In order to obtain a degree, undergraduates are required to take several “general education” classes that give them a whole host of skills that students will find useful in their careers, often regardless of the field into which they are entering. Still, while students are in these classes, it is often difficult for them to see how these classes may benefit them in the long run. It’s all too common to hear students in classes not directly related to their major ask the question, “how is this going to help me in my career?”
As an undergraduate student myself, there was a time I thought that universities wanted to require students to take more classes than necessary to ensure they were thorough in the process of emptying out our pockets. Now, with all of my general education classes out of the way and the ability to only focus on the classes that pertain to my career goals, I can confidently say that these classes did benefit me. In the article, “How General Education Requirements Prepare You for Your New Career,” Rasmussen College claims that these courses are intended to “develop soft skills that can help you stand out in the crowd of job seekers.” One of these skills is the ability to communicate effectively—even if you want to be an engineer, a doctor, or an accountant and English skills seem irrelevant, the need to communicate effectively exists in virtually every field imaginable.
It can often be difficult to be invested in writing a paper for a class when it feels like it isn’t going to benefit you. However, if you find a way to relate that paper to your major or professional path, it might immediately become more engaging. Try to relate your assignment to your career goals in any way you can to make it more relatable or interesting to you. If you’re not sure how to cater the assignment to conform to what you plan to do after graduation, then you can always try to talk to your professor about it during their office hours. Most professors tend to be understanding and helpful in cases like this, especially because you are actively showing an interest in their course by doing so.
Many essay prompts that professors assign are broad enough that students can find a way to cater it to their particular interests or goals. However, this won’t always be the case—sometimes your assignment will be to analyze a specific text or write a research paper on a particular event in history. In cases such as these, remember that critical thinking and research skills are useful to you regardless of the field you are in—you are always going to find it useful to look at a situation from a new point of view, or to be able to look up credible sources to understand something better. Even if the skills you are gaining from the assignments in your general education classes don’t seem directly applicable to you, give it time. Trust that your professor is not designing every assignment specifically to torture you, do your best, and you will soon see how much your hard work pays off.
Many students struggle with revising their papers. This is especially true when you’ve been working diligently on multiple drafts of a document, and you just don’t feel like you know where to begin the revision process. One of the best ways to get help is to see a Writing Consultant at the Writing Studio; we can help you organize your ideas and provide a fresh take on your work. However, if you can’t make it into the Studio, there are several other methods you can use to review your work on your own.
Tip #1 – Read your paper aloud to yourself. We use this technique in the Studio. This is an effective tool because it makes you read the text at a slower rate. By changing the pace of the reading, you can more easily find mistakes.
Tip #2 – Read your paper aloud to a friend. Ask your friend to listen to you and see if they can answer the following questions: What is the main point of your paper (i.e., what is the thesis)? What evidence, examples, support, do you use to back up your argument? What is the significance of your paper? In other words, have you successfully explained why the audience should be interested in your analysis?
Tip #3 – Have your friend read your paper aloud to you. This is reversal from tip #2. By having a second person read your paper, they will speak the words that are physically written on the page. Oftentimes, when we read our own work, we read what we think we’ve written, not what is actually there.
Tip #4 – Record yourself. Read your paper aloud while recording yourself (this is easy to do if you have a record function on a smart phone or even a laptop). While it may be awkward to listen to yourself, this provides a great opportunity to “hear” your work. It allows you to identify missing words or transitions or delete whole sentences if they don’t fit anymore.
Tip #5 – Read backwards. As funny as this sounds, it is a really effective revision technique. Begin at the end of your paper (at the conclusion) and start reading backwards sentence by sentence. By breaking up the paragraphs in reverse sentence order, you force your brain to read slower and more carefully. This can help you identify grammatical and spelling mistakes.
Tip #6 – Reverse outline. Instead of using an outline to organize your paper, this method is helpful because you write the outline after you’ve finished your paper. After you’ve finished your draft (or your final copy) read each paragraph independently and on a separate piece of paper, write what the function and purpose is. This method helps writers visually see the organization of their paper and identify areas that may need additional details.
