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A writer I’ve learned from – Kurt Vonnegut

VonnegutThrough “Slaughterhouse Five” Kurt Vonnegut taught me that humor is an effective way to write about serious issues or events that aren’t very funny at all.  Vonnegut was an American prisoner of war in WWII and was being held by German soldiers  in a slaughterhouse basement in Dresden, Germany when US planes firebombed the city and incinerated hundreds of thousands of people – The city was left in ashes.  He and other POWs survived and were marched into the streets by the Germans to witness what the US had done to the people of Dresden.

Obviously, this was traumatizing for Vonnegut and he struggled for years trying to figure out how to write about it.  Eventually he settled on a comedic science fiction story about aliens (Tramalfadorians) who capture him and turn him into a time traveler.  The story is rich with hysterical language and an easily accessible prose style that manages to tell the story of Dresden effectively, without taking away from the monumental tragedy that occurred.

Vonnegut became an American icon and somewhat of a pop-culture hero.  He was extremely cynical and despised corporations and American consumer culture.  Yet he always held onto an adorable sense of humor and gentlemanly nature that relentlessly came through in his unique, simple, funny, and profound writing style.  I learned alot about writing and my country from Kurt Vonnegut.

writer leopard & me

This is Writer Leopard.

same.

Writer Leopard understands me.

SAME.

Writer Leopard understands me in so many ways

yup.

There are a lot more, but the above images encapsulate me as a writer pretty well. I don’t always practice what I preach; I tend to edit as I write, I’m easily overwhelmed, I sometimes (most times) spend more time thinking about writing than actually writing. And since someone else came up with this meme and so many Tumblr users have reblogged these images, I can at least take solace in knowing that I’m not alone.

But I do need to work on changing these habits. Maybe one day there’ll be some kind of successful writing meme… Successful Writer Seal? Successful Writer Walrus? Successful Writer Sperm Whale? I don’t know why I’m drawn to marine mammals. Anyway, stay tuned for that, which will clearly be the next big meme to sweep the Internet.

Meme all the things

With my master’s thesis deadline creeping forward, I am acutely aware that I start every day like this:

hyperbolememeAnd end every day like this:

spongebob-rainbow-memeProcrastination is a dirty word to writers, but the looming, incredibly important deadline of a thesis has made my procrastination especially productive.  If I’m not working on my paper, it better be because I’m doing something else completely justifiable and awesome.  I may not be writing, but I am traveling, cleaning, running, applying for post-graduation jobs, and taking art classes.

At least I'm not lazy?

At least I’m not lazy?

When a deadline is abstract–over a month away might as well be forever–it’s hard to think about it.  Reading Scarcity has only reinforced this; I need to tunnel, but because I don’t feel the crunch, it’s difficult to force myself to work.  The rewards of all that other stuff is tangible, but the thesis writing reward is so far away.  So what do I do?

Or I overestimate my power. Yeah, probably the latter.

Or I overestimate my power. Yeah, probably the latter.

  • Think of my large assignment as a bunch of smaller assignments. If each chapter is like one 20 page paper, then it seems a lot more manageable.
  • Make mini-deadlines.  Now that my huge, threatening thesis is actually just three smaller papers, I can assign a deadline to each paper.  To make this deadline “real” I establish it with my professor–so I can’t just push it infinitely forward.
  • Edit. If I really don’t feel inspired, I can at least be working on some part of the project.  Making a table of contents or formatting a works cited page may seem like busy work, but it has to be done sooner or later and can be surprisingly time-consuming.
Wise words, Dory.

Wise words, Dory.

 

 

Simple Memes for Complex Writers

I had trouble finding a meme that captures who I am as a writer. Can any single meme really encapsulate the multifaceted aspects of what may make anyone identify as a writer? Many of the memes I came across were about specific “types” of writers – fiction, journalism, academic – and limited goals (mastering grammar, earning a buck). So I decided to choose several memes that capture certain aspects of my writer self.

