Sage Writing Advice from Xavier Faculty and a Lowly Writing Center Tutor
March 1, 2017
by MacKenzie O'Kane, Writing Tutor
When I first came to Xavier, I thought I was an excellent writer and I didn't need anyone's help. I know now that I was sorely mistaken. I graduated from a small, private high school where my ego was fed with A's on papers into which I had put minimal effort. Therefore, I was vastly unprepared for college writing. Having taken only honors or AP English classes in high school, I thought my Freshman Rhetoric course was going to be a breeze. It was not. Dr. Alison Russell did not give me an A on my first two papers in that class because I did not turn in A papers. I was not going above and beyond the expectations of the assignment, and therefore, I did not deserve an A. However, I did not figure this out during my Rhetoric class; it was only with hindsight that I realized I will never get an A on a paper unless I first completely and fully understand what my professor is expecting of me, and then surpass those expectations.
Bear with me, because this is going to sound crazy, but the best way to find out what your professor is looking for in a paper is to ask them. I'll give you a moment to reset the table that you just flipped over. (Pauses sassily.) Alright, let's get back into it.
I'm about to drop some wisdom on you. It's not my wisdom, but I collected it for you. I wandered the hallways of buildings on the academic mall like a lost freshman to find professors and ask them this question: "Imagine Xavier had a PA system, and you could announce any advice regarding writing over the speakers. What would you say to students?" It would be an understatement to say that I got a mixed bag of answers.
The first professor I talked to was Dr. Niamh O'Leary from the English Department. I have never taken one of her classes, but I know her because she is the advisor for AcaBellas (an acapella group to which I belong and will shamelessly promote). She said, "If at all possible, do yourself a huge favor and give yourself twelve hours between drafting and revising. Otherwise, you will miss all the little errors. I know that time management is hard, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not revise." I can attest to her advice because I make the stupidest mistakes on the papers that I write within hours of the deadline.
Next, I moseyed down the hallway to find Dr. Graley Herren's office door open. I took his Modern British Literature class last Fall. He's a cool dude - that's why I let him call me Mack. Dr. Herren wants to tell the Xavier students this: "Start by giving a damn about what you're writing, so that someone reading your paper will give a damn about it, too." This comment resonated with me because so often in classes I have found myself thinking, "I know I could write a paper on this topic because I have a lot of notes on it, and my professor obviously likes it." The problem arose when I sat down to write that paper and I didn't care about what I was saying in the slightest. So, take Dr. Herren's advice, and "give a damn." It will make writing the paper more fun, and it make reading it more fun for others.
I then decided to climb up a floor in Hinkle to where all the Philosophy professors reside, and I found my Philosophy 100 professor, Dr. Gabriel Gottlieb, in his office surrounded by his walls of books. When I asked him my question, he answered quickly saying, andquot;I guess I have two pieces of advice. First, have a thesis. And second, focus on the details of citations. I have found that the students who pay the most attention to correctly citing sources typically do better on papers than students who don't. I think it's because students who focus on the little details of citing also edit their papers with a more careful and focused eye.andquot; Dr. Gottlieb's first piece of advice was quippy and important, which I expected. His second piece of advice was something that I had never thought about before, but made complete sense. A writer who cares about something as minute as whether one needs a period or a comma between a title and a publisher would probably also care about each sentence, piece of evidence, and the overall argument more than a writer who copied and pasted a bunch of URLs on the last page of a paper they started and finished the day it was due.
It was a nice day outside, so I took my wild goose chase for answers from Hinkle to Schott Hall. I entered the terrifyingly tiny elevator, pressed the button for the sixth floor, and set out to find Dr. Whipple's office. I took my sole History class at Xavier from Dr. Amy Whipple, Britain: Sherlock to Brit-Pop. It was a hoot. I asked her my question and she replied, andquot;I would tell students that writing is difficult. I think they sometimes feel badly if it takes a while to develop a thesis, construct an argument or write a paper. So, I'd tell them that writing simply takes time.andquot; After chatting about the struggles of writer's block for a while, I asked her if she had any other advice. That was when she said, andquot;If you struggle with writing, try to focus on one way you can improve at a time. There are a lot of moving pieces. But if you can acquire one skill at a time, it all will build. At Xavier, you're taking many classes that require writing, which means you will have a lot of chances to practice and keep building on those skills.andquot; I think her second piece of advice is important for all writers to hear. Having worked at the Writing Center for six semesters now, I often work with students that tell me, "I'm just a bad writer." I always tell them, "That just means you have room to improve!" Don't sell yourself short, and don't accept that you are or always will be a bad writer. Look at each writing assignment as a challenge and an opportunity to improve.
Lastly, I visited my academic advisor/former boss/owner of many insect-printed dresses/ mentor/friend Dr. Annie Ray in Albers Hall. I asked her my question and she said this: andquot;Don't start at the beginning of time, don't use the word 'very,' and proofread.andquot; (I just searched this document from start to finish to make sure I didn't use "very." I passed. Phew.) I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by "Don't start at the beginning of time," and she told me, "Papers that start with a 'from the beginning of time' look like this: 'From the beginning of time populations have warred with each other. World War II was an especially gruesome war...'" That's when it clicked for me - I asked, "So are they as bad as 'Webster's dictionary defines war as...' sentences?" "Yes." She affirmed; then she told me, "If you're revising, then you should figure out that you don't need that running jump sentence to get into your paper." I agree with her that there is always a better word than "very ___." Always. Finally, regarding unrevised papers, she said, "If you didn't revise it, then you didn't really write it. Proofreading, revision is the most important part of writing. It is the difference between done and good. You should never expect to get a good grade on a paper that you just puked up on paper. Revision is where things start to make sense." Even as someone who helps people revise their papers daily, I could not have put it better myself.
If you've made it this far, I am proud of you, and I appreciate you. To thank you, I'm going to sum up all that wisdom into some bullet points:
- Dr. O'Leary: Write, wait 12 hours, then revise.
- Dr. Herren: Give a damn.
- Dr. Gottlieb: Have a thesis and pay attention to details (like citations).
- Dr. Whipple: It's okay if writing is hard. It's supposed to be. Take it one step at a time.
- Dr. Ray: Don't have a trite first sentence, avoid "very," and proofread.