Writing Muscle Warm-Ups

Welcome Back!

Let’s be honest: for a lot of us, writing just didn’t happen over break. Maybe we signed a few receipts or Christmas cards. Maybe we wrote in our journals or typed a few Instagram posts. But now we’re back in the academic world. We’ve been taking light walks, and now we’re being asked to do squats. We’ve been hauling shopping bags, and now we’re lifting weights. We have to use the same muscles, but in different ways, and that can take some adjustment.

What do you do when you have a big work-out ahead? You warm up. You stretch those muscles and get your blood flowing so you don’t hurt yourself. The same can be true for writing.

Most likely, you don’t have any large writing assignments due in the next week or two, so you have some time to warm up. Maybe your professors have already given you small writing assignments to start off with. Whatever the case may be, you may find the following ideas useful in re-engaging your writing muscle, both now and before those bigger assignments.

Remember: Warm-ups are not meant to be done just once. If any of these prove helpful to you, try them regularly to keep your writing muscles engaged and ready for those papers!

  1. Read. This should be easy, since you are in school and readings are assigned regularly. The more you read in the genre that you will be writing, the more naturally writing in that genre will be for you.
  2. Brainstorm/Research Early. If you have a big paper coming up, give your mind some time to work with your ideas and research. Jot down passing thoughts, ideas, sentences, etc. Spend some time online or in the library exploring your topic. You may find yourself working through problems subconsciously once you’ve started the process.
  3. Keep a Writer’s Notebook. Even if your major doesn’t seem to be writing-related, keeping a writer’s notebook is an excellent way to make writing a part of your daily life. Again, this is not crunch time. You don’t even have to break a sweat (or write a full sentence, even). In your notebook, you can write down ideas, thoughts, phrases, words, research questions/answers, narratives, or dialogue. You could even doodle, paste pictures or newspaper clippings, or practice your handwriting. Everything goes. Just have fun fiddling with it and remember that writing doesn’t have to be a full-blown work-out all the time; sometimes it’s just playing around.
  4. Talk it Out. If you are a verbal processor, try talking out your ideas with someone. Find out who helps you process well. Some people are good at asking questions, for instance, while others are good at just listening and affirming, and still others are good at challenging and making you dig deeper. I also find that simply recording myself is helpful. And don’t forget about the Writing Center! We are here to help in ANY stage of the writing process, which means we’ll give you a listening ear even before you have anything on paper!
  5. Free Write. I can’t stress this one enough. It differs from the writer’s notebook in that it is less about gathering and playing with ideas and more about letting things just flow for a certain amount of time–less like dancing when the mood hits you and more like getting a membership to an interpretive dance group. How do you do it? Simply write until either a set time or word count is up. You can begin with a topic that may or may not relate to a project, paper, or story, or you can simply start off with whatever comes to your mind. But don’t stop writing. No matter what. If you have to write “I don’t know what to say” or “My feet are cold,” then write it. The idea is just to write and not worry about the product. It is the ultimate warm-up, and it never fails to get the creative juices flowing.

Enjoy writing!

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What Should I Write About?

Brainstorming can be an easy or difficult task depending on your level of excitement about an assignment, your existing knowledge, your timeline, and other factors. While you may feel that a topic is something that floats around until it finally settles into your mind, ready to be written, or that, on the contrary, it is something you chase after but remains out of reach, there are actually many techniques you can practice to pin that topic to the ground.

Where do ideas come from? 

Last week, I had an amazing breakthrough in finishing up a rough draft for a short story I was working on. Suddenly all the ideas clogged in my brain flowed freely and found their place on the page. While some may call this kind of writing session “inspired” or picture a writer stopping in the middle of an activity, grabbing a pen and paper, and writing something beautiful and perfect as if playing scribe to an external “muse,” my experience last week came after days of brainstorming and finally free writing.

Paper topics often come the same way. While I can’t deny that there are some unexplainable instances in which ideas just shoot down like lightning, more often than not, it takes intentional brainstorming time to finally capture an idea.

Set a Deadline 

In my last blog, I addressed how the best time to start your paper is now. That means that coming up with a topic begins now, and that takes intentional, scheduled time. As I wrote before, you may even decide to make a deadline for yourself for when you will finally choose your topic. In other words, don’t wait for lightning!

Thesis or no Thesis?

It may be that, while brainstorming, your topic and thesis may come to you simultaneously. That’s great! On the other hand, if trying to come up with a thesis around your topic is preventing you from choosing a topic to begin with, set it aside and don’t worry about it for now.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a fairly nuanced word; it can entail anything from reading, researching, note-taking, or just sitting and thinking about topics. A lot of this depends on what works for you, and that often depends on what kind of paper you are writing.

