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“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.


Keaton’s Adventures in Letter Writing

Keaton Price, Consultant

Every August in elementary school, my teachers would send out giant envelopes filled with information about the upcoming school year. Most importantly, these parcels contained the list of students who would be in my homeroom. Even though I knew I would not receive my school’s mailing until the 4th or 5th, on August 1st, I would excitedly wait for the mailman to arrive with any deliveries. Every day our mail would show up, and not wanting to seem like a crazy child who had been peering out her bedroom window obsessively since 8 a.m., I would wait until the mailman drove off to go search our mailbox. Normally, my much-anticipated envelope would take a few days to Keatonarrive; however, when it did finally make it to my house, I would excitedly tear open the parcel and eagerly scan all of the pages for my homeroom details. The wait was over, and I could stop stalking the mailman.

Today, in a world of texts and emails, all of which I am instantly notified about and receive electronically, I started to think about the last time I had received a physical letter in the mail that was meant solely for me. Of course, I get bills (unfortunately) and random advertisements; however, the only written, personalized correspondences I receive are “thank you” notes. Even those are pretty rare, though. I therefore decided to start writing more personalized letters, an activity that has undoubtedly declined in the wake of technological advancements.

To start my project, I chose to write to my friend who goes to school up at Notre Dame. Although we communicate every day through texts, snapchats, or messages on Facebook, I thought it would be nice to write him a physical letter. Since part of what makes receiving a letter so fun is the tactile aspect of getting an envelope and letter that one can hold and keep, I therefore started my adventure by picking out the perfect set of stationary at Carmichael’s Bookstore. As a notoriously indecisive person with a warped sense of time, I spent way too long searching for the perfect notecard and, once I selected one, barely made it to work on time. (PSA: Powerwalking from your car in 80 degree weather is not fun. However, I was quite impressed that I made it to work with four minutes to spare, so I will be entering the 2020 Olympics in Toyko as a highly ranked power-walker.)

Ok back to letter writing… In my actual note, I wanted my handwriting to be perfect, and I knew that if I had a bunch of scratched out words, I would not be satisfied. I therefore wrote out a draft of my note on another piece of paper first before transferring my ideas to the actual letter. While I was most certainly just overthinking things, I began to wonder during this drafting process about the authenticity of moving my ideas from my notebook to the notecard. If, for instance, in my draft I told my friend that I was writing my letter from UofL’s University Writing Center but then ended up copying my ideas onto the physical letter while at home, was I lying in my note? I was no longer at the Writing Center, so could I honestly tell my friend that I was writing from that location? While this moral predicament is ultimately absurd because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter where I wrote my draft or letter, it is still an interesting question to ponder and makes me feel sort of philosophical.

Once I’d finished transcribing the letter, I then set about addressing the envelope. Although this sort of writing is standardized by the postal service, in addressing my letter by hand, I continued to add a personal touch to the note. By writing out the address and the entirety of the letter, my friend could see that I had physically taken the time to craft each word. This personalization gave this letter an authenticity and sincerity that is rarely found in emails or texts.

With my letter finished and envelope addressed, I then found a stamp and dropped my sealed note in the nearest mailbox. The fun with letter writing doesn’t end here though! Since my friend has no idea I am sending him a letter, I cannot wait to see how surprised he will be when he receives his note!

Hobbies make writing fun and reading never hurts either

Beau Kilpatrick, Consultant

I have heard many horror stories about students who have trouble writing, starting a project, finishing a paper,Beau and even coming up with an idea to run with.

Through my own experiences, I have found that writing in my free time about something that truly interest me really helps. My passion is journalism. So, I use some of my free time to write stories about U of L sports. I will passionately watch a game then write a story about the strengths, weaknesses, and special plays of the game. This type of pleasure writing is totally stress free and helps when it comes to academic writing.

When the semester begins to get hectic with the overwhelming demands of our professors and longer assignments, it’s nice to know that writing these papers does not need to be a worrisome encounter. When you find that one thing in life that truly brings you joy and erases the stress of daily life, then write about it. You will be amazed at how much more prepared you are to tackle the mounting page counts when you have enjoyed the practice you have accomplished at home.

When I sit down to write one of my articles, I have my notes from the game beside me and I highlight the impressive plays, highest stats, and the ambiance of the team’s atmosphere. This is no different than using your own notes that you have gathered from sources in preparation for your academic paper. This is how I draw my outline for a draft. I then take the not-so-important notes and assign them under a highlighted term. There, the outline is finished and I can begin writing my prose between the gaps to connect my ideas.

Do you see how this same strategy can be used in academic writing?

