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Slow Writing: 5 Ways to Rebel against the Culture of Urgency

Abby Wills: Writing Consultant

The culture—especially that of the university—is all too often frantic.

Image result for abby wills writing centerYou perpetually have too much to do. It’s embarrassing to not be busy. Procrastination both alleviates and creates urgency (and everybody does it, so it’s okay). If you are stressed and anxious, you are merely conforming to the culture.

But thriving at the university does not require conformity. Instead, refusing to conform to franticness often leads to better quality work and increased enjoyment in that work. So try going slow.

“But if I have three papers due tomorrow that I haven’t started yet, how can I get them done slowly?”

Good question. The voice of wisdom is not always the voice of the culture. It’s possible that it usually isn’t. So here is some countercultural counsel:

1. Say no.

Culture: Get involved! Take every opportunity! Get out of your comfort zone! Fill your CV! Your whole future rests on your ability to juggle as many opportunities as you can! You will fail if you miss an opportunity!

The never-ending extra-curriculars, organizations, and opportunities of the university can be overwhelming, and if you attended orientation, you may or may not have been told to participate in all of them. The pressure is heavy.

Wisdom: Think very carefully about which specific opportunities would be most meaningful to you and your hopes for your vocation. Slow down. Consider carefully. Think through your choices for at least as long as you thought about which starter Pokémon to take. Your schedule does not need to be completely full in order to be successful.

2. Ask for grace.

Culture: Never show any signs of failure! Never give up! Hide your weaknesses and pull through by your own strength!

Wisdom: If you ask, more people are willing to be gracious than you might expect. If you have no time to write a good paper in time for the due date—ask for an extension. Most professors would prefer a good paper late than a bad paper on time. Asking is not failing. Asking is showing that you care about the quality of your work (and your health).

3. Get alone.

I used to think that the library was a place that inherently nourished productivity. This depends on your personality, but after my first couple years of undergrad I finally realized that the conversations, passersby, and moving bookshelves (my undergraduate university was higher tech than UofL) were usually too distracting. I did my best writing in the woods (my undergrad was also not in the middle of a city), the empty chapel, and on the floor of empty, soundproof practice rooms in the music building.

Culture: Loners are losers.

Wisdom: Loners get stuff done.

Of course, it would be unhealthy to be always isolating yourself, but a balance between enjoying others’ company and working hard on your own is crucial to success, especially when you are an introverted writer.

4. Go off the grid.

You know what I mean. Put your phone in your sock drawer. Ignore its petulant cries for attention.

Culture: But if I turn off my phone, I will miss important things! What if someone needs to get a hold of me?

Wisdom: You miss important things every time you look at your phone. Get your life together.

5. Stake your time.

If you know your most productive time of day, claim it. For me, this is first thing in the morning, before other people have gotten up, when my mind is clear and I can be alone. I guard this time jealously, which means I usually give up sleeping in. Putting a stake in your productive time usually means giving up something—sleep, social events, Pokémon raids—but if your best work comes from this time, it is worth it.

Culture: Gotta catch ‘em all!

Wisdom: This saying originated in the golden era in which only one hundred fifty Pokémon roamed the region. It is anachronistic to apply it to today.

Slow Down

Remember that franticness is not necessarily productivity. Taking the time to do good work, to rejuvenate, to be alone, to sleep—slowing down in these ways may make your writing flow better than you think. It is possible that the reason you are stuck in your writing process is because you have not had a break from all of the voices—present or virtually present via internet—clamoring for your attention.

Slowness is countercultural, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless. Sometimes revolution is necessary before progress is possible. In a culture of stagnant urgency, slowing down is the resistance.

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How I Write: Dr. Suzanne Meeks

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Suzanne Meeks, Ph.D. Professor, Psychological and Brain ScienceMeeks headshot 6-19-18 (1)

Dr. Meeks has worked at the University of Louisville for nearly 32 years. She conducts research on mental health and aging. She has received grants from the AARP, National Institute of Mental Health, and Kindred Foundation. Dr. Meeks teaches doctoral courses in ethics, assessment, and geropsychology, and an undergraduate course in tests and measurement. She currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Gerontologist, a multidisciplinary journal dedicated to research and scholarship on aging and care for older people. In her years at the University of Louisville, she has mentored 25 honors students in thesis work, and 33 doctoral students (28 of whom have achieved their Ph.D.). When not teaching, editing, or writing, Dr. Meeks enjoys reading literature and mystery novels, knitting, attending theatre, horseback riding, and doing crossword puzzles, among other things.

