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Writing Genres that Are New to You

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

As the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, I work with a lot of graduate students on a variety of writing projects. Many of the writers who see me are writing a new genre, whether that be a personal statement, a long-form seminar paper, or a grant proposal. Despite the wide array of genres I see, I often give very similar advice to Caitlin Raywriters. I also think that these strategies would be effective for writers of all experience levels—from a first year undergraduate in their first college class, to a PhD student working on their dissertation.

The genres I am talking about, though, are not just the weird ones that we might only come across if we are in higher education (literature reviews, for example, are not a genre common outside the walls of the university). This could also be something as simple as an email. For example, we may take it for granted that everyone can write an effective email. However, we all know that some emails are more successful than others. To move our own email writing practices to those exemplary ones, we may look at what others are doing (What do I look for when I receive an email? What do I respond to?) and then we emulate that. We also have a ton of practice writing emails, so we can learn quickly in the variety of drafts we create what is effective and what isn’t. The same principles can be applied to all writing.

The following strategies are ones I encourage writers to use when they are unfamiliar with a genre they are bringing to me. These are strategies I would encourage everyone to employ to master any genre that comes your way:

  1. Examine the assignment. This may seem like a given, but many people read assignment descriptions uncritically. Additionally, assignment prompts or questions can be extremely detailed or very vague. Let’s take a look at an example I see quite often. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) asks for a personal statement when applicants submit materials for medical residency. This prompt is simply, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school,” and allows 5,300 characters. This is as vague as it gets. However, you can still tell several things. The readers clearly value brevity (you are limited to about a page and a half), and you are crafting an argument (why do you want to go to medical school?) Embedded in this question is the need for evidence. How does the reader believe what you are telling them? The context is also specific: why do you want to go to medical school? What is medical school to you, and what will you get out of it? How does it meet your goals? Suddenly, you can see lots of questions to answer that were simply implied in the prompt itself.
  2. Find examples. This is something I recommend to all levels of writers. It is very difficult to write an abstract, a literature review, or a personal statement, without knowing what successful ones look like. Once you get in the habit, you will automatically begin reading like a writer and will notice successful examples of writing everywhere you go. One piece of advice I have gotten as I move into writing my own dissertation, for example, is to seek out other dissertations (they are usually publically available). Further, find dissertations that were chaired by the same chair of your own committee. Finding examples can help you figure out what the unwritten expectations of certain genres may be.
  3. Ask an expert. “Expert” could mean an expert in the content area you are writing in, or an expert in writing itself. I often suggest that people writing very discipline-specific writing (like, maybe a review article for a journal) talk with their advisor or other trusted professors and get feedback. Those folks are great resources to talk about methods and field-specific questions that the University Writing Center may not have knowledge about. Then, you can also seek out a writing expert (like the consultants in the University Writing Center) so that you clarify your ideas and translate them into an effective piece of writing.
  4. Ask a peer. This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in college. You are surrounded by great resources in your classes and your major, or even down the hall in the dorms. The people in your classes are future professionals, and may even be your colleagues later on. Get together with someone, or a few people, and exchange writing! One of the best things I have found in graduate school myself is finding a few trusted people that I can send my “shitty first drafts” to without judgment (see Ann Lamott’s excellent essay “Shitty First Drafts”).
  5. Often, when faced with a daunting writing task that we don’t quite know how to tackle, we can easily get in our heads. That “editor” voice (which I imagine as my 7th grade English teacher for some reason) is one of the biggest reasons we get writer’s block. The biggest antidote to being stuck before even beginning the writing task is to simply freewrite everything that you know or think you know about a topic. Just write, and worry about the genre conventions later. Many times we figure out how to do something by doing it (See Reid’s “Getting Going” blog for more useful tips to get started!).
  6. The best way to learn a new genre is to simply keep writing in that genre until you are comfortable. Back to my original example of email writing, the more emails we send, the faster and more comfortable we are in composing them. While perhaps obvious, the reason for this is because we spend so much time writing emails and thus get a ton of practice. This is true for any piece of writing. You might take a really long time writing your first abstract, for example, but a few years later of practicing that skill and you will be able to write effective abstracts more quickly. See more strategies for practicing and developing writing habits in Isaac’s “Getting Started with Genre” or Michael’s “Can Someone Hold My Hair While I Word Vomit?”

