Category Archives: Academic Writing
I’ve written an earlier post about how to start managing your time properly by consciously assessing how much time you actually have. Here, I will explain a bit further of how to really use your time more efficiently by prioritize your assignments. Why? So you can get more work done, on-time.
First off, take a look at what assignments are due and order them by deadline, from earliest to latest. Of these assignments, if you have any that are due right now, as in, today or tomorrow, please stop reading this (or anything else, including Facebook) and do them right now. But, if you’ve been following my time management tips so far, you shouldn’t have fires burning on your desk and will have at least a little wiggle-room for what to accomplish next.
Now, start assessing your assignments list. What can be taken care of immediately? Short response papers and articles, for instance, can be done relatively quickly compared to, say, a 15 page term paper. These short assignments can be completed first as they are (for the most part) relatively easy and cluttering up your assignment schedule. As such, they should be the first to get done and quickly. By doing so, you’re freeing up more time to conquer the larger, more daunting assignments– like, the ones that count for a larger percentage of your grade and/or the ones your professor will be looking at closest. If anything, you can call it survival of the fittest and, in the arena of schoolwork, they should be eliminated immediately.
Following this method, you should work on assignments in order of least difficult and quickest to hardest and most time-consuming. You will then allow yourself to devote most of your time to assignments that require the most time, effort, and concentration, without other assignments slowing smoldering in the back of your mind. Wouldn’t it be easier to work solely and dutifully on that massive 10-15 page paper on Russian literature that’s 50% of your grade without smaller assignments nagging at you?
That being said, you want to make sure you’re being completely honest with yourself and realistic: in order for ANY of this to work, you need to devote the truly appropriate amount of time each assignment. This means you can’t dilly-dally over a 1-2 page response paper for four days; this would be the complete opposite of what I’m saying. Misappropriation of time is a symptom of procrastination— meaning, spending way too much time on menial tasks are really attempts to put off tackling the bigger ones. This not only makes smaller, menial tasks more tedious and time-consuming (literally), but also leaves you with little time for assignments that really matter. This is where you have to be as blunt and honest with yourself as possible– to know if the time you’re using is an appropriate amount of you’re just slacking off. And, should you realize that, yes, you are slacking off, you’ll need to summon the inner drive to cut it out and finish it, so you carry on to the next item on your agenda.
This is all easier said than done– and I know exactly how hard this can be. Like writing itself, this requires self-discipline and, sometimes, a little self-adjustment. But, with practice, you’ll be well on your way to acing your papers and your semester as a whole. This may not seem like writing advice per se, but methods like these give you the tools– such as more time and more discipline– to better yourself as a writer and as a student.
In my last post, I covered writer’s block, reasons why it occurs, and how to beat it when it does. Whether it’s disorganization, difficulty with topic formulation, or sheer laziness (hey, it happens), I covered a number of remedies on how to combat it.
Sometimes, however, a writing assignment could be so daunting that the task itself is what’s keeping you from writing and from getting it done. It’s normal to get nervous when a big assignment is due– particularly if it’s a requirement to graduate, part of an incredibly hard course, or if it was assigned by a notoriously difficult teacher. Often, this can manifest in negative feelings about your own writing or even about writing itself:
“I’m not really much of a writer.”
“My writing just isn’t good enough.”
“I hate writing; I suck at it.”
I’ve heard many variations of these thoughts over the years. This usually stems from feeling apprehensive about the writing process. But, most often, it arises out of self-consciousness and anxiety over the reader and his/her potential response.
It is understandable to feel this way– writing can be a very scary thing. But, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed; with some reassessment and planning, you can overcome feeling self-conscious about your work. Here are a few ways you can combat self-doubt and write without hang-ups.
- Get your facts straight.
