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The final battle had begun. Sir Alfred van Dingle and his trusty butler Doc Jeeves had tracked the evil vampire Lord Dracula to his castle in the Carpathian Mountains. The heroic duo stood atop the northern turret in the pelting rainstorm, face to face with their greatest foe.
“Sir, it says here that in order to slay the monster you must say his name backwards three times!” Jeeves said, arm protecting the ancient Tome of Eternal Evil from the rain.
“I must say, that is a strange method for slaying a vampire!” van Dingle shouted over the whipping wind.
“He is a strange vampire!”
Dracula stood at the other side of the turret, rain dripping down his bald head, flowing down his pointed ears. His glowing yellow eyes pierced into the souls of the two men. His lime green Lycra jumpsuit made them uncomfortable. He was making overtly threatening, yet confusing, gestures with his hand.
“Noted. Now let’s do this!”
Jeeves counted down from three, and the two men stumbled over their words. He counted down from three again, and van Dingle made the first attempt.
“Alucard!” he shouted.
“Aylwgard!” Jeeves followed.
“Wait what?” van Dingle asked as the vampire closed in. “Uh, Alucard Alucard!” The vampire lord screeched, as he exploded in a firestorm too powerful for the rain to put out before he slowly faded into ash which collected on the ground in wet clumps.
“You call him Dra…Dragwlya?” van Dingle asked.
“Well that is the original pronunciation sir. You call him Dracula?”
“I mean, yes, of course I do. I thought we were together on this.”
“Apparently not sir.”
“Well…in the future we need to be more consistent. I mean, someone has got to write the church about this.”
“Indeed sir, someone does have to write the church about this.”
“We need to appear professional.”
“Indeed sir, we do need to appear professional.”
And so, as the rainstorm slowly subsided, the two men descended the castle turret, having learned an important lesson about consistency in word choice, and also having killed Dracula.
History is a bad word. For many, history is viewed as being the story of white men and their victories and losses over other white men. Those who hold this view are not necessarily wrong, but they have been failed by some professor or instructor somewhere along the line; likewise, it can be hard for those not in this historically privileged group to identify with and see themselves in historical writing. So often the history that is produced is written by, and representative of, these privileged groups because for so long white males were the only group with the social and economic capital to “make” history and then to write about it. After all, history is, at its core, just a collection of stories and historians, at their core, are just storytellers. As storytellers, it is of the utmost importance that historians tell the entire story of society and society has never been comprised of simply privileged groups. Society is made up of diverse groups with diverse stories to be told and historians should take it upon themselves to write about it.
Diversity in historical research and writing has been a steadily growing presence since the 1960s. As social movements took hold and oppressed groups clawed their way out from the holes in which society had placed them, they began to write their stories. As they began to write and tell these stories, history was becoming something other than simply the story of powerful white men. Instead, it was being transformed into the story of entire societies, the groups that comprised them, and how they lived and interacted in various times and around various events. The importance of this movement toward a more inclusive telling of the past is that history was beginning to offer a true reflection of the diverse makeup of society, both past and present.
It seems to me that this is a problem of identification. It has always been easy for powerful groups to identify with history. History was created by these powerful groups to demonstrate their power and preserve their stories for future generations. This same principle, however, applies to the importance of writing the histories of less powerful and less privileged groups. Every group has a history. The social movements of the mid-nineteenth century did not come from nowhere. Oppressed groups did not suddenly appear during these social movements, but had spent years being oppressed by society. Generations full of stories waiting to be written down. When these stories are written and find their way into general society, it will show readers that there are historical actors and historical perspectives that they can identify with. It has always been easy for me, a white male, to read history and find myself in the pages. It should be that easy for everyone. Historical writing should be aimed at presenting readers with the full story of societies including the stories of those groups such as African-Americans, the working class, women, the LGTBQ community, and anyone whose stories were for so long deemed unworthy of being told.
