Category: Personal Growth

The Importance of Community

Christina Davidson, Writing Consultant

Writing can often feel like a solitary practice. It’s likely we’ve all had the troubling experience of staring into a blank page, searching ourselves for how to fill the void with our thoughts. And these lonely feelings have only been compounded by our collective public experience over the past few pandemic years. Yet during this time, I continually found comfort in the realization that when a writer sits in front of the page, they always bring others with them. We write to an audience, we engage with other voices in our field, and we collaborate with other writers to improve our practice. Indeed, when we are writing, we are not alone.

Writing, it would appear, is a much more social activity than we often think. With this truth in mind, I invite you to consider how further engaging in community as a writer may improve your practice. Here are a few benefits and advantages.

Support

Everyone struggles with writing. Despite how it may seem, even the best writers experience difficulties or frustrations with their writing. But on the other side of struggle, progress awaits. When writing within a community, you’ll find others who not only understand what you are going through, but often they will share strategies that have worked for them in the past. One easy way to have a conversation about your writing is to make an appointment for a consultation at the University Writing Center. This free service invites writers to bring any piece of writing in, during any stage of the process. We’re also here for any writer, be that an undergraduate, graduate, faculty, or staff member. My own academic journey has been greatly impacted by writing center consultants. When I meet with a consultant, I feel heard, affirmed, and encouraged in my work. I like to think of it as a series of ongoing conversations about writing, which continually refine my practice and make me a better communicator.

Real-Time Feedback 

One of the most treasured gifts a writer can receive is a reader. When writing in a community, we freely give each other this offering. When a person thoughtfully reads your work and responds to it, you receive perspective on your writing that will improve it. At the University Writing Center, we aim to provide students with useful suggestions they may take from our consultation to immediately bring their writing to the next level. We also welcome writers to attend multiple appointments on a single piece of writing. Our appointment sessions last 50 minutes and will always provide you with something to work on after the consultation is over. However, if you are looking for more feedback, we hope you will return to us for another chance to gain more insight. Communication in these appointments is key. Be sure to let your consultant know what you want to take from the session; they will do their very best to assist.

Accountability

Another way to tangibly find community as a writer is to join a writing group. The University Writing Center offers multiple opportunities for writers to meet with other writers with similar goals. One such example is the Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group which will begin again this fall. Another group starting soon is the Creative Writing Group, open to any creative writer seeking a group for growth and feedback. Groups like these, and many other events offered by the University Writing Center throughout the year, provide a chance for you to gain multiple perspectives on your writing, within a safe and helpful environment. Writing groups undoubtably help writers to set goals, maintain focus, and improve their work over time. You may also develop relationships with other writers, particularly with similar interests, that extend beyond your time in the group. Many of my lifelong friends are individuals I met during community writing events or retreats. Be sure to check in with the University Writing Center throughout the year to see when new groups or events are posted so you can experience these benefits, too.

While we have reviewed three important reasons to incorporate more community into your writing life, it is hardly a comprehensive list. Engaging in a community of writers certainly develops our technical skills, but also affects many of the more abstract qualities that make a good writer. I know my conversations with other writers have undoubtedly given me greater perspective, deeper empathy, and a wider awareness of the world. A good writing community can refine your purpose as a writer and push you towards bigger goals than you even thought possible. Maybe you hope to complete a novel, publish a poem, or conduct a new research study? A community of writers can help you achieve these dreams and will stand alongside you during the journey. It’s my hope we will see you at the University Writing Center soon to begin this process. Let’s get started today!

Listening to Learn: Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.

Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.

In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.

In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.

Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.

Navigating Burnout

Eli Megibben, Writing Consultant

Hi, my name is Eli and I am burnt out. I hear my alarm go off in the morning and I say “no”. My loved ones ask me how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and I say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question right now”. As much as I want to lay down right this very minute and take a big fat nap for five or six or seven days, that’s not really an option right now. Instead, I have to write. I like writing. I’m good at writing. As a general rule, writing brings me joy. At this moment in my life, writing has become a chore. My joy from and talent for writing are still there, but I’m having a hard time sifting through the stress and exhaustion from a particularly rough semester (both academically and personally) to find them. As much as I don’t want to write today, but I have to. It’s nonnegotiable. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to share three ways I try to manage my own burn out and get writing done even when I don’t feel like it:

