Category: Technology

On Distance and Embodied Writing

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t very attentive to the body’s role in writing. Because of my background in both visual and performing art, I largely saw the world as impressionistic. This perspective carried over into my literature studies and ultimately led me to consider writing a predominantly mental discipline. I found myself not only fixating on ephemera and reminiscence within my research, but also only writing to articulate, recreate, and relive the past. Worst of all, I idolized and sought —always unsuccessfully— an incorrect/reductive/harmful conception of the notorious, transient “flow state”. 

I realized just how skewed my perception of the flow state was shortly after lockdown began. Time drastically slowed down, but that effortless focus never occurred and I almost entirely lost the urge to write (certainly academically). For years I had written about and through nostalgia, but strangely I could not put pen to paper during the first several weeks of lockdown even though these were so filled with nostalgic feelings. 

I now think this initial inability to write stemmed from confronting the fact that, contrary to my long-held belief, the space/time separating our memories from the events in our lives is perhaps the least tragic form of distance. Many, even those of us who previously felt loved ones were reassuringly distant, started to wish for nearness. Naturally, this physical distance and the resulting virtual interactions made embodied experiences much more important for a significant percentage of the population —myself included. Like many others, I started spending more time exercising, cooking, and residing outdoors. These healthy habits, however, were joined by the new (to me) practice of doomscrolling. Even though this latter habit is often ultra destructive and the former are generally quite beneficial, I noticed a commonality between all of them: immediacy. While doomscrolling isn’t as directly an embodied process (although the anxiety it frequently creates can definitely pull you back into your body), it is certainly similar to one as it’s also a matter of immediacy —instead of distance. 

Because the libraries were closed, I started going through my backlog of owned books. One of the books I finally (“finally” as in “the English version was published in 2009”; this was one of my first quarantine reads) got around to reading was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book discusses the reciprocal relationship between running and writing, and, although I am not much of a runner, it provided a lot of insight about distance versus immediacy and embodied writing. I realized after this read that because writing was, for me, so much about processing impressionistic, past information, it naturally became difficult to write during a time when (because of uncertainty) all most of us could do was preserve information in a largely unprocessed state. I think this inclination to preserve the feeling of ideas before we understand them contributed to the increased interest in Twitter (and, consequently, doomscrolling) during this time. Of course some —or even most— of this pull to social media was a result of needing incessant communication for the sake of connection, but I think the immediacy of semi-unprocessed information was oddly comforting during a period marked by physical distance. 

In closing, I just want to share what this shift away from distance and pure mental processes and towards immediacy and physicality forced me —with the help of Murakami’s book— to recognize about writing. Firstly (though these points are very much related), it relies on both the body and the mind, and it benefits from being fortified through physical activity/patterns just as much as mental. I actually achieved a proper (refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for this) “flow state” after developing small habits —like snacking, stretching, and playing very familiar music or white noise— that establish a physical, sensory space for writing. Secondly, the process is located in both physical and temporal spaces, whether immediate or distant. Although my interest in memory has returned since school has resumed, my academic writing/processed information can now be suddenly immediate —just as my prose/semi-unprocessed feelings can be distant. Together these two discoveries have, during a time of uncertainty and physical insulation, helped me value writing other futures —everywhere and all the time.

Writing in the Time of Corona

IMG_2993Cat Sar, Writing Consultant 

Since the Writing Center has gone online along with most of UofL, it seems timely to share some tips about virtual writing center appointments, and how to get the most out of them.

