Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Letters of Recommendation: Who to Ask, How to Ask, and What to Ask For

Each year, right around mid September, I receive a few emails from students asking for letters of recommendation. While I would like to help all of my past and present students, my answer isn’t always “yes.” Sometimes, I don’t know a student well enough to write a really strong recommendation. Sometimes, I receive a request just before a student’s deadline for applications, and I don’t have enough time to put something thoughtful together. Most of the time, I am able to honor a student’s request, but I almost always need more information so that I can write a letter that positions the student as an excellent candidate for graduate or professional study.

The above should offer some indication that acquiring a letter of recommendation is more complex than simply sending a quick email requesting one. Given that the process is more complicated, you might now be wondering how you’d go about getting a strong letter, so I’ve put together a list of quick tips that will help you navigate the process when it comes time for you to apply to graduate or professional school.

1) Plan to ask someone who can really say something about you. If you want a recommendation of substance, you’ll want your letter writer to know something about you -- like your interests, your academic strengths, and your interpersonal skills. It may not make a whole lot of sense for you to request a letter from a professor or an instructor who you didn’t interact with beyond a classroom lecture.

2) Once you’ve identified someone, send a polite note. Reconsider opening lines like “Hey” or “Sup” (as in “Sup Dr. Singh-Corcoran”). Choose instead a polite salutation (e.g. “Dear Dr. Singh-Corcoran:”).

3) Tell the recommender what programs you are applying for, your current areas of interest, and point to areas that you’d like your recommender to emphasize. All of this information will help your letter writer tailor her text. You want your recommender to address skills and abilities that will speak to your desired grad/professional program. For example, when a writing center tutor asks me for a letter, I usually focus on her interpersonal skills--especially if she is applying for a graduate teaching position. In my letter, I might address the degree to which the tutor can explain complicated concepts, engage in dialogue, ask thoughtful questions that advance knowledge, and the degree to which she is reflective of her own practices. These same skills and abilities often translate to good teaching.

4) Use paragraphs in the body of your email. Your email needs to be readable; a long chunk of text is difficult to digest. Consider using bullets or numbers if you want information to stand out.

5) Understand that they might say “no.” Don’t take it personally.
Even after you’ve completed steps 1-4, it’s possible that someone might refuse your request for a letter. People say no for many reasons. A faculty member or instructor might feel like they can’t speak well enough to your strengths (See tip #1). He or she might also be really busy and not have enough time. When someone doesn't write you a letter of rec, it does not mean they don’t like you, respect you, or think you aren’t capable of doing graduate-level work.

6) Give the recommender enough lead time.
It’s pretty standard to give a letter writer a one month deadline. Again, people need time to reflect, time to write thoughtful, meaningful, and thorough letters.

7) Tell your recommenders where they need to send your letters or how they need to submit them. Provide addresses if they need to send letters directly to programs. It’s common and considerate to provide postage. Provide weblinks and file format (e.g. PDF, Word, RTF) if they need to submit letters electronically. Make it easy on them.

8) List Due dates.
Let your recommenders know when your applications are due and/or when the letters are due. Sometimes the dates overlap; sometimes applications are due before letters.

9) Send gentle reminders after a reasonable time. It’s ok to send a quick note reminding your professors and instructors that due dates are approaching. Just remember to be reasonable and polite.

10) Send a thank you note. While not required, it’s certainly nice to receive a thank you note. A note is just one way to show your appreciation for the time and care someone took to write you a letter. It’s also a good way to start networking.

11) Share your success.
When the acceptance letters come pouring in, share the good news with your letter writers. They’ll be eager to hear from you!

Monday, September 13, 2010

What To Expect When You Are Expected To Write

Our two most recent posts have dealt with procrastination and proofreading. These seem to bookend the meat of the writing process. While there is no universal writing process that will work for every writer (just like there is no single, ideal product that all writers should produce), listed below are some things you might consider incorporating into almost every substantial, writing project.

The following post should provide a brief overview of some commonly agreed upon steps in the writing process so that emerging writers can better understand process-centered writing. For more experienced writers this post can function as encouragement to revisit some of the steps that might have been abandoned over the years.

The very first step, and one that may seem obvious, is to acquaint yourself with the expectations or goals of your writing project.

