Writing Center Blog

(An Incomprehensive List of) 26 Things I Do Instead of Writing by Dylan Fisher

posted Feb 15, 2018, 12:53 PM by Writing Center

1.    Organize my bookshelf. (By author’s last name, alphabetically.)

2.    Watch (EVERY EPIDSODE of) the new season of Stranger Things on Netflix. (I know it’s not new anymore. I’m just very, very behind.)

3.    Check my personal email.

4.    Check my work/school email.

5.    Scroll through Twitter.

6.    Scroll through Facebook.

7.    Draft an email (maybe two) to edit and send later.

8.    Tell myself: Dylan, it’s time to write.

9.    Make dinner. It’s a frozen pizza!

10. Make a list of all the things I’d rather do than write. (Do, ultimately, none of them.)

11. Re-organize my bookshelf. (By the color of the bindings, by genre.)

12. Pull out a book. Read a few pages. Put it back.

13. Brush my teeth. Cut my nails. Take a shower.

14. Phone friends, progressively more distant and less familiar, until someone picks up. (“Aren’t you glad to hear from me,” I say.)

15. Browse possible (funny, sad, exciting) memes to use in future a Facebook message.

16. Close all the open tabs on my internet browser.

17. Tell myself: Dylan, really, it’s time to write.

18. Open a blank Word document.

19. Open new tabs on my internet browser.

20. Read an essay about the (notably negative) impacts of Spotify.

21. Listen to Spotify.

22. Read an essay about the (notably negative) impacts of Facebook.

23. Check Facebook. Again. Again. Again.

24. Walk (twice) around the block. (I just need to stretch your legs.)

25. Make a pot of coffee. (It’s starting to get late!)

26. Drink a cup, maybe two.

27. Realize that, yes, I am procrastinating and (consciously or unconsciously) avoiding the task of writing. Realize that I am looking for distractions. Realize that I am not the only one to feel the weight of an assignment, of a deadline. (This procrastination, I think, is an effort to redistribute this weight toward something bearable.) Realize that these other activities do not have to be separate from the writing process but rather can fuel it. (There is research, in fact, that suggests that allowing our minds to wander from the task at hand can help us find creative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.) Realize that creation occurs in the moments we least expect it, when we do not force it. Realize that for this, ultimately, to occur I need to sit down, need to put words (any words!) onto the page. Realize, too, that by starting early, by establishing a practice of daily writing, this will get easier. Realize there are many (often free) internet blocking programs that can help prevent technological distractions. Realize that writing is often hard. Realize that it is also often rewarding.

Writing that isn’t really writing by Nadia Eldemerdash

posted Feb 12, 2018, 1:09 PM by Writing Center   [ updated Feb 12, 2018, 1:10 PM ]

Last semester, I had an engineering graduate student come in with a complex paper on…something. My memory is a bit hazy, not least because my grasp on the information was tenuous, but I do remember that it had something to do with concrete and pressure, with implications for construction – things like building bridges, one assumes. One may assume also that, of all the papers I’ve consulted on over the course of my brief period at the Writing Center, this would not be the paper that would stick particularly in mind. But it does, and I’ll tell you why right now: it wasn’t a paper. It was a math textbook.

Okay, that’s perhaps not a fair assessment. It was a paper, and a good one at that. But it relied in large part on a long series of mathematical equations, whole pages of them. You thought writing was intimidating? I gave up on math the day I was introduced to long division. It was all I could do not to duck under the desk and hide.

The student in question was introducing a new solution to a problem related to the topic, which I’m going to call concrete stress and hope that’s close enough to the actual thing. He was arguing that a better way to measure…something related to concrete stress was to include a new variable, which required its own equation to determine. Hence the pages and pages of math.

So far so good. I understood enough of what he was saying to have a reasonably intelligent conversation about the clarity of his writing, the structure, all that good stuff that we do here at the Writing Center. Then we reached the crux of the paper: the new variable. He explained it to me, very patiently, and I felt my grasp begin to tighten. I drew a graph demonstrating what he had told me. “Yes!” he said, and I all but cheered in the middle of the computer lab. But it would not last, sadly – the graph was the right shape, he said, but in order to add his new variable, it would essentially have to be in 3-D.

And here it was. He needed to be able to explain that in words, and that was exactly what he was struggling with. We talked about the vocabulary used in his field, but alas, there simply wasn’t anything that he was aware of that would adequately explain his point. I suggested he draw a graph (Word can do 3-D graphs, right?) and stick it in the paper, but that wasn’t an option. We talked and talked and talked, and I drew a lot of things all over my copy of his paper, but by the time our session was over we were nowhere nearer a verbal explanation of his point than we were when we started. The best I could do was suggest he talk to his professor about useful vocabulary, and then deflate as I watched him walk away.

So the question arises: how do you explain in words things that are not in words? As a writer, it’s hard to believe that there are some things you can’t use words for. Words are what I do for a living, and for the most part, they do their job. They tell us color and shape and size, feelings and thoughts and expressions. But some concepts defy language, and so language must evolve. Shakespeare invented over 1700 words to be able to write his plays and express himself, including “accused,” “amazement,” and the surprisingly mundane “bedroom.” He’s not here, sadly, to consult with this particular student, but I have confidence in that young man. I believe he can make up a new word, one that one day will become so ubiquitous that another aspiring writer will describe it as “surprisingly mundane.”

How to Work Through a Quarter-Life Crisis by Vicki Stanley

posted Feb 7, 2018, 1:26 PM by Writing Center   [ updated Feb 13, 2018, 9:33 AM ]

It’s that time of year again. We are all dreading it. No, not the 8-12 page essays, the myriad of homework assignments, or hours-worth of readings, but the questions:

        What is your major?

        When are you graduating?

        What do you plan on doing with your degree?

        Can you really get a job with that degree?

        Do you plan on going to graduate school? When, where and why?

        Have you submitted any applications yet?

                                                              What do you want to do with your life? 

These questions haunt us throughout our lives, but college is a place where they are particularly prevalent and can lead to a lot of stress and even breakdowns. As an undergraduate in her senior year, I’ve heard it all before, yet the more frequently I hear these questions, the more stressed out I feel. Even though I have a general plan for what I want to do with my life and future degree, I don’t have everything figured out. It’s taken me several years to get to where I am, but I’m starting to realize that not being set-in-stone certain about what I’m doing with my life is okay. I’ve spent my junior year of high school up to this point feeling panicked, anxious, and sometimes inadequate when comparing myself to my friends, family, peers, colleagues, and professors.

After watching those around me work toward their dreams and seem to have it all figured out, I asked them for advice. I was so perplexed and intimidated that they had their lives together and I didn’t, so I wanted to know what I was doing wrong. As I talked to them about my worries over the years, I heard a few phrases time and time again:

        It’s okay to not have your life figured out at -insert age here-

        It’s unrealistic to have your life figured out in your early twenties

        I didn’t even think about half of those things when I was your age

        Don’t stress yourself out too much, you have a lot of time to figure everything out

        You’ll get there

Of course, hearing these things at first does not feel helpful at all, especially since I feel like I’ve been having a quarter-life crisis (although I prefer calling it a fifth-life crisis) since I was seventeen. The more time I took to think about it, the more that I realized in a lot of ways that they were right. It’s unrealistic to expect people in high school or their undergrad to have their entire life figured out. I’m sure graduate students don’t have their entire life figured out either. The point is, it takes time to discover who you are and what your interests, passions, and goals are.

That being said, don’t default to binging Netflix or doing anything you can to avoid figuring out what you want to do with your life just because it is overwhelming. Thinking about your goals and future is terrifying, and that’s okay. Even if it scares you, it is important to push yourself to find out what you want to do and to actually work towards that goal. Don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process; there are people and resources that can help you along the way. Here’s a list of some resources and activities you can try to help you focus and work toward your goals:

        Visit the UNLV Writing Center, Academic Success Center, Career Services, and Academic Advising for a variety of services to help you develop skills, plan for success in and after college, and find opportunities for a future career

        Go for a walk, visit a park, take a hike, or any activity that will allow you to take time away from electronics and other distractions so you can focus and think about your life, goals, and things that are important to you. (It also helps reduce stress!)

