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Archive for the tag “Academic Writing”

“Learning to Dwell” or Locating Yourself in Academia

Nicole Dugan, Consultant

I tend to dwell, most often in a 7th grade memory in which I dramatically fell in the lunchroom and watched the contents of my tray fly up into the air before landing on top of me. I can feel the heat rising to my face and hear the guffaws of my friends, the slow clap that built as I picked myself up. It’s been over ten years since this happened, but my Nicolebrain likes to periodically revisit this moment. This seems to be the sort of mental dwelling most of us do, and we are usually trying to escape that memory rather than relive it a hundred times. Embarrassing memories from 7th grade are not the most pleasant places to dwell, and we don’t think of them as useful. However, dwelling can be productive if placed in the right context.

Dwelling as I illustrate above, cognitively dwelling or ruminating, is most often perceived as negative. Our brains run down paths that we seemingly cannot control, but the act of dwelling can be a positive and useful tool in the writing process. In terms of creative writing, the people, moments, ideas, places that repeatedly pull our attention can become inspiration for stories and poetry if we’re willing to put it down on the page. In one of our previous posts, Tim talked about having the “willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor” in order to persevere through the challenges of writing and creativity. Writing is indeed a labor, regardless of how long one has practiced it. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, many writers seem to glide through a process that is so intimidating and uncomfortable to most of us.

Cognitive dwelling is not only a momentary jaunt down memory lane, but also a potential kind of residence. In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds explores the ways that space and spatial practices interact with the process of writing, and she spends a chapter on “learning to dwell.” Those that seem to have the upper hand in navigating the writing process appear this way because they “know where the bullies hang out and where the best curry is” (Reynolds 163). They have, as Reynolds would say, inhabited writing long enough to time the best routes and avoid traffic. The realm of academic writing can be a scary place, and this is often because we are surrounded by people who have lived there much longer than we have. When I moved to Louisville at the beginning of August, I had to find my new favorite place for greasy breakfast food (still haven’t found it) and which Kroger I like best (the one on New Cut Rd.) before I felt like I actually lived here. Entering academic conversations requires writers to have this same kind of insider knowledge, and “dwelling doesn’t happen when people feel excluded or that they don’t belong” (Reynolds 163). Deciding what to write about, finding resources, putting together an outline, and writing the first draft is like navigating a city where you don’t know which roads are one-ways or where you can pull a U-turn. However, Reynolds would argue something else: The writer of a text is an “owner or dweller,” while readers are “visitors or transients” (166). You, as the writer, are creating a map for the people who are reading your paper or personal essay; whether the reader gets lost or successfully finds the destination is completely in your control. This means you get to decide the rules, even if you’re fulfilling an assignment.

Dwelling begins before you create the physical text, even before the research. An idea sparks, and you spend the next few hours, days, or weeks, depending on the project’s timeline, turning it over in your head. Will it work for the assignment? Is it researchable? Is it even a good idea? I do my best writing when I can take something I’m already passionate about and turn it into a project. In a way, I take parts of the places I already dwell in and put them into an academic context. Like Beau discusses in his post, your hobbies or the music and television shows you like can help you feel more comfortable with writing. Even better, you can pull down the perceived barrier between those things you love and your academic writing. We often separate our lives, feeling like the different places and communities we inhabit are in boxes rather than a cohesive map of our identities. If we want to become successful inhabitants of academia, allowing the parts of our identities that are seemingly incompatible with academia gives us a way in, a chance “to orient [ourselves] when in an unfamiliar place” (Reynolds 168).

We all dwell, on those embarrassing memories, the television show we binged this past weekend, or a looming deadline. In order to dwell in the manner of inhabiting a space, we have to locate ourselves within the bigger picture or place ourselves in that picture. It’s not always a matter of “finding” your voice in your writing, but allowing the voice you’ve always had to make space in the work you’re doing in the classroom.

 

Works Cited

Reynolds, Nedra. “Learning to Dwell: Inhabiting Spaces and Discourses.” Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. UP Southern Illinois, 2004, pp.139-177.

