Category: Writing

How to Choose the Best Music for Writing

Koalas music comic

Writing is hard. We all have different processes on how we do it. It’s almost impossible for me to write in silence (but maybe you do). In order to begin the process of writing, I like to choose a good playlist. There are tons of free ways we can access music, and personally I like using Spotify. The cartoon above illustrates the importance of finding the right playlist or music station. Likewise, I have to pick the right sound for the kind of writing mood that I’m in.

There are some pitfalls to listening to music while writing. For example, I occasionally chose a station that includes some of my favorite artists. It’s important to avoid these Spotify playlists because it furthers procrastination as I get caught up in the melodies, rather than focusing on writing. I sometimes pick a playlist with a sluggish beat and it negatively affects my writing pace. If I’m trying to make myself excited for a writing assignment, I frequently choose a loud, upbeat Spotify station.

However, what works for me won’t work for everyone. And what works for me today may not work for me tomorrow. Sometimes I need to try out a couple of stations before I find something that’s just right. The space that we place ourselves in is very important, and sound is a vital spatial element. Sound influences us in ways that we may not recognize, but I think that we can all agree that music plays a major role in how we think and feel. I need an enjoyable sonic space so that I can produce a piece of writing that I’m proud of. I consider music a tool to use during the writing process, as it is something that inspires and helps me make meaning.

Writing Music Recommendations: Andrew Bird’s Useless Creatures

I first heard this album in a terrarium store in Portland, OR, the kind with overpriced airplants and ephemeral glass ornament-like bulbs meant to hang from the ceiling with no holiday in sight. Probably a one-word store name like “Stone” or “Amour,” though I don’t remember it now. Lovely store, anyhow. Multicolored rocks, feathers, little clay mushrooms and beautiful, vibrating violin coming from the boombox. (Yep, boombox.) I asked the store clerk what the album playing was. “Andrew Bird,” he said, as though I should’ve already known. I didn’t recognize the sharp, vibrating violin as him, since his easily identifiable voice is completely missing from this entire album, beyond a few lyric-less lines of whistling. I usually love lyrics, but for distraction-less writing, this album is absolutely perfect.

The Construction of Identity in Digital Consultations

Something to consider in online writing consultations is your process of identity construction, the power relations these identities rely on/reify/endorse and how this all affects the goal of peer revision, collaborative meaning-making and the writing center consultation.

When we engage in online writing consultations via Twiddla and discuss writing with a student by chatting and engaging the text (without audio or video) we are engaging writing through writing, as opposed to in-person consultations that sometimes involve very little actual writing. The creation of a writing space through online, real-time, digital communication is affected by similar pressures that exist in parallel online, constructed environments—like social media, blogging platforms and discussion boards. One such guiding pressure in this writing space is the construction of identity through written text. In an online setting as a writing center tutor, you are expected to endorse an attitude of peer revision and collaborative meaning-making, while also constructing an identity to engage with another peer in revision. Engaging in collaborative meaning-making requires people, and so both (sometimes more) people in the online writing center consultation are engaged in revision and are constructing their identities simultaneously, all through text.

This could be said of an in-person consultation too. I would argue that in person, though, we rely on bodily cues to signify identity. We rely on physical interactions and performative indicators to relate to each other as bodies and people. Considering the dynamics of identity construction in a virtual space can open up possibilities of change and awareness in the online consultation setting. What identity are you presenting/creating/relying on? Is your process active or assumed? What identity are you inferring about the “student” or “client” or “peer” you are working with and does that affect how you work with them?

