Getting Feedback on Writing, or Why Writers Need Readers

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Photo by “Brooke Cagle” on Unsplash.

This post was written by Grace McCright, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.

One of the most important parts of my writing process is talking. This may sound odd, since we normally think about writing as a silent, solitary activity. But whether we recognize it or not, writing is always an act of communication; however silent and solitary we may be as we write, there is always someone at the other end of our writing who is receiving the message we are conveying. Since we often can’t see this person as we’re writing, one of the best ways to simulate their response is to talk to someone else about your writing.

My first semester in grad school I felt overwhelmed by the amount and quality of writing that was expected of me. I spent so long working on my first paper, poring over it for hours on my own, not knowing if it truly met the requirements for the assignment or if it clearly said what I intended it to say. Two of my friends, fellow first year grad students, had mentioned to me that they also felt similarly anxious about their papers; we decided to have a paper swap night, where we would all bring our essays and swap them, offering each other feedback and impressions as readers. We made it fun, too, going out for pizza together before starting to read. Though we were all a little nervous about sharing our work, the feedback we were able to give each other was so helpful! I remember one of them pointing out places in my paper where they got lost or where they felt I was being repetitive; likewise, I remember pointing out similar things in their papers. Leaving that dinner, we all had a clearer idea of what we needed to do to improve our papers; we also felt more confident knowing that someone else had read our work and understood our general idea!

Now, I actively seek feedback on pretty much everything I write. Instead of worrying about what the other person may think or whether or not they will like my writing, I try to cultivate an attitude of humility and a desire for growth; if I truly want my writing to be the best it can be, then I will take any and all feedback I can get. Here’s a few ways you can seek feedback on your writing:

1. Just talk to someone! It could be a roommate, a friend, or a parent. Just putting your idea into words can be so helpful in working through an idea!

2. Join a writing group! One of the best decisions I made this semester as I’m working on my master’s thesis has been joining a writing group. My writing group meets once a week for a few hours; when we meet, we spend a few minutes just talking about where we are at with our writing and then spend the rest of the time working on our individual projects. Every month or so, we read what each other has written. This format works for us, but you can make your group as formal or informal as you want! It could be as simple as inviting a friend from class over to your apartment to work on your papers together. You can keep each other accountable for working on the project, and you can pause and talk out your ideas with your friend when you get stuck.

3. Make an appointment at the UWC! At any point in the writing process, even the all-I-have-is-a-half-baked-idea stage, you can make an appointment to talk with a writing consultant. Writing consultants can help you create an outline, talk through your ideas, and work on revising existing writing.

Whatever option you choose, don’t believe the lie that writing is merely an individual process, for you and your professor’s red pen alone. Instead, take a risk and talk about your work with someone you trust; you won’t regret it!

Photo by “Christine” on Unsplash.

Five Tips to Make Your Essay “Flow”

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Photo by “Maksym Yymchyk” on Unsplash.

This post was written by Sydney Nicholson, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.

Dear writer,

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make an essay “flow”? In my time as a writing center tutor, I’ve noticed that this is one of the most common questions our clients ask. It is my hope that this blog post will not only provide some clarity on what writers mean when they talk about flow but also provide you with a few tips and tricks that you can use to address this concern.

When we talk about flow, what we are really asking is whether the individual ideas in our essay come together to create a coherent whole. In other words, we want to know if our ideas “hang together” in a way that makes logical sense to the reader. In order to address our concerns about flow, it can be helpful to break this question down further and ask:

  • Does my essay have one clear goal?
  • Does each sentence in my paragraph support the point I want to make in that paragraph?
  • Does the paragraph that expresses those ideas support the point I am making in my essay as a whole?

