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The Writing Center: Every Step of the Way

Kevin Bailey, Consultantkevin-b

The spring semester is drawing to a close.  Tensions are high, schedules are full, and it seems like there’s no way on earth that all the work that needs to get done will ever get done (at least not on time).  Of course, it will get done, though; it always gets done.  And when it does get done, there’s a feeling of exhaustion, followed by a moment of relief, and then, within a matter of days, an overwhelming sense of – “What now?”

And the answer to that question is different for all of us.  Perhaps you’re finishing your first year of college and making plans to take more difficult coursework next semester.  Or perhaps you’re jumping straight into summer classes.  Maybe this is your final semester before graduation and you’re preparing to enter the job market.  Or maybe you (like me) are gearing up to teach for the first time in the fall.  These are all big and potentially scary changes.

It can be daunting to consider all the work that lies ahead.  No matter what stage of your academic career (or life) you’re in, new obstacles are always going to stand in your way and new responsibilities are inevitably going to take up your time.  And I can’t in good conscience recommend you put these things out of your mind.  It’s important to plan.  It’s important to look ahead and approach your “What now?” with confidence.

The point I’m making, I think, is that even though your workload may increase and you’ll take on larger projects, you will always be able to adapt to new challenges, especially when resources like the Writing Center are around to help you along the way.  One of the many mantras I’ve memorized from my time tutoring over the past year has been: “We’re here to help with any writing project at every stage of the writing process.”  This phrase is usually applied to the standard college essay, and by it we tutors often mean we can help regardless of how much of said essay has been written.  We help to brainstorm topics for papers that have not yet been started as readily as we discuss strategies for revision on papers that are mostly finished.   But this same mantra can be slightly repurposed to say “We’re here to help with every step of your writing career,” and it would remain equally true to the Writing Center’s purpose.

The Writing Center can help in a big way with every one of those “What now?” scenarios I mentioned earlier.  If you have a summer project you want to work on, the Writing Center is open for consultations during the summer.  If you’re entering the workforce or applying for positions, you can set up an appointment to construct or review your CV, resume, or personal statements.  If you’re teaching next semester, you can bring in and receive feedback on your syllabi and lesson plans (something I’m already making plans to do).

No matter what’s next for you, you’ll be writing.  And no matter what you’re writing, the Writing Center can help.

“Can someone hold my hair while I word-vomit?”

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Recently, I found myself in a pickle.  I put off a research paper until the last minute (guiltily), partly because I didn’t really know how to get started and partly because I didn’t really know what to argue.  I’d already conducted practically all of my research, but I didn’t know how to make my contribution, my part of the scholarly conversation, novel or interesting.  I was bogged down by my own self-consciousness and insecurities about the topic, trying to grapple with whether I would sound academic or formal enough for the assignment’s requirements.  What pulled me out of that slump, that inability to get my ideas out onto the page, was a critical stage of the writing process that I’d forgotten to employ: word-vomiting.  One of my professors introduced this non-committal, helpful practice that can enable the writer to produce their best possible writing.  Word-vomiting, for me, is a lot like freewriting but with one critical difference.  While freewriting is a good exercise to employ to start writing about anything, word-vomiting can be much more direct, much more specific to a certain topic, to get the writer to start unpacking and flushing out ideas particular to that topic.

So how can you best engage with this strategy?  I suggest compiling whatever materials you’ve gathered through the research part of the process, like your notes, primary sources, secondary sources like scholarly articles / books / journals relevant to your topic, etc.  Once you have these resources and have familiarized yourself with them, I recommend putting yourself in the most comfortable position to get your thoughts about your topic onto the page.  Whatever kinds of thoughts you have about the topic, both significant, and insignificant, personal and impersonal, communicating those thoughts in whatever way will help you locate what aspects of your topic you find most interesting or compelling.  This stage of the writing process is so important for this very reason; I’ve skipped out on word-vomiting altogether in the past, and I’ve found myself writing at length about an argument that doesn’t inspire me.  When I’ve historically found myself in that position, the writing stage is both grueling and seemingly interminable.

