Letter to the Adult-student Writer

Dear Working-Adult Student,

Hi, my (likely) stressed out friend. If you’re anything like I was when I decided to attend college at the ripe old age of 39, you have a family, one or more jobs (I had three), bills to pay, a home to clean, laundry piling up around you, a vehicle that needs regular maintenance, perhaps parents who need attention or care, and a myriad of other concerns that distract you from the business of classwork and study. In addition to those responsibilities, most of us have concerns about how things within the classroom have changed. Many of us feel like a duck in a forest: we’re old enough to be parents to those sitting by us, and that creates discomfort. There were times I felt that I couldn’t participate effectively because my background and ideas seemed so out of step with my younger classmates. I was flabbergasted at the expectations of and formatting used for papers, and I was terrified of using a computer for my written work. In fact, I spent much of my time feeling pretty overwhelmed, underprepared, and inadequate. Maybe you are feeling some of those things, too.

Friends, let me assure you that you can successfully earn that degree. You may have to delegate some chores at home and let some things slide, but you can juggle the most important things, and you can be a successful essay and research-paper writer. How do I know that? Because I was, and I hadn’t written a thing since my last English class in high school 20 years earlier! The truth is that sentence structure and the meaning of words haven’t changed over the course of our lifetimes. The shifts in language are so gradual as to be almost invisible to all but professional linguists, and that makes writing easier than we think it will be.

Oh sure, we may not be as up-to-date on slang or texting styles as our younger classmates, but they may not understand how to be formal in the same ways we do. We’ve worked in various settings. We know that talking with a prospective employer or current boss requires a formality that is foreign to most young people. We know how to persuade others: we persuade spouses and children, we persuade colleagues, and we persuade aging parents. So, we got this.

It’s likely that you don’t recall all the writing, grammar, or other academic terminology you learned in school. I sure didn’t. Nevertheless, we do know important things. Things like complete sentences. Things like how to successfully navigate the unknown or new. Things like negotiation. Things like how to meet deadlines. Things like how to organize time. Things like how to put the important stuff first. Things like not procrastinating until the last minute. All those things we know serve us well when writing essays and papers. We already know how to order activities; ordering thoughts comes easily when considering how well we already order work and family life.

What we may not know is that most universities have Writing Centers. (Yes, this may be a bit of a commercial, but bear with me because it will matter to you, too.) In these facilities, there are well-trained people who know the mechanics of writing, grammar, and formatting. They are there to help all students, faculty, and staff organize written class work. Most centers have extended hours and special tools to assist working-adult writers who find it difficult if not impossible to get to campus after working all day. Additionally, most writing-center people are willing to allow all students to decompress before diving into papers. Those writing helpers understand the pressures of writing papers, and they are all good listeners who are ready, willing, and able to give us time to talk and before helping make papers the best they can be. I used my own Writing Center staff for all my graduate papers, and you, too, should use your university writing center, my friend. You’ll be glad you did.

Sincerely shared from my personal experience,

DBU Students: For more information about the services offered by the Dallas Baptist University Writing Center, check out this link to our website. You’ll also find links to our various handouts and pamphlets on all things writing, as well as encouragement in your academic journey.

Advertisements

Letter to the Patchwork Writer

Dear Patchwork Writer,

You might not have any idea why I just called you a “patchwork.” That’s because I made that name up. All it means is that you like quotes and paraphrases—a lot. If you have a habit of stuffing your papers with words and ideas from other sources and not including many of your own thoughts, pull up a chair—let’s discuss.

Now, for those history majors out there whose papers consist of biographies and other collections of information, you don’t really have a lot of choice. Those kinds of assignments leave little to no room for original thought, so don’t bother trying to shoehorn it in there.

For the rest of us, though, quoting too much can rob us of the most important part of writing papers in the first place—critical, applied thought. If you’re using block quote after block quote, all you’re doing is regurgitating what you’ve read; you’re not learning anything (and neither is your reader!). Adding your own thoughts is a way to connect what you’re reading with what you’re saying and thinking. It also raises your credibility by showing your ability to use research to back up your thoughts.

Imagine trying to sew a quilt without thread or assembling a car without bolts. Nothing holds together, and it falls apart into an unrecognizable heap of useless parts. That’s what an all-quote paper feels like to a reader.

On the other hand, you obviously don’t want to go on a rant and disregard quotes entirely. Your opinions matter, but they are far more convincing when they’re backed by credible sources.

