Tag: Writing Advice

Reading to Write and (Hopefully) Enjoying It

Nicole Dugan, consultant

Reading and writing are always intertwined. When asked about how they write, authors almost always mention how much they read and how it’s crucial to their process. They read for enjoyment, inspiration, and, most importantly, a purpose. In academia, it’s easy to spend our reading time searching for understanding and utility, speeding through the Nicoletext with little to no enjoyment in the process. Even those of us who have histories of devouring books in single sittings can come to dread the reading part of the writing process. I currently have 36 library books sitting on my desk, and they definitely aren’t radiating enjoyment. Instead, I’ve been sneaking chapters of the books I keep buying on Amazon (even though I have no more room on my bookshelves). I spent the first few days of my spring break trying to build momentum and jump into my various research projects with very little success. Sometimes the absence of motivation is the main issue, but reading for research can also be alienating and stressful. So, as the numerous stacks of books about working-class literacy and monsters in medieval literature stare at me, I’m going to write about reading instead. Hopefully it helps me and anyone else facing the spring semester procrastination virus.

During the last few weeks, writers have been coming into the University Writing Center with assignments focused on reading and annotating sources. This is a foundational and crucial skill in academic writing as we work to weave our own ideas and voices into conversation with existing scholarship. Learning how to read is often relegated to primary school, where we learn the alphabet, spend time working through pronunciation, and take reading quizzes to assess our comprehension. When we move to college, it is understood that we know how to do all of this, even if the ways we’re expected to read are changing.  The current push for teaching reading in writing courses is a necessary one, as evidenced in recent publications like Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom. This is a renewal of previous attention given to the importance of teaching reading strategies in first-year composition classes.

In 2009, Julian Hermida published a study on reading practices in legal studies; however, the findings and suggestions put forth are applicable across disciplines. Most of us don’t turn to academic texts for some fun, leisurely reading; we’re reading it for a purpose, to accomplish some kind of goal for our future projects. Knowing this purpose and remaining conscious of it is the first step Hermida outlines for “expert” reading: “(i) reading purpose; (ii) context; (iii) author’s thesis; (iv) deconstruction of assumptions; (v) evaluation of author’s arguments; and (vi) consequences of author’s arguments” (23). In the face of intimidating scholarship, those new or uncomfortable in academia often “adopt a surface approach to reading and learning” (Hermida 28). It is easy to underestimate the time and effort that reading to write requires; however, developing and using strategies that work for your needs is important and can help you to streamline your research and general reading process.

Hermida suggests several practices that can help to increase comprehension, especially in relation to employing research in writing as they encourage critical thinking and engagement. Some of these include double entry journals, concept mapping, and keeping a structured reading journal for projects. In 2015, University Writing Center consultant Taylor Gathof wrote about some of these strategies and more options in her blog post. The UWC also has a handout on writing about reading as well.

Knowing your purpose in reading and having strategies on hand to efficiently and successfully approach texts are super helpful, but even with all of this in your toolbox, you may not be very enthused about the process. If you have the opportunity to choose projects about topics you’re already excited about, this could help immensely. However, this is, of course, not always the case. One part of reading academic texts is assessing the argument and methodology. This means you have the flexibility of agreeing or disagreeing based on the rest of the research you’ve done. Who doesn’t enjoy critiquing other people’s arguments? You fit the sources into a conversation with each other, and you enter this conversation as well. It can be a little nerve-wracking to find your footing in the realm of academic writing, but practicing reading strategies helps to build familiarity and confidence within your discipline.

Something that isn’t often suggested, at least not in my experience, is the value of reading outside of academia as a way to improve academic reading skills. Make time for reading stuff you care about, whether it’s graphic novels, young adult fiction, a news article, or some think piece. Applying academic strategies, like identifying the main thesis and critiquing the author’s methodology, to these things can help you flex your reading muscles in a community in which you are already a comfortable inhabitant. While I’m stuck in the world of monsters and medieval literature, I still managed to read half of Text Me When You Get Home (my current nonfiction obsession). The semester is winding down, meaning the big research projects are imminent. As I face final projects that will bring my second semester of grad school to a close, I’m feeling overwhelmed and uneasy about it all. I’ve had quite a bit of practice in this field at this point, but I still get nervous and feel unprepared. The first step to conquering the mountains of reading is finding what strategies work best for you and giving yourself the time to do it. Everyone navigates the research process differently. Talking to friends and meeting with consultants at the University Writing Center can introduce you to new techniques to make it a little easier.

