Breaking from Habit

In the past four years, I have found success in a writing routine which I know to be misguided. I’ve been most adept at writing when my back is against the wall, and therefore tend to write close to an impending deadline. This method has served me well (at least in terms of grades) in my time at Michigan, but that has typically been when I receive a specific prompt with a clear list of eligible sources.

The Capstone project is undoubtedly too broad for this approach, and—despite laying out a production plan—I have had to do everything in my power to resist the urge to continue in my ways. Artificial deadlines and ensuring I have had certain tasks completed promptly have definitely led to a change in some of these habits.

However, at the same time, I feel there are some merits to the urgency and clarity that is provided by having my feet to the fire. Consequently, I’ve decided to put off certain goals as I continue to write pieces for my Capstone project. Chief among these is the task of tying together all of my work. My initial impulse was to have a sort of encompassing purpose in mind as I began my research and writing, but—while I do have a grasp for what that purpose will be—it is almost impossible to know specifically what your project will accomplish until you have completed all of your work.

While the Capstone has given me an opportunity to break from some of the more unwise habits I’ve developed as a writer, it has given me an understanding of why it is that I feel compelled to put off certain tasks. With this new understanding, I have become better at not falling behind without feeling like I need to have everything done well ahead of schedule.

Balancing the Elements of an Effective Website

Thanks to the Gateway course, the Capstone project isn’t the first time I’ve had to create an online writing portfolio. With that being said, it has proven to be more of a challenge than my first attempt three semesters ago. As open-ended as the Gateway was, it still provided students a framework for a site that was, plainly, an academic writing portfolio. Almost every website had a home page from which you could easily navigate to the “Why I Write,” “Repurposing,” and “Remediation” pieces. This framework definitely took some of the stress out of creating the portfolio and allowed students to focus almost entirely on their writing.

This template doesn’t exist in the Capstone, and—in contrast—the implicit goal of most students (myself included) is to make a website that is more than just an academic portfolio. Thus, the challenge becomes making a website with a greater purpose and appeal than just being a portfolio, while still ensuring that it properly functions as a Capstone portfolio (because that’s still what it is).

On top of this challenge, basic elements are important to consider in designing a website that is effective in terms of both aesthetic and substance. I’ve had to wrestle with whether to have either a single home page with different strips that the reader can scroll down or a simple home page with tabs laid out across the top (as I did in my Gateway portfolio). Another thing I’ve considered is having videos / audio cue automatically upon opening the site. This is often something that annoys me with news and media websites, but at the same time it offers an opportunity to create atmosphere—through sports commentary—right when the reader opens the site.

Throughout all of this, I have had to ensure that I don’t lose track of the most important part of the website: the content. As fun as gimmicks and aesthetic flares are to create, it has been essential to ensure that none of these distract from making a site that streamlines the reading process for my audience. This aspect has proven the key consideration in the final weeks of my project, and is something that I hope to have fully conquered by the time all of my writing is complete.

Finding Purpose through Research

When I first began brainstorming my Capstone project, I wrestled most with what topic it was that I intended to write about. Once the topic is determined, finding the purpose seems pretty straightforward. When I decided to write about two sports and their similarities and differences across continents, I figured then that my purpose would simply be to generate a thorough comparison.

While that idea seemed reasonable at my project’s outset, it didn’t take me long to discover that the breadth of American football and world football’s significance was too massive to encompass through writing in a lifetime, let alone a semester. Prof. Andrei Markovits—who I sought advice from earlier this semester—had no qualms about letting me know this. Suddenly, I found myself with a collection of research materials and some writing completed, but I lacked a clear purpose. While there is certainly a wide array of issues within my topic that interest me, it has—through my research—become increasingly obvious that all of these cannot be tackled while maintaining a clear, cohesive purpose (the “Why?” of my Capstone project).

This dilemma is something that I’ve rarely run into in writing, because—unlike most writing I’ve done—the Capstone is open ended and asks the writer to determine his or her purpose. As refreshing as this freedom is, it is certainly a challenge for any student accustomed to being told the subject and goal of a given piece of writing. Thus, as I enter the waning weeks of the semester, I’m not having nearly as much difficulty with producing writing as I am with the daunting task of ultimately explaining why I’ve written what I have. Once I surmount this challenge, I am confident that I’ll find myself with a compelling project when it’s all said and done.

