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Writing Genres that Are New to You

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

As the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, I work with a lot of graduate students on a variety of writing projects. Many of the writers who see me are writing a new genre, whether that be a personal statement, a long-form seminar paper, or a grant proposal. Despite the wide array of genres I see, I often give very similar advice to Caitlin Raywriters. I also think that these strategies would be effective for writers of all experience levels—from a first year undergraduate in their first college class, to a PhD student working on their dissertation.

The genres I am talking about, though, are not just the weird ones that we might only come across if we are in higher education (literature reviews, for example, are not a genre common outside the walls of the university). This could also be something as simple as an email. For example, we may take it for granted that everyone can write an effective email. However, we all know that some emails are more successful than others. To move our own email writing practices to those exemplary ones, we may look at what others are doing (What do I look for when I receive an email? What do I respond to?) and then we emulate that. We also have a ton of practice writing emails, so we can learn quickly in the variety of drafts we create what is effective and what isn’t. The same principles can be applied to all writing.

The following strategies are ones I encourage writers to use when they are unfamiliar with a genre they are bringing to me. These are strategies I would encourage everyone to employ to master any genre that comes your way:

  1. Examine the assignment. This may seem like a given, but many people read assignment descriptions uncritically. Additionally, assignment prompts or questions can be extremely detailed or very vague. Let’s take a look at an example I see quite often. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) asks for a personal statement when applicants submit materials for medical residency. This prompt is simply, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school,” and allows 5,300 characters. This is as vague as it gets. However, you can still tell several things. The readers clearly value brevity (you are limited to about a page and a half), and you are crafting an argument (why do you want to go to medical school?) Embedded in this question is the need for evidence. How does the reader believe what you are telling them? The context is also specific: why do you want to go to medical school? What is medical school to you, and what will you get out of it? How does it meet your goals? Suddenly, you can see lots of questions to answer that were simply implied in the prompt itself.
  2. Find examples. This is something I recommend to all levels of writers. It is very difficult to write an abstract, a literature review, or a personal statement, without knowing what successful ones look like. Once you get in the habit, you will automatically begin reading like a writer and will notice successful examples of writing everywhere you go. One piece of advice I have gotten as I move into writing my own dissertation, for example, is to seek out other dissertations (they are usually publically available). Further, find dissertations that were chaired by the same chair of your own committee. Finding examples can help you figure out what the unwritten expectations of certain genres may be.
  3. Ask an expert. “Expert” could mean an expert in the content area you are writing in, or an expert in writing itself. I often suggest that people writing very discipline-specific writing (like, maybe a review article for a journal) talk with their advisor or other trusted professors and get feedback. Those folks are great resources to talk about methods and field-specific questions that the University Writing Center may not have knowledge about. Then, you can also seek out a writing expert (like the consultants in the University Writing Center) so that you clarify your ideas and translate them into an effective piece of writing.
  4. Ask a peer. This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in college. You are surrounded by great resources in your classes and your major, or even down the hall in the dorms. The people in your classes are future professionals, and may even be your colleagues later on. Get together with someone, or a few people, and exchange writing! One of the best things I have found in graduate school myself is finding a few trusted people that I can send my “shitty first drafts” to without judgment (see Ann Lamott’s excellent essay “Shitty First Drafts”).
  5. Often, when faced with a daunting writing task that we don’t quite know how to tackle, we can easily get in our heads. That “editor” voice (which I imagine as my 7th grade English teacher for some reason) is one of the biggest reasons we get writer’s block. The biggest antidote to being stuck before even beginning the writing task is to simply freewrite everything that you know or think you know about a topic. Just write, and worry about the genre conventions later. Many times we figure out how to do something by doing it (See Reid’s “Getting Going” blog for more useful tips to get started!).
  6. The best way to learn a new genre is to simply keep writing in that genre until you are comfortable. Back to my original example of email writing, the more emails we send, the faster and more comfortable we are in composing them. While perhaps obvious, the reason for this is because we spend so much time writing emails and thus get a ton of practice. This is true for any piece of writing. You might take a really long time writing your first abstract, for example, but a few years later of practicing that skill and you will be able to write effective abstracts more quickly. See more strategies for practicing and developing writing habits in Isaac’s “Getting Started with Genre” or Michael’s “Can Someone Hold My Hair While I Word Vomit?”