So your professor assigned a paper and you have to have outside sources. You look up abstracts and wiki articles, maybe even go past the first page of Google results. However, you get your paper feedback and notice you have points off for sources and a note saying wiki isn’t a reliable source—what are you supposed to do now? Finding sources is three parts research and seven parts frustration. The good news? Southeast literally is paying people to help you, so here’s some places to look for next time:
Research Librarians: You know that person at the desk on the third floor of Kent library most people awkwardly avoid eye contact with on the way to the computer lab? They’re masters of research just waiting to help point students to solid sources for their work. This is a good option if you have a topic but no idea where to start looking or if you are having trouble finding exactly what you’re looking for in searches. The best part? They also have a chat option on Kent’s website under Research Help> Ask Us if you can’t make it in person or still want to avoid making eye contact with them.
Databases: Part of the money you pay Southeast goes to database subscriptions so you can explore such wonders as JSTOR and EBSCOhost. These databases are searchable online and have such glorious options as “Full Text” and “Peer Reviewed” limiters to make sure your results are actually available to read in full and are scholarly enough for your assignments. As you get more comfortable with the setup you can begin to explore hundreds of journals and publications at once. The absolute greatest thing about EBSCOhost? It cites its sources for you in pretty much whatever style you need. It’s right around 85% of the time, but that’s head-and-shoulders above other sites such as Easy Bib and Citation Machine.
Wikipedia…Kinda: I’m all for reading wiki articles to understand complex subjects (pro tip: try and set the language to Simple English, especially if the subject is loaded with terminology), but since too many people have access to the site and can modify the information, wiki isn’t a reliable source. However, you know what might be? The references at the bottom of the page! While clicking through the sources may show that information might be behind paywalls, remember to check the databases to see if you can access the information that way. Seeing the author names may also help your search; if Jimmy Crickett appears multiple times in the references and shows up under different searches about the topic, even if you can’t access the exact work mentioned, you can search his name through the databases or even Google to see if other topic-relevant work appears!
Research takes time and energy and you might not feel like you’re doing it right. Then again, if everyone was perfect at writing and research we tutors would be out of a job. The staff at the Writing Lab were in your shoes once too and have amassed a slew of tips and tricks that we’re willing to share. Sources and citation don’t have to be fun, but I think we’d all rather you come visit when you first start feeling stuck rather than an hour before the paper is due and you still can’t find anything (and that way you don’t have to run all the way back over to Kent to print. Again).
It was a dark and stormy Halloween night in Cape Girardeau. As the trick or treaters turned in and the adults hid in their homes, the city streets grew empty. A pale of silence enclosed the town, leaving only whispering wind and intermittent thunder, and parents everywhere were left with disappointed children dressed as monsters. So things were getting pretty bad out there. Still worse was the fact that a killer was stalking the streets, a terrible blight that everyone knew, but didn’t dare speak of.
Meanwhile, in the Center for Writing Excellence, graduate assistants Maggie, Austin, and Zach were spending the holiday in style. Which is to say, in the building, not in the rain, so things were going well. The hour was growing late, but not too late, because the Center closes at 8. They commented on submissions in silence, as the soft sound of rain smacking into the building lulled them into a mild hypnosis. Paper after paper piled up on the computers, but the office itself was dead.
“Why do you think no one’s coming in?” Austin asked.
“Probably the killer,” Zach replied.
“You mean the one that everyone knows but doesn’t dare speak of?”
“…yeah. That one.”
As the debate began to grow heated, Maggie stepped out of the office, and into the hallway, to avoid the inevitable migraines. As she walked back from the water fountain, she noticed a cloaked figure standing in the rain in front of the building’s door, and made a note of that before returning to the office.
“Hey guys,” Maggie began, but the sound of breaking glass finished her sentence. The employees stood up, ready to run, but before they could, the figure closed in.
“Oh no!” said Austin. “It’s the Tell-Not-Show Murderer!”
“It is me!” the Killer said. “I have stabbed you!”
“I have been stabbed,” said Austin.
The Killer went after the other two. They fought him. The cops showed up. The Killer ran away.
With the Killer gone, the police were able to handle the situation. As Austin was loaded into the ambulance, something besides the knife struck him about the night. The true meaning of Halloween is unrelenting terror, and by golly all of the telling instead of showing was enough to make him feel that. So remember, if you too want to instill a sense of genuine horror into whoever reads your paper, just gloss over the most interesting bits.
