Starting with Nothing – Annabella

One of the biggest challenges in working as a tutor is when a student comes into the tutoring session with absolutely nothing – no ideas, outlines, or writing of any sort. In this blogpost, I will share some helpful strategies in getting the brainstorming process started, and in doing so identifying a topic that could be of interest to a student. Of course, this can also be applied to your own writing and writing processes, and doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a tutoring session.

Oftentimes in a situation where the student does not know where to being their writing process, a freewriting session can be the most lucrative. During this time, it is important that the student knows this phase of the writing process is very low stakes – this will help them from stressing out even more over the anxiety they may be facing about starting their paper.

The following strategies come from Lakeside High School in Seattle, WA, and were given to me as a freewrite exercise for help with college application essays:

Strategy #1: This strategy is most helpful in coming up with a paper topic or idea.

1) Pick a passage, page, paragraph, quote, or question that stood out to you, that you found interesting or compelling. Then write on this for 20 minutes.

2) Now pick something that you said in this freewrite that was the best (what’s the most insightful thing I came up with?), and write for another 20 minutes on this new topic, turning it into a topic or assertion.

3) Once the main topic has been identified, the student can now return to the text and find other passages that support or further this central claim. If the student has trouble with this, it could be helpful to repeat steps 1 and 2 with the new passage.

Strategy #2: This strategy can be used once a specific topic has been chosen and the student is now working on their body paragraphs. However, if all else fails the student could start with this and see if s/he could extract any meaningful ideas or concepts from the specific passage in question (similar to the first strategy).

1) Write down 10 observations about a passage (bullet points or otherwise) and then form an insight with these observations. This could be useful as a topic sentence, but probably not as a thesis.

*While these two strategies are obviously aimed at helping a tutee who is writing an Encounters paper or other text-based paper, they can be adapted to just about any sort of paper by replacing the text with a specific topic. For example, if the essay is about Crime in Society, you could have the student think about a specific aspect of crime that they find most interesting and reflect on that, then go back and identify the most fruitful thing that they came up with during their freewrite. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most fruitful or insightful thing in the freewrite – an idea or concept they would like to explore further could work just as well.


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.

Tutoring Strategies for the Student with Writer’s Block

Writer’s block.  Writer’s anxiety.  It’s the simple act of thinking, “I have no idea what to write.”  It has plagued us all from time to time, and it takes many different forms.  Feeling anxious, helpless, or lost about what or how to write is one of the most common challenges for college writers.  Despite the frustration that comes from writer’s block or anxiety, luckily tutors can develop lots of skills and tools to help students who come in to a writing center with these issues.

In their Bedford Guide, Ryan and Zimerelli emphasize the emotional support a tutor can provide for tutors with writer’s anxiety – perhaps more important than writing help itself, at least at the beginning of the session.  When faced with a student with writer’s block, they assert, “it is always helpful to present yourself as a sympathetic ally” (Ryan and Zimmerelli 62).  Since everyone has experienced writer’s block, including tutors, it is a natural choice to begin a session with a “blocked” tutee by reassuring them: “everyone has trouble at some point in the writing process,” you might say.  Offer examples of the times you have likewise struggled to start a paper, or felt stuck in the middle of one.  In these cases, it is necessary to emphasize the “peer” in peer tutor rather than the “tutor.”  For some tutors who are very confident and skilled writers, it may take some effort to connect with tutees, and to an extent make themselves vulnerable in sharing anxious or blocked moments of their own.

The causes of writer’s anxiety or block are numerous.  Often, however, the causes stem from a disconnect between how the writer conceptualizes the “proper” writing process and how a specific paper might actually be written successfully.  Mike Rose has written about the inability of blocked writers to budge from their plan or process.  In his words, a blocked writer might have a “closed system” while a flexible and unblocked writer thinks about writing process as an “open system” (Rose).  I have identified several reasons (disclaimer: definitely not encompassing all possible causes) why a student writer might experience anxiety or blockage and paired them with some suggested activities or strategies for peer tutors to proceed with beyond initial contact and reassurance.  (Another disclaimer: although my categories have negative labels, they’re not meant to malign the writer.)

