UofL Writing Center

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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!

Don’t Let Perfectionism Get You Stuck

Ashley Ludewig, Consultant

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If you’re anything like me, perfectionism might be causing you a lot of grief at this point in the semester. Sure, perfectionism might have led you to some great final projects or papers and maybe even good grades and praise. It has for me, too. But my tendency toward perfectionism also has a dark side: it can sometimes be completely and utterly paralyzing…Especially when I sit down to write.

I’ve spent the last several years studying writing and how it happens, and everything I’ve learned tells me that there’s no such thing as a perfect draft and it certainly doesn’t happen on the first try (Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” is a great take on this reality, by the way). But a lot of times I still feel like I just have to get it right immediately. Maybe I write a sentence or two and delete them (a few times, probably), or I re-read assignment instructions and start to over-think them and psych myself out. Either way, expecting perfection from myself sometimes makes it impossible for me to move forward.

Here are some strategies I use to break through the perfectionism barrier when I’m writing:

Getting Started: When I feel like I just can’t possibly start putting words on the page, my first move is to revert back to some “basic” pre-writing strategies. I try to make an outline or concept map of the information I think I’m going to include in the paper and sometimes having a plan helps me break the ice. When I’m working on an essay that requires research of any kind, another way that I’ve gotten past the “Where do I even begin?” hurdle is to gather any quotes or paraphrased material I want to use and start typing it into a Word document in the order I imagine myself using it in the essay. Sometimes even typing words that aren’t my own into the document eases my fear of that blinking cursor (after all, the page is no longer totally blank!). Then before I know it, I find myself typing out my interpretations of or responses to that source material and voila!  A draft starts to take shape. If none of these things work, I try to get away from the ominous combination of the white page and blinking cursor and start writing somewhere else. A lot of times that means starting a draft by hand in a notebook, but I’ve also had success typing the first few paragraphs of an essay on my blog. The stakes feel lower there and sometimes that makes all the difference.

Keeping the Words Flowing: Another time that perfectionism rears its ugly head for me is when I’m searching for that perfect word or phrase in a sentence. I hum and haw over it for a minute, type and delete a few options, consult Word’s thesaurus, and if I’m still not satisfied, I go to thesaurus.com or Tip of My Tongue and explore more options there. This is all well and good, except that by the time I’ve gone through all these steps a few minutes have probably been lost and so has the “flow” I had going before I decided I had to find that perfect word. Worse yet, looking away from Word and opening up a web browser often means taking a minute or two to check my favorite social media sites and before long, I’m back in full avoidance mode.

There are two tricks I have for ending this cycle and giving myself permission to move on. The first is to highlight the word I know I want to replace in bright yellow so that it’s easy to find and change when I go back to revise my draft. If I can’t even think of the word in the first place, I write something silly like “elephant” in its place, highlight that, and go from there. If the problem is more than just finding the right word, I use the comment feature in Word to make a note to myself about what I think isn’t quite right about a sentence or passage so that when I go back to revise, I can remember the concerns I had when I first wrote it. Sometimes it’s not so simple; I occasionally feel like I really need to slow down and get a sentence at least close to “right” before I can move on because the ideas I want to get down next are dependent on the first one. If you find yourself there, too, that’s okay. The trick is not letting yourself get stuck on every sentence every time.

I hope these tips help you get started on your drafts and keep them going. As always, you can (and should!) visit us at the University Writing Center to help you at any point in that process. Happy writing, folks!

Resumes, Part II: Continuing to Set Yourself Apart

Mariah Douglas, Consultant

We did it, UofL! We’ve hit the double digits for the number of weeks we’ve been hard at work this fall semester. Unfortunately that means, if it hasn’t already started for you, crunch time is right around the corner (and sadly, I’m not referring to the leaves crunching underfoot, either). Assignments galore. Tests for days. Pages of papers (which the University Writing Center would love to help you with!). But before we start to coffee-guzzle, let’s take a happy minute to reflect on what we’ve already accomplished this fall. Better yet, let’s translate those accomplishments to our resumes!

