we do not "hallucinate" and offer incorrect information to writers.

We have access to a library of high quality, vetted resources for academic writing. Tools like Bing's chatbot are connected to the internet and can link writers to resources related to a question, but they cannot accurately assess the value of those resources. Further, we have personally reviewed many books and journal articles to which these tools do not have access, and we often share resources from these texts with writers. Finally, our center has created a number of customized resources for Caltech writers that are unlikely to be recommended by a generative AI tools.

We can offer you advice about how to handle writing challenges that is based on our personal experiences with and knowledge of the writing tasks Caltech writers undertake. We have spent years helping writers navigate the courses, applications, and research challenges that you are confronting for the first time. Our guidance is based on this experience and knowledge, rather than on more general knowledge gleaned from a very large pool of texts. Often, writers who visit our center could benefit from learning about other resources on campus they are unaware of. As members of the Caltech community, we can help you access all of its resources.

We can empathize with your situation and offer genuine encouragement and support. Often, the value of a conversation with us includes feeling more motivated and understood because another person sees and supports your work. While chatbots can simulate that experience, it is ultimately only a simulation.

We can help you navigate questions about using generative AI as a writing tool. At present, there are many diverse opinions among academic writers about how generative AI tools should be used. You will see that your Caltech professors and mentors have different policies and opinions about these tools. We are following these debates, both on campus and in the broader academic community. We can help writers make sure they are avoiding practices that will unproductive or even unethical in their use of generative AI tools.

The HWC has two kinds of tutors: peer tutors and writing specialists. The peer tutors are undergraduates selected for their excellent 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.

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.

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 goals: to improve your current work-in-progress and to promote your overall growth as a writer.

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. And you can visit once you have a more fully developed draft. 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.

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.

If you share your paper in advance via our scheduler or an email, our staff will do their best to look over your work before the meeting. If you share a long manuscript, we recommend you include a note in the schedule about the sections you want to prioritize during the meeting. When we are busy, we will not be able to review your work in advance and will do so with you, during the meeting.

We welcome Caltech undergrads, graduate students, postdocs to work with our peer tutors and writing specialists. It is beyond our scope to assist writers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or outside the Caltech community.

If you are a Caltech staff member or official visitor who would like to meet with us, email us at writing@caltech.edu with details about the support you are seeking.

You may currently make appointments for up to 60 minutes. In reality, appointments will last 50 minutes, as our staff members need brief breaks between meetings.

Some of our staff may offer 30-minute appointments for students with quick questions. We advise you to book a 60-minute appointment if you want to discuss more than a paragraph of writing.

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 during the academic year. During summer, writers are limited to 60 minutes per week. If there are open appointments, we may be able to accommodate requests for additional meetings.

Undergraduates

We are now offering the option of requesting written "feedback letters" (eTutoring in our scheduler) on drafts for undergraduates. A feedback letter is a written response to your draft from a peer tutor. Feedback letters have two components: (1) a letter that provides an overview of the strengths and limits of a draft, and (2) marginal notes on the draft itself that offer the writer ideas about where revision may be needed. This kind of feedback works best for drafts that are in the later phases of writing, rather than for drafts where the writer is still generating and organizing new ideas.

Please note that feedback letters are not an editing service--tutors will not make changes or corrections to your writing, but rather will provide you with feedback that allows you to think about and implement changes that make sense to you. Recipients of feedback letters are invited to follow up by scheduling a synchronous meeting with a tutor in cases when the letter raises questions the writer may not be sure how to answer.

If you want to receive a feedback letter, select an available peer tutor in our schedule and select "eTutoring" in the appointment menu. The tutor will read and respond to your paper during the appointment time. You should receive notification of feedback within 2 hours of the appointment's start.

Peer tutors do not work during the summer, so feedback letters are not available during that time.

Graduate students and postdocs

Due to the complexity and disciplinary specificity of graduate-level academic writing, we do not offer feedback letters for graduate students or postdocs. We encourage grads and postdocs to make appointments for synchronous meetings with our writing specialists.

Graduate students or postdocs who are looking for an editing service for a manuscript can request our list of professional editors. Those editors do not work for the Hixon Writing Center and are available to be hired for such work.

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 NSF or NIH grant writing specialists on our staff, but our STEM Writing Specialists have a familiarity with the STEM grant proposal genre and can help support grant writers.

We recommend that writers make use of resources and support from relevant campus offices that support application-related writing: