From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Starting Over: Why Computer Crashes Aren’t Always the Worst Thing

While sittnotes-macbook-study-conferenceing and writing in Swem last week, I panicked.

Microsoft Word had crashed, and the recovery document was blank. All seven pages I had written were gone. I quickly realized there was nothing I could do but start over. Facing a tight deadline, I knew my time was better spent writing than worrying, so I set out to re-write the paper.

Although still not perfect, my second draft was considerably better than my first. It also took far less time to write. After agonizing over the first draft, I re-wrote those seven pages in one sitting. The difference was that the second time around, I finally knew what I wanted to say. This allowed me to be more creative, to rethink the organization of my paper, and to consider which examples would best sustain my argument. Having already had a go at it, I did not simply re-create the same paper. Instead, I took my memory of the fragments and made them into something new.

I gained from this experience an important reminder about the slow process of writing. That is, writing is a process, and each stage of that process matters. By writing, we are thinking and learning, and we need to slog through the sometimes arduous process to come out on the other end.

As a writing consultant for the History Writing Resources Center, I wish I could advocate for everyone’s Microsoft Word crashing at some point in their writing process. We are often too tied to our first drafts, too unwilling to start over. While I don’t think this applies exclusively to history writing, it can be particularly useful in terms of producing strong analytical arguments, a requirement of all history papers.

History papers should do two things:

  • First, they need clear guiding arguments (or thesis statements) that are analytical rather than descriptive. That is, they should try to explain “why” or “how” something happened, rather than simply saying that it happened.
  • Second, they should make use of evidence to bolster these arguments. They should use examples from sources (both primary and secondary) to support the main point.

This is much easier said than done. The process of figuring out how pieces of evidence are connected and what sorts of arguments they might yield is a difficult one. For those of us who think as we write, it is often not until we have already written about and explained all of our evidence that we figure out exactly what we are trying to say. A common refrain in the HWRC is “I didn’t know what I was arguing until I got to the end of my paper.” This isn’t a bad sign, but it means your work is not finished.

So, here is my advice. Once you have written a draft, start over. Since we are often pushing up against tight deadlines, this need not be taken too literally. At the very least, once you are finished with a draft, take out a clean sheet of paper or open up a new document and try once again to voice your argument. Take this opportunity to map out your paper and to make sure that the organization of your evidence fits your thesis statement. Once you have a draft, take the time to figure out if your paper actually says what you want it to say. I would also highly recommend re-writing your introduction after you have finished. Remember, you knew the least about your paper when you wrote your introduction. Your introduction deserves the knowledge of hindsight.

And every once in a while, go ahead and delete the whole thing. You’ll thank yourself later.

Caylin Carbonell is a Consultant in W&M’s History Writing Resources Center.

 

Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/notes-macbook-study-conference-7102/

The Virtue of Handwriting

cookie_crispDid you know that Jerry Seinfeld wrote every episode of Seinfeld by hand? The same goes for nearly all of his stand-up material over the years. When asked why, he answered that the blinking cursor makes him feel anxious, like he’s being asked, “So? What do you got?”

Though I’m not on Seinfeld’s level, I’ve also begun writing important papers by hand. Besides avoiding distractions on the internet, I’ve found writing long form to be helpful for two main reasons:

Pace

When you’re typing, the speed of your fingers can easily outpace clear thinking. Additionally, many people find that as they write, they further develop and understand their ideas. I find that the slower pace of handwriting allows for more of these discoveries as my brain can outpace my hand. I feel more in control of the paper and less stressed about hitting word counts or paragraph lengths that seem passable.

Necessary Revision

Of all the steps in the writing process, I find revision is the easiest to blow off. After all, I wrote the paper. I know already that it’s very good. Why waste time going back over it? Won’t that just puff my ego up more? My rationalizations can get convoluted. The truth is, everyone needs revision. That may sound trite, but it’s true. Papers, especially first drafts, need revision. Writing by hand forces you to allot the time to revise more as you write as well as when you transfer your written words to the computer.

Hopefully, as you read back over your work, you won’t just copy it verbatim from page to screen. You’ll see sentences that aren’t working or notice typos. You’ll develop a sense of the flow of your paper broadly. Once I see words on my screen, I always struggle to delete them. They look so final in Times New Roman 12 pt. font. However, when they are in pen, and I’m weighing whether they should be typed up, I’m much more honest and critical.

Consider writing by hand. Your first draft will be more coherent and insightful, and it’ll force you to review the paper as you type it up, improving your final draft. Slow and steady wins the race.

Image:  Jerry Seinfeld Breaks Down a Joke

Have you tried gratitude journaling?

grateful-forScrolling through my social media feeds, I can’t help but notice a sudden burst in pretty twenty-somethings professing themselves to be wellness gurus, promoting some kind of “healthy” practice that “Everyone Should Add To Their Routine!” Things like yoga, meditation, vitamin supplements, and innumerable recipes using organic foods fill my screen. As someone who tries to stay holistically in-tune with her wellness, I like to try a variety of these cool things I’m seeing online. There is one approach that I have found more beneficial than any other—gratitude journaling.

Gratitude journaling is the daily practice of writing down at least one thing you feel grateful for and why. This can take many forms—bullet points, full journal entries based on gratitude-themed prompts, drawings, or photographs with captions. There are many creative possibilities. The goal of this journaling is to create a deep sense of appreciation in one’s life.

In a world with so much inequality and struggle, it is often easy to overlook something as simple as being thankful for warm socks or the way the leaves on your favorite tree change colors. Competitive and academically challenging environments can make it easy to forget to be grateful for internet connection or supportive friends and family. Gratitude journaling focuses the mind on the present and generates a more appreciative view of the world.

There are even some proven benefits to daily gratitude journaling. The University of Minnesota and the University of Florida teamed up for a study in which participants were instructed to write down a list of positive events that occurred throughout their day and why these made them feel happy. At the conclusion of the study, the participants reported lower stress levels and a greater sense of calm at night. Psychotherapist Amy Morin has identified some key benefits of gratitude journaling, such as an improved quality of relationships, physical health, self-esteem, mental strength and resilience, and a decrease in aggression and anger.

Gratitude journaling is something I have come to look forward to every day. By positively focusing on the things that matter to me, no matter how small, I generally feel happier and more content with everything around me. I am more receptive to friends, family, even strangers; and I’m more resilient when faced with uncontrollable, stressful events in life. The physical act of writing down my gratitude helps to permanently capture these important things, and reading back through all these entries is something that brings peace to my life.

gratitude-journal

Images:

https://www.tckpublishing.com/how-and-why-to-keep-a-gratitude-journal/

https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-journal/

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