Tag: writing strategies

The Importance of Community

Christina Davidson, Writing Consultant

Writing can often feel like a solitary practice. It’s likely we’ve all had the troubling experience of staring into a blank page, searching ourselves for how to fill the void with our thoughts. And these lonely feelings have only been compounded by our collective public experience over the past few pandemic years. Yet during this time, I continually found comfort in the realization that when a writer sits in front of the page, they always bring others with them. We write to an audience, we engage with other voices in our field, and we collaborate with other writers to improve our practice. Indeed, when we are writing, we are not alone.

Writing, it would appear, is a much more social activity than we often think. With this truth in mind, I invite you to consider how further engaging in community as a writer may improve your practice. Here are a few benefits and advantages.

Support

Everyone struggles with writing. Despite how it may seem, even the best writers experience difficulties or frustrations with their writing. But on the other side of struggle, progress awaits. When writing within a community, you’ll find others who not only understand what you are going through, but often they will share strategies that have worked for them in the past. One easy way to have a conversation about your writing is to make an appointment for a consultation at the University Writing Center. This free service invites writers to bring any piece of writing in, during any stage of the process. We’re also here for any writer, be that an undergraduate, graduate, faculty, or staff member. My own academic journey has been greatly impacted by writing center consultants. When I meet with a consultant, I feel heard, affirmed, and encouraged in my work. I like to think of it as a series of ongoing conversations about writing, which continually refine my practice and make me a better communicator.

Real-Time Feedback 

One of the most treasured gifts a writer can receive is a reader. When writing in a community, we freely give each other this offering. When a person thoughtfully reads your work and responds to it, you receive perspective on your writing that will improve it. At the University Writing Center, we aim to provide students with useful suggestions they may take from our consultation to immediately bring their writing to the next level. We also welcome writers to attend multiple appointments on a single piece of writing. Our appointment sessions last 50 minutes and will always provide you with something to work on after the consultation is over. However, if you are looking for more feedback, we hope you will return to us for another chance to gain more insight. Communication in these appointments is key. Be sure to let your consultant know what you want to take from the session; they will do their very best to assist.

Accountability

Another way to tangibly find community as a writer is to join a writing group. The University Writing Center offers multiple opportunities for writers to meet with other writers with similar goals. One such example is the Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group which will begin again this fall. Another group starting soon is the Creative Writing Group, open to any creative writer seeking a group for growth and feedback. Groups like these, and many other events offered by the University Writing Center throughout the year, provide a chance for you to gain multiple perspectives on your writing, within a safe and helpful environment. Writing groups undoubtably help writers to set goals, maintain focus, and improve their work over time. You may also develop relationships with other writers, particularly with similar interests, that extend beyond your time in the group. Many of my lifelong friends are individuals I met during community writing events or retreats. Be sure to check in with the University Writing Center throughout the year to see when new groups or events are posted so you can experience these benefits, too.

While we have reviewed three important reasons to incorporate more community into your writing life, it is hardly a comprehensive list. Engaging in a community of writers certainly develops our technical skills, but also affects many of the more abstract qualities that make a good writer. I know my conversations with other writers have undoubtedly given me greater perspective, deeper empathy, and a wider awareness of the world. A good writing community can refine your purpose as a writer and push you towards bigger goals than you even thought possible. Maybe you hope to complete a novel, publish a poem, or conduct a new research study? A community of writers can help you achieve these dreams and will stand alongside you during the journey. It’s my hope we will see you at the University Writing Center soon to begin this process. Let’s get started today!

It’s All About the Conversations in the Writing Center – Looking to the Year Ahead

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Those of us in colleges and universities often feel like the energy and anticipation of starting a new year happens every August, rather than in January. We draw up new plans for the year ahead, make hopeful resolutions, and take part in the rituals, both formal and informal, that mark new beginnings. At the University Writing Center one of our important, and always energizing, rituals takes place when the new group of consultants show up for the coming academic year. This past Thursday we all met as a group for the first time at the our orientation. That day we began the conversations, that will continue throughout the year, about how best to support the writing of all members of the UofL community. Central to our values and practices are seeing our work with writers as helping them strengthen the drafts they bring to an appointment, but also to offer strategies and advice to help them be stronger, more confident writers in the future.

University Writing Center Consultants – 2022-23

The best way to support writers and strengthen their drafts, writing processes, and skills, is to engage in collaborative conversations. We’re excited to be able to have our schedule available again for in-person appointments. Both my experience as a writing teacher, and research in writing studies, make it clear that the best way to help a person improve as a writer is through dialogue. In our appointments, writers tell us their concerns about their drafts, we tell them what we see as strengths and areas of concern, and then we have a conversation about different strategies available to improve their drafts. Throughout our appointments there is time for both writers and consultants to to be able to ask questions and explore new ideas. Through listening to writers and asking questions, we can help them discover for themselves how best to improve their writing. These in-person conversations are collaborative and energizing for everyone involved, and they are what make writing center work so rewarding for those of us who do it. The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that many people in the UofL community have not had the experience of an in-person consultation, but I hope people will give it a try this fall and see what a difference such a conversation can make in terms of their writing, now and in the future.

