Tag Archives: writing center

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.


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.




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!


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


Listen to Other Tutors: The Importance of Sharing Tutoring Experiences

When I entered the writing center at Marshall University as a tutor for the first time, I was a nervous wreck. The previous night I was notified via email that a student signed up for my time slot and he wanted help with his rhetorical analysis. The last time I wrote or saw a rhetorical analysis was when I was a freshman. So it had been a while. I looked up some information on the rhetorical analysis online and while I felt better about the coming day, I was still not confident in my ability to help with the rhetorical analysis.

The next day I entered the writing center still feeling like I was going to let the student, and myself, down. There were two other grad students working that day and we talked about what assignments we were expecting to tutor. I mentioned the rhetorical analysis and my nervousness for tutoring such a task, and luckily, they had already had a couple students who needed help with rhetorical analyses. They shared with me how they helped their tutees; how they taught their tutees to focus more on content and organization (since those issues were more prevalent within the students’ papers), how they recommended the students to change the tone of their essays to fit a more analytical approach. They then reflected on what they could have done better for the students, such as getting the tutee to read aloud a paragraph of their paper to better check for grammatical mistakes. After the conversation, my tutee arrived and we started working. In addition to making sure the student’s paper fit the rubric, along with making sure the analytical tone of his paper was effective, I applied what I just heard from my peers to the tutoring appointment, and I believe the session was successful. It seemed like the student was understanding more about the nuances of the daunting rhetorical analysis than before and he made an effort to continue to write a better paper.

After the session, I reflected on how I helped that student. I realized that, thanks to the two who shared with me what they could have done more, I used that information to my advantage. This led me to the conclusion that more experienced tutors who share their mistakes can be as, or even more, beneficial than sharing their successes. Not only does the inexperienced tutor become more comfortable tutoring, but they also achieve better results. We, as inexperienced tutors, learn not to make the same mistakes as someone before that can easily be avoided if we have the knowledge for them.

This sharing of information can be used in various other ways, such as your own writing. This may seem like an obvious assertion, but I have read and heard from fellow tutors that they narrowly focus on tutoring without applying that experience for their personal use. And the more I reflect on that, the more confused I become. I believe each tutoring session is not only a learning experience for the tutee, but also for the tutor. And the feedback provided by fellow tutors adds onto that learning experience from the tutoring appointment. How someone consciously or subconsciously makes that separation I will never understand. Why not take advantage of the many sources of information willingly provided for you, and use it to better your writing? I understand, thankfully, most tutors don’t do this, but I feel like it should be mentioned.

The best example I can give for using the knowledge from a tutoring session to one’s own writing is this blog post. The idea for this post wasn’t solely mine. Like usual, I overthought what I should write about for this post. I knew I wanted to write something about the tutors themselves and not about an aspect of tutoring, knowing the other tutors in my class would cover those bases (and they did a great job of it, if I’m allowed to say). I mentioned this to a couple tutors and one suggested that instead of writing about what tutors should do on their down time (which was my initial idea) I should write about the importance of learning and sharing their experiences tutoring with fellow tutors. So then I started writing this.

  • Justin Kinney

Writing “You”: A Guide to Becoming Your Own Writer

The permeating influence of fictional texts seep into the composition of the students that have consumed them, whether or not those students are aware of this phenomenon. Writers that consider themselves professionals are not exempt from this transaction of style either, given that many contemporary novels are consistently compared to those that came decades before them. While the urge to emulate the techniques of a favorite novelist or academic scholar will be increasingly overwhelming, the fact of the matter is that writing is, first and foremost, a remarkably personal act. In seeking to imitate the stylistic choices that have been utilized in other famous pieces of literature, the action of morphing the written word becomes almost second-hand, a reiteration of something else that has already been said in a similar format. Thus, the general rule of thumb when creating prose within the composition classroom is that of the following: write as your own self, not in a copy-and-paste arrangement that leaves little room for personal growth. The beauty of this particular course is that students have the ability to hone their writing skills that are unique to them (as well as obtain information on citing, formatting, etc.), and in many cases, the utilization of personal voice and experience can greatly influence a piece.

For example, I want to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, or rather, I want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. His prose is eloquent, yet tinged with sarcasm and poignant, political criticism that can only belong to that of an author that truly knows his topic and has lived his given subject matters. That being said, I’m a twenty-year-old, Caucasian female that has little to complain about besides the odd night wherein I have to decide whether to complete homework assignments or watch the next episode of Attack on Titan. Clearly, I am not equipped to handle the same aspects of life within my compositions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability to compose about a plethora of other topics, though, such as: drowning in collegiate financial debt, being a female in an age where feminine oppression is still pseudo-predominant, or losing a Wi-Fi connection and being unable to watch anime on Netflix.

However, this is not to completely discourage the influence that authors have upon impressionable students. In fact, students can discern a great deal about their own stylistic choices by experimenting with the structures that they find within their favorite texts. Fiction students are often encouraged to flip sentence structures and rewrite paragraphs from their favorite novels in exercises pertaining to the morphing of text. The identification with these pieces of writing should be seen as a relative first step in the process towards becoming a self-actualized writer.

