From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

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Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

“You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”

strayed_bookcoverIn Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed provides one of the most elegant, sweepingly empathetic perspectives on life and love that I have ever read. Whether she is reflecting on writer’s block, the stages of grief, or marriage jitters, her words are drawn directly from her wealth of hard-earned wisdom and unconditional compassion. I stayed up long hours into the night with this book over winter break, rereading sentence after beautiful sentence. Each page gripped me as a reader and inspired me as a writer.   

The book is a collection of letters Strayed has received throughout her time as “Sugar,” an advice columnist for therumpus.net. In response to a mother grieving her miscarried daughter, she recounts her experience as a youth advocate for a group of struggling preteen girls. She gives her letter-writer the same advice her students received: their circumstances will not become any less painful, so to escape it, they will have to “reach.”

Strayed answers many of the letters in this way; her personal anecdotes create an instant bond of lived experience that underlies her responses. What makes her advice so poignant is that rather than directly answering her readers’ questions, she contextualizes them. She reminds a young, insecure writer not to expect instant success. She tells a hesitant boyfriend that the terms of “I love you” can change. By broadening her readers’ scope of consideration, Strayed empowers them to see their emotions as valid. With the acceptance of that simple thought, so much is possible.

Two of my friends and fellow WRC consultants recommended Tiny Beautiful Things to me, and I’m so grateful that this book appeared in my life during college. In an environment that always demands that we have the “right” answers–whether on Scantrons or in interviews–Strayed’s radical empathy reminds me that they don’t exist. There will never be a time where we become objectively enough: a good enough writer, student, friend. Instead, we can only keep trying. We can keep reaching out to the people around us and challenging ourselves to higher levels of authenticity. So long as we “give it all [we] got,” we are more than enough.

Check out the book and Strayed’s column in the links below; you owe it to yourself.  

Tiny Beautiful Things

Dear Sugar Column

Writing Across the Disciplines

booksAs a business major, I didn’t think writing would come up that often in my major-specific classwork. Instead, I had pictured lots of class participation, teamwork, and presentations (all of which do occur). But I’ve had to write a few papers every semester as well, to analyze different industries and companies. And I’ve learned that even presentations are a form of communication which can be prepared in advance and outlined to ensure clarity. Writing is how we convey that we’ve done the research, formulated ideas, and created a game plan or strategy on how to improve the situation we face.

It makes sense why writing would be prominent in classes that don’t seem literature focused. Writing allows the transfer of knowledge and it’s essentially your thoughts and opinions captured on a page. No matter what you’re studying, writing can help exemplify your point and help others know that you understand the subject. Communication becomes tangible in the written form.

One of the most important skills I’ve developed during my time at college has definitely been my writing. Whether I’m taking a class within an English/writing focused department or not, written communication comes up regardless. My friends in science-based majors comb through research papers and academic journals to help spread knowledge acquired from experiments and studies. My friends majoring in public policy and government are active readers and writers, for the purpose of disseminating information and keeping up with the news through journalism.

One way to develop this skill is to not overthink it. At the writing center, one of the biggest things we encourage is simply engaging with the content – this most importantly involves talking about it. Once you start vocalizing your ideas, it becomes easier to transfer them to paper to later organize or revise.

Writing is universal – since its invention, it has carried civilization forward by allowing each generation to learn from the last. Across our schoolwork, it allows us to be more critical with our course material and facilitate the transfer of knowledge between us as students, our professors, and anyone else we wish to share with. I’ve always loved how writing helps me communicate across time and across subjects – it helps me keep in mind there’s always something to learn and to share.

Three Writing Habits to Change in College

A lot of what we learned about writing in high school was designed to make us score well on AP exams, SATs, and other high-stakes tests. That’s all well and good, but the same style of writing that we used in high school might not work so well in a college-level class. Adjusting to college-level writing can be difficult, but if you build on what you already know, it won’t be so daunting. Here are three of the most important writing conventions to change:

The upside-down triangle:

A common tip for essay introductions is to start with general knowledge and work your way down to a specific thesis. Visually, then, your introductory argument would look like an upside-down triangle. Although this method might be a quick, easy way to start a timed essay, be careful about how broad your first sentence is. The upside-down triangle can lead to cliché first sentences like “Since the beginning of time…” or “Throughout human history…” Your professors want something a little more original and specific than these beginnings.

For example, in a literature analysis, instead of starting off with a blanket statement, start by being as specific as possible. Your opening sentence should include, if applicable, (1) the author of the work you’re engaging, (2) the title of the work, and/or (3) the topic you’re focusing on. The rest of your introduction should introduce tensions, questions, or other interesting things that you noticed or want to argue about in your essay.

The three-pronged thesis: 

A lot of students are told that a good thesis statement should include three separate points that will be addressed later in the essay, and that those points should correlate with three body paragraphs. But this way of constructing a thesis often leads to three unconnected ideas obscuring the main argument.

Depending on your discipline, using your thesis chiefly to outline your paper might be too mechanical. Just make sure that your thesis addresses your core argument and compels your reader to find out more. The most important element that your thesis can have is argumentativenessyour thesis should be debatable. If you can anticipate someone disagreeing with your thesis, that’s probably a good thing—you have the rest of your paper to prove your point, after all.

The five-paragraph essay: 

Strict adherence to the “five-paragraph essay” will also get you into trouble. This method is designed to give you a generic outline that will work with any type of writing. Again, while this is a very useful template if you’re writing a timed essay exam, you can do better in a college essay.

You should design paragraphs based on your ideas themselves, regardless of how many pieces of evidence or analysis it takes to support your argument, and often it will take more than three body paragraphs to prove your point. Each paragraph should lead logically into the next and should build on the ideas that came in the paragraph before. Organize your paper according to what makes the most sense for your argument—in a literature analysis, for example, try moving from the literal to the metaphorical.

These three conventions of writing had their merits, especially in the context of important timed exams in high school. But in the case of college writing, it’s time to bend the rules a little bit.

Image via: www.9bridges.org/overcoming-writers-block/

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