The second round of our Writing Madness bracket has concluded, which left us with four writing issues that won’t be participating in the next round of voting. Over the next week, the Learning Hub’s writing staff will be presenting them along with specific resources to help you overcome your frustrations with them. First up? Introductions!
We’ve completed our Writing Madness event for the month of March, but we still have to tell you about the “winning” topic! Today we have some tips and tricks for how to get started on your writing assignments. Read on for more!
Well, you’ve done it again, UIS. Two years in a row you’ve selected one of the most intangible topics as the most frustrating writing issue. Getting started. I’ll admit, I’m not sure how I want to get started with this post, other than noting that I also find it frustrating at times (right now being a prime example).
When you’re handed an assignment that you need to complete by a specific deadline, it can be a very daunting prospect. Knowing you have to turn out 6 or 8 or 15 pages in a couple of weeks is a crazy thought, and if you don’t stop yourself from getting overwhelmed, it can be almost impossible to step back and try to plan out how you might attack that assignment. Even shorter assignments of only 2-3 pages can seem like a mountain to climb when you don’t know how to begin.
Interestingly, getting started effectively on writing assignments hinges very closely on our runner-up topic, time management. See that blog post from yesterday for tips and tricks on how to make sure you follow the schedule set forth for each project.
But when talking about getting start, specifically, we have three very specific tips for you to make sure you avoid the anxiety and stress that comes with each new project you’re asked to write.
Scrutinize that assignment sheet
Most writing assignments you’re asked to undertake will be presented to you in some sort of prompt or assignment sheet that provides guidelines and expectations for how your professor wants you to approach the project. It’s super duper important that you understand that prompt inside and out before you undertake any decision making with what you want to write about, research you need to conduct, and anything else related to your work.
When looking at a prompt, it’s good to check out any key details you need to know, which can include things like the following:
- Due date
- Word count or page length
- Research requirements
- Formatting requirements
It’s also important to know the purpose, topic, and scope the assignment requires. Sometimes it’s very specific and you don’t have a lot of choices to make, but other times it’s very open and you have to determine your focus for yourself.
Try to identify key words or important action verbs (like describe, analyze, synthesize, apply, or evaluate) that dictate the approach you need to take on the assignment. Annotate everything that helps you understand what you need to do, and rewrite it into your own words, so that the way forward becomes clearer and easier for you.
The Learning Hub has a handy handout on how to read prompts that you can find here. We highly, highly recommend having it in your back pocket to reference anytime your professors give you a new prompt.
Once you know what you need to do for a project, by scrutinizing your prompt, you should take time to explore your options for your topic. Rather than deciding right away, think about freewriting for a brief period of time to lay down on the page everything that you know, everything you don’t know, and anything that interests you that might be appropriate for the assignment. Don’t feel obligated to stay focused on one particular thing – take time to articulate anything that might fit the assignment expectations, so that you give yourself choices, written down on the page, to pursue.
After a general first freewrite, you can then decide on a more specific direction, and freewrite again with a focus on that new direction. Continue freewriting as many times as you’d like to help you narrow down a topic and make getting started a less stressful prospect.
When freewriting, it is important that you do not stop writing or typing during the entire duration you set for the task. If you don’t know what to write, simply keep writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over, or else write nonsense, like “blue baseball” to keep your pen moving or your fingers typing. Once your brain stops spinning its wheels and figures out the new direction to go in, take yourself there. If you do your freewrite on your computer and you can turn your monitor off or cover it with a piece of paper or something, it will free your brain up from getting stuck on typing mistakes and let your thoughts flow freely.
The Learning Hub has a handout on freewriting that you can find here. It helps you understand what freewriting is, how you can undertake it, and why it’s a useful prewriting tactic you should adopt as part of your writing process.
Come to The Learning Hub
Yeah, no joke. One of our biggest pieces of advice if you get stuck getting started is to ask for help. The Learning Hub’s writing tutors are happy to help you at any stage of the writing process, which includes the initial stages. We can go over a prompt with you, help you explore topic ideas, determine research questions, and maybe even begin outlining for a draft. One of the best things a person can do is learn when to ask for help, and The Hub is one of the most helpful places on campus!
Contact The Learning Hub here to make an appointment, and be prepared for us to put you to work getting started on your writing projects!
