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Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writing Tips for Students

There was a conversation on Twitter this morning about tips for MA students writing theses, and larger graduate student writing.
This got me thinking. I follow a lot of smart people who are teachers on Twitter. And many share ideas or projects they're working on in their classrooms.

But for teaching at large, there still seems to be a weirdness about sharing materials, lessons, syllabi. I'm not sure why. I hear the phrase intellectual property used, and concerns about plagiarism. I'm going to acknowledge those concerns without addressing them because I think those are bigger issues and attitudes. I will tell you that I share all of my teaching materials. It's all in Google Docs folder, and I'm of the opinion that if you can use anything in that, help yourself.

Scholarly writing often has dual purposes- to both contribute to the field of scholarship AND for use in a classroom with students. Yet I've yet to come across a scholarly text that gestured towards this. I'm considering for my Revising Milton project beginning each chapter with a mind map, geared towards teaching.

How often do we, as teachers, write TO our students, not just for them?
I do every week, in my Blackboard Learn weekly announcements. They're direct address reminders, tips, etc. And I provide a lot of hyperlinked resources on my hyperlinked syllabi, but this all got me thinking- how often do we write TO our students?
@gcgosling writes a lot FOR his students, posting advice on how to read for his courses and field, and how to write. But I can tell you this is a rarity.

So, with the end of semester in mind, and the final writing assignments this entails, this is for my students.

Dear Students:
The end of the semester is near. We have four weeks left of classes. And there's a lot to get done. But here's the most important thing- stay calm. Don't panic. It will all be okay.
This post is an attempt to give you some advice on how to get through the last month of classes successfully.
First, I strongly suggest that you write down in your planner, iCal, Google Calendar, all the due dates of your final papers. I'm partial to bright red impossible to miss ink. Which I then circle in bright red highlighter. I have panicky feelings about missing deadlines, so this makes me feel better.
Next, using these deadlines, and knowing your schedule, backtrack when you need to have drafts, ask professors for help, go to the writing center. So, for example, my Survey of Early English class has these deadlines:
  • 29 October: Brainstorm ideas for final paper/project
  • 5 November: Crowdsource the rubric in topic groups, fill out organizer
  • 12 November: Send me your thesis statement and title
  • 17 November: Go over writing tips and tricks
  • 19 November: Send me rough draft
  • 5 December: Final draft due uploaded to Learn
Good time management helps in several ways. The first is that a schedule, a plan, knowing when you're doing what, will help with anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.
The second has to do with this:
Writing is hard. And writing is a process. If you asked lots of different people they will all describe it as a DIFFERENT process, but most would agree that there are steps.

