Writing Center Blog

“Save Yourself some Time and Pre-write” by Jack Stilwell

posted May 7, 2018, 10:41 AM by Writing Center

I’m not going to tell you to start the writing process earlier, because you won’t listen. I’ve been your instructor and writing consultant for three years now. I’ve even been you. You are going to drink three red bulls and pace up and down your room until you wear a threadbare path into the carpet and you are going to find a new appreciation for the relativity of time. You are going to swear you will never do this to yourself again. And you will do this to yourself again.

I am not judging you. Writing an essay at the last minute is an absolute staple of the student experience. This is not a recommendation, just a recognition of the inevitable. Maybe you put the essay off for far too long, but maybe circumstances outside your control have pushed you into this corner, and now you have to claw your way out. Either way, you are in a tight spot, and you are asking existential questions, and you have thirty-nine tabs open in your browser and you are not sure if half of them are relevant to your topic, and if it is only half, you are not sure which tabs those are.

You have a blank word document open and you wish the words would just appear. They don’t. You start a sentence: “In today’s modern society…” You feel ashamed and you erase the sentence, backspacing far longer than necessary. You think you have no time left but to just spew words out onto the page into whatever order they land and you hope you won’t have to make eye contact with your professor for at least two weeks. You think you are well past the advice I am about to give you, but you are not.

Take a deep breath.

Open a new document.

And write an outline.

You’ve convinced yourself that you only have time left to write the essay itself, but you’re not acknowledging that writing an outline is a part of this essay. Everything you’ve been doing up this point has been a part of writing this essay, even watching your hair fall out and pile up on your keyboard. Especially watching your hair fall out and pile up on your keyboard.

Your outline does not need to look traditional. It does not need Roman numerals. It does not need indentations. What it needs to do is anticipate the direction of your essay, but it does not need to define that direction. You’ve got a lot of ideas in that skull of yours. You are a smart kid. Write down those ideas in what you think is the most logical order, tinker with that order, write down questions you want to answer, write down questions your reader might have for you.

I’ve been maybe overly specific here by naming an outline. You need to do what’s best for you, but pre-writing—whether that be a bubble map, a love letter to your reader, an epic poem—is best for you. Some of my favorite consultations in the Writing Center are when writers come in with no work and a panicked expression, because every single one of those consultations has ended with the student confident in the direction of their essay. This is not a humble-brag. This has very, very little to do with me. This is the result of forty five minutes of a student articulating what they know and do not know about their topic, what interests them and what interests their reader, what questions they want answered and what questions need to be answered. And this is writing.

So let’s return to you in your caffeine-fueled and sleep-deprived haze, seeing negative images all around your dark room because you’ve left your laptop screen way too bright. You should not have let yourself get to this point, but you did, and you have no choice but to move forward.

Open a new document and give yourself some time—even if it’s just fifteen minutes—to anticipate the direction of this essay. Write down a question. Write down an answer. What you are doing now is creating a frame to build your essay around. This is not a waste of fifteen minutes. If anything, these fifteen minutes could save you hours. You will complete this essay on time. It will receive a grade. You will promise yourself more time in the future, and if you break that promise, you will not despair, because you have been here before, and you now know to pre-write.

There’s No Such Thing as an Insignificant Topic By Shannon Austin

posted Apr 24, 2018, 12:52 PM by Writing Center

This semester, I completed my MFA thesis, a full-length poetry collection which centered on themes of gender, time, the female body, and legacy. This collection also includes a poem about Catwoman.

I’ve had many students talk to me in the past about why they dislike writing, specifically why they dislike writing academic essays. There are various reasons, but one in particular derives from that single, soul-crushing word: academic. This occurs mostly in the English composition courses, where students are expected to write argumentative essays on topics that they must choose themselves.

In these courses, the students have by this point read essays and articles on various subjects like gender, race, social class, technology, etc., and by the time the students are given the task to write on a topic of their choosing, they sometimes find it hard to pick something that they actually want to write about. This is either because some topics are too broad or because they simply feel like they are supposed to write about something suitably academic (which, to some, translates to boring).

Truth be told, these papers and the research involved do not have to be boring. They shouldn’t, in fact. The freedom to choose one’s topic means that a student should feel free to explore avenues in which their own interests lie. One student I taught wrote about what actually constitutes “high” versus “low” art. Another student was interested in nuclear storage at Yucca Mountain. Some of my students have written about e-games, while others have written about fashion.

