Friday, September 28, 2012

A Luddite and His Dictionaries

At some indeterminate moment in the past few years, I began to think of my computer as an elder colleague who has possession of a magic lamp. As long as I treat this colleague with a modicum of respect, my colleague will intercede on my behalf, and my wish will be granted.

I never see him, but I know the genie must be powerful because my wishes are multifarious and kaleidoscopic. One minute I may wish to know what time Booth closes on Saturday. Having satisfied that desire, I may wish to watch a chess match between Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar with voice-over move annotations. Perhaps, after viewing a purely cerebral contest, I may develop a taste for something a little more physical. Twelve seconds later, I'm watching Michael Jordan put up a 46-7-5 line against The Pistons in game 3 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals. (For the record, the shot Jordan makes at the end of regulation is the most underrated game-winner in his career, and maybe in NBA history.)

All this the genie has accomplished, yet it hasn't even begun to show what its capable of.
  • You wanna bet a horse in The Kentucky Derby?  Your wish is my command.
  • You wanna shop for a new bed? Your wish is my command. 
  • You wanna say goodnight to your children when you're in Oslo and they're in Montreal? Your wish is my command.
We've gotten used to hearing those five words, haven't we?

There is nothing inherently wrong with using computers for many of the tasks we use them for. However, there is a risk that our reliance on silicon-based technology will become insidious, especially for those of us who want to become better writers.

An important part of writing is composing sentences, and an important part of composing sentences is combining words in distinct, meaningful ways The more words you know, the more sentences you can create. The more sentences you can create, the more thoughts you can convey in your writing. The more thoughts you can convey in your writing, the more conceptual distinctions you will be able to express in your writing. The more conceptual distinctions you are able to express in your writing, the clearer you will think. And isn't thinking clearly an intrinsic good? Maybe not. Still, I would suggest that thinking clearly is strongly correlated with As. 

Whatever reason you use to justify the goodness of thinking clearly, thinking clearly requires strong diction. But how will you learn words that you don't know? How will you find the perfect word to express a thought that took weeks to ripen? 

One tactic is to rub that magic lamp, to make another wish. An easy tactic, if you ask me.

When our wish is new and ardent, we may prefer an obsequious genie who does our bidding without complaint, but, in my experience, such complaisance eventually begins to do more harm than good. You begin to yearn for the slow struggle of overcoming a challenge. Visiting is not going to get the job done.

A student looking up the word "lazy," in an online thesaurus may not fully appreciate the subtle differences which exist between each entry. Thus, to use an online thesaurus to find a couple of ill-fitting and contorted synonyms for the sake of semantic variety, in many cases, will backfire. Your paper may end up sounding worse than it did before you used the online thesaurus. 

It is an honorable goal: You want to vary the vocabulary in your paper; you want to make your paper more interesting to read by employing all the spices the English language hides behind its cabinet doors. But just like a chef requires more than a white fluffy hat to be a chef, a writer requires more than powerful magic lamp to be a writer.

Allow me to suggest a better way: Use a dictionary, a collegiate dictionary for the road, the Shorter Oxford for your apartment.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that you can't look up a word you don't know. True.

But, surely, during your many academic engagements (the novel you're reading in English class, the essay from The Wall Street Journal you're reading for economics class, the discussion you have with your Philosophy professor) you occasionally come across an unfamiliar word. When it happens, you can either keep a list, say, with a ten word limit, and then go look up all ten when you find a convenient time to do so, or you can look up a word immediately after encountering it. 

Now, again, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the genie has a dictionary also. You're thinking that it would be a gross inefficiency to take the time to look a word up in a print dictionary, when rubbing the lamp is so much quicker. I'll grant that there are times and circumstances when using an online dictionary is appropriate (especially when you need help pronouncing foreign phrases or proper names), but don't rely on it. 

Take a trip, take the scenic route. Riffle the pages of the 11th edition. I bet you'll learn more in two months than the genie taught you in two years. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Little Variety, A Little Spice

What makes an essay, a research paper, a case study, or a novel easier and more fun to read? What makes us think, “This is so much easier to grasp than that other boring, dense material we are forced to read most of the time?”

