Tag: Writing Advice

For The Love of Writing

Michael Benjamin, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Can’t I Write Like Derrida?

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Bottled Water and Exigency

Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done is Better Than Perfect

Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

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

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

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

               “How so?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Writing as a Social Activity

By Tobias Lee, Writing Consultant

Recently, a writer came in and started off her appointment with me by saying that she thinks of herself as a good writer and generally hasn’t had any trouble. This was her first visit to the University Writing Center, and her reason for making the appointment was the promise of extra credit from her professor. Wonderful, I said. I was glad to hear that she had confidence as a writer and felt able to approach new writing situations with aplomb. Indeed, it’s far more common for writers to preface their session with harsh self-appraisals of their abilities, saying “I’ve never been a good writer” and claiming they’re terrible at grammar.

The comments from both types of writers point to the same belief about the UWC’s purpose: that we exist to help writers correct their writing, to get you on the “right” track. Such a purpose would be consistent with a deficit view of student writing, which unfortunately is all too common. Of course, we’re happy to work with writers whatever their sense of their ability, and we can certainly share our knowledge of grammatical conventions. But another way of thinking about the UWC is as a space that recognizes and celebrates the fact that writing is an inherently social activity.

A social activity? How so? I see that one eyebrow creeping upward.

“Hey what are you doing later, me and some friends are gonna get together and write.”

“I had a great time writing with you, let’s do it again sometime.”

“You going to Jen’s writing party later?”

Okay, not quite like that (although writing in a group is very much a thing–see our events page!). Sure, it may be that quiet time to oneself is slightly more conducive to the penning of epics. Proust wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in his bed, not at Starbucks. But when I say writing is an inherently social activity, I mean that in a deeper sense.

People working in composition, rhetoric, and communication often talk about audience. No, not the ones lobbing rotten tomatoes; I mean the people who are going to read your writing (and if reading this makes you wonder if there are any serviceably well-aged tomatoes in the back of your fridge, well, now you know why I chose academia and not stand-up comedy). Ede and Lunsford (1984) identify two popular ways of conceiving audience: audience addressed and audience invoked. Those who suggest it’s the former argue for the supreme importance of knowing your audience. You need to know as much as possible about who (okay fine, whom) you’re writing for so that you can tailor your message to suit. The latter camp, however, insist that audience is necessarily a fiction. It’s imagined by the writer, abstracted from assumptions. You can’t possibly “know your audience.” Are they a bunch of persnickety prescriptivists who still insist on using “whom”? Which translation of Proust do they prefer? Shoot, I’ll bet you don’t even know what they had for breakfast this morning. Ede and Lunsford, however, suggest that the reality is far more complex. Audience is both invoked and addressed! It’s who(m) you imagine you’re writing for and the actual persons who will read your work because, in fact, it’s everyone who has ever influenced you. All those voices in your head! The ones reading this now, the ones metaphorically looking over your shoulder as you write, urging you toward this or that grammatical choice. From birth we’re continually internalizing, revising, and producing language: an ongoing dialogue with our environment.

And they weren’t the only ones, Ede and Lunsford. Matter of fact, their work was part of a much larger transdisciplinary shift in thinking whereby knowledge (and knowledge of writing) has come to be understood as generated through interactions and thus as socially situated and always emergent (rather than, say, residing inert in dusty books). Sociocultural anthropologist James Wertsch (1991) wrote a heady (pun absolutely intended) philosophical work on the matter called Voices of the Mind. He draws on Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and others and using words like “intermental” and “mediational means” to demonstrate that, well, basically, “no man is an island,” as John Donne put it. We’re part of a society, you and me, and it’s not just the laws, the economics, or the social media that link us. It’s the ongoing knowledge production that results from our interactions, no matter the time or the medium. The suggestion popular in history and Hollywood that great works are the product of a genius toiling in isolation not only isn’t true (Proust was quite the socialite, but more to the point, he was heavily influenced by many other writers before him); it also makes writing a lot harder than it already is and actively prevents people from challenging themselves since they weren’t born into the Mensa society and can’t afford the rent on an ivory tower.

