Category: Process

It’s All About the Conversations in the Writing Center – Looking to the Year Ahead

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Those of us in colleges and universities often feel like the energy and anticipation of starting a new year happens every August, rather than in January. We draw up new plans for the year ahead, make hopeful resolutions, and take part in the rituals, both formal and informal, that mark new beginnings. At the University Writing Center one of our important, and always energizing, rituals takes place when the new group of consultants show up for the coming academic year. This past Thursday we all met as a group for the first time at the our orientation. That day we began the conversations, that will continue throughout the year, about how best to support the writing of all members of the UofL community. Central to our values and practices are seeing our work with writers as helping them strengthen the drafts they bring to an appointment, but also to offer strategies and advice to help them be stronger, more confident writers in the future.

University Writing Center Consultants – 2022-23

The best way to support writers and strengthen their drafts, writing processes, and skills, is to engage in collaborative conversations. We’re excited to be able to have our schedule available again for in-person appointments. Both my experience as a writing teacher, and research in writing studies, make it clear that the best way to help a person improve as a writer is through dialogue. In our appointments, writers tell us their concerns about their drafts, we tell them what we see as strengths and areas of concern, and then we have a conversation about different strategies available to improve their drafts. Throughout our appointments there is time for both writers and consultants to to be able to ask questions and explore new ideas. Through listening to writers and asking questions, we can help them discover for themselves how best to improve their writing. These in-person conversations are collaborative and energizing for everyone involved, and they are what make writing center work so rewarding for those of us who do it. The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that many people in the UofL community have not had the experience of an in-person consultation, but I hope people will give it a try this fall and see what a difference such a conversation can make in terms of their writing, now and in the future.

We are, as always, committed to work with any writing, with any member of the UofL community, at any point in the writing process. People are welcome to come in and brainstorm ideas about how to respond to an assignment, or bring in a draft to develop strategies for revision. For all writers, our work will continue to be grounded in an ethic that draws from principles of hospitality, service, care, empathy, patience, and respect. We are also always committed to be a safe, inclusive, and equitable space for all writers on campus. It’s these principles that help consultants and students work together to create more effective, critical, and creative writing.

We also continue our work to create and support a culture of writing on campus. We will continue to facilitate our writing groups (Graduate Student and Faculty Writing Group, Creative Writing Group, and LGBQ+ Writing Group), hold writing-focused events such as readings and open mic nights, and work with our community partners on our community writing projects. And we will continue to have more ideas about writing in this blog and well as on our social media feeds (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube).

On Monday morning, we will begin to a new year of working with writers to make their writing stronger. Those Monday appointments will be the first of thousands we will hold in the year to come. We’re excited about sharing the journey ahead with all of you as we all work to being a positive focus and force for all the writing, in all its many forms, that takes place in this university community.

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.

Titles: Topics and Subjects at the Top of the Page

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

If you couldn’t already tell, this blog post is all about titles. How to make ‘em, what to do with ‘em, and what they are for. Ever since high school, titles have been one of the most effective ways I get myself to care about my writing. In undergrad, I would come up with all sorts of fun titles, usually a pun or pop culture reference, just to get my creative juices going, and to get myself thinking critically about the material. It was one of the ways I made academic writing—which I hate—more interesting and (frankly) more bearable. Some of my favorite’s included references to Star Wars’ terrible dialogue writing (“Now this is podracing”) when I wrote a paper for a film study course analyzing the podracing scene from The Phantom Menace, and a reference to The Princess Bride’s RUSes in a paper for my Linguistics course all about agglutinative languages (languages that make new words by tacking on more and more suffixes and prefixes), that I cleverly titled “Words of Unusual Size.” While making fun titles is a great way to get the gears turning creatively, it doesn’t always do much to describe your paper to your reader, especially if you are like me and are in grad school and don’t get to have fun anymore.

