Writing Center Blog

Growing Your Creative Self by Nanette Rasband Hilton

posted Oct 19, 2017, 3:42 PM by Writing Center

While crouched under the morning sun pruning my scorched rose bed, I wondered how the plants had survived the mid-June heat.  The Vegas Valley had reached 117 degrees, setting a new record.  These temperatures, combined with the arid conditions of the Mojave Desert, may cause you to wonder how roses can even grow in such a place.  But they do.  They thrive—given enough water and sunshine. Thanks, in part, to the abundant Vegas sunshine, I have roses for both Easter and Thanksgiving table centerpieces—big blooms of rich red, bubblegum pink, sun kissed yellow and romantic lavender creating a full spectrum of color and an intoxicating scent. But I wouldn’t have them without water. 

We may, at times, feel as desolate as a desert trying to tap into our well of creativity. Those moments can be tempered with hope and perseverance by reflecting on the lesson offered by my roses. 

American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great student and proponent of nature.  He said that “heaven and earth becomes part of [our] daily food….Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind….and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.” Depression is often linked to a lack of creativity.  In the treatment of depression, sunlight and time outdoors are fundamental medicines.   A Norwegian study proved that patients’ mental health improved when they spent time gardening  and, similarly, a study done in the United Kingdom proved that “green exercise,” (physical activity done while exposed to nature) alleviates depression and stress.  Just like roses, we all need sunshine to bloom.

And when things get just too hot to bear—and they will—remember to quench your thirst!  Seriously, water is a pick-me-up.  Next time you’re feeling droopy and wishing for some inspiration, get yourself a drink of water.  WATER.  Drinking water and creativity are intricately related.  Our brain is made up of  85% water, and brain function depends on having plenty of it.  Water actually provides our brains with energy, better than any other substance, according to Dr. Corinne Allen, founder of the Advanced Learning and Development Institute.  Allen says that “When your brain is functioning on a full reserve of water, you will be able to think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity.”  While sipping, reflect (preferably while sitting outside or looking out a window).  Ask: What makes me feel refreshed? Emerson maintains that “The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again.  In their eternal calm, he finds himself.”  Make a date with nature a part of your daily routine. 

Our regular routines offer lots of opportunity for moments of creative genius.  Just as roses love a shower, so does your creative self.  Dr. Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist researching creativity, attributes people’s imagination to the level of dopamine in their systems. Research has proven that activities like taking a shower release dopamine, a.k.a. creative fuel, into our brains.  That’s why so many people get their best ideas in the shower.  Water really does make things bloom, even our creativity.  A relaxed state of mind is essential to being creative.  Activities like showers, listening to music, falling asleep, exercising, driving a familiar route or any other “brainless” activity can be the empty space necessary for cultivating creativity.  Albert Einstein reported getting his best ideas while pedaling his bicycle. 

Nurture your creative genius with real-life tactics like green-activities, drinking more water and prioritizing time and place for mental relaxation.  Then, expect a bountiful harvest.

On Writing: Emails, Emails, Emails by Dylan Fisher

posted Oct 16, 2017, 3:33 PM by Writing Center

I spend a lot – I'll repeat: A LOT – of time writing, reading, and responding to emails. In part, this is because I'm an exceptionally slow writer and reader. But, for the most part, it’s because I take emailing very seriously. Though I have peers who find my devotion to the Email strange or amusing or even wasteful, I believe, wholeheartedly, that emailing (much like creative writing or painting or cinematography, the list goes on and on) is a craft that can and should be developed over time.

Others, too, are beginning to take emails more seriously. Email exchanges from novelists, politicians, journalists, and business executives, much like the letters of yore, are now being published in journals and magazines. Major institutions are clamoring to buy the email archives from some of our greatest literary stars. In 2014, the Harry Ransom Center (in Austin, Texas) purchased Ian McEwan's literary archive, including 17 years of emails, for two million dollars. A quick search in Google gives many similar examples.

And while it might seem as if our entire email system may soon be replaced by the next, new, sparkling, flashing, will-bring-you-closer-to-your-friends-and-coworkers-than-ever-before social media platform, the fact remains that emailing is more pervasive in our day to day interactions than ever before. There are approximately 3.7 billion email users worldwide and 269 billion emails sent every day. Compare that with Twitter’s mere 303 million daily tweets. Or the scant 200.4 million pieces of First-Class mail processed and delivered each day. 