Word-vomiting is also important because it puts you in a much better position to sift through ideas you’ve already fostered rather than having to generate entirely new ideas when you’ve already begun writing the paper.  It’s so much easier to cut ideas or synthesize ideas you already have on the page than it is to create new ones as you’re executing the writing of your paper.  When you’ve exhausted the word-vomiting stage of the process, you’ll realize a lot of your ideas just don’t work or don’t fit into this assignment.  They’re still important, though!  And they may have a place in a future assignment or a future scholarly / creative endeavor.

Research papers are hard, and finding your position / stake in a research paper can be even more difficult. If you’re looking for other ideas about how to get started your can check out our Writing FAQs and ideas for getting started with digital project. But with this helpful strategy of getting your ideas about a topic onto the page at whatever pace, of word-vomiting whatever you think or feel about that topic, you may find your research paper may be just a little bit easier or smoother to execute.

Evaluating Sources in the Age of “Fake News”

Melissa Rothman, Consultantmelissa-r

Alternative facts, fake news, disinformation, propaganda…despite their recent step into the spotlight, none of these concepts are by any means new phenomena. Nonetheless, the recent stir in the media has even caused the Oxford Dictionary to name “Post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Many have pointed to the ever-increasing availability of information in our digital age as the cause of our current skepticism, but publicity stunts and sensationalized media date back to the early stages of mass publication. In 1809, Washington Irving is perhaps one of the earliest cases for knowingly fabricating “fake news,” placing a fake missing person’s advertisement in several local newspapers for a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker just prior to releasing his first work published under this pseudonym. Tabloids such as “Star” and the “National Enquirer” have stared back at us from the supermarket lines our whole lives reminding us to question the validity of printed news. Even in academia, the notorious “Sokal Hoax” serves as a cautionary tale illustrating the value of close reading. However, despite the apparent prevalence of misinformation in our world, we should not slide into the nihilistic view that truth is relative. In fact, this recent heightened interest in the validity and soundness of sources has fostered a necessary awareness of misinformation. Likewise, there are several strategies available for evaluating sources.

Melissa Rothman pic 4-10

[CC Image courtesy of The Public Domain Review  on Flickr]

To begin with, there are several research guides available on the web. Ekstrom Library even has a list of strategies for evaluating sources here. It includes questions of context, authorship, and credibility that are useful for evaluating any type of source, but is specifically geared toward academic works. However, sometimes we want to use data from outside scholarly databases.  There are tons of tips online for building digital literacy, but I’ll break down these lists into the cliff notes version that we college students know and love.

Here are some strategies:

  1. Consider the Source. Questioning an author’s motivation should be second nature to every college student by the time they graduate. There is no such thing as an agenda free text. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, this blog post was written with two main goals: 1. To please my wonderful boss (*note the potential motivation of sucking up with my adjective choice). 2. To supply you guys with a handy-dandy tool for evaluating sources. But always be aware that some agendas are a bit more nefarious than others, particularly when you get into the realm of politics.
  2. Look for Evidence. This could be cited explicitly in the article, provided at the bottom of the page, or embedded in hyperlinks. But if the author is stating something as common knowledge, that…well…isn’t common knowledge, approach with caution.
  3. Fact check, Fact check, Fact check. Below I’ve listed some links to some great sites for this, but while they certainly do try, they can’t cover every piece of information available on the web. Luckily, if you have a question, our Reference Assistance and Instruction department is fantastic asset for questions like these.
  4. Pay Attention to Images: By now, pretty much everyone should be aware of the magical abilities of Photoshop. However, did you know that Google has a reverse image search that can help trace where else an image has appeared online? Find the original source can perhaps help identify the reliability of the image. Likewise be aware of charts and graphs. They can also be appropriated to distort truth…even when using real data.
  5. Check the URL. URLs ending in .edu and .gov are inherently trustworthy, but still continue to consider the source to identify possible partisan biases. During my undergrad I was told that .org was more trustworthy than .com. However, while there was a time when getting a .org meant you ran an actual organization, today anyone can get this type of domain. Also, beware of URLs designed to intentionally mislead you by using other organizations’ names. For example, ABC.com.co, is a fake news site mimicking ABC.com.
  6. Be Aware of Your Own Biases: Part of providing a convincing argument is showing that you’ve thoroughly considered all opposing viewpoints. The only way to do this is to read AND consider opinions from other people’s perspectives. They may not change your point of view at all, but in considering them you are enabled to form a stronger argument in support of your viewpoint.

