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The Importance of Writing for STEM Majors

January 27th, 2017

Karl Blog Pic FA16By Karl Payne, Writing Studio Consultant

For many students from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, writing can be challenging. “We’re STEM majors, so what’s the importance of being able to write well?” is one of the sentiments expressed by undergraduate STEM majors. It’s somewhat surprising that students sometimes undervalue the importance of the role effective communication skills play in their disciplines. From a biotech start-up to academia, interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving are becoming more common. This will require STEM students to communicate with audiences across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

Beyond being able to communicate effectively, some of the same problem-solving skills required to tackle complex problems in science and engineering are required for writing. The scientific method requires skills such as modeling, synthesis, and abstraction. For example, in science, abstraction is required for taking a complex process and reducing it to the most salient characteristics. In writing, an analogous process is necessary for expressing an idea that requires a balance between being concise, and providing enough details for the reader to understand the main concept being conveyed.

Now that social media is playing a more prominent role in disseminating scientific findings, communicating in an exciting and engaging way has become increasingly important. As the general public learns more about scientific discoveries and technological advancements from social media, clear and accessible writing will be a necessary skill. Through frequent writing practice and applying the same methodological approach as with science assignments, writing will become a less frustrating process for STEM majors.

Scientific American agrees that effective communication yields better science.

The Blank Page: A Challenge All Writers Face

January 23rd, 2017

Lesley Blog Pic FA16By Lesley Brooks, Writing Studio Consultant

Often, one of the hardest parts of the writing process is getting started. Beginning a piece of writing is difficult as we, as writers, face the blank page that must be eventually filled with

-coherent ideas,

-logical organization,

-and analysis, all strung together with visible words.

The blank page is intimidating, as it not only represents the work that still needs to be accomplished but also the uncertain success of the final product. Tackling the blank page is not an easy task in any discipline, but, sometimes, thinking about the writers who came before us and the difficulties that they faced allows us to view our own writing struggles from a new perspective.

We have to remember that famous authors did not just appear out of thin air nor did they work in a vacuum. They were, like all writers, a product of the circumstances in which they lived, the society that they were a part of, and the challenges that they faced. They were also influenced by the writers that came before them, steadily building their own strengths. We must remember that before there was a Jane Austen, there came the achievements of Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Burney (among many others) slowly shaping the novel as a genre during the long Eighteenth Century. Without their contributions, how differently would the novel look today? Without the work and writings of female authors who faced societal pressure to refrain from writing (as “female authorship was widely considered to be the literary equivalent of prostitution” during the Eighteenth Century (Pettit Fantomina and Other Works 9), the novel as a genre would look drastically different today, not to mention threaten the works of later authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Harper Lee, and Alice Walker.

For these writers, the blank page became an opportunity to have a voice, to make a social commentary, and to highlight injustice.

The writings that we produce can have the same impact as the works of these authors. Like all writers in every discipline, we need to consider:

 

  1. Why do we write?
  2. What do we want to produce?
  3. And, what do we hope to shed light on or change?

 

Knowing the answers to these questions helps to shape the purpose, structure, and tone of our writing. These answers will, of course, evolve and change as we experience new things, face new challenges, and read more. Not every piece of writing will become a masterpiece, but every piece of writing has the potential to motivate, to convince, to highlight, and to influence. The blank page is both a challenge and an opportunity that all writers face, and it is up to you to determine how you will tackle the page.

Aims Community College’s (in Greeley, Colorado) Online Writing Lab offers some straightforward tips on “Getting Started” when we are faced with a blank page.

Interrogating Your Writing: Asking the Right Questions

January 20th, 2017

Alex Bog Pic FA16By Alex Cendrowski, Writing Studio Consultant

When you sit down with a blank page and a pen or keyboard, what are the most important things to ask? What (am I writing)? Why (am I writing it)? And How (can I write it best)?

Let’s break it down:

What (am I writing)? Sometimes considered the most deceptively complicated of the three core questions (by whom?), “What?” is best answered by addressing the assignment or project you’re working on directly. For some writers, this will be easy: “I’m writing [an assignment] as detailed in my instructor’s elegant and helpful assignment sheet.” Others will be less fortunate, with looser guidelines or, indeed, no guidelines at all. Still, it’s crucial to know what you’re setting out to create before you actually create it. Even creative writers, who often learn about their creation through the process of creating it, will do well to have some idea in mind of what the initial goal was—even if that goal ends up being tossed into the trash and wrapped in a rotting banana peel.