        Ask others for advice: your friends, family, peers, colleagues, and professors (don’t be afraid to talk to them) can offer tips, support, and opportunities that will help you grow and figure out what your passions are

        Write a list of goals—small and large—that you want to accomplish, adding the appropriate date, month, or year that you want to complete them in and cross them off as you go down the list. These goals could be a combination of academic, career, and general life goals that you want to accomplish. If you feel like it, consider doing this with a friend

        Be active in your own life. Don’t wait for the stars to align to apply for that research lab, job, internship, or conference. Just go for it, even if it scares you

These are just some of the things you can do to work toward your goals and figure out your life, so don’t be afraid to try other things that might help you find your focus. Most importantly, remember that you don’t need to have your life figured out right now. Take steps toward living the life you want to live, toward finding your passion, and as time goes on and you accumulate experiences, you’ll get there.

I Used to Write Poems by Ariana Turiansky

posted Feb 7, 2018, 12:40 PM by Writing Center

I used to write poems.

Having recently graduated from a three-year MFA program designed to give me time to write and revise poems, this is disappointing to admit. Throughout my program, I did my writing on a whim, when the desire struck me—I rarely planned out time or set up goals—and, lately, the desire isn’t striking me.

So, why don’t I just sit down and write if I want to, if I’m disappointed that I’m not doing it? The saying you hear from all of your writing teachers, make time to write, works for many people, but I’m not one of them. When I set myself up to write (bound notebook or laptop, favorite pen, some cliché window view, a cup of coffee, plus or minus music), my anxiety swells. Maybe you’ve had this experience. Your internal narrator vibrates, says you’re a person who has thoughts, opinions, experiences; surely you can find something to say.

-But what can I say?

-It’s Thursday.

-I watched 8 episodes of “The Office” last night. Ha.

-[Looks at the posters on the walls] There’s a world map. A map of the whole world.

-The world is too big for my poem.

-My coffee cup has chevron patterns on it. I can see a tree outside.

-What even is a poem.

-How does oxygen get in here if all the doors are closed?

-Oh no.

And as this goes on, I move further and further away from a poem.

The anxiety (for me; others have expressed it as fear or perfectionism) that keeps us from writing that first line is a big beast to tackle. Here is one website that helped me at one point with the hardship of seeing (and judging) my own words on the page. Ilys hides the words you type as you type them. This means that, because you can’t see what you’ve written, you open yourself up to tangents or getting side-tracked in lovely, creative ways. It is now a subscription service, but you can use it for free for 30 days.

Here’s another idea: Keep a collection of fragments. Broken pieces of mirror. Shells collected from the beach. Silverware. Photographs. Maybe not those exact things, but what I mean is keep a collection of words, images, sounds, people, textures that appeal to you (or affect you in some way), as they confront you. Of course, you have to observe and pay attention to do this, which is a task in itself. Keep your fragments in your phone if that’s more convenient than a notebook. Don’t look at them afterwards. I’ve done this since I was young. I’ve had my students do this. When I want to write, I begin by browsing through those pieces, reading them next to each other (don’t do this until you’re ready to write). It’s like keeping kindling next to your fireplace. You collect it when it’s warm outside, and it’s there when you’re ready to light the flame.

An Essay's Shape by Kevin Sebastian

posted Feb 4, 2018, 12:55 PM by Writing Center

When learning to draw from life, art students are typically reminded to look for spatial relationships instead of trying to depict an object as the object. Take for example a typical still life subject that involves fruits, a bowl, and drapery. Instead of trying to draw the apple based on what we conceive of as an apple (which we learn from an early age is shaped like a heart with a butt), we draw the shape that we see in front of us: the shape that is articulated by its relationship with the other shapes beside it. If we look closely, we realize that the curve that forms the apple’s cheek terminates abruptly because it is covered by another form—perhaps the orange, or the edge of the bowl. One can say that we are not drawing things—rather we are depicting the shapes of things.

