From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Category: academic writing

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.

The Case for Simple Writing

arrowsWhat is “good” writing? Many people mistakenly consider “good” writing to be characterized by long, flowing, flowery sentences that test, tease, and bend the rigid rules of grammar, using countless commas and unnecessary language and verbiage to lull the reader into a sense of complacency and confusion; that is, until the reader receives the pseudo-break of a semicolon, only to be thrown back into the baffling, confusing, and some could say perplexing, depths of a sentence that never seems to reach its foregone and tragically inevitable conclusion. There is a place for sentences like this, and that place is your personal diary or journal. However, superfluous writing does not belong in academic essays. In fact, I think that academic writing should be the exact opposite; it should be simple.

In every piece of writing, the writer and the reader play unspoken roles. The writer is there to communicate ideas to the reader. The reader is there to interpret those ideas. As a writer, why make the reader’s role more difficult than it needs to be? To me, the best essays are clearly written and well-organized. They have concise, arguable thesis statements. They have well-written paragraphs that are situated in a predictable, structured fashion. They do not contain writing that serves no purpose other than to confuse the reader or to put the writer’s extensive vocabulary on display. Once again, the writer’s role is to communicate ideas to the reader. The best essays are the ones that do so in the clearest way possible.

My defense of simple writing may seem like a defense of boring writing by default, but I disagree. Unnecessarily long sentences exhaust the reader and steal attention from the piece as a whole. Think of every sentence as a simple brushstroke. Individually, a singular brushstroke seems insignificant. However, once the artist combines that brushstroke with others, the piece as a whole becomes clear. Writing, like any art form, is often at its best when it is simple and accessible. This notion especially holds true in the field of academic writing, where the writing that seems dull actually shines the brightest.

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