Challenge Journal: Penchant for Procrastination

Despite the constant caveats from teachers and professors over the years, I’ve found—in my writing—that there are merits to procrastination. I’ve attempted to flesh out drafts weeks before the due date, and I’ve also found myself with nothing written a day before the deadline. Given this hefty sample size, the latter cases have actually produced stronger work. The best reason I can think of for this apparent contradiction is the laser focus lent to me by an impending deadline.

This habit has become a sort of ritual for me. A couple days before a deadline, I’ll spend a few hours considering the prompt, looking over the necessary materials, and marinating on ideas and how much of a pain in the ass tomorrow’s going to be. The next day, it’s straight to a quiet place with a coffee, water, and a pack of gum. With no choice but to come out the other end with a paper, I get to work. This urgency provides a stimulus for clear thought and thorough attention to detail. Even so, the shortcomings of procrastination remain: it diminishes my ability to rewrite, rethink, or revise a piece. This issue has proven my biggest obstacle to reaching my full potential in academic writing.

Going forward, I’m convinced that the only way to salvage these missed opportunities for revision is through self-imposed deadlines. If I can find a way to convince myself that my deadline is five days before the actual due date, then I might be able to channel the focus of working against the clock while giving myself a chance to look back over my work a few days later. The only problem with this technique would be enforcing this artificial deadline. If I know in the back of my mind that missing my self-imposed deadline doesn’t have any tangible consequences, I’ll be tempted to miss it. Missing a class deadline, on the other hand, means an F. If anyone has an idea for a way to enforce a fake deadline, I’m all ears… until then, I’ll probably keep putting it off.

Making Reading Enjoyable

My biggest problem with taking time out of any given day to read is the feeling that I could or should be doing something else. If I read in the middle of the day, when the rest of the world is moving all around me, I have trouble maintaining focus. To avoid this feeling, I’ve found that reading in bed is the most effective way to not feel like I need to be doing something else (besides maybe sleeping). I regularly read before bed growing up, so reading in this way is also pretty intuitive for me. The only set back might be falling asleep after a few pages, but if it’s a good book, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Zeno’s Paradox

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, as I understand it, asserts that due to the fact that any finite distance can be infinitely halved, no such distance can be traveled. Therefore motion is an impossibility, which I suppose would make all motion an illusion. I honestly can’t disprove the theory that our reality may not be as it seems, but given the assumption that everything we’re seeing does exist, the theory seems pretty easy to disprove. The fact that motion occurs at all disproves the theory in itself. But if I’m trying to be a little more technical with it, the fact that a distance can be divided infinitely does not suddenly make that distance infinite. By Zeno’s logic one would be more capable of traveling an infinite distance (given the fact that it is mathematically indivisible) but not capable of walking ten feet. Get outta here Zeno.

Repurposing Questions

Having looked through papers I’ve written over the past couple years, a paper that stuck out to me as worth revisiting was one I wrote a last year for International Studies 101. It was a simple paper with a straightforward template, asking students to investigate a humanitarian NGO and identify certain aspects of the work they do. I chose Save the Children, an organization that spearheads humanitarian work for children in need across the globe. Though I haven’t decided exactly the direction I’d like to take this repurposing, I know that I’d like to broaden the scope of this investigation, to see what kind of effect such organizations actually have on the local and world stage.

Questions that might be worth asking about such a topic:

  1. What is the ultimate goal of a humanitarian organization?
  2. Do such organizations have possible underlying interests/motives?
  3. How much power do these groups have against governments?
  4. How much money/resources do the biggest of these groups have at their disposal?
  5. Who is at the head of these organizations?
  6. What types of sacrifices need to be made by these organizations to gain access to remote/dangerous areas of the globe?
  7. Who protects these organizations?
  8. Can these groups have a serious impact on the result of major contentious issues? (e.g. elections, wars, etc.)
  9. What controversies might surround these organizations?
  10. Why should we care what’s happening on the other side of the world?

I’d anticipate that this topic could be initially interesting to a fairly wide audience, but forming a narrative in a way that can keep readers engaged may be more difficult. Thus, if I’m addressing recent bombings by various governments on humanitarian aid, it would be important to either tie the US into the discussion, or to convince the audience that such instances could be dangerous for us even on the other side of the world. Maybe concisely tying this year’s election in somehow could help with that engagement.

I’m confident the reader would have a firm grasp of what humanitarian groups do, both locally and abroad, and so looking into the impact of such groups could be inherently engaging. I can also confidently assume that my audience would at least be cognizant of the fact that there are multiple wars taking place, and investigating groups which play a role in these conflicts could bring greater clarity to these topics, and consequently help to engage the reader.

