Tag: assignments

The Long Haul: A Procrastination-Proof Writing Process

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Rewind about two months.  Your professor has distributed the syllabus, and you notice that the culminating writing project in the course is a long one, we’ll say 8-10 pages.  But it’s not due until December, so you may approach it in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way.  That kind of thinking may have been appropriate or even necessary then, but as we approach November, you probably need to start thinking about this assignment.

As unlikely as it may seem, we’re at a pretty critical stage of the semester.  Midterms have passed, and finals aren’t for about another month.  A lot can happen in that month, and if you have a couple large writing assignments due around that time like I do, a lot should happen.  What I want to illustrate in this post is how I approach larger writing assignments and the writing process I employ to complete those assignments.  I understand everyone has their own way of jumping into writing projects and their own writing processes.  However, I feel it’s a helpful practice to engage with and think about how others tackle these kinds of projects.

Prewriting or searching for an interest

Sometimes in these longer projects, your professor may provide a very specific, narrowed prompt for you to explore.  Often, though, the prompt will be open-ended and up to you to decide what to write about.  When I find out about a longer assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I personally take a mental note to keep a look out for subjects in the class that resonate with me, regardless of the specificity of the prompt.  I register this mental note in order to approach the assignment with a subject that I know I can commit time to.  I’ve found when I have no attachment or personal connection to a topic, my writing suffers because I’m demotivated to think about it critically.  My writing isn’t the only thing to hurt in this kind of instance: my grade on the assignment is resultantly lower.  So, throughout the first part of the semester, I try to engage with the material in the course that piques my academic interest.

Discovering a general topic

Usually, I try to find several topics that interest me in the first couple of months in a course.  I attempt to find as many as possible for two reasons: to make connections between them and to give myself as many options potentially to write about.  I make notes throughout the semester about which class discussions and which readings are most interesting to me, and from there I catalog questions I can consider answering in the writing assignment.  To give a concrete example, as an undergraduate student I took a senior level Philosophy of Aesthetics course.  I was an English major, and this kind of course was both out of my field of study and my comfort zone.  However, throughout the semester, I found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on art to be interesting.  Additionally, in that same semester I came to appreciate the film Drive.  Resultantly, I connected the two and completed an admittedly compelling body of writing.  So this example fits in the context of my thinking about writing.  Continuing, once I’ve found a general topic or connection of topics in an academic or social issue, I turn to the next step of the process.

Researching and understanding relevant scholarship

At this point, which typically happens for me about a month before the assignment is due, I’m feeling pretty good.  I very loosely understand what I want to write about, and now it’s time for me to acquaint myself with the scholarship already out there.  The reason I approach this research portion of the process at this time is because I’m not too familiar with my topic yet, and my objective for the assignment is still malleable and subject to change.  Research at this stage is really important to me: my original line of thinking about the topic will either be strengthened or challenged, which I realize are both potential and necessary outcomes.  If I find in this stage that my loose topical interest has either been too thoroughly researched or, conversely, totally neglected in scholarship, I then consider refining the subject I want to write about.  Usually, though, my topic after becoming acquainted with scholarship in the area is bolstered and ready for execution.

Getting my ideas out a.k.a. the rough draft

This stage might be the hardest for me.  I frequently find myself too critical of the execution of my ideas in writing, and as a result the process is slowed tremendously.  To combat this grueling self-criticism, I remind myself that the first and roughest draft can be changed entirely before the submission of the final draft.  In getting my ideas out, I like to draft a loose outline to provide some semblance of a framework for the assignment.  This practice allows me integrate relevant scholarship into my draft, and it also relieves some of the stress of finding a template off which I can direct my ideas.  I understand how confining the outline can be, but I personally see its value in helping me organize my ideas to flow in the form of a draft.  Once my outline is in a position I’m comfortable with, I transport my ideas into the draft.

