Friday, April 27, 2012

When I Grow Up I Want To Be A....Writer?

When I was little I wanted to be a super star.

 The more flamboyant the better, Lady GaGa type of crazy famous.

 I spent a lot of time dancing on top of my cedar chest, with a green feather boa, singing to my imaginary audience of devoted fans, "Thank you! Thank you! I love you! You're too kind!" My quiet and reserved parents were mortified.

 Well, I eventually grew up (kinda sorta) and despite having done a lot of professional theater--never became a super star. Instead I ended up working as a receptionist for my father in the family business. I quickly discovered that my loud personality and my dad's quiet personality were not a good mix in the work place. So, I went out into the real world and landed a job at the University of Illinois-Computer Science Department.

 While this was all going on I was also attending Parkland College working towards my associates degree. I was enrolled in English 101 and 102, which meant that I was learning about writing. I found this particularly helpful because the position I held in the Computer Science Department was one where I wrote tons of business letters and proposals for the head of the department.
 Seriously. Tons.

 Like so much that my hands would cramp up.

 Some of this business correspondence was dictated to me by the Head of the Dept., but most of it was not. I became quite intimate with Grant Proposals. My job was to read the grant, read what the faculty member had put together, and then write the proposal for the grant. Which in this case was basically a one-page cover letter that accompanied the Grant Proposal and introduced it.

 Did I have any idea how to write these? No.

 Actually when I got the job at the Computer Science Department I thought that I would be sitting at a computer all day, maintaining calendars, making appointments, greeting students and answering phones.

 Well, I did all that...but I wrote a lot more. I was very thankful for my writing courses at Parkland. Several years later I was working in the Student Accounts Office at Lincoln College-Normal. I quickly found that this job also would include writing!

 I was writing all the time! Letters to parents regarding tuition, memos to the financial aid department about distribution of funds, and then finally acting as a writer of the new mission statement for the college in 2006.


 I never once said that when I grew up that I wanted to be a writer!

 But somehow it had happened.

 And it happens all of the time.

 More than likely any job that you end up working at after you graduate will have you doing some kind of writing. My husband is a tree trimmer, and he writes! He has to draft proposals for companies on a daily basis! He never thought he would be writing.

 Other jobs where you will write:
Insurance Agent
Administrative Assistant
Retail Buyer

 I could add more!

 There will come a day that you think back on your English classes and feel thankful for having taken them.

 I promise.

 You might not grow up to be a writer, but you are always going to be writing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Focus on Focus

The home stretch.  The last enchilada.  For all the cookies.  However you want to word it, things are finally starting to wrap up this semester.  I don't know about all of you, but this semester has flown by.  We're talking swallow-and-coconut speed here.  (And anyone who understood that is automatically one hundred times better than those who didn't)

When it gets this close to the end of the semester, few things are as valuable as focus.  And fewer things are attacked on so many angles.  Friends.  Family.  Facebook.  Video games.  Shopping trips.  Impromptu Sweedish meatball parties ... you name it, it's calling for your attention.  Distraction is a powerful beast.

And we feed him.

So how can we defeat this monster that threatens to eat away all our free time, leaving us a panicked scrambling shell of a student, slamming away at a keyboard with speeds that leave your fingertips fractured and bleeding?  Well, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that victory is always within your grasp.  The bad news is you have just enough rope to hang yourself.  Focus and discipline are rarely fun things to exercise, but there are a few tips that can make this battle easier:

1. Get out: The brain is a tricky little bugger.  If you constantly repeat the same kinds of activities in the same locations, your mind begins to expect those things and subconsciously prepare you for that kind of action.  Ever had trouble studying in bed?  Fall asleep in the same class no matter how awake you feel at the beginning?  Feel your stomach rumbling when you walk into a restaurant?  It's the same basic phenomena.  If you're like me and use your personal living space for relaxation, it's going to be a thousand times harder to study.  Not only are distractions present, but your mind has already warmed itself up for some fun.  Your own brain chemistry is working against you!  Go somewhere where you frequently study, or at least somewhere you don't frequently goof off.

2. Don't use your laptop: Let me clarify -- I'm not saying don't use any laptop.  If at all possible, use a public computer that has limited web access.  When you study on your own computer, it's going to be more tempting to hop on to Facebook or Twitter to check what everyone has to say.  And honestly, even typing that sentence made me want to jump on and check my own updates.  It's practically a reflex for people nowadays -- open browser, go to Facebook.

And yes, I realize that this has some logistical difficulties.  Sometimes projects require unrestricted internet access.  It's not a perfect plan, but if you can find a way to eliminate the temptation, do so.  It helps.

3. Silence your phone: Or if you're really feeling crazy, leave it behind.  For some of you, that may be like cutting off a limb.  I have a news flash for you: you'll live.  Get over it.  Not only are you constantly tempted to text, call, or Facebook, but you're much more likely to send or receive a self-sabotaging S.O.S.  If someone calls you with a more tempting activity (and let's be honest, if you're studying that's not difficult), you're much more likely to snap up the offer and put things off yet again.  Avoiding the situation entirely makes it easier to focus.  Duh.

