Category: Academic Writing

Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

My experience with writing prior to entering my undergraduate degree was much like any other contemporary American student’s: learn to write in a 3.5 paragraph format (better known in pedagogical circles as the 5 paragraph format), and it’ll carry me all the way through college. Turns out, college professors are not fans of the 3.5 paragraph format. Having such a hard shift from a highly organized, structured form of writing, to whatever it is that I use now was a hard lesson to learn.

My experience with the 3.5 paragraph format begins in eighth grade, when the Language Arts teacher’s favorite student took a day off high school (don’t ask me how) to visit her old stomping ground. With her she brought the Good News of 3.5 paragraph format, and from then on, every paper had to be written with one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. To be honest, finally having “instructions” to follow when writing was a huge boon for me. Now instead of waiting until the last minute to try to figure out how to write an essay, I could just wait until the last minute to actually write the essay.

I went to a “college-preparatory” high school, and that’s when 3.5 format really started to be drilled into me by the school’s curriculum. This is when I started to get frustrated with the format. As the length requirements got longer, five paragraphs were no longer enough to fill 10 pages worth of writing, at least not in any way that offered substance. I was also finding that 3.5 format didn’t always allow me to conform to the conventions of whatever genre I was trying to write in.

Once I got to college, after taking the required college composition courses, I decided to ditch 3.5 format entirely. In its place, I tried to model my writing after the kind of academic writing I was encountering in my course work. I wasn’t the most successful at it, as instead of trying to do what academics were doing in their writing, I simply stopped doing the things they weren’t, but it was as though suddenly a shackle had just been released, and suddenly I was able say the things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. Learning how to do this on my own was a struggle, and my grades reflected that, but once I learned how to write what I wanted to write instead of what I thought my professors wanted to see, there was an immediate boost in my grades.

In my final semester of undergrad (just before the “Dark Times”), I took a course called “Teaching of Writing,” where I learned that 3.5 Paragraph format wasn’t created to teach students to write at the collegiate level, it was intended to game the standardized testing system. My high school wasn’t so much “college preparatory” it was “SAT preparatory.” When funding for public schools became (partly) tied to standardized test scores, the schools needed a way to ensure that students’ writing could trigger all of the things that the scoring algorithm looked for in writing, regardless of how well written the content of the paper actually was. Of course, to remain competitive and maintain their reputation as “superior” alternatives to public education, private schools also started teaching 3.5 format. 

So how do we relearn to write? That answer is a little bit different for everyone. There’s an axiom among pedagogical circles that to be good writers, we have to be good readers. While this isn’t necessarily an idea that I personally subscribe to (It leads to a chicken and egg scenario if you think about it long enough), I do think that a good place to start to learn how to write is to model your writing on the things you read. The larger variety of things that you read the better, because that gives you options when you write. One of the ways that I make writing interesting for myself is to play with genre. I might write the introduction of a paper for one of my courses as a narrative, or I might reconceptualize a research project as a scientific study. Part of the benefit of understanding how a variety of writing works is you can take it apart and Frankenstein it back together.

None of this is to say that 3.5 format isn’t useful. I still use 3.5 all the time for smaller papers in the 3-5 page range. But, again, five paragraphs are not enough to fill out a full-length paper at the college level. And when you have writers who have been taught to construct a paper, rather than communicate their ideas, of course they are going to begin to flounder when they enter higher education, because most high schoolers come to college with the idea that it is simply more school where they come to be taught, rather than explore ideas on their own. Realistically, there is very little that we can do to change the way that writing is being taught in primary and secondary educations, so relearning how to write is a frustrating, but crucial, and also personal part of that transition into higher education.

Writing as a Social Activity

By Tobias Lee, Writing Consultant

Recently, a writer came in and started off her appointment with me by saying that she thinks of herself as a good writer and generally hasn’t had any trouble. This was her first visit to the University Writing Center, and her reason for making the appointment was the promise of extra credit from her professor. Wonderful, I said. I was glad to hear that she had confidence as a writer and felt able to approach new writing situations with aplomb. Indeed, it’s far more common for writers to preface their session with harsh self-appraisals of their abilities, saying “I’ve never been a good writer” and claiming they’re terrible at grammar.

