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Archive for the month “March, 2015”

What can Shel Silverstein’s “Writer Waiting” teach us about writing?

Haley Petcher, Consultant 

I first read Shel Silverstein’s poetry when I was in elementary school. I loved his doodles, and I loved his rhymes. When I got older, I loved his cleverness. Silverstein could tell a good story in only a few words and could capture the minds and hearts of children and adults alike while doing so.

Maybe you’ve heard that Silverstein’s writing is childish or not up to par with the poetry greats, like Yeats or Shakespeare, but I’m here to show you that he can actually tell us quite a bit about writing. Let’s start by looking at one of his poems about a writer.

Writer Waiting Silverstein

The poem, paired with a sketch of a young child staring at his computer screen and waiting for something to happen, is very clearly about computers and writing. I don’t know about you, but often when I write, this is a pretty accurate representation of me. Even though I’m in grad school, I feel like a kid who has no idea what she’s doing, and sometimes I stare at the screen, hoping for a miracle.

We could go down many rabbit holes about using or not using “standard English” or about all of the rhetorical choices Silverstein makes in his argument that computers are actually not the key to writing, but this time we’re going to focus on the following:

  • What computers can and can’t do
  • Creative license in syntax
  • What the writing center can help you accomplish

The narrator says that he doesn’t “need no writin’ tutor” because the computer can do it all. It can check spelling by showing you the ominous red squiggly line and grammar by showing you the questioning green squiggly line. Sometimes these lines are useful and alert you of typos or sentence fragments. But other times they’re wrong. And sometimes they don’t catch the mistakes. For example, my computer did not use a green squiggly line for my previous two sentences, even though they are technically fragments. Those sentences are examples of using your “creative license” to make a point by putting more emphasis on the sentence.

Silverstein uses his creative license in most of his poetry. A few examples in his poem are, “It can sort and it can spell,/It can punctuate as well,” which the computer doesn’t mark but is a run-on sentence, and “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write),” which the computer does mark as a fragment. Both of these examples rely on their syntax to create the rhythm of the poem, or how we hear and read it. Try reading it aloud while paying close attention to the syntax. (Remember to use longer pauses for periods than for commas.) If Silverstein paid too much attention to the computer, he wouldn’t have been able to create this rhythm or achieve his meaning.

My favorite part of “Writer Waiting” is my second example of Silverstein’s use of creative license. It is the last line, which is in parentheses as if it’s an afterthought or something the narrator doesn’t want to admit. It reads, “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write).” Two words in this line are key: “it” and “what.” “It” puts an emphasis on the computer, while “what” brings our attention to the content of the paper, though the poem mostly focused on the mechanics, like punctuating and spelling. The computer, of course, cannot create the content for us, even though we want it to. Writing is not just about the tools you use; it is about you and your thoughts.

Writing also does not have to be a solitary act. In fact, I think writing is more fun when you talk to other people about it. Here at the University Writing Center, we can help you decide if the squiggly lines offer the best choice, if you should deviate from the computer’s options, and if it’s the best time and place for you to use your creative license in writing to make your point. Most importantly, we can discuss your ideas for your paper. The writing center is here to help you not look and feel like the kid in Silverstein’s drawing.

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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.

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