Everyone has self-doubt — but try not to make it an existential crisis when writing a paper

With the end of the semester drawing near, students are finding themselves swamped with papers. In fact, almost every student has at least one paper due soon. As a writing center tutor, I have seen all levels of preparedness: students who wait until the day before the deadline, students who come in weeks in advance, and even students who just want some reassurance that their paper is going in the right direction. As a student myself, I will admit that the deadlines and topics are stressful, but there are ways to prevent unwanted stress and ways to make the process easier. Let’s talk about that!

Unfortunately, there are some students who will wait hours before something is due to actually finish it. If you are the sort of person who can write a ten-page paper on alterity in one hour than you are very extraordinary because most of us need more time. While I have been guilty of doing things last minute (this is college — it’s going to happen) I always advise my students to plan ahead. The best way to begin an assignment is to make an outline. I know, I know an outline. It’s a little extra work, but it will be your guide to getting the paper written. An outline will allow you to see where your thoughts are and how they should progress. While tedious, making an outline for an assignment is the most effective way of starting something.

Most commonly I meet students who have a lot of self-doubt. I can’t possibly write ten pages. This doesn’t sound right. Why did I ever enroll in this class? Everyone has moments where they doubt themselves, but try not to make it an existential crisis when writing a paper. My favorite advice to give to other writers is to always read it out loud. Hearing it will always help you decide if it works well or if it doesn’t. The first draft of anything you write isn’t going to be perfect. Sometimes even your second or third draft won’t be perfect and that’s okay.

Another common issue I see often is that students come in with questions that their professors could easily answer for them…if the student asked. It’s important that I say that most professors welcome questions and will happily assist you if you are in need. I have never met a professor who was unwilling to sit down with me and discuss how to tackle a paper. Even the craziest stick-wielding professor (there’s one in every crowd) will sit down and help if you ask. Don’t be ashamed to ask for the help either. Generally, if you have a question about something there’s at least one other student who has the same question and will benefit from the help.

Lastly, I would encourage students to use the writing center as much as they need to. Don’t feel embarrassed by it and don’t assume that the tutors will look down on you by any means. We’re students too and we’re learning alongside you! If you don’t think we email each other papers and ask for guidance you’d be dead wrong. Asking for help is okay and there is literally a center where we will sit down with you and work on anything you might have trouble in. College is hard and this part of the semester is always the roughest, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer through it alone. Always remember: Outlines, self confidence, and your professors. With those three things you can conquer anything set before you, but mostly you’ll just get your papers written.

-Lydia A. Cyrus

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Citations, Opinions, and Varied Sentence Structure: Weaponry for Battling the Praxis Essays

In the height of examination season, tensions are heightened at the thought of composing copious amounts of essays, especially those that act as gatekeepers for potential career paths, such as the essay portion of the Praxis exams. Traditionally, these compositions are intended to demonstrate the writer’s ability to construct an intelligent argument, as well as provide personal insight into an issue in an academic, professional manner. In instances such as the Praxis exam, with a limited amount of composition time and the added stress of fretting over eventual scores, it is easy to let the anxiety influence the words that cross the page or screen. However, there are specific factors within these essays for which the judges will be searching, and keeping these essay characteristics in mind will enhance the writer’s potential to meet the criteria set before them.

Generally, the simpler of the two essays is that of the informative composition. This section of the essay portion of the exam will test the student’s abilities to provide information through the utilization of the sources that are provided. There won’t be too many sources from which to pull, so try to avoid worrying about the sheer mass of preparatory text that will need to be read before the composition starts. When it comes to the composing stages of this essay, it is imperative that the writer remember to:

  • Avoid brainstorming for too long.
    • This causes the writer to lose time and can be more distracting than helpful.
  • Keep the sources in conversation with one another.
  • Always use citations.
    • This applies to both essays.
  • Avoid providing personal opinions, unless the prompt calls for this specifically.
    • First person “I” is considered unprofessional in this setting.
  • Keep it informative. Argumentation and judgment should not appear in this essay.

The argumentative essay can be considered a challenge, but when considering the figurative checklist that applies to the composition of this type of text, the actual writing process can begin to transform into that of a map that is created by the writer. However, there are a few minor warnings as to providing personal opinion.