When running a marathon, runners start with a burst of speed but soon find a steady pace before slowing down again. It’s only towards the end when they amp the speed back up and go for a win. Their pacing determines whether they’ll finish the race, much less place well. Similarly, when writing, especially something you don’t particularly want to be doing, it’s important to pace your work. Racers and papers that start strong may lose momentum and unravel completely before reaching their natural finish, or may hold the same steady pace and become boring to readers. The best pacing is the one that engages readers from start to end, and it takes a careful push and pull of information to achieve.
Two main issues with pacing are front-loading and flat-lining. To front-load is to push all of your information or plot into the beginning of the piece and hoping the momentum will carry readers through. Imagine the opening to a Star Wars movie. There’s quite a bit of information, but it’s balanced out by an action scene that shows some main characters and two hours of plot. Now imagine if the editors had instead pushed the meeting of the characters together right after that scroll:
“Here’s Princess Leia of Alderaan, leader of the rebellion against Darth Vader and his dark master. Vader is on the ship to capture her but she has the plans to his base of operations and is sending them out to the rebellion, via C-3PO and R2-D2 who were built by Anakin Skywalker, but Luke Skywalker is also here with his family on Tatooine and his friend is joining the rebellion as a pilot and he found the two droids…..”
It’s a lot to take in in ten or twenty minutes. That’s why the editors paced the information out around battle scenes and held back on revealing everyone’s motivations and backgrounds. The juicy facts aren’t dumped all at once and then poked at later.
While not progressing the plot past exposition can be seen as flat-lining reader’s attention, constant amping of action or tension can also kill the pacing of a piece. Humans are wired to get used to stimuli. If an action movie is all explosions and car chases, the final exploding car chase either has to be SPECTACULAR or it will just be par for the course. The audience needs time to absorb information and releases in tension so that the next scene can start building it again. To keep with Star Wars, the opening works because the audience gets some background on the universe and then has time to let it sit while we watch guys shoot at each other. As soon as the audience is used to the action, the pacing slows to allow their attention to shift to Vader’s looming entrance. If he had come in swinging and killing everyone, it would be cool, but lose some of the impact—it would just be another part of the action. Information overload, either trying to keep up with action or information, will burn people out.
So what does good pacing look like? In short: squiggly. The plot undulates between peaks and lulls in attention, allowing readers to see information and break it down without missing something else. On a large scale, the plot of a fiction piece should be something like this: http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4032/pacing_01_star_wars.gif. Tension builds over time but not all at once. For more nonfiction/essay work, the same principles still apply. Outlines are recommended to have important facts and then descriptions, explanations, or interpretations that allow readers to mull them over before the next big point. Too many factoids and no explanation can be confusing, just as a lot of speculation with no proof can be dull.
Pacing is complex and most likely won’t come easy. There’s work and revision put into finding the right balance between action and rest, information and understanding. If you find yourself falling into one or both of the traps above, try to separate out scenes and sections and play around with filler information. Characterization outside of key points, a tie between point A and point B, something to add some space. If there’s too big of a lull, introduce a new idea, ponder over a relevant but background concept, sprinkle something in to make the readers check back in. Don’t forget, if you’re having trouble with pacing and can’t notice it yourself, have family, friends, or peers (like those at your friendly campus writing lab) read your work and see if an outside perspective can help you brainstorm a solution.
“One can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.” –St. Francis de Sales
With the advent of social media and the subsequent transition of much of our public discourse from in-person conversations or written essays to these digital and real-time platforms, the tendency to engage in rancorous conversations regarding societal issues became stronger. People posting on social media often are concerned with making their opinions and disagreements known to the exclusion of caring in any meaningful form for the words that they write. This lack of due care, combined with the more impersonal nature of online interactions, can quickly escalate a civil conversation on a debated topic into a rhetorical war where one is now interacting with an enemy rather than an argumentative opponent, with the goal of destroying them rather than persuading or understanding them.
While online interactions have made such a devolution much easier, the tendency itself is not new. Sixteenth-century Europe, with its many religious and social upheavals, was another time which often saw heated rhetoric over the issues of the day. In the midst of this context lived St. Francis de Sales, a Frenchman who became a Catholic priest and, eventually, the bishop of Geneva. As a priest and bishop, he both ministered to people of his own faith and interacted with many people who did not share his beliefs. Eventually, Francis became famous for his numerous writings, including books, sermons, and letters. He simultaneously became known for his patience and gentleness, both of which are evident in his works, and it was through these works that he caused his opponents to listen to him and persuaded many of the truth of his messages.