  • Be as specific as possible when filling out your client report form. Anything that you want your consultant to know should be included. Remember, virtual appointments do not provide the luxury of real time communication, so the appointment form is even more important than usual.
  • Attach all necessary documents by 12 pm EST the day before your appointment. Similar to #1 on this list, you will not be able to pull up any additional documents in the virtual session. Consider either including the assignment guidelines or rubric either in the text of the appointment form, or as an attachment. This information is also incredibly important because it provides consultants with a sense of what your instructor is looking for and grading you on.
  • Before you make an appointment, take some time to peruse our website, especially the videos and handouts page. These are excellent, easy-to-navigate educational resources. Some questions may be answered without the need for a full appointment. Of course, we are happy to help you in whatever way we can, but we would also like to make best use of the time and attention we have.
  • Take a deep breath. As our fearless director says, “there is no such thing as a composition emergency.” Not even COVID-19. Your friendly neighborhood writing consultants are here to help. This page is intended to help you make the best use of the Writing Center during this time.  I also recommend that you check our Facebook, Instagram (@uoflwritingctr), and Twitter for updates! Our front desk is staffed from 9-5 p.m. and you can either call us at 502-852-2173 (please leave a voicemail) or email us. For any technology issues, you may called UofL’s IT HelpDesk at 502-852-7997.
  • Be patient and be well. We are all in the same boat, figuring out how to navigate in this weird time. Your professors, colleagues, friends and family are all feeling the stress of uncertainty in their personal and professional lives. Make sure to treat yourself with the same compassion you offer them. Wash your hands, clean your keyboards and your workspaces, and check in with your community. We hope to see you soon at the WC!

How We Will Work With You Online During the COVID-19 Campus Closure

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

During this extraordinary moment when UofL courses have moved online, we, at the University Writing Center, have been working to implement a plan that will continue to offer UofL writers a way to get thoughtful responses to their drafts. All University Writing Center dscn2185consultants and administrative staff will be working from home. Below I will explain our plan to work with writers online and point you to other online resources about writing effectively that we have available for you. I will also offer suggestions for how to make the best use of online writing response. In the weeks to come we will offer more blog posts about how to work effectively from home and tips for completing your assignments successfully. Although the coming weeks will clearly often be a stressful and uncertain time for all of us, we maintain our commitment helping you with your writing in a spirit of collaboration and generosity.

The Details of Our Online Tutoring System

While the University is delivering courses online in the coming weeks, the University Writing Center will be offering only online appointments in which you upload a draft and receive written comments in response. You may use the University Writing Center or Virtual Writing Center schedules to make a written feedback appointment. Both schedules will be available for appointments starting Monday, March 16. For detailed instructions on how to make your appointment, including a how-to video, and what to expect from written feedback, follow this link.

Here are some details about how appointments will work during this time:

  • We will offer only written-response online appointments. There will also be no online live-chat appointments.
  • If you have a face-to-face appointment already scheduled between March 18-April 4 on either the University Writing Center or Health Sciences Writing Center schedules, your appointment will be automatically converted to an online, written feedback appointment. However, you will need to upload a draft to your appointment if you would like feedback. Please cancel your appointment if you do not want written feedback.
  • When you make an online, written response appointment, you must upload your draft by noon the day before your appointment, or your appointment will be cancelled and the time made available to other writers. We do this to make sure that as many writers are able to use appointment slots as possible.
  • Writers will be limited to two appointments per week during this period.
  • We also have online resources on our Handouts, Video workshops, and Writing FAQs to help answer your questions and concerns about writing.
  • If you have questions about how to make an appointment, please email writing@louisville.edu or call 502-852-2173.

Some Tips to Make the Most of Your Written-Feedback Appointment

If you have never made a written-response appointment with us before, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of the experience. In these appointments, because we can’t have a conversation with you during the appointment, there are some things you can do before and after that are helpful

When you make your appointment: In addition to uploading your draft, please upload a copy of your assignment prompt. The prompt is a huge help for your consultant in responding effectively to your draft. If you don’t have a prompt to upload, please tell us everything you can about the assignment or writing task you are working on. Along those same lines, the more detail you can give us on the appointment form about your top concerns about your draft, the more able we are to respond effectively to those concerns. If, rather than just list a few words, you can write a detailed note about your concerns, we’ll be better able to give you suggestions and advice to address your concerns.

When you receive your draft with comments: You will receive your draft with your consultant’s comments as an email attachment within one business day of the appointment’s start time. (You can also access your draft with comments from your appointment in the scheduling system.) Your consultant will write a note at the top of your draft that summarizes the suggestions and insights the consultant has about your draft and how best to approach revising your work. In the margins of your draft you will find more detailed questions about your draft and suggestions for revision. Keep in mind that, as with face-to-face appointments, our online appointments are 50-minutes long. Our consultants will comment on as much as they can within that 50-minutes. If they can’t reach the end of draft, they will note where they had to stop.

As you revise your writing: If you’re not sure where to start in using the written comments to revise your draft, we recommend out handout on “Using Written Feedback When Revising.” You may also find our other handouts that cover writing strategies from writing introductions to citation to grammar and usage issues helpful when revising.

