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Writing Places and Spaces

Jeremy Dunn, Consultantjeremy-d

You’ve picked a paper topic, done some research, and now you’re ready to begin writing that term paper. Or maybe you’ve just struck on a bit of inspiration for a new poem, or a short story—maybe even the next great American novel. There’s only one question left: Where do you go to write?

The question seems simple, but sometimes the answer isn’t. Over the years, I’ve had to do a lot of writing, and one factor that has turned out to be crucial for any writing project I’ve undertaken has been my writing environment, the physical places and spaces I inhabit while writing.

Researchers have taken an interest in how material environments and writing tools can aid or inhibit writing. In a study of how college students’ “composing unfolds materially through space and time in a mobile culture,” Stacey Pigg observes, “While the materiality of academic writing easily slips under the radar, how students access and incorporate places and technologies in composing habits outside classrooms may be one of the most important determinants of their success within them” (271). In other words, the places where we write, and the technologies we employ in our writing (i.e. pen and paper, laptops, desktops, typewriters, stone and chisel, etcetera) constitute foundational elements of the composing process.

Indeed, as examples of famous writers illustrate, writing is often a ritualistic, idiosyncratic process deeply rooted in particular environments and surroundings. Mark Twain reportedly wrote while lying in bed. Dylan Thomas had his writing shed where, legend has it, his wife would lock him up each day to ensure he got some writing done. Similarly, Virginia Woolf sometimes wrote in a toolshed she had converted into a “writing lodge.” Sir Walter Scott apparently liked to compose poetry on horseback.

I find other writers’ writing places and spaces interesting and inspiring, but not all of us have access to a cozy writing shed overlooking rolling English hills—or a horse to sit astride, if you’re interested in that sort of thing—while we write. So where do we turn to carve out writing spaces for ourselves?

Perhaps the local coffee shop. As Pigg suggests, “Informal public spaces such as cafés, coffeehouses, and commons areas serve as commonplace productive locations for many writers” (261). Pigg further explains that such environments often provide Wi-Fi to support mobile laptops, or in-house desktops in commons areas. These spaces thus offer technological access in addition to “clean space” where writers can concentrate on their projects (261).

Public spaces help many writers write, but they are not ideal for everyone. A quiet-seeking introvert at heart, I’ve learned that coffee shops—even library study areas—are not great writing spaces for me. I’ve tried to write in such places, only to realize I don’t really feel comfortable in them, or there’s too much going on for me to focus. Consequently, I’m unable to do much writing in those environments. Though the café or common area are good work areas for many, I’ve discovered that I do better by writing in my bedroom at home. There, I have a small, worn desk and lamp that help me settle into writing. The environment is a quiet one where I feel comfortable and able to focus (most of the time). In addition, writing at home better accommodates my idiosyncrasies. For example, while I write, I like to take breaks to stand up and pace around a bit, a practice I’m not exactly comfortable trying in a coffee shop. I also like the convenience of being down the hall from the kitchen if I want a snack or a drink of water, or in case I feel like brewing some coffee or tea. In short, at home in my room I simply feel a greater sense of quiet and am consequently able to get more writing done.

All of this rambling is simply to say that if the coffee shop helps facilitate your writing, or the park bench, or the library, or maybe a room at home, go there and write. If you find you’re stuck in a rut, consider seeking out a different writing space for a while and observe whether or not the new environment helps you break through your writer’s block. We all have to write somewhere. Learning which environments are most conducive to our writing practices can help us demystify writing and develop our composing processes in productive ways.

Works Cited

Pigg, Stacey. “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces.” CCC 66.2 (2014): 250-75.

 

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Finals Stress: You’re Not in This Alone

Carrie Mason, Consultant carrie-m

It’s about this time when you’re starting to freak out. Deadlines and commitments and all that heavy, heavy, jazz. Caffeine consumption is at an all-time high, sleep at an all-time low, and you’re not even sure if you took time for lunch. There. Is. Too. Much. To. Do. The four (or ten) page essay starts to feel like a full length novel, and the book you desperately needed isn’t at the library and you thought you had time for an inter library loan but it turns out you don’t and now you’re hoping Google Books has it as a preview and then you realized that you forgot about the one page reflection piece over some book you skimmed and then the professor talks about the in class exam you also forgot about and your mom called to say that your grandma misses you and you should call her.

Stop. Breathe. Relax. You can’t do anything if you’re thinking about everything. And that’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

It’s almost impossible for me to multitask when it comes to research and writing or any kind of homework, really. In the past, I’ve been able to obsess about a single project, conquer, and move on. It doesn’t seem like that strategy will work particularly well this go around. There are too many assignments due at the same time. Perhaps you’re finding yourself in the same boat. Whatever battle plan you’ve used before, it isn’t working now. Maybe you found that out at midterms and now these last assignments are even more daunting. Regardless of how it happened, you realize the boat has sprung a leak. Man overboard. But you can’t abandon ship. And neither can I. We have invested too much to give up now. We are actively working toward our dreams, to better ourselves, and the pursuit of something much greater than an in-class exam. So, knowing the journey has its rough parts, I offer some tips that might help keep us all afloat until we hit the winter break shoreline.

