Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The Love of Writing

Michael Benjamin, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Can’t I Write Like Derrida?

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Bottled Water and Exigency

Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

January 31—the first moments of the semester. You are in an English class, and you’ve just been handed an assignment sheet in which you will spend a great deal of the semester researching a topic of your choice in which you must:

A) utilize scholarly sources to support a well-crafted thesis statement that argues in favor or against some conversation occurring in the field of your topic.

B) create a specific thesis statement that consists of an imperative claim and addresses the ‘so what?’ of your argument.

Maybe you have experienced your fair share of these projects or are beginning one for the first time, or maybe you are entering this mode of writing into your classes now—either as a scholar yourself or as a student in the classroom.

When writing about research, one question that can be challenging is that of answering ‘So what?’ Often, when we ask this question about our research, what we are looking for is: ‘Why does this matter, and how can I get them to care?’ A struggle to answer the “so what” question becomes apparent through hesitations such as: “I am not sure why I am writing about this” and “I have no idea what to say here, especially since I’m not an expert.” Sometimes the “so what” question appears in instructor feedback. Most often when addressing the question of so what, we are engaging with the imperative of exigency. Exigency, coined by Lloyd F. Bitzer in “The Rhetorical Situation,” refers to demand or need for writing on a particular subject or stance based on the context of the situation. Basically, exigence is the why behind what you are writing. When revealing the exigency of a writing project, it often relies on appealing to what is urgently waiting to be said about the situation at hand.  

If someone were to write a paper arguing in favor of stricter regulation for the bottled water industry, they might appeal to the expanding industry and potential harm that a lack of regulation may produce. To convey exigency in a project such as this, many writers would deliberate on the rhetorical device known as kairos, or the timeliness of a message as it is being sent to its audience. In this same example of writing a paper about the bottled water industry, the timeliness of such a paper would make a monumental difference depending on the time in which it were written. Consider writing making an argument against bottled water industries in the 1970s when bottled water was invented. No one would believe that bottled water would become as prevalent as it is. However, the same argument today has a much clearer sense of exigency. The industry today is expected to continue to grow and pervade a number of environmental processes related to water distribution which  has led to issues like The Bolivian Water Wars.

One might say that bigger, larger issues such as the potential crises related to the bottled water industry can be easy for fishing out exigency and building it up. But what about writing related to the everyday? Or to those assignments that we might rather avoid altogether? Finding authority and purpose for small-scale projects can be just as challenging. For example, you might have a two to three page essay about a Shakespeare poem you’ve tried to read over and over again and just can’t find a rhyme or reason to care. It can be easy to think about how important a crisis like the Bolivian Waters is and the large scale implications of such an event. But how can that same sense of authority and urgency be illuminated in an introductory writing assignment about a topic that you might stuggle to find a purpose to write about it in the first place—especially if it’s a topic that everyone already knows about and has written extensivly on? Sometimes writers don’t feel like they are qualified to even say anything about a given research assignment at all!

Certainly, exigency can still be accessed in moments like these as well.  

With even the most over-saturated of topics, how can you find a purpose to continue to write about them? What we often fail to glean from reading written work about unappealing topics is what the initial writer found important or exigent about the topic. Specifically, when being asked to examine the rhetorical devices at play in a given text, we often take for granted the ways we as readers are being asked to think about a text through its rhetorical stratagy.  We tend to overlook in these moments how a text—whether literary or visual—creates reflective nuggets of the world and is informed by various world views. When you tap into analysis on the level of these rhetorical concerns, you often begin to see how nearly every motion of stimuli is a text and is channeled through rhetorical devices that influence the way we make decisions and respond to the world around us.

Even at times when you feel like there is nothing to be said about the topic you are being asked to respond to, finding exigency doesn’t always start with the most compelling or flashiest of reasons for writing, but rather from acknowledging yourself as a reader of a text and calling attention to what response you make of it and then highlighting how you came to that response or how the text lead you to reach that conclusion. From this locus of reflection, you often find that you are faced with a wide assortment of reasons to care about a topic and the implications of choosing one interpreation over another—no matter how seemingly small the impact feels.

Exigence isn’t just timeliness; it’s also why we write what we choose to write about. In the University Writing Center, we love to have conversations with writers about exigency and these strategies. Often, discussing issues relating to finding purpose and authority when writing can be challenging to think through on your own, which is why the University Writing Center is a great place to visit and talk through your thoughts with a consultant. We are eager to discuss these rhetorical building blocks and help you become more comfortable with finding purpose in your own writing. Whether the topic discusses growing concerns about Western consumption habits (like bottled water) and their impact on more vulnerable countries, or examines an Elizabethan sonnet: we are here to listen and see you develop exigency as you navigate writing with purpose.

