Getting Past the Blank Screen

My floor-mates in college always knew when I was working on a paper by the size of my hair. Slowly but surely my curly red hair would grow into quite the inferno (think of Merida from Brave but with more hair product). And no, it was not from all the electricity generated by my fast and furious writing. It was the blank screen, and that nefarious flashing cursor. Minute by painstaking minute of “writing,” I would run my fingers through my hair rather than typing words–larger and larger would I fan the flames!

You may not turn into a Chia Pet when you write, but you probably do some pretty odd things when that cursor stares you down. Writing just doesn’t come easily to a lot of us, and yet we expect ourselves to write beautiful, eloquent, quotable prose as soon as we open a document. Most of us just can’t do that (and none of us like the people who can), so instead we stare at a blank screen, clean our room, reorganize our closets, call up an old friend, and pretty much anything else we can think of to avoid writing.

These days, when I sit down to write, I try to take a different approach. Instead of opening the document that will eventually contain the final product, I open a blank note in Evernote and make a serious commitment to myself. Between me, the thing I am writing, and God, I commit myself to writing a really, really terrible first draft. Run-on sentences? Check. Incomplete, half-baked thoughts? Done. Politically incorrect stories? Absolutely. Overuse of italics? You know it. Words like “super-duper”? Oh, yes. And if I can throw in a couple of keyboard smashes (you know something like:  a;lksdfja;sdkl jfa;), so much the better.

The point is that most of us get blocked up because our perfectionism and impatience get in the way of the writing process. We try to generate ideas, sort the good ideas from the bad, put the good ideas in a logical order, and come up with profound wording for it all–before we even touch a keyboard. Those are all attention- and energy-dense activities. No wonder we act a little bizarre when we try to do them all at once!

Anne Lamott, in her writing memoir Bird by Bird, has a great chapter with a title I can’t even directly quote. She implores us to write [crappy] first drafts so we can get enough words on the page to find the good ideas and clever turns of phrase that are the basic building blocks of good writing. [Crappy] first drafts are how most of us get to decent second drafts and great third drafts. If you’re anything like me, there are a lot of thoughts cluttering my head, and it’s vital to get that mess out so I can turn my attention in a more creative direction. [Crappy] first drafts are a way to focus on generating content, and delaying organization and revision for when there are plenty of words on the page (even if most of them won’t make the cut).

When you sit down to work on your next paper, personal statement, or other essay, try starting out with a [crappy] first draft. Write what you are thinking, what you wish you were thinking, and what you shouldn’t include in your paper. Misspell words, start a train of thought but let it derail to start another train. The point is to let yourself just write without judgment or revision, letting the creative juices flow.

With that blank screen staring me down, and my fingers itching to turn me into a human torch, I just remind myself, “Make it [crappy]” and start writing exactly what I’m thinking. It’s a mess, of course, but I’ll clean it up later and make that crappy draft a good draft. At this point, anything is better than a blank screen and a ginger who looks like he stuck a paper clip in an electrical outlet.

National McNair Conference at the University of New Mexico

This past week, we took a group of scholars to the National McNair Scholars Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was hosted by the University of New Mexico. The scholars presented their research from the summer, met scholars from other campuses, and learned a little more about the academic life at UNM. The conference was great, and the scholars did an excellent job with their presentations! (FYI: Tyler is not seen in the presentation pictures because only video was taken during his presentation.)

As an added bonus, we were able to visit Old Town Albuquerque, attend the International Balloon Fiesta, and spend a little time at the Albuquerque Zoo. The extra pictures are all from the Balloon Fiesta because it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Overall, our experience was fantastic! Thanks, Albuquerque! We hope to see you again next year!


No, the blue wasn’t planned. It was pretty special, though.

McNair ABQ 2014-5

Go, Judy, go!

McNair ABQ 2014-4

Hailey did an amazing job!

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John also nailed his presentation.

McNair ABQ 2014-2

…and, thankfully, got the silly out prior to beginning.


Because of how things were scheduled, I didn’t get to make it to everyone’s presentations. The scholars that went to support Cooper said he did a great job!


A little celebratory dinner at Golden Pride. Yum!


Bright-eyed at 4:30ish in the morning. Getting breakfast before…BALLOONS!

McNair ABQ 2014-6

Morning glow at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

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Sun rising behind the Sandia Mountains.

McNair ABQ 2014

This whale was amazing when it was fully inflated!

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Looking good after 3 or so hours.

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This owl had a cap and gown on. It seemed a fitting addition to our scholarly trip.

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Angry Birds!

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For over 3 hours, the sky was full of hot air balloons. It was an incredible sight!

McNair ABQ 2014-8

A picture of a pitcher. Ha!

