Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Know Your Genre

We, at the Writing Center, would like to thank everyone for a great semester, and we hope to see you this summer or next year. Have a great summer!

When you’re in school, the writing you do usually follows a specific, academic format. The way you write for your classes is most likely not how you text your friends, craft posts on social media, or write thank you letters or resumes. And why would it be? Your audiences for each of these situations are very different from one another. The genre you write in dictates should dictate how you write. In order to write successfully in these genres, you must analyze and understand them.

I had never spent as much time obsessing over word choice as I did when I designed my wedding invitations this semester. Invitations are a genre I had never worked with before. What is the standard format for RSVPs? What does etiquette state is the traditional way to word the couple’s names? How do you word the guests’ names on the outside envelope? Do you include children’s names or just put “and family?” (We just put “and family,” by the way.) I never realized the intricacy of the wording within wedding invitations.

Now, I know that I did not have to follow etiquette rules. This is the 21st century after all; wedding invitations have grown much more casual. But I believe that one should adapt their writing and voice to fit the situation. I wanted my invitations to match the formality of my wedding, and since my wedding is in a nice Catholic church, etiquette dictated that I use more formal wording in my invitations.

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You should always try to think about your audience when you write. In college, your audience may just be your professor. It may also be your peers or other academics in your field. In the future, your audience may be a client, your coworkers, a boss, or possibly even the public. Your word choice, style, and formality should reflect that awareness.


Writing an academic paper will also require a different level of formality than something like a blog post. If you’ve followed any of my posts here on EIU Writes, you might have noticed that I tend to favor an informal and fun style, making jokes and referencing The Magic School Bus whenever possible. I know, however, that I have to be more careful with my word choice and even sentence structure when I’m writing a paper for a class or, especially, my thesis.

It has taken me a long time to hone my ability to sound formal and knowledgeable in my academic writing. I don’t speak with that level of stiffness, and it was a struggle learning the conventions associated with the genre of academia. Over the years, however, I’ve learned how to avoid sacrificing my voice for the sake of formality. I can still write like me, even in class essays.

Don’t be afraid to put a part of yourself in your writing, regardless of the genre you are writing in. It will make the piece stronger and much more interesting for your audience, even if your audience is just your professor. Your audience will welcome your individual style, as long as it falls within the conventions of whatever the genre (essay, lab report, speech, etc.) requires.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

5 Steps to Becoming a Better Blogger

Like any given skill, successful blogging, or even informal writing, becomes better with practice.
Here are the steps you need to know to become a better blogger:
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Plan everything.
Before you even begin writing, start thinking about the information your readers need to know. Some example questions include:

  • Am I enthusiastic about my topic?
  • Will my audience have fun reading and learning about the topic?
  • Is there anything that my readers need to know before reading my post?
  • How would you fill them in on a topic?
  • How would you approach conversation?
  • What kind of word choices might you make?