Free-writing 

One method is to simply free-write. This is what I did to unclog my thoughts about the story I was writing. I simply opened a word document and typed away until I had a more solid idea of what to write about. I didn’t stop, even when I had nothing to say but “Anyway” or “I don’t know what to write.” Before, thoughts were flowing in and out of my head, but free writing allowed me to capture those thoughts and process them.

Free-speaking

On the other hand, maybe you process better through speaking aloud, so talking into a recording devise would help you accumulate ideas.  Maybe you need an audience to receive and give feedback to your ideas. At the Writing Center, we can offer a listening ear.

Careful reading

Try keeping a pen in your hand while reading to underline and take notes. Jot down things even if you don’t know for sure it will be helpful later; it just might! For literary papers, think about questions you have, what the author is trying to say, or what theories may be applied to it. For other papers, think about how the topic might apply to other situations or what you might be able to add to it from your experience, from research, or from further study.

Research 

Do some research on your chosen book or field and see if anything jumps out to you. Sometimes seeing what’s already there can help you see what is missing. Think about your paper as a contribution to the discussion.

Questions to get you thinking

  1. What about this subject or book is interesting to you? Do you have any experience with it now? Will you in the future?
  2. What in your reading has left you wanting to know more?
  3. Do you see anything in your readings or lessons that connects with other topics, contexts, or social concerns?
  4. If you are writing on a novel, what might the writer’s intention be? What symbols do you see? Do you see any loose ends? Any connections?

How do you know it’s a good topic?

Finally, here are some questions to help you discern if your topic is not only good in general but also good for you specifically.

Is it interesting to you?

Maybe you are writing about a story that really moved or angered you, or maybe you are writing about the effects of red40 on children with ADHD because your brother had shown side effects in the past. Whatever it is, your topic should engage you enough that you won’t tire of it after the first page.

Has it been done before? 

Some students strive to write something that has never been said before, but that is sometimes a lofty goal, particularly when writing about novels that have been around for centuries. If this is stifling you, remember that this topic hasn’t been covered by YOU and that you have a perspective that no one else has. In your research, you may find yourself putting together pieces of the puzzle that haven’t been linked before.

On the other hand, choosing a topic that has never been addressed before may mean that there is nothing to research, or even that it is invalid. For instance, researching a topic that looked into the probability of apes taking over the world, if anything, might send you to personal blogs or websites with unprovable science. This may be a sign that your topic is improbable.

Is it controversial?

If you are writing an argumentative paper, it is important that your topic have some kind of opposition. If you were to write a paper about why brushing your teeth is good for you, for instance, you would be arguing with no one (or maybe some outliers). But if you wrote your paper arguing brushing your teeth with fluoride may be harmful, or that one should only use a particular brand, then you have an argument and will likely find sources that support opposing sides.

What are others saying?

If you aren’t sure about a topic, ask a friend, a professor, a mentor, or even a tutor at the Writing Center. Note their reactions, their level of interest, and any questions they might have. This will help you know if you are on the right track or if you need to dig a little deeper.

Where to write at WKU

By Abby Ponder

We all know that starting a paper is often the most difficult part of writing the paper. In fact, we’ve covered it in great detail on this very blog. At the end of the day, though, we all have our own spaces and places to tell our stories; however, if you’re wanting to stay on campus for your writing days, we’ve got a couple suggestions for you.

Your Dorm (or home)

It seems pretty self-explanatory, but some people write their best work from the comfort of their own room.

There are obvious pros to writing in this location: (1) you’re comfortable, (2) you don’t have to deal with people distracting you from writing, and (3) you’re familiar with the space and everything in it. Let’s be honest, it’s also really convenient–especially when you’ve procrastinated until the night before the paper’s due. Not that you’d ever do such a thing, though, right?

But, at the same time, these pros can sometimes be cons. Being comfortable might mean you’re more easily distracted or tempted to take a nap. Plus, if your roommate or friends from down the hall are hanging out, you’re more liable to be distracted by them than hearing a stranger order a cup of coffee or rant about the latest Scandal episode. Who knows, in your own room you might even watch that Scandal episode yourself.

Really, whether or not your dorm (or home) works well for your writing depends on your personality and your ability to concentrate. Test it out and use your best judgment.

