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Archive for the tag “writing process”

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.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

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.


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.




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.


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.


2. Click “More Commands.”


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


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


5. Click “OK.”


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:


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.


Essays Need Characters: Imagining Audience

Karley Miller, consultantDSCN3615

Fiction writers often struggle with writing stories that are “too close.” Many things can make a story too close—a protagonist they identify with, an event they’ve experienced and are now writing about—some element of autobiography. When writing about something they feel strongly about, or have experienced, writers often have difficulty removing themselves from their story. The end result is that their audience, oftentimes in workshop, can feel that the story is autobiographical. Stories that are too close to their author fail to do what we expect of a story—build tension, have an arc, et cetera.

But why?

Let’s say my grandmother recently died, and I’m torn up about it, so I decide to write a story about her funeral. I think it’s a great story idea because the death of my grandma certainly moved me, so it will surely move others as well. I write my story, and end it with a scene between my protagonist and her father (because I don’t know where I should end it, and my dad did say something uncommonly nice on that day, which moved me to tears).

My workshop day arrives, and the class fixates on the fact that the story wasn’t as much about the funeral, and my protagonist’s relationship with her grandmother, as it was about my protagonist’s relationship with her father. No one can understand why it takes place entirely in a funeral home, instead of somewhere that the father-daughter issues can be resolved.

This is embarrassing to me because I don’t get along very well with my father but didn’t think it came across in my fiction. I hadn’t considered that other people have experienced funerals in all sorts of ways, and that just because I thought an interaction between the protagonist and her father, at her grandma’s funeral, would be moving (because that had been my experience), it doesn’t mean that my audience will find it so. I was too close to the story to see that the scene didn’t belong.

Oftentimes, fiction writers remedy this issue of closeness by making their protagonist someone who is obviously not them (for example—I once made my female protagonist 5’ 11”; I am not 5’ 11”), which allows for distance. However, the issue is really one of audience—and is applicable to all sorts of writing, particularly analytical essays.

Had I kept the audience of my story in mind, and not just written what I, personally, found cathartic, I may have been able to write a better story—one that moved my audience and didn’t reveal my personal issues. Likewise, when writing an essay in which you are instructed to take a side, or do an analysis, it is best to keep audience in mind. If your essay is fueled by a personal bias, and not by a fair assessment of the material, your audience will know.

So how do you remedy this?

Because you have no protagonist to reimagine, I would suggest inventing a character for yourself—one that might come from a totally different background, and have a different bias toward the material you’re working with. Imagine this person reading your essay; would they see an analysis, or you?

How to Get into the “Flow” of Things: Writing a Well-Structured Essay

Lindsey Gilbert, consultantlindseygilbert

Many writers come into the Writing Center with concerns about the “flow” of their ideas in their papers. Occasionally, this concern comes up late in the writing process, allowing for little or no time to review the final piece with a writing consultant. A good way to resolve this issue is by simply examining the organization of the paper on your own. This answer may seem like a no-brainer, but many approaches exist that can help you reexamine and strengthen the structure of your paper, allowing for smooth transitions between ideas.


While this is not a new approach by any means, creating an outline before writing can greatly help you structure your paper. Seeing how the ideas shift into each other allows for an easy edit to the structure of your essay if necessary. Even though prewriting strategies such as an outline may seem tedious, they can greatly help and even speed up your overall writing process, meaning you spend less time crafting the structure during or after writing.

Identifying Key Ideas: Reverse Outlining

Structure is a key component to keep in mind while writing an essay, but you may not know how to structure your paper until you begin writing. After completing a draft, you can read through and mark down the main idea in each paragraph. Compiling all of the main ideas will provide you with the groundwork for shifting paragraphs around to illustrate a logical progression throughout your paper.

Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

If you decide to rearrange your paragraphs, you will want to read through and reorganize your thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement is the spoiler of your paper and outlines what topics you are covering and in what order. If your thesis statement reads, “Dogs are soft, fluffy, and cute,” the body paragraphs should be in the description order of “soft” first, “fluffy” second, and “cute” third. In turn, the topic sentences of each paragraph should align with the descriptions presented in your thesis statement. This will allow your reader to understand the main topic of each paragraph before reading through it.

Working with Transitions

New topic sentences help to create better organization throughout your paper, but a smooth transition is needed in between paragraphs for the ideas to build on each other. Make sure to develop strong transition sentences between paragraphs by concluding the ideas of a paragraph and finding a link to the next topic that will be covered in the following paragraph. This provides a logical flow of ideas for the reader.


Transition sentences are greatly important for the ideas in your paper to shift efficiently, but some concepts may be too large and drastically different to allow for an easy transition. For example, if you write a position paper, you will need to state the advantages and disadvantages of a specific topic. These two areas are drastically different and could contain much detail and explanation, allowing for multiple paragraphs to develop in the process. In this case, the use of subheadings can be greatly beneficial to make that shift for the reader, allowing him/her to follow along with larger ideas that cover a greater length of pages.

The approaches provided above can greatly strengthen the organization of your paper, providing the “flow” that is so desired by the reader. Organizing your ideas well can ultimately give you more credibility as a writer, a strategy that you should keep in mind before you submit your final essay.

Ready to start writing, but not quite sure how? Read our blog post on non-generic ways to start your paper.

Happy writing!

Valentine’s Day: Thesis Statement Edition

Jessica Good, consultantDSCN3626

Valentine’s Day.

There, I said it.

I mean, as a kid, Valentine’s Day was pretty great: people handed out candy at school, and I got to give my friends totally awesome cards decorated with superheroes, princesses, or Scooby-Doo (my interests were very well-rounded if I do say so myself).

But now?

The personal and cultural associations attached to this possessive noun + noun construction vary across volcanic spectrums of meaning. Is Valentine’s Day something to celebrate? Resist? Ignore? Whatever your stance may be, you probably have pretty good reasons to support it. So let’s say you synthesize your Valentine’s Day opinion into one definitive claim: “all you need is love.” With this move, you’ve created a thesis statement that you can then proclaim to your listening audience.

Now, let’s say you’re chilling at the office, chatting with Dwight near the copy machine, and Valentine’s Day comes up:


Dwight isn’t buying the cultural obsession with romance that Valentine’s Day often signifies. Maybe he would agree that love is special, or that certain kinds of love (familial, platonic, or companionate as well as romantic) trigger chemical reactions that cause you to experience things like “happiness” and “emotional fulfillment.” But to convince him, you’ll have to be pretty darn specific with your terms.

If we were going to rewrite this meme (which, granted, would turn it into a regular old piece of writing), our first step would be rethinking our central claim (or thesis), “All you need is love.”

To craft a stronger claim, we would avoid:


Cliches are common phrases like “opposites attract” and “all is fair in love and war.” They’ve been used so often that they are no longer very meaningful. When you hear, “opposites attract,” you know it means that people with different personalities fall in love. But the words just kind of sit there, taking up space without presenting a new, strong, or concrete image. As a result, your audience isn’t likely to closely read or engage with your claim. So instead of saying, “All you need is love,” the meme could have said, “Being in love makes me feel like my every physical, emotional, and spiritual need is met.”

Universal Claims

A universal claim is made when words like “all” or “never” are used or implied. It argues that, without exception, something is (or never will be) true. Making a universal claim weakens your argument because if even one case doesn’t conform to your claim, your logic becomes faulty and your conclusion invalid. Dwight was right to point out that, actually, love isn’t the only thing we need. Our implicit argument that “love is the best thing ever in the whole entire world and I don’t need anything else” becomes shaky at best: if love is not even a basic human necessity, how can we claim that love is all we need?