Why (am I writing it)? Well, probably for a grade, in many instances. But that’s a surface-level “Why?”; and, if there’s one thing I want you to take away from the words on this web page in this corner of the Internet, it’s that true answers rarely come from the surface. If you’re like the majority of our writers, you’re taking a course at a university in order to get a degree. You’re getting a degree to get a job. The job is willing to hire you because the degree shows you’ve committed yourself to learning a certain set of skills and have the ability to practice those skills actively. Ergo, you’re probably writing your paper in order to learn from doing so. With this in mind, the ways you think about the subject matter, methods of writing, and time spent writing will hopefully change—if learning is the most important thing you’re doing here, you should prioritize the method of doing so. If there’s a different reason you’re working on a specific assignment or project, your writing will follow that mode.

How (can I write it best)? Let’s be honest: you skipped to this point. The good news is that there is an answer. The bad news is I can’t give it to you. Every writer must individually come up with the answer for “How?”, and the process by which writers get to that answer will inevitably change from project to project. For some projects, the answer will come, again, in the form of an assignment sheet that details the exact ways to move from Point A to Point B. For other projects, your instructor’s spoken advice will give you the tools to achieve your goals. And for many, many others, you’re going to have to think—you’re going to have to look at the “What?” and “Why?” You’re going to have to interrogate the purposes and practices of your creation. And sometimes, when you’ve exhausted your questions and know everything you can, you’re just going to have to write.

Writing a Historiography

November 28th, 2016

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By Giuliana Gazabon, Writing Studio Consultant

What is a historiography? 

First of all, a historiography is NOT a research paper; rather, it is the written history of a history. Essentially, a historiography exposes the different interpretations scholars have written on specific events or persons throughout time. In any discipline, it is common for academics to find differing results on the research they have conducted. Their biases depend on the availability of sources, any advances in technology, the scholars’ previous academic influences, and the methodology they use to conduct their research.

What is the purpose of writing a historiography? 

Having a myriad of analyses about a specific topic is the reason why historiographies are written. They allow future researchers to gain a clearer understanding of where the academic conversation on their researched topic has been, what the current conversation is, and where it might go in the future.

Here are a few steps to writing a successful historiographical essay.

  • Step 1. Pick a topic (i.e., an event, a person, a theory, an idea etc.)
  • Step 2. Research different sources such as academic peer-reviewed journals, books, archaeological findings, artworks, etc. on your topic/person.
  • Step 3. Read your sources and choose a time frame.
  • Step 4. Do not merely summarize a source; rather identify and analyze each author’s argument (thesis), conclusions, and the sources they used as evidence to prove their claim(s).
  • Step 5. Make sure to explain the claims that scholars brought and/or are bringing to the academic conversation on the specific topic/person.
  • Step 6. Lastly, explain how the academic conversation on your topic changed (or not) throughout time.

Once again, remember that a historiography is NOT a research paper. While writing a historiography, it is your job to explain what scholars have written about your specific topic and how their academic conversations have changed (or not) within the time frame you chose.

Where can I find outside sources to help my writing. 

Trent University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have specific examples on how to write successful historiographical essays.

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

November 22nd, 2016

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!

What You Read Is What You Write

November 2nd, 2016

Paul Blog Pic FA16By Paul Flagg, Writing Studio Consultant

If you really want to perfect your writing technique, probably the most advantageous thing you can do is put your nose in a book. The more you read, the more it will show in your writing.

Reading has been proven to positively affect cognitive abilities, stimulate imagination, and improve memory. Through reading, writers are also exposed to a variety of writing styles and mindsets that broaden their understanding of how to analyze and interpret different texts. This applies not only to school readings but is equally beneficial, if not more so, in reading for entertainment.

Regular voluntary reading—perhaps the most influential means for writing development—allows individuals to better comprehend and produce quality writing. Assigned readings for school are helpful for learning how to write like a college student, too, of course, but the impact of reading voluntarily, regardless of genre or subject matter, is much greater.

