UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the category “Process”

The Ultimate To Do List!

Rachel Rodriguez, Assistant Director to the Writing Center

         To-Do List

1. Embrace the fact that your first to-do list is only a draft. You won’t like your handwriting, so you’ll rewrite it on a clean post-itRachel Rodriguez

2. Write “write to-do list” on the to-do list

3. Adopt a skewed sense of the passage of time as you envision bewildering productivity, and amass a semester’s worth of tasks to accomplish that day. Feel great.

4. For good measure, add a few freebies, like “take out trash” and “return Redbox movie” so if the worst comes, at 11:48pm you could still get 2 things accomplished.

5. Think about the to-do list in the shower, while you’re stirring oatmeal, as you apply mascara. Add to the to-do list about 70% of the tasks that occur to you during this time, and save the rest for existential dread dream-material.

6. Break down large projects into small tasks for more check-off-ability. Long lists are impressive and convince you of your own work ethic, and checking off items frequently is vital for kindling the small fire of hope in your breast. If at all possible, this must be an eternal flame.

7. Once you’re satisfied with the list as it stands, transfer to new post-it in perfect handwriting and cross off #2.

8. Keep the list nearby as you work, like a little nagging buddy, like a cute kitten who wants to sleep on your laptop keys.

9. Watch about 28 minutes of kitten videos. Once you reach Sarah McLachlan, stop.

10. Check in on the list at lunch, and feel panic encroaching. Add “take shower,” “make oatmeal,” and “relax with virtual cats” to list, then promptly cross off.

11. Savor the delicious tug of the pen as it swipes across the items that no longer exist as things you need to do. They are behind you now, cities in your rearview.

12. After a good bout of work, sense the futility of your long list. Adjust as the boundaries of actual space and time demand. Start tomorrow’s draft list.

13. Much more satisfied, allow yourself to accidentally fall asleep in the warmth of the Saturday afternoon sun, which is of course, the best kind of sun.

14. Wake suddenly from a fathomless sleep and immediately add something incredibly pressing and completely clear to “current-you,” yet enigmatic for “future-you” to decipher. See #5. Example: “Beavers and Ducks!”

15. Work diligently.

16. Return the Redbox movie. You only rent movies anyway so you can return them. Both renting and returning are valid reasons to drive around outside and see humans.

17. At the end of the day, acknowledge the stragglers on your list. There will, of course, be several items that have managed to linger through multiple iterations of lists, perhaps even for weeks. These are things you are avoiding. Probably important emails to write, or meetings to schedule. Try to confront at least one scary thing, and reward yourself by moving all other avoidances to tomorrow’s list. At the top, of course, for added visibility and guilt.

18. Save perfecting tomorrow’s list for tomorrow, to give yourself an easy start.

19. Always end your to-do list on an even number of tasks. For luck.

20. Breathe.

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Research in Creative Writing

Katie Frankel, Writing Consultant

Paradoxical to the title of this, many people seem to enjoy creative writing because it often does not confine to the sometimes strict, regimented boundaries of an academic essay.Katie Frankel Writing affords an allowance of freedom and imagination that sometimes feel prohibitive in the standard research paper. However, conducting some research for your creative writing can make your piece more vivid, interesting, and overall stronger than before.

In a creative writing class at my undergraduate university, my favorite professor ever required us to undergo and document research for our various pieces. Because, at the time, I was working on my now-finished historical fiction novel, I felt certain that research would bring my characters and story to life even more.

Starting at Half Priced Books, I gathered up some informative and very interesting texts that directly related to my fictional world, such as Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Children of the Wild West, and multiple others. Many of the specific details of my writing come directly from information I have learned from these books. After beginning my collection of texts that related to my novel, I began to hunt through antique stores, looking for artifacts of the time period I was writing in to try and put myself in the scenes more. One day, I even found and purchased a McGuffey’s Primer published in the time period my characters exist.

