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Archive for the tag “Academic Writing”

On the Road to Writing, It’s Okay to Stop and Ask for Directions

Mitzi Phelan, consultant

Have you experienced getting into your car, and while driving to a familiar destination you start thinking about all the things you need to do, or even just start daydreaming? Suddenly, you snap back to the present and realize you are at your intended location but Mitzihave no recollection of the actual drive. It’s amazing how we can become so familiar with the way we do something that we can actually can execute the activity on autopilot. Our brains are amazing objects that can run millions of processes at once. While one “system” is working through our schedule, another is thinking about summer vacation, and yet another is executing turns down familiar streets (hopefully one is watching for pedestrians). When the path we are navigating is so familiar to us, we can easily “switch off” and let the brain make all the decisions in default mode. But, if we are checked out of the process, are we really getting the best experience?

I gave the above example as a way to talk about the process of writing. By the time you have reached the level in academia where you would be interested in reading this blogpost, you have most likely been asked to do a lot of writing. Often, we are given a writing task and, just like driving, we set our brain to autopilot, or “writing mode,” and let come what may. We see our end destination (our “completed writing task”), hop in our mental smart cars, activate cruise control, and are on our way. The problem with this is that we only have one way of getting to the destination programmed into our mental maps. When we only allow for only one way of doing things, we ultimately produce the same type of writing, just with different topics. This doesn’t only apply to class papers–we can fall into the same rut with our creative writing as well.

To be completely honest, in the busy world of academia, writing on autopilot is convenient. It always gets us safely to our destination and conserves our valuable brain energy for the thousands of other demands that come on a daily basis. However, it does not help us develop into better writers. To produce better work, we have to mentally show up for the process. We have to switch off the autopilot and challenge ourselves to consider that there are valuable alternative routes to getting to our final destinations. Understand, however, that the goal in switching off autopilot and taking control of the wheel is not necessarily to get to the destination more quickly, although that may happen, but rather to truly immerse yourself in the writing process and gain insight to tools that you may be missing out on.

If you are like me, my cruise control looks like this: I get an idea for a paper, lock on to it with a death grip, think about it until the night before its due, word vomit on the paper, and then spend the wee hours of the morning its due making revisions. This process works for me and I am comfortable with it; however, I have realized that I am cheating myself out of being a better writer by not exploring other processes. Recently I have been trying to add practices that other writers use into my repertoire. I started with reverse outlining, now I’m committing myself to writing down my favorite thesis and then writing two more possible theses that either invert or challenge the original as a way to enhance my critical thinking of the topic. This has been immensely beneficial and has positively affected my writing skills.

If you feel like your writing has become stale, or that you are not meeting your full potential as a writer, I challenge you to see if you are still in the driver’s seat. Consider pulling out your old writing guidebooks and going back to the basics. Look to other writers for inspiration. Take time to go through the process. You’ll be amazed at how much of the beautiful scenery you have been missing.

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Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

“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.

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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