So, come write with us! We love to listen deeply, to engage with your ideas, to muse aloud with you, think things through, see how they’ll play out. We’ll join the chorus of voices in your head, not to add to the cacophony, but to help you coordinate them into a beautiful song.

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (1984). Audience addressed/audience invoked: The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 35(2), pp. 155-171.

Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reader as a Tyrant: Co-operative Principles in Standardized Exam Writing

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

Almost every Writing Center blog post begins with a story. Here is mine. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner, two years ago, I took TOEFL exam again. Yes, again, for a second time. At that moment, I have completed my MA degree in English Literary Studies in Hong Kong, read books written by the greatest critics in the world, wrote paper essays rewarded with and “A” from professors. I thought all of these would qualify me to shine excellently in a TOEFL exam, but unfortunately, I failed again in the writing section—only 24 out of 30. When I took TOEFL for the first time, my writing was also 24. Nothing changed. Even after the academic training in English department, nothing improved.

What ensued were a consecutive of questions and suspicions: “Can I manage writing in English? Am I a qualified English user? Please tell me what goes wrong with my writing? Is it grammar? Syntax? I have already applied complicated sentences and tried to be as critical and insightful as Foucault and Derrida. Tell me how I can improve myself! I did it tremendously well in IELTS. Why does TOEFL not work for me? What on Earth does the exam want? Why can’t the examiners see my talents? I have read the rubrics on ETS website, but ‘well-organized’, ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, ‘variety of languages’ are like vague empty outlines. They do not make any practical sense to me. How I hope I can talk to the markers in the face and throw the words on them: ‘Tell ME what YOU want!’”

The impacts on confidence were devastating. The side-effects even followed me in my daily life that I became extremely meticulously careful when I wrote, be it the meeting minutes, the emails to colleagues, or anything that would be read by readers. As an English major graduate, I could not write satisfactory English. That is the biggest irony to me and even to my life. I started to question my English learning experience, the efforts I had invested, and even my intelligence.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retake TOEFL. If it failed, I believed I might not take the exam again throughout my life. To take the preparation seriously, I paid tuition fees and attended an online tutorial course.

Was it effective? Yes. I got 28 out of 30 in the writing section, even though I realized immediately after having stepped out of the exam center that my writing had been a bit off the topic.

Did I improve my English ability? No!

In fact, I am a much more capable English user than the exam tutors. It seemed that everything the tutor delivered in class was a reaffirmation of what I had known: For the Introduction, use a hook to attract readers’ attention, expand the background information, bring out the topic and demonstrate the thesis statement. In a body paragraph, employ a clear topic sentence, write one or two elaborative sentences to explain the topic sentence, leave the major space to talk about examples and if necessary, write a small conclusion. As for a conclusion, don’t include any information, paraphrase the arguments mentioned in body paragraphs as succinct as possible.

They all sound like clichés. However, it was until I received my score report did I realize that I did not follow such mechanical rules in my exam writing. I used to think I need to be the owner of the writing; it should reflect my talents and styles; even though it would be an exam writing piece, it should be personal and original. Now, at least in the standardized exam writing settings, I have relocated my concepts about writing in an exam setting, and effects from the changes in my attitudes are revealed in my score report. In fact, exam is no more than a game with explicit rules. Sometimes, you need to feel detached to write better, to think more about the function of each sentence, mechanically practice the rules, write down the connectives, and when the time is up, say farewell to the work forever.  Exam is a task. Just complete it. You don’t need to show your personal talents in an exam setting, since the examiners don’t care. It is not worthwhile.