  1. Coffee is not water and you should drink less of the bean juice and more of the h20.
  2. Don’t let school work take away your sleep. Not only do we turn into incorrigible creatures when we don’t sleep; we don’t do better on our assignments either.
  3. Energy drinks are also not water.
  4. Breaks are good for your mind and soul and sanity.
  5. Focus on a task for half a day, take a substantial break, and then switch tasks. This can help you gain progress on multiple projects (this is my current method).
  6. Eat real food.

I wish I had more things to say that would be encouraging and provide step by step instructions for end of semester success. But this is all I got. I could say start earlier, but I think we all already know about that. In fact, we probably already know most of the things I’ve suggested. I certainly didn’t learn them all on my own. And I think that’s the greater lesson here. You–whoever you are–are not the only one who is drinking way too much caffeine. You are not the only one who didn’t get a book in time. You are not the only one who forgot to eat lunch. You are not alone. Finish Strong.

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!

The 5-Step Process for Writing a To-Do List

Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Alongside the crisp autumn air and the leaf mosaics covering the ground come final projects, long research papers, and tests galore. In short, it’s crunch time, y’all. So, you may ask, how do we manage our time so we can get our work done and maybe have a little itty bitty bit of fun, too? The answer is a to-do list! Some people may argue that writing a to-do list seems like an activity that only requires halfway conscious thought; I beg to differ. To-do lists not only keep you accountable, but they can actually do wonders for the confidence you have in the work you do.

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If you’re struggling to figure out where to begin, follow these 5 easy steps and you’ll be a to-do list making, reading, writing, studying machine!

1. Include Tasks You Have Already Completed

If you are feeling particularly overwhelmed, write down tasks you have already completed and go ahead and cross them off. Now, I know this may sound a little ridiculous—okay, maybe a lot ridiculous—but it will allow you the feeling of continuing rather than starting a list. Starting is often the hardest part of any project or goal. (Let’s be real, why would you start being productive when you can watch an entire season of Parks and Rec on Netflix in one sitting?) But alas! The future you calls and begs you to do your work, do it well, and do it without pulling all your hair out. If you frame your to-do list in a way that shows that you have already taken the first step towards being productive (even if it is hanging up all your clean laundry or scooping the kitty litter), continuing on to the next task will be just that…a continuation rather than a dreaded beginning. Also, when you’re stressed and you feel like you’re barely staying afloat, marking a task off your (seemingly never-ending) to-do list can be a serious cathartic experience.

2. Write Down the Items in the Order You Intend to Do Them

So, I know this seems like work before starting on the actual work, but you will thank yourself later. Assigning a logical order to your list gives you the opportunity to ease yourself into the work. There are many ways you can organize: start small and build from there, begin with your least favorite subject so you can get it out of the way first, or start with the larger project if you feel like you’ll be productive earlier in the day. Obviously, the way you tailor your to-do list is entirely up to you, but take the time to actually organize it into a logical set of tasks so you’ll be more likely to get into—and stay in—the groove of things.

3. Keep A Logical Scope in Mind

This is absolutely, entirely, so, so important. As a new grad student, I am quickly realizing that making a to-do list is a lot like designing a large research project in that you have to be realistic about what you—as a human being without superpowers or seventeen arms—can accomplish in the amount of time you have. Even if you are making a to-do list for the weekend—which seems like a lot of time—it is still important to think about what you can realistically get done. One, this will help you plan for and prioritize the following week (let’s be honest, chances are that every single thing will not get done on the weekend), and, two, this will keep you from getting discouraged when you check off three or four items, feel great about your progress, and then still have an unending list staring you in the face. Time management, stress management, and keeping yourself sane in the midst of the end of semester madness has a lot to do with being honest with yourself, setting realistic expectations, and feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

4. Be Detailed and Specific

I know this is another moment where you’re thinking, “how much work do I have to do before actually doing the work?”, but again, you will thank yourself later. By “detailed and specific,” I mean, instead of writing down “read for English class,” write down what the individual articles are so you don’t have to go back to your syllabus a hundred times to remind yourself what article from Blackboard applies to what day in class. Also, actually looking at the upcoming assignment will help you know how much you can logically get done in that day (re: step #3).

