Tag Archives: writing process

Beating writer’s block

by Sydni Hammar

We’ve all had it happen: we receive some daunting writing assignment and we resist the work like a little kid refusing to eat green beans at dinner. Of course, we can only avoid an assignment for so long. Eventually, we sit down to write…and stare at the blank screen for what feels like an eternity.

In these horrifying moments, we feel paralyzed. This writer’s block can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • We simply don’t want to put in the time
  • We don’t know where to start
  • We’re not interested in the topic
  • We’re so passionate about our topic that we’re afraid we can’t do it justice

Oftentimes, the longer we wait to begin, the more daunting the work becomes. But in remaining passive by making excuses to procrastinate, we allow our writer’s block the space to intensify.

BUT…

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield discusses the idea of resistance, explaining that it functions as a paralyzing roadblock between a writer and his work. He asks: “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign…like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it” (57).

Pressfield shows us that if a writing assignment feels daunting—paralyzing, even— then it must be very important. This also tells me that accomplishing the assignment will be all the more satisfying. As Pressfield puts it, “the most important thing…is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying” (121).

With that in mind, here are three rules that I swear by when it comes to a daunting paper assignment:

  • Don’t like your topic? Change it! Developing a genuine curiosity as we explore an assignment is half the battle. Once we recognize how important and rewarding our assignment is, it is easier to be disciplined in our engagement with it.
  • Block off some time to work on the paper every day leading up to the due date. This amount of time could be 10 minutes or several hours. Be reasonable with yourself and your time, but be disciplined, too.
  • After you spend time working on the assignment, allow yourself to step away from the work. If you practice this, then you can truly look at your writing and ideas with fresh eyes when you come back to it. This space is important as your paper and ideas develop.

Remember that writing is very process-oriented. Any amount of time you spend wrestling with ideas is progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Fighting writer’s block with small, practical steps is a surefire way to get your paper to where it needs to be.

Sydni Hammar is a junior and an English major on the Creative Writing track.

Crafting a conclusion

by Meg Andersen

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed when trying to wrap up your paper, you aren’t alone. It isn’t always easy to know what to include in your conclusion paragraph. Perhaps it feels repetitive, or you feel that you’ve exhausted all of your points and have nothing left to write. To make this process easier, here’s a simplified guide to writing effective conclusions:

Purpose: The conclusion helps readers know what to take away from the paper. They should reach the final word and have a clear idea of what you’ve told them and why.

The structure:

  • Restate your topic and thesis (your claim), but in a new way
  • Highlight the major points you made in your body paragraphs
  • Show us how those points fit together
    • The sum of the paper can be greater than the parts
    • You are synthesizing ideas, not just summarizing
  • Close with a statement that shows the reader the importance of your claim

How to make it happen:

  • Echo your introduction
    • Close the paper by incorporating a theme, quote, claim, or style from your introduction paragraph
  • Think big
    • Papers tend to start general (intro) and get specific (body paragraphs)
    • In your conclusion, you can go from specific to general
      • Start with the specific ideas from your paper and then zoom out to show the larger importance of the topic/idea
    • Look to the future
      • Looking to the future is another way of thinking big—it gives the reader something to chew on after putting the paper down
    • Defend your case
      • Close with a strong statement that supports your big idea—the “so what?”—without simply restating the thesis

Conclusions can be very helpful when wrapping up your thoughts at the end of a paper. I often find that my ideas become clearest when I get to the conclusion, because it forces me to ask the “so what?” question. Why did I make that point in paragraph three? What am I really saying in this essay, and why is it important that others read it?

For this reason and many others, conclusions really can be quite helpful, both to you and to the reader. Enjoy the process, and remember that you can always come see your trusty writing tutors in the library if you’re feeling stuck!

Meg Andersen is a junior and a Business Administration major. She loves travel, art, and breakfast food, and lives in San Francisco. 

 

Revising or Editing?

by Shannon Naylor

Many students hear “revising and editing” and think of them as synonymous terms. This isn’t the case. While both are practices that improve pieces of writing, revising and editing are actually two different ways of approaching that goal.

  • Revising is intended to help you address the big picture: content, organization, the form and structure of a narrative or argument.
  • Editing, on the other hand, focuses on details like sentence structure, proper grammar, punctuation usage, and other mechanical aspects of writing.

These two activities have a shared purpose and often occur at the same time, but they are separate processes with their own merits.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that a student takes time to revise her paper, but spends no time editing it. She looks over her piece and notices that her introduction and conclusion contain completely different ideas. She re-reads her paper and discovers that her main ideas are better stated in her conclusion, so she rewrites her introduction so that her paper has a unified direction. She also repositions some paragraphs, changing their sequence, in order to strengthen her argument. However, misplaced or missing commas riddle her paper, and several of her citations are formatted incorrectly. She revised, but didn’t edit.

