UofL Writing Center

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Recognizing and Using Rhetorical Devices

Hannah Cunningham, Consultant

As students, we all have to do a fair amount of writing, in a variety of disciplines. And we’ve all sought for new and interesting ways to phrase our thoughts. The way we word our arguments has a massive impact on how our readers perceive not just our arguments, but also us as writers. Careful use of word choice or syntax can also help in making our words or arguments memorable, as well as persuasive. Clearly, how we state our thoughts is as important as the thoughts themselves. But how do we go about doing it well?

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Part of the answer lies in rhetoric. “Rhetoric” refers to the art of making a persuasive argument, using specific (and sometimes very specialized) types of sentences, referred to as “rhetorical devices.” I know—this all sounds so vague and abstract. However, a look at popular culture reveals that many of these rhetorical devices are not only familiar, but are well-known pieces of our cultural heritage. Many of our favorite movies and television shows use rhetorical devices so often that we may not even notice. The list of rhetorical devices is immense, so I’ll offer a few of the more interesting ones, as well as examples that may be very familiar to you.

Anastrophe: This term seems formidable, but many people are familiar with the device itself. Anastrophe refers to inverting the standard order in which words are typically found in sentences. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies (or even people like me, who haven’t seen them but are familiar with them) has heard quite a bit of anastrophe from the little green guy—er, Yoda. The phrase “The chosen one the boy may be” is a prime example of anastrophe. Anastrophe is best used sparingly, but can make a topic sentence or a closing statement stand out.

Chiasmus: The root of this word means “cross,” and that’s what the device does. For this device to work successfully, you need a sentence with two clauses. The “crossing” occurs in the second clause, when you reverse the order of the elements in the first sentence. Confusing, I know, but it actually becomes pretty simple if you have an example. Bart Simpson of The Simpsons used chiasmus amusingly when he said “Priceless like a mother’s love, or the good kind of priceless?” He’s being a brat, but his use of chiasmus is spot-on. The word “priceless” begins the first clause, and occurs at the end of the second, while the opposing ideas “a mother’s love” and “the good kind” also switch places. Chiasmus can be very useful when making a persuasive argument, particularly a call to action; if you want to know just how effective, recall JFK saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Commoratio: I can’t tell you that I know how to pronounce this word, but its definition is pretty simple: repetition of an idea with different wording. It becomes absurd fairly quickly, so use it carefully, but it can be an effective device, particularly in an opening statement. The animated show Family Guy used commoratio when the peg-legged and –armed fisherman, Seamus, tells Peter, “If it’s fish you want, Pelican’s Reef is where you’ll find them. I’ve seen fish there. More fish than you could possibly imagine. Fish as far as the eye can see. Lots and lots of fish, I guess would be the main bullet point of this presentation.” Clearly, Family Guy is using commoratio to the point of absurdity, but you can use it carefully to gain your audience’s attention—or to make them laugh.

Epanelepsis: This device describes the act of beginning and ending a sentence or phrase with the same word. Viewers of the old Kevin Smith film Chasing Amy heard epanelepsis when Ben Affleck’s character, Holden McNeil, said, “Alyssa from last night Alyssa?” His use of epanelepsis even impressed his friend Hooper, who commented, “How do you begin and end a sentence with the same word like that? You got skills.” This device can be useful when emphasizing the repeated word, although it’s important to use this device sparingly so that your paper doesn’t become too repetitious.

Litotes: This is your basic understatement, usually with the word “not.” Dozens of easy examples exist, such as “He’s not unlike his father,” or “The weather lately has been not tropical.” But for many of us, the most memorable example may be the Sorting Hat in the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. When the Sorting Hat is trying to decide in which house to place Harry, it says, “Hmm, difficult. VERY difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either.” That last sentence proves that the Sorting Hat, in addition to thinking up each year’s opening song, also had time to study rhetorical devices such as litotes. Litotes can be useful when supporting an argument, but be wary of overusing it; it begins to sound sarcastic fairly quickly.

Metanoia: This is another one I can’t pronounce, but I hear it often in television shows. Metanoia refers to qualifying a statement mid-sentence to emphasize the sentence’s point. Barney Stinson, the loveable rogue on the show How I Met Your Mother, uses metanoia fairly frequently, particularly when making his over-the-top arguments. In this case, Barney uses metanoia to insist on receiving a fist bump: “Until my fist gets the respect it deserves – nay, demands – it will not yield. It. Will. NOT! Yield.” This rather powerful device is probably best used in a conclusion, to leave your audience with a strong statement at the end of your paper.

