UofL Writing Center

Who We Are and What We Do

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Writing Center Talk, Part 2

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

We give writers thoughtful response and engage them in meaningful dialogue, both of which are aimed at helping writers think about their writing differently and which also hopefully provide these same writers with a bit more confidence to try new things in their writing.  I’d say that’s goal one.  But I can tell you that there are lots of other ways that we help the writers who visit us.

AdamEvery time I write one of these blogs, I can’t help but think back to when I was a student at U of L visiting the Writing Center.  After my first appointment, I was hooked.  I valued my consultant’s feedback, and I appreciated the kindness of the people working there.  But I got something else.  Probably something I didn’t really notice at the time—at least not consciously.  The Writing Center was a place where I felt like a writer, not simply a student who was asked to write something for class for a grade.  I feel like I inhabited both mindsets in college, and my chosen mindset was usually based on how invested I was in the writing I was doing at the time—and that feeling of being invested was determined by many internal and external factors.  Either way, the writing still got done.  But I do find value in being mindful of the fact that if you write, you are a writer.

I like to think that the people who visit us think of themselves as writers when they are in our space—though I hope they feel that way all the time.  We make an effort to remind them of that fact that they are writers.  Consultants treat the writing seriously; that writer’s writing is the subject of conversation.  And the craft of writing is emphasized, meaning that writing is treated as something that can be honed, played with, improved upon—where writing is considered a necessary and lifelong activity.

But I’d like to shift focus away from our consultations.  I’d like to think that students enter that writerly mindset before they even begin their consultations.  I realized this the other day.  My office is right next to the lobby where those who have signed in for appointments are waiting for their consultants to greet them.  I love being near this space.  I get to meet a lot of people and continue conversations with those who regularly visit the Writing Center.

But I also get to hear interesting conversations among students, among writers—and that’s what I want to highlight here.  One of these conversations happened the other day—and when they happen, they generally look the same: writers who don’t know each other sitting around talking about the writing they are doing.  The conversations almost always start with a “what are you here for” type of question but so often move to writers summarizing their projects for each other and sharing their ideas and frustrations.  I think the take-away for those participating in these conversations is that they are reminded that other people are writing too—and are experiencing ups and downs and moments of clarity and confusion.  And an equally important take away is that writing takes on many shapes and sizes at the university.  I’ve listened to doctoral students explain the process of writing a dissertation to a freshmen who has brought in an introduction to college writing paper.  Or an engineering major lay out the details of a technical report to an English major writing a literary analysis.  Or an international student talking about his native language to a native English speaker and sharing his experience of writing in a new language.  When I count these conversations, it makes me realize that the writers who visit talk a lot about their writing when they come—they also answer questions about their writing when they make appointments and of course talk extensively about their projects in their consultations.

I suppose this blog has me wondering how we might have more of these conversations—though the ones that happen organically are the best.  I remember thinking similar ideas when I was an academic advisor.  I’d have conversations all the time with students about their work.  What I found was that students didn’t have many opportunities for talking about the work they were doing in class—or they didn’t take the opportunity.  Among friends they may have been having conversations about what they were learning or reading—or about an interesting idea that their professor mentioned in a lecture.  But they didn’t seem too practiced in talking about their own work—their own projects—which happen to be where they do the most learning.  So I guess it goes without saying that I’m thankful we can provide space for these types of conversations.  If anyone has thoughts, please share!  Thanks.

How I Write: Jeffery Skinner — Poet

This semester we are beginning a new series for our blog called “How I Write.” This series asks writers to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. We’ll be featuring writers from the University of Louisville community, but also those from beyond the university who compose in a variety of personal and professional contexts. 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.skinner

We begin our series with University of Louisville’s own Jeffery Skinner who describes himself on his website (jeffreyskinner.net/) as a “poet. playwright. professor.” His most recent collection of poems Glaciology, which won the 2012 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Competition, was just published by Southern Illinois Press. You can hear Jeffery Skinner read with Kiki Petrosino on November 7th at 4:30 pm in the Chao Auditorium in UofL’s Ekstrom Library.

