Dylan Dryer advises:”It’s useful to remember that writing is not natural because writers tend to judge their writing processes too harshly—comparing them to the ease with which they speak (29).

Remember, you acquired language as a baby. It happened over time, you were taught, but you were also constantly exposed to it. It’s like good (such a bad word!) writers are/were good readers. Children who were read to, and read themselves, were/are exposed to words and sentences over time. And that is, in a large part, referring to writers who are good at mechanics. the most technically perfect sentence can still be ineffective.

A writer’s two best friends are time and distance. Give yourself time to write, and time to get away from it, return, and revise.

Work Cited

Dryer, Dylan. “Writing Is Not Natural.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 27–29.


Dear Plato,

The benefits of reflective writing are no secret. Instructors ask students to reflect on the work they have done, to build new knowledge, to identify writing habits, and to move forward.
But, often, when tutoring or responding to a student’s work, the issue of being “stuck” comes up. A form of reflective writing can help untie those knots, too. I advise the writer to, you guessed it, write about it. Write a journal entry, or better yet, write a letter. Write to an imaginary friend, to yourself, to Aristotle or Pikachu, whomever, but write about it. Write, in your own words (let them be as heated as you want), what the problem is. It’s a form of free-writing; just keep writing until you move past the frustration and find yourself puzzling it out, having epiphanies, making discoveries, untying the knots, one by one.

“Dear Plato,
I have this assignment, and I have an outline, but am stuck when I get to ____ because _____. I don’t get _____, etc.”
Make sense?

Reading as Proofreading

One of the simplest and most effective things you can do to review your own work is to read it aloud. This helps with low stakes and high stakes concerns; everything from punctuation and grammar, to organization, tone, and coherence, because it makes you the reader.

Go somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed and read the work paragraph by paragraph, section by section, or sentence by sentence. (Haven’t you ever spoken a sentence out loud to see how it “feels?” Same thing.)

Don’t record yourself—no one likes the sound of their own voice. Don’t look in the mirror; you’ll be distracted.

An alternative is to ask a peer to read it aloud to you. This is another way to make yourself the audience. Take notes as you listen.

When you’ve written something, and looked at it over and over, and read it inside your head, your brain “fixes” everything. It feels right because it is so familiar. Reading aloud puts distance between you and the text, creating a space for objectivity.

Try it. Trust us, it works.

Navigating the Prompt

The prompt is as much a part of the assignment as the paper itself.

Navigating a prompt can seem daunting to a student, but some simple guidelines, that can be applied to most assignment descriptions, can help. An action plan, leading to the paper’s action plan, is not so daunting because it is based on common sense questions:

  • Did I read it? Read it-all the way through, before anything else.
  • What is the overall objective of this assignment? The prompt probably contains a statement to that effect. Highlight or label it.
  • What are the “givens,” the technical stuff? Make a list of to-dos, such as length, style, due date, etc. These become a simple checklist. Save it the for last, after the work is done. (Don’t wrap the box before the present is inside.)
  • Who is the audience? Who, other than the instructor, are you writing for? (This might be a real audience, or it might be a “made-up”one for the purposes of the paper. Either way, it doesn’t matter; it gives you focus, and helps you strategize.)
  • What is this? Highlight anything that just isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense, and ASK. (The teacher and/or the writing center are there to help.)
  • What materials will I need (research, texts, etc.)?
  • Are there any special rules or exceptions for this assignment (e.g. an author’s note, or an exception to an MLA or APA rule, etc.) If not, then forget about it.

Get all these things “sorted,” as they say in England, then, think about a tentative thesis, and finally, begin that outline. Breaking it down into bits, eliminates the scary. They’re just things to do.

Here’s some more detailed information from Purdue and UNC:




The Three Index Cards

One of the most challenging times for a student, especially in a First Year Writing course, or in any class with writing, is navigating the assignment., Often, they don’t think about doing a critical reading of the assignment description, or annotating it, like any other text they encounter. And, oftener still, they don’t ask for help when they are confused.

Several years ago, I came up with a simple activity to get them to talk with each other about the assignment itself. It takes three index cards, and something from which they can be drawn, like a bag, or a cap, or envelope.

After they have read over the assignment description (say for a paper), and the instructor has gone over it, the index cards are employed to get them talking about the doing of the work:

  1. Each student gets a card.
  2. On the lined side of the card, they write the single thing about the assignment they think will be the most challenging. Ask them to be concise and write only that one thing.
  3. All the cards go back in the bag.
  4. Then, everyone draws a new card.
  5. They then respond to what the card says. This could be identifying with the concern, an answer, or suggestions, etc.
  6. The cards go back in the bag.
  7. Each student draws a new card.
  8. This time, on the blank side, the last student builds on what the first two have said.
  9. The third student presents to the class. They read the original concern, the response, and then what they wrote to build on it.
  10. Discussion will begin organically because others will want to respond, etc.; the instructor just needs to guide it.

This not only gets them taking abut the paper they must write, but about studying/writing/reading habits that work, and it eases some of that tension about “looking dumb,” or that “everyone but me gets it” feeling they might have.