Lastly, I think the biggest hurdle when faced with new genres is the uncertainty it causes in us. We think “I don’t know this…should I know this? Does everyone know this but me?” This connects to the most insidious experience of higher education—imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the idea that everyone knows what they are doing and are very successful at that work, and that you are merely “faking” it. However, everyone experiences imposter syndrome, and one of the biggest ways to combat this feeling is talking about your experiences and the writing process more. Tackling a new genre can be intimidating and stressful, but hopefully these strategies can help you be successful, no matter the writing task before you!

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Getting Going

Reid Elsea, consultant

The weather is not the only sign that spring is finally (kinda) here. The schedule at the University Writing Center is booked solid most days, and the pressure of the “final paper” is nearly palpable. First off, you got this! Secondly, I thought it might be helpful Reidfor all of us if I use this the blog to offer some advice on getting through the crucible of finals.

The first step, and one of the hardest (especially for me) steps, is getting started. One useful strategy for getting into to the process is setting aside time for purposeful writing. In her article on writing your first research paper, Elena Kallestinova suggests to “choose from 1- to 2-hour blocks in your daily work schedule and consider them as non-cancellable appointments” (182). For me, the best time to do this is in the morning. Its important to try out a few different times in order to figure out what works best for your personal schedule. Another way to do this is to make University Writing Center appointments. You can use these as personal deadlines for papers, which can help your time management. Having a set schedule, one that works for you, does not only help you to avoid the dreaded “all-nighter,” but it can also make the writing process more enjoyable, which helps to improve your writing as a whole.

Now that you have your time scheduled, you have found a place that feels good to be and write in, its time to start. The first step is often outlining. Kallestinova notes, “This outline will be similar to a template for your paper. Initially, the outline will form a structure for your paper; it will help you generate ideas and formulate hypotheses” (182). The outline described here is different from the traditional idea of an outline. Often we think of the outline as just a plan for the paper. This outlining is more active. It allows you a space to brainstorm and take notes. One way I like to do this is through “double-entry note taking.” While this sounds like some complex method, it is just the process of taking notes with a couple extra pens. The way this takes shape for me is I use three pens (three different colors): one for page numbers and quotes, one for why these are significant or how I plan to use them, and finally one for questions I have or tangential ideas. Some of the time these notes make their way directly into my writing.

So, you have all your outlining and note taking done, your writing schedule (rather than a chore) has become comfortable, and so now it is time to get that paper written. At this point, I sometimes find myself not feeling ready. I have pages and pages of notes, I have written and rewritten my outlines, but nevertheless I just cannot get the words on the page. Typically, I have the feeling that I just haven’t read enough, or that I still need to read, or find, that one (more) perfect source. It is important to remember all the work you have done up to this point. You have put in the time and are ready to write that paper. The process of research and writing research papers is an act of joining the “scholarly discussion.” As the writer, you become a voice in the conversation that you have been listening to (in research) and forming your ideas about. Your goal is to make your voice heard in the conversation, not to end it. This means that, at a point, you have to realize that your paper will not be perfect, or answer every question. You are helping a conversation continue, contributing new and exciting ideas, and providing fertile spaces for others to respond to your ideas and questions.

PS: You can do it!

Kallestinova, Elena D. “How to Write Your First Research Paper.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol. 84, 2011, pp. 181-190.

On the Road to Writing, It’s Okay to Stop and Ask for Directions

Mitzi Phelan, consultant

Have you experienced getting into your car, and while driving to a familiar destination you start thinking about all the things you need to do, or even just start daydreaming? Suddenly, you snap back to the present and realize you are at your intended location but Mitzihave no recollection of the actual drive. It’s amazing how we can become so familiar with the way we do something that we can actually can execute the activity on autopilot. Our brains are amazing objects that can run millions of processes at once. While one “system” is working through our schedule, another is thinking about summer vacation, and yet another is executing turns down familiar streets (hopefully one is watching for pedestrians). When the path we are navigating is so familiar to us, we can easily “switch off” and let the brain make all the decisions in default mode. But, if we are checked out of the process, are we really getting the best experience?