As with speaking, writing comes a lot easier–and a lot less self-consciously– if you have full understanding of what you’re going to say as well as how you will say it. As any one who has done public speaking would know, it’s infinitely more nerve-wracking to speak on the spot than to speak after you’ve had time to fully prepare yourself. So, to build confidence before taking on your next writing assignment, you need to strategize and plan ahead. Use brainstorming tools to formulate topic ideas. When you have a topic, do your research. Create an outline. Take full command of the information at hand– sketch out your ideas and fully digest the material you are using. Make yourself comfortable with the information– the more comfortable you are with the task at hand, the more confident you’ll feel writing about it.
- Turn the spotlight away from you and onto your work.
Whenever you write, you’re expected to tell a story, and to tell it well; this is what your professors expect of you, what readers expect of novelists, and even what you expect of me. Because of this, subconsciously, you might feel as though you’re being judged– that, whatever you produce, is a reflection of you. To some extent, this is true; those working on personal statements, for instance, can understand how this works. However, writing isn’t about you– writing serves a purpose, to divulge information in a well-reasoned manner with intention. While, yes, you are responsible for creating good work, you yourself are not the words on your screen. It is important to remember this difference, especially when that pesky self-doubt starts to rear its ugly head; it’s all about the work itself. So, if you’re feel stuck or lost while writing, don’t turn the scrutiny towards yourself– take a step back and focus on the work and the assignment. You are not what you write.
- Only edit when you’re editing.
It’s hard not to self-edit– trust me, I know. I make a living by critiquing other people’s work so it’s incredibly hard not to second-guess my usage of punctuation and panic over tense agreement. (And, don’t even get me started about word choice– my inner monologues often sound like this.) But, editing while you’re writing is like burning a bridge on one end while you’re still building the other side; you simply can’t make progress while looking fearfully (or, in this case, critically) behind you. Just getting your thoughts down on paper is hard enough, so don’t make the process anymore difficult for yourself. So, get the words out however you can and save the self-critiquing for later. Don’t hold yourself back; the ability to write freely and easily comes only when you allow yourself to let go. When your self-editor tries to sneak in while you’re writing, point to the door and just write. Once your draft is completed, you then can look it over and edit to your heart’s content (reason #34,382,370 why time management is key) but not until after the fact.
Of course, these are all hard habits to break; I’ll admit that I’m still working on some of these myself. But, like all efforts to improve writing skills, with consistent and continual practice, it can be done and the boost in confidence is totally worth it.
We’ve all suffered from it. I certainly have and, at some point in time, I’m sure you have as well. Plenty of famous authors have succumbed to it, also. It’s an affliction common to both creative and academic writers alike.
There are many reasons to writer’s block occurs, and nearly just as many strategies to overcome or at least circumvent it. This week, I will cover those particular to academic writing, by going over scenarios that all students have found themselves in. By learning what to handle these kinds of situations, you can unplug the stopper, unblock your writing, and get yourself going again.
You’ve started writing your paper, but you don’t really know where you’re going with it.
This is probably the most common of writing blockages. You’re sitting at your computer starting your paper when you realize, “Crap, I don’t even know what I’m saying.”
This lost feeling is often the symptom of disorganization. I’ve talked about the importance of outlining in some of my posts on personal statements, but it’s just as relevant here as well. When writing an essay or paper, you need to devise a convincing argument– a thesis that is strong from beginning to end, and is presented and explained thoroughly and clearly. One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an outline, so that you can create a framework to build your argument upon.
But, in terms of defeating writer’s block, outlining helps clarify your own thought process. Staring at pages of academic research, peer-reviewed journals, and a blank word document will cause anyone to go into a foggy, non-writing trance. But, realizing that your thesis can be deduced to a basic logical structure, it can ease some of your anxiety. With a well-devised outline, you can see your argument unfold which, in effect, will help you see exactly where you should be going.
You have a topic, but you hate it.
The writing assignments that you dislike are some of the most difficult ones to write– this much is true. Whether you find the topic to be boring, the content disagreeable, or you just don’t understand the material, you have your reasons to dislike the assignment given, all of which are hard to surmount.