Living Words

I often find myself giving students this note: “Anything occurring in a text (print, digital, or visual) is referred to in the present tense because it is “living” in an ongoing present. Shakespeare is dead, but you would still say, ‘In Rome & Juliet, he writes…’”

The late Brenda Ueland inspired me as a young writer. I have always tried to incorporate much of what she says when encouraging student writers. Ueland encapsulates her advice for writers at the end of If You Want to Write, and I have taken the liberty of passing on the highlights. She advises:

“To sum up—if you want to write:

  1. Know that you have talent, are original and have something to say.
  2. Know that it is good to work…
  3. Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
  4. Tackle anything you want to—novels, plays, anything. Only remember Blake’s admonition: ‘Better top strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’
  5. Don’t be afraid to write bad stories [or essays, or papers.]
  6. Don’t fret or be shamed of what you have written in the past… It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. go on to the next.
  7. Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self…
  8. Remember how wonderful you are…
  9. if you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign…
  10. Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself…
  11. Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers…”

Pretty good advice, for the classroom, the writing center…the mirror.

Brenda Ueland wrote these words in 1938, but her wisdom, indeed, lives in an ongoing present.

Works Cited

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write, a Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. Graywolf. 1987.


What do YOU Tell Your Students about Second Person?

How many times does a teacher, or tutor, give a note or make a comment about second person in student writing?

It’s natural to use second person, it’s the way we think and speak. So, why is incorrect in academic writing? Here are some brief answers for students:

It’s too casual/conversational, or not “formal” enough (formal not meaning stuffy, or overly wordy) for academic work, and can cost the writer ethos.

It puts the focus on the reader/audience. It can even put them on the defensive. The authority in academic writing lies with the rhetor, not the sources or the audience.

Southeast Missouri State University has a great resource with some spot-on examples YOU might want to leverage: http://www.semo.edu/pdf/Writing_handout_Avoiding_Second_Person.pdf



When to Write the Introduction

The first thing read, is the last thing written.

Every teacher loves to read a paper that begins with a strong, healthy introduction, one that has a hook, and narrows to a sound thesis, one that intrigues you, makes you want to read more because it gives you a roadmap of what to expect, one that discusses the gaps the paper will seek to fill. We teach our students these things, and we reiterate them in the Writing Center. One of the most important things we can tell them is when to write the introduction: How about last?

This is not to say that if they need to begin at the beginning, we are taught all things linear growing up, that they shouldn’t. I tell my students to go ahead, get it out, get the ball rolling, BUT don’t forget about it  just because you made it through and got to the “good stuff.” I remind them that the introduction is the first impression the paper makes, and sets the tone for the rest. I also remind them that it, including the thesis, can change as the paper evolves. I ask them to compare the conclusion and the introduction, to consider how pertinent, connected, focused what is being said in each is to the body. I tell them to wait until they are finished with the bulk of the paper, when they are “in the zone,” when they “own it,” and then revise the introduction.

I also find that often there is a “nugget” that is great in the conclusion, but it far greater if moved to the introduction, perhaps even as the hook (I did that with my opening line of this post.)

Here’s some terrific information on Introductions from UNC:



Some Thoughts on “Academic Writing”

The semester has just begun. I cannot help but think of the new Freshmen because I have taught First Year Writing for the last three years. On the first day of class, I always ask them to write their definition of ”academic writing.” The usual answers are things like, “it’s more formal… it is precise…it is better language…” then, we talk about the definitions of ”formal, precise, and better.”

I give them an example from Q’s Legacy, by one of my favorite writers, Helene Hanff. She tells the story of how she, “wanted instruction in how to read and write English” (7). She went to the library, and discovered Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing. In it, he offers two sentences, one jargon, and one “good English prose”:

He was conveyed to his residence in an intoxicated condition.

He was carried home drunk.

Guess which one most of them choose. We then begin the discussion on “academic writing” and Standard American English, how good writing is not good mechanics, as well as an assortment of myths that need busting. L. Lennie Irvin talks about this in “What is ‘Academic’ Writing?”. He advises: “ Your success with academic writing depends upon how well you understand what you are doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task” (3).

Finding a voice for academic writing is a challenge to navigate, especially as a Freshman. Oftentimes, students are sure they are terrible writers, or they are superb, depending on their previous knowledge and experiences. The answer for each student is different. But, learning to write with more confidence makes a space for your academic voices (yes, there are more than one) to flourish. Here are some ideas on writing with confidence.

Works Cited

Hanff, Helene. Q’s Legacy. Penguin Books, 1985.

Irvin, L. Lennie. “What is ‘Academic’ Writing?”. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1. Edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, Parlor Press, 2010, pp. 3-17.

Greetings from the Writing Center, Fall 2017


I’m Jeffery Downs, the new Writing Center Coordinator, at St. Edward’s. I have had the pleasure of serving St. Ed’s for the past two years as an adjunct teacher of First Year Writing. Now, I am excited to do even more for the students, and faculty, by coordinating the Writing Center.

We are located on the second floor of the Munday Library, and offer face to face, as well as asynchronous online collaboration/consultation for any type of writing assignment.

  • The St. Edward’s Writing Center is staffed by Writing teachers
  • Open Monday-Saturday
  • F2F, video, or online asynchronous submission
  • (ESL, multilingual students can find a great deal of support
  • From brainstorming to final draft, the WC can help
  • Not just for papers! We can also help with presentations, visual rhetoric, and other multimodal projects
  • We offer an environment of collaboration, not instruction
  • The website offers many resources for students to explore and use on their own–tools for their writing success

The Writing Center is always ready to work with you. Contact me at jdowns@stedwards.edu

Warm regards,

Jeffery Downs, MA

Writing Center Coordinator

St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas