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Make Word Work for You: Four Tips for Navigating Digital Writing Spaces

Alex Wasson, consultantalexwasson

As a graduate student, I often have numerous documents open on my computer for simultaneous editing. These documents are precious, the empty vessels into which I pour my scholarly hopes and dreams. I rarely give credit to the vessel (for me, Microsoft Word) for its ability to do more than just store all of my text. In fact, I pay no attention to the program unless disaster strikes; an unsaved document, a poorly formatted works cited page, or a pesky APA title page heading can derail an entire weekend or even an entire semester. So I thought I would take a moment to thank our digital writing spaces, whether it is Google Docs, Notepad, Microsoft Word, blogs, email, or anything in between, for all the good times we have together. To express my gratitude, here are four tips for navigating digital writing spaces.

1. Microsoft Word’s Brainstorming Feature

Did you know that you can easily create a brainstorming web on Microsoft Word? Double click anywhere on the screen and the cursor will follow you, allowing you to use the screen as if it is a whiteboard (see here for specific instructions). This feature is extremely helpful when mapping out ideas at the beginning of projects.

2. Visual Modes- Read, Print, and Distraction-Free Screens

If you are a visual person like me, switching up the screen presentation for reading and for editing may inspire a mental distinction between the two tasks. Many digital writing spaces offer a variety of different screen views. Microsoft Word, for example, provides read mode, print layout, and web layout screens underneath the view toolbar selection. In addition, if the toolbar itself is a distraction, you may hide it by selecting Ctrl+F1 on older software or the tiny arrow on the right side of the toolbar. An unobstructed view of the screen may just be the trick to jump start your writing assignment.

3. Reference-Keepers

Reference managers such as Mendeley and Endnote are fantastic tools that store all your citations in one place. This storage is extremely helpful when working on large research projects, and it integrates well with writing programs like Microsoft Word.

4. Graph Generator

I am not a numbers person. I am also not a master at Microsoft Excel. Therefore, when I am in need of a graph or chart in my writing project, I turn to the built-in graph feature embedded within Word and other writing programs. The graph feature offers step-by-step help and provides many different chart type options for your specific needs. A graph or chart can be a great asset to a project which compares two or more ideas.

One last note – SAVE whatever you are working on right now. Do it. Email it to yourself, keep a flash drive, upload it to the mysterious iCloud or type it on Google docs. Your future self will thank you.

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Brainstorming: How to Avoid “Snowball” Writing

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Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Learning to brainstorm is—in my humble opinion—one of the most important aspects of learning to write. This may seem obvious, but I think the further we progress into our writing careers, the more we tend to skip a good, solid brainstorming session. I, for one, am extremely guilty of this—especially since I started graduate school; I get overwhelmed with the project at hand, and, instead of proceeding calmly and strategically, I barrel forward into my paper, despite the fact that I know better. So, here, I want to outline some steps that I plan to walk myself through in order to avoid this “snowball-style” writing style, in hopes that they will be helpful to you as well!

First, freewrite! Freewriting is a great way to start a brainstorming session because you can do it however you want! Freewriting may consist of a rough outline, a chart, boxes with arrows pointing from one piece of information to another, or a typed or written page(s) of stream of consciousness commentary. Whatever it may be, it will only be helpful in getting you started on your paper.

Second, now that you have completed the freewriting stage, remove yourself a bit from the actual content of the project, and focus on the research methods that will be necessary. Here, list out some keywords you think may be useful to you during your process, and list any of the sources you may have already acquired. Also, poke around on the library’s online catalogue and make a list of possible sources from there. This will surely help you further organize your thoughts as well as help you flesh our your ideas. (Sometimes, depending on how deep you are into your project, this may be useful as step one!)

If you have trouble getting started with freewriting, try to talk out your ideas to a peer, a friend, a University Writing Center consultant (!!), or a professor. In some of the most effective brainstorming sessions I have had with clients, about 75% of the brainstorming session has consisted of the client talking through his/her ideas and me taking notes. In these instances, the client oftentimes realizes that his/her ideas were more organized and succinct than originally thought. So find a buddy and talk it out, y’all! It’ll help, I swear.

