Category: Creative Writing

How a Writing Center Consultant Prepares for the Next Appointment

Writing centers are one of the few places in a university setting where every single Michelle Buntainstudent can be assisted. Every student has to write, and every kind of writing is welcome at the University Writing Center. But, given all the variables that come with working at a university of over 21,000 students, how does a writing center consultant prepare for their appointments?

At the University of Louisville Writing Center, we pride ourselves on our accessibility to every writer we encounter. We have trained, studied, and practiced our skills to make sure that your experience in the writing center is the best it can be. This includes:

  1. Taking a class on Writing Center studies: Consultants take a class that teaches us about writing center theory, ethics, and strategies for the teaching of writing.
  2. Reflecting on appointments with our colleagues and our supervisors: We have formal and informal reflections on appointments with our fellow consultants as well as our supervisors, including the Director of the Writing Center.
  3. Discussing new ways to approach the teaching of writing: We are always sharing new ideas about how to approach our sessions with writers. Our best tips and strategies are often the result of what we have learned from each other.
  4. Staying up-to-date on citation methods: Citation methods can be confusing, especially since they are updated every few years. We study the new versions and update our handouts on different citation styles. Just last week our Associate Director gave a lecture on the 7th edition of APA!
  5. Mentally preparing ourselves before each appointment: Before the day begins, we open WC Online and look over the scheduled appointments. Each appointment form tells us what the writer wants to work on, so we make sure that we are comfortable with addressing the writer’s particular concerns before the appointment. If the writer is working on a kind of assignment or genre of writing that is less familiar, we will do research and ask our colleagues for advice. This preparation helps us begin a session with a good sense of what the end product should look like.

When a session is over and we return to the consultants’ office, we like to share our successful strategies and ask each other for advice. No session goes perfectly, but we take our work seriously and we constantly strive to do better. When you come to the University Writing Center, know that we are prepared and excited to help every writer achieve their goals!

Why We Call Everyone a “Writer”

Kelby Gibson, Writing Consultant

Kelby Gibson

“Well, I don’t write.” I’ve heard that sentence about 100 times over the last six months. People come into the Writing Center looking for some help because they think they have no idea what they are doing, when, in fact, they do. In today’s world, we’re surrounded by technology –  which has both advantages and disadvantages. A lot of people, myself included, get sucked into the world of social media and can lose hours of their day watching videos of cute animals, reading about their hometown drama, liking photos of the celebrities they follow, etc. It can be addicting. In having a phone glued to a hand though, people are also doing something else. People are constantly writing. Composing text messages, replying to a tweet, commenting on a post, captioning their photo for Instagram, posting ads on resale apps, typing in delivery directions for DoorDash. The list could go on. People fail to realize that they are writing – in some form – every single day. Just because it isn’t ‘academic’ doesn’t mean it isn’t writing.

When communicating through written text, most people still try to be effective. If they give bad directions to the delivery driver, they may not get their food. If they don’t pay attention to wording, they could upset their friends, or potentially create chaos on social media with family. An ad needs to appropriately represent the product, otherwise it may not sell. These are all reasons people carefully and intentionally use writing in their day to day lives, even they do not realize they are using their own writing processes for these seemingly mundane actions.

I often urge writers to take what they know about all of these types of writing and apply it to the writing they are struggling with. Sometimes this works, sometimes it takes more explanation and practice before the application of it sticks. To be fair, this is way easier said than done. I think we all could take care to be more thoughtful and aware of the writing we are doing on a daily basis. The more we practice both the writing itself and reflecting on the skills and tools we are employing in doing so, the more we can improve ourselves as writers, whether it be seemingly simple social media posts or for a grade at school. Chances are everyone will use writing at some point in their chosen career field. The greater capability they have of being an attentive, thoughtful, and reflective writer, the more likely they are to be able to transition to new types of writing and be more effective writers in general.

When we more carefully approach our everyday writing, we will learn more from it. We will learn more about ourselves as writers, as well. I know a lot of people do not think of writing as vital to their fields. Maybe they want to be nurses, police officers, biologists, zookeepers, engineers, personal trainers, etc. They may not be thinking about how important their writing skills will be in taking down patient information, writing incident reports, note-taking on studies, scheduling routines for employees to follow, applying for grants, personalizing meal plans and workouts, etc. But these things will be important! Being clear in your position, intent, meaning, and more will make all the difference for those the writing is about and those it is meant for. In other words, writing pops up everywhere all the time. It may not involve writing full papers, writing for publications, or other instances where one’s writing will be graded or ‘judged’ for a lack of a better word, but they will still likely have to write, and it matters how understandable that writing is. When we start to think about how we are practicing this writing every day, the better chance we have at making that practice matter.