  • First, confusion. A confused writer might not fully understand the writing assignment or project OR they may not understand the ways in which the writing process can be manipulated to their benefit.  They might not even realize they are confused, which is where the peer tutor comes in.  This student may be experiencing anxiety and/or blockage.
    • Try starting with this student by looking at the assignment or prompt and have the student try to explain it precisely on their own. They might say things like “I just don’t know” or “I don’t understand this…” which you should then talk through together.
    • Suggest a visit with the professor – it is possible that the confused and blocked writer has not spoken with them, which could clear up a lot.
    • This writer could benefit from making a plan together. Ask about their preferred writing process and then break down the assignment into manageable tasks.
  • Second, boredom. A bored or disinterested writer may not be invested in the class or the topic, and thus have a difficult time starting.  This writer is likely more blocked than anxious, and is just at a loss because they feel disconnected from the subject.  These writers might normally go about writing easily for their own area of expertise or discipline, and thus a change of pace is paralyzing.
    • Tease out in discussion with the writer some things about the assignment they do find interesting or intriguing. Below is one guided way to facilitate this:
    • Give them a few minutes to write down ten questions about assignment, text, or topic, then discuss. Inquiry often leads to topics or ideas worth pursuing.
    • Ask what the student is interested in or what sparks their curiosity. For instance, if a diehard English major is pushed out of their comfort zone to write an anthropology paper, ask them why they love English.  Together, writer and tutor can try to find parallels between disciplines, or often even use elements of their favorite subject in a different field.  The world is not divided into sections; everything is interdisciplinary!
  • Third, obsession. This writer has a different outlook than the previous two.  Rather than alienation from, or confusion with, the writing task ahead of them, they have obsessed over it for hours or days, unable to make progress.  These students are most likely to be anxious.  In my opinion, the writer who has been overthinking things might actually be the easiest type of writer’s block student to assist.
    • Ask how they usually write and about their process. This might help you to identify together what is different about this blocked writing situation.
    • Remind the writer that they can start by writing any part of the paper, not necessarily the introduction or first body paragraph.
    • Suggest radically different techniques. One of my favorite ideas is for the student to record themselves talking out ideas, then listen, write down, and play around with the ideas (thanks to Purdue OWL for that one!).
    • At a more psychological level, make sure to encourage this blocked writer to take breaks, try writing in different spots, with or without music, stretch, breathe deeply, etc. As simple as they sound, these little things might help the anxious writer or the student stuck in a rut.

Working with a student with writer’s anxiety or writer’s block may not be easy, but it will absolutely happen to all tutors.  The examples I have shown will hopefully come in handy someday in certain situations.  Above all, remember to stay calm, reassuring, and confident.  With any luck the student can absorb some of these qualities via osmosis!  Please feel free to comment, critique, or add to any of my ideas here.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Conrey, Sean M. and Allen Brizee. “Symptoms and Cures for Writer’s Block.” Purdue OWL. Web. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.

Rose, Mike. “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: a Cognitivist     Analysis of Writer’s Block.” College Composition and Communication 31: 4 (Dec. 1980), 389-401. JSTOR. Web.

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

Seven Rules for Completing Your Senior Thesis, by Professor Miles

My Religion thesis advisor is Professor Rogers Miles. Professor Miles is the source of much encouragement and wisdom, and the other day he gave me this list, entitled “Seven Rules for Completing Your Senior Thesis”. I find myself referring to it over and over as I begin the thesis-writing process. Hopefully, this list will prove helpful to you as well, whether you are working on a senior thesis or any other paper or project.


1. When you finish your thesis proposal, don’t kid yourself that your thesis is almost finished.

2. Don’t wait too long to start writing. Writing a senior thesis is not like writing a ten-page paper. You should begin writing even in the research phase.

