UofL Writing Center

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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?”

Setting “Optimistic Accountability Markers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Recognizing and Using Rhetorical Devices

Hannah Cunningham, Consultant

As students, we all have to do a fair amount of writing, in a variety of disciplines. And we’ve all sought for new and interesting ways to phrase our thoughts. The way we word our arguments has a massive impact on how our readers perceive not just our arguments, but also us as writers. Careful use of word choice or syntax can also help in making our words or arguments memorable, as well as persuasive. Clearly, how we state our thoughts is as important as the thoughts themselves. But how do we go about doing it well?

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Part of the answer lies in rhetoric. “Rhetoric” refers to the art of making a persuasive argument, using specific (and sometimes very specialized) types of sentences, referred to as “rhetorical devices.” I know—this all sounds so vague and abstract. However, a look at popular culture reveals that many of these rhetorical devices are not only familiar, but are well-known pieces of our cultural heritage. Many of our favorite movies and television shows use rhetorical devices so often that we may not even notice. The list of rhetorical devices is immense, so I’ll offer a few of the more interesting ones, as well as examples that may be very familiar to you.

Anastrophe: This term seems formidable, but many people are familiar with the device itself. Anastrophe refers to inverting the standard order in which words are typically found in sentences. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies (or even people like me, who haven’t seen them but are familiar with them) has heard quite a bit of anastrophe from the little green guy—er, Yoda. The phrase “The chosen one the boy may be” is a prime example of anastrophe. Anastrophe is best used sparingly, but can make a topic sentence or a closing statement stand out.

Chiasmus: The root of this word means “cross,” and that’s what the device does. For this device to work successfully, you need a sentence with two clauses. The “crossing” occurs in the second clause, when you reverse the order of the elements in the first sentence. Confusing, I know, but it actually becomes pretty simple if you have an example. Bart Simpson of The Simpsons used chiasmus amusingly when he said “Priceless like a mother’s love, or the good kind of priceless?” He’s being a brat, but his use of chiasmus is spot-on. The word “priceless” begins the first clause, and occurs at the end of the second, while the opposing ideas “a mother’s love” and “the good kind” also switch places. Chiasmus can be very useful when making a persuasive argument, particularly a call to action; if you want to know just how effective, recall JFK saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Commoratio: I can’t tell you that I know how to pronounce this word, but its definition is pretty simple: repetition of an idea with different wording. It becomes absurd fairly quickly, so use it carefully, but it can be an effective device, particularly in an opening statement. The animated show Family Guy used commoratio when the peg-legged and –armed fisherman, Seamus, tells Peter, “If it’s fish you want, Pelican’s Reef is where you’ll find them. I’ve seen fish there. More fish than you could possibly imagine. Fish as far as the eye can see. Lots and lots of fish, I guess would be the main bullet point of this presentation.” Clearly, Family Guy is using commoratio to the point of absurdity, but you can use it carefully to gain your audience’s attention—or to make them laugh.

Epanelepsis: This device describes the act of beginning and ending a sentence or phrase with the same word. Viewers of the old Kevin Smith film Chasing Amy heard epanelepsis when Ben Affleck’s character, Holden McNeil, said, “Alyssa from last night Alyssa?” His use of epanelepsis even impressed his friend Hooper, who commented, “How do you begin and end a sentence with the same word like that? You got skills.” This device can be useful when emphasizing the repeated word, although it’s important to use this device sparingly so that your paper doesn’t become too repetitious.

Litotes: This is your basic understatement, usually with the word “not.” Dozens of easy examples exist, such as “He’s not unlike his father,” or “The weather lately has been not tropical.” But for many of us, the most memorable example may be the Sorting Hat in the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. When the Sorting Hat is trying to decide in which house to place Harry, it says, “Hmm, difficult. VERY difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either.” That last sentence proves that the Sorting Hat, in addition to thinking up each year’s opening song, also had time to study rhetorical devices such as litotes. Litotes can be useful when supporting an argument, but be wary of overusing it; it begins to sound sarcastic fairly quickly.

Metanoia: This is another one I can’t pronounce, but I hear it often in television shows. Metanoia refers to qualifying a statement mid-sentence to emphasize the sentence’s point. Barney Stinson, the loveable rogue on the show How I Met Your Mother, uses metanoia fairly frequently, particularly when making his over-the-top arguments. In this case, Barney uses metanoia to insist on receiving a fist bump: “Until my fist gets the respect it deserves – nay, demands – it will not yield. It. Will. NOT! Yield.” This rather powerful device is probably best used in a conclusion, to leave your audience with a strong statement at the end of your paper.