Some genres of writing, such as personal journals, are incredibly flexible because they have a narrow audience and the freedom to redefine purpose as needed. Most writing, however, needs to strike a balance between personal goals and larger, external expectations. As a student it is important to review the assignment prompt. While the whole document is important, pay special attention to the grading criteria as this section tends to distill the specific aims of the given assignment. If the language seems vague or confusing, attempt to clarify the assignment expectations with your instructor.

The next step is to generate ideas for your writing. This can be done in a variety of ways, and generally, the best result is produced by using a combination of different methods. You might begin by reading examples of other writers who are working in similar genres, who have completed similar assignments, or who have written on a topic similar to your own. Alternately, you might begin by brainstorming and writing everything you know about your subject and the assignment. Brainstorming can work to generate great search terms to find readings, or, alternately, reading before brainstorming can generate more complex ideas. Other early writing strategies include free writing, mapping, and outlining.

Outlining is the step that many take to see how the ideas they have generated can be organized. Refer back to your assignment prompt to get a sense for the length and scope of the assignment. Remember that you are building the puzzle at the same time that you are putting it together. This means that you shouldn't be surprised if you end up with extra pieces or need to create a few more later in the process. Save the ideas you don't use, and repeat a mini-version of the generative stage of the process to get additional ideas.

When you begin the drafting process try to leave yourself enough time so that you can take the work in parts. Hemingway once said, "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was till something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it." He did this by never stopping at the end of a page or an idea. This prevents writers from staring blankly at a blank page. Again, this does require time management, unless you have a schedule like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, but the result is that writing becomes infinitely less intimidating because every time you sit down you already have a sense of where you left off and where you are going.

As you write, experiment with what allows you to produce the best product. If you find that silence is louder than music, experiment with classical, jazz, or electronic music to set a tempo for your writing without the potential distraction of lyrics. If these genres sound unappealing, try a genre of music you enjoy, but with lyrics in a language you don't speak. This can work in much the same way as instrumental music, and all these options can be explored for free using Pandora.

Writing can be an aversive activity for many people. As a result, writing tasks are often put off until the last minute, and this actually works to reinforce initial attitudes toward writing. I can't tell you how many self-proclaimed "bad" writers I've met who, upon further inspection, always write at the end of the day. Before you settle upon a negative view of your writing, try to schedule writing at different times of the day in order to figure out what time works best for you.

Finally, even those who love writing acknowledge it is often grueling work. One thing to be aware of is fatigue. For example, staring too long at a computer screen can begin to hurt your eyes, and this, in turn, can cause headaches. Try building short breaks into your writing process. Experiment with lengths of time you dedicate to writing and breaks. Most business guidelines recommend a ten to fifteen minute break every hour. Use this time to stand, stretch, get coffee/tea/water, and check your e-mail or text a friend. Avoid any activity that allows you to become passive (e.g. online videos or television) because, after your brain shuts down, it can take an additional ten or fifteen minutes for it to reboot.

Once you have a draft, the next step is to get a second opinion. While peer review is built into many writing classes, remember that Writing Center tutors are available to work with you at any stage of the writing process. Regardless of where you get feedback on your writing, try to stay active in the process. Depending on the situation, this could be as simple as reading along with someone else and asking questions or, as you look at a peer's draft, taking notes on tricks you see in their writing that you want to use in your own work.

Rewriting should be treated with the same seriousness that you give the initial stages of writing. Try breaking the text into pieces by cutting and pasting sections (a sentence, a paragraph, a page) into a new document. What does this method allow you to notice that looking at the full document does not? What are the limitations of this approach? Having hung on to your pre-writing notes, try using a program like Wordle. If the biggest words in the word cloud match the words on your notes you can be fairly certain you have stuck to your original plan. If you find a discrepancy it might be an indication to revisit your paper to see if you are really accomplishing what you had hoped to accomplish.

Continue to alternate between getting fresh eyes on your paper and rewriting for as long as you can. When it gets close to the date you have to submit your work, reread the post on proofreading. If you are reading this post in order to avoid doing work, you may want to take the extra couple minutes to reread the post on procrastination. Finally, if you are a WVU student and you'd like to work with a tutor, give us a call at 304-293-5788 to set up an appointment.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To Err is Human, to Proofread, Divine

We’ve likely all reached that point in crafting an essay when we can’t stand to read over our writing again. The resulting work may be full of interesting ideas and insightful arguments, but too often these positive aspects are overshadowed by proofreading errors that drag down the essay.

