Choosing a Project Format

In my last post I discussed how I’ve been moving past the academic voice I am used to. Now that I’m trying to write in a “non-expert” style, I’ve decided to structure my project site as a blog (which you can view here). I am dividing my writing into blog posts, each of which will discuss one of the things I learned about urban informatics this semester. This has been made really easy by Wix’s blog post feature, where all I had to do was insert the content into a template and it is automatically organized into the stream format that is recognizable as a blog.

I like this format because I think that I can add new writing to it in the future, and maybe adapt it into a blog that I will update regularly. Although I’m proud of the work that I have done this semester, I have this strange feeling that it should have been easier. Now that my site is finally coming together, it seems like a lot more straightforward of a project than it was. I think this is because I didn’t start off with a familiarity with either the subject matter or the genre that I was writing in, and had to learn both on the fly. Confusion and uncertainty about what I was doing, or what I should do, caused my progress to be slow. And all of the background research I did was necessary to make my blog about its current subject matter. So on second thought, I think that this seeming inefficiency was actually the necessary experimentation I needed to go through to make my project site what it has ended up being.

A Change in Voice

Much of the writing I’ve done in the past few years has been for academic essays in school. These pieces seem to have a fundamental contradiction: I write about subjects that in all honesty I know hardly anything about as if I’m an expert researcher. I understand that this style of writing is useful in a class setting because it allows students to demonstrate their knowledge to professors. But it seems totally useless for anything other than that. Who wants to read dense, formal writing by an author who doesn’t have the expertise to say anything trustworthy and substantial?

I’ve engaged with and learned about a lot technical subject matter over the course of this semester: mapping software, health disparities, socioeconomic inequality, and academic research on urban accessibility, among other things. Although all of this has been really interesting, I don’t feel like I have the same authority as the professionals to make arguments about ideas in these fields.

A solution to this problem is to reorient the essay to be about my journey as a lay-person, seeking to learn about the subject matter. Since this is a new perspective for me to write from, I’ve been studying models in science journalism to see how other writers assume this voice. One idea is to lay out a premise and say something like, “So I decided to find out more…” and jump into a conversation with an expert, letting them use their authority to talk about the ideas. Although it’s uncomfortable to break out of my old habits, I think that this project will be a good opportunity to become more versatile as a writer.

An Update

A week ago, while doing an in-class writing on challenges that I was facing, I wrote that I know the genre of writing I will attempt, as well as the subject matter I will write about, but that I felt like I didn’t have an argument. Fortunately, I think that I have made a lot of progress on that front over the past week. Last Wednesday I met with Tim and Tom, two PhD students in the Industrial Engineering department who are doing research on accessibility to public services in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago. This means they study things like the percentage of people who live within walking distance to a grocery store. After telling them that I was interested in writing about health disparities related to cardiovascular disease, they offered to help me see if there is a link between their accessibility data and publicly available data on health outcomes. So I think that this analysis will be central point that my other writing coalesces around.

Another problem I’ve been facing is that it’s hard to find the time and energy to write. A lot of classmates have mentioned this in their blog posts, but it’s a very busy time of the semester for all of my classes, and as I’m also in the process of applying for jobs, it’s hard to find uninterrupted blocks of time to work on my project. Overall, I am excited that my project seems to be coming into focus, but disappointed that it’s not progressing faster. Considering how my project has changed, and taking into account the busyness of life right now, I will have to reorganize my timeline to make sure that I will be able to have a finished product by December.

Inserting a Timeline in Microsoft Word

One of the challenges that any writer taking on a long-term project faces making the best use of their time in order to be able to complete the project before its deadline. In more structured environments, such as typical essays for college classes, this is less of an issue because the scale of the project is smaller, and the prompt creates more constraints on what should be written. The Capstone project gives us so much freedom for subject matter and such a long time to work that planning how to get the project done in time is crucial. This is especially important to me because of my experience in the Gateway course. For my project for the course, I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to add after writing the first draft, but ended up running out of time to add these ideas and to organize my essay in the way that I had envisioned. A useful strategy that we discussed in class to address this potential issue is to create a series of “pre-deadlines” before the actual deadline. This means breaking the project down into smaller parts, and setting dates before which these parts must be completed.

Over the weekend, I discovered a feature in Microsoft Word that has been useful in visualizing these dates. On the Insert tab, if you click SmartArt, and then Process, you can choose from several timeline templates to add to a document. I chose a timeline that has an arrow for each week remaining in the semester, and a textbox where I can write things that I want to do in that week. I’ve found that this timeline template has allowed me to visually display the work required for my project over time. I can place elements of the rubric from the production plan onto this timeline to see how the work for my project will be distributed. I thought that I would share this tool on the blog in the possibility that it might be useful to other Minor in Writing students in planning out their projects. Let me know what you think, and if you have discovered any other useful tools!

