From Start to Finish

Dear Students Who Are Required to Write—

So. I was searching around this blog, looking for something worthwhile and new to say to help each and every one of you who need to crank out a paper that will, hopefully, get you a good grade. Everything here’s been indispensable . . . so far (I could easily stop that train cold right here). And, you know, I had this whole, sentimental thing typed up about how a music professor changed my life and taught me how to trust myself (true), and, then, we both lived forever in each other’s hearts because of music (weird).

I had it all ready to go, and then I thought: what am I doing, man? Who am I? I might as well start a Taylor Swift cover band; because, while that little essay wouldn’t’ve been untrue to my beautiful soul, nobody in their right mind would want to hear that. So, I decided to put that one back on the shelf, and, related, I sold my guitar and threw my special notebook into the river.

That brings me back to searching. And, just when I thought I’d never find it, something great happened: I realized that I was trying to write this thing. And I was (poorly) brainstorming. What’re you supposed to do when you’ve got three days to write a Formalist analysis of a T. S. Eliot poem? I have a couple suggestions:

Take a walk?

Ride a bike?

Eat everything on the planet Earth?

Whatever floats your boat.

Really, just take a step back. Give yourself a quick break, and, then, think about it. You’ll probably find it helpful to go have a conversation about it with a friend or several (or folks here at the writing center). Panicking is good motivation, but you’ll really find success when you can begin to think down different avenues or see it from other perspectives. Then, you need to get words on the page (a lot of them), and that’s the biggest hurdle for any writer writing anything forever and ever amen. So, forget your hang-ups. Just start writing something. Free-write if you need to. It really doesn’t matter. See where your brain takes you. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard: “writing is re-writing.”

So, when you’re all done, you’re totally not done. Be prepared to, if necessary, pull up a new, blank document (even if you didn’t just completely ramble out this paper) and write it all over again. I, oftentimes, start several new documents at various stages of the writing process so I can rewrite and restructure what’s there (which is usually a very scattered, very rough draft). For every ten pages I get down, I’ve usually written about 20 more that’re gone forever or assimilated in. There’re either plenty of things that can be condensed (because I’ve already said it once before in an essay or creative work, and it doesn’t need repeating) or conflated. Or moved around. Or a lot of things. Be aware, too, that reading your paper out loud, like a few of our other posts say, is almost always invaluable (in fact, a fellow tutor is reading this aloud right now, against my will, and it helps—no matter how much I want to choke him). I’ll catch more grammatical mistakes or confusing sentences that way than any other. The more I’ve reread this, the more I’ve almost restructured it entirely based on my continuing assessment of it.

And, remember, Microsoft Word is not always your friend. It will think a perfectly grammatical sentence is un-grammatical or vice versa. I can’t tell you how often it’s told me to use “its” instead of “it’s.” It underlined “it’s [it is] bar-none” in this blog, and I am super not wrong in that usage. It also wanted to make “whatever floats your boat” a question. Why, God? Am I asking somebody that the very intangible concept of “whatever” is what’s floating their boat? Did I reply to someone, clarifying, because I thought they might’ve said “goat?” Is this a strictly nautical question?

When it comes to spelling, Word’s bar-none; you can’t find a human alive who can beat it. But, sometimes, it’ll spell for you, perfectly, the way-wrong-est-word-to-use-ever in a particular sentence. That’s something that, sometimes, only you can fix. Misuse of a word happens to everyone, and, sometimes, we’re genuinely but incorrectly sure of a meaning, and we’ll need someone else to point it out. But, if you’ve ever not been sure of what a word means, you may’ve found yourself wondering: “How can I find out? Is there a place where I can go to see them all—like a word-zoo?” I probably (hopefully) don’t need to answer that. The point is, when in doubt, you can probably take the time to find out (and I’m sure many of you do). My point: don’t trust Word; ultimately, its main problem, for everything good that it is, is that it’s not a person with a human-brain like you and me. Your voice and your mind-in-critical-mode will usually help you structure and polish your work if you just keep at it until you’re satisfied.

Speaking—you’re in college, and I want you to make work that, in some way, makes you proud. Find something that satisfies you in everything you do. Is there a way you can take this topic and make it fun for you? Whenever possible, have passion in your life and your writing. You don’t always have to like the assignment to enjoy doing it. I (sometimes) like to challenge myself in some way, even if I don’t need to. I wanted to do my analysis of an Eliot prose-poem, as subtly and cleverly as I could, in the style of—wait for it—a prose-poem. Did it work out that way? Nope. Not at all. But it got words on the page, and I didn’t mind doing it so much.

So, to reiterate: clear your mind; talk to a friend (or yourself); forget your hang-ups and start throwing words onto the paper; revise, revise, revise; use your brain; have passion; and, finally, come and see us—we love to help you.

—Jackson

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