From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

The Anxiety of Beginnings

fountain-pen-on-paperTrips to Wawa and hanging out on the Terrace define my experience here at William and Mary, but so does the struggle to begin writing papers. Here a few strategies from my arsenal that make getting started on paper-writing just a little simpler.

When getting started, make a checklist. 

And not a checklist that says “write paper.” That can only be checked off, well, in that distant time when the paper is finally done.

Instead, I have a checklist that is much more focused on each step of writing. My average paper-writing checklist looks something like this:

  • brainstorming
  • refine brainstorming by sequencing ideas
  • flesh out thesis
  • figure out topic sentences
  • go outside and find a dog to pet**
  • write intro and conclusion
  • develop body paragraph structure
  • plan structure of body paragraphs based on topic sentences
  • ⅓ paragraphs done
  • ⅔ paragraphs
  • binge watch Parks and Rec**
  • channel my inner Ann Perkins and do something nice for another person**
  • all body paragraphs done
  • adjust intro and conclusion accordingly

(**Optional-ish)

When I check off a box on the checklist, I am motivated to stay productive because I know that I have at least begun the writing process. This system might not work for everyone, but the age-old tip of breaking large tasks into small, bite-sized steps is pretty golden advice.

When brainstorming, don’t dismiss your own ideas.

One trap that I fall into when brainstorming is dismissing ideas as “too dumb” to be included in the paper. Simple ideas form the basis of more complex ideas; when dismissing ideas, you narrow the scope of ideas that have the potential to form the foundation of your paper. It’s one thing to remove ideas from your paper once you’re finished outlining – that likely means that the idea may not be relevant to your thesis. At the brainstorming stage, however, all ideas are game. Once all ideas are on paper in the form of questionably legible half-sentences in a notebook (my way of brainstorming, though that might not be the best format for everyone), you’ll discover trends in your ideas. These trends and patterns in your ideas will form the basis of your thesis.

It’s super important to begin the first stage of writing with self-validation in order to stay motivated. Don’t doubt the strength of your ideas when brainstorming!

When done with your writing, take time to appreciate what you’ve created.

Part of what makes writing so daunting is not taking the time to look back and appreciate what you have created. Seeing what you’ve written is a reminder that you seriously did transform some ideas in your head into a real paper. The real world calls for people to take concepts and turn them into something tangible through the writing process. It is an incredibly powerful gift to have the chance to take your ideas and systematically validate them. While writing papers can be challenging, they are part of what makes our liberal arts education so valuable.

A Case for the Bookstore

bookstore_1I never write papers in Swem.

Unpopular as that opinion may be, I can explain. As an English major, I have spent much of my college career writing papers. In the pursuit of enjoying this experience as much as possible, I have experimented with many locations around campus; however, I have had varying degrees of success. I have tried various academic buildings, my dorm room or lounge, and of course Swem and Swemromas. Academic buildings and dorms rooms are never quite right, although the new ISC is growing on me (in large part due to the Starbucks). Even though many students consider Swem a studying haven, I never produce my best work on any of Swem’s four floors. Instead, when it comes time for me to sit down and write, I often opt for the William & Mary bookstore in Merchants Square.

The bookstore is an ideal place for me and my writing process. I love being surrounded by tables of interesting books and the quiet, cozy atmosphere of the bookstore. The Café is usually quiet and relaxed, with the occasional dimmed conversation or the sound of the espresso machine from Starbucks; the patio, just separated enough from the bustling DOG Street, is typically serene (you may even get to pet a dog!). As a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, I love the ready availability of Starbucks’ Pike Place roast. I am also a fair-weather writer in the most literal sense. I do some of my best writing sitting outside in the sunshine with an iced coffee in hand. In fact, I have written entire final papers at one of the tables on the bookstore patio or sitting at a table in front of a window in the cafe on chillier days.

The one downfall of the bookstore is its somewhat unreliable wi-fi, especially when sitting outside. However, as part of my writing process, I do any research in advance, creating an outline that I can then work from. When I actually sit down to write my paper, I already have all of the information I need. In my case, the lack of reliable wifi at the bookstore actually motivates me to stay focused on my assignment, rather than hindering my progress.

I understand that everyone’s writing process is unique, so the bookstore may not be the best spot for all writers. However, I encourage you to always be willing to try a new writing spot, even if you think your current spot is working. I have found that, sometimes, the best way to overcome writer’s block or a lack of motivation is to switch things up! So if you venture over to the bookstore to write your next paper, I might just meet you there.

 

Image from “Living In Williamsburg” http://livinginwilliamsburgvirginia.blogspot.com/

Putting Pitch to Paper

Looking at my writing in terms of performance helps me see the value of precision, experimentation, and time in search of excellence.

music-writerAfter joining the staff at the Writing Resources Center, I was surprised by the number of talented consultants who can both reach an accord with their consultees and strike a chord with their choirs. As a singer myself, I wondered if our center’s connection to singing ensembles was just an anomaly; however, the more I considered the two activities, the more I saw writing and performing as different ways of exploring the same creative process.  

When a choir first sings through a piece, the resulting tune might resemble an avant-garde jumble more than a captivating chorale. Chaos ensues as the sopranos enter a measure early, the piano gets lost on page three, and wrong notes clash against wrong-er ones. However, this initial mess is an expected one. This train-wreck is akin to a brainstorm that gives the writer a silhouette of an argument and a sense of what the final product could be.

The next step is to refine. In rehearsal, this means going back to the basics: sitting at the piano and tediously plunking out notes to ensure that each chord sits in place to properly support the melody. In the same way, a proper argument will only make sense if the evidence underneath lines up precisely, requiring a close analysis of the parts of the claim and flow of ideas.

The musical process doesn’t end when every note is technically correct, just as a good paper is not finished when individual arguments are well-supported. Singers need to consider the piece as a whole, following the emotional arc of the music and changing inflection as the chords shift from major to minor and the volume crescendos from a soft piano to a shaking forte. No note is ever static, with each measure propelling the story of the song. Essays ebb and flow in a similar way, creating nuance by transitioning between arguments with ease. Only after rehearsing over and over again and constantly readjusting with fresh eyes and ears can these two art forms reach their final stages, ready to show off to their respective audiences.

Looking at my writing in terms of performance helps me see the value of precision, experimentation, and time in search of excellence. Both present puzzles which appear daunting, but become beautiful with hard work. Don’t be afraid to fine tune your writing until all the parts of your paper exist in harmony.

Image: shannonathompson.com 

 

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