Here it is in all its majesty!

 

Voice in “Why I Write”

If voice is how I come off to the audience I am communicating with, then I think that I have multiple voices, and that the “Why I Write” piece is one of them. I have a different attitudes toward style, word choice, and sentence structure when talking to different people. For example, when I’m with friends that are my age, I tend to use slang, sarcasm, and pop culture references. When I’m with my extended family, I avoid using profanity or strong opinions, and try to speak in complete sentences. Based on different sets of shared knowledge that I assume the audience possesses, I decide whether not to explain terms that I use.

The voice that I use for writing is more formal and deliberate than the voice I use while speaking. I don’t use many unexpected words or informal language to create a unique style. I don’t use poetic language or try to communicate my emotions through writing. I try to describe things as simply and clearly as possible. I try to make an argument and explain my points in a straightforward manner so that the reader will be most likely to understand what I am saying. In order to be able to write, I must understand the ideas that I will be discussing beforehand.

The topics that most easily allow me to write in my voice are topics that I am curious to learn more about, but also related to things that are related to topics that I am already familiar with. I like to use writing as a way to make connections between topics I am learning about and what I already know. Personal writing, such as the “Why I Write” essay, is very different than the type of writing I normally do. I felt like I had to think of both the ideas and the way of delivering them from scratch.

 

Enjoyable Reading

For me, the key to enjoyable reading is relaxation and leisure. I naturally enjoy reading books, especially about subjects that I want to learn more about, and I read a lot during breaks from school. This kind of reading is intrinsically motivational for me. I imagine myself growing smarter and evolving into a better person when I read for pleasure (whether or not this is true is up for debate). The thing that I hate about assigned reading for school is a feeling of being rushed, and a feeling of trying to guess the message that the professor is trying to communicate to me through the reading. I think this is a byproduct of having an anxious personality. The negative emotions of fear, hurriedness, and anxiety that I get from academic assignments causes me to dislike and avoid them.

Recently, a friend told me a story about an experience dropping a computer programming class which I think parallels my stance on unenjoyable reading. Before dropping the class, she was working really hard to finish the first project before the deadline. As she was rushing, and struggling to debug her code, she said that her confidence plummeted and she felt like a “piece of garbage.” After dropping the class, she continued working on the assignment at her own pace. This time, each time she successfully made progress on her code, her confidence was boosted and she felt “like a genius.” To me, reading is the same way. When I feel like I have time to understand a nontrivial idea, reading generates happy emotions and becomes a positive feedback loop. However, when I am rushed and scrambling to finish an assignment, my ego shrinks and I dislike something that I might otherwise find interesting.

Repurposing Questions

  1. What is the best way to plan a city and how might this relate to utopian projects?
  2. What is the history of urban infrastructure reform?
  3. What are some of the best examples of these reforms, and why?
  4. What are the potential outcomes to be achieved by so-called smart cities?
  5. How does the smart city relate to 19th century types of city reforms such as sanitation systems?
  6. What are the political macro-trends behind city planning and infrastructure?
  7. What are the economic benefits to cities investing in new technological infrastructure?
  8. How are different social classes or demographic groups affected by changes to city infrastructure or layout (i.e. who do the reforms benefit)?
  9. How can urban technological change be pursued in a way that is democratic and socially just?
  10. How can different historical city planning reforms be represented using data visualization techniques?

In order to help people understand the discussion about smart city plans, I need to provide context about the history of these types of reforms. I should explain the points of view of different groups on these reforms and what the pros and cons of each are, so that the reader will be able to develop their own opinion instead of being told what to think.

The reader must make sense of the smart city reforms using their knowledge of technology and urban politics. So the reader must recall what they might already know of the issues and their opinion on them.

 

News Sources

A news source that I feel is pitched to me is the Guardian. It covers breaking news stories from around the world and provides analysis of politics and culture that I find interesting. It is written in an easily digestible style without being overly simplistic. Because it is a British newspaper that has a lot of coverage of American news, its tone and point of view on American events are different than the average take on things in our country. In Britain, it is a newspaper that is read by a mainstream audience and is considered to have a politically centrist or center-left point of view. But some of its reporting and opinion pieces are much farther to the left than anything that could be published in a general-audience newspaper in the US. I appreciate that a relatively wide spectrum of viewpoints can be published and compared with each other in a non-sensationalized way.