I have sticky notes in six different colors, fresh coffee, looming deadlines, and a gaggle of helpful, encouraging writing center friends to propel me forward. Honestly though, I’m probably going to finish my “fun reading” book first. I spent too much of spring break stressing about all of the things I have to do after spring break ends, which of course didn’t help much. Spend some time taking Buzzfeed quizzes or watching the new season of Jessica Jones on Netflix (it’s pretty great by the way). Above all, maintaining your sanity and coping with stress is crucial as you approach the end of this semester. Whatever you have to do to accomplish that should be first priority, and it’ll make the reading and writing easier.

Works Cited

Hermida, Julian. “The Importance of Teaching Academic Reading Skills in First-Year University Courses.” The International Journal of Research and Review, vol 3, 2009, pp. 20-30, https://www.mansfield.edu/fye/upload/Academic-Reading-Skills.pdf. Accessed 15 Mar. 2018.

Write About Something Weird

Beau Kilpatrick, consultant

As a consultant at the University Writing Center, I have noticed a trend among many writers, including myself. The trend is that writers tend to struggle more with writing when there is a lack of connection between the individual and the content.Beau

Allow me to explain. We have all had moments when we are writing an essay for a class where the interest level is nearly nonexistent. Perhaps this has happened to you when you were a member of the class because it fulfilled a requirement, the class isn’t what you thought it was going to be, or you just simply lost interest about halfway through. This is a dangerous place to be when midterm essays quickly approach.

My own experiences with writing have been very gratifying. I have always practiced the philosophy that you have to understand your identity as a writer. For example, I know that I am argumentative by nature and I enjoy exposing the weirdness of a text. Also, if you trudge through boring topics long enough, you’re bound to stumble upon something interesting; but you have to keep your eyes open.

When a writer finds out how to make a topic interesting, that’s when the writing becomes much easier. It’s always easier to write about the things we enjoy or that interests us. For me, I enjoy exploring the abstract or grotesque in a text.

The best thing that I found to do in these situations is to make a connection, no matter how vague it may be, and channel your writing through that commonality. For instance, if you happen to find yourself dreading an essay for a Shakespeare class, try to find the one thing that is most interesting to you about the content that you’re working with. If you realize that a man wearing tights with a ruffled shirt is the most interesting facet of a Shakespeare play, then find a way to channel your thoughts through that frame of reference. Perhaps this will inspire you to write about Victorian fashion, gender roles at the Globe Theatre, or costume design and functionality during the theatrical fight scenes of Hamlet. This is just one example of how you can usually find some way to bend a boring topic into an interesting one.

The first step that I take when examining a text is to find contradictions and paradoxes. Once I have found the weak spot in the armor, I know where to attack. The next step is to figure out how to confront the text/author respectfully. Attacking a weakness makes writing easier and more exciting, but you must do so with class. Also, finding a good amount of sources will help in figuring out the right approach. Next, highlighting key passages of a secondary source, and annotating it, will make the writing much easier because you can essentially use your summary of the source in your paper. Once you have all of these things ready to go, it’s time to outline. I like to state the contradiction at the top of my outline and make a list of different ways to approach my target. Finally, I expand on all these points and find ways to link them together into a cohesive essay.

To sum it all up, find something weirdly fascinating about the text, relate it to your own interest, and explore the obscure. Don’t forget to create an outline with all of the odd topics you want to explore.

 

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” (Hunter S. Thompson).

A (Sort of) Defense of Procrastination

Isaac Marvel, consultant

For those of us in school, midterms are around the corner, or here in full force—the easygoing start of the semester, though it seemed so busy at the time, now feels like an almost forgotten dream. For me at least, this means a constant, looming presence of too Isaacmany papers, presentations, bibliographies, and so forth. Psychologically speaking, this kind of nonstop stress can be almost unbearable. So, I deal with it the same way everyone else does: just trying not to think about it. And for some reason, nothing feels as good to put off as writing. I may not be in the majority here, but I never really minded studying a bit for tests, or practicing presentations. But writing, satisfying as it may be, is a different kind of mentally exhausting. It requires all of this creativity and self-awareness, so I can never just auto-pilot my way through it. So, I procrastinate.

I’ve been avoiding the P-word, as its use has almost become cliché in college circles. There’s a reason for that: pretty much everyone does it. Is that a problem? I’m not sure. Organizational psychologist Dr. Piers Steel discusses here the primary criticism of procrastination: you’re lying to yourself. We tell ourselves that we need that adrenaline rush to get work done, or that we’re perfectionists and just don’t want to start before we know what we’re doing. And yeah, that’s a problem. So, Dr. Steel offers a partial solution: open communication about our motivations for procrastinating. If you’re putting off writing because you’re not sure you can write such a difficult paper, or even because you just despise writing, start by being honest about that.