The bad news: Research shows that many of our emailing habits are not necessarily healthy ones. The good news: Recognizing that email isn't going anywhere, we can begin to understand and think about how, when, and why we use it.

There are a number of resources with tips and tricks on composing an effective email, with particular attention to addressing employers and professors. These are often useful and sometimes funny. Their recommendations to include an informative subject line and consider the appropriate salutation and valediction are, at least for the now, perennial. (Remember, of course, that these are simply guidelines, are not universal.) These resources deserve mention and reading, but rarely do they answer the less pressing, more gnawing, questions about what it means to sit down, type out an email, and click that unforgiving send button.

So, again, ultimately, why does emailing matter? Why should we care?

Because, like much of what we write, our emails are (semi)permanent records of who we are. Though we may delete them, casting them, casually, away, there is a good chance they are still floating around someone else's inbox. And while the email’s digital aspect might give us a comforting sense of impermanence, our emails are, in fact, very enduring. (This is why it is so difficult to believe Jonathan Safran Foer's claim of having "lost virtually all of [his] correspondence" with Natalie Portman, the orphaned excerpts of which were published in The New York Times’s T Magazine.)

Because we want to be heard (read: read) and understood, and it's incredibly easy for a given recipient to check a box, to click delete, to dismiss us.

And because, while emails should be taken seriously, they don’t need to be serious, should not cause us stress. Rather they should be taken as an opportunity to rejoice. For even in the most structured, formal email is an opportunity to discover the humanity and creativity possible in the written word.

Writing with an Accent by Daynee Rosales

posted Oct 11, 2017, 12:46 PM by Writing Center

I immigrated to the United States as a pre-teen, and for a very long time I struggled with establishing authority in a language that was not originally mine. I think that self-consciousness is normal for second language speakers. When I was first learning English, I was full of questions and anxieties: did I use the right verb tense in _____ conversation? What is the plural for this noun? Who on earth is Smokey the Bear?? There was so much about English and American culture that did not make sense to me, and having an accent did not make it any easier. Even once I figured out who that bear character was, I pronounced it Smo-kee deh ber, and if I was asked to write it out, I would do it the way it sounded in my head: Smoki deber. The more I read and wrote, the better I got: Smokie the bear. Still, it took a long time to get it just right. My teachers marked my papers so heavily it looked like the pages were bleeding, and I was so overwhelmed by their comments that I rarely made it past the first page and shut down.

 The process of learning a new language can be very difficult and disheartening, but a little encouragement goes a long way. This is something very important to keep in mind for instructors and Writing Center consultants working with ESL learners. I try to remember my own experiences with learning a new language in order to approach writing with sensitivity and openness.

 When in a consultation with a second language speaker, I ask myself the following questions:

Do they seem nervous about the consultation?

Are they prepared for our meeting?

Do they understand the assignment they’ve been given?

What are their specific concerns regarding their piece of writing?

What are their professor’s concerns with their writing?

I praise them for things their paper is doing well. And then, when I see things I don’t understand, I ask a lot of questions and suggest solutions.

It’s important to accept that ESL writers might write with an accent (the manner in which they speak). It is also important to understand that learning grammar takes time, and writing academic papers without an accent takes even longer. At the Writing Center, our consultations are only forty-five minutes. As so, it makes no sense to spend our entire consultation on a grammar lesson if the paper will have one or two massive rewrites in the future. That time is better spent on other aspects of the client’s writing, such as their thesis or their claims.

 We consultants are not proofreaders. We’re here to aid clients in the writing process, not put the finishing touches on a house that’s not yet built.

 A frequent metaphor that Gina (our great and fearless leader) uses at the Writing Center is that of the house: if you have a shaky foundation, how do you expect the walls and roof to stay up? Why should you worry about the paint when the walls are barely standing in place?

 Grammar is not the foundation of a client’s house, and as long as the paint is not eating away through the walls like some wild and mutant acid, it can probably wait.

Will no one think of the students? A call for shorter sentences by Nadia Eldemerdash

posted Oct 11, 2017, 12:05 PM by Writing Center

When I think back to my time at graduate school, most of what I remember is related to my thesis; writing it, reading it, staking out professors’ offices in my desperation for feedback. When I wasn’t poring over my thesis, I was squinting at journal articles from the 1970s and ‘80s, published and printed in that punishingly small font (you know the kind I’m talking about), the ink so dark smaller letters look like smudges on the page.