The most important thing a student should realize when picking a topic is that any topic can become a great paper as long as it means something to that student. Popular culture can be just as engaging and relevant (and, indeed, scholarly) as a paper on social justice. In fact, it’s possible to blend the two together.

Back to Catwoman. I’m interested in gender equality. I’m just as interested in superheroes, time travel, and television shows from the 90s. I put all of these in my thesis.

So if you want to write a paper about Superman or Star Wars for your next English essay, I say go for it!

 Just remember that the next step is figuring out exactly what you want to say about them.

Cowboys, Robots, and Writing Consultants by Mike Freborg

posted Apr 23, 2018, 10:03 AM by Writing Center

Season 2 of Westworld is rapidly approaching. For those who aren’t familiar with the show, Westworld is a theme park where patrons get to role-play as characters in a virtual Wild West. The guests are free to roam the seemingly endless park and interact with artificially-intelligent robots called hosts. These hosts look and act like real human beings. They are programmed to act-out scripted storylines that are repeated in narrative loops, but they can also switch to “improvisation mode” depending on how the guests interact with them.

Our writing center is a lot like Westworld. And our consultants are like the hosts that inhabit that park. As consultants, we are trained to perform specific duties and to follow certain procedures throughout our workday. Like the artificial humans in the popular TV show, we each have our storylines and our scripted responses. Yet we are constantly switching to “improvisation mode” as we interact with others. Writing consultants have to adapt teaching techniques and communication styles to mesh with the widely diverse clients who come to the writing center (let’s call it Writing World!).

Consultations in Writing World can be unpredictable because of all the factors involved. The guests who visit our particular park are writers. These writers have unique personalities. They come from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. And they have different writing styles and ways of communicating. Their education levels and writing experience varies considerably. And everyone has different thought processes. These factors apply to us consultants (hosts) as well. Because what are we? We are writers.

Some of our clients are frequent visitors. They are like the Man in Black, a veteran patron who has interreacted with almost every host in Westworld. Many of our own hosts have built rapport with the regulars who come to our park, learning their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. We also get those who are coming to us for the first time. We welcome newcomers. All guests at Writing World receive the same friendliness and encouragement.

Still, there are other factors that influence consultations. Some of our guests are very passionate about learning to write better, while others may have heard about our free “fix-it” service and decide they want to give it a try. The type of text the writers bring to us is another component. The texts are usually essays of some sort, but they can be almost anything. One of my colleagues once told me that we all know a little bit about a lot of different things, but we are not experts on everything. That is certainly true with me. The best way to find an answer is to ask another consultant. Individually, we may know a fair amount. But collectively, we are a vast network of knowledge. Someone is bound to have the answer. And if they don’t, we have reference materials galore.

Hosts are fallible creatures, but we try our best. Our counterparts in Westworld usually go to Behavior and Diagnostics if they aren’t operating at optimum levels. The same goes for us. When I was first brought online at Writing World, my core programming needed some tinkering. Over the course of the semester, I made several trips to our own behavior lab (Gina’s office) for assessment and attribute modification. After careful analysis, the director boosted my perception by 20% and increased my assertiveness by 15% (although my charisma is still a bit glitchy). These minor tweaks have made me a more effective consultant. Increased perception has given me the ability to zoom out and focus on bigger issues in the text. I can also detect a wider range of errors and prioritize them according to importance. With my greater assertiveness, I am able to engage writers in deeper conversation, asking them questions to build rapport and stimulate their own thought processes.

Guests come to Westworld to find their true selves. In a way, the writers who come here are like the patrons on that TV show. Sometimes writers already have the answers they are searching for. They already know what they want to write. They just need a little guidance to bring those ideas to the surface. That’s where we come in. As hosts, we want to ensure that visitors have the best experience possible at our park.

So come to Writing World (commonly known as the UNLV Writing Center), a place where guests can discover the hidden writer that exists in all of us. You won’t regret it!

In 500 Feet, Merge Left and Take Exit… Recalculating Route by Francis Moi Moi

posted Apr 20, 2018, 10:16 AM by Writing Center

Writing [is] a series of choices writers make

based on context, audience, purpose, and genre.