  1. Pace yourself with structured work time and break time.

 When I’m staring down the barrel of a very homework-y day, I organize my time in 20- or 30-minute chunks. 20-30 minutes of reading for class, 20-30 minutes of reading for fun. 20-30 minutes of writing an outline, 20-30 minutes doodling. 20-30 minutes of writing a blog post for the University Writing Center website, 20-30 minutes of taking a walk. Pacing myself and strictly limiting both my work and break time helps me keep my energy up for the day. Also notice that I didn’t say anything about “20-30 minutes on Facebook reading about that person from high school’s really messy breakup” or “20-30 minutes of looking up ‘how long until they finish cloning that Wooly Mammoth they found in Siberia last year?””. I know that once I start goofing off on the internet, then all of the nice discipline I’ve observed throughout the day will go out the window and suddenly four hours will have elapsed, and I’ll still be texting my friends screenshots of articles quoting arrogant biologists claiming that we shouldn’t try to bring back prehistoric mammals with the caption “can you believe this chump?’” And then I will wonder where my day has gone and why I haven’t gotten anything done. Maybe you’re better than me and know how to use the internet in moderation when tasked with something you don’t have the energy to do. Or maybe you and I are more alike than either of us want to admit.

2. Establish physical boundaries between you and your work

Ah, “boundaries”. My second-favorite “b-word”. I don’t know about you, but I love a good boundary. Whether its boundaries with work, friends, or even the cashier at CVS who felt compelled to tell me about what life was like leading up to her most recent colonoscopy, I use boundaries to protect my (waning) energy and (frail) emotions a lot these days. Unfortunately, this this current cultural moment doesn’t really support my affection for boundaries. And that pesky plague we’ve all been surviving for almost 25 months has made the issue worse. Possibly the most effective boundary I have with work is determining where I do my work. I let myself work on the computer or read wherever I’m comfortable –in my office, in my yard, at a coffee shop, even on the couch if that’s what I need that day— while also establishing a few spaces as “no work zones”. My bedroom is one of those places. By making my room a “rest only” area, it is easier for me to shift out of work mode and have more meaningful and effective rest. I know some folks don’t have the luxury of being able to spread out enough to make their entire bedroom a “no work zone”, and when I was in that position as an undergraduate, I made my bed the “no work zone”. Even in a cramped dorm room, I made these boundaries work by dropping $30 on trampoline chair that I could fold up and slide into a corner when not in use. Separating work spaces from break spaces is a trick I have employed since I was in high school and it has helped me to make the most out of my rest, even when I am not getting very much of it.

3. Let yourself be kind of a smart aleck

The other two tips are pretty general “navigate burnout” tips. This one is specifically for writing. Have you ever found yourself staring glassy-eyed at the blinking cursor of a blank Microsoft Word document wondering how the hell you are going to write a paper about an assigned reading that you absolutely despised? A reading that made your stomach spasm a little? A reading that made you question if learning how to read was even worth it? I know I’ve had plenty of those readings in my life as a student and they usually leave me with nothing nice to say. And in those cases, I let the bitterness out. I write the snarkiest intro paragraph I can muster. And by the time I have something vile written down, I’m not staring at a blank Word Document anymore and I’m able to proceed with the paper. Being a smart aleck during the preliminary writing stages doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to hitting your page count, but it will help you exorcise some of your frustration and can help you power through and get it done.

*Please note that your smart-aleck interludes should not be included in your final draft. Do not turn in something rude and unpleasant to your professor. It’s not cute and they are not paid enough to deal with that.


Burnout is a monster. It is also transient and won’t last forever. When I am at the very end of my rope, I like to remind myself (or, more often, let someone else remind me) that being in school is a blessing. An education is one of the few things in the world that nobody can take from you. It is an investment in yourself. This experience is stressful and overwhelming, and we are all so tired. And it’s manageable. Pace yourself, make you physical spaces work and rest-friendly, trust the process and don’t be afraid to indulge in some silliness along the way. Friendly reminder that you’re here for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear yet. Read your readings, write your papers, and manage your burnout the best you can. I’m right there with you, and I’m rooting for you.

Taking Stock of Your Revisions

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I have made chicken stock more times than I can count. Four times a week over the course of a fifteen-year culinary career really adds up. There is a large pot of stock simmering on my stove as I write this, a weekly ritual I cannot abandon despite trading my chef knife for a pen four years ago. And while I want to talk about a few generalizable revision tips today, I am reminded how all those years of cooking have informed my writing process, so let’s start by discussing the perfect batch of broth.

            I started making stock eighteen year ago. Back then, I aimed for excellence, mirroring my mentor’s movements, seeing how he chopped the culinary trinity of mirepoix—two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery—breathing in the aromatic cauldron of rosemary and thyme while I learned from the best. The six-hour repetition of producing liquid gold became my obsession, and by the hundredth pot I foolishly thought I had attained a mastery. After five hundred, I realized I was only scratching the surface. Like with any craft, there was a wealth of nuance and depth I’d never even considered. I began reevaluating details, trying to notice every modifiable aspect of the process. Was I roasting the bones too long or not long enough? Should I have blanched them? Why did I put the parsley in so early? I also started reading books by great chefs like Escoffier, Child, and Keller, taking in the identical elements of their methods and blending them with my own. Each subsequent attempt became a chance to learn and improve, with every minor modification written down. The herb infused pot bubbling in my kitchen is a result of those efforts. Is it the perfect batch? No. After all that effort, I learned perfection isn’t the point. Discovering my own process is what has mattered most.

