How I Am Trying to Become a Better Writer

49d9da07acf06ad615ae099ac4177a66 I have always loved to write.  Whether it was academic writing or creative writing, from as far back as I can remember I have considered myself an avid writer – but that doesn’t mean that I’m great at writing. I still have much to learn, and over the past year I have tried to become more intentional about improving. When thinking about what I would write for my next blog post, it seemed natural that I would share some of my own personal strategies on how to become a better writer. Perhaps some of these strategies may be helpful for you, but if not that is okay too. I would love to read about your own methods in the comments below.

Okay, here we go:

  • Read widely and often – I have found that the more I read, the more likely I am to pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle elements that differentiate mediocre writing from excellent writing, while also enhancing my vocabulary. For example, it may seem simple but if I come across a word that I don’t know the meaning of, I look it up in the dictionary – giving myself the opportunity to use it myself in the future.  Plus, I get to see how the word is used in the context of what I am reading.
  • Don’t just read, also analyze – Aside from reading for pleasure, I also try to really think about the writer’s word choice, flow, structure, and arguments. What do I like about the writing? What don’t I like about it? What would I change if I could? I also try and pay close attention to the specific characteristics of the discipline or genre that the author is using. This helps me get a feel for the variations in writing style, vocabulary and method that may be used. Recently while reading a fantasy novel I found myself feeling bothered and bored by the story. I realized that the author was depending too much on describing past events rather than using dialogue and events in the present to further the plot. This style of writing ultimately resulted in me, as the reader, feeling like nothing was happening and I began losing interest. Now I know that when writing fiction it’s important to use dialogue, action and description in a balanced way! If I hadn’t taken the time to think about why the story was bothering me, I wouldn’t have been able to come to this conclusion.
  • Just keep writing – Even if I don’t have an essay due or a blog post to write, it’s essential that I keep writing. I shouldn’t shy away from putting my own pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) as the more practice I get, the better I will become! One strategy that I’ve been trying is completing writing exercises. A simple one that I used recently was a descriptive exercise – I picked a setting or a recent event from my own life and wrote a detailed description of it, trying to employ all five senses in a realistic and logical way. Many of these kinds of exercises can be found online.
  • Reread and edit – Whenever I write something, I don’t just pound it out and assume that it’s perfect. I reread what I have written multiple times and edit as I go. This means that as I am writing a particular paragraph, I may reread the paragraph itself 2 – 4 times as I write it, getting a sense of how each sentence fits in with the flow of the paragraph and the text as a whole. This allows me to simultaneously pay attention to the flow and structure of my work, as well as grammar and word choice. Editing this way also saves me from needing to make substantial changes to the text at the very end.
  • Don’t just write, also analyze – Much the same as when I read and analyze the work of other authors, I also try to analyze my own writing. If I was reading this for the first time, what would I think? Would I understand? Would I want to change something? Would I need more information or details? If necessary, I will intentionally stay away from my work for a period of time, returning to it with a clear head and a fresh pair of eyes. I have also found it can be helpful to practice going over old essays or short stories with a critical eye!
  • Ask for feedback – Sometimes I am too close to my writing, too involved in the process that it can be hard to clearly see my weaknesses or errors. It can be a humbling experience, but I have found that asking a peer or, if possible, a professor to provide feedback on a piece of my writing is invaluable. This may naturally happen as part of a course, but it can also be requested if appropriate. However, I’ve realized that the feedback of others will be useless to me if I do not plan on listening to it! I challenge myself to keep an open mind and to be willing to revise my writing.

Becoming a better writer may well be a lifelong process, but armed with these strategies I hope I can continue to improve. As always, if you would like help with a specific writing assignment you can book an appointment here at the Centre for Student Success on the Brantford campus. To book an appointment online, click here.

Happy Writing!

Brianna

Summer Peer Mentor

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Co-authoring – It’s Worth It!

There is almost nothing students dread more than group work.  And who can blame them? It can be a real challenge trying to coordinate schedules, distribute and delegate tasks, and ensure that no one is slacking and everyone’s contribution is equal. However, despite the inherent challenges, group work is an opportunity to practice specific skills that you will continue to use beyond the classroom.

Group-project

Hopefully your group work doesn’t feel like this!

Co-authorship, the process of two or more people coming together to write something, is often required in university courses. The process of co-authorship can be fraught with challenges much the same as any type of group work, but can also be highly rewarding and useful. Many professionals must co-author on a regular basis in the work place, whether it’s writing memos, drafting reports, creating content or completing applications. Taylor Berzins, a senior Laurier student, has found that her work on a multi-campus project to create online learning modules has involved a lot of collaboration and co-authoring.