Proofreading, revision, and the final draft

With arguably the most difficult part of my process complete, the revision stage is a time for polishing and coming to terms with the submission.  Here, I’ll suggest some strategies I employ to engage with creating my final draft.  First and most importantly, I read my writing aloud.  Like Melissa alluded to in last week’s post, speech in writing is hugely important for me.  Not only do I literally write out loud at times, I also find revising out loud to be integral to my writing.  Reading what I’ve written allows me to hear how my ideas are expressed, further affording me the positions as both writer and reader.  I’ll go ahead and plug the Writing Center here.  The Writing Center, though effective for the writer at any stage of the process, is especially beneficial at this part since it offers an external and honest peer-evaluation of the delivery of your ideas.  If something didn’t sound right, or if something could potentially be stated more clearly, the consultants there relish the opportunity to let you know.  Politely, I’ll add.  When I’ve completed these steps regarding the final drafting stage, I usually feel comfortable enough to boldly and confidently submit it.  It’s time to move on and forget.  Right?

Postwriting and its applications

Though it’s indeed time to move on to other pressing assignments, it’s certainly not time to forget.  At this stage, I’m glad I’ve submitted the project, but I look for ways to think about what went right in this particular process and what could be improved.  I ask myself necessary questions at this stage: did I wait too long or not long enough in formulating my topic?  Was my use of scholarship compelling?  Did I give myself enough time to execute my ideas effectively in the drafting stage?  These are just a few examples of the questions I ask myself in order to improve my writing for the next time I write.

I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful in my writing.  I hope you, too, can find similar success without the headache of waiting until the last minute!

Five Tips for Interpreting Writing Prompts

Cheyenne Franklin, consultant

The writing prompt. This piece of paper is your ultimate guide through what can feel like endless avenues of ideas or a desolate blank page. But sometimes these precious few words from instructors can seem like an encoded script. Well like any code, there is a key. Here are some secrets I’ve learned to interpret assignment sheets.

Secret #1: When you don’t know where to begin…

DSCN3677Look for keywords. Certain words go with particular writing genres. If you see words like argue or defend, then your instructor is likely looking for an argumentative essay, so be sure to take a clear stance and use evidence to support your claims. Rhetoric(al) refers to the intentional strategies that people use to make an argument. So if this keyword appears in your assignment, your instructor either wants to see you making strategic moves in making your argument or wants you to discuss the strategies used by the author of a text you’re studying. In the second case, you’ll want to write an analysis, so DO NOT just summarize the text.

For more key writing prompt words, see the key terms section of the UNC Writing Center handout on Understanding Assignments. You also might enjoy this blog post on “Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts,” written by one of our previous consultants.

Secret #2: When you’re unfamiliar with the genre…

Determine what the purpose of the assignment is. Assignments have two types of purpose: an academic purpose and a real-life purpose.

To determine the first purpose, think about what skills your class has discussed. Instructors make assignments to give you a chance to show what you’ve learned. Consider what has been emphasized in class recently. Can you put this knowledge to practice in the assignment?

The second purpose requires you to use your imagination. Remember that college writing is to prepare you for real world writing. Imagine your audience extends beyond your instructor. What goal might you have other than a grade? Now how should you approach the assignment to accomplish that goal?

See Duke University’s list of college essay genres for a description of each genre and its characteristics.

Secret #3: When you’re told not to have a thesis…

Think again. What about the assignments that forbid “personal opinion?” Isn’t a thesis an opinion? Well not in an academic sense.

What instructors mean when they warn against personal opinion is that you should not make claims based on personal feelings. You should make claims based on statistical or textual evidence, reliable resources, and clearly drawn logic. Your instructor will almost always look for a main point in your essay (aka a thesis). Just make sure the thesis is your analysis NOT your opinion.

Secret #4: When your assignment includes a quote…

You cannot ignore it. Some assignment sheets include a passage from a text you’ve studied in class. Although the instructions might not directly ask for you to address this quote, you should reference it somewhere in your essay unless otherwise instructed.

