USF Writing Studio

Archive for February, 2015


Branching Out

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

Some of my favorite consultations are those I have with “regulars.” With some regulars, consultations become less like a job and more like a coffee date with a friend, and I have often caught myself laughing a bit too loudly in a space designed with quiet connectivity, contemplation, and work in mind. Sometimes this draws looks from those I share the space with – perhaps of curiosity, perhaps of irritation – and I do try to be mindful, but sometimes I get lost in the person, the writing, the relationship, and everything else fades into the background. I love watching these writers grow, helping them work through ideas and tough spots, and witnessing their successes and continual improvements.

I love these sessions, which makes what I’m about to type just a little bit painful:
Sometimes regulars need to see other people.

I know that we consultants know the utility of multiple perspectives; however, I have realized that, in this case, what consultants see as useful, writers often see as unnecessarily laborious and, perhaps, inconvenient. It is within this realm of conflicting thought that I find myself all but shoving my favorite regulars out of my Writing Studio nest into the caring arms of other consultants.

I suggest: “You know, I think it would be a good idea to make an appointment with another consultant to talk this over. Multiple perspectives are really useful.”

I argue: “Sure, you’ll have to explain your work to someone else, but that’s part of the process. When you’re forced to explain your work to people over and over, you’re forced into constantly organizing your thoughts and pinpointing your thesis/purpose/ideas/etc.”

I rationalize: “I’m not saying that you need to talk to every consultant at the Studio, but more than just me is a good idea.”

I self-deprecate: “I mean, I think I’m generally pretty helpful, but there are other people here who know more about different things than I do, and they might offer you much better suggestions than I can.”

I plead: “Just make an appointment with one other consultant here and see what happens.”

I negotiate: “You can have two consultations per week – you could keep your appointments with me andmake a few appointments with someone else.”

I restate: “Multiple perspectives are so helpful for all writers, teachers, thinkers, etc. Someone else might be able to offer you something that I can’t, or might think of things in ways that didn’t even occur to me, or motivate you in ways that I don’t. Different viewpoints are very useful.”

Most of the time, I can eventually convince reluctant regulars that working with people other than me is a good idea, but, sometimes, they’re absolutely set on writer-consultant exclusivity.

Of course, the important thing is that regardless of whether or not writers take our advice, we are there for them, and if each writer only ever works with one consultant, at least they came to us in the first place. However, for the rest of my Writing Studio career, I will continuously (if gently) urge writers to take advantage of the breadth of knowledge, skill, and insight that the Writing Studio consultants have to offer.

By Joanna Bartell, PhD in Communication

She Wanted Me to Tell Her What to Write

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

She nodded vigorously and waved her hand, wrinkling her nose and furrowing her brow when I asked if she’d been to the Writing Studio before. Of course I’ve been here. I’ve been here a hundred times. I know all about this place, she gestured. Her description of the assignment was vague and scattered, but I chalked that up to having spent a lot of time with it – after all, she had 8 pages of completed work in front of her, and her assignment sheet was marked up, so she had clearly read the assignment through. What really caught my attention was that her objectives for our session were unclear: she wanted to know if her paper was right… and grammar. When I tried to get her to clarify her objectives, she repeated a similarly unclear line: “I just want to make sure it’s… that it’s correct. And that it’s clear.”
            “So, you want to ensure that you’re answering the questions your professor asks you in the assignment, and that your answers are organized and easy to follow?” I pressed.
            She pushed the assignment paper in front of me and pressed her finger into one of the assignment sections. “Like in this section,” she explained, her finger pressing on the header, “I need to answer these bullet points.” She jammed the point of her finger into each bullet point.
            This student was clearly stressed. I gently explained to her that we could go through and ensure that she was addressing each point of the assignment, but that I could not speak to whether or not they were “correct” or “incorrect.” She acknowledged that I could not tell her if her explanations were “right” or “wrong,” which seemed like a good start. However, it became clear to me in the first short section of the paper that what this client really wanted was for me to tell her what to write.
            This type of client – the type that wants you to tell them what to write and how to write it – can be particularly frustrating. For one thing, the clients themselves are often already frustrated, which is a difficult way to begin a consultation. Perhaps the most difficult part of engaging in this type of consultation, though, is the murkiness of it all: the client has unclear issues and/or objectives, and you have a hard time zeroing in on what the client wants or needs. In some instances, the client may not know that they want you to tell them what to write, which may lead to them feeling frustrated that you’re not helping them like they feel they need. In other instances, the client may be fully aware that they want you to tell them what to write, but know that you cannot/will not. Thus, they frame their objectives and questions in ways that are often unclear, confusing, and difficult to keep up with.

In my example above, the client seemed to know that she wanted me to tell her what to write, but knew that she could not directly ask me to tell her. Thus, her objectives were unclear, and the questions she asked as we read through her work required consistent re-interpretation. The further we got, the more frustrated she became, until she finally began asking me questions such as, “What do I need to write?” “What else should I talk about?” and “What do I need to add?”