--UNLV Writing Center

As writing consultants, composition instructors, and graduate students, making rhetorical choices is what we do--all day, every day. So, naturally, we are more familiar than most with the fact that a rhetorical choice is most likely to be made between the hours of 10:00 and 11:59 pm. We know; we’ve been there; we’re still there.

Thinking rhetorically isn’t the easiest way to think. In fact, the most common rhetoric is counting on us not thinking rhetorically--i.e. advertising. Thinking rhetorically is exhausting. Every choice is suspect. As writers, we have our own purpose. Our audience has their purposes. We have to be mindful of, even appeal to, our audience and their purpose(s) in addition to our own if we are to achieve it. And that is just audience and purpose, to say nothing of genre and context. The rhetorical situation is a dynamic system, hyper sensitive to initial conditions. Every choice matters. It’s paralyzing.

As graduate students of a rhetorical persuasion (sorry), we are conditioned to have something to say and are loathe to have nothing to say. In our seminars, on our conference panels, at our thesis and dissertation defenses--until we can muster something to say, we will stall with a clear, if not protracted, that’s interesting. How interesting the question or comment posed to us is depends on how long we must stall before coming up with something to say. That is really quite interesting. The closest we get to I don’t know is that hadn’t quite occurred to me. But that’s really interesting to think about. A kind of point to be made here is if we’re anything, we’re problem solvers. We’re good at filling in those rhetorical blanks, like consultant and instructor good.

Between these two roles, consultant and instructor, there is a shared purpose: “we work with writers in any discipline on any writing task… to help them develop, improve, and transfer writing skills into their personal, academic, professional, and civic lives” (UNLV Writing Center). This entails developing students’ rhetorical knowledge and critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. However, we achieve this purpose in a different manner for each role. In the consultation, we work with writers. In the classroom, we teach writers. The difference being one that can be illustrated by analogy: the former is like a road trip undertaken by a consultant and consultee using the consultee’s roadmap; the latter is like a road trip undertaken by an instructor and student using the instructor’s GPS.

We see it in the consultees’ deer-in-the-headlights look; we see it in their conspicuous monitoring of the time. We know they’ve never used a map before, and they don’t know its conventions. They don’t know how to situate themselves. They’re waiting for the GPS to chime-in: In 500 feet, merge left and take exit. Some of us, who are cool under pressure, can wait out the silence until the writer has arrived at a choice. It’s a nerve-wracking game of chicken that many of us—including myself—often lose (but not always out of impatience). Coming from a place of respect for our writers’ time, we may not allow for as much time as we should for them to arrive at solutions for themselves. Likewise, out of wanting to be helpful, we may be too quick to reveal what we think in the guise of a merciful suggestion. Nonetheless, we are being prescriptive. We have arrived at our destination without having put in the mileage (unlike this analogy). This is where we’ll retract the “playing chicken” comparison; it’s adversarial and not helpful. Instead, we might reconsider the way we arrive at the goal, which isn’t the solution itself but developing the trouble-shooting skills needed to create solutions for ourselves.

Rather than thinking of prescription as a wrong turn (or short-cut), we might treat them like a GPS would—recalculate the route. We might try to reclaim a prescriptive instance as a learning opportunity in two ways: the first, by catching ourselves and stopping in our tracks, prompting writers to finish our line of thought before we give too much away; or, the second, by slowing down and explaining how we had come to our suggestion. We can turn our quick-fix solution into a solution-finding model. We could draw from instances where we have seen the writer make a similar rhetorical choice successfully and try to parallel the logic used to make that choice to the logic we used to arrive at our suggestion. Also, we might explain how we logically approach a particular pattern of error and offer alternative solutions, thus prompting writers to make a choice between multiple right solutions and defend it as the best solution. Later, if we come to a similar situation in the text, then, having explained our thinking, consultees more often than not adopt that thinking for themselves and correct themselves in a similar fashion.

So, when our consultees are drawing blanks and we might be in a prescriptive gear, the kind of automatic willingness to provide an answer that we’ve cultivated as an instructor and graduate student, we might choose to make a legal U-turn when possible. 