Polysyndeton: This weird-looking word actually just refers to having a conjunction before each item in a list. Usually, conjunctions (particularly “and”) only occur before the last item in a list. Viewers of The Simpsons have seen polysyndeton from the character of Professor Frink, the excitable mad scientist of Springfield. In one episode, Frink says, “Oh, sorry I’m late. There was trouble at the lab with the running and the exploding and the crying when the monkeys stole the glasses off my head.” The sentence is both comical, and a perfect example of polysyndeton. In your papers, you may not want to reference monkeys stealing your glasses, but you may very well use polysyndeton to emphasize every item in a list.

These are just a few of the hundreds of rhetorical devices available for your use. Take a glance through a website that lists rhetorical devices and then watch your favorite show or movie. See how many examples you can pick up.

Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

February is flying by and we’ve reached that point in our courses where we’re frequently asked to read, respond to, and write about sources. Sometimes, we are required to read and write about sources we’ve been given in class; other times, we must head to the library (or the library database) and find additional sources to read and write about. We encounter assignments that ask us to write both short and longer papers using sources. However, even when writing a short paper with 3 or 4 sources, writing about sources can be tough. As a student and writing center consultant, I’ve experienced and seen how writing with and about sources can, and often does, leave one saying “I’m not sure how all of these sources fit together” and wondering “What should I say about this (or each) source?” Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are strategies that can help you work through such questions!

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Oftentimes, when we are given a writing assignment that asks us to incorporate or respond to sources, our initial impulse is to start writing the paper and read/incorporate our sources as we go—it is a writing assignment after all, right? In my experience as a student, though, this strategy didn’t always work, especially when I was asked to incorporate upwards of 5 sources and make complex arguments in response to said sources. In taking on longer and larger writing projects as an undergraduate junior and senior, I discovered the usefulness of reading and writing about sources before I began writing a paper. By reading all of my sources and writing down my responses to and thoughts about each source, I found that I had a much easier time seeing how one source related to another and organizing all of my information. Also, I found that this strategy helped me spend less time re-reading sources, thus allowing more time for me to focus on the task of writing.

Here are three ways that you can record your responses to and thoughts about your sources:

  • Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is similar to a bibliography (a list of sources in a particular style such as APA, MLA, etc.), except that in an annotated bibliography you write a brief summary and evaluation and/or analysis of each source. Often, instructors will require students to write annotated bibliographies as part of a research paper or project. Even if your instructors do not require an annotated bibliography, writing your responses to and thoughts about sources in this way can be extremely useful and valuable because it will save you time in the long run: not only will you have written a useful summary and analysis of a source that can perhaps be incorporated into your paper, but you will also have your bibliography completed! 
  • Reading Journal: A reading journal is basically a journal in which you track your responses to the readings and sources you encounter and can be either paper or electronic. This style is more laid back and less formal than an annotated bibliography, but you will still want to be doing some summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing for each source. I find reading journals particularly useful for a class in which I will be required to write essays and papers about the assigned readings. By keeping a reading journal, I am able to 1) be prepared to discuss readings in class each day, 2) add useful class notes to my existing notes, and 3) use these notes to pick a topic to write about and compare/contrast sources when it’s paper-writing time.
  • Blog: A blog can be used in a similar way to a reading journal and, again, is less formal and more relaxed than an annotated bibliography. What I find most interesting, useful, and fun about blogs is that they can be shared. For example, in a class concerned with representations of women in media and culture, I was required to keep a blog in which I responded to class readings and sources that I uncovered on my own. We were allowed to make the blog private, but I chose to make mine public. I didn’t anticipate what happened next: people actually responded to my blog posts. This may sound scary, but it was actually incredibly helpful. Readers would often comment on what they liked about my analysis and evaluations, pose questions that I had not thought of, and offer additional sources that proved useful.

Now that you have some strategies for recording your responses to and thoughts about your sources, here are some questions to get you writing about your sources:

  • What is the purpose of this source? What is the main argument?
  • How does the author achieve this purpose or support his/her argument?
  • What types of evidence is the author using?
  • Has anything been left out, overlooked, or neglected in this source?
  • Do I find this source persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Is this source credible? Why or why not?
  • How does this source compare to my other sources?
  • How does this source contribute to my argument?

All of these questions will not always be necessarily relevant or apply to your sources, and there are many other great questions that you can ask about sources. The important thing is to ask the same questions of each source and write down your answers: this strategy will provide a solid foundation on which to write your paper.

Happy writing, friends!

Using the Thesis Statement to Your Advantage

Bobby Rich, Consultant

The thesis statement is the keystone of a paper: a solid thesis statement holds everything together, but without one, your paper can fall apart pretty easily. Because of this, developing a strong thesis statement is of high importance, and, as I’m sure many students are aware, the phrase “strong thesis statement” often appears at the top of many grading rubrics. So, you know it is a necessary thing, but…

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What is it thesis statement, anyway?