            I started writing stories the week I turned thirty. While it was a tough transition at first, the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized those culinary lessons could translate to my writing. Just like with my stock, it was all about figuring out my own style. I found that I write my best stories in the morning, and that if I’m excited about an idea, the story tells itself. I trained my creativity by reading greats like Baldwin, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, taking the best ingredients from their styles and whisking them into my own. But most of all, like with the daily process of improvement I had picked up in the kitchen, I figured out how my writing ticked from the iterative act of revision.

            One of the biggest questions I get when consulting with creative writers in the UofL Writing Center is: How do I know if I’m going in the right direction? The only answer I’ve found, as simple as it sounds, is that we all learn best through thorough revision. And although every writer is different, here are some basic revision principles to help any writer find what works for them, my own culinary trinity of noticing, asking why, and putting it away.

            #1 Notice: A critical aspect of revision, from beginning to end, is noticing the choices we make and turning them into a list. I mean this in the simplest of terms: Read your draft and mark down any line and or that doesn’t feel quite right. Try rereading the piece faster and see what happens. Does the feeling go away? If it doesn’t, you have isolated a concern. The key to finding successful revision strategies comes from learning to notice the peculiar aspects of your own writing, turning those thoughts into a list, and adding to the list when you see something new. Sound simple? That’s because it is. The repetition of noticing is one of the most essential tools in a writer’s kit.

            # 2 Ask why: To make the best stock I could, I questioned every aspect of the process, from how large I cut my vegetables, down to what kind of strainer I used to obtain the final product. The same goes for my writing. Why did I start with a long sentence in the second paragraph of this blog? What’s with the whole ‘culinary trinity’ thing? Is it cheesy? Probably. With your newfound noticed list in hand, critically question your own process. Write those questions down as they appear and keep reading. Oftentimes, an answer will arrive unannounced moments later and resolve an entire paragraph of concerns. Even when you think you have found that magical solution, ask why and when and where. Never stop questioning, because the more you do, the more you will notice about your process, resulting in a deliberate approach.

            #3 Put it away. After reading a draft a dozen times, you might start feeling stuck. Put the piece away and let your thoughts simmer. I’ve struggled with individual scenes from a story for weeks, eventually tossing the draft aside in frustration, only to stew on the idea and find a fully cooked solution when I least expected it. You never know when an idea will appear, but it is vital to trust that it will. This also goes for unused scraps. If you notice a sentence or paragraph isn’t working, paste it to a new document or scrap of paper and forget about it. I’ve had scraps from one story save a scene in another after weeks of failed solutions. Those opportunities disappear when you delete bad lines. So put it away for a while and know that the answer will come, even if it doesn’t happen today.

            The toughest part of writing is figuring out the fine details of our process. There are no quick workarounds to that. To find those answers, we must become vigilant noticers, examining every aspect of our writing, and organizing strategies around what we consistently see. There will never be a perfect recipe for chicken stock or immaculate revision strategy, but by surrounding our processes with attention, we have the chance to make them wonderfully ours.

Wait, How Can I Make the Most of My Group Writing Experience?: Co-Writing About Co-Writing Part 2

This post is the second in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this second post, we’ll discuss ways to use writing center sessions as a model for negotiating the co-writing process and reflect on the experience of co-writing this blog. The first part addressed key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects.

Left: Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant; Right: Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

Group writing is present in all levels of the academic community. There are informal co-writing opportunities, like a group chat that helps you better understand your discussion board post, but there are also the formal, much more nerve-wracking co-writing projects that, as we discussed last week, cause frustration and anger despite their benefits. Perhaps establishing productive group dynamics is the most harrowing aspect of a co-written project. Each participant will have to put forth their contributions and then, together, the group will have to decide in which direction they will take the piece. Both before the project begins and throughout the duration of the writing process, collaborators will have to manage and negotiate workloads and responsibilities that allow each party to reach their goals. A writing center appointment is kind of like that, too, in that the writer and the consultant have to balance their contributions in order to meet their goals. There is (hopefully) mutual effort and negotiation in every writing center appointment. In this post, we are going to explore facets of writing center practices that correlate to group writing. To do so, we’ll reflect on our own experience writing this series of blog posts. 

