Words from Your Mentors

Our writing mentors are posting their best study tips and what they've learned from working with you through the semester.

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  • Patience and tomato sauce: my approach to teaching writing skill - by Jillian Schedneck

    When I was 16, I worked for a catering company.

    Once, we got a contract to run a concession stand at a convention centre, and I worked there for a week. Every day, the customers ordered their burgers and fries, and every day, they asked where the tomato sauce was. I noticed my co-worker becoming increasingly annoyed at this question. By the end of the day, she would just shout at them, “It’s over there!” And point at the nearby table filled with condiments.

    The tomato sauce was indeed on a nearby table, but each new customer didn’t know that yet. At 16, I was more aware of this than my colleague, whose frustration I related to but strived not to show. I tried to point out the tomato sauce in a friendly way to each new customer, aware that I couldn’t expect each new person to automatically be aware of that condiment table.

    I’ve worked with thousands of students in a one-on-one capacity during my ten plus years as a writing instructor and academic support provider. And I still remember that week of pointing out the tomato sauce because it relates to my approach to writing teaching: it may be the same material to me, but each new writing student I meet doesn’t know it yet.

    So I have to keep explaining what a thesis statement is, or give an example of a topic sentence, or describe ways to avoid comma splices, in order to help each new person. I can’t get annoyed or frustrated when someone doesn’t know something that they haven’t learned yet, even if it’s the tenth time I’ve explained that idea in one day. It’s my job to explain these ideas and skills to students in new ways, again and again if necessary.

    While there weren’t many new or different ways to describe where the tomato sauce was located, there are new ways to describe the skills and strategies of academic writing that will appeal to one student more than another. I make my best guess on how to reach each student, and if that strategy doesn’t work, I’ll try another tack.

    I’ve hired Writing Mentors who I believe hold the same patient and practical attitude about teaching writing skills, who don’t become frustrated by explaining the same concept or assignment for the fifth time that day. We know that each new student is indeed new—new to the university, or to that course, or to that assignment, or all three. You may not know where the tomato sauce is, but we can certainly help you find it.

  • Making sense of curious behaviour - by Ali Reid

    It is the end of my first semester working as a Writing Centre Mentor and I have learned a lot in a short space of time. Working in the Writing Centre has opened my eyes to the wide variety of methods that students use to complete their assessment tasks. Every student has their own way of finding their way through a task and my job is to work out how I can best help them in that endeavour. Sometimes it also includes trying to make sense of curious behaviour. 

    Early in the semester I was working with a student who was quite a way through writing a paper for Professions. Though he had quite a bit of content on the page and clearly understood certain aspects of the topic, there was something disconnected about the points he was making in his paper and it felt quite ‘clunky’ to read as a result.

    As we were working through the piece, he asked me about referencing. He had aligned about five authors to a very simple concept (that probably didn’t require a reference).  When I asked him about this, he opened one journal article so I could take a look and realised that the five authors had indeed been cited by a single secondary source to explain a much more complicated concept – but the student had only used part of the idea. At that moment the student seemed a bit uncomfortable and laughed nervously.

    I suddenly realised that he wanted to use the five authors instead of the one secondary source to boost the amount of references in his bibliography. The five sources only appeared once in his paper aligned to that basic idea and were never seen again.  A quick check of the references in his paper confirmed that most citations were not used to strongly evidence or support complex or sophisticated ideas, but were making basic points.  As part of the session I explained to the student that sources are included in a paper not to achieve a required amount of sources but to demonstrate a synthesis of knowledge and the ability to use it to create a sophisticated argument.

    Later in the semester I worked with this same student again. This time he WAS trying to include references for the sake of meeting a minimum number of sources. He had written his paper, finished the draft and realised he didn’t have enough sources. He was then visiting the writing centre to find out how he could reduce his word count to try and fit in some last minute content to boost the bibliography. Again, the source materials he had included were not being used well and because of this, the writing was clunky and disconnected. I realised my earlier advice to him had either not been received or not been understood. 

    It could have been easy to assume that this student was simply trying to ‘game the system’, to satisfy a minimum amount of references – but I felt there was something deeper going on. The disconnected nature of his writing, even though he clearly generally understood the topic suggested to me that this was perhaps a problem relating to research skills.

    I’d had time to think on this experience over the semester and so instead of editing the piece to achieve his inclusions, I asked him to talk me through his research process. It became apparent that as I’d suspected, the problem lay in his research strategy and method, even before writing began. He didn’t have the study skills to conduct targeted, valuable research and then organise his sources and ideas to support the writing process.

