Tuesday, December 6, 2016
I don’t know if I’m good at my job. I cannot point to something in the physical world and say “yes, that is a well-stacked pallet” or “I was as efficient with slicing as possible.” (I worked in grocery stores prior to my current employment. I was very good at that job.) I only have my subjective judgment, and that’s not great because I’m super biased towards the way I think and express myself. Writing does not have inherent, objective tests of quality, so I want to create some, and to do that, I’m going to look to another passion of mine: cooking.
In cooking, the highest honor a chef can receive is three Michelin stars. A restaurant with one star is very good in its category, with two it's worthy of a special detour, and with three it has food worth an international flight. We know of five specific criteria that make a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star: quality of the product, mastery of technique, personality of the chef in the cuisine, value for the money, and consistency between visits. With a little modification, these make for a good starting point for quality assurance in writing.
This one is pretty straightforward. If no word, clause, sentence, or paragraph stirs an emotion or creates a new thought in readers, there may be an issue with your writing. Starting with the diction and expanding the scope of your examination until you’re looking at the paper as a whole can help improve your writing quality.
This is seen as the boring stuff. Good writing shows a control over grammar, word choice, punctuation- all the stuff that English majors and English majors alone know the names of. It’s okay to not know the term "comma splice," but it’s another thing entirely to not know what a comma splice is.
Academic writing has a certain sound to it. It’s often impersonal and dull, but it’s okay to have some of your own voice in your writing. It’s your writing after all.
Is your writing saying something that’s worth the time it takes to read? If you’re writing a tweet, then you don’t have to say much because your writing only takes a few seconds to read. If you’re writing a book, your argument has to expand and be worthwhile.
If you are really a good writer, all your papers should demonstrate your excellent writing skills. If you are able to avoid comma splices in one paper but your next paper is full of them, you probably don't really understand comma splices. Likewise, if your thesis is well supported in one paper, but in the next paper your content is confusing and messy, you need to focus more on how to create an appropriate thesis and support it.
Posted at 10:02 AM | Permalink
Monday, December 5, 2016
You’re only taking this English class because it’s required for your degree. You’re only making this outline because you need it for a grade. You’re only coming to the writing center because you want extra credit.
And that’s okay.
Many times we will spit out papers as quickly as we can, hoping to make the due date and the A. In classes that may seem to have little or no relation to your major, having to write a bunch papers will seem like a nuisance. However, you will put forth effort (minimum effort, maybe, but effort nonetheless) for a good mark. After all, going to college is all about getting good grades nowadays.
And that’s okay.
But what if, for a moment, we remember the true purpose of receiving a higher education? What if, instead of chasing that higher grade, we pursued knowledge? What if, instead of throwing together sloppy papers for our gen-eds and skimping by with low As and high Bs, we mastered the basics? What if we all understood comma splices and how to fix them? What if we could write powerful and influential papers with proper grammar and well organized ideas?
That would be better.
Often we resign ourselves to neglecting the importance of our general education classes because we believe they are either too easy or unimportant. However, perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that the majority of brand-new college freshmen have no clue how to write a decent college-level essay. Maybe we could humble ourselves to admit that our organization problems exist because we think that we’re above outlining (if J.K. Rowling needs to outline, so do you). Instead of groaning about "busy work," maybe we could take advantage of the seeming monotony (and actually learn about what passive voice is and how we can avoid it).
Maybe your upcoming essay seems unimportant. It’s just one of hundreds that you will write in your college career. You don’t have time to make an outline, and you don’t really care to understand why that comma doesn’t belong there. No one will ever read this paper besides your professor, anyway.
But your thoughts and ideas as a human being are important.
Regardless of your major or your current position in life, you have a unique perspective. Your input on any topic should be taken seriously. As a university student, you have access to incredible resources and opportunities that so many lack, and you have interesting things to say. Even if you think no one will read it, even if you think it has been written before, you have the ability to say it in a new way. Your thoughts and ideas are important. But no one will take your writing seriously unless you do.
You are more than welcome to ignore all of the learning and just make the A-. That is entirely possible. But what if you took advantage of each opportunity to pen down your ideas? What if you drew out a clear outline, took the time to create drafts, sought help from writing coaches and professors, and wrote papers that actually meant something? What if you had the ability to write something that was actually worth someone’s time?
Yes, you have to write this paper if you want a good grade. But what you write has the potential to be so much more meaningful with a little time, thought, and a few trips to the writing center.
And that’s awesome.
