Old Advice in New Circumstances


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.


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.


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.

Quarantine Routine: How to Create a Sense of Normalcy When Everything is NOT Normal


Well, let’s just begin by stating the obvious: this semester doesn’t look like how you planned. In all likelihood, you are reading this sitting in your childhood bedroom, wondering, “Gosh, why do I still have Star Wars sheets on my bed, and why does my mom still display all of my little league trophies in our living room?” Or perhaps you are still stuck on campus, looking at your painted cinderblock dorm room walls wondering if you could pad them, because deep down you’re asking yourself, “How many more to-go boxes from Penland before I go insane?”


We’re right there with you, friends. COVID-19 has certainly disrupted the carefully laid plans of both mice and men. For those of you who were preparing to graduate this spring, we mourn with you over the loss of a formal graduation ceremony. For those of you who are over the moon about the new pass/fail policy, we rejoice with you! But this isn’t a time to give up and lose hope, no matter what situation you are in.10 Coronavirus memes to cheer you up – DutchReview

 We want to share with you today how to create a sense of normalcy in the midst of this chaos. It might feel futile to create a schedule right now. As the great comedian Jim Gaffigan has joked: “Why won’t I make my bed? For the same reason I don’t tie my shoes after taking them off.” We understand the inclination to just weather this storm and hibernate with Netflix, but we encourage you to think big picture: finish the race you have begun. Finish well.


The best way to finish well is to create some routines. We’re not talking about totally scaffolding your days but implementing a few daily practices will help you find a rhythm. Routines will help you sleep better, feel better, and maybe, just maybe, find some joy in the midst of all this uncertainty. Here are Baylor UWC’s tips for creating daily practices. Don’t necessarily do all of them! Pick one or two to start with, and go from there.

  1. Wake up and go to bed at a regular time each day. This is a very simple practice and will help prevent sluggishness. Your body thrives on regularity, and regular bedtimes/wakeups help set your Circadian rhythm, which influences a lot of your body’s other systems, like metabolism, energy levels, and sleep cycles. So dust off that alarm clock!
  2. Limit screen time. We know this is a difficult one with classes all online, the constant barrage of email, and the tendency to fill time with all the social meedz. But if you can create a few technology blackouts throughout your day, this can actually help lower anxiety and improve sleep. Many people have reported chronic headaches and increased anxiety due to the rise in screen time. One of the best things to do is to have a device cut-off time. Start small: one or two nights a week try to power down your laptop and phone well before bedtime and stop checking email and social media. This lets your brain know it’s okay to turn off for a while. Consider reading before bed or listening to calming music or an audiobook instead of binge-watching Love is Blind until you fall asleep.
  3. Move your body. Right now, a lot of us have necessarily become more sedentary than usual. We’re on the couch, in our beds, or seated at desks all day long. Pry yourself off the sofa and go for a walk! Or, if you feel especially stir-crazy, go for a jog, find some yoga flow videos on YouTube, or kick it up a notch in your living room with some dance cardio or CrossFit circuits. Anything you can do to stay active during this time will clear your head, keep you healthier, improve sleep, and feel more yourself. This is a great time to head to a local park or walk around your neighborhood.
  4. Do Your Best for This Season! We know that with the pass/fail announcement, it’s tempting to just coast for the rest of the semester. We would urge you to choose the path of integrity, which will look different for each student depending on the circumstances. Do yourself and your professors a favor: honor their time and yours by working hard, resting hard, and sticking to the commitments you made before the world turned upside down. This might mean writing the most incredible prose in the time you now have, or it may mean committing to simply completing assignments if your home life is a bit hectic. Whatever “best” means for you right now, do that! You’ll thank yourself in the long run for choosing the path of integrity, rather than the path of least resistance.
  5. Schedule an appointment with the University Writing Center! We know you all still have papers to write, job applications to fill out, and personal statements to craft, so schedule an appointment with one of our tutors! The UWC has gone fully online, but we are just as eager to help you write to the best of your ability. Head on over to mywconline.com/ to set up an appointment today. We can’t wait to work with you.

Do you have ways that you’ve built some normalcy back into your life? Have you found rhythms or schedules to help you through your days? Have you picked up any fun new hobbies or skills to pass the time? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Comment below with your thoughts on the suggestions above, as well as any fun tips or tricks you’ve found to make life feel a little more familiar.