Writing as Center by Lindsay Olson

posted Apr 19, 2018, 9:41 AM by Writing Center

Emine’s Third Language

When she leaves, I can’t help but feel like I’ve crossed over some strange psychic turf. I’m cycling back through our conversation, thinking it must’ve been her accent, the trigger—echoes of Buket at my dinner table, offering Turkish delights and late-night Arabic lessons. Somehow, I’ve managed to slip through the spaces, five years behind but in the same space now with Emine, anticipating her problems and helping with the naming of them.

The writing is here, I told her. Just not as clunky and “English” as we like to see in academic writing. She gets the joke—she has been writing like a careful invitation, implications that you would have to catch between the lines to find her, to tell her I see you. I’m a tripping demigod from the Academy on high, red-penning into place all the rules I’m bound to break. Teaching the things I’m trying to untie myself from, unravel, in my own language.

I imagine trying to tell her story another way. It’s Buket laughing at my fat, American tongue. I imagine telling this part in Farsi—ending the session all smiles and empathy. I think of Emine, prompted to stay her collarbone with her long fingertips when I said I understand, and how.

When she looked at me, it was with eyes wide and brown as a Saturn moon. You know, it’s funny you say this because before, in my language, I considered myself a very good writer.

I tell her in my language she is.


Without a Referent

I’m in the midst of typing his report when I notice the Works Cited page and its three immediate errors, the kind you wouldn’t miss with a ten-foot pen, even as a Chemistry Professor. Also, the paper is for Biology and should have a Reference page; I’m wrong on several fronts, and it’s only Wednesday.

Sometimes I draft several follow-up emails in my head, one from myself apologizing profusely to a consultee (whom I always imagine suffering in a corner somewhere, crouched over several pages of an essay bleeding red ink), one from said consultee, wherein they avenge my negligence with a string of well-placed and grammatically incorrect insults, in all caps. (Proof that capitalization has to be earned.) I also draft an email which reprimands me from on high, from the Writing Center Gods, whom I envision have nothing better to do than to make me wonder at the end of a consultation what I should have said, and in what order.

The thing about moving within the system is how to not be swallowed up by it—how to become systematic with my approach rather than symptomatic of several problems packaged in our language. I don’t want to make a right and wrong out of everyone’s approach; I don’t keep all those keys to the locks in my head. How do I at least try not to miss anything? I’m seldom prepared to answer on the spot, especially when it comes to mechanical and memorizable detail, so I’ve started to use handouts and physical reference books like appendages. Still, I miss things. Several things I should say.


I confessed this last week to a consultee, after guiding her through a personal statement brainstorm session she said she found particularly helpful. It was the sort of confession that I sometimes blurt out in the face of a compliment, an inherited response to reassure my feelings of inadequacy and stave off “false pride” (my grandma when complimented on a meal, announces the rolls are burned on the bottom.) Thank you, but really I still get so many things wrong!

The consultee, a Writing Center veteran and consultant herself, didn’t miss a beat and didn’t accept deflection. You know, that’s one of the things I actually like about writing: there’s not really a right way to do it, and it’s never really “finished.” There’s just other ways you find to make it better . . .

In the words of our fearless leader, We’re looking for progress, not perfection.

The Good Type of Body Consciousness by Claire Morgan

posted Apr 5, 2018, 11:39 AM by Writing Center

Imagine yourself writing—an essay, a poem, a story—whatever you choose.

Where are you? Are you at a desk? Sitting at the kitchen table?

Are you in the library? Perhaps you’re even lounging in bed.  

Wherever you imagine yourself, just make sure you’re writing. Got it?

Okay—now try changing your imagined location: perhaps, to a busy place or anywhere you wouldn’t normally write.

Once you’re there, change your imagined body position.

Perhaps you now see yourself standing up, scribbling in the middle of a busy indoor shopping mall. Or lying down in a rapidly running river, struggling to hold a notepad above your head.

“No,” you might be thinking, “I could never write like that, in a place like that.” And you’re probably right.

“So what—I like to write in a certain place, with my body posed a certain way. What’s your point?”

My point is that body has a key role in the writing process. Writing is as much a physical act as it is a mental one. We think while typing or moving our pen. The two go hand in hand (pun very much intended).

But how often do we actually consider the physical part of writing? After we learned to sit up straight in our desks, print words neatly, and type with all of our fingers, did we completely forget about this important connection?