I gave the above example as a way to talk about the process of writing. By the time you have reached the level in academia where you would be interested in reading this blogpost, you have most likely been asked to do a lot of writing. Often, we are given a writing task and, just like driving, we set our brain to autopilot, or “writing mode,” and let come what may. We see our end destination (our “completed writing task”), hop in our mental smart cars, activate cruise control, and are on our way. The problem with this is that we only have one way of getting to the destination programmed into our mental maps. When we only allow for only one way of doing things, we ultimately produce the same type of writing, just with different topics. This doesn’t only apply to class papers–we can fall into the same rut with our creative writing as well.

To be completely honest, in the busy world of academia, writing on autopilot is convenient. It always gets us safely to our destination and conserves our valuable brain energy for the thousands of other demands that come on a daily basis. However, it does not help us develop into better writers. To produce better work, we have to mentally show up for the process. We have to switch off the autopilot and challenge ourselves to consider that there are valuable alternative routes to getting to our final destinations. Understand, however, that the goal in switching off autopilot and taking control of the wheel is not necessarily to get to the destination more quickly, although that may happen, but rather to truly immerse yourself in the writing process and gain insight to tools that you may be missing out on.

If you are like me, my cruise control looks like this: I get an idea for a paper, lock on to it with a death grip, think about it until the night before its due, word vomit on the paper, and then spend the wee hours of the morning its due making revisions. This process works for me and I am comfortable with it; however, I have realized that I am cheating myself out of being a better writer by not exploring other processes. Recently I have been trying to add practices that other writers use into my repertoire. I started with reverse outlining, now I’m committing myself to writing down my favorite thesis and then writing two more possible theses that either invert or challenge the original as a way to enhance my critical thinking of the topic. This has been immensely beneficial and has positively affected my writing skills.

If you feel like your writing has become stale, or that you are not meeting your full potential as a writer, I challenge you to see if you are still in the driver’s seat. Consider pulling out your old writing guidebooks and going back to the basics. Look to other writers for inspiration. Take time to go through the process. You’ll be amazed at how much of the beautiful scenery you have been missing.

How I Write: Katherine Massoth

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.

Katherine Massoth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History. She received her PhD and Master’s from the University of Iowa and Bachelor’s degrees from the Katherine MassothUniversity of California at Irvine. Her research specialty is the history of women and gender in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. As a historian of the Americas, she teaches history courses on women and gender, borderlands, the American West, and chicanx/latinx studies. Her most recent publication analyzes how women’s cookbooks became a borderland for defining the appropriate type of “Mexican” food that could be incorporated into U.S. appetite – “‘Mexican Cookery that belongs to the United States’: Evolving Boundaries of Whiteness in New Mexican Kitchens,” in the edited volume Food Across Borders, Rutgers University Press, 2017.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Current project: I am currently revising my doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. I am writing a history of women’s domestic and private lives in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, specifically Arizona and New Mexico. The project reconstructs how women, across ethnic groups, reacted to the transition from Mexican to U.S. control after the U.S. colonized the region in 1848. I am trying to retell the larger political history of the transition of power by focusing on women’s lives, such as their cooking, housekeeping and childrearing. I argue that these daily activities tell us more about the larger political process because we see how women were (or were not) affected.

Currently reading: Karen Roybal’s Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848–1960 and Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. I am also reading Julian Lim’s Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands to review for an academic journal.

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

I write non-fiction/history. I am currently focusing on revising, which I am slowly learning is a completely different type of writing than putting words down. It is more than proofreading or reorganizing. Revising a dissertation to a book manuscript is a process they do not teach in graduate school and is completely daunting because there are no advisers hovering or demanding words. It also means taking a piece of work that I thought was complete and reworking the piece not from a blank slate but from 350 pages. I spend most of my writing time on thinking and less on writing. Right now, I am focusing on how to restructure my narrative, condense sections, cut dissertation jargon, and tell a cohesive and engaging history. I am also trying to find my voice. While writing my dissertation, my voice got lost because I had to follow the strict dissertation guidelines and provide background and theory to establish my study. Now that I have defended the value of this history, I can focus on telling it in my own style.

