Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Soviet Russia, Vacation Goes on You!

By Travis Willmore

Remember how it feels coming back to school after a break between terms and having to bang a couple of unresponsive neurons together in hopes of producing just one coherent thought? After a long, hard slog through ten weeks of academic edification, the tendency is to tune out, turn off and try to make your brief glimpse of freedom as mentally unchallenging as possible. So a little after-vacation rustiness of the brain is extremely common.

While it’s good to decompress after a stressful term, there’s no reason your writing skills have to atrophy, and writing while you’re on vacation (“The very idea!”) doesn’t have to feel like work. After all, you’re not having to fulfill the requirements of any assignment, you’re not having to create an effective thesis statement or make sure your sources are cited effectively—you can just write about whatever you feel like writing about. This is its own kind of mental vacation.

And it can be valuable later. You’re not going to have crystal clear memories of everything that happened over spring break months after the fact—especially if you have the kind of spring breaks and the kind of memory that I do. Many people, myself included, tend to do a lot of writing in situations where they have to—and don’t make much time for it when they’re just out there living. If you write things down at the end of a long day of windsurfing or line-dancing or keg-standing or whatever your spring break entails, then you’ll have a record of some memorable times in your life (which will now be easier to remember further down the road). Not only that, you’ll have positive mental associations when you think about writing. It won’t seem so damn punitive, and when you come back for another long, hard slog of educational enlightenment…lo and behold, you’ll find that you aren’t all rusty with writing, and the onslaught of more writing assignments won’t seem so daunting anymore.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In Soviet Russia, Paper Proofreads You!

By Travis Willmore

Say you have a classmate who trusts your writing judgment. We’ll call him Bob. There may come a time when Bob calls upon you to help proofread his work. This is a totally different situation from offering assistance in revising a paper, which has been dealt with at length here. Editing and proofreading involve targeted line-by-line changes to help fine-tune a paper. Excellent information on to proofread your own work, as well as that of others, can be found here.

If there is a recurring error in Bob’s work, it may be effective—and less discouragingly repetitive—if you note the first instance and mention that it recurs frequently throughout the paper. If the error is of uniform enough nature, he will be able to go through and make the corrections without having every individual instance marked. If he keeps capitalizing Coffee when you know that coffee is not a proper noun, you probably only need to mention it once.

Sometimes you will run across an unclear passage: one with more than one possible meaning. Rather than narrowing it down to a single specific meaning on your own, ask Bob what he intended the passage to mean before you proceed. If Bob writes, “I launched a cow from a wooden catapult on an English farm that must have been around since the 1580s,” does he mean the cow, the catapult, or the farm looks to be of 1580s vintage? Don’t just assume and fix the passage so it fits your assumption. Bob’s intention may well have been the less likely one.

You will also want to check with the writer about making changes when they deal with style preferences, rather than set-in-stone rules. If Bob doesn't use the serial comma (“this, this, and this” loses the second comma to become “this, this and this”), you have a situation in which either option is technically correct. In that case, it’s a good idea to check if Bob’s choices on the matter were intentional before making corrections that impose your own stylistic preferences.

More important than any of these individual techniques is the attitude you bring to proofreading when Bob calls you in to help fine-tune his work. Keep in mind that you want to be positive in your tone when pointing out problem areas, and recognize situations when the writer just wants you to add a coat of polish rather than rebuild the whole car. You will have a more satisfied Bob and he will have a more satisfying paper as a result.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Brainstorming: Reporters’ Questions

Adapted from a Portland State University Writing Center handout by Mariah Bennett-Gillard

Reporters have an obligation to their profession to maintain an unbiased point of view when writing their articles. One of the ways they carry this out is to ask as many questions as they possibly can. That way, they get as much information from as many different angles as possible.

When using this structured method of discovering what you want to say, try to produce as many responses as possible for each question. There are no correct answers, only useful ideas that you can explore in greater depth later. Not every question will be relevant to every topic, so you may have no answers for some of the questions.