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There’s More to Life than School

Carrie Mason, Consultantcarrie-m

This weekend my fiancé and I traveled down to my home for some family time. I’ve done a little schoolwork, but not much, and this blog is the last thing I’ll do. I’m learning a slow lesson: school work – or even regular work – does not define my life. It is just a part. I enjoy academics, but it’s not the most important part of my existence.

You see, the thing is, on May 27 I’m getting married. There’s a lot of stuffs that go into this wedding planning and most of it I hadn’t even thought about before being engaged. And since I live with family in Louisville, while my fiancé lives in an apartment with friends, we also have to find a place to live. But I’m not writing this blog to talk about all the things that I have to do, I’m sure you also have tons of things you also have to accomplish.

What I am saying is that sometimes school just needs to take a back seat.

Don’t misread me, doing well in school is still a good and right goal; it would be foolish to abuse the privilege and skimp through the semester. However, it is infinitely more important for me to continue building a deeper, stronger relationship with my fiancé as we work toward marriage.

You see, dear reader, life is not all grades and articles and books to read. There is more than an essay exam. There are trees to see and flowers to smell. If I get straight As in every class and write the most profound papers, but I fail to cultivate lasting relationships, then I have wasted time. And if I end my academic career with institutional laurels, but have a mind full of demerits because I did not take time to care for myself, then I am worse than when I started.

So, dear reader, take care of yourself and your relationships. Keep working to achieve your academic goals, but remember there are other parts of life that would be unwise to neglect.  It’s hard to learn and remember, because right now everything seems to be on the very top of the to-do list, but remember, the academic accomplishments are more enjoyable if you have people to share them with. Besides, an essay exam only lasts about an hour anyway.

A Summer in Europe: Writing Center Work in Poland and Beyond

Lance Gibson, UofL Sophomore

Lance Gibson is a UofL sophomore majoring in English and Mathematics with a minor in Linguistics. Lance has visited the University Writing Center as a writer and, was interested enough in Writing Center theory and practice to talk with a number of us here about how he might pursue his interests. We were impressed with his passion for Writing Center work and helped connect him with the director of the English Writing Improvement Center at the University of Lodz in Poland.  Lance was awarded an Etscorn International Summer Research Award that allowed him to work in Lodz and Germany for six weeks this past summer. We asked Lance to write about his experiences for our blog.

While en route to my first professional academic conference in Łόdź (/Woo-dj/), Poland, a city I couldn’t even pronounce, to learn about and present on writing center work that I frankly thought was above my pay grade, I couldn’t help but feel a little trepidation. After nearly 24 hours of traveling and narrowly escaping expulsion from a train during my first twenty minutes in Łόdź, I can’t say the initial tone was set very high.

Some months previous I had explored the option of going to Poland to teach in the

lance1

Lance (left) with Brandon Hardy, of Eastern Carolina University, at the European Writing Center Association Conference

University of Lodz’s English Writing Improvement Center (ERIC) as a summer educational experience. It was by complete luck that the European Writing Center Association (EWCA) conference just so happened to be taking place while I was there; I was even invited to submit a proposal. That was serendipity at its finest. But when I was faced with the daunting prospect of trying to meaningfully add to the conversation of writing professionals, it was intimidating. Yet I discovered that both the conference and Poland exceeded my initial expectations.

Poland has a unique and eclectic sense of culture. Having only been in the European Union since 2004, Poland has modernized in an extremely short period of time. This is shown in its architecture. While the Lodz city center shows Poland’s modern facets, the outskirts are traditional reflection of Poland’s former years under Soviet control. This juxtaposition of old and new became a major theme of my learning experience in both cultural and literary contexts.

When the EWCA conference rolled around, I found that it was an extremely accessible and easy way to get plugged into the important academic discussions on the practice of peer tutoring and writing pedagogy. All of this was put into context by interacting with a group of passionate and diverse individuals from Germany to China to Serbia. The very same juxtaposition of old and new practices in peer tutoring and writing pedagogy were seen at the conference, providing a perfect context for discussion on our overarching, shared goal of how to most effectively develop successful writers in schools, businesses, and the community.

At the core of this discussion were the myriad strategies writing centers from around the world use to address this goal. While some writing centers seek to develop foreign language proficiency in writing, others seek to negotiate mandatory writing courses to be offered in their universities, and others still, seek to empower tutors to make a difference among their peers.