2. When/where/how do you write?

My writing location depends on where I am in the process. If I am revising or brainstorming, I tend I write in coffee shops with the ambient noise of people shuffling about. If I am putting fresh words down, I typically need to be alone in the library or my office. Most of my writing takes place in the afternoon, evening, or even late at night. I have never been a morning writer. I have to get all my tasks done before I can write. Otherwise, I am distracted. I write on my computer but I outline in a spiral notebook and take notes on hardcopies of my writing. I typically print out what I have written and make notes on the paper then I take it to the computer.

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

I need my writing uniform – leggings and a baggy sweater and shawl. My headphones are an absolute necessity because I listen to my “writing music” playlist of some tunes that I am so familiar with that they become ambient noise in the background. I wrote my entire dissertation listening to Sylvan Esso and Bon Iver on a loop. I also need my water Massoth Writing Spacebottle, coffee, computer, research and archival files, and notes. I have a set of erasable colored pens, one black pen, and a pencil that I always have. Each writing implement has a different purpose in my process. I also need time. I never developed the ability to write in short intervals. If I do not have at least 2 hours for writing, then I cannot sit down and do it. I like to dedicate large chunks of time to the process so I do not feel harried.

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

I am a tactile person – I have to touch things to process fully everything. When I find it difficult to revise, cut words or repetition, or reorder sections, I print out the document or paragraph. Then I cut each sentence apart or cut each paragraph apart. I lay out the pieces on the floor and just start piecing everything together like a puzzle. This works for cutting sentences because if when I am done I find one sentence lying to the side, then I know it was not necessary. This is especially useful for finding where I repeat myself. If I am reworking a larger section, I often find that once I take the paragraphs out of the full document the structure completely changes. I often suggest this to students who have a difficult time revising because it takes the pressure of a word document off. It also works because it does not feel permanent.

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

Make writing an appointment in your calendar just like a doctor’s appointment or meeting, and stick to it. Do not schedule anything during that time and if people ask for that time, say you have an appointment. During that appointment, set a maximum of three goals to achieve. If you achieve all three, then great, and if you achieve only one, then you know what you are working on next time. Then when your appointment is done, make your three goals for the next session so you know where you are starting.

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Write About Something Weird

Beau Kilpatrick, consultant

As a consultant at the University Writing Center, I have noticed a trend among many writers, including myself. The trend is that writers tend to struggle more with writing when there is a lack of connection between the individual and the content.Beau

Allow me to explain. We have all had moments when we are writing an essay for a class where the interest level is nearly nonexistent. Perhaps this has happened to you when you were a member of the class because it fulfilled a requirement, the class isn’t what you thought it was going to be, or you just simply lost interest about halfway through. This is a dangerous place to be when midterm essays quickly approach.

My own experiences with writing have been very gratifying. I have always practiced the philosophy that you have to understand your identity as a writer. For example, I know that I am argumentative by nature and I enjoy exposing the weirdness of a text. Also, if you trudge through boring topics long enough, you’re bound to stumble upon something interesting; but you have to keep your eyes open.

When a writer finds out how to make a topic interesting, that’s when the writing becomes much easier. It’s always easier to write about the things we enjoy or that interests us. For me, I enjoy exploring the abstract or grotesque in a text.

The best thing that I found to do in these situations is to make a connection, no matter how vague it may be, and channel your writing through that commonality. For instance, if you happen to find yourself dreading an essay for a Shakespeare class, try to find the one thing that is most interesting to you about the content that you’re working with. If you realize that a man wearing tights with a ruffled shirt is the most interesting facet of a Shakespeare play, then find a way to channel your thoughts through that frame of reference. Perhaps this will inspire you to write about Victorian fashion, gender roles at the Globe Theatre, or costume design and functionality during the theatrical fight scenes of Hamlet. This is just one example of how you can usually find some way to bend a boring topic into an interesting one.

The first step that I take when examining a text is to find contradictions and paradoxes. Once I have found the weak spot in the armor, I know where to attack. The next step is to figure out how to confront the text/author respectfully. Attacking a weakness makes writing easier and more exciting, but you must do so with class. Also, finding a good amount of sources will help in figuring out the right approach. Next, highlighting key passages of a secondary source, and annotating it, will make the writing much easier because you can essentially use your summary of the source in your paper. Once you have all of these things ready to go, it’s time to outline. I like to state the contradiction at the top of my outline and make a list of different ways to approach my target. Finally, I expand on all these points and find ways to link them together into a cohesive essay.