Negotiating Boundaries

            One thing that has to be negotiated in every writing center consultation, whether overtly or not, is the role each person will play in the consultation. The writer and the consultant must work together to determine who is responsible for what during the appointment. This is rarely an explicit process, but it will become clear throughout the session that each person takes on certain tasks. Likewise, co-authors must agree on their responsibilities regarding their project, but these roles do not always have to be as clearly defined as they are in a writing center session. For example, when writing this blog series, we did not set strict tasks other than taking on the main responsibility for one post and providing in-depth feedback and revisions for the other post. Other than that, we wanted to remain flexible when it came to “assigning” roles. For instance, one role co-writers might want to establish is a dedicated note taker, but we found it more productive to both take notes since we tended to pick up on different ideas during our meetings. Additionally, we both performed research related to the project, and we both had an active role in developing the outline and structure for the blog posts. This fluidity and casualness that we established may not be possible for every group writing project (for sure, I’m almost certain these blurred boundaries could complicate an actual writing center session), but as long as the boundaries, or lack of boundaries, are negotiated and agreed upon by all parties, then the work should be smooth sailing.

Maintaining Ownership

            Ownership is a tricky thing in a collaborative writing project. In writing center appointments, consultants always aim to provide helpful feedback without pushing the writer to make unwanted changes–we want to ensure writers maintain ownership of their document. A co-authored project, however, does not have the same clean break between who is in charge of the piece. Each person contributing to the project should have a vested interest in the process, content, and product. Yet, even when all parties are invested in the project, there can still be some tension, or at least misunderstanding. For this project, ownership became tricky when we were dividing the workload. Together, we separated our content into two complementary posts, but then we had to decide who would write the first draft of each post. When Brice suggested we each “write a draft,” Kylee thought he meant we would each write a draft of both posts, but that’s because she worked under the assumption that we held dual ownership over the whole project. Brice, on the other hand, had perceived that we were individually taking ownership over one half of the project. Besides this breakdown in communication, we did feel like we had equal control over the project when it came to making suggestions or revisions to the other person’s writing. Without this shared sense of ownership, we would not have learned as much from this writing process. 

Instruction and Feedback

            As co-authors, you have to be willing to learn from each other. John Hedgecock, in his book chapter “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards,” encourages those interested in co-authoring to partner with someone whose skills will balance and complement your own (114). This is true, as well, of writing center appointments, because successful sessions also rely on complementary skills and knowledge. For instance, consultants should know the mechanics for how to write an argumentative essay, but they rely on writers to bring the content knowledge needed to successfully make their argument. So, in a way, there is mutual instruction and feedback happening in every appointment; the consultant instructs the writer on writing practices while the writer instructs the consultant on content. In co-authorship, there may be less instruction on practical writing topics, but each person is going to have different knowledge to add to the project, which they will inevitably have to teach to their partner. We each had two different takeaways regarding what we had learned from each other. For Brice, he learned about accountability from Kylee, as she regularly reached out to make sure the project was still moving forward. Kylee, having no experience with co-writing, though, gained practical knowledge from Brice about the best way to approach our drafting phase. 

Establishing Trust

Trust may be the toughest thing to manage in both writing center appointments and co-writing projects. In a writing center consultation, writers have to trust the consultants are giving them accurate, helpful information that will make their writing and their writing process better. Consultants, on the other hand, have to trust writers are engaged with the project and are invested in implementing the strategies discussed during the session. A writing partnership, likewise, must be formed by people who trust their co-author’s advice and know they are both equally interested and invested in the project For us, we felt confident taking on a co-authored project because we had multiple, informal and formal opportunities to work with each other’s individual writing assignments. Additionally, we had previously met for a writing center appointment over one of Kylee’s class assignments, so we were familiar with how our dynamic would play out. We knew, through experience, that we could trust the other to provide honest, productive feedback, even when it meant taking our ideas in a new, unexpected direction. 

Conclusion

            Like we said last week, group projects probably aren’t going away anytime soon. We hope, though, that this two-part blog series has provided tools and frameworks to help make future co-writing experiences more fulfilling and productive. Focus on what can be gained from the process, not just the project. Chances are, each member in a co-writing project might feel some hesitancy or discomfort, but rely on establishing healthy boundaries, take ownership of the project, delight in the new information being learned, and find trustworthy people to collaborate with.


Works Cited

Hedgecock, John. “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards.” Writing for Scholarly Publication: Behind the Scenes in Language Education, edited by Christine Pearson Casanave and Stephanie Vandrick, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, pp. 113-127.

Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

One of the most daunting things to a writer or student is the blank page. While thinking on the topic of this specific blog post I found myself paralyzed by choice. “A short blog about writing” could mean anything. I started writing, erased the first line, started over. Editing as a I went, I found myself held back from what the point of this was, that I was getting caught up in the minutiae of writing instead of actually writing.

