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.      

Taking Stock of Your Revisions

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titles: Topics and Subjects at the Top of the Page

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating Boundaries

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

Maintaining Ownership

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

Instruction and Feedback

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

Establishing Trust

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

Conclusion

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Collaboration succeeds when collaboration is the point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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.