UofL Writing Center

Who We Are and What We Do

Five Tips for Interpreting Writing Prompts

Cheyenne Franklin, consultant

The writing prompt. This piece of paper is your ultimate guide through what can feel like endless avenues of ideas or a desolate blank page. But sometimes these precious few words from instructors can seem like an encoded script. Well like any code, there is a key. Here are some secrets I’ve learned to interpret assignment sheets.

Secret #1: When you don’t know where to begin…

DSCN3677Look for keywords. Certain words go with particular writing genres. If you see words like argue or defend, then your instructor is likely looking for an argumentative essay, so be sure to take a clear stance and use evidence to support your claims. Rhetoric(al) refers to the intentional strategies that people use to make an argument. So if this keyword appears in your assignment, your instructor either wants to see you making strategic moves in making your argument or wants you to discuss the strategies used by the author of a text you’re studying. In the second case, you’ll want to write an analysis, so DO NOT just summarize the text.

For more key writing prompt words, see the key terms section of the UNC Writing Center handout on Understanding Assignments. You also might enjoy this blog post on “Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts,” written by one of our previous consultants.

Secret #2: When you’re unfamiliar with the genre…

Determine what the purpose of the assignment is. Assignments have two types of purpose: an academic purpose and a real-life purpose.

To determine the first purpose, think about what skills your class has discussed. Instructors make assignments to give you a chance to show what you’ve learned. Consider what has been emphasized in class recently. Can you put this knowledge to practice in the assignment?

The second purpose requires you to use your imagination. Remember that college writing is to prepare you for real world writing. Imagine your audience extends beyond your instructor. What goal might you have other than a grade? Now how should you approach the assignment to accomplish that goal?

See Duke University’s list of college essay genres for a description of each genre and its characteristics.

Secret #3: When you’re told not to have a thesis…

Think again. What about the assignments that forbid “personal opinion?” Isn’t a thesis an opinion? Well not in an academic sense.

What instructors mean when they warn against personal opinion is that you should not make claims based on personal feelings. You should make claims based on statistical or textual evidence, reliable resources, and clearly drawn logic. Your instructor will almost always look for a main point in your essay (aka a thesis). Just make sure the thesis is your analysis NOT your opinion.

Secret #4: When your assignment includes a quote…

You cannot ignore it. Some assignment sheets include a passage from a text you’ve studied in class. Although the instructions might not directly ask for you to address this quote, you should reference it somewhere in your essay unless otherwise instructed.

Secret #5: When you still have no idea…

It’s time to talk to your instructor. Remember that your instructor wants you to understand the assignment and wants to know if it’s unclear. Most instructors revise their assignments based on the responses they receive, and if you’re confused, there’s a good chance others are too. Just be sure to discuss your confusion respectfully. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and worry.

In the end, your instructors don’t mean for their assignments to confuse you. Still, we all encounter certain prompts that confuse the inspiration right out of us. As you gain more experience with the lingo and genres it will get easier.

What Justin Bieber Can Teach You about Genre

Jessica Good, Consultant

biebergenreJustin Bieber’s new single, “Sorry,” blends related genres— the rhythmic pulse of electropop, the warm notes of tropical house, and the verse-chorus structure of pop—to create a danceable plea for forgiveness. While we typically discuss artists in the context of music, Bieber’s lyrics cross into a genre of writing: the public apology.

Genres in writing categorize recognizable patterns of organization, tone, and style. We can recognize Bieber’s song as a public apology because it conforms to a pattern established by politicians and celebrities before him. Effective public apologies (like private ones, let’s be real) are organized around a series of rhetorical moves:

  • Initiate communication with desired audience
  • Admit to making a mistake
  • Acknowledge the consequences of that mistake
  • Explain perspective of the situation (if appropriate)
  • Express remorse
  • Ask for forgiveness

Additionally, the tone is penitential, while the style is appropriately descriptive. Apologies tactfully allude to what was done without delving into the nuances of the initial conflict. The primary differences between our private apologies and Bieber’s public one are those of audience and context. We address individuals to mend relationships, while, in “Sorry,” Bieber moves to redeem his reputation to an anonymous ex who represents the listening public as a whole.