Lastly, I think the biggest hurdle when faced with new genres is the uncertainty it causes in us. We think “I don’t know this…should I know this? Does everyone know this but me?” This connects to the most insidious experience of higher education—imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the idea that everyone knows what they are doing and are very successful at that work, and that you are merely “faking” it. However, everyone experiences imposter syndrome, and one of the biggest ways to combat this feeling is talking about your experiences and the writing process more. Tackling a new genre can be intimidating and stressful, but hopefully these strategies can help you be successful, no matter the writing task before you!

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On the Road to Writing, It’s Okay to Stop and Ask for Directions

Mitzi Phelan, consultant

Have you experienced getting into your car, and while driving to a familiar destination you start thinking about all the things you need to do, or even just start daydreaming? Suddenly, you snap back to the present and realize you are at your intended location but Mitzihave no recollection of the actual drive. It’s amazing how we can become so familiar with the way we do something that we can actually can execute the activity on autopilot. Our brains are amazing objects that can run millions of processes at once. While one “system” is working through our schedule, another is thinking about summer vacation, and yet another is executing turns down familiar streets (hopefully one is watching for pedestrians). When the path we are navigating is so familiar to us, we can easily “switch off” and let the brain make all the decisions in default mode. But, if we are checked out of the process, are we really getting the best experience?

I gave the above example as a way to talk about the process of writing. By the time you have reached the level in academia where you would be interested in reading this blogpost, you have most likely been asked to do a lot of writing. Often, we are given a writing task and, just like driving, we set our brain to autopilot, or “writing mode,” and let come what may. We see our end destination (our “completed writing task”), hop in our mental smart cars, activate cruise control, and are on our way. The problem with this is that we only have one way of getting to the destination programmed into our mental maps. When we only allow for only one way of doing things, we ultimately produce the same type of writing, just with different topics. This doesn’t only apply to class papers–we can fall into the same rut with our creative writing as well.

To be completely honest, in the busy world of academia, writing on autopilot is convenient. It always gets us safely to our destination and conserves our valuable brain energy for the thousands of other demands that come on a daily basis. However, it does not help us develop into better writers. To produce better work, we have to mentally show up for the process. We have to switch off the autopilot and challenge ourselves to consider that there are valuable alternative routes to getting to our final destinations. Understand, however, that the goal in switching off autopilot and taking control of the wheel is not necessarily to get to the destination more quickly, although that may happen, but rather to truly immerse yourself in the writing process and gain insight to tools that you may be missing out on.

If you are like me, my cruise control looks like this: I get an idea for a paper, lock on to it with a death grip, think about it until the night before its due, word vomit on the paper, and then spend the wee hours of the morning its due making revisions. This process works for me and I am comfortable with it; however, I have realized that I am cheating myself out of being a better writer by not exploring other processes. Recently I have been trying to add practices that other writers use into my repertoire. I started with reverse outlining, now I’m committing myself to writing down my favorite thesis and then writing two more possible theses that either invert or challenge the original as a way to enhance my critical thinking of the topic. This has been immensely beneficial and has positively affected my writing skills.

If you feel like your writing has become stale, or that you are not meeting your full potential as a writer, I challenge you to see if you are still in the driver’s seat. Consider pulling out your old writing guidebooks and going back to the basics. Look to other writers for inspiration. Take time to go through the process. You’ll be amazed at how much of the beautiful scenery you have been missing.

Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

Finding the Strategies, and Confidence, to be Stronger Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

If you’ve ever heard someone from the University Writing Center talk about what we do here you’ve likely heard them say that our goal is to do more than help a writer simply “fix” a current draft. We also want to provide ideas and strategies to help that person become a stronger writer in the future. Some of these suggestions are nuts and boltsdscn2185 suggestions about organization or revision or grammar and usage. Yet we also believe that writing well involves more than just mastering a set of skills. The writing processes we use, as well as how confident and motivated we feel to work on a piece of writing, can be crucial to how successfully any writer navigates new writing challenges.

Talk to many university students – or, quite frankly, most people in the culture – and you will hear people say things such as “I just can’t write,” or “I’m not a born writer.” After years of unproductively harsh criticism, rather than constructive instruction, they have internalized a belief that there is some kind of hidden magic to being a good writer, and that they don’t have it. The truth is, that writing well takes time, practice, failure, revision, advice, and is an ongoing, life-long learning process for all of us. There are simply no “born writers.”

In recent research of mine, I have been focusing on what makes people feel anxious about, or confident in, their reading and writing abilities at a given moment. Put more simply, what makes a person feel literate at one time and not another. Many factors facilitate or obstruct such a feeling of agency for people. A new technology can make writing suddenly much easier, or can make previously simple actions complicated and confusing. A teacher’s response to a writing assignment can be dismissive and discouraging, or offer encouraging suggestions for revision that make a writer feel that success is possible.

Culture, material conditions, language, and many other factors shape all writers’ perceptions of agency. All of these external influences result in experiences, emotions, and memories that also shape such perceptions. My research on how these factors influence student writers took place in part at the UofL University Writing Center as well as with students in the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, (the book is titled Literacy 9781138667112Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities). In this research, I drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as other fields, to understand how writers’ sense of confidence could vary dramatically from one context to another and how that affected their abilities to write successfully. A student could write well in one course, and struggle in a new course, even in the same major, when facing a new genre. Another student could excel at writing at work, but not at school. Each experience creates a different emotional memory that will influence how that student both thinks and feels about a similar writing situation the next time it comes up. Research in psychology on emotion, memory, and motivation, illustrates how important the kinds of response we provide as writing consultants and teachers is to the ways in which students approach their writing.

At the University Writing Center, we have incorporated some of the ideas from this research into the ways we work with writers. We are developing strategies that help writers approach revision, even substantial revision that will require a great deal of work, with more confidence in their abilities to do such difficult work, and more internal motivation to complete the work. One key part of this approach is helping writers understand that their struggles and anxieties are not unique to them, but typical of all writers, from first-year students to famous novelists. We sometimes take the time to talk about how learning anything is first a struggle, but one that they can work through. Writing is not an innate gift, but a learned activity that gets better with practice. That knowledge alone, research has shown, can result in significant changes in how willing student writers may be to put in the hours and effort to improve their work. We both give students strategies for improving as well as talk to them about how, like all writers, they have strengths, challenges, and the abilities to keep learning.

My research is just one example of the ongoing research about writing and the teaching of writing that takes place at the University Writing Center. We are, as our mission statement points out, “committed to being part of ongoing scholarly conversations about the teaching of writing.” You can see this research reflected in work that Cassandra Book, our Associate Director, did on our Virtual Writing Center, or by the publications and graduate student projects that you can find listed on our website, or the conferences at which our staff present each year. An essential part of being a research university is the idea that we should use our research to contribute to knowledge in our field and enhance the educational experiences of our students. We’re looking forward to the start of the spring semester and to helping all writers find the strategies, and confidence, that will offer them the chance to express their ideas as clearly and creatively as possible.

Silencing Self-Doubt

Taryn Hall, Consultant

As I write this, I am about seven hours away from giving a presentation for which I have been preparing for around a month. The research is done, the paper is written, yet I find myself doubting that my hard work has resulted in something worth presenting. If I’m not careful, I end up struggling with this same sense of self-doubt about many of my writing assignments. Usually, when I give in to the temptation to doubt myself, it devolves quickly into something which prevents me from being productive: Is this idea Tarynworth researching and writing about? Am I qualified to make such an argument? Am I bringing anything new to the academic conversation?