The thesis statement can be an intimidating thing for many writers. At its most basic, a thesis statement is an explicit statement of argument. The majority of papers written in college are not simply restating information, they are assessing information, analyzing it, and making an argument about what the information means. A thesis is not a statement of raw opinion, rather, it is a strong assertion about how something should be interpreted, intended to apply to the general understanding of that thing, not just your own. Yes, to a degree the thesis statement is personal, but it is not a statement of simply individual taste or feeling; it is a statement of educated interpretation, based on the research you have done, and the knowledge base you are pulling from, stemming from critical thinking. If I’m having a conversation with a friend, and I say, “Marvel comics are the best,” they might as “Why?” and I might respond, “Because they’re the best!” That, unfortunately, is just pure opinion, and won’t do much to convince my friend of that point. In fact, that claim really isn’t arguing anything, it is just a flat statement. If I want to convince them, I need to argue; I need to present an argument in a way that will then allow me to readily back it up with facts, like: “I argue that Marvel is currently producing the best comic books on the market, because they exhibit a clear sense of social awareness and dedication to incorporating diversity in their publications.” From there, I can begin to elaborate on my points. Not only does that set me up to make my argument, but it makes discussion possible, which is necessary to a good argument. If I just state my raw opinion, there is no room for discussion; my friend would only be able to agree or disagree.

Alright, but why do I need one?

Organization, for both the reader and the writer. I like to think of the thesis statement as a kind of organizational tool or outline, built into the paper I’m writing. For the reader, it serves the purpose of saying, “Here is what I am going to tell you in this paper, here is how all the evidence I present is tied together, and here is what I want you to be paying attention to.” Without that sort of statement, the evidence you provide can seem random and disconnected, which can confuse the reader. The thesis statement should create a sort of focal point for the reader, and a sense of perspective to put the evidence against; it should guide them through the paper. For you, the writer, a strong thesis statement will have a similar effect, and will help you keep track of what you’re doing. As you go through your paper, you can refer back to your thesis statement and think “Okay, so, is it clear how the point I just made relates back to my thesis? Will the reader get the connection? Have I made the connection?” This will help you keep your paper from becoming jumbled or disorganized, which is definitely a good thing.

How do I develop one?

Again, think of it as an organizational tool. Ask yourself questions like, “What problem do I perceive in this evidence? What do I see connecting the evidence? What kind of solution can I provide?” That will get you started. Then you want to think about where you can take the argument, what sort of order you need for your evidence, and what the most central point is. Your thesis statement doesn’t need to say every single thing you will do in your paper; it needs to provide a jumping off point for your writing to follow from, and you want it to be easily linkable to the points you make in your paper at any given time.

When do I develop one?

This will depend, more or less, on your discipline of study. For example, in English, if you are writing about literature, your thesis can kind of shift and change as you work through your piece. It may not be finalized and solid until after your first draft; on the other hand, in philosophy, you might find it necessary to have your thesis statement more strongly developed from the beginning, in order to prevent confusion or contradiction as you work through your argument. Regardless, it is best to begin thinking about and attempting to formulate your thesis as you research your topic; doing so will, as above, allow you to keep everything organized better as you go through the writing process, which will not only make for a stronger paper, but will make it easier on you as you write. Try keeping a log of your reactions to the sources you read. Your reactions do not have to be fully hashed-out, but keep notes of problems you perceive, questions you have, and potential solutions. Thinking about your thesis up front will save you work later.

Whatever discipline you may be writing in, the next time you have a paper due, try thinking of your thesis statement as an organizational tool, and develop it along those lines: for ease of use. It could just make the writing process an overall smoother, more confident experience.

Fighting Back Against “Writer’s Block”

Joanna Englert, Writing Consultant

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It’s February: it’s cold, the days are short, and there’s another holiday that gives cause for eating too much chocolate. Hard as you might wish, chances are your assignments don’t go on hold for the cold weather and short days. And with so much time indoors, it might be hard to find inspiration for that research essay on climate change or that memoir you keep meaning to get to, i.e., you might be struck by that fear-inducing nuisance known as writer’s block. Trust me, you’re not alone. We all know it: that blank page as empty as the branches outside, that trashcan filled with crumpled sheets of scribbles, and that forehead-to-the-desk sense of hopelessness. But don’t fear—you CAN get it done! I, too, have fought the battle against writer’s block, and with a few things in mind, I’ve learned it’s absolutely beatable. So, below are some of the most helpful tips I’ve discovered for breaking down the writer’s block wall and getting that paper done. Hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me!

1. Just Write!

The golden rule for overcoming writer’s block is simple: write. You might be thinking, easier said than done. I know, I know. But when I say write, I mean write anything. Anything! A stream-of-consciousness journal entry, a limerick about your cat, your favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Again, anything. Then, move on to writing something for your paper. Whether it’s the beginning, the middle, the end, or an outline, just remember that getting words down on paper, regardless of how good or bad they are at first (revision exists for a reason!), is progress. A lot of the time, just writing will get your creativity flowing and can remove some of the pressure to get the perfect idea down for your paper. It’s easier to go back and revise than to aim for perfection the first time around!