‘Twas The Week Before Finals…

Kayla Sweeney, Writing Consultant 

The December buzz of the UofL Writing Center filled our staff room with platters of cookies, Christmas music, and everyone’s holiday favorite—the crippling anxiety of finals season. While we attempted to cope through serenading one another with showtunes and clearing cookie plates, helping writers with their own final papers was a constant reminder of our own deadlines.

As an undergraduate English student at Western Kentucky University, I regrettably never darkened the doors of our campus writing center. While never claiming absolute knowledge over the art of writing, there was something in me that said, “you are an English student. You’ve got this.” *Insert overconfident hair-flip*

After a semester of working with a diverse population of writers, I was thoroughly humbled by the need for everyone to have others view and comment on their work. High schoolers taking dual-credit courses at UofL, undergraduates, graduate level and doctoral writers, and even an occasional professor came into appointments at the Writing Center last fall, all willing to take a step back from their work for others to give their perspectives. By December, I was asking myself why I was not doing the same thing.

Perhaps this was an epidemical feeling among the staff at the UofL WC because as finals week approached, we began to look to one another (frantically at times) for help. We were no longer just consultants, but writers in need of each other’s eyes, perspectives, and insight. Hour after hour, between our break-time duetting and snacking, we looked out into the main room of the writing center and saw sets of two staff members sitting together, not knowing who were the writers and who were the consultants. We have often talked about this dual-identity we each have at the Writing Center—only writers can be empathetic consultants, understanding the ups and downs, the victories and frustrations of writing. But finals week brought this reality to life.

I word-vomited over more than one fellow consultant about a Shakespeare paper that was 50% of my grade. How do I talk about Macbeth’s madness in a way that has not been done a million times already? How do I make sure I am not rambling? And just as I have hoped for the writers I worked with last semester, a sense of relief poured over me in these sessions. I gained new insights on sentences, paragraphs, and entire arguments. I was able to see issues I hadn’t before.

And as I’ve imagined others probably feel about their writing at times, my own stubborn defensiveness also arose over my writing. This sentence isn’t babbling—it’s part of my creative style! *Insert second over-confident hair-flip* That comma is definitely NOT necessary.

In the end, there were things I took from these sessions and things I left. I kept some of my stubborn stylistic flare; as for some of my babbling and comma issues—they became more obvious to me hours or days after my co-workers pointed them out (with a little bit of a sting).

Now, starting a new semester, I am entering both this workplace and the classroom with the knowledge that I need others to provide insight on my writing, just as we all do—from the high-schooler, to the undergraduate, to the professor who has taught for 10+ years. When you come into the Writing Center, you are not coming to a room of people who have learned to never make mistakes in their work (I’ll wait for your surprised gasp). We are not authoritarian figures who recite rules from your high school English class. Instead, we are fellow writers and thoughtful readers who will sit by your side, listen to your concerns, and give you a new lens by which to see your writing.

So, you should come stop by.

 

Spelling in the Digital Age

Lauren Cline-Plumlee, Writing Consultant

I don’t know about you, but whenever the topic of spelling comes up, I’m immediately taken back to the days of taking weekly spelling and vocabulary tests in elementary school.  My mind always goes to one particular day of fifth grade when my teacher had a mock spelling bee in our class to see which students would actually go on to the real school-wide competition.

I was one of three left standing—one competitor and one alternate would advance—and my word was “ocean.” To this day, I vividly remember the embarrassment I felt when, even though I knew good and well how that word was spelled, the letters “o-s-h-u-n” came out of my mouth. While the two remaining students continued spelling to determine who would be in the spelling bee and who would be the alternate, I sat back down at my desk, stared at my clasped hands, and tried to keep the blood from rushing to my cheeks by sheer force of will.

As I sat there halfway listening to the goings-on around me, I rationalized my mistake by saying to myself, “the way I spelled that word makes logical sense, even more than the correct spelling.” However, traumatized young Lauren became determined to never feel ashamed of incorrect spelling again. Even now, whenever I realize that there is a typo in a tweet or Facebook post, I feel compelled go back and fix it, or I even sometimes delete the comment altogether.

I find myself saying “i before e except after c” to myself multiple times a day, and I’m always THAT person who will correct social media acquaintances on the uses of your/you’re, two/to/too, or their/their/they’re even though I probably shouldn’t. I’ve taken enough grammar and language classes to know that standardized spelling is a relatively recent development in recorded history, but I still can’t seem to get past my so-called spelling anxiety.