The comments from both types of writers point to the same belief about the UWC’s purpose: that we exist to help writers correct their writing, to get you on the “right” track. Such a purpose would be consistent with a deficit view of student writing, which unfortunately is all too common. Of course, we’re happy to work with writers whatever their sense of their ability, and we can certainly share our knowledge of grammatical conventions. But another way of thinking about the UWC is as a space that recognizes and celebrates the fact that writing is an inherently social activity.

A social activity? How so? I see that one eyebrow creeping upward.

“Hey what are you doing later, me and some friends are gonna get together and write.”

“I had a great time writing with you, let’s do it again sometime.”

“You going to Jen’s writing party later?”

Okay, not quite like that (although writing in a group is very much a thing–see our events page!). Sure, it may be that quiet time to oneself is slightly more conducive to the penning of epics. Proust wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in his bed, not at Starbucks. But when I say writing is an inherently social activity, I mean that in a deeper sense.

People working in composition, rhetoric, and communication often talk about audience. No, not the ones lobbing rotten tomatoes; I mean the people who are going to read your writing (and if reading this makes you wonder if there are any serviceably well-aged tomatoes in the back of your fridge, well, now you know why I chose academia and not stand-up comedy). Ede and Lunsford (1984) identify two popular ways of conceiving audience: audience addressed and audience invoked. Those who suggest it’s the former argue for the supreme importance of knowing your audience. You need to know as much as possible about who (okay fine, whom) you’re writing for so that you can tailor your message to suit. The latter camp, however, insist that audience is necessarily a fiction. It’s imagined by the writer, abstracted from assumptions. You can’t possibly “know your audience.” Are they a bunch of persnickety prescriptivists who still insist on using “whom”? Which translation of Proust do they prefer? Shoot, I’ll bet you don’t even know what they had for breakfast this morning. Ede and Lunsford, however, suggest that the reality is far more complex. Audience is both invoked and addressed! It’s who(m) you imagine you’re writing for and the actual persons who will read your work because, in fact, it’s everyone who has ever influenced you. All those voices in your head! The ones reading this now, the ones metaphorically looking over your shoulder as you write, urging you toward this or that grammatical choice. From birth we’re continually internalizing, revising, and producing language: an ongoing dialogue with our environment.

And they weren’t the only ones, Ede and Lunsford. Matter of fact, their work was part of a much larger transdisciplinary shift in thinking whereby knowledge (and knowledge of writing) has come to be understood as generated through interactions and thus as socially situated and always emergent (rather than, say, residing inert in dusty books). Sociocultural anthropologist James Wertsch (1991) wrote a heady (pun absolutely intended) philosophical work on the matter called Voices of the Mind. He draws on Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and others and using words like “intermental” and “mediational means” to demonstrate that, well, basically, “no man is an island,” as John Donne put it. We’re part of a society, you and me, and it’s not just the laws, the economics, or the social media that link us. It’s the ongoing knowledge production that results from our interactions, no matter the time or the medium. The suggestion popular in history and Hollywood that great works are the product of a genius toiling in isolation not only isn’t true (Proust was quite the socialite, but more to the point, he was heavily influenced by many other writers before him); it also makes writing a lot harder than it already is and actively prevents people from challenging themselves since they weren’t born into the Mensa society and can’t afford the rent on an ivory tower.

So, come write with us! We love to listen deeply, to engage with your ideas, to muse aloud with you, think things through, see how they’ll play out. We’ll join the chorus of voices in your head, not to add to the cacophony, but to help you coordinate them into a beautiful song.

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (1984). Audience addressed/audience invoked: The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 35(2), pp. 155-171.

Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reader as a Tyrant: Co-operative Principles in Standardized Exam Writing

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

Almost every Writing Center blog post begins with a story. Here is mine. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner, two years ago, I took TOEFL exam again. Yes, again, for a second time. At that moment, I have completed my MA degree in English Literary Studies in Hong Kong, read books written by the greatest critics in the world, wrote paper essays rewarded with and “A” from professors. I thought all of these would qualify me to shine excellently in a TOEFL exam, but unfortunately, I failed again in the writing section—only 24 out of 30. When I took TOEFL for the first time, my writing was also 24. Nothing changed. Even after the academic training in English department, nothing improved.