Meme #1 expresses how, although I know how to start the act of writing, I always struggle with how a particular piece of writing should begin. I think a lot before I begin to write, but, with all of those ideas cooking in my head, how do I introduce my topic in a way that will draw in my readers? How do I capture the complexities without overgeneralizing or oversimplifying my arguments? Meme #1 encapsulates this particular struggle well. Not only can I not “simply think” of a strong first sentence, but I can’t “simply write” one either. This goes well beyond the first sentence and applies to my entire introduction (illustrated in Meme #2). I used to struggle with the first paragraph for hours and hours (getting nowhere) until I realized what is expressed in Meme #3: I typically don’t know what I really think until after I’ve done a substantial amount of writing, so it’s no wonder I can’t write an introduction for an argument that I haven’t formulated yet. It’s only after I write (and read, and research, and rewrite) that I can begin to understand what I really want to say. Essentially, I have to first write about a topic in order to learn more about it before I can articulate my own argument or analysis of it. This is probably why I find a better “opening sentence,” or even an entire introduction, somewhere near the end of my essays. Even then, it often doesn’t entirely capture everything I’m trying to say, so I still have to continue revising. The revision meme (#4) expresses how I often feel like a perpetual “reviser” since I do far more rewriting than initial writing. Even though I know revision is part of writing, I still have those moments of frustration when I read over something and decide it’s a hopeless mess. Meme #4 reminds me of how I often have to tell myself to calm down, that I can do it. Once I relax, I can turn my frustration into a more focused and productive act: revision. By my final version, I’m usually much more satisfied with my writing, even if that pesky first sentence isn’t quite perfect.

Meme #1

boromir-opening-sentence-essay

Meme #2

hour paragraph

Meme #3

flannery_oconnor_quote_writing

Meme #4

keepcalm

Asking for and Accepting Help

Although I am already three weeks behind schedule, my final project (a proposed 60 page thesis) is not looming over me with threats of missed deadlines and canceled graduation ceremonies—at least, not yet!

This week, I began to outline and flesh out one chapter, about accumulation and inheritance, both of which I am arguing are social problems to be fixed. So far, I have about eight pages of useable writing, and another eight pages of notes. I really struggled to write more, but I also struggled with asking for help. Because this is such an important piece of writing, I knew I couldn’t leave it for the last minute, and I would go crazy trying to make additions and revisions on my own.

So, I made an appointment at the Center for Writing Excellence (CWE). Normally, I go to the CWE when I think I am finished, or nearly finished, with a paper. I go through a lot of revisions, but the most substantial revisions are often made privately. Usually, no one gets to see my first draft. When I made an appointment to talk about the notes I had so far, up until the last few minutes I debated with myself about cancelling the appointment. I hovered the mouse over the “Cancel this Appointment” button countless times. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have enough to talk about, and what I did have was a pure mess.

It’s not that I am embarrassed about my writing, especially about first drafts, rather, it is more that I fear how others will judge me when they read something I haven’t finished yet. Will they think I am stupid, or foolish? Will they be thinking about how bad my writing is later, thinking that it could never improve enough to be readable? I don’t know. I’ll never know. And, I’m still wondering about it right now. But, I couldn’t let that fear of some judgment that may never  happen keep me from working on the most important project that I have right now.

My thesis (so far) was and still is a mess. But, I sat through the appointment and felt like a lot was accomplished. I had a stronger introduction, and clearer points (maybe they could even be called paragraphs!) than before I made the appointment. Sitting with someone else, talking about my writing, discussing my struggles and fears and successes, really did help take the edge off of the pressure that I am under to complete this project.

Asking for help is hard, and sometimes accepting that help is even harder. But in the end, it is probably better to have some support than to struggle through on your own, and then be uncertain when it is time to meet a deadline.

Picturing Revision: Looking at Writing through a Fresh Set of Eyes

construction

Earlier in my academic career, revision meant a total tear down. I would write and write and write and when I couldn’t say anything more about the topic I would start to take it apart. Whole pages and paragraphs would be sacrificed to the revision process. It wouldn’t matter if I had spent hours working on one particular idea or passage; if I didn’t like a part of what I was writing by the time I was finished, it had to go. I had a very hard time seeing the good in any of my writing I deemed verbose, or awkward, or just plain bad. This lasted pretty much all throughout my undergraduate career and threatened to rear its ugly head as I began graduate school. Papers would take me double the length of time to write because so much of my writing would get thrown out and I had to keep constantly adding to reach page limits. Was this process inefficient? Yes. Borderline crazy? Possibly. Something I could stop on my own? Nope.