Fact-Checking Sites:

Self Care and the University Student

Brooke Parker, Consultantbrooke-p

The ins and outs of the university can be stressful and anxiety inducing for many of us, particularly at this point in the semester. While Spring Break’s brief moment of relaxation has left us, our final exams and seminar papers are fast approaching. It’s easy to forget that engaging in self care is just as important as the writing and studying you’re doing.

As someone with a mental disability, self care is a really familiar and helpful concept to me, but this is certainly something every student can benefit from. The term “self care” refers to anything you yourself can do for your own physical or mental health. And while both physical and mental health are tied to each other, I’d like to emphasize self care’s benefits for emotional and mental well being in the university.

So, what does self care look like for a student? According to Psych Central, self care is individual and looks different for everyone. But they do provide some helpful suggestions:

  1. Think about what activities make you feel relaxed and write them down. For example, walking my dog, painting, and watching Rick and Morty with friends are all activities that make me feel calm and relaxed. So, I try to engage in them regularly.
  2. Schedule self-care moments on your calendar. Or, set an alarm on your phone to take breaks from writing or studying. I like to take frequent breaks when writing to decompress and give my mind some respite. In fact, I took a break will writing this post to take a hot bath, which is another helpful de-stressing tool.
  3. Get your self care in when you can. While some of us may be able to lock down a self care schedule on the calendar (I have a really hard time doing this), the rest of us can sneak in self care when a moment frees up. My colleagues and I often take turns laying on the couch in our consultant room between sessions—catching naps or just moments to close our eyes when we can.
  4. Take care of your physical health as well. This is something I’ve had quite a hard time doing this academic year. I often feel like I don’t have the time to go for a run or attend an hour long yoga session. However, even walking your dog or doing light stretching can be acts of physical self care that can also help you destress.
  5. Know that its ok to say no.  I grew up with a mother who never said “no” to her clients, and I saw how quickly she burnt out during the week because of this. Making sure not to overextend yourself is important. You’ve got enough on your plate as a student—don’t feel bad if you want to or have to say no to something.
  6. Keep checking in with yourself. I keep a bullet journal to track my state of mind each day. If my anxiety is high or I experience a dissociation, I will write about it. This allows me to find trends in my stressors so that I can recognize and avoid/navigate them in the future. I’ve found this to be one of the most helpful aspects of my own self care.

While this is in no way a comprehensive list of ways to take care of your self during these last stretches of the semester, I hope these examples provide a starting point from which you can construct your own, unique approach to self care.

I’d like to add to this list taking advantage of counseling services. While self care is certainly beneficial to everyone, some students (including myself) have mental disabilities for which the structure of the university isn’t always as understanding. Counseling services can be a space in which we find that understanding. Further, coming to the Writing Center when you’re overwhelmed with an assignment or just don’t know where to begin can help relieve the stress you are feeling. Our consultants know that, for many, writing can be a stressful activity, but we are here to provide you with the tools to help you confidently (and hopefully less stressfully) navigate your assignments.

There’s More to Life than School

Carrie Mason, Consultantcarrie-m

This weekend my fiancé and I traveled down to my home for some family time. I’ve done a little schoolwork, but not much, and this blog is the last thing I’ll do. I’m learning a slow lesson: school work – or even regular work – does not define my life. It is just a part. I enjoy academics, but it’s not the most important part of my existence.

