In Their Own Words: Writing Flag Award Winners Discuss Their Process

The Writing Flag Award is an annual competition held by The School of Undergraduate Studies and the Center for Skills & Experience Flags that recognizes the best writing produced by University of Texas undergraduates in courses carrying the Writing Flag.

This year there were 356 submissions to the contest in four different categories: Critical/Persuasive, Humanities Research, Lab Research and Creative/Reflective. The 2019 award winners, who typically would be honored at a spring ceremony, received over $2,000 collectively for their winning work.

Due to the closure of campus from COVID-19, this year’s award ceremony was canceled, but winners will be recognized at next year’s spring 2021 award ceremony. In the meantime, these students still deserve celebration. Some of the winners spoke with the CSEF to discuss their pieces, share their writing process and give tips for other undergraduates in Writing Flags courses.

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity.*

Critical/Persuasive Category

Photo Courtesy of Pia Sen

Pia Sen is a 22-year-old biology major with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies from Austin. She won first place in the Critical/Persuasive writing category for her piece, “The Transitional Consequences of Antiblack Racism and Settler Colonialism on Black Women: From Turtle Island to the Jawara Tribe.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

I am passionate about gender studies, African American Diaspora studies, colonialism and the emerging field of Asian American studies. However, I am concerned Asian American studies often focuses on a few select experiences. Literature, research and media often focus on the upper-class, neurotypical and cisgender Asian Americans who are Chinese/ Indian while discounting alternative experiences and consequences of colonialism and anti-blackness.I think that exposing the extensive nature of anti-blackness globally is crucial to effectively analyze how systems that we talk about domestically translate to outside of the U.S.

What is your writing process like?

I feel very strongly about having a clear outline of what I want to say, and making my outline by reading primary sources that represent a variety of opinions prior to writing anything. I work really hard to find sources and descriptions that I feel are actively able to confront the assumptions I have, and do thorough lit reviews which I think I’ve learned to do in debate and science.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

I struggled a lot with confronting the pitfalls of current literature and criticizing pieces that are published, because I don’t feel qualified to criticize them at times. I also struggled to find a lot of scholarship on Jawara people and the tribe I was specifically talking about.

I am proud of how the piece flows well together, and how I was able to bring anti-blackness and colonialism into discussion.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

I want people to acknowledge that racism is not confined to the U.S. We can’t just talk about anti blackness in terms of the U.S. to create movements to truly combat racism.

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

I think it’s important to learn to express our own opinions and create citations that express our thoughts and opinions. This allows us to express ourselves effectively.

Jerry Yang is an electrical engineering major from Houston. He won second place in the critical/persuasive writing category for his piece, “Just a Preference.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

The subject of Queer studies is very much a personal one. When I came to write this essay, it was actually kind of a struggle with identifying exactly what I wanted to write about. In high school, gay short films on Youtube and porn were my two sources of anything gay related. So I was like, “Well, is there a way to tie these two together?”

What is your writing process like?

The type of writing that I do for LGBTQ studies or Queer studies very much comes from a personal place. One of the ways I think through issues personally is by writing. I write to reflect. Writing for me is a way to carefully consider the issues and express what I actually think in really coherent ways.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

I am familiar with the language I used and the subjects I discussed, but I was aware that my readers might not be. One of the things I had to reconcile in the paper was how to deal with those terms. I had to include these notes and footers to make sure that people understood when I use certain terms, they’re generally used in very specific ways. They may reinforce stereotypes, or they may be harmful to people. That’s not the way I’ve used them, and I’m using them in very specific and careful ways while trying to respect the community.

What I am proud of in this essay ties back to developing my voice. This is a story of growth. This is a narrative that showcases these cultural phenomena impacted me, but I learned and I grew from these experiences.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

I think that everyone is going to take away something slightly different from my paper, but I think that that’s just the nature of writing. But, I think my broader message is really: Be attracted to who you’re attracted to, that’s fine. Maybe think a little bit more about why you’re attracted to what you’re attracted to, and explore whether there’s something that is influencing your attractions, rather than saying, “Oh, it’s just a preference.”

What advice would you share with someone wanting to improve their writing?