3. Your thesis adviser will never be as helpful as you wish. It’s your project, not his or hers. Use your adviser as a sounding board and a critic, but always remember that your adviser can’t do your thinking for you. Unless you can present your thesis adviser with something that he or she can reflect upon and have an opinion, your adviser will be useless to you. Give your adviser plenty of lead-time to respond to your submissions.

4. The more structure you build into the process of writing your thesis the better. If you break completion of your thesis into a series of steps and deadlines, it won’t seem so daunting. Your thesis adviser can help you to make a schedule and keep it.

5. Don’t make your thesis serve as the ultimate validation of every intellectual and scholarly virtue you hope you embody as a student. The thesis is not about you; it’s about your topic. If you want find your “voice” as a writer and a thinker, don’t look for it in the thesis writing process. Commit yourself to your topic, have the humility to follow where the research leads, and be content to be a midwife of the conclusions that emerge (even negative conclusions).

6. Completion of your thesis is your responsibility, not anyone else’s. If you get into trouble, no one can save you except yourself. So accept your responsibility, and stop waiting for someone to lift the burden from your shoulders. Don’t think of yourself as a victim. Think of yourself as an agent, and you can overcome the obstacles that are standing in your way.

7. Everyone gets sick of his or her thesis topic at some point along the way. Perseverance, not inspiration, is the key to completing a thesis.

Thank you to Professor Miles for the permission to share this list.

Text Based Prewriting: Approaches to College Level Analysis

By Drew Edmonds and Ben Caldwell

In the shift from high school to college many writers find themselves wrong footed, confused, and often woefully unprepared for the rigor and complexity that professors expect in to see in essays. The word ‘rigor’ may be misleading, because this is not just a matter of college courses being ‘harder’ than high school classes in the vague sense that many prospective students hear about during their college search. The change is not just some indefinite increase in workload or the harshness with which professors assess grammatical errors. College is harder and more rigorous than most high schools, it’s true, but there are specific differences in the approach to critical analysis that are never explained to most students when they first arrive on campus.

A prime example that some professors make a point of addressing right away in first year courses, but most take for granted as common knowledge, is the myth of the five paragraph essay. In the vast majority of American high schools, English and composition courses have moved farther and farther down the road toward being essentially ‘test-prep’ classes. Teachers focus on the kind of critical writing that their students will be expected to produce on standardized tests like the SAT and the various AP exams, because that is the kind of writing that will have the most immediate impact on their academic success. As a result, students learn to churn out stiff, stilted, simplistic essays by pouring their ideas into the same formulaic 5-paragraph mold again and again and again. There are rigid prescriptions for every step of the process that not only stifle creativity but also limit complexity.

Unfortunately, the formulas that high schoolers learn and practice in the hopes of increasing their chances at getting into college embody an approach to writing that is almost antithetical to the philosophy of analysis that they will asked to employ once they get there. Structures like the 5-paragraph model create an illusion of universality and scientific perfection that is not attainable in an essay, due to the inherent subjectivity and creativity of writing. They also privilege form over content, without ever questioning how that form serves the content or considering how variations in form might better display different topics. Why not three paragraphs? Why not nine?

Finally and most importantly, these formulas condition writers to approach a text or topic with preformed thesis in mind. High school students become afraid to look too closely at the evidence in the text, because it might contradict their preconceived claims; so they end up skipping over evidence that doesn’t fit perfectly with the larger trend or theme they want to focus on. Rather than wondering why the author included bumps in the road and analyzing how they may serve the work as a whole, many high school students learn to drive right over irregularities and steamroll most nuances in the process.

One alternative to this approach that many professors value as more critical and productive revolves around the phrase liberal arts students often to hear repeated ad nauseum with almost sacred reverence, like a mantra: “take the text on its own terms.” Few professors seem to realize how mysterious this maxim seems to most first semester college students, so it deserves some explanation. Taking the text on its own terms means acknowledging textual evidence that doesn’t fit or even contradicts your argument and using them to complicate your understanding of the text and generate a more nuanced claim. Real critical writing does not attempt to fit evidence inside a preconceived argument; it instead seeks evidence of tension within the text, challenging the student to find new ways of looking at the text.