Since you are familiar with the subject you are writing about, it can be challenging to address the flow of your essay. When you read through your essay, your brain knows why you are making each of your points and why those points are connected. Unfortunately, because those connections are apparent to you, you can forget to explain those connections to your reader. Effective writers use a number of tools to see their paper with new eyes and put themselves in the reader’s shoes. Here are five of my favorites:

  1. Think of your thesis as a kind of itinerary for your paper

Tour guides give their clients an itinerary that tells them where the tour will end and what they will see along the way. An effective thesis is like an itinerary; it not only tells the reader what you are going to say but it also gives the reader a sense of how you are going to arrive at that conclusion. When you write a thesis that tells the writer how you will arrive at your end goal, you become a guide for your reader. You prepare them for each of your main topics so that they aren’t surprised or caught off guard when they come to a new section of your paper. Just as no one wants their tour guide to take them to The Haunted Mansion when they were expecting to visit Splash Mountain, no one wants to be caught off guard by a paper that took a turn they didn’t expect!

Here is an example of a thesis that only tells the reader where a paper will go: This paper argues that John Williams was inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suit The Planets.

Here is an example of a thesis that tells the reader where the paper will go AND how the author will get there: This paper argues that John Williams was inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suit The Planets by comparing the tonal patterns in “Mars: The Bringer of War” to the Imperial March.

  1. Write topic sentences that are “mini-theses”

Pay particular attention to the first sentence of each of your paragraphs. These sentences are key to guiding your reading through your ideas and they can make or break the flow of your essay. When you write a topic sentence, you want it to do three things:

  1. Tell the writer what they will know after reading that paragraph
  2. Explain how that paragraph is related to the one that came before it
  3. Use key words from the prompt to reassure your reader that this paragraph is responding to the central question of the paper

Here’s an example topic sentence: In addition to using religion as an active tool against nature, the four survivors also utilized religion to wield power over their inner conscience.

This topic sentence uses the key words “religion” and “power” to prove that this paragraph relates back to the essay prompt which asked the writer to explain how Vasco da Gama and his crew used religion as a tool of power in the New World. Its first phrase briefly sums up the main idea of the previous paragraph and explains that this paragraph provides an additional example of how the four survivors used religious as a tool of power. Finally, the topic sentence clearly tells the reader what this paragraph is about when it states that four survivors utilized religion to wield power over their inner conscience.

  1. Use a graphing activity to see how your sentences relate to one another

Photo by “Andre Taissin” on Unsplash.

In an essay that has a coherent flow, each paragraph will have one central point. Within that paragraph, the individual sentences will work together to develop that idea. To see whether your sentences are working together to develop one concept, use this graphing activity. Here’s how it works:

  1. Copy and paste your paragraph onto a blank page
  2. Put each sentence on its own line.
  3. Read through your paragraph sentence by sentence
  4. When you see a sentence that further explains the sentence that came before it, press tab and indent it. When you see a sentence that isn’t connected to the idea that came before it, do not indent that sentence at all.

In a paragraph where all of the sentences hang together to form a coherent whole, you should notice that each sentence is indented a bit further than the last one. Here’s an example of a graphed paragraph from an advertisement analysis essay:

The last sentence in your paragraph should “zoom out” and restate the main claim of the paragraph. Thus, it should be similar to your topic sentence. You can represent this similarity by keeping your concluding sentence flush to the left edge of the page.

  1. Never assume that your reader will understand why you are connecting two thoughts together without your help.

If you make your reader guess why you include a quote or a particular piece of information they might guess incorrectly. You are the expert on this topic and it is your job to show the reader why the quote that you include or that really interesting piece of information about the Trojan Horse is actually connected to your main topic about the way that technology can become a tool for deception.

  1. Read your paper aloud to a friend or schedule an appointment at the UWC:

Reading your paper out loud to a friend or writing consultant is a great way to make sure that the order of your essay makes sense to someone who isn’t familiar with your topic. If you would like to make an appointment at the Baylor University Writing Center to work on the flow of your essay, please come visit us on the second floor of the Moody Library or make an appointment online at www.baylor.mywconline.com

 

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.

Wait, the UWC can’t close; I still have papers to write!

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We have reached the last day of courses for the spring semester, which also means we have reached the last day that the Baylor University Writing Center will be open. We’ll pause here to give you a minute to ugly cry.