So here's the next set of tips:
  • Brainstorm several different topics or ideas. I keep a writer's notebook where I keep all these things. Just because an idea doesn't work for THIS assignment doesn't mean it wouldn't work for something further down the road.
    • Once you have your ideas, run them past me (your professor) for a couple of different reasons. First, your professor can let you know if this is something that can be covered in the assignment length. Some topics like the role of women in medieval literature is HUGE. Books and books have been written on this. Choosing a topic you can address well and completely in the pages given is key to doing well.
    • Your professor is also your greatest resource. We are experts in our fields. So we can recommend not only how to narrow down topics, but also books and articles that you can use.
  • I like the next step to be cursory research. I think particularly for undergrads, going to the library website, typing in some search terms, and seeing what's out there, what's been said, can help you.
    • This is also where the size of the assignment is important. If you're writing a 4-6 page paper, and you can only find two sources on your topic, you're probably fine. If you're writing a 8-10 page research based paper and you can only find two sources, you might want to choose a different topic.
  • Next, start writing. At this point I suggest that you write YOUR argument. Don't worry about polishing. Don't worry about adding secondary sources, or formatting, or anything but highlighting what YOU want to say about this topic. 
    • I avoid a lot of formatting issues by having an MLA template document- size and font are set. Margins are set. Header and heading is there. So I just open this, click Make a Copy (in Google Docs) or Save As (in Word) and I'm all set.
      • Here's also my plug for Google Docs. It's the best thing ever. First, you don't ever have to worry about losing a document, not saving it, the file being at home and you wanting to work on it on campus. It's easily shared with peers for editing, as well as with your professor. If your professor wants a Word doc or PDF, you can easily download it in those formats.
    •  My general writing tips:
      • I encourage students to make sure their introduction outlines their paper. However, a lot of times you don't know what your paper is about until you're finished writing it. So consider making your introduction the last thing you write.
      • I like clear topic sentences that tell me what topic the paragraph is about AND what you have to say about this topic.
      • I like evidence from the text that proves your point.
      • Then I want you to explain to me HOW this text proves your point. Think of it as showing your work in math.
      • With conclusions I like to think of it as this: you've spent all this time and energy analyzing/arguing. Now that you've done all this work, what big picture statements can you make? What themes or big ideas emerge? What trends? What effects?
    • Here's the professor secret: we've read your secondary sources. We know what other experts in the field argue or say. Usually (and this may depend on the field or the assignment) but we're not looking for a summary or review of what's been done. We're interested in what you have to say, to contribute. How you use, or see the issue.
    •  Here's another secret: It's MUCH easier to revise and work once you already have something on the page. Nothing is more intimidating than a blank page, so fill it. Even if you end up revising most of it, if your future drafts look nothing like your first draft, this first draft does a lot of the heavy lifting.
      • Everyone writes differently. The only thing that matters is that you write in a way that works for you. You don't have to do anything just because it's how others do it. That being said, if you don't have something that works for you, you might want to try these techniques:
        • Pomodoro Technique: is one I know a lot of professional writers swear by. You write in short, timed bursts.
        • Others don't organize writing by time, but tasks. So for example: I'm done for today when I finish writing a first draft.
        • I use a combination of both. Sort of. I can't work in short bursts. I sit down early in the morning, after walking Nehi, usually around 7a. On writing days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) I don't do anything except write until 4p. Some days this is super productive, some days I stare at Twitter a lot. Most days I'm productive because I know I'm not allowed to leave my office. Each day I have set goals- finish reading scholarship, finish typing up edits. If I finish that day's goal early, I get to leave early. It's my treat for doing well.
        • Find what works for you. It may not be any one thing, it may be a combination of things.
  •  Once you have something written, whatever it is, print it out and set it aside. This requires that you NOT write the paper the night before. If you've time managed well, this is already done for you. Scheduling a couple of days between drafting and revising accomplishes a couple of things. The first is, it is easy with projects to not realize the difference between what's in your head and what's on the page. This is not an undergraduate thing. This is not a young writer thing. This is an EVERYONE thing. If you set something aside, and then come back to it it allows you some distance. This distance helps to clear the cobwebs, and helps you see what's on the page versus what you need the page to say.
    • If you have friends or classmates who are willing to look at your work (and I encourage you guys to do this for each other) this is when I'd send it to them.
    • This is also the point where you can send drafts to me. For the record, with me, you can send me drafts at any stage. If you want me to just look at an intro, or a section, that's fine too.
  •  So, you've waited your couple of days. And now you're ready to go back to it. Before you look at the paper again I suggest you reread the assignment guidelines. This will help you read the paper to make sure that it does what it's supposed to do. Most professors will tell you this is the first thing that they grade papers according to- does it do what I asked?
  • I like to write revision notes as handwritten notes because I think it helps to see it. I start by reading it out loud. Even if you don't know what the error is, you often know what sounds right. Read with a pen in hand, and make changes as you go along. This is also the stage where you can make notes about where you should insert that secondary scholarship.
  • Once all your handwritten revision notes are finished, the next step is to type up these notes. Once this is finished, again, set it aside for a little bit. I don't think you need days, but I still think a little distance between each step helps.
  •  For me the next step is often the last one. I bring up the file and the first thing I do is grammar and spell check. Get rid of all those red and green squiggles. Then I check formatting, that the citations are correct, that my Works Cited is on a new page, and accurate.
  • You're done! Submit it and relax!
I hope this was helpful. Please feel free to tell me what tips or tricks you use, what works for you, what doesn't.

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