We are, as always, committed to work with any writing, with any member of the UofL community, at any point in the writing process. People are welcome to come in and brainstorm ideas about how to respond to an assignment, or bring in a draft to develop strategies for revision. For all writers, our work will continue to be grounded in an ethic that draws from principles of hospitality, service, care, empathy, patience, and respect. We are also always committed to be a safe, inclusive, and equitable space for all writers on campus. It’s these principles that help consultants and students work together to create more effective, critical, and creative writing.

We also continue our work to create and support a culture of writing on campus. We will continue to facilitate our writing groups (Graduate Student and Faculty Writing Group, Creative Writing Group, and LGBQ+ Writing Group), hold writing-focused events such as readings and open mic nights, and work with our community partners on our community writing projects. And we will continue to have more ideas about writing in this blog and well as on our social media feeds (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube).

On Monday morning, we will begin to a new year of working with writers to make their writing stronger. Those Monday appointments will be the first of thousands we will hold in the year to come. We’re excited about sharing the journey ahead with all of you as we all work to being a positive focus and force for all the writing, in all its many forms, that takes place in this university community.

Listening to Learn: Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.

Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.

In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.

In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.

Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Collaboration succeeds when collaboration is the point. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

One of the most daunting things to a writer or student is the blank page. While thinking on the topic of this specific blog post I found myself paralyzed by choice. “A short blog about writing” could mean anything. I started writing, erased the first line, started over. Editing as a I went, I found myself held back from what the point of this was, that I was getting caught up in the minutiae of writing instead of actually writing.

 I am, of course, being somewhat hyperbolic in the above paragraph, but it isn’t far off from my experience engaging with past and current writing projects. We tend to get caught up in the sentence we are constructing rather than the point of the piece.  

I find that taking a step back from that detail-oriented nature can do more good than letting an inner editor take over constantly. Instead, try to focus on getting something on the page. Prohibit yourself from using the backspace, repeat your points and repeat yourself in different ways. This type of repetition can be monotonous in a final draft, but a mock-up first draft can provide a writer with options when returning to the piece.

Then, once you have created something, step back, make a cup of tea, meander over your thoughts. Take the evening, day or week. Then use this piece that is what I lovingly refer to as a “word explosion” to create an outline and reorganize your thoughts. Returning to it with a fresh head can prevent you from becoming fatigued over a specific project or idea. From there, you can make edits, rewrite sections, omit unnecessary information, reorganize your thoughts, and fully flesh out points in your future drafts.

It is impossible to edit a blank document. Good writing takes multiple attempts, revisions, and proofreading. Half the battle is getting something on the page. In addition to this, it is exceptionally difficult to fully edit an unfinished piece, because you don’t know what additional context you need to provide, you can’t know how to transition into or from a paragraph or idea that you don’t yet have on the page.

Silencing my inner editor during my initial draft has become my go-to in the last few years. In the past, I have often been struck with choice paralysis or perfectionist desire. I feel that every piece I put out should be perfect as soon as it first hits the page. This is not a healthy or productive writing strategy. It creates this false narrative in early writers, (and late writers) that revision is not a key step in the process.

Instead, your first draft should be passionate. Why does this matter to you, why is it important that it is said, and what is your evidence to further support these claims? Writing is about growth, about changing the way the audience sees something or approaches a topic. Along that same vein, writing is process in which you can discover yourself and your arguments about a piece.

If you’re constantly dissecting every word or sentence you put on the page, then you can become overwhelmed and lose the motivation to continue writing. Instead, just focus on getting words on the page. They don’t need to be good. They don’t need to be ready for publication or submission–get your thoughts down without hesitation and with total freedom to put whatever you want. This early draft isn’t what you are sending in, it is for you and you alone as the writer to better understand yourself, your process, and your approach to this particular piece you are writing.

I know this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be something that works for writers who struggle with starting. I find that in my own writing, starting with a loose thesis works best. You can always come back to the thesis and make it stronger, or, if after writing you decide that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t fit, then there’s no harm in returning to the drawing board on your thesis statement. Revisit your writing, what are you trying to accomplish in your stream of consciousness? Hone in on those points and fully articulate them. If you can argue it in a fully-fledged piece, then don’t be afraid to change it and make it your own.

