Tag: writing strategies

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!

“Since the Beginning of Time:” Avoiding Generic Opening Sentences

Deanna Babcock, consultantDSCN3612

Throughout history, students have continuously used generic opening sentences in their essays. Teachers continue seeing papers with the same types of openings again and again and, despite any attempts to change students’ habits, they keep cropping up. A likely reason is that students are being told to avoid certain sentences in their introductions (if they are told at all) without being taught what to do instead.

There are a number of phrases that can begin an assigned paper, but are ineffective, too general, or just plain boring. An example of this is, in fact, “throughout history…”

Here are some other phrases you should avoid:

  • “Since the beginning of time/history/mankind…”
  • “Everyone/we all…”
  • “So and so dictionary defines ____ as…”

These phrases are very broad and essentially ‘empty,’ and your instructor will likely see them as having no important value to your paper. They are also very general and start off the topic too broadly. If you are writing about different dog breeds, defining either the term “dog” or “breed” is unnecessary and does nothing for your essay. Telling us that “dogs have existed since the beginning of time” is not necessarily true and is also vague and pointless, and saying “we all love dogs” or “everyone has a favorite dog breed” can isolate readers who are not dog fans and cause them to lose interest.

clicheClichés are best avoided, as their meanings are abstract and likely will not add anything to your ideas, especially at the very beginning of the paper. “All that glitters is not gold” is a common saying, but is so common that it would be too general to start a paper with. Use your own words instead to be original and express your individual ideas. If you’re not sure, check here for more examples of cliches.

So what should you do instead? There are other ways of starting an essay that avoid these general phrases and cut straight to the point while still grabbing your reader’s attention. Here are some other ways to start your paper:

Start straight off with your topic.

Not a general idea, but the specifics. If you are writing about the themes of a novel, your readers do not need to know much, if any, background information on the author or the novel itself. Briefly discuss your specific subject, paving a clear path for your thesis statement and the rest of your paper.

General: “There are many different breeds of dogs.”

Specific: “Knowing the difference between dog breeds can help pet owners and shelter workers do what is best for each dog.”

Figure out the scope of your paper.

What can you realistically address in terms of time, place, and audience? You will likely never write a paper that requires you to address everything about your subject “since the beginning of time.” It would also be simpler to discuss a smaller scope than the entire world (think countries, states, even cities), and to address an audience who might actually be interested in or have reason to read about your topic. If you are writing about a recent issue, your audience likely does not need to understand the entire history of the issue to understand your stance on it.

General: “We should all consider the issue of poverty throughout the world/throughout history.”

Specific: “Legislators should consider the current problems facing those in poverty in the  city of ___ when creating new laws.”

Begin with a rhetorical question.

Keep the question open so it could not be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask something that the audience should not already have the answer to; the question indicates what you plan to answer in your essay. It should also be something that you are able to answer. If you only have 5 pages, you should not tackle a question about how to solve world hunger, but you could address a smaller issue related to hunger problems.

General: “How can we solve world hunger?”

Specific: “What can we do about widespread hunger in so-and-so city/state/country?”

Additionally, these questions could be phrased as statements, where the question is implied rather than directly asked. These create a question in the reader’s mind that can    be assumed to have an answer provided.

General: “There are several ways we could go about solving the problem of world    hunger.”

         Specific: “The hunger problem in ____ can be dealt with, if we…”

There are a number of other ways to begin an introduction; these are certainly not the only ones. Keep in mind that your first sentence should spark the reader’s attention and make him or her want to continue reading, and remain as close to your topic as possible.

For more tips on beginning a paper, check out the University of Louisville Writing Center’s handout on introductions. The UNC Writing Center’s page on introductions is another good resource.

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Personal Statements Part 2: Research and Focus

We bring you the second installment in this week’s series on the personal statement.  See part one here.

Stephen Cohen, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing20150824_140027

Working with writers at both the Belknap and HSC campuses has taught me that, despite differences in discipline and focus, writers everywhere are working through very similar hurdles and anxieties. Students across both campuses right now are thinking about taking the next step in their academic careers; often this involves applying for residencies, internships, or further graduate study. Though these applications can be stressful, I try to help people think of them as opportunities to present themselves and find the program that is the best fit.