Done is Better Than Perfect

Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

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

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

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

               “How so?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Emotionally, or What I Learned This Semester

Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Multilingualism: The Importance of Terminology

Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant

Earlier this semester, in our Writing Center Theory and Practice course, the writing consultants had a conversation about strategies for supporting multilingual writers. Surprisingly for a room full of English students, we began the discussion at a loss for words, but after a few minutes, it stumbled forward in tentative fits and starts as we attempted to talk our way around the topic.

Many of us expressed discomfort about discussing language background with writers, and the general consensus was that it felt inappropriate to ask writers about their first language. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, telling of an impulse to conflate difference with deficiency. If we ask writers about their first language, the implication seems to be that it’s obvious the writer is using a second language.

So what?

Clearly, it does matter. Throughout the discussion, we found that multilingual writers often begin sessions apologetically, dismissing any (usually imagined) language errors before we can. Simply put, they are primed to be on the back foot when they enter a consultation, and it can be difficult to move the conversation to a more productive focus.

Writing center lore suggests that the first few minutes of a session are critical—They create the tone, establish rapport, and allow the writer and consultant to set an agenda together for the remainder of the session. With multilingual writers, however, the time before the session begins is of equal importance because, in many ways, it dictates our expectations for those initial minutes.

To return to the classroom discussion for a moment, another interesting trend emerged. In writing center consultations, we often stress specificity of language to prevent misinterpretation, but it was striking how quickly our discussion on multilingualism slipped away from this practice. We spoke about “native English speakers” as a kind of monolithic group, and “everyone else” was discussed in contrast, with different interchangeable terms pulling us in several different directions.

Each of the labels we tossed around the classroom evoked a set of unstated presuppositions:

If a writer is an “ESL student,” it positions them in such a way that any English first-language speaker acts as an authority. It also invites the question of when or if they will ever “graduate” to a degree of ownership over the language. 

Similarly, if a writer is a “non-native English speaker,” it places them in a perpetually fixed status of being an outsider. Regardless of proficiency, there will always be a kind of assumed inauthenticity to how they use English.  

Finally, if a writer is an “English L2 speaker,” the convenient shorthand of the phrase often neglects how contextually specific language usage is. If someone’s primary social language is English, is it really an L2?

The varying degrees of nativism in each term we used reflected an unstated ideology of language ownership, despite the fact that the global population of English L2 speakers greatly outnumbers English L1 speakers. This lack of a language “center” should be a comfort to both multilingual writers and their consultants. We meet on equal footing linguistically, despite potentially having different strengths and relationships with the language.

I would also suggest that our use of careless labels creates a barrier to authentic language use—Writers may focus so much on emulating “native” English that they don’t develop a writing process that accommodates their own preferences and needs. Unless a writer’s first language is consciously framed as a linguistic resource to draw from, it may easily be viewed as an interference or a disadvantage.

Most importantly, the pointed discourse surrounding language and identity in general is often internalized by those who hear it. Whether multilingual writers have been explicitly corrected by instructors for vague grammatical infractions or have absorbed the quiet undercurrent of harmful language politics flowing through the broader American culture. Writing Centers have an opportunity to offer a safe haven from these trends.  

Anecdotally, in several years of tutoring, I have yet to encounter a multilingual writer that has any sort of notable language-centric disadvantage. In fact, more often than not, they bring a unique set of metalinguistic and metacognitive skills to the writing process. If we do not recognize that writing in a second language is always a constructive act, we are unlikely to help writers incorporate those transferrable skills into their writing process. Instead, we are more apt to foster the idea that a writer’s intentions are inhibited or obscured—rather than facilitated—by writing in a second language.

Ultimately, my point is this—regardless of our willingness to acknowledge it, the language used outside a consultation becomes the explanation for what happens in a consultation, which in turn becomes the justification for how we approach future consultations. Writing centers are ostensibly built on the premise of peer-readership, egalitarianism, and a kind of grassroots advocacy, but if our language choices don’t reflect those values, they will ultimately be—at best—toothless gestures, and—at worst—a reinforcement of the insecurities some multilingual writers may already feel.

Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective Motivation as an Incentive for Achieving Writing Goals: Narratives from Our Graduate Student/Faculty Writing Group

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

‘Hanging in there’ is a common expression at our weekly writing group. It is an expression that resonates with both graduate students and faculty participants as they seek to navigate the plethora of writing demands as well as other academic and life anxieties. Mostly, the expression is not out of frustration; rather it is made to describe how this group of people are progressing along in their academic activities, specifically graduate-level writing, despite its attendant challenges and struggles. Hence, they are not only ‘hanging in there,’ but also consistently taking ‘baby steps’ toward the completion of their various projects. And the weekly writing group has thus become a safe environment for writers to connect with, encourage, and motivate each other along the way.

