Category: Writing Advice

Of Course I’m a Writer: How Feedback Helps Shape Writing Identity

Maddy Decker, Program Assistant, Senior

I always hesitate to call myself a writer despite having wanted to be one since elementary school. It feels like I’m pretending to be something that I’m not, but I am a writer. I write. It’s that simple. Sometimes I just need some help reminding myself of that.

This past summer, I attended a week-long workshop as part of completing the requirements for my Creative Writing MFA. I was excited for the opportunity to get back in a workshop, but a part of me dreaded going. Since my program is low-residency, I was nervous about meeting my classmates and professors face-to-face for the first time. Additionally, the last workshop I had participated in made me a little hesitant about putting my work back out there. I dragged my feet while preparing until I finally speed-wrote two new flash pieces to bring with me, stuffing them into my overcrowded backpack and trying to pretend they didn’t exist.

I arrived at Chateau Lesbian (my friend and her wife refuse to let me call their apartment anything else), rolled my suitcase into the guest room, and then immediately left for my first required event. I was joining the second week of the residency, while most people had also attended the first week. It seemed like everyone already knew each other, and while they were all kind and welcoming, I was still intimidated. How would we work together in class? Would they still seem so nice after we picked apart each other’s stories?

I arrived the next day and tried to stay calm, but my efforts were thwarted when I abruptly remembered that my piece was up first for workshop. I was overwhelmed with concern about how weird and rushed and personal my writing was, but it was time to confront my fears. When prompted, I began reading: “This is called The Salami Kids…”

Workshop. Was. AMAZING! My classmates were generous with their feedback, both praise and criticism, and I loved every minute of it. My pen begged for mercy as I scribbled down notes and ideas for revision. Suddenly, I could see how to take everything a little bit further and tighten up the loose ends. My piece became more than just a page of words I’d thrown together to meet the submission deadline: it had potential, and I wanted to keep working on it. I felt a thousand times better. I felt like a writer.

Working the front desk at the University Writing Center, I often hear from other people who insist that they are not writers. I hear things like “I’m not a writer” or “I’m just doing this for class.” When I hear this, I respond, “Of course you’re a writer. You’re writing in here!” This doesn’t always seem to make a difference, but it’s important to me that I say it anyway.

When you visit the Writing Center, you are a writer, no matter what kind of writing you are working on. This is why you will often hear us refer to you as “writers” rather than clients or students. We want to reinforce the idea that you are someone who writes, and that you are allowed to call yourself a writer. In fact, this is something that we cover at orientation at the beginning of the year, because one of our top priorities is helping you to gain confidence and agency in your writing and your identity as a writer.

I have a BA and an MA in English, and I’m halfway through my Creative Writing MFA. I’ve written countless papers and stories of my own, and I’ve helped with so many more during the three years that I worked as a writing consultant. My work has been published, and I’ve even received awards for a couple of my short stories. When I step back and look at it objectively, it seems obvious to me that I’m a writer, but I still regularly face the fear of using that word for myself.

I share this to show that even someone with years of writing experience is still scared of being a “writer.” This is something that I confront daily, both for myself and with the writers who visit my desk. There is no cure-all, but there are steps you can take to grow your confidence and foster your writing identity. One of the most beneficial things that you can do is share your work with others. This helps you to become more involved with your process, as well as to take ownership of your words. Also, it’s exciting! Thinking out loud in collaboration with feedback from others can be so generative, and you’ll come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of before.

Read your work to your friends, share it with a writing group, or visit one of our consultants at the University Writing Center! We welcome all UofL students, staff, and faculty, and we work with all kinds of writing, at any point in the writing process. I hope that you visit and that when your appointment is over, you leave thinking, Of course I’m a writer!

The Shape of Writing: Halloween and Writing Go Hand-in-Hand

Andrew Messer, Writing Consultant

There was a conversation I had with Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of our community of writing consultants, where he told me that all spy movies are literacy narratives. Well, that got me thinking, truly thinking—and this may very well have been the first time I had a truly deep thought in months, coming fresh off of summer break at the time—about what other stories are technically literacy narratives. Some other types of action movies, sure. Superheroes? It’s possible to make that argument. However, fate would grant me a serendipitous revelation just as it was time to write up a blog post of my own. What better day to talk about the literacy of horror movies than today, Halloween? And better yet, is there a more apt movie to talk about than John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)? I think not.