Writing is really hard, especially if writing is not how you normally think. As a writer you really have to get out of your head and get into your reader’s head. And, practice. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you have to write. The voice that I have in my paper is not something that comes immediately. It’s a process.

Photo Courtesy of Isabella McConley

Isabella McConley is a 21-year-old neuroscience major from Fort Worth. She won third place in the critical/persuasive writing category for her piece, “A Unified Spirit: Reincarnating Carl Jung’s Syzygy in Wuthering Heights.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

I have a strong interest in psychology, both in practice and in theory. In my senior English class in high school we spent a day or two going over Carl Jung’s psychological model, and it was fascinating. I’ve read “Wuthering Heights” a few times, and each time I read it there were more and more lines of analysis I could potentially follow. I felt that this novel was well-suited to the sort of psychoanalysis that Jung proposed, and I found several fascinating connections when I started trying to see what I could get out of the novel using his framework.

What is your writing process like?

Drafts, drafts, drafts. Lots of very heavy editing. I always print out each iteration of a paper I’m working on and then go to town with highlighters and pens. I also have about a billion different documents on my computer where I rewrite paragraphs one at a time, collect quotes, etc.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

The hardest part is making sure everything connects well, and that the points I make are sound and well-supported. Keeping everything connected, relevant, and plausible was probably the biggest challenge with this paper.

I’ve always thought it was strange how similar the two generations are that are present in “Wuthering Heights,” so it was honestly very satisfying finding a way to make sense of it–treating the second generation as a spiritual and more complete reflection of the first.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

Taking an idea and running with it when it comes to literary analysis, and certainly other projects, often can yield surprising and very interesting results. Even if the thought seems unorthodox or “out there,” working with it and making it function well in the terms of your project is satisfying.

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

Regardless of your major or professional interest, having good writing skills can set you apart and make you appear more competent. It’s important to understand how to give constructive criticism, and it’s equally important to understand how to incorporate criticism to better your own work. It may not always be fun–writing papers is rarely stress-free–but the experience and practice that goes into taking a Writing Flag will only leave you a better writer.

Research - Humanities Category

Photo Courtesy of Cole Chism

Cole Chism is a 21-year-old government and marketing double major from Cedar Park, Texas. He won first place in the Humanities Research category for his piece, “Predicting the Effects of Ex-Felon Enfranchisement on the 2020 Presidential Election in Florida.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

It is morally corrupt to deny ex-felons the right to vote. These citizens have paid their debt to society, and they have the right to participate in the democratic process. I chose to focus on Florida because the enfranchisement of more than a million ex-felons in Florida is the largest change to ex-felon voting rights in history. I wanted to know — how will this change effect the next presidential election?

What is your writing process like?

I was familiar with a lot of the literature on this subject, so I started by tackling the literature review and filling in missing information as necessary. After completing my literature review and conducting my research, I filled in the bulk of my paper by walking the reader through my research methodology and results. This process took some iteration — I didn’t realize how hard it would be to take my quantitative research and to turn it into a readable text.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

My biggest struggle came from conducting my research. I expected to run into some problems when I created my regression model, but I didn’t forsee the problems that I encountered while collecting and cleaning my data. A lot of my data came from the Florida state government, and you might expect their data to be consistent across departments. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I am most proud of the discussion section of my paper. I believe I did a good job connecting my research to important insights about ex-felon disenfranchisement.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

There is a partisan incentive to the racist mass incarceration system in general and ex-felon disenfranchisement in particular.

What advice would you share with someone wanting to improve their writing?

Writing is an iterative process, it takes time and repetition. The first thing you put on the page will never be the best — but the more you practice the better you’ll be. Also, if you’re serious about improving your writing you should read! Reading is how you learn from others.

Photo Courtesy of Bailey McDonald

Bailey McDonald is a 22-year-old history and philosophy double major from Austin. She won second place in the Humanities Research category category for her piece, “The Roads of Ethiopia: Italian Occupation and Mengistu’s Regime.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

I was in a class called African Travel Narratives, and for the final paper we had to choose a travel narrative set somewhere in Africa to interact with. I was interested in a travel narrative that focused a) on a woman and b) on someone native to the country they were writing about.

