Writing Center Blog
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Your peers have been
there. Heck, even your professors have been there.
We’ve all been given a task that seems impossible or
inconvenient to do when we much rather attend to the hustle and bustle of our
busy, hectic lives. Having to write an essay or figure out a writing assignment
when you would prefer to attend to your own things can be an awful feeling. To
make matters worse, writing can really
seem impossible when you aren’t sure how to begin doing so. But nothing takes
the cake more than telling yourself you’re bad at it.
In my experience working here at the Writing Center, I
cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard writers preface our session with,
“I’m a bad writer so…I need help”. While it depends on the individual I’m
working with, it’s as if I can almost hear the defeat in their voice. Sometimes
this mentality can go further and harm the individual, and it is seen in their
writing. The draft screams, “I’m not good at this. I don’t really want to do it
anyway, so I’m not going to try”. While I’ll admit at least with this latter
mentality there is an actual physical draft to assess, I understand why for
some students this fear can be paralyzing.
Why should you begin something you’re afraid you’ll fail at?
Why even start if you’re not going to do well? While some of us may not think
these thoughts consciously, there is always a lingering doubt that we might
never attain a certain standard that we’d like to achieve (while on the other
hand, there are some writers who think anything they create is a flawless gift
to humanity...but that’s another story).
I’m here to tell you there is not a thing anyone creates
that does not have a flaw. There are the gifted (our Shakespeares and
Hemingways of the world) and then there’s us. But the thing that we have in
common is that we can always be better. The most important way to ensure that
you get better is to start. It’s easy to get caught up with seemingly more
important things just like it’s easy to procrastinate and avoiding tasks until
they are no longer avoidable. Although it would be nice to hear that you could
get through life easy that way, it just isn’t the truth. But taking the first
step to becoming a better writer is actually an easy one: permission.
You should permit yourself to turn off that voice. That voice that admits defeat before you’ve even gotten a chance to start. That voice that prefaces your abilities with an “I’m not good at this so why even try?” Don’t let being “bad” at something be the rationale that devalues your work. You deserve better. Even though it seems the writing assignments you do won’t affect your life down the road, the mentality you develop now can carry you far. It’s okay to not be the best at something just like it’s okay to want to be better. The most important thing I can advise you to do is to just start.
At once, I am convinced that the writing consultation is unlike anything I have participated in before, and yet, there is not an aspect of it that is unfamiliar. At the risk of sounding reductive, obvious, or trite, the writing consultation is about people. That is to say, for all the tutoring strategy and theory, we sit down to a person. The pretext for the writer and I taking time out of our day to sit together is, more often than not, grammar. But the writing consultation is hardly about grammar, because we simply do not proofread. Instead, contrary to popular belief (or demand), we are committed, as we say, to improving the writer rather than the single piece of writing they visit with.
As I said before, the writing consultation is, personally, a novel experience. I’ve never tutored in a professional capacity before. I feel a unique swell of responsibility for the writer who enters the Writing Center seeking my help. But I am reminded that I’ve helped my sisters’ with all sorts of homework over the years. I’ve discussed interpretations of a professor’s essay prompt with classmates. I’ve trained retail employees in standard operating procedures. I’ve participated in in-class peer editing sessions. I’ve empathized with and eased friends’ anxieties and burdens. All of these experiences are parallel versions of the tutoring experience. The most underlining characteristic is that I’m helping people from a place of genuine caring.
If I have learned anything from my training, it’s that I’m not rebuilding the wheel. I have been training all my life how to interact with people. What’s more, I am still learning. Every single person is a new case study, but I’m not starting over from scratch every time. I’m backed by the sum of my experiences, and suddenly nothing is irrelevant and everything matters. The assignments might be different – the subject matter, the format – but past experience credits my expertise in muddling through. I cannot deny that I have, up to this very moment, coped. The writing process necessitates coping because it demands persistence. It’s ok if we don’t know an answer because we model coping behaviors when we scramble to find the answer. The theory and strategy isn’t provided to replace my own intuition. We interact with people with that standard of awareness and sensitivity to dignities that we owe to every writer. The articles and essays shake loose those subconscious tendencies and instinctual behaviors that I have developed, person after person, case study after case study, and have served to facilitate civil and compassionate human interactions from a place of genuine respect.