The next stages of the process are slightly more ambiguous. As aforementioned, writing is a personal matter, and imitation will be honed in upon immediately. In a similar vein, following the precedent that has been set by others can be incredibly constricting when it comes to improving individual art formats. As cliché as it sounds, most refining will be spawned from the honing of skills and the eventual rebellion against the techniques that the writer has learned. In this way, writing is almost like that of a backwards cycle, given that so much of it hinges on the stylistic choices that are formulated by the twisting of specific restraints. No other field of study will encourage students to combat the rules that they are taught once said students have properly mastered them; it is almost as if composition professors are molding miniature, literary anarchists. For instance, students in varying forms of composition (personal statements, fiction pieces, etc.) are often warned against the onset of stereotypical and cliché statements, given that they can often contract from the content. However, in other such classrooms, such as that of the sciences or business-related fields, clichés and standards formats are encouraged. Thus, composition exists in a limbo-like stage wherein students are both asked to conform and rebel against given class constraints.

Within the Writing Center, I often hear, “I really don’t understand how this applies to me,” to which I generally reply, “That’s great!” While students are often confused by my response, I encourage them to analyze why it is that they feel this certain way. Compose a list of general thoughts and analyze them. How do they influence the product that the student has created? How is the student’s personal voice utilized? This exercise demonstrates that student reaction and experience within the composition classroom not only influence the student’s general opinion of the assignment, but also the final product that is submitted.



Research Papers: Don’t Fret

Research papers always make me nervous, as a student and a tutor. In high school I never had to do research to the extent I have to in college. I was never taught how to use data bases until I had college English classes, and librarians would come in and show us. I am in my senior year, and research papers still make me nervous.

I became a tutor this year and have learned to tell students to start the research early. I have never practiced what I preached when it came to school. I will admit I am a huge procrastinator. However, this year things have changed. I am still a procrastinator, but I start things earlier than what I used to.

To keep things on the rails, here is some advice for students: Start things early, stay focused, make a schedule, if you need help ask, and get your work double checked. When the semester first starts I sit down and look at all of my due dates for major assignments so I know what to expect. Most of the time all of my classes have major assignments due around the same time. If you know what is coming, as students we can prepare and get the little things out of the way.

When doing research, I find a reoccurring problem. I end up on other websites that have nothing to do with what I am doing. Staying focused is key. I recently found out that sometimes, I can’t study in my room. When this happens I move to a place I know I will be able to concentrate. Most of the time it is in the living room or in the campus library. When going to the library I reserve a study room ahead of time. On campus, as a student, I can only have so many hours a month reserved for a room. Having this time restraint pushes me to do all that I can in the little time allowed. I stay focused easier and I have found I get a lot more work done.

Part of focusing is having a schedule. If you know you work or focus better at a certain time of day, clear that time for your research. Once you have that schedule and get used to it things will become easier and flow more smoothly. I found out that my study habits have changed over the past year, I now study on the weekends and some nights during the week. I have classes during the day so studying at night is ideal. However, on the weekends I can get ahead in classes and focus on more depth assignments without having to worry about getting up early the next day. Since my habits have changed and I have found my niche, I am less stressed and can have fun during the week.

Once things begin to finish up, about mid-way through the assignment, make an appointment with the writing center if you have one. This will allow a fresh set of eyes to see if you are on the right track. As students sometimes we need help with research. Making an appointment with a research librarian is also a good idea. They can teach you how to search for academic sources. If you cannot find a research librarian, the writing center can also help. As tutors, most of us have used the sites as students, so we know our way around. When things wind down and the due date for the research project is approaching, set up an appointment once again. This time tutors should focus on global issues once again but then move to local issues, such as sentence structure, punctuation and grammar.

Just remember that research papers sound scary, but if you take your time, ask for help and follow some tips, things will be less nerve racking.



Riding (Writing) the Storm

The writing process. We’ve all heard the phrase. Perhaps you even had a poster that illuminated the steps of the process in your English classroom in middle school or high school. It may have looked something like this:



Unfortunately, if you’re like me that process often feels restrictive rather than helpful; most often my thought process is something along the lines of: “What do you mean prewrite? And doesn’t almost the rest of this go on at the same time?” For many writers, myself included, the writing process is less a process and more a Writing Storm—and that storm can sometimes be intimidating. There are options, however, to make the storm less chaotic and more constructive.

One of the things I always do and often recommend to the students that see me in the Writing Center is to have an awareness of audience. Though we can and do help with any step in the process (or at any port in the storm), an awareness of the audience for an assignment is one of the first things I always try to establish both with students and in my own writing. You know your professors better than we do, and considering what a particular audience may expect or be familiar with is often a good way to begin harnessing the lightning. What does the professor want from the assignment? What are the conventions that they may have expressed in the classroom regarding their expectations? Is there any subject that they specialize in and therefore are going to be more critical in grading? And yes, even: are there any biases that professor has on a certain topic that may color their interpretation of your work? All of these are important factors which may affect the way you write.

Another important consideration is that the process we’re taught from early in school on isn’t linear—in fact it’s often cyclical, a spinning mass of different aspects of writing that can take place in any order:



And even that may be too structured for some writers. Much of this can take place as thought without any writing taking place on page or screen. Sometimes, even ‘early’ parts of the process can reoccur later as an assignment develops into a more finished and concrete such as realizing an idea (brainstorming; typically a part of prewriting) that would strengthen your argument while performing minor editorial steps. Perhaps during finalizing a paper, you have an idea for another perspective on the subject; this doesn’t have to mean re-doing what may have been a long and dreary amount of work. Keep the idea as a brainstorm for another related or later assignment. If there is any universal for writers here who struggle to capture the storm or even follow the steps we all know, it is that the writing center can help at any stage of the process. We are here to serve not to revise and edit, but to make the Marshall community better, more confident writers who can confidently navigate the storm.