Whichever method you decide to use to revise your work, try to give yourself enough time to fully engage with your work and make any necessary changes. Remember that the Writing Studio is here to help if you would prefer one-on-one consultations. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also provides some additional resources for revising documents.
by Joseph Puterbaugh, intern for the Writing Studio
Building confidence is entirely terrifying and adding on confidence about writing can be difficult as well. I’m 23 and still am constantly rewriting drafts—this is one of them! I’ve talked to many of my friends who write as well, and apparently it’s something we all suffer from. It’s hard to really break out of any insecurity, especially with something as personal as writing. With the variety of writing styles out there from essays, poetry, lab reports, and fictional stories, people have a bundle of problems going on while they try to make their writing logical, correct, and effective. But when a person is worried about their writing, how can they go about making it stronger and become more comfortable with the process?
The Buddy System
Having a dedicated group of a few friends where you can read over your writings could help everyone, not just yourself! I’ve worked with a few groups where we go over stories and essays to see how they are received by friends. This is a great way to get valuable feedback. This process definitely gives me anxiety because it involves working with a ton of my friends who are looking closely at my writing. But, at the same time, it helps me understand what my strengths as a writer are as well as learning where I can improve. At first it was terrifying, being so up front with my writing, but there was trust building that went along with the process that made it feel rewarding. Over time, I learned who can help me the most as a writer due to their advice and vision of writing being supplemental to what I felt my writing should be. Which leads to my next idea: if the buddy system is too much for you, just have one singular person to work with! You won’t get the wide perspective of many on your writing, but you’ll at least have one from somebody you trust. Writing Forward has some great ideas when you work with other writers!
Rewriting is the one thing I firmly believe in. Write something, step back, and reread it. See where you can improve and read it out loud to see if it makes sense or sounds right. Put the writing away and revisit it later (if possible) and see how you feel. Fresh eyes on a paper can do a world of a difference.
At the end of the day, we all have our weaknesses with writing. Understanding that can benefit you and help you grow to be more understanding with yourself. There’s no clear path to build confidence—it isn’t a bridge. But there are ways you can at least get that in motion. Write To Done offers more great confidence building ideas!
The most important thing to know is that you can do better. I’m not the same writer I was 5 years ago, thankfully. It just depends on how willing you are to keep practicing and working on your craft. Whether you only write lab reports and essays for classes or if you’re working on a novel or collection of writing to send to publishers, you can always keep learning more.
Your grade remains an unknown anomaly: a hidden eyesore.
The paper’s edges are creased, worn from your professor’s hands.
Blotted ink bleeds through.
Your vandalized paper is a victim of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre– the words attacked by a pen-wielding professor.
When there are more red corrections than your original words– what then? What if the professor’s feedback blurs together, or appears in alien code?
I. Common Proofreading Symbols and Abbreviations
If symbols appear on your returned assignment–like confused and misdrawn emoticons–your professor’s feedback may utilize common correction symbols. This feedback can be frustrating for students who never received guidance on what these shorthand comments mean. (Good thing there’s Google–with access to educational resources, not memes of course.).
(This list was adapted from the Western New England College Writing & Reading Program, Lunsford & Connors; The Everyday Writer [St. Martins Press, 1998], and Fowler, et.al., The Little, Brown Handbook, fifth ed. [HarperCollns Publishers, 1992.])
II. Office Hours
I know, I know– the dreaded office hours. But have you given them a shot? Do you know your professor outside the classroom realm? Is his/her office adorned by record covers and dinosaur figurines? What if he/she really is a living, breathing human who wants to help you?
Those blocked off, weekly office hours are all yours. They are an opportunity for your professor to provide extra, individual-focused guidance.
Don’t be afraid to ask your professors questions, especially about any confusing feedback/grades. Arrive prepared with talking points– your professor will appreciate your initiative to improve your work.
III. Refer to the Guidelines
Read the directions, then again, then backwards, and possibly upside down– just read all the things.
Oh, and the syllabus– don’t forget the syllabus. Each professor creates an individual own contract for how their classroom work will be assessed. This contract is your professor’s glorious creation– the syllabus is an entity with a strong ability to help or destroy you. Read carefully.
Highlight key terms from the guidelines. Think: What’s the word count? Is there a thesis? How many sources need to be utilized? What’s the format?