Remember that the answers you get from asking these questions are not themselves topics. Instead, your goal is to accumulate as much diverse information about your subject as possible. Later, as you organize your paper, you’ll be able to pull out the best ideas from your notes and consider how to organize them or whether to develop the ideas further.

Who is involved in X?
Who benefitted from X?
Who suffered from X?

What is X? How is X defined?
How would you describe X?
What is X similar to?
What is X different from?
What parts make up X? How are they related to each other?

When did X occur?
How long did X take?
What happened before X?
What happened after X?
What are the consequences of X?

In what setting did X occur? What were the physical surroundings?
What other circumstances made X possible?
How would X have been different if the circumstances were different?

What are the causes of X?
Why did X exist or occur?
Why did X do what it/they did?

How did X come to be?
Who made X?
How does X work?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brainstorming: Making a List

Adapted from a PSU Writing Center handout by Mariah Bennett-Gillard

Making a list can sometimes help you collect your ideas on a topic. Start by writing the topic at the top of your paper. Underneath it, list whatever words or phrases come to you. Let your mind flow without interruption; without being critical of yourself. In other words, don’t reject any idea that comes to your mind. When you run out of ideas on the topic, stop writing.

Brainstorming a list can also be done in a group or as a class. One person records all the ideas suggested in response to a topic. Group brainstorming is a good way to generate a lot of ideas on a topic. Often someone else’s idea can prompt an idea you may not have thought of on your own.

Once you have a list of ideas, read them over, pick out those most closely related to the topic, and cross out the ones that aren’t suitable. If you wish, you can put the remaining ideas into categories or groups, or you can draw arrows connecting things that go together. You may find that one idea is a good central focus of the paper while others can be used as support.Y

You may want to make another list using one of the ideas on your original list as the new topic. Try making a list of your topics in the order yo you u want to present them. This kind of list can give you a guide for what to write about when drafting your paper.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Active vs. Passive Voice: Part 2 - The Trouble With Passive

Although the previous post discussed situations where using passive voice is useful, using active voice for the majority of your writing is still recommended to maintain readers’ interest and sentence clarity.

Passives become a problem when obscuring the agent obscures your meaning. For instance, you could write:
The governess is misrepresented.
This is a clever passive sentence: first, it sounds fairly natural; second, the “by phrase” is dropped, so the sentence doesn’t immediately look passive. But when writing analysis, it’s important to keep the agent’s identity clear. That example sentence is actually the sentence: “The governess is misrepresented [by someone].” But by whom? By the author? By a critic you’ve read? The identity of the person misrepresenting is probably crucial to the strength of your argument. By using a passive sentence, your meaning becomes uncertain, and your argument unclear. The active version would be:
[The agent] misrepresents the governess.
It’s a small change, but it keeps the language active and your writing clear, which can make a big difference.

Traditionally, many of the social and natural sciences use passive voice in order to emphasize the research, not the researcher. This is because those conducting the research are supposed to be objective and the research should be the sole focus of the report. For example:
We conducted 50 interviews.
50 interviews were conducted.
However, most current science writing guides recommend using active voice whenever possible, even if it means using “I” or “we.” But be aware that some professors prefer the use of passive voice in formal reports. If you are given an example, check to see whether active or passive voice dominates. A quick way to do this is to look for “to be” verbs, such as is, was, am, or were. Although the use of one of these words does not automatically mean the sentence is passive, all sentences with passive construction use these words. You’ll notice in the above example that the passive sentence uses the word “were,” whereas the active sentence does not. Another option is to check in with your instructor or TA to ensure you’re meeting their expectations for the assignment.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Active Versus Passive Voice: Part 1 - When Passive is Good

The difference between the active versus the passive voice can be confusing. Sometimes this is because people are taught that a passive sentence is somehow evil or, even worse, ungrammatical, because the subject is at the end, but that’s not true. Passive sentences have a subject and are grammatical. What passive sentences hold until the end is what grammarians call “the agent,” by which they mean the entity that took action. Take the following examples:
James wrote the book.
The book was written by James.
The first sentence is active, and its subject is James; the second is passive, and the subject is the book. But James is “the agent” in both sentences—in both cases, he wrote the book.

