How to Cheat at #Reading: A smarter way to approach your #books

Date a  girl who reads….books are friends….line your house with books…never throw your books away…omg how can you get ride of your books??

Oh, do I hate online reading inspo.  Actually, I hate inspo, but that’s another matter.  And then unquestioning book fetishization.

I’m an english major, dyed in the wool.  I got my degrees in this discipline.  I actually love it.  I love reading, and I’m proud of it.  I also love my books and would not want to get rid of them totally.  But I must criticize the ideas popular in our online discourse:  that reading is always an all-consuming activity, that if you don’t craft your life around it you are some sort of ignorant person, that if you don’t keep every book ever and if you don’t always 100% love it then You Are Doing It Wrong.

Please. One of the things “They” don’t tell you about college is that you have to constantly decide how you’re going to do what you must do.  And this includes books.  For that matter, “They” also don’t want to square stereotypes of being well-read with the mundane realities of readers.  We have other things to do than read.I like to joke that I gave up reading in grad school.  It’s kind of true.  

I was working, commuting, dealing with a lot of personal issues – I didn’t have time to plow through all the books all the time.  I was very lucky in that I had the skill set necessary to “cheat” sometimes.  Is this even ethical to do?  Should I not be admonishing people to read every single word they can, as carefully as possible?  I’m supposed to be all about literacy, comprehension, and critical thought!

But I’m also about getting things done.  Reading is not always going to be  some sort of Neo-Victorian exercise in leisure and cravats.  We’re busy people, and sometimes other things have to take priority.  If you’re a student, you have multiple classes to juggle, and a heavy workload.  I know the feeling.

So I’d like to talk about how to get through a book, discuss it intelligently, and actually learn something from it instead of approaching it as a thing to slog through.  This got me through years of English major work, so it’s all tested, workable advice!

 1) Read around the book – Look at the front matter, the page with publisher information.  Find the authors or editors and google them.  What else have they written or published?  Especially if this is an academic work, when did this book come out, what can its time period tell you?  Read reviews of it, or (if you can) articles that cited it.  Try to get a sense of what was going on in the subject area at the time this book came out. What was the author responding to, what were they aiming to contribute?

2) Keep up on your “cocktail party” knowledge – This used to be a thing. But I don’t think anyone holds these any more.  The idea was  that you’d have to make light, yet intellectual, conversation over drinks with other well-heeled guests.  The object of this kind of interaction was to have a broad knowledge and thus be able to intelligently converse with just about anyone.  This is still a good goal.  While not neglecting depth, it is a good idea to know a little about a lot.  Especially if you’re bluffing  your way through a book.

3) Read for pleasure as often as you can – Keep the reading muscles limber so all of this is easier.  This is the weirdest part of the “cheating” method: actually reading.  But to be honest, the more you are accustomed to reading, and the more pleasure you take in it, the easier it is to pick up on extra-textual cues (hints 1 and 2), or to skim the book.

4) Practice active skimming – Skim with a pen or pencil in your hand.  Mark up your text (provided you own it)  Annotate!  Annotation is your friend.  If you only have time to read a portion of each chapter or section, make notes on the sides to jog your memory, hi-light quotes, or add some quick ideas to talk about.  You can always pass off your still-new ideas a just that – you can always change your mind on symbolism, interpretation, etc.

 This is actually all still literacy-enhancing work, so you’re not really taking the easy road here – it just feels easier.  If you can’t read “properly”, this is a far more active way to digest books.  You should still read thoroughly, but when you’re short on time, there’s no reason not to work smarter.


#Writing Advice: #Motivation and #Empowerment

In the course of my writing life, people have asked me over and over about motivation.  “How do I get motivated?” or “Can you motivate me?” Few things strike as much fear into my heart.  It’s not that I don’t have any concern for people.  I genuinely want to nurture other writers.  But I hate “motivating” people.

Does this make me a horrible person?

When someone asks me how to “get” motivated, I immediately pull back.  To me, this sounds like an invitation to play a guessing game with their psychology, to start pulling wires in their heads until I make them do the thing they want to do.  This takes an unimaginable amount of energy and patience on my part.  Some days I just don’t have it.

When I hear this from a growing writer, I worry about two things.  First, I don’t want to give the appearance of hoarding the Special Magical Mystical Writing Knowledge That I Surely Possess ™.  Second, I don’t want to give the appearance I don’t care about other writers.  But at the end of the day, I believe in tough love.  To write, you have to write.  It’s as simple and impossible as that.