    The student was constructing an argument with a solid understanding of the overall topic but with poor materials to support what he was trying to say. As a result, the writing quality suffered and the student found himself battling with the writing and referencing process.  We worked on research skills and I provided him with strategies that he could apply to any study situation to organise his sources and maximise their value.

    This experience demonstrated to me that Writing Mentors often need to look beyond the writing that is physically presented to them to determine why a student with good ideas might be struggling. It reminded me that our role is not just about giving feedback for what’s written on the page, but about supporting a holistic process, an accumulation of skills that need to work together even before the student arrives at the Writing Centre.

    It also reminded me of the importance of looking for plausible reasons for curious behaviour before assuming the worst. I am really looking forward to seeing how this student progresses next semester.

  • Write with a different kind of reader in mind - by Chelsea Avard

    Who do you imagine reading your assignment? Your lecturer, or tutor? You wouldn’t be alone in doing so. My first undergraduate assignments were certainly written this way. It made sense – it was the lecturer who had set the assignment, and the lecturer who was going to be the official ‘reader’ of the finished work, after all.

    The problem with this was that it meant that I left important information out of my assignment. Important information like the research question, like definitions for the terms and concepts at the heart of my response to that question, and details that would contextualize the theories, ideas and events I would present as evidence for my argument.

    I speak with many students each week who take this same approach, and get the same outcome – an assignment that might respond to the essay question and gestures towards the central ideas from their discipline/course but also one that asks the reader to do a lot of work to figure out what that essay question might have been, how particular terms are being used, and what the connections might be between the theories and concepts being applied or explored and the student’s own argument.

    The simple solution here is to imagine a different reader altogether.

    Imagine a reader who is not your lecturer or tutor. A reader who is:

    • intelligent
    • educated
    • interested
    • not an expert on your particular topic.

    Imagine a reader who has a sharp enough mind to follow your argument, but who will need to know:

    • what your research question/topic is
    • what you mean when you use certain key terms
    • how your ideas reflect/engage with those of scholars from your field

    Writing with this kind of reader in mind means that you take care to clarify your research question, your argument in response to that question, and the central concepts you will use in your approach. You’ll also have demonstrated your understanding of important terms and concepts. Just what your lecturer/tutor is looking for when grading your assignments!

    Tell us what you really think!

    Another confusing idea I encountered in my first year, and often hear echoed in conversations from new students is actually a mixture of two terrible myths.

    Terrible Myth A: You are not allowed to use ‘I’ in formal academic writing (ie: you’re not an expert/what you think doesn’t matter).

    Terrible Myth B: Your lecturer is not interested in your opinion (ie: you’re not an expert/what you think doesn’t matter).

    What can result are students who feel they have to write an essay without letting the reader know what their position is in relation to the topic. It is virtually impossible to write (or read!) an essay of this kind.

    Now, at the heart of these myths are two ideas that are central to academic writing.

    Central Idea A: If you have structured your essay well around a thesis statement and a set of claims supported by properly referenced evidence, you don’t often need to use ‘I’ in your essay.

    The reader knows you are the author of the essay, and if you’ve done your job they will be able to tell the difference between your ideas and the evidence you provide from others’ research. Saying ‘I think’, or ‘I believe’ before your claim doesn’t add meaning or weight. It is, in fact, unnecessary. Just make the claim! The writer will know it is what you think, and then will look to the evidence you provide to see if:

    • you’ve done enough research into what other scholars have written on the topic to warrant making such a claim
    • you’ve analysed this evidence and drawn clear links between it and your claim
    • your argument is well founded and convincing

    Central Idea B: All claims must be supported by evidence.

    Your reader wants to know what you think. But academic writers don’t write in their own little bubble. New research builds on the ideas and discoveries and arguments that have been made in the past, and those that are at the centre of our disciplines right now.

    So, make your position on your topic clear then back it up with evidence from your reading.

    Rethink the message of Terrible Myth A: not ‘Your lecturer is not interested in your opinion’, but ‘Your reader is not interested in your opinion unless you can support it with evidence’.

    Not ‘what you think doesn’t matter’, but ‘if you support your claims with evidence you will probably convince me that your opinion is a valid one’.

  • Making the of feedback - by Jess Scott

    When we see your writing at the Writing Centre, we can do a lot together to improve your writing in many ways – but we can’t actually predict your grade, or guarantee you a certain increase in marks. And sometimes, the mark that you receive for an assignment doesn’t seem to reflect the effort that you put into to researching, analysing, or editing.