Last year, Meagan Ray did an excellent piece on uncommon resume tips, which explained a few different tactics to give your resume an edge in the job market. Definitely give that a look-see, as those are some excellent ways to distinguish your resume. But make sure to come back here for Part II–just a few more suggestions that will take yours to the next level:

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1. Bullet points say whaaaat?—There are several layers to a resume: main headings of sections, individual items within each section, qualifiers for each item to further explain them (dates, location, what Meagan referred to in her short explanation of “Player” in her blog post, etc.), and I suggest adding one more layer–further expanding upon each item with bullet points.

But what to include in said bullet points, you ask? At the bare minimum, include your responsibility associated with that item (i.e., the responsibilities of that job position). However, to really make your resume stand out, include this responsibility and tack on what skill you gained/were able to demonstrate by carrying out that responsibility. For example, I worked as a sales associate at Gymboree, where my main responsibility was to sell children’s clothing, but my bullet point read like this: “sold children’s clothing, in order to perfect customer service skills and fund my study abroad experience.”

These bullet points are where your audience has the opportunity to really get to know you and how you have applied certain skills in a professional environment. Which leads me to my next point…

2. Now about that Skills section…— Unless you have a skill that is specifically beneficial to your field or really makes you stand out, like “CPR certified for the past 4 years,” employers may be likely to just skim this Skills section, as they see it time and time again. That’s some valuable space on your resume that could be used to really capture your audience!

My advice is to include these overused skills that are usually in that separate section in the bullet point explanations (explained above in Suggestion #1). It’s important to be aware of which skills are overused and to steer away from being a cliché applicant. For example, unless you’re looking to be congratulated for being born after 1985, don’t include “Microsoft Office proficiency.” It is a general skill that most people have acquired during our tech-savvy age, and unless your employer specifically wants this noted, it’s best to not include this skill and instead use this space to highlight a better aspect of you!

BUT, again, if you do have a skill that really distinguishes you in that field, keeping it in its own “Skills” section may benefit you by showcasing how unique and qualified you are as an applicant.

3. Gotta getcha some of that Skimmability—What are employers going to see first if they just skim over your resume (which unfortunately happens all the time)? Usually, the answer is whatever is closest to the top and furthest to the left. So with this knowledge, you can make your resume even more tailored to your audience.

Applying to a new school? Putting education as your first section may be a smart move. A managerial position? If you were a manager before, including that job title at the top of that specific item and closest to the left side of the page may be enough to catch that boss-person’s eye.

4. BOLD, italics, underlined, oh my!—These emphasizing typography methods are your friends. They can draw your reader to whichever part of your resume you choose to be most important.

For example, if you are applying to graduate school and are trying to focus your entire resume around what you have done as a student/responsible person, you may want to prioritize each item under your “Professional Experience” section by the title of the position you held, rather than the company it was under; by presenting your title first, perhaps in bold, with the company underneath in italics, it draws the reader to this block of emphasized text, while differentiating the two and still giving the bigger emphasis to your position within that company.

5. Consistency, consistency, consistency—Employers love when everything on your resume is clean-cut. Your resume is usually the company’s first impression of you, so by trimming everything up and making it all consistent, you show that you have an eye for detail and really care about putting your best foot forward, which translates to being able to positively represent their company, too!

For this step, you should come at your resume with fresh eyes. Set it down. Pick it back up. Go.

If you end your bullet points with periods, make sure to do this throughout. Are all of your bullet points lined up? Are all of your dates aligned on the page? Did you use an Oxford comma in one list but not another? Does your resume look succinct at first glance? Make notes and apply these changes.

6. Save every resume. Just do it. F’real.—If you haven’t done this yet, it’s okay. Just start now. As you gain more experience and participate in more things, the items you include on your resume are going to fluctuate. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve needed to go back and look at a position I held in an organization or at a job I had that is now more applicable to the position I’m currently applying for. The safest thing to do is save everything. And it’s really quite easy!

All you need to do is open your most recent resume and make the necessary changes, then select “Save As,” and rename this edited resume with the current date, such as “Resume 2014.10.26,” to be saved in the same folder as the other resumes. This will ensure that both your last resume and this most recent one are saved on your computer, and writing the date as year-month-day will prompt the folder to group these resumes first by year, then by month.