This is why it is important to identify your passion and write about your experiences on the subject. Your writing, and the methods you take, can translate to better preparedness when it comes to your academic writing for a class. So, create a webpage and talk about the concerts you go to, discuss the latest fashion or music trends, create a bar review that explains who has the best drinks for cheap; use your imagination.

Writing should be fun. And it will be, but only if you find what is fun for you.

The next tip that I can offer is to read. Read a little bit of everything. The more you read, the better your writing will become because whether you realize it or not, your writing will acclimate itself to the level of reading you are at. Your vocabulary will improve, your ideas will become deeper, and your writing will flow out of your imagination much more fluidly.

Due to my thesis project as an undergrad, and the ridiculous amount of hours that I spent with the material, I have found certain tones in my writing that can only be attributed to the author of my research. I am not saying that is a bad thing but it does show how reading influences our writing.

So, in short, find that joyous passion of yours and thrive in that moment. Take notes and write about every adventure you embark upon; you will find it very rewarding. And learn to enjoy reading. You will be surprised at how it will strengthen your writing beyond belief.

Creative by Choice: Persevering through Doubts and Droughts

Tim Phelps, Consultant

Perhaps nothing can be as daunting to a writer as an empty screen or a blank piece of Tim Phelpspaper.  It taunts you.  It knows you can’t do it.  It erases every budding idea you have and replaces it with indecision.  It’s the ultimate bully–the one who manifests your fears with more efficiency than Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  You’ve lost any ability to be rational at this point.  You know you’ve faced this demon before and made it through, but you’ve convinced yourself you won’t be able to do it again.  This will be the end of you.  This will be the first time you’ve failed to turn in a paper, or—even worse—you’ll end up stringing together an essay of words so incoherent that everyone will finally find out you’re just an imposter.

That worst-case scenario never comes to fruition, of course, but it sure feels like it will sometimes.  We find a way to get through it, and the world keeps turning.

I’ve come to believe that the roots of this struggle are based in creativity.  More specifically, our doubt-ridden self-image about our creative talents.  If we have convinced ourselves that we are not creative, then it makes sense that we’d have difficulty designing that eye-catcher the beginning of our paper deserves.  It makes sense that we would look at polished or published writing and be unable to picture ourselves producing it—when the words feel so good, it’s more appropriate to call it a “creation” instead of a text.  Writing like that must have been fashioned by someone who won the creative gene lottery, we might think.  This creativity is not limited to fiction writing or poetry; its presence is just as ubiquitous in well-written academic work as well—we feel the sting of its absence when we can’t come up with a compelling thesis statement or find incontrovertible evidence in our research.  Even pallet-wood projects on Pinterest and sugar-cookie decorating on Instagram haunt our creative confidence.  How can I possibly create if I’m not creative?

It’s important to recognize that all writers have faced that empty-page paralysis at one point or another.  It’s even more important to recognize, however, that practiced writers have found strategies for dealing with times like these. We’ve accepted it as a part of the process, and have found solutions that work for us.  Some writers make a pointed effort to temporarily abandon the writing for a little while, refocusing their brains on something unrelated until they feel ready to give it another try.  Some find solitude, others seek out company.  If writers are constantly finding themselves in this struggle, they might ask if they are trying the same ineffective strategies over and over.  If so, I encourage them to try doing something different and see how that works.

The longer I write, the more I’m comfortable that I’ve found an effective strategy for me.  If I just start writing something, even if it’s horrible, it will eventually evolve into a final product.  I’m not always satisfied with what I write, but these are first drafts we’re talking about here.  They’re allowed to be horrible.

I will admit that it’s more complicated than just getting words on the page.  Word production does not automatically create a well-written paper.  Strategies may get you started, but what use is that if none of it has that unique, creative zing?  It boils down to either accepting that certain lucky people are born with a creative gene, or accepting that creativity, like having any other skill, takes practice and hard work to develop.  Subscribing to the former absolves the writer from any responsibility.  But the latter makes the writer accountable for improving, which is a scary prospect.  If creativity is indeed a product of practice and effort, then that includes a heavy implication of failure.  For writers, the fear of failure is often what keeps the page blank to begin with.