Lastly, I began taking trips to a local museum called Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth. I nerded out every time I walked in with my pen and notebook, writing down facts I found interesting from posted information and asking the museum curators various questions, such as how a lower-class family of the time might get by (people who couldn’t afford beeswax to make candles could instead use the fat of sheep, by the way). I walked through the various set-ups and took pictures, envisioning my characters dwelling in the buildings.

Even if your creative writing work isn’t historical in nature, it can still benefit from research. If you’re writing a mystery, researching the tactics of real criminals can be insightful and also very interesting. A novel about life working in a circus can be made more believable and interesting if you read (both fiction and non-fiction) books and watch movies about circus performers. For one particular scene in my novel, my professor suggested that I go to a fire station to ask a firefighter about specific details pertaining to a house catching on fire.

When writing any type of creative piece featuring characters or events that you’re not personally familiar with, research can only serve to enhance your fictional world. Not only will you learn a tremendous amount through various forms of primary and secondary research, but you will more than likely have a great time doing it and be inspired to keep writing.

Boo! It’s a Ghostwriter!

Brooke Boling, Writing Consultant

Around Halloween, secrets and spirits loom around, hiding behind every corner where you’d least expect it. Ghouls and goblins lurk, hoping to turn you into a snack.Brooke Boling, in particular, are the sneakiest, waiting to spring upon you from every darkened hallway, even lurking in the wiring of your phone, speaking through the mouths of the unlucky souls they possess.
Outside of the context of Halloween, however, what exactly is a ghost…writer? Well, a quick Google search will define it as someone who is “hired to write literary or journalistic works, speeches, or other texts that are officially credited to another person as the author.” Although it often involves doing a bit of detective work to figure out if a ghostwriter was the writer, many well-known books have been ghostwritten. These include many of those in the James Bond series, dozens of autobiographies (including An American Life by Ronald Reagan), technical and business books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner, as well as works of literature like the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keen (a pseudonym used by multiple ghostwriters to publish the series).
What is the purpose of having a ghostwriter? Many authors of popular series would begin with so much success that the demand for books became too high, causing them to hire ghostwriters to speed up the process of churning out so many novels. Celebrities and politicians use ghostwriters because they may not have the time or inclination to actually write their own autobiographies, but still have a desire for their story to be known. Leaders in technical fields may feel they are too close to the knowledge at hand to translate it effectively for a larger audience to understand. In the case of the Nancy Drew books, a pseudonym was established early and agreed upon by the many ghostwriters who wrote the series.
During my time as a ghostwriter, I wrote for informational technology (IT) professionals who did not have the time or inclination to write pieces meant for a larger, more layman-based audience. As someone with very little knowledge of IT concepts, I interviewed the experts and wrote marketing-based blogs that someone with very little IT experience could understand. These blogs were published on the company website under the experts’ names.
Ghostwriters do not write simply so the other person receives all of the credit. Rather, the author has the original idea, and the ghostwriter transcribes it. Ghostwriters help the author publish and spread their ideas, messages, and story, helping the author put words to their original ideas. Ghosts aren’t so scary after all!

How I Write: Dr. Chris Brody

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Dr. Chris Brody is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Louisville School of Music, where he coordinates the first-year sequence in music theory and aural skills and teaches graduate courses in music analysis. In addition to his work teaching and researching music theory, he is a classical pianist and performs often.

Dr. Brody’s research is on music from the 18th and 19th centuries, centering on Baroque music and the concept of musical form. His articles are published or forthcoming in outlets including Journal of Music Theory, Music Theory Online, A-R Music Anthology, and BACH: The Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Current projects: Several articles—in various stages of progress—on music theory and music analysis

Currently reading: Always fiction, lately a lot of nineteenth-century novels on audiobook during my daily commute.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
I mainly write academic articles and talks in my specialty of music theory. These are different from writing for a broad readership, since a whole background of knowledge and terminology can be assumed. I think the basic challenges of being clear and engaging are the same as in all writing, though.