Don’t be afraid to do some research. Natural curiosity fuels avid bloggers, so make sure you have enough information post-planning to spark some interest for your readers, too.
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Headlines force the blogger to really think about their post and figure out a way to attract potential readers.
Past writing center consultant Nathan wrote a blog post for EIU Writes that he entitled “Confessions of a Plagiarist.” The initial posting was almost immediately more successful than several of our other EIU Writes posts and I can’t help but wonder if his headline has anything to do with it.
Readers want to be tested. Readers want to be trusted. With Nathan’s headline, he grabbed the reader’s attention through a promise of trust – I, the writer (and in this case, supposed plagiarist), am confessing something to you, the reader. A simple, successful headline can forge these relationships between bloggers and their audiences.
If you need some help getting started, try something like Portent’s Content Idea Generator. All you have to do is provide a subject and you’ll get immediate suggestions for clickable headings.
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Once you’ve thought out a plan and created a working title, now it’s time to get down to business.
Surprisingly, writing a blog post is the easiest part. 
This entire time, I’ve been talking about how important it is to create an immediate relationship between bloggers and their audiences, but how do we build and maintain these relationships? Communication! 
When you write a blog post, you are simply building conversation between groups of people.
Imagine yourself casually hanging out with a group of friends:
Blog posts are meant to be accessible, understandable, and even a bit fun. Once you publish a blog, you have no control over who might be reading. Using a enthusiastic, conversational, and even inspiring tone really helps strengthen that connection between bloggers and their potential readers.
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I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but this entire time, you’ve been following my ideas with a consistent, centered image. Using images throughout blog posts is helpful because the genre itself is incredibly visual.
Blog images serve a variety of purpose. Whether you’re using them as a time keeper or point of reference (like what I’m doing), or just adding in some humor to an otherwise more serious post – for an example, check out Ben’s post on EIU Writes – images serve the reader.
You can also take it a step further, using things like infographics or other visible assets to assist your reader’s understanding of a particular topic. Use an online graphic design program like Canva or Piktochart if you need help making something.
When searching the web for content, having a nice ratio of text to image just makes sense.
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The fifth step is editing and posting your content. 
Although spelling and grammar is important, like any successful writer, we know there are specific things we should watch out for in our final content: repetition, inaccessible language or heavy discourse vocabulary, poor sentence structure.
I provided a quick example of repetition at the beginning of this section. See the strike-through sentence? Restating the purpose of this section in such a way not only becomes boring, but it also lessens the power of the image. Always be clear and concise when editing. Keep most paragraphs and sentences short and remember that most people reading blog posts will spend a fraction of the time reading what the blogger spent weeks writing.
One of the easiest methods I’ve found when addressing these issues is to have someone else read your post – especially an unfamiliar reader. Having an extra set of eyes not only ensures a cleaner text, but also reinforces your writing through acknowledging the opinions of potential readers.
*Remember: no blog post is perfect. 
No amount of planning, images, or editing will ensure a successful post or blog following, but thinking of your readers first will always strengthen your skills as a successful writer.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Engineer by Day, Grammar Vigilante by Night

Many people cringe when errors of punctuation or grammar are proudly displayed on storefront signs and in advertisements out in public. Shouldn’t an editor have caught that?, they think. These aren’t the kinds of errors we saw in the last EIU Writes blog post about the Oxford comma. These errors include pluralizing Friday as “Friday’s” or advertising “Herbert’s Potatoes” as “Herberts Potatoes,” examples of apostrophe use that are considered “wrong” in Standard English grammar.

Under the cover of night, a grammar aficionado from Bristol, England has occupied his nights for the last ten years by fixing glaring errors on store signs and advertisements. Some of the more conspicuous errors include “Amy’s Nail’s” and “Vicenzo and Son Gentlemens Hairstylists.” He scratches out apostrophes where they don’t belong and uses what he calls an “apostrophiser” to add stickers where they should be. It seems apostrophes are his specialty.

“Victims” of the grammar vigilante’s work don’t seem to mind, according to the BBC. They’re glad someone has taken the time to correct their mistakes.

When interviewed about the vandalism, the masked crusader responded, “It’s a worse crime to have all these errant apostrophes on shops and garages. I just think it’s going to teach the youth of tomorrow the wrong grammar.”

Legal issues aside, this man is the hero of people concerned about spread of bad punctuation practices, doing as much as he can during his free time (when he’s not off being an engineer or spending time with his family). He tries to be considerate by not crossing them out with red paint/stickers. He doesn’t seem to have a vendetta against these shop owners, just a strong value for correctness.

So be warned; if you ever set up shop in his neighborhood, make sure your signs have impeccable grammar and punctuation, lest you be visited by the apostrophe vigilante.

As always, if you need help or want a second set of eyes to look over your writing before you make it public, feel free to stop by the EIU Writing Center at Coleman 3110 or make an appointment by calling (217) 581-5929.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Ten Million-Dollar Comma

What if I told you this information could save you a million dollars?

A lawsuit hinging on the use of a single punctuation mark—the so-called “Oxford comma”—might cost Oakhurst Dairy, a company out of Portland, Maine, over 10 million dollars.

The lawsuit started in 2014 when a group of truck drivers sued the dairy for four years of overtime pay. Maine laws states that workers must be paid 1.5 times their regular wage for each overtime hour worked, and the truck drivers claimed they were not. A few weeks ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down a 29-page decision.