Brianna: What has been the most challenging aspect of your experience?

Taylor: It’s always challenging to be a creative, visually driven person and having to share the creative control with a team. There are so many finicky little details you would never think about having to consider, but every decision needs to be made collectively. Things like font size, word choices, and what to research are all conversations my team has had to have throughout this project. My team is also a group of very busy and involved individuals, so coordinating communication and decision making tasks around everyone’s unique commitments is very challenging.

Brianna: That does sound challenging. What has been the most rewarding?

Taylor: Learning how to use a variety of communications tools has perhaps been one of the most rewarding parts of co-authorship. We use collaborative online tools like Slack and Google Docs to ensure that everyone can see the edits being made to a document and allows anyone to comment throughout the process. These are resources I will likely have to use in a career someday, so it’s great to be learning how to use these tools effectively right now, as a student.

 Co-authorship has also taught me to be more open about my ideas and to further develop the way I communicate with other people. It’s easy to be critical of the things your group may be doing, but there is so much to gain in asking your peers why they’ve made the choices they have and to be constructive with your feedback and open to criticism. I’ve learned a lot about how to be more thoughtful about the choices I make when doing my work because I know I’ll likely have to explain the thought process behind my choices to the team.

Co-authorship has also helped me to better understand how to make my goals more realistic. It keeps you accountable to every action you commit to doing, because other people depend on you getting your work done. The more transparent you are with yourself about what you can handle, the more awesome your work will be by the end of the process.

Brianna: Thanks Taylor!

How to Co-Author Effectively

It should come as no surprise that co-authoring requires effective communication, time management, and a constant give-and-take between all those involved in the writing process (Ede & Lunsford, 1983; Reither & Vipond, 1989).  Writing-GroupAs the process of co-authorship unfolds, the hope is that a certain level of ‘synergy’ will be achieved – the contributors “accomplishing things together that neither could accomplish alone,” learning from and teaching one another along the way (Reither & Vipond, 1989, p. 858).  Of course, synergy is not always achieved, but each experience we have with co-authoring will enhance our understanding of what it takes to create a quality piece of work together.

So, how should we approach co-authorship? Danielewicz & McGowan, in Collaborative Work: A Practical Guide, suggest the following (2005, p. 175):

  • Establish clear goals and a realistic schedule
  • Establish a workable format for circulating and reading each other’s work
  • Don’t get too far in the process before collaborating
  • Don’t get defensive
  • Be willing to rethink anything and everything
  • Be open to change

Brianna: So, what advice would you give to students attempting co-authorship this term?

Taylor: Don’t approach co-authorship from a place of bitterness. Sure, group projects are daunting, but if you go at it with an attitude of “I hate group work”, you limit your ability to succeed. Get to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses and use each other’s skillsets to produce something awesome. Be transparent. If you’re not the best at time management, or maybe you’re not so great at editing for grammatical errors, be honest about that. It’ll help your team support you in better developing those weaknesses and also let you hone in on focusing on the stuff you’re really good at.

Also, recognize that other people are depending on you as much as you are on them. Don’t let someone else do all of the work, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. The more open to collaboration you are, the more you have to gain from the experience of co-authoring.

So, the next time you are tasked with group work or co-authoring, don’t despair! There is a lot you stand to learn from the experience, and remember that the skills you develop will be directly transferable to your future career!

Cheers,

Brianna

Summer Peer Mentor

References

Ede, L., & Lunsford, A. (1983). Why write…together? Rhetoric Review, 1 (2), 150 – 157. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/465586

Danielewicz, J., McGowan, J. (2005). Collaborative work: a practical guide. Symploke, 13 (1-2), 168-181. Retrieved from E-Journals @ Gale Academic OneFile.

Reither, J. A., Vipond, D. (1989). Writing as collaboration. College English, 51(8), 855 – 857. Retrieved from E-Journals @ JSTOR.

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Thinking About How You Think: The Link between Metacognition and Motivation

Self-efficacy may not be a term that you hear often, but it is essentially the beliefs that you have about your capability to achieve a certain outcome (Efklides 2011, 8).  Having low self-efficacy can seriously derail your motivation to stay on track and work hard. For example, if you believe that you are capable of receiving a good grade, then you are more likely to invest in studying well and attending class regularly because you expect it to pay off. However, if you believe that no matter what you do, you are not capable of receiving a good grade, then you are much less likely to invest in studying and attending class (and as a result, you will not do well). This process very much plays out like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because self-efficacy plays a key role in your level of motivation, it is important that you think about how you think about yourself. This process – known as metacognition – refers to cognition about cognition, or, more simply, thinking about how you think (Efklides 2011, 6). Becoming aware of your self-efficacy, and taking steps to think more positively about your capabilities, can in turn boost your motivation! Here are some questions to help you become more aware of your level of self-efficacy:

  • Do I believe I am capable of succeeding in [insert specific goal/task]?
  • If not, why do I think this?