Imagine you’re forced to listen to someone talking about how great (or how awful) their vacation was for half an hour. You can’t leave without offending them, but you’re dying of boredom and want to disagree just so it gets you out of the conversation faster. That’s how your reader (e.g. your professor) feels when you try to write an academic opinion without gathering facts from outside your own head.

So where’s the balance? In reality, it varies from assignment to assignment. I like to structure my papers in a specific way, in what I colloquially call the “quote sandwich.” (Hungry yet?)

Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence. Think of it like the first slice of bread. After that, I add some metaphorical mayonnaise or a slice of cheese by introducing my quote with the author’s name, the title of the work I’m citing, or some other important information to justify the quote’s existence. Then come the lettuce and tomato: the quote itself.

The key with this sandwich, however, is the lunchmeat—explanation. I spend at least a sentence (maybe two) explaining and applying the quote to my topic sentence or thesis. That way, I’m not just pulling a random thought to meet a source requirement; I’m actually using it to back up what I’m trying to say. After that, I might introduce another quote to further my point, but there are layers of mayo or cheese (introduction), veggies (quotes), and meat (original thought). I always end my paragraph with the other piece of bread—a restatement of my topic sentence or a transition to the next paragraph.

Now that you’re good and hungry, let me clarify that there’s no magic ratio of quotes to thoughts. It’s just important that you, as the writer, demonstrate a clear understanding of how these different ideas from different places support your claim—and not just to please your professor. When you are forced to include your reasoning, you often come to better understand it yourself, which is the whole reason you’re writing a paper to begin with. Seize this chance to explore new things about yourself and experiment—the end result will be much more delicious when you do.

Written by Catherine

Image credit

Letter to the Overwhelmed Writer

Writing a paper is a huge ordeal. Plain and simple. The process of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) can seem like an uphill battle. We’re all climbing Writing Mountain to reach the peak where we finally understand what we want to say and how to say it. From here, our thoughts flow freely and easily until the final point is driven home and we arrive in the next lush, green valley. But getting to the peak of Writing Mountain is probably the most daunting of all tasks. The climb to the peak can include getting the assignment, choosing a topic, selecting a stance, doing research, creating an outline, creating a thesis, penning the words, and restarting said paper halfway through. That’s a lot. No wonder it takes longer to climb than descend.

This little blog is for you, Overwhelmed Writer. I’ve been in your shoes, and I’m here to offer some advice on the matter of climbing Writing Mountain.

Give yourself time. There is nothing worse than waiting till the last 1-2 nights before the paper is due to start. Like I said, climbing a mountain takes about 2x as long as it does to descend. It will take you awhile to get your thoughts together, so give yourself that time. Set deadlines along the way to keep yourself on track and ahead of the due date. This way, when you get to the peak, you’ll have plenty of time to coast to a conclusion.

Break it up. There is a lot involved when trying to write a paper. If you’re like me, you like to plan before you pre-plan. All the planning and writing is like a giant tree that is blocking your path up the mountain. You have to take an axe and break it up. Make the logs small and manageable. If the chunks are too big, you won’t be able to move them by yourself. But don’t make them too small, or you will waste time picking up individual pieces and possibly leave parts behind. Figure out the right size for you to make them manageable but efficient.

Bring a guide. Climbing a mountain by yourself can be scary, especially if you don’t know the path. What happens if you get lost? What if you’re attacked by an animal? What if it gets dark? There are a lot of things that could go wrong along the way. The same goes for writing a paper. What if you can’t find sources? What if you don’t know how to format the paper or have terrible grammar? What if you just don’t know where to start? A guide can be a friend, a professor, or best of all, the Writing Center. The people at the Writing Center are paid to walk alongside you throughout your entire writing process. They help guide you up Writing Mountain. Lean on them and ask them questions. Once y’all get to the peak, it’s time for the guide to say farewell and let you start taking off down the mountain with your own abilities, assured you’ll reach the bottom successfully.

Don’t let Writing Mountain scare you out of climbing it. You’re capable, and you don’t have to do it alone. Give it time, break it up, and use your resources, and you’ll reach the peak in no time.

Written by Maddison

Image credit

How to Stay Organized in College

I like to think of myself as an organized person. I have my classes separated by colored folders. I write down any relevant information on sticky notes and place them with the appropriate class notes. Each year I buy a planner and color code my classes with different pens. However, as the semester goes on, I find myself forgetting my planner or forgetting to write things down. I use my phone notes instead of sticky notes. Then the end of the semester rolls around, and I am scrambling to figure out where I wrote down the information I need. I guess I am not as organized as I thought.