One of the key differences in the practice of writing pedagogy is making the distinction between writing centers as either a place to learn writing vs. a space to practice writing. While many centers in the U.S. are used as a place to learn to write where students schedule appointments in advance to meet with a tutor, locations like the ERIC and the Vidadrina Schreibzentrum (German for writing center) in Frankfurt Oder, Germany are using an older drop-in style of tutoring. This drop-in style focuses more on making the writing center a comfortable space to write where tutors are available as needed to answer a question or give feedback.

ewca-peer-tutor-day

Peer tutors discuss writing pedagogy at the European Writing Center Association Conference

When we compare these European favored to styles to the practice of writing pedagogy in the U.S., we can see a few distinctions. Overall, writing centers in the U.S. are extremely popular and may sometimes serve undergraduate and graduate populations of thousands of students, whereas writing centers in Europe have less traffic, and therefore, focus on taking a more personal approach. For instance, while less than forty students per year use the ERIC, those same forty students are likely to work very closely with the ERIC on projects like theses and term papers. Is one method more effective than the other?

That’s a method of some intense debate. I believe that each writing center develops a system that accommodates the goals and needs of its users in order to best develop writing both inside the university and out in the community as well.

My overall experience from the EWCA conference is that there are a multitude of ways to approach writing pedagogy and peer tutoring. We, as writers and scholars, can best improve upon both our own personal writing and developing the writing of others by having an honest and open dialogue about these diverse methods, tweaking things in our own writing centers and styles of tutoring based on these practices, constantly find ways that both do and don’t work for us. This intellectual exchange is at the heart of scholarship and the pursuit of the art of successful writing. Ultimately, I hope to continue this discussion both at home and abroad, studying how we change individuals and communities through the powerful force of writing.

Essays Need Characters: Imagining Audience

Karley Miller, consultantDSCN3615

Fiction writers often struggle with writing stories that are “too close.” Many things can make a story too close—a protagonist they identify with, an event they’ve experienced and are now writing about—some element of autobiography. When writing about something they feel strongly about, or have experienced, writers often have difficulty removing themselves from their story. The end result is that their audience, oftentimes in workshop, can feel that the story is autobiographical. Stories that are too close to their author fail to do what we expect of a story—build tension, have an arc, et cetera.

But why?

Let’s say my grandmother recently died, and I’m torn up about it, so I decide to write a story about her funeral. I think it’s a great story idea because the death of my grandma certainly moved me, so it will surely move others as well. I write my story, and end it with a scene between my protagonist and her father (because I don’t know where I should end it, and my dad did say something uncommonly nice on that day, which moved me to tears).

My workshop day arrives, and the class fixates on the fact that the story wasn’t as much about the funeral, and my protagonist’s relationship with her grandmother, as it was about my protagonist’s relationship with her father. No one can understand why it takes place entirely in a funeral home, instead of somewhere that the father-daughter issues can be resolved.

This is embarrassing to me because I don’t get along very well with my father but didn’t think it came across in my fiction. I hadn’t considered that other people have experienced funerals in all sorts of ways, and that just because I thought an interaction between the protagonist and her father, at her grandma’s funeral, would be moving (because that had been my experience), it doesn’t mean that my audience will find it so. I was too close to the story to see that the scene didn’t belong.

Oftentimes, fiction writers remedy this issue of closeness by making their protagonist someone who is obviously not them (for example—I once made my female protagonist 5’ 11”; I am not 5’ 11”), which allows for distance. However, the issue is really one of audience—and is applicable to all sorts of writing, particularly analytical essays.

Had I kept the audience of my story in mind, and not just written what I, personally, found cathartic, I may have been able to write a better story—one that moved my audience and didn’t reveal my personal issues. Likewise, when writing an essay in which you are instructed to take a side, or do an analysis, it is best to keep audience in mind. If your essay is fueled by a personal bias, and not by a fair assessment of the material, your audience will know.

So how do you remedy this?

Because you have no protagonist to reimagine, I would suggest inventing a character for yourself—one that might come from a totally different background, and have a different bias toward the material you’re working with. Imagine this person reading your essay; would they see an analysis, or you?

