Monday, January 30, 2012
I know all of this because I'm just like you. I know the thought process. A paper is made up of words, right? And the more words in a paper the better, right?
Uh, not quite.
One way folks end up writing papers is by writing in passive voice, like so:
A Clockwork Orange was written by Anthony Burgess.
You'll notice that the verb "was written" targets the subject, "A Clockwork Orange." Here's the same sentence but in active voice:
Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange.
Notice a difference? "Anthony Burgess" is now the subject, but it isn't the target of the verb. Instead, the target is "A Clockwork Orange." The meaning of both sentences are clear, but there is a noticeable wordiness with the first sentence, the passive voice sentence, compared to the second sentence, the active voice sentence. Great for a paper right?
But it has more words! Conveys the same meaning! Yes, it does all of those things, but passive voice is unpleasant to read, especially if almost all of your paper is written in it. Sentences are bloated and unwieldy, exhausting the eyes who scan these awkwardly constructed sentences.
There are times, however, that you can use passive voice and it's a-ok, even beneficial. Passive, when used as a rhetorical weapon, can be used to focus the sentence on a particular object in the sentence. A common phrase executed by Illinois politicians goes a little something like this:
"Mistakes were made."
Who made the mistakes? We don't know, and Mr. Politician-Man is not about to admit it to us either. Were he to structure it like, "They made mistakes," he's clearly tossing the blame at someone else. But saying, "Mistakes were made," places the blame on some bodiless, nameless entity.
Friday, January 27, 2012
The company that I was a part of performed on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and would then also have a Sunday matinee. It became very easy to know what kind of audience to expect on each of the performances.
Thursday nights the crowd would be alive because it was close to the weekend, and their hopes were high! Friday nights crowds were always snoozers because the people were always too tired from the week at work to react to anything anymore. The audience on Saturday night was always fun. After all they had relaxed all day and were in weekend mode. And Sundays audience were referred to as the "Blue Hairs" and would seldom react to anything at all but generally seemed pleased.
As actors we had to adjust the way that we performed so that it would compliment the blah or excited audience. This was easy to achieve, and we all did it effortlessly, and this mindset has transitioned into how I adjust my voice for an audience while writing scholarly papers.
However, this task is not easy for some people, and I have heard students in the Writing Center complain about it. It goes something like this, "A new semester rolls around and BOOM - new teachers! New expectations! Crap! After I just mastered writing the way my professor wanted. Now I have this new teacher, and I can't figure out what he wants, and when I sit down to write everything that I write just sounds like garbage. I know I'm not a bad writer, I just can't seem to write to this audience." That is when I say, "Well, then...forget about your audience."
Which is generally followed by a long pause and blank stare.
FORGET ABOUT YOUR AUDIENCE? Really? Isn't that a rather bold move?
At first, I thought that it was, and I worried that my first year writing professor might have somehow sensed me saying this and had a mild stroke. But then I came across a very famous article by Peter Elbow, and if you don't know who he is...FIND OUT...he is all sorts of amazing, and I have a mild crush on him. The article is titled "Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience."
In this article Elbow suggests that "When we realize that an audience is somehow confusing or inhibiting us, the solution is fairly obvious. We can ignore that audience altogether during the stages of writing and direct our words only to ourselves or to no one in particular--or even to the 'wrong' audience...This strategy often dissipates the confusion" (52.)
Although the writing that you produce, while ignoring your audience, may seem sloppy or not professor acceptable, remember that this is just a rough draft. The important part of this exercise is that it enables you to start writing!
I once had a professor that told me that I could never ever ever start a sentence with the word "So." So (take that!) it was all that I could think about while writing the paper. I worked so hard to write a paper without using "so" at all, that when it was done, it just didn't sound like me, and it also was a terrible paper. My heart wasn't in it, and the important message that I was trying to convey was lost in the disjointed "I'm trying to please my professor" style of writing.
That is when I decided that I should just forget about this professor and just write my paper. When I started writing with no one in mind, just writing to get what I wanted to say on the paper, everything went so much smoother.
I am a firm believer in the fact that audience is very important, but if you are struggling writing for that audience, I suggest that you take Elbow's advice and forget about it.