The answer: Sentence variety.

Of course, everyone has read those really long, elaborate sentences where we have to take deep breaths just to continue reading them, and then have to read them again because we still do not know what it said because there is so much information, jargon, and complexity to it – much like this one.

Break it up. It makes the information easier to comprehend the first time. The reader recognizes this unconsciously most of the time, don’t you think?

By interspersing different types of sentences – declarative, imperative, interrogative, exclamatory, simple, compound and complex – your writing becomes more aesthetically pleasing to the readers’ eye...and mind, for that matter.

That is just the way it is. So, do it. Do we not want to make our writing more appealing to our readers in whatever way we can? That is what we are always trying to do, especially when we are shooting to get a good grade!

The best way to check for this is to read our writing aloud. Listen to our voices and pay attention to when we have to take a deep breath just to finish the sentence. Most times this tells us that we are connecting too many ideas in one sentence. Essentially, we are attempting to cram as much information as possible in one sentence instead of breaking it up.

Again, break it up.  Add a little variety, a little spice to the writing! It will change life as we know it, and make our readers happy and able to comprehend what we are saying the first time around.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Can I Improve?

Students who seek assistance in writing centers often say something to this effect, “I suck at writing.” They believe this wholeheartedly. Be it from years of harsh criticisms, papers saturated in red ink, or a lack of positive reinforcement, students build layers of deep beliefs that they are innately designed to be poor writers. 

But what if someone were to simply tell one of those poor writers that they can improve? Would they?

Dr. Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, says that “people with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that” ( This describes the “I-suck-at-writing” mentality often seen in writing centers.  

However, Dweck presents an alternative mindset: the growth mindset.  “People with a growth mindset,” says Dweck, “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort” ( Thankfully, Dweck argues that one can change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

But how does one do that? How does one change a I-suck-at-writing writer to a confident writer?

On “This AmericanLife” host Ira Glass discussed a similar topic centered around education and cognitive development with researcher Paul Tough. Tough presents a small and simple program where college students meet a high school student a couple of times a year to relay only one message ( “The only thing they were to say to them,” said Tough, “is simply this idea: you can improve your intelligence”( Tough says that studies show that the program had a 100% success rate with students catching up to their peers in performance (
Students can change from fixed to growth mindsets and from poor to confident writers. And that's change we all need to believe in.

As the program Tough presented shows us, changing a student from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset can begin with the simple phrase, "you can improve." In other words, the first step to changing perceived 'bad' writers into a confident writer is through positive reinforcements and projecting a you-can-do-this attitude.

When a writing consultant hears the phrase “I suck at writing,” they should hear it as a wonderful opportunity to plant a seed to a growth mindset to rebuild students' confidence and start cultivating their minds.  It may only take a student to hear this message a couple of times a year and writing consultants in writing centers are in the perfect environment to capitalize on this approach!  
Listen to NPR's Dr. Moira Gunn interview Dr. Carol Dweck here to learn more about fixed and growth mindsets.
fort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting

Friday, September 21, 2012

Beware, Genre Boundaries

There's a scene in Penny Marshall's 1988 film Big where Robert Loggia's character (the owner of a toy company) is drawing a distinction between the content of a marketing report and the activity that takes place inside a large toy store on the weekend. The aforementioned distinction is addressed to Tom Hanks' character, (a twelve-year old boy who after making a wish at a carnival, undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a thirty year-old man), who with ingenuous befuddlement replies: "What's a marketing report?"

Whatever a marketing report is, a safe assumption to make is that it will both look and read much differently than a Batman comic.

A marketing report belongs to one kind of genre. A Batman comic belongs to a different kind genre.

A marketing report is intended for one kind of discourse community. A Batman comic is intended for a different kind of discourse community.

Presumably, it would be a mistake for an employee of a large toy company or any large company for that matter (except maybe if the employee works for Disney or Time Warner) to produce a marketing report with a series of highly decorated square panels and speech bubbles.