I remember many occasions during undergrad where I would sit and stare at the blinking cursor on my computer. I didn’t know where to start—or maybe I had already started, and didn’t know where to go. I responded to this frustration by walking away from my writing, hoping to return later with a fresh perspective.

However, I’d often find myself facing the same issue later on—and would end up turning in something I didn’t fully believe in. It was only later that I realized moving to a new room, changing my sitting position, lighting a candle, and even playing a specific type of music were all tools I had been missing out on in my writing process.

So, next time you find yourself in a writing rut—switch things up. Face the window, go outside, move around a bit—give your writing some wiggle room. Trust me, your body has some things to add to the conversation!

"We Need to Talk about Writing" by Dave Beasley

posted Mar 13, 2018, 3:27 PM by Writing Center

We need to talk. That is a terrifying four-word sentence. Nothing good usually comes after those four words. That particular set of words often leads to awkward conversations with friends and family about how “we had outgrown each other,” or how “we wanted different things.” Rarely is it followed by phrases such as, “we won the lottery,” or “I just wanted to say how great you are,” or “we have inherited an estate in the Caribbean.” Yet here we are, and we do need to talk. We need to talk about one of those things that is whispered in the halls of academia, in classrooms, in workplaces, in publishing houses: writing is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a liar. There. I said it. Phew. I am glad that is over with. At least we admitted it. They say the first step is admitting the problem. And it is a problem. Let there be no doubt about that.

It is a problem because writing is so important. Whether it be a paper for a class, an email, a social media post, a note to a friend, or a piece of creative work, writing is all around us. It is something we are asked to do daily, yet something so many of us struggle with constantly. I cannot recount the number of times writers in the writing center or in my composition and literature classes come up to me and say, “I’m not a good writer.” My response is always the same and I always mean it: “I don’t believe that.” Let me also say to you if you think you aren’t a good writer, I don’t believe it. I simply refuse to believe that of anyone. We may not all win the Nobel Prize in Literature—Lord knows I won’t—but we can all write. This is my ironclad conviction. Writing is so difficult because it is at once objective and subjective, an activity and a skill, a pleasure and a chore.

It’s not just difficult for we mere mortals in the world of writing. Ta-Nehesi Coates, in his 2017 New York Times bestseller We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, discusses the fear of failure and the necessity of failure for the writing process. Coates’s work culls eight essays from his writings for The Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama presidency, along with an introduction for each piece from Coates. His essay from the first year, “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” is a profile of Bill Cosby written before the long-rumored allegations of Cosby’s history of sexual assault came to the forefront. In his introduction to the essay, Coates’s takes himself to task for writing a tidy lie rather than a messy truth. He says of the article on Cosby and his own hesitancy to write a more complex and penetrating article, “That was my shame. That was my failure” (12).

Well, damn. If Ta-Nehesi Coates, a brilliant writer and one of the most important voices to emerge in the early twenty-first century, thinks an article featured in both The Atlantic and a New York Times bestseller is a failure, where does that leave the rest of us? In the same place we were before. It turns out that we are all in this together. It is not that we are further from good writing than we ever thought, it is that all writers begin with that same blank page, that same fear, that same desire to meet both our own needs and those of our audience. This is all part of what makes writing hard. Really hard.

Here’s another thing: writing most often comes to us as a finished product. We don’t see all the times that J.K. Rowling, Edwidge Danticat, Stephen King, and Toni Morrison wanted to throw their laptops through the window and take up cliff diving, if only because it seemed mentally and emotionally safer and saner. We don’t see all their rough drafts, all the text they delete, all the feedback they get, or all of the times when they try to write and nothing happens. We only see a brilliant piece of writing because all we see is the finished product. Reading great writers while trying to write is like I don’t even know what. I honestly can’t think of anything more potentially demoralizing. But we must remember that they were all where we were once. They may be there right now.

There is some good news though, and that is that the answer for them is the same as the answer for us: just keep writing. No matter what. Suit up and show up every day. Raymond Chandler, one of the greatest detective fiction writers of all time, did not publish a word until he was 40. He didn’t publish a novel until he was in his fifties. Harriet Doerr won a National Book Award for her first novel Stones of Ibarra; it was published when she was 74. My stepfather recently published his first piece. He is 70 years old. All I can say to conclude is that no matter what, keep writing. And keep reading. Make writing and reading a part of your daily life. Your writing will improve, but more importantly, you do a service to your own humanity when you do these things. Writing is hard, but it is not impossible.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, 2017.