This approach is focused on exploring the texts, issues, or events that your are analyzing, rather than conquering them. This approach requires reading the text with an open mind, setting aside presuppositions, and allowing yourself to form more than one idea while you read, not before. The more ideas the better, in fact, because they will all be examined together for consideration after you finish reading. Finding connections and contradictions between ideas that seem totally unrelated at first often produces the most innovative and interesting interpretations of texts. This approach lends itself naturally to close-readings of specific passages, which you choose because they jump out at you personally as significant and relevant to other significant passages and therefore worth exploring further. This approach is diving off point, an ignition spark, a primer pump, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. And this approach, it turns out, is not an approach. It is many approaches. There are dozens of prewriting exercises that professors uses to shake their students out of old habits and obsolete formulas, many of which can also be found on the internet. We have compiled a few of them here for your perusal.

The “10-on-1” Exercise

  • Choose a single paragraph, sentence, or line from the text.
  • It could be one that is particularly confusing, frustrating, fascinating, weird, or cool.
  • Brainstorm ten sentences of your own about that one piece. Ten separate ideas.
  • This activity forces you to say more about less, rather than less about more. Instead of analyzing a general idea like an entire ‘theme’ within a text, the 10-on-1 makes you analyze a specific fragment in depth, after which you can draw connections to the text as a whole more effectively.
  • When you think you have run out of things to say about the text, challenge yourself to go out on a limb. The most unique ideas can emerge out of discomfort and uncertainty.

Subverting the Obvious: It seems _____, but actually ______

  • Form an initial observation or obvious assertion based on a particular issue from the text.
  • Use that initial claim to brainstorm a list of ideas about that issue that contradict, complicate, subvert, re-frame, or change that claim somehow.
  • Filling in the blanks of the “Seems to be about ____ but is really about ____” can be a very productive place to start. Also try “Seems to be just about ____ but is really ALSO about ____” to see if that gets you to a different place.
  • Pick one that seems the most surprising to you. Write a sentence or two which highlight the pivotal seeming or appearance which you want to complicate, then launch into your own deeper or more complex interpretation.
  • Pay close attention to maintaining the subtlety of your analysis as you continue, rather than portraying your new interpretation as the only possible reading.

Idea-Triggering and Freewriting

  • Set a timer and write about a particularly interesting passage for twenty minutes. Allow your thoughts to take unexpected turns and run with them.
  • Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off–if you run out of ideas write one word over and over until something new comes into your head.
  • After you finish, take a quick break, re-read your freewrite and ask yourself what your subject or key point is.
  • Underline that idea and then formulate it as a question, statement, or series of words. Put that at the top of a fresh page.
  • Set the timer again, and generate a second twenty-minute timed write from your subject, this time following a more open-ended approach.
  • Reviewing your work, consider what your best ideas are and how you would go about translating them into an analytical paragraph.

Paraphrase x 3

  • Settle on two passages that seem to be going in the same direction and suggest a pattern within the text.
  • Write each passage at the top of a page then, below it, write at least three different paraphrases of that passage, using the following instructions as a guide:
    • Paraphrase #1: Understanding. Restate in your own words exactly what the passage is saying but dont be overly general. Try to engage with a range of possible meanings in the passage.
    • Paraphrase #2: Deepening. Having arrived at a new point of understanding, now paraphrase your quotation, following each sentence with a second sentence in which you continue with the statement, “And the reason this is important (or the way this connects) is…”.
    • Paraphrase #3: Implications. Now that you’ve worked to understand the significance and context of the text, paraphrase your quotation a third time, using the formulation, “What in the end this quotation is really about is…[X]. The reason that is important/interesting is because…[Y]. And the still further implications of that are…[Z].”
  • The progression of paraphrases here is intended to deepen your interpretation and allow you to make more exciting claims by understanding the implications of your interpretation. Making claims rooted in your perspective on the evidence is much different than generalizing about the text and finding evidence to support that generalization.