Conceding my ignorance on the matter, I would hazard a guess that, unlike a Batman comic, a marketing report does not contain a plot or bother to develop either a protagonist or an antagonist, unless the antagonists are defined as being the other companies that hold greater market share. Likewise, a Batman comic will rarely delve into issues of market saturation or how the internet is changing the 6-12 age demographic in regard to action figures, which are not tied directly to a TV show or a film.

Of course, other genres exist besides marketing reports and Batman comics. I found this out the hard way when I began working at the writing center. Instead of a market report, I was instructed to compose a memo. Whatever a memo was, I knew it was different than a Socratic Dialogue; I knew it was different than a biography on John Milton. I just didn't know in what specific ways it was different.

Lucky for me, the Directors of the EIU writing center prepared for the unsophisticated consultant. I don't remember if I asked the Assistant Director for a sample of an ideal memo, or if she anticipated that someone would ask, and thus made the asking moot. However it happened, the director informed the class that three sample memos from bygone years were available for our perusal. The first chance I got I seized the folder and began to peruse, but only after whispering a sigh of relief. Ahh.

I supposed I could have guessed. I wasn't completely ignorant. Like I say, I had a pretty good idea of what a memo was not. I have written a lot of papers, for a lot of different classes, at a lot of different institutions, under the guidance of a lot of different professors, and not once had any of them referred to any assignment as a "memo."

Still, guessing is a risky epistemic strategy. Probably a better strategy is to provide an unsophisticated student, who is being introduced to a unfamiliar genre, with an ideal example. In this way, the student can get a sense of the specific differences that delimit the unfamiliar genre with the genres he is already familiar with.

Unlike Batman comics and marketing reports, genre differences can be more subtle. The more subtle the difference, the more likely a student is to transgress a generic boundary. For example, I learned two rules in my first composition course that did not hold in other courses.

First, I learned that when writing an essay, the conclusion should not include the phrase "In conclusion..." A few months later, I took a speech class. My peroration was marked down because I omitted the phrase "In conclusion..." Ouch, that one stung. My  indignant diatribe did nothing except make me thirsty.

Second, I learned that when writing an essay, one should never use the first person singular "I."  One should instead use the term "the reader." Fast-forward a few semesters, and I am sitting across from one of my many philosophy professors, when he asks me: "Why don't you use "I" in your papers? It is so much easier to read and more natural."

Avail yourselves of my foolishness. Do not presume that every paper you write will be in the same genre. Do not presume that every paper you write will be directed to the same discourse community.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Citations - Parking, APA, MLA, & the Purdue OWL

Citations, citations, citations.

Most of us hate them. Whether they come in the form of parking tickets (of which I received two…in two different cities in a matter of two days) or in the form of a reference list, they are ever the cherry on top of a bad day sundae. (Sense the sarcasm.)

Citing sources is not hard. However, when we're juggling a million different thoughts and tasks and our attention is otherwise occupied, it makes getting them done correctly hard.

MLA or APA? Italics or quotation marks? Underline or parentheses? Citing is a never ending balancing act of the memory. There are no easy ways to remember which rules apply to which style. There are no pneumonic devices, at least that I know of, to jog the memory.

So … how do we get it right? Instead of taking an “educated” guess (we learned them both at some point, right? So we have a 50/50 shot of getting it correct.), why not seek the exact formula we need?

Easier said than done, right?


There is a handy-dandy website called Purdue Online Writing Lab or Purdue OWL for short that makes the entire process of citing – for lack of a better term – idiot proof. I use it weekly.

There are examples for every different kind of source. They show exactly where the author’s name, the title of the source, page numbers, publisher’s name, etc. all go. Essentially, there is no way to go wrong when using this website. We just transfer the information from our source into the “blanks” of the example and voilá! We are done citing.

The moral of this story: when in doubt, put some change in that meter or go to Purdue OWL’s website to double-check how to do in-text citations and bibliographies.