7. Brand-spankin’-new job? Awesome! Tell your resume all about it ASAP—That really is great! Just make sure to “Save As” that new file (see Suggestion #6) and add it all in. It’ll be easier now than trying to remember each position you held or volunteer work you did throughout the past semester.

But most importantly, just keep on keepin’ on. It’s go time.

The 5-Step Process for Writing a To-Do List

Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Alongside the crisp autumn air and the leaf mosaics covering the ground come final projects, long research papers, and tests galore. In short, it’s crunch time, y’all. So, you may ask, how do we manage our time so we can get our work done and maybe have a little itty bitty bit of fun, too? The answer is a to-do list! Some people may argue that writing a to-do list seems like an activity that only requires halfway conscious thought; I beg to differ. To-do lists not only keep you accountable, but they can actually do wonders for the confidence you have in the work you do.

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If you’re struggling to figure out where to begin, follow these 5 easy steps and you’ll be a to-do list making, reading, writing, studying machine!

1. Include Tasks You Have Already Completed

If you are feeling particularly overwhelmed, write down tasks you have already completed and go ahead and cross them off. Now, I know this may sound a little ridiculous—okay, maybe a lot ridiculous—but it will allow you the feeling of continuing rather than starting a list. Starting is often the hardest part of any project or goal. (Let’s be real, why would you start being productive when you can watch an entire season of Parks and Rec on Netflix in one sitting?) But alas! The future you calls and begs you to do your work, do it well, and do it without pulling all your hair out. If you frame your to-do list in a way that shows that you have already taken the first step towards being productive (even if it is hanging up all your clean laundry or scooping the kitty litter), continuing on to the next task will be just that…a continuation rather than a dreaded beginning. Also, when you’re stressed and you feel like you’re barely staying afloat, marking a task off your (seemingly never-ending) to-do list can be a serious cathartic experience.

2. Write Down the Items in the Order You Intend to Do Them

So, I know this seems like work before starting on the actual work, but you will thank yourself later. Assigning a logical order to your list gives you the opportunity to ease yourself into the work. There are many ways you can organize: start small and build from there, begin with your least favorite subject so you can get it out of the way first, or start with the larger project if you feel like you’ll be productive earlier in the day. Obviously, the way you tailor your to-do list is entirely up to you, but take the time to actually organize it into a logical set of tasks so you’ll be more likely to get into—and stay in—the groove of things.

3. Keep A Logical Scope in Mind

This is absolutely, entirely, so, so important. As a new grad student, I am quickly realizing that making a to-do list is a lot like designing a large research project in that you have to be realistic about what you—as a human being without superpowers or seventeen arms—can accomplish in the amount of time you have. Even if you are making a to-do list for the weekend—which seems like a lot of time—it is still important to think about what you can realistically get done. One, this will help you plan for and prioritize the following week (let’s be honest, chances are that every single thing will not get done on the weekend), and, two, this will keep you from getting discouraged when you check off three or four items, feel great about your progress, and then still have an unending list staring you in the face. Time management, stress management, and keeping yourself sane in the midst of the end of semester madness has a lot to do with being honest with yourself, setting realistic expectations, and feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

4. Be Detailed and Specific

I know this is another moment where you’re thinking, “how much work do I have to do before actually doing the work?”, but again, you will thank yourself later. By “detailed and specific,” I mean, instead of writing down “read for English class,” write down what the individual articles are so you don’t have to go back to your syllabus a hundred times to remind yourself what article from Blackboard applies to what day in class. Also, actually looking at the upcoming assignment will help you know how much you can logically get done in that day (re: step #3).

5. Indicate When the Task is Complete, and Do It Like You Mean It!

The final step is my favorite step. Once you have made your detailed, logical to-do list, get out a colorful pen and go to town marking off, checking off, scratching out, or x-ing through the tasks you have completed. Like I said earlier—for me at least—this is such a cathartic experience. As students, who happen to also do things in regular life, it is easy to feel that we are completely sacrificing one thing in order to pay attention to another. While this demand is part of being a student, creating a to-do list that is manageable and well organized, and scratching through the completed tasks with a vengeance, allows you a well-earned feeling of productivity and accomplishment. Plus, when you can look at all the aweseome things you accomplished that day, you can feel better about entering into a little bit of personal time. So, when you get to crossing off that last task, go treat yourself and celebrate a job well done!