DSCN3626Although we often reserve the labels of genre for public texts, we routinely communicate in different genres. Those emails you send to your instructors? There’s a genre for that: professional communication. Did you send your aunt a card expressing how excited you are about the concert tickets she sent for your birthday? That’s the thank-you-note genre, one you probably learned all too well after your high school graduation. In both of these cases, like in the instance of an apology, a rhetorical context prompts you to enter into certain conventions of organization, style, and tone. Abiding by those conventions enables you to effectively communicate your purpose to your audience.

While genre is certainly a label that we can apply to published writing, it can also act as a guide to forming texts as we write. When you approach your next writing project, consider asking yourself:

What is the context?

Context refers to the broader situation undergirding the occasion of writing. As a student, your context is often academic. Your instructor issues an assignment, usually by handing you a prompt and a rubric, and expects to receive a final draft on a specified date. In this case, your broad situation will include the texts you’ve read and the discussions you’ve had in class; the occasion for your writing is the assignment. You can pull from the knowledge gained through your situation as a class participant to effectively manage that assignment.

We often assess context unconsciously, but pausing to identify it will help lead you to the appropriate genre.

Who is your audience?

Part of the context of any writing situation will include your audience, or who you’re writing to. Since your audience most likely includes your instructor, keep in mind any expectations (s)he may have. Look at your prompt: what is emphasized? How is the assignment structured? Does it call for outside research, or is it primarily textual analysis?

Try to remember that even though your instructor may be your most prominent audience member, the act of academic writing propels you into the past and current research surrounding your topic. Consider if you need to include information showing how your argument enters into or even advances that larger conversation.

What are the conventions?

Conventions are rules of organization, style, and tone. You’ll approach a 4-5 page rhetorical analysis differently from an abstract of a lab report for your chemistry class because of the different standards associated with each of them. When writing in the rhetorical analysis genre, you’ll construct a thesis; emphasize active voice and an objective tone; and provide in-text citations in MLA format. In contrast, you may adopt passive voice in your abstract to emphasize the results rather than your presence as the scientist. Your citations may be in APA or another style to emphasize the timeline of work by previous researchers.

Knowing the conventions of your chosen genre will enable you to effectively communicate your intended meaning to your audience.

(Not to blow your mind, but knowing conventions also gives you the power to break them for rhetorical effect. Read more here!)

What is your purpose?

Finally, but most importantly, remember your purpose. Conventions are only a frame through which you make your argument. Focus on the point you want to communicate. Your audience should come away aware of your thesis rather than your chosen style or the tone with which you engaged sources.

So, what can Justin Bieber teach you about genre? Besides pitting your friends who like his music against those who don’t, he shows us that genre is common to communication, not just libraries and bookstores. No text is produced in isolation; there is always a rhetorical context informing its construction and reception. As a result, every text you create abides by the conventions of a genre to effectively advance your purpose.

Genre can be a powerful tool—if the Biebs can use it, you can too.



Reasons for Differences in Citation Styles

Deanna Babcock, Consultant


Before deciding to start on a Master of Arts in English, I had actually gotten my first Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. Switching from social sciences to humanities was harder than I’d expected. One of the most difficult problems I’ve encountered is navigating between two distinct writing styles. Each field has a different set of expectations and values for writers, and these expectations are not immediately easy to recognize or grasp.

The values of each field, however, are identifiable in their chosen citation styles: American Psychological Association (APA) for many social sciences fields; Modern Language Association (MLA) for humanities. These are usually seen just as ways to avoid plagiarism, but the styles reflect the values of the fields that use them. Students are not often given reasons behind why one field uses APA and another uses MLA, or why other fields use additional styles.