Thank you to everyone who participated in our Writing Madness event this month. We hope you’ve found all of our advice helpful in combating all of the frustrating writing issues you’ve encountered, and that you take us up on some of them as you work toward beating your writer’s block!
Now go and get started!
The time has come to announce the winner of our Writing Madness bracket we have hosted throughout the month of March. We have had an outstanding voter turnout over the last few weeks, and we want to thank each and every person who took part in our project.
Without further ado, the self-reported most frustrating writing issue for UIS students is…
Michael is thrilled to have represented this writing issue!
This result means that our second place goes to “Time Management.” We will be doing posts for each of these issues in the very near future to provide tailored resources that will help you sort them out in your writing. Be looking for those very soon!
Thank you again to all who participated!
After polling UIS students throughout the month of March on which writing issue they found the most frustrating, we were very surprised to discover that “Staying Motivated” was the top choice. Considering that some of the competitors it faced were “Thesis Statements,” “Structuring a Paper,” and “Finding Sources,” all of which are more specific, writing-related issues, we never thought motivation was going to be the cherry on top of this frustrating writing sundae.
Maybe it’s because Dana was our photographic representative. Not many people can resist the charm of a dog, much less one as cute as this black lab baby.
But we like to think that students voted based on the actual issue itself, rather than how cute the mugshot to show it off was.
Anyway, given that Staying Motivated won, The Learning Hub’s writing staff wanted to develop a resource for UIS students so that they can find that motivation to write, to read, to study, or do whatever they need to do to succeed in their college classes.
So what did we come up with? Well, motivation is a hard one. It’s not something you can just snap a finger and suddenly develop. Nor is it something you can follow a step-by-step process to attain. Rather, it’s intrinsic. Something that’s inside you, and that pushes you to keep going. Often, motivation comes from the desire to do the task. If you are enjoying yourself, you’re likely going to keep going. However, much of the writing, reading, and studying we do at the college level is on things we may not find particularly interesting, and so it’s hard to feel invested in that work. So motivation can be hard to come by. And even harder to force it on yourself.
So way to go, UIS. Way to pick the most intangible of all the writing issues on our bracket, and one of the hardest to try and find resources or advice to inspire it in all of you.
But we’re going to do our best. Because motivation is internalized, and difficult to manifest in another person, we’re going to try something different. What we have done with this post is to gather seven different websites or apps that will help you to stay on task, and stay motivated. Rather than digging into yourselves to find motivation, we’re going to try and find external technologies you can use that might help to train you to be more organized, to think of learning in ways that are more fun, or to keep working in spite of a lack of motivation. All of the sites and apps listed here are free (although some have paid options), and so they are accessible for you to use RIGHT NOW to help you with motivation and that may help you become a better college student. We hope you find this list helpful!
Any.do is a checklist, task-based software that allows you to create lists of things you need to do, and then check them off as you do them. You never need to worry about forgetting something, because everything you need is right there in this cross-platform interface. It is free to use the checklist feature, but if you want to upgrade to a premium account, it’s only $2-3 a month!
OneNote is part of the Microsoft Office suite, and as a UIS student you have access to Office 365 for free, so you can already use this software for free! It’s a note-taking system that helps you organize by class, by lecture, and even by topic. You can insert pictures, videos, icons, and all other sorts of things to make your note-taking and your studying more interesting. If you have a tablet or convertible, you can even write out notes by hand and then convert them to typed text later on. It’s a very versatile program, and should help to get you motivated in your coursework!
One of the most tedious and difficult parts of the writing process is editing. Catching all the grammar, style, and typo mistakes in your work takes a lot of time, and sometimes you may miss some issues. If this is something that resonates with you, then consider using Hemingway App. It is a software you can use in a browser for free, or download as a desktop app for only $20, and you use it by typing into it. In “write” mode, you type as you would with any other word processing software (Word, etc.). Then, once you’re ready, you can switch over to “edit” mode, and Hemingway App will show you everywhere that you have any issues. It’s much more accurate than Microsoft Word’s grammar and spellcheck feature, so it’s a handy helper for you and your writing! Hopefully, this app will motivate you, because it will save you time and energy!