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Helm/Cravens Library 

This seems like the most obvious place, of course. It’s quiet. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be quiet. (Cough.) There are seemingly endless floors–nine, nine floors–and endless rows of books and shelves. Some of the shelves even move! The cubbies of desks sprinkled throughout the perimeter of each floor are also especially appealing if you like to be alone with your thoughts. Or you can use the computer lab on the fourth floor in Cravens. There are usually plenty of computers available, and it’s one of the best places to go if you need to concentrate and thrive off people’s judgment to keep you off Facebook.

Plus, if you’re working on your paper between 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., then stop by and see us at our Cravens’ location. We’ll be hanging out at the reference desk.

Ultimately, the library is a wonderful place to write. Generally it’s even my first choice! Unless, of course, it’s final weeks. And then you might have to fight for that spot, buddy.

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Starbucks/Einstein’s/Java City

Nothing breeds productive thoughts like the smell of brewing caffeine in the air. For some people (myself wholeheartedly included), a coffee shop is the undisputed best place to write. There’s enough hustle and bustle to stifle the silence, but you can also do your own thing with a nice cup of joe by your side. It’s a great environment! Plus, you can also feel really mature as you sip that latte and type away.

Just keep in mind that if you’re camping out in your fave coffee shop for a few hours at a time, you should actually buy something while you’re there. (This is also especially true for coffee shops off campus.)

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The Colonnade (or anywhere outside, really) 

Now that we’re nearing spring and the weather is warming up, writing a paper outside is an ideal idea-churning location. What better place is there to feel an idea sprout from your pen and see words blossom on your screen? Whether you’ve got a hammock, a blanket, or a spot on the Colonnade steps, you’re guaranteed to be writing in comfort and style.

Fair warning, though, that comfort and style might be a little too distracting.

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Mass Media and Technology Hall 

If you enjoy writing on desktop computers, then MMTH is the place for you.

It’s also the place for you if you need people’s judgment to keep you on task but find the quiet of the library stifling.

Conversely, if noise bothers you, then you might want to reconsider. Either way, though, it’s an excellent place to print that paper off before class. And if you’re not already using WebPrint from your laptop, now is the perfect time to start…

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So, where are your favorite places to write? Share in the comments below! And good luck as you move forward with those papers, my friends. Don’t forget that the WKU Writing Center is here to help you with the paper writing process. Give us a call at (270) 745-5719 to set up an appointment today.

 

Your Paper’s Roadmap

by Abby Ponder

If you’ve ever taken any English class ever–or if you’ve written a paper in general, really–then you’ve probably heard of thesis statements. In fact, you’ve probably used them. Several times. And perhaps you’ve felt a sense of dread building in your stomach upon seeing those words in crisp, clean ink at the top of an assignment. The butterflies are a-fluttering and the tummy is a-rumbling.

Trepidation when it comes to thesis statements is not an unusual phenomenon.

This uneasiness stems from somewhere, certainly, but sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on why thesis statements cause all the organized thoughts in your head to fly out the window.

For some people, thesis statements are simply overwhelming. Ideally, according to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, “every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message […] A thesis statement focuses your ideas into one or two sentences. It should present the topic of your paper and also a comment about your position in relation to the topic.”

In laymen’s terms, a thesis statement is the paper’s roadmap. It highlights what the paper is going to be about and informs the reader on how they’re going to get there.

With that in mind, writing the statement seems like a lot of pressure. It’s got to contain a whole lot of information that you, as the writer, might not know yet. And that’s okay!

So, you know what you should do?

You should save it for last.

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When you’re writing an essay, it can be really tempting to write in chronological order. It makes sense, after all: it’s a natural progression of thoughts, exposition, and explanation. However, just because you write the bulk of your paper in chronological order, it doesn’t mean you can’t write the introduction last.

See, sometimes as you write your ideas change. Though you may have started in a structured, “I’m going to talk about this, this, and this,” mind frame, your ideas can evolve the more you put words on paper. Wait until the paper’s finished, examine the main ideas you address, and then construct your thesis.

It helps tremendously–I promise.

However, if you like a little bit more structure before you start writing, the value of an outline in indisputable. If you use an outline, the chances are pretty good that it’ll come into play again when you’re writing your actual thesis statement, too.

And, while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to break away from the traditional “3-point thesis.” The content of the statement is arguably more important than the structure. So, as you write your statement, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it answer the assignment’s primary question? (If there is one.)
  • Do you reference specific points? 
  • Does it answer the “so what?” question? (i.e., if I’m reading your paper with absolutely no context, am I going to understand why this paper is important?)
  • Does it, ultimately, say something? Sometimes writers get caught in a trap of wandering in circles, using words without really ever saying something. Your thesis doesn’t exist to expand on a word count. Instead, it is there to expand on an idea. Use it to your advantage.