 I am, of course, being somewhat hyperbolic in the above paragraph, but it isn’t far off from my experience engaging with past and current writing projects. We tend to get caught up in the sentence we are constructing rather than the point of the piece.  

I find that taking a step back from that detail-oriented nature can do more good than letting an inner editor take over constantly. Instead, try to focus on getting something on the page. Prohibit yourself from using the backspace, repeat your points and repeat yourself in different ways. This type of repetition can be monotonous in a final draft, but a mock-up first draft can provide a writer with options when returning to the piece.

Then, once you have created something, step back, make a cup of tea, meander over your thoughts. Take the evening, day or week. Then use this piece that is what I lovingly refer to as a “word explosion” to create an outline and reorganize your thoughts. Returning to it with a fresh head can prevent you from becoming fatigued over a specific project or idea. From there, you can make edits, rewrite sections, omit unnecessary information, reorganize your thoughts, and fully flesh out points in your future drafts.

It is impossible to edit a blank document. Good writing takes multiple attempts, revisions, and proofreading. Half the battle is getting something on the page. In addition to this, it is exceptionally difficult to fully edit an unfinished piece, because you don’t know what additional context you need to provide, you can’t know how to transition into or from a paragraph or idea that you don’t yet have on the page.

Silencing my inner editor during my initial draft has become my go-to in the last few years. In the past, I have often been struck with choice paralysis or perfectionist desire. I feel that every piece I put out should be perfect as soon as it first hits the page. This is not a healthy or productive writing strategy. It creates this false narrative in early writers, (and late writers) that revision is not a key step in the process.

Instead, your first draft should be passionate. Why does this matter to you, why is it important that it is said, and what is your evidence to further support these claims? Writing is about growth, about changing the way the audience sees something or approaches a topic. Along that same vein, writing is process in which you can discover yourself and your arguments about a piece.

If you’re constantly dissecting every word or sentence you put on the page, then you can become overwhelmed and lose the motivation to continue writing. Instead, just focus on getting words on the page. They don’t need to be good. They don’t need to be ready for publication or submission–get your thoughts down without hesitation and with total freedom to put whatever you want. This early draft isn’t what you are sending in, it is for you and you alone as the writer to better understand yourself, your process, and your approach to this particular piece you are writing.

I know this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be something that works for writers who struggle with starting. I find that in my own writing, starting with a loose thesis works best. You can always come back to the thesis and make it stronger, or, if after writing you decide that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t fit, then there’s no harm in returning to the drawing board on your thesis statement. Revisit your writing, what are you trying to accomplish in your stream of consciousness? Hone in on those points and fully articulate them. If you can argue it in a fully-fledged piece, then don’t be afraid to change it and make it your own.

Shutting off that critic side of your brain and just putting words on the page in a stream of consciousness style can help to create a framework for yourself during the writing process. You might discover that your initial thesis doesn’t quite fit, that a certain piece of evidence doesn’t hold as much weight as you originally thought or that you need additional information or research to fully set your argument. Giving yourself and piece a space to grow without an internal critic can lead you down a path that may be different from your initial intent and provide you a better understanding of your argument.

While it is important to be critical of your own work and edit that work, within the writing process that internal criticism can detrimental and create a sort of choice paralysis and inhibit us from actually engaging within the writing process. So, instead I encourage you write your first drafts like no one is watching and shut out the editor.   

For The Love of Writing

Michael Benjamin, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

It’s not lost on me that this is being posted on Valentine’s Day, 2022. So I’m going to try and stick to the day’s theme: love.

Love is hard. Complex. It’s a feeling, sure, but it’s also an action. These days I’ve been conceptualizing love within the framework of care. Caring about ourselves, our dearest ones, our community, our larger world. Care can be shooting a text to a friend you haven’t heard from in a week or two or volunteering at the local community literacy center. Care takes energy but is always worth it even though it usually comes with little to no reward. In an affective economy, care is a currency. Tying love and care together begins to make visible all of the little acts we do. It pushes us to be thoughtful and reflective and, frankly, better people.

I realize this probably feels like it’s going off of the rails, but please bear with me.

I think I can speak for everyone at the writing center. We care about writing at the here because we care about our UofL community. And we know that we have a unique opportunity to spread the joy of a love for writing.