2. When/where/how do you write?
First, I’m a big fan of the UofL Writing Center’s Tuesday evening Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group—it’s so nice to spend a couple of focused hours each week writing in the company of others. Otherwise, I write when my teaching schedule permits. The further along I am in a project, the easier it is to squeeze little bits of work into spare moments; starting a new project takes bigger blocks of time and mental space.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
For me, distractibility often comes from routine and familiarity. I often find I can enter a more focused mindset by introducing any tiny element of novelty into my routine. Sometimes this means writing on my iPad or longhand when I ordinarily use my laptop, or even just using a different font (seriously). At other times it means finding a new place (on or off campus) to sit and work, away from my office or my living room. I do prefer quiet, and you will never catch me writing in a coffee shop! Since I write about music, I can’t always have music playing while I’m writing, but I sometimes listen to Music for Eighteen Musicians or anything else beautiful and repetitive.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
I love to outline and never write anything, of any size, without an outline for it. For some kinds of writing, the article can literally be written by replacing bullet points one by one with sentences or paragraphs. Even when I don’t write directly from the outline, it’s indispensable for organizing my thinking.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Robert Paul Wolff makes an analogy between humanities writing and storytelling that resonates with me and the kinds of things I write. Wolff tells his students that they’re ready to write a dissertation (or an article, etc.) when they can tell him their argument as, essentially, a story with beginning, middle and end. We often argue for the value of having someone else read your finished writing; this pre-writing phase is also a great stage of the writing process at which to involve trusted colleagues, talking through the “story” of your argument until it flows smoothly and convincingly.

Lifetime Letters: How A Writer Changed my Perspective on Faith-Based Writing

Anna-Stacia Haley, Writing Consultant 

I was making my way through all forty books in the Left Behind: Kids series. I spent my summer days at the library reading them. The workers at the time took note and eventually gave some of the books to me. After a few Christmas presents, library trips and trips to Hallmark, I soon had a collection of my ownAnna-Stacia Haley

The books are still sitting in my book shelf at my apartment. The series, co-authored by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, comes in three versions: adults, kids, and graphic novels. All of them are fictional depictions of the eschatological beliefs of the Christian faith, beginning with the Rapture and ending with the Second Coming of Christ.

Given that my favorite book of the Bible has always been Revelation, these books were perfect for me. These books gave language, faces and fullness to a subject that I adored studying. They made it come to life for me even the more and I wanted so badly to create something of my own that could do the same.

I was so enraptured—no pun intended—by the series that I desperately wanted to talk to the people that had created such a treasure.

That’s how I found myself sitting in the Madisonville Public Library. I was sitting at one of their computers, furiously scribbling down Jerry B. Jenkins’ address from his website. I was sure he had a lot to do, being a best-selling author and what not, so I wasn’t sure he would respond. However, my childlike hope refused to be deferred as I sent off my first letter to him and waited for a response. I won’t tell you what I put in that letter, one of the reasons being I don’t remember—ok, all of the reasons are that I don’t remember. I am sure that I mentioned something about how much I loved the series and how pleased I was that Vicki and Judd (two of the main characters) got married.

Sorry, spoiler alert.

I would wake up eagerly, and watch the mail man place mass amounts of mail into my grandmother’s mail box and then go on his merry way, completely unaware of how much his visits had begun to mean to me. When I got my first letter from Mr. Jenkins, I hit the ceiling. Yes, I said first. Overtime I began to write him letters as often as I could and he would always respond. There’s very little that I remember about most of the contents of the letters, but I will always remember the letters I sent when my mother became ill. It was a hard time for me, and I looked forward to his responses. The time he spent writing to me has shaped me into the person and writer that I am. I will always honor and respect him for taking the time out to respond, for never becoming too “important” to reach back out to a reader.

The letters I wrote became less and less until eventually I stopped. The letters I so earnestly cherished, were lost after our house caught fire during my latter middle school years. It was so long ago, I doubt he remembers me, but I will always remember him and what it felt like to have one of my heroes in Christian writing value me as a reader.
It is through writers like Mr. Jenkins, Tim Lahaye and Frank E. Perretti that I find strength to try new and exciting works. It is authors like them that break ground for new aspiring writers of Christian fiction. I have always admired their style and demonstration of ministry by way of literature.

