Tag: writing tips

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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Valentine’s Day: Thesis Statement Edition

Jessica Good, consultantDSCN3626

Valentine’s Day.

There, I said it.

I mean, as a kid, Valentine’s Day was pretty great: people handed out candy at school, and I got to give my friends totally awesome cards decorated with superheroes, princesses, or Scooby-Doo (my interests were very well-rounded if I do say so myself).

But now?

The personal and cultural associations attached to this possessive noun + noun construction vary across volcanic spectrums of meaning. Is Valentine’s Day something to celebrate? Resist? Ignore? Whatever your stance may be, you probably have pretty good reasons to support it. So let’s say you synthesize your Valentine’s Day opinion into one definitive claim: “all you need is love.” With this move, you’ve created a thesis statement that you can then proclaim to your listening audience.

Now, let’s say you’re chilling at the office, chatting with Dwight near the copy machine, and Valentine’s Day comes up:

Dwight

Dwight isn’t buying the cultural obsession with romance that Valentine’s Day often signifies. Maybe he would agree that love is special, or that certain kinds of love (familial, platonic, or companionate as well as romantic) trigger chemical reactions that cause you to experience things like “happiness” and “emotional fulfillment.” But to convince him, you’ll have to be pretty darn specific with your terms.

If we were going to rewrite this meme (which, granted, would turn it into a regular old piece of writing), our first step would be rethinking our central claim (or thesis), “All you need is love.”

To craft a stronger claim, we would avoid:

Cliches

Cliches are common phrases like “opposites attract” and “all is fair in love and war.” They’ve been used so often that they are no longer very meaningful. When you hear, “opposites attract,” you know it means that people with different personalities fall in love. But the words just kind of sit there, taking up space without presenting a new, strong, or concrete image. As a result, your audience isn’t likely to closely read or engage with your claim. So instead of saying, “All you need is love,” the meme could have said, “Being in love makes me feel like my every physical, emotional, and spiritual need is met.”

Universal Claims

A universal claim is made when words like “all” or “never” are used or implied. It argues that, without exception, something is (or never will be) true. Making a universal claim weakens your argument because if even one case doesn’t conform to your claim, your logic becomes faulty and your conclusion invalid. Dwight was right to point out that, actually, love isn’t the only thing we need. Our implicit argument that “love is the best thing ever in the whole entire world and I don’t need anything else” becomes shaky at best: if love is not even a basic human necessity, how can we claim that love is all we need?

Universal statements can also damage an audience’s perception of your ethos, or reliability, as a writer. Readers may fixate on trying to find exceptions to your claim rather than following the nuances of your argument. They may even perceive you as lazy, uninformed, or careless. So even if your universal claim is true, the effectiveness of your argument may be compromised. Avoiding universal claims by talking in case-specific terms can maintain your ethos and even improve the strength of your argument. In the case of our meme, we could potentially say, “Sometimes, it feels like love is all we need to live a happy life.”

Vague Terms

When I say “vague terms,” I’m referring to cases in which it is unclear how words with broad or multiple meanings are functioning in a statement. Sometimes undefined terms are symptomatic of your need to sharpen the focus of your sentence (or even your argument as a whole). For example, instead of “love” in general, do we want to argue that having our emotional needs met is essential to feeling satisfied in life? Alternatively, we could qualify “need” by differentiating between physical survival and emotional or ‘felt’ needs.

Other times, a vague term might just mean that you need to choose a different word. This doesn’t mean you should right click to access your thesaurus and pick the most interesting word that appears. Rather, think about the specific meaning you want to convey. Would a different word do that? Instead of “love,” what if we wrote, “All I want is to feel accepted by other people”? If a different word or phrase still doesn’t seem fitting, then think about including a statement clarifying the way you’re using your term(s). We could say, “When the Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love,’ they created an anthem that united listeners around the world by relying on cultural narratives of romantic love.”

The next time you’re writing a paper, imagine that you’re talking to Dwight. He’s one adorably tough cookie, which, honestly, makes him the best imaginary audience you could encounter. By being intentional with our terms, making sure we use specific language to explicitly convey our exact meaning to an audience, we can create claims that are clearly defined. And that, by extension, will help us craft a strong thesis statement every time.

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.

Effective Ways to Boost Your Confidence as a Writer

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director

“Before you read this, I just wanted to say, I’m not a good writer.”

I hear this confession from college students often, from freshmen to graduate students, at this university and others. I wonder where this confession comes from. Maybe we are expecting someone to criticize our writing, so criticisms hurts less if we admit that we’re “bad writers” up front. But mostly, I suspect that the confession comes from specific experiences that have led us to believe that we aren’t good writers. In turn, we probably have diminished confidence and less incentive to engage in opportunities to improve our writing. ??????????

I want to put forward the possibility that confidence, as much as any “skill” or strategy in writing, can influence everything from how well we do on a paper to how we feel about ourselves.