So You Think You Might Want to Participate in NaNoWriMo (And You’re Scared)

I have participated in National Novel Writing Month (affectionately called NaNo) since 2007, a memorable year in which I distracted myself from my horrifically soul-sucking job by ignoring my duties and writing a cheesy romance novel. It was messy and poorly planned (I believe I may have started late that year), but it was also the first time I’d really tried to write a long story. The experience was stressful and terrifying and incredible.

nanowrimo_logoNaNo is a sort of lurking beast in my life—it’s always somewhere in my mind throughout the year—but it’s a beast I’ve fallen in love with. The best thing about NaNo is that it is all about process and journey. We operate in a world where there is an emphasis on product that can be borderline paralyzing. This mentality is actually the biggest reason I see people drop out of or talk themselves out of participating in NaNo.

The thing about NaNo is that while it is goal-oriented (word count), there isn’t anyone waiting at “the finish line.” You can’t really get it wrong. The purpose of NaNo is to get people writing—to create productivity, to encourage creativity, to push people out of comfort zones, and to foster positive feelings. I can’t stress that enough. NaNo is meant to make us feel good! We’ve tried something new. We’ve pushed past our comfort zones. We’ve been creative. Yay!

That right there, new friend, is all you need. Sure, it’s immensely gratifying to make it to that 50k words. But honestly, the NaNo that really feels like my greatest achievement was 2008, when I wrote 2000 words. Total. Because I had a one-month-old baby and sleep was a distant dream. But damn. I wrote 2000 words of a story I hadn’t planned with a one-month-old baby. That has win all over it.

In sum, you can do it. What it is can be totally up to you. What I love most about NaNo is the camaraderie. Friendships made, creativity spurred, and that feeling of “Wow, I didn’t think I had that in me.” Are you sort of on the fence? Come find me. I’ll convince you, and no matter where your journey goes, I’ll cheerlead the crap out of your journey, because it is all always valuable.

My NaNo success tips (tailor or ignore these at will):

Find an accountability buddy: Whether this is online or in person. Having someone to talk to, to motivate you, to keep you accountable to your personal goals has been so vital to my success every year.

Work in writing sprints: I do these with my buddy. We sit down—online, we aren’t in the same place— and either set a small word goal or a time limit (something totally manageable, like 20-45 minutes). We don’t talk or allow ourselves to do anything else. It’s just time to write. I find it super effective.

Set manageable goals: What time do you write best? How can you utilize your time? Are you goal- or deadline-oriented or not? I personally love making a spreadsheet. I have a daily word goal (1667 words per day for 30 days=win). My spreadsheet includes my total words as I go and also tells me how far ahead or behind I am. This is good because then I can plan for days when I won’t be writing, but can also allot time in the days ahead to catch up.

Be forgiving: Do not allow this to become a time or exercise where you beat yourself up. I cannot stress enough that this is supposed to be fun! Give yourself rewards! Celebrate your success on social media. Buy yourself chocolate. 

Interested in signing up or checking things out? Check out their website. There are a ton of resources there, including information on meetings and write-a-thons in your area. There are discussion boards for almost everything, including research help and genre specific information. And you can find buddies. Buddies are good!

Here’s Why I Should Sign Up for NaNoWriMo

Every year I’m intrigued by the event that is NaNoWriMo. And every year I fail to sign up. Me. The aspiring writer can’t manage to participate in NaNo. Why you might ask? Well let me tell you. I’m busy. It’s as simple as that. I get busy, time flies by and before I know it I forgot to sign up and I’m saying “That’s okay, I’ll just do it next year.” Which is always the biggest lie I tell myself. I have yet to sign up and I doubt that this year will be much different. But even though I have three jobs, am a full time student graduating in May, and running a club on campus, here’s why I should sign up, and here’s why ANYONE with a busy schedule should sign up:

  • It gives you goals and goals are good. I know that I work really well when I have an ultimate goal. NaNo lets you set your own goals and it helps you reach them in a realistic setting.
  • You have a great support system. There are HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of people (okay maybe not that many, but still a lot) working on their writing that would love to help you and encourage you along the way.
  • You will have a finished-ish product. I’m not saying it will be perfect, but it will be finished none the less. And then all of the cliché blood, sweat, and tears that you poured into that manuscript will have been worth it (or so I’m told).
  • It’s FUN. It really is fun. Because you get a break from homework and school and can just write. So instead of watching Netflix for three hours at night maybe you choose to write 5,000 words instead. Or maybe 100 if you’re like me and need more “realistic” goals.