What ensued were a consecutive of questions and suspicions: “Can I manage writing in English? Am I a qualified English user? Please tell me what goes wrong with my writing? Is it grammar? Syntax? I have already applied complicated sentences and tried to be as critical and insightful as Foucault and Derrida. Tell me how I can improve myself! I did it tremendously well in IELTS. Why does TOEFL not work for me? What on Earth does the exam want? Why can’t the examiners see my talents? I have read the rubrics on ETS website, but ‘well-organized’, ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, ‘variety of languages’ are like vague empty outlines. They do not make any practical sense to me. How I hope I can talk to the markers in the face and throw the words on them: ‘Tell ME what YOU want!’”

The impacts on confidence were devastating. The side-effects even followed me in my daily life that I became extremely meticulously careful when I wrote, be it the meeting minutes, the emails to colleagues, or anything that would be read by readers. As an English major graduate, I could not write satisfactory English. That is the biggest irony to me and even to my life. I started to question my English learning experience, the efforts I had invested, and even my intelligence.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retake TOEFL. If it failed, I believed I might not take the exam again throughout my life. To take the preparation seriously, I paid tuition fees and attended an online tutorial course.

Was it effective? Yes. I got 28 out of 30 in the writing section, even though I realized immediately after having stepped out of the exam center that my writing had been a bit off the topic.

Did I improve my English ability? No!

In fact, I am a much more capable English user than the exam tutors. It seemed that everything the tutor delivered in class was a reaffirmation of what I had known: For the Introduction, use a hook to attract readers’ attention, expand the background information, bring out the topic and demonstrate the thesis statement. In a body paragraph, employ a clear topic sentence, write one or two elaborative sentences to explain the topic sentence, leave the major space to talk about examples and if necessary, write a small conclusion. As for a conclusion, don’t include any information, paraphrase the arguments mentioned in body paragraphs as succinct as possible.

They all sound like clichés. However, it was until I received my score report did I realize that I did not follow such mechanical rules in my exam writing. I used to think I need to be the owner of the writing; it should reflect my talents and styles; even though it would be an exam writing piece, it should be personal and original. Now, at least in the standardized exam writing settings, I have relocated my concepts about writing in an exam setting, and effects from the changes in my attitudes are revealed in my score report. In fact, exam is no more than a game with explicit rules. Sometimes, you need to feel detached to write better, to think more about the function of each sentence, mechanically practice the rules, write down the connectives, and when the time is up, say farewell to the work forever.  Exam is a task. Just complete it. You don’t need to show your personal talents in an exam setting, since the examiners don’t care. It is not worthwhile.

What makes standardized exam writing different? My answer is—the reader, the sharp professional yet indifferent eyes behind the screen skimming the written works, looking for something they expect they will read, making decisions whether they feel good or bad based upon the training they have innated into their mind mechanisms, marking the writing pieces, and over. How much time will they spend on reading yours? One minute, two minutes. Perhaps more, but they definitely will not read your writing closely, to appreciate the merits hidden in the textures of your lines. Nowadays, ETS even applies e-rater Scoring Engine (an AI technology) to mark writings. Machine rating says what exams expect to read in the writing section—standardized writings, expected formats, explicit signs, no surprise. The exam systems need cooperative pets to respond effectively to every signal to show their capabilities so that they can get rewards.

Exam markers are powerful readers, but they are not and should not be the authority to judge your writing in general. Exams provide a context with a set of rules to play. Honestly, all writings with expected readers do have rules, and your academic writing settings make no exception. Think about how many pieces of assignments your instructors need to mark, what they expect to encounter, and how much time they will spend on your writing. When you have your answers to these questions, you can decide whether you are going to be more orthodox or more innovative. Also, don’t forget, the academic writing setting is comparatively flexible. You know who your reader is. Talk to your instructors and ask them for clearer guidelines.

 I agree standardized exam writing has an oppressive force to discourage innovation, but this force needs its settings to perform. Outside of the exam contexts, you still have plenty of room for freedom to show your talents and styles: Write in your blogs, leave reviews on IMDb, update your social media, draft a caption for your Instagram Story. You will encounter readers who do appreciate your compositions. Show your talents to them.