Once you get the writing done, you can go back and tweak your paper for your intended audience. Change some words if you have to or revise what you had written. Delete all those sentences that started with "So" and so on and so forth. Adjusting your voice, yourself, your ethos can be very hard to do, but it is not impossible. If you find you are struggling writing those start of the semester "getting comfortable" papers, just get self-centered and think of you. There is time to revise those written words, so become self-focused and write that bad boy ... forget about that audience of blue hairs out there. Instead play to an audience of none.
Interested in reading Peter Elbow's totally rad article? See below for the citation.
Elbow, Peter. "Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience." 49.1 (1987) : 50-69. Print.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
January 25th at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall
The focus of this 30-minute workshop will be pre-writing and brainstorming strategies that help writers generate ideas and support.
Monday, January 23, 2012
I’ll level with you. English can be a terrible language. I’ve been speaking since I was a wee tyke, but even I don’t know it all that well. Bad for an English graduate student? Maybe. But I challenge someone to claim they know every little stupid nuance the English language has to offer.
Recently I was looking at an old blog of mine I started back when I was in high school. There was only one post: “A Prelude of Things to Come.” In it I introduced myself and explained all of my long-term, starry-eyed goals with the project, somehow hopeful that someone would happen across it and say, “Hey, guy, we’d like to offer you a writing job.”
I never got such a message.
I did get one message: “Your an ass.”
At first, I was indignant. How dare someone I don’t know post on my blog and insult me? The audacity of some anonymous Internet citizen coming to my page and defacing my image disgusted me to the very core.
But I found solace in the fact that the individual made him/herself look like a big ol’ dummy. Instead of saying, “You’re an ass”--the grammatically correct method to call me a name--they voted to say, “Your an ass.” For a moment I tried to wrap my head around the statement, trying to make sense of it by literally reading it the way they typed it. I was unsuccessful.
I’ve seen this same mistake on student’s papers coming into the Writing Center. Many of them are simple typos, but they’re typos that can go overlooked if you’re not looking out for them. I could go an entire paper saying “it’s” instead of “its,” and I might miss it even if I look at it a couple of times. Then I’d look like a big ol’ dummy. I should note: if I see this error on your paper when I’m looking at it, I’m not calling you a big ol’ dummy. I’m just stating that if another person were to see the error, he or she might just think you’re a big ol’ dummy.
But I digress.
Here are some common erroneous switcharoos:
- their, they’re, and there
- to, too, and two
- who’s, whose
“homonym.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 23 Jan. 2012. Web.
Thursday, January 19, 2012
What exactly is a Statement of Purpose? Is it different than a cover letter? According to the Purdue Owl, the Personal Statement is, "...your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process". A Personal Statement can be thought of a Cover Letter beefed up on steroids. They are generally two-three pages long, and they sing your praises.
Well, ok. This sounds doable and easy enough, right? You've been writing ten to twelve page papers lately. Two-three pages will be cake right? Also, this is your chance to tell future employers or universities how smart and great you are and how you would be a fantastic fit to their community. Simple, stuff...yeah? Surprisingly, no. The Personal Statement can be one of the hardest pieces of writing that you may ever produce. Why is that? Why is writing about yourself in a positive light so hard?
Well, for starters more than likely you have been writing about everything ASIDE from yourself for a very long time. Perhaps you wrote about yourself in a personal narrative in your first-year writing class or maybe used a life story as an anecdote to add emotion to a paper (I drop that bomb quite often), but actually writing about your strengths, education, and life history with depth is probably something you haven't done in a super long time and may not feel comfortable doing. After all, it seems that most of us aren't out there in the world wearing sandwich boards touting our awesomeness. Should we be? Sometimes...and most definitely in the Personal Statement.
So, then how in the world do we write a Personal Statement that "sells you" but is humble at the same time? Well, for starters don't go flying into it blind. Don't try to rough draft this thing and see what happens. More than likely you will end up with a piece of text that you feel is inadequate and awkward. Instead of rushing in and writing first spend some time asking yourself some questions about ... yourself. On a piece of paper take the time to answer the following questions that the Purdue Owl suggests are helpful:
• What is special and impressive about your life story?
• When did you become interested in this field?
• What are your career goals?
• Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships?
• What skills do you possess?
• What personal characteristics do you possess that make you a perfect fit?
• Why might you be a stronger candidate for grad school than other applicants?
Once you have answers to these questions, you may feel a bit more comfortable writing about yourself and may also have a good starting point. The first question--"What is special and impressive about your life story?"--could produce a funny or moving anecdote that would make for a fantastic introduction to your Personal Statement. After all, the first paragraph is the most important part of your Statement. In that very first paragraph, you will either snag your readers' attention or sadly lose it. The first paragraph sets the tone for the entire Personal Statement. So, really spend some time on your opener and make it something that your reader will understand and remember.
What do you do after a bad-ass opener? Easy. You simply tell them what you know! Which should be simple for you because your awesome, right? Isn't that what your sandwich board said? This is the place where you can get into the nitty-gritty of what you have learned about your area of expertise. Take some time to list classes that you have taken, conferences that you have presented at, work that you have done with other people in your field, or internships that you have been a part of at a school or organization. Just make sure that you are specific ... don't say something like, "I went to a conference in Florida, learned a lot and met a lot of people." Ugh. That's a bummer to read; plus it doesn't really tell me anything about you or the conference. How about instead saying something like, "I had the opportunity to present my research at the National I'm Awesome Conference in Florida in the spring of last year. During this time I met many people in the field and discovered that they too, are awesome." Although it may seem to you that you are padding your sentences or loading them up more than you need to do, don't think of it that way. Instead think of this as being extra specific in order to ensure that your reader knows and understands that you really know what you are talking about.
Some things NOT to do in your Personal Statement may seem obvious, but if I don't mention them I will worry all night long about it, and then I won't sleep--and I need my sleep. So, in order to ensure my future rest, please remember the following:
Not all subjects are Personal Statement appropriate. You should probably stay away from "hot button" or controversial topics. After all, you really don't know who might be reading your Personal Statement, and you don't want to offend them and then run the risk of your application being tossed to the side. Also, bringing up things that you accomplished in high school might not be appropriate for your personal statement. I know you're proud of being voted "Most Popular," but more than likely a college or future employer won't care about that.
Don't send off your Rough Draft. The Personal Statement needs to be as close to perfect as you can make it. Take the time to reread your draft, make changes, use spell check, and look closely for grammatical errors. Also, have a peer/parent/sibling/dog read over your Personal Statement for you and don't be afraid to make the changes that they suggest. Peer review is a powerful tool! If you don't have anyone close by that can help you, pop into your schools Writing Center. In the EIU Writing Center, we frequently assist people working on Personal Statements, and these clients recognize that sometimes writing needs a fresh set of eyes. And what better way to find out if you got the point of how awesome you are across by having someone who doesn't know you read your work?
Don't avoid researching your organization. Don't be afraid of research! Wait, what? Research for a Personal Statement? I know, it does seem silly because you should know all about you...right? However, it might help you to take the time to think about what sets your school of choice aside from other schools, or what is unique about your future place of employment. Do these unique factors relate to you? How? Write about it! This simple task may endear you to the reader of your Personal Statement because they will notice that you took some time to dig a little deeper about them, and that's love ... no?
Once in a while grad school or business applications ask specific questions for you to respond to in your Personal Statement. If this is the case, make sure that you know the format that the answers are required in. Sometimes the school or employer will simply want these answers woven into your statement, but once in a while these questions are considered supplemental to your Personal Statement and can be considered separate essays. It is always ok to call someone at the organization to clarify, and this ensures you will not make a silly mistake.
I know...this seems like a TON of writing....well, it is...but don't be discouraged! Slow down, think about the questions asked of you, and answer them as specifically as you can.
In short, what should you do while writing the Personal Statement? Talk to yourself, ask yourself questions, write responses ... several times if you have to so that you can get over that "I'm totally bragging about me!" feeling. Write an opening paragraph that the reader will remember you by; anecdotes or interesting stories about you are fantastic openers. Finally, remember to revise if needed! Find a peer and have them read your work, and take their suggestions.