The Narrative Arc: Where Storytelling Meets Professional Writing

DSCN3636Emily Blair, consultant

Consider your favorite book or movie. You have probably been reading and watching TV since you were young. Some stories are more exciting than others; some have adventurers, travelling bands of heroes, or great villains that need conquering. Other stories place you within the mind of a character not so unlike yourself, showing how one person’s life unfolds in a realistic world

Now, think about an email to your professor. You likely don’t think it is as exciting as a blockbuster film; in fact, you probably don’t think about it as a story at all, but rather, a completely utilitarian writing assignment. However, it can be helpful and productive to think of your writing as an exercise in storytelling, with some relation to the narrative arc that you know from years of enjoying books, movies, TV shows, and video games.

Let’s take a professional email as an example. I need to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation, which would be a great favor. I might be tempted, for brevity’s sake, to write something like this:

Dr. Smith,

Can you write me a letter of rec for grad school?

–Emily Blair

This style of email likely will not get the response you hope, not only because of its brief tone but also because there are ways to make this story more compelling in a way that allows my professor to see why their letter of recommendation would help me achieve my goals. Depending on the situation, you can employ different facets of storytelling, such as characterization, exposition, the building of plot, climax, and conclusion:

Dear Dr. Smith,

I am writing to ask if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for the University of Louisville’s Master’s program in English. I felt that your class in Southern Literature in Fall 2015 informed my understanding of current literary research in contemporary regional literature, as well as what my own place could be in the field. You had mentioned that my papers in your class were well thought out, and I consider you a mentor in this vein of literature. I would like to earn my MA at U of L because the work that Dr. Jones and Dr. Lakes are doing in Southern and regional literature before going on to a Ph.D. program with those focuses as well.

If you have any questions, or would like to see my resume, please let me know. Thank you for considering writing me a letter of recommendation for a graduate program.

Sincerely,

Emily Blair

The difference between these emails is not only length but also how I, as a student, could speak to a professor using a narrative. I have walked the professor, my audience, through not only why I am applying to this graduate program, but also why they, in particular, have the ability to help in my application process. I have drawn a direct line between this professor’s class and my future Ph.D. program, allowing the professor to follow the story of my path through a literature education. I have also made myself a unique person, or a “character,” in this narrative by reminding Dr. Smith of my performance in their class and setting myself apart with specific goals to attend U of L.

While most of the things you write in a professional setting won’t be as exciting as Lord of the Rings or as entertaining as Friends, you can use some creative writing techniques to better convey your narrative to others.

How to Get into the “Flow” of Things: Writing a Well-Structured Essay

Lindsey Gilbert, consultantlindseygilbert

Many writers come into the Writing Center with concerns about the “flow” of their ideas in their papers. Occasionally, this concern comes up late in the writing process, allowing for little or no time to review the final piece with a writing consultant. A good way to resolve this issue is by simply examining the organization of the paper on your own. This answer may seem like a no-brainer, but many approaches exist that can help you reexamine and strengthen the structure of your paper, allowing for smooth transitions between ideas.

Outlining

While this is not a new approach by any means, creating an outline before writing can greatly help you structure your paper. Seeing how the ideas shift into each other allows for an easy edit to the structure of your essay if necessary. Even though prewriting strategies such as an outline may seem tedious, they can greatly help and even speed up your overall writing process, meaning you spend less time crafting the structure during or after writing.

Identifying Key Ideas: Reverse Outlining

Structure is a key component to keep in mind while writing an essay, but you may not know how to structure your paper until you begin writing. After completing a draft, you can read through and mark down the main idea in each paragraph. Compiling all of the main ideas will provide you with the groundwork for shifting paragraphs around to illustrate a logical progression throughout your paper.

Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

If you decide to rearrange your paragraphs, you will want to read through and reorganize your thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement is the spoiler of your paper and outlines what topics you are covering and in what order. If your thesis statement reads, “Dogs are soft, fluffy, and cute,” the body paragraphs should be in the description order of “soft” first, “fluffy” second, and “cute” third. In turn, the topic sentences of each paragraph should align with the descriptions presented in your thesis statement. This will allow your reader to understand the main topic of each paragraph before reading through it.