Now: passive sentences exist for a reason—they aren’t inherently bad. For instance, imagine an English and Liberal Studies major that will be unemployed when he graduates and will have to take an office job. One day he will come into the office early to get some paperwork done. He will enter the little office kitchen, grab the filthy coffeepot to make some coffee…and drop the pot on the floor, shattering it. An honest employee would go to the office manager, admit to breaking the pot, and thank the company for deducting the expense from his next paycheck. Because he has a degree in English or Liberal Studies, however, it will not occur to him to be honest. What he will do is hide the pieces of the broken pot at the bottom of the trash, and then return to his desk. Later, one of his co-workers will stop by, wondering what happened to the coffeepot. He will say:
“Oh, yeah…it was broken.”
The active version of this sentence (“I broke it.”) would incriminate our hero. The beauty of a passive sentence is that he can drop the “by phrase” and instead of saying, “It was broken by me,” he can just say, “It was broken.”

The more honest use of passive sentences stems from situations in which the agent is unknown or nonexistent. For instance:
The law was passed last year.
You could write, “Congress passed the law last year,” but every congressman who didn’t vote for that law will write you an angry letter stating that he didn’t pass that law. By making the sentence passive, you rid yourself of the complex problem of a case in which there is no easily identifiable agent. Also:
She was struck by lightning.
You could easily say “Lightning struck her,” but we don’t often say that, probably because no one really wants to blame lightning—maybe Zeus throws the lightning, or maybe lightning just happens…it’s natural to use the distance of a passive sentence there.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Hating On My Writing Assignment: Part II – Think Outside the Assignment

In Part I of this blog topic, we gave you some suggestions for using the buzzing in your own brain to help you get interested in potentially uninteresting essay topics. But there’s a great big world outside your brain! And a great big world outside your assignment, too. So, take a look at these three ideas for ways to step out into that world and stop hating on your assignment:

Do a little research even if the assignment doesn’t ask for it. You might not want to hear this, but sometimes lack of interest in a topic is born of lack of knowledge. Maybe you just don’t know enough yet. A great way to become interested in your topic is to become educated about it. The more you learn, the more likely you are to find something that intrigues you. Be open to seeing the assignment in a new way based on the information you gather.

Academic doesn’t necessarily mean high-brow. If you are intimidated by a topic because you believe that it is too hard or that it flies over your head, don’t despair! It is a mistake to think that you must write heady prose about heady topics in order for your essay to have any academic value. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why not take a look at that low-brow magazine you love so much and let it help you pose questions and answers about the culture you live in? Turn an analytical eye on anything from Britney to bling – it’s all potential fodder for intellectual inquiry.

Answer the assignment guidelines, but make it your own. Yes, you need to address the question or problem the instructor gives you, otherwise you could face a failing grade. But, don’t let that discourage you from looking at the question or problem creatively.

Once upon a time, a student was given an assignment that asked him to come up with his own personal definition of nature. “I don’t like nature, but I do love technology” the student thought to himself. Instead of “checking out” and writing a ho-hum paper, the student decided to write about how technology has changed the ways we think about and define nature. He used the examples of artificial beaches and other manmade, technologically enhanced sites of “nature” as his examples. He loved his paper and got a good grade. The End.

Friday, March 7, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Hating On My Writing Assignment: Part 1 – Use What You’ve Got

If you lament that writing assignments can seem to have nothing to do with you or what you’re really interested in and you find yourself wishing your professor would let you write about Donkey Kong strategy, or the sexual tension between the cast members of The Real World – or some other topic on which you consider yourself an expert – you are not alone. Every writer at one point or another has been given an assignment that simply fails to inspire. We usually write the paper anyway but feel as if we’re just “calling it in,” and it often shows in the finished product.