The University of Michigan has a great resource for how to create compelling academic paper titles. The academic title consists of three parts: the hook, key terms, and a location. The hook is the part of your title that will give you the most creative freedom. It is the element of your title that draws in your reader, what makes them want to read your paper in the first place. Try to pick out the most interesting part of your paper or try to distill your paper down into one or two words to help guide your hook. I wrote a paper last semester about Moll Cutpurse, a fascinating character from Renaissance England. The paper was all about how Cutpurse represented gender presentation that was inherently transgressive in just about every way imaginable. For my hook I chose “Transgressive Sexuality.” Key terms are helpful for describing what your paper is about to your reader. They are usually terms essential to the topic of your paper, and if you are looking to publish, using key terms in your title will make your paper easier to find in a database. Think of your title as a sort of logline of your paper, the briefest of elevator pitches. They should give your reader an immediate understanding of what the purpose of your essay is, and the concepts you will be discussing in your paper. These are very rarely interesting, and typically very literal describers of the contents of your paper. For example, returning to my Moll Cutpurse example, for my key terms, I chose “Cross-dressing and Transvestitism.” The location gives context for the concepts being discussed and the scope of the paper all at once. What you use as your location will vary depending on what you are writing about, the genre you are writing in, and the discipline you are writing from. For an English paper, this might look like the time period in which a text was written, or if you’re taking a New Critical approach, it might just be a character’s name and the title of the text in which they appear. If you are writing a more scientific paper, it will probably look more like the data sample you are studying. For my Moll Cutpurse paper, my location was “Jacobean London”

As an example, a full title might look something like “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime: Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism in the Context of Defoe’s Puritanism.” Something like that, if you were to write a paper on Robinson Crusoe. Of course, my full Moll Cutpurse title was “Transgressive Sexuality: Cross Dressing and Transvestitism in Jacobean London.” Or, if I were to draft a scientific paper, it might look something like “AI Doctors: Cancer Screening and Machine Learning in Patients 65 and Up.” In the first example, “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime” acts as our hook, describing the basic premise of the paper in an interesting way. “Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism” are obviously our key terms, and “Defoe’s Puritanism” is the location, giving us all the context, the reader needs to understand exactly what this paper is going to be talking about. In the second example, the locations of the hook, key terms, and location are in the same place, performing all the same jobs.

This method of academic title creation is clearly a versatile and useful tool to keep in your back pocket if you ever get stuck. I’ll be using it myself on my final papers this semester. But don’t let this method stifle your creativity! This method is just one of the many ways to create a title, and it is by no means the “best” way. There’s an adage in writing pedagogy that says, “the best way to learn to write is to read.” That be made even more specific for titles: “the best way to write titles is to read titles.”  But sometimes, if you just need to get yourself interested in writing, just coming up with a creative, fun title does the trick.


Works Cited

Writing, Sweetland Center of. “How Do I Write a Great Title.” University of Michigan https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/undergraduates/writing-guides/how-do-i-write-a-great-title-.html. Accessed 10 March 2022.

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.

You May Hate It, But There’s a Reason for All This: Co-Writing about Co-Writing Part 1

This post is the first in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this first post, we’ll discuss key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects. The second part will both address 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. 

From right to left: Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant; and
Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

Ah, the dreaded group project, known for its ubiquity and the frustration it inspires. Few assignments elicit opinions as strong as those which require co-writing, but through this post, we’ll argue that the severity of those opinions—while perhaps not unavoidable—can be softened by recognizing features of co-writing projects.

To go about this task, we have opted to get a little meta in our approach and co-write about co-authorship. Using both external research and the lessons learned from our experience, we hope to shed some light on several considerations to keep in mind when approaching a co-authoring project, whether you are a student, instructor, or potential co-writer.

1.   Co-authoring is valuable. No, really!

First, it’s necessary to answer the question on every student’s mind—“Is there even a point to all of this?” Research suggests the answer is yes, and not just because it makes grading easier for a TA. 