    We’re close to the end of semester one now, and all of you have received some marks for assignments by now. If you do receive a disappointing mark and you’re not sure why, what we can do at the Writing Centre is to sit together and have a look over that assignment and make the most of the feedback that you got from the marker.

    This should help you continue to refine your writing skills, and help you the next time you write an assignment for that course, or for another discipline.

    There are some stages to reading feedback:

    1. Allow yourself to grieve.
      A disappointing mark always hurts! Understand that it’s only one piece of writing, and it’s a stepping stone to better writing. Think of it as a process of gradual development and improvement. Academics – i.e. your course coordinators, your lecturers, and your tutors – go through these emotions frequently, believe it or not. Learning to deal with criticism and critique is a very important part of scholarship.
    2. Sit down and read through any comments that are written on your assignment.
      These might be on the hard copy, or online in some form. Do you understand what they’re saying? Can you see why they evaluated your writing in this way? It might be helpful to revisit the assignment criteria, or rubric, or course booklet. What kinds of things have they focused on? Are there ticks or crosses? Have they asked you questions which might point to areas for development of your argument?

      If you do understand why you might have received the mark that you did, make notes. Write some dot-points for yourself, so that you don’t make the same mistakes with your next assignment. Write some instructions for your future self.

      If you don’t understand the feedback, however, go ahead and bring your assignment into the Writing Centre. Someone will sit with you, and go through the assignment, the feedback, and the criteria. Together we will work towards understanding what you might have missed, and identify areas to focus on with future work.

    Finally - you should be proud of yourself for using the feedback as a resource to improving your writing. Moving from disappointment to problem-solving is a core part of scholarship.

    Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

  • Effective writing begins with effective reading - Ali Reid

    Students often visit the writing centre because they're struggling to make sense of an essay question and they're unsure of how best to answer it. This is sometimes because they haven’t undertaken a sufficient amount of reading to form an argument about a topic. Alternatively, they may have done a great deal of reading, but just haven’t understood the topic generally despite their best efforts.

    There is an art to effective reading that you can learn.

    As a motivated humanities student, I would dutifully undertake all my weekly essential readings. As I read, if something sounded impressive or interesting, I would meticulously highlight or underline it.

    I would arrive at my tutorials and workshops with a colourful reader ... but often felt confused about the point of what I had read.

    When my tutor asked me to critique the argument, or synthesise it from 20 pages down to half a page and provide a summary, I struggled. Some papers seemed to bounce around from one point to the next and it was difficult to follow what the author was saying.

    Some were written in such flowery academic language that I felt as though I would need a degree in Linguistics and a translation from Martian to English before I could possibly understand. Some just didn’t seem to make a point, and if they did, I couldn’t see it. How could I then write an essay about it?

    Sound familiar?

    I realised that if I was to become a more effective writer, I would need to become an effective reader, finding new ways to understand what I had read.

    5 key strategies made a big difference for me:

    1. Just because something has been published doesn't mean that it's perfect, cannot be critiqued or that you have no right to critique it.
      University is in fact training you to question everything and think laterally, so be bold and test your skills!
    2. Try to find the structure in the paper you're reading.
      Look for the thesis statement in the introduction where the author will make it clear what their argument is. Then look for topic sentences (the first sentence in a paragraph) that will give you clues about what the main points are. Conclusions should tie up all the arguments neatly to support the thesis statement, so interrogate the conclusion.
    3. Practice ‘chunking’.
      This is where you read the paper one paragraph at a time and try to sum up in one dot point what the main point or big idea was in that paragraph. This helps if you were unable to find a topic sentence. Jot it in the margin or on a notepad. Hopefully by the time you reach the end of the paper you'll be able to see the argument and structure from this exercise. If you can’t, perhaps you can see what you can critique, or where the author might have failed to make their argument. This is a great way to learn critical analysis and also a great tool for evaluating your own work.
    4. If you find that you are spending too much time trying to make sense of a paper that you just cannot follow, no matter how hard you try - MOVE ON.
      There is no point exhausting your time, energy and confidence when you can try researching what other authors have written about that author’s ideas or about the topic generally. Examine counterarguments as they often explain the opposing ideas concisely. You could also check out the supplementary reading list for something that illustrates a similar point but that may have been written in a clearer way.
    5. Take the lessons you have learned from your reading in to your own writing.
      For example, if you have realised that curly language and trying to be overly clever actually means that it is difficult to follow an argument, then write formally but clearly and leave the thesaurus behind. There is no point to having good ideas if no one can understand them.