"Who Should I Make an Appointment With?" by Ashly Riches

posted Mar 12, 2018, 1:10 PM by Writing Center

Making an appointment at the Writing Center can sometimes be stressful. First you have to figure out when we’re open, then cross-reference your class schedule and the due date for your assignment, and lastly you have to see if we have an available spot for that time. When you’re on the phone or standing at the reception desk, it can feel like a lot of pressure to schedule a session. Plus once you’ve ironed out a time, you then have to choose a consultant to meet with. If you’ve had appointments before and have a preference, this part is probably no sweat. However, if you’re new to the Writing Center, this can seem like the most complicated part of all.

First, you should figure out if you’re going to need more than one appointment to tackle your assignment. For long projects like research papers, application essays, and other assignments, you are most likely going to need at least two appointments. Next, you should think about whether you want to make your appointments with the same person. Meeting with the same consultant has tons of benefits: you can build a relationship with that person and make long-term goals with that consultant. However, seeing a new consultant has its benefits as well, including getting a new perspective on your assignment or getting a second opinion on a particularly tricky section.

Recently, I had to write a personal statement for a school application. This seemed extremely daunting, especially because it is a high-stakes writing project. I decided that I would need at least 5 appointments for the whole process and that I wanted to see the same person each time. This was helpful for me, because we could pick up where we left off after each consultation. When I felt like it was polished enough, I made appointments with two additional consultants. This was helpful because it offered me new perspectives on my writing after I had gotten the majority of the work done.

Whether you decide that you want to work on a project with one consultant, or get a new perspective each time, make sure that you are making appointments well in advance! It is never advisable to come to the Writing Center the day a project is due, since walk-in spots are not guaranteed, and you may find out that you need to include new material without the time to complete it.

Once you’ve decided how you want to tackle your assignment, it is time to choose a consultant! To do this, I would recommend visiting our website. Under “Staff” you can find biographies of each of our consultants. Some of us prefer to work on certain types of writing projects, like resumes, research papers, creative writing, or journalism articles. Knowing this information before you make an appointment can help you choose the person best fit for your writing assignment.

If you visit our front desk with this information already prepared, making appointments will be faster and easier!

A Proud Supporter of the Five-Paragraph Essay (or at least logical organization) by Kenzie Page

posted Mar 7, 2018, 2:42 PM by Writing Center

Outlines are not for everyone. Drafting an outline prior to writing can feel restrictive to certain writers. When feeling particularly inspired or passionate, some people prefer to just begin writing their ideas, and figure out the organization later.  Some writers may use colorful maps or bubbles to organize their thoughts. Some writers prefer to start at the beginning with a hook and write chronologically, others like to craft an introduction paragraph only after the rest of the essay is complete. Some writers use notecards for planning.  While everyone has their own writing process, effective structure does not just miraculously materialize.

In grade school, most writers learn the five-paragraph essay format.  In this format, there is a three-pronged thesis statement that contains the main points or arguments of the essay.  These points then correspond to the three body paragraphs which begin with clear topic sentences.  The final paragraph is the conclusion.  While a bit elementary, this structure enables the writer to articulate and the reader to predict what each paragraph is about and how it supports the thesis.  I’m noticing that this basic foundation of a paper is being lost as people develop in their education. 

At the college level, writers can and should attempt to break free of the five-paragraph format, but clear organization is still needed.  During consultations, before reading an essay aloud, I like to have writers verbally explain what each paragraph is about.  As they speak, I jot down the main point of the paragraph and the type of supporting evidence in the margins of the paper.  Answering the q
uestion “what is this paragraph about?” proves to be surprisingly difficult for many writers, especially with lengthy research essays.  When you have a 15 page research essay on the importance of space exploration, all the paragraphs can just blur into being about space exploration.  Without clear organization, writers may find themselves at risk of repeating ideas, getting off topic, or leaving readers craving more explanation.  Sometimes the supporting evidence does not match the claim of the paragraph.  These errors can be prevented through organization prior to writing, be it outlining or otherwise. 

