Friday, January 23, 2015

When Bad Writing Wins

Sure, you’ve heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Award. And you might have heard about the Illinois Emerging Writers Competition, which awards a poet who has not published a book with $500 and potential publication in prestigious literary journals, like EIU’s very own Bluestem.

However, in the long and illustrious history of writing competitions, there have been some other, less prestigious venues for celebrating writing, showing off not the best of the English language, but the abuses. And the winners are hilarious.

From 1995 to 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran The Bad Writing Contest. Former editor of the magazine Denis Dutton started the competition to draw attention to some of the “deplorable writing among the professoriate.” The Bad Writing Contest exhibited the absolute worst of obtuse, jargon-laden, clause-riddled academic writing.

Here’s a small sample: “An anatomo-politics of human and non-human bodies is sustained by accumulating and classifying such necroliths in the museum’s observational/expositional performances.”


Not all of the contests were mean-spirited. One of my personal favorites is the now defunct International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Hemingway’s unique style almost begs to be mocked.

Or, as I should say: Hemingway had a unique style. He wanted to be mocked.

Contestants submitted a title and one page of their worst Hemingway imitation. Take a look at some of the winning titles—“Big Too-Hardened Liver” and “The Old Man and the Flea.” Personally, I would love to see this contest revived, perhaps with a different author. Don DeLillo seems like a prime candidate. I would submit “White Writing,” or maybe “Crawling Man.”

I also found a competition that still exists—The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where WWW means “Wretched Writing Welcome.” The idea is to write “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” Named after the poor sap who penned “It was a dark and stormy night,” previous winners are spectacularly poor in quality. Here is the 2013 runner-up: “As the sun dropped below the horizon, the safari guide confirmed the approaching cape buffaloes were herbivores, which calmed everyone in the group, except for Herb, of course.”

Next time you wrestle with the blank page, reading over a draft and wondering how you ever made it this far in your career and considering swallowing your computer key by stupid key, check out some of these competitions. They might make you feel better. At the very least, they’ll make you laugh.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blank-Page Anxiety, Begone

As the semester winds down and Thanksgiving Break approaches, the last thing you probably want to think about is any final projects hanging over your head. But if you’re ready to tackle a big paper headlong and just can’t figure out how to begin, this blog post is just for you.

Take a few tips from a guy who loves starting new projects and simply reveling in the glory of an unrevised rough draft.

1.     Know thyself.
Before you take the plunge into your paper, think about how you typically write. While I always write my thesis statement first and litter my paper with quotes before I actually use my own words, you may have an easier time freewriting until the ideas fall together.

2.     Convert other documents into a paper.
You can turn notes into a rough draft or write on napkins so you won’t take the first words you write too seriously.

3.     Change form.
Try outlining, poetry, or something you’ve never done before. I start all my creative writing in the format of a comic-book script, and even some of my academic papers started as two characters arguing with each other.

4.     Find your opening rituals.
I begin all my drafts with five bold hyphens and a title, while a friend of mine starts everything she writes (even on Facebook) with “::”. If you’re curious about how to recognize rituals you might already have, think about the way you begin writing other things, like class notes or social media posts.

For example, I discovered that the hyphen ritual helps me start writing and relieves the blank-page anxiety after noticing that I put lines at the beginning of my physical papers even though I used to stare at blank Word documents and struggle to begin.

Try out one or all of these and remember what we like to say in the Writing Center: It’s called a rough draft for a reason.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

It's Rough for a Reason: Using the Writing Process

 “Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action.”
-Donald Murray

A phrase you might hear at the Writing Center is “rough drafts are rough for a reason.” We tell students this all the time. We may have even told you that your rough draft can be messy. It can include all of the no-nos that your professor hates, such as comma splices, run-on sentences, and citation format errors. We want you to free your mind from the baggage that weighs you down when writing.

We too have difficulty writing when we focus on sentence-level issues. We know that we should worry about forming our ideas before fretting over how they sound on paper. When writing, I take comfort in Murray’s words that encourage me to “glory in its unfinishedness” and “discover through language” (4). One method that I use to form my ideas is to freewrite. When I freewrite, I know that it can be messy; I realize that I will probably write to find my best ideas. I use it as a means of discovery to find out what I actually want to say. I normally find my best ideas at the end of freewriting, then I use these ideas to create my rough draft, and then I revise as necessary.

Nonetheless, we also know reality. We know that writing eventually must include our ideas and be as error-free as possible.

The writing process breaks down the looming task of writing into smaller phases from start to finish. Most scholars agree that the writing process includes three major steps: prewriting, writing, and revising. Murray defines these steps as follows: “Prewriting is everything that takes place before the first draft; writing is the act of producing the first draft; and rewriting is reconsideration of subject, form, and audience. It is researching, rethinking, redesigning, rewriting—and finally, line-by-line editing” (4). The suggestions that we make at the Writing Center reflect the basic steps of the writing process.