It is important to remember that often the way we think about our self-efficacy is based on our perceptions of how others view us, as well as our perceptions of how difficult a task or goal may be in relation to how capable we think we are (Efklides 2011, 11).

According to Albert Bandura (1977), there are four main sources that impact how we think about our capabilities:

1) Our previous experiences – whether we accomplished what we had hoped to or not in specific situations in the past.57614666

2) Seeing other people succeed or struggle – this may increase our own perception that we too can or can’t accomplish a task.

f577bc2f6bad1884e3167814ae3c64c317a5f1978e2d71ec08c11d3856611256

3) Encouragement or discouragement from others and self – Bandura referred to this as ‘verbal persuasion’.CMON-MAN-YOUVE

4) Emotional reactions to tasks that we are attempting to complete (i.e. fear, anxiety, pride) – for example, if you are anxious about a task, you may be less motivated to attempt it (195).greatest-barrier-meme

Each of these experiences may impact your level of self-efficacy. Metacognition (thinking about how you think), and your level of self-efficacy really does impact your motivation.

‘Verbal persuasion,’ as Bandura (1977) described it, is particularly challenging when it comes to our own self-criticisms.  If your thoughts about yourself were recorded on tape, what would they sound like? Would they be primarily negative? Or primarily positive? Sometimes our thoughts about ourselves can seem like second nature, but you can actually exert some control over how you think! Although it may take time, a step you can take to address this is to practice speaking positive words to yourself, and to be aware when you think something about yourself that is negative. If you are aware, you can quickly address that thought before it begins to affect your mood and your motivation. These theories can apply to your academic studies, but also to every area of your life.

I hope this helps you as you work towards achieving your academic and personal goals this summer!

All the best,

Brianna

Summer Peer Mentor

References

Bandura, Albert. 1977.  “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.” Psychological Review. 84 (2): 191 – 215.

http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Bandura/Bandura1977PR.pdf

Efklides, Anastasia. 2011. “Interactions of Metacognition with Motivation and Affect in Self-Regulated Learning: The MASRL Model.” Educational Psychologist. 46(1): 6 – 25.

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The sun is shining; the beach is calling … but homework

If we’re honest, most students would agree that the bright-eyed, eager anticipation of the school year doesn’t last. We may begin each September with a fresh dose of motivation – ready to learn and study and read our textbooks – but sooner or later our textbooks start to collect dust and our study schedules become optional. By the start of the winter term, we are barely hanging on to our motivation to do our work. Instead, we just want to pass and get this year over and done with. The summer terms can be even more of a challenge – who wants to study when the sun is shining and all of your instincts tell you that you should be lying on a beach somewhere?summer-reading-meme-game-of-thrones

However, we all know those tests and assignments aren’t going to write themselves and that when it comes down to it, we really do want to do well. So, how do you maintain your motivation to stay on track?

Self-regulated learning (SRL) is the process that occurs as you set your academic goals and work towards attaining them (Efklides 2011). Although strategies vary from person to person, here are some tips that may help you stay motivated and on track this summer:

  • Have a plan     

The more organized you are, the more likely you are to succeed. If you haven’t made a study schedule for the summer terms yet, it’s not too late to do so. At the Centre for Student Success there are two types of schedules we recommend to students:

The Weekly Schedule

weekly schedule

The weekly schedule should include everything that you have going on during the week: chores, work, leisure time, appointments, and of course, studying. Be sure to make the schedule as realistic as possible. For example, if you know that you don’t work well in the evenings, don’t schedule study time in the evening. You can find a blank weekly schedule here.

The Term Schedule

spring terms 2015

The term schedule is specifically useful for keeping track of deadlines – at the earliest time you can, write in the due dates for each of your classes.  Colour code the courses in order to keep yourself organized. Completing the term schedule in advance will help you know when you need to be studying for a certain assignment, when things are due, and how much time you have between deadlines. You can find a blank term schedule here.

  • Have some fun

Once you have your academic schedule set, make sure to schedule in some fun! It is the summer after all.  It is essential for your overall health that you have time to relax and enjoy your life. It is recommended that you study in short bursts with breaks in-between. For example, study for an hour, then go outside and enjoy the sun for 10 – 15 minutes. Taking breaks not only helps keep you healthy, but it also boosts your productivity by preventing fatigue. You are not a machine – make sure you are paying attention to your physical and mental well-being. Beach day anyone?

