Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Outlining: A Necessary Evil

So you have your assignment sheet. You sit down in front of your laptop with a cup of coffee and a bag of cheetos (the lunch of champions) and begin to write. Suddenly you realize it’s three hours later, your caffeine buzz has passed, your cheetos are gone, and all you have on the page are a few scrawled, disjointed sentences. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

The two most common problems I see walk into the writing center are lack of organization and simply not knowing where to start! Both of these problems can almost always be solved by outlining.

I know...ewww, right?

Most of us think of outlines as that stupid step we had to complete in third grade when we were all a bit too distracted to stay on topic. (Shiny?!) Outlining has been pushed aside as unnecessary and tedious, but I have come to realize in working with my students and peers that it is often THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP of the compositional process.

Think of it this way (which your elementary teacher may have once mentioned to you, as well):
Everything needs a base on which to build.
A house needs a foundation, otherwise it will be unstable.  
A bridge needs keystone or it will collapse.
A grilled cheese needs bread, otherwise you’ll burn your tongue licking melted cheese out of a hot pan.
AND an essay needs a frame on which to be built, which is an outline!

An outline provides organization and structure to your thoughts, and can often helped the “blocked” writer get their ideas out of their head and onto the paper. So how do you begin? Outlining is kind of a personal process, but there are a few options we can explore to help you get started.

In some cases, you may already have a thesis, or the idea you are trying to argue or prove. Start with that thought and begin compiling points to support it.  These ideas will most likely be general items which continue your investigation of the main topic. The most important thing at this point is to list different ideas you would like to explore about your main idea. For example:

Main Idea: Pasta is the best food.
Support point 1: Pasta is popular.
Support Point 2: Pasta is a staple in many cultures.
Support Point 3: Pasta is nutritional.

Do not worry if these points are “in order.” As you begin to find support, you can find a way to naturally progress through your ideas and organize them in the most logical order.

If you have no idea what your main idea/thesis will be, or if your paper is more exploratory than argumentative, just start writing down some ideas. If you have read some sources start there and write about parts that struck you, ideas you found interesting, or places you had questions about. Often just getting your ideas out on the page will help you see a common theme that will become the overarching topic of your paper. One of our tutors suggests writing important passages or points on note cards and separating them by theme into piles. If you have all your notes on one page, go through and highlight similar ideas in different colors. Don’t be afraid to try different methods of organization--there are many paths to an outline.

If you cannot wait to start writing, just start writing. Once you have these rough draft paragraphs out, take a moment and read through them.  Try to determine your main idea, and then arrange the paragraphs so that they logically flow from one idea to another, essentially creating an outline with your paragraphs. (Don’t worry about the flow too much at this point. You can always refine, add details and transitions later in the drafting process).

Once you have the framework of the paper you can begin finding support for each point you have made. Find sources or even specific quotes that back up the topic of that paragraph and the main idea of the paper as a whole. To expand upon our original outline:

Main Idea: Pasta is the best food.
Support point 1: Pasta is popular.
-Oxfam reported statistics listing pasta as the favorite food across several different countries.
(Sedghi, Amy. (22 July 2011). What’s your Favorite Food? The Guardian,

Support Point 2: Pasta is a staple in many cultures.
-Italian culture, Asian culture, even Western Culture (German Spaetzle)...

Support Point 3: Pasta is nutritional.
-Low Fat
-Carbs are part of a balanced diet according to FDA food pyramid
-Certain brands of pasta adding nutrients and fiber to recipe

**Notice that each bullet point listed supports the paragraph topic, and also helps to prove my main argument.

Now you can work to expand and refine your organized ideas into a fully formed essay!

Hopefully the task of writing your paper (or at least organizing your paper) seems a little less daunting now. Remember: Writing is a process, and organization is key to constructing a strong paper. No matter which method you choose to use, or if you find another way that works better for you, outlining, in all its forms, sets you up for success.

-Hillary E.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Four Word Misuses That Are Ruining Your Essays

Whether it’s due to an impending deadline or a simple misunderstanding, students, and writers at large, are guilty of misusing words in their papers. Revealing that you don’t understand a word can significantly cut down on your reliability and credibility. While we can’t cover every word you’ll ever write, here are the Writing Center’s five most commonly misused words that you won’t have to worry about anymore.