We find literacy in Carpenter’s film in a variety of ways, most notably in the question of why Michael Myers wears his signature mask. There are a myriad of answers, and one of them is that he is trying to hide. The movie begins with Michael hiding from his sister before he, well… you know what happens. Michael isn’t just hiding his face though: he is hiding his ability to be read. He withholds from both the viewer and the other characters of the film the ability to be read and understood. It takes great effort, strife, horror, as well as some sleuthing for the characters to finally track down Michael from his old home to the killings he gets up to throughout the film. It takes a great deal of intellectual and psychological literacy for the doctor to track Michael across Haddonfield to his showdown with Laurie Strode.

Now, you might be wondering—I know I sure was—what has this to do at all with writing or writing center work. Great question! All of these aspects of literacy shown in Halloween started to remind me of something oddly familiar—the writing process itself. Fellow horror buffs may recall, but in the script for Carpenter’s film, Myers is referred to as the Shape; I think this is an apt metaphor for beginning the writing process, for what is the beginning of a draft but a vague shape? The Shape of drafting can be many things: procrastination, intimidation, a confusing prompt or topic, or even something as scary as a new or unfamiliar genre. The Shape finds a way to haunt all of us when we start the drafting process, and it tries to turn us into Bob if we let it.

Starting a paper is much like the events of this film: scary and disjointed without a lot to keep the threads together. Sometimes the meaning and message remains masked, if you’ll excuse the pun. Sometimes it can be something you feel like running from, avoiding it until the last minute. Sometimes you must be Laurie Strode and—metaphorically, of course—stab at your paper wildly with a knitting needle until something comes out loosely approximating what you are trying to accomplish. Either way, the Shape must be confronted to move forward, and often that is done by looking back on what you have accomplished in the past. Relying on your knowledge and the skills in literacy and writing that you have developed over many years of being a thoughtful and insightful human being.

And insightful you are. You are a writer and a reader all-in-one, and just like Laurie you will figure out what the Shape is. Though you may not always unmask it in the end, and sometimes when you think you have finished a draft the Shape will haunt you still. Yet again, just like Laurie, you are not alone. If need be, let the Writing Center be your Loomis: let us help you uncover the Shape of your writing because there is no need to face it alone. Writing, much like surviving a slasher, is a collaborative process—oftentimes taking much more planning and effort to overcome than previously thought possible. But we are here, and we know the Shape just as you do.

This all makes it seem so horrifying, and perhaps this analogy might scare you away from ever writing again. However, dear reader, if you are anything like me, then you will understand that pit in your stomach when you start to write something new. The Shape looming oppressively near you, watching from the corner and remaining masked and hidden from view. Yet, you must remember to always carry the will of Laurie Strode inside you. Clutch tightly to that knitting needle, cower for a moment if you need to, but in the end we all must face the Shape, and more often than not, we win in the end.

Happy Halloween, and happy writing!

Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, 1978.

Dr. Strangeword or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Write (Allusion)

Wendell Hixson, Writing Consultant

There is no need to be an “expert!” Far too many writers, readers, students, and scholars see writing as requiring the gravest of literary circumstances. Many believe that writing must possess grandiloquence, gravitas, gratitude, grammaticality, and—especially—graftiquilimentiploricissitudinousness (neologism; I trust you’ll look up everything in italics that you don’t know). However, the magical qualities of writing, of your voice lie not in some Ivory Tower, swirling in the minds of some rhetorical warlock or literary lich (alliteration), but at your very fingertips. The unhindered imagination can create entertaining and enjoyable examples of writing without a need for scholarly expertise.

As two francophone thinkers posited, “Literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play” (Thomas and Motte 98). And they’re, frankly, dead on. I live by the mantra that one should have fun with their writing. Fun can be the driving farce (malapropism) behind the most successful research and prose, as fun is usually the best motivator. Sometimes the very essence of rewarding, valuable writing is held not in researched ideas, dense argumentation, or scholarly opinion. Sometimes the very essence of rewarding writing is just having a chuckle at a simple and silly play on words. And sometimes you may end up learning the difference between the endless devices and playful maneuvers found within the English language, and the unique devices within other languages as well.

