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Three Ways Keeping a Personal Journal Will Help You with Your Writing Prompt

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Lorraine Blog Pic Fall16By Lorraine Monteagut, Writing Studio Consultant

I journal so I do not have to remember everything. It frees up space in my brain and will help me remember when I forget about it later. – Stacy Duplease

An open writing prompt can be more difficult than being handed a topic, and there are few things more anxiety-producing than a blank page when a deadline is approaching. As a writing consultant and a teacher, students often tell me: “I don’t have anything to write about.” But when I talk with them, it becomes clear that every single one of them is juggling an overwhelming amount of thoughts – about work, about family, about relationships, about politics. Every single one of them has something to say, but they either censored themselves because they didn’t think their preoccupations were important in an academic setting, or they had just plain forgotten about a topic of interest until our conversation brought it back to light.

That’s why I tell them to keep a regular journal. Before you run away, regular does not have to mean daily! It can be a weekly or even a longer monthly entry. In my spare time, I facilitate a monthly community circle in my neighborhood, and one of the things we do when we get together is write in our journals. The entries can be anything — a catalog of what happened in the month, observations we’ve made, questions we’ve been pondering, lists of things we’d like to accomplish, anything! The people who have attended the circles over several months tell me that the process of writing without constraints has helped them remember their ideas and see the connections between their experiences and larger issues in their worlds, and this awareness improves their performance at work and home.

Similarly, keeping a journal can help you keep track of your life experiences so you may later make connections to concepts you are learning about in your classrooms. Even if your writing assignments don’t call for personal reflection, your ability to access your uncensored thoughts will prove to be a wellspring of creative ideas. When you are truly dedicated to journaling, nothing goes to waste! Here are three ways that keeping a journal has helped me generate rich, original writing when faced with open writing prompts:

  1. Writing observations and questions helps me generate ideas for research.

Sometimes, especially when I’m not feeling too creative, I jot down observations and questions about the world around me. As an example, I live in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing. In my journal, I record the new restaurants, breweries, shops, and apartment buildings that have recently cropped up. I write about my reactions, the pros (more shopping and entertainment options) and cons (rent is going up) of this kind of development. And I ask myself questions: What do people mean when they say a neighborhood is becoming “better”? Is it only about developing business? How will this affect me?

How this has helped with my writing: Sometimes, what I write in my journal ends up becoming the seed for a paper. As I was reading over my journal for inspiration about writing topics, I realized that what’s going on in my neighborhood might interest others who live there or are experiencing similar changes. Returning to my questions, I was able to find a starting point for a paper about gentrification, focusing on the issue of how rising commercial property values affect residents. My personal connection to the issue helped me better understand academic sources about the topic and fueled my motivation to write for a specific audience.

  1. Not censoring myself in my journal leads to welcome surprises.

Another exercise I often use in my journal is freewriting, the practice of writing what comes to mind without stopping to edit. Usually, I set an alarm for 15 minutes, and until I hear the alarm I will write anything I think, exactly as I think it — even if what I’m thinking is “this is stupid.” If I allow myself to continue, I usually come up with some really weird stuff, things I probably wouldn’t say to anyone. I surprise myself. This is where the gold is!

How this helps with my writing: One of the difficult things about writing is that sometimes we think about our audience (usually our teacher) reading our work and we immediately censor ourselves. The pressure “to be good” can be stifling to creativity. When I allow myself to freewrite, I come up with at least one original sentence per session, something I would have never chosen as a topic until I allowed myself to write anything. (Remember, you control what you share, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!)

Here is a link to an article about freewriting: http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/04/unleash-your-creativity-now-how-to-freewrite/

  1. Writing in my journal provides an emotional outlet so I have more energy for my academic writing.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more I write about my personal life — what’s bothering me, what’s happening in my family, what my dreams and fears are — the more time I have for my academic writing. If something is constantly on my mind without an outlet, it will inevitably affect my productivity. Knowing this, I allow myself to write a weekly “therapist entry” to my journal; I write things that I couldn’t tell anyone else (remember, this is your private journal, and only you are the audience!) until I am satisfied that I’ve gotten everything off my chest.