Secret #5: When you still have no idea…

It’s time to talk to your instructor. Remember that your instructor wants you to understand the assignment and wants to know if it’s unclear. Most instructors revise their assignments based on the responses they receive, and if you’re confused, there’s a good chance others are too. Just be sure to discuss your confusion respectfully. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and worry.

In the end, your instructors don’t mean for their assignments to confuse you. Still, we all encounter certain prompts that confuse the inspiration right out of us. As you gain more experience with the lingo and genres it will get easier.

White & Gold? Black & Blue? The Dress: Read All Over

Chris Scheidler, Consultant

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If you were on social media last week you probably noticed a thing or two about a dress that, to embrace the hyperbole, “broke the internet.” I’ll leave the dress debate to the designers and physicists but I would like to draw your attention to the act of interpretation; specifically, I’d like to focus on interpreting assignment prompts.

We often take interpretation for granted. We interpret every day. Sometimes interpretation is straightforward: for instance, when your friend says, “Pass the mustard.” Other times, interpretation requires a bit more navigation, such as when your parent asks, “Did you do the dishes?” A blunt “no,” if your family is anything like mine, is probably not an advisable answer. We interpret so often that we sometimes forget that we’re doing it. In many ways, we’ve all become experts at interpreting.

But if the dress debate demonstrates anything, it is that we occasionally get our interpretations wrong. Our ability to interpret is not infallible. When we’re reading assignment prompts, the context, our previous experiences, and other elements all shape the way we interpret the prompt. If a two-tone dress can break the internet, how can we agree on what our professor expects from our assignments?

Don’t fret! Interpretation can be tricky but there are at least four helpful strategies that I recommend.

1. Visit the University Writing Center. Whether you’re just beginning an assignment or further along in the process we’re here to help. We tutors have years of experience interpreting not only assignment prompts but also texts in general. Sometimes just talking it out with another person can help. Which is why, if you don’t have time for an appointment you can:

2. Reach out to other students. Your peers have likely asked themselves the same question about what the assignment means. Ask them how they’re interpreting the prompt and you might find that you all agree on an interpretation or that there is some difference in interpretations. If you, like the Internet on the dress, can’t reach a consensus you can always:

3. Examine the keywords in the prompt. Is the professor asking you to analyze, annotate, summarize, synthesize, or something entirely different? The University Writing Center has a wonderful blog post dedicated to deciphering keywords – check it out! If the keywords are giving you trouble you can always:

4. Speak with the professor. Ask the professor in class or consult with the syllabus to see how your professor prefers to be contacted. If you’re emailing the professor, begin with a professional salutation and end with a professional signoff. If you’re nervous about contacting your professor you can always stop in at the University Writing Center and we can help you compose an email.

Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts

krLkVHxgMsFkNv4LINjN3Cl8hBIX9jAteOz45mo8cdoTara Lawson, Consultant

When we are new to academic writing, we seem to have a common struggle: deciphering the prompts that professors give us. It is such a pervasive problem because many of the words are so similar that it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. After all, how is a synthesis different from compare/contrast? The purpose of this post, therefore, is to define many of the common keywords in prompts.

Analyze: For an analysis, professors are looking for an interpretation of the evidence. Although this is not quite as opinion-based as an argument is (see below), analyses do use your opinion. When given this prompt, you are expected to draw conclusions from your interaction with the text; in other words, are you making connections between the evidence you are provided with? For example, a sociology student can analyze relationships between high school seniors across the state in order to come to a conclusion about Kentucky identities within that age group.

Argue: Many students often feel like they cannot put their own opinions into their writing, that they must recite facts and the opinions of other scholars and hope that their own opinion somehow leaks through. However, with an argument, professors want to know your opinion! In fact, they are looking for it. They want proof that you have done unbiased research. Therefore, you will need to provide evidence (statistics, facts, statements from scholars). You will also want to have a debatable claim that you defend. For example, when asked to argue the effect of the French Revolution, you could answer with “The French Revolution was a failure because Napoleon’s reign as dictator only reinstated the type of harmful monarchy that the previous King had represented.” The rest of your paper would then be focused on proving this statement.