A brief overview: the weekly writing group, which is organized by the University Writing Center, invites graduate students and faculty at the University of Louisville to come together during a dedicate time to work on any writing project at their own pace. The primary goal of our writing group is to provide support, community, and accountability for participants working on research or scholarly writing. Hence, it is not surprising that participants are open to discussing writing struggles, offering strategies working for them and sharing writing resources beneficial to everyone. Below are perspectives anonymously shared by some of the writing group participants on the importance of the weekly writing group:

“I appreciate having a space in which I can be a part of a community of writers and also can be held accountable.”

“It gave me the structured time to write with a group of people and see their progress in their writing journey and also see my own progress.”

“The writing group was a supportive group of peers steadily working on their individual writing goals.”

From participants’ reports above, we see that the writing group not only provides an influential support to the writers, but it also facilitates a sense of belonging to community working toward similar goals. To these participants, the writing group becomes a literal representation of ‘hanging in there’ because the group promotes significant actions that encourage them to forge ahead despite the difficulties. These significant actions invariably become a means for collective motivation that incentivizes participants to accomplish their writing goals as much as possible. Some of the significant actions peculiar to our writing group include:

  • Respectfully listening to writing concerns, needs, and struggles.
  • Discussing both writing related and non-writing related concerns: From work-life balance to organizing literature review, to self-care, among others
  • Celebrating milestones and success stories: Be it completing the day’s writing goals, completion/defense of dissertation, submission of articles for publication or conference abstract
  • Sharing relevant writing (and non-writing) resources such as blogposts, productivity planner, and yes, movie recommendations
  • Setting a week-long, specific writing goal to keep everyone accountable

Research has shown that writing groups help writers to improve their writing, establish a good writing habit, and be more productive in and confident about their writing. In addition to these benefits, the participants at our weekly graduate students and faculty writing group continue to affirm how the group encourages them to hang in there and take consistent baby steps toward accomplishing their writing projects.

If you are a University of Louisville graduate student or faculty member and are interested in participating in our supportive writing community, please e-mail writing@louisville.edu for more information.

Traveling Through Education

By Ben Poe, Writing Consultant

Returning to school terrified me. When I walked into my first undergraduate course at a local community college, I was certain I would fail, that I would not be able to act smart enough, or learn how to use the language of academia. Coming back to college was a lot like visiting a new location: it was similar to traveling to a new place, where I did not know the language, culture, and customs of the people. How does someone learn to live in a place they have never been before? By learning from their fellow travelers and the citizens who already reside there.

Education is not an individual experience, which judging by the number of times the first person “I” is used in the second sentence of this essay, is the way I perceived the endeavor when first returning to school. American academics, and American culture more generally, values individual effort and self-reliance. However, individuality only exists in relation to its difference from community: there is no “I” that exists without relation to the “we.” Thus, traveling through education means learning from your fellow passengers: it entails learning from the students who are traversing the new landscape with you. The relationships I built with my peers during my undergraduate journey—and now during my graduate travels—were possibly more important than much of the “education” I received from my classes. Indeed, lectures were important, but the real learning happened during conversations with others: a traveler can only read so many tourist pamphlets before asking someone what they know about the area. By creating study groups and book clubs with my classmates, my fellow travelers and I created communities that shared knowledge and put ideas into practice. It is these interactions, when I can articulate my thoughts in dialogue with other people, where I learn the most. Talking with fellow students, creating a dialogue between associate travelers, allows ideas and knowledge to collide into new forms of perception.

When arriving in a new location, the citizens who already reside there are the most knowledgeable of the culture. Building relationships with professors, tutors, and academic staff like librarians, not only made my travels through college easier, but showed me the “secret” venues that characterize the local experience: actively participating in the academic culture, instead of passively taking the necessary courses and exams—which resemble the cheesy tourist attractions in the travel analogy I am using—gave me a broader experience of college and the citizens (literally) living in it. During my journey at the local community college, I started visiting my favorite instructor’s office every chance I could. My relationship with my professor taught me the value of building academic relationships with faculty because our meetings introduced me to unique opportunities and made me feel like I was part of the campus community. Visiting with a tutor or meeting an instructor during their office hours, even only one time, can reshape intellectual interests and motivate new curiosities. Therefore, getting to know the colleges inhabitants, learning from who they are and not only what they know, makes the traveling expenses worth their value because the relationships create supportive, critical, and creative communities that will benefit any student in their travels that follow.

We hope that you will visit the University Writing Center and take away a souvenir that will last a lifetime.