The necessity of pulling back

When you overwater a plant, it becomes wilted and soft.  The stem grows mold and the plant can die if the gardener doesn’t hold back a little.  Sometimes I think one has to hold back to the sake of the writer.  I don’t want them to wilt.  I want to see people confident and self-actualized just as much as I want to preserve my own energies.

So how do I help people get off their metaphorical couches?  How do I help them to overcome their training that “writing is impossible” and you have to “write it right the first time”?

RX for writing motivation

Motivation is not something you can find, and it is certainly not something someone gives you.  There is no magic button or pill.  Motivation is a series of choices we must all make.  As writers, we are not automatically afforded the respect and dignity given to more popular professions.  We must nurture ourselves, empower ourselves, and claim our own work as work.  We must learn to motivate ourselves.

Give yourself the gift of the draft – such a good idea I had to repeat it!

Produce.  Produce.  Produce.  You are not a writer until you are writing.  There is no pizzazz in this, there is no glamour.  You are translating thought and impression into the code of language, and making that code understandable to others.  This is work.  This is labor.  Own it.

When you actually work on something , you become intimately familiar with the process.  You learn the needs of the format or genre you’re working with, and you learn your own habits and foibles.  The experience of working draft by draft is more valuable than a hundred writing books.  There is no substitute for drafting.

“You can’t spit out the Mona Lisa” – my favorite old saw

Distance yourself emotionally from your draft and learn to edit.  Your first draft will always be flawed.  Your second, third, and even fourth will have issues.  Sometimes projects have fatal flaws, and sometimes they need heavy-duty restructuring.  This is not an indictment on your as a writer.

You are under no obligation to write a perfect poem, essay, or paper the first time.  Waiting until you deem something “perfect” to move on is going to prevent you from writing anything.  Excellence is a good goal, but perfectionism is a very bad habit.

Identify your  High Order Concerns

Take this session by session, and have definable goals for each one.  In tutoring, we have to prioritize on the fly, and we usually only have 30 minutes with a student.   A successful tutoring session triages a paper: both individuals ascertain what the biggest flaw in the work is and address that first.  If there’s time left in the session, they work on small fry. This empowers the student to work on their own errors, not just accept criticism, however well deserved – it puts them in the drivers’ seat.

Do the same for yourself.  What do you want to accomplish this afternoon?  Today?  This week?  Limit these goals severely.  If you can’t place it in the top three slots of your to-do list, it’s not a High Order Concern.  Not every part of the writing process is priority one at every single step.

Parting Thoughts

There will be days, even weeks, where you can’t get “anything done”.  That is ok.  You are allowed to have a life outside of writing.  But you must develop the reflex to return over and over to your worktable.  Over time, the choices you make become habit.

If you choose to put off a project until you find the perfect word, detail, mood, whatever – you are ultimately choosing to not bring this project to completion.  You will develop and reinforce fear, anxiety, and perfectionism.  You have developed the habit of de-motivating yourself.  Can you live with the outcome of these choices?

However, if you develop the habits of production, editing, and prioritizing – you have chosen to motivate yourself.  On a day to day basis, you will have your hands dirty with the work of writing.  You may feel temporary disappointments and setbacks, but overall you will remain motivated to continue.

Talking Words vs Writing Words

“Well, as we can see….”

“One thing leads to another and…..”

“Anyway, the point is…..”

“It’s like, you know….”

What’s a talking word?

In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register.  This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper.  Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”).  These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.

Why is this a problem in writing? What changes?  Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric?  If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do it outside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.

“It’s like, you know….”

“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”.  We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning.  This is where meaning started, for that matter.  We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other.  So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.

The problem sets in when we change media.  In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context.  They literally clog up the sentence.  A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible.   When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor.  While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.

This means multiple voices competing for attention.  Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across.  Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you.  We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.

How to avoid this

The bare-bones method is simply telling a student.  When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling.  But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.

For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose.  Take individual sentences and analyze them.  What is the point of the sample sentence?  What is the main idea?  Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate.  See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used.  The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.


Impostor Syndrome

What is Impostor Syndrome?

Imagine this…

You’re sitting there in class, listening to the professor talk about something you barely know.  You are in the hallways, trying to find a room in a building you’re not even sure you’re in.  You are going from line to line all day, not knowing if you have the right paperwork.  College can be pretty intimidating.  Everyone around you seems so much more prepared, so much smarter, so much cooler.  You start to wonder if you can keep up, if you’re good enough.  You wonder if you even belong in college.

Or, maybe you just did really good on a test, and you got some nice comments on your paper.  You’re doing well at school, and your professors notice.  But something still feels weird.  You feel like you’re going to be found out.  You feel like this is just luck, or anything you achieved is only because other people helped you.  You worry that someone will call you out and say you’re not really good enough – that you don’t belong here.