How I Write: Jeffery Skinner

Location: Anywhere fairly quiet

Current project: New book of poems

Currently reading: Mark Richard’s memoir, David Jones poems

  1.  What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
    Poetry, and prose of various types: recommendation letters, essays, prose poems, memos, grant applications, etc.
  2. When/where/how do you write?
    During summers I bear down heavily; during teaching time I snatch whatever odd moment that becomes available.
  3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
    Pen and paper for poems; laptop for prose. I’m fond of parking myself in a coffee shop, and plugging into postclassical, techno, electronica (no human voices).
  4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
    a. decide to write with your own voice b. lower your expectations c. don’t stop till you’ve written a predetermined amount (which doesn’t have to be “good”–just done)
  5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
    “Writing is easy: you just sit there until drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

Again, we want to thank Professor Skinner for his insightful responses and encourage our readers to attend his upcoming reading. On November 6th, we will post our next entry featuring University of Louisville Law professor Judith Fischer.

Why Do We Write?: In Defense of The Paper

Daniel Ernst, Consultant

The paper is a collegiate common denominator. In just about every class in every discipline, writing papers is required. Therefore, it’s easy to see the paper as busywork, a pointless academic exercise often with no real world counterpart. But the paper is more than some arbitrary unit of learning by which an instructor attempts to measure a student’s intellect. If we think about what we really do when we write, we see in fact that the writing process offers a unique and effective learning arena.

This isn’t just armchair philosophizing either; writing’s unique relationship with learning has been well documented by scholars in fields from psychology to linguistics to composition theory. One composition/education theorist in particular, Janet Emig, provides a general overview of writing’s role in learning in her article “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Emig first distinguishes writing from other forms of language usage—reading, talking, and listening. Then, she explains how writing distinctively requires the deployment of and interaction among multiple learning methods, such as analysis, synthesis, experience, and genesis.

DSCN1632Writing’s interactive and multifaceted process is what makes it so challenging, but this process also fosters a uniquely instructive learning environment and sets it apart from other forms of language usage. For example, take the idea of analysis. College students are commonly asked to analyze; the term analysis (or its sister term ‘critical thinking’) appears on almost every essay prompt or class syllabus in one form or another. This is because analysis is a powerful educational tool in which an idea’s deconstruction into its elemental building blocks helps students better understand its composition. In general, though, analysis is accomplished through class readings and discussions. So if reading, talking, and listening in class helps to take apart these big ideas, what then to do with all the disassembled pieces? This is where writing comes in.

Writing papers is your chance to take the deconstructed concepts and theories and build something new. In other words, synthesize new connections/conversations that become new ideas. Not only is this a critically important move from “destructive” to “constructive” intellectual work, but it’s also your opportunity to contribute, as many of my teachers have put it, to the scholarly conversation. The significant and sort of radical thing here is that these are your ideas and your unique contributions. And in formulating these contributions, you are forced, through the nature of writing, to confront ideas in a special way. Writing’s combination of and interaction between analysis and synthesis, mediated by the writer’s own experience and end-goals, promotes a participatory brand of learning that is unrivaled and truly indispensable. So the next time you are assigned to write a paper, try to embrace the chance to learn in a unique way and capitalize on your opportunity to participate and contribute your voice and your ideas.

In Conclusion: Framing Your Paper

Arielle Ulrich, Consultant

Working at the writing center, I constantly hear students say that they hate writing conclusions. These students will bring in papers that seem finished, but end abruptly—or they may have written a conclusion, but it’s only a sentence or two re-stating the last paragraph.

I’m no stranger to this struggle. Even the conclusion to the simplest paper can leave me stumped, and I often have to leave the paper alone for a few hours while I try to think of the “perfect” conclusion. Of course, as the last thing the reader sees in the paper, conclusions are very important. But my obsession with the perfect conclusion instead psyches me out, leaving me with a case of writer’s block.writersblock

When this happens, I remind myself that a good conclusion cannot fix a bad paper, nor will it solve any of its organizational or structural problems. I find it more helpful to consider a conclusion as the closing statements of my argument. By this point, I should have already said everything I needed to say and written the meat of my paper. I’ve argued, elaborated, and explicated every point. My conclusion will simply wrap up my paper and place my topic into context for the reader.