Other Online Resources to Help You with Your Writing

We have a wide range of online resources to help you with your writing.

  • We have Video Workshops on issues such as citation styles and formatting and how to use sources effectively.
  • We also have more than 35 handouts online with advice about writing processes, grammar and usage, strategies for approaching different parts of a draft, and more.
  • We also have Writing FAQs that cover the kinds of questions that come up often in our work and offer you suggestions on how to approach common writing situations.
  • We will be using our social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Our Blog) to post ideas and resources about writing, and some things just to brighten the day.
  • Finally, over the past eight years, the consultants in the University Writing Center have offered, in their posts in this blog, a wide range of advice about writing issues. You can browse the blog for a lot of good advice and, in the coming weeks, we will highlight some posts we find particularly useful for writing advice.

In the Weeks to Come

We are all in uncharted waters with this current situation. We know that, as writers, you may at times feel stressed, isolated, and unsure how your assignments and courses are going to work now that they are online. Our consultants, who are also graduate students, are going through the same experiences and are both sympathetic to your situation –  and feeling some stress on their own. As always, however, we will respond to your work as thoughtful readers and do our best to offer you helpful suggestions, questions, and encouragement.

We have an special community in the University Writing Center, both among our staff and with the writers who trust us with their writing. The best way to get through this current extraordinary situation is with the support and help and empathy of others. We all need to show patience and generosity to each other. Even if we’re working in different places, we are still a community and still stronger together. We look forward to working with you in the weeks ahead.

How I Write: Dr. Tracy E. K’Meyer

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Photo

Dr. Tracy E. K’Meyer is a Professor of History at the University of Louisville, specializing in the history of modern U.S. social movements. She earned her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993 and taught at New Mexico State University for two years before coming to the University of Louisville. She is the author of five books: Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm(1997); Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-80 (2009); Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009), with Catherine Fosl; I Saw it Coming: Worker Narratives of Plant Closings and Job Loss (2010), with Joy Hart; and From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, 1954-2012 (2013). At the University of Louisville, she has served as Co-Director of the Oral History Center (1995-2017), Chair of the Department of History (2009-2015), and acting director of the Public History Program (2009-2010, 2019-present).

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project: I am completing two book projects in the next couple months: We the People: A Narrative History of the United States, with A. Glenn Crothers; and, To Live Peaceably Together: The American Friends Service Committee and the Open Housing Movement.

Currently reading: Wesley C. Hogan’s brand new On the Freedom Side: How Five Decades of Youth Activists Have Remixed American History from UNC Press.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I like to write books. Historians still prioritize the monograph for tenure and promotion, and in the field one’s reputation rests more heavily on books than on articles. But, more than that, I just prefer the long form.

I like the deep immersion and the room to explore rich stories in a narrative as well as persuasive format. Of course, when not working on research, I write lectures, proposals, committee reports, and letters of recommendation.

2. When/where/how do you write?

My best writing is early in the day. I am pretty sure I wrote my entire dissertation before noon. I love writing at home, in my office in the attic, when my kids are at school and I have the place to myself. In a pinch, I can write in my campus office. But, I shut the door to keep distractions and interruptions down.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Quiet and a big desk. I write on the computer, but I keep a notepad and pen next to me for free writing and “scribbling” down thoughts in preparation for writing. I have my research notes in files on the computer, but I also print out the sections most relevant for what I’m writing that day so I have them for easier reference.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

I am a big fan of what I call “deep outlining.” I start with the big structure, then the chapter outline, then break that into ever smaller chunks. Often by the time my fingers hit the key pad, I’ve outlined even the individual paragraphs.

This helps me see where I’m going. When I start writing, I’ve already thought through most of what’s going to go on the page. Liberated from having to figure that out, I can have fun with the language and the story.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

As Professor William Leuchtenberg told me in graduate school, “don’t get it right, get it written.” I’ve taken that to mean many things over the years. First, get something on paper. You are going to rewrite multiple times anyway so just get moving. Don’t worry about making all the sentences pretty. They can be fixed. In fact, fixing them later is half the fun. I think it also means, don’t wait until you think your work is perfect before you show it to someone else. Get it in shape that won’t embarrass you and send it to a friend (or in my case, I’m lucky to have a historian husband who is my first reader for everything).