What is your writing process like?

I like to let my research guide me in my writing. I have found that whatever ideas you may have about a piece going into it, your research process will absolutely change the course of your piece. While I’m researching, I create an outline. I like to create a pretty detailed outline — that’s probably where the bulk of my effort goes in the process. Then after a few days letting it sit, I’ll come back and write a draft, and then a few days after that I’ll make my edits on the draft and finish the piece.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

I think it took me a while to find direction in this piece. Though finding the binding thread throughout was what I found so difficult, it also turned out to be what I am most proud of. I think the larger connections I drew about the history of roads in Ethiopia are what ended up interesting me most, and I’m proud of how I drew everything together.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

I want people to take away that every lived experience is a piece of larger system and a larger history that has gotten us where we are today. If we want to understand why the world is the way that it is, we need to critically examine the structures and systems that have created the world that we live in.

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

I’ve taken many Writing Flag courses in my time at UT, and I think they all have made me into a stronger writer. These courses have forced me to sit down and to really engage with myself as a writer — be that through examining my writing process, figuring out what I like to write about, seeing what I’m good at and what I could be better at, and so much more. On a larger scale, I think that as a student graduating with a Liberal Arts degree, one of my strongest, and most marketable, skills upon graduation is going to be my ability to write. I really think that the work I have been able to do on my writing throughout my undergrad is one of the best things that will come out of my time at UT.

Research - Lab Category

Matthew Yu and Amad Ahbab

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Yu

Matthew Yu is a 21-year-old electrical and computer engineering major from Plano, Texas. He and Amad Ahbab won second place in the Lab Research category for their co-authored piece, “An Inquiry into How Company Culture Influenced the Volkswagen 2015 Emissions Scandal.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

Volkswagen’s Dieselgate is a relatively recent scandal. The scandal broke out in late 2015 and has been continuing behind the scenes to this day, with Germany and the U.S. levying new charges against former VW executives. It’s also very well documented in terms of events and details.

What is your writing process like?

Our writing process, at least for the revision of this work for the Writing Awards competition, was pretty casual. We sat down together on an October night in our apartment lobby and plotted out where we wanted to go and what we wanted to achieve by the December deadline. We went through the version we submitted for our class report, and asked ourselves, what sections did we want to revise? What parts could be cut out or made more succinct? How could we modify the piece to retain the depth of detail and impact of our argument?

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

One of the biggest struggles we had with this piece was that our scope was too large. It was hard to comfortably fit what we wanted to say in the competition’s 4000 word limit. At some point before trimming the work, we had about 9000 words, including the appendices and annotated bibliography.

I’m very proud of the research done for this paper. It’s very thorough, took a lot of effort, and I learned so much along the way.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

The key takeaway here is that Volkswagen’s Dieselgate should be a clear example to engineers about the implications of ethical misconduct. What Volkswagon did has enormous impacts on the lives of its consumers and the people who interact with these cars in a secondhand regard. As an engineering student, this scandal lends credence to my perspective that I have a responsibility to always consider the social and environment impacts of my work.

What advice would you share with someone wanting to improve their writing?

I think a technique that’s helped me a lot in my writing is to take a step back and have a fresh pair of eyes looking at your work. This could mean either taking a break from the writing, or having a third party review the work. It’s easy to start missing mistakes if you have been looking at your writing for extended periods of time.

Photo Courtesy of Amad Ahbab

Amad Ahbab is a 21-year-old electrical and computer engineering major from Houston. He and Matthew Yu won second place in the Lab Research category for their co-authored piece, “An Inquiry into How Company Culture Influenced the Volkswagen 2015 Emissions Scandal.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

This topic is very relevant to our field as computer engineers. Reflecting on the ethical violations of people who work in developing code and how those violations affect the lives of thousands of people served as a reminder of our civic duty to put safety first and profit second.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

A big issue was how to succinctly state ideas without repeating ourselves. Initially, we went very in depth into examples or certain incidents that, while relevant to the big picture, we were forced to cut out.