Over my college career, I have learned a few things that helped me stay organized and on top of my assignments. The first thing I learned was to prepare the materials I needed the night before. Since I am an education major, I often change bags depending on if I am teaching a lesson in an elementary school or simply going to my college classes. This caused me to forget certain necessary items that I would need the next day. But once I started putting together my materials the night before, I found myself not rushing around trying to make sure I did not forget anything. I could have a relaxed morning and enjoy my coffee.

Another thing I learned was to write down the due dates of all assignments in one single place: a journal, a spreadsheet, a planner, etc. I used to only write down the due dates in my planner on the day they were due. This caused me to procrastinate and forget that some assignments were due on a Monday since my week ended on a Saturday. By writing things down in one central place, not only was I able to check off assignments that I had completed, but I was able to get ahead. This saved me a lot of time and stress when the really big projects were being assigned.

Finally, I learned to color code my notes. When I used just one color, I often could not find specific information that I needed within the pages and pages of lecture. All the words and information began to run together into an illegible mass. So, I decided to invest in some multicolored-G2 pens. I would begin by writing the date at the start of the notes to help me remember what was learned on each day. Then, I would separate the main titles of topics my professors talked about for a while. I would write all the pertinent information for those topics in a separate color to help me distinguish between each idea. This helped me immensely when I studied and had to go back through all the stuff I had written down.

Now, these tools may not work for everyone. These are only the ones that I found useful. If the three I talked about do not peak your interest, the internet has many more resources and articles of advice. Do not waste away and let stress and disorganization overtake you. There may have to be some trial and error, but eventually, you will find something that works for you.

Written by Maddison

Image credit

Letter to the Wordy Writer

“Words words words, I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through, first from him, now from you. Is that all you blighters can do?”

Audrey Hepburn sang these famous words with her now polished British accent in the renowned musical, My Fair Lady. Although not as widely acclaimed as other ballads from the play, “Show Me,” wherein a frustrated Eliza vents her frustration about all the empty words being uttered from her love interest, has always fascinated me. It’s a wonderful song to sing in the shower, too. She goes on to sing, after childishly jumping over fences and twirling with lampposts, “Never do I ever want to hear another word; there isn’t one I haven’t heard.”

That little diddy often circulates through my head when I’m reading a text rich with unusual language or editing one of my own papers while thinking, “Why did I say it like that?” Advanced writers recognize the realities that not only can one’s writing always improve, but there is also no such thing as a perfect work. However, once our grammar is polished, our story is set, and our characters have colorful voices of their own, we sometimes find ourselves taking unnecessary measures to make our writing sound “better.”

For example, an insecure/new/word-fiend writer could find many, many ways to say, “She picked up the book and ran her fingers over the rough cover.”

For instance:

“She gingerly snatched the book from its resting place to trace the familiar design of the hardback covering.”

Not so terrible, eh? Okay, well, how about this:

“The book found its way into her anxious palm, glistening under the glow of the corner of the lamp, and, with an insinuation of wonder and an insurmountable degree of zeal, she feigned to make contact with the work. Yes, her fingers traced that rough, abrasive surface as doting and forgotten memories from that very story seemed to swirl up her hand and misfortune her mind.”

Although that description may have afforded a few new vocabulary words to the reader, it likely confused him/her, too. Writers love words. It’s why we write; it’s what we do! Language is our craft, and the pen is our tool. Even Scripture warns of the great power our words can wield:

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6 NIV.)

No pressure, right?

As Christians and as writers, especially as Christian Writers, we have a responsibility to communicate responsibly. We ought not say things we do not mean, exaggerate on purpose, or deceive our audiences. While excessively descriptive passages are obviously not as serious as cursing someone with our mouth, it falls under the same principle: don’t say things you don’t mean. Going back to the girl in our example, after reading each one, it seems fairly certain that the clearest example was the first: “She picked up the book and ran her fingers over the rough cover.” With every ensuing description, I veered farther and farther away from my intended message. All those elaborate and continuous commas eventually distracted from what I really wanted to communicate. Although words are a vast and glorious gift which can always be explored and experimented with, they are just as capable of destruction as illumination. In the words of My Fair Lady,

“Sing me no song, read me no rhyme
Don’t waste my time, show me
Please don’t implore, beg on the seats
Don’t make all the speech, show me.”