It wasn’t until I start working at the Center for Writing Excellence that I figured out a solution to my problem. I would often work with students who were in the process of revising. When I pointed out sentences or passages that needed a bit of work to be stronger, students would often respond that they would just “take it out” instead. This could be a sentence or an entire page. I would almost panic, telling the student that I wasn’t saying what they had written was wrong or bad but that they just needed to re-enter their prose and tweak it to make it clearer, or to cut down on repeated ideas, etc. Though there was always some reluctance, we would work our way through those difficult parts, pull out what was great and polish what needed work. In the end, it was so much less painful and time consuming than “just getting rid of it.”

For my first  seminar paper, I made an appointment at the CWE.  I wrote out my whole essay and didn’t take out the “bad parts.”  I was so nervous at the prospect of letting anyone read my “bad” writing, but my colleagues were amazing. Rather than pointing and laughing at my horrible attempts at prose (which is what I expected), they helped me see what was good in my “bad” writing. I saved so much time and energy by having another person help me revise, I actually finished the paper early for the first time.

Now I routinely incorporate having someone else look at my paper as part of my revising strategies. My writing and my sanity are both better for it.

A Dozen Revisions

My overall revision strategy is to approach my writing knowing that I will constantly rewrite and revise from start to finish. The image below is a screenshot of the multiple versions of a research paper I wrote last semester for an independent study. I saved the document as a new version whenever I made significant global changes or deleted a substantial amount of writing that was no longer valuable. In about seven weeks, this turned out to be a dozen major revisions. This is what my folder looked like by the time I submitted my final project:

revisions 0-12

I’ll briefly describe my revision process from one version to the next:

  • Paper v0 – This is not actually a paper in any traditional sense. It is a compilation of my ideas and notes from my primary texts, organized by categories of analysis.
  • Paper v1 – Still not really a coherent paper, but this version incorporates most of my secondary sources (research on history, critical theory, etc.).
  • Paper v2 – I started actually writing: I analyzed the textual evidence and made connections between them and the historical and ideological contexts.
  • Paper v3 – After rereading v2, I realized it was still a mess, way too long, and unclear. I deleted a lot of what did not fit or add to my overall argument (still not articulated).
  • Paper v4 – Running out of time before my first deadline, I read through my paper one more time, rewriting as I read and hastily writing an introduction. Without time to formulate a conclusion, I submitted this fourth version as my “first draft.”
  • Paper v5 – After receiving feedback from my professor, this version includes more historical and theoretical background. I also re-organized two of my four categories of analysis, and this substantial reorganization also meant more rewriting.
  • Paper v6 – Another front-to-back read through: rewriting, slashing, adding, re-consulting texts and sources, moving entire paragraphs around, rewriting transitions, etc.
  • Paper v7 – Rewrote my introduction and central argument and revised the rest of the paper accordingly.
  • Paper v8 – Another full read-through with rewriting/moving/deleting/adding along the way. This version finally has a conclusion and was submitted as my “second draft.”
  • Paper v9 – Reflects my first attempt at responding to my professor’s very helpful feedback, which pointed out global concerns such as transitions, and some areas needing more development. This version includes some new writing, but my revisions were focused on the most critical concerns.
  • Paper v10 – This version includes everything it can possibly include for the purposes and scope of this project. I read through the entire paper, making revisions on transitions, introduction, and conclusion (yet again).
  • Paper v11 – My “final” proofread. I printed a hard copy of v10 and read it in its entirety, focusing primarily on sentence-level concerns, but I also noticed some areas that still needed work and revised for clarity. When I completed v11, I asked my husband to read it, hoping he would find only minor, easily corrected typographical errors. Instead, he pointed out a major gap in my discussion on literary criticism. I was ultimately grateful because I kept putting that part off for “later” since I wasn’t sure what to say.
  • Paper v12 – In response to the feedback received on v11, I was at a loss so began freewriting about what I did know, and this led me to make connections that I couldn’t seem to make before. I explained this connection in my paper and submitted this as my final version.

So, this is my very long and convoluted writing/rewriting/revision process. It is a mess, and I could certainly improve by being more focused from the beginning, but I’m still working on that.