Posted at 9:21 AM | Permalink
Friday, December 2, 2016
Contrary to popular belief, a concluding sentence is not just summing-up the points of your paragraph. It’s actually more fun than that. What you need to do is use this sentence to stay in touch with your audience by showing them how the information in the paragraph answers the question or problem posed in your thesis. Students often have trouble thinking of a way to sum-up their paragraph. Here’s some advice: don’t think of it as summing-up. Instead, think of it as a way to tie in that paragraph to your thesis.
The other way you are helping your audience out with a concluding sentence is by not overloading them with information and not tying it all together until the very end. While that might work well for a movie, you need to take time to tie each main point back to your thesis.
One way I teach students to write a concluding sentence is by reading the paragraph out loud. Then I’ll turn the paper over and ask them what one thought they wanted to leave the reader with from that paragraph. That one thought should explain why it was a significant paragraph for their thesis.
The conclusion is essentially the “concluding sentence” of the entire paper.
Do not just focus on summarizing your main points. A lot of the time, students end up saying the same things they did in their introductory paragraph. Immediately I know that they do not really know what to say in their conclusion.
The first part should be focused on including each main point in relation to each other and the paper in general.
The second part is the call to action and is arguably the most significant point in your paper. In church, some pastors forget to tag along the application at the end. Later when a member of the congregation is asked what the sermon was about, that person will scratch their head and maybe remember one or two details but not much more. The application informs us of why the sermon was significant enough to hear. It needs to pertain to our everyday life.
It might help you to lead up to your call to action by including a sentence or two explaining why you chose to write on this topic (in the third person of course!). Show your readers that this topic is significant to you, and they will see that and might catch the bug themselves. In your call to action, give the reader something to do. Tell the reader the one thing you want to leave them with. That will make your paper memorable to your readership, especially to your professor!
Posted at 10:14 AM | Permalink
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Once you’ve been through English 101, it can be easy to figure out the “formula” for a grade-A academic paper: straightforward thesis, three main points, an impactful conclusion, etc. I have written dozens of analytical essays in my time as an English major, and I often fall into the same techniques and ingredients that I know professors are looking for. When I do this, however, I know that I am not developing as a writer. I have realized the importance of setting a personal standard for my writing so that it continues to improve in quality. Here are some tips I’ve adopted to challenge my writing in college.
We all have topics and themes that we could write about in our sleep. Picking these does make it easier and faster to get assignments done, but it also keeps us squarely in our comfort zone, until eventually we’re afraid to venture out. Try to seek out a topic about which you actually have to learn to write about it. Doing research and spending more brain power on the writing process will force you to expand your writing horizons.
Often students want nothing to do with their paper once it has been turned in and are only concerned with the grade they end up with. However, usually the professor takes time to leave helpful notes on your writing. If you pay attention to those suggestions, certain patterns and specific areas of improvement will become apparent. Even small notes like “poor choice of words” should spur you on to take care with diction in the future.
The best way to push your writing abilities is to actually allow time for reviewing and perfecting your work. Once you’ve decided what standards you want to set for your writing, strive to reach them as you revise. Small goals, like having perfect punctuation, crystal clear points, and better sources, can be met to give a larger sense of personal accomplishment as you tackle the same old academic paper.
Posted at 10:14 AM | Permalink
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
It’s 2 a.m. Your brain feels like it’s being dragged through molasses and you’re not sure when it’s coming back . . . and your paper is due tomorrow before class. You know you should have started it last week, or even yesterday, but you weren’t sure what to say. You still have no clue what to write, and time is short. What do you do? Here are some tips that have helped me when midnight finds me writing.
Seriously. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly, letting yourself calm down and refocus. Although an adrenaline boost can occasionally spur greatness, more often than not, panic is going to prevent you from focusing, thinking clearly, and being productive, so take one minute to refocus.
And if you’ve already read it, read it again! An easy yet costly mistake is to just skim the prompt and then wonder for the next few hours why figuring out what to say is so difficult. Give your brain a break and save yourself precious moments of sleep by taking the time to understand the prompt before your fingers touch the keyboard. Can you summarize what it’s asking and what you will need to write in a few sentences? Once you can do that, it’s time to start writing!
You’re probably thinking, “No duh. I never try that hard, especially this late at night.” Alternatively, you might think you shouldn’t do your best, but neither of those is what I mean. Put in effort and definitely do your best, but don’t get stuck on perfect writing, (aka finding the perfect word, perfect analogy, or perfect comma use). For the first hour, focus on getting your main idea on paper, because if time runs out, having that perfect word won’t matter if the paper’s only half done. Write as quickly as possible, and for the moment only think about answering the prompt.