One of the benefits of working one-to-one with college students in the University Writing Center is that I get to learn about people’s experiences in education and elsewhere that have defined their views about writing. There are a few confidence-diminishing experiences that college students frequently share with me:

Receiving low grades on papers. Over time, we start to wonder if these grades aren’t telling us something about our ability or even our potential. Grades, as important as they are, offer only one (and sometimes a very small) piece of information about our work as writers. Students might receive a low grade after writing a paper on something that does not interest them, only to receive a higher grade after writing a paper on a topic that interests them very much. We always have the potential to meet expectations, but how we realize that potential can change from situation to situation.

Let’s also be perceptive to the moments when a lower grade is an invitation to revise a paper for a higher grade. Even if you aren’t invited to revise, it can’t hurt to ask your instructor for the opportunity. You might be surprised by what you can accomplish after receiving some advice and revisiting a paper you feel did not go well.

Still smarting from that one thing a teacher once wrote on our paper. Criticisms of our writing, even ones we received a long time ago, can still affect our confidence now. What if we can both take these comments seriously and put them into perspective so that they teach us something instead of close us down? A few things to remember about feedback from teachers:

  • College instructors regularly read, grade, and respond to hundreds of papers over a semester. Sometimes harsh-sounding or poorly-worded pieces of feedback result from the need to provide as much feedback to as many students as possible within a certain amount of time. Plus, it can be really difficult as a teacher to communicate in one written comment just how much we really do want to help.
  • Is there a substantive takeaway behind the wording of the feedback you receive? For example, the feedback “Jessica, this paper is not where I expected it to be at this point” doesn’t have to mean that I’m not a good writer and can’t meet expectations. Instead, it might tell me something about how I plan the papers I write and whether I understand the challenge behind the assignment. If it’s hard to see the substantive information behind a comment, ask to visit your instructor during his or her office hours so that you can hear more about the feedback.
  • But what if the teacher was just being mean? It’s possible, but attempting to read your instructor’s mind will most likely lead you down an unproductive path. Our energy is better spent paying attention to what we can learn from any piece of feedback.

Receiving the same criticisms over and over. Hearing feedback about my comma usage from different instructors might tell me that I don’t know how to use commas and am therefore a bad writer – so why try? Or, I could use this feedback to do some investigating about comma usage. Look over feedback you’ve received in the past. Is there a pattern in these comments? There is a big difference between “being a bad writer” and “not always seeing or remembering that commas typically go after introductory phrases in sentences.” Write down the aspects of your writing that teachers have pointed out. Now you have a checklist. (You’re definitely not a bad writer when you can engage with your own challenges.) Use this list when you write papers for other classes. Also feel free to bring the list to the University Writing Center when you have your next paper to write.

Hearing a lot of criticism and no praise.

Sometimes, in the effort to give constructive feedback, teachers can leave out feedback on what you’ve done really well. If feedback seems disproportionately critical, consider asking your instructors what they think you’ve done well in your writing. You might be surprised by what you hear.

If you carry the belief that you’re just not good at writing, think back to the moments and experiences that have led you to this conclusion, and consider the tips I’ve mentioned for thinking of your own potential as a writer in a different way. I bet you’ll see that your initial conclusion was a hasty one.

Tips on Crafting an Effective Personal Statement

Joanna Englert, Consultant 

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Well, we’re almost there. The end of the semester is in plain sight, and once we pull through these final (and coffee-filled) weeks of studying, that glorious thing called Winter Break will be upon us. For those of us applying to graduate school, the close of the semester may bring more than just cold winds and extra time to spend on our couches: it will likely bring application deadlines. So, looking for some tips on how to craft that tricky little paper known as the personal statement? The University Writing Center and I have you covered. While the University Writing Center offers an enormously helpful handout on personal statements, I offer a few additional tips that have personally helped me in writing my own.

More Relevance, Less Fluff:

So you’ve wanted to be a doctor since you were 4? Great! Just try not to take half a page to narrate the moment you played doctor with your stuffed elephant named Pebbles and decided your future goal. Don’t get me wrong, anecdotes are great attention-grabbers in the beginning, but try to keep the majority of your paper’s focus on relevant specifics. Remember, you typically have little space (1-2 pages) to provide lots of information (past experience, admirable traits, future goals, etc.).

Be Specific:

Yes, so I know I just said to cut the fluff because there’s little space. “Fluff,” however, is not to be confused with “specific and important details.” For example, let’s say you’re applying for a nursing program, and you want to include that you’ve worked on rotation at a hospital. Great! This is a good thing to include in your personal statement—it demonstrates an out-of-classroom learning experience in the field. But what did you do in these rotations? Who did you help?  What were you responsible for? Did you collaborate with others for any tasks? It’s true that all these details will also appear on your CV or resume, but it’s still beneficial to include some of the larger details in your personal statement. What I typically ask myself is, “What responsibilities or achievements pertain most to the field I am applying to?” Then I make sure to include those biggest takeaways. Remember, even with a CV or resume, your personal statement should still be able to stand on its own.