Many of these applications require a version of the “personal statement” essay. For this post, I’ll be thinking through some of the most common stumbling blocks in this process and (hopefully) giving you a few useful tips to help you through writing a statement of your own. Also remember that one of the best ways to develop a personal statement is to make an appointment to discuss it with one of our consultants here in the University Writing Center.

1. Do your homework.

Find out what the requirements are for the statement – and don’t deviate from them. How many words? Does the application ask you to address specific questions? Carefully adhering to guidelines demonstrates to the committee that you’ve taken time to understand their particular application process, and, by extension, their program.

Speaking of which, you’ll want to find out what you can about the school and the program to which you’re applying. Mission statements and program descriptions are great places to look for information that you can use to your advantage – demonstrate to the committee that you understand how their program differs from others and that you are excited about what makes it unique.

If you are applying to multiple programs, try to contain anything that applies to a specific program to one paragraph. That way, you can switch that paragraph out for each program without having to do extensive revision on the rest of your letter.

2. Put your best foot forward.

People often understand “polishing” a personal statement to mean carefully proofreading it and ridding it of errors. While this is important (you don’t want to send a letter addressed to University of Louisville to University of Kentucky because you forgot to change it!), it’s more important to think about polish as careful presentation of the experiences you list on your CV or Resume.

Think carefully about what you list on your CV/Resume and choose the experiences that best demonstrate why you are a great candidate for a given program – you’ll want to use your experiences to show a committee not only how well prepared you are for graduate study, but also what makes you unique – what you can bring to the program that others can’t. Remember, the committee won’t necessarily know how your work (as a student assistant, for example) has prepared you for the demands of grad school – you’ll have to tell them.

If there was ever a time to toot your own horn, this is it. Though you don’t want to seem arrogant, most people I’ve worked with err too far on the side of caution. This is your chance to let the committee know how great you are – take it!

This is also an opportunity to answer any questions you think might be raised while the committee considers your other materials. Is there a gap on your resume? Don’t leave the reason for it up to the committee’s collective imagination – explain it to them, in the most positive terms possible.

3. Be Specific

Be sure you include particular reasons for your proposed path of study, and where possible, who you would like to study with. Remember the part about doing your homework? The more you know about a program, the better positioned you are to explain specifically how that particular program can help you meet your academic and career goals in ways that other programs can’t.

Use appropriate details to support any claims you make about yourself and your preparedness (in my case, an example might be not “I am a good teacher,” instead I would write “I have successfully taught introductory Rhetoric, Literature, and Business Writing courses).

4. Be Yourself

Often, a program will ask for a personal statement because they want a sense of who you are that they just can’t get from scanning a CV. Coordinate the experiences you’ve selected to write about to demonstrate some personal characteristic(s) that you think will appeal to the committee. In other words, rather than writing “I am a hard worker,” choose to detail a few experiences from your CV/Resume that demonstrate how hard you’ve worked.

Use the personal statement as a place to tell the committee what you think are the most important things to know about you – the things that make you different from another candidate. What life events have led you to consider your course of study? What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them in order to achieve the accomplishments listed elsewhere in your application materials?

The personal statement is only a small part of your overall application, but a thoughtfully prepared statement can have a big impact on how your whole package is received.

Rethink the New Semester Reset

Cassie Book, Associate Director

As the first two weeks of fall semester wound down on a hazy August Friday afternoon, I found a spare moment to reflect on the work already done in the University Writing Center. Typically, when I imagine writing situations early in the semester, I immediately think of getting started on class writing assignments. In fact, when I visit classes to speak about the University Writing Center, I suggest students visit at the beginning of their writing process, to brainstorm and plan. Yet, many of the writers we’ve met here in the past two weeks aren’t just getting started. What are they up to?