I developed a lot of resentment for those articles over the course of my graduate education, not so much because of the squinting (although that certainly didn’t help) but because more often than not, they were written in a style that seemed deliberately obtuse: dense, page-long paragraphs crammed with sentences nearly as long, laden with multi-syllabic jargon and little context. It was as if the authors did not want me to follow the conversation, and were indeed hoping I wouldn’t. I could picture them in my mind’s eye, cackling at me from their post-retirement offices: “You think getting into grad school makes you smart, huh? Let’s see you follow this seven-line sentence!”

When I finally finished graduate school I thought that was behind me, but no. As a Writing Consultant, I’ve seen too many (i.e., at least one) people bring in writing that mimics this style. It’s understandable, because as a writer it is only natural to take inspiration from the kind of writing you admire. As academics, we naturally look to the scholars whose ideas we borrow for tips on how to present those ideas as well. But just because Dr. J.J. Johnson is the foremost expert on astrophysics in the world doesn’t mean we should be taking writing advice from her.

The point of writing – any writing – is to transfer information from one person to another. Writing that doesn’t achieve that objective has failed. You don’t get credit for using big words and complex sentences if that basic goal hasn’t been achieved. Even if the purpose is to demonstrate that you understand what those big words mean (and sometimes it is), if I, as a reader, don’t understand that you understand, then that goal hasn’t been achieved.

It can sometimes seem that using big words where small ones would do just as well or cramming an idea into one long sentence instead of breaking it up into smaller ones makes us seem smart. But again, if the reader can’t understand what your overall message is, whether you are smart or not is a moot point. What good is being smart, after all, if I can’t understand you well enough to appreciate it?

This is something I have had to work on myself as a writer. I still find myself mimicking those painful articles sometimes, not because I am trying to sound smart necessarily, but because I’m trying to express a complex idea without taking the reader into consideration. Instead of asking myself what the reader needs to know to understand my point, I’m focused on myself and what I already know. I can follow a four-line sentence as a writer because I know what I’m saying – the reader doesn’t. Even if the reader knows exactly what I know about this topic, they are not in my mind and they can’t follow my train of thought.

If you’re interested in academia and research, over time you will find your writing style morphing to more closely resemble that of your discipline. That’s normal, and shows that you are paying attention to your colleagues and to the work being produced in your field. You’ll start to aim your writing at an audience with a higher knowledge base, and your language and style will reflect that. But as you write, please think of the poor students. Think of them, hunched over in their dark little rooms, the light from their laptops the only thing illuminating the tiny, tiny font your paper has been published in.

Then, for the love of all that is holy, put a period where you are and start another sentence.

First Loves and Rough Drafts, or Rough Loves and First Drafts by Kevin Sebastian

posted Sep 28, 2017, 8:07 AM by Writing Center

Finishing a rough draft of an essay is much like falling in love. We are dazzled by its beauty and intelligence. We treat it as if it were perfect and flawless, thus cultivating this idea that nothing must be wrong with it and that nothing should be changed. Most importantly, we see ourselves in it—these are our thoughts, our ideas expressed on paper, so we are in a sense, reflected in it—much like when we see similar personality traits in someone we love. Your Tinder profile picture has an adorable shih-tzu in it, so you must be a dog person like I am! [Proceeds to swipe right.]

What then results from this initial rush of happiness? Usually, we are blinded by that same dazzle that we don’t see the red flags (Those incessant, non-stop texts we receive all day asking where we are, what we’re doing, we explain to our friends, just show how much they like us, not that they’re possessive or clingy or unhinged.). We say that our thesis can’t be weak because it absolutely makes sense to me. These ideas don’t need clarification. Sentence fragment? Where? What happens is that we become deeply invested in our relationship with this draft, and so who cares if he drives a motorcycle without a helmet, mom?

Before we know it, we’re in a loveless relationship, wherein smoking a cigarette and ironing his shirts while watching Investigation Discovery is the highlight of our day. Wait—we’re talking about writing drafts. Yes, before we know it, we’ve submitted that same rough draft, unchanged because we’re so convinced of its flawlessness, and our professor returns it marked with an abundance of red.

So try not to fall deeply, madly, dangerously in love with him—I mean, with your draft. Evaluate it. Ask your friends to look at it. Visit the Writing Center. Judge your work objectively. And most importantly, revise.

