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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).

A Miracle Opportunity

Adam Yeich, Writing Consultant 

Are you a creative writer? Are you part of the University of Louisville Community? Are you part of the larger city of Louisville community?Adam Yeich

If so, this post is for you. Miracle Monocle, the literary journal published through the University of Louisville, is hosting a variety of events this semester, in addition to accepting submissions for publication in the journal (set to re-open at the end of the semester for the next upcoming issue).

Our first upcoming event is our Valentines’ Day open-mic event hosted in the University Writing Center inside Ekstrom Library on the first floor. The event will be on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 from 5:30pm-7:00pm. Come share your poetry about love or a lack of love (in any of its many varied forms).

In addition to this, we will be hosting events later this spring for both University of Louisville students and the larger metropolitan Louisville residents, including a writing workshop toward the final third of the semester. You can bring in your creative work for class, work on getting a final portfolio together. You can bring in work you’d like to submit—either to Miracle Monocle or elsewhere—and get feedback from peers and some of the editors at Miracle Monocle.

Or, you can just come in to take the time to write in a productive atmosphere amongst other writers. Details will be announced later this semester. Submissions for the fall issue of Miracle Monocle will re-open after classes conclude for the semester, after the spring issue, Miracle Monocle 12 premieres. The editors will also be starting a podcast soon, either streaming readings of past work published in the journal or else performing the readings themselves.

So, if you write, no matter what you write, stop by for a visit at one or all of our events. You’ll have a good time, and you can meet the editors and other writers in your community. For more information, you can follow us on one of our social media pages, with the links and handles listed below. We’re looking forward to exciting semester of writing and literature with you all.

Don’t forget, you can stop by the University Writing Center to speak with a consultant if you want some help with your story, poem, play, script, or essay (or any other writing project, school-related or otherwise). We have consultants here to help with whatever you need, in a variety of focus areas, including creative writing. See you soon!

Miracle Monocle Social Media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/miracle_monocle

@miracle_monocle

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/miraclemonocle/

@miraclemonocle

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/miraclemonocle/

Miracle Monocle

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)

Watch Your Tone: The Sound of Academic Writing

Rhea Crone, Consultant

Most of us have received corrections, or suggestions for revision, on papers handed back to us by professors. Some of these comments are straightforward; “awkward word choice,” “incorrect spelling,” or “subject/verb disagreement” come to mind. Some comments, however, aren’t so clear. Among those in the latter camp are the dreaded question marks, free-floating in the margin; nefarious squiggles beneath phrases, sentences, or worse, entire paragraphs; and of course, some of the most loaded comments of them all: those suggesting a revision to “tone.”

DSCN3687So, what exactly does “tone” suggest when written in a margin? Isn’t it a term used to describe the way something sounds? How can a paper sound wrong, and why is any kind of sound significant if the paper’s argument is sufficiently advanced? Moreover, why must academic writers use one tone over another, and for that matter, why must we use any kind of tone, at all? There is no single correct response to any of these questions. In fact, in composition studies—a field that aims to simultaneously promote a sense of authorial ownership in writers of all levels, study the individual styles and needs of writers, and develop the most effective ways to teach everyone to write as effectively as possible—there is a long standing tension between those who say academic writers should not have to adhere to a specific “tone,” at all, and those who say that we must.

One has to wonder if there is a consensus on any aspect of such a debatable, fissured topic. Luckily, a set of general guidelines regarding the term itself exists. These guidelines usually take into account the following, give or take a few preferences or nuances depending on the reader/grader of a paper:

  • Use of clear and direct language, or the “active voice”;
  • Avoidance of personal pronouns, especially “we, you, you all, I,” etc.;
  • Omission of colloquialisms and/or regionally various terms and phrases.

To extrapolate from this short list a bit, academic tone is generally used so that a writer can quickly and effectively get their point(s) across, and so that the reader does not have to overexert themselves trying to understand what the author is saying. Academic tone also typically foregrounds information and argumentation, and demands that prose not sound as if it is merely the expression of an author’s opinion. Overall, this “tone” hinges on the following values: concise communication, and the establishment of authorial credibility. It also assumes that the reader of an academic paper wants to know, first and foremost, what the paper is talking about; and, of course, that the author of the paper knows what they’re talking about. Furthermore, use of the academic tone does not simply assume a certain reading style on behalf of a paper’s audience, but is ultimately an expression of respect for the reader. It does not, for example, ask the reader to believe unsupported claims, spend more of their time than necessary on reading through a paper, or require them to exert more mental energy on working through an argument than is necessary.