 

My Writing Life/My Revision Life

My writing life has changed once more and so have my revision strategies. No longer a student with 15- to 20-page papers to write, I have lovingly put the anthologies and literature on the bookshelf. I have the backup for my thesis safely stored both in hardcopies and on a flash drive. I can’t say I miss the rigors of graduate school, yet I don’t want to fade as a writer.

For now, besides a personal journal that I don’t revise at all (that is the glorious freedom of journal writing) and some stories I’m capturing about my ancestors (who will have to trust me to revise their lives honestly and fairly), I mostly write professionally. My professional writing time is occupied by work emails with publishers, lesson plans for classes or workshops, PowerPoint presentations for conferences, online chats with student writers at the Center for Writing Excellence, and this blog.

I find that these seemingly “simple” documents actually require as much thought towards revision as the long academic essay, if not more. In the fifteen-page research paper, there is time to explain, explain more, and explain further. In the email that requests an image from a museum or a rewrite from an author, clarity, directness, exact requests, and deadlines take on great importance. Subject lines, contact information, details, and attachments can make the difference between getting the information/action needed versus having to send a volley of emails with no, or slow, results. Or, gasp, picking up the phone!

Time is also of the essence when communicating with students. At the CWE, online sessions only last 25 minutes, just like the face-to-face sessions. Questions in the chat box or in the students’ text must be concise and thought provoking in order to encourage them to expand on their ideas and prove their arguments. In class, a lesson plan really can’t stretch on longer than class time, and often should only be a portion of the class with time allotted for student questions, discussions, group work, and freewrite responses. Likewise, conference presentations are constricted not by ideas or the knowledge you want to share, but by time. PowerPoint slides or a lively Prezi usually last only fifteen to twenty minutes in order to leave time for audience questions. Below are my messy notes for the 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication) PowerPoint presentation. You can see that I even rip them up after typing and revising the important points I need to convey during my presentation.

blog

All of these business and classroom applications of writing demand revision strategies that are merciless to yourself as a writer, but helpful to your audience (and to your success in your position or presentation). Words carry great weight in any professional field—they reflect on your intelligence, sincerity, and ability to communicate with others. The words in my daily professional life aren’t as treasured as the ones in the novels, poems, and collections of essays on my bookshelf, but they are just as important to me.

For now, this professional writing is interesting and challenging—not as crafting a claim about older women characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula or comparing two Victorian poems—but certainly worth the time and effort to communicate well to other writers and professionals.

Embracing the Mess: The Revision Process

In December, I had a great idea for the blog topic.  A comic! I thought. It’ll be a fun break from my typical blog entries! I immediately started drafting up ideas for that month’s topic on the best “gifts” received as a writer. I decided to write about some fellow consultants and their writing gifts that I admired.

A rough sketch of ideas for one of the comics.

A rough sketch of ideas for one of the comics.

By the end of December, it was clear I would not finish on time. I had initially decided to draw two comics to be posted together, but December came and left and I had only succeeded in sketching them out.  January, I thought. I’ll be able to finish them both by the end of January.  That’s not too bad.  Plus, it’s two comics… that’s sort of like two blog entries, right?

A second draft with more detailed sketches & text.

A second draft with more detailed sketches & text.

I scanned the comics and decided to use my very responsible student loan investment of a tablet to ink them in.  This proved to be more problematic than I initially realized. I had to deal with computer glitches and learning to navigate through software that I am completely unfamiliar with.

The "inking" process

The “inking” process

Needless to say, January came and left and (while I did take a short break to draw a picture for the CWE newsletter), I am still not close to finished with the two comics.

However, I think this experience fits perfectly with this month’s blog topic on revision.  This process, albeit quite different from using a word processor, still illustrates the many difficulties that the stages of revision can encounter.  The finished product is a far cry from the initial great idea, and throughout the process of making a masterpiece, things will likely get messy– they will malfunction– and in the end, it still may not look exactly like how the project was first envisioned.  As a novice comic drawer, it is difficult for me to deal with the frustrations that come along with learning a medium, but understanding that nothing looks perfect at first is important to keep in mind.  So many people marvel at works of art of all mediums, but with all great work comes a long process of revision for even the most talented artists.   Allowing, accepting, and even embracing the bumps along the road are what help me learn as a writer and artist.