This one’s hard, but some basic brain function exists as long as your eyes are still open, so skim your paper. Think big picture, ask yourself easy yes/no questions, and focus on content, clarity, and organization. Here are some examples:
Now’s when you reread your paper and find that perfect word you missed before or look up comma rules. If time is short and you’re afraid you’re too tired to see the typos, encourage yourself with this: you have already accomplished the most important part – you’ve written the paper! Do your best with what the remaining time and resolve to start your next paper ahead of time. Be thorough, but balance that with your need for sleep.
Congratulations – You did it! Go get some shuteye, and next paper if you’re not sure what to say or where to start, try swinging by the Undergraduate Writing Center for some help brainstorming early in the writing process. I look forward to seeing you there!
Posted at 9:45 AM | Permalink
Monday, November 21, 2016
Many of us in high school grew up with learning MLA format. It seemed so confusing then and I remember being so thankful that the section on citations was over. When I got to college, I learned that other formats, like APA and Turabian, also existed. My current degree field uses APA, and I thought I had mastered most of the style until I realized I still had a little bit of MLA following me around.
Some more experienced APA users tend to shorten their in-text citations if they’ve used it before, kind of like how Ibid is a short form in Turabian footnotes. In MLA, in text citations consist of the author’s last name and the page number: (Childers 78). In subsequent citations, if not interrupted by another source, the citation may include only the page number (78). Because I had practiced MLA for so long, I thought that same concept applied to APA, where in-text citations consist of the author’s last name(s) and the year. I thought that after I had used a full in-text citation once, I could cite subsequent citations with just the year: (2016). That is an incorrect, though!
The correct shortened version of an APA in-text citation consists only of the author's name, which is the first element in the in-text citation rather than the second element. Instead, my APA citations should be (Childers, 2016) first and (Childers) for subsequent shortened forms. Basically, always include the author’s last name in each citation. In some instances, you may omit the year, but it is often better to include both elements to avoid confusion on the part of the reader.
Posted at 9:53 AM | Permalink
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Do you have any idea what I’m talking about in the sentences above? To be honest, neither do I. In all of these sentences, the confusion stems from the use of demonstrative pronouns rather than demonstrative adjectives. A demonstrative pronoun replaces a noun with “this,” “that,” “these”, or “those,” as in the examples above. Demonstrative adjectives, on the other hand, occur next to nouns (“this” cat, “that” dog, “these” children, “those” trees) and tell the reader which thing or group of things you’re referring to.
Many beginning writers use demonstrative pronouns instead of adjectives because they are used to speaking that way. This use of language becomes a problem in writing, though, because you can’t point or otherwise indicate what you’re talking about. Using demonstrative pronouns in a paper—using “this,” “that,” “these,” or “those” without a noun immediately after them—can confuse readers, since they often have difficulty figuring out what you mean, particularly if (as in most essays) you discuss more than one thing or idea in the same paragraph.
Never leave “this,” “that,” “these,” or “those” standing alone in a sentence if you can possibly avoid it. If one of these words occurs in your essay without a noun immediately following it, add a noun to clarify what you’re talking about. It may help to think of these words as half of a pair of middle school girls who are “bffs”—if you have one without the other, it is lonely and lost. Don’t do that to your demonstrative adjectives. Everyone needs a buddy.
Here are some quick examples of demonstrative adjectives used correctly:
Here’s the basic idea of what we’ve discussed.
Demonstrative adjectives are:
Placing a noun immediately after these words anytime you use one will increase clarity in your papers.
Remember your buddy system, and happy writing!
Posted at 10:14 AM | Permalink
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
If you’re like most humans on this beautiful blue and green ball we call earth, you probably have a bit of trouble keeping track of all the different ways you’re supposed to cite sources. It doesn’t help that there are multiple citation styles either, because MLA, APA, and Turabian (not to mention Bluebook and the other lesser-known styles) all want you to include different stuff. While it would be impossible for me to lay out all the ways to cite all the different types of sources in all the styles, a good starting point is looking at what each of the styles wants you to include in your in-text citations. So let’s take a look, style by style.