  • While these prompts might ask the writer to utilize their own opinion, the “I” should appear as sparingly as possible. Too much personal voice can make the piece sound too informal.
  • Anecdotes should apply completely to the topic at hand and not veer away in the form of a tangent. Essentially, they should only be used when absolutely necessary.
  • When compiling the reasons as to why the author believes a certain way, be sure to pick the most relevant to the topic and the most important. Trivial issues will hold little water in this argument.
  • Be sure to address the opposing issue. This should come near the end of the piece—somewhere just before the conclusion—which will give the writer enough time to refute the point before ending the paper properly.
  • Do not speak in a condescending fashion towards the opposing opinion.
  • As stated beforehand, ALWAYS USE CITATIONS.

While this may sound insignificant in the grand scheme of composition, the varying of sentence structure is incredibly important. The utilization of complex sentences will demonstrate a control over the craft, as well as present the information in a mature manner. Semicolons are a writer’s best friend! For general punctuation and structural regulations, be sure to remember:

  • Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses.
  • Commas should appear before conjunctions when they are being utilized to connect independent clauses.
  • Simple sentences can be effective, but only when used conservatively.

While these lists might appear to be disorienting, the best way to hone these skills is to practice these types of compositions. Example prompts can be found online; additionally, essays from varying levels of success can be accessed on official websites, such as ets.org. Be ready, future educators! Think of outlining these essays like that of a personal lesson plan!

-Morgan

Do Write in ‘That’ Tone of Voice: Questions to Ask about Audience and Tone

In a recent post, the Marshall University Writing Center Facebook page asserted that, “Writing transcends the traditional college paper assignment.” At the Writing Center, we mostly deal with the “traditional college paper,” but an awareness of tone and audience is often overlooked during the writing process whether or not the piece is for a class or for personal writing. We often see students that assume the audience is only ever going to be their professor and while that may be true in some cases, by considering a wider audience the quality of information present in an assignment or even a piece of personal writing improves dramatically.

            Who is Reading What You’re Saying?

Considering who is reading your writing may influence how you present information. Is it just a professor? If so, what requirements have they given for the assignment? Is this professor an expert in certain fields that you may discuss? How does the professor feel about informal language (more on that below) in a piece? Is this something you’re going to submit to a contest for a prize or a journal for publication? If so, what are their requirements? Do they have other articles you could reference? Does the contest have a theme? Knowing the answers to these questions can help focus not only the information you provide but also help determine the Tone of how you’re saying what you need to say—whether the assignment is informative, argumentative, an analysis, or even a creative piece.

            How Should You Say It?

Once you have an audience in mind, how to say what you want to with your writing becomes more apparent. Specific formats have individual conventions and requirements—the Modern Language Association (MLA) handbook is different from the American Psychological Association (APA) guide. While this may seem obvious, these considerations have a major impact on tone. For example, the MLA format allows for having yourself (an “I”) in the writing; it’s based in the English department and the conventions of the guide reflect that. It places an emphasis on narrative and authorship and that is reflected in the whole format. By contrast, the APA guide is based in psychology and scientific pursuits; it occludes the author as part of the larger narrative of science and fact-based research. The year, and therefore the relevance, of the article is paramount as it shows where in our understanding of a certain topic the reference falls. Additionally, the style of the citation and the specific assignment will impact the “how” of communicating your thesis or story. In some disciplines—particularly the sciences—a passive tone is preferred in relaying information:

The mixture was heated.

Vs.

We heated the mixture.

The second sentence is in an active voice—something that is more accepted in creative and academic writing in the humanities. These small differences in tone can make a large difference in the presentation of an idea. Other things that may impact tone are the subject matter itself, whether literary devices like metaphor, simile, or puns are acceptable, whether or not contractions are allowed and other considerations that may or may not be part of the formal assignment sheet.

These considerations will help dictate the overall structure of an assignment or personal writing piece. By being aware of them, you can structure your own voice to the circumstances and write in “that” (the accepted) tone of voice.

 

-Kallel

MU Library’s Tools

All of these search engines can be found on the site: www.marshall.edu/library/

 

Searching for Sources in Summon (Step-by-step)

Step One: Find Summon Search Bar on the right side (see Figure 1).

Step Two: Search for your topic

  • Remember, be specific with your search. (If you’re searching “Assisted Suicide” for instance, try to think about what it is you want to know about this topic, like for instance “Assisted Suicide in US” would make this much more specific.)

Step Three: Use the Summon Search Engine

  • Looking at the image below (Figure 2), you can continue to specify the topic. You can do this by adjusting the filters (on the left side of the figure) like the type of articles, year, and the discipline.
    • This will help if you are looking for “Assisted Suicide in US.” You can change the filters so that the search engine only shows you journal articles in the public health discipline and choose a specific time period say 2010, for instance. By doing this, you are decreasing the amount of information you have to look through.)