2. Quiet Those Distractions

Back away from technology for a minute. Shut down those computers, put that phone out of reach somewhere in the basement, turn off the TV, Spotify, etc., and just give yourself a moment of quiet to sit, reflect, and think. It may help clear your head and get you focused!

3. Find a Comfortable Spot

Virginia Woolf was on to something when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. To write, it truly helps to place yourself in a comfortable environment. For me, my favorite space is on my bed with nothing short of ten pillows, tea or coffee appropriately by my side, my cat on my lap, and my favorite moleskin notebook at hand. Want to get out of the house? (Because sometimes I just NEED to get out.) Find your favorite coffee shop and settle into a cozy spot in the corner. Coffee, quiet music and mumbling, space to spread out your work—trust me, it helps. At the very least, you’ll be able to devote brain power to your paper rather than to how uncomfortable you are!

4. Pace Yourself

One of the most helpful tips someone shared with me is to schedule working time and break time. Adopting the idea of writing anything, work for twenty-five minutes, and then enjoy a five or ten minute break. This gives you a chance to relax (and if you’re like me, reward yourself with that omnipresent Valentine’s chocolate) and an incentive to work.

5. Sleep On It

Okay, so this obviously doesn’t work if you’re in crunch-time mode, but if you give yourself the leisure of starting early, you can conquer writer’s block by stepping away and forgetting about it for a bit. Believe it or not, your mind knows you’ve been thinking about your topic. Even if you’re not consciously focused, your mind is working on it. You’d be surprised how something may just come to you if you step away and let it. In fact, if you’re really committed, keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Some of my ideas for creative writing or paper topics have come to me just before falling asleep. If you don’t have to get out of bed, you’re more likely to jot things down then!

6. Talk It Out

For some people, talking through a project is the best way to organize ideas and get creative juices flowing. As it happens, we at the Writing Center are happy to talk through your papers with you, so be sure to come and see us at any stage in your writing process!

Now that you’ve made it through this article, I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. So, dodge the weather, curl up with a notebook and some chocolate, and get going. Happy writing, everyone! (And be sure to stop by and see us at the Writing Center!)

Writing the Dissertation Is(n’t) a Lonely Thing

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center

As a representative of the writing center, I spoke this past weekend with some PhD students at the start of a dissertation writing camp. It was early in the morning and everyone had a cup of coffee and their computers open in front of them, ready to work. I looked around and remembered that dissertation writing can seem lonely, but when we think about it, we’re actually in good company.

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I’m not implying that being alone is never desirable or needed, or that we must lean on others for comfort every time we write. We have to admit, though, that academia can make students of all levels feel isolated sometimes.

One of the most telling examples of this isolation is how PhD students have the option of renting a carrel in the library while working on a dissertation. Carrels are these little closets with a small window on the door, a desk, chair, and an overhead light that beams down on the flat work surface. For me, a library carrel isn’t an ideal space for working on a dissertation because such a space can represent, in a spacial sense, what we might feel like overall as PhD students.

There are some important ways not to spend all our time working in a small closet, whether that closet is an apartment or a library carrel. I’ve written before on seeking out your peers for timed writing, say at a coffee shop. There’s a myth in academia that we’re not successful unless we do everything alone. In actuality, there are benefits to working with others beyond getting rid of our cabin fever: you can keep each other motivated while also building the habit of writing that will be useful for years. Beyond these benefits, when we give ourselves the opportunity to be in the same place as other interested scholars, we’re likely to activate those habits of mind that interested us in academia in the first place. On that note, take part in a dissertation writing retreat where you can experience week- or weekend-long scheduled time for writing, reflection, and one-on-one discussions about your work.

I want to put forward one more view on how we’re not alone in this work.

Working on a dissertation is a chance to focus on your particular interests, likely the ones that motivated you to become a member of your field. If you’re like me, you got into your field because you’re captivated by its view on the world and committed to working on its most pressing questions. Plus, you want your work to make a contribution. When you’re counting your words or pages and trying to meet deadlines, let’s try to think of ourselves as part of these larger discussions that are happening every day. Like the rhetorician Kenneth Burke said, these discussions have been going on for a very long time, and they will continue even after we’ve left them. Now that’s really something, to be part of that. Every day that we work on our dissertations, we stay a part of it.

How I Write: Joe Turner, Professor of English

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. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

Our featured writer this week is Professor Joe Turner. Dr. Turner is new to the Department of English at University of Louisville. He teaches courses in rhetoric and composition and has research interests in the history of rhetoric, Roman and Medieval rhetoric, and Medieval literature.