This style uses a type of in-text citation called a parenthetical citation. Basically, you throw a little information about the source you’re referencing in between parentheses at the end of the sentence – make sure to put the sentence’s period after the parenthetical citation! In general, MLA wants two pieces of information in these citations: the author’s last name and the page number you got the information you’re referencing. So ideally, it’ll look something like this:
Don’t have an author? No need to panic! Replace the author’s last name with an abbreviated version of the source’s title, and you’re golden. If you need more guidance, pick up an MLA Manual (8th edition)!
APA also uses parenthetical citations, but this style only wants the page number you got the information from if you’re directly quoting it. Instead of always including the author’s last name and the page number, you’re going to include the author’s last name and the year the source was published. Take a look at this example of an APA parenthetical citation for something that’s not a direct quote:
And now for a direct quote:
APA works the same as MLA if you don’t have an author’s name; you replace it with an abbreviated version of the source’s title. Still have questions? Don’t fear! I’ve got an APA Manual (6th edition) with your name on it! Well, not me personally, obviously, but like a library or something would have one.
Ah, Turabian. Because Turabian has to be different, it doesn’t do parenthetical citations like MLA and APA; it does footnotes, which require you to put in all the information you include in the bibliographical entry, just in a different order. Why? Good question for a different time. For now, you should know that we actually have a Turabian directory to help you with all your Turabian needs!
So there are some basic tips on how to do in-text citations. Formatting your paper can be overwhelming, but learning to use the formatting style that your discipline uses is an important part of being able to express yourself effectively in a way that causes people to listen. For more information on how to use the styles, check out some of our other blog posts, or better yet, stop by the writing center #shamelessplug! And if you’re feeling stressed out by all this citation talk, check out this video of pandas inconveniencing someone trying to rake some leaves! You’re welcome.
Posted at 12:27 PM | Permalink
Friday, November 11, 2016
One of the hardest challenges to grapple with when writing a paper is organization. Disorganized essays seem to jump all over the place, switching from idea to idea on a whim, and they take extra work to read. How do you guide your readers and make sure that your writing makes sense to them?
A surefire way to effectively organize your essay or paper is by implementing clear topic sentences. Giving your audience a direction for your paragraph before you begin your argument can make a world of difference. Effective topic sentences prepare your audience for the rest of the paragraph and make your job as author easier.
What does this mean?
The main function of a topic sentence is to refer your audience back to your thesis and to show them how the paragraph at hand will relate to your overarching argument. The easiest way to achieve this is to follow the formula and order you’ve laid out in your thesis.
For example, if your thesis looks like this:
Your topic sentences should read something along these lines:
Again, these are just very rough guidelines, but the idea is to break up your thesis into its respective points of argument and to preview each in the first sentence of its paragraph. This will make it much easier for your audience to orient themselves and to better understand your supporting claims in each paragraph. They will have a reference point from where to proceed with the paragraph.
Topic sentences don’t have to be as complicated as they sound. Simply giving your audience a heads-up at the start of each paragraph will do wonders for your paper’s organization and clarity.
Posted at 10:00 AM | Permalink
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Sometimes looking at your written draft can feel like looking at someone really sick. You don’t necessarily know what’s wrong with it, but it makes you want to get away. Other times, it can seem like something’s just a little bit off, not necessarily a full-blown illness. Below we’re going to talk about a few common paper "diagnoses" so you can write your own prescription to make it healthy again!
One of the most common writing diseases. Symptoms include sentences that are all the same length and sentences that all start the same way. Treat with varying sentence length and varied transitions.
Not often noticed by the patient but seen easily by others. Ask a roommate, professor, or writing coach for help. Specific ailments within a grammarism can be searched independently on Google or the Purdue Owl, like comma splices, subject-verb agreement, and contractions.
Easily diagnosable but takes some time to heal. Depending on the format (APA, MLA, or Turabian), different courses of action can be taken, but they all include web searches and using format manuals. For more specific help, visit the writing center!
This takes a lot of work on the part of the writer because it usually involves coming up with better and more defendable ideas, finding more sources, and explaining the connection between your ideas and examples. Expect a couple of hours of rehab before things start to improve.
Most easily seen when students are confused about what they’ve written. The first thing developed should be the thesis. Then, each paragraph can be organized in the same order as the ideas in the thesis. After a set of new topic sentences, the confusion will disappear.
Does your draft have any of the above "sicknesses?" They can make you feel like it is impossible to improve, but if you work hard on developing your ideas and working through your mistakes, it can become easy to avoid these illnesses in the first place.
Posted at 9:38 AM | Permalink