Have you ever felt like this?  You are not alone.  This is called Impostor Syndrome, and many people deal with it on a daily basis.  This is really common, especially when you are the first in your family to go to college.  Many people feel this and struggle with it.   I want you to know that these feelings have a name, and it’s possible to work with them.  This is how it works, from the perspective of psychologists:

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Though the impostor phenomenon isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression. (“Feel Like a Fraud?”


How does this feel ?

This can feel different for many people, even though there are common themes of feelings of inadequacy, of feeling like a fraud, of waiting to be “found out”.  In my case, it just plain kept me from speaking in class.  And when I did speak, I was less confident, I hesitated, I made pleasing other people more important than asking questions I needed to ask to learn, or presenting information that may help others.

Sometimes I would feel physically weird – a little sweaty and shaky for no good reason.  Looking back, I was really nervous, afraid that someone was going to yell at me.  I was an adult, with thoughts, opinions, and questions of my own – but I felt like a little kid playing dress up.

If you ever feel this way, your “symptoms” may be different.  But one thing will be consistent: you will end up devoting much more time and energy devaluing yourself and your achievements than you will spend learning, developing your skills, and making the connections you need to make to progress in college and your career.

How can this affect you in college?

Many of the articles written on Impostor Syndrome are composed with graduate students in mind.  But I think we need to broaden this to include undergraduates as well.  If you feel like you are not good enough and don’t belong, this can seriously hamper your progress at any level of higher education.

If you feel like you’re not as smart as everyone else, you’ll hesitate to ask questions.  You may not raise your hand, or talk to your professor.  You may hang back in study groups.  The persistent feeling of not being good enough holds you back.  The problem here is that college should be more interactive – this is where you learn to teach yourself.  In grammar school and high school, you learned to respond to the teacher, to write reports, and take tests.  These are all valuable, but they don’t reflect the demands that will be placed on you when you are an adult.  College is the place to learn to take initiative, to set your own priorities, and make your own decisions.  How can you do that if you’re worrying about being “found out”?  You can’t.  Impostor Syndrome takes a lot of energy away from what you should be concentrating on.  Eventually, it becomes self-perpetuating:

Ultimately, the impostor phenomenon becomes a cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people with impostor feelings go through contortions to do a project perfectly. When they succeed, they begin to believe all that anxiety and effort paid off. Eventually, they develop almost superstitious beliefs. “Unconsciously, they think their successes must be due to that self-torture,” Imes says. (“Feel Like a Fraud?”

Furthermore, when you factor in racism, and sexism, this becomes more complicated:

If you are perceived as being too competent as a scholar or a teacher, you are seen as overly prideful, and thus disconnected from your home. This can be particularly difficult for those who are first-generation, working-class, and gender and ethnic or racial minorities who may also be getting some subtle signals that they don’t necessarily “belong” in academia either. (Lindsey Bernhagen of Ohio State U)

We can see that socioeconomic factors aggravate existing nervousness about achievement and merit.  This can negatively affect your entire college experience, if you think you are afraid of being seen as less than competent because of your race and/or gender, and if you are worried about being perceived as being “out of touch” because of your academic work.  This is exactly why it’s essential to talk about Impostor Syndrome, especially for nontraditional students.  The energy wasted working in this bind is energy that can be used for grades and class participation, but more importantly for developing the network of contacts and social capital necessary to pursue higher degrees and careers.


How you can deal with it: Managing these feelings

Everyone does this differently.  In my case, it was hearing someone talking about Impostor Syndrome by chance, and feeling a strong sense of recognition.  Not everyone can rely on chance, so I’ve done a little research and found two tips for you.

  • Pay it forward: Many resources say that mentoring can help with feelings of inadequacy.  If you’re an undergraduate, formal mentoring may not be an option, but before you know it you will be in a position of greater experience than others.  Even if you’re “only” getting an Associates’, you still have experience and knowledge you can share with someone just starting out – and you know what it’s like in their shoes.
  • Find your own mentor: Learn who your adviser is, and cultivate a good relationship with them.  Alternatively, if you don’t have an adviser, or your school isn’t set up for a lot of one on one time, cultivate a good relationship with a professor you like.  Remember that they often are overworked, so be mindful of their schedule and time commitments.  Even with those constraints, many will be happy to carve out some time here and there to help you learn your strengths and weaknesses and combat any sense of inferiority.

Remember, you’re neither the first nor the last to feel this way.  But you can learn to deal with it and do what you have to do!


What other people have to say about it: Outside sources about Impostor Syndrome