The Power of the Image: a Tool for Your Academic Writing

[This article is intended specifically for students writing in the Humanities and Social Science disciplines. While image is a powerful, effective tool for adding interest to academic writing, there are some disciplines, such as the technical science fields, where this advice might not be applicable.]

Imagine clicking away at your keyboard, you feel the confident pop of each button as your fingers depress from one to the next. You pause, but only for a second to take a sip from the steaming ceramic mug on your left—it invigorates you even more. You know exactly what you want to say because, for once, you aren’t stuck by the monotony of strictly structured, formulaic essays. Instead, you’re in a writing zone of your own creating, and though you, like every student before you, had to start with a prompt or an assigned topic, you are moving forward with ease. But how? Every other time you’ve sat down and toiled over how to begin, watching the digital clock in the bottom right hand of your screen inch closer and closer to midnight. Why is that you can so easily move through this essay? The answer is simple, in your introduction you used a creative writing technique known as Image that not only propelled you forward, but also added interest to your essay, setting you apart from your peers. Academic college life can be very cutthroat, especially when your program is competitive, but you want to be set apart from your peers. You want your professors to remember your essays, and employing powerful images in academic papers is one way to accomplish this difficult feat.

As a new college instructor and veteran writing center tutor, I have seen a thousand essays that begin with the same format—“Today I’m going to discuss the working conditions for children in Indonesia,” “My paper topic is why we should save the whales.” While these introductions are fine, they are a dime-a-dozen and do little to further your discussion, aside from plainly stating your topic. However, if you present your readers with a powerful, gripping image that sticks with them, it can be fodder for the rest of your essay and actually help you compose your paper.

Consider this introduction on the topic of child labor: “Her back is hunched over a sewing machine half her height and all of her weight. Each stitch brings her closer to the end of her twelve hour shift when she can return home to play with her little brothers. Her tiny, calloused fingers work their way over a neon pink Nike swoosh, a brand that she will never wear because her clothes came from the missionary workers who visited her village last year. She is hungry, but during her short break she did not have time to walk the five miles back to her home, instead she works patiently, ignoring the new blister forming on her palm. Stories such as this can be found all over Indonesia, and the most troubling part is that they key players are often children.”

An introduction such as this not only establishes what you will discuss throughout the paper, but it also hooks your reader in with vivid details and emotional investment in the story that you are about tell. By creating a narrative grounded in strong imagery as the basis of your topic, you have established a theme that you can carry throughout the rest of the essay. While the above introduction is a fictional story, basic research about the conditions of child laborers in Indonesia reveal elements of these harsh working conditions.

If you feel as though you are stuck in your writing process, you can return to this image to transition yourself from one topic point to the next. For example, if I began this essay with a description of working conditions, by returning to the image of the young girl running her finger of the Nike swoosh, I can then begin to discuss the popular American companies that actively use sweatshop labor. An imagistic introduction can pave the way for interesting, imagistic transitions and they are sure to impress your professors.

You might be wondering how to begin crafting an image filled introduction. This can be broken down into a few simple, easy to follow steps:

  1. Get comfortable with topic that you will be writing about. Are there any human subjects in this topic? What is the controversy? What is your perspective of the issue at hand? Can you anticipate how your readers will respond to this topic?
  2. Pick a side or perspective on this topic. If you believe in the stance that you are presenting, chances are you will have a stronger appeal to your readers because they will be able to tell that you care about it.
  3. Conduct basic research on the perspective in which you will write from. Being well informed when you begin to craft an image is crucial to your credibility. You want your readers to not only be hooked into your essay, but also trust you as a reliable narrator.
  4. Make a list of points that might further your emotional or intellectual appeal. Jotting down details and facts can be crucial in keeping your thoughts organized and in helping you include many details to strengthen your introduction.
  5. Begin small and work your way out. By starting your introduction with a brief descriptive sentence you can set a tone for your essay and give yourself a good base in which to begin.
  6. Don’t forget the adjectives. Remember School House Rock? Your introduction is an excellent place to unpack your adjectives. But remember, too much of a good thing can be very, very bad. Always use adjectives to supplement your essay, not guide it.
  7. Be Specific. Small details such as the “pink Nike swoosh” in our sample introduction add a level of authenticity to your paper. While I may not know that the Nike swoosh is pink, by saying that it is, I am giving my readers a specific item to envision. Specific details are so important.
  8. Show more, tell less. The biggest part of imagery is making sure that you show your readers what you want them to know. Think back to our example introduction, I could have said that I was going to discuss sweatshop labor, however, showing my reader an image of a young girl in a sweatshop has a much greater effect.