Feeling like an imposter in academia is often at the back of my mind when I am writing. And I know, from my work in the University Writing Center, that I am far from being the only one who feels this way. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this at one time or another. We’re confronted with a new genre of writing, or with a particularly challenging prompt, and we respond by overthinking to the point of doubting ourselves. At its worst, I’ve seen this become something which stops the writing process in its tracks. Writers come to us feeling anxious or overwhelmed; they express doubt that they can pull off the assignment, and they say things like “I’m a terrible writer.”

Of course, as tutors and peers to the writers with whom we work, we know that they aren’t bad writers. That indeed, each writer who comes to us is approaching writing with a unique perspective and an individual voice worth adding to the conversations ongoing in their respective fields or majors. My goal as consultant is to help writers alleviate these anxieties and to silence the self-doubt of academic authorship. As Nicole discusses in her recent blog post, learning to locate one’s voice in academia can be challenging; we have to overcome our sense of not belonging in order to feel like members of the academic community.

This is a task which feels like something that we’re always in the process of doing. For a while, as I got close to finishing undergrad, I felt like I was finally starting to find my niche and had this whole writing thing figured out. And then I got to grad school, where I was the newest member of a whole new conversation. Back to square one. While this causes some level of anxiety when I approach new writing tasks, I also find that my newbie status helps me feel more engaged with actively learning new genres and new techniques. It’s okay to not have the conventions of graduate writing down pat, just as it was okay when I was in English 101 to not have the conventions of college writing mastered.

While I find some level of self-doubt instructive, as it encourages me to learn and to overcome, I have to beware of that anxiety becoming crippling. This is why I recommend to writers who express having similar feelings of doubt or insecurity a proactive approach to their anxiety. If you know that an upcoming paper is going to cause you to feel those feelings of self-doubt, talk to someone early in the writing process. Sometimes, the most beneficial thing you can do is just express your writing fears. The UWC can help you get off on the right foot before you ever have to commit pen to paper or fingers to keys.

This is a strategy which has been essential to my own writing successes. I say this as someone who has returned to writing this blog post after having given the presentation I mentioned earlier. The sense of relief is palpable—I’m much less fidgety now—and I know that working with other consultants at the UWC on this assignment was essential to my writing process, and ultimately, to the success of the paper. They helped me focus, to figure out what was important, and to locate myself within the conversation I was attempting to enter.

While I’m sure that the next new genre I approach will make me briefly feel like an imposter, trying to skirt the defenses of academia while the Mission: Impossible theme song plays somewhere in the distance, I also feel comfortable in my ability to respond appropriately to my self-doubt, and to seek help when I get stalled. As this semester begins to draw rapidly to its close, I hope that members of our university-wide community of writers can find similar solace. If you have a paper, presentation, application, or other writing project coming up which has taken up an uncomfortable residence in your mind, we’re here to help.

“Learning to Dwell” or Locating Yourself in Academia

Nicole Dugan, Consultant

I tend to dwell, most often in a 7th grade memory in which I dramatically fell in the lunchroom and watched the contents of my tray fly up into the air before landing on top of me. I can feel the heat rising to my face and hear the guffaws of my friends, the slow clap that built as I picked myself up. It’s been over ten years since this happened, but my Nicolebrain likes to periodically revisit this moment. This seems to be the sort of mental dwelling most of us do, and we are usually trying to escape that memory rather than relive it a hundred times. Embarrassing memories from 7th grade are not the most pleasant places to dwell, and we don’t think of them as useful. However, dwelling can be productive if placed in the right context.

Dwelling as I illustrate above, cognitively dwelling or ruminating, is most often perceived as negative. Our brains run down paths that we seemingly cannot control, but the act of dwelling can be a positive and useful tool in the writing process. In terms of creative writing, the people, moments, ideas, places that repeatedly pull our attention can become inspiration for stories and poetry if we’re willing to put it down on the page. In one of our previous posts, Tim talked about having the “willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor” in order to persevere through the challenges of writing and creativity. Writing is indeed a labor, regardless of how long one has practiced it. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, many writers seem to glide through a process that is so intimidating and uncomfortable to most of us.