The contents of their writings could be viewed as controversial, and maybe even strange. The topics covered like the End Times, Spiritual Warfare, Angels, Demons, and the Miraculous are all fare and fodder to a lot of people. To write about these things through a fictional scope, can be challenging; but to write about these things as you believe them to be, can be somewhat of a scary task. It strays a bit from mainstream works and can come off as a little more daring.

Their works have their own genre, that many others are also apart of, but they were the first that I ever encountered. Their ground-work in my life inspires me to step out and venture into places of boldness that I wouldn’t normally tread in writing.

As a writer whose writing and inspiration stems from my Christian faith, I often wonder where I fit, especially in academia. However, authors like Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Lahaye and Mr. Peretti inspire me to believe that the basis and joys of writing aren’t found in or decided by what is important to others. Rather, it is determined by what is important to you. They gave me a model, they gave me a guide and they presently give me hope and motivation to create my niche wherever I am.

Because in being true to myself and my identity as a writer, I can create masterpieces that touch the lives of little girls in small town libraries just like me, who dream of writing works that don’t just touch lives, but touch souls.

Writing as Hospitality: 4 Ways to Host Your Reader Well

Abby Wills, Consultant

Is it the way those freshly baked sentences melt in your mouth?Abby Wills

Is it the long, hair-frizzling hours it takes to make it?

Is it the satisfied, sleepy feeling after it’s gone?

I’m not sure either. But I do know that the act of writing is rarely done in isolation. When you write, you are almost always writing for someone. In a way, as the writer you are the host, and your reader is the guest, whom you must welcome into your home of paragraphs and feed with your long slaved-over words.

How does one host well? The practice of hosting is difficult enough when your guest is sitting face-to-face with you at your table, but what about when you don’t get to see your guest in person? What about when your guest is not coming to your house, but coming to your writing? How can your essay welcome, feed, and make conversation with your guest so that they feel like they have been hosted well and would be happy to come back?

This may seem an odd way to think about writing, but seeing your reader as your guest actually has practical implications. Here are four ways to host your reader well.

1. Know your reader.

It is embarrassing both for you and for your guest if you greet them at the door but can’t remember their name. On the other hand, if you ask your guest about their sick family member they mentioned to you once several days ago, then they will know you care since you remember such small details. Just as hosting well depends on your familiarity with your guest, writing well depends on your familiarity with your reader. Your reader—and therefore what they know, what they want to hear, what they are interested in, and what references they will get—will be different depending on whether you are writing a rhetorical analysis for class, an article for a medical journal, a personal statement for an application, or a short story for children. Knowing who you are writing for is the beginning of hosting them well with your words.

2. Know what your reader needs.

A good host is attentive to a guest’s needs. If the guest says, “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m cold,” or “I have a headache,” and the host doesn’t think to bring water, or a blanket, or medicine, the host has arguably failed in their host-ly duties. Although we can’t hear our readers speak as we are writing, a good writer/host will start to hear the needy reader’s voice in between sentences: “I need more information here,” “I want to know why this is important,” “I don’t understand the context of your argument,” “I don’t know where you’re going with this.” If you know your reader (see #1), you will know when they need more from their writer-ly host. And if you are an attentive host, then you will eagerly fetch that extra information your reader was missing–along with a blanket and some tea.

3. Give your reader clear directions.

Just as a guest will feel uncomfortable if they can’t find their host’s house—or the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the coat closet—your reader will also feel uncomfortable if you do not give them the directions they need to get smoothly through your paper. The kind of directions you give depends on knowing your reader (again, see #1). If your guest has been to your house several times already, you don’t need to tell them where to hang their coat. Likewise, if your reader is already in your field of study, you won’t need to define terms they already know. However, if your reader is unfamiliar with your field, your topic, or your argument, they will need clear signs in order to follow where you want them to go. The considerate writer—like the considerate host—points the reader in the right direction.

4. Be interested in your subject.

What does that have to do with hospitality? Why would my reader care if I’m interested in what I’m writing or not? I’m glad you asked.

