Friday, February 25, 2011

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

What is the first thing you look at when you are given a writing assignment? I bet I can guess what it is. Length. The first thing you want to know is how much you have to write. Well, I’m going to tell you something that might sound a little crazy. When you are sitting down to start a paper, you need to forget the length requirements. That’s right. Forget it. Nothing is more daunting than seeing the start of the paper and counting how far you are from the finish line. This is what can lead to procrastination. It’s the fight or flight response. Some will see it as a challenge and start writing. Others (and this includes me) will take flight and avoid this problem. Ignoring the length requirements will free up your mind, and you will be able to better focus on what you are actually putting down on the page. It isn’t until you have all of your ideas out and on the page that you should think about length. Are you short? Did you go over? These are questions for the revisions stage.

But the length requirement isn’t the only thing you shouldn’t focus on when you are starting a paper. Brace yourself for this. Don’t worry about grammar. That’s right. Don’t worry about it. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore it. Obviously put in the grammar you are sure of, but if you start questioning yourself (Should there be a comma here? Do I use a colon or a semi-colon to introduce a list?) just move on. If you are still in the process of writing your paper, there is no point spending 10, 20, or even 30 minutes fixing the grammar of a certain section. When it comes to revision, there is no telling what you will keep and what you will get rid of. There is no worse feeling than cutting a sentence that you spent 20 minutes perfecting. Just like the questions about length, grammar is something that is best left towards the end of your writing process.

When you are sitting down to start a paper, you need to worry about these questions: Am I following the assignment? What is my thesis? Do I need research? Am I staying on task? These are the questions you need to be able to focus on. Once you get past these, you can start worrying about the more technical aspects of writing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Writing on the Spot: Approaching Essay Exams Workshop, Th 2/24

Since mid-term exams are drawing near, this Thursday's workshop, "Writing on the Spot: Approaching Essay Exams," focuses on strategies and tactics that can help you when you're writing in-class essays exams.

The workshop will run from 5:00 to 5:30 in the Writing Center (3110 Coleman Hall).

If a student is interested in attending, he or she just needs to give us a call at 581-5929, reply to this blog post, or reply to our latest status update on the EIU Writing Center's Facebook page.

Good luck with your mid-term exams.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The (T)Ex(t)orcists

If it is true, as Dan Davis says, that “Procrastination is Evil,” (see Using Your Syllabi to Plan Out Your Writing Assignments) then perhaps those of us possessed by this tendency might find relief from its malevolence by following the advice of EIU President Perry, whose interview with EIU Writes is coming soon to our blog. He advises writers who suffer from the symptoms of procrastination to “take ten minutes” and just write.

Likewise, Dr. Tim Taylor, Director of the EIU Writing Center, has offered strategies for combating the demon procrastination. He, like Mr. Davis, advocates establishing a writing schedule as well as doing mortal combat with the notion that words must come out perfectly the first time, citing poet William Stafford’s idea that sometimes we have to “lower [our] standards” in the initial stages of generating material.

In the spirit of embracing the messiness of first drafts and early efforts, I suggest the cinematic metaphor of Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist, infamous for its graphic scene of projectile illness. It is a disgusting allusion, but somehow apt. I have seen other fecund expressions of the need for loosening textual effusion. See, for example, a recent post by Ben Myers on the WVU Writing Center Blog , notable for its erudition as well as its figurations of bodily function. It can be found here

Like me, some of our readers might be inspired by those named above to give up procrastination for Lent.

Coming Soon…Robert De Niro’s Texty Driver: “One of these days I’m gonna get myself organized.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creative Writing in the Classroom

Many people balk at creative writing. They see it as having few practical applications in the real world. Certainly, this stereotype is a by-product of creative writers themselves (and I am one of them), who talk about "art" more than they do "practice" or "practicality."

But creative writing can be used elsewhere. I was fortunate enough to mentor teach in a literature classroom, where creative writing featured prominently. The professor, Dr. Letitia Moffitt, used creative writing assignments to help students understand Shakespeare plays. These students were, for the most part, non-English majors, mostly sophomores, who had little previous experience with the Bard. By creating their own scenarios based off the plays (sometimes rooted in popular culture, such as The Lion King, Jersey Shore, and other programs), students were able to grasp the underlying thematic concepts inherent in the plays.