And again, I realize there are some issues with this.  What if an emergency occurs?  What if someone desperately needs to ask a question?  A technique I've used in the past involves leaving my phone with a roommate and letting them know where I am.  If an important call or text comes in, he knows where to find me.  It's imperfect, but it works.

4. Don't blitz: Take breaks.  Reasonable breaks.  When I'm working on a big writing project, I'll usually stop about every hour and walk around campus for five or ten minutes.  There's not really a point to it, but stepping away from the project and getting some fresh air gives my brain a chance to slow down and process what's going on.  Sometimes I'll wander around and think about the paper, but more often I try to think about something else.  Give your brain a break every once in a while.  It will thank you.

5. Use what works for you: This isn't a dogmatic set of rules.  There is no magical formulae for productivity.  If you find yourself more distracted without your phone, constantly worried about what people might be saying, then ignore what I said and bring it with you.  Each of us are wired differently, and the trick is not stumbling upon the magical series of actions that forces you to be productive.  You have to want to be productive, or at least be willing to put legitimate, concerted effort towards it.

Of all the times to be focused in school, these last weeks are among the most important.  So saddle up, buckle down, put your nose to the grindstone, and kick it in to high gear.  Or whatever productivity metaphor you prefer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

JSTOR and More

It's still the week before finals, so I figure every little bit helps. The assignment that many of us have due within the next couple weeks is no doubt a research paper. Sure, it's a pain to seek sources (who has time for that?), but I figure I'll try to make it slightly less painless by helping you to find sources with relative ease.

EIU students (and I imagine students at most universities) have access to the wonderful database, JSTOR. For someone like me, JSTOR is a dream come true. Type in what you're looking for and JSTOR will come up with related results much like your average search engine. However, unlike your average search engine, your results are not webpages but scanned and digitized versions of articles from various academic journals. Does your instructor demand peer-reviewed scholarly articles? Look no further. Actually, scratch that. Do look further but further into JSTOR.

Let's say I want to find something about Walt Whitman. In the search field, I'll type "walt whitman" (capitalization be damned in the search bar!). JSTOR promptly brings up results 1-25 of 16012 for "walt whitman." Now let's say my paper's on Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. There are two ways I can search for articles about the both of them. One way involves simply typing "walt whitman and lincoln." The other way is typing "walt whitman" into the first search bar, and then "lincoln" into the one right below it. There's a drop-down menu right next to it that'll say "AND." It's other options are "OR," "NOT," "NEAR 5," "NEAR 10," and "NEAR 25." This drop-down menu can be useful in that if I wanted to, I could leave out results with "lincoln" by putting it into the second search bar and selecting "NOT." This can be helpful in omitting unwanted information in your later search.

Now enough about searching. Let's look at an article we found. We'll take a look at "Walt Whitman and Lincoln" by Clarence A. Brown, the fifth result of searching for "walt whitman and lincoln." There's a small box just above the first page of the article that has a few different options. One is, "View PDF" which you can use to download the PDF version of the scanned article for later viewing at your leisure. The rest of them, however, all involve citations. The most useful option may be "View Citation." It should be noted that the citation that they give you isn't in a format that I recognize so it may not be a commonly-used citation system:
Walt Whitman and Lincoln
Clarence A. Brown
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) , Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer, 1954), pp. 176-184
Nevertheless, it gives you all the information you'll need.

Also, if you're in a pinch, some articles have a summary or abstract that you can read. "Walt Whitman and Lincoln" does not, but if you want to find it on an article that you've found on JSTOR, select "Summary" next to "Page Scan" just above the article's image. Aside from an abstract, it will also list all of the footnotes and bibliographic information you'll need.

EBSCO is another invaluable resource with a bit more variety. Often, people will use the Academic Search Complete, which touts itself as "the world's most valuable and comprehensive scholarly, multi-disciplinary full-text database." Regardless of which part of the EBSCO database you use, they'll all have the same interface. Using the MLA International Bibliography, we'll do a similar search as earlier about "walt whitman." Similarly to JSTOR, we have a drop-down menu with options like "AND," "OR," and "NOT." But for now, we'll just stick with a "walt whitman" search.

There is some overlap with articles, but there are also some new results here. We'll look at Jim Garrison's "Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and Primordial Artistic Communication." You'll notice we don't get a scanned copy of the essay right away; instead we get a bunch of information. From here, you can formulate a citation. That being said, there's also an option on the side called "Cite" that will give you citation examples for that particular work in some of the more common citation formats. It is a convenience that JSTOR doesn't provide. 

Not all articles have a PDF copy on EBSCO, but they will almost always have some way for you to find it. Sometimes it might link to another database like Project Muse, or will send you back to your library's website to search for the location of the article on your shelves. Nevertheless, it's an important tool to legitimate research. 

Aside from all of that, all that's left is to curl up next to the fire with a good scholarly journal article.

Friday, April 20, 2012

We're not in English class anymore....