Unfortunately, there’s no way out of doing what is asked of you. Sorry, but there’s no way out of doing the work. That being said, you can get yourself through it.
As I have said earlier, you should aim for a topic that addresses the overall theme of the course– what does the professor want you to come away from course with? What major themes or ties can be drawn through the material? If you’re still having difficulty, then consider this: What aspect of the material did you like the best? Or, what can you at least explain the best?
If you’re still deep in trouble, try speaking to your professor or, at the very least, your TA. (This is when having good time management skills will come in handy.) If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, they should also be able to offer suggestions. However, if you’re you’re having difficulty with the material itself, you’re experiencing more than writer’s block, and should look to outside help. If this is the case, you must speak to your professor– not only so he/she could understand your predicament but also to better your own understanding of the task at hand. If for whatever reason they aren’t helpful to you (and they really should be if they’re worth their salt), try talking to your classmates. Or, find someone who has taken this class before. Even try speaking to your librarian. Your goal should be to reach out to someone who can give you some guidance– if you’re truly lost in the course, you need to throw out a lifeline. If you find yourself struggling with the material, it will make the writing process that much harder. Do everything you can to find someone to help you– most schools have some sort of advising or tutoring program that you can turn to for help, as well.
You just don’t want to write.
Well, sorry to break it to you. There’s no real way to get out of this aside from taking an incomplete, dropping the course, or, worst of all, failing it outright. As fatalistic as it sounds, even if you don’t want to write, you’ll have to resign yourself to the task eventually.
But, sometimes, this extreme dislike is often masking some other problem– do you not want to write because you don’t know how to engage the topic? Or do you not want to write because you don’t understand the material fully? Or, alternatively, do you just not want to do it because you’d rather play Words with Friends? Be honest with yourself. If you’re having difficulties engaging with the material or understanding the assignment, follow what I said above. Often, writer’s block emerges when you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with the assignment, so do a bit of a self-check up. Here, brushing up on your outline will help you figure what kinks need to be worked out– it will help you see where the fogginess is coming from. Talking to others, like your professor or classmates, will help as well– some outside feedback may just be what you need. Try to figure where this writing malaise is coming from; chances are it’s from being overwhelmed by one of the issues I’ve stated above.
But, if you don’t want to write simply because you “just don’t want to,” then you’ll have to get past that. There’s no easy way around it. Get off Facebook, Twitter, this blog, whatever. If need be, disable your Internet connection– save all your articles and research so you can work offline to avoid distractions. Do whatever it takes for you to stop procrastinating and get motivated. In this case, talking to others may not be the best idea; you can’t afford yourself any further time away from doing what needs to get done. You might not like writing, I understand that. You might be one of those people who just don’t feel “right” in academia– I understand that as well. However, there is no salve or “quick-fix” to getting out of doing the work. (Or at least moral ones anyway, and I’m certainly NOT suggesting those by any means!) And, spending time away from the assignment is only putting off the inevitable which, as time goes on, will only grow in its dreadfulness. So, do yourself a favor and just get it over with. Stretch, go for a short run, take a shower, whatever– then, grit your teeth and rip the bandaid off and just do it. Trust me, you’ll be happier once it’s done.
A great admission essay doesn’t come from thin air– not only do you have to cultivate great material to later write about, but you also have to develop the skills to do so.
As I said in my last post, good writing comes with persistence. Meaning, in order to write well, you have to do more than just memorize grammar and syntax rules. Improving your writing is not an end-product in itself but instead a developing process. To continuously improve, you have to continuously practice.
So, here’s how to practice, and how to improve, your writing:
Read discerningly and critically.
Yes, to improve your writing, you need to read more. But, this goes farther than just reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while curled up on the couch. You have to read actively. Active reading is a bit like studying– you are reading more than just for what’s on the page, but to absorb the material. You are to analyze what is being said, and how it’s being said. Rather than letting the material wash over you passively, you have to engage with what you’re reading, and think about it critically. It doesn’t matter if it’s Thomas Pynchon, Tom Clancy, or the New York Times— think about what’s being presented to you. What is being said? Carefully consider the writer’s style– what is being done, exactly? How is this story being told to you?