Here’s a quick story: it was my first month of my undergraduate career and I’d gotten a lower grade than desired on an assignment. I went to the writing center, not really knowing what to expect, hoping that I’d come back with a better text to bump my grade up. What I got was an experience that has powered my academic career for the past decade. My consultant smiled at me and told me Play with your writing. Find the joy in it. Keep caring and putting love into it. That experience was so transformative for me that seven months later I was working in that writing center. I’m sure it has something to do with my pedagogical ethos, too. That consultant cared about me, showed a love for her work and writing and the writers she worked with in a way that was so infectious and powerful that I needed to take action, to pass it along.

I write this as a call for all of us to radiate that love and care throughout our worlds. I also write this as a way to urge us to use the written word as a means of care.

Next week, we are hosting an event for International Mother Language Day. I’m excited to see y’all UofL community members show a love for writing through all of these guest blog posts written in your mother tongues. I’m even more excited to fill out these notecards for recent immigrants and refugees. Handwritten letters of simple words of encouragement are an act of care. Taking the time out of your day, in the middle of what has been a brutal semester, to stop and focus writing something for someone you don’t know in your best handwriting won’t show up on your CV or transcript, but it’s a loving act that can have a world of meaning. I’m personally excited for our little writing center community to show love to all of the multilinguists and polyglots amongst us.

I know today is viewed as a day or romantic love. A day you spend with your partner, showing them how much you appreciate them. I implore you to show that care to everyone. What if you jotted a little note of appreciation for the wait staff at the restaurant? Sent a couple coworkers/colleagues/classmates a small compliment? Took 10 minutes to yourself to journal what and who you love and care for? Care for you? What if you went completely old school and snail mailed your folks? Words are powerful and cost nothing. Write them. Share them. Care for and with them.

Why Can’t I Write Like Derrida?

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

The other day, I had a discussion with our acting director on what are the standards for good writing. As a graduate student, I have witnessed numerous writing styles published in academic journals. Some are written in straightforward plain English; some are less accessible to read, as those written by Derrida, Lacan, Spivak, and Homi Bhabha. Whenever I attempt to read these great thinkers, I would often find myself trying to single out the main arguments from their obscure styles—convoluted syntax, jargon with special connotations, and complicated sentence structures. I have heard people complain about these authors: “Their writings are too incomprehensible!” “Why can’t they write in a more reader-friendly way?” My discussion with the acting director on the standards of good English writing remained unresolved. We were uncertain whether it is appropriate for us to decide if these great thinkers compose good writings, but we agreed without any doubts that these authors are super intelligent.

Bearing in mind the question of what makes good writing, I started to read one of Barbara Johnson’s essays “Bad Writing.” In this short article, Johnson defends at least three types of “bad writings.”  One of these “bad” qualities lies in obscurity—that readers assume a text to be bad if it is difficult to read. “‘Don’t understand!’ becomes an accusation,” and readers blame the “incomprehensible writing” as “the cause of incomprehension” (Johnson 160). However, Johnson argues, it is unfair to critique authors simply because their works are difficult to read. Readers can at least suspend their judgment and reflect more on their own reading attitudes, skills and strategies (Johnson 160). Johnson notes, “[a]fter the theory revolution it is no longer possible so serenely to separate style from thinking, idea from language” (162). In other words, complex theoretical thoughts sometimes require convoluted expressions. Style and thoughts are in a unity. Reading thus becomes demanding. To appreciate such complexity needs a set of advanced reading skills that readers can hardly achieve unless they are properly trained. No other way out.

Therefore, obscure works are not a result of bad writings. They are just difficult to read, foreign to our established mindsets. To read them needs time and reflection. Johnson notes “[u]nderstanding the conceptual breakthrough … depends on pausing there long enough” (164). She also points out, “[t]hought as a break is different from thought as a chain” (165). Whenever we pause and attempt to comprehend the obscure writings, the fluency of reading is surely to be interrupted, but the breaks are also chances for our mindsets to welcome transitions. To digest new and complex knowledge cannot be an easy task. It needs time and effort.

Last semester, a course instructor criticized my writing style as convoluted and complex. She also mentioned that I failed to follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson who can express complicated arguments in a clear and accessible way. Such accusations made me feel so anxious to the extent that I started to deliberately avoid composing complex sentences. I was disappointed that she did not appreciate the designs I embedded in the selection of words and paragraph organizations that were intended to respond to the main arguments and to relate the resources I read. I understood that my reader-instructor expected a style of clarity. But what if my arguments are complicated and they need complex organizations? Does a student assignment have to be explicit direct and simple-minded? Does it mean a complicated student assignment can only be marked as a product of bad writing? After reading Johnson’s essay, I might challenge the instructor’s critique: why can’t the instructor follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson to read—to pause and reflect when reading a student’s assignment?