Finally, I’ve always taken it as an admonition to meet deadlines, even if they are self-imposed ones. When I meet a deadline I feel confident, productive, and energized, and that helps keep the mental juices flowing.

 

Poetry with Rules: Finding Creativity in Restraints

Ashley Bittner, Writing Consultant

Hello! Welcome to the writing center blog. I’m Ash, and today, I’m going to talk about writing poetry.

I am something of a formalist as a poet. I dislike writing free verse, and all of my poems are meticulously constructed. This is not, however, a commentary on the quality of free verse poetry. I am no Robert Frost to scorn free verse as playing tennis with the net down. No, I dislike writing free verse not because it is bad, but because I am bad at it.

The blank page, to me, is a yawning void that I have no words to fill. There is no muse inspiring me with images to paint with letters, there is no quiet artistic voice in me whispering the secrets of beauty. My poetic inspiration, inexorably, comes from having rules. If I am given none to work within, I will give them to myself, either by requiring rhymes, meters, or syllabic restraints. When I know the rules within which I must work, it engages me to find creative ways to fill those restraints and stretch them out. Working within them, I have been forced to learn subtleties of poetry.

Let us take enjambment. Academically, I knew that enjambment meant ‘the continuation of a sentence beyond the line.’ Perhaps a professor could have explained that it also serves to place special emphasis on the last word in one line or the first word in the next, or to create a doubled meaning. Knowing these things intellectually, however, was nothing to feeling the practice of them in my first sestina.

The sestina form forgoes rhyme or meter. Instead, it is a six (plus one!) stanza poem of six lines each (except that plus one), where the same six words are repeated in each stanza. They always sit at the end of the line, and they change which line they sit at the end of over the course of the poem. It creates a unique and cyclical rhythm to a poem, with words sometimes repeated quickly and other times languidly distant, and a spoken sestina often carries a dreamy way about it from that curious pattern.

To try and write each line as self-contained would require making a poem functionally formed of 36 short sentences, which is at best awkward and at worst comic. Instead, a sestina demands considerable enjambment, and the repetition makes words want for re-interpretation. Words with more than one definition, or that can serve as noun or verb both, make for powerful additions, and weave the lines together.

I’ll admit freely, my first sestina was terrible. It was about a firing squad, and I exploited the six stanza structure to talk about the five men firing and the one being fired at. It was not terribly elegant and it was certainly not beautiful, but by the time I had finished it, I understood the meaning of enjambment. If we end a line on a weak or meaningless word (a ‘the’ or an ‘an’ or a ‘such’) the reader can flow through and only take one reading from it. If we end a line on a word that carries implications (‘blossomed’ or ‘flew’ or ‘saw’), that word is briefly embedded in the reader, and then we can either build-upon or subvert that embedded word with the subsequent line.

Of course, explaining this is an irony. I have already expressed that I learned by doing, and so explaining is not helpful. Instead, I encourage everyone who writes poetry to grind through at least one sestina or two as a challenge to the self. It will be frustrating, but it will also be rewarding. If you’re quite irate at me for making you write one after finishing, you can bring it by the writing center and make me read it as a punishment. If that’s the price I have to pay for spreading a bit more poetry into the world, I pay it gladly.

I don’t write sestinas anymore. Lesson learned and all that. While I have a sprawling list of these strict forms of classic poetry, in truth I rarely use them as they stand. I borrow pieces of their rules and bend them together when I’m facing the blank page, I give myself restraints to make my game exciting. I have the net down, as Frost might say, but on my court I have added an extra ball, a playful dog, and a large rotating fan.

Serve!

Throw Me a Lifeline: How Outlining Can Save Your Paper and Ultimately Your College Career

Anna-Stacia Haley, Writing Consultant

One of the hardest things to do when writing a paper for a class is actually writing the paper. Anna-Stacia HaleySometimes this difficulty stems from the fact that you may not have read the necessary book or article, but most of the time it stems from the widely known struggle of trying to organize your thoughts. What if I told you that there was a way to help you get off of the struggle bus?

There is: Outlining–you’re welcome.

But outlining is, outlining. How does that save your life? Well, it doesn’t really per se. But it can save your paper and a lot of time.