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Location: Bingham Hall, 317D

Current project: An academic article on perceptions of style in the late Middle Ages – plain, direct speech and complex, ornate speech, and what a person’s speaking style revealed about their character, social class, and education. There was, in the Middle Ages as today, a mistrust of people who speak well: behind their glib words could be any number of motivations.  Because rhetorical training (similar to what occurs in our English 101 and 102 courses today) was central to medieval educations, and few people received educations, using rhetorical figures was a marker of high status and education.

Currently reading: Kathy Davidson’s Now You See It, as many graphic novels as I can get my hands on, and texts related to my research (such as the Poetria Nova, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

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

I write articles, lesson plans, and short blogs (for my courses). In these blogs, for example, I outline the class’ structure and provide a digital record that students can review.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I write scholarship in my office and lessons/blogs at home. I find that my dog, Anya, is far too interesting for me to sustain work on any academic projects while at home.

I generally dedicate all day Tuesday and Thursday to writing scholarship. In the mornings I do my reading at home. First, I re-read my writing from the previous writing session. Then, I read a few articles/chapters that are pertinent to the article or the next section of the article. After that, I drive to campus and begin writing. If I get stuck, I normally start reading the piece from the beginning and try to chart out where I should go next.

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

Diet Coke. I have to have caffeine, and I don’t drink coffee. I also find that my office is conducive to writing in ways that my home is not.

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

Make a schedule and stick to it. I find that a dedicated space and a routine have become writing cues. Once I arrive in the office on my “writing days,” sit down and open my diet Coke, my mind automatically switches to writing mode. It’s become a habit and a ritual.

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

My PhD advisor told me to write every day because once you stop writing, it’s easy to make excuses to continue not writing. Writing is a learnable skill like any other. It’s not something that some people have and other people don’t. The only way to learn a skill is to practice it, over and over, and to make conscious efforts to improve.

Effective Ways to Boost Your Confidence as a Writer

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director

“Before you read this, I just wanted to say, I’m not a good writer.”

I hear this confession from college students often, from freshmen to graduate students, at this university and others. I wonder where this confession comes from. Maybe we are expecting someone to criticize our writing, so criticisms hurts less if we admit that we’re “bad writers” up front. But mostly, I suspect that the confession comes from specific experiences that have led us to believe that we aren’t good writers. In turn, we probably have diminished confidence and less incentive to engage in opportunities to improve our writing. ??????????

I want to put forward the possibility that confidence, as much as any “skill” or strategy in writing, can influence everything from how well we do on a paper to how we feel about ourselves.

One of the benefits of working one-to-one with college students in the University Writing Center is that I get to learn about people’s experiences in education and elsewhere that have defined their views about writing. There are a few confidence-diminishing experiences that college students frequently share with me:

Receiving low grades on papers. Over time, we start to wonder if these grades aren’t telling us something about our ability or even our potential. Grades, as important as they are, offer only one (and sometimes a very small) piece of information about our work as writers. Students might receive a low grade after writing a paper on something that does not interest them, only to receive a higher grade after writing a paper on a topic that interests them very much. We always have the potential to meet expectations, but how we realize that potential can change from situation to situation.

Let’s also be perceptive to the moments when a lower grade is an invitation to revise a paper for a higher grade. Even if you aren’t invited to revise, it can’t hurt to ask your instructor for the opportunity. You might be surprised by what you can accomplish after receiving some advice and revisiting a paper you feel did not go well.

Still smarting from that one thing a teacher once wrote on our paper. Criticisms of our writing, even ones we received a long time ago, can still affect our confidence now. What if we can both take these comments seriously and put them into perspective so that they teach us something instead of close us down? A few things to remember about feedback from teachers:

  • College instructors regularly read, grade, and respond to hundreds of papers over a semester. Sometimes harsh-sounding or poorly-worded pieces of feedback result from the need to provide as much feedback to as many students as possible within a certain amount of time. Plus, it can be really difficult as a teacher to communicate in one written comment just how much we really do want to help.
  • Is there a substantive takeaway behind the wording of the feedback you receive? For example, the feedback “Jessica, this paper is not where I expected it to be at this point” doesn’t have to mean that I’m not a good writer and can’t meet expectations. Instead, it might tell me something about how I plan the papers I write and whether I understand the challenge behind the assignment. If it’s hard to see the substantive information behind a comment, ask to visit your instructor during his or her office hours so that you can hear more about the feedback.
  • But what if the teacher was just being mean? It’s possible, but attempting to read your instructor’s mind will most likely lead you down an unproductive path. Our energy is better spent paying attention to what we can learn from any piece of feedback.