How this helps me with my writing: Writing as an emotional outlet helps me remember what’s important and become more aware of my reactions to the happenings in my life. Giving myself time to just explore my existence without the need to produce or report to anyone makes me feel more balanced and in control, so later, these thoughts won’t plague me when I have to be on task. And you never know, sometimes a piece of wisdom comes through in these confessional writing sessions — something you can write more about!

You are a unique, complex, intelligent person, after all, and I assure you, you have a lot to share. Try starting a journal without expectation, and see what arises!


Revision: The 95%

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Carmella Blog Pic1By Carmella Guiol, Writing Studio Consultant

For many new writers (myself included), it is enticing to write something, re-read it a few times, rearrange some words, and jump straight into editing: grammar mistakes, punctuation, formatting. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee good writing. In fact, it will most likely produce the opposite.

The word revision means to see again. This means going back to the drawing board and re-envisioning a story or essay. In the writing process, the writer learns more and more about the characters or essay topic. Our writing ancestors had it “write” when they used the word essaie, or efforts, to describe what we do.

The poet William Stafford says it best:

I do revise in the sense that I do go back over what I write, but it doesn’t look like a different process. It’s just the same process, going back through the same terrain again… seeing if the signals are different. And every now and then, you may get a little nudge of a new idea, or adjustment.

To illustrate what I mean to my students, I use the example of paintings. Most painters will study their subject extensively, sketching the dancers or the sailboats that they want to portray on the canvas. From these sketches, they learn about their subjects, understanding the way a dancer’s feet move in a pas de bourrée, or how a boat sits on the water under full sail.

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The sketches inform the painter’s drawings, and they begin to have a deeper sense of what they want to depict in their paintings. After much trial and error, the painter is ready to sit at his easel and bring the paintbrush to the canvas. When we look at the final painting, we see hints of those first sketches; but we can also see that the painter has come a long way in their process.

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Now imagine if a painter made a sketch and decided it was good enough to start applying oil paints to it right away. What would it look like? A masterpiece? Not likely.

That is what a writer is doing when they try to edit their first drafts. It’s like putting icing on top of cake batter; the cake is not ready to be iced yet until it has gone through the fire and then cooled.

Proofreading, or editing, means to polish up what is already written. In case you needed another analogy, this is putting the shingles on the roof of the house. Unfortunately, we cannot put shingles on a house if the foundation isn’t strong, or if the walls haven’t been built yet.

The blank page is a scary place, but writers should get friendly with the idea of returning to the drawing board again and again. Also, find solace in knowing that you won’t be returning empty-handed. With each new draft, you will be armed with the wisdom and lessons of each one that came before it.



How to Relate Your Class Assignment to Your Career Goals

Monday, July 25th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

hannah blog pic large

By Hannah Bourgeois, Writing Studio Intern

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.


Revising Your Work

Friday, July 22nd, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Jennifer Blog Pic

by Jennifer Iceton, Writing Studio Consultant

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.


Building Confidence about Writing

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Joseph Blog Picby 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!

Keep Writing

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.

Be Reasonable

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.


Decoding Alien Language

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Small Alien Blog Pic

by Brittany Cagle, MFA

The overturned paper on your desk waits, lurking.

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 particular guide breaks down symbols and their meanings, which can be an excellent starting point for understandng and tackling your professor’s feedback: https://community.plu.edu/~olufsdw/correction.html

(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.


How to Start Writing (Part 2)

Friday, July 1st, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Joey Blog Pic2

by Dr. Joanna Bartell

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:

  1. Print your paper (or chapter, if you are working on something longer)
  2. Read your work, starting from the top, preferably out loud.
  3. 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.
  4. In the body of your paragraphs, circle, underline, or highlight the key points. Note them in the margin.
  5. 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.

Happy writing!


How to Start Writing (Part I)

Monday, June 27th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Joey Blog Pic1

by Dr. Joanna Bartell

My office mate, a first year M.A. student, turned in her desk chair to look at me, “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“Go for it,” I said as I turned to face her, happy to look away from my grading.