Should the instructor respond to me, she might say it is both impossible and unnecessary to invest so much time in reading a student’s assignment. If a student has complicated ideas, they have to be expressed in an explicitly direct manner so that instructors can comprehend them at first glance. I can understand this excuse. Nowadays, instructors are often so fully occupied with teaching duties, research tasks and administrative jobs that they can hardly spend more time than necessary on reading students’ assignments. Within the limited time, instructors don’t expect to encounter obscure works at the student level. Otherwise, they might tend to assume the convoluted writings are a product when students fail to try harder to express in a clearer way. However, in the meantime, we will find instructors tend to spend hours readings the obscure works of Derrida and Lacan. Why can’t they spare more time on the obscure students’ writings? The disparities in writers’ academic achievements and social status are another factor to affect instructors’ reading attitudes and expectations. As Johnson notes, most obscure works will keep being condemned by most readers until they enter into the canon, and only since then, readers can attempt to appreciate the poetic genius in the obscurity (160). As for students’ works, they are far from being recognized by academia, not to mention the canon. No wonder instructors tend to underestimate the possible significance and academic contributions in students’ writings. At the student level, writing styles are supposed to yield to the expectations of their readers.

Cruel reality, isn’t it? What can we do? Can we still write like Derrida if we have complicated thoughts to express? The strategy I propose is to keep writing. Keep writing the way colonized writers “write back” to colonizing powers in postcolonial studies. Like them, we can use writing to issue our subaltern voices when we practice complicated thoughts. Keep writing in the spirit of Derrida’s “as if.” Write as if we are complicated scholars, who always attempt to develop sharp arguments while balancing between complex ideas and the accessibility for readers. Keep writing with a consciousness to look for potential quality readers in academia—compose quality papers, send them to journals, respond to feedback from editors and reviewers, and try to get them published.

Now, we can repeat the question “Why can’t I write like Derrida?” in a plain tone, without agitation or anxiety. Repeat it as a rhetorical question because it no longer is an unsolved problem. I can write like Derrida, but sometimes, I choose not to. Now, I will consider the factors, such as context, reader and genre, before I make the decision whether it is necessary to write like Derrida.

Done is Better Than Perfect

Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

I have always expected too much of my writing. In high school, I wrote poetry that I was certain conjured magic on the page, only to find sheepish typos and garish rhyme schemes when I later reread it. I was surprised, embarrassed. After uncovering my own fallibility, I lost the confidence to show my writing to anyone save my closest confidants. The discovery that one draft of writing could come out feeling so perfect only to later realize that the same piece needed more work indicated some clear flaw in myself. How could one written thing sound so good today and then so horrid tomorrow? Clearly the issue was me. I needed some work, some practice, to push harder. Instead of fun, writing became painful, an exercise reaching for the unattainable. The pressure I placed on myself forced me to improve and justified my expectations, but it also led to bad habits: procrastination, negative self-talk, loss of perspective.

               This pattern continued in college. I required spectacular feats of my five paragraph essays. Introductions had to begin with perfect first lines, hooks that lured my professor sentence by sentence towards my thesis. Conclusions had to culminate by offering some sort of profound philosophical truth that I was certain riveted my composition instructor’s perceptions of time and space as they read through their biweekly stacks of essays. My word choices had to amount to pithy remarks and razor-sharp observations. I earned A’s, a few smiley faces, check marks. These academic at-a-boys further entrenched my devotion to the cult of perfection, and when I didn’t receive the happy face or check mark it only reinforced my insufficiency. I chased a high of perfection but mostly experienced self-doubt and disappointment. Still, I was convinced that this quest for success was the process of writing. Perfection served as my pie-in-the sky.

               Then I went to grad school. Whereas before I had the time to obsess over my writing, the demands of an advanced degree knocked me on my heels. I floundered through stacks of academic articles and whole books due in a week. Professors assigned essays double the length I was used to with only half as much time to complete them. Perfection slipped from my grasp. I turned in first drafts that I started the night before. I spent more time understanding my readings than on their corresponding assignments. I abandoned my perfect first lines for functional sentences, let my conclusions fall flat, and didn’t turn in a single essay that used the word “pithy.” I received feedback of triple red question marks next to phrases like “So what?” and “I’m lost.” When I lamented to one of my professors that I felt my writing had sunk to sub-par levels since starting the program, she cocked an eyebrow.

               “How so?” she asked.

               “I don’t spend the time I used,” I told her. “I just finish it and turn it in.”

               “Done is better than perfect.” She handed back my paper, which was covered in red pen and included the phrase “Interesting Insight.” I got a B+.