Save time: do the planning/reading first. Surprise guidelines and directions aren’t fun at 3 am, the night before a paper is due.
It may be helpful to keep the guidelines in sight while writing, so you’re constantly assessing whether you’re completing the assignment to your professor’s standards. With the rules/directions in plain sight, your paper will shift in the right, guided direction.
IV. Use Campus Resources
College costs are their own form of slasher horror. Those charges strike your bank account, but where are those funds creeping towards? Can they be traced back to writing studio or career center on campus, a library reference desk, or in your access to valuable websites/databases without eHarmony ads?
These resources are so, so valuable and offer wonderful networking connections. Outside resources can also provide an extra set of eyes to catch any errors before your teacher does.
V. Review & Read Out Loud
Even if your roommate thinks you’ve lost it. Even if you hate the way your voice sounds. Read out loud. Prevent the attack of the dreaded red pen.
I’ve been on both sides here. I’ve received papers where I was marked down for an easily avoidable mistake. I’ve also had to take off many points–oh, and man did that burn–for a brilliant paper with many spelling errors.
Oh, and spellcheck isn’t always trustworthy. Bummer– I know.
VI. Know your Audience
Each teacher independently approaches their grading. Some professors emphasize the importance of structure or grammar, while others focus on major themes within their students’ papers. I think one of the biggest challenges in college comes with adapting to numerous, new professors and teaching methods each semester.
It takes time to learn and understand a professor’s distinct grading style, and what to expect in terms of their feedback. Pay attention to their requests, comments, and recurring themes– what is important to them? How can you learn from their past feedback and incorporate your new findings into future assignments? How can you work harder towards the grade you’re aiming for?
VII. Always think of the “So what?” Factor
Always challenge yourself by asking why your writing and input matters. Ask: “So what?” “Why should my reader care?” “What will keep my reader invested in my topic?” “What will keep them reading forward?”
Most importantly, ask yourself: “What did my reader learn from this paper that they didn’t know before?”
If you find that you don’t care about the topic, just imagine your reader or teacher. Will they get through to the last page, or will they be head first in their own drool? If you find you’re drooling on yourself while writing, it may be time to switch to a topic that really matters.
Pick a topic you will enjoy writing about– one that will survive the dreaded, red-inked slasher.
In Part 1 of this blog, I discussed some of the more well-known, conventional methods that have proven success in helping writers start writing and in getting past writer’s block, such as Focused Free-writing, Mind Mapping, Outlining x6, and Writing a Sh*tty first draft. These conventional methods are, without a doubt, the best place to start.
I repeat: if you’re having difficulties beginning a piece of writing, revisit Part 1 of this blog and start there. The methods discussed in Part 1 will help you develop clarity, focus, and organization, and only then can the ideas offered here, in Part 2, be helpful.
So, you’ve started the writing process. You’ve got a mind map, a 6th outline, and maybe even a sh*tty first draft. You want to move forward, you’re ready to move forward, you need to finish this thing, or at least get a decent draft under way, but for some reason, you’re stuck.
The good news is, it happens to the best of us. The bad news is, it’s happening to you. But, fear not, there are many things you can do to help you move past these feelings of writer’s block/paralysis.
Regardless of whether you’re stuck at outline #6 or your sh*tty first draft, here are some tricks you can use to help you get out of your writing rut.
STEP AWAY FROM THE WRITING: It doesn’t matter if you’re writing on a computer, a tablet, or paper – put it down and walk away. Sometimes the best thing a writer can do to help them keep writing is to stop writing for a little while. Go do something different – not something different that involves you staring at a screen like the one you’ve been staring at (like Facebook), but something different that gives you a break from the screen, and a break from writing. Go get coffee, or make yourself a sandwich, or play with your cat/dog/rabbit/goat/whatever. Or, even better….
Go for a walk or run (or even a drive!): You may have heard this advice before, but getting outside and going for a walk or run has many benefits. First of all, sitting too much is bad for you, mentally and physically (http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/20140407/sitting-disease-faq), so getting up and moving is just a good idea. Period. But getting up and going for a walk or a run is good for writing, too. You’re getting away from your work space, stimulating your mind with different sounds and scenery, getting fresh air, letting your eyes rest, getting the blood flowing through your body (including your brain), and giving yourself time to breathe, think, relax, and refresh. You will return revitalized, with a brain boost, and maybe even some new ideas.