When Dorothy Gale landed in OZ she immediately knew she "wasn't in Kansas anymore." Oz was vastly different than her home--suddenly the boring black and white world of Kansas was no more, and instead she saw COLOR!

Dorothy's world changed because of her perspective and the fact that she was able to: analyze her situation, introduce herself to her new peers, organize her ideas, put them into sensible and unified action, do some fabulous quoting ("there's no place like home"), and conclude that this journey was valuable and more than just a dream.

(Wow. The Wizard of Oz sounds more like writing an essay than I ever could have dreamed! What a happy accident.)

This can happen to you too!

Well, not the tornado/drop a house on a wicked witch/ruby slipper scenario. (although, I must admit that sounds pretty rad)

But a transformation like this can happen to you in regards to how you think about: the world, your field of study, communication, emphasizing your opinion, and organization.

Wow. Sounds cool, right?

It is cool, and I bet you having been doing it all most of your classes.

Tired of guessing? OK. I will tell you.

The secret is Composition.

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! (that's me imagining your reply)

I know, it tends to come as a surprise and sometimes not a welcome one.

Once in a while students do not like to write. It is true. However, what they do not realize is that they are writing all of the time. Every day. Just like Dorothy was on her adventure in Oz, only this writing is happening in thought and action.

When I explain this to students I am usually met with grumbles and things like, "Well, I know that I will NEVER write a paper again after this, let alone remember this stuff."

But you are already doing it! And you are going to continue to do so!

Silly, silly, silly, students.

(of course I feel this way about Math, but this is a "do as I say not as I do" moment)

Sometimes part of me wants to pull a Nelson and say, "HA,HA" when I hear a student talk this way because with the rise of Writing Across the Curriculum, more and more classes that are not considered English classes are writing papers or just plain writing more in general. There is no escaping "English."

Despite wanting to go full on Simpsons, I contain myself and usually say something like, "Tell me what you don't like about writing?"

Here are some answers that I have gotten:

It's hard.
It takes work.
My teacher never understands what I wrote.
I should not have to go into that much depth about something!
How can writing a paper about my earliest childhood memory help me in my Chemistry course?
Thesis statements do not exist in real life.

Here are the replies that I give:

Everything worth doing is hard. (Shout-out to my Grandma for that one)

Work builds character and helps you to appreciate the things that you have.

If your teacher does not understand you, it means that you are not being clear, and clarity is something that you desperately need in any academic or professional field.

Going into depth about a subject allows you to understand the subject more than you ever would have before, which can result in LEARNING.

Remembering your earliest childhood memory and writing it in a narrative form essay gives you the opportunity to be reflective--an important skill that younger students often have not experienced. Science is all about studying, experimenting, and then reflecting. Being reflective would definitely help you in your Chemistry course--you really do need to reflect on that trial and error.

Thesis Statements = Life. They are your bottom line, your main point--the reason why you do what you do.

Writing transcends the English Comp Course.

Actually, in the Writing Center we see students who are working on writing for classes such as Art, Economics, Physical Therapy, Sociology, Education, Communication Disorders, Family and Consumer Sciences, etc., etc. 

Simply put: you are not done with composition when you are done with your composition course. You will use the skills you learned in this class throughout the rest of your college career.

Professors, not solely English Professors, often ask students to write because writing is so very personal. It is a glimpse into a student's thought process and sometimes more reliable than a multiple choice or true/false test.

'Cause let's face it...multiple choice tests usually mean guessing.
(admit it ... I like to choose C)

And True/False exams are a 50/50 shot! Great for gamblers! Risky and unrewarding for a student.

The ability to organize your ideas, come to a definite conclusion in regards to those ideas, and develop an argument about them proves that you, yes you, are invested.

Invested in not only your education, but in educating others.

Because, other people read that paper! It's true! Your professor reads it, yes, but sometimes your peers will as well--especially if your professor uses Peer Review.

The more people reading your work means your valuable message is getting across. And also that hard work, dedication, intelligence, interest in your field of study, are traits that you find valuable.

This just sounds better and better! Right?

Writing gives you the opportunity to be that individual who believes in the importance of communicating his thoughts, and this also represents the fact that your thoughts are worth sharing.

Major self-esteem fist bump!

Someday, and possibly sooner than later, you will be happy and thankful that you took your composition courses. It may not appear relevant at times, but writing is always there, helping you to organize, emphasize, argue, learn, and teach.

Aren't you glad you came to Oz? Kansas is boring anyway.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Strengthening Sentences: Good Repetition, Bad Repetition

All the fancy folks who get paid to play elaborate hoaxes on folks in the name of neurological science have told us time and time again that repetition is key to learning.  Neural pathways are dug deeper and deeper, allowing the brain to access them more quickly.  Et cetera, et cetera.

So why do composition teachers rail on repetition within writing?  If it's something that is truly helpful to a reader, why are points being deducted?  There's a very good reason for that, dear reader (sheesh, now I sound like a Victorian novel).  You ready for this?

It's not.  Repetition is good.  Redundancy, however, isn't.  So what's the flipping difference?

