USF Writing Studio

Archive for February, 2016


Coming Up with a Good Essay Topic

Monday, February 29th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Jessica T Blogby Jessica Thompson, an MFA student in Creative Writing and Writing Consultant

One of the most common issues beginning college students have is difficulty coming up with compelling essay topics. Many students’ natural inclination is to choose subjects they think they are “supposed” to write about, such as highly debated topics they hear in the news (think gay marriage or medical marijuana), or the specific examples their instructors mention in class. Don’t give in to this urge! The best essay topics are those that you are most interested in, and most willing to research deeply.

While the common topics we hear argued on television day after day might be easier to write about before doing research, they won’t really challenge you and are likely boring and tedious for your instructor to read since she probably sees them rehashed semester after semester. Also, the example an instructor mentions in class is just that–an example. Some students think if the instructor mentions a topic it indicates the instructor really likes it and the student will win points for choosing a topic the instructor likes. Probably not! It’s more likely that writing your paper based on the teacher’s example will make it look like you couldn’t come up with an original idea.

So, how can you come up with an original, interesting, smart, detailed essay topic?

Step one: Brainstorm the top five things you like the most. Students often compartmentalize, separating their personal lives and interests from their academic lives and interests. Unfortunately, this can lead to really boring research topics that students don’t care about. You know all the fun, cool stuff you like in your everyday life? There are researchers studying it in an academic way, and you can write about it for school as long you know how. You might not know how yet because you haven’t done the research, and that’s okay.

At this step, simply brainstorm a list of things you like the most, even if they are things that sound non-academic such as chocolate chip cookies, instagram, dogs, Netflix, and breakdancing. For each topic you come up with, brainstorm as many related topics as you can think of. For chocolate chip cookies, this might include boutique sweets shops, sugar addiction, and comfort food. (Note: the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has an excellent list of brainstorming exercises you can do to help expand upon your original topic.)

Step two: Pick the lens through which you want to view your topic. This might already be decided for you depending on the assignment and the class. If you’re in an ethics class, for example, you probably have to write about ethical issues surrounding your topic (i.e., should chocolate chip cookies and other sweets be sold in public schools?). Other classes, however, particularly writing courses, might allow you to approach the subject through the lens of any discipline. Marketing and advertising experts will focus on how to best sell chocolate chip cookies, while those in the medical field will focus on how chocolate chip cookies affect human health. (Note: the USF Writing Studio helps with “pre-writing,” which includes brainstorming topics and how to frame your paper. Make an appointment if you’re getting stuck on this step.)

Step three: Start skimming the academic literature. Visit the USF libraries homepage and search for your topic, limiting the results to academic and peer-reviewed sources. This will help you find ways scholars have studied and written about your topic. Try limiting your search topic by keywords indicating the lens through which you want to view the topic. For example, if I want to study how chocolate chip cookies make people feel, I might search “chocolate chip cookies mood,” or “chocolate chip cookies psychology.” If these limit my search to too few results, I might decide to expand my topic from “chocolate chip cookies” to “cookies” in general, or “dessert,” if “cookies” still returns too few results.

After doing a few searches, you will probably have a good idea of whether or not your favorite topic is one that has been researched before. (Note: almost everything has been researched before, so if you’re having trouble finding results, consider contacting a USF librarian for help.) If the first topic you brainstormed isn’t returning enough results, try the second topic you brainstormed, or one of the first topic’s subtopics.

Step four: Settle on an awesome topic and dig in. Once you’ve found a topic or subtopic that you are interested in and that has some solid-looking scholarly articles about it, make your decision to stick with it and continue doing research. This is also a good time to draft a thesis statement. You don’t want to simply use the first few articles that pop up as your sources and begin writing about them. Be sure to skim the abstracts of several articles and choose those that will best fit your thesis.

Final tip: Once you find a topic or two that excites you, write about these in more depth and from different perspectives in each class you take. You can write about different facets of chocolate chip cookies for classes in business, psychology, economics, biology, and more. With that approach, instead of simply doing assignments for the sake of the class, you are building expertise that you can take with you when you go into the job market or to graduate school. Of course, if you find that you hate writing about your chosen topic, that’s a good sign that it’s time to pick a new one, in which case you can begin the process over again at step one.