To be sure, proofreading can be a daunting task. We often haven’t allotted enough time to allow for careful proofreading and we may feel so burned out with a paper that we would rather eat the essay than read it again. When coupled with the old mantra that “it’s the content that matters most,” we may even convince ourselves to focus only on the “big picture” issues.

Proofreading, though, is an important step of the writing process that helps to make our ideas clear for our readers. Polished writing also makes a good first impression on a reader, helping to ensure that they will follow the essay through to the end (which is, of course, the ultimate goal of any piece of writing).

So, how can we become better proofreaders? Below are some (hopefully) helpful strategies to consider when reaching the proofreading stage of revision:

1. Take a break from an essay: This strategy requires you to start an essay earlier rather than later which is always a good idea. Often writers who take even a 24 hour break from their work come back to the text with a renewed focus and the seemingly uncanny ability to spot errors that were missed previously.

2. Read your paper out loud: Reading a paper aloud to yourself, a friend, or even an enemy can really help to hear proofreading errors. This may be particularly helpful for auditory learners.

3. Work from a paper copy of your essay: Many students find that they are more likely to spot errors and make necessary proofreading revision when working from a hard copy of an essay rather than making corrections on the computer. The downside: trees hate this.

4. Make a note of common proofreading errors: If you notice and document your tendency to make proofreading errors (i.e. tense shifts, fragments, etc.), you’re more likely to avoid these errors in the future. This means less time proofreading/revising and more time for (insert favorite activity here).

For more proofreading tips check out the University of North Carolina’s helpful webpage: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/proofread.html

Extra Credit to those who can spot the 3 proofreading errors in this post.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Beginning of the Semester Motivation

At the beginning of the semester, it can be difficult to re-adapt from “summer mode” to “academic mode.” We all know that it can be difficult working up the motivation to write, particularly if it’s mandatory writing. Whether your distraction is brainwashing reality television shows, the start of college football season, or that new package of Halloween Oreos that you promised yourself you wouldn’t eat in one sitting, distractions happen.

Usually, I’m pretty good at motivating myself to write. However, sometimes I’m just not in the mood. What can you do? Well, there are any number of helpful things you can do, but the main thing is to do something enjoyable that doesn’t take a lot of time. I have three defaults:

1. Playing MarioKart: Yes, I know. MarioKart isn’t nearly as cool as it was 10 years ago, but it is an activity that I can do for a short period of time. Working on a tough paper can be intellectually taxing, and taking short breaks can be rejuvenating. However, if you take a break from writing a paper about macroeconomics to read a book about the military strategies of France in 1880, you’re not really letting your mind take a break. Doing something that doesn’t take much effort and can be completed quickly is a nice way to take a break.

2. Baking: I love to bake. The more difficult my writing assignment is, the crazier I get with my baking. Writing a 1-page response paper? Cookies. Writing a 20-page research paper? Cheesecake. Regardless of whether you like baking or not, the same principles apply. Doing something that you love, that you think is super fun, can help supplement a day where you know you need to do a lot of work. When you reflect back on your day, you can be proud that you did something fun but were still able to get something accomplished.

3. Cleaning: All right, I admit that this is one is kind of cheating. I don’t necessarily like cleaning, but I do like the way my apartment looks when it’s clean. Also, doing something like cleaning is productive. After I clean, I feel accomplished and am more ready to accomplish something else that is productive.

With any of these activities, spending a short period time concentrating on one thing (playing 20 minutes of a video game or cleaning out the refrigerator) is way more beneficial than tackling another huge project. Doing something enjoyable prior to writing or taking small breaks while writing can definitely help to aid the writing process, especially during those first few transitional weeks of the semester.

For an additional perspective on beating procrastination and getting motivated, check out this handout created by the University of North Carolina: "Procrastination." It's a great source for identifying your reasons for procrastinating and overcoming those temptations.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Evansdale Hours Begin September 8

Starting next week, the WVU Writing Center will be providing hours on the Evansdale Campus. Drop-in tutoring hours will be held at the Evansdale Library, Study Room 131, on Mondays from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM and Wednesdays from 2:30 PM to 5:00 PM.

Wednesday hours will begin on September 8 and Monday hours will begin on September 13. See you at Evansdale!