Writing involves something similar. Kurt Vonnegut, the celebrated author who wrote such classics as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, proposed a thesis that posits that all stories have shapes. (The thesis, as intriguing as it sounds, was rejected by more traditional academics sitting upon their ivory thrones in their ivory towers. However, if you, like me, respond positively to Vonnegut’s idea, you can find a cool visualization of it here, or you can listen to a short talk given by the man himself here.) According to Vonnegut, a creation story is shaped like a set of steps. A Cinderella story, on the other hand, is charted by a steep incline upwards that then dips precipitously until it once more flies heavenwards.

If stories have shapes, then perhaps all writing does as well—even the kind of expository writing performed in college. Consider, too, that one of the major principles in journalistic writing is visualized as an inverted pyramid, which diagrams how the most important ideas should appear earlier and how specific details follow. (Here is Wikipedia’s entry on the subject for those who might want to learn more about it.)

What does a college essay look like? I’m not sure. Sometimes when I read early drafts (of mine and of students of mine), I envision a Gordian knot of incomprehensibility. But perhaps it is instructive to think of the essay indeed as having a definite shape. After all, an essay, especially a college essay, must express a set of relationships between ideas: imagine a third body paragraph triangulating the main point, or a conclusion that rounds off all major points.

Perhaps I’m just being glib, especially in that last sentence. But if there’s a point to all this, perhaps it is this: arranging ideas in a way that is structured, sensible, and logical leads to an effective piece of writing. This successful arrangement can be thought of as a shape—whether it be an inverted pyramid or a regular pyramid (both of which are discussed in this handout from Yale).

However, I like visualizing the shape of an essay as making use of the double-helix iconography of DNA, and my explanation for this, by necessity and by my own lack of knowledge of the actual science behind DNA, may grate upon the ears of those who know more about this.

Imagine, for instance, the main ideas of each of your paragraphs as the bridges (or what are known as base pairs) that bind together the strands that form the backbones of DNA. Consider those two backbones as your thesis and conclusion. One strategy that I suggest to students when they revise their essay is to highlight their topic sentences and to embolden their thesis statement and concluding remark because I believe that visualizing ideas this way helps writers recognize whether their ideas are held together by a structure. Seeing these marked lines reminds me of DNA.

Again, this figuration is naïve and has little basis in actual science. (Exploring the double-helix structure of DNA on the Internet as I write this makes my head dizzy as I swim through words like phosphodiester and pyrimidines.) But I do like thinking that the stuff that makes us up, our DNA, also could describe (at least visually) the stuff of ideas in writing. Or, from another perspective, that the molecules that form the structure of an essay are its ideas—and for an essay’s argument to come alive, its molecules must come together coherently and shape themselves elegantly—like DNA.

How Walking Can Help Your Writing by Kayla Dean

posted Jan 31, 2018, 2:30 PM by Writing Center

This may sound crazy, but one of the most productive things I can do when working on a writing project is take a walk. I say this because writing can’t be done in isolation from everything else. When I’m frustrated with my progress, need a new idea, or simply don’t know if I can write any more, I take a walk around campus. Sometimes the library, Writing Center, or parking garage is my destination. Often it’s not.

You may be asking why? Doesn’t writing require you to sit in one place completely still until you’ve written the thing that’s due tomorrow? Most of the time it doesn’t. Especially if what you’re working on has multiple deadlines and requires a lot of time and effort not usually allotted for a one-page paper. A thesis. A novel. Building plans. Whatever.

Rebecca Solnit writes that “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”

Walking acts not only as a guard against bad ideas, but it’s also important to regaining the sense of our writing selves. There’s something about observing others on their way to and from or noticing stillness in a quiet corner of campus that renews that part of me. Sometimes you must get away from the keyboard to inspire a rush of words in yourself. Then the problem is taking that thought back to the computer and remembering the sentiment in its entirety.

That’s why I usually take notes in my phone. You may think I’m texting, but I’m really writing the next scene. The next moment that propels my paper forward and makes it interesting.

What walking does is also remind me of the connection between written words on a page and real life as we know it. Although it doesn’t always seem like it, life is a struggle for meaning. We’re constantly trying to deal with, define, and navigate experience as it comes to us. That requires some degree of processing. Writing helps me do that.