Polysyndeton: This weird-looking word actually just refers to having a conjunction before each item in a list. Usually, conjunctions (particularly “and”) only occur before the last item in a list. Viewers of The Simpsons have seen polysyndeton from the character of Professor Frink, the excitable mad scientist of Springfield. In one episode, Frink says, “Oh, sorry I’m late. There was trouble at the lab with the running and the exploding and the crying when the monkeys stole the glasses off my head.” The sentence is both comical, and a perfect example of polysyndeton. In your papers, you may not want to reference monkeys stealing your glasses, but you may very well use polysyndeton to emphasize every item in a list.

These are just a few of the hundreds of rhetorical devices available for your use. Take a glance through a website that lists rhetorical devices and then watch your favorite show or movie. See how many examples you can pick up.

Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing, friends!

Using the Thesis Statement to Your Advantage

Bobby Rich, Consultant

The thesis statement is the keystone of a paper: a solid thesis statement holds everything together, but without one, your paper can fall apart pretty easily. Because of this, developing a strong thesis statement is of high importance, and, as I’m sure many students are aware, the phrase “strong thesis statement” often appears at the top of many grading rubrics. So, you know it is a necessary thing, but…

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What is it thesis statement, anyway?

The thesis statement can be an intimidating thing for many writers. At its most basic, a thesis statement is an explicit statement of argument. The majority of papers written in college are not simply restating information, they are assessing information, analyzing it, and making an argument about what the information means. A thesis is not a statement of raw opinion, rather, it is a strong assertion about how something should be interpreted, intended to apply to the general understanding of that thing, not just your own. Yes, to a degree the thesis statement is personal, but it is not a statement of simply individual taste or feeling; it is a statement of educated interpretation, based on the research you have done, and the knowledge base you are pulling from, stemming from critical thinking. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, and I say, “Marvel comics are the best,” they might as “Why?” and I might respond, “Because they’re the best!” That, unfortunately, is just pure opinion, and won’t do much to convince my friend of that point. In fact, that claim really isn’t arguing anything, it is just a flat statement. If I want to convince them, I need to argue; I need to present an argument in a way that will then allow me to readily back it up with facts, like: “I argue that Marvel is currently producing the best comic books on the market, because they exhibit a clear sense of social awareness and dedication to incorporating diversity in their publications.” From there, I can begin to elaborate on my points. Not only does that set me up to make my argument, but it makes discussion possible, which is necessary to a good argument. If I just state my raw opinion, there is no room for discussion; my friend would only be able to agree or disagree.

Alright, but why do I need one?

Organization, for both the reader and the writer. I like to think of the thesis statement as a kind of organizational tool or outline, built into the paper I’m writing. For the reader, it serves the purpose of saying, “Here is what I am going to tell you in this paper, here is how all the evidence I present is tied together, and here is what I want you to be paying attention to.” Without that sort of statement, the evidence you provide can seem random and disconnected, which can confuse the reader. The thesis statement should create a sort of focal point for the reader, and a sense of perspective to put the evidence against; it should guide them through the paper. For you, the writer, a strong thesis statement will have a similar effect, and will help you keep track of what you’re doing. As you go through your paper, you can refer back to your thesis statement and think “Okay, so, is it clear how the point I just made relates back to my thesis? Will the reader get the connection? Have I made the connection?” This will help you keep your paper from becoming jumbled or disorganized, which is definitely a good thing.

How do I develop one?

Again, think of it as an organizational tool. Ask yourself questions like, “What problem do I perceive in this evidence? What do I see connecting the evidence? What kind of solution can I provide?” That will get you started. Then you want to think about where you can take the argument, what sort of order you need for your evidence, and what the most central point is. Your thesis statement doesn’t need to say every single thing you will do in your paper; it needs to provide a jumping off point for your writing to follow from, and you want it to be easily linkable to the points you make in your paper at any given time.

When do I develop one?