That’s why, here at the Writing Center, we like to tailor assignments whenever we can to line up with our own interests and questions. It’s true that some writing assignments are pretty rigid, but we believe that even in the case of rigid assignments, getting interested plays a huge role in writing well. Take a look at these two suggestions for tapping into your own interests to transform a topic from blah to hurrah:

Discover your opinion. Having an idea is probably the single most important component to writing a good essay. But, it’s hard to have an idea if you dislike the topic. Sometimes, though, you can turn even your intense dislike of a topic into a viable, energetic and intellectually rigorous essay. The way to do this is to move beyond simply feeling that dislike and begin to ask questions about why the topic bothers you. When you come up with an answer to the question why, keep asking increasingly probing questions (i.e. So what? Why does that matter?) until you feel yourself hitting on a fresh idea. Make that idea the basis for your essay. Example: an assignment asks you to analyze a piece of art. You don’t like this piece of art. Why? Well, it looks like a child’s drawing. So what? Good art should have a standard of artistic merit. Why? Otherwise anyone would be able to make some random thing and call it art. So what? Otherwise how will we be able to distinguish what is art and what is not art? So what are you trying to say about this painting, then? I think this child-like painting disturbs the viewer because it challenges traditional beliefs about artistic merit. BINGO. An idea is born.

Use your own life experiences as a resource. Not all assignment guidelines will allow you to bring in your own life experiences as evidence, but who says you can’t be thinking of them behind the scenes? No one says that! Maybe you’ve always been obsessed with bats and you know an awful lot about them – perhaps more than you’d care to admit. Why not tap into your passion for bats as a way of approaching your essay assignment on environmental ethics? Research bat habitat and ask how human decisions affect the lives of your smelly big-eared friends.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A second set of eyes, part 3: Reader-based feedback

By Travis Willmore

Your writing can often benefit from outside opinions, much like your lungs can often benefit from outside oxygen. Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power discusses two types of feedback you can get from outside sources, criterion-based feedback and reader-based feedback. Reader-based feedback asks the reader to describe their reactions as they read the work.

For this type of input, you may want to pick someone familiar with your topic. Don’t worry about any qualifications for technical proficiency that your reader needs to meet beyond an understanding of the standards for an academic paper. Just concentrate on their faculty for honestly expressing how they react to the paper. If you’re looking for reader-based feedback, it might help to get input from a variety of sources because a piece of writing affects each individual differently. Here are some things you can ask your readers to facilitate the kinds of responses you would find helpful:

*What was happening to you as you started reading the piece? Were you bored? Engaged? Furious?
*Which words or phrases struck out the most and why?
*What sense does the writing give you of the writer as a person?
*What images did this writing conjure up?
*Where did you get confused?
*Can you identify the source of the confusion?
*What do you wish had been said that wasn’t?

A key benefit of reader-based feedback is that it highlights where people were confused by your writing. Something that makes perfect sense to you might not translate in a way gets your idea across to the reader intact. Once those areas of confusion are pinpointed, they can be addressed with your own choices on how to revise the ideas, content, and structure to make your intent shine through more clearly.

With this type of feedback, you have an idea of what fundamental areas to address, rather than having to focus on specific technical issues that do or don’t “work.” You are free to focus on how your writing addresses your potential audience and revise it in a way that you see fit, rather than having a prescriptive set of guidelines imposed.

Whether you choose criterion-based feedback or reader-based feedback or both, your writing always stands to benefit from more eyes reading through it. There will be an ultimate reader at the end of your paper’s journey to completion, the person assigning it a grade, so having others along the way to lend outside perspective could be one of the most helpful things you can do for your writing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A second pair of eyes, Part 2: Criterion-based reader feedback

By Travis Willmore

Now that we’ve looked at ways to find readers, let’s examine ways to direct readers in order to get the kind of feedback you want. Peter Elbow, in his book Writing with Power, divides feedback styles into criterion-based feedback and reader-based feedback. This post focuses on criterion-based feedback, which asks questions about the quality of the paper’s organization and how well the ideas established in the paper support its thesis and fulfill the needs of the assignment.