What makes standardized exam writing different? My answer is—the reader, the sharp professional yet indifferent eyes behind the screen skimming the written works, looking for something they expect they will read, making decisions whether they feel good or bad based upon the training they have innated into their mind mechanisms, marking the writing pieces, and over. How much time will they spend on reading yours? One minute, two minutes. Perhaps more, but they definitely will not read your writing closely, to appreciate the merits hidden in the textures of your lines. Nowadays, ETS even applies e-rater Scoring Engine (an AI technology) to mark writings. Machine rating says what exams expect to read in the writing section—standardized writings, expected formats, explicit signs, no surprise. The exam systems need cooperative pets to respond effectively to every signal to show their capabilities so that they can get rewards.

Exam markers are powerful readers, but they are not and should not be the authority to judge your writing in general. Exams provide a context with a set of rules to play. Honestly, all writings with expected readers do have rules, and your academic writing settings make no exception. Think about how many pieces of assignments your instructors need to mark, what they expect to encounter, and how much time they will spend on your writing. When you have your answers to these questions, you can decide whether you are going to be more orthodox or more innovative. Also, don’t forget, the academic writing setting is comparatively flexible. You know who your reader is. Talk to your instructors and ask them for clearer guidelines.

 I agree standardized exam writing has an oppressive force to discourage innovation, but this force needs its settings to perform. Outside of the exam contexts, you still have plenty of room for freedom to show your talents and styles: Write in your blogs, leave reviews on IMDb, update your social media, draft a caption for your Instagram Story. You will encounter readers who do appreciate your compositions. Show your talents to them.

To conclude, almost every writing center blog post begins with a story. Therefore, I wrote mine.

Blooms of Agency: What a Middle-School Writer Learned from KPREP On-demand Writing

By Justin Sturgeon, Writing Consultant

Several years ago, I had a peer in middle school who became frustrated with a number of recent school policy changes. One week, cafeteria lunches had to begin abiding by new nutrition regulations—burying many of her favorite and familiar dishes. That following week, dress code policies began to be enforced more thoroughly—indubitably ushering in discipline against female students much more directly than their male counterparts. Both changes felt like additional hurdles to my peer in her learning. At this time, she, along with many of our friends became frustrated with these and other changes in school rules that left them feeling unable to express any feeling other than that of submission. They were angry with an entity that had no face, an imagined enemy that could not be named or assigned to a single person.  It also happened to be not long after these experiences that yearly K-PREP testing was about to commence.

This test measures student performance against codified Kentucky academic standards in the major subject areas taught in public schools. Accompanying this test is the usual essay exam question that often champions the standard five paragraph essay that is ingrained into the hearts and minds of public education attendees. One of the hallmarks of the writing section is its plea for crafting an argumentative response to a neatly defined opinion scenario depending on the grade level taking the test. From the time we entered testable grades, we were conditioned to see how important the yearly exam was not only for ourselves but also for our school district. Each year teachers poured their enthusiasm into wishing us well on the test as they laid their trust in our ability to apply what we had learned through the year to those booklets that contained our penciled in answers.

It was on this exam that my peer decided to work out the anger and frustration of navigating middle school as a response to an essay question. Something in the prompt related to a school procedure and my peer leaned into their experience and drafted an argument to lambast the system that garnered the rule changes and heavy thumb this student felt was pressing on her emotions. In making her response, she wrote in a way that directly addressed the reader or grader of this examination and in some ways ignored the goal of the exam—which seeks to measure student writing against a state determined standard. My peer’s writing took on an entirely different form that burnt away the edges of the exam’s intractable parameters. In her best attempt to maintain an academic voice, she pointed her finger at the test grader and gave blame for all the problems that were interfering with her inability to find a voice.

Looking back, I wonder now if only I could hold the clock on that exam and have conversations with my peer about genre, audience, and instruction guidelines—subjects that didn’t matter when pegged with her focus of expressing her frustrations on her own terms. The grader of that exam essay likely glossed over the essay and checked each box when she tried to adhere to the guidelines or address the prompt, ultimately missing her fervor and intent. Perhaps the grader of that exam toted a distinction of incomplete or failing to meet the standard. But, how can one assess bringing awareness of nonnative, invasive plants in a proposed community when the dread of one’s home life looms over waiting until the exam is over and the school day has finished?

