Old Advice in New Circumstances

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Photo by “Thought Catolog” via Unsplash.

This post was written by Jonathan Diaz, a first-year PhD student in the English Department.

Friends, writing is difficult under the best circumstances, and these are not the best circumstances. Covid-19 has changed the way we go about so many of our daily activities, and writing is definitely one of them, even if it’s easier to do while observing safety precautions than grabbing a meal with friends or gathering in class.

It’s occurred to me that one of the challenges of writing in less-than-ideal circumstances is that the advice that has worked for us in the past doesn’t seem to work anymore. You may have developed a strong set of writing skills during your academic career, only to find that they are no longer effective when you’re writing under greater stress or with less time in your day.

This doesn’t mean the advice was bad, but rather, that we need to learn to apply that advice more thoroughly. In order to help you navigate writing in the time of Corona, I’m going to discuss two pieces of writing advice you’ve probably heard before: read your prompt and make an outline. However, I’m going to look at ways that advice can be more useful to you than ever before.

  1. DON’T JUST READ YOUR PROMPT: DECIPHER IT

While it can be easy to think of a prompt as just a starting point, it’s more accurate to think of it as a roadmap to a successful piece of writing. Many times, an instructor will give you much more than a single question to answer or a topic to explore. They might give you necessary context for the subject, remind you of core concepts, suggest resources, or point out errors you should avoid. They are describing everything you should know in order to craft an excellent assignment.

  • Look for Imperative Verbs

Helpfully, they will also frequently give you direct instructions. It’s worth taking note of any time your prompt begins a sentence with an imperative verb: a word that tells you to do something. Instructors often use words like “explain,” “demonstrate,” “establish,” and “explore” to signal tasks they would like you to accomplish in your piece of writing.

  • Notice Your Instructor’s Priorities

It may help to remember that the assignment prompt is itself a piece of writing, something that your instructor thought about, planned, and then committed to paper—or, more likely, pdf. In any event, they set out to communicate something to you, emphasizing their main ideas in many of the same ways you do. Maybe they used formal elements like underlining, bullet points, or text boxes. They might have devoted an entire paragraph to talk about formatting, or maybe they just referred you to a style guide. If you attend carefully to these decisions, you can see what is most important to your instructor; and, as a result, what should be important to you as you write.

2. DON’T JUST MAKE AN OUTLINE: USE IT TO SHAPE YOUR IDEAS

Outlines are possibly the most widely used planning tool students use when approaching an assignment. It’s not hard to see why: outlines help you start thinking about your ideas and how they will fit together within a structure. Crucially, they can give you sense of how much information you will be able to fit within the set length of the assignment. They’re a great example of what’s often called prewriting: any work you do on a writing project before creating a draft.

  • Move Past Simple Descriptions

One weakness of some student outlines, however, is that they sometimes fail to give sufficient information about the future paper. Most outlines I’ve read use a single word or a short phrase to describe a section of the final piece. Now, this is often a great place to start. For example, you might be early in your planning process for a paper on the Second World War, and it might seem obvious to you that you’re going to want to talk about the attack on Pearl Harbor. In this situation, it makes perfect sense to simply title this section “Pearl Harbor.” However, your outline will be of greater use to you if you move past this stage. Think about what it is you want to say about this idea, and express that in a complete sentence.

  • Use Complete Sentences to Develop Your Claims

One way to figure this out will be to write a full sentence that describes the purpose of this paragraph, such as: “The attack on Pearl Harbor was the key event that brought the U.S. to join World War II.” This sentence not only clarifies the future paragraph’s purpose, but makes it easier to use the outline to actually start drafting your paragraph. When you write out a full sentence, you’re forcing yourself to work through your ideas, transforming the outline from a rough sketch of your structure into a tool you can use to move from planning your paper to drafting it.

We know writing, like most other things in your life, has probably become more difficult this year. It can easily feel like the old rules don’t apply anymore; but while that may be the case for the number of people that can safely fit in a room, it’s not always the case for writing. The skills you’ve developed as a writer over the years will still serve you well, though you may have to learn to apply them to more challenging tasks and unexpected circumstances. As you do so, the University Writing Center consultants are here to help, so please don’t hesitate to make an appointment!

 

Jonathan Diaz is a first-year Ph.D student studying religion, race, and class in American literature. Jonathan holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame: his poems have appeared in publications such as American Literary Review, Latino Book Review, and The Cresset. Previously, he has taught writing courses at Biola University and the University of Southern California. Jonathan, his wife Abigail, and their dog Chavo are from Los Angeles.

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