UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Time Away: One Key to Productivity

Brit Mandelo, Consultant

BritThough a variety of factors can contribute to low productivity, burn-out—minor or major—is the source of woe for many, many writers who are juggling high stress levels, large required outputs of work, and tight deadlines. I’m not talking procrastination; that’s a whole different animal. What I mean, here, is the sensation of doom and desperation, accompanied by a deep exhaustion, that can follow on the heels of a hard run of productivity. You just feel wrung out, but there’s still more to be done. Ignore the deadline for a bit, though. While it may sound counterintuitive, one of the solutions that can help is taking time away from the project in question: for ten minutes or for a day, a break offers a chance to recuperate.

Giving the brain a chance to rest is no different than giving the body a chance to rest. If you were doing a strenuous physical activity, you’d likely take a breather before moving on to the next challenge. The same principal can work to stave off burn-out, at least temporarily—long enough to rally and finish that research paper, possibly. The idea is to count in that break time as part of the process; don’t worry about the deadline while taking a break, or your stress level isn’t likely to decrease much at all.

Instead, if the half-finished sentence staring you down is giving you a headache, step away. Take a short walk, do the dishes, listen to music, go outside—whatever fits your fancy. An activity that isn’t mentally challenging offers extra breathing room, though sometimes a pleasant brain-stimulation, like a favorite movie or album, can be refreshing as well. Washing dishes or picking up around the house are a few of my preferred necessary distractions. (That way, the break also feels a little productive, too.) Don’t think about the project that’s driving you up a wall. If an idea happens, delightful. If not, don’t worry about it. Take the time to breathe, to loosen up, to let go of some of that doom.

When you return to the page after the break, it might not be easy, but it also might not be harrowing and awful.


Helping Writers Be Specific, or Why “What Do You Mean Here” is an Important Question

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

DanielAs a writing center consultant, I regularly hear students attempting to explain why they feel the need to come to the writing center. When asked why they have scheduled a visit, regularly students explain that they are simply “not good at writing.” Obviously, it is almost never the case that a student is simply born without the innate inability to write well. These students, who seem to be under the impression that writing is either “good” or “bad” and it is produced by writers who are either “good” or “bad” at their craft, most often benefit from exercises in specificity. As it turns out, in most of these cases, the work needed to make difference between what students perceive as “good” or “bad” is as simple as asking “What do you mean here?”

Whenever a student is struggling with clarity, either on a structural or sentence level, it almost always seems helpful to begin by asking them to explain. “What do you mean?” offers the student a chance to explain themselves beyond the confines of the paper. It allows them to make several passes at what might be a difficult-to-articulate concept or thought, and often results in a much more satisfying explanation which can be worked into the piece. By examining a statement more intensely, a writer is able to see the multiplicity of a statement, and recognizing the presence of undesired meanings is the first step to eliminating them.

Frequently, problems of clarity can be solved by fixing specific language. One common temptation when writing papers is to beef up language by dipping into thesauruses. Occasionally, clients will have used thesaurus and synonym tools throughout their paper in an attempt to spruce up a paper, but don’t consider the weight of that particular word which results in an undesired connotative meaning or a confusing construction. This is easily avoided by carefully checking the denotation of a word before using it, and heavily considering the connotation relative to the thought being expressed in the sentence. Even easier to fix, a writer only needs to ask, “What do I mean by this word?” Only in certain specific situations should a writer need to go out of their way to define a term or phrase for a reader. If it seems that a better word might better carry the weight of your message, use it! Not all synonyms are created equal. In the same way that a painter would not use just any shade of a color to set a mood in a painting, a writer should be deliberate in their word choice so as to best convey the message they wish to convey.

Once in a while the question “What do you mean?” heralds shocking results. “I don’t know.” “I’m not sure.” “Uhhh…” This happens to the best writers, and while it is certainly acceptable to not know everything, it is encouraged that writers limit the contents of their papers to things they can explain. If a concept seems insurmountable to explain, or seems wholly irrelevant, it is sometimes best to just omit it. Like pruning away dead leaves from a plant, removing confusing, extraneous, or downright nonsensical sections of a paper will only emphasize the well-crafted and developed facets of the work.

Ultimately, students who fear “bad” writing should be more concerned about nonspecific writing. While the two things are not inherently related, students seem to very often conflate the two. Fears of being a poor writer regularly seem to be dispersed after arguments are filled out, language becomes more developed and specific, and the structures of arguments are more directly linked, all of which can emerge from simply asking one’s self and answering, “What do I mean here?”

iPads in the Writing Center

Sam Bowles, Consultant

Just recently our Writing Center added to its technological arsenal a collection of iPads available for consultants to use with clients during sessions.  As technology has always been an area of extreme interest for me, I actually piloted the use of an iPad during consultations last semester.  Here are some of the key areas where I think iPads (or any tablets for that matter) have a lot to offer the kind of work we do in the Writing Center.


We help writers at all stages of the process, including the brainstorming or planning stage.  The iOS platform has a litany of apps that can be helpful for getting started with writing projects.  One that I like, IdeaSketch, allows users to create concept maps or flow charts and then convert those into a hierarchical outline.  The process can also work in reverse, creating a traditional outline and then converting it to a mind map, both of which can be continually manipulated, moving items around with ease.  IdeaSketch also has a nice iPhone app, so the file created during a session can be emailed to a student with a compatible device, or a PDF can be printed or emailed if needed.


Tablets can also be a great way to workshop drafts.  Using a program like Notability, users can not only annotate a document in ways that mimic working with an analog document, but additionally, one can zoom in particular parts of the paper, allowing the consultant and client alike to focus on an isolated issued.   Once the session is completed, the annotated document can easily be emailed to or printed for the client.



Finally, the iPad adds a lot to sessions because it puts access to endless resources at your fingertips.  I regularly use the iPad in session to help clients look of terms, review citation information from websites like the Purdue OWL, or even search our library’s databases for articles.  Sure, this could be done on a computer, but with an iPad the session doesn’t have to be interrupted by the move to a computer station.  And the iPad is physically closer to a printed document that can be passed back and forth and set aside quickly, unlike a computer monitor and corresponding peripherals.   Additionally, as with almost all the resources iPads have to offer, links to websites, handouts, and other resources can be quickly and easily emailed to the student.


iPads can add a lot to Writing Center consultations, making much of what we do already more convenient and accessible, but another reason to use such mobile devices in sessions is to demonstrate for clients how they could be using the mobile technology many of them already have to serve them in their academic work.

Students are using their phones and tablets to perform web searches already; why not show them ways they can use their devices to perform more academically relevant queries?  They are using apps to find out what time a movie starts on Saturday; why not show them some apps that will help them find and understand a given term and its synonyms?  They are using their phones and tablets to organize their lives already; why not show them the ways they can use their devices to organize their thoughts and ideas for upcoming projects?  Could we grab a physical dictionary just to make a point? Sure.  But by showing students good, reputable and often free mobile dictionary apps as well as the host of other uses and applications available on mobile platforms, we are demonstrating for them skills they can use on their own outside of the library or Writing Center with devices they always have available.

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