James Reither and Douglas Vipond found that collaborative writing is a complex social process, and beyond the surface-level act of writing something down, it offers a unique form of “knowledge making,” positioning collaborative texts not as a product, but as a testament to the collaborative process. Unfortunately, despite other research indicating similar values, the average instructor may be hard-pressed to explain why they use group writing projects. For frustrated students, vague discourse on the importance of collaboration may not feel like sufficient justification for these exercises. Thankfully, there are several other reasons to value the practice.

2.     The co-authoring process is procedurally different from a solo write.

During the process of writing this blog, we found that co-writing is anything but linear. Even though we chose this project of our own volition, the initial enthusiasm waned, and early meetings resulted in a great deal of work from Kylee and a few stray sentences from Brice. The project moved forward in fits and starts, and it became clear that the effort would be weighted towards planning and revision, with the initial draft quickly becoming an afterthought. Suffice it to say, our anecdotal experience suggests co-writing requires a different set of metacognitive skills, and research agrees.

Helen Dale found that in student co-authoring assignments, the additional input from peers created a kind of feedback loop that eliminated the archetypical brainstorm-draft-edit process. Projects also had more logical structures because it was necessary for co-writers to plan in detail before beginning, simply to maintain coherence. Ultimately, co-writing can be a more extensive and intensive writing process, but it has the potential to transform what ends up on the page.

3. Collaboration succeeds when collaboration is the point. 

 Louth et al. compared both student scores and attitudes on individual papers and collaborative papers in a college freshman English course, and while they found no statistically significant difference between the scores, there was a markedly positive difference in attitude, with collaborative groups being more satisfied than their individual counterparts. The authors suggest that dissatisfaction arises when collaboration is elevated as a pedagogical value rather than a theoretical one; it works when the focus is on what is gained through the collaborative process.

In the case of this blog project, is the writing inherently better? Not necessarily, but it did push our approach in directions that might otherwise have gone unexplored. In the early stages, we riffed and asked each other questions about possible ways to broach the subject of co-authoring, and we challenged each other’s expectations about the goals and parameters of the project. For example, the initial draft of this post was specifically directed towards instructors planning co-writing assignments, but Kylee wisely pointed out that it was too narrow of a focus to be very helpful, and it negated the relevance of our own co-writing process. By shifting our attention to more general principles, the post opened out into something more accessible for different types of readers. 

4.     Successful collaboration as a learning process may largely be a matter of personality. 

If you’re one of the many individuals who resents collaborative writing, fret not—research indicates that group work will not be universally beneficial or enjoyable for everyone. Utilizing attachment theory, Shiri Lavy studied whether there was a correlation between personality types and performance in group projects. While it’s difficult to say how metacognitively beneficial the practice was, Lavy found that students’ self-reported satisfaction was influenced by their attachment style, with anxious and avoidant students both expressing dissatisfaction with group work compared to individual work, despite performing well. Some people just won’t enjoy collaboration, and that’s okay.

Ultimately, group projects aren’t going anywhere, and while it may seem reductive to point out that co-writing may not be for everyone, recognizing that reality may help reluctant co-authors re-evaluate their approach.  

Check back next week for a deep dive into the lessons we learned by co-writing as well as how writing center sessions can model the skills necessary to be effective co-authors. 


Works Cited

Dale, Helen. “The Influence of Co-Authoring on the Writing Process.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 65-79, https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/teachingwriting/article/view/1194/1154.

Lavy, Shiri. “Who Benefits from Group Work in Higher Education? An Attachment Theory Perspective.” Higher Education, vol. 73, no. 2, 2017, pp. 175-187, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26447599.

Louth, Richard, et al. “The Effects of Collaborative Writing Techniques on Freshmen Writing and Attitudes.” The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 61, no. 3, 1993, pp. 215-224, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20152373.

Reither, James, and Douglas Vipond. “Writing as Collaboration.” College English, vol. 51, no. 8, 1989, pp. 855-867, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/378091.

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.

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.