Compare/Contrast: Although these words are used simultaneously, they actually have different meanings. To compare two or more items means to find similarities between them. To contrast them means to find differences. So to compare and contrast dolphins and sharks, one could say that the two animals are similar because they both live in the ocean. However, they are different because dolphins hate sharks, and will ruthlessly attack them and leave them for dead. Also, sharks are terrified of dolphins because dolphins have murderous tendencies.

Describe: Remember back to those exercises in middle school, where you had to use your five senses to describe your personal oasis. For academic writing, it is similar, but broader. It does not have to be reliant upon the senses, although it can be. An art student can describe the monochromatic coloring of a painting by talking about the oppressive emotional weight the color blue exudes in the work. A science student might have to describe the interior of a frog precisely, so that other scientists can mimic his/her work.

Define: This is to tell what a concept means. Usually definitions are shorter than the other keywords presented thus far. It can be as short as a single sentence, or it can be the length of a paragraph or two. Usually you will be asked to define a concept that can have several definitions, such as culture or feminism, because the professor is looking for your personal definition.

Discuss: This word is slightly different from explaining something, although they are very similar. However, a discussion tends to be broader and less argumentative. You may not be required to reach a definitive conclusion, but instead to map the connections between certain ideas. A discussion is usually present in literature reviews, like when the writer maps the progression of an academic conversation using the arguments of other scholars.

Explain: Why do you have to know what an explanation is? The answer to that question is itself an explanation. Essentially, an explanation is answering the question “why?” It can also cover the other common questions (how, what, when, and where). Why should you know this information? So that you can explain what you know to your reader and hopefully communicate with them more effectively (and maybe make better grades in the process).

Summarize: A summary is telling the reader what knowledge they need to know in order to understand what you are telling them. For example, if I wanted to highlight a scary moment in the TV show The Walking Dead, but my audience had never watched the show, I would need to summarize it. I could do this with a statement like “the show is about a group of people trying to live in a zombie apocalypse. They have to keep traveling in order to survive and find a safe place to live.” A summary is different from a definition because a summary is more in-depth. Additionally, a summary tells the audience what happened in the work, not what the work actually is.

Synthesize: A synthesis is a concise and more focused version of compare/contrast. It looks at very specific sources, and extracts the most important information from them as it relates to a specific argument. In other words, if I am writing a research paper about the murderous nature of dolphins, I would not need to state the similarities between sharks and dolphins. However, I would want to look at multiple sources focusing on the nature of dolphins. Do the sources answer my question? Do all  of the sources disagree with my hypothesis? How does this impact my overall argument? If dolphins only exhibit murderous tendencies towards sharks, perhaps they do not have an innate homicidal nature, but they are instead attempting to re-enact the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.

Although this post does not cover all of the keywords used in prompts, it may help with some of the most common. Additional resources are also available for all students. The University Writing Center is a free service where graduate students are dedicated to addressing your writing concerns. Also, it might be helpful to talk directly to your professors — as the creators of assignments, they will be able to let you know if you are meeting the requirements.

Finally, writing is tough, but know that you always have a support system at the University Writing Center. Good luck!

5 Tips for Avoiding Last-Minute Writing

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

Right now, it’s only the fourth week of the semester, but, before we know it, midterms and finals will soon be upon us. For now, we happily go to class, read our textbooks, and complete our short assignments, yet a large, dark cloud lingers on the horizon…the research paper and/or project.

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You’ve seen it on the syllabus. You know you have to eventually do the assignment, but it’s just too painful to even start thinking about. So you tell yourself, “No worries, I’ll think about it later.” Next thing you know, it’s midterms or finals week, 2 AM, and you have less than 12 hours to write this paper.