You can even find more questions to ask yourself, along with examples, by visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s webpage devoted to the topic.

So, take a deep breath. Writing thesis statements takes practice and, ultimately, confidence. The more faith you have in your statement, the more likely you’ll say something worth saying. Write with your shoulders back and your thinking cap in place.

Good luck.

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Getting back into the writing grove

by Abby Ponder

The other night, I sat down at my computer to start writing. I write everyday–it’s one of the hazards of studying English and journalism–but I rarely take into consideration the routine behind the word count.

People write in different ways; it is a fact of life. Sometimes the routines are consistent–“every night at 5:30 I must write three pages of whatever research paper is due first”–and sometimes they’re more adaptable to meet deadlines and other commitments.

Additionally, sometimes people procrastinate one assignment while working ahead on another.

Life is full of variables and writing is no different.

For me, I tend to write at odd hours. Sometimes it depends on when I get the chance or have the motivation. If I’ve learned anything, though, it’s that writing something every day makes all the difference in the world–even if you only are able to write for ten minutes.

Eventually I’ll sit down and force myself to write. I’ll typically draw up an outline on paper first, and then start writing with my first body paragraph. (I almost always skip the introduction and save it for last. If, for some reason, I go on ahead with it, nine times out of 10 I’ll end up deleting it at the end.)

From there, I just write. I split the screen between my outline and the actual assignment, and just go until I have to stop. (With occasional five minute breaks every now and then.)

I also like writing in a familiar place. I can write at home when I need to. In fact, I do so on several occasions. It’s easy and convenient; it is also extremely comfortable. But while I can work at home, it doesn’t necessarily mean I always do. Over my time at WKU, I’ve found that I do some of my most productive writing in a library or a coffee shop. Home means comfort, more often than not, and so I can rationalize procrastination; however, when I’m in an official setting my productivity goggles immediately fall into place and those fifteen minute Facebook breaks (because, let’s be honest, five minutes doesn’t always cut) are immediately downsized.

The moral of the story is, write where you think you can write. If you’re more productive at home, then go for it. But if you’re struggling with churning out a couple pages from the sofa or dining room table, I would suggest trying out a new environment. There are tons of great coffee shops on and around campus that allow for a comfortable, but professional setting. Or, if the noise bothers you, the library is an excellent place to get work done. (We also, as it so happens, have a Writing Center location in the Commons at Cravens that you can stop by at any stage in your writing.)

Find what works best for you and go from there. You might not find that magical writing zone on the first try, but keep looking–it’s there somewhere.

In the meantime, enjoy your snow day(s), Hilltoppers! And be sure to let us know about your writing process. Inquiring minds want to know!

Happy Writing!

This post was originally published on February 16, 2015.

The final(s) countdown: Getting your paper started

by Abby Ponder 

We’ve reached that time of year, folks: finals week. Or, better yet, crunch time.

It’s been a grande ole’ semester filled with football games and friends, festivities and fun times. But, like all good things, this semester has to come to a close, and with that conclusion, final projects and papers must come to an end, too.

So how are you coping with the stress of finals week?

Well, step one: don’t panic. I know that is much easier said than done (trust me, I definitely know that), but it’s doable. Compartmentalizing is key. I have four or five papers due in the upcoming weeks, and compartmentalizing them is the only way I’m going to be able to remain a fully functioning human being by the end of this.

So, let’s walk through the process. Bear in mind that, as we go, what works for me may or may not work for you. Everyone has a different approach to paper writing, but it is my hope that even if this isn’t the exact path you wind up taking, that this post might help you figure out for yourself what works and doesn’t work, and then provide you the support to build your own foundation from there.

First, look at the assignment and deconstruct what it is asking you. Are there multiple questions being asked in the prompt? In that case, I’ve found that it can be helpful to separate them into different questions. Suppose that the prompt it asking you the following question: “How does The Scarlet Letter reflect the mentalities of Puritan New England? How is this mindset still reflected in a contemporary setting? How do the symbols from the novel reflect the way symbols are used today in regards to shame?” When planning to write this paper, you might break it down like this:

Admittedly, the questions your professors assign will be more eloquent than my attempts, and your answers will certainly be more elaborate, but you get the general idea. Breaking down these long questions can help you figure out what direction you want to take your paper in. I’m a very visual learner, and so having this clearly laid out in front of me helps tremendously.