This will depend, more or less, on your discipline of study. For example, in English, if you are writing about literature, your thesis can kind of shift and change as you work through your piece. It may not be finalized and solid until after your first draft; on the other hand, in philosophy, you might find it necessary to have your thesis statement more strongly developed from the beginning, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction as you work through your argument. Regardless, it is best to begin thinking about and attempting to formulate your thesis as you research your topic; doing so will, as above, allow you to keep everything organized better as you go through the writing process, which will not only make for a stronger paper, but will make it easier on you as you write. Try keeping a log of your reactions to the sources you read. Your reactions do not have to be fully hashed-out, but keep notes of problems you perceive, questions you have, and potential solutions. Thinking about your thesis up front will save you work later.

Whatever discipline you may be writing in, the next time you have a paper due, try thinking of your thesis statement as an organizational tool, and develop it along those lines: for ease of use. It could just make the writing process an overall smoother, more confident experience.

Fighting Back Against “Writer’s Block”

Joanna Englert, Writing Consultant

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It’s February: it’s cold, the days are short, and there’s another holiday that gives cause for eating too much chocolate. Hard as you might wish, chances are your assignments don’t go on hold for the cold weather and short days. And with so much time indoors, it might be hard to find inspiration for that research essay on climate change or that memoir you keep meaning to get to, i.e., you might be struck by that fear-inducing nuisance known as writer’s block. Trust me, you’re not alone. We all know it: that blank page as empty as the branches outside, that trashcan filled with crumpled sheets of scribbles, and that forehead-to-the-desk sense of hopelessness. But don’t fear—you CAN get it done! I, too, have fought the battle against writer’s block, and with a few things in mind, I’ve learned it’s absolutely beatable. So, below are some of the most helpful tips I’ve discovered for breaking down the writer’s block wall and getting that paper done. Hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me!

1. Just Write!

The golden rule for overcoming writer’s block is simple: write. You might be thinking, easier said than done. I know, I know. But when I say write, I mean write anything. Anything! A stream-of-consciousness journal entry, a limerick about your cat, your favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Again, anything. Then, move on to writing something for your paper. Whether it’s the beginning, the middle, the end, or an outline, just remember that getting words down on paper, regardless of how good or bad they are at first (revision exists for a reason!), is progress. A lot of the time, just writing will get your creativity flowing and can remove some of the pressure to get the perfect idea down for your paper. It’s easier to go back and revise than to aim for perfection the first time around!

2. Quiet Those Distractions

Back away from technology for a minute. Shut down those computers, put that phone out of reach somewhere in the basement, turn off the TV, Spotify, etc., and just give yourself a moment of quiet to sit, reflect, and think. It may help clear your head and get you focused!

3. Find a Comfortable Spot

Virginia Woolf was on to something when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. To write, it truly helps to place yourself in a comfortable environment. For me, my favorite space is on my bed with nothing short of ten pillows, tea or coffee appropriately by my side, my cat on my lap, and my favorite moleskin notebook at hand. Want to get out of the house? (Because sometimes I just NEED to get out.) Find your favorite coffee shop and settle into a cozy spot in the corner. Coffee, quiet music and mumbling, space to spread out your work—trust me, it helps. At the very least, you’ll be able to devote brain power to your paper rather than to how uncomfortable you are!

4. Pace Yourself

One of the most helpful tips someone shared with me is to schedule working time and break time. Adopting the idea of writing anything, work for twenty-five minutes, and then enjoy a five or ten minute break. This gives you a chance to relax (and if you’re like me, reward yourself with that omnipresent Valentine’s chocolate) and an incentive to work.

5. Sleep On It

Okay, so this obviously doesn’t work if you’re in crunch-time mode, but if you give yourself the leisure of starting early, you can conquer writer’s block by stepping away and forgetting about it for a bit. Believe it or not, your mind knows you’ve been thinking about your topic. Even if you’re not consciously focused, your mind is working on it. You’d be surprised how something may just come to you if you step away and let it. In fact, if you’re really committed, keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Some of my ideas for creative writing or paper topics have come to me just before falling asleep. If you don’t have to get out of bed, you’re more likely to jot things down then!

6. Talk It Out

For some people, talking through a project is the best way to organize ideas and get creative juices flowing. As it happens, we at the Writing Center are happy to talk through your papers with you, so be sure to come and see us at any stage in your writing process!

Now that you’ve made it through this article, I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. So, dodge the weather, curl up with a notebook and some chocolate, and get going. Happy writing, everyone! (And be sure to stop by and see us at the Writing Center!)