When we walk, something similar happens. That’s why we have these baked-in cultural metaphors like taking the first step to describe what happens when we risk something valuable or take a chance when nothing seems certain. It’s a one-to-one connection to what we do when we write. The only way you can write a first draft is by placing one word after another in succession.

But therein lies the problem. The first draft can really be linear, that first moment when you put the words on the page in a solitary order and think, that looks like something. In another sense, to arrive at the point where we feel that we know enough to write anything at all we first have to plunge into the strange neural pathways that allow us to think in the first place to dig out what sometimes feel like incompatible concepts.

It’s not putting thoughts together, line by line, that makes a great piece of writing. Instead, it’s wandering through, getting lost, and emerging with a new sense of confidence that we know something we didn’t know before that makes writing satisfying, meaningful, and necessary.

Next time you’re stuck, take a walk. I can’t promise anything, but it usually helps me.

Expandin Your Skill Set through Interests and Hobbies by Greg Cannioto

posted Jan 30, 2018, 10:34 AM by Writing Center   [ updated Jan 30, 2018, 10:34 AM ]

Even in graduate school, where I have been pushed to try new things and have read and written more in a few years than possibly my entire prior academic career, I had trouble writing outside my niches. I’d lean toward research papers, prompted writing, and various forms of safe, comfortable literary criticism. A year ago, I’d done almost no creative writing, and even in my essays, I’d tread over familiar theories, analyzing different characters in the same way I had before, never taking any risks. It would get the job done, but nothing more. I’d develop my writing portfolio without actually developing myself. Now I’ve written a screenplay for a short film, a chapter or two of a possible novel, and a few short stories, and beyond that I’m reaching into new areas of theory as well, both in what I read and what I write. I’ve spent some time analyzing how I began expanding my horizons, and I’d like to share my conclusions, and hopefully expand the skills of other writers as well.

While the basis of my change in academic attitude likely began with graduate school a couple years back, the greatest change was more recent. A year ago I was not a creative writer at all. One day, an idea for a short story popped into my head. I wasn’t a creative writer, I told myself, but the urge to get the idea out of my mind and onto paper didn’t leave me. Eventually, I made myself sit down and write. It ended up being no more than a few pages of a pretty simple, lazily formatted scene between a few characters. Also, it was fanfiction, so it wasn’t even that original. As an example,

“Wait, wait! This is ridiculous, I’ve been to shops all over Tyria that sold me salvage kits without a problem. Aren’t you just losing sales by doing this?” I began to get frantic, and desperate for a need for a logical explanation I began to rant at the shop owner about this practice. After a while, I had forgotten why I was there, or about the lecture that at this rate I was clearly going to miss (2).

The short story features the dialogue between one of my characters (right) and some random merchant (left) who wouldn’t sell me stuff.


This is certainly not the basis for a novel that would be the voice of a generation, but then again that’s not what I was looking to do. I wasn’t trying to write my big break as a creative writer, I was just trying to have fun and accomplish the goal of writing enough to get the story out of mind at two in the morning. That happened, thankfully, but I also I had fun, and it shook off my worries about creative writing. Now I’ve started dabbling in science fiction (a lot of which I’ve read but never considered writing before), and even wrote a short screenplay for a graduate class. In focusing on what I knew, but in a genre I didn’t know, I was able to give it the old college try, on my own terms. Now, a year later, I’m feeling like I can take on a lot more as a writer, and it even allows me to look at what I read in a new way. As per my example earlier, for me the big break was to get started with something low stress and personal, before implementing what I’d learned into my academics. This can be a bit difficult, but I think as writers and academics we should always be trying something new. Getting started might be tricky, but there are some tricks that might push you in the same direction.

