Tag Archives: academics
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.