Working with Transitions

New topic sentences help to create better organization throughout your paper, but a smooth transition is needed in between paragraphs for the ideas to build on each other. Make sure to develop strong transition sentences between paragraphs by concluding the ideas of a paragraph and finding a link to the next topic that will be covered in the following paragraph. This provides a logical flow of ideas for the reader.

Subheadings

Transition sentences are greatly important for the ideas in your paper to shift efficiently, but some concepts may be too large and drastically different to allow for an easy transition. For example, if you write a position paper, you will need to state the advantages and disadvantages of a specific topic. These two areas are drastically different and could contain much detail and explanation, allowing for multiple paragraphs to develop in the process. In this case, the use of subheadings can be greatly beneficial to make that shift for the reader, allowing him/her to follow along with larger ideas that cover a greater length of pages.

The approaches provided above can greatly strengthen the organization of your paper, providing the “flow” that is so desired by the reader. Organizing your ideas well can ultimately give you more credibility as a writer, a strategy that you should keep in mind before you submit your final essay.

Ready to start writing, but not quite sure how? Read our blog post on non-generic ways to start your paper.

Happy writing!

“Since the Beginning of Time:” Avoiding Generic Opening Sentences

Deanna Babcock, consultantDSCN3612

Throughout history, students have continuously used generic opening sentences in their essays. Teachers continue seeing papers with the same types of openings again and again and, despite any attempts to change students’ habits, they keep cropping up. A likely reason is that students are being told to avoid certain sentences in their introductions (if they are told at all) without being taught what to do instead.

There are a number of phrases that can begin an assigned paper, but are ineffective, too general, or just plain boring. An example of this is, in fact, “throughout history…”

Here are some other phrases you should avoid:

  • “Since the beginning of time/history/mankind…”
  • “Everyone/we all…”
  • “So and so dictionary defines ____ as…”

These phrases are very broad and essentially ‘empty,’ and your instructor will likely see them as having no important value to your paper. They are also very general and start off the topic too broadly. If you are writing about different dog breeds, defining either the term “dog” or “breed” is unnecessary and does nothing for your essay. Telling us that “dogs have existed since the beginning of time” is not necessarily true and is also vague and pointless, and saying “we all love dogs” or “everyone has a favorite dog breed” can isolate readers who are not dog fans and cause them to lose interest.

clicheClichés are best avoided, as their meanings are abstract and likely will not add anything to your ideas, especially at the very beginning of the paper. “All that glitters is not gold” is a common saying, but is so common that it would be too general to start a paper with. Use your own words instead to be original and express your individual ideas. If you’re not sure, check here for more examples of cliches.

So what should you do instead? There are other ways of starting an essay that avoid these general phrases and cut straight to the point while still grabbing your reader’s attention. Here are some other ways to start your paper:

Start straight off with your topic.

Not a general idea, but the specifics. If you are writing about the themes of a novel, your readers do not need to know much, if any, background information on the author or the novel itself. Briefly discuss your specific subject, paving a clear path for your thesis statement and the rest of your paper.

General: “There are many different breeds of dogs.”

Specific: “Knowing the difference between dog breeds can help pet owners and shelter workers do what is best for each dog.”

Figure out the scope of your paper.

What can you realistically address in terms of time, place, and audience? You will likely never write a paper that requires you to address everything about your subject “since the beginning of time.” It would also be simpler to discuss a smaller scope than the entire world (think countries, states, even cities), and to address an audience who might actually be interested in or have reason to read about your topic. If you are writing about a recent issue, your audience likely does not need to understand the entire history of the issue to understand your stance on it.

General: “We should all consider the issue of poverty throughout the world/throughout history.”

Specific: “Legislators should consider the current problems facing those in poverty in the  city of ___ when creating new laws.”

Begin with a rhetorical question.

Keep the question open so it could not be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask something that the audience should not already have the answer to; the question indicates what you plan to answer in your essay. It should also be something that you are able to answer. If you only have 5 pages, you should not tackle a question about how to solve world hunger, but you could address a smaller issue related to hunger problems.

General: “How can we solve world hunger?”

Specific: “What can we do about widespread hunger in so-and-so city/state/country?”