Whatever your reasoning, or whatever your desire, NaNo is a great opportunity. Maybe I’ll even do it this year (she said as she winked). I know I’ll be telling all of my Creative Writing kiddos to join! Plus, if you want to do NaNo and you join Creative Writing Club, I’ll give you time to write. BONUS. You were coming to the meeting anyway, and now I’m giving you a chance to write, and I’ll tell you lots of encouraging things as you write your little heart out!

The Final Tale: Preparing for End of Life Writing

Working with someone on end of life writing can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have.  Giving voice to a person’s history and stories can be a long process, with an end  product being a very moving accomplishment, both for your client as well as yourself.  However, end of life writing can also be one of the most emotionally draining experiences of your life.  To that end, here are some things to think about when meeting with your client, and moving forward with producing a final product.

  1. Aging happens to us all, and depending on the family’s situation, many of your clients may be in a retirement or assisted living facility.  This is not always where they would like to be.  Be prepared to hear about ungrateful children, and hating the staff of where they’re living.  Simply because it is not home.For many of this generation, they built their homes with their own two hands, and spent 50+ years living in their own personal heaven.  To suddenly lose not only their independence, but these homes filled with years of memories, triumphs and tears, can be overwhelming.  Just listen quietly, and let them vent.  When they’re done, you can easily turn the conversation into a trip down memory lane, asking them about some of those stories.
  2. Listen. Just listen. So many of your clients just want someone to hear them.  Whether their family lives too far away to visit, or there is simply no one left alive, all they want is someone to listen.  At times, some of their family may find it too hard to listen to the memories they so desperately want to share.  Other times, they have heard them so much that these stories have lost their shine, and they don’t have as much emotional attachment to them.So instead, you enjoy them.  Stay engaged and bright, and realize you are in a unique position to be a first time listener who will chronicle these stories long after they are gone.  Some will be funny, others extremely personal, and some may have you crying along with your client.  Don’t be afraid to share these emotions with them – it shows that someone cares what they have to say.
  3. Survivor’s guilt.  So many of this generation have been through wars and battles the likes of which we cannot fathom.  Your client survived all of this and came home.  So many of their friends, brothers, and sisters didn’t.  While this guilt at being alive can be prevalent at any age, for those in their twilight years they are all the more powerful.  Preferring to live through memories, your client will be reliving both the joys and sorrows of those who are no longer alive.Easily, you may be one of the only people that your client has ever told about a particular battle.  The first time I heard about a battle during the Korean War, from an 8 time Purple Heart recipient, I honestly couldn’t process it.  Both listening to the pain in his voice, and hearing about the horror of watching his platoon fall, to this day there are pieces I will always remember with crystal clarity.  Hollywood will never be able to recreate it.  Honor their memories, and offer support.  Whether this is through voicing your pain at their loss, or simply a quiet reflection, whatever you are comfortable with try to be a pillar of strength for them.Survivor’s guilt is not only found among the veterans.  It can be found in anyone who has outlived family members.  One man, aged 93, was so proud that he had been working his farm up until 3 months prior.  Listening to his stories, he had survived falling off the barn roof, getting kicked in the head by a bull, being gored by that same bull, and getting his arm caught in a thrasher and being thrown 20 feet.  Laughing, his smile dimmed as he began to speak about his family members.  An identical twin brother who had always been so cautious, dying in his 70’s from a heart attack.  A younger brother who died from cancer.  The baby sister who simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up.  He ended by saying he didn’t understand why he was still alive.  The only thing I could think to reply, “So you can tell the rest of your family their stories.”