Then, consider your own interaction with the material– is this story being told well? Is the writing effective in telling this story? What is attractive or unattractive about what is being said? What do you like or dislike about what the writer is doing?
Take careful note of what you like– and don’t like– about the material. Analyzing critically will help you develop your own style through comparison. So, consider your answers to the last line of questions I posed– what would you do differently? What do you agree with, in terms of phrasing, word choice, or content?
Interact with your own writing.
Now, pose the same sort of questions I’ve raised above to your own writing. Dig up old written assignments and essays– anything you’ve written in the last year or so. Then, critique it: did the story come through as you had intended? What could have been improved? Are you happy the way it turned out? What should be changed or remain the same? Was your story told successfully and effectively? In terms of phrasing and style, what was successful and needs some improvement? Take note of what worked and what didn’t and, most importantly, why that is the case. It is also helpful to look over any written work that had already been graded– you can definitely take cues from a professor or teacher in your self-analysis.
When you review work from a considerable time ago, you are reconsidering your writing with a more objective, critical eye. You are likely to find wording or phrasing issues or other mistakes that you may have missed the first time around. You are also likely to find phrasing or styling that worked then and continue to work now. Yes, you can be your own worse critic, so be sure not to beat yourself up too much; this is all part of the improvement process. By highlighting the best and worst aspects of your writing, you stand to improve on both of these points– to be mindful of the mistakes and to continue doing what works.
Aside from reading outside work and your own work more critically, you must also hone your own writing and editing skills. To become a more discerning writer, you must be in-tune with what makes for effective writing and what doesn’t, so that you can be in a better position to do so yourself. But, while reading critically is important, knowing what to do about it is absolutely crucial. This is when revision comes in.
Revision can be a difficult exercise but, by reading critically, you’re already halfway there. Consider some of the questions I’ve said above– namely, the ones asking where you (or anyone else) could improve on effectiveness. Then, as a starting exercise, try acting on these suggestions to yourself– rewrite these points as you feel they should have been written in the first place. (This is where looking over your old, graded materials comes in handy; your teacher has ideally earmarked what needs to be changed already.)
When practicing revision, you’re developing your own keen senses of what works within writing and what doesn’t. Whether it’s within your own writing or someone else’s, practicing revising and rewriting skills is key to developing your own “nose” for good writing. Likewise, it helps to develop the grounds for your own self-improvement. Especially in your own work, through revision, you are in effect improving your own writing literally– you are learning from the very mistakes you made by learning how to directly fix them. Again, you can be your own worst critic but it can be a very satisfying experience, if you make it one.
Write more, and write often.
Of course, this is the part you’ve been waiting for. The best way to truly exercise these developing skills is, naturally, to do some more writing yourself.
Write whenever you can. It doesn’t really matter about what, so long as there is a discernible purpose to what you’re trying to get across– a story to tell or an argument to make. Writing for practice doesn’t have be submitted for a grade or even to the general public in any way, so you have pretty wide range of possibilities to use. If you find yourself stuck, you can use some journalism exercises as good jump-off points or “personal assignments” to get you started. One helpful exercise is to write reviews– of anything, even for things or events that aren’t real. Or, as a journalism professor once told me, you can write mock-obituaries for celebrities, a fun (if not mildly morbid) writing exercise. In terms of how you do it, that is up to you as well. I myself like to carry a notebook around and just jot things down as they come, but do whatever feels comfortable for you. (If you’re strictly digital, Evernote is an amazing tool.) You can keep a private journal or even start a blog. Of course, putting these skills into practice can be difficult, yes. But, like running or an exercise routine, it gets much easier with time. And, just like exercise, it’s not so important when, or how you do it, as much is it is important you do it well, mindfully, and consistently.