Thank you for your deep emotional investment. Now dash away those tears, because we can still help you even if we aren’t open for appointments! Below you will find a list of 5 resources and tips to help you navigate your final papers with such ease, you’ll think one of our consultants was sitting on your shoulder whispering sweet suggestions in your ear. You’ve got this; you possess all the tools needed to write those papers and submit them with confidence!

 

  1. Citations and formatting: One of the most stressful elements of writing a paper can be figuring out how to comply with the formatting and citation guidelines prescribed by your professor, especially if it’s a new style guide to you. STEM majors are always perplexed by ENG 1310’s MLA guidelines, just like Humanities majors want to cry when their PSYC 101 professor requires APA formatting. Style guides remind us that we’re all human, y’all. But don’t worry! Here is a link to Purdue Online Writing Lab’s (affectionately known as Purdue OWL) guides to the three most common styles. They have really helpful resources. We recommend looking at sample papers of each style, as just reading instructions doesn’t always make visualization easy.
    1. MLA: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_formatting_and_style_guide.html
    2. APA: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/apa_style/apa_formatting_and_style_guide/general_format.html
    3. Chicago/Turabian: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/chicago_manual_17th_edition/cmos_formatting_and_style_guide/chicago_manual_of_style_17th_edition.html
  2. Grammar and spelling: While the UWC’s main purpose is to help you develop higher order skills when it comes to your writing (such as awareness of audience, thesis statements, logical structure, etc), we recognize that concerns about grammar and spelling remain close to students’ hearts when it comes to feeling confident in their writing. To this end, many students find tools like Grammarly helpful, but even Microsoft Word’s spell and grammar check is a great start! See those red and blue squiggle lines on your essay? Right click on one to figure out if it’s an error you need to address, or just that Microsoft Word refuses to recognize that “fantabulous” is a real word in your dictionary.
  3. Read your paper aloud: If you have ever been to the UWC, you know that we always ask you to read your work aloud. And if you’ve ever been to the UWC, you know that this may be the most valuable editing tool. Our eyes are trained to skim and skip (think how quickly you scroll through your Insta feed…); in fact, you’re probably skimming this article right now! Skimming is a great tool, but not when you’re editing a paper. Slow down, read aloud, and force yourself to pay attention to each word. Odds are you’ll catch both spelling and grammar errors, identify repetition (when you realize you’ve said the same thing aloud 5 times, maybe it’s time to cut or consult a thesaurus), pick up on awkward wording, and realize abrupt paragraph transition. Do yourself a favor: read that paper aloud!
  4. Underline topic sentences: You know how everyone online has been posting thirst traps about their new knitting habit or their exhorbitant scrapbooking endeavors? Now it’s your turn! Pull out those highlighters and sticky tabs and start marking your topic sentences! Why do this? Well, you may find that some paragraphs have no topic sentences at all, some have multiple topic sentences, and others have a topic sentence but one that comes at the end of the paragraph instead of the beginning. Get crafty with those papers! Hilarious Memes for Crafters - Craftfoxes
  5. Reverse outlining: This is one of our most popular strategies at the UWC. Reverse outlining is where you read through each paragraph and try to condense it down to one condensed sentence. If you can’t, you clearly need to split the paragraph up so that each point can have it’s own real estate. Once you’ve done this with each paragraph, read each condensed sentence in order. Is there a logic to the progression? Should your points be rearranged? Is there a gap in your reasoning? These are all things that add up to big points on an essay grade, so go ahead and take the time to get cozy with your content.

 

We could go on and on, but we know you’d stop reading. Do you have any tried and true editing techniques? Share them below, we’d love to hear about them! Regardless, know that we are thinking of you all as you wrap up this weird semester and all that that entails. Good luck on your final projects, best wishes on your summer, and to our wonderful graduating seniors, our prayers and hopes go with you!

 

From everyone at Baylor UWC, we bid you a fond farewell and look forward to serving you again in the fall! (PSA: we will have limited summer hours for online appointments, so if you are taking summer classes, we will still be around to help J)