Brainstorming, freewriting, messy ideas on paper—these are all part of the prewriting and writing process. Just get your ideas down on paper. Period. Then revise. By following these steps, you will free your mind from the cage that you create when trying to do everything at once.

Next time you visit the Writing Center, you may find this subtle, yet essential teaching happening in our sessions. We work with students in all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming to final revision. We’d love for you to visit us.
Murray, Donald. "Teach writing as a process not product." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. 3rd Ed. Eds.
            Victor Villanueva and Kristin Arola. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English,
            2011. 3-6. Print.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Long Live Latin

Many people say that Latin is dead. However, abbreviations of Latin phrases such as "NB," "etc." and "ibid." show up fairly frequently.

For your edification and enjoyment, here is a list of Latin words and phrases with their definitions and common uses.

Et al. is most commonly used in APA in-text citations when there are multiple authors. It is an abbreviation for et alii (masculine), et alae (feminine), or et alia (neuter). This is a way to say “and others.” Because al. is the abbreviation for any of these gendered forms of the noun, it is politically correct.

Ibid. is short for ibidem, meaning “in the same place.” It is used in Chicago Manual Style, especially in endnotes and footnotes, when the previous citation is from the same source. For example, one writes out the entire reference the first time it appears, and if a second reference to the same source follows, ibid. is used to refer back to the original citation. Ibidem is similar to idem or the abbreviation Id. used in legal citations.

NB stands for Nota Bene. Nota Bene means “note well” or “pay attention to this” for it is “important.” Professors can write this on a paper before a comment, or sometimes people use it in their notes to mark the main points.

Etc. is an abbreviation for et cetera. It literally translates to “and others,” and is usually used in reference to things, not people. In Latin there are genders to all nouns, but "cetera" is gender neutral, so when applied to gendered creatures "cetera" could be considered an insult, in that it takes away gender. So next time you list people who will be arriving at a party, do not say “et cetera” unless you wish to insult the rest of the people who would be on the list.

Many people are fond of the phrase “carpe diem” and claim that it means “seize the day.” However, it literally translates to “harvest the day.” When you think about it, for Romans, “harvest” is more fitting since many Romans were also farmers or owned small farms that were worked by others.

Veni, vidi, vici. In restorative Latin this is pronounced “wheny, wheedy, wiki” and it means “I came, I saw, I conquered.” In Church Latin, it is pronounced “venie, viedie, viechi.”

Spread the knowledge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Where EIU Writes (A Thesis)

Mixing up our usual posts in the Where EIU Writes series, we have an interview with an anonymous EIU alumnus on the daunting task of writing a thesis.

As always in this series, we get another look at where some EIU writers find the best atmosphere to do their writing--even if the task takes two years.

If you’re an EIU graduate student about to start work on a thesis, then be sure to take note. Tips and insights follow.


Q: I’ve always been interested in where people write, especially when working on big projects like a thesis. For me, the bigger the project, the more I write at home. Is that how it was for you?

A: The majority of my time spent writing my thesis was at the library. It was a quiet place to focus.

Q: Is writing a thesis similar to other assignments you've done?

A: My thesis felt like an entirely new kind of project. It was a continuous project for over two years that I really focused on during the research collection phase. I've never had an assignment that lasted two years until my thesis.

Q: Did anything surprise you during the writing process?

A: A few of the surprises that I encountered while working on my thesis were how quickly the last few chapters were brought together, how much time it would take in sending drafts back and forth between the adviser, the committee, and myself, and also how specific the proposal must be to submit to the IRB. [Editor’s Note: an Institutional Review Board reviews research activities in order to protect research participants.]

Q: What advice might you give another graduate student on picking a topic, researching, or working with a thesis committee?

A: General tips on picking a topic would definitely be to choose something you're passionate about and enjoy. At the end or even in the middle, you will likely be very sick of this topic, so you don't want it to just be something that you did not give much thought. Also, finding a thesis committee that is prompt with their responses is very important. Otherwise you will be left waiting and wasting time when you could be completing your thesis. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Chicago on the Go: Handy Dandy Information

For those new to the Humanities, and those who have an interest in citation styles, this blog is for you.

The Chicago Manual of Style (which may be converted to CMS for short) does not have to give you PTSD. I know it can be terrifying. I too have grown anxious when contemplating if I should be using the Notes-Bibliography System (NB) for documentation or the Author-Date System (which does not have an accepted acronym, although I may call it AD anyway). There also exists the Turabian citation style, which uses both NB and AD. With all of these choices, how can a student ever know what is truly acceptable? Never fear. This post is a quick piece with, hopefully, interesting information. The EIU Writing Center, Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL), and the EIU History department (see links below) can all help those who need more in-depth information.