Now that we know what academic tone is, and why writers might want to use it, we can better understand the consequences of failing to use it correctly. These consequences don’t always result in a few required revisions or a point deduction. Indeed, academic tone can sometimes be broken with/from to great effect. Practiced, seasoned writers will sometimes switch their tone briefly, in order to emphasize a particular aspect of their argument. For example, placing a casual aside in parentheses, or including a quote from pop culture, can be used to draw attention to, and/or make a bit clearer, an important passage. In order to effectively break with/from academic tone, however, one must first understand and utilize it well. The reason for this is twofold: to borrow an adage, one must first understand a set of rules in order to break them, and the overall tone of a paper must be academic in order for a divergence/variation in that tone to be noticed at all, much less to great effect. If this tone is not broken pointedly, with some kind of rhetorical purpose, the author runs the risk of losing the attention and/or the comprehension of the reader, frustrating the reader, intellectually fatiguing the reader, losing authorial credibility, and/or needlessly obscuring an argument.

No blog post on academic tone would be complete without a disclaimer regarding various academic disciplines. Of course, not every discipline will require that papers be written in/with an academic tone. This is primarily because different disciplines address different audiences, and therefore value and judge tone differently, and sometimes it will not be necessary to write in a strictly formal, academic tone. Further, regardless of discipline, the occasional professor will encourage informal tone at various (more than likely initial) stages of any given writing assignment. Usually, however, it is best to assume that the academic tone is valued and will be expected in/of the majority of your papers.

Ya dig?

For further and/or more specific information on academic tone, please feel free to peruse the following sites:

What is Voice and Where Do You Get It?

Layne Porta, Consultant

I remember being told when I first started doing college level writing that I needed to work on my voice. When I asked my professor what exactly she meant by that, I was told that voice is what makes your writing uniquely your own. I was frustrated and confused: Isn’t the fact that I’m writing it what makes it uniquely my own?

Now that I am a graduate student and writing consultant, I often see the same kinds of feedback on my students’ papers. What I would like to offer here are some thoughts on what voice is and how you get it, as well as some resources that can help you along the way to finding your voice.

What I have come to learn about voice is that it is much more about practical decisions you make in your writing than some mystical quality that appears like mist in the night. The writing process itself is an unending sequence of decisions–from word choice to punctuation to paragraph breaks–and all of these decisions add up to create your voice. For example, I love to use dashes in my writing, which can make my voice sound more conversational. Voice can also come from the kinds of metaphors and similes you choose to explain concepts, or the length of your sentences. I have found that one of the biggest factors in creating (and understanding) your voice is word choice. For example, one of my least favorite words is fickle, but one of my favorite words is capricious. They mean the same thing, but my voice will sound very different depending on that decision. There are many resources that can help in making decisions about the words you want to use. For example, on websites such as visualthesaurus.com and visuwords.com, you can type in a word and it will bring up a word web that will feature synonyms and variations of that word clustered according to connotation. The example below is a screen capture of a visual thesaurus app I recently downloaded:

"Volatile" on Visual Thesaurus

“Volatile” on Visual Thesaurus

I have often heard the idea from both students and peers that voice isn’t as important in academic writing as it is in creative writing. I believe this is a huge misconception. Voice is crucial to academic writing because it plays a large role in engaging your audience, establishing a formal tone, and creating your credibility as a writer. In sum, voice plays a very active role in helping you achieve your rhetorical goals. Furthermore, you can have more fun with the writing you will do during your time in college or after if you embrace your voice as a writer.

If you find yourself wanting to learn more about voice and how to get it, I suggest two very helpful websites that offer comprehensive discussions about voice. The first is “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber, featured on quickanddirtytips.com. This article offers tips on defining your voice as well as some helpful examples of how voice will change according to genre. Another useful article on writingcommons.org by Kyle D. Stedman, is “Making Sure Your Voice is Present” which also offers excellent suggestions for finding your voice as well as some YouTube videos about voice.

layneOne thing to keep in mind is that finding your voice is like everything else in writing–it requires practice. So in response to my initial question as a beginning college student: yes, the fact that I am writing my paper is what makes it uniquely my own. But voice takes this a bit further, and requires that you do some writing to see how your personality comes across. My suggestion, then is to trust your instincts as a writer. Your writing is a reflection of your thoughts and your personality. Your voice, and your awareness of your voice, will come through the more comfortable you get with writing.

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