Perhaps you’ll come across words like (and, yes, these are all real) lipogram, chiasmus, petrosomatoglyph, epizeuxis, bdelygmia, clerihew, butyraceous, syzygy, ekphrasis, bibliobibuli, zeugma, absquatulate, phantasmagoric, lugubriousness, floccinaucinihilipilification, hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, and jib. Perhaps you’ll even use them. This is the fun of language: the exploration and wonder of the gift we’ve so luckily evolved. It operates much like a magic, a power with which we can create meaning and reality out of nothingness. Most any sounds, amalgam of letters, and absurd or beautiful stories develop our very understanding of this powerful tool (e.g. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows or Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons). Language is a boundless, bottomless ocean that we are rarely encouraged to truly navigate. Language can be morphed into humorous contests, such as Monty Python’s Word Association Football or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern’s Questions Game (both of which I recommend watching). Language can be manipulated for the sake of art, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s extended vocabulary or Lewis Carroll’s fantastical prose (read “The Bells” and/or “Jabberwocky”). Language can be invented for the sake of worldbuilding, such as Star Trek’s Klingon or Tolkien’s Middle-earth (which inspired real world uses of these languages). Succinctly, it makes us feel. And that is a power that should be embraced, nurtured, protected, and proliferated.

Now, this is not to advocate for disregarding formal academic writing as a whole. This is not a call to challenge a professor for stifling your creativity. There is a time and a place for pure fun and freedom, and—really—a research paper, a dissertation, or a scientific journal are not always the most appropriate sites for Tolkien’s Elvish or the word “lugubrious.” That’s okay. It can be symbiotic. We language-users still have an obligation and an ability to balance our teaching and communication with our capacity to entertain. Sometimes that means foregoing a pun or poetry (wordplay), but it doesn’t mean foregoing interest in your ideas and how you write them (rhetorical devices). Our world can be a worrisome place that requires our attention, compassion, and power whenever we can lend it. And, hopefully, we can use our voices to mend relationships, to empower those we care about, to stand against and maybe inspire those who feel silenced. To use your voice for good is all one can ask. So, I truly wish that your ongoing adventure through language brings you a greater sense of confidence in yourself, and I hope it also brings an appreciation for how genuinely, innately powerful our voices really are. And that doesn’t mean it’ll ever be perfect. As I said, you don’t need to be an “expert.” You just have to be human.

Thomas, Jean-Jacques and Warren F. Motte join. “Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature.” South Atlantic Review 53 (1988): 185.

Put Your Heart in It: Creative Writing’s Place in an Academic Space

Liz Soule, Assistant director

After a two-year break from creative writing, I stumbled my way back into it through fan fiction this past March. Although I would never judge another writer for finding inspiration in fan works, I confess feeling a bit ashamed by my own admission. Halfway through a 2,000 word story exploring a deeply emotional conflict between two characters that were not my own creation, I started to wonder: shouldn’t my time be taken up by more intellectual pursuits? I could have been reading for a class or starting a paper. Wasn’t this a waste of precious time and mental energy?

Whether you’re writing that crossover fanfic you’ve had percolating in your brain for the past six months or even something more traditional, I am sure that you, too, have wondered where your creative writing endeavors fit in within the grand scheme of your academic journey. In an academic culture that focuses so intently on making the grade, it is hard to see the benefits of any pursuit that does not result in some kind of marked increase in your GPA.

But if writing pedagogy tells us anything, it is that writing processes extend far beyond the context of one assignment, genre, or even discipline. Academic writing and creative writing doubtlessly have a symbiotic relationship. But what does this look like? How can we rationalize our continued pursuit of creative writing?

Hoping to learn more about this, I spoke with two of my colleagues at the University Writing Center, Maddy Decker and Andrew Messer. Maddy serves as the senior program assistant in the University Writing Center, and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Eastern Kentucky University. She also leads the creative writing group! Andrew is a writing consultant, and is pursuing an MA in English at the University of Louisville. Both are prolific creative writers! In brief interviews, I asked them how creative writing and academic writing have interacted for them.

For Andrew, writing creatively has revealed new ways to express himself across the board. “Creative writing helped me find a voice,” he explained. That voice carries through to his academic assignments, allowing him room to creatively approach essays and apply his unique style to many different kinds of writing. He intentionally practices this, developing creative ways to complete assignments each time he gets one.

Similarly, Maddy describes creative writing as granting her “a little bit more flexibility.” Like Andrew, she doesn’t feel locked into a particular formula when it comes to academic writing. Rather, the perspective she’s gleaned through creative writing gives her “a different idea of what forms academic writing can take.” She also brings her own stylistic flare to her academic work through the use of heightened figurative language.