Cognitive dwelling is not only a momentary jaunt down memory lane, but also a potential kind of residence. In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds explores the ways that space and spatial practices interact with the process of writing, and she spends a chapter on “learning to dwell.” Those that seem to have the upper hand in navigating the writing process appear this way because they “know where the bullies hang out and where the best curry is” (Reynolds 163). They have, as Reynolds would say, inhabited writing long enough to time the best routes and avoid traffic. The realm of academic writing can be a scary place, and this is often because we are surrounded by people who have lived there much longer than we have. When I moved to Louisville at the beginning of August, I had to find my new favorite place for greasy breakfast food (still haven’t found it) and which Kroger I like best (the one on New Cut Rd.) before I felt like I actually lived here. Entering academic conversations requires writers to have this same kind of insider knowledge, and “dwelling doesn’t happen when people feel excluded or that they don’t belong” (Reynolds 163). Deciding what to write about, finding resources, putting together an outline, and writing the first draft is like navigating a city where you don’t know which roads are one-ways or where you can pull a U-turn. However, Reynolds would argue something else: The writer of a text is an “owner or dweller,” while readers are “visitors or transients” (166). You, as the writer, are creating a map for the people who are reading your paper or personal essay; whether the reader gets lost or successfully finds the destination is completely in your control. This means you get to decide the rules, even if you’re fulfilling an assignment.

Dwelling begins before you create the physical text, even before the research. An idea sparks, and you spend the next few hours, days, or weeks, depending on the project’s timeline, turning it over in your head. Will it work for the assignment? Is it researchable? Is it even a good idea? I do my best writing when I can take something I’m already passionate about and turn it into a project. In a way, I take parts of the places I already dwell in and put them into an academic context. Like Beau discusses in his post, your hobbies or the music and television shows you like can help you feel more comfortable with writing. Even better, you can pull down the perceived barrier between those things you love and your academic writing. We often separate our lives, feeling like the different places and communities we inhabit are in boxes rather than a cohesive map of our identities. If we want to become successful inhabitants of academia, allowing the parts of our identities that are seemingly incompatible with academia gives us a way in, a chance “to orient [ourselves] when in an unfamiliar place” (Reynolds 168).

We all dwell, on those embarrassing memories, the television show we binged this past weekend, or a looming deadline. In order to dwell in the manner of inhabiting a space, we have to locate ourselves within the bigger picture or place ourselves in that picture. It’s not always a matter of “finding” your voice in your writing, but allowing the voice you’ve always had to make space in the work you’re doing in the classroom.

 

Works Cited

Reynolds, Nedra. “Learning to Dwell: Inhabiting Spaces and Discourses.” Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. UP Southern Illinois, 2004, pp.139-177.

Getting Started with Genre

Isaac Marvel, Consultant

Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier were working together on Marathon Man, which is a pretty intense, thriller type of film. Before the filming of a Isaacscene in which his character had apparently been kept awake for 72 hours, Hoffman decided that he too would stay up for three days, the idea being that this would help him get into the mind of his character—Hoffman was quite the method actor. Upon hearing this and witnessing Hoffman’s exhausted state, Olivier confronted him and asked “My dear boy… Have you tried acting?”

As Mary-Kate mentioned in “Writing as a Medium,” writing is not necessarily this art that requires this Hoffmanesque kind of inspiration. You needn’t spend days mentally fortifying yourself and getting into the head of your audience. Olivier’s implication of how acting operates is a much more effective example of the writing process—it’s a craft that one learns over time, with practice.