Repetition is repeating an element or elements within your writing to emphasize their meaning within the text. The information (or word) is repeated to cast information in a new light, add rhetorical emphasis, or draw connections within the larger scope of the work.  Redundancy occurs when these repetitions have no meaning, when you're simply "spinning your wheels" rather than expanding, emphasizing, or connecting pieces of an argument.

Culprit numero uno?  Word counts.  When you start purposefully stretching out your argument to fill pages, you're almost certain to repeat yourself ... and not in a good way, either.  Let's take a look at some examples, shall we?

Winston Churchill was known for being one sharp public speaker (as well as a complete drunkard), and one of his most famous speeches includes a little bit that goes something like this:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ...

The repetition of the phrase "we shall fight" is purposeful.  It reinforces the idea behind the speech -- no quarter, no surrender.  The rallying cry reinforces the strength of the message, giving it a poignancy that would have been lost had he gone synonym happy.  Can you imagine how a "thesaurused" version of that speech would sound?

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, there shall be an altercation on the seas and oceans, we shall rumble with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall scrap on the beaches, we shall make a ruckus on the landing grounds, we shall quarrel in the fields and in the streets, we shall scuffle in the hills; we shall never surrender ...

Not exactly the kind of thing that goes down in history.  But hey, JFK got away with calling himself a jelly doughnut.  Maybe Churchill would have been remembered for his scrappy beaches and hilly scuffles.

Now that we've looked at some powerful rhetorical repetition, let's take a look at some redundancy.  This is a terrible sentence overall, but the redundancy is especially noticeable:

Corporations in today's society drain American families dry by forcing them to spend all their money through inflation of prices and unfair costs that most people can't afford.

First off, this sentence could probably be cut down into just a few words: "Corporate inflation drains many Americans dry."  If you can make such a drastic cut to a sentence without altering its meaning, then you're likely dealing with redundancy.  Contrarily, Churchill's speech technically been cut down to fewer words, but it would not have had the same impact.  Just saying, "We'll fight them no matter where they show up," is effective, but forgettable.  And the fact that such a cut negatively impacts the writing is an indication of effective repetition.

So what's an aspiring student to do?

First off, put your thesaurus away.  It can be a useful tool, but don't feel like every single iteration of your main point needs to use a different synonym.  Sometimes synonyms carry different connotations, which will subtly change the meaning of what you're saying.  Thin, slender, and skinny are not the same thing.  All of them will be clustered together in a thesaurus, but the subtext behind them is vastly different.

Instead, ask yourself why you're repeating these elements.  Sometimes you'll find that there really is no better word to accurately depict what you're saying.  Using the word "corporation" a dozen times in your paper may not be a bad thing -- a corporation is a corporation.  If you're repeating crap because you need to fill another page and a half, then you've got a completely different set of problems to worry about.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Down to the Wire

All right, folks. Eight days left of classes and a week of finals.

For some of us, finals means cramming for examinations and avoiding sleep like you're in A Nightmare on Elm Street. For the lucky rest of us, that means just papers, big ol' eight-to-ten page monsters with two pages of sources listed adhering to the strict rules of MLA or APA citation. We crawl to the ends of the paper, unsure if our professors want eight full pages or seven pages with two lines on that eighth page.

Sound familiar?

Because it's getting to be that DOWN TO THE WIRE time, the smell of procrastination will be thick in the air. Thankfully, most people (including myself) will be procrastinating as well, so we'll get used to the smell.

Aromas aside, because time will be a scant resource, certain aspects of the writing process may be neglected, namely revision and proofreading. I'm guilty of it myself, but when I luck out (i.e. when I work on things early) and have time to revise, I feel better for it. Not only that, but so also feel my grades.

But "revision" can be seen as this nebulous term that isn't quite clear to students. Does it mean checking for grammar? Does it mean rewriting the sucker? Here at EIU, we've got a handy handout that might assist in clearing up just what we talk about when we talk about that final stretch of the writing process.

Basically, we're talking about two things: "deep revision" and "editing/proofreading." The latter is where we go through and clean up those grammatical issues like tense shifts and spelling errors.

The former, on the other hand, is where we dig deeply into what larger concerns might lie beneath the surface of your paper. I like to think of it like we're trying search for problems under the surface, so something like this doesn't happen:


As perfect as your paper might feel by the end of it, it's important to make sure you don't have any structural problems beneath. Let's focus on that for a bit with a few questions to ask yourself:
  1. What's your big picture? What's your point?
  2. Do you yourself pose any questions that you maybe didn't consider as you wrote it?
  3. If someone else reads this, can they tell you your main points back to you?
  4. What does each paragraph do in your paper?
You'll want to read your paper slowly and likely more than once if you want to fully grasp what these questions will help you figure out. If you don't do any of this, there is that possibility that you might've been okay.

But sometimes it's a crapshoot--you just might've built your paper on a structure that'll give you this later:

Moar Sinkholez

Friday, April 13, 2012

Look out! You've got a tic!