Words on Cooking with Words

Chris Scheidler, Consultant

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Plato infamously likened rhetoric to cookery. Rhetoric is a tricky word to define, but for the sake of this blog post (which originates from a university writing center), I’ll posit: rhetoric is goal-directed writing; rhetorical techniques are strategies we employ that help to achieve our goal. Whew.

Plato meant to undermine writing when he called it cookery, but (value judgments on the worth of writing aside) composition and gastronomy have many useful similarities. Both require preparation. Both have a process. Both can be social. Both have misconceptions regarding style. So, I ask you, blog reader – humor this composing cook as I expand on the kitchen comparisons of writing and gastronomy.

Mise en Place

Mise en place” is a French term that means “putting in place.” When used in a kitchen, mise en place is a noun that roughly means: all the prep work you’ve done ahead of time. Good gastronomes don’t want to be stuck cutting their produce and measuring their spices while the meat is burning on the grill. Having your mise en place simplifies cooking. Writing has a mise en place, too. We can get our mise en place for writing by outlining our papers, doing our research, and preparing our citations ahead of time. When I don’t have my writing mise en place, just like an underprepared cook, I get anxious and I struggle to dish out a decent paper. For me, the end results are similar to the cook’s results: an underwhelming and difficult to swallow piece. In the words of Gordon Ramsey, “Not good enough.”

What’ s for dinner

Writing, like cooking, can be an experiment, exploration, or creative endeavor. Sometimes we keep the same ingredients and alter only the order (as in: “like cooking, writing can be…”). Other times we experiment with completely different ideas and change the dish entirely. Nevertheless, much of the writing we do in a university is ordered from a menu. If your professor orders up a 2-page analysis, then a 5-page summary won’t do. This doesn’t mean that every paper should be the same: you can deglaze a pan with brandy or broth – you can analyze with juxtaposition or deconstruction. Regardless, there are expectations to meet; I usually expect my burger to be on a bun. Unfamiliar with the type of writing you’re being asked to do? Thankfully, there are places like university writing centers that can help you navigate the recipes and techniques.

I’ll have what she’s having

You can eat alone or you can eat with company. What you’ve written can be shared – passed around the Burkean Parlor as an hors d’oeuvre, or as something more substantial. Even the act of writing can be a shared and social process. I often seek out peer reviewers to taste-test my writing. It can be a bit scary, I’m always afraid they’ll gag, but my peers have helpful advice and have yet to gag on anything I’ve written.

Gourmets

I suppose it would be easy to get wrapped up in the misconception that haute cuisine is in someway intrinsically better than everyday cooking. I believe the appeal to stylistic and “fanciness” of elevated grammars and gourmets is wrong. There is a place for the well-plated gourmet meals, but a well-executed burger is equally commendable.

So whether you’re looking for a taste-tester, a recipe translator, or a little help getting your mise en place – consider stopping by your University Writing Center.

How I Write: Tim Johnson – 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 Tim Johnson. Dr. Johnson is new to the University of Louisville’s English Department, having just finished his Doctorate in English-Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches rhetoric and writing courses and researches the intersections of rhetoric, writing, and the economy.

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Location: Bingham Hall, Louisville, Kentucky

Current project: An article for the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs concerned with Ford Motor Company’s films during and after World War II

Currently reading: Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, March by Geraldine Brooks

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

I’ve been doing a lot of proposal writing lately: an abstract for an edited collection on technical writing, a presentation proposal for an upcoming conference. I like writing these brief statements because they force me to be brief and figure out the gist of what I’m working on. Beyond that, I work on a pretty steady queue of journal articles, potential book chapters, emails, and classroom materials.