To conclude, almost every writing center blog post begins with a story. Therefore, I wrote mine.

Blooms of Agency: What a Middle-School Writer Learned from KPREP On-demand Writing

By Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

Several years ago, I had a peer in middle school who became frustrated with a number of recent school policy changes. One week, cafeteria lunches had to begin abiding by new nutrition regulations—burying many of her favorite and familiar dishes. That following week, dress code policies began to be enforced more thoroughly—indubitably ushering in discipline against female students much more directly than their male counterparts. Both changes felt like additional hurdles to my peer in her learning. At this time, she, along with many of our friends became frustrated with these and other changes in school rules that left them feeling unable to express any feeling other than that of submission. They were angry with an entity that had no face, an imagined enemy that could not be named or assigned to a single person.  It also happened to be not long after these experiences that yearly K-PREP testing was about to commence.

This test measures student performance against codified Kentucky academic standards in the major subject areas taught in public schools. Accompanying this test is the usual essay exam question that often champions the standard five paragraph essay that is ingrained into the hearts and minds of public education attendees. One of the hallmarks of the writing section is its plea for crafting an argumentative response to a neatly defined opinion scenario depending on the grade level taking the test. From the time we entered testable grades, we were conditioned to see how important the yearly exam was not only for ourselves but also for our school district. Each year teachers poured their enthusiasm into wishing us well on the test as they laid their trust in our ability to apply what we had learned through the year to those booklets that contained our penciled in answers.

It was on this exam that my peer decided to work out the anger and frustration of navigating middle school as a response to an essay question. Something in the prompt related to a school procedure and my peer leaned into their experience and drafted an argument to lambast the system that garnered the rule changes and heavy thumb this student felt was pressing on her emotions. In making her response, she wrote in a way that directly addressed the reader or grader of this examination and in some ways ignored the goal of the exam—which seeks to measure student writing against a state determined standard. My peer’s writing took on an entirely different form that burnt away the edges of the exam’s intractable parameters. In her best attempt to maintain an academic voice, she pointed her finger at the test grader and gave blame for all the problems that were interfering with her inability to find a voice.

Looking back, I wonder now if only I could hold the clock on that exam and have conversations with my peer about genre, audience, and instruction guidelines—subjects that didn’t matter when pegged with her focus of expressing her frustrations on her own terms. The grader of that exam essay likely glossed over the essay and checked each box when she tried to adhere to the guidelines or address the prompt, ultimately missing her fervor and intent. Perhaps the grader of that exam toted a distinction of incomplete or failing to meet the standard. But, how can one assess bringing awareness of nonnative, invasive plants in a proposed community when the dread of one’s home life looms over waiting until the exam is over and the school day has finished?

My peer in that moment—although failing to meet the On-demand writing standards of the exam—found her voice and did so in a way that forced her to reckon with ideas of audience, tone, and genre. She could have just submitted a myriad, itemized list of concerns or even a stream of consciousness rant that would jump from one thought to the next with hardly any connection. Instead, she knew that she had to make some choices. She kept to the model of the five-paragraph essay and organized her thoughts in a way that would leave no question in the reader’s mind about what issues were occurring and causing her contention. Whether her convictions were rooted in rebellious middle school angst, taking the pulse of the public-school education system, or a mixture of the two—her very real emotional impasse of setting a no.2 pencil to paper had reached its epiphany. In choosing to write about her frustrations and anxieties in a way to address a potential culprit to her issues, she found her agency. In finding her agency she was confronted with the task of taking those frustrations and annoyances and turning them into a portrayable plane for an imagined reader.

Though I would scarcely suggest to students to deviate from their assignment prompts in such a seemingly anarchistic fashion, we (as writing center consultants) do teach them to undertake the journey of funneling those ideas and feelings into a form that a reader can access and engage with. Sometimes students are hesitant to write about a subject in which they hold contentions or reservations about in terms of portraying opposing arguments. These reservations can reach a more abrupt stalemate when students cannot find their agency within the prompt. The challenge of interacting with these prompts is further abstracted by the specificity of state standard which assess student performance in a vacuum. Indeed, much more could be said about the just debate in propping standardized on-demand writing up as the supreme measurement of student performance when schools with higher levels of poverty uniformly score lower on these exams that measure a single notion of writing.