Let’s get the possibly bad news out first, you’ll need to read and write on your own initiative. Get ready to work based on your own self-discipline. It’s like going to the gym for writing. If you’re like me, and crave deadlines, due dates, and instruction, this might be a challenge. That’s why I realized how helpful writing that silly fanfic was, and why I suggest you focus on your own interests. I know focusing on something you’re familiar with sounds contrary to what I’d said earlier about expanding your horizons, but consider that you can write on the same topic while addressing a different genre, or vise-versa. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction (like me), and have written a lot of fiction (not like me), try expanding into non-fiction in the area. If there’s a cool new movie on that novel you loved a few years ago, compare the two in an essay. Write a rhetorical analysis, a research paper, or dabble in the writings of those who’ve written on some of your favorite works. It’ll make writing in these areas in general easier and more familiar.

Again, the difficulty is that unless you’re literally in your dream class, a lot of this will have to be done on your own time. That said, writing for yourself has its benefits. You can write however or whatever you’d like, and at least if your first few attempts at something new aren’t groundbreaking, it’s not like anything is getting published or graded. It will certainly help you gain confidence before trying something where grades or professional credibility are on the line. In fact, without fearing grades, perfect formatting, and writing toward an audience, you’ll likely get to discover a bit of your own writing style. That’s an important lesson in itself. Don’t worry about good or bad, just focus on what you can do and use that knowledge to do new things.  Few people start out being great at something, but over time you’ll broadly and deeply expand your areas of expertise. No one is going to judge you for the steps you take along the way.

If you like video games, TV shows, children’s books, or anything, you can expand those interests into your writing. Given enough effort, these interests can help you academically and professionally, as it will expand your comfort zone. Writing a fanfic or entering that fiction contest might not seem relevant to a dissertation you’ll write in five years, but you’d be surprised. Whether you’re an English major or MBA, a freshman straight out of high school or a PhD candidate, writing of any kind will develop your abilities in some way. Writers are often asked how they became a successful author, and besides luck (something I can’t really advise people on) they always say that they read and write a great deal. If you do the same, the myriad number of skills you’ll gain may surprise you. When next you have time for some personal development, grab a favored book or film and approach it in a completely new way. It’s certainly easier than learning from scratch.

Works Cited

“Brain Lifting Weights.” Clipart.Guru. Clipart.guru. https://img.clipart.guru/clip-art-of-brain-lifting-weights-brain-lifting-weights-clipart-235_237.jpg

Cannioto, Gregory. “Salvaging Relationships.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1leBJb9NXK0XYsUSDovLi0v1O9uT9gGYVEnHFBz18U6k/edit?usp=sharing

Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet, Accessed 23 January 2018. Screenshot taken by author.


We Are Facilitators, Not Hijackers by Scott Hinkle

posted Dec 11, 2017, 11:59 AM by Writing Center

Our Writing Center is packed into a relatively small space, so it’s hard not to overhear each other during consultations. The volume varies, but generally what I hear is background noise: indecipherable murmurs punctuated now and again by a few recognizable words. Words that just sort of float there like little abstractions. 

It’s a bit different when I’m not in a session myself. Sitting at one of the stations in the computer lab, I still overhear things, and without an appointment of my own to engage me, things are much clearer now: the abstractions clump together to form context, and all of a sudden I’m listening to an actual consultation (here I’ll cite again the small confines of our dear old WC; I’m not trying to eavesdrop!). 

Upon eavesdropping, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought “I would’ve explained that a bit differently” or, better, “Nice! Now I know how to better explain that.” Truly, I’m glad to say what I typically “overhear” is that my fellow consultants have a certain drive, a certain enthusiasm and eagerness to help. However, the one thing that I occasionally overhear that grinds my gears gets my panties in a twist really chaps my does bother me, is when I hear a consultant hijack their student’s paper.

A friendly note, then, to my fellow consultants:

I realize “hijack” is not a friendly word, but friend, that is sort of what you’re doing when you impose your opinions and ideas onto your student’s paper. You might mean well, you might even be helping them in the sense that you’re providing content that might not have been there before, but there’s a fine line between providing “examples” and providing “answers” and the latter does nothing to help improve your student’s writing/understanding ability.