Treat your audience like the worthy readers they are by showing rather than telling. It’s an old adage for a reason: it stills holds up. Dear Wordy Writer, put your words where they matter. Don’t over frillify an already pretty thing. More often than not, a few cleverly placed words are far more memorable than a copious number of SAT vocabulary words. For even more goodness on this topic, check out our “Avoiding Wordiness” video on YouTube! (End plug.)

Written by Karoline

Image credit

The Web of Emotions

<p class=”Introduction”> I recently learned the programming language of HTML. A lot of nerds (hi- I’m one of you) will recognize this as the barebones language internet browsers will read when deciding what to show for a website. Everything is enclosed in “tags” which appear in angled brackets like <this>. Plain text has a tag. Images have tags. Tags have tags. The computer reads these tags so It knows what it’s doing with the next set of information, until it finds a new tag, or a closing tag. </p>

<h2>I wish life had tags.</h2>

<p class=”body1”> Imagine knowing exactly when you need to listen in because a conversation has a tag to tell you it’s getting interesting. It’d probably look something like <strong> to emphasize the important stuff before the closing </strong> when the subject turns to something far less interesting. Students could use this to know when a professor’s going to put a piece of information on an exam! Don’t want to see a horrifying image your younger/older sibling sent? Just read the tag beforehand and it warns you so you don’t burn your eyes to oblivion.</p>

<p class=”body2”> Of course, I sometimes forget that there actually are tags for everyone. They’re called “emotions.” They’re scary stuff for a lot of us to have, but hear me out. At their core, like any other HTML tag, emotions aren’t bad. They tell us something about ourselves. When I get angry because someone interrupts me, I know that the anger “tag” is telling me I like my opinion to be important to people, and when they interrupt me, I feel like they’re ignoring me. When I get sad because I don’t have coffee in the morning, that tag tells me I really like coffee.</p>

<p class=”body3”> So… if these tags are helpful, why don’t emotions help us? I’m glad you asked, because I seriously don’t know half the time. Continuing with our computer-nerd metaphor, if we’re reading tags to understand stuff, we also need to display it correctly on the metaphorical computer monitor- or, for humans, our behaviors. This means we, first, need to read the tag correctly. If I try to eat chocolate-covered espresso beans every time I’m sad, I’ll hurt myself further with my caffeine-driven run around the planet. Obviously, that tag isn’t being read correctly, because my behaviors in that case are harmful. Although, I’m still contesting that point because, come on– chocolate-covered espresso beans. </p>

<p class=”importantsetup”> Remember how I said HTML is basically the barebonse baseline of webpages? Well, there are a few more languages that can be used to spice up the internet a bit more. These include, but are not limited to, the following random acronyms: CSS, PhP, JavaScript, and JQuery, to list a few. These help refine and redefine sections of information so the computer can use and display them in a more appealing, proper manner fitting that of a well-built website. </p>

<p class=”spiritualknowledge”> God is a lot like these other computer languages. He can make us into something far better, and He can give our tags new meaning. He can even make things move dynamically (that’d be the JavaScript and JQuery working together)! But there’s one key component that HTML needs to have for these other languages to come in and improve everything. For each language, the HTML must be linked to that language and its corresponding file in order to enjoy the new functions. We can’t continue our HTML life and expect anything new if we don’t continually reconnect with God and constantly allow Him to redefine our body, paragraph, and section tags. We can’t expect our HTML emotions to help if we don’t turn to God for instructions on how to handle the information inside those tags.

But I still like chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Special guest writer: Isaac

Image credit: Isaac Miller

How to Survive College According to Hamilton

Fans of the musical Hamilton will assure anyone that the lessons one can glean from the show are infinite in number. There is a reason people are obsessed with a hip-hop musical about the first U.S. Treasury Secretary; it resonates with the average American. With its themes of perseverance, writing, and self-discovery, Hamilton is also incredibly relatable for students struggling to survive (and thrive) in the college season of life. Here are a few wisdom-filled lines from the musical that may help new college students—Hamilton fans or not—stay alive and get the job done.

You really do write like you’re running out of time. –Eliza Hamilton in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

College is full of writing assignments. It doesn’t seem to matter how well you avoid procrastination; you will always end up writing at least one essay like a total madman at an unnatural hour of the morning at some point in your career. If you’re aware that such an experience is coming (usually near the close of a semester) you can be ready with multiple shots of espresso the day after.