Generally, I like to be in a few different “stages” of the writing process on a handful of projects all at one time—planning one, compiling research for another, doing the actual writing for a third, and revising a fourth. While this isn’t always the most efficient practice (I start more than I finish), I have found that it keeps me from getting so fixated on any one piece of writing that I become unproductive. This rotation also makes working on one project feel like taking a break from another and that mental shift can make all the difference; plus, I have found there is a certain degree of serendipity in having multiple projects (I’ll find a great source for one while researching for another, or the phrasing I spent an afternoon trying to get right comes to me when revising another project).

2. When/where/how do you write?

Right now my work consists of writing, teaching writing, and teaching the teaching of writing—so, essentially, most of my day is filled up with writing-related activity. I very much enjoy this…though it doesn’t make me much fun at dinner parties. When really getting down to the business of writing, though, I try to have at least an hour on my hands to devote to the project without an interruption.

In terms of place, I’ve been writing at my home desk or in my office on campus. Now that it has cooled off a bit, I take to my porch as well. I like to have a window to look out of and the occasional excuse to get up and take a stroll. I’m constantly trying to update and change my process, but lately it has been pretty uniform: I begin by reading something (usually from the same genre that I will be writing). I find that it helps to see another writer in action as this can spark ideas and cause my own writerly voice to come out. Once comfortable, I will start reading my work from the top. On a good day, I’ll get to the part of the work that I was planning to expand and proceed writing. More often than I’d like, though, somewhere along the way I’ll decide the order is wrong, change the organization, realize this wasn’t the problem, and then finally get to the writing I meant to start with.

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

A computer and a pair of headphones. If I’m in the revision process, I rely a lot on my computer’s text-to-speech function. There’s something about a pseudo-mechanical voice reading my writing aloud that makes me more aware of what needs adjusting. At this point, it has become an essential part of my process.

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

Seek feedback, or just someone to talk to about what you’re up to. Do this during the process of writing, not just once the work is finished. I find that, when left to my own devices, getting a piece of writing to come out right can involve going around in circles. However, if I can get someone to read and talk with me about my work, something magical happens and I can suddenly write again. Apparently, there is some kind of Center that will do this for free on campus.

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

Think in sections. Trying to wrestle with the entirety of a piece in any one sitting is not only exhausting, but largely inefficient. Learning to break a project into a set of shorter, more manageable tasks made both writing and revision easier.

“Let it go.” This came from a mentor who noticed my refusal to send anything to them unless it was just right. Again, sharing my work was a real breakthrough and sometimes my biggest challenge as a writer has been good, old-fashioned self-doubt.

The ePortfolio: Shaping Your Online Presence Through a Professional Medium

Haley Petcher, Consultant 

The weather is still pretty warm, but somehow it’s already October. October means that graduate school applications are beginning to be due, and for those of you graduating in December, the “real world” of jobs is right around the corner. You want to get into grad school and to get a job, but how will the committees and employers know the real you? How will the people writing your rec letters know details about what you did during your undergraduate career? The answer is what you would expect from a University Writing Center employee: by writing.

These days, though, everything is digital. With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc., we have a large digital footprint with details about ourselves, but none of those footprints are professional. At my undergraduate institution, Auburn University, I learned about ePortfolios, which are basically personal websites that showcase your experiences and skills by contextualizing pictures, papers, and projects. I created one for an English class, but I have a confession: I didn’t finish one in time for applications. Guys, I regret that. However, I recently completed one that represents my experiences in undergrad, and I hope to complete another ePortfolio by the end of my MA program.

Before you say, “I don’t have papers to share,” I promise that ePortfolios aren’t just for English majors. I’ve seen examples of ePortfolios by by engineers, pharmacy studentsbusiness students, artists, nurses, and vet students. They pick some of their best projects and presentations to showcase and contextualize.