We’ve met writers with projects not limited by the semester timeline. Some were in the final stages of editing academic journal articles; the research likely began several years ago. Others spent the summer revising personal statements for graduate school applications and wanted more feedback before submission. Still others have returned to U of L as graduate students with a renewed commitment to improving their writing with each opportunity. These writers embrace writing as a lifelong process and practice. They haven’t pushed the “reset” button at the beginning of the semester like, I’ll admit, I tend to do.

What if you’re already in the mindset of resetting at the beginning of each semester? You’re not yet working on a personal statement for graduate school. You wouldn’t know where to start on research for a journal article. Relax. I’m not suggesting that you embark on a lengthy writing project. There are other ways to commit to building and bridging your writing skills from semester to semester. Instead of starting from scratch each semester, take stock of what you’ve already learned and know about writing and your writing process.

We learn best when we begin to integrate concepts from one class or experience with new experiences. Another way to think about it might be learning a sport, say, basketball. You first try it out—shoot hoops with friends or family. Then, you play casual one-on-one. Next, you add more players and basic guidelines, maybe parameters like a time clock or a referee. Eventually, you’ll advance to having a specialized role (guard, center, forward) and even breaking the general guidelines. Of course, the learning process is never so straightforward, structured, and sequenced. The point is you’re always learning because each game the context is slightly different. You’re constantly building on your skills, observing others, listening, and responding to the other players. Learning to write is a similar process, though the “rulebook” is much more flexible than a given sport’s.

When confronted with a “new” writing task, take a few moments to reflect on how it relates to the writing you’ve already done—any writing, for academic or personal reasons. Maybe the subject matter is different, but can you identify similarities in structure, purpose, or audience? What do you know about your process? How do your professors and peers typically respond to your writing? How do your Twitter followers respond to your writing? Though at first a writing task might seem unfamiliar, try to link it to what you’ve already accomplished. If you shift your approach and thinking now, you’ll be better prepared later to embark on more in-depth and high stakes writing with confidence.

Reflecting on the 2015 Week-Long Dissertation Writing Retreat

We just finished our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University Writing Center. Last week, May 18-22, several writers from various disciplines met every day to push their dissertation projects forward – and to learn some new things about writing practices and strategies at the same time. Some of the DWR participants were in the early stages of their projects, working on dissertation proposals or their first chapters. Others were nearly finished with their dissertations. The retreat provided them with the time and space to write as well as feedback on their writing in daily consultations. In addition, the DWR hosted daily workshops on topics such as organizing a large writing project, writing a literature review, and leveraging dissertations for future uses.

The consultants who work during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are experienced writing teachers who are also PhD students currently working on their dissertations. After the 2014 DWR, the consultants offered some insightful reflections, and here is what this year’s consultants had to say:

On being in the company of other writers:

The dissertation writing retreat this year reminded me of the power of surrounding yourself with other writers. I’m always so impressed by the camaraderie across the disciplines that happens during the retreat, but also by how much more work these writers are able to get done in this space simply by being around other writers who are all going through the same process. Some writers at the retreat used this opportunity to give each other feedback, comments, and share advice, but there were also times when sitting in silence together was just as productive. Whether you use the time around other writers as a chance to share ideas or as a quiet work time to be around others in order to keep focused, writing groups are valuable opportunities to grow as a writer as well as a great way to keep yourself accountable.

–Meghan Hancock

On goal-setting and rewards:

As always, this past week at the Dissertation Writing Retreat was a true joy. My fellow dissertating comrades and I talked deeply about how to stay on track with the book-length project that is “THE Dissertation.” We were really focused on how to negotiate and renegotiate the kinds of working routines necessary to get through this seeming behemoth. We talked about a few really important ideas:

Set a low goal that keeps you motivated but that is easy to reach, like – “Write 100 words per day,” or “Read1 article per day.”

Then, when you reach the goal, give yourself a gold star (or even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker) – just something to acknowledge the success!

  • Periodically revisit what you see as the whole scope of the dissertation, but don’t worry if that scope changes dramatically.
  • Figure out how to work effectively with each individual committee member, and the committee as a whole. Make sure to develop a comfortable working relationship with your director, above all.
  • Remember, it’s your dissertation!
  • And, finally, always take some time off for self-care!

