Writing in College
by Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney
5. But what if you get stuck? A good solution and a terrible solution
At some point, you may find yourself staring at the screen or paper, utterly blocked. You can think of nothing to say that does not sound stupid. You are overwhelmed by the task of assembling evidence for your point, or you are so overwhelmed by little pieces of evidence that you can't imagine a way to make them cohere into a single point. This happens to everyone: the key is to find a productive way out of the situation.
A productive solution to a block: ways to prepare for a meeting with a Tutor
To help with a writing block or to get suggestions for revising a draft, you might want to visit an academic Writing Tutor working in Harper Commons. The Tutors are trained to help you get over crisis moments in your writing. Their hours are posted but not endless; if you'll think you need to see a Tutor, plan to show up earlier rather than later in their posted hours. (To discuss one of your humanities papers, you may also wish to make an appointment with your Humanities Core Intern.)
Before you see a Tutor or Intern, though, be sure that you can describe what you have done, what not, and what parts of the task trouble you. The clearer you can be, the better advice you will get.
First, prepare an outline that shows the Tutor where your paper stands. A sentence outline that lists main points is better than a topic outline, but any outline is better than none. It should show which parts you have drafted, which you are relatively sure of, and which are only guesses. If you are at the earliest stages of research and cannot formulate an outline, sketch your specific topic, either in a paragraph or two or as a list of topics you have begun to investigate.
Next, prepare a clean copy of your draft (if you have one), marked to show its key elements. Bring two copies (double-spaced). One should be clean, ready for the Tutor to mark up. The other you should mark up as follows:
1. Draw a line between the introduction and the body of the paper and another between the end of the body of your paper and your conclusion. If the body is long enough to divide into two- or three-page sized sections, put lines there as well.
2. Highlight the main point of your paper. If you have divided the paper into sections, highlight the main point of each section.
3. Circle the words near the end of the introduction that name the key concepts you will develop as themes in the rest of the paper. Then circle those words and words similar to them throughout.
4. If you have divided your paper into sections three pages or longer, repeat steps 2 and 3 for each section.
5. Mark in the margins any problem areas where drafting was particularly difficult or where you are dissatisfied with what you've done.
Be sure to take your assignment sheet and anything else you have in writing from your instructor. The Tutor can't help you solve every problem, but there are times when the opportunity simply to talk out loud about your problem will help.
Before you leave, get a plan of action in writing. Many students discover that while they are talking to a tutor, they think they understand what to do next, but that plan evaporates a few hours later when they sit down to work. Before you leave the Tutor, write a plan of specific ways to improve your paper. If the Tutor does not recommend specific actions, ask, so you can get a plan that you can understand and can follow.
The pitfall to avoid at all costs
In an effort to find your way out of a block as you draft, you may risk doing the worst thing that can happen to a writer. In the heat of drafting, you may find yourself confidently plowing through your notes, finding good things to say, filling up the page or screen with lots of good words. But those words belong to someone else.
Plagiarism is a topic that embarrasses everyone, except, perhaps, the successful intentional plagiarist. But every researcher needs to give it serious thought. Some acts of plagiarism are deliberate. No one needs help to know that it is wrong to buy a term paper on the internet, copy a paper from a fraternity's files, or use large chunks of an article as though the words were your own. But most plagiarism is inadvertent, because the writer was not careful when taking notes because he does not understand what plagiarism is, or because he is not conscious of what he is doing.
You don't plagiarize when you ask a Tutor for writing advice. Tutors are a service provided by the college to help you improve your writing. But you do plagiarize when, intentionally or not, you use someone else's words or ideas but fail to credit that person:
- You plagiarize when you paste material from the internet into your own text without attribution (that may feel less like plagiarism than copying from a print source, but it is appropriating someone else's work and thus is plagiarism nonetheless).
- You plagiarize even when you do credit an author but use his or her exact words without so indicating with quotation marks or block indentation.
- You also plagiarize when you use words so close to those in your source, that if your work were placed next to the source, it would be obvious that you could not have written what you did without the source at your elbow.
When accused of plagiarism, some writers claim, "I must have somehow memorized the passage. When I wrote it, I certainly thought it was my own." That excuse convinces very few.
When you want to use the exact words you find in a source, stop and think. Then,
- type a quotation mark before and after, or create a block quotation;
- record the words exactly as they are in the source (if you change anything use square brackets and ellipses to indicate changes);
- cite the source.
Those are the first three principles of using the words of others: unambiguously indicate where the words of your source begin and end, get the words right (or indicate changes), and cite the source. Omit the first or last step, and intentionally or not, you plagiarize. You also plagiarize when you use someone else's ideas and you do not credit that person.
It is trickier to define plagiarism when you summarize and paraphrase. They are not the same, but they blend so seamlessly that you may not even be aware when you are drifting from summary into paraphrase, then across the line into plagiarism. No matter your intention, close paraphrase may count as plagiarism, even when you cite the source.
For example, this next paragraph plagiarizes the last one, because it paraphrases it so closely:
It is harder to describe plagiarism when summary and paraphrase are involved, because while they differ, their boundaries blur, and a writer may not know that she has crossed the boundary from summary to paraphrase and from paraphrase to plagiarism. Regardless of intention, a close paraphrase is plagiarism, even when the source is cited.
This is borderline plagiarism:
Because it is difficult to distinguish the border between summary and paraphrase, a writer can drift dangerously close to plagiarism without knowing it, even when the writer cites a source and never meant to plagiarize.
The words in both these versions track the original so closely that any reader would recognize that the writer could have written them only while simultaneously reading the original.
Here is a summary of that paragraph, just this side of the border:
According to McEnerney and Williams, writers sometimes plagiarize unconsciously because they think they are summarizing, when in fact they are closely paraphrasing, an act that counts as plagiarism, even when done unintentionally and sources are cited (p. xx).
Here is a simple test for inadvertent plagiarism: be conscious of where your eyes are as you put words on paper or on a screen. If your eyes are on your source at the same moment your fingers are flying across the keyboard, you risk doing something that weeks, months, even years later could result in your public humiliation. Whenever you use a source extensively, compare your page with the original. If you think someone could run her finger along your sentences and find synonyms or synonymous phrases for words in the original in roughly the same order, try again. You are least likely to plagiarize inadvertently if as you write, you keep your eyes not on your source, but on the screen or on your own page, and you report what your source has to say after those words have filtered through your own understanding of them.
We take plagiarism seriously because it is a kind of theft. By not acknowledging a source, the plagiarist steals some of the little reward that an academic community has to offer, the enhanced respect that a researcher spends a lifetime trying to earn. The plagiarist steals from his community of classmates by making the quality of their work seem worse by comparison and then perhaps steals again by taking one of the few good grades reserved to reward those who do good work. By choosing not to learn the skills that research can teach him, the plagiarist not only compromises his own education but steals from the larger community that devotes its resources to training students to do reliable work later.
But plagiarism is worse than mere theft, because like theft among friends, it shreds the fabric of community. When intellectual thievery becomes common, the community grows suspicious, then distrustful, then cynical: So who cares? everyone does it. Members of the community then have to worry as much about not being tricked as about teaching and learning.
Here at the end, we can say only if you are like many students no part of your education will prove more useful to you than your ability to write well and quickly. When we have asked graduates of the College what they value most about their education here, they invariably mention three things: the ability to think critically, the ability to solve problems, and the ability to write well. We believe that these three things are part of the same thing.
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Lawrence McEnerney is Director of the University of Chicago Writing Program. Joseph M. Williams (1933-2008) was Professor of English Language and Literature and the founder of the University of Chicago Writing Program.