Of course, I am being facetious. Falling in love with a person is not like falling in love with your draft. After all, you’re not responsible for the creation of the person you fall in love with, but you are indeed responsible for willing to being the words and sentences that form your draft. However, the analogy can be a useful one. Take it from a bitter, love-jaded person who is definitely not me: don’t fall in love too quickly—especially with your draft (or, more appropriately, especially a person). But if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung who wrote, “If you go to thinking, take your heart with you. If you go to love, take your head with you. Love is empty without thinking, thinking hollow without love.”

Falling in love is not cerebral, but employing a little critical-mindedness is good, whereas writing is cerebral, but it cannot be fully devoid of emotion—perhaps even of that most mysterious of feelings: love.

Personal Statement Tips (psst, they're not autobiographies) by ArianaTuriansky

posted Sep 27, 2017, 5:29 PM by Writing Center

Being a college student offers lots of opportunities to apply for graduate school, jobs, scholarships, and internships. Most of these opportunities will require an application of sorts and a cover letter or personal statement. 

Personal statements are tricky little things. You often won’t have enough allotted space (or words) to write your autobiography. You will often be submitting a resume or CV that also provides information about you. So what goes into a personal statement? How do you present your best self and get the position or opportunity you’re applying for?

Depending on what you are applying for, you may be asked to describe your achievements, interests, experience, reasons for choosing the job/program/etc., and more. From here you might ask, “how do I choose which achievements, which interests, which reasons,” and that is where The Writing Center comes in. 

Often, I consult with writers who have fallen into the trap of writing their autobiography in their personal statement. After all, there are so many things that made you the person you are and led you to this application! But think about the manager or committee (or consultant!) reading your statement. Do they need to know everything to get a sense of your background and personality, or do they just need to hear about certain jobs, certain experiences, and a few skills? Probably the latter. If you think of the personal statement as a movie trailer, it becomes easy to see that you, as the audience, only get snippets of the movie -- the ones that will make you want to go see it. Your writing works the same way! Show the qualities that will make your reader (audience) call you in for an interview (go see the movie).

You can also think of first impressions. We can usually gather a good bit of information from a brief interaction with a stranger. Your statement is this brief interaction, so write about your most outstanding or impressive moments, personality traits, or experiences and leave the rest for your real autobiography.

Another challenge that I see writers encounter is the overuse of pathos in their statements. The personal statement is, at the end of it all, a professional document, and it should reflect this. Think of the statement as a balance of emotional and professional skills or reasons for pursuing the position that you are interested in. While readers want to see that you are human, they also want to see concrete evidence of your commitment to the program or position. This might require a reduction in the emotional description of how you coped with your dog’s death, for example, and increased information about the skills that make you the best candidate for the veterinary medicine program. You want to talk-up your positive accomplishments and provide a bit more information about them than your resume provides.

Stylistically, don’t try to show off your vocabulary or sound overly intellectual. Often, this isn’t how you would naturally write or speak, and readers will recognize this. The same advice goes for being overly casual. Don’t address your reader as you would a friend; it will undermine your professionalism. Stand out; be yourself! This includes avoiding common or cliché phrases that your reader might see in all of the personal statements, and thus become bored. Everybody has passion for X, Y, or Z subject. Everybody will be dedicated to their work. Don’t be everybody!

Set up a consultation at The Writing Center for more information on drafting effective cover letters. Remember, we also consult on all kinds of professional documents including resumes, grant work, proposals, etc. I hope to see you soon!

Why We Don't Proofread Grammar by Kayla Dean

posted Sep 27, 2017, 5:00 PM by Writing Center

The biggest myth behind writing that I have to debunk on a daily (hourly?) basis is that grammar is the only aspect of writing that ever needs to be improved. Maybe it’s because people are so sure that they learned everything they needed in secondary school. But writing has many moving parts, and that makes it challenging.

 Let me take a detour to show you what I mean. Most of the writers I run into in the Writing Center fall into two types: the overconfident and the pessimists. The first group is assured that whatever they wrote in that first draft is final. To this writer, peer review or tutoring is an exercise in futility. They’re sticking to their story, and the only possible change to the paper will be the placement of a comma. Then there’s the other camp, filled with writers who don’t think they’re writers, who believe anything they write is the worst thing a consultant’s eyes have ever beheld. They are so embarrassed, in fact, that they don’t believe any of their revisions are even worth considering.