I don’t just mean the dreaded “grammar check” either (we have all caved to this on occasion; don’t deny it). This hijacking I’m talking about happens most egregiously on the idea/content level. This tends to happen most in the following ways: either (A) the paper covers a topic you’re interested in and you’re excited to drop some knowledge; or (B) the paper contains abhorrent political views and you’re just dying to set the record straight. In the case of (A), it’s okay to share your interest, but try not to overstep your role by inserting your super-specific, grad-level theoretical ideas onto their paper, which was doing just fine as a general reflection paper for an introductory course, thanks. In the case of (B), rather than attack them with your preferred brand of politics in an attempt to get them to see the folly of their ways, stay composed, and ask them to explain their views, and how they might respond to “potential opposition.”

In short (and in general):

The key for (A): Often, Less is More.

The key for (B): Don’t hate; facilitate.

The key for (ME): Hurry up and sum up already.

Basically, the key is to avoid imposing your ideas and biases onto your students.

A few easy Do’s and Don’ts here might include:

DO figure out the writer’s purpose and level of understanding of the material.

DON’T suggest terminology (or ideas) that your student is obviously unfamiliar with.

Remember: We are facilitators, not hijackers.

Don’t worry if you have been guilty of hijacking your students’ papers. Just stop it already. The jig is up. You’ve been found out. You’re done now. We all have our styles and modes of tutoring writing, and like anything, we get better at it with time. Maybe you didn’t realize that was what you were doing. In fact, you probably still don’t know, as you haven’t read this. Maybe I can hear you doing it right now. But, as the late rapper Biggie Smalls once said, “If you don’t know, now you know.”

Academic Writing as Counterpoint by Maxwell Gontarek

posted Dec 11, 2017, 11:46 AM by Writing Center

I come from a background of music as well as a background of writing, and I tend to make analogous connections between the two when I try to make sense of how they work. I find that thinking about counterpoint can be useful for understanding the function of certain conventions in academic writing. 

In music, compositions can be monophonic (consisting of one voice, or instrument) or polyphonic (consisting of more than one voice, or instrument). An example of a polyphonic piece of music is a fugue, which comes from the Latin verb to chase. Fugues follow the rules of counterpoint, meaning that the multiple voices generally work together to harmonize. But sometimes, with the right combination of notes, a melody might sound very unharmonious, building tension instead. But no matter what, in the end the music will resolve whatever tension it has built. I think this concept speaks to the use of counterargument in an academic paper. At first, it may seem counterintuitive to be including an argument which underpins your own. But, that tension can actually make your argument more effective. After providing a counterargument, your task is to show the ways in which your argument has accounted for whatever shortcomings are being purported. And once resolution is achieved, your argument is actually stronger for the tension you provided your readers.

The idea of monophony and polyphony can be helpful for understanding the difference between summary and analysis, also. In a summary, your task is to present an abridged account of something that someone else has written. In that sense, it consists of one voice––the writer of whatever it is that you’re summarizing. In an analysis, your task is to summarize something someone else has written, and then to follow with your own explanation and elaboration. In that sense, it consists of two voices––the input of the writer you are citing, but also your own input and interpretation.

Fugues generally consist of one theme and variations on that theme. The theme is initially played with one voice, and then other voices are added successively throughout the piece. Each time the theme returns, it may be played in exactly the same way as it was initially, but it will sound different in the context of the other voices, and in the progression of the piece. In this way, the theme is reiterated throughout a fugue, but the variations ensure that it does not sound completely repetitive. In an academic essay, a conclusion can be very difficult to write. How can you reiterate your thesis and your main points without repeating them word for word? It might be hard to parse the utility of a conclusion when you think about it in this way, but considering it in relation to the conventions of a fugue may be helpful.

You can absolutely reiterate your thesis, or your theme, in a way that sidesteps redundancy if you conceptualize it as something that you have been chasing throughout the entire essay, since you first stated it in your introduction. On the other end of all your research, analyses, and efforts to synthesize the many voices, you finally have a chance to reiterate your thesis with one voice, just as you did in the beginning. In some ways, this is also a test of the success of your essay––when you reiterate your thesis it should ring truer than it did initially, and therefore sound anew.

On Writing in the Center by Layla Barati

posted Dec 6, 2017, 9:36 AM by Writing Center

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