While there are several differences between APA and MLA, I have chosen to focus on five of the most significant factors to highlight the expectations of each. Understanding of these differences can help writers identify what a particular field values and why, making writing in said field a less intimidating venture.

  1. Structure

APA is often very structured. Most guides to using APA provide a list or sample of subheadings that are recommended for research reports: Introduction, Methods, Analysis, Results, and Discussion. MLA is less structured and does not suggest using subheadings, though they can be included. This is one reason MLA seems less formal than APA, as the structure and layout are of little importance in the former.

  1. Ideas

In APA, collaboration between authors is important. Researchers build on past work from other scholars to emphasize progress in the field (Dowdey 339). Experiments may be replicated to the very last detail if researchers hope to find new results, or to ensure the results of the first experiment were logical. Original ideas are less important than the methods and results of a study. On the other hand, new ideas are crucial when writing in MLA. The humanities fields value creativity and unique interpretations.

  1. Quotations and Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is more common in APA papers than quotations. The reason is similar to the previous point: in APA, the results and the data are generally more important than a scholar’s exact words (339). Rephrasing the main ideas from a source is usually sufficient. Quotations are more commonly used in MLA, where exact wording is more important. English studies in particular consider a primary source – a book, for instance – to be almost sacred (333). This also leads to page numbers being so important in in-text citations to give readers the opportunity to reference the work. Direct quotations are preferred over paraphrasing in order to respect the author’s words and to avoid potentially misrepresenting ideas by changing the words.

  1. Importance of Years

Many writers are confused about the use of publication years in in-text citations of APA. The reason for putting the years is to show whether sources being used are recent or not (339). In the social sciences, research that is decades old may be outdated, while more recent studies may contain updated information based on further development of knowledge. The year of a work hardly matters in MLA, which deals with books, art, and music that can be centuries old. This also explains why the date in APA is second only to the author on the reference page, and is one of the last things listed in MLA (334).

  1. Evidence and Interpretations

When it comes to providing evidence to support an argument or idea, APA frequently uses data and statistics (338). As the focus is scientific in nature, numbers are crucial for proving a point. In MLA, evidence comes in the forms of quotations, especially from primary texts (332); discussion of a novel, poem, or work of art must include specific references to that work. An author’s individual interpretations and arguments must be backed up in these same ways: data for APA, support from the given text(s) for MLA.

The differences between these two citation styles reflect what is important to the fields that use them. Recognizing the differences and their reasons makes it easier to understand why each style requires certain things, and easier to write for the conventions in a particular style or field.

Dowdey, Diane. “Citation and Documentation Across the Curriculum.” Constructing Rhetorical Education. Ed. Marie Secor and Davida Charney. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992. 330-351. Print.

Welcome to the New University Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Welcome to the new University Writing Center! On Friday we moved to our new, larger space on the first floor of Ekstrom Library. After fifteen years on the third floor, we’re excited about being in a space that is larger, more convenient and easier to find. We’ve always believed that writing is at the center of the intellectual life of the University, and now

The New University Writing Center

The New University Writing Center

we have a space that is even more at the center of the daily life of the students, faculty, and staff with whom we work. We want to use this space to continue to support and nurture a culture of writing at UofL. Our mission is to support and celebrate writing of every kind, from course assignments to dissertations to job letters to poetry. We think the new space will allow us to continue to engage in that mission and offer us the opportunity to realize plans and initiatives that we’ve had for a number of years. The central location of the new University Writing Center space, just to the left as people enter from the east doors off the Quad, will also allow us to collaborate with Library Reference and other offices.

Although our location – and furniture – is new, our fundamental work will not change. We will continue to work with anyone in the University community on any kind of writing and at any point in the writing process. We will continue to offer individualized response and advice to writers about their current writing projects and any other concerns or questions they have about writing. We will continue to help writers with their current projects, as well as offer advice and suggestions that can help them succeed in future writing situations. That said, there are some new features to our new space that will allow us to grow in important ways. For example, our new University Writing Center includes have multimedia consulting rooms where we can work with multimodal assignments as well as conduct online, video consultations with distance education students.