Step Four: Create a RefWorks Folder

  • Also in the image below (Figure 2) you can see in the top left corner the words “RefWorks.” This folder is very beneficial because the information you are finding can be put into the RefWorks folder to be read later. Creating an account is free since you are a student at Marshall.
  • Using this folder after you have created an account is easy. There is a symbol beside the titles of articles on the right in the Summon search window. You click this and the article will be put into your folder.

 

 

Using Borrowing Programs such as EZ-Borrow/IDS/ILL

These programs are book/article lending programs that students have access to. These books and articles are normally from other schools. This program is beneficial because it gives students the option of receiving materials needed even if the book or article are not available in Drinko or Morrow.

 

How to Use EZ-Borrow:

  • Again, this is billed into student fees, therefore students will not have to pay to sign up.
  • In order to sign up, use the 901 number assigned to the student.
  • EZ-Borrow is for books, therefore, you can search titles of books in the search bar at the top of the window.
  • Always check to make sure Marshall’s libraries do not have the books before using the lending program.

How to Use IDS-Express:

  • Create an account. Click first time user button then fill out the information requested.
  • Once an account is created, you may search for the journal article, book, newspaper article, etc., to try to find the piece you are looking for.
  • Something that might be good is to have a title of a book or article in mind. To be more specific with these sites are better.

 

Other Resources Available:

 

Ask a Librarian: This is very valuable. Use it. You can click this on the Libraries homepage and you will find a chat box where you can ask where to find sources. If you are going to use this chat, make sure you have specific questions about a topic. (Figure 3).

 

Ask a Librarian Chat Hours:

Monday – Thursday: 10 am – 6 pm

Friday: 10 am – 5 pm

Saturday: Closed

Sunday: 2 pm – 6 pm

 

Writing Center: Another valuable tool to use. There is the option of scheduling an appointment with a tutor who can help with the writing process or the option of scheduling an appointment with a research librarian. Both are very educated in research paper writing. Use these tools. (Figure 4).

 

Types of Appointments:

  • Face-to-face – this is meeting one-on-one with a tutor.
  • E-tutoring – this is uploading a file that the tutor will provide feedback to within 24-hours.
  • Online – this is meeting in an online chat with one of the tutors.

 

Writing Center Hours:

Monday – Friday: 10 am – 3 pm (Face-to-face, E-tutoring, and Online) 7 pm – 9 pm (E-tutoring and Online ONLY)

 

To make an appointment visit: marshall.mywconline.com (do not type in www.)

Figures

 

figure1

Figure 1.

figure2

Figure 2.

 

figure3

 

Figure 3.

 

figure4

Figure 4.

 

-Katie W.

One More Thing Before You Go: Final Project Advice from the Thesis Trenches

You’re an upper classman now and inching ever closer to graduation—yay! Many of you, no matter your major, have to complete a large final project. Sometimes it’s called a “capstone;” sometimes it’s called a “thesis” or “portfolio.” No matter what your program calls it, you most likely call it “scary.” Essentially, the purposes of these large final projects are to test the skills and knowledge you were expected to collect during your studies as well as demonstrate and celebrate your achievement as a student. All in all, the latter purpose is key to meditate on. If you have passed the necessary classes to make it to this point, then you are most likely more prepared to create this final project than you may believe. What it takes to “create” said final project also depends on your major and the requirements of your program, but be certain it will involve writing on some level, which is why I’m talking about it here.

We know that the keys to avoiding writer’s block and battling procrastination for any academic assignment are making a plan/schedule and starting early. One of my Writing Center colleagues Alexa Antill recently shared some great tips for tackling the writing process that are worth checking out! And they apply to this larger project as well.

I am currently in the trenches of writing my own thesis portfolio for the Masters of Art in English program here at Marshall. Fortunately, both the graduate and English departments have been helpful in reminding me about deadlines early. Whether you get such reminders from faculty or not, it’s always a good idea to inquire about important dates—again, early! In general, you should start formulating a plan for your project the semester before it will be due. You can think of that time as the pre-writing stage. Perhaps keep a journal specifically for thoughts and ideas regarding your project. It’s okay if you have absolutely no idea what you want to do your project on right away; that is the purpose of the journal. You may be sitting in a lecture one day and the professor brings up a certain theory or text or experiment that peaks your interest: that is something worth journaling about, because who knows, with a little more research, it may end up being a part of your final project.

Notice I say write down the stuff that you find interesting. It is probably an obvious point, but you are going to want to choose something that you are truly intrigued by or enthusiastic about given that you will be spending a lot of time engaging with the subject. This is another reason, you should be doing this pre-writing early. If you wait, you risk picking any ole’ topic out of the pressure to begin, which could result in a miserable experience.