Shutting off that critic side of your brain and just putting words on the page in a stream of consciousness style can help to create a framework for yourself during the writing process. You might discover that your initial thesis doesn’t quite fit, that a certain piece of evidence doesn’t hold as much weight as you originally thought or that you need additional information or research to fully set your argument. Giving yourself and piece a space to grow without an internal critic can lead you down a path that may be different from your initial intent and provide you a better understanding of your argument.

While it is important to be critical of your own work and edit that work, within the writing process that internal criticism can detrimental and create a sort of choice paralysis and inhibit us from actually engaging within the writing process. So, instead I encourage you write your first drafts like no one is watching and shut out the editor.   

Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

My experience with writing prior to entering my undergraduate degree was much like any other contemporary American student’s: learn to write in a 3.5 paragraph format (better known in pedagogical circles as the 5 paragraph format), and it’ll carry me all the way through college. Turns out, college professors are not fans of the 3.5 paragraph format. Having such a hard shift from a highly organized, structured form of writing, to whatever it is that I use now was a hard lesson to learn.

My experience with the 3.5 paragraph format begins in eighth grade, when the Language Arts teacher’s favorite student took a day off high school (don’t ask me how) to visit her old stomping ground. With her she brought the Good News of 3.5 paragraph format, and from then on, every paper had to be written with one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. To be honest, finally having “instructions” to follow when writing was a huge boon for me. Now instead of waiting until the last minute to try to figure out how to write an essay, I could just wait until the last minute to actually write the essay.

I went to a “college-preparatory” high school, and that’s when 3.5 format really started to be drilled into me by the school’s curriculum. This is when I started to get frustrated with the format. As the length requirements got longer, five paragraphs were no longer enough to fill 10 pages worth of writing, at least not in any way that offered substance. I was also finding that 3.5 format didn’t always allow me to conform to the conventions of whatever genre I was trying to write in.

Once I got to college, after taking the required college composition courses, I decided to ditch 3.5 format entirely. In its place, I tried to model my writing after the kind of academic writing I was encountering in my course work. I wasn’t the most successful at it, as instead of trying to do what academics were doing in their writing, I simply stopped doing the things they weren’t, but it was as though suddenly a shackle had just been released, and suddenly I was able say the things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. Learning how to do this on my own was a struggle, and my grades reflected that, but once I learned how to write what I wanted to write instead of what I thought my professors wanted to see, there was an immediate boost in my grades.

In my final semester of undergrad (just before the “Dark Times”), I took a course called “Teaching of Writing,” where I learned that 3.5 Paragraph format wasn’t created to teach students to write at the collegiate level, it was intended to game the standardized testing system. My high school wasn’t so much “college preparatory” it was “SAT preparatory.” When funding for public schools became (partly) tied to standardized test scores, the schools needed a way to ensure that students’ writing could trigger all of the things that the scoring algorithm looked for in writing, regardless of how well written the content of the paper actually was. Of course, to remain competitive and maintain their reputation as “superior” alternatives to public education, private schools also started teaching 3.5 format. 

So how do we relearn to write? That answer is a little bit different for everyone. There’s an axiom among pedagogical circles that to be good writers, we have to be good readers. While this isn’t necessarily an idea that I personally subscribe to (It leads to a chicken and egg scenario if you think about it long enough), I do think that a good place to start to learn how to write is to model your writing on the things you read. The larger variety of things that you read the better, because that gives you options when you write. One of the ways that I make writing interesting for myself is to play with genre. I might write the introduction of a paper for one of my courses as a narrative, or I might reconceptualize a research project as a scientific study. Part of the benefit of understanding how a variety of writing works is you can take it apart and Frankenstein it back together.

None of this is to say that 3.5 format isn’t useful. I still use 3.5 all the time for smaller papers in the 3-5 page range. But, again, five paragraphs are not enough to fill out a full-length paper at the college level. And when you have writers who have been taught to construct a paper, rather than communicate their ideas, of course they are going to begin to flounder when they enter higher education, because most high schoolers come to college with the idea that it is simply more school where they come to be taught, rather than explore ideas on their own. Realistically, there is very little that we can do to change the way that writing is being taught in primary and secondary educations, so relearning how to write is a frustrating, but crucial, and also personal part of that transition into higher education.

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.

The Narrative Arc: Where Storytelling Meets Professional Writing

DSCN3636Emily Blair, consultant

Consider your favorite book or movie. You have probably been reading and watching TV since you were young. Some stories are more exciting than others; some have adventurers, travelling bands of heroes, or great villains that need conquering. Other stories place you within the mind of a character not so unlike yourself, showing how one person’s life unfolds in a realistic world

Now, think about an email to your professor. You likely don’t think it is as exciting as a blockbuster film; in fact, you probably don’t think about it as a story at all, but rather, a completely utilitarian writing assignment. However, it can be helpful and productive to think of your writing as an exercise in storytelling, with some relation to the narrative arc that you know from years of enjoying books, movies, TV shows, and video games.