               I wish I could tell you that I followed her advice from then on. It took me several more years and another master’s degree and a baby until her advice stuck in my skull, and only then I learned it because I didn’t have another choice. Diapers and midnight feedings superseded my desire for perfection. I swapped simple, short sentences in exchange for fifteen more minutes of REM. And finally, one the day, I received praise for it. Mentors wrote me about how clean my work was, celebrated the fact that I stopped using the word “pithy.” All of my work came back with criticism. I read it while bouncing my daughter on my lap, did the best I could to internalize the advice, and moved on. Letting go of perfection provided me a new opportunity I did not anticipate: the freedom to write for myself.

               Many writers learn this lesson well before I did, but many do not. I see some of them in the Writing Center and the library, pining over sentence structure and flow and tone. Some of them are young freshman. Some of them are veteran PhD students well on their way into their doctorate. Having spent a good portion of my younger life stuck in the cult of perfection, I understand its draw, and sometimes I still get sucked in. But, if you can, remember that perfection is bupkis. Reading drafts from your younger self should give you the ick, just a smidge, not because you are a bad writer, but because you are a better writer today than you were yesterday. In writing, there is always room to grow, and that growth requires giving ourselves the grace that the pursuit of perfection denies.

Today, entering the third year of the corona-go-round, we need to remember grace now more than ever. Writing is hard, school is hard, and the pandemic makes it harder. We face pressures at work and school to meet expectations set when the world was normal. Yet, this is not normal, not yet. Write from a place of grace, not perfection. Perfection has its place, but keep in mind this piece of advice as you plug away at your assignments—done is better than perfect.

Writing Emotionally, or What I Learned This Semester

Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

I’ve known I had to write this blog post since August 24th. My intention, when signing up for the last blog post of the semester, was to write about procrastination. I had a very specific reason for this: when I was writing my undergraduate thesis I told myself I would write over winter break, but never did. I wanted to write about my experience in case someone else might be feeling worried about writing (or procrastinating) over the break. But then my colleague wrote the first blog post of the semester about procrastination. Not wanting to feel like a copycat, I decided I would write about something else. My next idea, based on some readings and class discussion from our Writing Center Theory course, was to write about hospitality. I had planned to pose the question, “What did you learn this semester?” and try to prove that, even if you didn’t get the grades you wanted, there was always something to take away from your writing experiences. I started that blog post, but it felt flat and phony. My third idea was to write about writing processes and what to do when your process feels broken. I really vibed with this idea; I had the whole thing written out ready to be edited closer to the posting date. I decided, though, that it was personal in a non-universal way. I doubted anyone would want to read the ramblings of a random writing consultant worrying about their own writer’s block. Feeling lost, I tried to think of another idea that would tie all my thoughts together.

Our director at the University Writing Center, Bronwyn Williams, writes about emotions in chapter two of his book Literacy Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities (2017). At the end of the chapter, he writes, “Our moment-to-moment experience of our emotions is like the weather—unremarkable until something unexpected or memorable happens. Yet when the weather changes, we notice” (Williams 35). When I reflected on this idea, I realized that emotions are what tied all my ideas together. I may have noticed emotional changes throughout this semester, but I didn’t really stop to think about the impacts they were having on my writing practices. I can see now how my motivation and approach to writing aligned with my emotional state. At the beginning of the semester, I was so thrilled to be starting a master’s program that I was eagerly awaiting the first writing assignment. That excitement soon faded into dread when I realized how rusty my writing skills had become; writing became more difficult the more worried I felt. Around midterms, my romantic relationship of five years ended, and the emotional aftermath made my mind wander every time I sat down to write. A feeling of fear and insecurity about my writing set in the closer it got to finals. As the weeks clipped along, writing didn’t become easier, it only became more necessary. As I sit here and type this post, I feel another emotion: concern. I feel concerned that I won’t be taken seriously because I’m a woman writing a blog post about ~feelings~ and how they get in the way of my writing process. I’m comparing myself to my colleagues and the blog posts they’ve written this semester, and all I can think is, “do I measure up?” More than anything, I feel frustrated that I haven’t been as productive as I would’ve liked, and that my emotions have gotten so in the way over the past 15 weeks.

I’m going to ask myself the question I said I wasn’t going to ask: what did you learn this semester, Kylee? I learned that emotions are going to affect my writing; every emotional change I’ve experienced this semester has altered my writing process, even if only for a few hours, which in turn led me to procrastination and the feeling that I wasn’t learning anything from my writing exercises. I learned that some emotions will make it really easy to write and others will make it really hard. I learned that writing recreationally, though it means taking a step back from my academic writing, is a good way to process emotions. And I learned that sometimes it’s okay to take a break from writing altogether because, as my colleague and trusty writing buddy would say, “I’m just not in a good headspace for this.” Most importantly, I learned that it’s okay to be emotional about writing because writing is inherently emotional.

Works Cited

Williams, Bronwyn. Literacy Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities. Routledge Press, 2017.