For specific links to guides for APA or MLA, here are you go-to sites:
In addition, you can find both of these links -- and more -- on the "Resources for Writers" page of the EIU Writing Center's webpage. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Foucaultine: The Non-Writer’s Cure-All in Pill Form

As I am being introduced to composition rhetoric and pedagogy at the graduate level, I often find myself thinking about the intended goal of the popular theorist involved with the study.  Many use scientific methods to try to discover the cognitive patterns in the brain of a writer. This always worries me.

My first worry is that a pedagogy theorist and his team of scientists will discover how my brain works and place me in a strict category, therefore trivializing my mental capacity. 

My second worry is that soon after this discovery, Pfizer will patent Foucaultine, a cure-all pill for college students. 

This pill will stimulate blood flow to induce the thought pattern like that of the Flower and Hayes' Cognitive Process theory:

The pill will cure us from a scenario more like this:

Although a pill like this is unrealistic, it seems that every writing instructor, be it a tutor, teacher, professor, or theorist, is in search of the proverbial magic pill.  

 What saying, limerick, or anecdote will help every student?

The problem is this: Every student is different (I hope). Every student will rationalize the approach to writing differently and stumble in uniques ways, thus requiring an unique approach from the instructor. 

That is until Pfizer releases Foucaultine.

Teaching writing will never be easy. It will require a complex pattern of reaction, quick decision making, and an elaborate cocktail of approaches, all of which takes practice, practice, practice. 

After all, practice is the closest thing we will ever have to Foucaultine. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Real Story

One of the most vivid memories of my life occurred while I witnessed the behavior of a young man who had recently joined my gym. He was a tiny bloke. In fact, when I first saw him, I thought he was a jockey at Arlington.

What struck me about this young man, aside from his petite stature, was the way he was dressed. Every article of clothing on his body was new, but more than its shininess, was the strategic chromaticism that betokened the sartorial vanguard. Just looking at the outfit, I imagined the numerous meetings and discussions that must have been conducted, before it was finally decided to use crimson, instead of cerise, to dye the hem of the collar.  

His shoes were branded with the Jumpman Logo and spotless. His shirt was knitted from fabric that was created in a lab not spun from the natural fibers of Mother Earth. He had an arm band that held his IPOD and a pair of ear buds that had an ergonomic design and a metallic brightness that indicated they may have been custom made. The young man apparently had big plans for the evening because he urgently removed from his pockets a pair of workout gloves. Some members of the gym might think this last appurtenance was something to be sneered at, but not me. After all, calluses hurt. 

It got stranger from there. He placed his ear buds into his canals and manipulated the buttons on his IPOD until he found the right song. He rolled his neck in a circle a couple of times, flexed his narrow shoulders, and jumped up and down three or four times. But apparently all this warming-up had taxed his strength. Rather than actually lifting any weights or doing any physically strenuous exercise, he walked to the front of the gym and purchased two specially-formulated beverages: one, to build-muscle, the other, to quench his thirst.

After he returned, I watched him tilt each container daintily to his lips. Then he went through another series of complicated stretches. Eventually, he laid down on the bench and actually made contact with the knurls. He even gripped the bar firmly a few times as if bracing himself for an engagement.

It was going great for the young man until he noticed the laces of his shoes were hanging unevenly. This was a dishevelment not to be tolerated. But how could he get his laces to hang equidistant from each other when his hands were being restrained by his work-out gloves? His footwear standards were too scrupulous to sacrifice any of his dexterity, so he took the gloves off. The music must have been impeding his concentration because he removed his ear buds as well. Now he was in control. Now he had plenary power to manipulate those laces, and manipulate them he did. 

I finished two sets of bench press before he finished tying his shoes.

When he was finally satisfied with his footwear, the ear buds were placed back into his canals, and he began to move his neck in a slow gyre. But all that bending and squatting he did while tying his shoes must have parched his throat. The two beverages in front of him that he'd just purchased were inappropriate for this particular species of thirst, so he went back to the front of the gym and purchased a bottle of water. He came back to the area of the gym where the free-weights were located. He resumed the spot he had earlier, only now he had three containers, three different beverages. 