My conduct here at the Writing Center, adheres to a principle that foregrounds the dignity of the individual, be it writer, other consultant, or Writing Center administrator. The consultations I provide are not only informed by the expertise I have developed along my own academic path, but also by my intuition, which has its roots in empathy and common-sense, as a life-long learner.
When I first began working for the Writing
Center, I read a series of articles and essays about utilizing non-directive
approaches in tutoring writing. This is heavily emphasized in our training
because the philosophy behind our Writing Center focuses on developing the
writer’s skills instead of merely trying to help a writer pass a course. As I
read the articles, it seemed obvious that it was better to help the writer
learn how to write as opposed to telling them what to write. However, when I
began consultations, I was dismayed to find that this approach was much easier
said than done. I met with writers who spoke very little English and would look
very confused when I tried to illustrate brainstorming strategies or teach
revision techniques. I realized that it was incredibly easy to fall into the
trap of simply telling many of these writer where their errors were and how to
However, after two semesters, I think I may be
starting to make some progress in understanding the reasons for directive and
non-directive approaches in tutoring. Initially, I found it incredibly
difficult to avoid using a directive approach with ESL students who had very
little grasp of the foundational elements of English. Students would visit with
assignments dealing with complex arguments, while they were still learning the
basic elements of grammar and sentence structure. I struggled to help these
students without giving them the answers. Over time, I began to realize that
the only way any real learning happens is if a teacher is willing to meet a
student where they are.
To put it simply, an approach to tutoring should
focus less on fulfilling a theoretical framework of directive or non-directive
and more on the needs of the student in that moment in time. This does not mean
that a tutor should tell a student what to fix or revise, but it does mean that
a tutor should be willing to guide the student both directly and indirectly.
Sometimes this means being willing to correct a paragraph or a section of the
paper so as to illustrate techniques for improving writing. Sometimes this
means pointing out an error and explaining it clearly before asking the student
to find similar errors in their writing. Tutoring in this way requires a
flexible approach that emphasizes creativity and intuition.
This may sound vague or abstruse but it is
actually quite simple. This is simply thinking in terms of what will most
effectively develop the student as a writer. Sometimes that means not getting
caught up in whether the approach is directive or nondirective. Each approach
has its purpose and place. A student who has little understanding of sentence
structure may need a more directive approach and more practice understanding
what effective sentences contain. A student with decent grammar but weak ideas
may need a less directive approach and tips on how to think more deeply about
an issue. It is important to be mindful of what approach you take as you work
with students, but it is not more important than the immediate needs of the
student, which are usually much deeper than the assignment in front of them.
This is the real difficulty in tutoring writing
at a University: prioritizing the needs of the student over the needs of the
assignment. We must remember that we are developing better writers and not
better grades. Whether this requires you to be direct or indirect is of lesser
I am grateful for the opportunity to learn these lessons and to share them with others. May you all have a wonderful semester.
in essay writing is a common challenge among developing writers. While there
are various approaches and exercises available in helping you improve your organization
(many of them utilized here at the Writing Center), one that might be worth considering
is thinking of your essay as a story.
Once upon a time there lived three
There is a likely chance that you’ve read or heard this classic tale or similar versions at some point in your life. Three little pigs are confronted by a wolf that keeps trying to blow their structurally unsound homes down, one by one. Likewise, you might have also seen this graphic at some point in your academic life:
This is Fretytag’s pyramid. It is the basic structure of a plot-driven story. There is the exposition where time, place, characters, and motivations are introduced. This exposition precedes the rising action, full of conflict and a buildup of continual, stakes-increasing events to get to the climax. The climax is the highest point of conflict and the turning point in the story. What follows is the falling action to tie up all those lose ends, so that readers can finally reach the denouement, a resolution of the protagonist’s conflict, whether good or bad. All of this, of course, moved along the entire time by the plot.
does this apply to essay writing and organization?