Distinguishing between these two words has been a plague to students since their first five-paragraph essay. This mistake can result from a simple misspelling or a misunderstanding. Here’s a simple breakdown of the difference between affect and effect.
Affect: This is a verb and represents an action.
Correct Use: Earthquake victims are affected by the lack of aid.
Effect: This is a noun and represent the result of an action .
Correct Use: The effect of the hurricane was mass destruction.

There is very little difference between these two words. They are basically synonyms except for the difference in where the feeling originates.
Perturb: An internal disquiet that comes from within a person (i.e. the person’s own thoughts and perceptions) without any external cause.
Correct Use: Jenni was pondering the idea of cold-blooded murder which perturbed her.
Disturb: An internal disquiet inside a person that is a reaction to an external source.
Correct Use: Jenni watched a horror movie last night and she was deeply disturbed.


This word relationship is exactly like that of perturbed and disturbed. The difference is in the origin.
Provocative: This is something that creates a physical, external reaction (facial expression, speech, or action).
Correct Use: The provocative theatre performance caused many in the audience to cry and applaud.
Evocative: This is something that causes emotions or images within a person.
Correct Use: The evocative writing in Grapes of Wrath illustrates the lost hope of the American dream.

Amount/ Number

This distinction is also very slim and, in all honesty, is probably an error that is not taken too seriously. However, you can use this trick if you don’t want to take the chance.
Amount: This word is used for quantities that are measured as a whole, as one group.
Correct Use: The amount of plagiary in Elliot’s paper was inexcusable.
Note: Elliot committed multiple acts of plagiarism. However, all those acts are grouped together in one large act of plagiary in this paper.
Number:  This word is used for items that can be counted individually even though they are in a group.
Correct Use: The number of people in the elevator increased during the lunch hour.
Note: Each person in the elevator is representative an individual. These people are not being morphed into one huge person in the elevator, therefore, they retain their individuality with the use of the word “number,” which implies that you can count the individual bodies.

-Talea Hughes

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

RU Writing Center Special Edition: MYTH-BUSTERS, Part 1

Welcome to the (first!) Myth-Busters edition of the RUWriting Blog where we will take on common ideas and misconceptions about the Writing Center and either CONFIRM  or BUST them!

Our first myth:
“The writing center is only for students who don’t know how to write. If I’m a good writer, I won’t get anything out of a session”
Finding: BUSTED
Explanation: The writing center is for everyone! The staff here works hard to cater to the needs of each specific student, so whether you feel like you can’t string a sentence together or like prose falls from your pen with the ease of a dolphin swimming, we can help you to become the best writer you can be. Whatever stage you are in (brainstorming, outline, first or final draft) we do our best to help you work towards consistency and a high level of quality in your writing. We can help with any concern you may have from outlines to quote sandwiches (It’s tastier than you think!) Coming in to the writing Center doesn’t mean you do not know how to write. Coming here means you are striving to be a better writer.

Myth #2:
“Using the writing center is cheating, because the tutors will write the paper for you.”
Finding: BUSTED
Explanation: The tutors here will not write the paper for you. (Sorry to those of you who just got really excited). We are trained to help you find your voice in your writing. While teachers may scribble over your paper in red ink, we do our best to focus on larger issues we believe will help the student in the long run. We prefer to sit and talk to you about your writing, the topic of your assignment and about the ideas you are trying to articulate in your paper. You’ll probably hear the phrase, “WRITE THAT DOWN!” more than one time in a session, and that is because we want you to compose clearly in YOUR OWN VOICE, not ours. We find that letting students take ownership of their writing, even as simple as writing down corrections or additions, allows them a better understanding for future pieces than merely “correcting” a paper for them. All of the writing is yours, we just try to bring it out of you.

Myth #3:
“We cannot guarantee you an A on your paper”
Explanation: We never guarantee a grade for a paper we have worked on, because, quite honestly, that’s not our goal. We want to help you become the writer YOU want to be. Your goal may be to become an “A” writer or it may just be to understand how to write an outline. Regardless, these things take time, and a lot of it depends on the student. As we stated before, we cater our sessions to the writer and try to focus on what we see as a few overarching topics we can work on for that piece. If the student continues to come in, for that piece or another, we can continue to refine the work as the student progresses. Writing, like most things, is a skill that relies on progress. If you want to put the work in, most likely, you will reach your goal, and we will very happily help you each step of the way.

-Hillary E.