When my Romanticism professor sat down to talk to me about my paper regarding Percy B. Shelley's play The Cenci, I assumed he was going to tell me that he understood where I was coming from, but did not agree with my paper.

Which he did.

But he also said this, "Are you aware that you have tics?"

At first I was startled. I was almost 100% sure that I did not have ticks. I had not been near any wooded areas or deer or even rolled around in my yard. There was the time that I had come perilously close to a deer at a petting zoo...but surely this was not close enough to get ticks.

I looked at him with a look of confusion and he started laughing.

"No, Kelly. Not ticks, TICS. You have a tic in your writing."

I was still confused and had to ask, "What do you mean by tic?"
(I still felt a little itchy due to the confusion from earlier)

He answered me in a rather flagrant, fun, well intended but rather confusing way. However, I was able to glean this definition from what he had told me:

Writing tics are the repeated words or phrases or actions the writer subconsciously relies on and uses too frequently. The writer won’t notice her tics, but readers will.

"Did you know that you use "is" all of the time in your paper? I underlined it on this page."

He handed me the page, and it was like being handed a death sentence via paper. There on the page, underlined in bright red, was the word "is" least 15 times.

15 times! In one page! Yikes!

He went on to tell me some other common tics (tics vary because they are unique of a writer):




That being said
Such as
To that end
most often (guilty as charged)

Apparently tics come naturally when you write, and the writer will not notice that he has written this particular word over and over.

Also most often writers will not notice this tic when editing their work, sometimes it takes another reader's eye to catch on to a tic.

Do not fear, it is possible to rid your writing of tics...well, at least in the editing process.

When you realize, or are told, that you have a tic. Try the following in terms of removing the tick from your writing:

Try reading your work out loud.
Speaking the words and hearing them will often highlight repetitious and unnecessary words.

If you think a word might be a tic, do a search for it in your paper and see how often it pops up. Then see if it’s necessary, if it can be deleted or if it should be replaced or rephrased so the repetition doesn’t create an echo.

Tics sound frightening, yes. But they really are more annoying than scary.

Tics happen when you are writing, oftentimes when you are writing about material that you are not familiar with. They are really just an annoying error that needs to be fixed during the editing process, and something that makes this process more challenging and fruitful.

Challenging because it can be hard to rephrase the sentences that holds your particular tic, fruitful because rephrased something differently! Could become a trend!

In my opinion the more you look at and study your writing the better it will become.

So, I have embraced my tic, which at first was uncomfortable and weird.

My tic forces me to proofread, something that I need to do more of anyway.

Maybe you should get one too?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Strengthening Sentences: Parallelism

There are two very important issues on the table today:

1.) Going to "" will not get you anywhere near the blogosphere.  My fingers and brain were apparently at a disconnect this morning -- I wanted to write a blog while they wanted to purchase a new domain name.  I'm not even sure what one would use "" for anyway.  It sounds illicit.  And unwashed.

2.) Parallelism.  We're going to spend the majority of our time on this one today, mostly because it's the more important of the two.  And also because I'll feel the urge to shower if I say "blooger" too many times.

So what the heck is parallelism, anyway?  I mean, sure, everyone learns the difference between parallel and perpendicular lines in third grade, but how does that have anything to do with writing?

Parallelism as related to writing (according to the smart folks over at American Heritage Dictionary) is "the use of identical or equivalent syntactic constructions in corresponding clauses or phrases." 

Sweet.  A bunch of fancy-pants English major jargon.  Put simply, parallel structures in writing are sentences with multiple parts (usually a list of clauses) that are put together with the same kinds of pieces.  Usually parallel sentences flow rather nicely.  In fact, one of 'em snuck into the beginning of this blog post:

"I wanted to write a blog while they wanted to purchase a new domain name."

If we throw on the x-ray goggles and take a look at how these individual parts play out, it would look something like this:

[subject] + [infinitive verb] + [direct object] while [subject] + [infinitive verb] + [direct object]

See how the structure is identical on both sides of the "while"?  That's parallelism.  The same basic premise applies when you're working with a list of activities.  Let's take a look at two quick excursions into Bob's morning, one built with a parallel construction and the other without:

Not-So-Parallel: Bob threw a poodle out the window, is going to the store, and he might slash the tires on Stephen's Celica.

Ew.  Not only is he a jerk (and apparently apt to damage my property), Bob can't build parallel sentences to save his life.  It checks out something like this with the grammar glasses on:

[subject] + [past-tense verb] + [prepositional phrase] /// [infinitive verb] + [prepositional phrase] /// [subject] + [auxiliary verb phrase] + [object]

Now let's take another foray into Bob's cruel existence, this time spiced up with a dash of parallelism:

Parallel: Bob punched a kitten in the throat, threw an old lady into traffic, and purchased weapons at WalMart.