However, I’m convinced it is a struggle worth fighting for.  Once writers accept that it will take work, they can focus on combining strategies with perseverance.  It’s the confidence (whether real or faked) that the words will eventually come to you, and a willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor.  It takes patience, comfort with failure, and a commitment to pushing through the block.  It’s not a problem limited to non-professional writers.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King compares writing not to “creative fluttering,” but to blue-collar labor such as plumbing and driving long-haul trucks (153).  (I know that this is my second King reference of the post; I offer no apologies.)  Common metaphors we use to describe this kind of toil are just as pitiless as you might expect: “putting your nose to the grindstone” and going “off to the grind.”  Both examples express this undertaking as a prolonged and drudging effort.  Even video gamers, when faced with challenging goals that require lots of time, effort, and perseverance, call the act “grinding.”  The origin of using “grind” in these metaphors is a reflection of two inventions of production: a vertical, spinning stone for knife sharpening, and the giant stone wheels used to pulverize grain into flour in watermills.  These examples represent the unforgiving nature of this approach, and in all fairness, sometimes the grind is tedious and exhausting.  But the metaphors also represent a connection between writing and the efforts of other disciplines.  These commonalities highlight a stark truth: those who find success usually have to work very hard for it.  Creativity therefore, and its subsequent creation, are choices.

This all means that, when faced with a writing block, the best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.  The writing that looks easy for other people is less likely a product of a lucky birth and more likely the result of a practiced skill.  That practice means that once you have a merely acceptable idea of what to write, you keep grinding until you create something you’re proud of.  It won’t come easy.  It will be frustrating.  Failure is a real possibility.  But just like anything that is challenging, you will be rewarded when you work for it.

Works cited:

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.

“Can someone hold my hair while I word-vomit?”

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Recently, I found myself in a pickle.  I put off a research paper until the last minute (guiltily), partly because I didn’t really know how to get started and partly because I didn’t really know what to argue.  I’d already conducted practically all of my research, but I didn’t know how to make my contribution, my part of the scholarly conversation, novel or interesting.  I was bogged down by my own self-consciousness and insecurities about the topic, trying to grapple with whether I would sound academic or formal enough for the assignment’s requirements.  What pulled me out of that slump, that inability to get my ideas out onto the page, was a critical stage of the writing process that I’d forgotten to employ: word-vomiting.  One of my professors introduced this non-committal, helpful practice that can enable the writer to produce their best possible writing.  Word-vomiting, for me, is a lot like freewriting but with one critical difference.  While freewriting is a good exercise to employ to start writing about anything, word-vomiting can be much more direct, much more specific to a certain topic, to get the writer to start unpacking and flushing out ideas particular to that topic.

So how can you best engage with this strategy?  I suggest compiling whatever materials you’ve gathered through the research part of the process, like your notes, primary sources, secondary sources like scholarly articles / books / journals relevant to your topic, etc.  Once you have these resources and have familiarized yourself with them, I recommend putting yourself in the most comfortable position to get your thoughts about your topic onto the page.  Whatever kinds of thoughts you have about the topic, both significant, and insignificant, personal and impersonal, communicating those thoughts in whatever way will help you locate what aspects of your topic you find most interesting or compelling.  This stage of the writing process is so important for this very reason; I’ve skipped out on word-vomiting altogether in the past, and I’ve found myself writing at length about an argument that doesn’t inspire me.  When I’ve historically found myself in that position, the writing stage is both grueling and seemingly interminable.

Word-vomiting is also important because it puts you in a much better position to sift through ideas you’ve already fostered rather than having to generate entirely new ideas when you’ve already begun writing the paper.  It’s so much easier to cut ideas or synthesize ideas you already have on the page than it is to create new ones as you’re executing the writing of your paper.  When you’ve exhausted the word-vomiting stage of the process, you’ll realize a lot of your ideas just don’t work or don’t fit into this assignment.  They’re still important, though!  And they may have a place in a future assignment or a future scholarly / creative endeavor.

Research papers are hard, and finding your position / stake in a research paper can be even more difficult. If you’re looking for other ideas about how to get started your can check out our Writing FAQs and ideas for getting started with digital project. But with this helpful strategy of getting your ideas about a topic onto the page at whatever pace, of word-vomiting whatever you think or feel about that topic, you may find your research paper may be just a little bit easier or smoother to execute.

Finding the Time to Write

Ashley Taylor, ConsultantAshley T

One of my favorite questions to ask writers out in the world is:

“When do you find time to write?”

Out of the various answers, whether creative or academic, ultimately the collective response in the midst of a busy life is to schedule time to write. However, you can’t stop your third shift manual labor job and say “hold on, I have to finish this paragraph real quick” or tell your 5 month old baby “I need this time to myself, sorry.” The world doesn’t stop for writing assignments.

Students live busy lives and learn to balance their schedules between academic, work, and personal life. But writing can be a monster when put under pressure, which can cause writers to put off an assignment, feel overwhelmed by the writing process, or feel as if they have to make sacrifices in the other areas of their life just to tackle the next rhetorical essay, research proposal, or short story.

