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.

Which type of UWC Appointment is Best for You?

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This post was written by Maddie Wayland, a second year Master’s student in the English program.

With Zoom calls, hybrid classes, and masks, things are looking a little different this semester, and we understand there is a lot to keep track of! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or a little bit like this…

…don’t despair! Although we’re not in our usual location in Moody Library and are instead fully online, the University Writing Center is still here to offer you an extra pair of eyes at any stage in your writing process.

Did you know that we offer two types of appointments? Both appointment types, e-tutoring and video conference, have their own perks, but they are also very different! Depending on your project type or stage in the writing process, one type of appointment might be more effective than the other. Keep reading to learn about each type and how to choose the one that is best for you!

Here’s the lowdown on each:

  1. E-TUTORING (Written Feedback) APPOINTMENTS:

A bit different from a face-to-face conference, an e-tutoring appointment involves the writer submitting their paper draft and prompt ahead of the appointment time using the UWC website. On the appointment intake form, the writer can also indicate certain questions or concerns they’d like the consultant to address in their feedback. The consultant will then read over the materials the writer has submitted and provide feedback in the following ways: one, in-text comments on the student’s draft and, two, a feedback form which summarizes all feedback and suggestions for revision. All of these materials are shared electronically, then, with the writer within 48 hours of the appointment time.

So, when should you choose an e-tutoring appointment?

E-tutoring feedback is generally reader focused, as there is minimal interaction between the reader (consultant) and the writer (client). This means that the consultant will focus on their expectations as a reader, and explore how the writing either met these expectations, or could meet them more effectively. In feedback from an e-tutoring session, the consultant will provide a reader reaction to the writing, as well as specific suggestions for revision. The consultant will still keep in mind the writer’s specific questions and concerns, too, and will address those as fully as possible!

E-tutoring appointments are great if you have specific concerns and questions that can guide the consultant’s feedback. They are also helpful for completed drafts that you would like an extra reader’s response on to guide you in revision.

What should you do to make an e-tutoring appointment? Here are the steps:

    1. Create appointment by visiting the Baylor UWC website and clicking on “Make an Appointment.”
    2. Select the “e-tutoring (written feedback)” option under the question “Meet online?”
    3. Fill out the rest of the intake form with your assignment details and questions/concerns.4. Attach your assignment prompt and a draft of your work.
      5. Wait to receive electronic feedback from your consultant!

  1. VIDEO CONFERENCE APPOINTMENTS

This option offers you as similar an experience as possible to the usual face-to-face appointments offered in the Writing Center. If you’ve ever visited us before, you know how it goes! Video conferences are an opportunity to meet with a consultant via video chat and discuss your writing, at any stage from brainstorming to a final draft. Writers may upload their work ahead of time, and the writer and consultant will look at the work together during the appointment. The consultant and writer will often have a conversation about the writing and the assignment, discuss the concerns or questions the writer has specifically about their writing, and read the draft out loud together. By the end of the session, the pair will come up with some tangible next steps that the writer can work on after the session ends.

Here’s when a video conference would be a great choice:

Video conferences are generally writer focused, and will center around the writer’s needs and concerns. The consultant and writer will work together to tailor the session to meet those needs. And, here’s the key to a video conference session—it’s a conversation! Although video calls can be nerve-wracking, video conferences at the UWC are designed to offer a low-stakes environment. This is your opportunity to just have a conversation about writing ideas, challenges, and questions with another writer.

Although video conferences can be beneficial at all stages of writing, from brainstorming and topic choice to revisions and final drafts, there are certain situations where you might benefit more from choosing a video conference over an e-tutoring session. The conversation you can have during a video conference session would be especially helpful if you are writing in a new or unfamiliar genre, or if you have larger questions about organization, crafting a thesis and argument, or sorting through your thoughts!

Decided on a video conference session? Follow these steps to make your appointment:

    1. Create appointment by visiting the Baylor UWC website.
    2. Select the “video conference” option under the question “Meet online?”
    3. Fill out the rest of the intake form with your assignment details and questions/concerns.
    4. Attach your assignment prompt and a draft of your work. (If you’ll be working on your draft up until the appointment, you can always attach it later).
    5. Your consultant will likely contact you with information on how you will be meeting—either via the Baylor UWC website, or via Zoom. If you’re meeting some way besides the UWC website, your consultant will provide you with a link to the video conference.
    6. At your appointment time, either visit your appointment link provided by your consultant or visit the UWC website, click on your appointment, and click the big red button that says “Start or join online consultation.”
    7. Meet via video chat with your consultant!

After every session, both e-tutoring and video conference, your consultant will send you session notes that summarize what the goals of the session were, what you did during the session, and a plan for next steps to take in writing or revision.

If you receive feedback, revise, and still have questions or concerns, it’s a great idea to make another appointment (especially a video conference appointment), so you can talk through your remaining questions! No matter what writing project you’re working on, or what stage in the project you’re at, there’s a UWC session to help.