Know the Buzzwords:

This one’s short and sweet and will help you find the specifics: keep in mind certain buzzwords or phrases that appear in personal statements. For example, “I was responsible for” or “I was in charge of.” These words help me to remember to be specific, and they indicate positive traits to the reader!

Avoid Negativity:

This may sound like a no-brainer, but negativity is able to sometimes slip its way into a personal statement. Try to avoid words with negative connotations when evaluating yourself. For instance, did an experience force you to consider an idea further? Or did it encourage you? Just this slight change in connotation can make a big difference! In some circumstances, personal statements may ask for challenges. Here, I find it helpful to turn the negative into something positive. For example, if you must describe a challenge you faced in the past, be sure to emphasize how you tackled that challenge!

Demonstrate Knowledge of the School or Program:

It’s important, of course, to build yourself up in a personal statement. Just don’t forget to build up the school, as well! Most schools will want to know that you are enthusiastic about attending.  Prove this by, once again, being specific. Are you interested in a school because they have the top program in an area you want to pursue? Tell them! That said, the paper should still be about you, so don’t let the school section dominate the paper. Though there’s no set rule, you’ll oftentimes find this school information in a concluding paragraph.

Read Aloud:

So you’ve finished your first draft of your personal statement? Read it aloud! You may be surprised by what stands out when you hear it spoken. In fact, this is a great tool for any type of writing.

And finally, don’t forget to visit the University Writing Center! We are happy to help you with your writing at any step in the process. Happy writing, everyone!

Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts

krLkVHxgMsFkNv4LINjN3Cl8hBIX9jAteOz45mo8cdoTara Lawson, Consultant

When we are new to academic writing, we seem to have a common struggle: deciphering the prompts that professors give us. It is such a pervasive problem because many of the words are so similar that it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. After all, how is a synthesis different from compare/contrast? The purpose of this post, therefore, is to define many of the common keywords in prompts.

Analyze: For an analysis, professors are looking for an interpretation of the evidence. Although this is not quite as opinion-based as an argument is (see below), analyses do use your opinion. When given this prompt, you are expected to draw conclusions from your interaction with the text; in other words, are you making connections between the evidence you are provided with? For example, a sociology student can analyze relationships between high school seniors across the state in order to come to a conclusion about Kentucky identities within that age group.

Argue: Many students often feel like they cannot put their own opinions into their writing, that they must recite facts and the opinions of other scholars and hope that their own opinion somehow leaks through. However, with an argument, professors want to know your opinion! In fact, they are looking for it. They want proof that you have done unbiased research. Therefore, you will need to provide evidence (statistics, facts, statements from scholars). You will also want to have a debatable claim that you defend. For example, when asked to argue the effect of the French Revolution, you could answer with “The French Revolution was a failure because Napoleon’s reign as dictator only reinstated the type of harmful monarchy that the previous King had represented.” The rest of your paper would then be focused on proving this statement.

Compare/Contrast: Although these words are used simultaneously, they actually have different meanings. To compare two or more items means to find similarities between them. To contrast them means to find differences. So to compare and contrast dolphins and sharks, one could say that the two animals are similar because they both live in the ocean. However, they are different because dolphins hate sharks, and will ruthlessly attack them and leave them for dead. Also, sharks are terrified of dolphins because dolphins have murderous tendencies.

Describe: Remember back to those exercises in middle school, where you had to use your five senses to describe your personal oasis. For academic writing, it is similar, but broader. It does not have to be reliant upon the senses, although it can be. An art student can describe the monochromatic coloring of a painting by talking about the oppressive emotional weight the color blue exudes in the work. A science student might have to describe the interior of a frog precisely, so that other scientists can mimic his/her work.

Define: This is to tell what a concept means. Usually definitions are shorter than the other keywords presented thus far. It can be as short as a single sentence, or it can be the length of a paragraph or two. Usually you will be asked to define a concept that can have several definitions, such as culture or feminism, because the professor is looking for your personal definition.

Discuss: This word is slightly different from explaining something, although they are very similar. However, a discussion tends to be broader and less argumentative. You may not be required to reach a definitive conclusion, but instead to map the connections between certain ideas. A discussion is usually present in literature reviews, like when the writer maps the progression of an academic conversation using the arguments of other scholars.

Explain: Why do you have to know what an explanation is? The answer to that question is itself an explanation. Essentially, an explanation is answering the question “why?” It can also cover the other common questions (how, what, when, and where). Why should you know this information? So that you can explain what you know to your reader and hopefully communicate with them more effectively (and maybe make better grades in the process).