We also plan to start using the new, more visible University Writing Center space for other writing-related events and activities. We will continue to use the Writing Center for meetings of our Junior Faculty Writing Groups, and plan to start offering writing group activities for graduate students and for undergraduate creative writers. Keep an eye on our social media and website for more news about these opportunities. We also hope to hold other writing events in our new space, DSCN3765such as readings by student and faculty writers.

It is important to thank Dean Bob Fox, of the University Libraries, for his vision and ongoing support that made this space possible, as well as Dean of Arts and Sciences Kimberly Kempf-Leonard for her support that allowed us to have new furniture in the Writing Center.

In January we will hold an official re-opening celebration, and we hope you will join us then to celebrate writing and writers at UofL. In the meantime, come by and see us and enjoy the new University Writing Center.


Feedback Isn’t a Snowflake: Handling Revision Anxiety

This weeDSCN3615k, consultant Karley Miller shares her strategies for navigating multiple (and sometimes conflicting) pieces of writing advice.

My last writing project took me a month to revise. I set a goal to have revisions completed in a week, used that week to think about getting started, then spent the next three weeks stressed about not having met my own self-imposed deadline. Did someone say writing is a process?

Since I sent my revised draft off to receive more feedback, I’ve had some time to think about the source of my revision anxiety. Feedback. It’s potentially the most important, and confusing, and anxiety-inducing thing (for me, at least, and maybe you too). So, feedback is important (you’re writing for an audience, right?). Not only is feedback from one person important, feedback from multiple people, if possible, is even more important. Feedback, especially from multiple people, can be confusing. Each person comes to a piece of writing from a totally unique perspective. No two people are completely alike—neither is their feedback. This isn’t to say that feedback exists, from each source, as its own special snowflake of insight, but the differences in opinion are large enough to create, like, anxiety frostbite if you spend too long scrutinizing them. Maybe that’s a stretch, but sifting through feedback in order to improve a draft can be stressful, which is why I want to share, with anyone who has been kind enough to read this far, my favorite new piece of writing advice (not claiming it as my own, rather it has probably existed since our ancestors scratched petroglyphs into cave walls, and only just now reached me): writing is much about learning when to listen and when not to.

This is not to say that revision anxiety is cured by seeking feedback from two different people and deciding, after reading their comments, that one person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It is to suggest, however, having a little faith in your own purpose. By the time you’ve received feedback from multiple people, you’ve spent hours turning your thoughts into words on a page. I don’t believe you can write a sentence without some idea of what you’re intending to communicate. This is where learning when to listen, and when not to, comes in. If you have a clear idea of your argument, or your story, or your sentence, for example, not every single word of feedback is going to help you better communicate that idea. For example, if I write, “Feedback isn’t a snowflake,” and you say, “This makes no sense,” I’m not going to change my idea (because I am, at this point, very wedded to the idea that feedback can be compared to a special snowflake but is not, exactly, one), but I might, in my blog, try very hard to explain it because your feedback let me know that I was unclear, and I, myself, am able to understand that this sentence is a stretch. If I can’t explain it, maybe I should cut it.

Moral of the story? All feedback should be taken into consideration, and applied only after you are sure making the change won’t alter your message. Unless, of course, feedback makes you reconsider your message (argument, etc.). In which case, good luck, and the Writing Center is here to give you even more feedback on a new and improved message. Although, as you can see, it’s a process for everyone (very seriously considering revising this blog about feedback/revision to exclude the snowflake comparison, although now I’m thinking the winter theme works nicely with the change of seasons).

You Can’t Teach That: Facilitating Discussion on Tutor-Writer Rapport?

