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Archive for the category “Writing Advice”

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:

How I Write: Cedric Powell

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.

Cedric Merlin Powell is a Professor of Law in the Brandeis School of Law, a member of the Ohio and New York state bars, and is admitted to practice before the SupremeCedric+Powell5854 Court of the United States, and the federal courts of the Second and Sixth Circuits, and the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. He has written over a broad range of topics including affirmative action and Critical Race Theory, the First Amendment and hate speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment and structural inequality. All of his scholarship critiques neutrality as a means of preserving structural inequality, and advances theories of substantive equality which reject colorblindness and post-racialism as normative principles in constitutional analysis. Professor Powell has also been named the Dean for Research for 2016.

Location:  University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law

Current project: Race Displaced: Buchanan v. Warley and the Neutral Rhetoric of Liberty

Currently reading: David E. Bernstein, Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform (Chicago 2011)

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

My writing consists primarily of law review articles, essays, book reviews, magazine articles, and op-eds in the press.  I plan on writing a book in the near future.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I usually write late at night when everything is peaceful in my home. I like to write for extended periods of time, so I feel that I am truly productive when I have a significant period of uninterrupted time to compose my ideas and get them out in draft form.  I have an office at home where I write, it is a comfortable space, and it is a functioning office away from my more formal office space at the law school.  I write by doing extensive research (I want to know what everyone in the field has said about the topic that I am contemplating writing about), and then I take notes from the readings to ensure that I fully understand the topic and its underlying doctrines and nuances, and I draft an outline to write from.  Before I start writing, I take my research notes and plug them into specific sections of the outline so that my discussion will have continuity; and, hopefully, to avoid repetition.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

I don’t need any special tools to write. However, I do need long legal pads because I write everything out in longhand (it takes me a while to draft an article).  After I come to the end of the writing process, I am confident that I have covered everything, so the only question is how the piece should be revised and edited.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

My best tip is to just get started; writing is a process, so that means your first attempt will not be perfect.  This is precisely why revision and editing a draft is essential to the writing process.  I must admit that this is my least favorite part of the process; but I realize that it is necessary, and it always makes the work much better than it was before.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

The best writing advice that I have ever received was to write as much as you can as often as you can.  Everyone’s writing process is different, so it is important to trust your process. I hope that I will heed my own advice on future projects.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations! 

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.

Finding the Time to Write

Ashley Taylor, ConsultantAshley T

One of my favorite questions to ask writers out in the world is:

“When do you find time to write?”

Out of the various answers, whether creative or academic, ultimately the collective response in the midst of a busy life is to schedule time to write. However, you can’t stop your third shift manual labor job and say “hold on, I have to finish this paragraph real quick” or tell your 5 month old baby “I need this time to myself, sorry.” The world doesn’t stop for writing assignments.

Students live busy lives and learn to balance their schedules between academic, work, and personal life. But writing can be a monster when put under pressure, which can cause writers to put off an assignment, feel overwhelmed by the writing process, or feel as if they have to make sacrifices in the other areas of their life just to tackle the next rhetorical essay, research proposal, or short story.

A polished draft is not required to make an appointment with the us. You can make up to three sessions in the same week and we help through all stages of the writing process. My absolute favorite appointments are when we brainstorm and plan because in those sessions, writing feels approachable, manageable, and a little less scary.

When I hear that the key to finding time to write is to schedule it, it seems as if that means on my own. Schedule alone time, to write alone, to tackle writing alone. But that’s not the case. You are most certainly not alone in having a busy life and even when writing alone, there’s an audience involved as a silent party. Sharing your writing through all the stages of the process helps to foster the idea that writing is most certainly a social act. Reach out. Schedule time with others.

Here are just a few resources that can be helpful in this process:

In the University  Writing Center alone we have consultants who are a parent-to-be, a new parent for the first time, a new parent for the second time, a parent with two children entering grade school, and a parent with three teens. We have consultants who are planning weddings and starting internships. Many of our consultants are graduate students in our first year of the master’s program and PhD candidates taking steps toward building careers. We are students with writing assignments in the midst of busy personal lives and we know the value of reaching out.