At times, writers face a similar dilemma of channeling their emotions and feelings into their writing to address their audience. We at the writing center are jubilant to work with students whether they are beginning to engage with finding agency or are already in tune with their agency as they develop and become more aware of themselves and how they communicate with others in meaningful ways.

Let It Simmer

Todd Richardson, Writing Consultant

“I have to get it done,” the student says. She sits across the long table from me in the university lounge where I hold office hours. I’m a writing professor at a small liberal arts school in Western Kentucky. Her hands hover over her laptop, shaking and white. Her mask pulses with her breath, the cloth sticking to her lips then puffing out like a balloon. Outside, the leaves are brilliant—gold, crimson, orange. The breeze is crisp, brisk, earthy. I suggest it’s time for a break, perhaps take a walk without our masks, peep some foliage.

“I have to get it done,” she says. I wait for her to ask questions, but she doesn’t speak. Instead, she stares at her screen. Her typing comes in bursts, first in words, then in rapid deletions. After a few minutes, she throws up her hands and sinks her face into her palms. “I can’t,” she says. She tells me she sleeps four hours a night. She wants to graduate in no more than four years, fewer if possible. That’s why she’s enrolled in seventeen hours for Fall of 2020. She wants to do well in college, like she did in high school. Even in the pandemic, she managed to keep her grades up through her senior year. Then, in college, where the institution decided to teach a hybrid in-person/asynchronous model to cope with covid, she floundered. “I work all the time,” she says. “I never get ahead.”

I look back out the window, watch the leaves sway in the air. They seem peaceful. They breathe and sway. I know that what I have to tell my student isn’t what she wants to hear. I know because it’s not what I wanted to hear when I lived through a similar experience in grad school. It’s the same advice I’m advocating for here, and it’s counterintuitive to everything on your syllabus, everything your guidance counselor told you, every shred of the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture that you internalized from your parents or the news or however it made its way under your skin. Admittedly, it’s advice that I still struggle to follow to this day.

“Maybe you need a break,” I say to her. She shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

“You think you can keep writing?” She pauses, doesn’t answer. Then she shakes her head, rises, and shuffles out the door. I don’t know if my advice landed or if she’s just too tired to sit here anymore. As I watch her gather her things, a pang of empathy tightens in my stomach. I was just like her as a student. I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.

In graduate school, I worked at a similar pace to my student sitting across from me—always writing, reading, stressing, obsessing, striving for some academic, pie in the sky, attaboy. I kept articles and books stacked high on my nightstand and in piles next to my bed. I slept in fits—an hour and thirty minutes here, a toss and turn there. Eventually I gave up on the REM cycle and woke up to write the next term paper, the next prospectus, the next page or paragraph or chapter of my thesis. I managed—thrived actually—in the first year. I’m fine, I told people who commented on the dark circles under my eyes. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Then, as time passed, a mental sluggishness set in. It started as spacing out in class discussion. You’d find my body in its seat, but my mind had left orbit some time ago. I forgot what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. Then the fog spread to reading. My eyes would scan articles but would not absorb their meaning, as if my vision would bounce off the text. I became irritable with my friends, parents, and wife. Then the haze came for my writing. I stared at the blank, white snowdrift of my word processor, the cursor blinking on and off like a flickering synapse in my skull. Words would not come. Thoughts ran together in long, incomprehensible sentences. Quotes went without citations. Phrases repeated themselves without my awareness.

Eventually, panic set in. It started with feedback on an essay that read, “Todd, not your best work. Better luck next time.” After that, I entered every class with icy fingers and a tightening chest. It was all I could do to breathe, to lift my gaze to meet my instructors’. I felt the control over my own body seeping away and I was helpless to stop it. One night I got an email from my thesis advisor. The subject heading read: Todd—Chapter 3 Draft, Revision Needed. I didn’t get a chance to open the message. The edges of my vision darkened. I inhaled sharp sips of air. My knees buckled. I thought I was dying. My wife and my brother-in-law (he happened to be spending the night at our house) carried me to the bed. I regained consciousness in time to stop my wife from dialing 911. I had experienced my first full-fledged anxiety attack.