Something about That “-s”

Friday, February 19th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Paul Blog Pic

by Paul Flagg, an MA student in Library and Information Science and Writing Consultant

One of the most common errors in writing I have seen in the writing studio involves words that can be spelled multiple ways, such as “anyway(s),” “forward(s),” “backward(s),” and “toward(s).”

Which of these words do you tend to use? Think about the differences in how you talk and how you write.

In actuality, all of the aforementioned word variations are correct in some way, but they are not always acceptable to use in any writing scenario.

Although none of the terms are technically incorrect, they can be used to demonstrate the nature of the writing or its place of origin. For example, “backward,” “forward,” and “toward” are all related in that they can be both adjectives and adverbs, meaning they either modify or describe a noun (adj.) or that they alter the meaning of an adjective, verb, or another adverb, most specifically in terms of manner (adv.).

These expressions might also vary based on American English versus British English. In standard American English, “backwards,” “forwards,” and “towards” most often omit the “-s,” whereas British English includes it. A simple way to remember this, according to Grammar Girl, is by thinking of Americans as accustomed to taking shortcuts, or perhaps the simplified way of doing things.

When it comes to the word “anyway” versus “anyways”—an adverb—differences in spelling can be used to express formality. Oftentimes, in casual (or informal) conversation, people will say “anyways.” This is an acceptable use of the term, but it is known for its informality, whereas “anyway” would be the more proper reference. For this particular word, it may be safest to omit the “-s” in all uses. But, for those that like to use this variation, feel free to use it in written discourse between close friends or family to indicate a more personal nature of conversation.

British English v. American English
UK Spelling US Spelling
axe ax
backwards backward
cancellation cancelation
colour color
forwards forward
grey gray
liquorice licorice
likeable likable
mum(my) mom(my)
pyjamas pajamas
storey story
towards toward
traveller traveler

Writing as a Social Process

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Ryan Blog Pic

by Ryan Blank, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition and Writing Consultant

I’m a second-year PhD student in Rhetoric. As a student, I take three courses each semester, often averaging 450-600 pages of reading per week. As a graduate assistant in the department of English, I teach one technical writing class each semester and work 10 hours per week in the Writing Studio. Of all my professional commitments, my time in the Writing Studio is the most fulfilling. Here I work a vast array of writers: first-semester students in their first college writing class looking for a second opinion on paper topics or structure; PhD students in Computer Engineering or Literature or Women & Gender Studies or Art History looking to refine articles for publication or chapters of their dissertations; professors, instructors, or recently graduated writers that are applying for positions at new programs; even other writing consultants!

One thing that all of my writers share is a desire to improve their ability to communicate ideas of varying sophistication to a variety of audiences, ranging from familiar correspondences to lay audiences or disciplinary specialists. Composition itself is a great equalizer: it puts writers of all ability levels through the same inventional obstacles. This great leveling that is writing necessitates that:

We must conceive of a topic worth exploring or an argument worth delivering. In other words, having decided upon a topic, we must invent or create the best proofs, warrants, or arguments to develop.

We must sort through myriad possibilities for the arrangement of our discourse, ultimately deciding on the line of reasoning that seems most befitting of our audience and purpose.

Having come up with a topic and explored a variety of trajectories for our work, we must then find the most decorous, or perhaps proprietous or suitable style in which we will compose. From what vocabulary should we compose? A high level, best suited for delighting an audience? Or perhaps a more accessible middle register, more suitable for everyday speech? Further, how complex or simple should our sentence structures be?

These are the building blocks of composition and have been such for some 2,500 years. It is easy to get lost or overwhelmed by the subtleties of composition, and so even the most “advanced” writers benefit from second opinions. In fact, Cicero, the greatest Roman orator and the genius behind the systemization of what would become the rhetorical canon (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery, the latter of which are more germane to oratorical performances) developed his greatest orations with the aid of his most trusted servant!

Writing, like speaking, is inherently social and is informed by our interactions with and understanding of others. From the inception of rhetoric—from the Ancient Greek ρητορικε (rhetorike), itself derivative of ὁ ρητορ (ho rhetor), a word meaning orator—the composition and presentation of discourse has been studied and taught as necessarily social and has existed in public realms.

What I hope to have shown through my own brief exploration of the composition process is that from our earliest understandings of education and composition—rhetoric—people have composed with the help of others and for the reception of others. This makes the services available through the USF Writing Studio perfect for writers of all levels and abilities during any stage of the writing process.

A fun read on the life of Cicero:

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

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