Receiving the same criticisms over and over. Hearing feedback about my comma usage from different instructors might tell me that I don’t know how to use commas and am therefore a bad writer – so why try? Or, I could use this feedback to do some investigating about comma usage. Look over feedback you’ve received in the past. Is there a pattern in these comments? There is a big difference between “being a bad writer” and “not always seeing or remembering that commas typically go after introductory phrases in sentences.” Write down the aspects of your writing that teachers have pointed out. Now you have a checklist. (You’re definitely not a bad writer when you can engage with your own challenges.) Use this list when you write papers for other classes. Also feel free to bring the list to the University Writing Center when you have your next paper to write.

Hearing a lot of criticism and no praise.

Sometimes, in the effort to give constructive feedback, teachers can leave out feedback on what you’ve done really well. If feedback seems disproportionately critical, consider asking your instructors what they think you’ve done well in your writing. You might be surprised by what you hear.

If you carry the belief that you’re just not good at writing, think back to the moments and experiences that have led you to this conclusion, and consider the tips I’ve mentioned for thinking of your own potential as a writer in a different way. I bet you’ll see that your initial conclusion was a hasty one.

Tips on Crafting an Effective Personal Statement

Joanna Englert, Consultant 

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Well, we’re almost there. The end of the semester is in plain sight, and once we pull through these final (and coffee-filled) weeks of studying, that glorious thing called Winter Break will be upon us. For those of us applying to graduate school, the close of the semester may bring more than just cold winds and extra time to spend on our couches: it will likely bring application deadlines. So, looking for some tips on how to craft that tricky little paper known as the personal statement? The University Writing Center and I have you covered. While the University Writing Center offers an enormously helpful handout on personal statements, I offer a few additional tips that have personally helped me in writing my own.

More Relevance, Less Fluff:

So you’ve wanted to be a doctor since you were 4? Great! Just try not to take half a page to narrate the moment you played doctor with your stuffed elephant named Pebbles and decided your future goal. Don’t get me wrong, anecdotes are great attention-grabbers in the beginning, but try to keep the majority of your paper’s focus on relevant specifics. Remember, you typically have little space (1-2 pages) to provide lots of information (past experience, admirable traits, future goals, etc.).

Be Specific:

Yes, so I know I just said to cut the fluff because there’s little space. “Fluff,” however, is not to be confused with “specific and important details.” For example, let’s say you’re applying for a nursing program, and you want to include that you’ve worked on rotation at a hospital. Great! This is a good thing to include in your personal statement—it demonstrates an out-of-classroom learning experience in the field. But what did you do in these rotations? Who did you help?  What were you responsible for? Did you collaborate with others for any tasks? It’s true that all these details will also appear on your CV or resume, but it’s still beneficial to include some of the larger details in your personal statement. What I typically ask myself is, “What responsibilities or achievements pertain most to the field I am applying to?” Then I make sure to include those biggest takeaways. Remember, even with a CV or resume, your personal statement should still be able to stand on its own.

Know the Buzzwords:

This one’s short and sweet and will help you find the specifics: keep in mind certain buzzwords or phrases that appear in personal statements. For example, “I was responsible for” or “I was in charge of.” These words help me to remember to be specific, and they indicate positive traits to the reader!

Avoid Negativity:

This may sound like a no-brainer, but negativity is able to sometimes slip its way into a personal statement. Try to avoid words with negative connotations when evaluating yourself. For instance, did an experience force you to consider an idea further? Or did it encourage you? Just this slight change in connotation can make a big difference! In some circumstances, personal statements may ask for challenges. Here, I find it helpful to turn the negative into something positive. For example, if you must describe a challenge you faced in the past, be sure to emphasize how you tackled that challenge!

Demonstrate Knowledge of the School or Program:

It’s important, of course, to build yourself up in a personal statement. Just don’t forget to build up the school, as well! Most schools will want to know that you are enthusiastic about attending.  Prove this by, once again, being specific. Are you interested in a school because they have the top program in an area you want to pursue? Tell them! That said, the paper should still be about you, so don’t let the school section dominate the paper. Though there’s no set rule, you’ll oftentimes find this school information in a concluding paragraph.

Read Aloud:

So you’ve finished your first draft of your personal statement? Read it aloud! You may be surprised by what stands out when you hear it spoken. In fact, this is a great tool for any type of writing.

And finally, don’t forget to visit the University Writing Center! We are happy to help you with your writing at any step in the process. Happy writing, everyone!

How I Write: Heather A. Slomski, Former Axton Fellow in Fiction

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. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

Our featured writer this week is Heather A. Slomski. She is the author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. She received her MFA from Western Michigan University and held the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterlyAmerican Letters & Commentary, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and ArtThe Normal School, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant and a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and son and teaches writing at Concordia College.

heather slomski

Location: Moorhead, MN

Current project: The Starlight Ballroom, a novel-in-progress

Currently reading: Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, which, just out this fall, brings together for the first time in the states all thirty four of his “cosmicomic” stories.

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

Fiction. Up until recently—short fiction. Currently, I am working on a novel.