Once your brainstorming has led you to a potential topic for your final project, then start your research. Usually, larger projects naturally require a larger amount research; therefore, it’s a good idea to create an ongoing annotated bibliography (Not sure what one of those are, exactly? Writing Center tutor Hailey Hughes has broken it down for you in this recent blog post). Because you are performing extensive research over a lengthy period of time, it is easy to lose track of sources and even forget what some of them were about in the first place—thank you, Christmas week of Netflix binge watching. An annotated bibliography will definitely help mitigate these troubles.

As you begin to understand the specifics regarding your topic on a deeper level, you may seek out some mentors for your project. In the MA of English program, we graduate students assemble a committee—usually consisting of three faculty members, with one serving as the chair (leader)—and it serves as a guiding and supporting body for the work we produce as a part of our final project. Even if your program does not require you to ask faculty members to monitor and guide your work (usually through reading and commenting on the writing you produce), it’s not a bad idea to seek out a mentor anyway. You’ll want to do this early, too, as a curtesy to the person’s schedule. You should try to ask the individual if they’d be interested at least the semester before you will be doing the actual writing/creating of the project (usually also the semester it is due). Finally, you will want to choose the faculty member based on their area of specialty. Many times we gravitate towards professors we just like in general, our favorites. However, if your project has to do with stem cell research, but your favorite professor’s background happens to be quantum computing, you may want to consider another faculty member. How can you find out which professors specialize in what? There are a number of resources for this information. Many departments have faculty web pages in which bios and educational backgrounds are detailed. Otherwise, traditional conversations with departmental members works well, too. Tell your favorite professor what you’re working with and ask if he or she knows anyone in the department that may be interested in working with you.

Finally, once you have your plan and some wise people to help guide your progress, you should pick some deadlines for yourself. These also depend on the nature of your program and the specific project you are doing, but you can generally figure out a way to break down your work into sections. For example, my thesis portfolio consists of a critical introduction, a scholarly paper, and a collection of creative essays. I could have chosen to work on all three at once, but I found it more approachable to knock out each part one at a time. I picked dates to distribute drafts to my committee members for each section and then a deadline for the complete project draft as well. Finally, I chose a defense date (this is a presentation event in which I will share the finished project and answer any questions posed by my committee or others who attend). In sticking with the theme of this post, I picked dates that fell much earlier than the ultimate deadline (as in the week before graduation). In fact I gave myself about a month to push things back if I need to. Having these early deadlines helps put a positive form of pressure on me, but it also gives me peace of mind to know I have a little bit extra time to play with in the case that the unexpected arises during my project process (e.g., illness, emergency, an extra busy week of work, etc.).

To recap the advice about approaching a final project I have given in this post, here is a list:

  • Start early! (Usually the semester before the project is due, but even before is good, too)
  • Keep a journal (jot down interesting ideas and topics—brainstorm regularly)
  • Choose a subject you are truly and deeply interested in (you’re going to have to spend a lot of time with it!)
  • Create an ongoing annotated bibliography to keep track of your research
  • Enlist the guidance of faculty mentors (Ask individuals who have knowledge and experience in the specific subject you are pursuing)
  • Set early deadlines for yourself, stick to a schedule, but allow some extra time for “push-back”

I hope you find these guidelines helpful and that they bolster your confidence as you approach this last big step that leads to donning cap and gown. And one last tip: visit the Writing Center! We tutors are eager and happy to help you write your way towards commencement!

-Amber

What is an annotated bibliography?

The first time I was assigned an annotated bibliography, I panicked. What is an annotated bibliography? We have to have annotations for each source, but what is an annotation? I expressed my concerns to my professor, as I had never done an annotated bibliography before, but I had. Many of you have, also, you just don’t realize that you complete the steps of an annotated bibliography every time you research sources for a project or an academic paper.

Don’t become bogged down by the phrase “annotated bibliography.” It’s just a fancy, academic term that denotes a list of sources—bibliography—that are evaluated–annotations (Purdue OWL). If you’ve written an academic research-based paper or worked on anything that requires research, you know that sources can be any scholarly, peer-reviewed book, journal article, study, website, and the list goes on. Now, every time you read a possible source, just like trying to decide which presidential candidate to back, you have to evaluate it. The Purdue University Writing Center has lists three steps to every annotation: summarize, assess, and reflect (Purdue OWL).