To sum it all up, find something weirdly fascinating about the text, relate it to your own interest, and explore the obscure. Don’t forget to create an outline with all of the odd topics you want to explore.

 

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” (Hunter S. Thompson).

A (Sort of) Defense of Procrastination

Isaac Marvel, consultant

For those of us in school, midterms are around the corner, or here in full force—the easygoing start of the semester, though it seemed so busy at the time, now feels like an almost forgotten dream. For me at least, this means a constant, looming presence of too Isaacmany papers, presentations, bibliographies, and so forth. Psychologically speaking, this kind of nonstop stress can be almost unbearable. So, I deal with it the same way everyone else does: just trying not to think about it. And for some reason, nothing feels as good to put off as writing. I may not be in the majority here, but I never really minded studying a bit for tests, or practicing presentations. But writing, satisfying as it may be, is a different kind of mentally exhausting. It requires all of this creativity and self-awareness, so I can never just auto-pilot my way through it. So, I procrastinate.

I’ve been avoiding the P-word, as its use has almost become cliché in college circles. There’s a reason for that: pretty much everyone does it. Is that a problem? I’m not sure. Organizational psychologist Dr. Piers Steel discusses here the primary criticism of procrastination: you’re lying to yourself. We tell ourselves that we need that adrenaline rush to get work done, or that we’re perfectionists and just don’t want to start before we know what we’re doing. And yeah, that’s a problem. So, Dr. Steel offers a partial solution: open communication about our motivations for procrastinating. If you’re putting off writing because you’re not sure you can write such a difficult paper, or even because you just despise writing, start by being honest about that.

In fact, I would go a step further than Dr. Steel, and say that sometimes procrastinating is the right call. So much of the time I, and I believe others as well, feel like you’re supposed to be in a constant state of productivity, or else you’re just wasting time. Then I feel guilty about not doing anything, so my mental health begins to suffer, and lo and behold, nothing gets done. It’s very much a self-perpetuating cycle, and writers understand this better than anyone. There are constant deadlines for us to meet, true. But maybe if we just told ourselves that, hey, maybe it’s okay to not be doing something every second of our life, then that could lead to a state of mind that can be honest with itself about why we wanted to procrastinate so badly in the first place. If I can’t find a way to take care of myself emotionally, I usually make life infinitely more difficult for myself. So, sometimes I just need to take some time for myself. Accepting that without guilt is a struggle, but I think reaching that level of acceptance is necessary if we’re going to learn how to manage our time.

How I Write: Kristi Maxwell

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.

Kristi MaxwellKristi Maxwell is an Assistant Professor of English and a mentor in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program. She’s the author of six books of poetry, including Realm Sixty-fourHush Sessions, and Bright and Hurtless, forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in Sept.

Location: Schnitzelburg, Louisville

Current project: A book of poems, an article about end-words in poetry, and a book chapter about eating animals at Disney World

Currently reading: Amy Lawless’ Broadax, Robert Sheppard’s The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, and Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book

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

Poems, poetry scholarship, marginalia, texts, emails

2. When/where/how do you write?

I prefer to write in bed or reclined on my couch. My mind feels brightest when I’m lying in bed, “trying” to fall asleep, so I often start pieces or solve a writing problem late at night or early in the morning. I’ve been writing a lot of poems on my iPhone lately, in Notes: I like how it’s helping me engage the poetic line in a fresh way. When I’m working on an essay, I like to use Post-its so I can map the piece out on a wall to visualize it better, see connections, and figure out organization.

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

It’s not a necessity, but I do prefer to write with a Pilot Precise V5 Roller Ball Pen in an Apica CD-11 notebooks. I like quiet spaces with natural light or lamplight—no music, no fluorescent lights.

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

Reading always jumpstarts my thinking and writing, so I recommend opening a book and putting eye to word.

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

Don’t treat your writing as precious—be willing to revise radically, let go of things that aren’t working, or experiment. It can help to name documents  “draft 1,” “draft 2,” “draft 3,” so you know you can always return to an earlier version.