It was a wonderful week, and I’m feeling fully energized to get back to my dissertation, 100 words at a time.

–Brittany Kelley

On habit-building:

The Dissertation Writing Retreat espouses many of the principles that writing centers value, among them making writing a daily habit. This principle resonated with me while I talked to DWR participants last week, especially because I am writing my own dissertation and working on meeting word count goals every day. If writing is a habit – and by writing I mean sitting down, opening a new document or one in progress, and making words in a row happen – then it is like brushing my teeth, looking over my shoulder before I change lanes, or feeding my cat in the morning. I don’t even think about whether writing will happen if it’s a habit. This is one reason why the DWR is a valuable experience for those participating in it. The retreat can teach the habit of daily writing, such that participants go on to continue the practice of writing every day even after the retreat ends.

–Jessica Winck

On being a member of the graduate community:

Over the last week, I’ve been thinking about mentoring. I had the privilege of working with two students in the Biology program who were at very different stages of the process at this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat. One student was working on drafting her introduction while the other had completed and revised all of her chapters, and was working on further revision to turn one chapter into an article. While I learned a great deal about the growth of invasive honeysuckle plants in our area and colonies of bacteria, I learned even more about the value of mentoring. Throughout our time together, I was able to help the student who was further along with revising her article about bacteria, and she in turn was able to provide insight into the expectations that faculty in the department would have for an introduction on invasive honeysuckle. In this way, we all spent the week learning from each other, and I was reminded what a great opportunity graduate school is to be in a community of scholars, and that valuable help and advice is available from my advisor and committee, yes, but also from others who are at different stages of the process.

–Stephen Cohen

On commitment to our projects:

It’s hard to believe this is the 4th time I’ve consulted for the week-long Dissertation Writing Retreat. I’m thrilled that the Writing Center has been able to consistently offer this resource thanks to the support of many offices and departments across campus. While I’ve always been impressed with the work the writers do during the retreat, this year, perhaps more than any other, I was lucky to work with two writers who blew me away with their commitment to producing good work every day. Each took advantage of the writing time, guest talks, consultations, and other resources so that they were able to walk away with tangible progress on their projects. Their commitment was inspiring and reminded me of how much can be accomplished with a bit of consistent focus. It is my hope that they recognize the hard work they did this week and that it inspires them to keep writing just as much as it inspired me to return my own projects.

–Ashly Bender

What can Shel Silverstein’s “Writer Waiting” teach us about writing?

Haley Petcher, Consultant 

I first read Shel Silverstein’s poetry when I was in elementary school. I loved his doodles, and I loved his rhymes. When I got older, I loved his cleverness. Silverstein could tell a good story in only a few words and could capture the minds and hearts of children and adults alike while doing so.

Maybe you’ve heard that Silverstein’s writing is childish or not up to par with the poetry greats, like Yeats or Shakespeare, but I’m here to show you that he can actually tell us quite a bit about writing. Let’s start by looking at one of his poems about a writer.

Writer Waiting Silverstein

The poem, paired with a sketch of a young child staring at his computer screen and waiting for something to happen, is very clearly about computers and writing. I don’t know about you, but often when I write, this is a pretty accurate representation of me. Even though I’m in grad school, I feel like a kid who has no idea what she’s doing, and sometimes I stare at the screen, hoping for a miracle.

We could go down many rabbit holes about using or not using “standard English” or about all of the rhetorical choices Silverstein makes in his argument that computers are actually not the key to writing, but this time we’re going to focus on the following:

  • What computers can and can’t do
  • Creative license in syntax
  • What the writing center can help you accomplish

The narrator says that he doesn’t “need no writin’ tutor” because the computer can do it all. It can check spelling by showing you the ominous red squiggly line and grammar by showing you the questioning green squiggly line. Sometimes these lines are useful and alert you of typos or sentence fragments. But other times they’re wrong. And sometimes they don’t catch the mistakes. For example, my computer did not use a green squiggly line for my previous two sentences, even though they are technically fragments. Those sentences are examples of using your “creative license” to make a point by putting more emphasis on the sentence.