Most importantly remember this, IT IS OK TO TALK ABOUT HOW AWESOME YOU ARE! The Personal Statement is your chance to brag about yourself and not have everyone think your an egotistical jerk! Get over the feeling of being a blow-hard bragger. The world won't know how great you are unless you tell them. Right?
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Getting back into the swing of things can be a challenge for the best of us, and writing is no exception. If there's one thing that I dread more than any other, it's that initial moment where I sit down on the computer and pop open the word processor. I don't care if I've had a thousand ideas shooting through my head. It doesn't matter if I've wowed myself with seventeen different structurally-perfect arguments on this that or the other. When that first blinking cursor begins its maddening pulse, my hands freeze. My brain locks up. I'd swear that half the time I end up drooling on myself.
Fortunately the Evil White Screen has a few weaknesses. As clever of a monster as it might be, it's also a coward. You know that kid that beat you up in the lunch line because you thought you were a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and rubber-banded your first and last two fingers together?
(No? No one? Must just be me...)
Anyway, just like those school-yard bullies, the White Screen of Doom can't stand someone who stands up to them (unless, like me, your 'vicious right hook' hits about as hard as a limp-wristed kitten). Here's the biggest weapon in your arsenal:
Give yourself permission to write poorly.
Right now. Say it out loud. I don't care that your roommate's cat is giving you a funny look. The best way to get a project off the ground is to tell that inner editor to shut his gob. Everyone has their own little critics. Some of them are gentle whispers, guiding you along a more refined path, pointing out things that could be improved. Others flay the skin off your back with flaming whips of self-deprecation with a sadistic fervor that would make the Balrog cringe.
One of the things that paralyzes more writers than anything else is the fear that what they write will suck. Guess what? The first time around, it probably will. There are probably two people in the entire galaxy who are capable of producing flawless text the first time, every time. And those people better hope that none of us other writers find him or her, because we'd probably slice open their brains like jealousy-maddened zombies in a vain attempt to steal their powers.
Writing is just as much a reflective exercise as it is an art. As we write, we're trying to take the abstract ideas floating around in our heads and transfer them in their most accurate form into the mind of the reader. Odds are, you're not going to know exactly what you want to say when you sit down. As you write, you'll figure it out. You can always go back and give your sentences a cutesy little makeover once the words are on the screen.
It's pretty freaking hard to make white space academically appealing.
Now let me put a little context behind that statement. I'm talking about rough drafts here. Please don't roll your face against the keyboard and turn that in as your final product. Obviously, you'll want to go back and think about what you've written. However, that first step, that initial splatter of ideas onto the page is often times the most difficult part. Heck, if you're anything like me, half the time your rough draft won't even be in complete sentences. When I have an idea, I have to write it down nearly immediately or it slips through the cracks in my nose and vanishes underneath my dirty laundry pile.
Trust yourself. Give those first initial thoughts some voice. Every builder needs raw material to work with. Writing is no different.
January 18th at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall
In this 15-minute introductory workshop, we will explain what we are all about and demonstrate how we help EIU students become stronger writers.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Many of you will find yourselves graduating this semester and likely on the long arduous search for work. Some may have jobs that you held during the semesters while others might’ve focused solely on academics in lieu of a steady paycheck. Whatever the case, once you get your fancy-shmancy degree, you’re going to have to make it look like you’re a pro. I mean, you are a pro, but you gotta make them believe it. Your prospective employers.
Yeah, you got some wicked awesome grades. 3.5 GPA? Not everybody can boast that. Heck, it might even be just what your employer’s looking for. Your resume? It was pretty boss. It could just snag you that job.
But wait. I can see it now:
Mr. Future-Boss is thumbing through his latest wave of applications to position of Senior Fancy-Pants. He’s looking for a particular background with a particular set of skills, and, by George, you have all those particulars down like you’ve planned it all these years.
But you know what? He never sees your application. In fact, he tosses in the “Send to Incinerator” bin, the contents of which will be sent immediately to the incinerator where it will be converted into ashes and then returned to Mr. Future-Boss’s office where Mr. Future-Boss and his assistant will sip ginger ale and dance on the ashes.
I’ll answer your first question: I don’t know what kind of dance they’re doing, but if I had to guess I’d say the
Now I know nobody writes letters anymore except foppish dukes in powdered wigs, but that’s why this is called a cover letter. You don’t need to write a letter, but you sure as heck need a cover letter.