I wonder now what would have happened had I known the importance of taking a break. Not just because it’s good for your mental health—it’s good for your brain and productivity, too.

First, in order to be efficient, your brain needs time to be inefficient. What “inefficient” looks different depending on your personality, but a good suggestion for anyone in school—especially those of us in the middle of the second year of pandemical education—is to move around. Go for a walk. Dance. Kickbox. Or get all woo-woo and meditate, get a vinyasa flow in before hitting the draft again and take ten deep breaths. When you have more time, like right after you’ve submitted your paper or are just plain ol’ done for the night, do something that refills your mental gas tank. Video games, LARP, play a board game—whatever floats your raft down the river. Don’t take a break forever; we have deadlines and GPAs and life to keep up with. Set a timer for twenty minutes to write and twenty minutes of breaktime and stick to it. There will be times when you can’t take a break (life has a way of lobbing emergencies at us in the middle of finals), but make sure that you set aside time to let your mind wander wherever it needs to go.

Second, walking away from the keyboard is actually good for writing (and let’s go ahead and extend this to proofs, algorithms, presentations, and the like). Again, don’t walk away forever—I’m not saying that your term paper will write itself while you Fortnight the afternoon away. What I’m getting at is, let your writing simmer. Even if all you have is ten minutes, it’s good to set your draft aside and let it stew. Pounding your fingers against the keyboard until they bleed leads to a law of diminishing returns; over time, you will earn fewer rewards than the amount of energy you invest. Trust your subconscious to mull over your topic for a bit. You might find that your mind approaches your draft with fresh ideas, newfound energy, and a special zazz that makes your writing come to life.

Finally, taking a break is good for you. You have experienced what no other generation in the last one hundred years underwent; a global pandemic and one of the most prolonged disruptions to everyday life in recent American history. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to take a breath, to take time to feel the grass beneath your feet, to finding the peace in the reddening of the leaves. You are worth the decision to walk away.

This fall, you might hit a wall. That moment when your vision goes bleary and your eyes scan the article, you’re supposed to read but you can’t remember for the life of you what the words mean, when you’re staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page and your thought faucet feels clogged, take a break. Get woo-woo. Go for a walk. Let whatever you’re working on simmer on the back burner for as long as you can. Your brain will thank you for it.

A Sisyphean Task

Zoë Donovan, Writing Consultant

There is a quote from the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in the introduction that at the time I first read it in 2016 seemed trivial, unimportant and just a bit pretentious.

“I remember when it [American Gods] was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I’ve met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me, and smiled kindly. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he told me. “You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”He was right. I’d learned to write the novel I was writing, and nothing more.” – Neil Gaiman American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Since reading those words I have written an innumerable amount of novellas, short stories, poems, audio dramas, plays, and of course essays. Looking back, I’ve found that in every piece of writing, no matter how similar the subject material it may be to other previous works, this statement stands true.

                And yet, every time I finished a project I would find myself in the same line of thinking that Gaiman had at the end of the first draft. “I’ve finally figured out how to write!” And yet, every time I’d start a new project I would crumple into an agonizing state of imposter syndrome. Suddenly, it’s hard again and the words don’t fit right, the flow is off, my characters are stock image facsimiles of how I imagined, the page is blank, erased over and over again or scratched out ,and I can’t shut off the never ending rant telling me I’ve been deluding myself the entire time. I would find myself asking, how can I even consider myself a writer if it’s always this difficult for me.

                Since then, I have come to believe that it is a myth that someone can be a good writer or a bad writer. Throughout my experience I have found that Gaiman and Wolfe, in true fashion of their profession, stated something fundamental to the writing process. I only really grasped the weight of what this meant to me as a writer upon a reread of the book in 2020. We learn to write the things that we are working on. We learn to hone it into something that the intended audience will understand. No project will ever be the same, and you don’t ever really learn how to “Write”.