Trapped behind a Wall of Sources? Scale it with Zotero.

My junior year of college, I was working on my biggest paper yet. It was a 20 pager, and the first requirement for the paper listed in the syllabus said: Must be very well researched, clearly composed, organized and heavily edited.

No big deal, right?

I did what any over-achieving, perfectionist in college would do:  I checked out an obscene amount of books from the library, made copy after copy of journal articles, and opened file after file in Word to keep track of it all. I carried those books and articles in a couple of bags and would take ten minutes to take them out and stack them up around me for easy access. When I was in my dorm room, I would sit on the floor with all those books around me. My friends would see the stacks, and know to leave me alone. Behind that wall of books, I tried to write and “do research.”

Needless to say, I got overwhelmed pretty fast. I had more sources than I could hope to consult, and no useful way to track my thinking or interactions. When it came to filling in the footnotes and bibliography when the paper was done, I was exhausted but still had hours of work ahead of me to track down the correct citation information and format.

There is a lot that I wish I knew during that time. Not least of which is an efficient and easy to use way to organize my sources and generate citations throughout the research process. And this is exactly what the citation manager Zotero provides. Here is the short description from the makers of Zotero:  ”Zotero is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.”

Zotero works as both a browser extension and a stand-alone desktop program. The browser extension—available for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari—allows you to pull in citation information with the click of a button, edit that information, organize the source into your project folders, add notes about the source, and share that source with others.

Imagine you have found a great book in Worldcat for a research project. This entry in Worldcat, in addition to the normal citation information, includes the publisher’s blurb, an abstract, the table of contents, and the subject-terms. Rather than taking 10 or 15 minutes (at least) to record that information in a word processing file or Evernote, with Zotero all you do is click a button and Zotero will collect all of that information for you in the form of a citation, Notes, and tags. It gets even better with articles that have .pdfs included in the database. Zotero will collect that file as well, and you can access the full text of the article right from Zotero.

As you are drafting the paper, you have a number of ways to tell Zotero that you want to cite a source. If you use Word, there is an add-on that allows you to plug in a source citation from Zotero. If you do not use word, or prefer an “all citations at once method,” Zotero has a feature called “RTF Scan.” With RTF Scan, you add your footnotes and citations in a custom shorthand (e.g. {Smith, 2014, 85-87}), then save the file as an .rtf. From Zotero, you activate the RTF Scan and Zotero will automatically incorporate the citations, including ibids, and add a bibliography. What typically takes hours, takes just a few minutes.

So take advantage of this wonderful program as you undertake serious research. It will save you a lot of time and hassle, allowing you to focus on what’s most important, the research!

P.S.  We have added links to download Zotero, as well as links the ACU’s library guide to the program in the helpful links tab.

Graduate Admissions Workshop

The McNair Scholars Program, Honors College, and Alpha Scholars Program teamed together to bring in graduate school admissions expert, Donald Asher, to conduct a workshop for our students this past weekend. Mr. Asher covered topics ranging from general application basics to how to select a solid dissertation committee once admitted. Everyone in attendance came away with new insight into the world of graduate school and how to best prepare for the application process. Special thanks to Donald Asher for providing our scholars with such rich information.

Taking it all in.

Taking it all in.

Grad Admissions Workshop 2014-3

Listing worries for Mr. Asher to address

Listing worries for Mr. Asher to address

Donald Asher and his lovely drawing of the United States.

Donald Asher and his lovely drawing of the United States.

Super concentration!

Super concentration!

And then this happened...

And then this happened…

James is always thinking hard!

Team work!

Team work!

Grad Admissions Workshop 2014-5 Grad Admissions Workshop 2014-4

Mentor Appreciation Dinner at The Beehive

On Tuesday of this week, we gathered for dinner at the Beehive Restaurant to thank the faculty mentors who worked with our scholars this summer. Faculty mentors help guide scholars through the research process from design to implementation and write-up. The disciplines represented in this year’s projects were Social Work, Speech Pathology, Nutrition, Biology, Business, Multimedia, Nursing, Mathematics/Statistics, International Studies, History, Criminology, and Information Technology. The mentors put in a considerable amount of time to ensure that each scholar had a great experience and gained invaluable preparation for the world of graduate school.

We are beyond appreciative of our mentors and their contribution to the scholars and the ACU McNair Scholars Program. Thank you all for serving our students!

Our intimate setting at The Beehive

Our intimate setting at The Beehive

Mentor Dinner 2014-9 Mentor Dinner 2014-8 Mentor Dinner 2014-7

John likes lemons

John likes lemons

Mentor Dinner 2014-5 Mentor Dinner 2014-4

John does not like photos

John does not like photos

Our fearless? leader...

Our fearless? leader…