Creating an ePortfolio is like writing a paper with pictures. Here are a few quick tips to get you started:

  • First, think about your audience. Often it’s professionals, like a professor who is writing your rec letter or a graduate or hiring committee.
  • Next, write a “thesis” for your ePortfolio. That is, what do you want to prove to your audience? One of my friends, for example, majored in English and minored in business. He wanted to prove that his experiences in English, tutoring, hiring committees, and leadership meshed with his love for books. After getting his MBA, he hopes to find a job at a publishing company.
  • Consider how you want to organize your ePortfolio. Should each page have to do with a verb, like “research” or “teach,” or should each page relate to words like “teamwork” or “service”?
  • Pick the most important things you did that are connected to your “thesis” and organize them according to your pages. When you write about them, try to explain the project and to explain what you learned from it.
  • Pick an online venue, like wix.com or weebly.com. (They’re free!)
  • Start creating your ePortfolio! (Remember to use appropriate pictures. Pictures of you outside – by yourself – are often good.)

When you complete your ePortfolio, you can put the link on your resume or email signature. (If there’s something to click, people will probably click it. Take advantage of other people’s curiosity!)

You’re probably wondering what happens if your future employer or grad school doesn’t review your ePortfolio. The great thing is about creating an ePortfolio is that by analyzing and writing about your work, you will begin to better understand what you enjoy about your studies and experiences and how your time in undergrad will help you reach your goals. The ePortfolio shows that you can think critically about your interests and allows you to explain how volunteering at the animal shelter or starting a club for students who enjoy tap dancing makes you an attractive and unique candidate for the job.

If you want some more examples, try checking these out! Also, since an ePortfolio involves writing and is like a paper, you can always bring it to the University Writing Center for a writing consultation.

Note: I received most of this information from presentations I attended while working with Auburn University’s Office of University Writing (OUW). You can learn more about ePortfolios by reviewing the OUW’s website.

Advice for Using Sources

Hannah Cunningham, Consultant

Using sources: many college professors require their students to use and cite sources in their papers. But how to go about doing that? Students know there are several options for using sources, so how do we decide between a direct quotation, a paraphrase, or a summary?

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Sometimes, it’s a difficult choice. At the same time, using sources is vital to producing academic writing, so it’s important that you learn how to do it well. In order for you to avoid plagiarism, build your own credibility, and communicate with an academic audience, you must be able to use sources effectively. Here are the three main ways you can use sources and a brief explanation of when you would use each technique:

1. Direct Quotation. A direct quotation is a complete sentence, several sentences, or part of a sentence that is reproduced word for word from another source. Many teachers require that you use quotations in your paper. Some teachers offer guidelines (one quotation per paragraph, five quotations over the course of the paper, etc.), while others don’t set minimums but expect to see at least some direct quotations. Either way, quotations can enhance your essay.

Typically, a direct quotation is used to point out a specific detail in the text, or to glean the benefit of a well-written sentence on the part of the author. A direct quotation should be very clearly connected to your argument. For example, if you are writing about a specific instance of bird imagery in The Awakening, it would be most effective to directly quote a sentence that involves a bird. Similarly, if you find a particular sentence of an author’s to be particularly well-written or effective, it may serve you best to use that sentence in your own text. In both cases, it is vitally important that whenever you are using someone else’s language, word for word, you cite the material that you are using. Direct quotes must be placed in quotation marks, and they must contain a reference to the source from whence they came.

2. Paraphrase. Paraphrase differs from a direct quotation in that the wording and syntax vary from the original source. Paraphrasing is a handy technique if you want to reference a larger section of material, without directly quoting many lines of the original text. For instance, if you read an article on the ways in which social media is affecting communication skills, you might want to reference one point (say, how Twitter privileges short segments of information) from the larger article in your own paper. Rather than copy out the author’s entire paragraph on Twitter word for word, you could simply summarize the information in your own style.

Paraphrasing does not require quotation marks, but does require citation. In this example, you could restate the author’s argument about how Twitter is affecting communication and continue from there with your own point. However, putting the argument in your own words does not make the argument original to you; since you acquired that idea from another source, you have to give credit to that source in your paper.

3. Summary. Summary is similar to paraphrase in that you are using your own words to present someone else’s argument. However, a paraphrase generally deals with a specific element from a source, while a summary deals with the source as a whole. To continue the earlier example, if you wanted to reference the entire paper on social media’s effect on communication, and not just the paragraph regarding Twitter, you might say “X [author] argues that social media is affecting communication in ways A, B, and C.” A summary acknowledges that an idea is not original to you, but doesn’t bog the reader down with a lot of specifics. Just as with paraphrase, you do not use quotation marks for a summary; however, you still have to cite it.