Criterion-based feedback assesses how the writing measures up to common writing conventions and the assignment criteria. If you feel your paper needs assistance in these areas, this may be the type of feedback to seek out. Here are some things you can direct your reader to address if you’re looking for criterion-based feedback:

*Is the basic idea of the paper solid?
*Is there a strong, stated thesis?
*Is the thesis supported by evidence and examples?
*Does the evidence build in a logical sequence that relates to the thesis?
*Is the paper fitted to its audience?
*Are the sentences clear and readable?

All these questions give the reader a strong insight into the kind of help you’re looking for, but they aren’t, by any means, an exhaustive list. You can tweak your list of questions based on the demands of specific assignments, or on your specific writing needs. These guidelines help direct them to the most important structural issues facing a paper. You may find your readers responding to issues beyond the scope of the questions you asked, which is fine.

If you’re aiming for criterion-based feedback, one reader with a strong grasp of the criteria relevant to your paper could go a long way toward meeting your needs. Of course, more than one perspective can be beneficial regardless of what type of feedback you’re seeking. Keep in mind that with criterion-based feedback, or any kind of feedback, it can be a ton of help if you have the assignment on hand to show to your reader.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A second pair of eyes, Part 1: Eye-finding

By Travis Willmore

No matter how many times you read over a draft, it’s still easy to miss some issues due to your close proximity to your own writing. That's why having an outside perspective can be an indispensable part of the writing process. We’ll look specifically at how to direct your readers to get the kind of feedback you want in future posts, but the most important thing to tell them is that they can feel comfortable being honest about the high and low points of the writing without you taking it personally.

Anyone can provide you with useful input on your writing. They don’t have to be an expert on grammar, spelling or sentence structure. A good place to start, if the demands on your paper are technically specialized, might be someone taking the same class. Even if the needs of your paper aren’t too specialized, someone in the same class may still be a good bet for that second pair of eyes because they’re readily available (at least three or four people within slapping distance, in the typical thirty-person class) and can sympathize with the general brand of writing challenges you’re facing.

There are plenty of other places to find readers. Ask your friends, roommates, or someone you’ve had in a previous class to take a look at the writing and share what they think about it. Offer to do the same with theirs. Some majors require students to write a lot of papers – identify friends in these fields and ask for their input. Current students have first-hand knowledge about what is required in a college-level paper and understand how important it is to turn in quality work. Take advantage of this expertise. You can also take a look at those in your life beyond campus. Are there college graduates you know that write in their jobs? These people are often able to reflect on their vast experience and provide relevant feedback that can help bring your paper to the next level. Remember, feedback can be harvested from most anywhere.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Looping: A Focused Approach to Brainstorming

Adapted from a PSU Writing Center handout by Mariah Bennett-Gillard

If you don’t have time to waste and have to come up with an idea on a specific topic for a writing assignment, try looping. It is a good way for you to manage your time and freewrite without going off topic.

To start looping, find a tentative topic or idea, even if it’s unspecific and broad. Write the topic at the top of the page. Before beginning, check the clock or set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes. Once the timer is set, write without stopping until the timer goes off.

Once your time is up, read over what you wrote and determine the best or most important thing. Pick the idea you want to say more about and copy the sentence or phrase on a fresh line. It doesn’t have to be what you wrote the most about. It can be something you like or even something you didn’t quite say, but want to.

Now, do another loop using the sentence or phrase you copied as your prompt. Set the timer again and begin freewriting. Write like you did before while focusing on your chosen title sentence. Stop when the time is up. Read what you wrote. Decide what was best about the writing in this round and use that idea to start your third loop. Repeat the process one more time so that you have three complete loops.