Oral Timed Write

  • Arrange to meet with another student in your class for a half an hour.
  • Think out loud about the text to your partner for ten minutes straight.
    • It may feel like a long time, but keep going. Dont be afraid. Be ridiculous and amaze your partner. Your partner should listen as attentively as possible, but not try not to distract your partner by taking notes.
  • At the end of your ten minutes, you and your partner should pause for each of you to write down a few sentences about what you said that was most surprising and/or interesting, and what each of you thinks your best idea was and why.
  • This exercise allows you to imagine an audience. It forces you to be attentive to another perspective besides your own. Ask yourself what excited your partner while you were talking to them and how that could be translated to your writing.

Implications in Tutoring

If a student is struggling to get below the surface, is not explicating their evidence thoroughly, is summarizing, or not revolving their ideas around strong central claim consider introducing them to these exercises. Try to ask them questions that force them to dig deeper and root their claims in the text. These exercises are designed to support a variety of thinking and learning styles. For students who tend to process more externally they may be able to arrive at new ideas more readily by talking to another student while students who need to let their thoughts flow onto the page in a freewriting session may prefer the Ideas Triggering exercise.

Citation: Exercises and ideas adapted from Encounters with professor Jen Mouat and the textbook Writing Analytically



Incorporating Quotes Into Text: A Process That May or May Not Involve Sandwiches

Undoubtedly, we all use quotes in our papers quite frequently. But it’s easy to forget that inserting a quote is not as simple as tossing it into a paragraph and being done with it. It’s easy to overlook all the nit-picky aspects that must be considered when incorporating quotes.

Here is a rundown of some foundational steps to remember in the quoting process:

Determine which type of quote is best: full-length or fragment

The first thing you should decide when incorporating a quote is whether you want to include it in full-length–a sentence or more–or just a fragment. This question pretty much solves itself; if you feel like you need the full-length quote, use the full-length quote. If you feel like you only need a few specific words, or a fragment of a passage, just use that fragment.

Inserting a fragment

Inserting a fragmented quote is pretty simple and, most often, intuitive. Because you’re only using a phrase, all you need to do is place it in your sentence so that it makes grammatical sense. For example, “Joe Bob claims that Billy Joe’s ‘increased self-esteem’ greatly influenced her decision to move to the city.’” Done.

Inserting a full-length quote: making a quote sandwich


Hopefully, we have all learned to some degree how to incorporate full-length quotes. Most of us were probably told that quotes need to be prefaced by a “lead-in” and followed by our own reflection. I like to think of this process as padding the quote, or making a kind of sandwich:

*forewarning: completely made-up, potentially nonsensical examples are included in the following section

  • 1st slice of bread: the lead-in. You want to include some phrase of your own that introduces the quote.
    If it’s a quote from someone’s article or book, it can be as simple as: “In his/her article [insert title of article], [insert name of author] writes, [insert quote].” If you want to convey a little more in your quote introduction, you can substitute “writes” with another verb like “discusses,” followed by what you want to say and then a colon before the quote. For example, “In [article title], [author name] discusses the complex politics of gummy bear assimilation: [insert quote].”
    If it’s a quote from a literary passage, you’ll want to provide the context and section of the work from which the quote comes. I like to follow this with a colon, as described above, so that I can insert the quote directly afterwards without having to worry about writing, “[author’s name writes . . .” or, “The narrator writes . . .” This could look something like: “Just after Bob begins his harrowing journey to Neverland, he begins to experience intense emotional turmoil: [insert quote].” Or, “As Bill sees Henrietta walk away, his sorrow is described in a series of intricate metaphors: [insert quote].”
    If you’re writing a history paper and quoting a historical figure, you could write, “[name] once said, [insert quote].” Or, if you’re quoting an anonymous person from a newspaper article or some such source, you could write, “According to one woman, [insert quote].” There are so many different ways to introduce a quote; it just depends on the type of source from which you are quoting and the type of quote itself. The bottom line is, every full-length quote needs something in front of it that explains where and/or who it is coming from.
  • The middle, a.k.a. the good stuff: the quote itself. This does not require much explanation: simply insert the quote you are wanting to use.
  • 2nd slice of bread: the follow-up. After the quote, you want to follow up with a sentence or two of your own analysis and explanation of how the quote supports the argument you’re making in that particular paragraph. You could use phrases like, “Clearly . . .” or “[name of speaker in quote] sheds light on . . .” Basically, you just need to follow up with any sort of statement that summarizes the implications of the quote or that elaborates/provides your own spin on the content of the quote. Now, if it is a quote from a literary passage, you should have a more detailed follow-up; it is important that you analyze every aspect of the quote, including the word choice, devices used, etc. Sometimes I will even have three sentences of analysis after a quote, but it is better to go more in depth and ensure that you have sufficiently analyzed the quote rather than to provide a surface-level, too-brief follow-up.