Another student, feeling rushed to finish before a deadline, only edits his paper. He notices and corrects several typos, and adds a citation for a quote he’d overlooked. He realizes that many of his sentences have a repeated structure (it “sounds” a bit monotone). These sentences are improved once he edits them. However, he fails to notice that some of his paragraphs have too many ideas in them. And while his thesis is a clearly written sentence, it doesn’t capture the essence of what he argues in the body of his paper. He has edited, but not revised.

Each paper needs BOTH processes.

I hope that the example of these imaginary students clarifies what revising and editing look like and how they can each improve a paper. Just remember that revising and editing work best when you make time to do them both.

 

Shannon Naylor is a former Principia writing tutor and the current post-graduate teaching intern in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Four paper-planning hacks

by Meredith Hamilton

It’s Friday. Perhaps you’re sitting at your desk feeling completely overwhelmed by all the work you have to do. Maybe you feel lost or disoriented. We’ve all been there, but you don’t have to stay there. Here are four paper-planning tricks that will make writing your papers a smooth, organized, and stress-free process:

  1. Schedule a “thinking period.” Designate a time to think about your paper. Ideally, this will happen soon after you receive your paper assignment. Try going for a walk or taking a bike ride while you think. Movement can be a great way to stimulate ideas and get your creative juices flowing. This will ultimately leave you more prepared to begin the planning process.
  1. Create a calendar in Excel. Fill in your class times and extracurricular activities. (This includes sports, student government obligations, etc.) Once you’ve done this, fill in your work hours. Now, you’re going to plan when to work on your paper. Let’s pretend that your paper is due week 5, and you’ve decided to dedicate six hours to it each week. Block off this time on your schedule. Use bold print or colored print—something that will grab your attention. I like this strategy because then I can’t claim that I don’t have time to work on my papers.

Your calendar might look something like this:

paper calendar

  1. Create (effective) notifications on your phone or laptop. Use your phone or laptop’s calendar function. This is your friend. Once you’ve put your designated “paper-writing time” into your Excel calendar, create notifications that you’ll actually pay attention to. This means you should turn off the snooze setting and set multiple alarms. The notifications will remind you of the commitment you made to work on your paper.
  1. Set a word-count goal. Now that you’ve gotten to the actual paper-writing session, set a word-count goal for yourself. The goal shouldn’t be so high that it takes away from the quality of your work, but it should be high enough to encourage you to make good headway on your paper—try 500 words per session. If you use your designated time effectively, you’ll find that you’ll finish well before the due date.

Planning out your papers encourages you to fully commit to your work, and this ultimately makes writing a lot more enjoyable. Happy planning!

 

Meredith Hamilton is a junior political science and English double major.

 

Free-Question Follow Up Lesson

A few weeks ago Heidi Snow posted a blog about free-questioning.  I decided to try this tip in my classroom using the book we’re reading right now called Sidewalk.  At first the students had a difficult time with asking questions and not giving or getting answers.  However, once we got in the groove of asking questions, they filled three chalkboards full of questions!

After several weeks, I decided to have the students organize these questions.  I split the students into two groups and gave them the exact same list of questions, each question on its own strip of paper.  Then I had the students, within their groups, divide and organize the questions into groups of similar questions.  I had the students use post-its to label their groups of questions.  I paralleled this activity with the beginning of writing a paper.  This is a great way to figure out what questions need answers or need more information.

When the groups were finished organizing their questions, I had them visit each other’s tables to see the results.  We had a thoughtful and insightful discussion about the different ways we approach the organization of a paper.  The students also shared that this activity was difficult because some of the questions that the class generated were not clear to them now.  I enjoyed listening to their reflective ideas about this process and the importance of being clear while writing, whether they’re writing questions, sentences, or papers.

Claims + evidence = persuasion

by Shannon Naylor

Claims and evidence make sense in a courtroom: the prosecutor claims that the defendant did the crime and provides evidence to build her case. If there is not enough evidence, or it takes the wrong form, the jury doesn’t accept the claim of guilt. The same system applies in persuasive writing, although with lower stakes. As the writer of a persuasive paper, you must make a claim or series of claims that must then be supported by evidence.

Let’s clarify what we mean with some definitions. In our example of a court case, the claim is the accusation of guilt. In a paper, the claim is the thesis and every other statement that is something that can be argued. Courtroom evidence might include video surveillance footage or fingerprints left behind at the scene of the crime. In a paper, evidence is comprised of facts, examples, and data.