Silverstein uses his creative license in most of his poetry. A few examples in his poem are, “It can sort and it can spell,/It can punctuate as well,” which the computer doesn’t mark but is a run-on sentence, and “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write),” which the computer does mark as a fragment. Both of these examples rely on their syntax to create the rhythm of the poem, or how we hear and read it. Try reading it aloud while paying close attention to the syntax. (Remember to use longer pauses for periods than for commas.) If Silverstein paid too much attention to the computer, he wouldn’t have been able to create this rhythm or achieve his meaning.

My favorite part of “Writer Waiting” is my second example of Silverstein’s use of creative license. It is the last line, which is in parentheses as if it’s an afterthought or something the narrator doesn’t want to admit. It reads, “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write).” Two words in this line are key: “it” and “what.” “It” puts an emphasis on the computer, while “what” brings our attention to the content of the paper, though the poem mostly focused on the mechanics, like punctuating and spelling. The computer, of course, cannot create the content for us, even though we want it to. Writing is not just about the tools you use; it is about you and your thoughts.

Writing also does not have to be a solitary act. In fact, I think writing is more fun when you talk to other people about it. Here at the University Writing Center, we can help you decide if the squiggly lines offer the best choice, if you should deviate from the computer’s options, and if it’s the best time and place for you to use your creative license in writing to make your point. Most importantly, we can discuss your ideas for your paper. The writing center is here to help you not look and feel like the kid in Silverstein’s drawing.

Actively Writing: Experimentation as a Way to Improve the Writing Process

As writers, we often struggle with what to do with a paper after we have finished saying all that we want to say. This stage can happen at any point in the writing process, from having 3 pages done and needing 5, to needing a conclusion, to just hitting a dead end with the paper. This moment, commonly referred to as writer’s block, is quite infuriating. However, one of the best ways to combat this moment is by redefining how you see writing.

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Most people see writing as a solitary act, one where the writer is stoically sitting for hours on end in front of a computer, unmoving except for one’s fingers across the keyboard. There has been a new emphasis on collaboration as part of the process today, which makes writing slightly more active, but not by much. However, what I wish to propose with this piece is that writing can be a very active process, and some techniques can help rejuvenate new work.

The main goal of writing is to capture that which is innately human. We wish to persuade others, to encourage them, to communicate with them in an intriguing and interesting way. Writers do this visually, by using the words on the page, but we also share ideas through our other senses. For example, many people compose while listening to music because the combination of the various notes will put us in a specific mood and encourage certain words to come to mind. Other people feel the need to write in busy areas, like coffee shops, so that the flow of conversation is in our ears. In this regard, writing is listening.

Writing can also draw on physical activity to some degree. Research is a major component of any writing project, but some articles can be really difficult to understand. Often, in order to understand what I am writing, I have to act out what I have read in some way. If I have to read a description of what someone is doing, I mimic what is described on the page until I understand it. Other times, I draw a map or a flow chart to connect major ideas. Techniques like these help with reading comprehension and provide ways for writers to organize their reactions to various works.

Also, I have worked with many people who, when brainstorming, need a way to channel their stress. That is the moment where I bring out the Legos or Play-Doh! Doing something with your hands while talking about your writing can help the feeling of being fidgety, without adding the stress of needing to write something down. Although putting words on paper is a key component of the writing process, the most important step is finding something to say. For this, I highly recommend grabbing Legos, a slinky, or even a coloring book, and meeting up with a friend for a conversation about what you are working on. It allows writers to feel active and productive, without the paralyzing fear of not writing something down.

Another way to be active while writing is to grab a pen and paper and go for a walk. The fresh air helps foster creativity, while the exercise is just as industrious as writing. Walking also allows writers to observe their surroundings and generate new ways to add detail to a paper. It also helps me find new ways to add clarity to my paper. If I watch the different ways people run, I can determine which verb I want to use describe the same moment in my own paper—sometimes it’s a sprint, other times a jog, still others a quick dart.