My peer in that moment—although failing to meet the On-demand writing standards of the exam—found her voice and did so in a way that forced her to reckon with ideas of audience, tone, and genre. She could have just submitted a myriad, itemized list of concerns or even a stream of consciousness rant that would jump from one thought to the next with hardly any connection. Instead, she knew that she had to make some choices. She kept to the model of the five-paragraph essay and organized her thoughts in a way that would leave no question in the reader’s mind about what issues were occurring and causing her contention. Whether her convictions were rooted in rebellious middle school angst, taking the pulse of the public-school education system, or a mixture of the two—her very real emotional impasse of setting a no.2 pencil to paper had reached its epiphany. In choosing to write about her frustrations and anxieties in a way to address a potential culprit to her issues, she found her agency. In finding her agency she was confronted with the task of taking those frustrations and annoyances and turning them into a portrayable plane for an imagined reader.

Though I would scarcely suggest to students to deviate from their assignment prompts in such a seemingly anarchistic fashion, we (as writing center consultants) do teach them to undertake the journey of funneling those ideas and feelings into a form that a reader can access and engage with. Sometimes students are hesitant to write about a subject in which they hold contentions or reservations about in terms of portraying opposing arguments. These reservations can reach a more abrupt stalemate when students cannot find their agency within the prompt. The challenge of interacting with these prompts is further abstracted by the specificity of state standard which assess student performance in a vacuum. Indeed, much more could be said about the just debate in propping standardized on-demand writing up as the supreme measurement of student performance when schools with higher levels of poverty uniformly score lower on these exams that measure a single notion of writing.

At times, writers face a similar dilemma of channeling their emotions and feelings into their writing to address their audience. We at the writing center are jubilant to work with students whether they are beginning to engage with finding agency or are already in tune with their agency as they develop and become more aware of themselves and how they communicate with others in meaningful ways.

“Tomorrow is the day”: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I am going to write tomorrow. I mean it. Tomorrow is the day I’m starting my next big story and there is nothing that can stop me. And it will be the best story I’ve written—knock your socks off good—but, you know, tomorrow. Why not today? Because I’m a little tired right now, and there is a baseball game starting in an hour, and, well, tomorrow is the day I said I’d start. Tomorrow it is.

            My personal best streak of “tomorrow is the day” was a year. A year of guilt, anxiety, and frustration renewed each afternoon, starting the moment I told myself tomorrow is the day, a cycle of hopelessness that paralyzed my fingertips. Right before my monumental run, I’d set the goal of writing 2,000 words a day—even achieving it once or twice. Then I failed a few times and moved the goal post when stress replaced joy, shifting down to 1k, then a page, and finally, after all the satisfaction was sucked out, a year of nothing. But here I am today, writing in my office on a bit of a hot streak. So what changed?

All it took was writing one minute a day. This isn’t a gotcha moment. I’ve talked to a lot of writers, from teens who write fanfic on internet forums to famous authors with seven-figure book deals. The one thing I’ve noticed that we all share is anxiety for the next draft. This feeling is insidious, stomping out creativity for sport, chasing down the characters and storylines we have imagined and hiding them from our creative selves. We stop ourselves before we even start. To be a writer, you have to write, it’s as simple as that. Each morning I make my coffee, sit down at my desk with my phone far away in a distant land, and write for one minute. What happens is this: I never write for one minute, it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told myself. Sometimes I end up with a few pages, others, a few sentences. The real magic comes from a lack. Lack of guilt, lack of fear, lack of writer’s block. All (mostly) gone. I am free to tell my stories now, to write my research papers, and above all, to just write.