Is there any end to this madness? Of course there is! Mental anguish is not a class requirement; pulling all-nighters is not a course goal!  It took until the end of my junior year as an undergraduate for me to realize that my problem began in waiting to start on a large assignment, paper, or research project until it appeared within my line of sight on the class schedule, which was usually about a week or so before the assignment was due. This would happen in all of my classes, so I’d have this two week period at the end of a semester where I would work furiously and sleeplessly for two days, turn in an assignment, take a breath, work furiously and sleeplessly for two more days, turn in an assignment, take a breath. Sound familiar? After quite a few semesters of this exhausting pattern, I’ve come across some strategies that currently help me avoid letting all of my papers and projects rain down on me at the end of the semester.

So here are 5 tips for avoiding last-minute research paper and project writing:

  • Get information about an assignment as soon as possible. This will at least put the assignment on your radar. Also, getting assignment information early can help you use class materials to start thinking about potential paper or project topics. For example, let’s say you’re taking a class on the Victorian period in England. You meet with your professor and discover that you have a research paper due at the end of the semester and it should be on a topic covered in class. Since you know this information about the assignment, you can take notice of any topics that arise in class that interest you and may serve as an interesting paper topic.
  • Brainstorm ideas. Once you find a topic or two, sit down and brainstorm ideas. Make a list of specific aspects of a topic that you are interested in researching and writing about. For example, if you are interested in the topic of insanity in Victorian England, your list of potential research aspects might include: the popularity of insane asylums, the rise in the number of females in insane asylums after 1845, minorities and insanity, etc.
  • Break up the task of writing a paper over the course of several days or weeks. Writing a research paper often sounds like an incredibly difficult and daunting task. If you break up the tasks of researching and writing over the course of several days or even weeks, the task doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Plan out which day(s) you will: conduct research, formulate a thesis, craft your argument, write an introduction, write a conclusion, create a bibliography or works cited, revise your draft, etc. If you dislike or struggle with writing specific portions of a paper at a time, try simply breaking up the task of writing your paper by planning to write a certain amount of words or pages per day.
  • Set goals for yourself. Write it in your calendar; set an alarm on your phone. Make a plan and, more importantly, hold yourself to it! Some great ways to hold yourself to your plan of having a certain amount of work done by a certain day is to 1) make an appointment with your professor to talk about your paper and/or 2) make an appointment with the University Writing Center! Making appointments such as these will hold you to your commitment to work on your paper in advance and is an opportunity to receive helpful feedback on your work.
  • Think about how awesome you’re going to feel when you finish a paper or project. In the past, I’ve found myself avoiding working on a research paper because I continuously think about how terrible and difficult the task will be. Having a more positive attitude helps me stay motivated to get an early start. Rather than dwelling on the difficulty of the task, try thinking about how accomplished you will feel when you complete the assignment or how relieved you will feel to no longer have the task hanging over you!

Hopefully these strategies will help you sleep better and breathe easier when the end of the semester rolls around!

Writing without a Net: Ways to Start a Paper without an Assignment Sheet

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

When gearing up to write a paper, your greatest tool is likely to be an assignment sheet. These treasures, handed out in stacks by our benevolent professors and T.A.s, include valuable information regarding assignment details. These handouts offer our teachers an efficient way to answer perianal questions about the work such as content, length, scope, focus, and format. As demonstrated by a previous post, the ability to read an assignment sheet can unlock many of the mysteries students encounter during the writing process.

Unfortunately, a time will come when your dutiful professor has elected to let you fly solo. Without the aid of an assignment sheet, you will be expected to yield a work equally as impressive as previous, more structured work. Without the assignment sheet, the boundaries of a paper seem unidentifiable. What should I write about? What course should my argument take? What sort of sources should I use? The questions, all equally as gravitous and pressing, begin to mount, and suddenly the guidelines lain out on assignment sheets, which had previously seemed arbitrary and restricting seem much more comforting. Students without assignment sheets often seem to be floating around aimlessly in the space of the assignment. Luckily for students specific to the Humanities, there are strategies, questions ask in order to help anchor one’s self, even in the absence of the tethers of our assignment sheets.

How did this text affect me?

