Monday, November 28, 2011

About What I Said on Procrastinating...

Welcome back, folks. If you're like me, chances are you were not as productive as you planned to be over the break. I wrote a list of four goals I wanted to complete by the time this past Sunday evening rolled around. Let's just say I took a loose interpretation of the word "complete." But now is not the time to dawdle! Now is the time to be productive!

...or not. But I can be optimistic, right?

In a way, I'd like to think my goals list was a step in the direction of being productive. The goals were not necessarily the order of steps I had to take in order to have a productive break, but they were obstacles I'd have to overcome if I wanted to minimize my stress levels in the next three weeks.

"Wow, Doug, this is great advice and all, but what the bleep does it have to do with writing?"

It has everything to do with writing, just let me explain.

In one of my moments of productivity (I had them! Pinky swear!), I went back to revise a paper. We had a peer review in the class so I had lots of valuable input from my classmates, operative word here being lots. I felt daunted by the amount of suggestions thrown my way by everybody, all of them excellent suggestions on how to make my better just that much more awesome. Before I started to sob over all of my scratchings, I had brainwave: compile suggestions into a list and check them off as I went.

This made all of the comments I was working with less of a jumble and more of a list of objectives to check off as I completed them. I could then see progress I was making with my paper without having to go back through it over and over. Then, when all of my objectives were checked off, I could go back and read it to make sure it flowed like a river in spring or in my apartment's parking lot.

So, for future reference:
  • Finish paper
  • Get peer reviewed
  • Make checklist
  • Eliminate things of checklist as they're completed
  • Turn in paper
Do this in whatever order you like, although you might find it helpful to do the first four before you do the last bit.

Thursday Workshop Series

"Writing on the Spot: Essay Exams"

December 1st at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall

The focus of this workshop will be writing for exams.  We will provide strategies and examples to help prepare you for future essay exams.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Before You Write (You Are A Coffeepot)

Before you write, there are some things that you can do to move along the process. One great example is TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING ALL TOGETHER! Our brains are like coffeepots and you need to brew your idea before you get a nice steaming cup of coffee. Imagine if you didn't let your coffee brew. You might be drinking what really looks like a cup of mud. Before you write, go for a walk, do a little dance in your living room, spin around in a chair, anything! Give your brain time to connect the dots and clear your mind of it all together.

I've seen people dislike writing so much that they carry it with them wherever they go! They call it procrastination, but it's really more like dread. Give your brain a break and think about other things and before you know it, you'll be making connections that you never thought of before. It's wonderful! It's like magic! It's like dropping off your dry-cleaning! That pickle stain is all of the sudden gone and you don't want to know how it happened! You just accept the fact that it's gone and then you act like it was never there in the first place!

Do all of these pickle analogies have you down? Try it. Go for a walk instead of sitting in front of a blank screen. Ride a bicycle. Take your friend's neglected shih tzu for a walk. Fly a kite. Make a cup of joe and drink it, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Word Monster

Why is that word wrong? I didn’t write that? The problem is figuring out what happened.


It’s the Word Monster! Or better known as the dreaded spell check trap.

Because of this Word Monster, proofreading your own paper is even more important. Spell check is helpful, but those squiggly lines that appear under your words or citations don’t necessarily mean they are wrong.

Proofreading is an important part of the writing process because if wrong words appear in sentences, then they can alter the entire meaning of those sentences.

Examples of the Word Monster within your paper can be:
Define and definite
Obtain and abstain
Weather and whether
Affect vs. effect
Corpse vs. corps
Text anxiety vs. test anxiety
Immunity vs. impunity
Test vs. testes
They’re vs. there vs. their

Along with word changes, sometimes Microsoft Word has weird squiggly lines underneath citations. An example would be a citation I turned in for a paper recently: 
Baker, Timothy C. “The (Neuro)- Aesthetics of Caricature: Representations of Reality in Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park.” Poetics Today. Fall 2009. MLA International Biography. Web. 1 September 2011.
Though the citation is right, the Word Monster underlines parts of my citation as if they were wrong, and they are not.