 While pessimists don’t stand behind a word that they write, an overconfident writer attempts to take control of the consultation by asking for a grammar check. The problem? We don’t offer this service, and here’s why:

  •  You don’t learn if we just markup your paper.
  •  You won’t be able to edit  your own work on the job.
  •  You’re closing off avenues and opportunities to improve your writing and potentially your grade.
  •  It’s not what consultants do.


We want you to be a self-sufficient writer, and it’s a disservice if we only proofread your paper. Luckily, there’s another way besides overconfidence or pessimism. When you come to the Writing Center, show up with an open mind. These are our favorite consultations. We love working with students who genuinely want to improve their thesis statements, organization, flow, and structure. 

If you are looking for proofreading, download Grammarly. It’s a Chrome plugin that also works with Microsoft Word. The software is more accurate than a generic spell checker, and it catches those errors while also explaining them. That’s the key word: explanation. We want you to understand the reasoning, but not at the expense of developing writing skills.

Let’s circle back to the the myth that grammar is what makes up good writing. Quite simply, it’s not true because writing at its core is about conveying ideas. Yes, we want to do that beautifully and error-free, but in-depth, critical thinking is where that eloquence begins. We aren’t born good writers, but thinking deeply and analytically about subjects is the first step to learning how to translate ideas to paper. You can’t take that journey if you’re only concerned with punctuation.

 If you are in the business to improve your grammar:

  •  Review our handouts.
  • Come prepared with a specific question.
  •  Use Grammarly.
  • Hire a proofreader.
  • Google it.
Next time you’re at the Writing Center, don’t treat your consultant like a spell checker. We’re happy to work with you, but you have to show up with an open mind. After all, the path towards great writing starts with reading, thinking, and the willingness to revise.

What Does a Consultant Do? by Greg Cannioto

posted Sep 27, 2017, 4:36 PM by Writing Center

Those who work in the Writing Center get called many things: tutor, editor, consultant; consulting is the closest term to what we actually do, but what does that really mean? In many cases, a job title describes what someone does, but I find as a consultant that it’s more indicative of what we don’t do. We aren’t tutors, as writers who come to the Writing Center should already be familiar with the concepts we go over. We aren’t editors, as we don’t proofread or make direct changes to papers. One could start to think we came up with our title by process of elimination, but I think consultant remains a particularly apt term. We don’t edit or tutor or proofread; we consult. We impart our experience on individuals, not just the work they bring in. In fact, an ideal consultation will focus more on the writer’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the author can improve their writing, than on any one essay or story an author brings to the Writing Center.

Conceptually, I think of the consultant position the same way I think of psychology. In the field of psychology, there are two major client-driven positions: the psychologist and the psychiatrist. The psychologist uses his or her knowledge of the human mind to analyze and improve the mental health of the patient. They do this with words and actions, and ideally they can cure mental health problems, and foster healthy ways of thinking, all through what they have been taught and learned through years of experience. The consultant is the same way, they too try to foster proper writing habits and improve the overall strength of the writer’s skills, and thus their writing. The consultant works from a top-down approach, and looks more at the bigger picture. Back to the analogy of psychology, the psychiatrist also works to improve the mental health of their patients. In this regard, they can prescribe medicine to target specific issues that a patient might have. Alternatively, they might try to use a single type of medication that effects the whole brain, blanketing every issue with a single fix. Tutors or editors can focus on what they see as specific issues and change them, with proofreaders often not even working with the author, but making changes independent of them. In these cases, medicine and the editing of papers is more focused on specifics instead of the big picture. Of course, the metaphor isn’t perfect, as anyone who spends a lot of time in a Writing Center could easily claim the consultants are the ones who should be on medication. It’s a real case of the patients running the system.

At any rate, there isn’t a perfect definition of what makes a consultant a consultant, and every Writing Center is different, but we all aspire to the improvement of the writer over the single paper. After all, who cares about getting an A on one paper if you can learn how to get an A on all your papers? We also recognize, similar to both psychologists and psychiatrists, that every writer operates on a case-by-case basis, and there is no script or book that works every time. We aren’t telemarketers who say the same practiced lines day in and day out, (or we shouldn’t be) but one writer working with another writer, and using our experience as a peer to recognize aspects both strong and weak writing. We see the same strengths and weaknesses we see in our own papers, and we can use this recognition to improve the writing of those we consult with, but also with a bit of self-reflection our own writing.