Universal statements can also damage an audience’s perception of your ethos, or reliability, as a writer. Readers may fixate on trying to find exceptions to your claim rather than following the nuances of your argument. They may even perceive you as lazy, uninformed, or careless. So even if your universal claim is true, the effectiveness of your argument may be compromised. Avoiding universal claims by talking in case-specific terms can maintain your ethos and even improve the strength of your argument. In the case of our meme, we could potentially say, “Sometimes, it feels like love is all we need to live a happy life.”

Vague Terms

When I say “vague terms,” I’m referring to cases in which it is unclear how words with broad or multiple meanings are functioning in a statement. Sometimes undefined terms are symptomatic of your need to sharpen the focus of your sentence (or even your argument as a whole). For example, instead of “love” in general, do we want to argue that having our emotional needs met is essential to feeling satisfied in life? Alternatively, we could qualify “need” by differentiating between physical survival and emotional or ‘felt’ needs.

Other times, a vague term might just mean that you need to choose a different word. This doesn’t mean you should right click to access your thesaurus and pick the most interesting word that appears. Rather, think about the specific meaning you want to convey. Would a different word do that? Instead of “love,” what if we wrote, “All I want is to feel accepted by other people”? If a different word or phrase still doesn’t seem fitting, then think about including a statement clarifying the way you’re using your term(s). We could say, “When the Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love,’ they created an anthem that united listeners around the world by relying on cultural narratives of romantic love.”

The next time you’re writing a paper, imagine that you’re talking to Dwight. He’s one adorably tough cookie, which, honestly, makes him the best imaginary audience you could encounter. By being intentional with our terms, making sure we use specific language to explicitly convey our exact meaning to an audience, we can create claims that are clearly defined. And that, by extension, will help us craft a strong thesis statement every time.

Brainstorming: How to Avoid “Snowball” Writing


Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Learning to brainstorm is—in my humble opinion—one of the most important aspects of learning to write. This may seem obvious, but I think the further we progress into our writing careers, the more we tend to skip a good, solid brainstorming session. I, for one, am extremely guilty of this—especially since I started graduate school; I get overwhelmed with the project at hand, and, instead of proceeding calmly and strategically, I barrel forward into my paper, despite the fact that I know better. So, here, I want to outline some steps that I plan to walk myself through in order to avoid this “snowball-style” writing style, in hopes that they will be helpful to you as well!

First, freewrite! Freewriting is a great way to start a brainstorming session because you can do it however you want! Freewriting may consist of a rough outline, a chart, boxes with arrows pointing from one piece of information to another, or a typed or written page(s) of stream of consciousness commentary. Whatever it may be, it will only be helpful in getting you started on your paper.

Second, now that you have completed the freewriting stage, remove yourself a bit from the actual content of the project, and focus on the research methods that will be necessary. Here, list out some keywords you think may be useful to you during your process, and list any of the sources you may have already acquired. Also, poke around on the library’s online catalogue and make a list of possible sources from there. This will surely help you further organize your thoughts as well as help you flesh our your ideas. (Sometimes, depending on how deep you are into your project, this may be useful as step one!)

If you have trouble getting started with freewriting, try to talk out your ideas to a peer, a friend, a University Writing Center consultant (!!), or a professor. In some of the most effective brainstorming sessions I have had with clients, about 75% of the brainstorming session has consisted of the client talking through his/her ideas and me taking notes. In these instances, the client oftentimes realizes that his/her ideas were more organized and succinct than originally thought. So find a buddy and talk it out, y’all! It’ll help, I swear.

Finally, understand that brainstorming does not only happen before you write a paper. Allow yourself to brainstorm throughout your writing and research process. So, what does this look like? When you are reading and analyzing your research materials, respond directly to each source (right after you finish reading each) using your most effective freewriting method. Once you move into integrating these source materials and responses into your paper, it is to be expected that you may get stuck or need to re-organize your papers. These moments serve as yet another place where freewriting or reading and responding can come in handy.

In short, don’t panic! Sit down, get a cup of coffee, and write down what you know so you can figure out what you don’t know. Oh! And don’t forget, carry your brainstorming methods throughout the entire paper!

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