A polished draft is not required to make an appointment with the us. You can make up to three sessions in the same week and we help through all stages of the writing process. My absolute favorite appointments are when we brainstorm and plan because in those sessions, writing feels approachable, manageable, and a little less scary.

When I hear that the key to finding time to write is to schedule it, it seems as if that means on my own. Schedule alone time, to write alone, to tackle writing alone. But that’s not the case. You are most certainly not alone in having a busy life and even when writing alone, there’s an audience involved as a silent party. Sharing your writing through all the stages of the process helps to foster the idea that writing is most certainly a social act. Reach out. Schedule time with others.

Here are just a few resources that can be helpful in this process:

In the University  Writing Center alone we have consultants who are a parent-to-be, a new parent for the first time, a new parent for the second time, a parent with two children entering grade school, and a parent with three teens. We have consultants who are planning weddings and starting internships. Many of our consultants are graduate students in our first year of the master’s program and PhD candidates taking steps toward building careers. We are students with writing assignments in the midst of busy personal lives and we know the value of reaching out.

Have compassion for yourself.

We are a resource for you.

The Long Haul: A Procrastination-Proof Writing Process

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Rewind about two months.  Your professor has distributed the syllabus, and you notice that the culminating writing project in the course is a long one, we’ll say 8-10 pages.  But it’s not due until December, so you may approach it in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way.  That kind of thinking may have been appropriate or even necessary then, but as we approach November, you probably need to start thinking about this assignment.

As unlikely as it may seem, we’re at a pretty critical stage of the semester.  Midterms have passed, and finals aren’t for about another month.  A lot can happen in that month, and if you have a couple large writing assignments due around that time like I do, a lot should happen.  What I want to illustrate in this post is how I approach larger writing assignments and the writing process I employ to complete those assignments.  I understand everyone has their own way of jumping into writing projects and their own writing processes.  However, I feel it’s a helpful practice to engage with and think about how others tackle these kinds of projects.

Prewriting or searching for an interest

Sometimes in these longer projects, your professor may provide a very specific, narrowed prompt for you to explore.  Often, though, the prompt will be open-ended and up to you to decide what to write about.  When I find out about a longer assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I personally take a mental note to keep a look out for subjects in the class that resonate with me, regardless of the specificity of the prompt.  I register this mental note in order to approach the assignment with a subject that I know I can commit time to.  I’ve found when I have no attachment or personal connection to a topic, my writing suffers because I’m demotivated to think about it critically.  My writing isn’t the only thing to hurt in this kind of instance: my grade on the assignment is resultantly lower.  So, throughout the first part of the semester, I try to engage with the material in the course that piques my academic interest.

Discovering a general topic

Usually, I try to find several topics that interest me in the first couple of months in a course.  I attempt to find as many as possible for two reasons: to make connections between them and to give myself as many options potentially to write about.  I make notes throughout the semester about which class discussions and which readings are most interesting to me, and from there I catalog questions I can consider answering in the writing assignment.  To give a concrete example, as an undergraduate student I took a senior level Philosophy of Aesthetics course.  I was an English major, and this kind of course was both out of my field of study and my comfort zone.  However, throughout the semester, I found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on art to be interesting.  Additionally, in that same semester I came to appreciate the film Drive.  Resultantly, I connected the two and completed an admittedly compelling body of writing.  So this example fits in the context of my thinking about writing.  Continuing, once I’ve found a general topic or connection of topics in an academic or social issue, I turn to the next step of the process.

Researching and understanding relevant scholarship

At this point, which typically happens for me about a month before the assignment is due, I’m feeling pretty good.  I very loosely understand what I want to write about, and now it’s time for me to acquaint myself with the scholarship already out there.  The reason I approach this research portion of the process at this time is because I’m not too familiar with my topic yet, and my objective for the assignment is still malleable and subject to change.  Research at this stage is really important to me: my original line of thinking about the topic will either be strengthened or challenged, which I realize are both potential and necessary outcomes.  If I find in this stage that my loose topical interest has either been too thoroughly researched or, conversely, totally neglected in scholarship, I then consider refining the subject I want to write about.  Usually, though, my topic after becoming acquainted with scholarship in the area is bolstered and ready for execution.