 

Author’s bio: Maddie Wayland is a second year Master’s student in the English program. She specializes in creative writing, specifically creative non-fiction, and is interested in literature incorporating topics of illness, medicine, and health studies. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology as well as English. Originally from Upstate New York, in her free time you can find Maddie reading Jane Austen, playing with her miniature schnauzer puppy Lucy, and dreaming of NY autumn.

5 Tips to Help You Vanquish Writer’s Block

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

This post was written by Kendell Bergeron, a senior Undergraduate Consultant with majors in Economics and Accounting and a minor in English.

We’ve all been there. You might be sitting at your desk or in a coffee shop with a paper due in a matter of hours, Word document open at the ready… and all you can do is stare at your blinking cursor. The diagnosis is in: you seem to have a nice case of writer’s block.

Maybe you feel like you’ve been working on your draft for hours and you’re stuck on revisions. Maybe you’ve taken lots of notes on your source texts and outlined your paper but you can’t figure out how to start. Maybe you haven’t even thought about this assignment yet and you found this blog post at 9pm with an 11.59pm deadline impending so you want me to stop beating around the bush and get to these lifesaving tips! I hear you. Take a deep breath. Let’s do this.

  1. Start where you’re confident.

Most of us write papers from the beginning. Often, that’s a good place to start. But sometimes the best way to get a draft rolling is not the introduction or even the first point of your argument. If those sections are feeling stale and uninspiring, try writing the part of your paper that interests you the most!

Just by getting those fingers typing and your brain juices flowing, you might finish your favorite section of the paper and realize that you’re more motivated to complete another section that you were stuck on before.

  1. Find the strategy that’s right for you.

Reality check: writing is a process! And even more importantly, figuring out the best writing process for you takes time and practice. If you’re feeling like a deer in the headlights when confronted by a blank Word document, try jotting down some thoughts that you want to write about in bullet points or in a more formal outline. Follow the process that works for you and be patient.

Some writers like to create a detailed outline to follow. Some writers like to start drafting right away and see where they end up. Personally, I like to write an overview outline and then employ a strategy that I call “the crap draft.” When I remind myself to expect imperfections and that I’ll have time to revise my writing before I submit it, I put so much less pressure on each word that I type! I can write a first draft without slowing myself down by obsessively editing along the way. It’s just one step in the writing process.

  1. Give your brain a breath of fresh air.

If perfectionism isn’t your problem but your brain still feels like a brick that can’t tell the difference between symbolism and a semicolon, this might be a good time to take a break.

You could go for a quick walk, literally letting fresh air wake up your brain and enjoying some soothing silence. You could take a power nap or make a cup of tea. If you want to stay in a productive zone, try using a different part of your brain than you use when you’re writing. If you have any classes that focus on quantitative reasoning like math, science, or business, do some homework from those subjects. Or answer emails! By taking time to step away from your paper, your mind will feel a lot fresher when it’s time to start again.

  1. Make some space.

With so many brilliant thoughts swimming around before we can get them down on paper, our heads can feel overwhelmingly jumbled when we’re trying to start writing. Take a moment to think about creating the workspace that helps you think through your ideas most clearly.

Do you focus best when you’re alone or with the accountability of a study partner? Does it help you to be comfortable on the couch or do you work better at a desk or table? Does your best thinking happen in the morning, before dinner, or late at night?

If you don’t have options apart from working in your dorm room right now, even taking a moment to calm the chaos by making your bed and clearing your desk can make a huge difference! Being in a physical space that’s tidy and focused can make our mental space feel more organized and approachable too.

  1. Talk it out.

It’s usually easier to explain all that you want to write in your essay out loud than it is to write everything down for the first time. The best tip we can give you: make an appointment with the Writing Center! Our tutors love to ask questions about your ideas and help you process any points you’re feeling stuck on. Whether you’re paralyzed by writer’s block just looking at the prompt or feeling like you can’t possibly stare at your draft for another minute, we can help you brainstorm or talk your way through it.

We’re even offering extended hours this semester, so you could make a 9pm appointment and talk to a tutor online from your dorm room! But if you don’t have a chance to visit the UWC before your deadline, try talking it out with a friend or even recording yourself on a voice memo and writing down what you hear yourself say.

And with all these tips, remember to have some grace for yourself. Writing isn’t easy for anyone and starting is the hardest part! You’re equipped now with some surefire strategies to vanquish the nefarious nemesis that is writer’s block forever. Good luck!

 

 

Author’s bio: Kendall is a senior from the Pacific Northwest with majors in Economics and Accounting and a minor in English. She loves a rainy day with a very large mug of tea and a book—her most recent favorite is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You’re likely to find Kendall making another cup of coffee, doing yoga, creating content for her cat’s Instagram, or trying new recipes for her food blog.