Outlining is extremely underrated, as many people automatically think of spider-maps, mind-maps and other oddly shaped or insect friendly methodologies. But au contraire mon frère, outlining is what you make it!  It can be as long or as short as you’d like. I have a great friend who’s version of outlining varies drastically from my own.

Her outline could be classified as an entire paper with pretty headings. My outlines start off with headings, then go into subheadings, and then I write a bunch of random stuff about the topic of those headings. It looks something like:

Big heading

  • Smaller heading
    • Blah
    • Blah
    • Blah

Looks easy enough right?

Throughout my educational career I’ve had to craft a plethora of different papers, ranging from a page to twenty plus pages. I found that the higher I went in page length, the more I needed an outline to stay organized. If I didn’t use the outline I’d jumble up my topics and the paper would become difficult to follow.

I also found that, when using an outline, when I ran out of words, I was able to go back and find areas that I could expand upon or that I missed during the rapid fire production of my rough draft. Now, as a graduate student, I dare not consider writing a seminar paper or any other paper for that matter, without at least some kind of draft.

Often times when our thoughts are jumbled the easiest way to make sense of them is by writing them out and taking the time to draw the connections between them–que flowchart. Outlining organizes your thoughts by giving you a map to follow. This map is essentially based off of your thesis statement. Which by the way, if you’re unsure of how to write that, the University Writing Center has a few great resources on our page!

Outlines are great for making sure that your major points stay in line with your thesis and can help highlight areas that needed to be expanded, especially when it comes to your thesis statement.

Outlining may seem like an extra step, extra work and not worth the extra time spent. However, I’d rather spend thirty minutes writing out a outline than waste three hours staring at my computer screen because I’m not sure where to go from there. Wouldn’t you?  Because let’s be realistic, the longer you stay up working on these papers, the more money you’ll be forced to spend on Starbucks. While the CEO of Starbucks might enjoy this, the average college student’s wallet does not.

Link to the thesis handout:

https://louisville.edu/writingcenter/for-students-1/handouts-and-resources/handouts-1/thesis-statements

Need more ideas about outlines? Here’s a Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEQlqWAPD9A

 

The Blinking Cursor of Doom: How to Begin Writing Academically

Brooke Boling, Writing Consultant

Across the board, writers both new and veteran acknowledge how difficult it is to begin an academic paper.Brooke Boling Do you start with a thesis? Do you write from introduction to conclusion? Should you make an outline? Where do you put your research in the flow of your argument? What is the “best” way to start a paper?

The best-kept secret in academic writing is this: there is no “correct” process to writing or beginning a paper. There’s no way that works better than every other way. Lots of writers who are new to academic writing, returning after a long hiatus, or write academically as a career are daunted by beginning a paper and making an effective argument. You might feel like that blinking cursor on your word processor might as well be a physical wall stopping you from getting started.
A few questions to ask yourself when you’re starting a paper might be: what, to you, is the most important part of your paper? What ideas do you need to get down before they slip away? What is the overall argument you’re aiming to make? What pieces of research and evidence do you think are the most important? These are some great places to begin thinking about your paper overall.

I, personally, write my introduction first, and it is always long and rambling, leading to a thesis that is comprised of keywords rather than a solid claim. This process does, however, enable me to get all of my formulated ideas in one place, and it helps me order the rest of my paper. I can always go back and edit, so I try not to get hung up on grammar or spelling in a first draft (which is also a helpful tip as you’re beginning your paper). Some consultants in the Writing Center outline extensively, plugging in their research and relevant quotes in different parts of the outline, and even spending more time on their outline than their paper when all is said and done.

Other consultants find it helpful to free-write and see where it leads regarding the topic; I find this to be especially helpful in creative writing. Still others write all of their paragraphs out of order before figuring out where each element of their argument belongs, and then write around these paragraphs once they put them in order to make their overall argument. Lots of writers claim that writing their introduction last is what helps them get started on their paper. If parts of these approaches resonate with you, mix and match and see what works!

The bottom line is, feel free to experiment with different writing processes and ways of ordering your writing. There is no correct way to begin to write, and the more ways you experiment with, the more you will find what works for you, and you’ll be well on your way to developing your own personal writing process.

