Tips From A Veteran Writing Fellow
Betsy Ladyzhets (Alma Bwogger and Writing Fellow) believes that anyone can master the process of writing academic papers.
The Barnard Writing Fellows are a group of students specially trained to work with their peers on academic writing and revision through leading conversations called “writing conferences.” While all Barnard students are welcome to work with Writing Fellows through attached classes and at the Writing Center (located on the second floor of Barnard Hall), due to high demand, Columbia students can only use this resource if they are taking a Barnard class. But everyone can read Bwog! So, in this post, I’m sharing some successful writing and revision strategies I’ve encouraged students to use in my past three years as a Writing Fellow.
- Start with a free write. A free write is an exercise in which you get out a blank piece of paper and write for a short amount of time (say, five minutes) without stopping. You can start with your professor’s prompt or a related question, or just start with a broad topic. If you want to be really hardcore, don’t let yourself start writing; if you get stuck, just write “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know” or some other filler until you have something to say again. This technique helps to get your initial thoughts out on paper and narrow down your specific focus for your paper.
- Pose questions for yourself. Sure, your professor gave you a prompt. But that prompt is for the entire class; it’s not directly addressing your topic, or your text, or your thesis. Come up with a set of specific questions that will guide your research or your textual analysis. Setting questions rather than confining yourself to a thesis too early in the writing process allows you to explore your source material rather than forcing all your evidence to fit into a predetermined argument.
- Try different techniques for planning your paper. Are you an outline person? An idea map person? A zero-draft person? Everyone plans writing assignments differently, and it’s likely that the formulaic outlines you were told to use in high school are now holding you back rather than actually helping you organize your thoughts. You might Google different outline diagrams, draw your plan out on a whiteboard, record yourself talking about it, or try any number of other strategies until you find one that really works for you. Just make sure that, whatever you do, you leave room to add more evidence as you continue your research or analysis.
- Talk through your essay plan with someone else. Getting dinner with a friend? Walking to class? Waiting for a sign-in in the EC lobby? Take five minutes and talk through what you intend to argue in your paper and how you intend to support your argument. Explaining your plan without looking at your notes or relying on sources will help you clarify it for yourself. And, chances are, if there are flaws in your logic or ideas you aren’t considering, questions from your friend will help you spot them.
- “Yes-and” your sources. When you write (especially if you’re doing a literature review), don’t just summarize another writer’s argument. Summarize it, and then link it back to your own argument. Make sure each idea you’re quoting connects to the broader picture of your paper. Ask yourself, “How am I building on this? What am I adding to this conversation?”
- Sleep on it if you get stuck. Or, if it’s 2 am and the paper is due at 10, get up and take a walk around the building. Not even the best writers can get a whole essay out in one go. You know more than you think you do, and your muse will return — just give her a break. (And if you really need a boost after your rest, try one of the strategies I suggested earlier: free write or talk to a friend.)
- Remember that your thesis can be flexible. I often don’t figure out my main argument until I’ve already written a draft — I write a sentence summarizing my argument in my conclusion, and then I go, oh wait. And that’s fine! Finding your thesis later in the writing process means your argument is actually reflecting your analysis, and you can always revise a few topic sentences and transitions to make everything flow.
- Reverse outline your draft. Reverse outlining might sound like going backward, but it’s actually a key technique to ensuring that the logic of your paper is clear. Go through your draft and write down the main idea of each paragraph and how it connects to your (newly revised?) thesis. This technique helps you get your full draft summarized in one or two pages; looking at this summary, you can more easily identify which paragraphs need to be rearranged, which need to be extended, and which need to be (sadly) cut. I personally have reversed everything from strongly worded emails to fanfiction — the technique really works wonders.
- Find a naive reader. Give your draft to a friend who isn’t in your class or your major. Send your literature paper to your CS friend, or your econ paper to your biology friend, or your physics paper to your sociology friend. A reader who isn’t familiar with your discipline will test the underlying logic of your argument; they will tell you where your paper is confusing and ask simple questions that you never considered.
- Print out your draft. Read it over in hard copy, then make changes on the computer. Sometimes the physicality of a draft in front of you makes certain points, sentence structure, ideas, etc. stand out more. Think of your paper as just an article that you want to understand like a reading for a class; it’s harder to let your eyes glaze over when it’s physically in front of you.
- Read your final draft aloud. There’s a big difference between how writing looks on the page and how it sounds out loud. Reading your draft out will slow your argument down and help you catch errors in your grammar and syntax. (Do you know how annoying it is to read a super-long run-on sentence? Yeah. You might want to cut that in half.) If you don’t have time to read the whole paper aloud before it’s due, just read the first sentence of every paragraph; this will help you check the paper’s organization.
- Have confidence! You know more than you think you do! That’s the beauty of writing — it helps get those ideas buried in your subconsciousness out onto the page, and demonstrates to your professor that yes, you were paying attention, yes, you care about this topic, and yes, you can communicate your ideas in a clear, logical way. You’ve got this.
Thank you to Ella Bartlett, my friend and fellow Writing Fellow, who contributed a couple of strategies to this post.
Photo via the Writing Fellows Instagram