Both academic and leisure reading can positively affect vocabulary usage, even if you don’t read with a dictionary beside you to look up every unfamiliar word. Oftentimes, the context in which a word or phrase is used allows readers to at least learn the basic meaning. Without a doubt, increasing your vocabulary leads to better writing, as you begin to learn how to diversify a given statement or idea with new words and phrases. In addition to enhancing vocabulary, reading allows you to learn the rules of grammar naturally. The everyday individual may not know what a split infinitive is, or a dangling modifier, or even what it means to write in the conditional tense, but by reading, you learn how to recognize good writing and identify when something’s not quite right. As a result, your writing skills automatically improve, regardless of whether you know what a gerund is or that you’re writing in the future perfect tense.

Although it is indeed beneficial to read outside your comfort zone and explore written materials on topics you might otherwise be unaccustomed to, you are still exposed to a wide variety of new and unique stories and perspectives that allow you as a reader to learn from different emotions and worldviews. Even if you choose to read solely within a single genre or discipline, though, your abilities to comprehend industry-specific written materials and produce higher-level writing within a particular field of study will become stronger.

More than likely, if you don’t read, then you probably don’t write either. So, if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, it’s time to lose yourself in a good book.

This source provides some additional information how how reading more can lead to better writing.

Locating Credible Sources

October 26th, 2016


Will Blog Pic1By Will Forde-Mazrui, Writing Studio Consultant

Many students have difficulty writing research papers, but this struggle does not necessarily come from a lack of ideas. For the majority of undergraduate students, the most daunting aspect of a research paper is locating credible sources. Once students have selected a topic, getting started on research can be debilitating. Luckily, the USF Library is well equipped with everything undergraduate students need to find credible sources.

Locating Credible Sources

While Google searches and Wikipedia can be a great starting point for research (what we call “informal research”), they often lead students astray when looking for credible sources. The Internet can provide valuable background material, but most research papers call for credible sources.

What makes a source credible?

First and foremost, peer-reviewed/scholarly publications are the easiest to determine credibility. A peer-reviewed source has been checked for reliability and accuracy by selected professionals from the source’s field. Finding help can be as easy as making an appointment at the Writing Studio where research experts are waiting to provide advice, support, and encouragement. If students need more help, or cannot make it to the Writing Studio, here are a few tips for locating credible sources.

Tip #1: Visit the USF Library website (students should sign in for full access) and look through the “Research Tools” selection on the upper-right part of the page. You can select “Databases by Title” if you know the name of the database you wish to search (e.g., JSTOR or Access World News) or choose “Databases by Subject” if you know your subject but don’t know the names of any specific databases. You can also click here to get started. Many of these databases are subject specific and allow students to search for peer reviewed articles by author, keyword, title, and more.

Tip #2: These databases and searches can be frustrating, especially if a student is struggling to choose a topic or locate the most useful database for their subject. When these types of frustrations threaten to become overwhelming, it may be time to ask for help. On the Library homepage, students are given the option to “Ask A Librarian.” This feature allows for students to send an email, call, or even initiate a real-time chat with specialized research librarians. This is an incredibly helpful tool for students struggling with database searches and brainstorming “search terms.”

Tip #3: Students can take advantage of many other resources on the Library homepage. From the library homepage, students can search for books, articles, and media resources that are accessible through USF (again, make sure to log in for full access). The USF Library has access to a huge selection of potential source material and is capable of requesting any materials not housed in our library through Inter-Library Loan and Uborrow.  The Library research page includes citation help, subject guides, and information on how to find books, articles, and even provides access to digital collections. All students should spend time familiarizing themselves with the resources provided on this page!

While finding credible sources can be a daunting task for undergraduate students, with these tips, and a little perseverance, a wide array of credible research is close at hand. Thanks to the library here at USF, research success is easily attainable!

Will Blog Pic2

Addressing Grammar

October 17th, 2016

By Georgia Jackson, Writing Studio Consultant Georgia Blog Pic2

Despite popular belief, the USF Writing Studio is not the place to go for grammar lessons. Yet, without fail, writers visit the studio morning, afternoon, and night with the hope of soliciting grammatical edits from Studio consultants. When faced with a grammar-focused writer, Studio consultants will attempt to redirect the student’s focus to higher order functions like organization and analysis.  Is the piece of writing meeting the goal it sets out to accomplish?  Does the argument flow logically from point to point?  Are paragraphs introduced with appropriate topic sentences?

