Tag: writing habits

Setting “Optimistic Accountability Markers”

It’s a week from spring break, and I know—one of my feet is already out the door, too. But even though we would rather focus our to-do lists around packing up our suitcases to go home or buying a new swimsuit to rush off to some actual sunny weather (what is this weather we’ve been having?!), let’s take a step back into this figurative door-frame and do ourselves a favor.

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After spring break, it always seems like a sprint to the finish with all the assignments and papers and projects, yadda yadda yadda…but this semester, glorious spring 2015, let’s try to make it a little less stressful on ourselves. Let’s set some optimistic accountability markers (some may mistake these as self-deadlines, but that term is all too scary. These are much nicer). What do you say? This’ll take less than 10 minutes of time, and I promise, our future selves will thank us.

You need just a few things to get started: your syllabi for your classes (whether paper or on Blackboard—wherever the schedule for upcoming classes is laid out), a calendar/planner, potentially a pen (unless you’re going all techy on me with a digital calendar), and an optimistic but determined state of mind. Got ‘em? Great!

Now, the first step is the hardest, but necessary. So, deep breath. Ready? Let’s mark down in our calendars the due date of our bigger end-of-semester projects. I know this seems daunting, but it only gets easier from here, I promise! It’s just like jumping into a cold pool—it warms up after the initial chill. But take 2 minutes, go through each of the final weeks of your syllabi and put them all into that calendar, preferably marking them by class and assignment name.

Okay—you’ve made it this far, my friend. I know it looks like a lot to do in a short amount of time, but that’s where these next steps come in to make it a whole lot easier and actually doable.

Now zero in on one of your classes—whichever one, any one will do—and think about that final assignment. Is it a bigger paper? How many pages? Is it an accumulative exam? Whatever it is, think back to last semester. Did you have something like this before? Now be honest with yourself—to do well on this assignment, what are the steps you need to take? Jot down just a rough draft of the steps you think you’ll need to take to get there. Here’s an example:

Assignment: 5-7 page paper, using 5 sources, about such-and-such a topic.

  1. Well, to be honest, it’s going to take me a while to gather those 5 sources. I might even need to schedule an appointment with a research librarian to make sure I’m on the right track.
  2. And then, I need to read those 5 sources, highlighting parts that seem relevant to the such-and-such topic, so I actually know what I’m going to be writing about.
  3. And then I need to brainstorm and mentally organize my paper a bit, before I sit down to start writing.
  4. From that, I can probably put together a rough draft of about 3 pages.
  5. Then I definitely want to come back to my draft with fresh eyes to revise, because my papers are always better when I revisit them and polish/clarify my ideas. And let’s say I get stuck at something like 4 pages—I’ll include a little buffer time to make a visit to the writing center (and I might as well make that appointment now and get ahead of schedule—I can always cancel it if I don’t need to use it, but it’ll just be another optimistic accountability marker to hopefully get where I want to be!)
  6. Then I can work on adding the finishing touches. Done. Submit. Adios such-and-such paper!

So six steps? That’s totally doable, right? Better than one larger looming paper. And breaking it down like that can give you an idea of how long each step might take.

So the next step, after drafting that list—yours might only be a few words per step—write on/type in your calendar when you think you can doably complete steps 1 through [insert your own number here]. But remember, the key here is to be optimistic and a go-getter, but not unrealistic. We have 5 weeks left, and then finals week after spring break; I know it’ll fly by, but realistically, if we space out our mini-optimistic accountability marker steps, it’s completely doable! And you won’t be super stressed, I-am-only-surviving-on-caffeine during finals week!

Oh! And two nice things about these optimistic accountability markers? Checking them off on a to-do list feels super! AND they are revisable—if you realize you’ve been a bit too optimistic with one of your markers, reevaluate. They’re your markers, and they’re there to help out your future self (:

Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

February is flying by and we’ve reached that point in our courses where we’re frequently asked to read, respond to, and write about sources. Sometimes, we are required to read and write about sources we’ve been given in class; other times, we must head to the library (or the library database) and find additional sources to read and write about. We encounter assignments that ask us to write both short and longer papers using sources. However, even when writing a short paper with 3 or 4 sources, writing about sources can be tough. As a student and writing center consultant, I’ve experienced and seen how writing with and about sources can, and often does, leave one saying “I’m not sure how all of these sources fit together” and wondering “What should I say about this (or each) source?” Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are strategies that can help you work through such questions!

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Oftentimes, when we are given a writing assignment that asks us to incorporate or respond to sources, our initial impulse is to start writing the paper and read/incorporate our sources as we go—it is a writing assignment after all, right? In my experience as a student, though, this strategy didn’t always work, especially when I was asked to incorporate upwards of 5 sources and make complex arguments in response to said sources. In taking on longer and larger writing projects as an undergraduate junior and senior, I discovered the usefulness of reading and writing about sources before I began writing a paper. By reading all of my sources and writing down my responses to and thoughts about each source, I found that I had a much easier time seeing how one source related to another and organizing all of my information. Also, I found that this strategy helped me spend less time re-reading sources, thus allowing more time for me to focus on the task of writing.