I promise I don’t think about this topic obsessively, but I may or may not have been scrolling through Twitter one day in the not-so-distant past to avoid doing my schoolwork when I got lost in a maze of consecutive pages and found Scottish Twitter. Seeing the use of technically incorrect spelling to reflect regional dialects in this forum was extremely thought-provoking, and it ultimately prompted me to reflect on the evolving conventions of the English language.

It is, perhaps, common knowledge that the spelling reform of Noah Webster’s dictionary effectively differentiated American English from its British counterpart in the years following the Revolutionary War. In his attempt to simplify English spelling by removing double or silent letters, words like colour, honour, flavour, and mould became color, honor, flavor and mold; publick and musick became public and music; travelled and cancelled became traveled and canceled; programme became program; defence, offence, and pretence became defense, offense, and pretense; organise became organize; theatre and centre became theater and center; and cheque became check, to name a few.

However, not all of the suggested new spellings ended up sticking. Webster also proposed “masheen” for “machine” and “ake” for “ache.” Benjamin Franklin wanted to change “alphabet” to “alfabet.” Theodore Roosevelt suggested that “kissed” should be spelled “kist.” George Bernard Shaw even advocated for removing apostrophes from contractions—for example, “don’t” would be “dont.”

Although there is technically nothing wrong with any of these spellings, as most people would still be able to understand their meanings, standardized spelling has been argued to make reading comprehension easier. It has even been said that the spelling reform of Noah Webster has made American English easier to read for dyslexic individuals and to learn for those of whom are not native English-speakers. So, if spelling reform makes English easier, then why did it seemingly stop decades ago?

Although the reformation of standardized spelling has apparently been put on the back burner, shortened forms of common words are increasingly being used in a variety of settings. Think about it, have you ever seen a “drive through” sign? No, because “drive thru” is just as effective and even more efficient. Similarly, it’s “Dunkin’ Donuts” not “Dunking Doughnuts.” Even more notably than in advertising, the misspelling of words for brevity’s sake can be seen just about every time you open up your phone. Although I’m a stickler for correct spelling and grammar in media-based communications, I can’t deny ever using “u” for “you,” “ur” for “your” or “you’re,” “k” or “ok” for “okay,” and “2” for “to,” “too,” or “two.”

Maybe this is simply one of those “everyone else is doing it” things, or it could possibly just be to save time, but this new-age strain of spelling reform seems to have been brought on by the necessity of fitting within a character limit. When texting was first introduced, there was a 160-word character limit and phones only had numerical keypads with T9. Once cell phones began to be made with full keyboards, abbreviated phrases like lol, ily, brb, btw, fyi, and tbh were already in popular use.
The character-limit mentality is continually reinforced by popular social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, as well as online-dating applications, which give users just enough space on their profiles to include short blurbs about themselves. Additionally, Twitter still sets a character limit on users’ tweets, although it was raised from 140 to 280 a few years ago.

A quick Google search revealed that the average tweet only takes up 33 of those 280 characters. Since our use of language is progressively becoming shorter and more straightforward, there aren’t as many complex sentences that need to be littered with commas and such so that they aren’t misunderstood. So, when trying to comply with a set character limit, punctuation is almost always the first to go. Because the question being asked is always inherent in the grammatical structure of an interrogative sentence, question marks are not necessary in limited-character communication.

The use of apostrophes in contractions is also becoming increasingly obsolete in social media settings—it seems as if the aforementioned Mr. Shaw was onto something after all? Furthermore, it’s become so uncommon for a period to appear in a text or tweet that they’ve actually developed a negative connotation. I’ve talked to many people about this development, and it would seem that when we get angry or upset, we tend to revert back to the traditional conventions of spelling and grammar we were taught in school.

Therefore, complex sentences with proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling are almost solely reserved for academic essays and emotional situations.
Growing up in America during this boom of technological advancement, I’m obviously very familiar with the customs that have come to define media platforms. However, we are so transfixed with our own little cultural bubbles that it’s unfortunately all too easy to hit “sensory overload” before we even think to look beyond our own perceptions of normalcy. As I mentioned earlier, I was actively trying to be unproductive when I happened to stumble upon a network of Twitter-users from a culture not entirely like my own.

Although Scotland is still a Western civilization and I definitely could have looked further into the Twitter-sphere, I was very much intrigued by the idea of spelling according one’s own dialect. Being from the Southeast United States, seeing “em” and “ol” rather than “them” and “old” is totally commonplace, and sometimes people will leave the “g” off of a word ending in “ing” to add character, but that’s about the extent of the average Southern American’s use of eye dialect—as far as I know, that is. Also, in my studies of English literature, I’ve seen eye dialects be appropriated to patronize certain cultures, ethnicities, or races all too often.