    I hope these tips will help you to read more effectively and write with confidence! Good luck!

  • Staying focused during the writing process - by Luke George

    One of the most common struggles I see in the Writing Centre is staying focused. Many people come to the Writing Centre with a specific question to answer, but all sorts of ideas and thoughts are floating around in their heads … which ideas are actually relevant? What thoughts should actually be developed and written down?

    The most important key to staying focused during the writing process is having a clear essay structure nailed down before you begin to write. Developing an essay structure is the process that helps you organise your ideas and thoughts, and, most importantly, ensures you are actually answering the essay question and not just waffling.

    The essay structure

    There are many different ways of structuring an essay. However, there are a few key things that every essay structure should have.

    The first thing to develop is your thesis statement. This is essentially the main point you are trying to argue, or the main thing you are trying to show to be true. The thesis statement must be closely related to the essay question or topic. Many people go off topic in their writing because their thesis statement and essay topics are not closely related.

    Once you have your thesis statement, the next step is putting together two, three or four main issues that you are going to explore in your essay. Once again, these should be closely related to your thesis statement such that by discussing each of your main topics, you're building a case for why your thesis statement is true.

    Each main issue should then form the topic of a body paragraph. You should be able to get to the end of each body paragraph and see, through the discussion of that main issue, that you are adding to the credibility of your thesis statement.

    Important questions

    Now that you have a well formed essay structure, there are two questions you can ask of any of your ideas or thoughts to check their relevance:

    1. Does this idea or thought help me show that my thesis statement is true?
      • If the answer is no, then the idea or thought is irrelevant to your essay.
      • If yes, then ask question 2.
    2. Does this idea or thought fit within any of my main issues?
      • If the answer is no, then the idea or thought is irrelevant to your essay.
      • If yes, then the idea or thought is relevant and may be included in the body paragraph corresponding to that main issue.

    Important points

    Just because an idea or thought you have is not relevant to your essay does not mean that it’s a bad idea or thought. It simply means that this idea or thought will not help you prove the truth of your thesis statement in this particular essay.

    If you come up with an awesome idea or thought that does help to show the truth of your thesis statement, but it doesn’t fit well within any of your main issues, then it's ok to change your thesis structure. Just make sure when you do so, you form an applicable main issue around that awesome idea or thought you have.

  • Mastering the oral presentation - by Lur Alghurabi

    Speaking in front of a large group can be quite intimidating. Keeping it interesting, effective and clear isn’t so easy when you’re trying to juggle a thousand ideas in your head about a topic you’ve researched for weeks. Here are five tips to organise these thousand ideas and make you a successful public speaker.

    1. Make it personal
      Start your presentation with a personal story about why this topic is important to you, or an experience you had that made you find it interesting.

      For example, if I was presenting on the impact of global warming, I’d start by telling you about the farm I grew up in with my family and the beautiful scenery we enjoyed, and how it has changed drastically since then and become a lot less green after the river levels decreased.

      After that, I’d tell you about the negative impacts of global warming on the planet as a whole, and not just my family’s farm. A personal anecdote or opinion make your presentation a lot more significant, and your audience will pay closer attention.
       
    2. Note cards
      This has been so useful for me over the years, especially when I get nervous and forget what I’m about to say.

      Prepare a few cards and write down the main points you want to discuss. If your mind goes blank, refer back to them for a quick refresher.

      Your notes don’t need to have all your content, just the main ideas. Write your ideas down in large, clear text so you don’t struggle to understand your handwriting. Highlight the words that you usually struggle to pronounce.

      Include reminders for yourself, such as ‘smile’, ‘make eye contact’, ‘relax’ and ‘take a breath’. Knowing you have your notes for backup makes the experience a lot less scary.
       
    3. Practice
      Practise in front of the mirror a few times and allow yourself to make mistakes. Seeing how you look will remind you to keep smiling, make eye contact and maintain good posture.

      Use your phone’s timer to keep track and make sure you’re not going above or below the required time. In the first practice run, you’ll find a few things about your style or your topic that you want to change, so keep changing them and practising again until you’re 100% happy with what you’ve got.

      You’re less likely to forget your ideas or get nervous if you’ve done it 5 or 6 times before. .

    Oral presentations are an inevitable part of your degree, and they’ll be even more frequent in your career. Take advantage of your time here at uni to fully master this skill because it will come in handy very often.

    If you need more support, or wish to practise without worrying about being graded, drop by our weekly Communicating with Confidence sessions, every Tuesday at 1 pm in the Hub Central Seminar Room.