How I Write: Dr. Suzanne Meeks

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Suzanne Meeks, Ph.D. Professor, Psychological and Brain ScienceMeeks headshot 6-19-18 (1)

Dr. Meeks has worked at the University of Louisville for nearly 32 years. She conducts research on mental health and aging. She has received grants from the AARP, National Institute of Mental Health, and Kindred Foundation. Dr. Meeks teaches doctoral courses in ethics, assessment, and geropsychology, and an undergraduate course in tests and measurement. She currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Gerontologist, a multidisciplinary journal dedicated to research and scholarship on aging and care for older people. In her years at the University of Louisville, she has mentored 25 honors students in thesis work, and 33 doctoral students (28 of whom have achieved their Ph.D.). When not teaching, editing, or writing, Dr. Meeks enjoys reading literature and mystery novels, knitting, attending theatre, horseback riding, and doing crossword puzzles, among other things.

Location: 111 Life Sciences Building, Belknap Campus

Current project: I am between major projects; my students and I are collecting data on end-of-life care in nursing homes, and I have data from various other projects that I need to analyze and write up. There is a grant proposal pending review in the VA on which I am a collaborator, and I am collaborating with two of my U of L colleagues on a federal training grant proposal.

Currently reading: I am catching up on research journals that piled up during my 9.5 years as chair of my department. I am focusing on research about leisure activity and positive affect in late life, hoping to design a study on this theme before the end of the semester. I am also reading a book that I recommend for all would-be science writers:
Writing Science: How to Write Papers that get Cited and Proposals that get Funded, by Joshua Schimel. Oxford University Press, 2012. On Audible: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. On my bedside table: Native Son by Richard Wright.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

Scientific journal articles, grant proposals, email (yes, that is writing!) and other professional writing, article and grant reviews, letters of recommendation.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I write in my faculty office, and in my home office. I try to write at home one day a week. I write constantly, but many of the things I write relate to my editorial work – correspondence with authors, correspondence with remote staff, and article reviews. When I am working on a journal article I try to allocate larger chunks of time, most of which are at home. I spend as much time crafting emails and letters of recommendation as I do sentences in scholarly products. I never send an email without rereading it. If it is at all controversial I read it a minimum of 3 times. I edit and re-edit my own scholarly writing before submitting. Often it is easiest just to write anything that comes quickly, and then go back over it, rearranging, adding, and subtracting, until it works.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Both my writing spaces are personalized and comfortable. A comfortable desk chair, two screens (monitor + laptop – if I am writing a result section I need to have the statistical results up on one screen while I write about them on the other), and pictures that please me (of my grandchildren, e.g., other family, beautiful places I wish I could be). I type everything, so I do not have much need for any tools but a computer, though I might need a pencil to mark something in an article that I am writing about, or to make a list of numbers from my data. I like it quiet, but I take frequent breaks. These might involve jumping up and pacing, filing my nails, playing with my cat (when working at home), getting a cup of tea. A tea kettle, tea mug, and good tea are essential implements for writing. So is dark chocolate. I try not to multitask but I do check email in my breaks.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

For getting started: just get something down on the proverbial paper. If you cannot write the first paragraph, write the second one, or write whatever section is easiest. You do not have to write things in order, but you should not walk away from a writing session without getting something written, even if it is just a few sentences. I agonize the longest on the first sentences and so I sometimes consider it a sufficient triumph in a session just to have written the first and second sentences of a paper. This of course assumes I have not waited until the last minute to write it.

For revision, you have to leave yourself enough time, so you cannot procrastinate the initial draft. You must read your own work critically and revise. All of us tend to use way more words than we need (see my answer to #5 below), so think about saying the same thing in fewer words. Pay attention to those blue squiggly lines that Word has placed under your words and phrases. What is it that the grammar editor did not like? Writing with colleagues is a blessing because then you get help and multiple perspectives. If you are writing a grant proposal, the more eyes the better.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

My parents both implicitly taught me to edit/revise my work by editing all of my juvenile products. By instilling a love of poetry and literature, they taught me another crucial piece of advice: to be a good writer, read lots. Recently, Sir Harold Evans has challenged my writing with his book Do I make myself clear: A practical guide to writing well in the modern era (Little, Brown, 2018). It is funny and inspirational; it will send you back to your writing with a ruthless editor’s pencil. (A shorter, less fun, but still very helpful alternative: Writing science in plain English by Anne E. Greene, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013).