            But the war for creativity doesn’t simply stop when I sit down, because the next clash starts during the drafting process. My creative and editorial brains are mortal enemies in my head, each fighting to have the lead role in my next story until tomorrow comes. So, I make a deal with my internal editor. Let me write today until all the words are down, I beg them. And then it’s all yours. I grant my creative self the opportunity to write freely in this moment, without judgment or fear, allowing the draft to be as bad as it can be. Often, it is really, really bad. And that’s okay. When I finish, I put it away until the characters call my name again, and then I hand over control to my editorial brain. They have been patiently waiting for this moment after all. I give them permission to revise critically (as opposed to judgmentally, which lends itself to a finality that does not exist in our drafts) until each sentence, word, and comma are where they want them to be. This is where craft meets creative. In this way, I stifle the battle between creator and editor, giving each the freedom they crave.

As writers, we must fight the good fight against tomorrow. We do this in the name of creativity and craft. Without them, we are lost before we begin, and therefore defending them is our primary focus. This is an unseen battle that permeates through the deepest crevices of our writerly minds. We must protect both creator and editor at all costs. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of tomorrow.

So, write for one minute a day, today.

You Get What You Give: Making Success Happen in the Writing Center

Liz Soule, Consultant

Hey Writer,

So, you’re about to head into the writing center. You’re going to your first appointment (or maybe it’s your fifth) and you’re wondering: what can I do to ensure that I leave my appointment feeling empowered, confident and ready to tackle my writing? In other words, how can you make the most of your writing center consultation? Liz Soule

By committing to these three things, you can make certain your next writing center session is your best yet:

  1. Invest in the session: When you enter your consultation, try to center both your focus and your positive energy on it. Devote the entire 50-minute block to your writing. It might be challenging, but put distractions aside, and do your best to disengage from unrelated troubles for the time being. If you’re feeling frustrated with your writing, or uncomfortable with the session, attempt to embrace a positive mindset. You will make progress in these fifty minutes, even if you’re not sure how yet.
  1. Communicate your needs: Communication is absolutely vital in a writing center consultation. When you express your needs to your consultant, you offer us an opportunity to help you. Throughout your appointment, do your best to voice how you are feeling. If you’re not comfortable, or you think you may be hitting a wall, say so! Likewise, if something is working very well, it helps to mention that.
  1. Be prepared to take initiative: In a writing center consultation, you will ideally play the lead role: your concerns, needs and desires dictate what we work on. As consultants, we aspire to act as guides. Depending on your needs, we may offer you our perspectives, but for the most part, we will dedicate our time to understanding your intentions as a writer. This may require some give and take in our conversation. Although you should be prepared to take the wheel, know you’re not going at it alone: we’ll work together until we find the balance that works for us.

This consultation is a partnership. Just as you commit to taking initiative and communicating, we commit to seeking out and listening to your perspective. Likewise, we will invest, just as you will, in the productivity and power of your consultation.

I hope that these steps succeed in offering you a feeling of agency when you enter the University Writing Center. I’ll be there, in the back, excited to sit down beside you and get to work.

Liz Soule

Writing Genres that Are New to You

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

As the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, I work with a lot of graduate students on a variety of writing projects. Many of the writers who see me are writing a new genre, whether that be a personal statement, a long-form seminar paper, or a grant proposal. Despite the wide array of genres I see, I often give very similar advice to Caitlin Raywriters. I also think that these strategies would be effective for writers of all experience levels—from a first year undergraduate in their first college class, to a PhD student working on their dissertation.

The genres I am talking about, though, are not just the weird ones that we might only come across if we are in higher education (literature reviews, for example, are not a genre common outside the walls of the university). This could also be something as simple as an email. For example, we may take it for granted that everyone can write an effective email. However, we all know that some emails are more successful than others. To move our own email writing practices to those exemplary ones, we may look at what others are doing (What do I look for when I receive an email? What do I respond to?) and then we emulate that. We also have a ton of practice writing emails, so we can learn quickly in the variety of drafts we create what is effective and what isn’t. The same principles can be applied to all writing.