10 Myths About the Writing Center by Dr. Gina M. Sully

posted Sep 19, 2017, 2:23 PM by Writing Center

Howdy, Folks!

Well, we’re back in Dayton South Residence Hall on Mondays & Wednesdays from 4:00 until 8:00 PM this semester. You can also find us on Monday and Tuesday evenings, from 5:00 until 9:00 PM on the second floor of Lied Library in the back with the Academic Success Center. And, we’ve expanded our Sunday hours, too! We now open at 10:00 AM on Sundays, and we’re open until 6:00 PM.

Our workshop schedules are up, too. You can pre-register for any of our workshops by clicking on the Workshops tab above.

Now that the semester is underway, I’m hearing the same old misconceptions about what we do for writers at the Writing Center. So, this time around, I want to debunk some of the misconceptions and get the facts out to you all. Here you go . . .

MYTH #1: Only bad writers go to the Writing Center.

Actually, some of the best writers on campus come to the Writing Center. We consult with grad students, faculty, and staff. The Writing Center is a valuable resource, free to all members of the UNLV community.

MYTH #2: The Writing Center is staffed only with undergraduates.

Most of our staff are grad students and part-time instructors who teach composition and/or literature at UNLV. Additionally, our Professional Writing Consultant has an MEd in Curriculum & Instruction, and our Assistant Director has an MA in Linguistics. We do have a few talented and knowledgeable undergraduate consultants who undergo the same training in rhetorical theory and practice as the rest of the staff. In fact, any of our consultants can consult on just about anything you throw at them. Come on in and let our experienced, trained instructors and staff help you become a better writer.

MYTH #3: The Writing Center’s consultants work only with specific populations, like freshman taking composition and multilingual writers, or people taking English classes.  

The Writing Center’s trained staff will consult with any member of the UNLV community on any writing task whatsoever. The writing doesn’t even have to be for a class. In fact, the writing doesn’t even have to be for school!

MYTH #4: Writers must have something written to come to the Writing Center.

Nope. They don’t. You don’t have to have written a single word to come to the Writing Center for a consultation. We can help writers at any phase of the writing process. In fact, we can show you strategies to overcome “writer’s block,” or just some ways to get started. You might even leave the consultation with some writing done!

MYTH #5: If an instructor suggests you go to the Writing Center, they’re implying that you’re a bad writer.

If your instructor suggests you come to the Writing Center, you’re not being punished. By suggesting you come to the Writing Center, your instructor is implying that she or he thinks you’re the kind of student who will do what it takes to succeed. If she or he is correct, you’ll come, and you’ll get something out of the consultation that will help you gain more control over your writing. If she or he is incorrect, you’ll come and spend forty-five minutes with a nice person who wants to see you succeed. You’ll probably get something out of it anyway!

MYTH #6: The Writing Center is a “fix-it” shop where writers can find someone to proofread and edit for them.

Our goal at the UNLV Writing Center is to help people become better writers. We’ll show you some strategies for remembering the conventions—and for proofreading more effectively on your own. We won’t proofread or edit for you, but we will help you learn and discover strategies for making more effective authorial choices yourself!

MYTH #7: Writing consultants only work with academic papers.

False. Want to write a letter to an editor? An email to a prospective employer? A love letter that will wow the object of your affection? We can help. The only thing we cannot help you with are legal documents.

MYTH #8: Writers can completely “fix” a paper in one 45-minute consultation.

Usually it takes multiple sessions to read through an essay and discuss the effectiveness of the rhetorical strategies, the organization, and the cogency of the argument, all of which must be considered and revised before proofreading. That means we will go through as much of the paper with you as time allows and look for persistent patterns of error, suggest strategies that can help you find the kinds of errors you make and correct them, and provide personalized supplemental instruction about writing concepts and techniques that can help you more effectively manage your writing tasks.

MYTH #9: Writers can just drop in to the Writing Center and see a consultant.

Unfortunately, from the middle to the end of the semester, you’ll need to book an appointment in advance to work with a consultant at the main Writing Center in CDC-03. While drop-in consultations are sometimes available, you’re better off making an appointment. Writers may have up to three appointments per week.

Drop-in consultations are currently available at our satellite locations in Dayton South and Lied Library. But once we start to fill up, you may need to make an appointment even for the satellites.

MYTH #10: There is no way to get a writing question answered quickly unless you have an appointment.