  • Research first, then write? - by Jillian Schedneck

    Many students believe that the best approach to their writing process is to read up everything that seems relevant to their assignment topic, and then write their assignment based on all they learned.

    While this may sound reasonable, I’ve come across several problems with this approach:

    1. When do you stop researching and start writing?
      It’s hard to know when to draw that line. You could just keep on reading, and only get to your writing on the night before your assignment is due, and you may still feel like you haven’t read enough yet.
    2. Are you researching so that you don’t have to start writing?
      This is a related problem. It may be that you’re reading so much because you feel intimidated by facing the blank page, and don’t want to get started until you know absolutely everything. This poses a similar problem to number one. You’ll never know everything about a topic.
    3. Are you being as strategic as you could be?
      Reading far and wide is great if you have all the time in the world. But that’s rarely the case for university students. You have to think about how to be most efficient with your time.
    4. Are you planning in your head without writing your ideas down?
      By the time you start writing, you’ll have forgotten those initial ideas, or find out that the ideas that worked in your head don’t work so well on the page.

    What’s the solution to all these problems? Research AND write at the same time!

    BEFORE you begin your research, jot down a preliminary outline of your overall answer to the question, and the potential support for this argument. It’s ok if you don’t know much about the topic yet. You know SOMETHING. Go with your first instinct, just for this initial outline.

    Let that initial outline guide your research, knowing that you can always change your mind and your outline based on what you read.

    That way, you can be more strategic about the research you find.

    As you read, make notes or start writing your paragraphs that connect to the pieces of support you’re reading about.

    As you’re reading, always be thinking: how and where can I use this in my paper? Write down your answer this question. You’ll thank yourself later for jotting down those ideas while you were reading.

    When you research AND write at the same time, you avoid the issue of deciding when to start writing. You’ve been writing the whole time!

    Jot down all your ideas related to the argument you’re making and supporting, and you’ll be well on your way to writing an essay in a stress free manner.

    Remember, you don’t learn about a topic only through reading about it. You begin to show understanding and even mastery over a topic through writing.

  • Cooking stir-fry and starting assignments - by Michael Lazarou

    Week 1 has come to an end, and we have already had a great number of students coming in and getting help with writing. It is really wonderful to see you all excited for what you are about to learn and explore in your subjects. I hope to see more of you in the coming weeks!

    Given that us students study from a wonderfully diverse array of subject areas, you might expect that everyone has come to the Writing Centre with similarly distinctive questions about their writing. Surprisingly however, there has been one question that I have been consistently asked among the people I have helped.

    It is a simple question, yet quite vexing: how do I start an assignment?

    The question is indeed simple (after all, to finish an assignment is to have started it at some point, right?) but with further consideration, it is a surprisingly deep question. To answer it is to know how to find appropriate references, how to understand potentially cryptic assessment questions, or even knowing how to structure an essay or report.

    The process of getting started on something is often the hardest step of any assignment that we do at university.

    Now, as those who have talked to me know, I love using food analogies to help explain concepts and ideas, and this post will be no different! I like to think of starting an essay like trying to cook a new meal. As an example, let’s use stir-fry, because it is one of my favourite meals. It’s quick, cheap, nutritious, and most importantly of all, delicious!

    But, if I was trying to cook stir-fry for the first time, I would not be able to cook it perfectly on my first try. At the least, I would need to know three things beforehand:

    1. what ingredients are needed,
    2. how to use the ingredients, and
    3. the recipe, or the steps I need to take to produce the end result: a (hopefully tasty) meal.

    What about writing an essay? Well, as it turns out, the strategy to start writing is quite similar to cooking a new meal! As with cooking, we need three things:

    1. we need to know what we are trying to write about,
    2. we need to know how to use concepts and ideas to present an argument, and
    3. we need to know how to structure what we want to write, and the order that we want to communicate those ideas.

    See the similarity?

    If we need to write an essay or cook a new meal, we need to know what items we need to use, how to use them, and the steps and order to use them.

    Whether it’s cooking a meal for Gordon Ramsay or writing an essay for a really clever lecturer, knowing about the what, the how, and the structure of what we do is important to starting, and important to succeeding.

    Indeed, I myself have used these three principles when I have helped students start writing their assignments. So, the next time you are starting an assignment, think about the what, the how, and the structure of what you are writing. Even if it doesn’t help you write the perfect essay in a few minutes, it just might help you cook a really tasty meal for a friend!