Think of your essay as a story. Your introduction functions similarly to the exposition, providing the reader with the basic information needed to comprehend the content. It prepares them for what to expect throughout the entire essay. It can be difficult to get invested in a story where you don’t have a clue what’s going on from the start. A reader can lose interest or become confused without being informed of the place, settings, and characters, just as an unclear, overly broad introduction can make your essay less effective.
Also, keeping in mind the flow of the rising action, climax, and falling action can help you with staying focused on your thesis and grouping together the subtopics in your body paragraphs. Often, the points you are making in an essay should build upon each other, like the rising action, until reaching the highest point of defense for your thesis. Highest point, sounds like the climax, right? If you’re writing an argument paper, this would be the point in which a conflicted reader might seriously start to consider supporting your stance; or, if you’re writing a rhetorical analysis, this is when your observations would appear the most valid.
Any body paragraphs that parallel the falling action can vary in content. They
could address topics such as opposing arguments and their counter arguments, or
fill in any details of research that you have yet to present, and even further
elaborate on what you already have. Coupled with your conclusion, these last few paragraphs help give your reader a sense
of satisfied resolution while leaving little room for them to poke holes in
improving organization is largely about staying focused on the prompt, your thesis,
and the flow of the writing. Are you consistent in what you’re talking about?
Do the “events” of your essay follow each other in a comprehensible arc? What
connects your body paragraphs to each other, and the entire essay to your
thesis? Imagine if the wolf had gone to the pig with the brick house first. The
famous nursery tale would probably be considerably shorter and not as memorable
as the original. So, the next time you’re stuck with where to go in your
writing, think about it as a story. What story are you trying to tell, and what
do you need to happen in the plot to get to the end?
“Not so fast!” this blog yells to you like a narrator from an after-school special. There’s no need to despair, because even if you can’t (and shouldn’t) write the exact same essay as the one you just found, you don’t have to throw away what you’ve considered so far. There’s so many options available.
· Find a contrary article and compare and contrast it with the one you’ve found.
· Find several similar articles and synthesize the information into one combined summary.
· Channel that desperation into a critique of the author, it may not feel great, but you could always flip sides and write an essay critical of the existing perspective.
· Write a similar essay, using the same idea, but approach it from a different perspective. If the existing article focused your thesis through a Marxist lens, maybe look at things from a Feminist perspective. You may have the same initial reactions as the existing essay, but your interpretation may provide something very different.
“But I really like the perspective I had already! Why was everything I want to write about already written years ago?” you pout, already starting to give in to utter despair. Well there might be a few options for that too.
· Look at the date on that article. Is it from 1980? That means you have 37 more years of new information that the author didn’t. Use the author as a resource, and make sure to give the author all the proper credit they require as the published author, but if they haven’t followed up the article after all that time, that gives you the opportunity to continue working within the same framework. Academia is built upon adding to existing discussion.
· Flip the timeline. Okay, so you’ve read the author’s essay and they’re hitting every point that you were. People love this essay; it’s completely revolutionized the subject in the years since it’s been published. So then, what were things like before? If this article from 1980 changed the field forever, then there probably was a field to change. If you read some articles published before this one, you may be able to write an in-depth analysis of the field before and after this essay was published, especially since you had such a similar idea to the author’s.
So don’t despair. If you already have an interest in something, and especially if you have started your research, it’s wasteful to just throw away what you’ve prepared so far. Don’t give up on what could be an A paper, or an invigorating new addition to your field, just because you weren’t the first one to type your ideas. There’s nothing wrong with starting over, but make sure you’ve examined the other possibilities available to you.
I’d like to thank all of you who visited the Writing Center during our record-setting Fall 2016 semester. We served over 5,000 writers last semester, and we saw an almost 350% increase in workshop attendance! Still, we had to turn away over 1,000 writers due to lack of space and staff. So, we’ve come up with some ways to try to see more UNLV writers, and we have some unusual and exciting opportunities for UNLV writers this semester.