But creative writing can extend beyond English courses. In a mathematics course I had freshman year, our professor encouraged creative thinking in understanding advanced probability theorems. There was little of what we would traditionally call "writing" going on, but the process was still there; the idea was sound, and it helped us non-math students grasp these principles.

The same idea could easily be applied to other courses. Don't let the writing itself get in the way; often, it's the thought process behind the writing that is most useful. Use creative scenarios to get around difficult concepts. If students can be shown how abstract or difficult subjects relate to some aspect of their own life, they will better understand both the subject and why it's worth learning.

If you have any specific ideas or suggestions, please post them in the "Comments" section.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Practice Those Skills

Let me ask you a question. How many times have you heard that writing is a talent and that only the talented should perform it? I’m guessing more than once. I know I have. Well, I’m here to tell you that the idea of writing being for the talented is a bunch of malarkey. Writing is a skill. And like any skill, it must be practiced.

As Dan talked about in his post “Using Your Syllabi to Plan Your Writing Assignments,” it is essential to understand when all of your assignments are due. Having that information allows you the time to strategize your plan of attack. But that is only half the battle. Writing, as I said, must be practiced. It is incredibly difficult to write a larger length piece when you haven’t been writing throughout the semester. Trust me on that one.

For that reason, you need to make sure you are practicing your writing as much as possible. We are at the end of Week 6, meaning there are only 9 weeks left in the semester. That may seem like a lot of time, but it will go quickly, and if you haven’t been practicing your writing, those larger assignments are going to be even more difficult. But here’s the good news! There is still time to build up your writing stamina.

And I know what you’re thinking: “But Chris, what should I be writing? I don’t have the research I need to write that history paper, and I haven’t read that novel for that lit analysis paper.” Well that is a good question, and I thank you for asking it. Write anything. Putting words onto the page will help you. Write a poem. Write a short story. Write some fan fiction. Is that Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Han Solo fighting Dr. Robotnik? I think it is. Now it is up to you to create the story. There. I just gave you an awesome prompt. What? You don’t know who those people are? Well, looks like you have some research to do before you can write.

On a more academic side, you can write summaries for everything you read. If you read an article found on one of the library’s databases, then write a summary of that article. Writing a quick summary will do a few things: 1. It will ensure you understood what you read. 2. It gives you something to turn back to later on and remember what that article was about. 3. It gives you some material you might be able to pull into your actual paper.

As long as you are writing, you will be growing and learning. Write some fan fiction. Write a summary of an article. Take the extra step and write for class and yourself. So as we go into this weekend, take some time to do some writing. Practice those skills. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Using Your Syllabi to Plan Out Your Writing Assignments

Using Your Syllabi to Plan Your Writing Assignments

So, that time of the semester is fast approaching: the point at which you realize that, holy crap, your professors expect you to write something! And not only that, but multiple professors are asking you to write! The bad news is, you have to do the writing; there's no way around that, I'm afraid. However, here comes the good (great) news: you don't have to do it all at once!

The key to managing your assignments is the syllabus that your professor handed to you at the beginning of the semester. (If you didn't receive a syllabus, you can always ask your professor when things are due; don't worry, they'll probably be happy to tell you.) Not only do syllabi give a tentative list of when assignments are due, but quite often they give details about what is expected from those assignments. (Again, if such info isn't available, ask your professor; they'll be pleased that you're taking an interest in future assignments.)

Quite often, major writing assignments are due near the end of the semester—which means that they're all going to be due around the same time. Which should you start first, then? There are two primary factors at work here. The first is, of course, what you know: don't start writing a paper about advanced quantum mechanics if you haven't the faintest clue yet as to what quantum mechanics is. That doesn't mean that you can't do advance research, especially if you get to choose your own topic. Research always comes before writing; if you get your research done early, you'll get your writing done sooner as well.

The second factor is how much you have to do for which assignments. Ideally, the more complicated assignments—those involving thorough research, interviews, etc.—should be started A.S.A.P. This doesn't mean that non-research assignments (like a personal narrative about your summer, or a book report) should be put off until the last minute. PROCRASTINATION IS EVIL!!! However, let's be realistic—it's best to start the harder stuff early. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a polished piece of writing.