You are a guest at a dinner with family friends. Someone brings up your host’s favorite hobby. Suddenly your host’s eyes light up. She smiles. She starts telling a story. She gestures excitedly. She raises her eyebrows. She laughs. The other guests laugh. They listen attentively. They ask for the rest of the story.

When your friend really loves something, you can tell. When they are fascinated by something, you can tell. And if they are really, really interested in something—often you can’t help but be interested in it too. Just as the above host tells a story that excites her (and thus excites her guests), the hospitable writer ought to write about what truly fascinates him—because the reader will know if the writer was bored with his subject, and the reader will be bored too. For the sake of his guests, the thoughtful host will not prepare a dinner he thinks is bland; for the sake of his reader, the thoughtful writer will not write an essay he thinks is boring.

Why does this matter?

It depends. If you want your guests to be glad they came, to want to come back, to exclaim, “This meal is so good!”—then you will make the effort to know them, pay attention to their needs, give them good directions, and foster interesting conversation. If you want your reader to enjoy your writing, to read easily, and to understand your argument, then you will practice thoughtful writing as you practice thoughtful hosting—with your guest in mind. When a guest is hospitably welcomed into someone’s home, they remember.

Write Like You Mean It

Josh Christian, Consultant

            Advanced Composition appeared as an elective course in my student handbook at Campbellsville University, where I was an undergraduate. I enrolled my junior year, to try to get it out of the way for a freer, more calm senior year.Josh Christian (We all know about senioritis) But it was the only class on my schedule that semester I was concerned about, as I didn’t know what to expect. “Advanced Composition” read as if I was going to be plunged into the icy academic waters, left to sink or swim. So, sitting in the lecture hall on the first day of class, I was surprised when the syllabus listed a narrative as the class’s first formal assignment. First, I wondered about its elementary nature, how it seemed trivial for English majors. Then I began to panic. What was I going to write? How was I going to structure it? What ways could I approach such a broad topic? How would I know if I was writing it correctly?

If you are wondering, I didn’t die. I got through the assignment, and it was much easier than I thought it would be. But I do not believe I am alone in my panic, as in universities across the country, students are faced with such writing assignments in composition classes. And because of their lack of experience with writing narratives in an academic setting, they don’t know what to do.  The anxiety they are feeling is more than one writing assignment. No, it is evidence of something larger at play.

Throughout my high school and early academic experience, I was taught to write for the academy. I was to take myself out of the equation, permitted from using “I”. Instead I was told to be objective and to state my opinion but through an unbiased language. I was taught to not make a claim unless I could back it up. And if I did attempt to back up my claims, I needed to cite the material in-text and on a reference page of some sort. This was academic writing. The other kinds of writing, creative writing (stories, poems, plays, etc.) and journaling or messages sent to a friend, had their place but it just wasn’t in the academy.

You see, there had been a binary established, one in the making for generations before me. Academic writing sat on one side, while creative writing sat on the other. And like all binaries, there was a strict wall between them, especially early on, when all narrative or poetic elements were driven from a student’s paper until it became nothing more than thesis statements and transitional phrases. Don’t get me wrong, these elements of academic writing also have their place. But to drive the use of these elements out of any writing completely, is to take away a writer’s desire or ability to be creative, leaving stacks and stacks of student papers which otherwise could have been more thoughtful.

So, what do we do with such a binary? How do we, as students or faculty deal with it? How can we be excited about academic writing, if we can’t be creative? And how can we approach creative projects, like literacy narratives, if we haven’t historically been given permission to be creative before? Well, like any binary, we begin to defeat it when we question it. And when we begin to question the binary, it only helps if we are ready, as students and professors alike, to take back the mantle of “writer,” a title left for the literary authors who often mold the work we, as an academy, talk about.