Have compassion for yourself.

We are a resource for you.

How I Write: Nancy Gall-Clayton

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.

Nancy Gall-Clayton is a local playwright. She has written over 75 plays, and her work has been performed on stages in Louisville and around the world. To see more about her work and interests visit http://www.nancygallclayton.net/    gall-clayton-at-work

Location:
 Just across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana (after 40 years in Old Louisville!).

Current project: A full-length play about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), commissioned by Looking for Lilith Women’s Theatre Company to be produced in July 2017 at the Clifton Center.

Currently reading: The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter, first novel by playwright Kia Corthron; Gilgamesh, A Verse Play by Yusef Komunyakaa, and The Dramatist, bimonthly magazine of the Dramatists Guild.

What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I write full-length plays as well as 10-minute plays, the latter a form popularized by Jon Jory, former Producing Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. I write history plays, plays on social justice issues, comedies, and plays that feature complex women.

When/where/how do you write? 


Anywhere and everywhere: on my laptop in my home office, at coffee shops, at the public library, in motels, and on airplanes. I also write on napkins at restaurants, on a pad kept on by bedside table to record thoughts that wake me up, and on a pad in my car (at red lights only!).

What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces? 


Quietness. Either a computer or a pen and pad of any kind.

What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

Just write! Writing itself – even if you start with drivel – generates more writing and better writing. Don’t revise until you have a complete rough draft. You can’t make much progress if you keep revising the first page! Don’t censor yourself; just write!

What is the best writing advice you’ve received? 


Kate Aspengren at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival shared this with me long ago: Imagine your protagonist walking across a field toward you through fog and mist. As she comes closer, you hear your character begin “There’s something I really want you to know about me….” What the character says may not make it into your play or story, but it will inform your writing.

Also, here’s an idea from The Playwright’s Process, a book by Buzz McLaughlin: Fill out an imaginary but very detailed job description for your characters. Again, you’ll learn a lot. What you discover (who should we contact in case of emergency, for example) probably won’t be in your final product, but you’ll know your characters so much better than you would have otherwise.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

 

 

The Role of Writing in a Democracy

Kelly Carty, Consultantkelly-c

On Friday we witnessed what Barak Obama called a “hallmark of our democracy:” the peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. Donald J. Trump, to the horror of some and the delight of others, is now the 45th President of the United States. He will occupy the White House for at least four years as our Commander in Chief.

But you already know this. The details of the day have probably trickled down to you much better than the benefits of the wealthy. I’m not going to reiterate what you’ve seen on your Facebook newsfeed, Google News, or SNL. Instead, I would like to explore the role of writing in a democracy. I want to explore the ways in which we can write to resist, dissent, and call for change. I want to explore the relationship between writing and active citizenship.

Writing, as a political expression of our freedom of speech, is central to the functioning of our democracy. Even with its legal limitations (e.g. libel, slander, obscenity), the freedom to express ideas ensures that democracy, a system of government in which rule emanates from the common people, remains a democracy and does not morph into an aristocracy, an oligarchy, or a totalitarian state.

You may be thinking that writing can’t do much. That writing can be an expression of freedom of speech, but no one listens. I certainly felt discouraged when I wrote to Rand Paul about gun control and received a slightly off topic, pre-crafted reply in the mail.  But writing is powerful. It has led to drastic social and political changes. If you are skeptical, Google any of the following:

  • Foundational Religious Texts (like the Sutras, the Vedas, the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Qur’an)
  • Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
  • The Communist Manifesto
  • Letter from Birmingham Jail
  • J’accuse…!
  • WikiLeaks
  • Social media posts in the Arab Spring
  • (and because I also think literature changes the world)
  • Shakespeare’s plays
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • The Jungle
  • (and because science can change the world)
  • Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres
  • Newton’s Principia
  • Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
  • Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers

While I don’t want to discourage you from attempting to write such dramatic pieces, I recognize it is difficult (and often situation-dependent) to write something so influential.  So how can we still write politically effective pieces?