 Writing is a Sisyphean task. It is a grueling process that can at times be quite enjoyable, but at other times can feel like walking across broken glass. With the start of every new project, the boulder has rolled back down the hill and you find yourself cursing the writing gods for your own hubris. I say it’s a myth to be a good writer but a caveat is needed. The only thing that I believe separates a good writer and a bad writer is perseverance. Whether that perseverance looks like 100 words a day or 5,000 words a day, putting pen to paper is what matters, whether a project takes you ten hours or ten years, when it is finished you will have learned how to write that piece. No project will ever be the same as the last. You can bring in existing knowledge and skills, but at the end of the day you won’t know how to write that paper until you’ve already written it. 

                You will never know where to begin, where to end, and what exactly happens in between until you actually the piece. There will be tears, frustration and so much revision. But these stages help you, and you take something onto the next project that you didn’t know before, though as writers we are always growing, and it will never be exactly the same process.

“Tomorrow is the day”: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I am going to write tomorrow. I mean it. Tomorrow is the day I’m starting my next big story and there is nothing that can stop me. And it will be the best story I’ve written—knock your socks off good—but, you know, tomorrow. Why not today? Because I’m a little tired right now, and there is a baseball game starting in an hour, and, well, tomorrow is the day I said I’d start. Tomorrow it is.

            My personal best streak of “tomorrow is the day” was a year. A year of guilt, anxiety, and frustration renewed each afternoon, starting the moment I told myself tomorrow is the day, a cycle of hopelessness that paralyzed my fingertips. Right before my monumental run, I’d set the goal of writing 2,000 words a day—even achieving it once or twice. Then I failed a few times and moved the goal post when stress replaced joy, shifting down to 1k, then a page, and finally, after all the satisfaction was sucked out, a year of nothing. But here I am today, writing in my office on a bit of a hot streak. So what changed?

All it took was writing one minute a day. This isn’t a gotcha moment. I’ve talked to a lot of writers, from teens who write fanfic on internet forums to famous authors with seven-figure book deals. The one thing I’ve noticed that we all share is anxiety for the next draft. This feeling is insidious, stomping out creativity for sport, chasing down the characters and storylines we have imagined and hiding them from our creative selves. We stop ourselves before we even start. To be a writer, you have to write, it’s as simple as that. Each morning I make my coffee, sit down at my desk with my phone far away in a distant land, and write for one minute. What happens is this: I never write for one minute, it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told myself. Sometimes I end up with a few pages, others, a few sentences. The real magic comes from a lack. Lack of guilt, lack of fear, lack of writer’s block. All (mostly) gone. I am free to tell my stories now, to write my research papers, and above all, to just write.

            But the war for creativity doesn’t simply stop when I sit down, because the next clash starts during the drafting process. My creative and editorial brains are mortal enemies in my head, each fighting to have the lead role in my next story until tomorrow comes. So, I make a deal with my internal editor. Let me write today until all the words are down, I beg them. And then it’s all yours. I grant my creative self the opportunity to write freely in this moment, without judgment or fear, allowing the draft to be as bad as it can be. Often, it is really, really bad. And that’s okay. When I finish, I put it away until the characters call my name again, and then I hand over control to my editorial brain. They have been patiently waiting for this moment after all. I give them permission to revise critically (as opposed to judgmentally, which lends itself to a finality that does not exist in our drafts) until each sentence, word, and comma are where they want them to be. This is where craft meets creative. In this way, I stifle the battle between creator and editor, giving each the freedom they crave.

As writers, we must fight the good fight against tomorrow. We do this in the name of creativity and craft. Without them, we are lost before we begin, and therefore defending them is our primary focus. This is an unseen battle that permeates through the deepest crevices of our writerly minds. We must protect both creator and editor at all costs. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of tomorrow.

So, write for one minute a day, today.

In-Person or Online, We’re Still Here And We’re Still Talking about Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

For the first time in almost 18 months we have been arranging tables, stocking up on handouts, and dusting off shelves in anticipation of once again holding in-person writing consultations. On Thursday we welcomed our new group of writing consultants for orientation and once again the University Writing Center was full of conversations about how best to help writers in the UofL community learn strategies for being more effective writers as well as gain a stronger sense of confidence and agency about their writing. One thing we have missed in the last year, given the kind of collaborative dialogue that is at the foundation of teaching writing the way we do, is the kind of nuance and richness that comes from in-person conversations. Though we value the online video chat and written response appointments we held last year – and will continue to hold this year – we are also excited at the opportunity to talk to writers face to face again.