First, we are doubling our Online Writing Lab (OWL) intake and are now accepting up to six papers per day. Click on the link above to learn more or to submit a document for consultation.
Second, we will be opening our Undergraduate Engineering Satellite in the HRH College of Engineering for 20 hours per week beginning in the middle of February. If you’re an Engineering undergrad, watch your Rebelmail box for the announcement and information about how to meet with Jesse.
STEM undergrads might also be interested in our workshops for the NEXUS-UROP research scholarship competition. Here’s a link to the application and flier. Watch your Rebelmail inbox for details about the workshops, each of which will be held twice to accommodate student schedules. The first will be held on February 8 & 9; the second, February 22 & 23; and the third on March 1 & 2.
Third, we have expanded our general workshop offerings again, and we will offer 51 workshops open to any active member of the UNLV and OLLI communities. Unfortunately, we are not yet positioned to be able to work with alumni, but that’s on our to-do list for Fall 2018. Click here to see the schedule and workshop descriptions or to register for a workshop.
To our general workshop series we’ve added some workshops specifically for multilingual writers, including “Quoting, Summarizing, and Paraphrasing for Multilingual Writers.” Of course, these workshops would benefit any writer, and everyone is welcome.
Fourth, in addition to expanding our general workshops, we have a full complement of workshops for grad students and faculty, including a four-part Writing for Publication workshop. This series will be streamed to UNR—live. It’s our first cross-state collaboration, and we think it’s pretty exciting!
For the first workshop, “The Ethics of Publication and Ask an Editor,” we have corralled editors from respected journals across the disciplines, including STEM, Social Sciences, Health Sciences, and Liberal Arts. They’ll offer short presentations and answer questions. The second workshop features librarians and bibliometrics experts speaking about “How to Find the Right Journal for Your Work.” In “Revising for Publication,” and “Editing and Proofreading for Publication, the third and fourth workshops, Writing Center consultants will be available to work with writers one-on-one after the presentation. Finally, we’re also offering an open writing lab for those who attend all four workshops on Monday, 6 March 2017. Details and registration under the Workshops tab.
We’re also reprising our collaboration with the Grad College and the University Libraries to bring back UNLV Writes! an open writing lab with mini-workshops for grad students and faculty. Snacks will be provided. And coffee. There will be coffee. This event will be held on Friday, March 17, 2017.
Students in ENG 102 & ENG 114 will have two write-ins to choose from. Short consultations with Writing Center consultants and mini-workshops on different rhetorical points and strategies will be available—but not required. You can just show up for a quiet and relaxed place to write and have a snack. They’re scheduled for April 17 and 18.
Finally, I want to remind you all of our Quick Questions service. If you choose to work in the Writing Center’s Computer Lab (it’s open to everyone), you have access to consultants for answers to any question you have about writing—without an appointment! If a consultant can answer your question in ten or fewer minutes, you’ll get an answer on the spot, no waiting for an appointment or a forty-five minute consultation. We hope to be answering lots of Quick Questions this semester!
Well, I guess that’s about it. If you have any questions, tips, comments, requests, or feedback, please, email us at email@example.com, or call us at 702.895.3908. I’m looking forward to seeing as many of you as I can this semester. And remember—
You can write!
I actually have to read sentences like this as a freshman level composition instructor; I do not care for these sentences. For one, the sentence I’ve provided, isn’t saying much. It’s basically saying that people are as smart now as they were before, even if certain ideas have been explained to them—all that has changed is people are more confident in their beliefs and less concerned with others. The sentence is also needlessly passive, needlessly long, and needlessly verbose. Which sentence would you rather read? The original? Or the paraphrase? Do either amount to much more than a musing?
I most often see these sentences at the beginning of essays. I think I understand this. Students are told they need to hook their reader and they need to establish authority right off the bat. What better way to hook your reader than by establishing authority? What better way to establish authority than trying to sound smart as hell?