The Author-Date system brings up the authors in the text with the date following immediately in parenthesis. This is the form of CMS that most resembles APA and the Author-Date system is used when the dates of publication are very important to the research being done. The page number is included as well in text after quotations and also in parentheses. Much like APA, the Bibliography or Works Cited page is called References for AD style of citation within CMS. If you cannot work at least the last name of the author into the sentence, follow a quote with (AuthorLastName year published, page number). The Author-Date system does not have notes concerning sources, but may still have endnotes or footnotes that are actual notes that relate to the research instead of a bibliographic note.

NB is used most frequently in the humanities. Notes-Bibliography system uses a superscript number that corresponds to a footnote or endnote with the bibliographic information for every source. Concerning the Bibliography part of the NB, one must remember that sources are listed alphabetically by authors’ last names, just as in the list of References of APA or the Works Cited of MLA. The order goes: Lastname, First. Title (if it is the title of a book or journal, otherwise it is placed in quotation marks). Publisher (or Journal Name). Year of publication. It is interesting to note that in CMS the year of publication is, on the spectrum, closer to APA needs and desires than to MLA. In MLA the year is rarely important, and in APA the year is always important.
Listed above is the most straight forward formatting of a bibliography entry. Other formats can be seen at or .

Chicago Style can be complicated, but you are able to overcome. 

The Writing Center
Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL)
EIU History Department:

Friday, October 3, 2014

Is the Reading Center Right for You?: What I Learned from my Interview at the Reading Center

I walked into the Reading Center with a feeling of anticipation and was met by a caring, helpful staff whose welcoming attitude matched the colorful decorations on their bulletin board. It was nice to talk to the Reading Center Director, Ms. Shilpa Maheshwari, and Dr. Joy Russell, Chair of Elementary Education, both of whom share our belief in the connection between strong reading and effective writing. 

The Reading Center’s mission is to support all students across the curriculum—including graduate students—with reading comprehension, vocabulary fluency, and study skills. Students who want to improve the fluency of their reading can take a diagnostic test to determine where they should focus attention during weekly one-to-one tutoring sessions.

Skills they teach through workshops include close reading, study strategies, and “vocabulary preparation,” which focuses on word contexts and Latin/Greek root words. They also offer a workshop where you can learn about the different learning styles—visual, audio, and kinesthetic—and get advice on employing methods for your specific learning style.

The Reading Center also has computer-aided practice tests available for students preparing for the TAP Test, ACT or SAT. Workshop schedules and brochures describing their services are available in the Reading Center (Room 1320 in Buzzard Hall).

If you find yourself wondering if you should visit the Reading Center, go ahead and give them a call. The last question I asked during this interview was: “Is there anything else that you want others to know about the Reading Center?” Both Ms. Shilpa and Dr. Russell emphatically, enthusiastically, boldly exclaimed that they wanted you to feel comfortable coming in: they work around your schedule; their Graduate Assistants are very knowledgeable; their study rooms are peaceful; and, most of all, they are there for you.

As a writing consultant working in the EIU Writing Center, I encourage you to visit the Reading Center because reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Who wouldn’t benefit from learning root words and increasing vocabulary? Who wouldn’t want to gain a wider repertoire of reading skills? Who wouldn’t want to learn a study skill like managing one’s time? Who wouldn’t want to use a free service that could enable them to be a better student? All of these services improve writing. After all, that is what we’re doing at EIU. We’re bettering ourselves as readers and writers, and more specifically, as students. That—to me—is EIU.

Visit their website or give them a call for more information:


Monday, September 22, 2014

Where EIU Writes: On A Walk?

The more students I interview, the clearer it is.

Most writers spend a lot more time going over ideas in their heads than they do putting pen to paper or fingertips to home row.

So, for this blog post in a series about where EIU students are writing, we’re going on a walk.

Where? That actually doesn’t matter.

In fact, some studies (link below) suggest that simply taking a walk helps promote creativity. That’s right; you might actually be working harder than you think when trudging from classroom to dorm room.

Ever catch yourself pacing when trying to solve a problem? It’s probably not restless legs syndrome that’s making you do it. Now you might be wondering if bouncing your leg like a neurotic mess is boosting your creativity too.

And you might be right to think so.

Believe it or not, prewriting is a major part of writing, and when we’re on the verge of penning that first draft, as we so often are, our brains work like magnets, pulling everything toward the subject we want to write about. If we see an old experience through a new lens—through the eyes of our paper topic—it brings us that much closer to knowing what we have discovered, and what we have to say.

So, bounce your leg, pace, or take a walk. Maybe looking for the right place to write isn’t as important as just looking around, letting that magnet work, and taking advantage of the power of prewriting.