We have claims and evidence, but how do we use them? The first step is to remember that any paper that is all evidence (that means only evidence) is a report, not a persuasive essay; likewise, a paper that is made of only claims cannot be persuasive because the claims are unfounded (without evidence). To illustrate: if I were to lecture on the theme that cats make the best pets, I would never persuade you of my position if I didn’t list reasons why. Similarly, if I rattled off cat facts, you would probably be confused (and then frustrated) at my lack of explanation. A balance must be struck between the two so that you have something to be persuasive about (claims) and something to be persuasive with (evidence).

In practice, this is easily seen in the structure of a typical paragraph, which opens with a topic sentence, or claim. This is followed by the body of the paragraph, which is a mixture of facts (evidence) and commentary (claims tying facts together). To see the balance of claims and evidence in your writing, try going through your papers with two highlighters. Use one color to highlight each claim, and the other color to highlight each piece of evidence. Now that they are visible, you can check to make sure that your claims and evidence are working together harmoniously.

Shannon Naylor is a senior studying theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. Currently, she is working on capstones for her majors and has just finished the spring production of Our Country’s Good.

The bibliographic research journal

by Shamus Jarvis

As any scholar who has composed an extensive paper can attest, the research process plays an essential role in developing a thought-provoking and original piece of scholarship. Effective research methods include not only identifying appropriate sources, but also properly documenting those sources so that one can utilize the information gleaned from various books, journals, etc. when it comes time to write the paper.

A bibliographic research journal is one such method of documentation that is less formal than a complete annotated bibliography, but is nonetheless an exceptionally helpful tool to use when engaging in a project that will necessitate extensive research. Comprised of three essential elements—1) a proper citation, 2) a summary of the source, and 3) notable quotations—a bibliographic research journal allows one to record an author’s main thesis and identify other key ideas in an organized manner.

While you should format your own bibliographic research journal in a way that best suits your research needs, I will offer my personal format preferences as a guideline for what the journal might look like.

  1. The first piece of information included for each journal entry should be a properly formatted citation. Be sure to consult your professor as to which citation style he or she expects you to use (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.).
  2. Next, create a summary of the source. What is the author’s principal thesis? Does he or she articulate any especially innovative ideas within the source? Be sure to include only summary information; do not comment on whether or not you agree with the author. This section should be roughly one paragraph long and only contain the author’s ideas.
  3. Thirdly, include quotations from the source. This is an appropriate section in which to jot down your initial reactions to a particular idea or the source as a whole. Do you mainly agree or disagree with the author? Does the source seem credible? Does the author reference any sources that you have already investigated? All of these are reasonable questions to ask yourself when examining a source.

If you anticipate analyzing a significant number of sources (e.g., fifty or more), it might be wise to include a slightly abbreviated summary section in order to save yourself some time. Again, a bibliographic research journal is entirely for your own benefit, and as you become a more proficient researcher, you will undoubtedly develop your own note-taking style that suits you well.

Shamus Jarvis is a senior theatre and English double major. He will direct a one-act play and present his postcolonial reading of Lord of the Flies later in the semester.

Five foolproof thesis tips

by Meredith Hamilton

When trying to formulate a thesis statement it is easy to feel overwhelmed. If you have spent an extensive amount of time researching your paper topic, you might not know how to focus your information. If you don’t know the point you’re trying to argue, then you might be struggling with turning a general statement into a claim. No fear! Here are five tips for better thesis statements:

  1. WRITE OUT ALL IDEAS. Write down all of the ideas that interest you on a piece of paper. Decide which ideas are most relevant and narrow your list down to one or two ideas. If you have more than one idea, think of how they relate to each other. These connections will make your thesis statement cohesive. If you only have one idea, you’re already on your way!
  1. CREATE A QUESTION. Formulate a question that you want your paper to answer. Your answer is your thesis statement. The more specific the question, the more focused the answer. For example if I were to write a paper about Jane Austen, I might ask: How do Jane Austen’s novels promote or detract from feminism? Don’t be afraid to write the first answer that comes into your head. You can revise and refine your thesis statement as many times as you need to!
  1. ELIMINATE UNNECESSARY INFO. Cut out the parts of your thesis statement that you can explain in your introduction paragraph. You can’t explain all of your ideas in one sentence! Let the supporting information precede your thesis. This info will lead your reader to your claim and ultimately make for a stronger, more organized, paper.
  1. SWITCH SENTENCE COMPONENTS. If your thesis statement isn’t sounding right, try switching the end of your sentence with the beginning. This is especially helpful when dealing with compound sentences. Allow yourself to see your thesis with fresh eyes and consider how the new sentence construction affects it. It might not work, but don’t be afraid to try it out!
  1. EMPHASIZE DIFFERENT WORDS. Read your thesis out loud several times, emphasizing different words each time. This can reveal nuances you hadn’t noticed before. By emphasizing different sections of your thesis you sometimes realize you’re focusing on the wrong ideas. This will also give you a new look at your statement.