Likewise, the two have found that academic writing can influence their creative processes. Andrew’s experiences with writing academically, particularly in composition courses, made him become much more aware of the role of audience in any piece of writing. “I became a lot more aware of the external audience and now try to be cognizant that people are going to read it and they need to understand,” he said. When it comes to creative writing, this means making what is implicit more explicit.

Speaking on the influence of academic courses in her creative writing, Maddy said: “They feed each other a lot.” She has used the material from courses, such as a forensic anthropology course, to create new content. Some of her current projects stem from past courses she took during her undergraduate career.

Andrew and Maddy aren’t alone in feeling this way. For me, I have found that creative writing helps me gain momentum. I put aside my perfectionism to write silly stories about characters, and it remains suspended as I transition into other activities. Starting an assignment is always a struggle for me, but when I begin with creative writing, I feel like the words fly out of my fingers and onto the page. And, perhaps more importantly, my experiences with creative writing have taught me to be open to revision. I know that I can (and should) write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

In closing out our interviews, I asked both Andrew and Maddy to share any words of wisdom they had for maintaining creative writing endeavors while in school. After all, even if you know the benefits of writing creatively, it can be hard to make the space for it.

Andrew recommended taking literature courses, if possible, because “you’ve gotta read for those courses, so you’re still expanding your repertoire.” He also shared a nugget of wisdom from his creative writing professors: “If you wanna write, then read!”

Maddy insisted that writers make time for creative writing, even if it’s in small ways. She advocated for writing whatever comes to you. “Having that interest stay alive is the priority. Just make sure your heart is still in it,” she said.

I hope that you find validation in what we’ve shared here today. Know that if you’re ever in doubt of the place your creative writing has within your process or program, here at the University Writing Center, we are happy to help you build those connections and find your flow.

Interested in writing creatively? Join us at the Creative Writing Group, led by Maddy! Meetings are held in person in the University Writing Center (Ekstrom 132) from 5:30 – 7pm on the following Mondays:

October 10th

November 14th

December 5th

For more information, please email us at writing@louisville.edu or call us at 502-852-2173.

The Importance of Community

Christina Davidson, Writing Consultant

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

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

Support

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

Real-Time Feedback 

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

Accountability

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

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

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.

Positive Vibrations

Tobias Lee, PhD Candidate and Writing Consultant

One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work.  I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history….  Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool!  This is why I love academia.  People are creating knowledge here!  Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about.  Yep, knowledge.

What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge?  What is knowledge?  Wait!  Don’t go away yet!  I promise, it’ll be interesting.  I won’t put you to sleep.  Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you?  Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.”  Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power.  Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America.  We all want to feel powerful.  Nobody’s angling to be powerless.  Well yes maybe but…  But let’s think this through a bit.  Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential.  You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things.  But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do.  So it’s the doing that matters.  You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value.  You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic.  It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects.  And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.  

So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there.  A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge.  I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice.  Ah.  So it’s doing something.  It’s in the doing.  Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again.  Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.  

Orlikowski elaborates.  “Know-how” is a capability generated through action.  And this requires repeated actions.  These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it.  So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion.  It looks that way because we keep repeating it.  It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole.  Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last.  Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second.  Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either.  It’s also changing, growing, aging.  Did you know that trees vibrate?  Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change.  There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly.  It’s always changing.  Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space.  How you like them apples?  But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…

What does this mean for knowing how to write?  That’s what you tuned in for, right?  I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules.  That would be nice.  Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve!  Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat.  Trade them with your friends.  Trade them for money!  But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space.  Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind.  No it doesn’t work that way.  The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions.  Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing.  This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots.  Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).  

So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline.  An interesting little thought exercise, no?  It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient.  It gums up the works.  How do we know what’s right any more?  Goodness me.  But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were.  That whole impostor syndrome.  That anxiety.  That feeling of inferiority.  You can dial that back a bit.  You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it.  You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things.  They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results.  But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.  


References

Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.


Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.

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.