University Writing Center Staff – 2021-22

Of course, the fact that only half of each face will be visible is a reminder of the range of physical, logistical, and emotional challenges we all continue to confront. We are returning to a campus where masks are mandatory, in a city and state were delta variant cases among the unvaccinated are skyrocketing. Though all of our staff are vaccinated, we are not immune to anxiety or the distraction that comes from the ongoing uncertainty all around us. We will be adopting myriad modifications and practices to do our best to keep everyone safe. It’s certainly not a return to 2019.

Even so, our plan is to move ahead and, whether in person or online, do the best we can to use constructive dialogue to help writers address their individual concerns about their work. We will continue to listen carefully during appointments and respond with suggestions that writers can use to rethink and revise their work to make it as engaging as possible. And we will do our best to create a safe and supportive space where writers can try out new ideas – and sometimes make mistakes – and then be able to try again. There may be many uncertainties ahead in the coming year, but we will – as always – be committed to starting where writers are, with their concerns, and working toward honest, constructive conversations about writing that emphasize collaboration and creativity.

We are excited about the year ahead and the chance to help writers do the important work of communicating the ideas they are passionate about to the world around them.

Writing Groups and Events

In addition to our individual consultations, we will continue to offer other ways to support and sustain writing at UofL. Once again we will facilitate writing groups for Graduate Students and Faculty, Creative Writers, and LGBTQ+ Writers. For graduate students we will offer workshops on writing issues and our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. We will sponsor events, from our annual Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night (co-sponsored with Miracle Monocle), to our celebration of International Mother Language Day. What’s more, we will continue our community partnerships with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House.

We wish everyone a safe and fulfilling year and we look forward to working with you soon.

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

On Words and Images

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

When re-curating the bookcase visible to my webcam, I initially hid all comics and graphic narratives behind horizontal stacks of traditional novels. Considering how generally beautiful the spines of graphic novels are, I don’t think this layering was a result of an aesthetic instinct. I was almost definitely conceding to the idea that stories with images are fluffy. And though I enjoy similarly described pets appearing in other Zoom backgrounds, I didn’t feel totally comfortable featuring reads perceived that way in my own. 

Now, nearly a year later, these books can be seen bowing a middle shelf, and I can be seen, metaphorically, going to bat for them this baseball season. I have the writing center to thank for this. Both the UWC staff and writers have taught me the extent to which language transcends words, and the value of, I guess, communicative syncretism. Writers or colleagues and I will talk about things like the weather or even planetary energies not out of awkwardness or eccentricity but because such topics are strangely good starting points for thinking and communicating. Basically, it’s very natural for people to reach to make concepts work together so they can communicate a little more clearly (think emojis and storytelling). And writing center pedagogy, as a technique focused on communication, embraces that type of syncretism by defining and upholding the center as an inherently social space where writers and consultants bring their own unique knowledge and life experiences. 

Embracing this pedagogy alongside the fact that a lot of sighted people experience the world by contextualizing words and images together has me not only defending comics as literature, but also advocating for drawing as a natural extension of the writing process. It’s common, accessible, and effective to make meaning and record our worlds through visuals, and I personally started drawing pictures in my essay and class notes to combat lockdown-created memory issues. Whenever my brain has a flicker of an idea but is reluctant to fully enter analysis mode, I either make a quick semiotic square or caption a small drawing to revisit when I have the patience and mental capacity to puzzle out my thoughts. If you are interested in trying to use image as an avenue for developing scholarly written communication, consider starting with a semiotic square or a map —or even try drawing items that stand out from a text you need to analyze. I’ve also found that quickly drawing items or settings can be beneficial for immersing myself in a piece of creative writing. This method shouldn’t become fraught or have anything to do with how well you think you can or cannot draw —it is just another way to engage with complex ideas before tackling them through words.