I, of course, did not answer any of these questions.

From my experience, writers who want consultants to tell them what to write are experiencing a combination of “low writing confidence” and “something else.” The “something else” can be anything from a fear that they have not properly addressed the requirements of the assignment to a lack of confidence in their own ideas, connections, and conclusions.

These are some of the basic things I try to do when I encounter a writer that wants me to tell them what to write:
  • First, because I believe that this behavior is largely based on a lack of confidence in the writer’s ability to write, understand, connect, and explain, I work toward building their confidence in their work, especially concerning their observations, connections, and conclusions.
  • When writers ask questions regarding whether something is “correct” or “complete,” I turn the question back on them. If they press by asking if their writing “meets the requirements of the assignment,” I slowly go through each point of the assignment and ask where they addressed a particular point in their writing, effectively turning the question back on them yet again while simultaneously showing them how to answer the question.
  • When writers ask questions such as “what else do I need to add?” I answer clearly and concisely, and again turn the question back on them: “Well, I don’t know. What do you think you need to add?”
  • Even though I refuse to address the question that the writer is really trying to ask – “what should I write?” – I do try to help them figure out what they want/need to write about by asking them questions that force them to make connections between the assignment and their observations and conclusions.
  • I recap and encourage, often at the end of each section, and definitely at the end of the session.
While these sessions can be some of the most difficult, I find that they are often also some of the most rewarding. Despite the fact that my client left our session feeling frustrated that I didn’t give her what she wanted, I saw a shift in her confidence to explain her ideas and to answer her own questions.

I call that improvement, no matter how reluctantly it was made.

By Joanna Bartell, PhD in Communication

Writing gurus and sneaky hate spirals: On navigating the brainstorming session

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

I think some of my favorite sessions are the ones involving brainstorming or pre-writing, because these are the sessions where so much is happening all at once.  For one thing, writers in this stage­­­­­ ¾ beginners and veterans alike, albeit to different degrees ¾ face the daunting challenge of putting ideas into words, arranging the words in a way that conveys those ideas, and ultimately making all those little ideas translate into one major idea that will make sense to the intended audience. Needless to say, there is quite a bit of anxiety attached to this task.

Feeling overwhelmed, a writer may attempt to take that piece of advice we’ve all been given a million times and just write. Don’t get me wrong; free writing is an extremely helpful thing to be comfortable and familiar with. And for many people, free writing can come easily and naturally. But for so many others, myself included, trying to jump into writing a piece can become even more paralyzing than just thinking about what needs to be accomplished. With a nod to Alli Brosh[1], I like to refer to what happens next as the “sneaky hate spiral”.  I’m sure you’re at least vaguely familiar with the Spiral. It starts with the inability to “just write”. This quickly turns into the overwhelming sense that there is nothing in your life, work, experiences, research, analysis, interpretations, or whatever that is good enough to be preserved in print. This realization then seems to confirm that obviously your project seemed so challenging initially because you really have no ideas. You’ve reached the depths of the Spiral, and all of the sudden, you’re doomed forever. No one can help you because you’re the only one in all of history to experience this.

So many of our writers come to us because they need help climbing up and out of the sneaky hate spiral, whether or not they’re even aware they’re in it. I also think many of them, particularly the younger undergraduates, assume that as consultants, we have long since become immune to writer’s block, writing anxiety, the sneaky hate spiral, or any other brand of complication that plagues writers. So, these sessions host writers who, in addition to being overwhelmed by their assignments, discouraged by their complete lack of writable ideas, and upset by their inability to free write, are now in the presence of a writing guru. Terrifying.

Pre-writing and brainstorming sessions are where I think our writer-centered philosophy is especially important. True, the other stages of the writing process are all in important in their own rights, and all benefit from the writer-centered approach. Let’s face it, though – you can’t get to those other stages until you get past the first.  So, helping writers develop skills to navigate this first stage is one of the most important things we can accomplish as consultants. There are a few things I’ve found especially helpful to work into these consultations, depending, of course, on each writer’s specific situation:
  • Break it down: Approaching a writing task as a whole is far too intimidating for many writers to be able to enjoy a comfortable writing experience. I start by having my writers draw a “skeleton” outline and put it aside. I’ll ask what kinds of things he or she wants to include in the piece, why these things are relevant, and what they contribute to the piece. Have them start small, and work outwards.
  • Connect: I had a writer a few weeks back who was supposed to be writing about a turning point in her life. She wanted to write about a relationship she’d been in, and her subsequent experience of “moving on”, and subsequently finding her faith and her passion for the violin. The only problem was that she felt this experience was not worth writing about and would do nothing to “reach” others. As it happens, I had also been in a similar situation recently. Without divulging personal details, I mentioned this. She immediately realized she couldreach others with her story, and suddenly her confidence in her topic jumped.
  • Relate: I mentioned earlier that writers come in with the assumption that were all writing experts, immune to falling prey to writing pitfalls or common errors. This is false. If appropriate, let them know this by sharing some of your own trials and tribulations with writing. For example, if your writer is having a hard time with organization, try to think of an instance when your own work suffered in the same way. Share that experience.
  • Let them know they’re not unique: In terms of writing difficulties, of course. In the same vein as the last bullet, letting writers know they’re not alone in their struggles in hugely beneficial. Think about the student who just cannot get the hang of APA in-text citations, and swears there must be something wrong with them. Now think of how many times this week you’ve had the same conversation with other writers. Let them know they’re not pioneers in their problem areas.
By Veronica Suarez, MA in Women’s and Gender Studies