    He gave a pained smile, and said most of his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-nieces/nephews were more interested in their phones than listening to his stories.  They didn’t understand even the concept of a farm.  Quiet for a moment, I just smiled and said “Well I’m interested.  And one day, when they’re older, I have a feeling they will be too.  So we’ll make sure they have them.”  Smiling wide, he patted me on the arm, and launched into another tale about the pranks he used to play on people with his twin brother’s help.  Which leads into the next point.

  4. You are the keeper of their tales, the ones who keep them from being forgotten.  You hold not only their memories, but the memories they entrust to you of beloved relatives long gone.  As long as one person knows these stories, their lives mattered.  Someone cares that they once existed, and their lives have meaning.  To this end, you may also be asked to do some extra things.  By no means feel obligated, and only do what you are comfortable with.But I have tracked down tiny, obscure cemeteries to take pictures of old family plots.  I have delivered flowers to a beloved family member’s grave, as their descendant could no longer travel to do so.  I tend to become extremely invested, so I don’t mind doing these things, within reason of course.  This isn’t the right way, it’s simply mine.  After a while, you’ll be able to find what works best for you, and what you are comfortable with as well.
  5. You do not have all the time in the world.  This isn’t something that can be pushed to a back burner for later.  While it’s true that terrible accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, your clients are much more likely to not always have a ‘later’.  Whether due to health or age, there are so many things that can happen.Someone who I had befriended at a retirement center over a pool table and lessons on how to bank a shot off two rails was one of the most delightful chaps I had ever met.  I kept in touch over the spring and summer, and always stopped to say hi and chat.  Then one week I came by and saw him on the couch.  Stopping by him, he couldn’t remember who I was.  He had difficulty with speech, and was frustrated as he knew he should know me.  I later learned he had a massive stroke.  The next week, he was no longer at the retirement center as he wound up with further complications.

We are all so busy, with our own lives and projects.  It can be a balancing act to find time to breathe, let alone put together a scrapbook, or an article for a navy ship.  But realize that your client may never see the finished product, if you take too long.  For some, that’s ok.  Always be upfront about your time constraints, and figure out something that works best.  Maybe that means bringing a video recorder, so that you have all of the materials to work on at your convenience.  Discuss and find what works best for you and your client.

For many, they are simply happy that someone took the time to care, and came to listen to their tales.

The Wonderful World of Writing Centers: An International Peer Tutoring Conference at Disney World

Just a month ago, I went to my fourthor is it my fifth now?Writing Center conference. But this one was a little different than ones past. This conference wasn’t just for writing centers in the state of Michigan or the Midwest region. This time, it was international. And instead of running from building to building trying to minimize my time in the cold, brisk, cloudy Midwest weather, I was in the sunny and breezy Orlando, Florida climate at none other than Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. And it was refreshing for body, mind, and soul.

The International Writing Center Association conference provided fascinating perspectives and unique presenting opportunities for Writing Center faculty and peer tutors from around the world. My coworkers and I held a panel about tutoring practices with English Language Learners and the research we’ve done here at MSU’s Writing Center to better understand ELL students’ educational experiences. While that was totally interesting and all, what was really special was presenting alongside a woman from Saudi Arabia, who started one of the first (and few) writing centers in her country just a couple years back with outstanding results. How humbling to be grouped together with someone from across the world, joined together by our shared goal and passion: making better writers.

It reminds me that the work we do here at The Writing Center at MSU is bigger than the 50-minute sessions and 3 cups of coffee a shift.

To connect with others through words is a global mission, a multicultural practice, and one that can unite tutors from around the world by their desire to help others. Maybe the act of writing comes in different languages, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It can transcend borders of nations and the borders between one mind and another.

Maybe the pixie dust just hasn’t worn off, but I’d say the work we doconsultants and clients in tandemreally is something magical.

Why It Helps to Work Collaboratively on Writing

Have you ever written something and gone over it CAREFULLY several times, print it out, start to hand it in and see a typo IN THE FIRST SENTENCE?

Yeah, me too.

