Welcome back ….

For many, today is the first day of school – our college’s welcome back this week and next; my son’s first day of second-year med school; area public schools turning on the buses and gathering up children huddled in this cool rain. It’s a ritual that brings back wonderful memories as my children picked out their back-to-school outfits, stopped to smile at the camera, and wrestled on their backpacks loaded with the prerequisite supplies … tissues, glue sticks, pencils, notebooks. It’s a fresh beginning, filled with resolves to stay on track, stay organized, turn in all homework on time this year, smile and be friendly  (that’s for those who are on the other side of the desks). It’s kind of like the New Year, but better because those who are fortunate enough get to shop for brand new pencils, rollerball pens, clean spiral bound notebooks, maybe even a new backpack. Logistics are worked out:  Where are my classes, did I get all my classes, when do I get to eat lunch? These are the usual stresses that signal that today is special, standout, and not even a drizzle or a drench pouring down on the newcomers moving into the Patrick Henry can drown the mood.

                Although that mood can experience its valleys. Said son can’t locate an immunology textbook. Students are wet over on Jefferson Street as they cart boxes, bags and books into their new abode. Sooner or later, the Roanoke Times will print a story about some kindergartener left at the wrong bus stop. Bound to be tears – mom forgot to give me ice cream money, my shoes won’t stay tied, and the cute boy didn’t even look in my direction in the gym. Those, however, are negligible in the grand scheme of First Days of School. I ran into my children’s bus driver a while back, and reminded her that my daughter was so fired up about her first day of kindergarten that she forgot to pause on the bus steps so I could snap a picture. The bus driver had to ask her to turn around and smile at the camera. Now that’s enthusiasm.

Precision and why it matters

Persimmons

by Li-Young Lee
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker

slapped the back of my head

and made me stand in the corner

for not knowing the difference

between persimmon and precision.

How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.

Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.

Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one

will be fragrant. How to eat:

put the knife away, lay down newspaper.

Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.

Chew the skin, suck it,

and swallow. Now, eat

the meat of the fruit,

so sweet,

all of it, to the heart. …

Persimmons

Precision is choosing the right word for the right spot in a sentence, so that it will nudge gently against its neighbors and create so much more than a word, alone, can. Writing should be thought of as creating music, a cacophony when the message is vibrant and vicious; a melody of Mozart’s night music when the owls call, each to each; a drum beat of orders that, against which, staccato has nothing. Take your sounds, one by one, out of your toolbox – you have assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, cacophony, dissonance – and arrange the words to deliver your message. Like gently taking up a paintbrush, your fingers on the keyboard can pull at a heart, crash into a mind, create a sensation of softness or a torrent of anger. All up to you, once you decide that precision drives a message, and a message turns the world.

Those Little Details

Does the period go inside or outside the quotation marks? What about with a citation? Why can’t I go ahead and make my title bold? Who really cares if I spell out “and” instead of using an ampersand in my citations?

APA is a style absolutely brimming with little details, and it’s easy for even the most experienced and intelligent students to feel both overwhelmed and undermotivated.

Will my professor care if I…?

That’s a question I hear a lot of people asking themselves, and the answer is: maybe. It depends on the professor and the class as much as anything, some are strict and others far more flexible, but when it comes down to it, there’s a very good reason why, regardless of what your professor may think, you should care.

There’s a saying attributed variously and uncertainly to everyone from Lao Tzu to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

…and for us, those last three lines are essential: your actions become your habits, and your habits become your character. We shape and mold the person we become by choosing our actions. When we choose to take the time, groom our writing, and really care about the details, it helps us to become meticulous, detail-focused, and diligent.

So those details–nagging, annoying, at times even exhausting–may not matter to every last professor, but they help to shape attributes that serve you well not just in college, but throughout life. It’s hard to imagine a healthcare professional who couldn’t benefit from an eye for detail, especially when a patient’s health hangs in the difference between a period and a comma.

 

Productive Procrastination and Your Future Self

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As an undergraduate, I got a lot of advice about writing–I mean, a whole lot. And like most undergraduates, I discarded most of it, primarily because advice that’s worth taking usually means work. I was allergic to work, then, and my papers suffered for it–they were never really everything they could have been.

At least, until I got the best piece of writing advice of my undergraduate career.

My thesis advisor–who was just about five feet of snark and brilliance–asked me to think about what I owed my future self. I had never thought of it like that before, never really put together that when I (often) procrastinated, I wasn’t doing anything except putting my troubles on a future Elliott who would have to stay up later, research harder, and work well beyond what was fair to make up for some me in the past who had decided to be a jerk.

Something about the idea–being responsible, even if only to your future self–struck a chord in me, and I started papers earlier, weeks before their due dates, because it meant I could spend twenty minutes an evening coming up with a new paragraph or integrating a new source. I was happier, better rested, and my papers were markedly, notably improved.

So that’s half the battle, I think: starting earlier, finding ways to make your future self a little happier and a little less sleep deprived. But even if you can’t write to add to your paper on a given day, there is still a lot that you can do for your future self.

I call this “productive procrastination.”

Productive procrastination means that even if you’re not going to be writing, you’re going to square away some time to do something that will help you down the line when you are writing. That might mean spending twenty minutes with one of your more confusing sources, highlighting and making notes. It might mean talking to a friend about the topic to help generate ideas through conversation. It might even mean something as simple as spending some quiet time thinking about what I want to say about a given topic, letting words and ideas roll around in my mind. It doesn’t have to be intense or static or rigorous.

It just needs to be something, anything that’s going to make your future self’s job just a little bit easier.

So the next time you have a paper, even if you can’t find the courage (and it is a kind of courage, but we’ll talk about that another day) to put words on paper or fingers on a keyboard, remember–there are things you can do, ways to invest even small blocks of time today that will save you hours tomorrow, or next week, or at the end of the semester.

I don’t know if I’d have believed that before–but I can tell you I wholeheartedly believe it now.

Want to write lightning, or fizz out like a lightning bug?

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” —Mark Twain

Lightning_over_Quebec

Don’t settle. My father-in-law, a wonderful (published) writer once told me that there was not a sentence written that could be rewritten, better. You’ve finished your draft. You’re in  love with it. It’s the bomb. Never have words been put together so brilliantly.

I challenge you to walk away from this genius pool of words and give it a day, or a few hours at least. Then, look solely at word choice. There’s lots of other things, but for a moment, just concentrate on words. Take the word “walk.” How does that man really move? What is his gait, and what can that tell you about him? Or does that matter? Concentrate on your message, your goal, and how your words further that. The emphasis you place on certain words will not only make your language stick with the reader by popping off the page, but can also be used to convince. Words are so powerful — so, turn walk into “stride,” or “limp,” or “hobble,” or “skip.”

Picking up the Pencil, to Delete

Pencil_EraserNot that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
- Henry David Thoreau

And that is so true. Many of you are asked to write papers of a certain length. Groans ensue. You begin thinking in “filler” mode — how in the world do I have enough to say in five pages? Ten? How about 20 for a capstone?

I urge you to rethink this attitude. Concise writing makes your point quicker. Smarter. Clearer.

Repetition, on the other hand, is quickly uncovered for the fraud that it is. It is sloppy, makes the grader/reader impatient, and out comes the dreaded red pen. Heed my words.