Now that the semester is fully underway, I’ve been getting a number of questions from students about how to ensure good grades by this semester’s end, from general paper-writing help to more subject-specific questions. However, an interesting one came to me earlier this week that I thought would be best served by a post all to itself (here you go, Erika!):
“How do I get my professor to like me?”
This question is an understandable one– after all, why wouldn’t you want someone to like you? Of course, there are more practical reasons to win over or even befriend your professor; for instance, your grades. You may also have to ask for a letter of recommendation— an equally important reason to give your professor your best impression. Or, you can be in search of an advisor to mentor you during your course of study, also a very important reason to win at least one professor over.
Professors can certainly be intimidating. They are in an authoritarian position, and are generally well-respected in their field– a field that you are still learning and still new to. But, here’s the kicker: professors are people, too. Yes, I know, this may seem like a surprise. But, consider why they would they chose to become professors in the first place. Ideally, they did so with the best intentions in mind– to educate people like you on topics they hold close to heart, whether it be English or economics, gender theory or quantum physics. As such, professors do want to see you succeed, especially in a field they love and enjoy being immersed in. For these reasons, don’t think that you have to do something extraordinary or tricky to “get” him or her to like you. But, you do have to put some effort into it.
So, here are a few tips on how to impress your professor– and maybe even become friends with them.
Have a good attendance record.
One of the key ways to impress your professor is to be present in class. I know this is somewhat of a no-brainer; after all, it’s hard to leave a good impression on a professor if you’re not there. So, make it a point to attend class, at all times. Yes, professors usually do offer some sort allowance for absences, but don’t take this for granted; avoid using “sick days” to play hooky, as you never know when you’ll really need them later in the semester. But, should you find you’re unable to attend class for whatever reason, let your professor know as soon as possible. Whether it’s because of illness, a family emergency, or work issues, a heads-up is always appreciated– it is considered a sign of a responsible student and is even just a nice thing to do.
Do your assignments.
Okay, this is yet another no-brainer. But, really, you must do all your assignments, written or otherwise. When I say this takes effort, I mean it– you can’t just glide through class, shirking off coursework, and expect a professor to have only a positive impression of you. While, yes, you can possibly get away with minimal work and input, you risk leaving at the very least a neutral impression, which is dangerously close to no impression at all. So, read all the assignments given, follow the syllabus, and do what is being asked of you. Follow all directions given to the letter, including deadlines. You certainly don’t want to be remembered for what you don’t do correctly– that is definitely not the way you want to get attention. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to bring it up to the professor; this will actually help you with the steps that follow.
Be active in class.
Imagine standing in front of a group of people, trying to explain a number of crucial concepts. Yet, some are dozing off, some are clearly distracted, and some seem to just not care. You ask a question… and you’re only met by silence. Consider what your reaction might be– would you be annoyed? Anxious? Maybe even aggravated? Regardless of which of these feelings you might have in this situation, I’m sure it’s not a feeling you’d want your professor to have during lecture or seminar.
While your physical presence is necessary to succeed in a class (see above), active participation is also key. You’ll need to pay attention, and participate in class discussion– yes, this includes volunteering information, not just waiting until your professor calls on you. Interact with the material; see what themes you can draw from the material (lecture, readings, etc.) and how this relates to the arc of the course. (I’ve written a few blog posts that elaborate on this.) If you’re not certain about the material, ask questions– openly asking about something you’re not sure about not only shows you’re paying attention, but that you care enough to ask for further explanation.
Talk to your professor outside of class.
Active discussion doesn’t have to be relegated to just class-time. Consider talking to your professor outside of class– either before or after class meets, or during his or her office hours. Is there something particularly exciting or interesting about the material? Does the class in any way relate directly to your field of study? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you have plenty of fodder for conversation, especially if the part of your major or program of study. Talking to your professor about your academic interests is almost always a good idea. Not only will you gain upvotes in the eyes of your professor, but you could potentially open some doors for yourself– you never know if there’s an internship, assistantship, or other great opportunity around the corner. Likewise, this kind of discussion is what fuels great letters of recommendation— you’ll allow your professor to get to know you and also show them how much you care about your work, your education, and, yes, their class.
