Writing Center Blog
understanding words, their meaning, their history, and their relationships to
other words are, therefore, important. John Ruskin, an English critic of art
and literature, argues similarly when writing that a critically-minded person
“is learned in the PEERAGE of words [and] remembers all their ancestry, their
intermarriages, distant relationships” (distant cousin twice-removed indeed). Relatedly,
the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge posits that good writing
employs “a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning.” What these two
ultimately say is that a thoughtful writer knows which word to use when
because of the particularity of each word’s definition, which would be
particular to the context wherein it will be used. For example, when explaining
a quotation from a source, a writer can choose from a variety of verbs: is the
source exemplifying an idea, or is it
illustrating it? Perhaps the source
is clarifying the idea instead. Of course, each of these words,
arguably, may easily suffice as a verb in this case, but a thoughtful writer
will understand that while exemplify,
illustrate and clarify are close
enough synonyms, they each bear a shade of meaning that will guide the writer’s
choice in the same way that a painter chooses red over maroon. Like a painter’s
pigments, words are the tools of the trade, and writers must utilize them with
the same artistic judiciousness.
So go ahead and crack that dictionary and thesaurus open. Just make sure to actually read the definitions when trying to find the most appropriate word you need. You might even learn how glamour came to mean magic of a very different kind.
Though there is an expectation of “professionalism” in a given workplace, and though there is an accompanying idea that “professionals” dress in certain garb and most certainly do not don others, I reject this and all heteronormative, male-centric notions of “appropriate” attire. As a Writing Center consultant, I work as a “first responder” of sorts with students -- often, students will bring questions and concerns to the Writing Center that they do not take to their professors. Furthermore, as a one-on-one tutor and not a professor in front of a classroom, the effects of “professionalism” are further filtered through this context.
My approach is to dress as hard-femme-former-high-school-goth as I like -- my students and tutees should (ideally) recognize my sincerity as a professional from my language, lessons, and acts. The choice to dress as most comfortably expresses my gender and identity formation, and not necessarily as a “professional,” further bonds the tutee and tutor (or student and professor) in a mutual recognition of the life-giving necessity of identity expression. Though a student or tutee may doubt my capabilities upon first seeing me in combat boots and jeans, the likelihood of this feels far less relevant than the content of our session. Doubts about my professionalism are mitigated, perhaps entirely offset, by the comfort of freedom in identity expression and re-expression, formulation and reformation.
Thus, in short, my capabilities can and do speak
of their own accord. My wardrobe’s role is not to represent my skillset and
knowledge -- it is to liberate my identity from essentializing shackles, to
allow its fluidity, iterations and reiterations to sit atop my skin without
If you’re anything like me, you get distracted easily. I open the internet to get to Webcampus, and suddenly it’s an hour later and I’m on Youtube watching live Cher videos. And so I close the internet, open Word to start that essay, and suddenly I’m on Facebook, years deep into my old high school lab partner’s tagged photos.
The internet is the enemy of productivity. I wanted to share
some of the free tools I use to help me stay focused, be productive, and get
that essay done on time.
These are some of the most popular apps available now, but depending on your OS and specific needs, there are many other options to choose from. Pick one that works for you and start writing!
My typical style involves a billowy scarf and a pencil-thin mustache. Sometimes when I’m feeling extra fancy, I’ll add a beret and shiny pantaloons.
Just kidding. I don’t wear these things, and I’m not talking
about that kind of style.
Although we consultants are able to apply a certain level of
adaptability when necessary, we all tend to employ a basic approach or default
style during our Writing Center consultations. For example, while I’ve noticed
some of us really dive in at the sentence level (some won’t budge until each
one is “right”), I’ve tended to be a bit less prescriptive there.
I am always primarily concerned with the soundness of the thesis
and whether the body paragraphs follow through with it, but when it comes to
the sentences themselves, other than correcting grammar issues that obscure
meaning or hinder readability (such as comma splices and run-ons), I tend to
leave them alone.
To clarify, I guess you can say that I tend to focus more on
content (or “ideas”) than on style; on what
is being said rather than how it is
being said. For example, I’d focus more on eliminating unnecessary repetitions
or irrelevant information (as it affects content) rather than, say, the rhythm
and flow based on the length of the sentences, or even vocabulary (as long as
the word is not entirely incorrect to the intended meaning). This sometimes
means letting a few awkward phrases slip through, as well as some of those
dreaded “passive” sentences. However, if they leave with solid ideas and
logical organization, I consider the session a success, the time well spent.
But like the seasons, styles change. For me, that season is this
coming Fall, when I will be working at the Writing Center’s Journalism
Satellite. This change means I’ll need to be all about style. Associated Press
Style, that is. Soon I’ll be required to focus on exactly how things are
written at the sentence (and even at the word) level, because AP Style calls
for some very specific guidelines in addition to its general guiding principles
of “consistency, clarity, accuracy, and brevity” (Purdue OWL). I’m very much
looking forward to the change, and am learning as much as possible in the
meantime. I’m looking forward to becoming stylish.
Maybe I should trade in my beret for a newsboy cap.
comes in many forms, and not all of them involve splurging on sweets or binging
Netflix. One of these methods is expressive writing—yeah, I know, the idea of
writing voluntarily makes most people want to run the other way. Hear me out
a study done by Harvard Health, Dr. James Pennebaker observed how a group of
people with normal to high stress levels (full-time workers, students, or both)
were affected by journaling for fifteen minutes a day. He found that
freewriting even for this short amount of time was effective in helping these
individuals regulate their emotions and even reduce anxiety; a small sample of
students with test-anxiety who wrote about their feelings before the exam
received higher overall grades than those who did not.
you’re still not convinced, I should add that journaling has no guidelines or
expectations. Some people write angsty poems (mine are cringe-worthy), while
others just vent about a coworker or professor who, like, totally has it out
for them (again, don’t lie, we all have one). Another technique is making up a
story to take your mind off of the all-too-real stressors you might be feeling
in your normal life. These can be anything from writing yourself as a Jedi to
imagining you’re on your way to the Grammy’s with husband Frank Ocean (anything
is possible! It’s your journal, your fantasy).
In order for writing as self-care to be effective, it’s important to think of it outside of the academic mindset you might have when crafting essays for a grade. Writing for yourself is meant to alleviate some of the stress piled on you from other areas of your life (including writing those intimidating essays and research papers) instead of adding more. Writing for a few minutes at the end of a long day can help to remove some of the emotional and mental anxiety you’ve accumulated by writing it out physically; sometimes it feels really satisfying to rip out the paper and crumple it up afterwards, so you can literally throw away your negativity. So the next time you’re at the end of your rope, grab a notebook and try it out. The benefits are real, and you might even feel a little more relaxed the next time you open your laptop to write that essay for your most critical instructor.
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 multi-lingual writers 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.