5. Indicate When the Task is Complete, and Do It Like You Mean It!

The final step is my favorite step. Once you have made your detailed, logical to-do list, get out a colorful pen and go to town marking off, checking off, scratching out, or x-ing through the tasks you have completed. Like I said earlier—for me at least—this is such a cathartic experience. As students, who happen to also do things in regular life, it is easy to feel that we are completely sacrificing one thing in order to pay attention to another. While this demand is part of being a student, creating a to-do list that is manageable and well organized, and scratching through the completed tasks with a vengeance, allows you a well-earned feeling of productivity and accomplishment. Plus, when you can look at all the aweseome things you accomplished that day, you can feel better about entering into a little bit of personal time. So, when you get to crossing off that last task, go treat yourself and celebrate a job well done!

5 Tips for Productivity: The Secret to Success

Arielle Ulrich, Consultant

DSCN1639Now that we’re nearly a month into the semester, you’re hopefully starting to get the hang of your classes. You’ve gone to a few classes, you’ve turned in some assignments, and you’ve probably just taken your first exam or written your first paper. This is the point in the semester where I typically lose steam because, after all, the end of the semester seems so far away. It’s not until later in the semester, when I’m struggling to write three papers at the same time, that I realize how much time I wasted at the beginning of the semester and wish I could go back in time and slap myself.

However, instead of starting to work on that time machine, I recommend something a little more practical (and doable): invest some thought into raising your productivity level. As a graduate student, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of utilizing your time in an efficient way. If you’re struggling to get all your school work done, it’s not enough to simply work harder, you also need to work smarter. Hence, I’ve put together some tips that should get you started and hopefully serve you well throughout the semester as you plan for success.

  1. Be honest with how you’re spending your time. Take a few days to track how you spend every hour of the day. By finding these gaps in your day and filling them instead with productive activities, you’ll get more done in the day without changing anything else in your schedule. I recommend using this sheet to track your time throughout the day:  http://getbuttonedup.com/tools2/free_printable_time_management_sheet_template.pdf
  2. To-do lists are a must. However, sometimes to-do lists can be easy to ignore if you add too many tasks onto it. I recommend a to-do list that separates your tasks into quadrants based on importance or necessity. Throughout the day, you work through the quadrants, starting with tasks that are urgent and important, and eventually move down to tasks that are neither. Using this method, you are sure to complete the most important tasks of your day without wasting time on busywork.tumblr_mz6f66jtzF1qdjs4ao1_500
  3. Use a scheduling tool like Google Calendar to remind yourself of exams, due dates, and meetings. By adding these events to your phone immediately, you’ll be able to schedule reminders so that you’re sure to remember the important deadlines for the semester.
  4. Don’t forget to take breaks! I often try to work for 30-60 minutes at a time, and then I take a 10 minute break to let the information settle in. Breaks not only give your brain a chance to rest, but they also increase productivity by ensuring that you don’t overwork yourself. If you don’t have a timer, you can use software to remind yourself to take breaks. Try a website like http://www.pomodoro.me/ that can give you desktop notifications.
  5. Lastly, seek help when necessary. If doing your homework takes hours and you’re still failing, seek out a tutor who will be able to give you study tips. REACH offers a range of tutoring opportunities as well as workshops on other college survival techniques. If you never seem to be able to start a paper, schedule a Writing Center appointment for brainstorming tips or to go over a draft. Never forget to ask other people how they stay productive!

I hope you find these tips helpful as you go into the rest of the semester. Happy writing!

Time Away: One Key to Productivity

Brit Mandelo, Consultant

BritThough a variety of factors can contribute to low productivity, burn-out—minor or major—is the source of woe for many, many writers who are juggling high stress levels, large required outputs of work, and tight deadlines. I’m not talking procrastination; that’s a whole different animal. What I mean, here, is the sensation of doom and desperation, accompanied by a deep exhaustion, that can follow on the heels of a hard run of productivity. You just feel wrung out, but there’s still more to be done. Ignore the deadline for a bit, though. While it may sound counterintuitive, one of the solutions that can help is taking time away from the project in question: for ten minutes or for a day, a break offers a chance to recuperate.

Giving the brain a chance to rest is no different than giving the body a chance to rest. If you were doing a strenuous physical activity, you’d likely take a breather before moving on to the next challenge. The same principal can work to stave off burn-out, at least temporarily—long enough to rally and finish that research paper, possibly. The idea is to count in that break time as part of the process; don’t worry about the deadline while taking a break, or your stress level isn’t likely to decrease much at all.

Instead, if the half-finished sentence staring you down is giving you a headache, step away. Take a short walk, do the dishes, listen to music, go outside—whatever fits your fancy. An activity that isn’t mentally challenging offers extra breathing room, though sometimes a pleasant brain-stimulation, like a favorite movie or album, can be refreshing as well. Washing dishes or picking up around the house are a few of my preferred necessary distractions. (That way, the break also feels a little productive, too.) Don’t think about the project that’s driving you up a wall. If an idea happens, delightful. If not, don’t worry about it. Take the time to breathe, to loosen up, to let go of some of that doom.

When you return to the page after the break, it might not be easy, but it also might not be harrowing and awful.

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