A well-constructed thesis statement sets your paper up for success. Always remember to ask yourself these questions: Is it debatable? Am I making a claim? Does it make sense? If your answer is yes, you’re on your way! If you’re not sure, use these tips to reevaluate. Happy thesis crafting!

Meredith Hamilton is a sophomore majoring in political science and English. Two of her favorite college experiences thus far have been studying abroad in England and Spain. 

Chop off an arm, save a life

by Bailey Bischoff

You know it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t make it any easier… you stare straight ahead, wishing things could be different… mentally forcing yourself to take control… repressing the urge to run away… you can do this… you CAN do this…. You can DO this… you take a deep breath… and… and…. Delete an entire paragraph.

It can be a difficult task to revise a paper. It takes a willingness on the part of the author to critique his or her own writing. Oftentimes, we put so much thought and effort into the act of writing that we can’t bear to see our paper torn apart by red slashes and arrows or see our precious words deleted. Sometimes, we don’t think that we’ll be able to come up with anything else to replace the words that are already on the page. However, there comes a time when we must realize that revising is necessary and that to truly improve our writing we must look at it with impartial eyes.

One of the most important pieces in the revision process is time. It can be extremely challenging to give yourself enough time to not only write the paper but also revise it. However, it is even more challenging to properly revise when your deadline is hanging over your head, as there is more pressure to just be done with it.

It is also important to take time in between writing and revising your paper. Take a walk, take a nap, do other homework, eat dinner: just give yourself time before looking at your paper again. You will be less attached to the words on the page if you are looking at it with new eyes and a refreshed mind. Your ability to refine your paper stems from your ability to distance yourself from your paper when you revise. Sometimes you have to chop off an arm to save a life.

Tips for revision:

  • Give yourself time to both write AND revise your paper.
  • After writing, take a break (walk, nap, eat dinner, etc.).
  • Revise your paper knowing that you can always improve and that you will have the creativity and inspiration necessary to replace what you cut out.
  • Have a friend/peer look at your paper for an even more objective critique.
  • If you can, look at your paper again for any final revisions or edits.

Bailey Bischoff is a sophomore majoring in political science.

 

Quick tips for tutoring

The WriteHereWriteNowWriteOn blog is written by Principia writing tutors. In today’s blog, one tutor gives tips on what it is that tutors can do to help with writing. Read on!

by Shannon Naylor

What do tutors do?

Tutors are an essential resource for any student with questions about any stage of the writing process, from research to invention to revising. Tutors can identify patterns of error or weaknesses in samples of writing. They help their tutees understand what can be refined and teach strategies for correction and improvement. Tutors are trained to handle questions about researching, developing theses and organizing papers, proper citation methods, grammar, revision strategies, and much more.

 What don’t tutors do?

Tutors aren’t professors or editors. We cannot “fix a paper so it gets an A.” We are guides, coaches, and cheerleaders. We point out areas of weakness and give you the tools you need to shore up and strengthen your writing. So while we can’t edit or proofread your paper, after working with us you should be better prepared to tackle any aspect of the writing process.

 How do I get the most out of a tutoring session?

We love to have time to prepare for your specific needs. If you know that you would like tutoring ahead of time, drop by the tutoring café and put yourself down on the sign-up sheet, and tell us what you’d like to work on. This way, if you know you often misuse commas or semi-colons, the tutor you’ll be seeing has a chance to brush up on punctuation rules, the better to help you. We also love it when you bring us a piece of writing to work with. If it’s a printed copy, even better!

Come in with questions! We can help you faster if we know right off the bat what you’d like to learn during the session. That said, don’t be afraid to walk into the café, hands empty and not sure what you’d like to work on. We can also have a lovely chat about the writing process in general.

Assignment sheets are very helpful as well so that we don’t coach you on writing an English thesis paper when you’re supposed to be writing a literature review for biology and vice versa.

While we’re happy to work with you at any point in the writing process, we tend to see a lot of students on the nights before their papers are due. If you have time, sign up to meet with a tutor a few days before the deadline. You’ll be less stressed, the tutor will have fewer students to help at once, and you may find it easier to work on bigger things than proofreading strategies when you have time to revise after the tutor session. Trust me, getting a chance to make sure your ideas are clearly presented matters a lot more than double-checking your comma usage.

I’m in! When can I visit a writing tutor?

The library tutor café is staffed Sunday-Thursday, 8-11 pm, Weeks 2-15. We even have on-call hours during exam days, so be sure to stop by the café during Week 15 and 16 to check the schedule.

Shannon Naylor is a senior studying Theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. Currently, she is working on capstones for her majors as well as the spring production of Our Country’s Good.