Breaking Down Barriers: Molding Analytical Prompts to Fit Personal Interest

The world of academia is undoubtedly a fascinating place, full of conceptual intricacies, abstracted explanations and grand ideas. In college, we engage with this world on a daily basis, exercising the power of our human intellects to bend words, make logical leaps and draw new connections in the hopes of developing and learning, honing our own skill sets. All too often however, it can seem as though this world of ideas and concepts remains distant from the rest of our lives. We may walk into the classroom and readily discuss topics, and on good days, the things we learn are immediately applicable, tangible and accessible even when we are not in actively academic settings. On bad days, this is not always the case. We might be able to understand and engage with the material when we are immediately obligated by an assignment or by a classroom environment, but when we leave that environment or submit the paper, we immediately switch off, returning to the thoughts and activities that speak more directly to our interests, to the material we are passionate about.

I would like to argue that in order for us not only to perform our best academically, but for us to gain the most from our engagement with this world of academia, it is necessary for us to find a way to break down this divide between personal and academic realms when it inevitably crops up. We’ve all faced down paper topics that seem genuinely uninspiring or interesting, and we’ve all written papers or submitted assignments for which we felt little enthusiasm or pride. But the opposite is likely also true — we have bridged the divide between the concepts we discuss in the classroom and the conversations we have with friends, or the activities and interests that we pursue extracurricularly and written papers that fascinate us, that are compelling, engaging and even exciting to write.

When we write these personally enthralling papers, not only do we engage in learning that draws together disparate areas of our lives, but the writing process often becomes easier: the ideas become more accessible and more articulable because they are your own ideas, and crafting a paper that addresses these ideas may be easier and more fulfilling than attempting to write a paper on material that holds little direct interest for you on a personal level.

In order to avoid divorcing ourselves from the academic content we produce, there are a few different tactics that might be worth consideration:

Consider the prompt: How does this prompt play into the things you find yourself considering in your free time? What elements of the assignment relate to the fields and concepts that you find the most compelling?

Remember that everything is interdisciplinary: Academic disciplines are hardly cut and dry categories that exist distinct from other realms of thought and investigation. Boundaries around disciplines are constructed in order to facilitate discourse, but can certainly be stretched and even breached. It is certainly not impossible to write an English paper through a psychological lens, or to write a Psychology paper employing literary analysis.

Talk to your professor: It’s entirely possible that your professor will be excited about you tweaking a prompt in order to write the paper you want to write. Even if the prompt is inflexible, your professor may be able to help you to understand ways to remain within the boundaries he or she has set while still engaging with the material that interests you directly.

Freewriting: Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli provide suggestions for uncovering hidden intricacies in a topic in their discussion of freewriting. How would you write the paper without any constraints? (Ryan and Zimmerelli, 45) How can you address the prompt in a way that also allows you to discuss the concepts you are most interested in?

It may not always be possible to bend the prompts for the papers we write. Every now and then, we must instead find a way to manufacture the interest and enthusiasm that underpin strong, effective writing when it does not come naturally. Yet when the opportunity arises, it seems only practical to write the paper that seems the most intuitive, the most grounded in our immediate experience.

Works Cited:

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Fifth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.

Scratching the Creative Itch

It’s time to write a paper. The sun is shining, I’m leaning on a cat pillow, and “Uptown Funk” is playing softly in the background. I would like to be expatiating on how much I love watermelon and the movie “Singin’ in the Rain.” Instead I’m looking at a prompt asking me to examine the limits on the ideal self according to Nietzsche and Gandhi and to explain how these limits are still relevant in America’s education system. Rough. My mind, already wandering to lands of summer fruit and classic movies, starts to imagine Nietzsche and Gandhi in between the melons and musical numbers. Somehow they are friendlier there. But how can I keep that friendliness in my paper? Maybe they can be characters. A story? But dialogue is more direct. A script? What if I set it up using the “question and answer” format that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj presents itself in? Or how about if…

College is a tricky time for development as a writer. Up until college, most students have experienced a very “play-by-the-rules” approach to writing. Creative writing assignments are pushed to the side in favor of more standard academic papers that will prepare students for standardized testing. However, college students have started to discover the things that make their brains light up, and they want to pour those exciting thoughts into their academic work. As students move beyond standardized testing, more options open up for approaching essays. Instead of being limited to five paragraphs, students have the freedom to format in a way that enhances their ideas the most. Changing an essay’s format in a way that enhances your argument, or makes the paper more fun for an audience to read, presents unique challenges.