Therefore, this leads to the big question: “If writing is a craft, how can I improve my craftsmanship?” The first step is, essentially, just start writing! As Tim discussed in his blog post last week, creativity is a grind: “The best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.” Wearing yourself out yearning for inspiration will likely only result in nothing being written, possibly serving even as a justification for procrastination. To go back to the example of Hoffman and Olivier, yes, Dustin Hoffman is a world-renowned actor, but so is Laurence Olivier, and he managed this without staying up for days at a time!

On the other hand, ensuring that your writing is effective is also vital—“just starting to write” may be the first step, but it isn’t the only step. After all, there’s no point in writing if you end up throwing away all of your drafts. Thus, one’s mentality is key: you need to be keeping your audience in mind as you write. Similarly, one trick that can make this process easier for you is learning the genre expected of you. Simply stated, expectations are going to vary wildly depending on what genre you’re working with—are you working on a research paper, a novel, or a tweet? Learn the conventions of that style and you’ll find yourself writing like a pro in no time.

So how, you might ask, can one go about learning said conventions? Honestly, my first step would usually be Google; you’ll find innumerable examples of what to do and what not to do. Possibly too many examples, in fact—it can be difficult to sort through and figure out which sources are credible and which should be disregarded. At that point, I would recommend coming to the University Writing Center, as our consultants have a wide range of backgrounds in different genres, and the odds are very, very good that we’ll be able to help. Alternatively, if you’re working on a school assignment, odds are that you can ask your professor about examples and about what’s expected of you. Regardless of what you choose, or what you’re working on, learning your genre is key to successful writing.

Writing as a Medium

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

Writing as a Medium

Too often, people view themselves as poor writers based on the understanding that there is a correct and an incorrect way to write. However, writing is a versatile medium used to convey a diverse array of ideas. And as with other media, the tools and techniques used depend on the intent of the message. There is no clear correct or incorrect method of writing. There are simply conventions and the choice of how to work within, around or without them.

Writing as ArtMary-Kate Smith

The conventions surrounding artistic painting, like those of artistic writing, have evolved throughout decades and throughout centuries. In Vincent Van Gogh’s day, the artist was considered a mad man and a failure. His thick vibrant brush strokes were unconventional. Now an average of 1.5 million people visit the Amsterdam museum, named in his honor, each year. Similarly, the poet Emily Dickinson was a recluse who published fewer than a dozen of her nearly 2,000 poems during her lifetime. Her use of slant rhyme and varied capitalization were eccentric and unusual for her time. Her poetry now has international acclaim and has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian and a number of other languages.

Poetry, like painting, develops continuously. Writers of today rarely use the Shakespearian sonnets as a mode of communication. Likewise, modern day artists, such as Banksy, often create pieces as illegal street art rather than as works commissioned by royal patrons. Writing, like art, has conventions that adapt and evolve overtime. Often, these evolutions in convention occur through the creation of art and writing that exists outside the realms of the previous conventions. Boundaries change as boundaries are pushed.

Writing as Utilitarian

Just as every paintbrush holder is not a Picasso, not every penman is a poet. Writing has pragmatic and utilitarian purposes. Police reports, prescriptions and postal codes are all written in formulaic, objective fashions on a daily basis. The same spray-paint can used by graffiti artists to adorn a boxcar can be used by a little league football coach to reline a field. Comparably, the same words can appear in a legal paper, a sales receipt, a children’s book and a text message. Paint is the medium of both the Mona Lisa and kitchen walls. Written word is the medium of the New York Times and grocery lists alike.

Writing in Academia

Rarely, when a writer says they are bad at writing do they find themselves incapable of sending an email, jotting down class notes or creating a shopping list. Often, instead, these writers see themselves as incompetent within the sphere of academic writing. At times, the conventions of scholarly research and writing are daunting. However, if writers work to express ideas clearly as the primary target, the seeming “rules of writing” can offer structural support rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remembering the purpose is often more beneficial that remembering the practices. The more people write, the more control they gain over language. The more writers make mistakes, the more they can learn. The mindset that writing is a tool rather than a task can make all the difference in getting a writer started.