What does that entail? Well according to the Purdue OWL, you want to begin with a little bit of this:
- State the university you attend, your major, and what position you are applying for (if you are a student).
- Mention where you heard about the job.
- Mention the name of a professor or other contact who has a positive connection with the company.
- Bring up any previous conversations you have had with your reader (i.e., at a job fair).
Intros consist of some name dropping and fond reminiscence, or at least pretend fond reminiscence. Name dropping shows how connected you are and how enthusiastic you might be to get this job. Word of the wise: DO NOT GET WORDY. You want to be concise, to the point. It's fast paced world we live in folks and you don't want to get bogged down by wordy introductions and poorly-paced lead-ins that involve unnecessary information and--
Next, you want to kick it up a notch in the body, or the argument. This isn't where you argue that the one time you met your employer he was wearing two different color socks (it was a bad day for Mr. Future-Boss), but rather why you deserve this job, nay, why they deserve you. You're going to want to mention a few of these:
- Special projects
Talk yourself up. Big time. But don't lie or exaggerate. Mr. Future-Boss might have a pretty good idea whether or not you're in Mensa because he's the secretary at their meetings. He takes darn good attendance.
Feel ready to finish? Keep these things in mind:
- Close with a strong reminder of why you are a good match for the job position and the organization.
- Request an interview in some way.
- Provide contact information.
- Thank them!
- Sign your name and print it underneath.
Mr. Future-Boss has what they call the short-term memory loss. He swears he's like Guy Pearce in Memento, but his assistant (and most people know better). Regardless, he's going to forget why you're a top candidate for Senior Fancy-Pants after he gets done reading the body. You also want to talk to him in the future--you know, to convince him further why you'd be the best Senior Fancy-Pants to come through in the last twenty years. You'll want to leave your name, number, and address in case he wants to don his powdered wig and write you back, and while you're at it sign the bottom so he can see how good of penmanship you have. Or see how good the handwriting is of your close friend who has good handwriting. Again, he might forget your name so a signature should remind him of it.
And thank him because Mr. Future-Boss is a busy man with little time to dawdle.
Need some visuals? Check 'em.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
One of the best ways to inform students about our services is to set aside time in classes for a staff member to present a short orientation (ten to fifteen minutes) about the Writing Center. The staff member will give students a brief introduction about the center, provide brochures and handouts, and explain how we work with them to become stronger writers and critical thinkers.
If you're interested in having orientations in your classes, please call the Writing Center at 581-5929, and Betsy Wells, our Orientation Coordinator, will arrange them for you.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
As Hanford relates, "[t]his is something many people have known intuitively for a long time — the physicists just came up with the hard data. Their work, along with research by cognitive scientists, provides a compelling case against lecturing."
The story highlights what Professor Mazur calls "peer instruction," which also could be labeled "active learning."
And the article also provides a link to a documentary series by Hanford titled Don't Lecture Me.
I hope these links and programs provide readers something to think about, but I'd also like to note that the Writing Center and the pedagogy of Writing Across the Curriculum provide learning platforms that do not espouse the lecture format.
Put simply, writing consultants (tutors) at the EIU Writing Center offer something akin to Mazur's "peer instruction." While consultants obviously don't grade students' papers, they provide solid feedback about their ideas and drafts while considering the rhetorical principles of audience, purpose, genre, and style, among many other important considerations such as supporting evidence, use of sources, and sentence-level concerns.
Also connected to the science professors who are changing their teaching methods, Writing Across the Curriculum offers pedagogical strategies and tactics that move away from the "sage on the stage" role.
Below are some links from EIU's Writing Across the Curriculum webpage that professors, students, and aspiring educators might find helpful. These links, along with many others, can be found on the "Resources for Faculty" page:
- WAC Clearinghouse Teaching Exchange
- "Integrating Writing Into Any Course: Starting Points" by Kate Kiefer
- Designing Writing Assignments
- Examples of Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities
- "What is Writing to Learn?" from the WAC Clearinghouse
- "Using Writing to Improve Reading" from the University of Hawaii at Manoa Writing Program
- Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers: Critical Reading Assignments