“How do you start writing? I mean, how do you start something new?” She looked back at her computer as she continued, “Maybe it’s a dumb question, but I have such a hard time getting past the blank screen and the blinking cursor. I write a sentence, and then delete it because I don’t like it, and then write another sentence, and delete it again, over and over.”

I smiled. “It’s definitely not a dumb question. Starting something new can be difficult, and the blank screen is intimidating,” I assured her.

So we talked about it for a little while. I brought up some of the most common methods I’ve heard that are effective for many people, and then we talked about some methods that are less conventional. These are mix and match methods, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not suddenly a brilliant novelist after trying just one method:

  • Focused Free Writing: Sit down with a blank page and a timer, think about the paper you need to write, set your timer for 5-10 minutes, start writing, and don’t stop. You should start with something related to your paper/topic, but the trick with free writing is to keep writing, even if what you’re writing seems only tangentially related to your topic. Follow your thoughts. Let it all out, although try to remain focused on your general topic. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or coherency; just get your ideas out, and whatever you do, don’t stop writing until your timer goes off. This exercise is helpful in many ways, including helping you get into “the writing zone,” and allowing you make connections that you may not have previously seen.

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  • Mind Mapping: Mind mapping and free writing share some similarities, and mind mapping after free writing is an excellent way to progress. There are different ways to mind map. For the more creatively inclined, hand drawing mind maps can be a lot of fun and offer some creative reprieve. For those who like straight lines and a typed look, there are some great mind mapping apps available, for a cost, and some for free that might not be as fancy or user friendly, but will get the job done. Take a look at Wikipedia for some more info and general mind mapping guidelines.
  • Outlining x 6: I had a hell of a time starting the first chapter of my dissertation, even with an outline. My project was big, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it as a whole; the weight of it felt crushing, and every time I tried to start, I would get stuck and end up frustrated. A friend who had recently completed his dissertation told me that he’d read a book on dissertation writing, and that one of the things the book suggested was outlining each chapter, or chapter section, 6 times. Now, like I said, I had written up an outline and was trying to work from that, but I only had one version. After my friend suggested Outlining x 6, though, I went home, and I did it, and it was amazing. Here’s what worked for me:
    • Get 2 pieces of blank printer paper.
    • In “landscape” orientation, draw two lines on the paper so that you end up with 3 equal sections on each piece of paper, for a total of 6 sections on both pieces (for your 6 outlines).
    • I wrote my first draft in pencil. When I was done, I looked at it to see how it could be revised. I used different colored pens to note changes I wanted to make (including additions, re-organization, etc.).
    • In my second draft, I included the changes I notated in my first draft. As I was writing the second draft, I started including more detailed information under each major heading. I then made notations like I did in the first draft.
    • I repeated the steps in the second draft in drafts 3, 4, and 5.
    • When I was ready to start on the final draft, I realized that the little section I had left was not going to be big enough to fit the full outline I wanted to write, so I turned the paper over and used the back. My 6th draft was a thoughtful, clear, well organized, and detailed outline that gave me a clear picture of what I wanted to write and, importantly, made the task at hand seem less daunting and more manageable.

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  • Write a Sh*tty First Draft: Writing consultant Lorraine offers some suggestions for this helpful method here. Used, individually, these methods can help you get past writer’s block and moving forward. Used together, these methods can offer a writer’s-block-resistant path to a well organized, thoughtful, and engaging piece of writing. These methods have a high success rate, and are therefore some of the most popular, but there are other, less conventional methods, too. For information on some less conventional methods, keep an eye out for part 2 of this blog.

Coherence and Cohesion: Putting the Right Pieces Together

Friday, June 24th, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

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by Bryan Lordeus, intern for the Writing Studio

As a graduating Professional Writing major, one of the main lessons I learned in my classes was how to be straightforward in my writing. Too many times, writers fall into the temptation of thinking that more words and longer sentences will impress professors and readers. While it’s essential to develop your vocabulary, there’s more to successful writing than just using fancy words from a thesaurus. Rather, the key to effective writing is organizing words and sentences in a way that communicates a complete thought.