Getting my ideas out a.k.a. the rough draft

This stage might be the hardest for me.  I frequently find myself too critical of the execution of my ideas in writing, and as a result the process is slowed tremendously.  To combat this grueling self-criticism, I remind myself that the first and roughest draft can be changed entirely before the submission of the final draft.  In getting my ideas out, I like to draft a loose outline to provide some semblance of a framework for the assignment.  This practice allows me integrate relevant scholarship into my draft, and it also relieves some of the stress of finding a template off which I can direct my ideas.  I understand how confining the outline can be, but I personally see its value in helping me organize my ideas to flow in the form of a draft.  Once my outline is in a position I’m comfortable with, I transport my ideas into the draft.

Proofreading, revision, and the final draft

With arguably the most difficult part of my process complete, the revision stage is a time for polishing and coming to terms with the submission.  Here, I’ll suggest some strategies I employ to engage with creating my final draft.  First and most importantly, I read my writing aloud.  Like Melissa alluded to in last week’s post, speech in writing is hugely important for me.  Not only do I literally write out loud at times, I also find revising out loud to be integral to my writing.  Reading what I’ve written allows me to hear how my ideas are expressed, further affording me the positions as both writer and reader.  I’ll go ahead and plug the Writing Center here.  The Writing Center, though effective for the writer at any stage of the process, is especially beneficial at this part since it offers an external and honest peer-evaluation of the delivery of your ideas.  If something didn’t sound right, or if something could potentially be stated more clearly, the consultants there relish the opportunity to let you know.  Politely, I’ll add.  When I’ve completed these steps regarding the final drafting stage, I usually feel comfortable enough to boldly and confidently submit it.  It’s time to move on and forget.  Right?

Postwriting and its applications

Though it’s indeed time to move on to other pressing assignments, it’s certainly not time to forget.  At this stage, I’m glad I’ve submitted the project, but I look for ways to think about what went right in this particular process and what could be improved.  I ask myself necessary questions at this stage: did I wait too long or not long enough in formulating my topic?  Was my use of scholarship compelling?  Did I give myself enough time to execute my ideas effectively in the drafting stage?  These are just a few examples of the questions I ask myself in order to improve my writing for the next time I write.

I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful in my writing.  I hope you, too, can find similar success without the headache of waiting until the last minute!

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.


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.


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.



Rethink the New Semester Reset

Cassie Book, Associate Director

As the first two weeks of fall semester wound down on a hazy August Friday afternoon, I found a spare moment to reflect on the work already done in the University Writing Center. Typically, when I imagine writing situations early in the semester, I immediately think of getting started on class writing assignments. In fact, when I visit classes to speak about the University Writing Center, I suggest students visit at the beginning of their writing process, to brainstorm and plan. Yet, many of the writers we’ve met here in the past two weeks aren’t just getting started. What are they up to?

We’ve met writers with projects not limited by the semester timeline. Some were in the final stages of editing academic journal articles; the research likely began several years ago. Others spent the summer revising personal statements for graduate school applications and wanted more feedback before submission. Still others have returned to U of L as graduate students with a renewed commitment to improving their writing with each opportunity. These writers embrace writing as a lifelong process and practice. They haven’t pushed the “reset” button at the beginning of the semester like, I’ll admit, I tend to do.

What if you’re already in the mindset of resetting at the beginning of each semester? You’re not yet working on a personal statement for graduate school. You wouldn’t know where to start on research for a journal article. Relax. I’m not suggesting that you embark on a lengthy writing project. There are other ways to commit to building and bridging your writing skills from semester to semester. Instead of starting from scratch each semester, take stock of what you’ve already learned and know about writing and your writing process.

We learn best when we begin to integrate concepts from one class or experience with new experiences. Another way to think about it might be learning a sport, say, basketball. You first try it out—shoot hoops with friends or family. Then, you play casual one-on-one. Next, you add more players and basic guidelines, maybe parameters like a time clock or a referee. Eventually, you’ll advance to having a specialized role (guard, center, forward) and even breaking the general guidelines. Of course, the learning process is never so straightforward, structured, and sequenced. The point is you’re always learning because each game the context is slightly different. You’re constantly building on your skills, observing others, listening, and responding to the other players. Learning to write is a similar process, though the “rulebook” is much more flexible than a given sport’s.

When confronted with a “new” writing task, take a few moments to reflect on how it relates to the writing you’ve already done—any writing, for academic or personal reasons. Maybe the subject matter is different, but can you identify similarities in structure, purpose, or audience? What do you know about your process? How do your professors and peers typically respond to your writing? How do your Twitter followers respond to your writing? Though at first a writing task might seem unfamiliar, try to link it to what you’ve already accomplished. If you shift your approach and thinking now, you’ll be better prepared later to embark on more in-depth and high stakes writing with confidence.

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