In each annotation written in a paragraph format, you must be able to summarize the main argument—what is the author’s purpose? What are they trying to prove or get you to reflect upon? What are the main points of the article? If you cannot answer these questions, it’s either not an appropriate source or you have not read the source in its entirety. Many students that come in for help with annotated bibliographies at Marshall University’s Writing Center are discouraged, because so many sources are long and convoluted. At the beginning of your research, it’s okay to skim and flip through pages of articles, just to see if it could be a possible contender for your bibliography. Though, when you come to a decision, know that you must read more than the abstract or the first few pages to understand the author’s or authors’ purpose and point of view. That’s why it is vital to give yourself a stretch of time to find and read sources. Of the few times it is safe to make assumptions, it is safe to assume that your professor will expect that you have read a source in its entirety and have therefore, made a thoughtful decision.

I stand in the grocery store and compare one brand of granola bars over another, assessing the merits of each: How much does this brand cost compared to this one? How many bars are in each box? You must assess the source’s credibility, which is generally what you already do when you pick a source for any assignment, now you just have to write it out. Is the source from a credible author? Are there any glaring biases? Did I access this source from a credible location? (Purdue OWL). Before you go any further in your annotation, you must ask yourself that last question. So many students are discouraged because they look for sources through a Google search only, and it doesn’t benefit their assignment at all. Always, always, always use your school’s library resources first to search for scholarly, peer reviewed sources. Marshall University students pay for the Drinko Library’s journal subscriptions, articles, and books, so it’s a waste of money if you don’t use this great resource.

I think the last element of an annotation is the easiest: to evaluate its applicability to your assignment. How is the source going to work for me? How will source help me achieve the purpose of the assignment? This is where it helps to have a wide range of sources, so you can toss out the ones that don’t serve your purpose without any qualms. Just like a puzzle, don’t force certain pieces to fit where they cannot. You can’t take a quotation out of context and then write an annotation, because the non-applicability of the source becomes clear. This is where you also ask yourself if you have a variety of sources: (books, articles, websites, etc). Once you have a variety, your credibility increases because you can prove your point in different ways.

The format of the bibliography will vary, depending on the citation style you use. A few elements are uniform: each citation will need to be double spaced with a hanging indent, and generally each source is listed in alphabetical order by last name. The citation always appears before the annotation. Also, it is important to note that the annotation is not indented like a traditional paragraph.

Now, in all your newfound knowledge and wisdom in annotated bibliographies, go forth and write a rocking one! J

-Hailey

One Day at a Time: The Key to Overcoming the Fear of Writing & Battling Procrastination

Even for some seasoned writers, the thought of that next upcoming paper can be overwhelming. Worry about topic choices, research time and materials, and the mental road blocks that may ensue begin to consume your mind, and that doesn’t even include the actual writing. The mental exhaustion can be worse for less experienced writers or students who simply dislike writing. The key to overcoming the fear of writing, which in itself can help overcome the procrastination that is always creeping into your mind, is to plan it out. Take the writing one day at a time. Don’t sit and try to write a 5-page paper (especially so if it’s any longer than that) the day before. I know you’ve heard that incessantly, but make it easier on yourself and your grade by planning your writing out.

 

This is a dilemma that I have faced personally and over years of writing have found to work the best. It not only allows for more available time throughout the week, but makes me feel better because I know I can take a break. I don’t have to write the whole thing in 1 or 2 days. I can plan, take some time to think, have a breather, and write better. I have time to tweak and to skip a paragraph or question I should be answering if I can’t quite get it one day. Planning your writing out is always the number one advice I give to students I work with in the Writing Center who are struggling with time and pages, which is always a bad combination. If I have a student come in who says they have a paper due next week and they just don’t even know where to start, I tell them it’s okay. Breathe. We have time, which means you’ll get the number or words or the required number of pages you need without additional pressure. Then, we plan it out together, make subsequent appointments, and take it one day at a time.

Plan it out. It’s almost as simple as it sounds. While it does depend on the length of your paper and the amount of preparation/research required, here’s the general idea:

  • 1+ days for writing out ideas about topics, answers to required questions, thesis, points you want to make, creating an outline.
  • Approximately 1 day per page or section, depending on the type of paper you are writing.
  • 1+ days for editing, again depending on how long the paper is or how much editing you feel you need to do. It’s always a great idea to take your paper to your professor’s office hours if you get a chance or have some serious questions.

 

Taking the time to plan it out, especially on the first day or so of general planning your paper, creating an outline, or simply jotting down some notes on points you want to make, will help save you time and pressure in the long run. Breaking up long papers into smaller segments makes the overwhelming big picture feel and look just a little bit better and much more manageable.

-Alexa