A book that I found helpful was Style Lessons in Clarity and Grace, written by Joseph Bizup and Joseph Williams. Introduced in my Expository Writing class, this book helped me understand the concepts of cohesion and coherence. Here is how Bizup and Williams define cohesion and coherence, respectively:

Think of cohesion as pairs of sentences fitting together in the

way two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle do.


Think of coherence as seeing what all the sentences in a piece

of writing add up to, the way all the pieces in a puzzle add up

to the picture on the box.

From these definitions, what sticks out to me is the jigsaw analogy. Think of writing your essay, story, or other literary work as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A tedious task, yet when the right pieces are put together, it creates an amazing picture. Cohesive sentences aid the reader in understanding your train of thought through each paragraph, while coherence gives a sense of wholeness. For starters, Bizup and Williams recommend reducing redundant modifiers (two examples are unique differences and absolute truth) and replacing a phrase with a word (the reason for can be replaced with why). In addition, here are two more tips to consider when wanting to be more cohesive and coherent in your writing.

Avoiding Distractions at the Beginning of a Sentence

You might be familiar with the phrase throat-clearing. When giving an oral presentation in class, you were told to avoid ummm and ahhh when speaking. In writing, a similar concept called metadiscourse is seen with words like therefore, and, or but. Such transitional words and phrases address both the writing and the audience. However, they can also prevent the reader from knowing the topic of the sentence when used excessively throughout the paper. Should one of your sentences begin with a bunch of words before the topic, use your discretion and decide whether they enhance the topic of the sentence or distract the reader from understanding.

Faked Coherence

I’m sure at some point you used words like thus, therefore, however, and so on to connect sentences. I admit I’m guilty of relying on these words too much when it comes to my rough draft. Bizup and Williams advise that you use these words sparingly. Similarly to throat-clearing, faked coherence gives the illusion of connection. As you develop your writing skills, focus more on the logical flow of your ideas.  You can use transitions when you want to enhance clarity in certain areas. There is nothing inherently wrong with transitional words or phrases if they are used correctly.


To summarize, Bizup and Williams restate the process and benefits of incorporating cohesion:

Sentences are cohesive when the last few words of

one set up information that appears in the first few

words of the next.


In every sequence of sentences you write, you have to balance

principles that make individual sentences clear and principles

that make a passage cohesive. But in that tradeoff, give priority

to helping readers create a sense of cohesive flow.

Revision is key. It’s important not to cut away so much information that you leave the reader without any content, or put too much information that ends up overwhelming the reader. Whether it’s taking a few words out or discarding the sentence altogether, be objective in the way you write and what you want to present to readers. Cohesion and coherence are the solid foundations for composing any piece of writing. Like every story, it’s about having a strong beginning, intriguing middle, and a fulfilling end.

For more helpful writing tips, check out this previous post about concision or pick up the book on Amazon here.


Keep Calm and Write a Sh*tty First Draft

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

by Lorraine Monteagut, a PhD candidate in Communicationkeep-calm-and-write-a-sh-tty-first-draft

The end of the semester is here, and for many students, that means cranking out multiple final papers. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with so many demands, and often, the most demanding force is the little voice inside telling us to be perfect, to wow the professor, to get that A+ and rise above the rest of the class.

Anne Lamott, writing guru and author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, advises against seeking the perfect draft:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft […] Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

If you feel stuck, the best way to break the block is to put pen to paper and just start writing – something, anything. Write exactly what you’re thinking in your own words: “I don’t know what I’m doing” is a great start. See where your thoughts lead you. You will surprise yourself when you let the words start flowing! You will soon have a sh*tty first draft with raw ideas for your paper.

You can then revise by adding supporting material and structuring your ideas into separate sections with transitions. This might seem like more work than writing just one draft, but allowing yourself a sh*tty first draft actually cuts down on total writing time and conserves energy, because you are not stressing over every sentence. Later, you can focus your attention on revising, maximizing your chances of writing good (dare I say, great?) second and third drafts. So start writing your sh*tty first draft now!

For more on writing sh*tty first drafts, see our previous post.

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