From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Category: academic writing (page 1 of 2)

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/

Writing Centers Grow Up, Too

writingThe transition from high school into university is a large leap for many: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, even writing centers. Adjusting to the higher quality of writing and topics in numerous subjects that aren’t found in typical high school papers is a daunting task for both the consultant and the consultee, but it’s a necessary leap in higher education that fosters personal and intellectual growth.

High school is often the first time students encounter a a group of people dedicated solely to helping them improve their writing. But high school writing centers are often not valued to the same extent as writing centers at the university level. When I was a junior in high school, I helped found my county’s first in-school writing center, comprised of about thirty students and one very dedicated advisor.

To be honest, it was very slow-going. First, we had to get the word out that we now existed. Then we had to prove our value. The students had no prior experience with a writing center and were wary not just of our authority, but also of our ability to help. The center was only open during lunch hours, so sessions were crammed into 15- to 30-minute chunks and focused more on quick grammar and punctuation fixes than on content and analysis. More often than not, the only students who came to visit were those who were required to by their teachers.

For me, the biggest adjustment to working in a writing center at the university level has been the significant increase in working with students who come in on their own accord—students who truly want to improve their writing and value the consultant’s perspective. Not only that, but now we have an entire hour to sit down and work through the piece together, which is something that allows for a deeper conversation about the topic and arguments.

What I have found most rewarding, however, is the ability to work with more international students. These sessions pose different challenges for both the writer and the consultant. Working with students from a variety of countries has helped me see writing in an entirely different way—every culture, every language, every person has a unique voice and view of the world, and helping these students develop their ideas in their writing is a very rewarding experience that isn’t found often in a high school setting.

A higher education, especially at a liberal arts university like William & Mary, encourages students to gain a broad perspective on subjects in multiple disciplines. University writing centers have adapted to the different levels and expectations of writing, giving students a place to find support as they grow as writers.

Image: https://medium.com/an-idea-for-you/the-two-minutes-it-takes-to-read-this-will-improve-your-writing-forever-82a7d01441d1

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.

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