The technique of imagistic writing can transform your paper from dime-a-dozen quality to impressive ‘A’ paper material by hooking in your readers and making them want to read your work. Chances are, your professor has more than twenty-five papers to grade at any given time, if you can interest them with an imagistic introduction, the task of reading your paper could delight them. Every time a student turns in an essay that has strong images I am thrilled because their papers are generally more interesting to read. Instead of telling me why a topic is important they are showing why it is important. Stop toiling over academic essays, let your images guide them—it can give you a base to start from and even guide your transitions from topic to topic, and it will certainly set your paper apart from the mundane “Today I’m going to tell you about” topic sentence.

 

-Lauren T.

The Writing Center: Where Writers Help Other Writers

Every August young fresh minds flock to college campuses in search of knowledge. They sit in classrooms learning a variety of subjects. Inevitably they are handed the assignment that most students dread…a research paper. Students hate the research paper for many reasons, the most common being that they have been told by previous teachers that their writing is not good. For those students that suffer from anxiety upon receiving that first paper assignment, fear no more there is a place that can help you with your writing; it is called the Writing Center.

What students need to understand is that even the best of writers needed help with their writing at some point. If students were to think about writing as a science they would find that for every author there is an equal or opposite editor. Now, the Writing Center is not an editing service, but like an editor of a book, the tutors in the Writing Center can pick up on certain nuances that the writer is missing. Much like an author’s editor will push the writer to be a better writer, the tutors of the Writing Center push students to put their best writing foot forward.

As a tutor in the Writing Center at my own university I have seen the deer in headlights look many times. Students will bring their writing to me thinking terrible thoughts about the work that they have done. Due to their past experience with writing students think that there is no way that they could ever become a better writer. The point of college is to make you think smarter, read deeper, and write better. The Writing Center is a place where student writers can get help from other student writers.

As a writer I know the struggles that students go through when trying to write that big research paper that is due sooner rather than later. I know the feeling of looking at the same text for too long and thinking that what I have written is not acceptable only to have someone else read it and see the good within it. As a tutor, the service I provide to students is my knowledge and expertise in panic and terror and knowing that it will be all turn out ok. Famous author John Green once said, “Writing is something you do alone.” However, he forgets about those people that read through his work to find what is missing or to discover that his organization could use some work.

The writing process can be hard at times, but by trying out a variety of different methods students can discover the best process that works for them. Some students may find that once they have written their paper, reading their paper out loud is helpful. By reading your paper out loud you get to hear when something within your writing sounds funny or awkward. You notice immediately if your paper does not sound the way that you want it to when you read it aloud. If students do not like to read their papers out loud, you may ask a friend to read it and give you notes. Your friend will let you know when they do not understand what your paper is trying to say, giving you the opportunity to go back and make your paper more clear so that your friend can understand. What students do not realize, especially freshman, is that one of the best tools a writer can use is the eyes and ears of another person.

For students, there is no better service than one that is determined to help you be the best writer that you can be. Writing is a big part of what you do in college so the fact that there is a place on campus that can help you in areas that you may or may not be lacking in is wonderful. There are so many college courses that require a paper of some sort that it just seems silly not to take advantage of the one place that could be the difference between failing a class and passing it with flying colors. So, there should be no more anxiety attacks when the research paper assignment is handed out. No more deer in head lights look on the faces on young minds. Simply just go to the Writing Center and ask for help. The Writing Center, where writers help other writers become better writers.

 

-Heather

First time WC visitor? Some information for you!

Are you planning on scheduling your very first appointment at Marshall University’s Writing Center? Wonderful! We can’t wait to work with you. Here’s some information that will be helpful for you to know prior to your visit:

Our Mission:

Engaging one-on-one with students across the disciplines at any writing level during all stages of the writing process to help develop composition skills, not just for individual papers, but for the rest of students’ writing lives.