However, the use of eye dialect by Scottish Twitter-users seemed to be a celebration of their linguistic heritage. This could very well be the next frontier in regard to spelling reform, as people are seemingly becoming more comfortable with spelling variation. Furthermore, the use of eye dialect is possible in this digital age precisely because of the enhanced possibility of communication between different cultures. I knew that “oot” meant “out,” “a” could mean “I” or “of,” “av” meant “I’ve,” “ma” meant “my,” “dinny” could mean “do not” or “don’t,” “tae” meant “to,” and “wi” meant “with” because I know what a Scottish accent generally sounds like.

It could be problematic if everyone just began spelling words how they pronounced them, as the phonetic representation of a word in one dialect may not be phonetic for another, but what I’m proposing here is simply that we try to be more inclusive of speech patterns different than our own.

Writing and Riding: More Parallels Than You Might Think

Kelby Gibson, Writing Consultant

Writing can be related to more things in your daily life than you might expect. Writing looks different for everyone.  My writing process is very similar to my training process. I ride horses, barrel horses to be exact. I compete at local shows and occasionally a few rodeos. For those reading this that don’t know what barrel racing is, it’s a timed equine event in which a rider takes their horse through a clover leaf pattern around three 55-gallon barrels as fast as they can. I know what you’re thinking, there is no way this can relate to writing, but it really can.

I have learned many lessons and grown so much as a person from being in the barrel racing world. A few of the key things I’ve learned that have in turn helped me in writing are both humility and confidence.

Humility is something that can be hard for a lot of people. Admitting you are wrong is never fun, but the important thing to remember is when you can accept that you need to ask for help you are always going to come out the better person. A friend of mine has a saying, “if you’re scared say you’re scared” and I think this applies here. If you need help, ask for help! Yes, it sucks saying I’ve tried my way, now I need to hear from someone else. Opening yourself up for critique is hard, but once you learn to take the constructive criticism it will only make you better at what you are trying to accomplish, whether that is win a belt buckle or write an ‘A’ paper.

I’ve consulted many different people just in the last year on how to better myself as a rider just as I have continually asked for feedback from friends and colleagues with my writing throughout the semester. I did not become a better barrel racer by only ever riding my way, I got better by asking my friends and competitors questions. You cannot become a better writer holed up in a dark room holding onto that draft just waiting for the answers to come for you. You have to go find the answers. Writing can be social. Writing is social. So have the humility to venture away from the desk, seek feedback, and ask questions.

Kelby horse
Kelby Gibson barrel racing!

Confidence is needed when you’re on the back of a 1200-pound animal that’s running at roughly 40 miles per hour and turning on your command by a few light hand and foot movements. There are certain pressures behind writing that are similar to trying to beat a clock with money on the line. Maybe you’re applying to your dream graduate program, working on your senior thesis, or writing the final paper that determines your grade in class. Stress and pressure do funny things to us and can cause us to under-perform. When I’m at a race I like to try my best to focus on the positives.

While I don’t recall exactly who said it, there is a line from my favorite barrel racing podcast I like to keep in mind with all things in life, “You either win or you learn.” So maybe you try your hardest and your horse gives its all, but you don’t come in the pen and set the pace for the day. Similarly, you might spend hours upon hours on a paper that falls short in the eyes of its main audience. In either situation your initial reaction is to ask, what went wrong? If you pursue that question you will surely get an answer whether it be from yourself or someone else and once you have that answer you can learn how to do better next time.

Not every run is going to be your fastest and not every piece you write will be well received, but as long as you are trying your hardest and putting forth a good faith effort you will succeed or you will learn how to increase your chances of succeeding the next time. Have confidence in yourself. When you’re writing that paper don’t allow the thoughts of what might happen bog you down, clear your head and give it your best shot. As long as you’re trying, what is the worst that could happen?

These two things are just a few of the many ways barrel racing has enriched my life and my willingness to learn. My training process and writing process mirror each other in many aspects and because of that I continue to improve as both a jockey and a writer. What I admire most about this sport is that even the best of the best will tell you that you can never stop learning and finding ways to improve yourself and the same can be said for writing.

What I Learned About Writing from My Favorite Protagonist

Tristan DeWitt, Writing Consultant

I can’t say that writing is always enjoyable for me. Sometimes I even hate it.  I’ve spent countless hours sitting in front of a blank word document having no clue what to say – regretting the choices I have made that led me to writing another paper. I know it sounds dramatic (and I don’t by any means actually hate writing) but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed thinking about my audience and if they will find it good enough, that I don’t even want to complete the assignment at all.