To be honest, I used the basic idea of the five-paragraph essay for all of my undergraduate and graduate papers and it served me well. Obviously, I did not turn in 15 page research papers that were five paragraphs, but the overall concept remains. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence that directly connects to the thesis. I always create an outline before writing that contains my thesis, topic sentences, and placement of supporting evidence or quotes.  When I sit down to begin typing, I know exactly where my paper is headed. My favorite types of consultations are those where I get to brainstorm with writers and then assist in the logical organization of ideas.  Even creative pieces need structure.   When feeling stuck, sometimes reverting back to the five-paragraph format can be helpful, even if it is just a starting point.  In a world full of chaos, at least our writing should have structure. 

What Are We Doing Here? by Tim Buchanan

posted Feb 28, 2018, 3:07 PM by Writing Center

The number one question of any writing consultant in a given session is going to be What do I do? As part of my recent writing center training, I was asked what we as consultants should be doing for writers. Should we be teaching technique, remediating points of style and grammar, providing moral support, steering the writer in a conventional direction, supplementing normal writing instruction?  And it’s a good question. In response to the multiplicity of options for what we should be doing in our capacity as writing consultants, the only answer I can give is yes.

I see the primary––though not solitary––role of the writing consultant as a navigator of contexts. We start from the question What brings you to the writing center? and from there begin to place the writer in a series of flexible contexts––are they a student, a professional, writing for an assignment, writing for a promotion, writing for personal pleasure, is English their first language––that will help inform our understanding of the writer’s needs. Those needs will necessarily vary from remedial help, to focused teaching on specific concepts, to general support of their ability to achieve success beyond the level they find themselves at, and more. It is important to know whether they were instructed to come by a professor/superior or if they came of their own interest in writing development. A writer instructed to come to us may feel resistant to the help we offer, or they may have low self-esteem about their ability.

What they know or how they feel about the writing center should be taken into account in our approach to the session. The writer may feel defensive or uninterested in developing further. Worst of all, they may have the impression that being sent to the writing center is a kind of punishment, a sign that they are a “bad” writer. What we do as navigators of context is bring the writer to a place of perspective on their approach to writing. Whatever we do––cheerleading, instructing, guiding, questioning––re-contextualizes the writing moment for the writer. The writing consultant then should be aware of how they are impacting and orienting each writer that comes to them. In this way, the role of writing consultant should remain unspecific and open to possibility, able to shift according to the writer and the individual needs of a session.

Another question posed in the same training module was For whom are we doing all of this? and, of course, Why? My answer is similarly open in that we come to the writing center for a variety of reasons, not all of which are purely altruistic or wholly self-centered. I might reframe the question to ask who (or what) does the writing center serve, to which I would risk grandiosity to say, in the end, everyone. If the purpose of a writing center is as Stephen North says––and I have always believed it is––“to produce better writers not better writing,” (438)  then I say the writing center is serving whatever community is improved by increasing the quality of its writers, which is to say all communities. This is admittedly a grandiose statement, and one that is difficult to make explicitly, but if we are truly determined to make better writers we are by necessity not focusing on one particular writer or population of writers. We are not focusing on those writers’ teachers––who we in some cases are. We are not focusing on ourselves, who inevitably learn as we guide, teach, and support.

The why of it all may yet be the most grandiose part: making writers better will make the world better. If we help improve a writer’s ability to communicate through writing, we are by extension aiding others in their ability to understand this individual. If we extend this condition outward to the largest possible group of writers then we have helped whole communities understand one another, and those communities to understand other communities, until we have a world that is better able to understand itself. This is dramatic in scope, and may suggest that I have an unrealistic view of the power of the writing center. So be it. The romantic notion that writing centers everywhere persist in the attempt is appealing to me.

Of course the we evoked here is meant to be understood as the collective idea of the writing center. Each one of us comes to the writing center as consultants for our own reasons, although I see us ultimately fulfilling the same end. For my part, I do honestly love this work. My earliest assignments as an undergraduate doing work study in the Writing Center at Western Michigan University ignited my passion for teaching. In turn, teaching has made me yearn for the close collaboration of a writing center consultation. My love for writing center consulting may be a selfish thing in that, much more than teaching, I feel myself making a difference for those writers who come.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433-446

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