Here are three ways that you can record your responses to and thoughts about your sources:

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is similar to a bibliography (a list of sources in a particular style such as APA, MLA, etc.), except that in an annotated bibliography you write a brief summary and evaluation and/or analysis of each source. Often, instructors will require students to write annotated bibliographies as part of a research paper or project. Even if your instructors do not require an annotated bibliography, writing your responses to and thoughts about sources in this way can be extremely useful and valuable because it will save you time in the long run: not only will you have written a useful summary and analysis of a source that can perhaps be incorporated into your paper, but you will also have your bibliography completed! 
  • Reading Journal: A reading journal is basically a journal in which you track your responses to the readings and sources you encounter and can be either paper or electronic. This style is more laid back and less formal than an annotated bibliography, but you will still want to be doing some summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing for each source. I find reading journals particularly useful for a class in which I will be required to write essays and papers about the assigned readings. By keeping a reading journal, I am able to 1) be prepared to discuss readings in class each day, 2) add useful class notes to my existing notes, and 3) use these notes to pick a topic to write about and compare/contrast sources when it’s paper-writing time.
  • Blog: A blog can be used in a similar way to a reading journal and, again, is less formal and more relaxed than an annotated bibliography. What I find most interesting, useful, and fun about blogs is that they can be shared. For example, in a class concerned with representations of women in media and culture, I was required to keep a blog in which I responded to class readings and sources that I uncovered on my own. We were allowed to make the blog private, but I chose to make mine public. I didn’t anticipate what happened next: people actually responded to my blog posts. This may sound scary, but it was actually incredibly helpful. Readers would often comment on what they liked about my analysis and evaluations, pose questions that I had not thought of, and offer additional sources that proved useful.

Now that you have some strategies for recording your responses to and thoughts about your sources, here are some questions to get you writing about your sources:

  • What is the purpose of this source? What is the main argument?
  • How does the author achieve this purpose or support his/her argument?
  • What types of evidence is the author using?
  • Has anything been left out, overlooked, or neglected in this source?
  • Do I find this source persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Is this source credible? Why or why not?
  • How does this source compare to my other sources?
  • How does this source contribute to my argument?

All of these questions will not always be necessarily relevant or apply to your sources, and there are many other great questions that you can ask about sources. The important thing is to ask the same questions of each source and write down your answers: this strategy will provide a solid foundation on which to write your paper.

Happy writing, friends!

Just Three Saturdays: Comparing Dissertation Writing Retreat Models

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last weekend the Writing Center wrapped up our third Dissertation Writing Retreat. Much like the previous two dissertation retreats we’ve held, this one offered doctoral candidates the opportunity to have dedicated writing time and resources as well as time each day with a writing consultant. Unlike our previous retreats, we did not meet every day for a week; instead we met three Saturdays in a row. The difference in scheduling offered a unique experience that offered a different set of advantages than the week-long retreat.

First, the week-long retreat—which is a common model for these kinds of events—is useful to writers because it can be particularly helpful for breaking out of a rut and for developing daily writing habits. Our director, Bronwyn Williams, wrote during our first retreat about what the week-long model can offer. Some of our clients for the May retreats came in with the goal of finally wrapping up a chapter or with starting a chapter. Writer’s block is a common concern. In fact, this past May when I served as a consultant for the retreat that is exactly the place I was in, and I was hoping that like our writers I would be able to find the key with scheduled time each morning to write. We also work with writers during the week to develop daily goals or practices that will encourage them to do some writing every day. Hopefully these practices will continue once the week is over.

Certainly we have had good feedback from participants in the past two retreats. We’ve heard repeated calls for more retreats and more support for doctoral candidates in the form of writing groups and writing spaces. The School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies has responded to some of these call, as this semester they are starting Dissertation Writing Accountability groups. And, of course, the Writing Center always welcomes those who simply want to use the space to write or work during our open hours.

While we’ve had good feedback about the week-long retreat, and plan to continue offering them, sometimes circumstances call for some flexibility. A number of those interested in the May retreat were unable to attend because they work full-time jobs during the week. Many of these students were candidates in the College of Education and Human Development, and with the support of their college, we are able to design a Dissertation Writing Retreat that would meet all day for three Saturday in a row. Like our previous retreats, participants wrote in the morning and then, just before lunch, a short presentation was given on a dissertation writing strategy. In the afternoon, participants met with a consultant to talk about parts of their dissertation, writing strategies, or other writing related topics.

Ashly_Version_3The biggest advantage to meeting across three weeks—in this consultant’s opinion—was that there was a higher likelihood of developing habits. One hope of the week-long retreat is that repeated practice for five days, with support and peer supervision, will plant the seed of a habit. For the participants in this retreat, they had at least two weeks to practice and then report back about their effectiveness. There wasn’t as much direct support, but the accountability for progress was a little higher since they had a week to make progress between meetings rather than just an evening. One habit that I worked on with two of the participants was the practice of doing some writing or work every day that related to the dissertation. These women had busy lives—teaching, raising families, and other commitments—but they also worked hard to do even fifteen minutes of dissertation work every day. Of course, it wasn’t easy and some days that fifteen minutes didn’t happen. For the most part it did though, and I have confidence that they will be able to keep it up.

This is certainly not to say that one scheduling style for a dissertation writing retreat is better than another. Instead, I would argue here that each schedule works toward a different set of goals and has different expectations. Perhaps the week-long model is better for getting a burst of motivation and production that can get the ball rolling (again, sometimes) while the three-week model is more effective for establishing not just sparking habits. As the Writing Center moves forward and continues to host these retreats, we will be exploring these early thoughts and more. So, stay tuned; there’s more to come.