Close reading also provides great jumping-off points for developing a conversation. Was there a moment in the text which seemed especially potent, or had a certain rhetorical or emotional effect on you? Did this text remind you of anything you have read or seen in another context? Teachers develop courses with specific objectives and place texts together to stimulate certain conversations. If you see something interesting, run with it!

What is the history behind this text?

Time period is a great way to position a text. Authors, the socially aware people they often are, know a lot about art, culture, politics, religion, and so on. It is likely that they have been influenced, or at the very least, in conversation with significant events and conversations going on during their writing process. What were the big social questions when this text was written? What sort of society was the author living in?

What is the author doing here?

The relationship between the author, narrator, and the reader is always an important one. Is our author different than our narrator, or are they the same person? How does the relationship between the author and narrator affect the way we understand the story? Are the people telling the story reliable? What is their tone? How are they using language? Are they being manipulative, or do they have the reader’s best interest in mind? The way the author positions himself, his narrator, and his reader all play key roles in the delivery of a story, which in turn changes the way we read into events and characters. Discussing the ways this influences our reading is often a fruitful endeavor.

Which “Big Questions” are here?

Things like Truth, Ethics, Gender, Reality, Freedom, God, Power, Capitalism, War, and Consciousness are inarguably tough nuts to crack. The commonality between these topics is how difficult it is to come to a resting answer on anything. These questions are all intensely difficult to write on in any definitive way, which is precisely why so many authors write on them extensively! Your paper might not have the scope (or likely a distant enough due date) to answer any of these questions within, but it certainly can contain a discussion of the way the text in question addresses these huge, looming questions. Look at how the author encounters these questions for an interesting reading of a text, but be careful to avoid the temptation to try to solve the puzzles. Most of these questions have outlasted thousands of years of rigorous philosophical and humanistic debate. It is unlikely an answer will be found in a five page paper.

The number of possible entrances to a paper is astronomically high. Papers can take on any number of potential courses, as demonstrated by the unfathomable number of books, papers, lectures, and modes of discourse which populate the Academy. There is no shortage of ways to approach writing a paper — that is certain. Still, for those of us who prefer a bit more guidance – a target to aim at – these strategies offer a way into a text when the safety net of an assignment sheet isn’t available.

How to Analyze a Writing Prompt

Lauren Short, Consultant

Before you can start with that snappy opener that draws your reader in, you must first learn to decode the writing prompt. While this may seem like an ordinary task, I’ve seen many students who are overwhelmed by the amount of information included in a given writing prompt. They all seem to ask a similar question: How do I know that I’m including everything the professor wants? Luckily, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to aid in the process of understanding your professor’s expectations.

What type of paper am I being asked to write?

Narrative: A narrative essay asks you describe a personal experience.
Persuasive: A persuasive essay asks you to make an argument, or to persuade your reader. In addition to providing examples and support about your own argument, you’ll want to consider the opposing viewpoint’s relevance and explain why your argument makes a stronger case.
Expository: An expository essay typically asks you to compare/contrast two things or explain a cause/effect.

What sort of information do I need to include?

More than likely, your paper is going to call for research. How many sources does your professor ask you to include? Do the sources need to be varied? Peer-reviewed? One of the best places to start brainstorming is through research. Once you read an academic opinion on the topic you are writing, you’ll begin to understand the viewpoints in which you agree and disagree. You probably have a good idea of what you want to say, you just need to find sources that support your argument and examples that illustrate your point.

Who is my intended audience?

Considering your audience will help set the tone of your paper. If you are to assume a common reader, you will probably need to take a bit more time introducing your topic and explaining its significance. If your professor would like you to write ‘to the academy’ then you can probably omit redundant summary and spend more time talking about why your argument is significant instead of what your argument is.

Decoding a writing prompt can be a bit like translating a foreign language. You might feel like you have the gist of the assignment but there’s always that feeling that something might be missing. I encourage all writers to go back to the writing prompt once they have finished with their drafts. Make a list of the professor’s expectations and see if you can find them within your paper. If you’re missing something, go back and revise. With a little effort, you’ll get to make a satisfying check mark next to each expectation.