At this point, I'm done with my workout, I might have been dressed like a pauper in old rags and still using a Discman as my source of music, but I am sweating, my muscles are slightly twitching, joyously fatigued. I could leave the gym at this point, but my curiosity is piqued.  

Will the young man actually lift a weight or will he, grab his three beverages, get in his car and go home? I want to see how this story ends. Or maybe to be more precise, I want to confirm my contempt; I don't want to ground my disdain in mere surmise--I bet he never even lifted a weight. No, I did't want to presume--I wanted to be sure.

It wasn't long after I finished my workout that the suspense ended. Not a single weight lifted. He gathered his beverages in his arms and left.

So what does this episode have to do with writing?

Writing, like lifting weights, is hard; it demands a certain amount of suffering to grow and improve. It is much easier to buy a new pen or buy a new desk or buy a new computer and tell yourself that these new instruments will make you a better writer than it is to actually put the work in to become a better writer.

It's fun buying new things; it's pleasurable to imagine how those new things will change your life.

Do you know what isn't so fun? To sit down in quiet room (yes, this means you turn your phone off) and write. Writing, like lifting weights, will have its moments of reward and achievement, but these moments are almost never located at the beginning of the endeavor. The fun comes after the pain, not before it.

Careful going to those coffee shops. Yeah, I know it stimulates your muse, but it also leads to a whole lot of distractions and wasted time. Getting serious, working up a sweat, pushing yourself into joyous fatigue--it's the only way 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Writing for a Deadline

You get your assignment. You have to write ten pages in X amount of days to finish it.

You stare at the prompt and have no idea where to start. You’re overwhelmed and don’t know how you’re going to get it all done, especially when you take into consideration all of your other homework.

So how do you do it?

The solution is much simpler than you might think. Take the number of pages and the number of days you have to get it done and distribute the work accordingly.

If you have five pages due in five days, do a page a day and it will be done. If you have ten pages and five days to write them, do two pages a day and it will be done.

Of course, this doesn’t include time for research. So in the case of a research paper or project, spend a day doing all your research and organizing your data, then start on the writing.
By doing a little at a time, it will ease your guilty conscience for putting it off until the last possible moment and allow you to:
1) be productive and allow you to say you’ve at least started and
2) have a life outside of school
The moral of this story here is this one: doing a little bit at a time eases the mind and allows time to be managed and distributed among other homework and for you to participate in whatever social activities you deem worthy of a homework break.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Grammar: The Geography of Writing

The science of tectonic plates did not begin until the early 20th century. Even before this study began young students could see how easily Africa and South America fit together like puzzle pieces. Those who raised a hand to share this observation were quickly dismissed by the teacher.

Now, that same idea is applauded in the classroom. Thus, the student prior-to-discovery is left discouraged while the student post-discovery is encouraged.  This analogy is played throughout our education, and I would not be surprised if every student has their own comparable experience.

Especially with grammar.

Take for instance, ending a sentence with a preposition.  When I left high school, this practice was heresy.  Now it has been adopted as sometimes necessary although still controversial.  My mother, for example, always ends the conversation with, “What are we teaching our kids today?” But with today’s standards changing quite faster than the tectonic plates how can educators keep the trust of their students? How can animosity be avoided in students as one teacher will say one thing, the next another, leaving the student thinking “WTF”? How can educators correct students today when tomorrow there will be no “mistake”?

Spoiler! I do not have an answer. However, it is important to keep this paradox in mind.  The real danger here is that students may begin to think teachers are just making it up as they go, and students will just give up altogether.

Think of the student who comes home from grammar class only to open his mother’s copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I would personally pitch a fit all afternoon! And Poor Mom who would have to hear it! Educators have to walk the tightrope of giving a student a proper education of today while being sensitive to the education of tomorrow.

This topic is sticky! Really sticky!

