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Archive for the month “March, 2016”

Essays Need Characters: Imagining Audience

Karley Miller, consultantDSCN3615

Fiction writers often struggle with writing stories that are “too close.” Many things can make a story too close—a protagonist they identify with, an event they’ve experienced and are now writing about—some element of autobiography. When writing about something they feel strongly about, or have experienced, writers often have difficulty removing themselves from their story. The end result is that their audience, oftentimes in workshop, can feel that the story is autobiographical. Stories that are too close to their author fail to do what we expect of a story—build tension, have an arc, et cetera.

But why?

Let’s say my grandmother recently died, and I’m torn up about it, so I decide to write a story about her funeral. I think it’s a great story idea because the death of my grandma certainly moved me, so it will surely move others as well. I write my story, and end it with a scene between my protagonist and her father (because I don’t know where I should end it, and my dad did say something uncommonly nice on that day, which moved me to tears).

My workshop day arrives, and the class fixates on the fact that the story wasn’t as much about the funeral, and my protagonist’s relationship with her grandmother, as it was about my protagonist’s relationship with her father. No one can understand why it takes place entirely in a funeral home, instead of somewhere that the father-daughter issues can be resolved.

This is embarrassing to me because I don’t get along very well with my father but didn’t think it came across in my fiction. I hadn’t considered that other people have experienced funerals in all sorts of ways, and that just because I thought an interaction between the protagonist and her father, at her grandma’s funeral, would be moving (because that had been my experience), it doesn’t mean that my audience will find it so. I was too close to the story to see that the scene didn’t belong.

Oftentimes, fiction writers remedy this issue of closeness by making their protagonist someone who is obviously not them (for example—I once made my female protagonist 5’ 11”; I am not 5’ 11”), which allows for distance. However, the issue is really one of audience—and is applicable to all sorts of writing, particularly analytical essays.

Had I kept the audience of my story in mind, and not just written what I, personally, found cathartic, I may have been able to write a better story—one that moved my audience and didn’t reveal my personal issues. Likewise, when writing an essay in which you are instructed to take a side, or do an analysis, it is best to keep audience in mind. If your essay is fueled by a personal bias, and not by a fair assessment of the material, your audience will know.

So how do you remedy this?

Because you have no protagonist to reimagine, I would suggest inventing a character for yourself—one that might come from a totally different background, and have a different bias toward the material you’re working with. Imagine this person reading your essay; would they see an analysis, or you?

The Narrative Arc: Where Storytelling Meets Professional Writing

DSCN3636Emily Blair, consultant

Consider your favorite book or movie. You have probably been reading and watching TV since you were young. Some stories are more exciting than others; some have adventurers, travelling bands of heroes, or great villains that need conquering. Other stories place you within the mind of a character not so unlike yourself, showing how one person’s life unfolds in a realistic world

Now, think about an email to your professor. You likely don’t think it is as exciting as a blockbuster film; in fact, you probably don’t think about it as a story at all, but rather, a completely utilitarian writing assignment. However, it can be helpful and productive to think of your writing as an exercise in storytelling, with some relation to the narrative arc that you know from years of enjoying books, movies, TV shows, and video games.

Let’s take a professional email as an example. I need to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, which would be a great favor. I might be tempted, for brevity’s sake, to write something like this:

Dr. Smith,

Can you write me a letter of rec for grad school?

–Emily Blair

This style of email likely will not get the response you hope, not only because of its brief tone but also because there are ways to make this story more compelling in a way that allows my professor to see why their letter of recommendation would help me achieve my goals. Depending on the situation, you can employ different facets of storytelling, such as characterization, exposition, the building of plot, climax, and conclusion:

Dear Dr. Smith,

I am writing to ask if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for the University of Louisville’s Master’s program in English. I felt that your class in Southern Literature in Fall 2015 informed my understanding of current literary research in contemporary regional literature, as well as what my own place could be in the field. You had mentioned that my papers in your class were well thought out, and I consider you a mentor in this vein of literature. I would like to earn my MA at U of L because the work that Dr. Jones and Dr. Lakes are doing in Southern and regional literature before going on to a Ph.D. program with those focuses as well.

If you have any questions, or would like to see my resume, please let me know. Thank you for considering writing me a letter of recommendation for a graduate program.

Sincerely,

Emily Blair

The difference between these emails is not only length but also how I, as a student, could speak to a professor using a narrative. I have walked the professor, my audience, through not only why I am applying to this graduate program, but also why they, in particular, have the ability to help in my application process. I have drawn a direct line between this professor’s class and my future Ph.D. program, allowing the professor to follow the story of my path through a literature education. I have also made myself a unique person, or a “character,” in this narrative by reminding Dr. Smith of my performance in their class and setting myself apart with specific goals to attend U of L.

While most of the things you write in a professional setting won’t be as exciting as Lord of the Rings or as entertaining as Friends, you can use some creative writing techniques to better convey your narrative to others.