Driving may have similar benefits for some. For me, getting out of the house and going far away from my writing at a relatively high speed (relative to walking or running, that is) feels great. I often drive to a new place, such as a park or the beach, and go for a walk. So, really, when I go for a drive, I’m also going for a walk (or a run, depending on exactly how stuck/tightly wound I’m feeling – and if I’m really stuck, sometimes that turns into a swim).
Turn off the Internet (obviously?): If your problem is that you keep flipping to Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook or something, then make yourself stop doing that, using whatever means necessary. Drop the modem (and your cellphone) off at your friend’s house, if you must.
Switch to another project for a while: Do you have several projects going simultaneously? Do you have homework? Reading for class? Then switch to something else for a little while, and, if possible, switch to something as different as possible (e.g., calculus homework). Start by choosing a specific project/assignment/paper, and then set a specific goal. You could choose to spend a specific amount of time working on the other thing, or you might wish to complete a specific amount of work – 5 problems, or the introduction for a paper, etc.
If you’re working on a thesis, dissertation, article, book, or something similar, then a different part of the project: write in a different section or chapter; work on your works cited; format your sections; transcribe interviews; follow up on some research; etc.
Extract your main ideas: This will only work if you have moved past the outlining phase and are actively writing. As a writer and writing consultant, I have found time and again that people often get stuck in their writing when they stray from their objectives and arguments. Now, please remember that our work evolves as we write and, often, our writing takes us places that we didn’t expect or plan for. That can be fine, even desirable. However, you, as the writer, must know where you are and what direction you are heading, otherwise you will feel lost, stuck, and frustrated. But you can reconcile your writing and objectives by figuring out exactly where you are and deciding if that’s where you want to be by following a few simple steps:
Print your paper (or chapter, if you are working on something longer)
Read your work, starting from the top, preferably out loud.
Underline/highlight your thesis. Do the same with your topic sentences for each paragraph. In the margin, note the main argument(s)/point(s) stated in your thesis and topic sentences.
In the body of your paragraphs, circle, underline, or highlight the key points. Note them in the margin.
As you work through your writing in this way, take note of: whether or not you are on track with your outline; how each topic sentence works to support your thesis; how the main points discussed in your paragraphs support your topic sentences. By attending to your writing in this way, you give yourself the opportunity to map your work, see if you strayed off your original path, and make decisions regarding the best way to move forward (e.g., do you need to go back to where you strayed and get back on your original path, or do you need to modify your arguments and objectives to fit a new path?).
Listen to music: This is an extraordinarily powerful writing method for me. So powerful, in fact, that I once wrote a paper on the topic for a graduate methods course. But, for me, it can’t just be any music, it has to be specific music, and I end up listening to a particular song or album over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. For example, I listened to Deadmau5’s “4×4=12” album hundreds of times while I wrote the analysis sections of my dissertation. It was the only music that I could listen to as I wrote those sections, and I often needed to listen to it to keep me going.
When I wrote the last chapter of my dissertation, I listened to Beyoncé’s “Formation” while I wrote most of the chapter, because the song matched both my mood and my chapter content.
Another time, I listened to Radiohead’s “Kid A” album repeatedly as I wrote the first 43 pages or so of a screen play. I was really into that piece of writing, to the point where it was all I thought about, and working on it was the only thing I wanted to do. Of course, I also had a very hard, fast approaching deadline (it was for a competition that was announced days before the deadline). I wrote for almost 72 hours straight, listening to the “Kid A” album all the way through page 43 when, suddenly, I was stuck. I knew exactly where the story was going, knew what was coming next, but I became sluggish, stuck, frustrated. I jumped out of my chair, got in my car, and drove in a big circle. At some point, the Stones’ “Paint it Black” came on the radio, and that was it. I went straight home, bought the song on iTunes, and listened to it on repeat until I was done (55 pages).
Music helps me move forward. It helps me write a beat inspired first draft that you can almost hear the music in. As I go back and edit, I smooth the rough edges and, in my academic work, I polish out the beats; although, if you listen closely, you can still hear them playing between the words.