Location: 111 Life Sciences Building, Belknap Campus

Current project: I am between major projects; my students and I are collecting data on end-of-life care in nursing homes, and I have data from various other projects that I need to analyze and write up. There is a grant proposal pending review in the VA on which I am a collaborator, and I am collaborating with two of my U of L colleagues on a federal training grant proposal.

Currently reading: I am catching up on research journals that piled up during my 9.5 years as chair of my department. I am focusing on research about leisure activity and positive affect in late life, hoping to design a study on this theme before the end of the semester. I am also reading a book that I recommend for all would-be science writers:
Writing Science: How to Write Papers that get Cited and Proposals that get Funded, by Joshua Schimel. Oxford University Press, 2012. On Audible: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. On my bedside table: Native Son by Richard Wright.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

Scientific journal articles, grant proposals, email (yes, that is writing!) and other professional writing, article and grant reviews, letters of recommendation.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I write in my faculty office, and in my home office. I try to write at home one day a week. I write constantly, but many of the things I write relate to my editorial work – correspondence with authors, correspondence with remote staff, and article reviews. When I am working on a journal article I try to allocate larger chunks of time, most of which are at home. I spend as much time crafting emails and letters of recommendation as I do sentences in scholarly products. I never send an email without rereading it. If it is at all controversial I read it a minimum of 3 times. I edit and re-edit my own scholarly writing before submitting. Often it is easiest just to write anything that comes quickly, and then go back over it, rearranging, adding, and subtracting, until it works.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Both my writing spaces are personalized and comfortable. A comfortable desk chair, two screens (monitor + laptop – if I am writing a result section I need to have the statistical results up on one screen while I write about them on the other), and pictures that please me (of my grandchildren, e.g., other family, beautiful places I wish I could be). I type everything, so I do not have much need for any tools but a computer, though I might need a pencil to mark something in an article that I am writing about, or to make a list of numbers from my data. I like it quiet, but I take frequent breaks. These might involve jumping up and pacing, filing my nails, playing with my cat (when working at home), getting a cup of tea. A tea kettle, tea mug, and good tea are essential implements for writing. So is dark chocolate. I try not to multitask but I do check email in my breaks.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

For getting started: just get something down on the proverbial paper. If you cannot write the first paragraph, write the second one, or write whatever section is easiest. You do not have to write things in order, but you should not walk away from a writing session without getting something written, even if it is just a few sentences. I agonize the longest on the first sentences and so I sometimes consider it a sufficient triumph in a session just to have written the first and second sentences of a paper. This of course assumes I have not waited until the last minute to write it.

For revision, you have to leave yourself enough time, so you cannot procrastinate the initial draft. You must read your own work critically and revise. All of us tend to use way more words than we need (see my answer to #5 below), so think about saying the same thing in fewer words. Pay attention to those blue squiggly lines that Word has placed under your words and phrases. What is it that the grammar editor did not like? Writing with colleagues is a blessing because then you get help and multiple perspectives. If you are writing a grant proposal, the more eyes the better.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

My parents both implicitly taught me to edit/revise my work by editing all of my juvenile products. By instilling a love of poetry and literature, they taught me another crucial piece of advice: to be a good writer, read lots. Recently, Sir Harold Evans has challenged my writing with his book Do I make myself clear: A practical guide to writing well in the modern era (Little, Brown, 2018). It is funny and inspirational; it will send you back to your writing with a ruthless editor’s pencil. (A shorter, less fun, but still very helpful alternative: Writing science in plain English by Anne E. Greene, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013).

Beyond Following Directions: Getting the Most Out of Your Assignment Prompts

Liz Soule, Writing Consultant

Have you ever read the instructions for an assignment and felt totally stumpedLiz Soule

You’re not alone. Last semester, dozens of students came to the University Writing Center to talk with me about their assignment prompt. Given how common this issue is, I thought it might be helpful if I share some of my tricks of the trade. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing methods any writer can use to decipher prompts and demystify assignments. We’ll begin by looking at the different features of a writing assignment prompt. To do this, we’ll review an assignment prompt I received in my English 102 class.

For your analysis of fiction essay, you want to choose a story and provide an analysis of some aspect of the story (a character, a theme, a metaphor, foreshadowing, or catharsis, for example). Your thesis should state specifically what aspect of the story you are analyzing and then HOW you will analyze it. The body of your essay should break down into 4-6 supporting sections. The conclusion of your essay should place your thesis in a social context.