Why is it so hard to proofread our own work, and even more importantly why is it so hard to not catch obvious gaps in logic, structure, organization, or flow? Well, our brains are very good at delegating less important stuff (details) and filling in the blanks as we try to process the more important stuff (main points). Our eyes and our brain adapt quickly and can trick us.

four circles with missing parts form an illusion of a square that isn't there
The Kaniza Square

This is why it helps when we are trying to compose material to communicate a message.  We may think our ideas are complete, but it helps to talk to someone else and see if we really communicating our ideas effectively.

This is where the Writing Center can help YOU!  We are not editors, we don’t  just “proofread” your paper to “fix it”– we DO talk with you, listen to you, and read your material with you to make sure that you are communicating what YOU want to say in a way that others can understand.  We can give you strategies to help you improve YOUR writing  process.

Watch this site for postings this semester in this blog about the writing process.  I hope we can offer you some helpful strategies.

Meanwhile, start the semester off right by coming in to the writing center (or the branch near you), get to know some of the staff, and make an appointment to go over your overall strategy for writing.

Tip #1

Assemble all of your syllabi for the semester- check to see what classes will require papers or projects.  Write the deadlines on a calendar and work backwards.
Allow time for-
1) Brainstorming ideas
2) Collecting resources – read about the topic as written by respected experts
3) Organizing ideas –  outline or draw charts to check idea flow
4) First draft
5) Writing refined version
6) Revision and proofreading
7) Revising it some more
8) Putting it aside – re-read some of your sources
9) Re-reading what you have written
10) Making the final copy

We are here for you EACH step of the way. Make an appointment today.
If you want to read more about why we don’t see our own mistakes-

Why we can’t catch our own typos

Thoughts On My Complicated Relationship With Grammar

Earlier this week, my coworker Ezekiel wrote a post about the relationship between grammar and colonialism (for the record, I strongly recommend reading Ezekiel’s post, which is very well thought-out in addition to being very right). In my experience as a Writing Center consultant and in my other work, I have also had an immense amount of difficulty with the infamous grammar issue, and I thought I would take this time to weigh in on the issue, which is far too complicated to solve in a few blog posts. I wanted to discuss more of my personal feelings on the matter and my own experiences.

As a future English as a Foreign Language teacher, I have to know a lot about grammar. More than that, I kind of like learning about grammar. I think language is interesting, and I enjoy learning about systems of rules and how they function and change over time.

That being said, I hate our society’s relationship with grammar. As a culture, we seem to have picked one dialect and decided that it is better and more important than all of the other English dialects present. Every dialect follows its own set of internal rules, which are, frankly, completely arbitrary. The vast majority of the time, these differences don’t inhibit clarity, so why do they matter? Elevating one set of rules above all other sets of rules and saying that it is “correct” seems silly at best, harmful at worst.

Picking and choosing which modes of speech are “better” than others is called “prescriptivism”. It is the belief that one vernacular is better than others, and all other systems are “wrong”. In the United States, prescriptivists have selected one dialect, called “Standard American English”, and decided that it is the “best” English, labeling all other dialects, such as African American Vernacular English or Yeshivish, inferior (I can’t help but wonder why it is that this particular dialect is labeled “Standard”. It begs the question posed by Linda Christensen: Standard according to whom?). People who speak other dialects are often labeled as “uneducated”, even though they may have the same educational background as a person who speaks “Standard” English. One dialect is considered “better” than the others, and people who speak that dialect are, sadly, often considered “better” than people who don’t.

I really want to emphasize that grammar is arbitrary. Language changes over time, and different regions or groups develop different systems for speech. These systems are all governed by rules, and they all have internal logic. Again, though, they are arbitrary. As an example, in British English it is common to drop an article before the name of a location, saying, for instance, “I am going to hospital” instead of “I am going to the hospital”. This construction is “incorrect” in “Standard” American English, but “correct” in British English. There is nothing better or worse about the two dialects, as each follows its own logic, even though the rules are different across systems.

