ProTips for Essay Writers: From OWL Handouts to Videos

Image of Stevie Bell, a white woman with cropped hair, and Brian Hotson, a white man with a grey beard, smiling with the text: Pro Tips for Essay Writers

Vol. 3 No. 9 (Summer 2022)

This post is from the 2022 CWCA/ACCR annual conference virtual poster session. – Stevie Bell and Brian Hotson, 2022 CWCA/ACCR conference co-chairs

By Stevie Bell, York University Writing Department & Brian Hotson, Independent Scholar

The digital turn in education, part of the COVID turn, initiated by the pandemic reenergized, recentred, and reoriented asynchronous writing instruction where students engage with writing resources and connect with writing tutors on their schedule. At York University’s writing centre, where Stevie is located, renewed attention is being paid to developing a repertoire of online resources to engage students differently than traditional PDF instructional handouts or webtext pages. Stevie was given a .5 teaching credit in an experimental initiative to develop instructional videos for the Writing Centre and learn about student preferences, engagement, production processes, etc. Of course Stevie invited Brian Hotson, her writing partner, on the adventure. Together, they produced ProTips for Essay Writers. In this piece, we reflect on lessons learned and share some of the behind-the-scenes production workflow, how-tos, and video analytics.

Some background on instructional resources provided by Online Writing Labs (OWLs)

The first writing centre websites in the early 1990s offered a digital repertoire of instructional handouts for students to access, download, and print out. OWLs offer assemblages of online writing advice on subjects ranging from grammar and formatting to style and rhetorical development. They have been described (with negative connotations) as having the “contents of old filing cabinets” (Hobson, 1998, p. xvii) and (with positive connotations) “electronic libraries” (Spitzer, 1990) of information about and advice for writing.

 In 2005, at the beginning of the rise of the social web, Mackiewicz published a review of the “state of the art” of 343 OWLs. She found that their handbooks were “noninteractive,” offering information such as handouts, links to other resources, and writing center information. In addition to their handbooks, some of these OWLs also offered email for writing-related questions (6%) and online tutoring on student work (29%). Interestingly, Mackiewicz classifies OWLs with a noninteractive handbook as well as online tutoring as “fully interactive,” which make up the 29% of the OWLs reviewed. She does not seem to have considered the interactive potential of OWL handbooks themselves. Had she conducted her review today, her classification of “fully interactive” might have included provisions for interactive social web design features within handbooks themselves. 

It is relatively safe to say, based on Mackiewicz’s review, that OWL handbooks of the early 2000s use what O’Reilly (2005) terms Web 1.0 design. O’Reilly (2005) presents two relevant characteristics of Web 1.0 design:

  • static information that rarely changes and 
  • few options for users to interact with content. 

Web 1.0 design typically involves a large, up-front investment in content creation that remains fairly static thereafter and user interactivity options for navigation but not content generation (see Flew, 2008). In contrast, the social web, also known as Web 2.0, places content generation in the hands of users. It uses “socially oriented tools” (Siemens & Weller, 2011) in ways that “pre-suppose” an active user (Merchant, 2009, p. 11), a user who is motivated to participate in an online community. Merchant (2009) identifies four interrelated characteristics of social web spaces: 

  • user-generated content; 
  • social participation; 
  • “presence,” the active identity management and regular activity of users; and  
  • “modification,” the personalization permitted in the space (p. 11-12). 

We are familiar with Web 2.0 design―we encounter it in wikis, blogs, and social media sites like Discord, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook. Now, we largely engage the web in Web 3.0 where online experiences are portable and personal(izable) and with a digital culture that values authenticity in content creation through live-streaming, as well as through AI.

As useful and important as they are, it is clear from the efforts of well-funded OWLs, such as OWL Purdue, that the resources are simply not present to support the principles of Web 2.0 or Web 3.0. The Web 2.0 efforts of Purdue OWL, for instance, have largely ended. Its blog, The Grammar Gang, lasted for seven years and ended in 2014 after having functioned as a single Q&A forum for four years. Purdue OWL’s YouTube channel also ended around this time. With 46 videos posted between 2011 and 2015, Purdue’s YouTube channel offered instructional videos, encouraging email correspondence in lieu of commenting, which was disabled. Monitoring online discussion is very likely simply too resource-intensive for cash-strapped writing centres to maintain. It’s also difficult to justify to administrators supporting anonymous user engagement given the extent to which WC budgets are provided on the basis of (registered) student usage, and yet limiting engagement to registered students is both difficult on social platforms as well as too cumbersome to promote organic community engagement. 