In earlier posts I’ve covered time management tips, and ways to make your work load (and, therefore, your life) easier.
So, now that the semester is in full swing, here’s a few tips on how to manage your time correctly, from the start.
Map out your work load.
The first step to optimal time management is to know exactly what will be due this semester, and when. Collect all your syllabi given at the start of classes and jot down in your calendar when every single assignment is due. Whether it’s a paper, presentation, or simply a set of readings, write them down. It doesn’t matter if you compile this into a weekly planner, iCal, or Hello Kitty wall calendar– what’s important is to create some sort of temporal guide of when everything are due, so that you can plan your time accordingly, leaving no room for error. Also, be sure to be as specific as possible so that you can immediately identify what each assignment is and what exactly the assignment entails.
Map out your weekly schedule.
Next, you should have at least a general idea of what your weekly schedule would be like. Ideally, you will know your course schedule before class begins; if you are working, you should also know of where these classes will fit into your schedule. Even for those who work in shifts, you should have at least a general idea of what your schedule will look like, at least roughly. Whatever that case is, you should plan our when during the week you will be class, at work, or at any other obligation that you may have and for how long.
The purpose of this is to figure out, at least generally, how much free time you will have during the week. Aside from knowing when things are due, a crucial part of effective time management is knowing how much time you have to work with. When creating your schedule, it’s helpful for you to see all the items on your schedule– including free time– in blocks of time. Breaks between classes, free evenings or mornings (!!) should be blocked out in your weekly schedule, just as like your classes or work shifts. These time blocks need to be delineated just like real “things to do” because these chunks of free time are what you are actually going to manage. To manage them –or anything else– properly, you need to be fully conscious of their limitations: how long and how often these blocks are are, and what you can possibly do with them. Like money, you can’t properly manage the time you have if you don’t know exactly how much you have to spend.
Plan out a flexible study schedule.
Now is when you put all of it together. If you have been following along, you will now have a solid grasp of when all your assignments are due and of how much free time you will have every week. Using your weekly schedule against your assignment calendar, you should be devise a tentative study schedule.This schedule should map out roughly when you should complete your assignments or study for exams, throughout the coming weeks. Taking each schedule into account, you should start figuring out when you should be working on particular readings or assignments and how you can manage your time to do so.
During this, it’s absolutely crucial that you are honest with yourself about:
1- how much time you have available
2- how much work you have to do
3- how much time it actually takes you complete certain tasks.
All this being said, the point of this whole exercise is to organize your time and, at the same time, spend them as productively as possible. Success throughout the semester, application cycle, and life in general rest on this almost completely. But, don’t be (too) overwhelmed by it. Be flexible with your time– unexpected things happen so wiggle room should always be made to accommodate such things and, of course, to enjoy them.
Purple prose is the name given to writing — or, well, prose– that’s just too flowery and too melodramatic for its own good. In other words, just way too much.
“Why would purple prose be a bad thing?”
Well, it clouds the meaning behind your writing and, frankly, doesn’t flatter the writer very well. By its sheer verbosity, purple prose can turn off your reader greatly– which is not a good thing to do if your reader happens to be your professor.
That being said, there actually is no ultimate, absolute definition of what constitutes prose, nor is there a definite list of symptoms. Figuring out whether you have in fact fallen victim to purple prose is often a subjective decision– one person’s purple prose may be another person’s vivid description. Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on who you are), this is largely a judgment call.
However, that is not to say that there aren’t basic ground rules to follow; this isn’t a free-for-all. (Sorry!)