Like Francis, we have the opportunity in our time to interact with men and women who have different beliefs, perspectives, and opinions regarding the issues of our day. Many of these interactions will come through reading and writing on social media, and any efforts we make to persuade or understand others will rely heavily on our writing. What we write, especially over issues that matter, has the potential to provoke both significant thought and significant emotion. It is crucial, then, to heed Francis’s advice that a spoonful of honey is more effective than a hundred barrels of vinegar. Whether we are expressing our beliefs, disagreeing with someone else’s beliefs, or confronting someone over statements we believe to be unacceptable in civil discourse, choosing our words so that they—as much as possible—express an attitude of civility, compassion, and humility will help to craft our conversations such that the dignity of all is respected no matter how much those involved may disagree.
Puns are a serious thing. Being creative and figurative with language is nothing new and because it has quite literally been around for hundreds of years, we should take the technique seriously. Puns aren’t just thrown into writing for a fun effect, although they do have that benefit. But rather, they add complexity and depth to both the text as well as the writer. A reader comes across an interesting pun, if they even recognize it, and are immediately hit with double-meanings (or more) and are rushed with a subtle and deeper meaning. Used well, the puns help the writer look like a maestro, giving the reader a more fulfilling reading and understanding experience, while adding a sense of humor and wit. Pretty complex stuff. From Shakespeare to Lincoln, prominent writers have used puns to their advantage, strengthening and adding to their writing with minimal effort, but convoluted thought, all in a tightly-wrapped joke. Don’t be afraid to use puns in your work, but use them sparingly. Too much and the writer will start to look like a comedian who is bombing on stage. Instead, use them with caution, with purpose. Use them to add to your work, not weigh it down. Puns should elevate the humor, discussion, and thoughts of your work. Use humor seriously.
In 1985, Simon Furman joined the staff of Marvel UK’s Transformers comic. He became a favorite writer among readers for his stories’ more mature tone and his passion for killing off minor characters. He was so well-received that Marvel US placed him in charge of their own Transformers books. He’s since become one of the most prolific writers in the entire Transformers franchise, having written for comics, novels, cartoons, and video games alike.
Throughout his body of work, however, is a surprising trend—the repetition of unusually specific turns of phrase, used in wildly diverse works and contexts. These lines first began to be codified during his tenure writing for Marvel in the 1980s, but have since spread to nearly every work he has penned. These phrases came to be identified by fans as “Furmanisms.” Some Furmanisms were characterized by a particularly overwrought metaphor, such as his frequently-used similes involving birds of prey, or reinterpretations of the Biblical Hosea’s “reaping the whirlwind.” Others seemed to have more in common with action-film one-liners, with multiple characters insisting that they “never did want to live forever,” or that they were about to give their enemies “the worst case of indigestion they’ve ever had.”
While Furman’s popularity as a writer may very well be in part due to these unique turns of phrase, a reliance on “fall back phrasing” may not have gotten him far in other mediums, particularly academic writing. As a college writer, it’s easy to build a vocabulary of phrases that help segue from one subject into the next, forming a set of building blocks for tackling papers both scholarly and creative. Such words can be immensely useful, but they can also become a handicap. I have always struggled with transitions using the word “however,” some of which can be found in this very blog post. In my work as both an instructor and student, I’ve also encountered many instances of the much-maligned “In today’s society…”
Of course, repetition of phrases within your writing is not always detrimental. It can be used to emphasize, or to establish a theme. It can also be used in creative writing to develop a character or motif… but if you’re not trying to do one of these things, go ahead and give your writing a second read to check for any unnecessary repetition. Otherwise, you might find it hanging at the edges of your paper, like some vast predatory bird.