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A Thin Line Between Love and [Redacted]

Brent Coughenour, consultant

Someone once told me—it could’ve been my very wise mother—that every song we heard on the radio was about love, or something like it. This was around the time that the songs “Cry Me A River,” Justin Timberlake singing sardonically about his lost love Brentwith Britney Spears, and “Everytime,” Spears’ response to Timberlake, were all over the air waves. Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” appeared prominently in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a film very much about the love between a mother and her daughter, creating this circle of overlapping Items-of-Popular-Culture-About-Love. Love (or lost love) figures so prominently in our day-to-day intake of pop culture that, when you really sit and think about it, it’s a little odd that we dedicate an entire holiday to it like it’s some kind of prominent mythical deity. Valentine’s Day, which falls in 2018 on a Wednesday—this Wednesday!—is so ubiquitous to American culture that it isn’t surprising to us when parades of red and pink, often accompanied with an uncomfortable amount of hearts, invade our department store aisles pretty much the day after Christmas. This year, I’ve taken some time to reflect about the pervasive nature of love and I ask myself the question: what do we talk about when we talk about love? (A shameless reference, sorry.)

Even if we avoid using that terrifying word “love with a capital L,” it’s hard to avoid feeling, especially when we sit down to write. An oft-repeated mantra in creative writing is “write about what you know.” This can certainly be limiting, and there are numerous variations on the prompt, but it can be particularly helpful to do this when you’re stuck on something. American short story writer Raymond Carver did this often: he was an alcoholic who had been divorced, so he wrote characters who were alcoholic and who had been divorced. This is what Carver knew in his life, but it is also what he loved, as he wrote about often in autobiographical essays. Carver stayed so strictly within these realistic guidelines that he set for himself because he could write about them, and write about them well. This leads into something that I tell writers in any kind of brainstorming that we work on in the Writing Center: if you have been given freedom to write about whatever you want then that’s awesome, you can write about what you know! And more often than not, something that the writers know is something that they love, at least in a roundabout sort of way—and it’s fun to write when filled with love!

Even if they don’t love a topic, though, writers can probably write strongly about something that lies on the other end of the spectrum. The emotion on the other end—which is equally powerful but shall remain unnamed here because, c’mon, this is a Valentine’s Day-themed blog post—can also elicit some pretty strong emotions, which can lead to some powerful writing. True crime authors do this often; it’s not likely they love the often horrific things they’re writing about, but these stories bring from them such a wide array of wicked emotions that give them the urge and the drive to write about something and keep writing. Going even further I’d wager to say that, in many cases, the emotion of love and the emotion of [redacted] are conflated with one another. Carver was probably not too happy that he was a divorced alcoholic, and in fact may have really not liked this fact about himself, but it made him who he was and it eventually led him to the life that he loved for himself where he could write feely (and probably drink, too) with his second wife. Greta Gerwig has spoken about not being so happy with the relationship she had with her mother when she was a teenager, yet undoubtedly love was there too, and that relationship was the genesis of Lady Bird which has now yielded her two Oscar nominations (and you should see that film, because it’s wonderful). If a writer is writing an argumentative essay in the Writing Center, I’ll often tell them that it’s great to write about something that really irritates them—it’s fun to write when filled with anger!

Loving something you write about can be important, but it’s also important to love the writing process. These two things ideally go hand in hand, and I personally find it difficult to do one without the other. Love is a peculiar emotion—it’s overused and trite, unique and effervescent, and sometimes true love can only be directed at furry critters like the two cats staring at me while I write this. Still, love or something like it (like [redacted emotion]) is an incredibly strong feeling, and one that can elicit some really skillful writing. This Valentine’s Day take in the love that you receive from others, but, if you’re feeling [redacted emotion], that’s okay too. Be like Raymond Carver and write about both feelings, because they go hand-in-hand and both are vital to a healthy love of writing. But don’t be an alcoholic. Consider that your Valentine’s Day Public Service Announcement.