Aside from the research and content, I really like the narrative and organization of the paper. Organizing the ideas was a huge help when finding the layout and structure of our final piece that met the word limit.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

The main takeaway is that the work we do affects thousands of people, and can even affect our loved ones. We engineers are at the frontlines of changing the world. But we need to make sure that we change it for the better. We must not let corporate influence and desire for profit get in the way of our civic duty.

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

Writing is a necessary skill, no matter your major or profession. It is essential in any form of collaboration and in preserving your work for the future.

Weatherly Sawyer

Weatherly Sawyer is a 22-year-old studio art major from Dripping Springs, Texas. She won third place in the Lab Research category for her piece, “Effect of Solenopsis Invicta Presence on Species Diversity of Ground-Dwelling Arthropods at Brackenridge Field Laboratory.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

I don’t come from a science background or a biology background at all. I just thought it would be really interesting to do something with actual living animals instead of like, plants.

What is your writing process like?

My writing process is different for biology because it was definitely much more structured. They gave us exactly what they wanted us to do. Whereas if it’s for something that’s more liberal arts centered it’s really up to you. It was really nice to have the framework laid out for me, and then I could just kind of spice it up whenever I wanted.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

In terms of the writing, I think there were there was definitely a lot of fact checking, especially with the parts of the research I was maybe less comfortable with.

I feel like the introduction was fun. That’s the part that gives you the most freedom. It let me express more creativity than the rest of it. I was pretty happy with how it came together. I actually was able to make some transitions in there that were kind of interesting to me.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

I think I would want people to take away from this piece that you don’t necessarily have to have a background in sciences or statistics to be able to write about it. I really encourage the message of not getting discouraged by the fact that something is outside of what you normally do

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

I think what is really important is the fact that I would not have found this class if it didn’t have a Writing Flag. It’s kind of like having electives or core curriculum where you would have never experienced these things if you didn’t have that requirement there. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise, honestly.

Creative/Reflective Category

Photo Courtesy of Kati Chen

Kati Chen is a 21-year-old Plan II Honors, Business Honors and Management Information Systems major from Austin. She won second place in the creative/reflective category for her piece, “Snapshot.”

Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

In my “Writing Narratives” class, one of our assignments was a short story. I decided that I wanted to write a piece that, on some level, explores adolescence and sexuality. Children are very perceptive. They are also quite funny — much funnier than most adults I know. I am interested in what we can learn when we view complex topics through a kid’s eyes.

What is your writing process like?

Think about writing. Refuse to write. Drafts are for sports leagues. Repeat until a looming deadline becomes an impending deadline. Fine, open a Word document. Black out. Regain consciousness and look over the three paragraphs you’ve just written. Do people really talk like this? Is this boring? It’s boring. Try to be funny. Ok, ha-ha. That’s kind of funny. Analyze the line until it’s not funny anymore. Scrap it. Black out some more. Read over the entire piece, out loud and backwards and every-other-word until you’re sick of it. Ugh. Take it away. Proclaim that you’ll never touch it again. Secretly continue to edit the piece for years afterwards, even though you are your only audience.

What struggles did you face writing this piece? What part are you most proud of?

It was very difficult to get Leo’s voice right. Sometimes I would read over what I wrote and think that he sounded like some pretentious old guy in a kid’s body. I didn’t want him to sound like a pretentious old guy. I wanted him to sound like a kid who is curious and a bit anxious and lonely.

I like the “reveal” of the reason for Leo’s suspension. I was very deliberate about how I wanted to explore the topic of sexuality. I’ve edited that dialogue countless times, because I wanted it to come off exactly right. Of course, it hasn’t. Nothing ever does. But, I still like it.

What is a key takeaway you want people to have from this piece?

It’s difficult to imagine what others may feel when they read it. I suppose I hope parts of it make people laugh. I hope parts of it make people squirm. I hope parts of it makes people think about themselves, kind of like when you go someplace new and you think, “I’ve been here before.”

Why do you think the Writing Flag is important for students?

Writing Flag courses can teach us how to discover our ideas and develop our voice. Additionally, I think Writing Flag courses can teach you to find pleasure in writing. Writing is always painful. But if you keep practicing it, over and over, it will become an addicting experience. There is something wonderful about trying to make sense of the world and yourself through a story. It is so hopeful.

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.