Finally, understand that brainstorming does not only happen before you write a paper. Allow yourself to brainstorm throughout your writing and research process. So, what does this look like? When you are reading and analyzing your research materials, respond directly to each source (right after you finish reading each) using your most effective freewriting method. Once you move into integrating these source materials and responses into your paper, it is to be expected that you may get stuck or need to re-organize your papers. These moments serve as yet another place where freewriting or reading and responding can come in handy.

In short, don’t panic! Sit down, get a cup of coffee, and write down what you know so you can figure out what you don’t know. Oh! And don’t forget, carry your brainstorming methods throughout the entire paper!

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!

5 Strategies for Picking a Paper Topic

Alex Clifton, Consultant

It’s never too early in the semester to start thinking about paper topics. Trust me, it’s much easier to write your essays in March or April when you’ve already thought about and researched a topic over the course of weeks, rather than deciding to write about something three days before it’s due. I’ve done the latter, and it’s produced some sleepless nights and shoddy writing—something you definitely want to avoid! However, it can be difficult to determine what exactly you want to write about. The following strategies will, hopefully, jumpstart some thought and give you ideas for any classes you’re struggling in!

Make a list. If you look over the syllabus of a course and realize that nothing quite “speaks” to you immediately, make a list of subject areas you know you’re interested in. Are you into feminist theory? Do you enjoy researching murders in South America? Are you more interested in the political or economic aspects of the Russian Revolution? These questions sound silly, but if you think about things you’re interested in, a paper topic might spark from that. I once took a course on the Civil War and did not find myself enamoured with the books on the syllabus. However, I knew I liked writing about gender and children’s literature, and ended up writing a fun paper on children’s stories during the Civil War! Reminding yourself what your interests are will also help you come up with a topic that you will be far more invested in—which will make your final paper a lot more fun to write.

Preliminary research. It might sound boring, but typing in keywords into the library’s database (WorldCat, located here) can provide a wealth of information and ideas. Not only is it a good way to find scholarly and reliable sources, but those books can also give you an idea of the scholarship out there! WorldCat has a really handy feature where you can click on a book and it will tell you the chapter/essay titles within the book. If you’re trying to do a paper on Arctic exploration, you might end up finding an essay on John Rae, a Scottish doctor who discovered the grisly fate of the doomed Franklin expedition from 1848, that focuses on his skills with snowshoeing, which might spark some interest in nineteenth-century Inuit methods of snow travel. Yeah, it’s an extreme example, but WorldCat is such a great resource and you don’t even need to have a defined paper topic to use it!

Talk it out. If you’re really struggling to come up with a paper topic, it might help to brainstorm verbally with some friends. If you talk to a friend or two from your course, you might discover new ways of looking at the subject material that may trigger some interest. Maybe one of your friends is writing on Bosnian familial structures, and somehow their own thoughts inspire you to look up Bosnian recipes for a paper in a course on Bosnian culture. Sometimes, it also helps to talk to a friend from outside your course, as they may act as an impartial observer to your thoughts and can ask probing questions. If you don’t want to ask your friends for help, try talking to your professor. I have yet to have a professor at UofL who has been totally unwilling to help students, especially when it’s clear that the student is making an effort. (If you’re asking for help about brainstorming a paper topic way before it’s due, that shows you’re making an effort!) Some professors may seem scary and unapproachable in class, but I’ve found that they are less likely to bite during office hours. Your professor might also be able to look at your academic interests and help guide you towards a topic that they deem suitable and you’ll find interesting, a win-win for all!

Freewrite. Yeah, nobody wants to think about writing when they’re working on finding a topic to write on. It’s a dirty secret of research that you’re going to have to do a lot more writing than you ever planned on in order to come up with that glorious final paper. It sometimes helps to just write down things you’ve considered researching and listing ways you could flesh out each topic. Sometimes, seeing your own ideas out on paper can help make paper topics more concrete, rather than just thinking about what you might write about—it makes your ideas far more concrete, and puts you down the road for academic success!