So, here are a few things to keep in mind in order to avoid purpling your prose too much:
Avoid words that are too big and fancy. Obviously, there is merit to being erudite and eloquent. However, there is a difference between using a particular word because of its precise definition and using it because it makes you sound smarter. Be honest with yourself, your own writing style, and pay attention to the task at hand. It’s easy to spot when a student is using difficult words for the sake of using them– trust me, I know. Everyone has a particular writing style that is rather distinctive– much like someone’s speaking voice. So, when a student puts on airs, it’s much like someone you know well suddenly speaking in Muppet-voice. And it’s that much more obvious when unnecessarily difficult words are used where clear, simple wording would suffice.
Keep the urge to write flowery, overly vivid descriptions at bay. Descriptors are used to make the reader visualize what you’re describing. However, there is such thing as written sensory overload. Not sure what I mean? Well, here is an example:
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest held by the English Department of San Jose State University. The contest challenges entrants to write the opening lines of the worst possible novels. Of course, each year’s submissions are hilariously bad renditions of “good fiction.” While they are opening lines to non-existent fiction (how is that for a double negative?), they are also excellent exercises in flowery writing, or purple prose.
This is the 2008 grand-prize winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:
Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”
First off, thanks for making New York sounds gross(er). Second, there are way too many descriptions–far more than what’s necessary. This, in all its flowery craziness, is an example of vivid imagery gone awry– this, my dear readers, is purple prose.
Avoid self-indulgent writing. Another clue to whether the writing is overdone is that it draws attention to itself rather than to the story. If you find yourself thinking, “By golly, that’s a lovely phrase”, then you’re in trouble. If the phrase is self-indulgent and is far more about your own cleverness than it is about your topic itself, then it has to go. This is, according to
William Faulkner Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch*, is called “murdering your darlings.” In his series of lectures titled On the Art of Writing from 1916 (!), Sir Quiller-Couch wrote: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Nicely done.
Of course, that is not to say that you have to slaughter or even dump every phrase you are particularly pleased with. You are allowed to marvel at your own genius, yes. So, if there is a phrase in mind that borders on possibly too much, think: if the phrase serves your topic well, it stays but, if it doesn’t, buh-bye. It’s that simple.
*William Faulkner is frequently attributed to the phrase “kill your darlings” when, in actuality, it was Sir Quiller-Couch who coined it. The more you know.
Whether you’re in undergrad, graduate school, or even post-graduate study, at some point or another, you’ll end up in a course you can’t stand. For whatever reason, you just hate this class– it could be your professor, your fellow students, the course topic, the readings, or even the classroom itself that sucks. Regardless of why it’s awful, you still have to suffer through it and, worse yet, you’ll still have to write a final paper for it.
As I explained in a previous blog post, the goal of a final paper is to demonstrate your full grasp and knowledge of the course and its content to the professor. So, to get over this hatred hump and on your way to writing this dreaded assignment, start thinking of how this course relates to your focus of study, as a whole: how does this course fit into your major or concentration? Graduate students, I’m especially looking at you. If you’re an undergraduate student within a specialized concentration, the same applies to you as well. What outside information can you bring into this class? Are there any overarching themes that can be drawn from other classes you’ve taken within your major track or course of study?
If you’re taking this only because it’s a requirement for your major or, even worse, as a general degree requirement, then consider what stuck out most to you during the class– what interested you the most out of the material? Maybe it was a particular reading or lecture topic that caught your attention, or an idea that has permeated the course material and throughout the course itself. What did you like most and, therefore, can talk about for pages on end?
If you have truly gained nothing out of this course and can’t think of a single thing you liked about it, then go with what you know– what did you understand best out of all the material? What can you explain to the best of your ability?
Ask yourself these questions as part of a bit of self-assessment and carefully consider your answers. If you’re having a bit of trouble coming up with viable answers and ideas, do some free-writing to get yourself going. Appropriate topics come from these considerations; ideas surrounding the arc of the course as well as what you can personally relate to within the material are fodder for good papers.
Of course, if you’re still stuck, talk to your professor or, at the very least, your TA; naturally, they can give you some of the best insight into what they’re looking for. Or, talk to your classmates. Discuss with them what they aim to write their papers about and use that as inspiration. (But, their ideas are meant only as inspiration for your own! Don’t ever, ever cheat.)