Because of the Word Monster's antics, proofreading is even more important than it was when we had no other option than writing papers by hand and then typing them. 

So watch out for the Word Monster! Proofread your papers before you turn them in and make sure your words are your words, not the Monster’s!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Heavyweight Boxing

You've probably done an outline at some point in your life. You probably did it before you wrote your paper. And hey, that's swell. But did you ever consider doing an outline after the paper?

"No," you say, shaking your head emphatically. "The paper was done. Why outline the finished product?"

"Ah-HA!" I holler. "Is it really done?"

Keep staring at me with that ridiculous look on your face. I'll explain myself. In truth, your paper isn't done until you get the grade, and even then I don't think it's 100% done. But indeed, why do an outline after the paper's been drafted? Believe it or not, an outline might help to better organize your thoughts. Take, for instance, a box outline. Even if you haven't done a box outline, you've probably done something similar. The box outline is merely an aesthetic method that makes your outline look a little neater than simply letters or numbers or even using bubbles. Applying a box outline to a "finished" product is simple: you simply create a series of boxes for each paragraph. In each box, you then describe what you basically are trying to do in said paragraph. If you find it easy to do, congratulations! Your paragraph is likely cohesive. If you find difficulty in it, so sorry--try again! If you find your paragraph description is getting overly complicated, it could be a matter of just breaking it apart into smaller, bite-size chunks of paragraph that'll be easier for your readers to get down. By applying this box outline method post-draft, you can double-check yourself to make sure you're not creating some unwieldy paragraph that looks both unattractive and uninviting to readers. As writers, we want to make our writing as accessible to readers as possible, unless, of course, we want to be unlikable pretentious jerks. As they write, some people have the tendency to go into a huge paragraph without breaking it up, bogging down their readers with no breaks of white space...

...oh dear.

Thursday Workshop Series

"Writing with Sources: APA Style"

November 17th at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall

The focus of this workshop will be using the APA documentation style.  We will examine different sources within that context in a fun and informative way.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Literature in Review

The beautiful thing about literature is all of the places that it takes you. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I feel like I'm at an airport. You get to choose where you want to go. Perusing the aisles and looking at all of the pretty/interesting book covers, feeling their jackets, flipping through the pages-it is all of the fun in it! I've walked through the damp streets of London, lived out of a hut in the Congo, been an albino hunchback circus-mutant and a wandering Japanese poet all without ever having to leave my own home.

The ability of literature to transform us is profound. I can remember the overall feeling of reading The Idiot, or Oliver Twist and I get nostalgic. Dickens' ability to capture certain dialects amazed me. "Cub id, sir, Cub id" (a nasally "Come in, sir, Come in.") when I say it aloud it amazes me. And now I have all of these characters running loose in my head. Each one of them has shaped me into the person that I am today. Reading a good book is like making a good friend and whenever you hear that name you will smile inwardly and remember that feeling. When I finished Hunter S. Thompson's Kingdom of Fear, the last sentence made me smile for a week straight. When I read A Farewell to Arms nearly a decade ago, I didn't want to talk to anyone for the rest of the day. Woody Guthrie's autobiography made me feel like a child. Diane di Prima's Recollections of My Life as a Woman enveloped me for days. There are so many things that you can do with books. You can keep them on your shelf to remind you of a time. You can stack them and use them as a table. You can read them! You can ask a question and flip open to a random page (a fun game I like to play). You can eat oatmeal with them.

What will you do? Where will you go?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Concise Papers: The Key to College Writing

Although college writing assignments are diverse, most professors and professionals appreciate concision. There are many ways to make sure that a paper is concise and to the point. Whenever editing a paper, checking for word repetitions and redundant phrases is a good place to start. By focusing on cohesion, your paper can be more persuasive and elegant instead of wordy and cluttered.

Wordy sentences might occur mostly during the first drafts because you’re trying to get your ideas on the page. For example, Jackie might repeat “painting” throughout her paper instead of explaining the art piece in detail. And Michelle who’s writing a lab report might repeat “experiment” in her drafts. In an English class, Megan might use “author” too often and neglect using the writer’s last name to switch up word choices.