The lawsuit centers on an ambiguity in Oakhurst Dairy’s employee contract. The truck drivers claimed that a missing Oxford comma distorted the meaning of the clause, resulting in an unfair handling of their overtime.

According to Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), the Oxford comma is simply the last comma that separates three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

For example, suppose you are writing a letter to a friend about what you enjoying doing in your free time. You write, "I enjoy cooking, my family and my dog." 

Do you see the problem? By not using the Oxford comma, the sentence reads that you like to cook your family and your dog. Rather than worry your friend that they might be next, an Oxford comma eliminates all that confusion (and a rather awkward conversation).

Ex: I enjoy cooking, my family, and my dog.

In the case of Oakhurst Dairy, the piece of company contract that is in question describes those activities that are exempt from the overtime rule:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

If you look closely at the last phrase, “packing for shipment or distribution” is not separated with an Oxford comma.

The employees heading the lawsuit claim that without the Oxford comma, “packing” modifies both shipment and distribution. As it reads now, the last phrase indicates that shipping and packing for distribution are exempt.

The truck drivers just deliver the food. They don’t pack any of the boxes.

Despite the mix-up, Maine law states that, although ambiguous, Oakhurst Dairy had followed the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which instructs lawmakers to ditch the Oxford comma.

David Webbert, the lawyer who has been working on the case, sides with those who defend the Oxford comma. The appeals court also defended the comma, stating that its absence created enough confusion to question the contract’s true meaning. Webbert did not take a personal position on the case, but he did offer an invaluable piece of advice: “In this situation, [the missing comma] did create an ambiguity, which means you either have to add a comma or rewrite the sentence.”

Lesson learned? We hope so. If you’ve got a sentence with three or more words or phrases and you’re wondering whether or not an Oxford comma might be necessary, just go for it. That extra keystroke might save you 10 million dollars.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Into the Fire: The Afterlife of School Papers

At the end of each academic year, I find myself asking the same question: what to do with everything I’ve written this semester?  

An essay might take as much time and effort as an art project, but at least an art project leaves you with something tangible; you can put it on a shelf and gawk at the terrible craftsmanship for as many years as you like. (Shout-out to my mom, whose paternal obligations have kept her surrounded by my terrible pottery for over twenty years.)  But what about our essays? You can’t display those without looking arrogant or like a lunatic. So, what’s the point of keeping them around? 

It’s a complicated question, and one I’ve answered differently as I’ve matured.  

In high school, my friends and I ritually burned our academic papers in a cooler we dug out of the dumpster, a performance we repeated every year to mark the end of school and the start of summer. Perhaps motivated by a complete misunderstanding of Fahrenheit 451, a book we all slogged through and wrote about our freshman year, we found catharsis in watching a year’s worth of our work burn away.  

I’m a bit different now. I collect all my papers and the articles that informed them in binders, which I then place in a Rubbermaid bin in my closet. If I run out of binders, I go through and three-hole-punch everything before tying it all together with looped yarn. Beyond that, I have copies and back-up copies stored on flash drives, the electronic equivalent of a closeted Rubbermaid bin. Now, I literally carry around every essay I’ve written as a graduate student in a flash drive that hangs off my keyring. 

Something has definitely changed since high school. 

Technology has made things easier to store and have fewer friends who are prepared to spark butane at a moment’s noticeBut I think the real reason for this change is that I find value in what I write, in fact, I am actually proud of some of the stuff I've produced.  

I’m now almost at the end of my graduate career and will again be questioning the purpose of lugging around all my old papers. I don’t know what I will do with them yet, but I do remember feeling a tinge of regret during the last paper burning in high school. 

By then, news of our ceremonial burning had spread, increasing the size of our group from three people to ten. It could have been the increased amount of paper fuel or an excessive amount of lighter fluid, but when we lit the stack on fire that final time the cooler caught fire as well. We had to chuck the whole thing into a retention pond to keep the fire from spreading. Afterwards, when we were pulling what we could out of the water, I discovered a page from a paper that I had actually been proud of. The rest of the paper had probably burned away or soaked through to the point of dissolving, but for a moment I wanted it all back.