Citing your sources does more than prevent you from committing plagiarism. As important as that is, citations also serve to place your argument in a larger academic context. Effectively using (and citing) sources allows your audience to read more deeply into your subject; if they find it interesting, they can seek out the articles you have referenced and use them to form their own opinion.

Stating the Obvious

Bobby Rich, Consultant

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When it comes to writing, clarity is king. If what you’re writing isn’t clear, the reader will not be able to follow it, and the point you wished to make could be lost in misunderstanding. A big element of developing clarity in writing, and something which every writer will sometimes gloss over, is simply a matter of stating the obvious; that is to say, what is obvious to you as the writer, but not to the reader. Below are five questions that you can ask yourself when writing and revising in order to make sure that your writing is clear, and that you haven’t left out key, sometimes obvious, information.

Who is the audience you are writing to?

With any piece of writing, you have to consider your audience. Let’s say you have been assigned a writing assignment, with specific guidelines for what the paper should include and what questions you need to address. It is pretty simple to assume that the audience you are writing to will be your professor, and realistically it will be; but let’s consider a hypothetical audience. The hypothetical audience doesn’t know what sort of prompt or questions you are responding to, so you should give them context by restating the key points that you are addressing. Write as if the reader knows nothing about what you are presenting to them, but is reasonably intelligent and able to understand once you clearly explain the information to them. In short: don’t make any unwarranted assumptions about who will be reading your writing. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some assumptions, which leads to the next point to consider….

What background knowledge does your reader need?

Again, let’s assume the hypothetical audience is reasonably intelligent, but they don’t know anything specific about what you are writing about. If you just dig right in and get down to business in your writing, will the reader be able to follow, or do you need to slow down a bit and make sure your reader is grounded in the “basics” first? It will almost always be the latter. Think about how you should present the background info. Obviously you don’t want to spend the whole paper talking about it (the key is in the name “background”); but it is important that you establish for the reader what is foundational for them to fully understand what you are writing about, whether it be your life experiences or a lengthy research paper. However, in considering your audience, you can make some assumptions about what background knowledge they may already have. For example, a mathematics audience will have general knowledge of mathematics. Depending on your audience, some knowledge will be obvious, but…

If it is obvious to you, is it obvious to them?

There are some problems that all writers, no matter how advanced they may be, even if they have publications under their belt, will, time and again, encounter. One of the most frequently occurring problems is that of “glossing over” what the writer feels is obvious. Maybe you’re a freshman writing a personal narrative, drawing on your life experiences, or maybe you’re a PhD student writing about the intricacies of the works of a notoriously difficult 20th century philosopher, whom you just happen to be an expert on. Either way, you know a great deal about your topic, and so, when you’re writing, you skip over stating anything that seems particularly obvious to you. However, what is obvious to the writer is not always obvious to the reader, especially if you are writing about your own life. Sometimes we go from point A to point C without ever showing point B, and this can be lost on the reader. So, just because something seems obvious to you, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include it; often, that is precisely the statement you need to make your point clear, and speaking of which…

Is the point you’re trying to make implied, or is it explicit?

Another issue that develops from glossing over the obvious is relying too much on implied information or implied conclusions. Some things really do need to be made explicit to ensure that the reader understands what you are writing about. Consider this: if you were to speak to your friend, who knows nothing about what you have written about, and you were to simply explain to them a key point in your writing, how would you go about explaining it? Could you paraphrase what you mean? That is often what you need to include in your writing. A simple, but clear and explicit explanation can go a long way, which brings me to my final point…

Are you worried that what you want to write won’t sound “academic” enough?

Don’t be, seriously. There is a great myth that to succeed in college, your writing needs to be dense, complicated, and to appear very “academic.” It is a myth that has been impressed on so many of us for so long that we believe it is true. However, it’s just that: a myth. College writing doesn’t need to be complicated for the sake of being complicated, and you don’t need to exhibit a massive vocabulary or expansive knowledge of writing structures in order to write a successful paper. Don’t worry about trying to impress anyone. What really sounds “academic” is this: clear writing that gets all of the key points across in an effective way. This, more often than not, requires what many writers frequently either avoid because they don’t think they are “allowed” to write that way, or don’t think to do: stating the obvious.