The following strategies are ones I encourage writers to use when they are unfamiliar with a genre they are bringing to me. These are strategies I would encourage everyone to employ to master any genre that comes your way:

  1. Examine the assignment. This may seem like a given, but many people read assignment descriptions uncritically. Additionally, assignment prompts or questions can be extremely detailed or very vague. Let’s take a look at an example I see quite often. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) asks for a personal statement when applicants submit materials for medical residency. This prompt is simply, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school,” and allows 5,300 characters. This is as vague as it gets. However, you can still tell several things. The readers clearly value brevity (you are limited to about a page and a half), and you are crafting an argument (why do you want to go to medical school?) Embedded in this question is the need for evidence. How does the reader believe what you are telling them? The context is also specific: why do you want to go to medical school? What is medical school to you, and what will you get out of it? How does it meet your goals? Suddenly, you can see lots of questions to answer that were simply implied in the prompt itself.
  2. Find examples. This is something I recommend to all levels of writers. It is very difficult to write an abstract, a literature review, or a personal statement, without knowing what successful ones look like. Once you get in the habit, you will automatically begin reading like a writer and will notice successful examples of writing everywhere you go. One piece of advice I have gotten as I move into writing my own dissertation, for example, is to seek out other dissertations (they are usually publically available). Further, find dissertations that were chaired by the same chair of your own committee. Finding examples can help you figure out what the unwritten expectations of certain genres may be.
  3. Ask an expert. “Expert” could mean an expert in the content area you are writing in, or an expert in writing itself. I often suggest that people writing very discipline-specific writing (like, maybe a review article for a journal) talk with their advisor or other trusted professors and get feedback. Those folks are great resources to talk about methods and field-specific questions that the University Writing Center may not have knowledge about. Then, you can also seek out a writing expert (like the consultants in the University Writing Center) so that you clarify your ideas and translate them into an effective piece of writing.
  4. Ask a peer. This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in college. You are surrounded by great resources in your classes and your major, or even down the hall in the dorms. The people in your classes are future professionals, and may even be your colleagues later on. Get together with someone, or a few people, and exchange writing! One of the best things I have found in graduate school myself is finding a few trusted people that I can send my “shitty first drafts” to without judgment (see Ann Lamott’s excellent essay “Shitty First Drafts”).
  5. Often, when faced with a daunting writing task that we don’t quite know how to tackle, we can easily get in our heads. That “editor” voice (which I imagine as my 7th grade English teacher for some reason) is one of the biggest reasons we get writer’s block. The biggest antidote to being stuck before even beginning the writing task is to simply freewrite everything that you know or think you know about a topic. Just write, and worry about the genre conventions later. Many times we figure out how to do something by doing it (See Reid’s “Getting Going” blog for more useful tips to get started!).
  6. The best way to learn a new genre is to simply keep writing in that genre until you are comfortable. Back to my original example of email writing, the more emails we send, the faster and more comfortable we are in composing them. While perhaps obvious, the reason for this is because we spend so much time writing emails and thus get a ton of practice. This is true for any piece of writing. You might take a really long time writing your first abstract, for example, but a few years later of practicing that skill and you will be able to write effective abstracts more quickly. See more strategies for practicing and developing writing habits in Isaac’s “Getting Started with Genre” or Michael’s “Can Someone Hold My Hair While I Word Vomit?”

Lastly, I think the biggest hurdle when faced with new genres is the uncertainty it causes in us. We think “I don’t know this…should I know this? Does everyone know this but me?” This connects to the most insidious experience of higher education—imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the idea that everyone knows what they are doing and are very successful at that work, and that you are merely “faking” it. However, everyone experiences imposter syndrome, and one of the biggest ways to combat this feeling is talking about your experiences and the writing process more. Tackling a new genre can be intimidating and stressful, but hopefully these strategies can help you be successful, no matter the writing task before you!