Learning Out Loud – Using Speech in the Writing Process

melissa-rMelissa Rothman, Consultant

It’s getting to be that time of year. Temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing, and the mild weather beckons us to venture outdoors for a whiff of that fresh fall air. However, for college students, fall marks the approach of another type of season, one that is riddled with anxiety and dread…crunch time.  Due dates for final papers are right around the corner, final exams are in sight, and yet while we are just beginning to feel that mid-semester lull, we are painfully aware of the need to begin planning for these end-of-semester requirements. However, while it is awfully tempting to procrastinate, I would suggest that now is the time to kick our homework habits into a new gear and I have a few strategies to help you through the writing process.

melissa1

CC Image Courtesy of Marcie Casas on Flickr

If you’ve been to the Writing Center, you know that we always ask writers to read their drafts out loud. There are many reasons that we’ve adopted this as a common practice. Thinking about our life experience with language and communication, most of us will notice that we have far more experience with speaking and listening rather than with reading. So in many ways, hearing drafts read aloud allows us to approach the writing process in forms that we are much more familiar with.

In the early stages of the writing process, we are mainly concerned with getting our ideas written down on paper before we forget them. There is of course an ordering process that goes on in our brain while this occurs, but it is often unique and idiosyncratic, and unfortunately all of this background information of how we came to formulate these ideas is often left out of the paper.

 

 

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CC Image courtesy of Simon James on Flickr

Being a listener of our own writing can help tremendously in spotting these gaps. Do to the unique cognitive experience of reading we tend to fill in a lot of the “gaps,” especially when we are reading our own work. Think about it. How many times have you proofread a piece multiple times, and still found typos, misspellings, and faulty punctuation? Our brains have a way of correcting our mistakes for us. They know what to expect, so they fill in the correct information for us. And this goes beyond the mere mechanics of the written language. As readers of our own work, we also have a way of filling in other types of gaps, ones that are crucial to filling in the background information that enables our work to make logical sense to other readers.

There is a ton of data that we, as the writers, take for granted that the reader may not know or pick up on. For example, have you ever used a quote from a text and expected it to speak for itself? Then you found in a second reader’s feedback that he or she was unsure about what you were trying to say by using that quote. This is because we understand that quote from a different perspective. Unlike the reader, we are privy to the context surrounding it. We’ve read all of the lines leading up to that quote. Likewise, we saw what the author did in the following sentences. And while the quote itself may seem like an exemplary statement of the purpose of the piece, we as outside readers need that surrounding context to make sense of it.

As listeners of our own work, we are bypassing some of those cognitive fill-in processes that occur when we read silently, and are able to evaluate our text from a new communicative standpoint. Reading aloud helps us hear the ways we have mapped the order of ideas in a paper and evaluate how well it makes sense. Since we are evaluating it from a spoken standpoint, we are able to identify more quickly when something “doesn’t sound right.” Transitions that may seem obvious when we are reading are brought out in the open and we are able to hear when we shift ideas too abruptly.

Likewise grammatical errors are easier to spot such as when we forget a word, or form awkward sentences. Sometimes our sentences are too long, or we repeat words and ideas too often. Reading out loud is one of the most powerful proofreading techniques available for spotting these types of errors.

Listening to our work can also be the most effective tool for evaluating the tone in our work. Sometimes, in reading aloud, we find that we are way too casual or chatty and we can question whether or not we are portraying ourselves as an authoritative figure on the topic. Conversely, we can also question if we are being too formal. Listening allows us to gain a bit more of an objective standpoint. It enables us to hear the possible ways that outsiders interpret our work.

So, now that I’ve fully convinced you of the awesome benefits that reading aloud offers, you can read through some of my quick tips for how to go about it.

  1. Use a hard print copy

Hard printed copies not only allow a refuge from the mind numbing glare of the laptop screen, but when we read on paper, we can follow along with our finger. This helps us to avoid skipping over things that we might read on through when looking at a screen. Likewise, if we get hung up   on specific areas, we can underline and mark up the margins so that we can return to them later with a fresh perspective. This can really speed up the revision process.

  1. Try to read at a moderate pace

This will not only give us an authentic feel of our “voice,” but it will also allow us to see how the ordering of our ideas work and may highlight areas that need better transitions. Conversely, reading aloud slowly may allow us to mimic the mental processes that occur when we read silently, thus filling in those cognitive gaps that are missing in the work itself.