Feasible Futures of Writing Centers

Cassie Book, Associate Director

This week the University Writing Center hosted an exciting event with our regional affiliate of the International Writing Center Association, the Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA). The event,“Directors’ Day Out,” is an opportunity for regional Writing Center Professionals to gather and discuss issues across contexts. Each Directors’ Day Out has a unique theme.

The preceding Kentucky Directors’ Day Out happened in October 2014 at Bellarmine University. Through the theme of “Writing Center Assessment,” we focused on ways to demonstrate our institutional audiences the Writing Center’s effectiveness, impact, and value. We talked about measurable goals, data, and timelines, but also how to share our stories. Scott Whiddon and Rhyan Conyers, from the Transylvania University Writing Center and Institutional Research and Effectiveness respectively, shared their experience collaborating.

Building on sharing stories, our 2016 Directors’ Day Out embraced, broadly, creating a culture of writing in our local contexts. Specifically, how can we push forward our writing center values such as interdisciplinary, writerly agency, non-evaluative response, and dialogic learning into our larger institutional structures? Bronwyn Williams presented the “Future Creating Workshop” as a model for constructing “feasible utopias.” The workshop has three parts: 1) Critique and complaining 2) Dreaming of utopias and 3) Realization and feasibility. We first pinpointed both specific problems and underlying issues. Then, we imagined institutional worlds with unlimited time, money, and influence. For instance, we proposed built-in time for writing and professional development each week, a writing center dog, and writing center satellites (“pods”) for each department across the university. Finally, we stepped back to articulate realistic steps toward our utopian visions, which is why we call it a feasible utopia. For example, one center plans to initiate collaboration with the Athletics department, while another will start the social media hashtag #MarkupMondays to share messy rough drafts.

Although creating feasible utopias was our main emphasis for the day, most also relished the opportunity to speak “our language,” i.e. writing center language. We informally shared experiences, networked, and motivated each another. We enjoyed lunch in the new University Writing Center space while chatting with the UofL writing consultants. Though we recognize that not everyone speaks “writing center language,” we’re hopeful that building community among Writing Center Professionals can help us extend our writing center values within each of our own campuses and communities.

lunch

Writing Center Professionals eat lunch and chat in the new University Writing Center.

Achieving Clarity, Sentence by Sentence

Cheyenne Franklin, consultantDSCN3677

An instructor once told my class that the greatest criticism a writing can receive is that it is unclear. Although clarity does not come from any one formula, there are some tips that can help you get your message across clearly and keep you from writing the complicated texts we all hate.

1. Keep the real subject in the subject slot.

English is an SVO language. This means its basic structure runs Subject, Verb, Object. Sometimes we alter this structure to add variety, but generally readers look for the subject first and then the verb. When we provide these pieces quickly and in this order, readers are better able to focus on the message of our sentence.

Two types of structures can lose a sentence’s subject:

Passive Voice: The text was confused by the unnecessary passive voice.

Revision: The unnecessary passive voice confused the text.

You can find more information about passive voice here.

False subject there: There were two kids fighting at school.

Revision: Two kids fought at school.

In the first version of this sentence, there occupies the subject position right before the verb were. Two kids is the real subject though. The revision forms a clearer sentence with the true subject in the subject slot.

2. Cut deadweight words.

Certain valueless words enter our speech without our even realizing it. In our writing, where we have time to edit, we should always cut life-sucking deadweight that distracts from the sentence’s valuable parts.

Wordy: I believe the results clearly show obesity is a very real problem for each and every one of us, regardless of age.

Revision: I believe the results basically show obesity is a very real problem for each and every one of us, regardless of age.

Although the struck-out words seem to add intensity to the sentence, they don’t add any real meaning. In addition to overcomplicating the sentence, they weaken the statement because they appear to be trying too hard.

3. Write in manageable doses.

If a sentence extends to three lines or more, it has lots of commas/conjunctions, or contains strings of prepositions or which/that, look to see if you have stuffed too many ideas into one sentence. Just because a sentence is long, doesn’t mean it needs to be divided, but it is a good indicator. It’s good to combine ideas in a single sentence when showing a relationship between those ideas, but you need to give each idea its own attention first. This means giving each idea its own space.

Dense Sentence: If the chemicals combine, they can produce a toxic fume which can harm a human and might even kill plants and animals, presenting a serious risk and outweighing the good that such chemicals could provide in the home.

Separate ideas with connection following: If the chemicals combine, they can produce a toxic fume. This fume can harm a human and might even kill plants and animals. These dangers present a serious risk and outweigh the good that such chemicals could present in the home.

The revision splits the complicated sentence in places where which, and, or a comma was present.

4. Use the Old-New structure

The old-new structure involves both sentence and paragraph structure. It clearly strings together related ideas or steps by reusing key terms. Sentences begin with a term used in the preceding sentence (the old) and connects it to the next idea (the new). The sample sentence showing the revision of a dense sentence demonstrates this structure.

Old-New: If you turn to your right, you’ll see a yellow envelope. In that yellow envelope, you’ll find a note, and that note will give you your next instructions.

The repeated words yellow envelope and note serve as landmarks that orient readers and show connections between the old and new information. Notice that when a term is repeated, you usually place the word that/this before it.

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