My first choice of major at a university in South Korea was “English literature.” Can you imagine learning English literature in Korean? If you are native then you will think “What???” However, if you are international students, then you will be like “Ah, yeah.” Since students had to choose their major when they apply for the university, my major was English literature (mainly because I had a better chance to find a job after graduation) and when I came to UMSL (the University of Missouri St. Louis) as an exchange student, my advisor “recommended” English literature class in my first semester. Imagine a student whose first language is not English and has been in America only for a month taking English literature class that expects to read a book per week. Yeah, right, no kidding. I was devastated and miserable. In the beginning of every class, a quiz was waiting for me to make me feel even more miserable with a zero on top of the white paper in black words. I survived that class and completed with a B. I pushed myself to the edge to get that score and on the last of class, I swore that I would never take any English course.
However, I decided to continue studying in America after the exchange program ended. When I transferred to a community college, I had to take writing proficiency test to enter English comp 101 class, equivalent to EN 100 at SEMO. I did not know why I had to take English Comp 101 class because I did not want to suffer again. I tried my best to avoid that course but failed horribly. Now I am glad that I took that class because the instructor whom I met and after English comp .1 and 2, I did not need to take TOEFL when I transferred to other universities.
I still have the essay that I wrote at the proficiency exam and the evaluation sheets with “Fail” marked at the bottom and numerous comments that explained why I failed. I have similar issues that most international students have, such as weak thesis or main points, verb tense or agreement issues, and plagiarism, improper reference uses, and more. For me, I did not have many opportunities to write a paper even in Korean before I came to America so I had more issues on top of the language barriers. I believe that most international students have similar issues due to a different educational background. My instructor in English comp class explained thoroughly about all essay assignments and made sure that I understood correctly. Moreover, she helped me to understand what I need to understand and focus when I write an essay in America. It took me several years to fully understand and I am in progress on writing academic papers.
Sometimes I read my previous papers just to see how my writing has changed or hope that my writing has improved a little. I still notice many mistakes on articles, prepositions, verb agreements, and more. I am definitely improving as I write more and review my drafts over and over. In addition, before I was afraid of going to the Writing Lab to show my paper to others because I was so embarrassed and afraid of others pointing my mistakes out. Since English is not my first language, I know that I will make mistakes and making mistakes is also the learning process. However, the feeling of embarrassment was still in my mind and stopped me from getting help from others on my writing. As time passed, I learned to accept my abilities and seek help. I believe that this also helped me to improve my writing skills.
Tick… tock… tick… tock. The clock hands spin rapidly, generating a vortex in which spirals desperate time. The shadowy presence of the dreaded deadline looms over your shoulder, and the phantom casts dark thoughts of doubt and anxiety—that one meme on Twitter from your favorite parody account. Your hand seizes in agony from clenching a pencil, eraser shavings settling like snowfall onto the floor beneath your legs that bounce anxiously to the crescendo of the metronomic ticking. In the final moments, you hastily drag the file into the submission box with sweaty fingertips and click “submit.” Five minutes to spare, you reflect jubilantly as you massage your hand, drained but satisfied with yet another seemingly clinch success.
All writers, especially college students, have been here—the self-ascribed, once-in-a-nighttime, last-minute-inspired writing prodigy. How exhausting for you to shoulder the demands of higher education all in one to twelve hours!
Frankly, the classic all-nighter strategy is lazy, a symptom of poor writers. If a professor on a swivel stool scooted towards you—a malnourished writer—while you anxiously kick your feet off the edge of the examination table, the coarse paper crackling rhythmically beneath your swinging limbs, this “doctor” might observe the following: contentment with insufficient writing, disregard for constructive criticism, close-mindedness of revision, and fear of failure. The doctor might prescribe the long-term treatment: conquering your fears.
Could fear really be the root of all bad writing?
Good writers heed the call for new voices to engage the world in new language, provoking new dialogue between constructs. Good writers are open to the opportunity, willing to experiment with their language and discover their identities. Good writers are not afraid of failure but rather understand that learning and failure are in direct variation: failure is a necessary growing pain. Just as the body repairs the muscle fibers after a strenuous workout, fusing the damaged fibers with new protein to grow even stronger than before, the mind requires exercise to replace underdeveloped skills with experienced critical thinking, reading, and writing skills.
Bad writers are terrified from a deeply-rooted insecurity of belonging: their writing is inadequate, their thoughts are disconnected, their conversations to engage the world are irrelevant. Whoever you are and wherever you are on your writing odyssey, your voice matters. Conquer your fears of failure because being afraid is depraving the world and doing a disservice to your community.