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“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.

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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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.

Setting “Optimistic Accountability Markers”

It’s a week from spring break, and I know—one of my feet is already out the door, too. But even though we would rather focus our to-do lists around packing up our suitcases to go home or buying a new swimsuit to rush off to some actual sunny weather (what is this weather we’ve been having?!), let’s take a step back into this figurative door-frame and do ourselves a favor.

DSCN2233

After spring break, it always seems like a sprint to the finish with all the assignments and papers and projects, yadda yadda yadda…but this semester, glorious spring 2015, let’s try to make it a little less stressful on ourselves. Let’s set some optimistic accountability markers (some may mistake these as self-deadlines, but that term is all too scary. These are much nicer). What do you say? This’ll take less than 10 minutes of time, and I promise, our future selves will thank us.

You need just a few things to get started: your syllabi for your classes (whether paper or on Blackboard—wherever the schedule for upcoming classes is laid out), a calendar/planner, potentially a pen (unless you’re going all techy on me with a digital calendar), and an optimistic but determined state of mind. Got ‘em? Great!

Now, the first step is the hardest, but necessary. So, deep breath. Ready? Let’s mark down in our calendars the due date of our bigger end-of-semester projects. I know this seems daunting, but it only gets easier from here, I promise! It’s just like jumping into a cold pool—it warms up after the initial chill. But take 2 minutes, go through each of the final weeks of your syllabi and put them all into that calendar, preferably marking them by class and assignment name.

Okay—you’ve made it this far, my friend. I know it looks like a lot to do in a short amount of time, but that’s where these next steps come in to make it a whole lot easier and actually doable.

Now zero in on one of your classes—whichever one, any one will do—and think about that final assignment. Is it a bigger paper? How many pages? Is it an accumulative exam? Whatever it is, think back to last semester. Did you have something like this before? Now be honest with yourself—to do well on this assignment, what are the steps you need to take? Jot down just a rough draft of the steps you think you’ll need to take to get there. Here’s an example:

Assignment: 5-7 page paper, using 5 sources, about such-and-such a topic.

  1. Well, to be honest, it’s going to take me a while to gather those 5 sources. I might even need to schedule an appointment with a research librarian to make sure I’m on the right track.
  2. And then, I need to read those 5 sources, highlighting parts that seem relevant to the such-and-such topic, so I actually know what I’m going to be writing about.
  3. And then I need to brainstorm and mentally organize my paper a bit, before I sit down to start writing.
  4. From that, I can probably put together a rough draft of about 3 pages.
  5. Then I definitely want to come back to my draft with fresh eyes to revise, because my papers are always better when I revisit them and polish/clarify my ideas. And let’s say I get stuck at something like 4 pages—I’ll include a little buffer time to make a visit to the writing center (and I might as well make that appointment now and get ahead of schedule—I can always cancel it if I don’t need to use it, but it’ll just be another optimistic accountability marker to hopefully get where I want to be!)
  6. Then I can work on adding the finishing touches. Done. Submit. Adios such-and-such paper!

So six steps? That’s totally doable, right? Better than one larger looming paper. And breaking it down like that can give you an idea of how long each step might take.

So the next step, after drafting that list—yours might only be a few words per step—write on/type in your calendar when you think you can doably complete steps 1 through [insert your own number here]. But remember, the key here is to be optimistic and a go-getter, but not unrealistic. We have 5 weeks left, and then finals week after spring break; I know it’ll fly by, but realistically, if we space out our mini-optimistic accountability marker steps, it’s completely doable! And you won’t be super stressed, I-am-only-surviving-on-caffeine during finals week!

Oh! And two nice things about these optimistic accountability markers? Checking them off on a to-do list feels super! AND they are revisable—if you realize you’ve been a bit too optimistic with one of your markers, reevaluate. They’re your markers, and they’re there to help out your future self (:

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!

Don’t Fear the Outline: It’s Really Just a Helpful Sidekick

Jamison Huebsch, Consultant

Outline is an unusual word in the world of writing; in normal usage it suggests a lack of substance, a mere shape of something larger. We use the word because it is supposed to represent the shape of things to come in our work. Yet in the process of writing an outline can sometimes feel limiting, because it can be a commitment to a direction for an essay or story. An outline can be a big help in the early planning stages of writing however, and I would like to share a few tips I’ve picked up on creating an outline. The first tip is not to stress out about an outline, because it is supposed to be a helpful map and not a constraint.

Imagine it like this: you are deep in the middle of a paragraph, and have put your best ideas down on the paper but you still feel like it’s a bit of a mess. Where do you go next? Pull out your trusty outline you made earlier and let it guide you. You can review the important concepts you wanted to cover, see what the next topic you planned to discuss, and then you are right back on track without any wandering about. The key is what you include in your outline, to give yourself guidance later.

Let’s start with two important parts of the introduction: the audience information, and the thesis. Your introduction is usually the best place to clue your reader into information they may not know but is important to your topic. You should note down anything you feel you might have to explain such as technical information, acronyms, or concepts. In creative works you might consider a character’s back-story or important information about where the story takes place. Not everything you write down in the outline has to be used later. If you writing a creative work you may not need a thesis either, but it is still a good place to record your original plan for the plot. If you producing other academic work however, you will definitely want a thesis. There is lots of help available on making a good thesis, including on the Purdue OWL, but as long as it summarizes the central point of your paper well you are on good ground.

The next section is sometimes referred to as the body, but I like to think of it more like a skeleton. You want to get the central ideas of your work sectioned out, and then you can break them down into smaller easier to plan steps. So pick major concepts and give each one its own section. In a creative work you might list the scenes you plan to write, so you can get a feel for the shape and flow of the plot. In a class paper you could review the major topics or issues related to your argument. If you have already done your research for the paper, an outline can help you space out your citations and ensure that you cover everything important before moving on to the next source. You want the sections to follow each other in an order that makes sense, so by looking at it in the large scale abstract you can better see where you might need transitions added to your text.

When you have covered all your main points and noted all the important details to your paper it’s time for an ending. Regardless of if you call it a conclusion or an epilogue, a good work leaves it reader with a proper send off. This is your last chance as a writer to leave a good impression on your reader. Luckily a conclusion in an academic paper is like a mirror of the introduction: you review the important points of your argument briefly, and similar to your earlier thesis it DSCN1642should contain a clear and concise statement of your position. Creative writers are still stuck crafting sappy endings or killing off everyone’s favorite characters, but that’s the job you signed up for. Either way you’ll know by now if you followed your earlier road map or set off into the unknown, but at least you brought directions.

I hope these few short tips about outlines help someone out, and don’t forget that you can come by the Writing Center. We not only can help you with brainstorming and planning your first outline, but with all the fun stuff that comes after. Good luck with your writing!

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