Revision Roadmaps: Helping Others Rework Their Drafts

Our CWE blog topic this month is about revision strategies. How do we revise our work? What does our revision process look like? Although my revision process itself is complex, I can describe it rather simply: it’s a mess.

It’s difficult to say how, exactly, I revise because I’m constantly reworking sentences and paragraphs as I write them. There is no “stream of consciousness” or “rough draft” for me because I meticulously seek to perfect my writing as much as possible while I write this so-called first draft. As a result, by the time I have a full-length draft, there are usually few typos or issues with higher order concerns. I’ve reread it at least 50 times by now. So for this post, I don’t think it would be as beneficial for me to share my revision process as it would be for me to share some of the strategies I use when helping others revise.

In addition to my work as a consultant in the CWE, I assist many peers in their academic and professional work. I’ve also served as an adjunct writing instructor. In both cases, I have provided feedback online to assist others in their revision. Here’s how it looks:

 

CWEBlog1

 

When peers send me their writing as a Word document, I love using the “track changes” and “comment” features instead of simply “making corrections.” In this picture, you can see that I’ve added my suggestions in the margin of this personal statement so that the writer has a written record of the feedback that points to certain phrases or sections. I also use “track changes” so the writer maintains authorship by accepting or rejecting each change individually. This reinforces the idea that I’m not “making corrections,” but providing feedback as an interested reader.

 

CWE Blog3

 

As a writing instructor, Google Docs provided me with an easy way to read through students’ drafts and write comments that were instantly accessible to them. In the photo above, you can see that the comments in the margins are connected to highlighted portions of the paper. The comments are geared toward higher-order concerns related to documentation and content. You’ll also notice that I’ve included positive feedback, which is so important when helping someone revise. In addition to offering strategies for improvement, it is helpful to share what you think is effective so the writer can continue to build upon his/her strengths in future drafts or papers. In this writer’s case, I thought the “very good balance of evidence and analysis” was praiseworthy. The comment was intended to assure the writer that I recognized his hard work and that my focus was not solely on “errors” in his paper, as students often believe when receiving feedback.

 

CWE PIC AGAIN

In addition to providing in-text comments that directed the students’ attention to specific sections of the paper, I always offered them comments geared toward global revision at the end of their papers. Here you can see an example of my note to a student on a draft she submitted using Google Docs. First, as is my usual practice, I began with a positive comment. Next, I offered my suggestions, which included critical thinking questions. Each of the comments correlated with the point values included in the grading rubric on the right. My goal was for students to not only see the grade “44/50” and then shrug it off and correct grammatical errors in the draft or totally toss the draft to the side and choose not to revise and resubmit it. Since I encouraged students to revise all drafts for a higher grade, I knew it was important to give them the tools they needed to effectively rework their papers with a “revision roadmap” at the end of each draft.

As a collection, it’s interesting to consider what these pictures say about revision. For one, they reinforce the significance of having another pair of eyes on your writing to offer feedback as an interested reader, rather than as a brutal critic or grammar police officer. Secondly, they demonstrate something so valuable, but too often lost in evaluation: positive feedback. Sometimes we’re so quick to point out what we consider “wrong” that we forget to compliment their strengths in writing that can/should be duplicated in future drafts. We forget to instill in them the confidence that will motivate them to continue writing. In addition, I believe, revision comments must emphasize higher-order concerns and higher-level thinking because idea development is so critical to writing well. Finally, it is important for feedback to be considered as indicative of larger conversations. In the responses I wrote on my students’ papers, I tried to connect my comments to conversations I had with them in class. In the second photo, I mentioned signal phrases with a reminder that we discussed these in class (so he could look at his notes or the writing resources on our course webpage). Likewise, I referenced the “so what” or “bigger picture” in the third photo, terminology continually used in class throughout the semester. Even “Comment [4]” in the first image represents an in-person discussion I had with the writer. Ultimately, the thinking light bulb is much more likely to turn on when the comments relate to past or ongoing conversations that enable the writer to make meaningful connections between listening and applying. And I think that is what revision is all about: being able to anticipate readers’ responses and adjust accordingly or to critically listen to feedback and successfully incorporate it into drafts in order to produce the best possible work.