In fact, I would go a step further than Dr. Steel, and say that sometimes procrastinating is the right call. So much of the time I, and I believe others as well, feel like you’re supposed to be in a constant state of productivity, or else you’re just wasting time. Then I feel guilty about not doing anything, so my mental health begins to suffer, and lo and behold, nothing gets done. It’s very much a self-perpetuating cycle, and writers understand this better than anyone. There are constant deadlines for us to meet, true. But maybe if we just told ourselves that, hey, maybe it’s okay to not be doing something every second of our life, then that could lead to a state of mind that can be honest with itself about why we wanted to procrastinate so badly in the first place. If I can’t find a way to take care of myself emotionally, I usually make life infinitely more difficult for myself. So, sometimes I just need to take some time for myself. Accepting that without guilt is a struggle, but I think reaching that level of acceptance is necessary if we’re going to learn how to manage our time.

How I Write: Kristi Maxwell

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

Kristi MaxwellKristi Maxwell is an Assistant Professor of English and a mentor in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program. She’s the author of six books of poetry, including Realm Sixty-fourHush Sessions, and Bright and Hurtless, forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in Sept.

Location: Schnitzelburg, Louisville

Current project: A book of poems, an article about end-words in poetry, and a book chapter about eating animals at Disney World

Currently reading: Amy Lawless’ Broadax, Robert Sheppard’s The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, and Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book

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

Poems, poetry scholarship, marginalia, texts, emails

2. When/where/how do you write?

I prefer to write in bed or reclined on my couch. My mind feels brightest when I’m lying in bed, “trying” to fall asleep, so I often start pieces or solve a writing problem late at night or early in the morning. I’ve been writing a lot of poems on my iPhone lately, in Notes: I like how it’s helping me engage the poetic line in a fresh way. When I’m working on an essay, I like to use Post-its so I can map the piece out on a wall to visualize it better, see connections, and figure out organization.

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

It’s not a necessity, but I do prefer to write with a Pilot Precise V5 Roller Ball Pen in an Apica CD-11 notebooks. I like quiet spaces with natural light or lamplight—no music, no fluorescent lights.

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

Reading always jumpstarts my thinking and writing, so I recommend opening a book and putting eye to word.

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

Don’t treat your writing as precious—be willing to revise radically, let go of things that aren’t working, or experiment. It can help to name documents  “draft 1,” “draft 2,” “draft 3,” so you know you can always return to an earlier version.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

All Pathos All the Time: In Pursuit of Credibility in a Post-Truth World

Taryn Hall, consultant

Last week in the University Writing Center, I had the pleasure to work with a writer on a paper which I’ve been thinking a lot about since. The paper was considering the role of education in the post-truth era, a term which I’ve heard before, but hadn’t fully Tarynconsidered the gravity of its meaning. Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year, post-truth refers generally to the idea that facts have become less significant in the public opinion—and in policy making—than political appeals to emotion (Wang). It’s a pretty postmodern idea, right? Objectivity (and reality, maybe) seems to mean little in terms of our relationship to what we stand for as voters and what we look for in our elected officials. This consultation took place on the morning after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and like many of us, I felt the weight of that event like I have many times before. The empty emotional appeals, rather than actionable plans, that I was seeing on social media from politicians and citizens alike perhaps made me sensitive to the conversation I had with the writer, but I left the consultation really thinking about the idea of the post-truth world and our place within it.

The tendrils of post-truth have seeped into further corners of our consciousness than solely the ways in which we connect with politics, however. That emotional appeals are given greater weight than truth is often evident in the work we do as writers and thinkers. Here at UofL, we’ve reached a point in our semester where many of our English 101 and 102 classes are working on either annotated bibliographies or rhetorical analyses. When I work with these students in the UWC, I often find that these assignments are their first experiences delving into secondary sources or examining the rhetorical moves of authors. While I’m sure that professors do an excellent job of preparing students to look beyond the emotional appeals in pursuit of the ethos of their source authors, I still occasionally find myself reading drafts which are predicated on the emotional response a piece elicited from them. Maybe a student didn’t trust the validity of a source because it was arguing for something that they personally don’t believe in, or they have chosen a news article which came from a definitely-not-credible corner of the internet because the emotional appeals made it easier to connect to and thus write about. It’s challenging, though rewarding, to help students learn what it means to find appropriate sources for academic work, but I think my job as a tutor working during this post-truth era is larger. I want to help writers develop their own authorial ethos.