DSCN3709Amy Nichols, Assistant Director

As one of the assistant directors at the writing center, I have the opportunity to teach two lessons in Bronwyn’s “Writing Center Theory and Practice” course, where our graduate consultants receive training during the fall semester. Recently, I facilitated one of our class discussions around “Student-tutor relations in the Writing Center.” Writing center sessions can include wildly varying levels of language and disciplinary expertise between both tutors and writers, making relationship-building critical to successful communication. In addition, rapport is also a crucial (and under-discussed) part of being a successful student, employee, or person generally.

Building individual relationships, particularly in professional settings, is a complex and deeply contextualized activity, and most of what I know about it is instinctive, built on trial and error over time. Because of this, I had a difficult time planning our lesson. For our discussion, I ended up choosing two recent articles from the journal Language and Education: Cynthia Lee’s (2015) “More than Just Language Advising: Rapport in University English Writing Consultations and Implications for Tutor Training” and Innhwa Park’s (2014) “Stepwise Advice Negotiation in Writing Center Peer Tutoring.” Lee’s focus on individual elements that go into building a relationship and Park’s discussion on how to deal with minor disagreements helped us find a way in to this difficult-to-teach subject.

Lee’s framework pulled from discourse and rapport scholarship to detail descriptions of the kinds of behaviors that we often take for granted: greetings, small talk, qualifiers/mitigation devices, open-ended questions, first-person plural pronoun use, and praises/related forms of encouragement (436). Saying hello and chatting about unrelated matters tend to be givens in social interaction, but they can also help ease the tension when two people don’t know one another well. Qualifiers such as “maybe” or “perhaps” and open-ended questions such as “Can you tell me more about your goals for this project/assignment?” help build understanding and ease discussions around disagreements. First-person plural pronouns like “we” and “us” are helpful in creating a more team-oriented work environment during sessions, while encouragement and praise help build confidence.

I don’t know about the consultants (feel free to comment!), but it was really helpful for me to have a conversation about those elements of a writing center session that often go unrecognized and (seemingly) unnoticed, but which can make a real difference to the success or failure of a session. For example, a few of our consultants shared that small talk tends to make them uncomfortable, particularly if students responded to small talk by discussing their frustration with particular assignment or situation, while another shared that she sees such situations as an emotional opening to help writers address their concerns. Understanding a variety of approaches to such small interactions and the rationale beneath them gave me more resources for interacting with a variety of personalities.

Park’s article details the ways in which advice resistance is a negotiated construction for both the tutor and the writer. She discusses the steps that resistance, acknowledgment, and resolution move through within sessions, and I thought her work might prove a helpful springboard for discussing the ways in which we negotiate advice resistance in our own sessions. We did discuss ways that we tend to navigate through (or around) resistance during our discussion. One of our consultants commented that, while she was aware of her own intentional practices in navigating resistance, she had not thought about the fact that writers might also follow certain linguistic formulations in constructing their resistance, such as saying “Yes, but what I was really trying to do there was….”. We also discussed the ways in which people from different classes and cultures might navigate resistance more or less directly than the examples in the article, which led one of our consultants to ask a very helpful question about balancing a knowledge of intersectionality (every person is different) with strategic approaches to consulting (we have to apply concrete strategies to our work).

Ultimately, I enjoyed our discussion, but I would love to hear some comments. Consultants, how did the session go from your perspective? Colleagues (and that includes you, too, consultants), how would you/do you encourage productive discussion on building relationships/rapport during writing center sessions? Writers, what kinds of discussions have been most helpful to you in moving your writing forward?

University Writing Center (r)Evolution?

Cassie Book, Associate Director

Many posts here on our blog are about the writing and tutoring processes, but another important part of “who we are and what we do” is participate in scholarly conversations. This month I attended the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) annual conference. The theme, Writing Center (r)evolutions, challenged me to rethink my own assumptions as a consultant and administrator. I’m sharing a few of the half-formed thoughts and questions. I want to invite you into my conference experience. By doing so, I hope to blur the invisible boundaries between daily practices, personal reflection, conversations, and research; I want to make our behind-the-scenes writing center conversations a bit more visible.