[1] If you haven’t yet read Hyperbole and a Half, drop whatever you’re currently working on and do it. NO EXCUSES!

Using Questions to Advance Sessions with Inexperienced Writers

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized by dmfarrar | No Comments »

As a writing consultant, I have often experienced sessions, particularly with novice writers or first-time visitors to the Studio, who are uncomfortable directing the session. In these sessions, when the writer is quiet and looks to the consultant as an instructor, rather than a tutor, it can be tempting to take on that teacherly role—to direct the student to the problem areas in their work and to give them concrete suggestions for “fixing” their “errors.” However, this method not only undercuts the goal of the writer/consultant relationship, but the consultant also runs the danger here, when the writer is working on an assignment, of misinterpreting the requirements of the assignment or the expectations of the instructor.

In these sessions, using questions to elicit information from the writer is of paramount importance. While in a traditional session, you might spend 5 minutes, at the top of the session, asking the writer about his or her writing project, identifying the purpose, audience, and overall expectations of the piece, while asking questions throughout the session when appropriate. However, in a session in which the writer is hesitant, you may spend the majority of the session in conversation with the writer, posing questions for the writer to answer.

Recent research suggests that there are five categories of questions typically seen in writing consultations: knowledge-deficit questions, common-ground questions, conversation control questions, and leading and scaffolding questions (Thompson and Mackiewicz). In this post, I will focus my discussion on knowledge-deficit questions and leading and scaffolding questions, explaining each question type and providing examples of each.

Knowledge-deficit questions are used to gain or clarify information (Thompson and Mackiewicz). In most cases, a writing consultant will use knowledge-deficit questions to learn more about writer’s goals for the piece and/or assignment specifications. However, it is also important to use knowledge-deficit questions to gauge the writer’s already existing knowledge of the writing topic. Even if you, as a consultant, are knowledgeable about the topic, knowledge-deficit questions can be a great way to encourage the writer to share his or her knowledge with you. For example, although my area of research is in the field of digital literacy as it relates to social networking, if I am working with a writer who is composing a piece about the benefits of social networking for employment purposes, I might ask the writer: “Well, what exactly is a social network? How do I know a social networking site when I see one?” Although I already know the answer to this question, it is important to assess the writer’s already existing knowledge on the topic.

Leading and scaffolding questions are intended to advance the session toward the writer’s goals. While leading questions are often closed (yes/no) questions, and as such are often avoided during consultations, in part because these types of questions often make the tutor’s perspective on the topic, or the desired answer, clear (Thompson and Mackiewicz). However, during consultations in which a writer might require some extra direction, leading questions can be a great way to help students overcome hurdles in their thought processes and to clarify confusion. For example, to return to the example of social networking from above, if I am working with a student that is confusing the terms “social media” and “social networking,” I might say: “But a social network is characterized by the ability to create, and make visible, a network, while network visibility is not a requirement of social media, right?” The expected answer is obvious, however, the question is framed in such a way that it clarifies an area of confusion for the student, hopefully allowing him or her to move past this point of uncertainty.

Scaffolding questions, while serving the same purpose as leading questions, are more open to varied responses from the writer, and allow the tutor to “pump, prompt, paraphrase, and present alternatives” to students, while working to build on the writer’s knowledge about or understanding of the topic (Thompson and Mackiewicz). So, using the same example I used when discussing leading questions, a similar scaffolding question might look like this: “If social media is characterized as online spaces in which a community of users can gather and interact with one another, in what ways are social networking sites unique examples of social media?” While I have provided the student with a lot if information here (the knowledge that the terms “social media” and “social networking” are not synonymous; the knowledge that social networks are a particular type of social media), the question leaves the impetus on the student to identify this difference.

Of course, knowledge-deficit, leading and scaffolding questions are only a few examples of the types of questions consultants can use to advance the session and to meet the writer’s goals. However, rather than being frustrated by a writer that is shy, confused, or otherwise non-directive in the session, it’s important to think about ways in which we, as consultants, can mitigate these sessions for our writers.

By Sandy Branham, PhD in Texts and Technology
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