Additionally, these questions could be phrased as statements, where the question is implied rather than directly asked. These create a question in the reader’s mind that can    be assumed to have an answer provided.

General: “There are several ways we could go about solving the problem of world    hunger.”

         Specific: “The hunger problem in ____ can be dealt with, if we…”

There are a number of other ways to begin an introduction; these are certainly not the only ones. Keep in mind that your first sentence should spark the reader’s attention and make him or her want to continue reading, and remain as close to your topic as possible.

For more tips on beginning a paper, check out the University of Louisville Writing Center’s handout on introductions. The UNC Writing Center’s page on introductions is another good resource.

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Valentine’s Day: Thesis Statement Edition

Jessica Good, consultantDSCN3626

Valentine’s Day.

There, I said it.

I mean, as a kid, Valentine’s Day was pretty great: people handed out candy at school, and I got to give my friends totally awesome cards decorated with superheroes, princesses, or Scooby-Doo (my interests were very well-rounded if I do say so myself).

But now?

The personal and cultural associations attached to this possessive noun + noun construction vary across volcanic spectrums of meaning. Is Valentine’s Day something to celebrate? Resist? Ignore? Whatever your stance may be, you probably have pretty good reasons to support it. So let’s say you synthesize your Valentine’s Day opinion into one definitive claim: “all you need is love.” With this move, you’ve created a thesis statement that you can then proclaim to your listening audience.

Now, let’s say you’re chilling at the office, chatting with Dwight near the copy machine, and Valentine’s Day comes up:

Dwight

Dwight isn’t buying the cultural obsession with romance that Valentine’s Day often signifies. Maybe he would agree that love is special, or that certain kinds of love (familial, platonic, or companionate as well as romantic) trigger chemical reactions that cause you to experience things like “happiness” and “emotional fulfillment.” But to convince him, you’ll have to be pretty darn specific with your terms.

If we were going to rewrite this meme (which, granted, would turn it into a regular old piece of writing), our first step would be rethinking our central claim (or thesis), “All you need is love.”

To craft a stronger claim, we would avoid:

Cliches

Cliches are common phrases like “opposites attract” and “all is fair in love and war.” They’ve been used so often that they are no longer very meaningful. When you hear, “opposites attract,” you know it means that people with different personalities fall in love. But the words just kind of sit there, taking up space without presenting a new, strong, or concrete image. As a result, your audience isn’t likely to closely read or engage with your claim. So instead of saying, “All you need is love,” the meme could have said, “Being in love makes me feel like my every physical, emotional, and spiritual need is met.”

Universal Claims

A universal claim is made when words like “all” or “never” are used or implied. It argues that, without exception, something is (or never will be) true. Making a universal claim weakens your argument because if even one case doesn’t conform to your claim, your logic becomes faulty and your conclusion invalid. Dwight was right to point out that, actually, love isn’t the only thing we need. Our implicit argument that “love is the best thing ever in the whole entire world and I don’t need anything else” becomes shaky at best: if love is not even a basic human necessity, how can we claim that love is all we need?

Universal statements can also damage an audience’s perception of your ethos, or reliability, as a writer. Readers may fixate on trying to find exceptions to your claim rather than following the nuances of your argument. They may even perceive you as lazy, uninformed, or careless. So even if your universal claim is true, the effectiveness of your argument may be compromised. Avoiding universal claims by talking in case-specific terms can maintain your ethos and even improve the strength of your argument. In the case of our meme, we could potentially say, “Sometimes, it feels like love is all we need to live a happy life.”

Vague Terms

When I say “vague terms,” I’m referring to cases in which it is unclear how words with broad or multiple meanings are functioning in a statement. Sometimes undefined terms are symptomatic of your need to sharpen the focus of your sentence (or even your argument as a whole). For example, instead of “love” in general, do we want to argue that having our emotional needs met is essential to feeling satisfied in life? Alternatively, we could qualify “need” by differentiating between physical survival and emotional or ‘felt’ needs.

Other times, a vague term might just mean that you need to choose a different word. This doesn’t mean you should right click to access your thesaurus and pick the most interesting word that appears. Rather, think about the specific meaning you want to convey. Would a different word do that? Instead of “love,” what if we wrote, “All I want is to feel accepted by other people”? If a different word or phrase still doesn’t seem fitting, then think about including a statement clarifying the way you’re using your term(s). We could say, “When the Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love,’ they created an anthem that united listeners around the world by relying on cultural narratives of romantic love.”