However, while some assignments may be long and elaborate, there are others that are completely open-ended. In some cases, these assignments can be even more overwhelming. You know you’re supposed to write about something, but with no specific guidelines or instructions, where on Earth are you supposed to begin? In that case, find a topic that is both interesting to you and is relevant to the class. Making a list can be helpful, and taking a look back at the syllabus can also give you an idea of everything you might’ve forgotten from earlier in the semester. (But you wouldn’t forget any of the material, right?)
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Once you have a general idea as to what you’re going to be writing about, I’ve found that writing up an outline can be particularly helpful. Outlines, in my experience, can go in a couple of different directions.
One option is the bare-bones skeleton. This is the idea of just putting words on paper to have some sense of direction as to where the project should go. I typically write this outline on paper, because drawing arrows and crossing things out can sometimes be especially satisfying, and it definitely lends itself towards making you feel as if you’re making progress–because you are!
The above picture is from the beginning of an outline I was working on for a class earlier this semester. It’s nothing terribly elaborate, but more of an idea as to where the paper will eventually go. Even if the paper deviates from this path, it’s a nice way of gathering your thoughts and saving them for later. You never know what epiphanies will happen!
Once I have finished my bare-bones outline, then I start a quote-based outline. In most of your academic research papers, secondary sources are crucial. Instead of flipping back and forth while writing the paper, I like to have a good idea of what quotes I’ll be using and where I will be using them before I even get started.
Following the bare-bones outline, I created this one to plug in resources that, if the paper presented an opportunity for them, I could cite.
While you may still need to pull out some other quotes as you go along (because, hey, papers develop in different ways sometimes), this way you already have the central ones at your disposal. If you follow this outline (ha!), though, make sure you continue to mark where you’re pulling the quotes from. Citations are critical, and you’re not saving time in the long run if you have to go back and find the author and page number after the fact. Do it all upfront and you’ll be golden!
From there, the next thing to do is just start writing. And remember, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect–that’s why it’s called a first draft. If you have the time, check out one of our recent post about the editing process for some extra assurance and advice.
Also, don’t forget that the Writing Center is here to assist you with any stage of the writing process. We are not an editing service, but we will gladly help walk you through any bumps in the road you may stumble across, whether you’re on the preliminary outline or looking at a final draft. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a second opinion on things, too.
Like always, you can schedule an appointment by clicking here and selecting a time that works well for you. If you’re struggling with the system, we also offer a step-by-step tutorial for how to make an appointment. We are also available for drop-in appointments, but please remember that those function under a first come, first serve basis. Because of that, we strongly encourage students to go ahead and schedule an appointment in advance to secure their spot.
Good luck in the upcoming couple of weeks, my friends, and have awonderful break!
Happy Writing!
This post was originally published on November 24, 2014.

Finding that elusive starting point

by Abby Ponder  

You sit down with your pen and pencil (or with your fingers hovering over their respective keys on your keyboard), and you brace yourself: it’s time to write. Whether you’ve waited until the last minute and are working against a clock, or are starting a month in advance, there’s no easy place to start. The words don’t always flow automatically and sometimes you’re just stuck.

First, take a deep breath.

It can be overwhelming when you’re staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking ominously at you. You feel like you have to put something on the page, and the longer that screen stays blank, the worse you begin to feel.

Sometimes writing a paper is the easiest thing in the world to do. The words are coming, the ideas are flowing, and just like that you’re finished and awaiting your well-deserved A. When it works out like that? It’s great! But it doesn’t always. So what do you do when you don’t know where to start and you’ve already wasted enough time on Facebook or Netflix, procrastinating the inevitable?

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve found that outlining is my actual best friend. Yeah, I know, all your professors tell you to make an outline. You’ll sigh, sometimes, because who really wants to take the time to write something that won’t even become the final product? I understand your way of thinking, my friend–I do. But try it.

To start your outline, read your assignment carefully and make sure you fully understand the question. I know that I’m prone to skimming things, especially when I’m in a hurry, but experience has taught me that it’s a surefire way to miss something important. Sometimes it helps to make a list of the tasks the professor is looking for in the assignment: Write them down in a nice bulleted list, and then take notes on those objectives. The professor wants you to talk about the differences between Nathaniel Hawthorne’sYoung Goodman Brown” and “The Celestial Railroad?” You can do that. It doesn’t have to look perfect at this stage; you’re just putting ideas on paper.

If your assignment requires outside sources, once you finish your list start looking for those resources. Pull out the information you think will be valuable, and begin placing the quotes in the areas you think they will be most applicable.

When you feel like you have a clear direction, then get started! Remember, your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect–that’s why it’s called a first draft. And don’t forget to pay us a visit in the Writing Center! We’re here to help talk you through your outline or answer any questions you may have along the way.

Happy Writing!

This post was originally published on September 22, 2014.