On one hand are the teachers who strongly condemn the singular “their” as I have used it in this blog post. On the other hand are those who condemn the practice of “he” or “his” as the alternative (as I have also used in this blog post). Both have valid arguments. However, which is right today? Which standard will be correct tomorrow?

In the words of Mom, “What are we teaching kids today?” But, more importantly, how are students to feel about the discrepancies in grammar pedagogy, and how are they to be convinced teachers are not just making it up as they go? 

Friday, September 7, 2012

When is a Paper Finished?

People generally worry about beginning an endeavor, not just when writing a paper in college, but when doing anything challenging at all. Which step is the most strenuous and perilous of any journey? 

The first, of course. 

The logic behind this thinking could be dubious, but it does have a certain clichéd wisdom to it as well. Imagine running around a track: once you take that first step, you feel a certain lubrication in your joints. You feel your muscles twitch and scintillate. This beneficial process happens very quickly. It is as if the momentum of your first stride is transferred to the subsequent stride, until, eventually, a person finds it more difficult to arrest his progress than to maintain it. But, in the beginning of an endeavor, there is no momentum to transfer to the first stride, one must move without the aid of any previous movement. (This may also partially explain why getting out of bed in the afternoon often seems impossible).

Writers have a special relationship with the difficulty of beginning to write. The blanching dullness of the empty sheet of paper or the blinking cursor has driven many students and many novelists, as well, to the brink of if not madness, then at least to brink of f-word formulation.

The phrase "writer's block" may not create such a gruesome image, but when I think about it what I imagine is a beheading, or to be more specific a mock-beheading. I envision an executioner, his face concealed behind his mask, his guffaws concealed behind nothing. "You're a writer, are you?" 

I nod meekly; I may articulate a monosyllable with more bass in my voice than usual, attempting to give off the impression of heroic masculinity. But however I choose to vary my affirmation, he proceeds by setting his ax down and then calling over to his assistant who dutifully brings onto the platform a square hunk of wood with the words "writer's block" burned into the side. 

The actors then assume their positions: the executioner on my flank, me on my knees with my head resting on the "writer's block." I await the ax, but it doesn't fall. Rather, the instrument stubbornly defies its manipulator, keeping the entire ensemble poised in a diorama of absurdity.  

As you can see, I have a keen appreciation for the psychological difficulties that confront the writer before the writing has begun. However, I also have a keen appreciation for the process that follows the writer as he writes, especially the moment when he decides to cease writing. 

How does a writer decide when a piece of writing is finished, when his work is done? 

Many students may initially find the question ridiculous. It’s obvious that the piece of writing is finished when the word count reads 501 or 756 or 1001. Respecting the word count limit of a professor is necessary, but a student should be wary of allowing the stipulated limit to dominate their thoughts. 

It seems safe to assume that some students have a more complex mechanism for determining when their work is finished rather than merely checking its length against the requirements stated in the assignment sheet.  

I wonder how this mechanism functions in these students. Presumably, like most writers, these students have to balance the desire to perfect their work with their desire to keep a deadline. They can’t spend years perfecting an essay that is due next Friday. And yet, despite the temporal constraints that bind the writer, a certain amount of perfecting is possible. 

On the surface, grammar mistakes can be corrected in the aftermath of a tempest of composition, punctuation can be made ideal according to one of the guides which ratify such things, perhaps a repetition of words or phrases will be discovered and then omitted. All these improvements help a paper become more perfect, but do such improvements make a paper perfect enough to print and staple and then forget about? 

Is a student finished working on a paper after he has satisfied these basic proofreading techniques, or does he continue to think about what he’s already written and what may be expressed in better words? 

Unlike other endeavors one might prosecute during a lifetime, say, climbing Mount Everest, the completion of a written work is an abstract achievement. You know when you've reached the summit of Mt. Everest; there are signs hammered into the ice. Climbers know when to retrieve their cameras and pose in celebration. Writers, on the other hand, cannot know where the summit is. If any signage exists, it certainly isn't hammered into the ice. In other words the mountain climber can always exclaim: "I'm there! I've done it!" Whereas the writer, poor benighted creature, can only murmur: "Am I there?"    