But the complex, academic voice that students often try to use isn’t hitting the mark. More often than not, freshman-level students cannot pull off this kind of style. The sentence I provided at the beginning may be confusing, but it is complete, and while it doesn’t mean much, it does mean something. When students try to write this way, more often than not the sentences they write are not complete, and either because of this or regardless of this, they do not mean anything.
Sometimes a student will make this work. I had a student in my class a year back that could pull off a sentence like this every time he tried and he wrote like this just about exclusively. On one hand, I found it remarkable; I certainly was not writing these long form, compound-complex sentences with elevated language when I took English 101. On the other hand, it took me about three to four times as long to grade any of his essays than any of my other students’ essays. Reading his writing was an exercise in unpacking clauses, in keeping track of ideas, and, ultimately, in patience. With that said, this student’s essays did not suffer directly from the time it took me to read them. They suffered from his argument, his point, being lost in a word labyrinth.
My key comment for this student was as follows: strive for clarity of thought over complexity of language. I got this advice from a colleague of mine, though the phrase seems like common enough of an idea that we’ve probably all heard a variation of it. What the advice boils down to is that conveying your ideas is far more important than writing elaborate sentences. As an English 101 and 102 instructor, I’m looking first and foremost to see if my students can effectively construct an argument.
So, to all those students out there who want to wow their instructors with the intricacies of the sentences they can create, I’m asking you to dial it back. For those of you who devour Victorian Literature and philosophical writing and love attempting to replicate the music and magic of those sentences that make you put the book down in your lap and ask “how did they do that?”; for those of you who then feel a visceral joy in being able to craft those sentences on your own, I say: I’m with you. Writing can feel amazing sometimes. But, there is a time and a place for those sentences, and if you don’t throw those sentences into your ENG 101 and 102 essays, you will not forget how to write them. Find the correct avenue and context for those crazy-long and complex sentences and let them loose there.
Just remember that there is nothing inferior about a simple sentence. The measure of a writer is not in how many interrelated clauses he or she can string together before a period. If you can write clear and economical sentences, you can write effective sentences. If your ideas are lost in the words meant to convey them, then they will be lost to the reader.
Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer prize winning novel Gilead, among other gems, spent years working out her Pulitzer winner in her head before engaging in any hard writing. Once she finally sat down to write it though, she finished the novel in eighteen months, which is incredibly fast for a masterpiece.
Now we can’t all be as lucky or as gifted as Robinson, but we can start building an attitude that values soft writing for the sake of our own writing, and, more importantly, for the sake of our mentality about our writing.
I’m the first to kick my proverbial butt for letting another day pass without producing any new pages for my book-in-progress. But what I often forget to acknowledge while beating myself up for failing, yet another day, at being a writer, is how many hours I logged thinking about my stories. Not, of course, simply thinking about what I’ve already written, but how I can make it better, what I can add to it, take away from it.
I need to start giving myself credit for soft writing, and I need to start treating it as something akin to work (notice my hesitation about that statement, even now!), because soft writing does indeed matter. The time I spend thinking about my stories will matter not only when I finally sit down to work on re-writing them, but also because the number one thing that keeps me from writing tomorrow is the fact that I didn’t write today.
As a professional excuse-finder, I’m really skilled at psyching myself out of something long before I even have the chance to do it. It’s easy for me to discourage myself from writing, especially if it’s been several days (or more) since I’ve done so. It’s easy for me to start thinking negatively of my capabilities as a writer the longer I’ve kept myself from doing it.
Over time, I’ve come to see that life often gets in the way of writing, but I’m only beginning to notice when I get in my own way. It’s my own negative thinking, above all else, that gets in the way of my writing. And this negative thinking manifests itself in many ways, from beating myself for not having written anything for a long time to instantly criticizing the words that make it onto the page.
I need to find ways to give myself a break as much for the sake of my writing as for the sake of my mental health. And one of the ways to do this is to give myself credit for the soft writing I’ve done on a given day, including the thoughts I’ve had about my stories, the brainstorming on paper, the online research, and on and on. I need to start acknowledging the benefit to stepping away from the page and gathering the tools I need to return to it, better prepared than before.