  1. In light of this, I have a few tips for conclusions. Which tip you follow may depend on your field, so consider which strategy works best for your paper. These are my three go-to tips: Explain the significance of your paper. Make sure the reader knows why your topic is important. Usually, this involves placing your question into a broader context or comparing it to a current issue. If you cannot think of the significance, ask yourself, “so what?” This approach is especially useful in history or expository papers.DSCN1639
  2. Recommend further research. Now that you’ve examined the current research on your topic, you have the chance to take the next step and recommend a course of action for the future. Is there a topic or approach you would ask a future researcher to consider? In other words: what questions are you left with at the end your paper? This tip will work best with papers that have a significant research component.
  3. Synthesize your points. This strategy requires that you not only summarize your paper, but also put together the pieces for your reader. How does your argument come together? If your paper is either very long or complex (or both!), this type of conclusion would be a good choice.

Any of these strategies would guarantee that your reader leaves knowing the purpose of your paper. You also shouldn’t feel that you can use only one of these strategies at a time—in some papers, you may use all of them, provided they are relevant.

These two writing center sites also have good pointers. Feel free to peruse these before writing your next paper:

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/conclusions/

University College, Toronto: http://www.uc.utoronto.ca/intros-and-conclusions

Happy writing!

What is Voice and Where Do You Get It?

Layne Porta, Consultant

I remember being told when I first started doing college level writing that I needed to work on my voice. When I asked my professor what exactly she meant by that, I was told that voice is what makes your writing uniquely your own. I was frustrated and confused: Isn’t the fact that I’m writing it what makes it uniquely my own?

Now that I am a graduate student and writing consultant, I often see the same kinds of feedback on my students’ papers. What I would like to offer here are some thoughts on what voice is and how you get it, as well as some resources that can help you along the way to finding your voice.

What I have come to learn about voice is that it is much more about practical decisions you make in your writing than some mystical quality that appears like mist in the night. The writing process itself is an unending sequence of decisions–from word choice to punctuation to paragraph breaks–and all of these decisions add up to create your voice. For example, I love to use dashes in my writing, which can make my voice sound more conversational. Voice can also come from the kinds of metaphors and similes you choose to explain concepts, or the length of your sentences. I have found that one of the biggest factors in creating (and understanding) your voice is word choice. For example, one of my least favorite words is fickle, but one of my favorite words is capricious. They mean the same thing, but my voice will sound very different depending on that decision. There are many resources that can help in making decisions about the words you want to use. For example, on websites such as visualthesaurus.com and visuwords.com, you can type in a word and it will bring up a word web that will feature synonyms and variations of that word clustered according to connotation. The example below is a screen capture of a visual thesaurus app I recently downloaded:

"Volatile" on Visual Thesaurus

“Volatile” on Visual Thesaurus

I have often heard the idea from both students and peers that voice isn’t as important in academic writing as it is in creative writing. I believe this is a huge misconception. Voice is crucial to academic writing because it plays a large role in engaging your audience, establishing a formal tone, and creating your credibility as a writer. In sum, voice plays a very active role in helping you achieve your rhetorical goals. Furthermore, you can have more fun with the writing you will do during your time in college or after if you embrace your voice as a writer.

If you find yourself wanting to learn more about voice and how to get it, I suggest two very helpful websites that offer comprehensive discussions about voice. The first is “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber, featured on quickanddirtytips.com. This article offers tips on defining your voice as well as some helpful examples of how voice will change according to genre. Another useful article on writingcommons.org by Kyle D. Stedman, is “Making Sure Your Voice is Present” which also offers excellent suggestions for finding your voice as well as some YouTube videos about voice.

layneOne thing to keep in mind is that finding your voice is like everything else in writing–it requires practice. So in response to my initial question as a beginning college student: yes, the fact that I am writing my paper is what makes it uniquely my own. But voice takes this a bit further, and requires that you do some writing to see how your personality comes across. My suggestion, then is to trust your instincts as a writer. Your writing is a reflection of your thoughts and your personality. Your voice, and your awareness of your voice, will come through the more comfortable you get with writing.

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