Youtubin Your Way Through Literary Theory

Edward English, Assistant Director to the Writing Center

Years back, I began my freshman year at The University of Oklahoma knowing I would be an English major. Edward English Why not? English classes were my favorite in high school. I did well analyzing literature, waxing philosophy during class discussions, writing compelling essays about how Rasknolnikov’s struggles to combat guilt were not too unlike my own teenage worries that I wouldn’t find a prom date.

But as I began my college-level courses, something emerged in my English classes which I felt ill-equipped for—literary theory. Literary theory was, and still is, difficult for me for a number of reasons. While a single piece of literature may have little to no variance in its written composition, the theoretical framework(s) we use to extrapolate meaning from that same text can be seemingly infinite. So where do you begin? And which theoretical lenses are worth valuing and why?

What’s more, the philosophers/theorists canonized in contemporary literary criticism frequently appeared to me little more than a random amalgamation of scholars from various fields at numerous historical periods used to propagate particular political interests. Not to mention that many of these writings are incredibly dense and difficult for a beginner to absorb. I can recall making my way through the deconstructionists and thinking I might as well be reading a foreign language.

In time though, my disposition towards literary theory has shifted dramatically. As a current graduate student in English here at the UofL, it now feels like half of my life revolves around geeking out with my friends and colleagues about various theoretical takes on a piece of writing. There is one resource, however, that I wish would have had in my undergrad (had it been available): the YouTube channel The School of Life.

With relatively short videos (5-10 minutes), this channel entertainingly distills the main ideas of various literary theorists, as well as explicating the life and writings of specific famous writers. Watching these videos can be helpful on several levels. Maybe you’ve read through some literary theory but want to know how well you understood a given theory. Perhaps you’d like to prime yourself beforehand with an overview before you jump into the denser theory itself. Or, could be you just want to watch an engaging, and often silly, video that will expand your mind on how you can read a text. Either way, check them out! They are well worth your time.

Some of the major literary movements, theorists, and authors available on The School of Life:

Jacques Derrida
Michel Foucault
Karl Marx
Friedrich Nietzsche
Jane Austen
Leo Tolstoy
Virginia Woolf 
Marcel Proust
George Orwell
Romanticism

Research in Creative Writing

Katie Frankel, Writing Consultant

Paradoxical to the title of this, many people seem to enjoy creative writing because it often does not confine to the sometimes strict, regimented boundaries of an academic essay.Katie Frankel Writing affords an allowance of freedom and imagination that sometimes feel prohibitive in the standard research paper. However, conducting some research for your creative writing can make your piece more vivid, interesting, and overall stronger than before.

In a creative writing class at my undergraduate university, my favorite professor ever required us to undergo and document research for our various pieces. Because, at the time, I was working on my now-finished historical fiction novel, I felt certain that research would bring my characters and story to life even more.

Starting at Half Priced Books, I gathered up some informative and very interesting texts that directly related to my fictional world, such as Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Children of the Wild West, and multiple others. Many of the specific details of my writing come directly from information I have learned from these books. After beginning my collection of texts that related to my novel, I began to hunt through antique stores, looking for artifacts of the time period I was writing in to try and put myself in the scenes more. One day, I even found and purchased a McGuffey’s Primer published in the time period my characters exist.

Lastly, I began taking trips to a local museum called Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth. I nerded out every time I walked in with my pen and notebook, writing down facts I found interesting from posted information and asking the museum curators various questions, such as how a lower-class family of the time might get by (people who couldn’t afford beeswax to make candles could instead use the fat of sheep, by the way). I walked through the various set-ups and took pictures, envisioning my characters dwelling in the buildings.

Even if your creative writing work isn’t historical in nature, it can still benefit from research. If you’re writing a mystery, researching the tactics of real criminals can be insightful and also very interesting. A novel about life working in a circus can be made more believable and interesting if you read (both fiction and non-fiction) books and watch movies about circus performers. For one particular scene in my novel, my professor suggested that I go to a fire station to ask a firefighter about specific details pertaining to a house catching on fire.

When writing any type of creative piece featuring characters or events that you’re not personally familiar with, research can only serve to enhance your fictional world. Not only will you learn a tremendous amount through various forms of primary and secondary research, but you will more than likely have a great time doing it and be inspired to keep writing.