The next time you’re writing a paper, imagine that you’re talking to Dwight. He’s one adorably tough cookie, which, honestly, makes him the best imaginary audience you could encounter. By being intentional with our terms, making sure we use specific language to explicitly convey our exact meaning to an audience, we can create claims that are clearly defined. And that, by extension, will help us craft a strong thesis statement every time.

Personal Statements Part 2: Research and Focus

We bring you the second installment in this week’s series on the personal statement.  See part one here.

Stephen Cohen, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing20150824_140027

Working with writers at both the Belknap and HSC campuses has taught me that, despite differences in discipline and focus, writers everywhere are working through very similar hurdles and anxieties. Students across both campuses right now are thinking about taking the next step in their academic careers; often this involves applying for residencies, internships, or further graduate study. Though these applications can be stressful, I try to help people think of them as opportunities to present themselves and find the program that is the best fit.

Many of these applications require a version of the “personal statement” essay. For this post, I’ll be thinking through some of the most common stumbling blocks in this process and (hopefully) giving you a few useful tips to help you through writing a statement of your own. Also remember that one of the best ways to develop a personal statement is to make an appointment to discuss it with one of our consultants here in the University Writing Center.

1. Do your homework.

Find out what the requirements are for the statement – and don’t deviate from them. How many words? Does the application ask you to address specific questions? Carefully adhering to guidelines demonstrates to the committee that you’ve taken time to understand their particular application process, and, by extension, their program.

Speaking of which, you’ll want to find out what you can about the school and the program to which you’re applying. Mission statements and program descriptions are great places to look for information that you can use to your advantage – demonstrate to the committee that you understand how their program differs from others and that you are excited about what makes it unique.

If you are applying to multiple programs, try to contain anything that applies to a specific program to one paragraph. That way, you can switch that paragraph out for each program without having to do extensive revision on the rest of your letter.

2. Put your best foot forward.

People often understand “polishing” a personal statement to mean carefully proofreading it and ridding it of errors. While this is important (you don’t want to send a letter addressed to University of Louisville to University of Kentucky because you forgot to change it!), it’s more important to think about polish as careful presentation of the experiences you list on your CV or Resume.

Think carefully about what you list on your CV/Resume and choose the experiences that best demonstrate why you are a great candidate for a given program – you’ll want to use your experiences to show a committee not only how well prepared you are for graduate study, but also what makes you unique – what you can bring to the program that others can’t. Remember, the committee won’t necessarily know how your work (as a student assistant, for example) has prepared you for the demands of grad school – you’ll have to tell them.

If there was ever a time to toot your own horn, this is it. Though you don’t want to seem arrogant, most people I’ve worked with err too far on the side of caution. This is your chance to let the committee know how great you are – take it!

This is also an opportunity to answer any questions you think might be raised while the committee considers your other materials. Is there a gap on your resume? Don’t leave the reason for it up to the committee’s collective imagination – explain it to them, in the most positive terms possible.

3. Be Specific

Be sure you include particular reasons for your proposed path of study, and where possible, who you would like to study with. Remember the part about doing your homework? The more you know about a program, the better positioned you are to explain specifically how that particular program can help you meet your academic and career goals in ways that other programs can’t.

Use appropriate details to support any claims you make about yourself and your preparedness (in my case, an example might be not “I am a good teacher,” instead I would write “I have successfully taught introductory Rhetoric, Literature, and Business Writing courses).

4. Be Yourself

Often, a program will ask for a personal statement because they want a sense of who you are that they just can’t get from scanning a CV. Coordinate the experiences you’ve selected to write about to demonstrate some personal characteristic(s) that you think will appeal to the committee. In other words, rather than writing “I am a hard worker,” choose to detail a few experiences from your CV/Resume that demonstrate how hard you’ve worked.

Use the personal statement as a place to tell the committee what you think are the most important things to know about you – the things that make you different from another candidate. What life events have led you to consider your course of study? What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them in order to achieve the accomplishments listed elsewhere in your application materials?