What we will do:

Because our mission is to equip students with the skills they need to become better writers, your tutor will scaffold your appointment to address top priority issues first. The progression of an appointment will generally follow this order:

  1. Content issues – Your tutor will be reading over your work for clarity of overall thoughts and ideas – for instance, if there is a conflict between your thesis and main ideas, that conflict will be addressed first. The strength of your writing depends most on this!
  2. Structural issues – If your ideas are not flowing in a natural progression, your tutor may make suggestions about restructuring or rearranging certain sections or elements of your paper.
  3. Local issues – This includes smaller issues like grammatical errors. The Writing Center does not operate as a simple editing service –this sort of help alone would not give students the tools they need to become better, more competent writers. Because this is our primary concern, your tutor will not address grammar until priorities number 1 and 2 have been resolved.

What you can do:

  • When possible, bring a hard copy of your paper to your appointment.
  • Always bring the assignment sheet that your professor provides.
  • Come prepared to learn from your tutor, not to get your work “fixed.”
  • Think ahead! – in order to ensure that you have adequate time to address your tutor’s suggestions, please make your appointment at the very least one day, but preferably two + days prior to the due date.
  • Be prepared to do follow-up work on your own to address your tutor’s suggestions before you turn in your paper.

What you can expect:

  • Your paper will be read aloud. Your tutor may read your paper out loud or ask you to do so as they follow along. This is a technique which helps both the tutor and you, as a writer, hear the flow of the composition as well as target any problematic areas.
  • You are expected to be an active part in your Writing Center session. Your tutor may ask you to verbally explain your thoughts or argument, prompt you to participate in writing related exercises, or ask you to answer specific questions concerning your assignment.
  • You are not guaranteed an A. We aim to help you improve your writing and critical thinking skills of which your assignment will directly benefit from, but we cannot guarantee certain letter grades for your assignments. Level of writing proficiency and the stage at which assignments and projects are brought into the writing center varies among appointments. We will tackle a realistic amount of tasks based on importance for the 30 minute to hour-long session.

-Shannah and Amber

 

 

Keeping Your Ideas in Check – Understanding the Brainstorming/Outlining Process

Have you ever sat down to write a paper and had no idea where to begin or where you were going? Writing college-level papers can be intimidating and if you’re not careful, you may end up aimlessly wandering from one topic to the next as you write your way to the conclusion. In my experience, the easiest way to get started is to already have the end in sight before you begin – the best way to do this is to take the time to brainstorm and create an outline.

As boring as an outline may seem, it gets all of the hard work out of the way at the beginning and sets you up for success in structuring your paper. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself (or your tutee, if you’re helping someone else) in the brainstorming stage of writing:

  •  What is my professor asking for?
  •  What style of writing is required? Summary, analysis, persuasive, expository?
  •  What are the other criteria? Are there secondary sources to include? Length requirements?
  •  Where do I stand on the topic/text I’m being required (or choosing) to write about?
  •  How do my secondary sources support or refute these thoughts?

Crafting your thesis statement is arguably the most important part of the writing process—without it your paper will lack clarity and direction. After you’ve created a thesis statement that communicates the purpose of your paper, you can create bullet points for your main ideas – these are the ideas that will support your thesis and guide your writing of each individual paragraph. A few guiding questions for main ideas:

  • Does this pertain to my thesis? Does it support it?
  •  What sections/statements of my secondary sources support this idea?
  • How many main ideas do I need to elaborate on to and properly cover the topic of my thesis and make my paper the required length?

Write out your main ideas as phrases or single sentences and arrange them in a way that makes sense. This will help your writing to progress in a natural flow. Now, all you have to do is elaborate on each idea, using the secondary source quotes that you’ve already picked out and making sure to tie each idea back to your thesis or purpose for writing!

As a tutor, students generally come in having skipped this process and wielding an already-written paper from whatever ideas came to their mind as they sat at their keyboard. The good news is, this same method can be used to evaluate the flow of a rough draft as well. All you have to do is summarize the main idea of each paragraph in an outline and rearrange them until they make the most sense (for students who tend to get off topic and rant as they write, this is also a great way to see which rabbit trails can be deleted and which ideas they presented in their thesis that they never got to!)