Geez ... he's still a jerk, but at least this sentence flows a little nicer.  That's because all three of those share the same grammatical construction:

[subject] + [past-tense verb] + [direct object] + [prepositional phrase]

Now, even if you're not so familiar with the specific parts of grammar, you can still check sentences for parallelism by asking yourself a few questions.  The guilty party is most often the verb.  Keep them in line by considering the following:

Are my verbs the same tense?
Are all of my verbs doing the same job in the sentence?
Am I using the same kinds of verbs?
Does it sound odd or choppy when read aloud?

Read this out loud to yourself.  No, I don't care that your roommate is staring at you.  Throw a shoe at him (or her) and do it anyway: I enjoy long walks on the beach, eating gourmet food, and to stargaze on a clear night.

Doesn't that sound funny?  Obviously "it sounds right" won't always going to lead you to the correct answer, but often times it will help you nail sentences with parallelism issues.  So go, grasshopper, off into the fields of writing, never to be perplexed by parallelism again.  And while you're at it, come up with a good use for  That's going to bother me all day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cracking the Code

The person standing in front of you hands you a document, black words on white paper. It looks familiar like you should know it intimately, yet a strange language appears in the margins. They are handwritten in a hand that is not your own. They appear deliberate as if they are right where they're supposed to be. But you don't know what they mean. The characters look like they could be letters in English but the words seem like they're only partial words. Things like "awk" or "trans" in a bold red hang on the borders of the familiar text.

We all know this scenario. The professor issues back papers with comments but they all seem to use a codified method of commentary that students aren't usually familiar with. Worse yet, though the problem is addressed by the professor, the method of redress remains a mystery. "Develop more"--develop what more?

Here I hope to dispel the mysteries of these strange writings and turn them from red-inked hieroglyphs to constructive comments.
  • awk - "awkward." This is almost always a wording issue. The easy solution for this is to read the marked phrase out loud. Does it seem verbose? Do you get tongue-tied reading it? Then you might find a more concise and clear way to write it.
  • trans - "transition." Sometimes you'll see this in conjunction with the word needed. All this means is that you're missing a transition from idea to idea which causes your reader to get confused. Want some suggestions for transitions? Purdue OWL's got your back.
  • frag - "frag." Despite common beliefs, it does not have anything to do with grenades. This is just pointing to a sentence fragment. Double-check your sentence and make sure to make it complete. As the Purdue OWL mentions, a sentence fragment occurs when a complete sentence gets a period jammed in the middle of it or dropping a dependent clause on its own. These are easy fixes--get rid of the period or give the dependent clause a direct object or complete verb, depending on the context of the sentence.
  • ref - "referent." Likely, it's a case of using words like "this" or "that" but it's unclear as to what you're referring to with them. Make it more clear what the "this" or "that" is by being more specific.
  • ? - "what." That's a rough translation of the teacher's comment. It simply means that the point you're trying to make isn't getting across to the reader.
  • sp - "spelling error." Check your spelling. It probably didn't get caught by spellcheck or maybe you spelled the word correctly but used the wrong one.
Teacher's comments will often be unique to their courses, so it's possible that your instructor will be the first person you want to ask when it comes to his or her comments. There are some instructors who are so nice as to give out sheets that explain the comments they usually use on a paper.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

But Words Will Never Hurt Me....

The first comment that my father-in-law Lynn received on his very first college English writing assignment, which was about what he had done over the summer, was...

"You are a very immature writer."

Lynn, the very proud farm boy, read this comment, tore up his paper, and never returned to class.

I myself have had my own woes over teacher comments on my papers. In high school I always received wonderful and glowing comments. I would read them and smile happily--proud of my paper and the grade A that I had received.

College rolled around, and for the most part my comments were good. However, junior year my luck seemed to run out.

I remember like it was yesterday: Psychology of Old Age (seriously the title of the course), write a five page paper on one topic we had discussed that unit. I worked hard on this paper. Psychology is interesting, but is not my main field of study, so I found myself working harder than usual.

I handed that paper in, beaming with pride.

I got it back two days later and was shattered.

The top of the paper had a big C on it. A letter grade C! My first college C.


How could this have happened? What went wrong?

I was so mad that I crumpled my paper up, threw it in the garbage, and moved on--just a teeny bit bitterly.

The next week a friend of mine from the class emailed me and asked how I had done on the paper. I replied to her about my horrible and terribly wrong grade, and she responded that she had also received a C.

Then she told me, "But, the comments were really helpful, and she also wrote me a note saying that I could revise my paper for a better grade. I went and talked to her about it because I didn't understand her comments. Now I totally see where I need to go with this paper."

Uh, Oh.

If I could have slunk away from an email, it would have been then.

Why hadn't I read the comments? WHY???????

In fact, it took me years to start reading teachers comments. Truth.

For me and probably you too, writing is an incredibly personal activity. All those thousand words that you labored so intensely over came from YOU. From your mind and from your thoughts, your ideas, your hard work. After YOU have created this piece of writing, it is almost like you have given birth.

Graphic metaphor. Sorry.

That is how I have always thought of it though. When I am done with a paper, I am exhausted and need a break.

*Something you don't get after you give birth, so maybe I need to adjust this*


I took the lesson I learned from my friend to heart, that I should read teachers comments. My teacher does not want to hurt me. My teacher wants to help me.

