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Archive for the month “November, 2014”

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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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!

How I Write: Heather A. Slomski, Former Axton Fellow in Fiction

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 Heather A. Slomski. She is the author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. She received her MFA from Western Michigan University and held the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterlyAmerican Letters & Commentary, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and ArtThe Normal School, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant and a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and son and teaches writing at Concordia College.

heather slomski

Location: Moorhead, MN

Current project: The Starlight Ballroom, a novel-in-progress

Currently reading: Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, which, just out this fall, brings together for the first time in the states all thirty four of his “cosmicomic” stories.

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

Fiction. Up until recently—short fiction. Currently, I am working on a novel.

 2. When/where/how do you write?

I write best early in the morning, starting at about 5:30. I either write at the dining room table (to be near the stove for making coffee and the large windows for watching the snow fall, but only if no one else is awake), in my study, or at a coffee shop. I alternate between these spaces, depending on my mood; however, I tend to go in phases. For example, I’ll write primarily in my study for a few months and then relocate to a coffee shop when I feel stifled or need a change of scenery.

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

When I am writing at a coffee shop I use a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block out conversations and the music that the coffee shop is playing. Sometimes I am listening to lyric-free music; often I am just wearing the headphones and not listening to anything. Regardless of where I’m working, I usually only listen to music when I’m using it as a sort of soundtrack for the piece I’m writing. For example, I listened to a compilation of fifty Ennio Morricone compositions while writing “Before the Story Ends,” the last story in my collection. Listening to this album helped me to create the mood I desired for the story. Even now when I listen to that album it conjures up for me the world of my story. Most of the time, however, I am not listening to music. Wearing the headphones while working at a cafe, even though I can still hear the muffled noises around me, provides a kind of mental block—a shield between the noises and me. I often like a little distraction, but not too much. (This is one of the main reasons I like to work at a cafe; it usually provides a suitable amount of “activity.”) Occasionally, however, whether I’m at a cafe or at home, I’ll listen to some jazz or classical music if the silence is too quiet and if I can find something that fits the mood of the piece I’m working on.

I also use my headphones to listen to my works-in-progess. I use a program called Ghost Reader, a text-to-speech converter, which allows me to listen to my computer (the voice I usually use is “Alex”) read aloud what I’m working on. Hearing my work aloud helps me with my sentence rhythms, pacing, and transitions. Before I began using Ghost Reader I would intermittently read my own work aloud as I wrote, but now I prefer to listen to my computer read it to me. Also, when I listen to “Alex” read sections of my work aloud, I enter this sort of in-between space where I am almost reading and writing at the same time. I find positioning myself in this in-between space very productive.

I also keep a stack of books next to me while I’m writing. These are books that in some way relate to what I’m working on, or books that I feel might inspire me, often just by sitting in a stack at my elbow. Occasionally I’ll open one of these books and flip through it. Sometimes I’ll read a random passage or reread a specific passage for a particular reason. Sometimes I’ll open a book to look at its large structure. If it’s a novel, for example, I might look at the chapter lengths. If it’s a collection of poetry I might look at its sections or parts and think about the philosophy behind this organization. (And of course I’ll read an occasional poem.) If it’s a story collection I’ll look at the order of the stories or also its sections or parts if it is divided up in such a way. If it’s a play, I’ll look at the set description, the list of characters, the lengths of the scenes, the way the dialogue and stage directions are laid out on the page, etc. I love going to the theatre for the immersive experience it offers, but I read plays in part for a different reason. I love the way plays look on the page. I am drawn to the white space around the text, which somehow makes the words more three-dimensional and the actions—even subtle ones—more “active.” I am very interested in the relationship between fiction and drama, and I sometimes like to play with this relationship in my work. “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons,” the title story of my collection, blends these two genres into a hybrid form.

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

I try not to start a story until I feel sure that I have what I need in order to begin. I do think it’s possible, at least for me, to start a piece too early, and maybe not to ruin it but to at least make the process more difficult and less enjoyable. I try not to begin a piece until I have a clear sense of the emotional landscape or mood, equipped with a definite setting, a few key images, and usually a few phrases or lines of dialogue. The emotional landscape is always based on a situation between characters that involves some kind of conflict, even if I’m not exactly clear on the conflict when I start.

On the other hand, I have to begin writing a story before I know too much about it. The act of writing for me is wholly a process of discovery. I discover the story and I get to know my characters as I write. If I know too much when I sit down to write, much of the magic is lost and my writing feels dull. Edward Albee says that he thinks about his plays for a long time before he begins writing them—that he doesn’t begin writing until he knows his characters so well that they essentially write the play for him. While this process clearly works very well for him, it does not work for me. I need the excitement of discovery to breathe life into the words as I write them.

My revision process is pretty standard. When I feel confident enough in a draft, I give it to a few trusted people to read. I am very careful of giving a draft to my readers too early. I need to be sure that I’ve gotten a piece as far along as possible—that I’ve explored what I set out to explore and that I’ve reached a conclusion that satisfies me, at least for the time being. If I give a draft to my readers too early, I run the risk of writing the story that they want to read rather than the story I want to write.

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

On a draft of one of the first stories I turned in for a graduate-school workshop, Stuart Dybek wrote to me to be careful of being precious. This was in reference to a rather tender story, and in a tender story especially there is a fine line between being “precious” or affectatious and being emotionally honest. This was very important advice for me as a young writer. It helped shape my approach to writing in that I try to write with as light a hand as possible; I try to keep myself, the writer, out of the way so that all the reader sees are the characters and the honesty of their emotions. If a writer is too present, particularly in delicate scenes, the writing runs the risk of coming off as forced, false, affectatious, or “precious.” Of course, there is also the danger of being too distant as a writer. This can result in emotionless prose and characters. The key is to strike the right balance.

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!

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