Time, Talk, and Attention to the Individual Writer: How Learning Happens in the Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Every year I spend much of my August telling people about the University Writing Center. I go to a number of departmental and college orientations and resource fairs so I can offer an overview of our services. I tell people that we work with any member of the UofL community on any kind of writing at any point in the writing process. I talk about dscn2185our various writing groups, writing events, and the workshops and retreats we offer. And I describe, briefly, how we don’t edit papers for people, but work with them to discuss the strengths and weakness of a draft and come up with strategies for revision that will make the writer stronger yet.

Yet, I usually have only about 15 minutes to talk, at best, at these events, so I don’t get to explain much beyond that. There are any number of things I’d like to be able to say, but with the start of the new academic year, I want to take a moment to focus specifically on a few values and approaches that we have in the University Writing Center that both set us apart from other parts of the University and create distinctive learning experiences that keep people coming back to make appointments with us. These are all ideas we spent the day talking about at our start-of-the-year orientation this past Thursday.

People, Not Just Pages: We work with writers, not just on drafts. We’re not an editing service that marks up a draft with “corrections.” Instead, our focus is working with a writer to provide that person with suggestions and strategies that help the writer make the draft in question stronger, but also offer the writer ways to write more effectively in the future. We remember that we’re responding to a person, not just a set of pages. Such an approach also means that we work in dialogue with writers, listening to their concerns, offering suggestions, and emphasizing that the best learning comes from such cooperative and collaborative approaches.

Location, Location, Location: We can start with writers where they are. In a class full of students instructors have to make assumptions about what the students know and start from there. Being able to work with writers individually means we can find out what they know, what they want to learn, and adapt our responses accordingly. The reality is that no writer is always a strong or weak writer. Competence and confidence depend on the writer’s familiarity with the genre in question, whether you’re a first-year student or working on a doctoral dissertation. We tailor our teaching to the individual and the context.

Time Is On Our Side: Unlike conventional courses, we’re not bound by the limits of a 14-week semester. Our timeline for learning is up to the individual writer. Some writers make multiple appointments with us during a given writing project (writers can make up to three appointments per week). Some make regular, standing appointments each week was they work on a longer piece, like a dissertation or book. Others we see from time to time during their years at UofL. The point is, we can keep working with a writer over the course of college career and our approaches to teaching and learning can take the long view and not be truncated by the semester schedule. Such an approach, again, means we can focus on teaching the individual, not just fulfilling a course syllabus.

Learning, Not Grading: When we sit down with a writer, our focus in on helping that person write more effectively, not coming up with an evaluation of that writer that

WC staff 17

University Writing Center Staff, 2017-18

reduces it to a number or single letter. Taking this approach allows writers to be more honest about their struggles and more willing to explore a variety of approaches knowing that an approach that doesn’t work won’t result in a failing grade, but just having to try again. In the Writing Center the response of the reader is what matters, and in that way reflects more closely the reality of writing in daily, non-academic contexts. What’s more, research on motivation – and research on grading – overwhelming demonstrates that instrumental reward systems such as grades diminish both internal motivations and learning. We offer a learning environment that emphasizes individual learning, not group assessment, and that makes the learning and motivation that much stronger.

Writing Matters in the World: We’re committed to cultivating and sustaining a culture of writing on campus and in the community. Our writing groups (Graduate, Creative Writing, LGBTQ), our community work and workshops, and our events (Banned Books Week, Celebration of Student Writing, International Mother Language Day, among others) are all done with the goals of supporting the writing that people do, but also reminding people of the important work that writing does in their lives and in the world. Toward that end, we also value and emphasize the role of writing and literacy in advancing and advocating for equality and social justice.

Regardless of your political views, it’s hard to argue with the idea that these feel like tumultuous times. But, as my father once said, “Education is an optimist’s racket,” which means I can’t look at the new faces on campus and not feel hopeful. We are excited to  open our doors at the University Writing Center to begin another academic year and remain a positive force for UofL writers and their writing.

 

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