We have a new service called Quick Questions. If you have a question about writing we can answer in ten or fewer minutes, just drop in and tell the receptionist you have a QQ. You’ll most likely see someone right away!

Keeping it Real: On Crafting an Effective Opening Paragraph by Mike Velez

posted May 3, 2017, 5:24 PM by Writing Center

Over time, I have come to recognize gaffes students sometimes make when writing the opening paragraph of that needlessly feared behemoth: the college essay. I say upfront that some of these suggestions come from a writing instructor’s viewpoint.  File under: writing tips.

Before we begin, the myth that the writer must begin writing with the opening paragraph somehow persists. Should we blame the (in)famous five paragraph model essay™ so often taught in high schools across the land?  This technique does have its advantages, especially if you feel more comfortable starting with the first paragraph.

But no law states that you have to write this way (though some instructors might). If you prefer to start with the conclusion and write your essay backwards in a working draft, who’s to know? Just ensure that your opening paragraph and thesis statement serves as a “roadmap” for the rest of your essay when you go back and revise.

That said, avoid these hazards when planning and drafting your opening paragraph. These suggestions apply to several collegiate writing genres, including the personal essay.

Avoid overly personal or cutesy openings. Note well if you have been tasked with writing a formal essay such as a research paper. Even as you want to get your reader’s attention as quickly and effectively as you can, tie your narrative hook to the requirements of the essay genre.

Imagine writing a research essay that supports controlling the rate of emission of greenhouse gasses; which opener do you think best sets up a nuanced and creditable argument?

  1. ·         I have detested greenhouse gasses as long as I can remember. It symbolizes everything we should hate about late-stage capitalism….
  2. ·         Imagine you are a baby polar bear desperately stuck on the last floe of ice in the Arctic Sea; alone and cold, you wonder where you will find your next meal. Meanwhile, your stomach growls… grrrrrlllll… 
  3. ·         A looming danger exists on the horizon. We can’t see it, but if the bizarre weather patterns of the last several years suggest the future; we will most certainly feel it….

Did you choose the third option? It does not come right out and state “In this essay, I will argue against greenhouse gasses” (you also want to avoid telling your reader what you are writing about- just write it) but it sets up a curiosity in the reader’s mind that will hopefully entice said reader.

The other two beginnings seem less appropriate for a formal essay. The first gets to the point in a fiery denunciation but a little more objective distance from the topic better serves the requirements of a research paper. It might make a great blog post, however. I’d probably upvote it.

The second example draws on pathos a little too much. I have seen variants of the latter example crop up now and again. While not altogether a bad strategy, it’s easy to overdo it. Also, most readers will sense when their emotions are being played to at the expense of a good argument. Pathos can be more effective when you spoon-feed it to your reader.

 Steer clear of lengthy “throat-clearing” beginnings. I once thought this strategy a connivance of lazy, procrastinating writers desiring to pad their word count.

It achieves word count, if nothing else. But it can become a bad habit.

Let’s say you now have to write a literary analysis of Hamlet. You intend to argue that Hamlet initially only pretends to be insane. His unresolved feelings regarding his family, however, eventually lead to genuine psychotic break. 

Ever since the dawn of time, people around the world and in every corner of the globe, have lived and loved, while seeking pleasure in art. These arts include music, poetry, and of course, the written and spoken word. Words. Think of all the words that have appeared in all of the literary works from ancient history to today’s society. It’s crazy when you think about all the great works of art that have helped so many people in so many distant parts of the globe and across space and time….

If this were a movie, it would appear as an extreme long shot so lengthy there wouldn’t time for a plot; the movie might consist of this one shot and then segue to the end credits due to time constraints! I may exaggerate somewhat, but I have read opening paragraphs filled with similar padding, with nary a mention of the literary work at hand.

Having read such an opener, do you know what literary work the essay is meant to address? If it went on like this, would you ever know? Get to the point. Many think Hamlet to be a work of literary and dramatic merit (my take: and endlessly fascinating as well).

However, this lengthy meditation on the power of art is not only off-topic but generally misleading. Should we expect to read on about art or Hamlet? An essay can address both, but both cannot share the single spotlight an essay thesis throws on its topic.

At some point, I began to realize that students write introductions like this not to cynically increase the word count but because they believe that college writing is supposed to look like this. Or, grimmer still, that college instructors expect such florid prose. If so, let me dissuade you as to the latter! I’ll touch on why later in the conclusion.