  • Foremost on my mind is the University Writing Center’s impending move to the first floor of the library. We’re excited to gain a more visible space and digital consultation rooms. But we’re also gaining new neighbors: the Digital Media Suite, REACH Computer Resource Center, and Research Assistance and Instruction. Stacy Rice’s presentation confronted anxieties that exist when separate centers, such as writing, speaking, digital, or communication, have somewhat overlapping missions. She challenged all centers to not attempt to divide communication into different realms and instead simply respond rhetorically to the writers and composers who seek response and feedback. Our new space and location affords us the opportunity to collaborate in ways that previously may have been difficult. Will each center embrace opportunity or retreat into our separate spheres? What are the best ways to collaborate?
  • Regardless of any (r)evolution or renovation, I think it’s safe to assume our writing center services will always include the individual consultation. Yet, writing center research still has work to do in understanding the dynamics of writing tutoring. Molly Parson’s research focuses on consultants’ perceptions of conflict during sessions. Parsons made me think about the expectations consultants and writers have for sessions. She seemed to suggest that while both sides may think “good” or “productive” sessions will be those that steer clear of conflict, but, in reality, conflict can spur ideas and those “ah-ha!” moments. Do we learn because of, not despite, conflict?
  • We work with many multilingual writers. Nicole Bailey’s presentation suggested that centers should consider providing tutoring in writers’ home languages when possible. Her ethnographic research in a multilingual university in South Africa suggests that when writers feel comfortable, they will learn more. She’s already embraced the practice at the writing center she directs. How can we bring writers’ home languages into the writing consultation?
  • All the consultants in the University Writing Center are graduate students who complete a course called Writing Center Theory and Practice. Kelsey Weyerbacher and Jack Bouchard, two undergraduate consultants, presented their experience and research data. Their perspectives challenge the (mis)conception that a tutor is just a tutor. Yet, writing centers are fruitful sites for research that informs issues of learning, writing, development process, response, space, and conversation. What happens when tutor-initiated research becomes the rule rather than the exception?
  • Matt Dowell’s presentation suggested that writing centers should pay more attention to paratexts—handwritten notes, charts, marginalia, and drawings—written or drawn during sessions. These texts may have untapped potential. In a separate presentation, Matthew Rossi argued that doodling in sessions can create opportunities for common ground and understanding that talking simply cannot.

Finally, a panel organized by Muriel Harris challenged writing centers to better use online spaces—listservs, blogs, databases, and websites—to share across centers and among local contexts. An important question that arose during the discussions was: Who do our blogs reach? Our UofL Writing Center blog had 7,541 unique visitors in 2014. We’ve had 6,263 so far in 2015. But who are you? Is there a better way to reach our target audiences?

To that end, I encourage you to be radical—comment on the blog and let us know. What are your thoughts on writing center (r)evolutions?

How I Write: Brian Buford

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.

Our featured writer this week is Brian Buford. Brian is Assistant Provost for Diversity and Director of the LGBT Center. With nearly 30 years of service to the University of Louisville, Brian has dedicated his career to building a campus community where all students, faculty, and staff feel welcome, safe, and included. Key achievements under his leadership include: opening a staffed LGBT Center in 2007, the first of its kind in Kentucky; earning a five-star rating on the Campus Pride index; launching the Bayard Rustin themed housing community for LGBT students and allies, the first of its kind in the south; opening a satellite LGBT Center on the Health Sciences Center campus; partnering with community leaders on Feast on Equality, a signature fundraising event; and being hailed by LEO Weekly as “the most LGBT friendly public university in the south.”

Brian_BufordLocation: Louisville, Kentucky

Currently reading: I’m always looking for good articles and social media to use in my Multicultural Issues class.