You see, the thing is, on May 27 I’m getting married. There’s a lot of stuffs that go into this wedding planning and most of it I hadn’t even thought about before being engaged. And since I live with family in Louisville, while my fiancé lives in an apartment with friends, we also have to find a place to live. But I’m not writing this blog to talk about all the things that I have to do, I’m sure you also have tons of things you also have to accomplish.

What I am saying is that sometimes school just needs to take a back seat.

Don’t misread me, doing well in school is still a good and right goal; it would be foolish to abuse the privilege and skimp through the semester. However, it is infinitely more important for me to continue building a deeper, stronger relationship with my fiancé as we work toward marriage.

You see, dear reader, life is not all grades and articles and books to read. There is more than an essay exam. There are trees to see and flowers to smell. If I get straight As in every class and write the most profound papers, but I fail to cultivate lasting relationships, then I have wasted time. And if I end my academic career with institutional laurels, but have a mind full of demerits because I did not take time to care for myself, then I am worse than when I started.

So, dear reader, take care of yourself and your relationships. Keep working to achieve your academic goals, but remember there are other parts of life that would be unwise to neglect.  It’s hard to learn and remember, because right now everything seems to be on the very top of the to-do list, but remember, the academic accomplishments are more enjoyable if you have people to share them with. Besides, an essay exam only lasts about an hour anyway.

Growing as Writers through Journaling

Jeremy Dunn, Consultantjeremy-d

Now and then writers I work with in the Writing Center ask me if I know of any tips to help them improve their writing. I find that offering cogent suggestions isn’t always easy. Perhaps part of my difficulty in offering “easy” tips to improve writing lies in the glacial rate at which my own writing seems to progress, and it’s difficult to imagine easy fixes for the challenges we face as growing writers. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the desires of writers (myself included) who earnestly want to know what they can do outside of things like going to the Writing Center to help them develop their craft. So, here goes my attempt at mustering a nugget of writing advice: First, if possible, allow yourself to let go of the anxiety to “improve” your writing. Second, keep a journal. In this post, I’ll try to explain my reasoning for these suggestions.

We seem to live in a goal-oriented age full of sensationalized bullet lists for self-improvement. For example:

  • Seven steps to lose 30 pounds in 30 days
  • 10 habits of highly successful people
  • Three ways to live a longer, healthier life
  • 17.6632173333333 quick tips to becoming a smarter, stronger, better looking, wealthier, more well-liked human being

Jeez.

I resist trying to make writing advice fit this mold. While I think we can take measures to improve our writing, I’m afraid the goal of simply “being better” at writing sometimes eclipses the importance of writing itself.

But in the university, where students often equate writing with assessment, a goal-oriented approach to writing seems nearly unavoidable, perhaps even natural. I often hear things like “I want/need an ‘A’ on this paper” from writers I work with. To be honest, I think the same thing while writing my own papers, even as I tell myself grades aren’t the point of writing. As writers in the university, we are writing in what we perceive as high-stakes environments where, for better or worse, assessments and credential-getting come into play. We value GPAs as means to keep scholarships, advance professionally, and measure our performance. However, I would like to suggest that by writing in situations where we can suspend quantifiable goals, we might give ourselves a better opportunity to grow as writers at a more organic pace.

Give up goals of becoming better to become better? How does this work? While my suggestion is admittedly based on personal experience rather than extensive research, I will venture to defend my suggestion by showing what writing in a journal—a venue divorced from assessment—has done to help me progress as a writer.

I’ve kept a journal, writing with varying degrees of regularity, for years. Outside of required writing for school or the odd freelance job, journaling represents my most consistent writing and has generally been the writing I’ve enjoyed the most. Over the years, keeping a journal has given me the chance to write about whatever I’ve felt like writing about, free from the pressure of formality or worrying about an audience. My entries tend to be pretty mundane, often just recordings of a day’s events, but I think writing routine journal entries has helped me become a better writer over time. To explain my thinking here, I’ll try to draw an analogy between writing in my journal and playing soccer. There’s a connection eventually, I promise.