 2. When/where/how do you write?

I write best early in the morning, starting at about 5:30. I either write at the dining room table (to be near the stove for making coffee and the large windows for watching the snow fall, but only if no one else is awake), in my study, or at a coffee shop. I alternate between these spaces, depending on my mood; however, I tend to go in phases. For example, I’ll write primarily in my study for a few months and then relocate to a coffee shop when I feel stifled or need a change of scenery.

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

When I am writing at a coffee shop I use a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block out conversations and the music that the coffee shop is playing. Sometimes I am listening to lyric-free music; often I am just wearing the headphones and not listening to anything. Regardless of where I’m working, I usually only listen to music when I’m using it as a sort of soundtrack for the piece I’m writing. For example, I listened to a compilation of fifty Ennio Morricone compositions while writing “Before the Story Ends,” the last story in my collection. Listening to this album helped me to create the mood I desired for the story. Even now when I listen to that album it conjures up for me the world of my story. Most of the time, however, I am not listening to music. Wearing the headphones while working at a cafe, even though I can still hear the muffled noises around me, provides a kind of mental block—a shield between the noises and me. I often like a little distraction, but not too much. (This is one of the main reasons I like to work at a cafe; it usually provides a suitable amount of “activity.”) Occasionally, however, whether I’m at a cafe or at home, I’ll listen to some jazz or classical music if the silence is too quiet and if I can find something that fits the mood of the piece I’m working on.

I also use my headphones to listen to my works-in-progess. I use a program called Ghost Reader, a text-to-speech converter, which allows me to listen to my computer (the voice I usually use is “Alex”) read aloud what I’m working on. Hearing my work aloud helps me with my sentence rhythms, pacing, and transitions. Before I began using Ghost Reader I would intermittently read my own work aloud as I wrote, but now I prefer to listen to my computer read it to me. Also, when I listen to “Alex” read sections of my work aloud, I enter this sort of in-between space where I am almost reading and writing at the same time. I find positioning myself in this in-between space very productive.

I also keep a stack of books next to me while I’m writing. These are books that in some way relate to what I’m working on, or books that I feel might inspire me, often just by sitting in a stack at my elbow. Occasionally I’ll open one of these books and flip through it. Sometimes I’ll read a random passage or reread a specific passage for a particular reason. Sometimes I’ll open a book to look at its large structure. If it’s a novel, for example, I might look at the chapter lengths. If it’s a collection of poetry I might look at its sections or parts and think about the philosophy behind this organization. (And of course I’ll read an occasional poem.) If it’s a story collection I’ll look at the order of the stories or also its sections or parts if it is divided up in such a way. If it’s a play, I’ll look at the set description, the list of characters, the lengths of the scenes, the way the dialogue and stage directions are laid out on the page, etc. I love going to the theatre for the immersive experience it offers, but I read plays in part for a different reason. I love the way plays look on the page. I am drawn to the white space around the text, which somehow makes the words more three-dimensional and the actions—even subtle ones—more “active.” I am very interested in the relationship between fiction and drama, and I sometimes like to play with this relationship in my work. “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons,” the title story of my collection, blends these two genres into a hybrid form.

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

I try not to start a story until I feel sure that I have what I need in order to begin. I do think it’s possible, at least for me, to start a piece too early, and maybe not to ruin it but to at least make the process more difficult and less enjoyable. I try not to begin a piece until I have a clear sense of the emotional landscape or mood, equipped with a definite setting, a few key images, and usually a few phrases or lines of dialogue. The emotional landscape is always based on a situation between characters that involves some kind of conflict, even if I’m not exactly clear on the conflict when I start.

On the other hand, I have to begin writing a story before I know too much about it. The act of writing for me is wholly a process of discovery. I discover the story and I get to know my characters as I write. If I know too much when I sit down to write, much of the magic is lost and my writing feels dull. Edward Albee says that he thinks about his plays for a long time before he begins writing them—that he doesn’t begin writing until he knows his characters so well that they essentially write the play for him. While this process clearly works very well for him, it does not work for me. I need the excitement of discovery to breathe life into the words as I write them.

My revision process is pretty standard. When I feel confident enough in a draft, I give it to a few trusted people to read. I am very careful of giving a draft to my readers too early. I need to be sure that I’ve gotten a piece as far along as possible—that I’ve explored what I set out to explore and that I’ve reached a conclusion that satisfies me, at least for the time being. If I give a draft to my readers too early, I run the risk of writing the story that they want to read rather than the story I want to write.

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

On a draft of one of the first stories I turned in for a graduate-school workshop, Stuart Dybek wrote to me to be careful of being precious. This was in reference to a rather tender story, and in a tender story especially there is a fine line between being “precious” or affectatious and being emotionally honest. This was very important advice for me as a young writer. It helped shape my approach to writing in that I try to write with as light a hand as possible; I try to keep myself, the writer, out of the way so that all the reader sees are the characters and the honesty of their emotions. If a writer is too present, particularly in delicate scenes, the writing runs the risk of coming off as forced, false, affectatious, or “precious.” Of course, there is also the danger of being too distant as a writer. This can result in emotionless prose and characters. The key is to strike the right balance.

Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts

krLkVHxgMsFkNv4LINjN3Cl8hBIX9jAteOz45mo8cdoTara Lawson, Consultant

When we are new to academic writing, we seem to have a common struggle: deciphering the prompts that professors give us. It is such a pervasive problem because many of the words are so similar that it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. After all, how is a synthesis different from compare/contrast? The purpose of this post, therefore, is to define many of the common keywords in prompts.

Analyze: For an analysis, professors are looking for an interpretation of the evidence. Although this is not quite as opinion-based as an argument is (see below), analyses do use your opinion. When given this prompt, you are expected to draw conclusions from your interaction with the text; in other words, are you making connections between the evidence you are provided with? For example, a sociology student can analyze relationships between high school seniors across the state in order to come to a conclusion about Kentucky identities within that age group.

Argue: Many students often feel like they cannot put their own opinions into their writing, that they must recite facts and the opinions of other scholars and hope that their own opinion somehow leaks through. However, with an argument, professors want to know your opinion! In fact, they are looking for it. They want proof that you have done unbiased research. Therefore, you will need to provide evidence (statistics, facts, statements from scholars). You will also want to have a debatable claim that you defend. For example, when asked to argue the effect of the French Revolution, you could answer with “The French Revolution was a failure because Napoleon’s reign as dictator only reinstated the type of harmful monarchy that the previous King had represented.” The rest of your paper would then be focused on proving this statement.

Compare/Contrast: Although these words are used simultaneously, they actually have different meanings. To compare two or more items means to find similarities between them. To contrast them means to find differences. So to compare and contrast dolphins and sharks, one could say that the two animals are similar because they both live in the ocean. However, they are different because dolphins hate sharks, and will ruthlessly attack them and leave them for dead. Also, sharks are terrified of dolphins because dolphins have murderous tendencies.

Describe: Remember back to those exercises in middle school, where you had to use your five senses to describe your personal oasis. For academic writing, it is similar, but broader. It does not have to be reliant upon the senses, although it can be. An art student can describe the monochromatic coloring of a painting by talking about the oppressive emotional weight the color blue exudes in the work. A science student might have to describe the interior of a frog precisely, so that other scientists can mimic his/her work.

Define: This is to tell what a concept means. Usually definitions are shorter than the other keywords presented thus far. It can be as short as a single sentence, or it can be the length of a paragraph or two. Usually you will be asked to define a concept that can have several definitions, such as culture or feminism, because the professor is looking for your personal definition.

Discuss: This word is slightly different from explaining something, although they are very similar. However, a discussion tends to be broader and less argumentative. You may not be required to reach a definitive conclusion, but instead to map the connections between certain ideas. A discussion is usually present in literature reviews, like when the writer maps the progression of an academic conversation using the arguments of other scholars.

Explain: Why do you have to know what an explanation is? The answer to that question is itself an explanation. Essentially, an explanation is answering the question “why?” It can also cover the other common questions (how, what, when, and where). Why should you know this information? So that you can explain what you know to your reader and hopefully communicate with them more effectively (and maybe make better grades in the process).

Summarize: A summary is telling the reader what knowledge they need to know in order to understand what you are telling them. For example, if I wanted to highlight a scary moment in the TV show The Walking Dead, but my audience had never watched the show, I would need to summarize it. I could do this with a statement like “the show is about a group of people trying to live in a zombie apocalypse. They have to keep traveling in order to survive and find a safe place to live.” A summary is different from a definition because a summary is more in-depth. Additionally, a summary tells the audience what happened in the work, not what the work actually is.

Synthesize: A synthesis is a concise and more focused version of compare/contrast. It looks at very specific sources, and extracts the most important information from them as it relates to a specific argument. In other words, if I am writing a research paper about the murderous nature of dolphins, I would not need to state the similarities between sharks and dolphins. However, I would want to look at multiple sources focusing on the nature of dolphins. Do the sources answer my question? Do all  of the sources disagree with my hypothesis? How does this impact my overall argument? If dolphins only exhibit murderous tendencies towards sharks, perhaps they do not have an innate homicidal nature, but they are instead attempting to re-enact the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.

Although this post does not cover all of the keywords used in prompts, it may help with some of the most common. Additional resources are also available for all students. The University Writing Center is a free service where graduate students are dedicated to addressing your writing concerns. Also, it might be helpful to talk directly to your professors — as the creators of assignments, they will be able to let you know if you are meeting the requirements.

Finally, writing is tough, but know that you always have a support system at the University Writing Center. Good luck!

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