We can write to engage in civil discourse.

You may already do some of this. Writing a political Facebook status or commenting on someone else’s is a way of engaging in discourse. In order to do this effectively, however, you must be willing to engage with those who disagree with you. You must be willing to attempt to understand other views. You must be willing to practice rhetorical devices. (And we have a handout on this! Lucky you! Unfortunately, Facebook’s algorithms tend to isolate us in agreeable newfeeds.

You could try other avenues of online discourse, such as Twitter. Our new prez loves to tweet. Matt Bevin, our Kentucky governor, likes to tweet and block.

If you want to work outside the bounds of social media, you can write letters or responses to your local newspaper. Here are links to the contact information for a few of our local newspapers:

We can write to our representatives.

If you want to supplement your civil discourse with direct interactions with the government, you may want to consider contacting your representatives. Before you do that, however, it’s useful to know a bit about our system of government. The United States is a representative democracy. This means that elected representatives, not the common people as is the case with a direct democracy, run the government. If citizens want something to happen, they have to go through their representatives.

Complicating this a bit further, the United States is also a federal republic. This means that we have representatives on multiple levels (the state government and the federal government). Thus, depending on what you want to be done, you may need to talk to representatives from one or both levels.

There are a couple of ways you can find your representatives. On the federal level, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have searchable databases. Each state will have it’s own website, but for Kentucky, you can find your legislators here. The website Common Cause is useful as well, as it provides more information on the specific actions of your representatives.

Hopefully, your representatives will be responsive. Some of them send letters. Some of them send emails. For example, I received this from Mitch McConnell:

mcconnell-email1

We can write to supplement other political acts.

Maybe you want to do more than write. That’s great! Keep in mind that writing can supplement your other political actions. For example, if you want to march or protest, you can create a witty sign:

img_2898

If you want to join a politically active group, such as Showing Up for Racial Justice or Black Lives Matter, you may need to write to support the goals of the group. If you want to create your own, you may want to write a mission statement or a list of objectives.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that writing can augment your voice.

I will leave you with something a friend showed me on the day of Trump’s inauguration. It’s an arrangement by Anne Carson in her book Nox:

cinerem1

 

Getting Going on a Personal Statement: Motivation and the Role of the Writing Center

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Cassie Book, Associate Director 

There’s no shortage of advice about writing your personal statement for graduate school applications on the University Writing Center’s blog or website. Our past writing consultant bloggers have tackled the personal statement from several angles:

Five Tips for Writing a Killer Personal Statement

Personal Statements Part I: Just How Personal Is It?

Personal Statements Part II: Research and Focus

Timely Tips for the Personal Statement

Tips on Crafting an Effective Personal Statement

We also have a handout on personal statements, which comes in handy during appointments.

With so much great advice, you should be good to go, right? No? In my experience, both as a writer and a consultant, the most difficult aspect is getting started. So that’s what I’d like to write about today: moving from nothing to something on your personal statement or statement of purpose.

We do have a helpful FAQ about getting started on personal statements, so I’d suggest checking that out too. However, here are three strategies, adapted for this particular writing task, to jump start your process. These strategies will work best after you’ve reviewed genre basics about personal statements and the instructions for your specific program applications.

  1. Freewrite: Prompt yourself with an open-ended question such as “Why am I interested in this specific program?” and set a timer for five or ten minutes. Keep your pen or pencil moving on the page or your fingers typing on the keyboard. The point isn’t to produce coherent writing; the point is to work yourself up to an idea you can build on later.
  2. Start a shoe-box collection: If you have time, take a day, week, or month to let ideas for your personal statement simmer in your mind. When an idea or experience comes to you, write it down and put it in a box or envelope. When it comes time to draft, you’ll already have a few starting places.
  3. Create visual or a map: Generate ideas visually either with a paper/pencil or a digital mind map. You might find that approaching the project visually loosens your writer’s block and helps you see the personal statement in a new light organizationally and logically.