Ethos, in academic writing, is generally used in reference to the credibility of the author: Who are they? How do their credentials affect the authenticity of their argument? As one of Aristotle’s appeals, ethos is an essential concept for those who are working on a rhetorical analysis. Most students learn to interpret the ethos of the authors of their sources, yet sometimes it seems like we don’t teach students to consider their own ethos as they write. You establish your credibility by citing sources, of course, but there’s more to it than that. As Tim noted in his blog post a couple of weeks ago, we are always engaged in manipulation in writing; you couldn’t persuade anyone if you weren’t, yet we have a responsibility to use that manipulation ethically. We do this by privileging facts over blatant or underhanded emotional appeals and by vetting our sources consistently and appropriately. Ultimately, it seems that our duty as learners—and citizens—is to help make this post-truth world a little more truthful.

Work Cited

Wang, Amy B. “‘Post-truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.” Washington Post, 16 Nov. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.4d3811168f02.

A Thin Line Between Love and [Redacted]

Brent Coughenour, consultant

Someone once told me—it could’ve been my very wise mother—that every song we heard on the radio was about love, or something like it. This was around the time that the songs “Cry Me A River,” Justin Timberlake singing sardonically about his lost love Brentwith Britney Spears, and “Everytime,” Spears’ response to Timberlake, were all over the air waves. Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” appeared prominently in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a film very much about the love between a mother and her daughter, creating this circle of overlapping Items-of-Popular-Culture-About-Love. Love (or lost love) figures so prominently in our day-to-day intake of pop culture that, when you really sit and think about it, it’s a little odd that we dedicate an entire holiday to it like it’s some kind of prominent mythical deity. Valentine’s Day, which falls in 2018 on a Wednesday—this Wednesday!—is so ubiquitous to American culture that it isn’t surprising to us when parades of red and pink, often accompanied with an uncomfortable amount of hearts, invade our department store aisles pretty much the day after Christmas. This year, I’ve taken some time to reflect about the pervasive nature of love and I ask myself the question: what do we talk about when we talk about love? (A shameless reference, sorry.)

Even if we avoid using that terrifying word “love with a capital L,” it’s hard to avoid feeling, especially when we sit down to write. An oft-repeated mantra in creative writing is “write about what you know.” This can certainly be limiting, and there are numerous variations on the prompt, but it can be particularly helpful to do this when you’re stuck on something. American short story writer Raymond Carver did this often: he was an alcoholic who had been divorced, so he wrote characters who were alcoholic and who had been divorced. This is what Carver knew in his life, but it is also what he loved, as he wrote about often in autobiographical essays. Carver stayed so strictly within these realistic guidelines that he set for himself because he could write about them, and write about them well. This leads into something that I tell writers in any kind of brainstorming that we work on in the Writing Center: if you have been given freedom to write about whatever you want then that’s awesome, you can write about what you know! And more often than not, something that the writers know is something that they love, at least in a roundabout sort of way—and it’s fun to write when filled with love!

Even if they don’t love a topic, though, writers can probably write strongly about something that lies on the other end of the spectrum. The emotion on the other end—which is equally powerful but shall remain unnamed here because, c’mon, this is a Valentine’s Day-themed blog post—can also elicit some pretty strong emotions, which can lead to some powerful writing. True crime authors do this often; it’s not likely they love the often horrific things they’re writing about, but these stories bring from them such a wide array of wicked emotions that give them the urge and the drive to write about something and keep writing. Going even further I’d wager to say that, in many cases, the emotion of love and the emotion of [redacted] are conflated with one another. Carver was probably not too happy that he was a divorced alcoholic, and in fact may have really not liked this fact about himself, but it made him who he was and it eventually led him to the life that he loved for himself where he could write feely (and probably drink, too) with his second wife. Greta Gerwig has spoken about not being so happy with the relationship she had with her mother when she was a teenager, yet undoubtedly love was there too, and that relationship was the genesis of Lady Bird which has now yielded her two Oscar nominations (and you should see that film, because it’s wonderful). If a writer is writing an argumentative essay in the Writing Center, I’ll often tell them that it’s great to write about something that really irritates them—it’s fun to write when filled with anger!

Loving something you write about can be important, but it’s also important to love the writing process. These two things ideally go hand in hand, and I personally find it difficult to do one without the other. Love is a peculiar emotion—it’s overused and trite, unique and effervescent, and sometimes true love can only be directed at furry critters like the two cats staring at me while I write this. Still, love or something like it (like [redacted emotion]) is an incredibly strong feeling, and one that can elicit some really skillful writing. This Valentine’s Day take in the love that you receive from others, but, if you’re feeling [redacted emotion], that’s okay too. Be like Raymond Carver and write about both feelings, because they go hand-in-hand and both are vital to a healthy love of writing. But don’t be an alcoholic. Consider that your Valentine’s Day Public Service Announcement.

Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

“Words with Friends” and Other Ways to Write Outside the Classroom

Keaton Price, Consultant

I’ve recently started playing the game “Words with Friends” with one of my coworkers and I’m obsessed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, this app can be added to your phone and allows you to play a form of electronic Scrabble with Keatonwhomever you like. You can play with a stranger or one of your close friends, but be prepared to become addicted to this game of strategy. I’ve spent many nights playing until 1 am, a feat that is exhilarating in the moment but I ultimately regret when I have to be up early in the morning…

Not only has this game taught me many new words (who knew “qi” will not only get you at least 11 points on “Words with Friends” but also refers to “the circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine”), but it has also made me start to think about the many forms of writing that people use outside of academia. Writing isn’t just something that you do in school. As Rachel discussed in her blog post, some people use journals or diaries to keep track of events in their lives. Beau too commented on his passion for journalism and how he continues to explore this area of writing outside the classroom by writing articles on sporting events at UofL. I play “Words with Friends” and not only have built up my vocabulary but also use this “academic” game as an excuse to avoid doing homework.

I feel like having a space outside of academia to do some writing is quite beneficial. Writing can be a healthy way to explore your passions or try and make sense of the world around you. It seems like a lot of the time people only associate writing negatively with school assignments, but there are so many other avenues that can allow you to see writing as a fun activity. And technology has only added more spaces for people to explore their writing abilities. Now people create blogs where they detail their hobbies and others use Twitter or Facebook posts to contribute to conversations that concern their areas of interest. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, writing shouldn’t be seen as a burdensome task that you only do when your schoolwork requires it of you. There are so many ways that make writing fun and introduce you to new ideas or, in my case, words that you never considered before.

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

How I Write: Sam McClellan

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

Sam McClellanAbout Sam McClellan

I am the Social Sciences Teaching & Faculty Outreach Librarian and an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville’s Ekstrom Library. My job encompasses helping faculty, students, and other patrons with their research, whether one-on-one or in a classroom setting. My research focuses on information literacy as well as librarians’ experiences with stereotypes about the profession.

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project: I’m currently working on a manuscript for publication with UofL Sociology Professor James Beggan on the strategies reference librarians use to enhance their approachability to help patrons use the library more effectively. This is in the editing stages. To transition into another project for eventual publication, I’m starting to read through and code some transcripts of interviews conducted by myself and a couple of my colleagues, focusing on library instruction assessment.

Currently reading: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

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

I work on peer-reviewed articles and conference proposals, both of which are usually geared towards practicing reference and instruction librarians.

2. When/where/how do you write?

To answer the question up front without too much detail, I start writing first thing in the morning, at my kitchen table at home, free from the distractions that comes with being in an office (e.g. e-mail, bothering my co-workers about random questions I have).

As a reference and instruction librarian, most of my time is taken up by doing the day-to-day aspects of my job. However, I find it difficult to write in the random hours between teaching and research appointments, so I usually block off half-days or entire days on my calendar when time permits so that I can work from home. My writing very much revolves around the times of year that I can take off those days here and there, though I realize that’s a luxury and that those days are fewer and further between than in my first few years as a librarian. This is something that will likely require to adapt my writing practice in the future, but in the meantime, I’m sticking to the 4-8 hour at my kitchen table, because it works!

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

I am a professional distractionista, so my space needs to have low sensory input – quiet, ambient music and no cell phone. I mentioned earlier that I write at my kitchen table because it’s desk-like and gets me in the mindset that I’m there to work and get some words on the page.

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

In terms of getting started, just start. It can be jumbled and not your best work, but seeing even a few sentences on the page is such a confidence-booster. You can always go back and fix it later, and it at least gets the idea of what you’re trying to write on the page.

When it comes to revision, especially the nitty-gritty stages where you’re starting to feel like you’re just about done, I try to break it up so that the page number doesn’t intimidate me. What I do is give every paragraph or few paragraphs a temporary heading that explains what those next few paragraphs are about. From there, I see if the headings I wrote down tell the story I want to, and then making sure the content falls in line with its heading. With that approach, I can take it roughly one page at a time. This usually entails a little more work up front, but it makes longer papers a lot more manageable and a lot less daunting.

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

I know I’ve bothered many of my colleagues about their writing advice (thank you!), but I don’t think I can remember any one individual piece of advice. I do like to assume I’ve utilized it all and integrated it into my writing practice, because on most days, it seems to be easier than it was several years ago, so I’m hoping it was something along the lines of “ignore your e-mail, turn off your cell phone, and start writing.”

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