In this situation, it helps me when I think about one of my favorite protagonist in literature, Mary Beton, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Throughout the book, Mary finds herself denied the opportunity to partake in much of the academic culture of the university. In a search for answers to her experiences, Mary finds that little literature is written with attention to the actual experiences of women, both by male and female writers. Woolf herself concludes the novel by telling women that they need is a room of their own in which to write.

I believe that Mary’s experience highlights something about writing that many of us within the university community take for granted. When given an assignment that we don’t really want to do, we see it as something that is being forced upon us. I am guilty of this as well, but thinking of Mary makes me realize how remarkable each opportunity to write actually is. Not everywhere are we given the chance to write what we think and have an audience that will listen.

Even in our least favorite assignment we have the privilege to evaluate our thoughts and make something our own. We no longer need a room of our own to write. Within the university, we have a unique opportunity where we are expected to share our experiences and insights, be it with a text or with research.

Working in the Writing Center, people sometimes think that words or ideas just come to me naturally, since writing is what I like to do. However, the truth is that rarely do words just come to me. There is always revising, editing, and what seems to be an unending amount of time spent on rewriting just one sentence. Even when I get frustrated with an assignment, I have to remind myself that this is my work and that only I can say what I am thinking – which makes the laborious process of writing worth it to me.

Mary’s experience applies to us all. We all have had the moment when we question our thoughts or experiences. Next time you find yourself in this situation, where you feel frustrated with an assignment, I challenge you to see writing as the unique opportunity that it is. Not everywhere in life will you be asked what you think, so take this opportunity in college to own your writing.

Beholden and Held By The Power of Words

Rose Dyar, Writing Consultant

“Carry our stories carefully
Wrap them in soft red cloth
and place them against your
heart.” -Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Here at the Writing Center, we deal in the study of words and stories. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how to explain why I think that’s so special, how to explain the link I see between words and justice, and how I honored I am to work with writers as they make meaning.

So here goes a humble attempt to begin such an explanation.
I believe that the study of words (e.g. literature, poetry, rhetoric) is critical to the ongoing formation of the whole human person. A bold claim, I know, but let me elaborate. This endeavor has the potential to infuse beauty and feeling and empathy into a world that actively attempts to numb us to our own humanity. And because of that, it has the radical potential to change hearts and minds. I mean radical change in two ways.

First, the etymological term. To change something radically means to change it at its root. The study of words grants us the gift of insight, or the ability to see inside of thing, to see the systems and structures that manifest themselves into parts of our daily lives, which then make their way into the stories that we read. When we know what we’re looking at, we know how to ask questions about it. Studying words and studying writing, then, gives context to social and political conditions that engender joy and suffering in our lives.

Second, I speak of words and radical change in terms of impact. We often use the word radical in order to describe major change, of the shifting of norms. And radical change necessitates action on its behalf. Which brings me to my next point. The study of words allows us to disrupt the laws of physics, to become alchemists, to remove ourselves from the center of our own axes and ask what it might take to imagine life otherwise. Empathy and understanding are byproducts of encountering stories. Empathy and understanding create conditions for change to happen.

But here is what the study of words cannot do: move on its own or by itself. Words alone do not have the arms or legs or beating hearts to use in order to advocate for change. If it is to be involved with any sort of moving, those who study the impact of words and writing must embody its movement. If we are moved by a text, we must move to make a difference. The study of words for me, then, must be paired with the willingness to act, or write, for change.

Writing and reading allow us to cross borders. We transcend from the moved to the mover and enter into a space of our own making when we do it. We are, all of us, in the wilderness. We are, all of us, voices crying out wanting to be heard from the thickets of that wilderness. We are, all of us, beholden and held by the power of words. For me, the study of words necessarily asks of me the courage to speak and write ideas and identities into existence, into being. We carry stories with us. We carry them tenderly, we carry them fiercely, and we tell them purposefully.

I believe that we tell stories, to ourselves and to each other, in order to understand what it means to be human, and it how it is that we can come to be fully human together. I believe that each story that is told is, in some part, an act of revelation. I believe that at every turn, stories are verbalized negotiations of power. I believe that we are all of us telling stories all the time, every day. Each story uncovers, even if just a sliver more, how the human experience is lived and breathed and understood in one moment, in one context, by one storyteller.

What a gift it is to encounter these stories, to study these words, to work with writers as they make sense of the stories inside of them.