If you’re concerned that maybe you’ve glossed over the obvious in your writing, and that your audience might not totally understand what you’ve written, one really effective solution is to let someone else read your paper and offer suggestions for revision; and if you come to the Writing Center, we will be happy to help you out.

5 Tips for Avoiding Last-Minute Writing

Taylor Gathof, Consultant

Right now, it’s only the fourth week of the semester, but, before we know it, midterms and finals will soon be upon us. For now, we happily go to class, read our textbooks, and complete our short assignments, yet a large, dark cloud lingers on the horizon…the research paper and/or project.

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You’ve seen it on the syllabus. You know you have to eventually do the assignment, but it’s just too painful to even start thinking about. So you tell yourself, “No worries, I’ll think about it later.” Next thing you know, it’s midterms or finals week, 2 AM, and you have less than 12 hours to write this paper.

Is there any end to this madness? Of course there is! Mental anguish is not a class requirement; pulling all-nighters is not a course goal!  It took until the end of my junior year as an undergraduate for me to realize that my problem began in waiting to start on a large assignment, paper, or research project until it appeared within my line of sight on the class schedule, which was usually about a week or so before the assignment was due. This would happen in all of my classes, so I’d have this two week period at the end of a semester where I would work furiously and sleeplessly for two days, turn in an assignment, take a breath, work furiously and sleeplessly for two more days, turn in an assignment, take a breath. Sound familiar? After quite a few semesters of this exhausting pattern, I’ve come across some strategies that currently help me avoid letting all of my papers and projects rain down on me at the end of the semester.

So here are 5 tips for avoiding last-minute research paper and project writing:

  • Get information about an assignment as soon as possible. This will at least put the assignment on your radar. Also, getting assignment information early can help you use class materials to start thinking about potential paper or project topics. For example, let’s say you’re taking a class on the Victorian period in England. You meet with your professor and discover that you have a research paper due at the end of the semester and it should be on a topic covered in class. Since you know this information about the assignment, you can take notice of any topics that arise in class that interest you and may serve as an interesting paper topic.
  • Brainstorm ideas. Once you find a topic or two, sit down and brainstorm ideas. Make a list of specific aspects of a topic that you are interested in researching and writing about. For example, if you are interested in the topic of insanity in Victorian England, your list of potential research aspects might include: the popularity of insane asylums, the rise in the number of females in insane asylums after 1845, minorities and insanity, etc.
  • Break up the task of writing a paper over the course of several days or weeks. Writing a research paper often sounds like an incredibly difficult and daunting task. If you break up the tasks of researching and writing over the course of several days or even weeks, the task doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Plan out which day(s) you will: conduct research, formulate a thesis, craft your argument, write an introduction, write a conclusion, create a bibliography or works cited, revise your draft, etc. If you dislike or struggle with writing specific portions of a paper at a time, try simply breaking up the task of writing your paper by planning to write a certain amount of words or pages per day.
  • Set goals for yourself. Write it in your calendar; set an alarm on your phone. Make a plan and, more importantly, hold yourself to it! Some great ways to hold yourself to your plan of having a certain amount of work done by a certain day is to 1) make an appointment with your professor to talk about your paper and/or 2) make an appointment with the University Writing Center! Making appointments such as these will hold you to your commitment to work on your paper in advance and is an opportunity to receive helpful feedback on your work.
  • Think about how awesome you’re going to feel when you finish a paper or project. In the past, I’ve found myself avoiding working on a research paper because I continuously think about how terrible and difficult the task will be. Having a more positive attitude helps me stay motivated to get an early start. Rather than dwelling on the difficulty of the task, try thinking about how accomplished you will feel when you complete the assignment or how relieved you will feel to no longer have the task hanging over you!

Hopefully these strategies will help you sleep better and breathe easier when the end of the semester rolls around!

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