Consult the professor

First and foremost, it is important to discuss your idea (or ideas!) with your professor. Unless the writing prompt is specific in leaving room for creative interpretations, the professor may only want a standard format academic paper. Run your idea by the professor to see if he or she thinks your idea is viable and will fulfill all of the essay’s requirements.

An intriguing approach

A dialogue between me, Nietzsche and Gandhi? A paper that imitates the style of The Book of the City of Ladies, but builds a city of pens instead of women? Or maybe an exposé about the conditions of life for women in the Second Great Awakening. Thinking outside of the box for a writing assignment may seem intimidating, or more work. However, when the structure that you use is entertaining to you, it is easier to find nooks and crannies of unexpected tension that add to your argument. I know that when I try to avoid the creative itch when it strikes, I get stuck on the dryness of the topic. Instead, try a prewriting tool or two (from The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors):

  • Freewriting: Put pen to paper and write as the ideas come for a certain period of time. You can make the rules: maybe you ignore punctuation, or try to be as wacky with ideas as possible. After time is up, go back through your writing and highlight ideas you think are viable.
  • Listing: Write your topic at the top of your paper, and toss out ideas in the form of a bullet point list. Go through the list and star ideas that are exciting to you. This is a more summarized version of freewriting.
  • Talk it out: Search out a trusted friend, instructor, or stuffed animal and bounce ideas off of them. See if the conversation gives you new ideas for your approach to the paper. (Zimmerelli 40-44)

Give yourself permission to explore

The thoughts that lead to new approaches are usually the ones that students tend to squash. They might chuckle at their brain for thinking that it could write a paper in the form of a conversation between two dead philosophers in a coffee shop, and miss out on a fun approach that breaks a few rules, but gets at ideas in a fresh way.The natural wandering of the human brain can make it challenging to focus on an idea. However, when we allow, encourage, and take note of our slightly wacky ideas, they can be some of our best.

While not every writing assignment is an opportunity to play with structure, and not every student will enjoy or benefit from doing so, looking creatively at papers can let students understand a concept through a fresh lens. If you have also had experience in this area, or want to expand on an idea, feel free to add, respond, or critique.

Works Cited:

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, Fifth Edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.

Confidence in Writing

Writing, even in analytical forms, is a personal endeavor. It is the act of sharing one’s thoughts and implied emotions towards a specific subject. In many cases, writing also provides an open forum for others to critique and argue with one’s thought process. While this exhilarates some, it frightens (and sometimes paralyzes) others.

Internal pressure, expectations from peers and professors, deadlines, lack of experience, and/or a shaky understanding of the subject at hand can all contribute to insecurities in writing. While some of these can be easily solved through closer attention to sources and a heightened exposure to a writing process, others take more time and consideration to fix. Pressure is a common stumbling block for writers, yet is also difficult to address. Pressure takes many forms (i.e., the pressure to do one’s best, get a certain grade, or approach a subject in a certain way) and is thus hard to solve on a universal level. However, there are certain things the writer can do to lessen feelings of pressure when writing. These include:

  • Taking a deep breath and removing oneself from a writing project when tensions begin to run high (i.e., taking a walk, talking to a peer, etc.).
  • Speaking to an instructor about his/her expectations in order to get a better picture of what to focus on in one’s writing.
  • Finding a mentor or peer to discuss with. What is their writing process? How do they deal with pressure?

Other insecurities in writing can be solved in a myriad of ways, although much of it depends on the individual. Some methods include:

  • Get organized! If deadlines are an issue for you, organization can help to take the stress out of your writing process. If you plan to write far ahead from the due date, you will feel less stressed and therefore, more confident in your writing skills. Also, you might have some extra time to edit your piece!
  • Set Goals. Rather than tackling an entire paper in one go, break it up into smaller pieces to make it less daunting. Focus on trying your best for each goal you set and then take a break or reward yourself with a treat after completion. Knowing that you have successfully completed goals along the way will help to boost your writing confidence for the duration of your project.
  • Remember that a draft is only a draft. The beauty of the first draft is that that is exactly what it is—the first time you are expressing your thoughts. Remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around and you will feel less paralyzed.
  • Practice makes perfect. If writing is a daunting task for you, the only way to make it less so is to do it more often. Spend time writing each day, whether it be for personal or academic use. By going through the motions of writing, you will get used to and will begin to formulate your own writing process. 