Another part of the writing process that really trips up a lot of students is planning out ideas. I don’t know about you, but outlines are not really any fun. But if you don’t have a solid plan for your writing, it’s unlikely you’ll end up with a successful paper. So finding a way to organize is important. If you’ve never tried mind mapping before, then you’re in for a treat. MindMUp is a wonderful web-based system of mind-mapping, where you can create webs, storyboards, and other graphic representations of your ideas and how they relate, link up, or flow from and into one another. The basic mapping app is free, and you can create an unlimited number of maps through it. Check it out as a creative way to amplify your writing process!
Another significant reason why students lack motivation is that they are easily distracted. Who can blame them? With all the apps, websites, and streaming out there, it’s amazing any of us get anything done anymore. Luckily, there are apps and programs out there than can help to cut through the noise, and force you into productivity free from those pesky distractions. One of those is Forest, a free Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox extension, but also a $1.99 app for Apple and Android users. Once you set the 30 minute timer, a tree starts growing. At the end of the 30 minutes, you’ve grown a tree that is added to your forest. If you grow enough trees in the app, you can grow an actual tree in a developing country in the real world! The catch is that you cannot exit the app during the 30 minute time frame. If you do, your tree will wither and die. This app makes productivity a game that has great payoff, so check it out if you find yourself picking up your phone or checking your social media often while you are trying to work.
Another great way to avoid distractions is with a dedicated website blocker that, when enabled, will not let you visit any of the common sites you check out when you’re ultra-procrastinating. There are many out there, but one that works well is Cold Turkey Blocker. It’s free (many blockers are not), and, as a bonus, it can block programs and applications on your computer, too. Also, it doesn’t just put up an error message when you try to go to one of the no-no sites. It gives you an inspirational quote you can take with you as motivation to keep going and to finish your task. The basic program is free, but for $25-29 you can get all sorts of other features, like a scheduling system for your studying, break intervals, and other things. It’s pretty neat – give it a try!
Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s a style of studying or working in which you set a timer for 25 minutes, and when that’s done you can take a 3-5 minute break. Then you work for another 25 minutes, then break again for 3-5 minutes. Then work for a final 25 minute span, and finally you get to take a longer break, usually 15-20 minutes. Then you start the process again. This technique can be very helpful if productivity or motivation is lacking, because it gives you breaks where you can get a little procrastination out of your system before diving back in. It also pushes you to break your work into smaller, more manageable tasks. All in all, it’s an excellent way to stay motivated. Marinara Timer is an easy-to-use website that makes this method super easy and painless to try out.
We hope you have found this list of websites and apps helpful. Please check them out and see if they will help you to stay motivated in your reading, your studying, and your writing.
If you still struggle, though, please consider making an appointment with our Academic Skills TA in The Learning Hub. She works with issues like Time Management, Study Skills, Note-Taking, and, yes, Motivation.
For more tips, see the Learning Hub’s handout on writing introductions below, visit the Learning Hub’s website for more handouts on writing skills, make an appointment with a tutor, and keep your eye on this blog!
-A thesis statement reflects the main idea of your paper, summarizing the main idea and central message. Avoid vague words and overly explicit statements.
-Remember to introduce your thesis statement early in the paper so that you can frame your ideas with this focus.
-Break the goals of the assignment down individually and spend some time reflecting
how you’ll meet expectations now that your
topic has been selected.
-Consider re-writing the prompt in your
own words to ensure that you’re properly understanding what you’re being asked to
-Once everything is on paper, you’ll be able to
make connections on the page and substantiate
the claims of the thesis.
-When you’ve taken time to brainstorm ahead
of time, you’ll be best equipped to center in on
the most vital ideas.
-Once you’ve been able to maintain distance from your paper, you’ll be able to see where you’ve rambled or lost your train of thought through your paper.
-After you’re feeling refreshed, you’ll be able
to produce well-paced and supported ideas.
-Much like an outline to start your paper, but a
reverse outline is a way to check in that your
ideas are clearly articulated.
-Use this method to see how your ideas connect together and how firmly they relate to your
-Here at The Hub, we have strategies to help
you focus your draft and suggestions on how
to approach revisions.
-Plus, it’s good to get another perspective on your writing, because another person may be able to pinpoint where you may lose focus.