Growing up, I loved to play soccer. I spent hours each week in the backyard kicking the soccer ball around. These hours were unstructured time spent doing something I liked to do. I had no clear goal and generally was not consciously striving to get better, but as successive soccer seasons rolled by, I began to see that my time spent playing soccer in the backyard was helping me become a fundamentally better player in organized games.

When I think about the journaling I’ve done over the years, it occurs to me that in many ways my journaling parallels my time playing soccer in the backyard. I started writing in my journal simply because I sometimes felt like writing something down. Beyond that, I had no real goal. For instance, I might take an evening walk, and there would be something special about the walk—something in the cool air, the way the sun sank behind a nearby ridge, some memory that came to me as I experienced everything—that would make me want to write about the moment, that would inspire me to try to find the best words I could to describe the experience. I might return home and write a short journal entry about the walk, not as a conscious exercise in writing, but as an attempt to pen down an experience I wanted to remember. Writing would, I hoped, help me find the words to do some glimmer of justice to the experience. Trying to write about various events in my life in short journal entries turned out to be a fair amount of writing practice and helped me become more comfortable with writing in general.

Journaling hasn’t turned me into Shakespeare, but the practice has helped me grow little by little as a writer over time. My journal is a place where I’ve tried on different hats as a writer, a place where I’ve recorded funny episodes, random thoughts, or events from perfectly unremarkable days spent working and running errands. I’ve written through times of happiness, melancholy, frustration, and transition. I’ve written simply to write. Free from the fear of assessment or judgment, I’ve experimented and played with writing for years outside of any formal writing assignments.

As we continue to negotiate new genres, assignments, and challenges in academic settings, perhaps something as simple as journaling at night before bed could go a long way toward making us more practiced writers. Journaling offers us the chance to get to know our own voices a little better and, just maybe, can make us a little savvier in our writing when we meet the next writing project coming down the road.

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.

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!

Words on Cooking with Words

Chris Scheidler, Consultant

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Plato infamously likened rhetoric to cookery. Rhetoric is a tricky word to define, but for the sake of this blog post (which originates from a university writing center), I’ll posit: rhetoric is goal-directed writing; rhetorical techniques are strategies we employ that help to achieve our goal. Whew.

Plato meant to undermine writing when he called it cookery, but (value judgments on the worth of writing aside) composition and gastronomy have many useful similarities. Both require preparation. Both have a process. Both can be social. Both have misconceptions regarding style. So, I ask you, blog reader – humor this composing cook as I expand on the kitchen comparisons of writing and gastronomy.

Mise en Place

Mise en place” is a French term that means “putting in place.” When used in a kitchen, mise en place is a noun that roughly means: all the prep work you’ve done ahead of time. Good gastronomes don’t want to be stuck cutting their produce and measuring their spices while the meat is burning on the grill. Having your mise en place simplifies cooking. Writing has a mise en place, too. We can get our mise en place for writing by outlining our papers, doing our research, and preparing our citations ahead of time. When I don’t have my writing mise en place, just like an underprepared cook, I get anxious and I struggle to dish out a decent paper. For me, the end results are similar to the cook’s results: an underwhelming and difficult to swallow piece. In the words of Gordon Ramsey, “Not good enough.”

What’ s for dinner

Writing, like cooking, can be an experiment, exploration, or creative endeavor. Sometimes we keep the same ingredients and alter only the order (as in: “like cooking, writing can be…”). Other times we experiment with completely different ideas and change the dish entirely. Nevertheless, much of the writing we do in a university is ordered from a menu. If your professor orders up a 2-page analysis, then a 5-page summary won’t do. This doesn’t mean that every paper should be the same: you can deglaze a pan with brandy or broth – you can analyze with juxtaposition or deconstruction. Regardless, there are expectations to meet; I usually expect my burger to be on a bun. Unfamiliar with the type of writing you’re being asked to do? Thankfully, there are places like university writing centers that can help you navigate the recipes and techniques.