The most important tip for building confidence in writing is to remember that there is no writing “expert. Even the most seasoned PhDs and other professionals struggle with writing and have their own insecurities in writing. You might feel like you are alone in your insecurities, but everyone experiences similar feelings at some point! The only thing that is in your power is to focus on yourself and work to create the best writing you can produce.

Works cited:

1. Hale, Ali. “Seven Ways to Build Up Your Writing Confidence.” Daily Writing Tips. Daily Writing Tips. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.

2. Luke, Ali. “7 Ways to Build Your Writing Confidence – Helping Writers Become Authors.” Helping Writers Become Authors. Empower, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.

 

2 Pieces of the Same Puzzle: Creative and Analytical Writing

In college, classes demand a more authoritative writing style while also encouraging students to depart from rigid, formulaic essay writing styles. A portion of Whitties come out of high school confident in their writing abilities, able to churn out the dreaded five-paragraph essay without great difficulty. Through my own experience in writing classes and as a writing fellow, I have come to realize that much of writing education at a tertiary level is about the undoing of formulas we internalize in high school. As much as it was implied in my secondary schooling, and arguably the education of  other college-bound students that creative and analytical writing styles are separate affairs, I argue that the creative can inform and inspire the analytical. An ability and appreciation to write creatively aids any student in composing complex and compelling writing. As tutors, we can help students see the value in creative prose as an art form in itself and as a means to improve analytical writing.

In my middle and high school education, creative writing always took the backseat to logic-driven analytical writing. The brief units we spent learning to write creatively were separate and disconnected from the more highly valued practice of writing persuasive, analytical papers. Thinking through the lens of a writing tutor now, I wonder why creative writing forms were treated as less important more logic-based ones. What I loved (and still love) most about writing creatively was the feeling that no one, not even my teachers, could tell me outright that I was wrong. Often, creative writing has an emotional tilt, and composing this style of work is more about the writer being in dialogue with her or himself rather than with a particular author whose work the writer is exploring analytically. Admittedly, this does pose a more difficult task for teachers in assessing and evaluating students’ creative work. However, the value in promoting openness to creative writing can help expand a student’s writing toolbox. Through creative methods of brainstorming and revising, students practice a different mode of thinking through which they can further examine and improve their work.

One example of creative writing useful for generating strong analytical prose is the free-write. Free-writing can be defined as the process of “writing privately and writing without stopping…to just write whatever words come to your mind; or write about whatever you want to explore at this moment” (Belanoff and Elbow, 4). Free-writing lacks the structure and linearity of analytical prose, and yet can “help you discover more about a topic or thesis you already have and/or to expand on a draft in progress” (Bishop 194). If a student is bogged down in the argument of their paper or how to phrase a claim, then suggesting a free-write, or guided free-write, can be a helpful direction to take. Allowing students to pour our their thoughts about a particular element of their writing frees them from the pressure of trying to make them sound composed or eloquent. Often, this can elicit some of the writer’s strongest and most complex ideas.

Say, for instance, that an encounters student comes in stumped on what to write about for an essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. As the student talks about certain aspects of the texts, you hear them keep circling back to talk about Sethe’s role as a mother. At this point, the tutor could have the student do 2 brief, guided free-writes on the words Sethe and motherhood, where they write constantly and intensely about those words in order to generate ideas the student may be having trouble articulating.

A creative approach can also come in useful in the later editing phase, through the use of imagery. Imagery provides the reader with the sense that they are present and experiencing the scene the writer is creating. Even once a student has a complete draft of a paper, scanning one’s work for places where the writer can “show” rather than “tell” what they are trying to convey goes a long way in holding a reader’s interest through more rich and active vocabulary. Although a student who has come to the writing center with an encounters paper must do some “telling”—by explaining their argument and presenting it clearly and logically—going through the paper afterwards and considering what sentences could do more “showing” can enliven any sort of written work. Especially if a student comes into the writing center with a job or internship application, encouraging them to consider imagery can put them at an advantage. Doing so will help their written work will stand out against other applications as unique and engaging.

Despite the secondary position creative writing takes to analytical prose in many educational contexts, tutors have the opportunity to show students the value of creative writing in generating strong analytical prose. Rather than seeing the two styles as separate disciplines, emphasizing the intersection of creative and analytical writing gives peer tutors and tutees alike another method through which to improve their college-level writing.

Works Cited:

1. Elbow, Peter, and Pat Belanoff. Being a Writer: A Community of Writers Revisited. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

2. Bishop, Wendy. On Writing: A Process Reader. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.