Finally, my biggest recommendation for getting out of a writing rut is to experiment with the writing process. What are your strengths? How can you use them in your writing? If you can’t, can you use them to inspire your writing? And don’t give up hope. There have been many times that I have tried something new and it hasn’t worked. The great thing about experimentation is that you can always just try something else. In the words of the famous author E.M. Forster, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?”

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

Chris Scheidler, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Stretch – Making it through Final Papers

Jamison Huebsch, Consultant
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It can be stressful near the end of the semester. You have final papers due, perhaps in most of your classes, and you’re often not sure if they will be finished in time and to your professor’s standards. At least I’m often worried about that. Perhaps you haven’t even started your final papers yet. If so, don’t panic because it happens to the best organized of us, but try not to let nerves stop you for working on your paper. After all, the night before its due will come not matter what, and it’s best if you’re not trying to pull an all-nighter cranking something out. To help out I’m going to offer some tips on getting your final paper across the semester finish line, so that you can enjoy your break with everyone else:
  1. Manage Your Stress! :Take note that I didn’t write “Don’t stress”. That is almost impossible, as people have been stressing out about finals since classes instituted them. Finals are a stressful time, so learn to manage it instead. Since you know you are going to be stressed (and maybe are already suffering from some), managing your stress so you can remain productive is very important. Some of the most helpful tips on dealing with finals stress can be found in an article by our own Carly Johnson here: (https://uoflwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/keep-calm-and-start-your-final-projects/).
  2. Getting started:If you haven’t started on your final papers yet, it’s time to brainstorm. Your professors will give your guidelines for what will be acceptable paper topics, but it can be hard to pick what you should write about sometimes.  Since almost every paper will be based on issues discussed in class, you might think about what have been the major themes in the class so far. Perhaps you had a favorite book or topic, and you can expand on that. Other times you wish something had been covered in class but it wasn’t, so you can explore it on your own. Regardless of what you pick, deciding as early as you can and getting to work on collecting your research and materials is crucial.  Bounce ideas off friends who haven’t gotten sick of you talking about school. Making an appointment with the Writing Center can also be helpful, even if you’ve gotten started late, as we can help you at any step of the way from brainstorming all the way to revision.
  3. Plan Your Work:Hopefully you already have an idea for your final paper. Review the guidelines your professors have given you for your final paper. You might work on an outline, or start your bibliography or reference list. Sometimes it can be helpful, if you have the time, to annotate your research sources as a form of pre-writing. I personally find it helpful to make a checklist of any major requirements the paper should have, in my own work this is often things like which sources I have to add to my literature review or which theories apply to the topic I’ve chosen. Your class may vary, but making up a list of important details to cover can help you to avoid missing anything important. It also gives a real sense of accomplishment as you tick off things from your list as you write them, and this can be very important on large projects when you might spend days writing. Completing small goals and recognizing it can help you stay motivated.
  4. Revision:Once you’ve a draft done of your final paper, you’re nearing the finish line already. However revision and polishing are important steps before the final draft stage, and can often make a big impact on your final grade. The first thing would be to review any feedback you have gotten from the professor on past work. Usually you’ve turned in some sort of preliminary assignments, giving you a chance to see what the teacher thought you did well or what you still needed work on. When you revise take the time to do multiple passes, each one focusing on a specific goal like improving your transitions or checking if you used passive voice. Try reading your paper aloud, to yourself or a friend, so that you can hear how it sounds (and this is a good technique for catching errors). Double check your thesis, and make sure that it agrees with your paper all the way through to your conclusion. This is another good time to consider coming to the Writing Center if you can.
  5. Relax!:To twist a meme: Summer is coming! Once you’re done with your paper, take some space from it. If it’s due tomorrow, then go celebrate being finished. If it’s not due for a while, then take a day (or two!) off before giving it one last once over for revision. It can be very helpful to get some distance from your own work when doing revision. Once that is done however, go turn it in! Summer awaits!Make sure you get plenty of rest, and enjoy what time off you have, if you are like me you will be back in class doing it all over again soon enough. As you near the end of your particular academic goal, You might even begin to miss the whole crazy cycle.