Let’s Begin with Active Voice

“Donna began to look around.”

“I begin to eat cookies.”

“Garry begins waking up.”

The sentences above are examples of passive voice. Passive voice sneaks into writing when writers don’t use strong verbs. It’s like a limp handshake—half-hearted and awkward.

The words “begin/began” automatically slow down action. While whey are only one culprit of passive voice, let’s focus for now on replacing them with active verbs:

“Donna investigated.”

“I munched on cookies.”

“Garry yawns and stretches.”

The character’s actions are now more vivid and active.

To summarize, never have a character “begin” something when they should just do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

An Admonition on the Employment of Thesauruses

A Catechism 

What’s wrong with the following sentence?

This sentence may not adumbrate what it is putative to augur in behalf of I’m employing commodious lexemes that resonate sumptuously but that don’t concur in the censure.

If you guessed that the sentence was written using a thesaurus, then you are correct! Here’s what I actually intended to say:

This sentence may not mean what it is supposed to mean because I’m using big words that sound impressive but that don’t fit in the sentence.  

That’s a lot more clear, right? I’m using language that makes sense and fits the sentence’s meaning while also considering my audience.

An Exposition for Why We Manipulate Thesauruses 

If you’re like me, you were told in high school to use a thesaurus to strengthen your vocabulary. This was so engrained in me that I still use a thesaurus on occasion to learn different ways of saying the same things. However, thesauruses can be dangerous if we simply pull out words without knowing their true definitions. We see this all the time at the writing center. A paper will be going smoothly until we come across a word that just—doesn’t fit. Most of the time, not even I know what the word means. When we look it up, more often than not it doesn’t match what the writer intended.

So why do we keep using a thesaurus? To learn new words? To sound impressive? If it’s the former, great. Find a word and look it up in the dictionary. Better yet, look up how it is used in a sentence to make sure that it is being used in the same way you want to use it. But know that you are at risk of using a word that your audience will not have known before either.

If you use a thesaurus to sound impressive, let me take the pressure off your shoulders. Teachers most likely are not concerned about how many letters are in your words or how fancy they sound. What they are looking for is accuracy, clarity, and depth of thought. They are much more interested in what you have to say than in how you say it, so it’s okay to use the words you are comfortable with.

(Note that I have used the word “used” multiple times in the last two paragraphs. That’s okay! I don’t need to pull out the thesaurus so I can replace them with words like “utilize” or “employ” or “adopt” to sound more fancy. That would actually be pretty annoying, wouldn’t it?)

There is a third reason to use a Thesaurus that I think is more helpful, and that is for recalling words you can’t remember. Sometimes I’m writing and realize—for instance—that I’ve used the word “pleasure” ten times. I know there is another way to say it, but I need a little help dislodging those words from my memory. So I look up “pleasure” in the Thesaurus and find words like “delight” and “happiness.” I also find words like “delectation,” “gluttony,” “diversion,” and “fruition.” I know that those latter words do not mean what I intend, so I go with the words that I do know and understand.

In Culmination 

Thesauruses can be helpful in the right settings in helping you recall words or even learn some new words with the help of a dictionary, but make sure you are using words that fit your meaning and your own voice.

Getting started at the end

By Abby Ponder

 

We’re nearing the end of the semester–or, more accurately, we’re barreling towards it at full speed–and it’s at this time of year that the panic sets in. You have a planner in front of you and a to-do list off to the side, but rather than making you feel organized and coherent, it’s just sending those stress levels skyrocketing because there’s so much to do.

That’s fair.

It’s even worse as a senior.

I am currently preparing to say my farewells to WKU as graduation looms a few mere yards away. Suddenly, I’m looking at an avalanche of things to do to help prepare for the transition from college student to adult in the real world.

It’s a lot–sometimes overwhelming. And, as a result, it might seem easy to let your papers slide and “come back to them later.”

Sure, it’s easy to do that.

But don’t.

This is your time to shine, my friends: to write that stellar final paper and look at how far you’ve come since that early lit review your freshman year. You know the one I’m talking about–the one with more comma splices and missing apostrophes than you care to admit. Furthermore, don’t you want to end your college experience with a paper you’re proud of, your last hoorah?

And you might be thinking that, sure, that all sounds well and good, but it’s so much easier said than done. And, honestly, I’d agree with you. Sometimes its hard to find that motivation when the senioritis kicks in.

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My advice? Look at the bigger picture. Look at that finish line.

The WKU Writing Center Blog has several pieces of advice that will help you on that journey towards knocking your final papers out of the park, too:

Above all else, though, have confidence in yourself and your writing.

And for all you folks who are graduating, congratulations! Best of luck as you move forward.

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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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Traversing the Interstate

By Abby Ponder

Over the course of the three days leading up to Halloween, several of your Writing Center tutors—myself included—participated in a whirlwind adventure to Oxford, Mississippi. The trip is one of the highlights of Professor Walker Rutledge’s course on Hemingway and Faulkner that also includes a similar excursion into Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of the bustling city of Chicago.

