Tag Archives: Writing

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

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.



 Don’t Worry, it’s Only Citing

Perhaps those of you who are reading this are, or were at one point, a state-of-the-art, GA tutor for your college Writing Center, like myself. I am probably not the typical GA you would expect to see working in a Writing Center. By this, I mean my BA isn’t in English, it is in Psychology. I only have a minor in English. Because of this, worrying opening week of the Writing Center I was not going to be able to help other students with their papers and questions, was more than an understatement for me.

What if I describe the use of articles incorrectly?  What if I miss a comma? I can ask how my lack of knowledge makes them feel…

However, with each passing week, I’m beginning to notice that we have more and more students coming to us from a variety of disciplines, not just English Composition. Business, Economics, Nursing, Social Sciences, so on. When these students bring us their papers, they all have two things in common: they need to know how to avoid plagiarism, and how to cite in APA.

Ah! Here is where I can help!

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote an immense amount of Psychology research papers in APA format. For my capstone, I wrote a twenty-one page research paper, cover letter, abstract, and works cited not included, on the correlation between substance abuse and women’s depression in the Appalachian region. And I had to give up my summer to do so. If I can get through that, I can help a few students with their citations, no problem.

There have been several students come in this semester with the same type of research paper for the same Experimental Psychology course (A class I took as an undergrad as well). All have been working on their introductions of the paper. The introduction is where all of their sources they have researched will be presented, and those sources cited.

Some students are concerned because their professor has expressed that they want the students to avoid direct quotes from their resource articles unless the quote is one to two sentences in length. Some students wonder how they are to avoid plagiarism if they’re limited in what they can directly quote. This is when I proceed to explain paraphrasing. How it’s okay to sum up a section of your resource article into your own words, as long as you still include an in-text citation when doing so. I explain that you can either use your in-text citation at the end of the paragraph, like you would if you were directly quoting something, or, you can start your paragraph by stating the researcher’s name, followed by the year their research was conducted. Some students either forgot that they could paraphrase, or never knew paraphrasing wasn’t plagiarizing as long as it was cited.

One session I remember in particular, was an online appointment I had last week. A student submitted a paper with instructions that they needed help with APA in-text citations and getting started. When I go to open the document the student attached, there was nothing. Literally all the student had was the sub headings for each section of their introduction. When chatting online with the student, they expressed great distress in not even knowing how to start. I remember reading in A Guide Composition Pedagogies (2nd ed), that in order to help students stop seeing research papers as this treacherous, pit of doom, that they’re never going to climb out of, help them break down the paper into smaller portions. That way, it seems like a bunch of individual research papers, and more realistic to accomplish (Tate, Taggart, Schick, Hessler, p 236).

As I proceed to explain this method to the student, I think back to when I was writing this paper, and how stressed out I was. I sympathize with them, but can’t tell them not to stress out over it. It kind of is a required paper and class to graduate.

What was that method I learned back in Behavioral Learning? Positive Reinforcement! That’s right.

That’s when I suggested to them that perhaps, trying to write the introduction first isn’t the best idea. Start in the sub headings, get all of your cited work written first, and then go back! You’ll know more about your topic, and will be able to elaborate in your introduction on what you have already written. The student seemed to like this idea. And of course, I reassured them that they will get through this research paper, and they will pass the course. Don’t stress out so much. I think being in their shoes three years ago made them feel a lot more confident in their ability to write this paper.

That’s when I realized what my style of tutoring is. I’m the reassuring type. I may not be able to tell you when to use a comma or semicolon without looking it up on the Purdue Owl first, but I’m going to be able to give you the confidence you need to write a research paper, any paper, and help you see it as an accomplishable task. Being able to reassure students, and see flustered expressions disappear by the end of our sessions, has helped reassure me that I am being a helpful tutor.

-Jessica L.

We Are…for the Students

As a student myself, I know that showing your work to other people can be very frightening. It is something that you have probably put a lot of hard work and research into and you don’t want that work to be bleeding with red ink resembling a massacre. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is not what the Writing Center is about. We are not your instructors; we are your peers. We are not going to pretend that we know the details of every subject outside of our chosen field, but we are good at what we do, which is writing. We are here because of our knowledge in writing. We as tutors want to pass this knowledge on to you so that you may also improve on this vital skill.

In order for the Writing Center to be well rounded and for us to help you work on those skills, each session is different depending on the tutor. We all have different approaches to help you learn. I can give you the general idea of what you can expect during a tutoring session. We want you to leave the Writing Center feeling better about your work and maybe understanding certain concepts you once did not understand. The purpose of us as tutors is not to write your papers for you, but instead to go through and act as peer reviewers. We will work on issues together, brainstorm together, and it is more like a conversation with a new acquaintance or even a friend. The strategies we use also depend on you, but are based on what works for us during our process as well.