Not everybody is a planner, and not everyone thinks best in terms of outlines, but a lot of hard work in the planning process can save writers a lot of time and frustration in the writing and review stage and generally makes for a clear, well-organized presentation of ideas.

 

-Shannah

Thievery, Plagiarism, and How You Have Been Stealing Words Your Whole Life

What college student cannot remember his or her first week on campus? The week is marked by novelty. You were juggling a new schedule, you were attempting to make friends, you were learning where all of Marshall’s buildings are located on campus, you were adjusting to eating food in the cafeteria (have you adjusted yet?). While encountering each of these new experiences, there were certain expectations and principles you undoubtedly realized that professors had for you. Perhaps one of the most glaring of those was (and is) this: do not plagiarize.

It’s the conscientious college freshman’s worst fear: being accused of plagiarism. One of the key principles students learn about college writing is that plagiarism is bad (and therefore, the individual that participates in the act of plagiarism is also bad). After you were assigned your first essay, not only did you have to show that you knew how to produce a thesis and support it logically, coherently, and grammatically, but you also had to show that you could do so in your own words.

But what are your own words? The question is not as simple as it may seem. I tutored  in the writing center for five years, and in those five years, I had countless students ask me the following question: “am I plagiarizing here?” The fact that this question has to be asked shows that there is a sort of uncertainty about what plagiarism actually is. If you have ever performed the “do I need to cite this?” debate in your head while writing a paper, you have asked yourself a form of the question, “what are my own words?”

My words, your words, their words – who can claim ownership of words? No one. And everyone. Here’s why the concept of plagiarism is confusing: in our subconscious, we all know that we are, in the most rigid of senses, constantly plagiarizing. Our language, our ideas are not unique to ourselves. Even informal, friendly interactions are, in a sense, “plagiarized.” For example, how many of you have used the following words in a similar arrangement today?

Speaker 1: Good morning!

Speaker 2: Hey, how are you?

Speaker 1: Fine. You?

Speaker 2: Fine.

A simple exchange. A familiar exchange. And yet, a unique exchange. Each time you communicate those phrases with another person, it is a unique interaction to you. Plagiarism in academic writing is confusing because in normal, everyday situations, the fear of “stealing someone else’s words” is a non-existent fear. We do it all the time.

So in addition to the plagiarism is bad mantra that is so engrained into you after your first week on campus, here’s another principle you should absorb in order to succeed in academic writing: academic writing is unlike any other spoken or written discourse. This is why you can “steal” words in conversations, in Facebook statuses, and it is actually not considered stealing at all. This is why you cannot “steal” words in an academic paper. One of the purposes behind an academic paper is to assess how much you know about a particular subject. Because this is an assessment of your personal knowledge base, you cannot take the knowledge base of others and claim it as your own. And even though in an effort to jumpstart your writing, many teachers have told you to just pretend like you are having a conversation with somebody, the reality is that in an academic paper, while you are having a conversation, it is unlike any conversation you have ever encountered in any other context.

Plagiarism in academic writing is bad: yes,  you get the picture. So if plagiarism is bad, how can you keep from plagiarizing in your academic writing? Here are a few guidelines:

  • Whenever using the exact words that another author has used, you must put those words in quotations and provide an in-text citation.
  • Whenever using a particular concept that you learned while reading an outside source, although you do not have to utilize quotation marks, you must provide an in-text citation referencing your source.
  • Whenever you are referencing an idea that could be considered common knowledge, you do not have to provide a quotation or an in-text citation.

Remember: even though your academic writing is supposed to display your own, personal knowledge, you do not have to go at the writing process alone. At the Writing Center, we are trained (and excited!) to help you at all stages of the writing process, and that includes the stage where you are trying to figure out whether or not your words are your own words.

 

-AR

Welcome to Marshall University’s Writing Center blog

Hello, reader,

Welcome to Marshall University’s Writing Center blog. The Fall 2014 semester is just over a week away, and we’re excited to spend this next semester helping you become a better writer. Shortly into the semester, each week, one or two tutors will share stories about exciting tutoring strategies that they have been able to try out in our Writing Center. So, stay tuned! Whether you’re a student in need of help with a writing assignment, or if you’re a tutor in need of some inspiration, this blog will be a helpful educational resource as you work toward becoming a stronger writer and more seasoned tutor.

-AR