  • Remind yourself of why you’re here

 Why did you decide to study in the summer months? Better yet, why are you in university? What are you aiming towards? What do you hope to get out of your 4 – 5 years of education? What do you hope to do after you graduate? Reflecting on the answers to these questions may help you stay motivated to do your work during the summer months. Your education and grades do matter, and they matter to you for personal reasons. Spend some time thinking about what those reasons may be. Write them down, and remind yourself of these reasons when you are tempted to slack.

  • Visit us!

At the Centre for Student Success, we strive to help students improve their overall writing and studying skills. For this reason, our approach is non-directive – i.e. we will not edit your papers for you, nor will we tell you what you should do. Rather, we hope to provide you with some strategies regarding study habits, academic writing, or time management that will enhance your own skills in the long run! Whether you are working on a specific assignment or preparing for a test, if you would like some guidance you can book an appointment with one of our mentors by clicking here. We look forward to meeting with you!

I hope you have a relaxing, yet productive, summer!

All the best,

Brianna

Summer Peer Mentor

References

Efklides, Anastasia. 2011. “Interactions of Metacognition with Motivation and Affect in Self-Regulated Learning: The MASRL Model.” Educational Psychologist. 46(1): 6 – 25.

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Keys to Success: The Take Home Exam

Take home exams can sound daunting, having to take time out of your designated study days to plan and write an exam can be stressful; however, with the right tools you will be able to master the art of take home exams!

TakeHomeBlog-Challenge

There are many different ways to review your notes to make sense of the information that was provided to you throughout the term.  Burns and Sinfield (2004) state that “…unless we revise material that we encounter we forget 98% after just three weeks” (p. 160).  A term is twelve weeks long; therefore, in order to remember the information well once you get to the exam, you should review your notes every week or every month.

You may be thinking that take home exams are easier than in-class or written exams because in most cases you can use your lecture and reading notes from the term.  However, take home exams usually require more than just regurgitating information.

Therefore, you should study before you receive the take home exam, which will allow you to have a grasp on the main concepts in the course and any important information from the readings.  Then, when it comes time to writing the exam, it will be easier to write because you already know where the information is, and you can retrieve some of the information from memory.  Actively reviewing your notes will also give you an opportunity to test yourself on your knowledge to make sure you understand the information well.  This ensures that you are using the information in a meaningful way, which will increase your ability to recall the information later during the take home exam.

TakeHomeBlog-Homework

The Take Home Essay

One common type of take home exam is an essay.  Essays require you to examine all of the big concepts and important themes that have been discussed throughout the term, and synthesize that information into a coherent argument.

What to Focus On:

  • Major concepts, ideas, and terms.
  • Practice explaining, analyzing, applying those concepts and ideas.
  • How do the ideas in texts and notes relate to each other?
  • Anticipate possible test questions.
  • Write short essay outlines to practice ahead of time (thesis statement, supporting points, evidence).

TakeHomeBlog-Books

Other Tips and Tricks:

  • Form a study or writing schedule for the exam in order to schedule small chunks of uninterrupted time to focus on writing the exam.
  • Eliminate ALL distractions- turn off your phone, block Facebook and Twitter, close your door to eliminate disruptions (electronics will survive without you).
  • Write the exam in a quiet and secluded study space, whichever space works for you in your home.
  • Review the instructions for the exam two or three times before you start planning and writing to ensure that you understand what is being asked.  Make sure that you are addressing everything that is being asked in the question.  In order to check that you are doing this, try to follow the order of the steps in the question in the same order in your writing.
  • What sources are you allowed using, if any?  If the instructions say to quote directly from the article, you should try to quote directly from the article, citing any information that is not your own.
  • If you do use direct quotations, ensure that you’re explaining them and linking them back to the main ideas of your exam.
  • When you are done writing, revise and edit multiple times, if you have time, before you submit the final copy.
  • In an in-class exam, you have maximum two hours to write the exam, and you don’t have a lot of time for revision.  Whereas at home, you have the time to revise your exam thoroughly; you might as well use it!

WARNING

  • As with in-class exams, on take home exams you cannot ask others for help.  If you have questions let your professor know.
  • Unfortunately the Centre for Student Success cannot help you with take home exams without permission, as this would constitute as academic dishonesty.  The Centre for Student Success can only help if you have WRITTEN permission from your professor.  However, you can stop in to ask generalized questions.

Best of luck with your exams!

Rebecca Good

Peer Mentor

References

Burns, T., & Sinfield, S. (2004). How to promote effective revision and exam techniques. In Teaching, Learning & Study Skills: A Guide for Tutors. (pp. 156-170). London: A SAGE Publications Company.

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