In a sense, deciding when a paper is finished presents a writer with a different kind of inertial problem. In the beginning, a writer has no momentum to transfer to the composition of his next sentence, which leads to anxiety. 

In the end, a writer has so much momentum that he may not know when to stop himself. This lack of knowledge can lead to a different kind of “writer’s block,” one which doesn’t get the same respect, but can in certain cases lead to similar amounts of anxiety.     

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Writing, Saving, and the Klondike Bar Jingle

Remember the old Klondike bar jingle - “What would you do-oo-oo for a Klondike bar?” (If this ages me in any way or you don’t remember it or, in fact, you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about – look it up, keep it in the back of your mind, and you will shortly understand.)

If there is one lesson I should have learned by this point in my life, it is to save. Save everything. Save everything: mementos of nights out with friends and dates, money for rainy days, and old papers that may come in handy down the road. Save them, save them, save them! Save them in multiple places, if at all possible.   

It’s important because you never know when you will want or need to take these things out and look at them and remember where you’ve been, where you started, and how far you’ve come. Or you may just need to retrieve a paper you wrote last night to print off for class in ten minutes. In this case, you will appreciate having the security of knowing the paper is there; it’s safe and ready to go.

Now, what do these two things have in common, you ask? Well, let me tell you a little story. I went to write my blog post today and needed to save it to my zip drive. I went to my book bag where I typically keep it...

“Where is my zip drive!” I ask myself panic-stricken.It should be here!

I then spent the next half an hour searching for it, calling everyone I knew who might know where it was, and retracing my steps to the last time I remember using it.

I got lucky. A kind and generous soul found it in the Writing Center (where I last used it) and is now holding it ransom, pending terms to be defined at a later date.

The moral of this story: Do not put all your papers, writing, and digital mementos of days gone by all in one place. Save them, and then back them up, more than once! Otherwise, like me, you will be hearing, “What would you do-oo-oo for your writing back?”

Or you’ll spend a lot of time reproducing the writing you’ve already done and finished once just to make it to your deadline on time.

It's better to be safe than sorry so save, save, and save again!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Using Writing Anxiety The Jack Black Way

Just yesterday I heard a rebroadcast of NPR’s Terry Gross interviewing Jack Black on “Fresh Air.” Black discussed his high anxiety levels before his high school musical performances to his movie roles of today. In fact, Black almost turned down his breakthrough part for the movie High-Fidelity because of his anxieties.   

However, before deciding to turn down the role he harkened back to his high school stage fright days where he learned to harness that anxiety and “act his ass off” (Black), which is exactly what he did in High-Fidelity. I think this is common for actors, but it can also be common for writers.

Writing the first words are often the most difficult. Writing anxiety is normal. I’m here to say that it is O.K. I would even argue that without a little paper-fright you might not be doing something right. 
There is a way, however, to harness that anxiety in the way Jack Black does, and not in a way that is detrimental to the author and the work.
Just like acting, with writing most of the work comes before the show. Black had to memorize his lines before hitting the stage, even in high school. He had to consider his approach, his audience, where to stand, and the tone of his voice. 
Writers have to do make these decisions as well, in a sense. But, unlike actors, writers do not have to memorize their lines or even their thoughts when considering a paper.  We have the amazing luxury to write ideas down and come back to them later. 
For example: If a teacher gives the assignment of writing your own obituary, you may find yourself experiencing a massive writer’s block the day before the assignment is due.
However, had you completed just a little pre-stage work and kept a thought journal from the moment the assignment was given, you may have a wealth of ideas. In fact, your first thought after learning about the assignment may have been, “This will be easy. This class is going to kill me!” This idea may seem irrelevant at first, but keeping records of ideas may lead you to a creative take on the assignment, say “Death by Composition.”   By keeping a thought journal on this very idea and jotting down brief ideas of your approach, your audience, and your stance, by the time due date rolls around, writers’ block is avoided. All that is left to do is to “[write] your ass off” just like Jack Black!