News Sources

In my experience reading the news, one of my favorite sources thus far has been the BBC. I’ve found their digital platform to bring a refreshing objectivity to domestic, international, and cultural news that I feel most mainstream, American-based sources has failed to provide in recent years. In an increasingly polarized country, I’ve found this source’s perspective to be one from which I can glean information across the news spectrum, and form my own subsequent opinion. It is a source that becomes more comprehensible the more you read it, and, unlike the emerging norm in our country’s media, its mission doesn’t seem to be to reinforce its readers’ opinion and insist what its audience should be angered by.

A source which I feel is below my preferred level of information is Buzzfeed, among the numerous substandard news sources which capitalize on the channels of mainstream social media platforms. The predominant subject matter along with the way in which most articles are structured are aspects I find unappealing in a news source, though Buzzfeed is probably far from the worst of such outlets. The way I perceive this source and others like it is well outlined in the heading of their website homepage, showing six yellow circles, each saying “LOL, win, omg, cute, fail, wtf.” Consequently, I struggle to believe a source like this is doing much to inform our generation.

The news sources which I feel are tailored for individuals more knowledgeable than myself are primarily those whose content covers industries or topics unfamiliar to me. Thus, I suppose you could say certain pop culture sites are “above my level” considering I’m not very knowledgeable on who’s breaking up with who, but I’m thinking more along the lines of sources whose chief concern is complex industries such as finance and emerging technology. This past summer, a lot of my work was dedicated to research in such fields, but even as I became familiar with certain trends and jargon, I still had little idea what many things actually looked like or meant when flipping through sources like TechCrunch and the WSJ.

Voice

In most ways, my written language is unlike my spoken language. My arsenal of long words is far more limited or misused when I’m speaking, and my general inclination toward formal writing doesn’t carry over into the majority of my conversations. However, the approach with which I present an argument, observation, or thought is similar in both my written and spoken language. I tend to present an overall point, and, through its being either strange or audacious, hope that an explanation is begged. Despite the analogous approach, this practice manifests itself very differently in my writing than it does in conversation, where I might just pull something out of left field and see if it sticks.

My consistent propensity toward more formal composition—in sentence structure especially—is not particularly reflective of my own colloquial voice, but serves as a sort of grounded approach to which I can turn when faced with a prompt. Consequently, my writing may not indicate any particular, distinguishable personality behind it beyond perhaps an insistent individual with a handful of determined assertions. This difficulty in conveying an overt personality may be rooted in the types of topics I tend to choose: one’s which usually have nothing to do with me as an individual, and which are addressed much more expediently by being as objective-sounding as possible. I’ve found it difficult (and generally have not had the urge) to present myself as a personality while writing papers discussing historical documents, institutions, or contemporary social/political issues. Rather, I lean toward omitting passages in which I feel I conveyed too much of my own voice and desire to make the topics about which I write the main indicator of who I am.

If I had to guess how I acquired my voice, it is likely a byproduct of the environment I grew up in and the things which I have been exposed to—either deliberately or incidentally—since then. My dad has (and seems to have always had) a worldview that has been informed by as much information as he can get his hands on. He is an avid reader of the news, enjoys documentaries, and is no stranger to books. However, he never sought to impose a given viewpoint on me, but instead emphasized the importance of objectivity and wanted me to realize one’s beliefs should be grounded in an understanding of perspective, nuance, and reality rather than impulse or “because you were told to believe it.” With this lesson in mind, I have tried to view topics that interest me through as many lenses as possible, but, at the same time, such an approach may have limited my own voice coming through in my writing.

Genre v. Form

In my mind, genre in writing is primarily characterized by the content of a given work. Thus, two works with entirely different frameworks can still fall under the same genre if the subject matter of the two is analogous. For example, a novel and an essay can both be historical fiction given they are each a fictional narrative in a historical setting, even if one is 400 pages divided into 25 chapters while the latter is only a 5-page short story.

Form, on the other hand, is something I view as the medium and/or structure by which ideas are conveyed through writing. Using my prior example, two works of the same genre would not follow the same form if one is a published novel and the other is a short essay. Writings which employ the same form do not necessarily have to be of the same genre. The example used in class of an editorial is certainly demonstrative of this fact. Another which comes to mind is that of screenplays. Screenplays are a distinct form of writing, but films (or cinema or movies or flicks) can take on any number of topics and are divided into countless genres.

Though many genres may seem to be largely delivered in one form more than others, a given form does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of any given genre, and vice versa.