Just like the basketball coach who makes a player spend all day doing free throws, an activity that might seem awful to the player and could actually be some sort of sick punishment, you can bet that free throws will be a bit easier for the player afterwards.

Another thing to remember is that comments are very hard to write. Having graded my fist set of papers this spring, I can testify to that fact.

I wanted to make sure my students knew what I was attempting to tell them to improve upon. There were a couple times I wanted to write the dreaded "awk" (awkward) but stopped myself because if the student wrote it ... then it did not appear awkward to her. So, she might not understand my comment.

This all went round and round in my head. I was attempting to find the way to write the correct comment, one that my student could understand and use to improve her paper. And the whole time I was thinking, "She is just going to crumble this up...."

Well, she did not. Maybe it was because I included a lot of positive notes on her paper as well. I'm not sure. Much to my delight, the student sent me an email about her paper and seemed to be positive about the direction it needed to be going.

She had read my comments and came out UNSCATHED.


Then there are the students who get immensely upset over comments.

More upset than my "crumble up, throw away, and move on bitterly" type of behavior.

I met one of these students recently and served as a sounding board. She needed to get it all out before she could move on. And that is okay too.

The important part is that she moved on and was attempting to understand the comments and improve her paper.

The bottom-line here is that your teacher does not have a vendetta against you.

Really, that is the truth.

Teachers want you to succeed, and those comments are their way at nudging you toward that promised land of paper success.

The long and short of it is that the old saying is true:

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones,
But Words Will Never Hurt Me

Something to take to heart when reading comments: Shake off that pride and do not take comments as personal affronts.

Instead, think of comments as words from a teacher who is trying to help you create your best work.

Yes they may sting, but the end result is worth the hurt.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

OWL-ternative Online Sources: The Smackdown

In the spirit of March Madness, we here at EIU Writes will be examining the other online writing labs that we've discovered so far and pit them against one another until only one brave gladiator remains.  Sure, there are a bunch of alternatives ... so what?  How do they stack against one another?  Do any of them give the Purdue OWL a serious run for its money?  Well, brave home viewers, lets put on our game pants and find out.  (We're also apparently at a loss of synonyms for "smackdown" ... or we really like that one.)

So, without further ado, let's take a look at our contestants (spectators, fighters, racers ... take your pick) for the evening.  I'm joined tonight by Fake Doug, since the real Doug can't be here to help me spectate.  Too bad for him.  Anyway, let's hear it for our OWL-ternatives:

HyperGrammar: Hailing from the University of Ottawa, HyperGrammar boasts the British spelling of Centre, a virtual classroom, and a plethora of links embedded within the texts, explanations, and examples.  It's sleek user interface and professional appearance certainly give it a level of aesthetic appeal.

Steve: Do you think our Canadian underdog stands a chance tonight, Fake Doug?
Fake Doug: H.G. is certainly a strong contender, even if it has nothing to do with anyone named "Adrian."  Parts of it are still under construction, but enough of it is finished to make the overall site rather smashing.
Steve: The real Doug would never say "smashing."
Fake Doug: He would to spite you for saying that.
Steve: Fair enough.  Anyway, on to the next combatant ...

Guide to Grammar and Writing: Also known as the "The Super Duper Zany Grammar Funhouse of Doom" (at least in my book), this lab is based out of the Capital Community College Foundation of Hartford, Connecticut.  Though its visual appeal is childish and clumsy, its vast index of grammatical terms and explanations make it a useful tool for any writer, budding or veteran.

Fake Doug: You should stick with its original name.  Yours is terrible.
Steve: But what's not terrible is G.G.W.'s index.  If anything gives it weight in this competition, that's going to be it.
Fake Doug: S.D.Z.G.F.D -- that's what your acronym would be.  Terrible.
Steve: Shush, you.  Next!

The Writer's Handbook: From the University of Wisconsin at Madison, The Writer's Handbook isn't quite as beefy as the Purdue OWL, but it does have a clear breakdown of several topics that many writers can find immediately relevant.  It gives specific tips on research paper, dissertations, proposals, and other forms of academic writing that often throw students for a loop.  The interface is simple, straightforward, and pretty easy to use.

Steve: The tiny text on the right-hand bar can give you a headache if your vision sucks like mine.
Fake Doug: To be fair, Purdue's OWL isn't retina-friendly, either.  The big cheese's influence is pretty apparent in the layout.  Not necessarily a bad thing, though.
Steve: Retina-friendly?  Really?
Fake Doug: Don't get snarky with me.  I'm not the one writing those lines.  Just introduce the last one, will ya?

Writing@CSU: Last, but certainly not least, Colorado State University's website packs some serious punch with resources ranging from small articles, to textbooks, to online word processors to help organize ideas.  It has resources for teachers and students alike, and the layout isn't painful to look at.