Take a break! –Angelica Schuyler and Eliza Hamilton in “Take a Break”

You must take breaks. Sometimes this means a Sunday afternoon binge watching The Office, and sometimes it just means a power nap between classes. Whenever and however you squeeze breaks into your schedule does not matter. What matters is that you do not turn into Alexander Hamilton, who wrote 51 (loooong) essays in under 7 months but neglected his family relationships and friendships in the process.

Remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you – George Washington in “History has its Eyes on You”

Alexander Hamilton wouldn’t have been much older than me and you when this scene took place. True, few college students will lead revolutionary troops into battle, but it’s critical to realize that in many ways history does have its eyes on you. Universities are platforms for cultural innovation: politics, technology, music, language, and social norms. People are watching what you do. Let that inspire you to greatness, not scare you into mediocrity.

For once in your life take a stand with pride. –Alexander Hamilton to Aaron Burr in “Non-stop”

Even if you were the kid in high school who was shy about your hobbies and talents for fear of rejection and judgment, it’s okay; nobody on campus knows that. College is a fresh canvas waiting for your honest, artistic touch. Whoever you want to be, whatever you want to believe in, do it. In “Non-Stop,” the thing Burr is afraid to proudly endorse is the United States Constitution, and we all know how well that turned out. College is the place to grow into a better version of who you already are; don’t let fear dictate your life.

Look at where you are, look at where you started. –Eliza Hamilton in “That Would Be Enough”

Despite Hamilton’s public confidence, Eliza knows firsthand her husband’s insecurities about his past, and she consistently has to remind Alexander that he truly has accomplished much. You, too, will face this sort of doubt. One bad grade, one hurtful comment from a professor, or one internship rejection letter can taint an entire semester, if you allow it to. When you hit a low patch, find an Eliza in your life, someone who can remind you of how far you’ve come since high school graduation and highlight your vast potential.

Do not throw away your shot. –Alexander Hamilton in “Stay Alive”

Arguably, this is the main theme of Hamilton, and this line could have been picked from any number of songs. What is great about this particular usage of the line is that after preaching this sermon to himself, Hamilton encourages his friend John Laurens not to waste his own opportunity to impact the world. While you’re in college, reach for your dreams. Try something new. Take every opportunity to become a better person. And while you’re at it, encourage your roommates, classmates, and friends to do the same thing!

Pick up a pen, start writing! –President Washington in “One Last Time”

“Pick up your device, start typing” would be a fair modern equivalent of this line. In the song, President Washington is trying to orate his farewell address to Hamilton who, instead of taking notes from his Commander in Chief, is arguing about why Washington should not step down from office. This is not how you want your college experience to be. In no other stage of life will you encounter such a treasure trove of intellectual wealth; do not throw away your shot to partake of the wisdom. Take notes everywhere, not just in class. Go to free conferences and seminars held on-campus, grab lunch with a professor or advisor, and when you learn something moving or useful, pick up a pen (or your iPhone) and save it for later.

Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room? Soon that attitude may be your doom! –Aaron Burr in “Non-Stop”

My friend, you have much to learn about life, about education, and about yourself. Start college with a learner’s attitude, and you will graduate into the real world with a learner’s posture that will take you more places than you could ever imagine. Be confident in your abilities, but don’t assume that any amount of skill or knowledge that you have is enough. Stay hungry for wisdom and be humble in all that you do.

The fact that you’re alive is a miracle. Just stay alive, that would be enough. –Eliza Hamilton in “Non-Stop”

Tell yourself this during finals week. Plaster it on your Pinterest inspired bulletin board. Get a sharpie, and write it on your favorite mug. Sticky Note it to your bathroom mirror. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself that if you survived this long, you can survive to the end.

Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Who, who is this kid, what’s he gonna do? –John Laurens, Marquis Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan in “Aaron Burr, Sir”

People are going to ask you this, just with a lot less pizazz than the Hamilton cast. The first few weeks of school are especially full of questions, club and social invitations, and a whole lot of names you may or may not remember. Soak it all in, but make sure you filter it out. Hamilton came to America with a huge list of potential friends, careers, and legacies. He couldn’t say yes to everything or become everyone, and the same is true for you. Know who you want to become, but also be sure of who you already are.

And then you’ll blow us all away! –Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in “Dear Theodosia”

College can be one of life’s trickiest phases, but it’s one of life’s greatest (and briefest) stages as well. Enjoy the next few years for all that they are worth. Whatever choices you make, make them with excellence and you really will blow us all away.

Written by Savanna

Image credit