            When we begin to identify as writers, we begin to take responsibility for our words. We begin to be more thoughtful about what we write because we have agency over our words, them becoming our own. So, make the choice that all writers have to make. When you read the assignment sheet, ask yourself where you can stand to be creative. How can you begin with an anecdote, using narrative elements? How can you push the limits of a rubric by thinking differently about a topic? How can you make what you are writing fun to write or read? Before you know it, your creativity will inform your academic work, and your academic writing will show you the necessity of research and argument. Dare to be a writer in your own right. And whatever you write, write like you mean it.Image result for bob dylan think different                                                                     (Apple, 1997)

Get Babashook: Finding Inspiration in the Mundane

Catherine Lange, Consultant 

     Have you ever found yourself doing something mundane and relating it to something you just learned in class? Maybe you kick a soccer ball in an arc and then consider the algebra of soccer. Or perhaps you watch a movie and think it has some interesting perspectives on an issue.Catherine Lange

     Inspiration can come from any number of completely mundane places, as it did for me while watching The Babadook. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it follows the development of a monster that correlates to the mental break of the main character. As I watched The Babadook, I found myself considering the implications of the monster. If he is an entity dependent on the mother, is he a projection of her anxieties? And, if he is, what anxieties is she projecting through the monster? This horror film offered me a means of recreation and fodder for a possible analytical essay. What would my thesis be? Could the monster be the mother’s projection of her sexual anxieties?

     All of these questions inform my writing potential and would make for a creative but academic essay.  So, as you go about your day, look for the connections you can make between your everyday life and your coursework; sometimes inspiration is closer than it seems…

“Camaraderie and Great Ideas”: Reflections on the 2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Last week I attended the University of Louisville’s commencement ceremony for doctoral students. As I looked through the program I noted the names of eleven of the graduates who had previously attended one of our University Writing Center Dissertation Writing Retreats. Several of them came up to me afterward to tell me again how valuable they found the experience of the writing retreat and the significant difference it made to them in their progress toward their degrees. As we talked about the jobs they were moving on to and their plans for future scholarship, it was gratifying to think that we had played some useful role in their graduate education.

This past week we once again were host to 14 Ph.D. students who participated in our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. This is the seventh year we have held a week-long writing retreat in May during which the participants spending their days writing and having daily individual writing consultations with members of the Writing Center staff. Writing at the 2018 Dissertation Writing RetreatEvery day we also have small-group discussions about various issues of dissertation writing (Ways to Structure Chapters, Strategies for Self-Editing, How to Revise Work for Other Purposes, and How to Approach Literature Reviews). We also keep everyone well-fed throughout the week with snacks and lunch.

The writers who participated in this year’s retreat represented eight different disciplines at the University: Education, Engineering, Nursing, Rhetoric and Composition, Pan-African Studies, Pharmacology, Psychology, and Social Work. The best way to get a sense of the experience of the retreat and its impact on the writers who took part, however, is to hear from the participants and consultants themselves.

WRITERS

2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat: LunchTammi Alvey Thomas, Social Work. By far a fantastic experience! I would recommend this for anyone writing their dissertation. The staff at the Writing Center are extremely helpful and great to work with. Don’t miss out on this opportunity!  I left the retreat much more organized, focused and energized.

Imelda Wright, Nursing. I had the privilege of attending the Dissertation Writing Retreat in May 2018. It was well structured with plenty of space for the occupants to write at their own pace without interruption. There was adequate support and structure throughout the day to help with specific questions. In addition, a personal writing consultant was assigned to each participant daily to assist with content, technique, and overall structure of writing.

Overall, the retreat was terrific. It was enriching and productive to be in a space surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals to each other. There was a cohesive sense of camaraderie and great ideas were shared. In addition, I loved that lunch and snacks were provided; this allowed and encouraged participants to remain in the general vicinity during the day.

CONSULTANTS

Edward English, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This year’s dissertation writing retreat was energizing and helpful for me on a number of levels. I’ve just finished the first year of my PhD in English Composition and Rhetoric and when the Spring semester ended, my mind and body craved anything unrelated to school. I immediately took solace in long naps and hours of Netflix, in addition to enjoying trips like visiting the Red River Gorge and having one too many mint juleps at a very odd rainy Derby.