Producing the videos

It’s possible that writing centres might need to settle for instructional resources that function not as primary sites of writing support, but as sites that engage students and point them to other available resources—both at the writing centre, in their own classroom, as well as online—that are institution and writing-centre approved. This was the idea behind ProTips for Essay Writers. We were looking for a compromise that moved instructional resources beyond text-based PDFs to more engaging multimodal resources that work to both deliver information while also forging relationships between the writing centre as community and students seeking writing support. We were hoping to engage an audience of students who may have never used the writing centre before as well as an audience of instructors who may be looking for supplements that support their efforts in both teaching, supporting, and assessing writing.

The power of multimodality to foster relationships and community lies in its ability to communicate feeling (Kress, 2009; Wetherell, 2012; van Dijck, 2013; Johnston, 2020). The tools of audio (voice, sound FX), image, colour, shape, tone, design, and music all work to emote. This happens when the viewer finds themselves smiling along with sound or image without any words present, or experience a shiver or goosebumps because of something they are watching. This can happen with text, of course, but it’s not as instantaneous—it works at and on different sensory aspects. A reader must be highly motivated and paying close attention to reap the emotive power of words on paper. Visual and aural rhetoric are instantaneous. We love this short series of videos on graphic design―highly recommended for anyone who wants an overview of design fundamentals.

Using a multimodality approach, the ProTips videos engage through moving texts, images, music and sound, and voice-over, all of which are connected to both the theme of the individual video as well as to the overall theme of the video series.

We attempted to use each element to construct personality-driven content delivery that humanizes the writing centre. In this way, we were hoping that the video series would foster student engagement without full integration of Web 2.0 (not to mention Web 3.0) functionalities. We also decided to begin with video topics that represent some of the most commonly asked questions at the writing centre (based on the WCOnline analytics we gathered at York): thesis statements, citation, and the basics of comma use. This approach was intended to foster engagement by anticipating student concerns. We wrote scripts around some of the questions that might arise from content information, implying engagement and, it was our hope, fostering connection. 

We also attempted to foster engagement by pairing videos with worksheets that ask for knowledge application rather than handouts focused strictly on information-delivery. The worksheets for these videos add another layer of rigour as well as modality. They also allow for assessment should an instructor want to use these as an assignment. The worksheets for students reference the videos (and the videos reference the worksheets) and most include sections or separate sheets for instructors. We’ve also added a transcript of each video.

The Design Process: Trial and Error

Our process involved a good deal of trial and error in building from Stevie’s early efforts to produce videos for her courses. We reviewed these early efforts and talked about things we thought worked and those that didn’t. We found that the videos needed to be crisper―delivered with more certainty, and at a faster pace. This pointed us to the need for tighter scripting. We also found that they needed more personality. Stevie has a lot of personality to offer, but it didn’t come across in these early videos. 

Consider, for example, Stevie’s early attempts at the punctuation and citation series compared with where we landed with ProTips:

Early attempt:

Vs. revision:


Early attempt:

Vs. revision:

The Design Process: Workflow

Production moved through several stages, often iteratively. For instance, when writing scripts we often recorded a bit and listened back in order to make sure it was working. After we’d selected a topic for a video series and divided the subject into 3-minute segments, each 3-minute video moved through a fairly typical production process. We hope that you’re able to use the following chart when allocating resources to similar projects in your Centre:

Production Stage (see production tips below!) Approximate Time Investment
Before we knew what we were doing When we had the process down pat
Script Writing  4 hours 2 hours
Audio Recording 1 hour 30 minutes
Design of visual elements 2 hours 1 hour
Audio post-production 2 hours 1 hour
Video production 2 hours 1 hour
Creating a transcript, worksheet, etc. 1 hour 1 hour
Uploading & sharing (mostly inactive time as the video processed) 1 hour 1 hour
Total investment of time 13 hours (2-3 working days) 7 hours 30 minutes (1 working day)

Lessons Learned

  • Use a script
    • Always know what you’re going to say ahead for recording, and who is going to say what.
    • Time out the script’s length. 
      • If you’re making several videos, they should all be about the same length.
      • Knowing the length will help you with the recording: it will keep you on pace without having to worry that you’re going on for too long.
  • Be conversational – developing a character helps
    • We eventually modelled ours on Hal & Joanne’s Body Break, a series of 1980s short fitness interstitials. These were very popular, energetic, and a little bit cheesy; but they were authentic in their beliefs and themes, and their messaging was on-point. 