The personal statement is only a small part of your overall application, but a thoughtfully prepared statement can have a big impact on how your whole package is received.

Watch Your Tone: The Sound of Academic Writing

Rhea Crone, Consultant

Most of us have received corrections, or suggestions for revision, on papers handed back to us by professors. Some of these comments are straightforward; “awkward word choice,” “incorrect spelling,” or “subject/verb disagreement” come to mind. Some comments, however, aren’t so clear. Among those in the latter camp are the dreaded question marks, free-floating in the margin; nefarious squiggles beneath phrases, sentences, or worse, entire paragraphs; and of course, some of the most loaded comments of them all: those suggesting a revision to “tone.”

DSCN3687So, what exactly does “tone” suggest when written in a margin? Isn’t it a term used to describe the way something sounds? How can a paper sound wrong, and why is any kind of sound significant if the paper’s argument is sufficiently advanced? Moreover, why must academic writers use one tone over another, and for that matter, why must we use any kind of tone, at all? There is no single correct response to any of these questions. In fact, in composition studies—a field that aims to simultaneously promote a sense of authorial ownership in writers of all levels, study the individual styles and needs of writers, and develop the most effective ways to teach everyone to write as effectively as possible—there is a long standing tension between those who say academic writers should not have to adhere to a specific “tone,” at all, and those who say that we must.

One has to wonder if there is a consensus on any aspect of such a debatable, fissured topic. Luckily, a set of general guidelines regarding the term itself exists. These guidelines usually take into account the following, give or take a few preferences or nuances depending on the reader/grader of a paper:

  • Use of clear and direct language, or the “active voice”;
  • Avoidance of personal pronouns, especially “we, you, you all, I,” etc.;
  • Omission of colloquialisms and/or regionally various terms and phrases.

To extrapolate from this short list a bit, academic tone is generally used so that a writer can quickly and effectively get their point(s) across, and so that the reader does not have to overexert themselves trying to understand what the author is saying. Academic tone also typically foregrounds information and argumentation, and demands that prose not sound as if it is merely the expression of an author’s opinion. Overall, this “tone” hinges on the following values: concise communication, and the establishment of authorial credibility. It also assumes that the reader of an academic paper wants to know, first and foremost, what the paper is talking about; and, of course, that the author of the paper knows what they’re talking about. Furthermore, use of the academic tone does not simply assume a certain reading style on behalf of a paper’s audience, but is ultimately an expression of respect for the reader. It does not, for example, ask the reader to believe unsupported claims, spend more of their time than necessary on reading through a paper, or require them to exert more mental energy on working through an argument than is necessary.

Now that we know what academic tone is, and why writers might want to use it, we can better understand the consequences of failing to use it correctly. These consequences don’t always result in a few required revisions or a point deduction. Indeed, academic tone can sometimes be broken with/from to great effect. Practiced, seasoned writers will sometimes switch their tone briefly, in order to emphasize a particular aspect of their argument. For example, placing a casual aside in parentheses, or including a quote from pop culture, can be used to draw attention to, and/or make a bit clearer, an important passage. In order to effectively break with/from academic tone, however, one must first understand and utilize it well. The reason for this is twofold: to borrow an adage, one must first understand a set of rules in order to break them, and the overall tone of a paper must be academic in order for a divergence/variation in that tone to be noticed at all, much less to great effect. If this tone is not broken pointedly, with some kind of rhetorical purpose, the author runs the risk of losing the attention and/or the comprehension of the reader, frustrating the reader, intellectually fatiguing the reader, losing authorial credibility, and/or needlessly obscuring an argument.

No blog post on academic tone would be complete without a disclaimer regarding various academic disciplines. Of course, not every discipline will require that papers be written in/with an academic tone. This is primarily because different disciplines address different audiences, and therefore value and judge tone differently, and sometimes it will not be necessary to write in a strictly formal, academic tone. Further, regardless of discipline, the occasional professor will encourage informal tone at various (more than likely initial) stages of any given writing assignment. Usually, however, it is best to assume that the academic tone is valued and will be expected in/of the majority of your papers.

Ya dig?

For further and/or more specific information on academic tone, please feel free to peruse the following sites:

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