Writing the Dissertation Is(n’t) a Lonely Thing

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center

As a representative of the writing center, I spoke this past weekend with some PhD students at the start of a dissertation writing camp. It was early in the morning and everyone had a cup of coffee and their computers open in front of them, ready to work. I looked around and remembered that dissertation writing can seem lonely, but when we think about it, we’re actually in good company.

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I’m not implying that being alone is never desirable or needed, or that we must lean on others for comfort every time we write. We have to admit, though, that academia can make students of all levels feel isolated sometimes.

One of the most telling examples of this isolation is how PhD students have the option of renting a carrel in the library while working on a dissertation. Carrels are these little closets with a small window on the door, a desk, chair, and an overhead light that beams down on the flat work surface. For me, a library carrel isn’t an ideal space for working on a dissertation because such a space can represent, in a spacial sense, what we might feel like overall as PhD students.

There are some important ways not to spend all our time working in a small closet, whether that closet is an apartment or a library carrel. I’ve written before on seeking out your peers for timed writing, say at a coffee shop. There’s a myth in academia that we’re not successful unless we do everything alone. In actuality, there are benefits to working with others beyond getting rid of our cabin fever: you can keep each other motivated while also building the habit of writing that will be useful for years. Beyond these benefits, when we give ourselves the opportunity to be in the same place as other interested scholars, we’re likely to activate those habits of mind that interested us in academia in the first place. On that note, take part in a dissertation writing retreat where you can experience week- or weekend-long scheduled time for writing, reflection, and one-on-one discussions about your work.

I want to put forward one more view on how we’re not alone in this work.

Working on a dissertation is a chance to focus on your particular interests, likely the ones that motivated you to become a member of your field. If you’re like me, you got into your field because you’re captivated by its view on the world and committed to working on its most pressing questions. Plus, you want your work to make a contribution. When you’re counting your words or pages and trying to meet deadlines, let’s try to think of ourselves as part of these larger discussions that are happening every day. Like the rhetorician Kenneth Burke said, these discussions have been going on for a very long time, and they will continue even after we’ve left them. Now that’s really something, to be part of that. Every day that we work on our dissertations, we stay a part of it.

How I Write: Joe Turner, Professor of English

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

Our featured writer this week is Professor Joe Turner. Dr. Turner is new to the Department of English at University of Louisville. He teaches courses in rhetoric and composition and has research interests in the history of rhetoric, Roman and Medieval rhetoric, and Medieval literature.

joe turner

Location: Bingham Hall, 317D

Current project: An academic article on perceptions of style in the late Middle Ages – plain, direct speech and complex, ornate speech, and what a person’s speaking style revealed about their character, social class, and education. There was, in the Middle Ages as today, a mistrust of people who speak well: behind their glib words could be any number of motivations.  Because rhetorical training (similar to what occurs in our English 101 and 102 courses today) was central to medieval educations, and few people received educations, using rhetorical figures was a marker of high status and education.

Currently reading: Kathy Davidson’s Now You See It, as many graphic novels as I can get my hands on, and texts related to my research (such as the Poetria Nova, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I write articles, lesson plans, and short blogs (for my courses). In these blogs, for example, I outline the class’ structure and provide a digital record that students can review.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I write scholarship in my office and lessons/blogs at home. I find that my dog, Anya, is far too interesting for me to sustain work on any academic projects while at home.

I generally dedicate all day Tuesday and Thursday to writing scholarship. In the mornings I do my reading at home. First, I re-read my writing from the previous writing session. Then, I read a few articles/chapters that are pertinent to the article or the next section of the article. After that, I drive to campus and begin writing. If I get stuck, I normally start reading the piece from the beginning and try to chart out where I should go next.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Diet Coke. I have to have caffeine, and I don’t drink coffee. I also find that my office is conducive to writing in ways that my home is not.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

Make a schedule and stick to it. I find that a dedicated space and a routine have become writing cues. Once I arrive in the office on my “writing days,” sit down and open my diet Coke, my mind automatically switches to writing mode. It’s become a habit and a ritual.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

My PhD advisor told me to write every day because once you stop writing, it’s easy to make excuses to continue not writing. Writing is a learnable skill like any other. It’s not something that some people have and other people don’t. The only way to learn a skill is to practice it, over and over, and to make conscious efforts to improve.

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.

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