You may ask yourself, why should I learn to analyze a text? What practical purpose does that serve? In college, I had a hard time writing essays for my freshman English class because I didn't understand why it was important for me to learn these skills. When I left college and entered the business sector in New York City, I finally realized that the analytical skills I learned in my English 101 class actually applied to the real world.
My first job was with Dailymotion, the French version of YouTube, and when I got the job I thought that all I would do all day everyday was watch cat videos and makeup tutorials. I found out that working in new media wasn't just sales pitches, online videos, and business trips to conventions in exotic locations (though I did get to go to Wrestlemania in New Orleans). For the clients I managed, I had to draw up proposals about the state of our business and how we could improve our relationships and increase revenue. Most of my communications with clients were over email, where every word mattered. Especially since the clients could very well show the communication to their lawyer. I also had to look at written materials from clients and analyze what they needed and how my company could help them. One grammatical error in a brief to a client could break a deal. If I couldn't punctuate a sentence, why should they trust me with hundreds of thousands of dollars? Additionally, I quickly realized that emails had to be short and concise. Most people read it on their phone in the subway while running late to a meeting, so I had to get to the point quickly. I looked back and realize that editing and eliminating redundancy were some of the many skills I learned in ENG 101.
I coasted through my English 101 class. I thought it wasn't important so I didn't try. When I realized I needed to know these skills, I was already out of college, and in order to learn them, I had to educate myself. I took online grammar classes. For me, the interactive element of online grammar workshops is so much more helpful than reading a book on grammar or listening to a lecture. I also subscribed The New Yorker so I could read great essays and analyze how they worked. I had to improve my editing skills. Twitter helped me with that. Only having 140 characters to articulate your thoughts really helps you focus on every single letter in your sentence. Those are just a few tips you can do to improve your writing at home.
Most of you are still in college. Learning to analyze texts in your English class will help you in the future. You will also learn the critical thinking skills that are essential in the real world. I guarantee that you will, at one point, have a boss who can't analyze a problem. You will have to read long, meandering emails that don't add up to anything. You will do tasks that don't relate to your job because your supervisors can't analyze a problem. You can be better though. You can take the skills you’ve learned and use them to elevate yourself and your career.
So pay attention in English class, because having valuable writing and critical reasoning skills will help you in the long run.
“Is an unpolished draft a failed draft…"
–Consultarius, The Writing Center Guru
The act of thinking about the WC means you have already planted the seed in your head. The idea and fear of your paper is already taking root. And if you don’t come, your paper will be full of weeds. WE ARE HERE to pull them out. If it’s wildly overgrown with vagueness, comma splices, run-on sentences, poems, wordiness, too many thesis statements, paraphrases, faulty parallelism, sentence fragments, citations, and content, we’ll prune it in the right direction!
It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is welcome at the WC. We get undergraduate and graduates students, visiting scholars, staff, faculty from every department, and yes, even myself! I too go to the WC for help. However, in order to help you prepare for the WC, I’ve made a small list: The Brings.
What to bring:
YOURSELF! Yes, please bring YOURSELF! Even if you’re blank and confused about how to approach an assignment, a reflection, a research paper, a resume, etc. WE ARE HERE to generate work, to expand it, to extend it, to extend yourself as a writer. As one of my favorite poets said:
What can you bring:
Statement of Purpose
If you bring
in something, please bring in two copies: one for me and one for yourself.
If you bring
in a paper for revision or in-process/prior draft, please bring in your teacher’s comments, the instructions, your annotations, every source, the assignment sheet or rubric.
If you don’t bring
Your instructor’s email address, then they CAN’T be notified.
If you just bring
in yourself, bring in two selves! Yes, you and your paper are in-process work(s).
If you bring
in poems, please bring at least three!
If you bring
in the idea that this is just a consultation, then think again. A consultation is a collaboration, a dialogue, a meeting to / words the Center of . So meet us! Meet me! And don’t forget the poems.