    • Authenticity really sells―we weren’t comfortable being on camera, but talking to the camera would probably enhance authenticity―especially if you’re producing for Tik Tok or Instagram.
  • Divide a subject up into bite-sized bits of information
    • Videos shouldn’t be more than 3 mins long (you’ll find that ours are often 4+… not great).
      • If you find that you can’t trim your script, consider creating a second video or a video series. 
    • Use specific, high-information titling of each video (e.g., FANBOY rules and its correct comma usage)
  • Engage in an iterative process
    • Don’t leave production until the end of the process. As you craft content, involve stages of production, which will help you refine content for the modality and genre. 
    • Think of production as an integral aspect of content development.
  • Prioritize accessibility
    • We naïvely set out with the assumption that multimodality is inherently accessible. We realized after consulting with an accessibility specialist, the amazing Kate Kaul at York’s Writing Centre, that while multimodality might increase accessibility for some students, each mode also introduces potential access issues. 
      • Some visual information can be captured in audio voice-over, but pacing and movement can create access barriers that aren’t resolved by voice-over. 
      • In addition, any sort of visually-presented text that is not included in the video transcript remains inaccessible to viewers with visual impairments. This is a serious challenge for any videos that draw on example sentences or paragraphs. Reading these each time they appear on screen significantly lengthens videos. 
      • Audio voice-over also does not usually contain information about visual elements like colour, texture, or other graphic elements that help to convey mood and personality. This necessitates a screen-reader-friendly descriptive transcript that conveys both the text and visual information in the video. 
      • We also discovered that while some audio information can be captured in written captions and information on slides, musical elements remain inaccessible.
      • Accessibility requirements:
        • Descriptive transcript
        • Plain text transcript
        • Closed captions
        • On-screen text is included in the spoken transcript

Production Tips & Tricks


  • Most microphones are good enough! In Pro Tips, Stevie used the built-in mic on her iMac, and Brian used something a little more specialized. We found that you can hear a tinniness in Stevie’s audio. She was able to reduce it a bit by making herself a recording studio out of blankets. Blanket forts for the win!
  • Input recording quality is easier to control than post-production editing
    • Consider creating a sound-dampening space
    • Make sure input volume isn’t too high. 
      • If the wavelength is hitting the edges of the track, it’s “clipping” off some of the sound.
    • When you make a mistake, pause for a few seconds before proceeding. This will help you isolate mistakes so that you can edit them out more easily.
    • If you’re recording with two or more people, when switching from one speaker to the other, leave a small pause in between. This will allow space for editing.
  • We used Audacity to record and edit our voice audio tracks
    • We are quite proud of how we created a pretty smooth dialogue without being in the same room or the same city. Here’s how we did it: 
      • We were each wearing headphones and connected on Zoom with each other. 
      • We ensured that zoom audio input and output was set to our headphones. 
      • We each had Audacity recording our audio using whatever input device we preferred (my iMac mic, Brian’s fancy mic). We then read the script in the specified order—we could hear each other (via headphones) even though Audacity couldn’t hear the other person speaking. This meant that we were able to play off of one another, match each other’s pacing and energy, and create a fairly fluid dialogue that comes off as pretty natural (as best as we could manage, anyway). 
    • Brian sent Stevie his audio tracks, which Stevie imported into her Audacity project. The two tracks aligned well, with corresponding moments of silence and noise.
    • Stevie used the Noise Reduction tool in Audacity to remove as much background noise as possible from both tracks (use it 3 times over for best quality), and adjusted the loudness of the tracks so that they corresponded as much as possible.
    • Stevie then listened to each track eliminating mistakes (highlight & delete). It was easier to copy and paste Stevie’s audio into Brian’s than use the time slider to get it all aligned.
    • Once the two tracks were merged together, Stevie imported the extro audio for the card audio and aligned it appropriately. We recorded this extro audio separately, and it is the same for each video. When creating the extro Stevie used some outtakes and was able to move some laughter to the end to enhance personality to the final video
  • We used Incompetech (created by the legendary composer, Kevin MacLeod) to find royalty-free music. We searched the database of tracks using filters for Mood and Genre.