My tutoring strategy usually begins with the brainstorming part of the session. I like to hear your thoughts and your ideas because after all this is your paper. I help you do this by asking you questions about your assignment or having you free-write for a couple of minutes. Free writing always helps me the best in my writing process, so I try to use it in my sessions. A couple of ways that you can free-write at home or in your dorm is by jotting down anything you know and want to know about your subject, you should time yourself and maybe do this for three to five minutes. Once you have done this, what I would have you do is pick out key ideas that you think will work well or that you want to focus on more thoroughly. By free writing you are able to jot down ideas that we can help you expand on for your paper. Most of the time, free writing is a way to get your ideas down on paper because being a student is stressful and we don’t always know where to start – this activity is one that will help you begin. I think that free writing and brainstorming gets the ideas flowing. You could come up with a lot of greatness in just a couple of minutes and that is the ultimate benefit of free writing and brainstorming.

As the tutor, I want you, the tutee, to succeed, which is why I choose to brainstorm with you. I want to hear your ideas because the Writing Center is for your benefit. As tutors, we are here for you. We will try our best to encourage you and to work with you during the writing process. We want you to do well on your assignment, but also in the future with both your academic and career driven life. Writing is important; it is a stepping-stone to a lot of different career paths. You will be asked to write personal statements, fill out résumés, and maybe even have to write a thesis eventually, so we are here to help with every stage of your future in writing. So if you avoid making an appointment because you are afraid of what we might think or because you do not want to show your work to anyone, or even if you don’t know how to start, just remember: We want to help you. This is why we are working in the Writing Center. We are too just beginning the tutoring semester and we are trying to get a hang of it. If you are nervous to set up an appointment or for the appointment itself, don’t be because chances are, we are just as nervous as you.


Requesting Letters of Recommendation: Professional Development for College and Beyond


At some point in your college career, you will be inclined to request a letter of recommendation from a trusted professor or mentor. Perhaps you will be applying to become an RA for the dorms during your sophomore year? Maybe you’ll need a letter of recommendation for a scholarship or an internship? Or perhaps you’ll need one as you apply for graduate school? Whatever the case, these quick tips are sure to help you get the most out of your request for a letter of recommendation.

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of rec is generally a document that describes your qualifications for a specific job, position, or role. Letters of recommendation are used by prospective employers, colleges, and organizations to gain a sense of what kind of worker or student you are. Strong letters of recommendation are usually from mentors or professors with whom you have good rapport.

How do I know which professor or mentor to request a letter of recommendation from?

It is always a good idea to consider your past performance before you request a letter of recommendation. Even if you enjoyed a particular professor’s course, if you were unable to meet all of their academic expectations or only had them for one class, they might not be the best resource for requesting a letter. Instead, you might consider a professor or mentor who has worked with you over an extended period of time. If, during this time, you occasionally did not meet their expectations, they can attest to your overall performance in a more holistic way, ensuring that your small shortcomings are overshadowed by your glowing work ethic.

Where do I start with this letter of rec business?

First, begin by composing a professionally formatted email. You should have a specific subject line, a formal greeting, a clear purpose, closing remarks, and a salutation. You can refer to my previous blog post in the link below for more specific details and tips.



Your Purpose for this email is to inform your professor that you have a specific opportunity and to request that they compose a letter of recommendation for you. Make sure that you provide them with the specifications of this opportunity. They should know what your prospective job or role will entail, how your performance in their class will be relevant to your opportunity, and why you feel that they would be a fitting recommender.

You should also include a list of your academic and professional achievements so that they might reference them in your letter. These achievements do not necessarily have to be tied to your performance in their class. Make sure to include all up to date accolades that you have received. Remember, it is up to their discretion what they include in the letter of rec, so don’t be upset if you feel that they should have included something that didn’t make the cut.

Remember to provide your professor or mentor with the necessary contact details of the organization where you will be applying. Frequently, letters of recommendation are sent directly to the organization by the recommender. This is because they are generally viewed as confidential documents and your prospective employer or organization wants to ensure that the document has not been tampered with. You should note that not every recommender will send you the letter that they send to your prospective employer—and that is absolutely okay if not normal.

Finally, remember to follow up with your recommender and send them a formal email thanking them for their time and the influence that they have been on you while you have had the chance to work them. This shows that you are dedicated to professional development and that you are grateful for their service. This also gives you the opportunity to enquire as to when they sent out your letter.


Creating a professionally formatted request for a letter of recommendation doesn’t just teach you this necessary professional skill, but it also increases your likelihood of receiving a letter that is specifically geared toward the accolades that you wish to highlight to your prospective employer. By providing your recommender with all of the accomplishments that you have earned, you are showing them that you are organized, that you care about your professional life, and that you greatly desire the opportunity that their letter can help provide.


Now get out there and take ownership over your professional life!


-Lauren T