The first step to understanding any assignment is to understand the task at hand. To do this, we look at the assignment prompt for certain understandings. We should find out what actions we are being asked to take, how we should go about it, and what the requirements of our assignment are.

What am I being asked to do?

Looking at the first sentence of my assignment, it becomes clear what kind of paper I am writing: an essay about fiction. The question is, what am I to do in this essay? By looking for keywords in my assignment, I come to understand what action I’ll need to take. As you can tell by the words I’ve formatted in bold, there is a trend regarding the word analyze (and related words, analysis and analyzed). This tells me that the focus of my essay is to analyze fiction.

How do I do it?

How am I to go about doing this? My professor laid out some breadcrumbs for me to follow in the form of essay parts: thesis, body and conclusion. In the thesis, I should lay out what aspect I am analyzing (e.g., a theme), and how I will do it (e.g., evaluating key plot points). The body needs to include 4-6 supports, which means that there will be 4-6 body paragraphs, each including their own unique story-related evidence that supports my thesis. Finally, the conclusion has to tie my overall point into a social issue.

But what if you’ve gone through this process and you’re still not sure? What if the assignment instructions are vague or unclear? What then? Sometimes, you need to think a little deeper, beyond the instructions, and look to the outcomes. Although they might not feel like it in the moment, writing assignments aren’t meant to torture you. Professors assign them so that you can practice skills, and show what you know.

What are you supposed to learn by writing this? (What is the course supposed to teach you?)

One of the ways a professor might teach you about discipline-related information (e.g., concepts in sociology) in your course is through the process of writing. This is known as “writing to learn”. Essentially, it’s thought that writing helps us engage with ideas more actively than reading might. You might be putting concepts together through writing, or coming to understand a text or topic better through the process of writing about it.

In other cases, writing assignments are utilized to help students hone their writing skills so that they can tackle more complex tasks. Many assignments in English 101 and 102 both connect together and build upon one another. For instance, in English 101, you might be asked to write an argument, then summarize another’s argument, and finally write an argumentative essay. In English 102, you may analyze an artifact, which leads to an annotated bibliography, which culminates in a research project.

In both of these cases, you can show what you know by engaging as best as you can with the skills or content areas you are supposed to be learning. This not only help you complete your assignment, but will help develop your knowledge and abilities overall.

 What knowledge can you show through your writing? (What is your professor hoping to assess?)

This leads us to the other goal of writing assignments: student assessment. This might seem like an obvious statement, but in the midst of writing the assignment, we can lose track of what exactly this means. As we write, we often focus heavily on how clear or eloquent our writing is, or how close we are to meeting requirements. In times like this, it’s important to step back and think: what have I learned in the course? How can I use this assignment to show what I know? This often leads to a more authentic assignment.

Finally: Talk to your professor.

If you’ve completed all these tasks, and you still aren’t sure, then it’s time to approach your professor. Try and think of specific questions you have about the assignment. For instance, if the format of the assignment wasn’t clear, you could ask about that. Likewise, if you’re not sure how it connects to what you’ve learned, you can always ask.

As always, University Writing Center consultants are here to help you in breaking down assignment prompts and getting started. We’re happy to help you read through your assignment prompt and answer these questions.

For more help, check out the following resources:

How can I better understand my assignment?

Common keywords in assignment prompts

Five tips for interpreting writing prompts

Research in Creative Writing

Katie Frankel, Writing Consultant

Paradoxical to the title of this, many people seem to enjoy creative writing because it often does not confine to the sometimes strict, regimented boundaries of an academic essay.Katie Frankel Writing affords an allowance of freedom and imagination that sometimes feel prohibitive in the standard research paper. However, conducting some research for your creative writing can make your piece more vivid, interesting, and overall stronger than before.

In a creative writing class at my undergraduate university, my favorite professor ever required us to undergo and document research for our various pieces. Because, at the time, I was working on my now-finished historical fiction novel, I felt certain that research would bring my characters and story to life even more.

Starting at Half Priced Books, I gathered up some informative and very interesting texts that directly related to my fictional world, such as Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Children of the Wild West, and multiple others. Many of the specific details of my writing come directly from information I have learned from these books. After beginning my collection of texts that related to my novel, I began to hunt through antique stores, looking for artifacts of the time period I was writing in to try and put myself in the scenes more. One day, I even found and purchased a McGuffey’s Primer published in the time period my characters exist.