  • We used Canva to create slideshows with dynamic elements that involve movement.
  • We made sure that all on-screen text is also spoken on the audio recording.
  • We made sure that each slide is only on screen for no longer than 7 seconds max.
  • We used images that illustrate and enhance what is being said.


  • We combined the audio voice-over file, music file, and the slideshow file in iMovie, where we carefully worked on timing and layering to get everything lined up accurately. 
  • Having ensured that the videos met the accessibility required by the university, we imported the York University logo cards to brand the final videos.
  • We exported the final video file and uploaded it to YouTube
    • We uploaded a .txt file of the transcript and used YouTube’s auto-timing feature, which is very accurate.

Measures of Success

The YouTube analytics for the series indicate that the video series has been a moderate success without significant efforts to promote them. Only a few are available on the Writing Centre’s main YouTube channel because it’s a significant investment of time for Stevie to move them over (an issue that needs to be remedied!), and Stevie’s not led any sustained effort to spread the word among writing centre tutors on their availability to use them in sessions. The time to promote video resources is an additional factor to consider when investing in their production!

On Stevie’s personal YouTube channel, the videos have received an average of 106 views over an 8-month span. The most successful video by far with over 570 views is Thesis Statements 1 – What are they?, which we created before coming up with the ProTips branding. The least successful videos are those on less pressing writing concerns: subordination, em dashes, navigating jargon in assignment instructions, and semicolons. We suspect that this reflects the self-directed nature of viewing―students are going after the most burning questions they have: what are thesis statements, anyway? They’re not as interested in issues like em dashes or semicolons, which may not seem as pressing to them. Instructors tend to go on about thesis statements, with reason.

View count Video title
27 Create argumentative sentences with subordination!
26 Add Clarification Using Em Dashes
34 Essay Instructions: Navigating Jargon!
46 Punctuate with Semicolons!
52 Reading Instructions — It’s normal to be overwhelmed!
54 Transforming Essay Instructions
53 Indirect Citation
47+ Describing Speech
66 Thesis Statements 7: Sentence Structure
68 Thesis Statement 6: Short Answer Strategy
79 Clear Writing with Simple Sentences
79 Thesis Statement 5: The Question Strategy
87 Enhance Flow with Coordination
86+ Plagiarism & Other Scary Things
95+ Sources are People
109 Thesis Statements 4: The Jenga Strategy
86+ Quotation, Paraphrase, Summary
126 Thesis Statements 3: Myths & Facts
144 Thesis Statements 8: So What?!
129+ Citing Every Sentence
165 Thesis Statements 2: What are they NOT?
199+ What is Citation?
572 Thesis Statements 1: What are They?

While view-count is not necessarily the most informative measure of success, there has been positive anecdotal feedback from York students. For some students, the videos have made a deep transformative impact. Stevie has had students enrol in her writing courses based on their experience watching the video series, which for administration, is a significant success. This also suggests that our efforts to create connection by infusing the videos with personality have been somewhat successful. University administrators are also interest in how the series on citation might be useful educational resources for students accused of plagiarism.

For us, what has become apparent is a need to collect more data to measure success, but to do so, we would first need to make a systematic effort in sharing them to have metrics that reflect their usefulness to a wider audience of students and faculty. 

Will we keep ProTips going?

From a production aspect, the most significant consideration is time. As we completed the final videos, the burnout was real, and we were ready to put the project to bed.

We were motivated to create these videos from the need to address commonly asked questions by students and concerns raised by instructors, a point of view specific to writing centre professionals. Now when a faculty member asks for a workshop in their class on thesis statements and we don’t have the capacity, we can recommend that they share the video series and make use of the worksheet.  We will continue to use the ProTips title should we produce more videos in the future. 


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