Monday, November 26, 2018

Recipe Tasting and Writing: The Benefits of Writing Practice by Brandi Gard

Writing is a sort of moving target. It moves in ways that are chosen by professors and assignment sheets and styles. Writing is daunting and more than often challenging to even an experienced writer. As a graduate student, I still struggle with writing those terrifying essays known by even scarier monikers: “critical essay,” “research essay,” and so on. Writing with a bent on the analytical and the logical is difficult. Most students know this, sure, but perhaps more threatening than those papers which will rest cozily among other academic pieces are creative pieces. Writing is hard, but creative writing is harder.
The skills useful in academic writing can be learned. They can be polished like stones smoothed shiny. Skills like researching, organizing information, synthesizing and summarizing texts and reforming them to fit an essay can be acquired after diligent practice. These skills cannot be mastered instantly like the making of a perfect cup of ramen. However, like instant ramen, academic writing does follow a series of steps. You begin with an idea, add well thought out research and textual analysis, cover with an easily understandable organizational structure and clear grammar, cook with as many drafts and re-drafts as it takes to make your essay palatable to your audience, and serve.
If academic writing is the ramen of the writing world, then creative writing is like Japanese cuisine—the recipe is rarely followed without adaptation. Of course, the skills used in creating a research essay can be used in a work of fiction or poetry. In fact, drafting, grammatical clarity, and some semblance of organization are all needed in an academic piece as much as in a creative piece. But creative writing requires a breaking of the rules of a recipe. Like a chef using exotic seasoning, it’s up to the creative writer to experiment with different styles and forms of expression.
So where does that leave the student? Some students find even making instant ramen difficult (as dorm fire alarms can attest to), so how can they ever hope to follow those recipes which writing is built on? The answer is simple. Like any skill, writing (and cooking) requires practice. It requires reading, reading, reading, as well as trying new things. Like testing recipes, mastering writing (any writing) requires false starts, disastrous results, and practice, practice, practice.
And how do you test those finished recipes? Taste testers, of course! And if you find that your friends and family are unwilling to savor your new and maybe less than tasty writing (or they don’t have much advice for ways to improve your writing), there are other options. At the Writing Center (3110 Coleman Hall) you can find friendly restaurant critics willing to sample your cuisine—whether creative or academic—and offer unbiased opinions as to how to improve the taste of your writing.

Monday, November 12, 2018

It's Not Personal: Constructive Criticism Will Make You a Better Writer by Ashley Flach

I’m writing you now as a reformed closet writer. For years I would scribble in my notebook and shove it under my bed always convinced it was the biggest piece of trash that ever came into existence. This worked fine for me until I began an undergraduate degree in English. Once I walked through the doors of academia, everything I wrote came back to me with a multitude of suggestions on how I could improve. Instead of taking this positively by understanding that someone was taking the time to critique my work out of belief in my ability, I took it to heart and felt personally attacked. In some sense, everything we write is an extension of ourselves, and when we feel that is being rejected it hurts, bad.

           My second semester as an undergraduate, I enrolled in an English research class, and the professor was a known stickler. She spoke her mind, never coddled anyone, and ruthlessly ripped papers apart. She was all about scholarly writing, and, in her mind, all of us were scholarly writers in training. She sent my first major research paper back to me riddled with, what felt to me, borderline hostile comments. As a whole, I summed them up in my brain as, “How stupid can you be, dummy? You’ll never make it in this field.” I cried. I wallowed. I decided good writing was like an elusive unicorn that I would never be able to catch. I figured English just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do it. 

I remained in this state for quite some time. Then during our weekly Tuesday night Skype sessions, she said something that changed my perspective. She told us, “Listen, my colleagues and I rip each other’s writing apart and then we go have drinks afterwards. It’s not personal. It’s about challenging each other to be better writers.” Wait, it wasn’t personal? She wasn’t attacking or questioning my reasons for existing or telling me I didn’t have a place within the English discourse community? That night, I literally felt my spine stiffen. I decided from that moment whatever she threw at me I would gladly take. I wouldn’t back down or allow my insecurities to consume me. I would take the criticism and use it to make myself a better writer. I would believe that if she took the time to rip my paper apart it’s because she cared and believed in my ability to grow. 

When you receive a paper from a professor and it’s littered with comments, don’t panic. First of all, that professor is probably busy as all get out, but he/she still took the time to give your paper individualized attention. That’s because you have something to work with. You have good and strong ideas that can become even better and stronger. Basically, you do belong in your discourse community, and the important thing is not to lose sight of your goals. You’re here for a reason, and it’s not always going to be rainbows and sunshine. It’s a hard fact, but it’s the truth. We all take some knocks, but it makes us stronger and motivates growth. 

So, the main point to take away here is, don’t be afraid to share your writing and never fear constructive criticism. At EIU’s Writing Center, we all have stories like the one I laid out. We’ve all been crushed with hopelessness that our writing just isn’t good enough. But, that’s not true. It’s the insecurity taking over. Stiffen your spine. Bring your marked up paper in and a tutor will go through the comments with you and help give you perspective. Or, even better, bring your paper in before you turn it in and whatever tutor’s available will take the time to look it over with you and help you address any concerns you have. Even better yet, bring in a rubric for a writing assignment, and we will help you brainstorm.  

EIU’s Writing Center is dedicated to supporting and helping create better writers. We will give you honest and caring feedback at whatever stage of the writing process you are in, and we will encourage you to stay positive and keep moving forward. At the end of the day, what else is there to do but continue to move forward? Don’t allow yourself to be beaten down. Be confident in your ability as a writer, know you have something worthy to say, and, most importantly, find a way to be okay with understanding you have room to grow.