Lastly, I began taking trips to a local museum called Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth. I nerded out every time I walked in with my pen and notebook, writing down facts I found interesting from posted information and asking the museum curators various questions, such as how a lower-class family of the time might get by (people who couldn’t afford beeswax to make candles could instead use the fat of sheep, by the way). I walked through the various set-ups and took pictures, envisioning my characters dwelling in the buildings.

Even if your creative writing work isn’t historical in nature, it can still benefit from research. If you’re writing a mystery, researching the tactics of real criminals can be insightful and also very interesting. A novel about life working in a circus can be made more believable and interesting if you read (both fiction and non-fiction) books and watch movies about circus performers. For one particular scene in my novel, my professor suggested that I go to a fire station to ask a firefighter about specific details pertaining to a house catching on fire.

When writing any type of creative piece featuring characters or events that you’re not personally familiar with, research can only serve to enhance your fictional world. Not only will you learn a tremendous amount through various forms of primary and secondary research, but you will more than likely have a great time doing it and be inspired to keep writing.

Write Like You Mean It

Josh Christian, Consultant

            Advanced Composition appeared as an elective course in my student handbook at Campbellsville University, where I was an undergraduate. I enrolled my junior year, to try to get it out of the way for a freer, more calm senior year.Josh Christian (We all know about senioritis) But it was the only class on my schedule that semester I was concerned about, as I didn’t know what to expect. “Advanced Composition” read as if I was going to be plunged into the icy academic waters, left to sink or swim. So, sitting in the lecture hall on the first day of class, I was surprised when the syllabus listed a narrative as the class’s first formal assignment. First, I wondered about its elementary nature, how it seemed trivial for English majors. Then I began to panic. What was I going to write? How was I going to structure it? What ways could I approach such a broad topic? How would I know if I was writing it correctly?

If you are wondering, I didn’t die. I got through the assignment, and it was much easier than I thought it would be. But I do not believe I am alone in my panic, as in universities across the country, students are faced with such writing assignments in composition classes. And because of their lack of experience with writing narratives in an academic setting, they don’t know what to do.  The anxiety they are feeling is more than one writing assignment. No, it is evidence of something larger at play.

Throughout my high school and early academic experience, I was taught to write for the academy. I was to take myself out of the equation, permitted from using “I”. Instead I was told to be objective and to state my opinion but through an unbiased language. I was taught to not make a claim unless I could back it up. And if I did attempt to back up my claims, I needed to cite the material in-text and on a reference page of some sort. This was academic writing. The other kinds of writing, creative writing (stories, poems, plays, etc.) and journaling or messages sent to a friend, had their place but it just wasn’t in the academy.

You see, there had been a binary established, one in the making for generations before me. Academic writing sat on one side, while creative writing sat on the other. And like all binaries, there was a strict wall between them, especially early on, when all narrative or poetic elements were driven from a student’s paper until it became nothing more than thesis statements and transitional phrases. Don’t get me wrong, these elements of academic writing also have their place. But to drive the use of these elements out of any writing completely, is to take away a writer’s desire or ability to be creative, leaving stacks and stacks of student papers which otherwise could have been more thoughtful.

So, what do we do with such a binary? How do we, as students or faculty deal with it? How can we be excited about academic writing, if we can’t be creative? And how can we approach creative projects, like literacy narratives, if we haven’t historically been given permission to be creative before? Well, like any binary, we begin to defeat it when we question it. And when we begin to question the binary, it only helps if we are ready, as students and professors alike, to take back the mantle of “writer,” a title left for the literary authors who often mold the work we, as an academy, talk about.

            When we begin to identify as writers, we begin to take responsibility for our words. We begin to be more thoughtful about what we write because we have agency over our words, them becoming our own. So, make the choice that all writers have to make. When you read the assignment sheet, ask yourself where you can stand to be creative. How can you begin with an anecdote, using narrative elements? How can you push the limits of a rubric by thinking differently about a topic? How can you make what you are writing fun to write or read? Before you know it, your creativity will inform your academic work, and your academic writing will show you the necessity of research and argument. Dare to be a writer in your own right. And whatever you write, write like you mean it.Image result for bob dylan think different                                                                     (Apple, 1997)

Doing More than Microwaving Alphabet Soup: Tips for Getting Better at Cooking and Writing

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

On one now infamous afternoon many years ago, I decided to make cupcakes from box of cake mix. Following the directions on the box, I dutifully mixed the ingredients on the box: egg, oil, water. Everything was thoroughly blended, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. I looked at the cupcake papers in the pan and looked at the mix, then the papers again, then the mix. I was pretty sure the mix was too liquid-y for the papers. I checked the box again; everything on the box was in the bowl.