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

For my own personal growth, I keep a journal and, in fact, have stacks of them hidden away that I wrote years ago. I think I still have the journal I kept when I was 15. It’s sort of sweet to read what my 15-year old self was thinking. For work, I often write to communicate with people about LGBT identity. Sometimes people feel more comfortable interacting with me through email or social media, so I write to answer their questions and to help them move along in their journey.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I have a hectic life, so I carry my journal with me wherever I go. I was writing in it at the dentist’s office the other day because that was my only break.

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

On the one hand, I’m old school. I like a hardbound notebook, with no lines, for writing and journaling. But when it comes to reading, I’ve completely embraced the e-book. I love the idea that I can travel light but still have plenty of good reading at my fingertips.

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

If I’m writing a sensitive email message to someone who’s coming out or struggling with their identity, I read it over and over to make sure the words convey just the right message. I know from first-hand experience that leaving out one word can change everything. I think my comfort zone is writing conversationally. So I also try to ask myself if this is how I would say it if we were having a chat.

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

If you’re submitting something to be published, or even if you are just sending in a cover letter for a job application, ask the best writer you know to proofread it for you. You’ll be amazed at the little things we all miss. That being said, I’ve been on the run today and I’m sending this in without following my own advice.

The Scientific Method of Writing

Copy of DSCN3660Jenny Kiefer, Consultant

If your middle school experience was anything like mine, the words “science fair” conjure images of a loud gymnasium, colorful tri-fold cardboard displays, and perhaps even small aquariums with animals or displays to touch and hold. It was during these science fairs that I was first introduced, as I’m sure you may have been as well, to the scientific method.

Why am I talking about the scientific method on a writing center blog? Believe it or not, the scientific method is very much related to writing. The same six steps which may have led you to performing an experiment about whose nose was better between a dog and a human are the same six steps which can help you with your next writing project.


Every piece of writing starts with some spark of interest. Whether you are delving into your own experiences for a personal narrative, dissecting a novel for analysis, or beginning a long research project, your writing and research should begin with a question that interests you and makes you want to uncover the answer. What was a moment in which I felt like an outsider? Why do butterfly wings develop spots that look like eyes? What would happen if aliens landed on earth? The more passionate you are about your question, the more fun you will have researching and writing.


Once you have your question, you’ll need to do some research to give you some background to use in order to answer your question. This research could include journal articles, prior experiment reports, or primary texts like a poem, novel, or even a film. If you are writing a creative piece, your research might include interviewing family for more information to include in a personal narrative or looking up the proper procedures for an EMS responder for a short story.


Once you have done your background research, you can formulate your “hypothesis” – your argument for your writing. The “hypothesis” may be, in many cases, your thesis statement. It is the answer to your original question and the main point or set of points that you will claim to be true. Just like in your grade school’s science fair, your hypothesis should be based on your research findings.


Once you’ve done your research and formulated your thesis, you’ll need to create an analysis. You’ve told your reader what you have found to be true – whether it is that butterflies developed “eyes” to ward off predators or that Antigone is a true representation of tragedy – and now you need to convince the reader that your findings are, indeed, accurate. While you may not be hosting an experiment with control groups for your writing, you will need to provide evidence of your claims, just as you would when presenting scientific fact. Often the best evidence is quotations from a primary source (which may be a novel or relevant book) and secondary sources (journal articles, prior experiments or case studies) which provide support to your argument. If you are trying to convince your reader that the society in The Great Gatsby was shallow, you might quote Daisy’s famous line regarding her daughter to support your argument: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

In creative writing, this evidence is often called “showing instead of telling.” While you may not be attempting to persuade your reader of a certain belief or conclusion in a poem or work of fiction like you may be in other types of writing, you are trying to convince the reader of other things, such as emotions or motives. The best way to do this is to show these things to your reader, by describing things like body language, dialogue, setting, and mood. Instead of simply telling your reader that your character is sad, you’d instead show this by the tears in his eyes, the jeans he’s been wearing for several days, and the frown on his face.