A magazine that is too dumbed down for me is Time magazine. My parents have had a weekly subscription to Time since I was very young. When I was in elementary and middle school, Time seemed (similar to what the Guardian is for me now) a source for “middlebrow” news – a good level of both depth and breadth on a variety of issues. Unfortunately, in recent years the quality has decreased noticeably, probably because of the struggle to remain in business during a tough time for news media companies. Nowadays, Time writes a lot of sensationalized stories about current fad diets and devotes an ever larger section of their magazine to celebrity gossip and “fun facts.” Online, I see links to Time articles advertised which are the definition of clickbait, with titles like “Top 10 Reasons for…” or “You won’t believe…” I see these types of articles as attention-seeking and manipulative of the reader and try to avoid reading them.

A style of news source that I often find difficult to appreciate are longer-form articles like those published in the New Yorker or Harper’s magazine. When I have time, I like to read these sources, but often find it hard to get through an article in a single sitting. They require me to use a lot more mental exertion than my brain is used to giving when I read. Most of the time I read the news is either as a distraction or as a break from studying and working, and the length of the average article or essay in these sources makes them too long to read in the snippets of free time here and there when I normally consume information. However, last year I made it through most of a Harper’s magazine copy while at my grandma’s house during winter vacation and felt like I got a lot out of it.  If I get more time on my hands once I graduate from Michigan, I would like to start reading more of this style of news.

 

Voice

In class we talked about taste and style, which gives me an idea of how I have developed my voice as a writer over the years. When it comes to choosing hairstyles or clothes, the majority of our class claimed to make a conscious choice not to stand out. This doesn’t mean that we don’t make an effort to maintain our appearance a certain way. Rather, we all look like what we guess others will look like, which takes a good amount of thinking and effort. This “average” appearance that we are all aiming for changes over time, which is why it is funny to look back at old photos, such as our parents’ yearbook photos from the 70s. The way that people dressed in the 1970s is very different than the way that people dress now, but that doesn’t mean that most people were trying to express a certain style. Actually, most people were trying to conform to their surroundings the best way they could. Of course, conformist people didn’t dress exactly the same as each other back then, as each person had a different interpretation of what “normal” was, leading to a slightly individualistic take on the general trends.

Relating to this idea, I think that my writing voice has evolved based on the context that I find myself writing in. As I haven’t written longform pieces that much for pleasure, the overwhelming majority of my writing has been for school assignments. My writing has changed a lot over time, but has always been driven by an effort to do the job at hand. Since I do a lot of nonfiction reading, my writing style and content is influenced by the topics and authors that I’m interested in at the moment.

In class we discussed four aspects which make up a writer’s voice: performance, or the way that the writing sounds when read out loud; theme/topic; personality; and formal markers, such as grammatical or sentence construction tics. Because I try to make my writing primarily functional, the way my work sounds changes based on the type of writing that I am doing, but stays as simple and concise as possible. The topic of my work, when I have a choice, is usually related to things that I am interested in outside of school. For example, in high school I wrote an essay about barefoot running after joining the cross country team and reading Born to Run. The personality of my writing probably comes off as overly serious and formal. In terms of formal markers, I use (and overuse) commas and parenthesis, and use words such as “probably” and “however” a lot.

Genre and Form

In class last Thursday, we discussed genre and form from a few different angles. We agreed that these terms have to do with the way that works are grouped. There are different criteria by which grouping can occur. For example the medium of the work: literature, film, painting, etc. But there is not one way that these groupings work and they are often overlapping, like how both films and works of literature can be considered fiction or nonfiction. There are subgroupings within groupings that work in a hierarchical way, such as the genre of science fiction that could be placed within novels, which is itself in literature.

We talked about how genres can be used to classify “high” or “low” works of art in an unfair way. One of the most conspicuous examples of this is how genres such as detective novels or science fiction are put into distinct sections of bookstores and so thought of as less valuable than novels in the more generalized “fiction” genre. However, these unclassified novels also have genres, such as family melodrama. Novels that are placed in genre sections are stigmatized because they are considered to follow a formula and thus lack sophistication, but this is not necessarily a bad thing since practically every work is related to at least one genre and so follows certain patterns.

Continuing the point that following the conventions of a genre doesn’t necessarily mean that a work is good or bad, we discussed how we can critically judge works. For example, all romantic comedy films follow a certain formula, and “push buttons” in order to make us feel desired emotions. However, some are more successful than others. The successful romantic comedies are often ones that use many markers of the genre but use just enough new “twists” on the formula in order to keep it from feeling stale.

Working off of these discussion points, it seems to me that there are some key differences between genre and form. Form is more objective and involves bigger categories: either a play has three acts or it doesn’t. Genre seems to be fluid and involve subcategories of form. For example, is a certain play more tragic or comic? Good quality works often play with genre but never lack it completely. We like to be able to recognize the patterns of a work in order to have an idea of what is going on, but don’t want it to follow a formula so precisely that we can predict exactly what will happen next.