Here’s an example:
"In the piece of art, the painter creates a gloomy feeling by using different colors. Blending the colors together makes the viewer of the art feel very gloomy. The colors are a mixture of black and white with some gray that give off the gloomy feeling that the painter is trying to show throughout his/her piece."

In this example, the writer of this paragraph uses gloomy three times, as well as the repetition of the word color. If the author of the paragraph wants the paragraph to read smoothly, she’ll need to cut repetitive words to appear more concise.

Redundant phrases can also be a problem when referencing similar information throughout a paper. Phrases such as “passive kind of behavior,” blue in color,” as well as “advance planning” are a few examples of how information presented in a sentence is stating the same information in different ways.

Repetitive information and redundant phrasing are only a few red flags to look for when trying to make your paper more concise. One strategy to help pull away from redundant phrasing and word repetition is simply reading your paper aloud. Reading your paper aloud can help you catch these glitches and also make sure you’re presenting clear and concise information.

Going through your paper backwards sentence by sentence can also help catch awkward phrasing and redundant word usage. Starting from the bottom of your paper, read each sentence from beginning to end like normal. Doing this takes each sentence out of context and helps concentrate on the wording of every sentence.

Making a paper more concise can not only help you become a better writer, but doing so also helps the reader understand your main points.

Monday, November 7, 2011

From the Comma Police to the Judge's Sentence

If you'll recall Gina's Radiohead homage/how to on introductory clauses and comma use, you'll remember that commas are used both after introductory phrases and when introducing someone. But you may be shocked to learn that commas have a few other uses that might just blow your mind. You may also note that the title of this post was a poorly-constructed attempt to do her post homage, but please forgive me. Parody is not my strong suit.

Commas (or as some confused people call them, "comas") are often thrown in by budding writers when they think a natural pause appears. It's like they want to mark a spot where the reader can take a breath if reading out loud. While it's certainly kind of them, it's unnecessary.

You may be asking, "Doug, can I use my commas in my cooking?"

"No," I answer, though I am interested in seeing you try.

You then ask, "Can I use them to stick together pieces of paper?"

"Not quite," I respond, "but you're getting closer."

Before you can even get a word out, however, I excitedly shout the answer, "YOU CAN PUT SENTENCES TOGETHER WITH THEM!!!" While you're recovering from my outburst, allow me to explain.

Compound sentences are essentially combinations of two sentences slapped together. One of the ways you can do so is with a comma and a connector. For example:

I lost the bet, so now I have to wear a dress.

The first sentence here is "I lost the bet," while the second one is "now I have to wear a dress." You'll notice there is also a "so" there. What of this "so"? It's our connector, a coordinating conjunction like for, and, nor, but, or, and yet. Add the "so" on the end there and you'll remember the words easily: "FANBOYS."

Now you're telling me, "But Doug, I know this already. It's kids stuff."

Slow down there, sport. I got something else to tell you. There's another way you can paste two sentences together and it's with a little something I (and most people) like to call a semi-colon. You've probably seen it before; you might see it in this sentence here. You'll recognize it as the little brother to the colon, like a colon with a tail, but truthfully the two punctuation marks are functionally dissimilar. Let's look at our earlier compound sentence:

I lost the bet; now I have to wear a dress.

It looks a little cleaner, doesn't it? No comma, but also no connector. Don't let the cleanliness fool you, however. If you use a semicolon too much, you may get semicolon-happy. Some people want to use a semicolon when they actually want to use a comma. Our EIU Writing Center Punctuation Pattern Sheet notes that it's "most effective when used sparingly." Too many semicolons can make your paper semigood.

It's important to remember that, though the semicolon looks like a comma with a great idea, they're not perfectly interchangeable. Think of the dot in the semicolon as compensating for the missing connector; if you don't have the dot, all you have is a comma. And then you just look ridiculous.

Thursday Workshop Series

"Writing with Sources: MLA Style"

November 10th at 3:30pm
EIU Writing Center
3110 Coleman Hall

The focus of this workshop will be using the MLA documentation style.  We will examine different sources within that context in a fun and informative way.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Stereo Instructions in German

“Q: What’s hard for you?

A: Mostly I straddle reality and the imagination. My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane. Math is hard. Reading a map. Following orders. Carpentry. Electronics. Plumbing. Remembering things correctly. Straight lines. Sheet rock. Finding a safety pin. Patience with others. Ordering in Chinese. Stereo instructions in German.”-Tom Waits

I remember when I was a kid walking down the school hallways, I used to count the tiles and only step on the brown ones today, or the only the white ones today. It was easy because I was the one that was moving around. I was in charge of the giving and taking. Then they wanted me to do long division, and I've been waiting for that click ever since. Somehow when it comes down to it, you can do anything with numbers. You can manipulate them your own way, somebody else's way, everybody's way, or you can just stop being so manipulative and let them be. I love 2x as long as it's the size of my hot fudge sundae.

I am straddling the line of reality and imagination, too, Tom. Let's say, for instance, that you're driving down the street and you see a man riding a bike. There's something about the way that he moves that makes you think "prehistoric." He is obviously a close relative to the T-Rex, the way that he's moving there, mechanical, like his arms and legs are on greased-up hinges. His head spins upwards towards you, in the car, and he gives you a bizarre look. He knows that you know. You'd better drive faster. His little hands with chicken claws are extending in your direction. Just step on the gas and don't look back at him. Maybe he'll get into a fight with a stegosaurus instead.

Or, let's say that you go to your favorite local restaurant and the waitress has squirrel-blonde hair. Is it natural? She's got it cut so that you wouldn't be able to tell. Did she harvest your meal after digging up her secret stash of acorns? So much depends upon a mellow metaphor. Does your father have stout Jack London-eyes? Do you see Al Pacino every time you look at your uncle? My neighbor has a Tom Hanks voice and every time I hear him I want to put on a cowboy hat or get stuck on some island and talk to a volleyball. Everything is connected. Write what you love.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

November means three things to a student: papers, Thanksgiving, and avoiding papers until after Thanksgiving. But to some of us, it means one additional thing: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. If you've ever taken a creative writing class comprised of some of the "hardcore" folks who actually enjoy writing, you've surely heard the phrase. While I personally disdain the phrase in its abbreviated form (it sounds like a technology from a pulpy science fiction series), I've always been attracted to the idea behind it as a creative writer. I must confess I've never actually made an attempt to participate.

The goal is simple. You have thirty days beginning on November 1st at midnight and ending on November 30th at 11:59 PM to write 50,000 words. Say you have about 250 words to the page. Do the math and you'll find that it comes out to be, like, a 1000 pages. Or something. I may carried a number wrong, but math is not my strong point. In any case, assuming you fire off the necessary amount of words by the end of the month, you'll have yourself a beautiful novel.

Then again, it may not be that pretty. Part of the fun/torture of NaNoWriMo (there I go, doing it myself) is taking no time to edit and focusing on pure, nasty generation. According to the website, it's "a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing," which translates into, "you'll probably hate what you wrote when you read it later." They even have the good hear to warn you that "you will be writing a lot of crap." But they insist "that's a good thing." And I'm inclined to agree with them.

As writers, we want to edit as we go, often causing problems for us as we compose. Our internal editor is shouting away at us in our minds, reminding us that "that's crap" we just smeared on the screen/page/napkin. But with NaNoWriMo (ugh) we accept it, nay, we embrace it!

So why do it? The official website offers a few reasons ("To stop being one of those people who say, 'I've always wanted to write a novel,'" or "To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties") and though they may not seem the most productive reasons, I assure you there is something to get out of it aside from a bunch of pages of a mess. By participating in NaNoWriMo, you're pushing yourself to become a more dedicated writer. You set goals for yourself (write 1,600 words a night, 12,500 a week, etc.). The most beneficial thing about National Novel Writing Month (haha!) is that you get to gag that internal editor and stuff him in the trunk until he learns to play nice. Or until you're done with your novel.

Now, off to write 1,600 words of garbage.