Ask yourself: do I really, absolutely need this quote?

student in thought

This is an important question, because you want to make sure that when you include a quote, you include it because it furthers your argument in some way. Make sure that your quote is not there for the sole reason that you need to include a quote in that paragraph, and make sure that it does not simply summarize what you just articulated. It should include a new perspective or piece of information or evidence–even just a different way of saying something that provides insight on your argument or what you’re trying to say.

These guidelines do not by any means cover all situations of quoting. (I have not even touched on the use of ellipses in quotes, but that’s a post for another day). There is a plethora of different types of quotes and ways in which you can incorporate them, and different genres also have different standards. These are just tips that I have gleaned from experience. It is probably clear that I am most familiar with literary analysis essays; much of my advice is specific to that genre, because that is what I know. However, I believe that these suggestions are still good basic, foundational things to remember when using quotes in an academic paper. Hopefully, they will remind you of the framework through which you should be thinking when it comes to inserting quotes into your next paper.

“Breaking Up” Your Work

Large projects are always daunting. Many of us understand the stress of reading a long-winded and complicated prompt and turning to a blinking cursor on an empty Word document. Many feel that stress helps them start working, but a lot of those same people will admit to putting off work to avoid that stress. This is what we call avoidance.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a lot of people see stress as a demotivator. The fear of negative evaluation from your professor and peers can be quite daunting. I personally feel that this is what motivates most of my procrastination. I fear the pressure of a bad grade, so I put an assignment off till a “better” time arrives. Waiting almost never works in your favor; time is too valuable a resource. The best way to get started and to keep working is to make a big project less daunting.

The simplest way to make a big task manageable is to divvy it up into smaller tasks. A paper can be divided up into brainstorming, outlining, drafting and editing. Studying for a big test can be split into rereading, highlighting and practice problems. The point is to divide up a large task so that you can have regular breaks in between periods of work and so that you can approach the same material in a variety of ways.

Why would we want to do this? Approaching the same material in a different number of ways can stave off the boredom of monotony and it can help your memory. When studying for a test you can

  • Read the material out loud.
  • Rewrite your lecture notes.
  • Write a summary of each chapter or topic.
  • Discuss the subject with others, be they a classmate, a friend, or the professor.

Regular breaks are great to keep up motivation and avoid exhaustion. The human mind needs regular rest to work effectively and sleep is essential to our memory. For breaks you should

  • Work for blocks of 40-50 minutes and break for 10-20 minutes.
  • Reward yourself during your breaks: get a bite to eat or call up your friends and family.
  • Make sure to get up and move during your breaks, the human body is not designed to sit for hours at a time!

There are many resources out there available that can help with divvying up you work. It is completely within your means to find strategies that work for you. I highly recommend trying to do so, as any one tool isn’t perfect, but here are some of the tools that I’ve become acquainted with.