Theory Writing/Writing Theory

Ben Poe, Writing Consultant

“The task of critical reflection is not merely to understand the various facts in their historical development (…) but also to see through the notion of fact itself, in its development and therefore in its relativity.”
― Max Horkheimer, 
Eclipse of Reason

Theory provides a critical language, argumentative framework, and stylistic approach to writing. Working in the field of critical theory—a genre of writing developed by thinkers like Frederic Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and the academics of the Frankfurt School—blends critical analysis with artistic inquiry. Critical theory combines the creative and critical by capturing abstract ideas in linguistic concepts, while also depending on intertextual reference to convey is meaning—making a unique academic form for writers. Moreover, the dialectical foundation of theory enables clearly delineated rhetorical structures that depicts the associations between seemingly separate ideas. Thus, theory’s creatively critical genre asks for a writing style that questions exactly what style is—illustrating its unique position between the margins of academic objective analysis and creative expression.

Critical theory offers a specialized language that blends objective criticism with creative intertextuality. Language is obviously an essential characteristic of writing: the unique language of theory not only conceptualizes abstract ideas that help writers articulate difficult thoughts, but the concepts of critical theory also depend on an intertextual history—intertextuality being an artistic device closely related to parody or satire that means to use a word, name, or image in an artistic creation that refers back to a previously created artistic form, generating a new meaning in the reference (like when Anthony Hopkins quotes Shakespeare in HBO’s Westworld)—of cultural criticism that pluralizes the meaning of its concepts, making theory resemble an art form like poetry that requires close attention a multitude of literary devices. Indeed, a term like “logocentrism,” a word coined by Jacques Derrida to illustrate the hierarchy of speech over writing, exemplifies a concept that contains a radically abstract idea that allows academic writers to articulate specificity in their argument. However, feminist and queer scholars developed a special interest in the term (also coined by Derrida) “phallogocentrism,” which indicates the patriarchal occupation of spoken language. By adapting “logocentrism” to a feminist and queer focused analysis, scholars have pluralized the meaning of the term by multiplying its reference points: the definition of the term “phallogocentrism” not only refers to the research of the feminist and queer thinkers who developed it, but also to Derrida’s philosophical work. The adaption of the terms illustrates the intertextual dependence of critical theory concepts, making the genre of theory a unique field of academic criticism and artistic creation. Thus, theory’s combination of objective analysis with poetic intertextuality to interrogate language and convey ideas that simple denotation cannot express illustrates a unique writing style that makes theory critical and creative. The style of theory writing transforms academic research into a version of artistic commentary that expresses profound ideas in a creative form. 

The dialectical foundation of critical theory enables abstract associations to be formulated in an understandable written organization. Dialectical argumentation has been performed for thousands of years—Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to advocate dialectical techniques in rhetorical analyses. It was Frederick Hegel and Karl Marx who developed the dialectical model to a critique of culture, then carried on by Jameson, the Frankfurt School, and Derrida as a core characteristic of their philosophies. The most basic dialectical model is the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure, which takes one phenomenon (like the content of a story) and compares it with another seemingly different phenomenon (like the form or medium of a story) to show that the meaning of an artwork depends on a relationship between its content and form. In argumentative writing, dialectics works by comparing one claim to its opposite in order to (synthesize) illustrate the similarity between the two ideas. If someone wants to claim that wealthier individuals should pay higher taxes, a dialectical argument will point out the benefits of the claim, but also the (antithetical) claims supporting the opposing side who believes taxes should be lower. The dialectical synthesis, therefore, combines the two ideas to illustrate how the original claim supplements the arguments of the opposing side—not simply how one side is better, but how both sides combine to create a new understanding of the problem. Thus, structuring essays dialectically creates a roadmap for nuanced analysis, as well as a consciousness for how the meaning of a written work is conditioned by its presentation in a particular form. The dialectical model illustrates the creative and the critical aspects of the theory genre because it asks writers to be aware of the metaphysical aspects that inform interpretations of their work, while also acting as a structure for argumentative analysis.                                                     

Theory lives on the margins of objective analysis and creative inquiry, making it a unique style of academic writing. Critical theory twists the supposed difference between academic criticism and creative production because it is a writing style that blurs categories. Theory blends the poetic with the positional, which creates a distinctive style of academic writing that questions the separation of objective analysis and subjective understanding. Critical theory is creative because it steeps in the ambiguity of language and relies on pluralized, intertextual association to convey the meanings of its ideas. It remains critical, however, because the subject of its inquiry is cultural conditions and phenomena. Thus, theory writing embodies a unique writing practice—conveying truths in a decentered form.      

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.