I’ll have what she’s having

You can eat alone or you can eat with company. What you’ve written can be shared – passed around the Burkean Parlor as an hors d’oeuvre, or as something more substantial. Even the act of writing can be a shared and social process. I often seek out peer reviewers to taste-test my writing. It can be a bit scary, I’m always afraid they’ll gag, but my peers have helpful advice and have yet to gag on anything I’ve written.

Gourmets

I suppose it would be easy to get wrapped up in the misconception that haute cuisine is in someway intrinsically better than everyday cooking. I believe the appeal to stylistic and “fanciness” of elevated grammars and gourmets is wrong. There is a place for the well-plated gourmet meals, but a well-executed burger is equally commendable.

So whether you’re looking for a taste-tester, a recipe translator, or a little help getting your mise en place – consider stopping by your University Writing Center.

Advice for Using Sources

Hannah Cunningham, Consultant

Using sources: many college professors require their students to use and cite sources in their papers. But how to go about doing that? Students know there are several options for using sources, so how do we decide between a direct quotation, a paraphrase, or a summary?

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Sometimes, it’s a difficult choice. At the same time, using sources is vital to producing academic writing, so it’s important that you learn how to do it well. In order for you to avoid plagiarism, build your own credibility, and communicate with an academic audience, you must be able to use sources effectively. Here are the three main ways you can use sources and a brief explanation of when you would use each technique:

1. Direct Quotation. A direct quotation is a complete sentence, several sentences, or part of a sentence that is reproduced word for word from another source. Many teachers require that you use quotations in your paper. Some teachers offer guidelines (one quotation per paragraph, five quotations over the course of the paper, etc.), while others don’t set minimums but expect to see at least some direct quotations. Either way, quotations can enhance your essay.

Typically, a direct quotation is used to point out a specific detail in the text, or to glean the benefit of a well-written sentence on the part of the author. A direct quotation should be very clearly connected to your argument. For example, if you are writing about a specific instance of bird imagery in The Awakening, it would be most effective to directly quote a sentence that involves a bird. Similarly, if you find a particular sentence of an author’s to be particularly well-written or effective, it may serve you best to use that sentence in your own text. In both cases, it is vitally important that whenever you are using someone else’s language, word for word, you cite the material that you are using. Direct quotes must be placed in quotation marks, and they must contain a reference to the source from whence they came.

2. Paraphrase. Paraphrase differs from a direct quotation in that the wording and syntax vary from the original source. Paraphrasing is a handy technique if you want to reference a larger section of material, without directly quoting many lines of the original text. For instance, if you read an article on the ways in which social media is affecting communication skills, you might want to reference one point (say, how Twitter privileges short segments of information) from the larger article in your own paper. Rather than copy out the author’s entire paragraph on Twitter word for word, you could simply summarize the information in your own style.

Paraphrasing does not require quotation marks, but does require citation. In this example, you could restate the author’s argument about how Twitter is affecting communication and continue from there with your own point. However, putting the argument in your own words does not make the argument original to you; since you acquired that idea from another source, you have to give credit to that source in your paper.

3. Summary. Summary is similar to paraphrase in that you are using your own words to present someone else’s argument. However, a paraphrase generally deals with a specific element from a source, while a summary deals with the source as a whole. To continue the earlier example, if you wanted to reference the entire paper on social media’s effect on communication, and not just the paragraph regarding Twitter, you might say “X [author] argues that social media is affecting communication in ways A, B, and C.” A summary acknowledges that an idea is not original to you, but doesn’t bog the reader down with a lot of specifics. Just as with paraphrase, you do not use quotation marks for a summary; however, you still have to cite it.

Citing your sources does more than prevent you from committing plagiarism. As important as that is, citations also serve to place your argument in a larger academic context. Effectively using (and citing) sources allows your audience to read more deeply into your subject; if they find it interesting, they can seek out the articles you have referenced and use them to form their own opinion.

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