Post – its and Google Keep

IMG_20141030_044512Post – it notes are wildly helpful. They can be used for quick notes, bookmarks, reminders and many other things. They are great for writing down short ideas or summaries that can be later organized into a larger narrative. They’re also very portable and can be taken anywhere.

Screenshot_2014-10-30-04-46-05Google Keep is an online alternative for Post – it notes. Google is used extensively by the current generation and this trend does not seem to be waning in any way. Google offers a suite of options and deserves as much mention for its price tag (free!) as its utility. I should also mention that Google’s entire “utility suite” is available and set up as soon as you activate your Google account. The benefits of electronic “sticky notes” are that you can later edit the color of your notes and set reminders by email or by phone (if you have Google Now installed). Visual learners may readily benefit from this as they can color code ideas after the fact, without having to categorize ideas before they even write anything. Reminders are invaluable for me, as they allow me to play both the role of a reluctant student and that of a nagging parental figure.

Notebooks and Evernote

Notebooks are the staple of any student. Every student owns at least two or more. They make perfect calendars and task books, but they are mostly used for note taking. There are many ways to “more effectively” use a notebook, but one strategy has caught my eye and seems simple enough to actually use. It’s called Bullet Journal. This link will take you to a page that details the process and offers a quick video tutorial. Basically at the start of each month you create an index for your tasks, a calendar that gives a quick summary for each day and then a more detailed day to day list of the assignments or tasks to be done. This method is especially handy for students as they are bound to have an extra journal lying around, or they have a journal with a few extra pages, which is all this method really needs.

Screenshot_2014-10-30-05-38-40Evernote is an online not taking suite. You can create a free account that allows you to sync between a web client, a PC application and a mobile app. Each note you create is searchable and you can divide your entries into “Notebooks” and further categorize each entry with a searchable “Tag”. Like Google Keep, you can set reminders for your different notes so that you will receive messages at a later date.

Calendars and Google Tasks and Calendar

If you opt to purchase a dedicated calendar or planner, there are many options out there. The only criteria for a purchase is that you know you will at least try to use it. Also if you decide to spring for a monthly calendar, make sure that it is large enough for you to write down what you need to! Monthly calendars are great for writing a quick summary of the tasks you need to get done and to see which weeks will be your busiest. However, even if you do choose a large calendar, it will not have room enough for a detailed daily task list. A planner would be necessary for detailed lists, and is encouraged if you do not already have a system in place and you have difficulty remembering the fine details (Who am I meeting? Was it room 306 or 360? Did I need to bring anything with me?). Also planners are quite helpful because of their portability, you usually can’t fit a whole calendar in a small book bag.

Google Calendar and Google Tasks are two great services that can be accessed from your Google Mail Page. To access Google Calendar simply click on the square icon in the top-right corner and then click on “Calendar”.

Capture1Capture2Having done this you will be greeted by a blank weekly calendar page. This page can be used for classes and studying times and whatever else you could think of. Like Google Keep, you can set reminders for events, by email or phone pop-up, and you can color code events.

CaptureOn the right of the above image you will notice the Google Tasks panel. To access Google Tasks, navigate back to the Google Mail page and click “Mail” in the top-left corner and then click “Tasks” and a small window will pop up on your Mail page and Calendar page.

Capture3Capture4Google Tasks is a great way to keep track of assignments and their details. You can also organize your tasks by date or completely customize their ordering yourself.

These are some of the tools I’ve come to become familiar with but this list is by no means exhaustive. As a college student, the main reasons these technological services found there way onto my list were because they were free and easy to set up! Also each technological service is paired with a more “dated” form, because I found both to be helpful. Technology is only as beneficial as it is useful, if one of these services has too much bloat then drop it immediately! (In favor of a paper strategy.)

Hopefully one of these ideas encourages you to better organize your work, good luck!

Works Cited

“Study Tip of the Week: Approach Your Material in Different Ways.” Web log post. ICM Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <;.

“Tooling and Studying: Effective Breaks.” MIT Center for Academic Excellence: Tooling and Studying. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <;.