Still unsure, I called my best friend who regularly baked. She reasonably asked if I had followed the directions on the box. As I picked it up to read the directions to her, I realized the problem—as you, dear reader, likely already have. The cake mix itself was still in the box. I was too embarrassed to even explain what happened to my friend. I just told her I had figured it out and got off the phone.

Ashly_Version_3That’s just the most re-told story of my kitchen fails. Few remember the many, many nights I messed up Hamburger Helper. Or the time I scalded a pot when I set hot chocolate mix on fire. But since those days, I’ve learned a few things and can successfully finish both edible and enjoyable meals. I credit a lot of my growth in the kitchen to being a little more relaxed about precisely following directions, trusting my intuition a little bit more, and being ok with taking risks. It may seem odd to have such a food-themed post on a blog about writing, but my approach to cooking is somewhat influenced by my approach to writing—a skill with which I have considerably more facility and comfort.

Following directions was the first hurdle I had to conquer in the kitchen. It was the source of many of kitchen fails I mentioned above. I was so concerned with doing exactly what I was supposed to do that I would get things mixed up. I wasn’t considering the finished product. A lot of times, this is what happens when writers focus more on grammar or mechanics than the message they are trying to send. Worrying about the writing instructions governing the placement of commas, of which there may be too many to count, can keep you from finishing your sentence, your paragraph, your whole piece. Or, as was the case in my early cooking adventures, you can end up putting in too much of something, too little, or putting it in the wrong place. This is not to say that writing “instructions” like punctuation or grammar aren’t important, but they should act as guides and finishing touches rather than the main focus of piece. After all, you want to eat (or read) the finished product, not the individual ingredients.

Another important part of cooking and writing is trusting your intuition. Ever been half way through cooking a meal only to realize that you’re missing one or two ingredients? Maybe you’re better at this whole cooking thing than I have been (and sometimes still am). At times like these, you might just have to wing it and make an educated guess about what to substitute or leave out. Those small tweaks help make what you’re making your own special version—the makings of secret recipes. It’s not much different in writing, but the tweaking is more in regard to style than flavor. Writing style, sometimes it’s called voice, is often lauded as the extra bit that makes a piece unique. Often movies or other popular media suggest that this aspect of writing is some kind of gift good writers are born with. Really though, developing voice and style is largely about trying out new spices and flavors in your writing until you find the one and the amount that works. This means, after you’ve got the big pieces of the message together, pay attention to the details—add a little bit of this or that until it balances to be just right.

Whether you’re anxious about cooking or writing, relaxing the attention on producing exactly what the instructions or the instructors call for can be the first step in actually developing your style. That means taking risks, but without those risks it’s nearly impossible to get better at something. Sure, you might include too much of one ingredient and your reader or eater might object. Next time you can include less, or you can try something else. And remember, those rules that seem so strict are really just guidelines to help you make your version of piece you’re aiming for.

The Rhetoric of Style: Writing is Like Getting Dressed in the Morning

Lauren Short, Consultant

You greet the day with panic because you overslept. Again. All that matters now is grabbing your things and making your way out the door looking reasonably presentable to society. Even though you may be thinking to yourself, “I have nothing to wear,” you somehow find a few articles that do the trick. When it comes to drafting a paper, a panic similar to a missed alarm can be so overwhelming that you think, “I have nothing to write,” but you shouldn’t feel pressure to create your magnum opus the first time. When it comes to writing (and getting dressed in the morning) you don’t have to reinvent the wheel–follow a formula that works for you and feel free to throw on an unexpected accessory once in a while.

While at the university, generally everyone has to wear a top, bottoms, and shoes (or at least one would hope). A typical paper includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. Though forms of style and styles of writing will differ within specific contexts, you get the basic idea. If you’ve got an outline to work from, the next step is easy. What really makes our work special is the extras that we use to define ourselves, our style, if you will, just as each person has a distinguishing characteristic about his or her choice in dress. If you’re not sure what your strengths are as a writer, feel free to ask! Ask your friends, family, professors, or your trusty neighbors at the writing center. Realizing that you have something unique about your writing, be it your indelible voice, your penchant for creating an organized paper, or your strength for research.

Recently, a student came in hoping I could help check over his paper before he turned it into class. From the get-go, I noticed that he had an unmistakable colloquial voice about his writing. While some of his paragraph structures needed work and he needed to find relevant research to validate his claims, I was taken with the way he could turn a common phrase and make it sound appropriate for an academic paper. Some of his words needed updating, but for the most part, I didn’t want him to lose his voice. This student’s voice was like a perfectly-tied bow tie upon his paper.