The course provides a fascinating insight into the lives of two of the U.S.’s Nobel Prize-winning authors. Experiencing their worlds from the very ground on which they once stood is both remarkable and rewarding—an educational experience unlike any other.

In our time in Oxford, we visited a variety of locations: several cemeteries and statues, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, and even Faulkner’s home at Rowan Oak.

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William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi: Rowan Oak.

As cool as all this is, though, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Writing Center. Because, sure, some tutors went along, but what does that have to do with this blog?

Well, it’s a good question—I’ll give you that.

See, William Faulkner, like all great authors and individuals alike, did not always have an easy road to success. He had his high points (like winning the Nobel Prize for Literature), but he also had plenty of low points.

The thing about writing is that it can sometimes be undeniably difficult. It doesn’t always matter what genre you’re writing in, whether it’s academic or creative, because sometimes the words simply won’t come. And if that’s the case, don’t feel bad. We’ve all struggled with it from time to time—even writers like William Faulkner. And, look, now he’s got his own statue in his hometown’s square.

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Let’s be honest, this is how you really know you’ve made it.

Writing is an ever-evolving process that involves starting and stopping and starting again countless times over. Sometimes it may feel as though you’re never making any progress, but you are. See, even if you cut all the earlier words from the paper and transfigure your ideas on the second draft, it is still progress. You’re growing as a writer every day, and each paper or poem you pen is going to be stronger for it.

Unfortunately, however, your writing might never be 100% flawless. Mine sure isn’t by any stretch of the imagination and even an author as inventive and inspiring as William Faulkner still probably had a mistake or two filter through the margins, especially on those first few editions.

And sometimes what you love best won’t immediately be accepted by the general public. After all, Faulkner entirely refurbished the originally crumbling Rowan Oak with the royalties from the novel “Sanctuary,” which is largely regarded as his worst book. On the other hand, it took quite some time for “Sound and the Fury” to reach notoriety among the general public. Though, to be fair, it’s still not the most readable work of the American literary catalogue, especially if you’re looking for something quick and casual.

The real moral of this story is to simply keep writing. Sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes people may not love the words you put on paper upon their first reading. But writing, at its core, is an evolving process.

Keep at it and see what you can do.

We, in the Writing Center, believe that you can do it. And you should believe in you, too.

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The students standing in front of the confederate soldier’s statue at the University of Mississippi. The statue is featured in Faulkner’s novel “Sound and the Fury,” though its location is altered in the novel. Photo by Walker Rutledge.

Lines of red and green

By Abby Ponder

Have you ever left an appointment at the Writing Center feeling a little blue? You came in mostly confident in your paper–there might’ve been a few mistakes, sure, but you just know it’s solid–and then watched as lines began to fill the margins while your eyes widened in surprise.

It’s not always a great feeling, especially that first time you see it.

Even if you talk it over with your tutor as you go, discuss why those colorful and intricate markings now dot your paper, you might still be feeling a little upset. I thought it was good–that I was good. What happened? 

Well, I have news for you: you’re not alone.

My editing process, which is discussed more thoroughly in this post here, involves a lot of printing and, well, editing. I’ll often print out a copy of my paper, take a pen to it, make the corrections, and then repeat the process a time or two again. Hey, never let it be said that I am nothing if not persistent. (And, let’s be honest, a bit of an extreme perfectionist.)

Now, I’m not saying that you need to rush home and start editing your papers five or six times with a bright red pen. That’s actually not it at all! What works well for some people might not work as well for others. For instance, I know some people who simply read the document to themselves backwards, looking for typos or misplaced words as they go. Others turn on track changes in Microsoft Word and start flying through the paper.

There is no single right way to edit, just as there is also no wrong way.

The good news is that in the Writing Center, we do our best to avoid that ominous red pen. I mean, there’s a reason that all the “scary teachers” on television or in movies use it. Red packs a powerful punch and one glance at it can sometimes send the message of, “Well, darn, that doesn’t look good!” Markings on paper with red ink have developed into something with a negative connotation but, if we’re being honest, I actually prefer the red pen when I’m editing my own papers. Nothing snaps you into gear quite like the bright and shiny red ink that’s telling you, “Hey, kid, I need to be changed–don’t you dare ignore me!”

Like I said, though, what works for me doesn’t work for everyone. Red pens might not be for you yet, but green pens, on the other hand, are a nice place to start. After all, green is a comforting color–a cool color, in fact.

However, the ultimate thing to keep in mind is that marks on a paper are not a bad thing. They also do not lower your meaning as a writer or as a person. On the contrary, they signify that, sure, something might need improved, but you’re on the right track–you’re almost there. They’re a sign of progress and of growth, and there is something inherently valuable in that.

The markings also aren’t something that you should ever take personally. As evidenced by the picture below, I go to town with my own papers. Sometimes there is more red ink than black ink and white space and, again, that’s perfectly okay. It’s a way of thinking out loud in a quiet room and is something you should never be ashamed of.

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So, put that pen to paper and write. Or turn on track changes. Or read backwards. Or, better yet, come see us in the Writing Center.

I can’t promise anything, but I like to think that you’ll be glad you did.