Getting started is not a problem unique to personal statements. The difference with personal statements is you can’t distract yourself from writing with reading or research. Writing a personal statement always comes back to thinking about constructing yourself with words, and that is what you’re trying to avoid! No matter how much anyone says “just start writing,” sometimes you just feel frozen.

This is a moment where the Writing Center can be a huge help in your writing process. When I talk with new peer writing consultants about their job, one of our first discussions centers around the various roles a writing consultant can play. One of those roles is the motivational coach. And this is the role we’ll play for you as we help you get started on your personal statement. You don’t have to write anything beforehand, just schedule an appointment to brainstorm and bounce ideas off someone else. Bring your personal statement instructions, and we’ll have a low stakes conversation to help you generate ideas.

Another opportunity the University Writing Center offers is the New Year. New You: Personal Statement Workshops in January. The workshop will be designed to help you even if you haven’t gotten started yet. We’ll talk about personal statements in general, give you some prompts for getting started, and look at a few examples.

So, if you know that you’re applying to graduate school in the next few months, but you’re having trouble getting started, let the Writing Center do what we do best: talk with you. Schedule an appointment or stop by one of our workshops in January. You do have to write about yourself, but there is no reason to do it alone.

How I Write: Dr. Jose M. Fernandez

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.

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Dr. Jose M. Fernandez is an Associate Professor of Economics in the College of Business. His research is in the areas of crime, health, and industrial organization.

Current project: “Less Alcohol, Less Service: Do local alcohol bans affect the number and mixture of full and limited service restaurants?”

Currently reading: Dollars and Sex, Naked Money, and Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.

 

What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I primarily write for scholarly journals in economics and health policy. These articles tend to be technically dense filled with economics jargon, tables, and equations.

When/where/how do you write?

I need a fairly quiet place to write with few interruptions. The few interruptions is key for me. This usually means I am writing in my office after hours when my colleagues and students have gone home or at my house while my wife is at work and my children are at school.

The interesting part to being an academic researcher is to find the answer to a research question. You do all this work with data collection and analysis just to be the first person to better understand this little corner of our world. It is a thrilling high that comes with the job, but all this effort goes to waste if we do not share it with everyone else. Therefore, we write afterwards. When I write my papers I actual start in the center. Since I am a data head, I first write the data description and analysis sections of the paper first.

Next, I write the literature review. There is an old saying that goes, “if it is good it isn’t new and if it is new it probably isn’t good.” This quote always reminds me to look into the scholarly literature for the works of others that inspired or contributed to the question and answer that I am presenting.

Lastly, I write the introduction and the conclusion. I write these pieces last because they are the most important. We live in a world with information overload, you need to grip the reader’s attention in that opening paragraph. You need to convince them that their time is worth reading the next 30 pages. If you can’t achieve that, then you want to at least explain the question and tell them the punchline by the time they have reached the end of the introduction even if they skimp on the details.

What are your writing necessities—tools, accessory, music, spaces?

I mainly need my computer with a word processor or Latex editor, my statistical program, and google scholar. I do not really play music unless I am cleaning data.

What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

My best advice for revisions is to read your paper out loud. Your brain tends to fill in missing words for you when you read silently, but out loud it is easier to catch. Secondly, I recommend printout your paper or using MS Words track changes, get some coffee, and a red pen. Much of my revisions are taking sentences and first making them into the active voice. In the second pass my goal is to make the sentences shorter and remove grammatical/spelling errors.

For writing scholarly papers in general I like these two resources: Economical Writing by Deirdre McCloskey and, for students, an Economics sample paper.

What is the best writing advice you ever received?

I received two pieces of advice that have helped me with my writing. First, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT PAPER. This phrase will help you get over the anxiety of writing in the first place. Your first draft should be rough. It should be a brain dump where you get everything you wanted to say about the topic down on paper. This will get you started and revisions will take care of the rest.  The second piece of advice is for when you are stuck. I tend to write in bulk, but if I am not feeling creative or inspired that day I force myself to write at least one page. This single page serves several purposes. I have something concrete to show I have worked today. Next, it has started me to think more about the topic. The best part is that even if you do this every day for a month you will have a paper done by the end of the month.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations! 

 

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