Another student needed help brainstorming for an upcoming paper and seemed desperate to lock down a thesis statement. Her sources were in order, her notes were organized, and she was able to answer all of my questions, indicating that she knew what she wanted to write, but was afraid it would all come out wrong. Since this student had indicated her skills for organization, I tried to steer her in the direction of asking questions that would answer her writing prompt. We made a few organized lists that detailed what she wanted to express and were able to cross out extraneous details until we were left with a few concise statements to form a thesis. This student’s organizational intuition was a polished pair of pearl earrings to pull together the rest of her ideas.

LaurenThe overarching message here is that just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers. One man’s strength is another’s weakness, so it just takes practice to determine what you need to work on and what you need to highlight in your writing. Remember that just like personal style, writing can be fun! Let it be the place where you show off your knowledge, entertain a crowd, or move someone to tears. Once you get the basics, feel free to play around a little. Write in a format you’ve never experienced before. Try coming from a different perspective. Mess with language. Because if we conform to a prescribed popular notion of what writing is, we will never develop anything new. Create a style all your own–and if you need any help along the way, you know where to find us…

Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: The Musical and Often Muddled Nature of Punctuation in the Writing Center

Michelle Day, Writing Consultant

Like all good children born in the ‘80s, I sang along with Schoolhouse Rock to learn language mechanics in school. But I wish I would have known about this little gem  by L.L. Cool J, a song in which the rapper suspends his usual lyrics in favor of a minute-long exposition on punctuation. Amid flying periods, commas, questions marks, and exclamation points, the rapper declares, “When you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do.”

The content of the video is particularly relevant in light of the 9th annual “National Punctuation Day,” which was Monday. I’m as intrigued as the next person by flying punctuation that obeys L.L. Cool J’s every rhythmic command. However, his refrain, that “you have to know what to do” with punctuation, may mislead writers to think controlling punctuation is as intuitive as L.L. makes it seem. At the Writing Center, we see it differently.

Richard Nordquist, English scholar, professor and writer, writes that the origin of punctuation was for oral—not written—purposes. In ancient Greece and Rome, punctuation denoted how long a speaker should pause when reading out loud (the comma was the shortest mark, while the period was the longest). After the rise of printing, the importance of punctuation became less about speaking and more about writing and proper syntactical relationships. Writers like playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century began to codify the use of punctuation, and today, there are countless style guides and witty-sounding books on grammar that teach often-competing punctuation conventions. (Read Nordquist’s full article here.)

This last point is particularly relevant to our work at the Writing Center. Our clients—even graduate students with strong writing skills—are often unclear on issues as seemingly simple as when to use a comma. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t quite understand tricks teachers have taught them (“put commas wherever you would pause when speaking” is one of the more commonly misapplied tricks). Sometimes, they’re confused by the competing rules they’ve heard from different instructors. Other times, they’ve never been told how to punctuate a quotation correctly or connect complete sentences without creating a run on (or perhaps they weren’t paying attention to such riveting topics).

Even the Writing Center consultants find punctuation rules a little fuzzy. We recently spent a considerable amount of time discussing when it was appropriate to use single quotation marks (“scare quotes”) rather than double quotation marks. There’s also an ongoing tension between those who love the Oxford/serial comma (the comma that comes before the last item in a list of three or more) and those who consider it superfluous. Some of us have even confessed to intentionally breaking punctuation rules. For example, I frequently place commas in the middle of long sentences where they don’t technically belong, just because it feels right.

It’s true that Writing Center consultants likely discuss punctuation more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the average student (we even have a handout titled “Dash-Dash-Revolution” that describes the dash as “exciting”). But we still empathize with our clients’ confusion concerning punctuation and realize as G. V. Carey did that punctuation is decided “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste” (see Nordquist’s article). That’s why we keep stacks of handouts on common punctuation errors, why we sometimes take breaks from higher-order issues of content or organization to give clients some punctuation pointers. It’s why we attempt to be flexible about how clients’ use punctuation in their writing, and why we try not to judge if a students’ only experience using semicolons, parenthesis, and hyphens is typing emoticons.

Since the only way to avoid punctuating sentences is to never pause or stop a sentence, writers will always have to deal with the confusing or undecided aspects of proper punctuation. What are some of the “tricks” you were taught to remember correct punctuation?  Which were helpful, and which weren’t? What resources do you use now to help clients in session?

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