After a couple weeks of this leisure, however, I needed something manageable to get me back into the momentum of productivity. The dissertation writing retreat ended up being a wonderful balance of summer fun meets academic growth.

Interestingly, though I was the consultant, offering assistance to two awesome Experimental Psych. PhDs, I felt like I was the one who learned so much. Not having even started my own dissertation, reading through others’ work helped familiarize me with the types of challenges and rewards I can likely expect when I start running this academic marathon. What’s more, my two consultees were eager to absorb whatever questions or constructive criticism I had to offer—giving this Comp. 1 & 2 writing instructor a powerful (and much needed) inflation to his teacher ego and the satisfaction of feeling like he was truly helpful. I’m looking forward to being a consultant again next year, and am thankful that I’ll have this dissertation writing retreat available to me when I’ll need guidance and instruction on how to work through my own piece.

Dissertation Writing Retreat 2018 - Consultation 2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat - Consultation

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. Having helped facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat in 2016 and 2017, I came into this week knowing that I could look forward to the excitement and energy that’s created when a group of writers come together. Each year, it’s so motivating to see people enjoy the shared experience of using writing to work through their ideas and scholarly identities. What starts on Monday as a gathering of individuals, each immersed in their own projects and challenges, ends on Friday as an interdisciplinary community of writers. What I noticed this time around, though, was how productive this interdisciplinarity can be–and, selfishly, how helpful it was for me as someone who is also working on my dissertation. Both of the writers I worked with this week were genuinely interested in hearing about my dissertation progress and offered feedback and resources that were so helpful. I walked away from each consultation feeling supported and valued by the writers I was working with, even though we were in different disciplines with different methods, theories, and goals. I was really reminded this week of what reciprocity looks and feels like, and how much we (writers) all have in common when we are approaching challenging–and rewarding–writing projects.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. I’ve had the pleasure of helping to facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat both this year and last year. This year, as before, I was impressed with the writers as individuals (their commitment to sit down at 8 am each morning and write, and then continue to write) and as a community (supporting and learning from each other). But now that I am further in my own dissertation, the Retreat took on an even deeper resonance, and I appreciated the opportunity to myself take part—during group discussions, lunch and consultations—in the exchange of suggestions, ideas, commiseration and support. This sharing ranged from reviews of data analysis2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat - Consultation software to tips on how to use the vocabulary of your field to the often strong emotions evoked by writing those pesky lit reviews. I look forward to seeing the support, accountability and productivity from the Dissertation Writing Retreat continue in the Writing Center weekly Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Groups this summer and this fall.

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. As a consultant for the Dissertation Writing Retreat, I found that, in addition to helping writers, I personally got a lot out of the week. I was reminded of the power of talking about writing, working as a community of writers, and the importance of sharing research in an interdisciplinary context. My favorite parts of the week were the moments at lunch, or during workshops, when we got to chat about our research. Even when we were tired (or hungry) I still saw our eyes light up when talking about our research, and how often we found commonalities between research interests or methodology questions even when our fields were quite different from one another. I think that sometimes the frustration and daily grind of dissertation writing makes us forget that our research projects are really cool, and have the potential to make real impact on the world.

Rachel Rodriguez, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This week I had the opportunity to work with two writers from my own program, and our shared base of disciplinary knowledge helped us fast-forward into conversations about how knowledge is made and who “counts” as knowledge producers in the contexts of their research. Since both writers were focusing on the organization of their data chapters, we spent time playing with various options, envisioning how each schema might impact their overall message. I found myself getting really absorbed in the work they are doing, and our collective excitement made for a fun atmosphere where ideas could build off of each other as the week progressed. Getting a glimpse into both of their writing processes as well as strategies for goal-setting was personally rewarding, reminding me how attuned we are to our own way of writing, but how much we can learn by talking about how we write with others.

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and Robin Blackett, our Administrative Assistant, and Assistant Directors Layne Gordon, Jessica Newman, Caitlin Ray, and Christopher Stuck as well as the other fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who worked with the writers: Edward English, Rachel Rodriguez, and Rick Wysocki. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

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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