DSCN1650Come in to the writing center. Last, but not least, if you’re really struggling with starting on a paper, come in to the writing center and talk to one of our consultants. Everyone has different strategies for working on papers, and they’ll be able to give you some useful tips. Talking to someone who works with writing might be beneficial in ways that talking to your friends aren’t: if you can talk to one of our tutors about your writing style and methods, then they might be able to find a way to help you figure out how to pick and start working on a paper topic.

I hope some of these tips help you find whatever it is you want to write about this semester! And, as always, feel free to stop by the Writing Center with whatever you’ve got of your paper. Whether it’s just ideas floating up in your head or a full-on draft, we’ll help you work with it. Happy brainstorming!

Writing without a Net: Ways to Start a Paper without an Assignment Sheet

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

When gearing up to write a paper, your greatest tool is likely to be an assignment sheet. These treasures, handed out in stacks by our benevolent professors and T.A.s, include valuable information regarding assignment details. These handouts offer our teachers an efficient way to answer perianal questions about the work such as content, length, scope, focus, and format. As demonstrated by a previous post, the ability to read an assignment sheet can unlock many of the mysteries students encounter during the writing process.

Unfortunately, a time will come when your dutiful professor has elected to let you fly solo. Without the aid of an assignment sheet, you will be expected to yield a work equally as impressive as previous, more structured work. Without the assignment sheet, the boundaries of a paper seem unidentifiable. What should I write about? What course should my argument take? What sort of sources should I use? The questions, all equally as gravitous and pressing, begin to mount, and suddenly the guidelines lain out on assignment sheets, which had previously seemed arbitrary and restricting seem much more comforting. Students without assignment sheets often seem to be floating around aimlessly in the space of the assignment. Luckily for students specific to the Humanities, there are strategies, questions ask in order to help anchor one’s self, even in the absence of the tethers of our assignment sheets.

How did this text affect me?

Close reading also provides great jumping-off points for developing a conversation. Was there a moment in the text which seemed especially potent, or had a certain rhetorical or emotional effect on you? Did this text remind you of anything you have read or seen in another context? Teachers develop courses with specific objectives and place texts together to stimulate certain conversations. If you see something interesting, run with it!

What is the history behind this text?

Time period is a great way to position a text. Authors, the socially aware people they often are, know a lot about art, culture, politics, religion, and so on. It is likely that they have been influenced, or at the very least, in conversation with significant events and conversations going on during their writing process. What were the big social questions when this text was written? What sort of society was the author living in?

What is the author doing here?

The relationship between the author, narrator, and the reader is always an important one. Is our author different than our narrator, or are they the same person? How does the relationship between the author and narrator affect the way we understand the story? Are the people telling the story reliable? What is their tone? How are they using language? Are they being manipulative, or do they have the reader’s best interest in mind? The way the author positions himself, his narrator, and his reader all play key roles in the delivery of a story, which in turn changes the way we read into events and characters. Discussing the ways this influences our reading is often a fruitful endeavor.

Which “Big Questions” are here?

Things like Truth, Ethics, Gender, Reality, Freedom, God, Power, Capitalism, War, and Consciousness are inarguably tough nuts to crack. The commonality between these topics is how difficult it is to come to a resting answer on anything. These questions are all intensely difficult to write on in any definitive way, which is precisely why so many authors write on them extensively! Your paper might not have the scope (or likely a distant enough due date) to answer any of these questions within, but it certainly can contain a discussion of the way the text in question addresses these huge, looming questions. Look at how the author encounters these questions for an interesting reading of a text, but be careful to avoid the temptation to try to solve the puzzles. Most of these questions have outlasted thousands of years of rigorous philosophical and humanistic debate. It is unlikely an answer will be found in a five page paper.

The number of possible entrances to a paper is astronomically high. Papers can take on any number of potential courses, as demonstrated by the unfathomable number of books, papers, lectures, and modes of discourse which populate the Academy. There is no shortage of ways to approach writing a paper — that is certain. Still, for those of us who prefer a bit more guidance – a target to aim at – these strategies offer a way into a text when the safety net of an assignment sheet isn’t available.

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