Summarize: A summary is telling the reader what knowledge they need to know in order to understand what you are telling them. For example, if I wanted to highlight a scary moment in the TV show The Walking Dead, but my audience had never watched the show, I would need to summarize it. I could do this with a statement like “the show is about a group of people trying to live in a zombie apocalypse. They have to keep traveling in order to survive and find a safe place to live.” A summary is different from a definition because a summary is more in-depth. Additionally, a summary tells the audience what happened in the work, not what the work actually is.

Synthesize: A synthesis is a concise and more focused version of compare/contrast. It looks at very specific sources, and extracts the most important information from them as it relates to a specific argument. In other words, if I am writing a research paper about the murderous nature of dolphins, I would not need to state the similarities between sharks and dolphins. However, I would want to look at multiple sources focusing on the nature of dolphins. Do the sources answer my question? Do all  of the sources disagree with my hypothesis? How does this impact my overall argument? If dolphins only exhibit murderous tendencies towards sharks, perhaps they do not have an innate homicidal nature, but they are instead attempting to re-enact the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.

Although this post does not cover all of the keywords used in prompts, it may help with some of the most common. Additional resources are also available for all students. The University Writing Center is a free service where graduate students are dedicated to addressing your writing concerns. Also, it might be helpful to talk directly to your professors — as the creators of assignments, they will be able to let you know if you are meeting the requirements.

Finally, writing is tough, but know that you always have a support system at the University Writing Center. Good luck!

Don’t Let Perfectionism Get You Stuck

Ashley Ludewig, Consultant

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If you’re anything like me, perfectionism might be causing you a lot of grief at this point in the semester. Sure, perfectionism might have led you to some great final projects or papers and maybe even good grades and praise. It has for me, too. But my tendency toward perfectionism also has a dark side: it can sometimes be completely and utterly paralyzing…Especially when I sit down to write.

I’ve spent the last several years studying writing and how it happens, and everything I’ve learned tells me that there’s no such thing as a perfect draft and it certainly doesn’t happen on the first try (Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” is a great take on this reality, by the way). But a lot of times I still feel like I just have to get it right immediately. Maybe I write a sentence or two and delete them (a few times, probably), or I re-read assignment instructions and start to over-think them and psych myself out. Either way, expecting perfection from myself sometimes makes it impossible for me to move forward.

Here are some strategies I use to break through the perfectionism barrier when I’m writing:

Getting Started: When I feel like I just can’t possibly start putting words on the page, my first move is to revert back to some “basic” pre-writing strategies. I try to make an outline or concept map of the information I think I’m going to include in the paper and sometimes having a plan helps me break the ice. When I’m working on an essay that requires research of any kind, another way that I’ve gotten past the “Where do I even begin?” hurdle is to gather any quotes or paraphrased material I want to use and start typing it into a Word document in the order I imagine myself using it in the essay. Sometimes even typing words that aren’t my own into the document eases my fear of that blinking cursor (after all, the page is no longer totally blank!). Then before I know it, I find myself typing out my interpretations of or responses to that source material and voila!  A draft starts to take shape. If none of these things work, I try to get away from the ominous combination of the white page and blinking cursor and start writing somewhere else. A lot of times that means starting a draft by hand in a notebook, but I’ve also had success typing the first few paragraphs of an essay on my blog. The stakes feel lower there and sometimes that makes all the difference.

Keeping the Words Flowing: Another time that perfectionism rears its ugly head for me is when I’m searching for that perfect word or phrase in a sentence. I hum and haw over it for a minute, type and delete a few options, consult Word’s thesaurus, and if I’m still not satisfied, I go to thesaurus.com or Tip of My Tongue and explore more options there. This is all well and good, except that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps a few minutes have probably been lost and so has the “flow” I had going before I decided I had to find that perfect word. Worse yet, looking away from Word and opening up a web browser often means taking a minute or two to check my favorite social media sites and before long, I’m back in full avoidance mode.

There are two tricks I have for ending this cycle and giving myself permission to move on. The first is to highlight the word I know I want to replace in bright yellow so that it’s easy to find and change when I go back to revise my draft. If I can’t even think of the word in the first place, I write something silly like “elephant” in its place, highlight that, and go from there. If the problem is more than just finding the right word, I use the comment feature in Word to make a note to myself about what I think isn’t quite right about a sentence or passage so that when I go back to revise, I can remember the concerns I had when I first wrote it. Sometimes it’s not so simple; I occasionally feel like I really need to slow down and get a sentence at least close to “right” before I can move on because the ideas I want to get down next are dependent on the first one. If you find yourself there, too, that’s okay. The trick is not letting yourself get stuck on every sentence every time.

I hope these tips help you get started on your drafts and keep them going. As always, you can (and should!) visit us at the University Writing Center to help you at any point in that process. Happy writing, folks!