Just like a scientific report, in the conclusion of your writing, you will provide the results of your research and thesis. Your results are the culmination of all of the previous steps of your writing project. Instead of using your conclusion to merely summarize what you’ve already said, you can model even this section after a scientific report: what is the importance and significance of what you’ve written? How does it advance the understanding of your original question? You’ve given your argument and you’ve given your evidence to support your argument; your conclusion is where you further express the implication of what you’ve written.

Writing is definitely more of an art than a science; however, thinking about writing and the writing process in different ways can often aid with writer’s block through the various stages, especially getting started. The next time you begin a writing project, imagine a flashback sequence to the sixth grade science fair and think of the scientific method.

Opportunity Instead of Failure: 5 Tips for Rewriting

DSCN3636Emily Blair, Consultant

So you’ve realized that your paper maybe doesn’t fit the prompt as well as you imagined, or your professor suggests you need to rewrite some or most of your first draft. At the University Writing Center, we can help with this common writing situation, but here are a few tips to get you started on your own.

  1. Don’t think everything is “wrong.”

When you hear the phrase “substantial revision,” you might think you need to throw out all of your original paper and begin again. While this MIGHT be true (see tip #2), it probably isn’t. Perhaps your thesis statement didn’t reflect your ideas well, or your research skewed toward an interesting idea that unfortunately didn’t always fit with the prompt. However, if your ideas and thesis are solid, a “substantial revision” might mean rewriting a body paragraph or two in order to better support that thesis. Don’t think that everything you’ve already done is useless now!

2. Don’t be afraid of the blank Word document, again.

So you spent a week tweaking this paper, perfecting your word choice, refining your argument to a fine point, and your professor wrote Revise! in the margins. While you might be tempted to ignore their suggestion because of the amount of time and energy you poured into your work, this is commonly referred to as a Sunk Cost Fallacy, meaning that you shouldn’t compare the time you spent on a project that will not, in the end, work, against the time you would have to spend revising it. If your goals for the paper are to successfully navigate a writing assignment, don’t be afraid of the new document, or of reworking a major part of your paper. The time spent revising will pay off.

3. Ask for clarification.

If your professor suggests that you should substantially revise your paper, ask exactly what she means. Perhaps the ideas, research, and thesis are great, but you have some sentence structuring issues through the paper. Maybe one of the body paragraphs doesn’t support your thesis, but the rest of the paper reads well. Without clarification, you might spend time and energy changing things that don’t need changing, or actually be weakening your paper in the process.

4. Go back to the beginning.

What was your first thought when you received the assignment or prompt? How did your thought process progressing to your final paper draft? Were there points where you knew parts of your paper were less than stellar, but you continued working because of a deadline or other pressures? Or, were you rushing to finish the paper because of a time crunch? Many factors affect how college students write and edit their work, and being able to chart your working attitude with your writing can help you see where you might expand, improve, and revise.

5. Carry revision strategies into your next first draft.

I know, thinking about your next writing assignment while in the throes of a rewrite sounds ridiculous, but rewriting allows us to revisit our writing process and consider what we might improve on for the future. Do you spend too much time on sentence level revisions and ignore the larger flow of your paragraphs? Do you find yourself distracted from your thesis, leading to a muddled body section? Are your conclusions focusing too much on previously stated facts and not enough on connections and expansions? Rewriting is the time to look at your writing with fresher eyes than you would while editing a first draft, and you can and should think about the revising process as you begin brainstorming for your next assignment.

Peter Elbow wrote in Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition, “Don’t let yourself engage in taking the whole thing apart again for major revising even though your feelings say, ‘This thing must be completely done over, it’s worthless’” (174). He describes the nausea that sometimes accompanies the revising process, and even as a published and respected writer and professor, he feels the panicked revulsion at what he has written, and how he thinks he should change his writing. So you aren’t alone if the revision process seems overwhelming! At the University Writing Center, we enjoy working with writers at every phase of their writing process, and hope you will come in with a revision (or anything else) soon!

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