So, why, in the United States, do we elevate one vernacular over another? Well, unfortunately, the answer is often rooted in racism and classism. As my coworker Ezekiel recently discussed, prescriptivism has its roots in colonialism. People of different ethnic or socioeconomic groups often have specific dialects of English, including African American Vernacular English, Chicano English, New York Latino English, and Hawaiian Creole English, among others. Because “Standard” English is spoken by the educated, white, upper class, it is considered the “best” form of English. I believe that this is wrong, and it is harmful to anyone who isn’t already privileged by virtue of their race and wealth. As Americans, our relationship with grammar is one that allows for implicit bias, and, ultimately, oppression.

I have worked with a lot of students from a variety of different cultures and classes, and I have personally seen intelligent, hardworking, and diligent people be looked down upon as a result of their “poor” English. This kind of bias is not only emotionally hurtful, it is actually detrimental to people’s potential employment. As an example, because the ACTs are written in “Standard” English, students who may not be as proficient run the risk of getting a poor score, which might limit their college choices and scholarship options. Students who do not wish to attend college may experience difficulty getting a job if their resume is not written in “proper” English. Watching my students suffer these kinds of loss of opportunity is frustrating, sad, and deeply, deeply offensive to me.

All of that being said, I do still teach grammar to my students. I answer grammar questions honestly, and I am willing to help students alter language that does not conform to “Standard” rules. I may not think that some dialects are better than others, but future teachers and future employers might. I want to be sure that my students have the tools necessary to succeed in an environment that I don’t agree with. Working with students who are terrified that their English skills might cost them a job means constantly working to improve their “Standard” English proficiency, regardless of my personal opinions. I might feel icky about it, but not everyone believes that grammar as a system can be oppressive like I do.

Ultimately, I try to tell my students that their languages and dialects are valid; there is nothing wrong with the non-standard vernaculars that many students use. However, learning the rules of “Standard” English can help them succeed, and I want success for them. I hope that some day we, as a culture, will become more accepting of different dialects, but, until then, I teach students the rules even while I teach them why it’s wrong that they have to learn them.

Starting a Sentence With Because

I’m going to be honest with you, there are some grammar rules that I really don’t care about. Actually, there’s a lot of them. Really, most of them. That being said, sometimes it’s important to know and follow the rules, because other people care about them no matter how silly they are.

And so, today, we are going to examine one of the sillier rules of grammar: whether you can or cannot start a sentence with “because”. A lot of people will say that you can’t start a sentence with “because” and be using “proper” grammar. While it is true that starting a sentence with “because” is usually “incorrect”, it’s only because it results in an incomplete sentence. Thus, sometimes you can start a sentence with “because” and still be in the clear. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

“Because” is a subordinating conjunction. A subordinating conjunction is a word that joins two clauses, one of which is independent and one of which is dependent. I know that’s a lot of jargon, but basically what we’re looking at is this: we have a sentence with two parts, and “because” joins them together. The two parts have to be in the same sentence for the use of “because” to be “correct”. Otherwise, one of the clauses becomes a sentence fragment, which is a problem.

The reason you can’t usually start a sentence with “because” is because the sentence needs two parts for because to join together. Usually, “because” goes in between the two clauses, so if we start a sentence with “because” there is often only one clause in the sentence. Put simply, if “because” is in a sentence, the sentence needs two parts to be “correct”. Let’s look at an example.

We decided to go to the pool because it was hot outside.

The two clauses we are looking at are “We decided to go to the pool” and “it was hot outside”. “Because” links them together and makes them friends. Let’s look at what would happen if we were to split the sentence up into two.

We decided to go to the pool. Because it was hot outside.

Now that the two clauses are in different sentences, “because” can’t really join them together. The clauses can’t be friends and now they’re lonely, making the second sentence “incorrect.”

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Continue reading “Starting a Sentence With Because”