Writing Madness Consolation Post #10 – Getting Started!

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!

by Sarah

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!

Writing Madness Consolation Post #2 – Word Counts!

The first round of our Writing Madness bracket has concluded, which left us with eight writing issues that won’t be participating in the next round of voting. The Learning Hub’s writing staff have picked four of these eight, and over the next week we will be presenting them along with specific resources to help you overcome your frustrations with them. This time? Word Counts!

by Alec

As the dust is now settled from the first round of voting for The Learning Hub’s March Madness web series to discover the most frustrating aspect of college writing we find ourselves surprised by the fact that “Word Count” was among the first to be eliminated. The fact that it made it onto this list was little surprise to anyone. Word counts, or page counts for that matter, can be a tricky balance to reach for many students. Some find that they cannot limit themselves to a specified amount of words or pages, while others find it difficult to fill the page with meaningful material that both posits and supports an argument. Listed below are a few thoughts to keep in mind while writing your next paper for which a specific count has been assigned:

  1. If a student struggles with wordiness, they should be sure to check their paper for common wordy phrases. We often use lengthy phrases to express ideas that can be expressed in one word. The student should, when they have finished their first draft, read through their paper to identify places where they can cut out unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases. If you can relate to this, check out our handout on “Writing Clear and Concise Sentences.”
  2. If a student struggles with not being able to reach word counts, they should be sure to brainstorm ideas and plan their writing before they ever place their fingers on the keyboard. Often times a lacking word count can be attributed to a type of writing which I call “stream of consciousness.” The idea is that the student is simply writing whatever comes to mind without planning and outlining before they begin drafting. If you feel this describes you, check out our series of handouts entitled “Prewriting Strategies.” These include information on “Freewriting,” “Listing,” “Thought Mapping/Webbing,” and “Outlining.”

If you have doubts or concerns about meeting your word count, be sure to ask for assistance. Most professors are more than happy to read over a piece of your writing and talk to you about potential changes. Likewise, you can always meet with a writing tutor at The Learning Hub by emailing thehub@uis.edu or by calling 217-206-6503. You might also find inspiration by perusing through The Learning Hub’s many handouts, which you can find here.

Subject to Thesis

Or, How to Take Your Initial Idea and Turn It into an Argument

by Sarah Collins

I always found that coming up with my thesis statement for my papers was hardest when I hadn’t first done three things: 1) chosen a broad subject area, 2) focused that subject down to a more manageable topic, and 3) done background research on that more specific topic to more clearly understand how I wanted to approach it.

It can be a painful process if you aren’t breaking things down into steps that are manageable and that give you the time to explore things in a way that helps you identify the best route for your paper.

This handout below walks you through the process of moving from a subject to a topic to a thesis statement, and then outlines strategies for creating a strong, cohesive, memorable thesis that will guide you as you then write your paper.

Continue reading “Subject to Thesis”