 When are too many questions simply too many?

How acceptable are rhetorical questions in an essay? Do they detract from your thesis? Can they serve as a thesis statement? Sometimes? Often? And why should we care?

Use questions sparingly. Asking too many questions can seem overly general, off-topic, or even manipulative. My advice: include no more than one rhetorical question per essay. And always answer any question you ask; this is just being fair to your reader.

While more a matter of style, my recommendation would be to eliminate such questions entirely in/from both your opening and concluding paragraphs. It’s tempting to use them to highlight a point by framing it as an answer- on a question your reader hasn’t really asked. Let your writing plant questions in your reader’s mind and let it answer them via clear writing and organization. 

 Hanging your opening paragraph on another’s quote or a definition.

First sentence:

As the great writer Voltaire wrote, “Judge a man by his questions and not by his answers;” according to dictionary.com, a question is defined as “a problem for discussion or under discussion; a matter for investigation.”

This seems a weak strategy to frame your essay along someone else’s ideas or a dictionary definition (does any reader seriously need to have the word “question” defined for them?).

Even more so when placed at the very beginning of your essay? Impress your reader with your observations in the beginning, the middle, and at the end of your essay. You can always include such a quote elsewhere if it supports your stance.

(Some students have told me that their junior high or High School teachers required them to include a quote from a famous person in this way, often in the conclusion. Nonetheless, college academic prose seldom, if ever, requires this).


Take Your Lessons Where You Can

So far, I decided to go with a list of don’ts here. Search around, and you will find many fine lists of positive advice—the do’s—for writing an opening paragraph.

Finally, I will share some advice that an instructor indirectly offered me.

As a newly minted undergraduate, I loved writing but had seldom been all that challenged by my high school English curriculum. My first college English instructor had a youngish, but intense, style. He held everyone accountable.  My first essay came back with numerous, hand-written margin comments. Looking back, it contained solid advice, far more substantial than the few “nice work here!” comments I’d generally found in my high school papers.

But I hadn’t realized that he expected everyone to read and act on this advice. The first paper came back with a comment along the lines of “please get to your point sooner” written in the margin. The next assignment due date came around. I had worked diligently on this second essay, but I didn’t put myself out too much. I certainly hadn’t thought to review the flow because it seemed to work. I thought I had taken into account of all of the comments from draft one.

Do you sense where I’m going with this? A week later, class met again. Essays are passed back. Mine has a red line neatly drawn down and across the first paragraph. No other comments, save for “Please see me during office hours” written across the top. Fairly disconcerted, I showed up at the designated place and time.

He said hi. We talked some. And then, he seemed to apologize and pointed me to a pile of essays piled at the edge of his desk.

“Right now, I got sixty students. I try to give each essay as much time as I can… I ‘d probably read too many essays when I got to yours. You did that long, rambling opening thing again and I just lost patience Revise it and get it back to me. I’ll read it with fresh eyes.”

This is a true story. It doesn’t often happen, I admit. But the point stayed with me: instructors and professors are not grading machines. This one may well love your quirky style while this other one may roll their eyes at it. This one is a stickler for commas, while this other one seems more interested in how closely you followed the instructions. As you go forward, the instructions narrow. Consider your major and season to taste.

You can—and should—expect this. Indeed, prepare for it. Get your prose clear and impeccable so you can deliver what you really want to convey regardless of the instructor’s predilections.

But avoid pushing your instructor’s patience with a weak, misleading, or incomprehensible beginning. When revising that final draft, imagine that yours will be the last in the pile. Your instructor seems fair, but at this point, he or she might be a little tired. They have read about Global Warming for the 22nd time. They have marked and commented final drafts 22nd times. And maybe, all in a row.

And not just on Global Warming. It could be “Why Gun Control is Needed.”

Eventually, depending on your major, it might be “Best Practices in Designing a Network” or “Case Studies in Juridical Malfeasance” or “A Survey of Hotelier Supply Chains.” Etc.

Now, they reach for your essay. They read your title, nod, and move on to the opening paragraph.

Ponder this possible scenario for a moment. Now, re-read your opening paragraph: is this really the best way to draw them in? Are you getting to the point?

If in doubt, consider leaving it out. Perhaps you can use it on the next essay. The more you write, the more ways you will learn to keep it real: to both the assignment as well as to yourself.

Write well and be heard.

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