By the time you are finished with the third loop, you may find that you have an idea that you can develop into a larger piece of writing. You may need more than three loops, and that is alright. The important thing is that you have started to write.

Cubing: A 3-D Approach to Brainstorming

Adapted from a PSU Writing Center handout by Mariah Bennett-Gillard

Cubing is a good way to look at a person, object, feeling, or idea from six different perspectives. Like a cube, the writing you do while cubing has six sides which represent the different aspects of your writing. When doing this exercise write quickly, spending 3 to 5 minutes on each side of the cube. Read the questions two or three times to make sure you have them locked inside your brain. Set a timer and focus the best you can. If it helps, keep a flashcard with the questions in front of you while you work, switching them once your timer dings and starting again. You’ll surprise yourself with what you can come up with.

Here are the prompts for each side of your cube:

1) Describe it: What does it look like? What are its characteristics? What are the first things you notice about it?

2) Compare it: What is it similar to? What is it different from?

3) Associate it: What does it remind you of? How does it connect with your individual life, with the life of your family or community?

4) Analyze it: Look deeper. What is it made of? How does it work?

5) Apply it: What is it used for? Who uses it?

6) Argue for or against it: Is it a good thing or a bad one? Explain why.

When you are finished, read what you wrote, and put a star besides the writing that seems the most powerful or interesting or that you would like to develop further. Now, freewrite again. This time focus on the sentences that you put the star next to, and before you know it, you will be well on your way to writing your assignment.

Friday, February 22, 2008

How to be a Productive 'Shopper

By Travis Willmore

The Blog has previously dealt with fear of criticizing others’ work and insecurity about your own writing, two issues that can keep workshops from being that ideal vision of constructiveness and feedback. Another scenario that can arise is when people are willing to comment honestly, but their comments aren’t the kind that lead to improving the paper. For workshop comments to be useful, they need to engage the recipient in a way that isn’t condescending, and leads them to finding their own ways of positive revision. Here are some suggestions for successful ’shopping:

-Distinguish between constructive criticism and criticism for its own sake: When you point out areas in need of revision, do you show a clear path toward possible ways of making those revisions? Raise the possibility that a section of the paper could be revised, and suggest some potential options for doing so…but remember that you’re just offering options. Be suggestive, not prescriptive.

-Balance criticism with praise: You don’t want all your input to be critical, even if it’s all purely constructive. No matter what your intent, it can still be trying for others to listen to an unbroken string of things you think could change in their papers. Intersperse comments on areas in potential need of revision with comments on what you think is positive about the other student’s work.

For more strategies to use in peer response groups, click here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Open-Ended Assignments, Part 2: Working Around to Eventually Having Some Kind of a Point

By Travis Willmore

With open-ended assignments, coming up with a topic is only the first of several goals the writer wants to meet. You also need to decide what main point to communicate to your audience. Even if you’re just telling a story, there’s something central you want people to get out of it. It’s often easier to write something (a paper, a personal statement, anything…) when you start with this central theme already in mind. But if you don’t, what then?

Fortunately, it’s not necessary to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. Start by putting down on paper (or monitor) every thought that comes into your head on anything remotely related to your topic. Make lists, freewrite, yell into a tape recorder—use any method that appeals to you. Then, sift through all this disparate information to see if something emerges as a central theme—an underlying thread that connects these different aspects of the subject.

Maybe there will be more than one common thread. Then you have a choice. Choice is swell. Choose the theme that seems most relevant to the open-ended question you’re attempting to answer. Also, ask yourself which of these central elements would allow you to use the most of your accumulated writing to support it. The more of your already-created output you can clean up and use in your actual paper, the closer you are to being done.

So…if you have no idea what central point you want to make when you decide on your topic, no need to freak out. Try writing your way toward it. It’s just as valid to use this creative sequence to arrive at your final draft as it is to start with a point and work forward from there. When people see a well-crafted paper, they can’t tell in what order its components were assembled, only that it hangs together beautifully.