Starting at the Center

Process DrawingsEvery year, new writing consultants in the WRC training course are asked to draw their writing process. It’s an interesting exercise in understanding the many ways writers approach writing. When I was in the course, this exercise also prompted me to actively reflect on my own process.

In comparing our drawings of the writing process, we came to several conclusions. Generally,  useful phases of the process include pre-writing, revision, and editing. The process does not always flow neatly in that order, however. Sometimes, we might be in the revision phase of a writing assignment and temporarily revert back to the drafting phase, because we realize that what we thought we were saying was not actually what we said. Sometimes, there are multiple documents saved on our laptops, such as “Assignment,” “Assignment Final,” and “Assignment FINAL Final.” Writing is not linear, and the multi-directional arrows in our diagrams of the writing process reflect its messiness.

Dr. Sharon Zuber, who was director of the Writing Resources Center at the time, told us “writing is thinking.” I have come to realize that she is right. In articulating an argument by compiling evidence, analyses, and ideas, writing is a way of making sense of what we have learned. This interpretation can apply to any type of writing: academic writing, creative writing, and even journaling.

When approaching a writing assignment, sometimes the struggle lies in getting started. Maybe it’s hard to determine a thesis, or know what to include in the introduction, leaving us with an intimidating blinking cursor on an empty white page. As a consultant, I have been able to observe many different people in the process of writing, and I realize that I am not alone in struggling with starting a paper. Logically, I have come to understand that the writing process is not linear. However, approaching the writing process in a nonlinear manner is more difficult to put into practice.

In learning how to get started, I have found that it is useful sometimes to start from the center. Yes, starting from the center can mean coming to the Writing Resources Center with assignments for a second pair of eyes at any phase during the writing process. But it also means cranking out the body paragraph you already know how to write. Starting from the middle is okay—as long as you later fix your introduction, thesis, and conclusion to match. Consider the concept of a “working thesis.” If you have an idea of what you want to argue, getting caught up in the sentence-level details too early can get in the way. I have noticed that obsessing over details like word choice distracts me from the bigger picture. It can be helpful to jot down anything that can act as a thesis or argument to structure your paper, and focus on refining your argument later on. Sometimes, it is easier to find that specific word when your argument becomes more cohesive as you continue writing your paper.

Some of the hesitance in starting from the center may stem from a fear of confusing the reader by disrupting the flow of the paper. Though it is important to consider the audience, writing as a process is not neat and orderly. By giving yourself enough time to edit your draft and make sure it is cohesive, you allow yourself space to get your thoughts out and worry about the overall cohesiveness and flow of the paper later. Sometimes, what may have been the first body paragraph in the outline becomes the third body paragraph in the final paper.

To-do lists that break the project into small, manageable steps can give you a clear path to follow. But when you are feeling stuck, allow yourself to succumb to the mess that is thinking and that is writing. It might be just what you need!

Finding Your Voice

VoiceLet’s be real with ourselves for a second–we tend to get in our own way. We overthink and doubt our own abilities. This is especially true when it comes to writing. For years, I would sit in front of my computer and either stare mindlessly at the screen in front of me or write a paragraph and realize I didn’t like it and start over. Writing was a stressful process, simply because I was getting in my own way.

The question is, why was it so hard for me to just write?

As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve realized the key to getting out of my own way is finding my voice. Often, a common link of frustration among consultees in the Writing Resources Center is lack of confidence in their writing abilities. I firmly believe that everyone has the potential to become a great writer if they take the time to find their own voice. You may be thinking, “Why should I find my own voice if people have already said something better than I ever could have?” I assure you that finding your own voice will lead to better writing. Of course, this is a process that won’t happen overnight, but it’s never too late to start! Here are my top 5 tips to begin finding your own unique voice:

  1. Describe yourself using 3 adjectives. Using different adjectives will help you get a sense of your personality. Your voice as a writer is a part of who you are and your personality is also a part of who you are! Combing the two may help you find a style of writing you like the most.
  2. Make a list of what you like to read, such as books, magazines, blogs, comic books, etc. Can you find any similarities between them? How about any differences? What genres are you drawn to? Is there a particular writing style? We often admire who we want to be, so what is it about these readings that intrigues you?
  3. List your cultural/artistic influences. I am a singer, and people often ask me who my musical influences are because they affect the nuances in my singing. This can be true for writing as well. Are there any figures in pop culture that inspire you, such as journalists, actors, slam poets, etc? How can these influences inspire your writing?
  4. Write in another environment. I can’t always work in the library and need to find inspiration in other places. My favorite place to write is Lake Matoaka because the surroundings are calming, and I can breathe in fresh air for a clear mind. Try walking around campus to find new spots to write! Even take advantage of the beauty in Colonial Williamsburg and find a nice quiet place to think outside of campus.
  5. JUST WRITE! The best way to find your voice is to simply sit down and write. Write what’s most comfortable to you without any editing and see what you can come up with! This is a great way to see your voice come to life on paper. Also, look at what you’ve written before. You may discover that your unique voice is already emerging in your work.

These are a few ways to begin finding your voice. It may not be as easy as I made it sound, but the journey is certainly worth it.

Image: https://seanwes.com/podcast/116-how-to-find-your-own-unique-voice-and-style/

The Anxiety of Beginnings

fountain-pen-on-paperTrips to Wawa and hanging out on the Terrace define my experience here at William and Mary, but so does the struggle to begin writing papers. Here a few strategies from my arsenal that make getting started on paper-writing just a little simpler.

When getting started, make a checklist. 

And not a checklist that says “write paper.” That can only be checked off, well, in that distant time when the paper is finally done.

Instead, I have a checklist that is much more focused on each step of writing. My average paper-writing checklist looks something like this:

  • brainstorming
  • refine brainstorming by sequencing ideas
  • flesh out thesis
  • figure out topic sentences
  • go outside and find a dog to pet**
  • write intro and conclusion
  • develop body paragraph structure
  • plan structure of body paragraphs based on topic sentences
  • ⅓ paragraphs done
  • ⅔ paragraphs
  • binge watch Parks and Rec**
  • channel my inner Ann Perkins and do something nice for another person**
  • all body paragraphs done
  • adjust intro and conclusion accordingly

(**Optional-ish)

When I check off a box on the checklist, I am motivated to stay productive because I know that I have at least begun the writing process. This system might not work for everyone, but the age-old tip of breaking large tasks into small, bite-sized steps is pretty golden advice.

When brainstorming, don’t dismiss your own ideas.

One trap that I fall into when brainstorming is dismissing ideas as “too dumb” to be included in the paper. Simple ideas form the basis of more complex ideas; when dismissing ideas, you narrow the scope of ideas that have the potential to form the foundation of your paper. It’s one thing to remove ideas from your paper once you’re finished outlining – that likely means that the idea may not be relevant to your thesis. At the brainstorming stage, however, all ideas are game. Once all ideas are on paper in the form of questionably legible half-sentences in a notebook (my way of brainstorming, though that might not be the best format for everyone), you’ll discover trends in your ideas. These trends and patterns in your ideas will form the basis of your thesis.

It’s super important to begin the first stage of writing with self-validation in order to stay motivated. Don’t doubt the strength of your ideas when brainstorming!

When done with your writing, take time to appreciate what you’ve created.

Part of what makes writing so daunting is not taking the time to look back and appreciate what you have created. Seeing what you’ve written is a reminder that you seriously did transform some ideas in your head into a real paper. The real world calls for people to take concepts and turn them into something tangible through the writing process. It is an incredibly powerful gift to have the chance to take your ideas and systematically validate them. While writing papers can be challenging, they are part of what makes our liberal arts education so valuable.