For both of these factors, your syllabus is necessary. Don't be afraid to look ahead; it's kind of like being able to see the future. Check your syllabi, compare them, figure out what is due when, how much work is required for each assignment, and plan accordingly. Trust me, when it comes down to crunch time and all of your classmates are cramming all of their assignments together, you'll be able to relax, laugh at them, and say, "Good luck, chumps!"

Strategies for Revising, Editing, and Proofreading Workshop, Th 2/17 5:00 pm

The old adage is that learning how to write is really learning learn how to revise. So if you're interested in understanding what entails strong revision, tomorrow we're hosting a workshop titled "Strategies for Revising, Editing, and Proofreading."

The workshop will run from 5:00 to 5:30 in the Writing Center (3110 Coleman Hall).

If a student is interested in attending, he or she just needs to give us a call at 581-5929, reply to this blog post, or reply to our latest status update on the EIU Writing Center's Facebook page.

To get a preview of what the workshop might possibly cover, check out the "Important Points about Revision" page on the Writing Center's webpage.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New Handout: Transitions

New to the "Resources for Writers" page this semester is a handout simply titled "Transitions." The handout is located in the "Grammar & Style" section of the page.

Ben Potmesil, the Presidential Graduate Assistant for the Writing Center, was the lead author of the handout, and the document offers advice on how to achieve that mystical thing called "flow" in your writing.

Put another way, writing that has strong "flow" is cohesive. It has coherence through the use of effective transitions.

A writer can overdo transitions of course, so that's something to watch for, but as the handout relates, "You can't assume your reader is going to have the same conclusions you do, so as a writer you need to make it clear why one idea is connected to another by using transitions and signaling words. These words and phrases connect ideas within a sentence or paragraph and also between paragraphs."

We hope you find the handout helpful.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Keys to Writing Successful Conclusions Workshop, 2/10 5:00 pm

Do conclusions baffle you? Do you find the final paragraph or two of a paper the hardest paragraphs to write? Are you seeking closure?

If so, today from 5:00 to 5:30 in the Writing Center (3110 Coleman Hall), we'll host the workshop, "Keys to Writing Successful Conclusions." The workshop coordinators will offer tactics for writing strong conclusions, ones that offer closure to your documents without being overly repetitive.

If a student is interested in attending, he or she just needs to give us a call at 581-5929, reply to this blog post, or reply to our latest status update on the EIU Writing Center's Facebook page.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't Fall into the Spell Check Trap: Tips for Strong Editing and Proofreading

Before turning in a paper for a class or before submitting an article for publication, if writers want to get it right, they must take time to carefully edit and proofread their documents.

Only using the Spelling and Grammar Check through Microsoft Word will not get the job done, however. It's a trap.

As I've told people for years, "Spell Check isn't evil, but it's pretty darn close." I say that because if writers only use that system to edit and proofread their documents, then all kinds of silly errors will show up on the page.

So to combat the Spell Check trap, here are five different methods you can use for editing and proofreading your work:
  1. Read the Paper Out Loud
  2. Read the Paper Backwards
  3. Read the Paper Out Loud & Backwards
  4. Use the Pencil or Ruler Method
  5. Use Each Sentence as Its Own Paragraph Method
To get details about these strategies, all five are described on the Writing Center's "Tips on Editing and Proofreading" page.

Another strategy that isn't listed is when someone else reads your paper out loud to you. We use that in the Writing Center from time to time. For example, if you come into 3110 Coleman Hall and sit down with a Writing Consultant for a session, that consultant might read your paper out loud as you note places in the paper that need more development and also mark errors you notice.

When I'm in the later stages of writing a document, I like to read the paper out loud first and then read the paper backwards after I've given the paper enough time to rest.

Letting the paper "rest" is important because when I read a draft right after I've written it, I miss sentence-level glitches since the sentences are so fresh in my mind. If I leave the paper alone (for two hours or for two days), then I come back to it with a different set of eyes and mindset that is much more critical.

So I wonder what are other people's favorite methods for editing and proofreading?

What works for you?

And do you know any other methods that work well?