The purpose behind this shift in focus from grammar to overall clarity is well-reasoned. It isn’t that Studio consultants are shying away from correcting grammatical mistakes.  On the contrary, what most writers initially peg as weak grammar is more often than not a result of weak structuring. In prioritizing organization, analysis, and other higher order functions, Studio consultants are able to guide writers toward increased clarity without diving into the nuts and bolts of English grammar.

But what of the writers who do require supplementary language training? The writers who, regardless of organizational and analytical skill, cannot convey ideas in writing due to a lack of preliminary English training?

The cycle in place goes something like this:

  1. Instructor takes note of unclear writing in a student’s paper.
  2. Instructor recommends that the student visit the Writing Studio.
  3. Student makes the suggested appointment, meets with a Studio consultant, and spends 50 minutes focusing on higher order functions like organization and analysis.
  4. Student returns to class with a clearer, better organized essay.
  5. Instructor detects persisting grammatical mistakes and subsequently lowers the student’s assignment grade.
    1. Instructor might even ask why the student still hasn’t visited the Writing Studio.

So, where can students in real need of grammatical assistance go?

  1. For INTO USF students, the INTO USF Center offers tutoring in every course within G.E., A.E., and Pathway, in addition to helping with Test Prep, Conversational English and other writing needs. Pathway students can receive help in courses such as English, Chemistry, Engineering, Exercise Science, Business, Math, American Culture, Mass Communication, and Education.
  2. GrammarBook.com is a website that offers lessons on “English Rules” from punctuation to homonyms. It is a free, online resource.
  3. Grammarly.com is a web-based app that works to eliminate errors and enhance clarity and meaning. It is also a free, online resource.

Georgia Blog Pic1

IMRaD: Graduate Writing in the Sciences

October 2nd, 2016

Sashi Blog F16

By Sashi Gurram, Writing Studio Consultant

Science graduates often freak out when writing a manuscript for an academic, peer-reviewed journal, especially if it is their first manuscript. While writing a manuscript may look like a daunting task, it can also be a very rewarding experience if you know what you are doing. Most science research articles follow the organizational structure of IMRaD: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The section names appear to be self-explanatory. But, many a time, graduate students face issues with writing specifically for each section. In this blog, we will go over a few basics that might help you in drafting an awesome manuscript draft.

Introduction: This is the section where you talk about the significance or importance of your research. You need to motivate your audience about the problem and explain why they should care about it. Then, you can provide a brief review of what other studies did in this area, and what is the existing gap in literature. Following this, you can talk about how your study fills this gap in knowledge and, finally, conclude the section with the study aims/objectives.

Methods: Methods is probably the easiest of all the sections in your manuscript. In fact, it is a great practice to start drafting your manuscript from the methods section. The reason being, in this section , you will just talk about the research design of your study and this does not involve significant amount of analysis or reasoning (of course, you still have to defend the choice of your research design). Your methods section should be detailed and should provide the reader a good understanding of your study design. A good rule of thumb is, the readers should be able to arrive at the same results as yours by following the methodical descriptions in your manuscript. Thus, this gives some perspective about the level-of-detail that is needed while drafting the methods section.

Results: In results, you talk about the general findings of your study. A good way to present the results is by using figures and tables and using them as constructs to present the results. For example, if you have your results in a table, you should not be repeating the contents of the table in the text. You should aim at using the table as a construct and present the results. For example, if your table presents the cadmium exposure results for 5 people, it would look silly if you write something like, “The exposure for person 1 is x, exposure for person 2 is y…” and so on. Rather, it makes more sense to write something like, “The Cadmium exposures for these 5 individuals range between x and y.” So, always think about how to write concisely without losing clarity.

Discussion: Discussion is by far the most important and, at the same time, difficult section in the entire manuscript. This is the place where you analyze your results. Do your results make sense? Are they believable? You can answer the question of believability by comparing your results with results from other studies. If they are different, why do you think they are different? If they are similar, what factors could have influenced this? Next, you can also analyze your results by trying to talk about the factors that could have precipitated these results. Following this, you can talk about the significance or implications of these results. How do you think these results will improve the current understanding in this field of study? What is the most important (and if needed, the second and third most important) takeaway point(s) of your results?

While the above points do not constitute an exhaustive list of guidelines for academic journal writing, it provides some good insights for at least getting you started on this process. You might benefit from additional resources on this topic from here and here.

Image source: “Scientific American Magazine. Second Thoughts about Fluoride” by alisonmckellar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Revision: The 95%

September 13th, 2016

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.

 

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