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff

All too often, we as writers spend a great amount of time on fixing minor errors such as spelling and grammar, but in the end it’s all about the content and how well you present it in a comprehensible fashion. You can have a perfectly polished paper, but what’s the point if the ideas aren’t relevant or don’t make sense? Likewise, if you’re reading a powerfully written piece that really appeals to you as a reader, are you really going to discard it as nonsense due to a few silly comma splices? I’m not saying that editing for errors is not important, but this aspect of revision should always be saved for the final stages of the writing process.

  1. Have a friend read for you

Beforehand, tell them to read it exactly as it’s written, mistakes and all, and also have them read the entire piece without stopping. This way you can really get a feel for how your paper will be interpreted by others. Likewise, while someone else reads it, take notes on a separate piece of paper.

  1. Do a reverse outline while your friend reads

Reverse outlines are great for interpreting the ordering of our own work. If someone else reads aloud for you, it frees up your hands to quickly jot down the main gist of each paragraph. After they are finished, you can see how the flow of your topic operates, and perhaps identify areas of weakness, repetition, or ineffective ordering.

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CC Image courtesy of Miguel Angel on Flickr

Now, fellow luddites such as myself may respond to my next suggestion with a familiar mantra: “Technology Arrggh!” As students we all have a precarious relationship with our laptops. Beyond our loathing of Blackboard’s counterintuitive interface or our frustration with the shortcomings of Microsoft’s grammar and spellcheck program, most of us have had that moment in our academic career when we’ve gone on a writing binge, trying to complete a paper at the last minute, and the unthinkable happens; our computer crashes and we lose all of our hard work and have to start from scratch. I myself have come dangerously close to pitching my laptop through my living room window multiple times. However, technology does have its benefits too when not driving us to the brink of madness. One of these is the text-to-speech software application that allows our computers and other devices read aloud for us.

Some of us may be uncomfortable allowing others to read our work in the early stages of the writing process. In the Writing Center, many of our new clients begin a session by warning us that they are “not good writers” showing how self-conscious they are about their work. But it’s important to know that all writers struggle through the writing process with his or her own particular hurtles, and no one sits down and just completes a perfect draft in one sitting. Everyone has their own unique struggles with the writing process, and one of the fastest and most effective ways for working through those issues is by working with others. Likewise, the University Writing Center offers a safe and supportive environment for doing this. However, sometimes there are other obstacles such as time-constraints or scheduling conflicts keeping students from taking advantage of this helpful resource. This is where text-to-speech software can help. While technology can never completely fill in useful feedback that only human interaction can offer, it can enable us to read our work in alternative ways that can substitutes some of the helpful practices we perform in the Writing Center.

There are several web-based applications that allow computer and other devices to read texts allowed for you.  However, I’ve found that some of these are very glitchy while other more operative ones can be expensive. You may not know this, but Microsoft Word actually has one built right into its program, and as an English major, I’ve had tons of experience with it and found it to be a pretty effective tool in the revision process. At this point you are probably asking “where is this handy tool and how do I use it?” Well, below I’ve included the steps for activating and using Word’s speech-to-text program.

 

1. Click the “Customize Quick Access Toolbar” arrow in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

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2. Click “More Commands.”

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3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”

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4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”

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5. Click “OK.”

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6. Now the text to speech icon is available for as a quick access tool.

After you have added the Speak command to your Quick Access Tool Bar, you can have your text read to you by highlighting the portions you want to hear and then clicking the “Speak” command icon. If you want to hear your entire text read through, simply press “Control a,” and word will highlight your entire document before you select speech. If you are in the earlier revision process, where you are still organizing your ideas, I recommend you follow along by ear, and take good notes on a separate piece of paper, by either reverse outlining, or just simply jotting down ideas. If you are in the later stages of the writing process, I recommend reading along with your eyes, and pausing the application to correct punctuation and spelling errors.

But it’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different. You may be the type of writer that can’t move on until you correct minor errors along the way. This is fine so long as it’s not handicapping the flow of your process. Remember that while the lower order concerns will have to be addressed at some point in the writing process, it may be a more practical approach to save them for the final stages of revision. Remember, we often end up cutting, or completely revising entire chunks of our writing with an eye towards content. So you may end up spending a whole lot of time revising something to make it grammatically correct, only to find that that section ends up getting removed altogether. Regardless, do what works for you.

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:

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Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.

 

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