Continue to brainstorm and to mull over these concepts until you find a thesis idea you’re comfortable enough with that your professor will want to read and, most importantly, you can write about for pages on end. Remember, your end-goal is to show your full grasp and understanding of the arc of the course. So, taking all this into account and delving into the connections and ties made within the course would fulfill your professor’s expectations or perhaps even go above and beyond them– possibly amounting to some serious brownie points.
Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them.
Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless lines of unorganized information that will lose your readers and your professor.
In order to fully understand what paragraphs are and how to fully use them, it’s helpful if you think of them in the following ways:
– Paragraphs are units of composition.
Think of each paragraph as a separate unit, an individual nugget or dose of information. Each new bit of information should be showcased to your reader, separately. This helps you, the writer, separate your topics and develop your overall argument in a logical and organized fashion. For the reader, your argument is more digestible and easier to read.
So, with that said…
– Paragraphs should always introduce a new idea.
Whether you are subdividing a topic at hand or introducing an entirely different topic, paragraphs should contain new, unique, pieces of information that are parts of a cohesive whole.
Some examples where your paper should have a natural paragraph break are:
– when there is a change in setting or time (such as discussing periods in history or different geographical locations)
– when you are citing and explaining a specific case as an example, or
– when you are presenting an additional argument or counter-argument
– in introduction of a set of new arguments/topics or in conclusion or them, or of your paper.
– Paragraphs should begin with topic sentences.
In order to fully accomplish what I said above, each paragraph should state its new topic within the first two sentences. By doing so, your reader will understand that you are transitioning from the previous topic to the next, how you’re doing so and why. You would also be preparing your reader (and your professor) for what you will be outlining further in the paragraph and throughout your argument as a whole.
Using transitional words or phrases are a good start. Here are a few examples:
– Adding information: Also, as well, besides
– Comparing ideas: Likewise, similarly
– Contrasting ideas: At the same time, conversely, even so, in contrast, nevertheless,
– Using an example: For example, for instance, in other words, specifically,
– Continuing a previous idea: Later, meanwhile, next, subsequently, then
– Following from a previous idea: accordingly, as a result, consequently, as such, therefore, thus
– Concluding ideas: Finally, in short, in summary, that is, that is to say, to sum up.
There is a lot involved when writing an essay. If there wasn’t, then writing would be easy; there wouldn’t be a need for writing classes, books, or tutors (yikes!). So, while I still have a job, writing is still hard. To make up for it, I’ve compiled a short list of basic rules to live by when writing an essay.
Avoid using contractions.
I know– I myself just used a contraction (if you forgot what a contraction is, here’s a refresher) in my header. However, when writing a paper, this is NOT the way to go. Why? Well, a paper is, basically, a serious presentation of an argument. Using contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” is too informal, which could make you sound less smart. Clearly, you can see why this would be a bad idea for a paper. This is, of course, not the case when using a direct quote, as you are using someone else’s words and phrasing and, if they themselves used contractions, that’s okay. But, for your own writing, it’s best not to use them so that you can sound as compelling, persuasive, and, yes, smart as possible.
Sentences shouldn’t be more than three lines long.
When writing a paper, you want to be as clear and clean as possible. Writing sentences that are too long can confuse your reader, and dilute what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure whether a sentence is too long, try reading it out loud. If you find yourself losing your breath or your place, try shortening it. It’s better to have shorter sentences that are strong and to the point, than to have really long, confusing ones.
For the same reasons I’ve stated above, using slang in a paper is a terrible idea. The goal of your paper should be to address issues and arguments in the most intelligent way possible. Unfortunately, using slang like “gonna”, “ppl”, or “on the down low” isn’t going to do that. A good marker of whether a word or phrase is slang or not is to think, would this be printed in the New York Times? If yes, then you should be fine. If it’s on Urban Dictionary, then maybe not.