Let’s take a professional email as an example. I need to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, which would be a great favor. I might be tempted, for brevity’s sake, to write something like this:

Dr. Smith,

Can you write me a letter of rec for grad school?

–Emily Blair

This style of email likely will not get the response you hope, not only because of its brief tone but also because there are ways to make this story more compelling in a way that allows my professor to see why their letter of recommendation would help me achieve my goals. Depending on the situation, you can employ different facets of storytelling, such as characterization, exposition, the building of plot, climax, and conclusion:

Dear Dr. Smith,

I am writing to ask if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for the University of Louisville’s Master’s program in English. I felt that your class in Southern Literature in Fall 2015 informed my understanding of current literary research in contemporary regional literature, as well as what my own place could be in the field. You had mentioned that my papers in your class were well thought out, and I consider you a mentor in this vein of literature. I would like to earn my MA at U of L because the work that Dr. Jones and Dr. Lakes are doing in Southern and regional literature before going on to a Ph.D. program with those focuses as well.

If you have any questions, or would like to see my resume, please let me know. Thank you for considering writing me a letter of recommendation for a graduate program.

Sincerely,

Emily Blair

The difference between these emails is not only length but also how I, as a student, could speak to a professor using a narrative. I have walked the professor, my audience, through not only why I am applying to this graduate program, but also why they, in particular, have the ability to help in my application process. I have drawn a direct line between this professor’s class and my future Ph.D. program, allowing the professor to follow the story of my path through a literature education. I have also made myself a unique person, or a “character,” in this narrative by reminding Dr. Smith of my performance in their class and setting myself apart with specific goals to attend U of L.

While most of the things you write in a professional setting won’t be as exciting as Lord of the Rings or as entertaining as Friends, you can use some creative writing techniques to better convey your narrative to others.

How to Get into the “Flow” of Things: Writing a Well-Structured Essay

Lindsey Gilbert, consultantlindseygilbert

Many writers come into the Writing Center with concerns about the “flow” of their ideas in their papers. Occasionally, this concern comes up late in the writing process, allowing for little or no time to review the final piece with a writing consultant. A good way to resolve this issue is by simply examining the organization of the paper on your own. This answer may seem like a no-brainer, but many approaches exist that can help you reexamine and strengthen the structure of your paper, allowing for smooth transitions between ideas.

Outlining

While this is not a new approach by any means, creating an outline before writing can greatly help you structure your paper. Seeing how the ideas shift into each other allows for an easy edit to the structure of your essay if necessary. Even though prewriting strategies such as an outline may seem tedious, they can greatly help and even speed up your overall writing process, meaning you spend less time crafting the structure during or after writing.

Identifying Key Ideas: Reverse Outlining

Structure is a key component to keep in mind while writing an essay, but you may not know how to structure your paper until you begin writing. After completing a draft, you can read through and mark down the main idea in each paragraph. Compiling all of the main ideas will provide you with the groundwork for shifting paragraphs around to illustrate a logical progression throughout your paper.

Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

If you decide to rearrange your paragraphs, you will want to read through and reorganize your thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement is the spoiler of your paper and outlines what topics you are covering and in what order. If your thesis statement reads, “Dogs are soft, fluffy, and cute,” the body paragraphs should be in the description order of “soft” first, “fluffy” second, and “cute” third. In turn, the topic sentences of each paragraph should align with the descriptions presented in your thesis statement. This will allow your reader to understand the main topic of each paragraph before reading through it.

Working with Transitions

New topic sentences help to create better organization throughout your paper, but a smooth transition is needed in between paragraphs for the ideas to build on each other. Make sure to develop strong transition sentences between paragraphs by concluding the ideas of a paragraph and finding a link to the next topic that will be covered in the following paragraph. This provides a logical flow of ideas for the reader.

Subheadings

Transition sentences are greatly important for the ideas in your paper to shift efficiently, but some concepts may be too large and drastically different to allow for an easy transition. For example, if you write a position paper, you will need to state the advantages and disadvantages of a specific topic. These two areas are drastically different and could contain much detail and explanation, allowing for multiple paragraphs to develop in the process. In this case, the use of subheadings can be greatly beneficial to make that shift for the reader, allowing him/her to follow along with larger ideas that cover a greater length of pages.

The approaches provided above can greatly strengthen the organization of your paper, providing the “flow” that is so desired by the reader. Organizing your ideas well can ultimately give you more credibility as a writer, a strategy that you should keep in mind before you submit your final essay.

Ready to start writing, but not quite sure how? Read our blog post on non-generic ways to start your paper.

Happy writing!