Fake Doug: If this website were a person, I'd marry her.
Steve: It is definitely aesthetically pleasing, but it's not just a pretty face, you know?  Lots of good stuff here.  You seem pretty into this competitor, Fake Doug.  Any reason why?
Fake Doug: Partially because you're exaggerating my enthusiasm.
Steve: That's a shame.
Fake Doug: Even so, it's still an awesome site.  It probably has the most variety out of all the OWL's we've looked at so far.  Even -- dare I say it -- Purdue's.  The resources are good, and the different kinds of resources are staggering.
Steve: Definitely.  We'll see if that gives it the edge it needs.

And with each of our competitors out and ready to roll, it's time to rumble!  Let's see how these OWLs compare.

Round 1:
HyperGrammar ~vs~ The Writer's Handbook

Even though HyperGrammar still has parts undergoing construction, it manages to beat out The Writer's Handbook according to us here on EIU Writes.  HyperGrammar isn't trying to be the OWL, and that gives it a lot of clout.  Sure, there are many OWL-esque features that it shares with The Writers Handbook and Purdue, but it's easier to navigate than its opponent (especially considering those nifty embedded hyperlinks) and plenty informative.  Though both are solid sources, we give the victory to HyperGrammar!

Round 2:
Guide to Grammar and Writing ~vs~ Writing@CSU

Guide to Grammar and Writing, while informative, gets the snot kicked out of it by Colorado State's spiffy interface.  Though one could argue GGW's buckets of raw information outweigh the information found on WCSU, the manner in which the information is presented does matter.  WCSU makes it absolutely clear where you need to go to find specific, relevant information rather than giving you a whole bunch of drop-down menus to choose from.  GGW definitely has a lot of heart, but WCSU certainly isn't lacking for substance either.  Colorado State takes the victory in this one.

HyperGrammar ~vs~ Writing@CSU

A close match, for sure.  Once again, WCSU's sleek, objective-driven interface gives it the edge it needs to pull away from its Canadian opponent.  Though we still recommend HyperGrammer for those looking for specific rules and definitions, WCSU weighs in as a better overall resource for writing.  The Semi-Finals go to Writing@CSU.  Insert obnoxious applause and cheering here.

Writing@CSU ~vs~Purdue OWL

After a near-eternity of blood, sweat, and tears, both of our brave competitors come out scratched and bruised -- but not beaten.  Crazy though it may seem, this final match-up ends ... in a draw.  I know, I know!  Yes, ties are lame!  But honestly, both of these writing labs offer equally good resources depending on what you're looking for.  The victory is purely contextual.  If you're looking for information on a given citation style, Purdue is the big dog.  It blows WCSU out of the water.  It has examples galore -- we all know that.  However, WCSU's variety of peripheral writing tools, such as the built-in bibliography tracker, outlining tool, and in-site word processor (just to name a few) make it a completely unique OWL experience. 

So, for those looking for a more specific verdict:  The Purdue OWL is better for the sake of pure information.  The examples and clarity are second-to-none.  However, if you're looking for a more interactive, hands-on OWL experience that integrates information with various tools and external resources, then WCSU might actually be the better choice.

The moral of the story is you can bring a horse to water, but you can't judge it by its cover.

No, wait, that's not right.  Ah well ... I'm sure it will come to me eventually.  In the meantime, keep on writing, and don't be afraid to expand your horizons!  There are plenty of good resources out there, just waiting to be stumbled into.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday Workshop Series

"Writing with Sources: APA Style"

April 4th at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall

Monday, April 2, 2012

OWL-ternative Online Sources, Part 4

And so we come to part four of our brief series on alternative Online Writing Labs. I hope you've had a hoot [strained laughter] reading our examinations of various OWLs. Today, I will examine Colorado State University's "Writing@CSU," a site I'm convinced is going above and beyond the call of OWL duty in what it offers to students.

Aesthetically speaking, the front page is a welcome sight. The menus have forest green backgrounds that compliment the Rocky Mountain vistas that comprise the banner at the top of the page. The font is a friendly sans-serif that lures in the writer without making him or her think this will be some dry instructional website.

Instructionally speaking, CSU's OWL offers up guidance on "Preparing to Write," "Starting to Write," and other aspects of the writing process. These articles are divided into further subcategories relating to "reading and writing as social acts" as well as attention to audience. For those who want to step it up from website guides to full-fledged textbooks, Writing@CSU offers "open-access textbooks" which are freely available to both students and teachers, regardless if you attend CSU or not.

What caught my eye most about Writing@CSU is their "Writing Tools" section in which they offer a built-in word processor as well as an Outliner tool "to organize your ideas for a draft" or Bibliography tool to "keep track of your sources." While most students have access to Microsoft Word at home or in a library, this might provide a nice alternative to traveling with a flash drive. Unfortunately, all of these requires an account to access. Despite this restriction, you're not required to be a student to use them.

Writing@CSU does a lot more than I've yet to see in an OWL, but it's not completely perfect. Navigating its articles can be more of a hassle as its Writing Guides are split into subtopics and further subtopics. That being said, I still think other OWLs could take a page from CSU's book and offer organizational tools that will help students put together solid papers.