Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Modifier Mayhem: Mangling and Dangling

Before we begin, let me make a confession:  I have no clue what a "mangled" modifier would look like.  I just thought its inclusion made for a really snazzy title.  I suppose if we really wanted to, we could explore whether being mauled by a large predator has an impact on one's ability to formulate proper modifiers, but I don't think that research would end well.  If I had just survived a near-death experience with a big ol' grizzly and someone started talking grammar to me, I'd probably punch 'em in the throat.  And I'm an English guy.

Dangling modifiers, however, are a very real occurrence in writing, and they can completely destroy the meaning of your sentence.  Most people know that an adjective or adverb almost always appears in front of the word it's modifying.  If you went around asking, "Have you black my cat seen?" people would probably tell you to get medical help before fleeing in terror.  If I said, "My bruise purple hurts," you'll not only be grossed out, but also very confused.  Is purple a new kind of pain?  Is "purple hurting" more or less intense than "really hurting"?  While that kind of construction works in Spanish, we English speakers get all turned around when faced with that kind of construction.  The same rule applies to phrases that function as modifiers.  Yet sometimes you'll run across something like this:

Dangling from the tree by his suspenders, trouble wasn't far off from Billy Bob Joe.

Even though you can understand it fairly well, doesn't that sentence sound odd?  It should.  The mind is usually pretty good at catching improper association, which is yet another reason to read your work back to yourself.

Dangling from the tree by his suspenders is all one giant phrase meant to describe poor Billy Bob Joe.  When we fail to put it next to him, it's just like talking about our "bruise purple hurting."  The phrase ends up modifying the word trouble, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Trouble can dangle by its suspenders?  Trouble wears suspenders?  Oddly enough, if you think about Trouble as the name of a person and re-read the sentence, it makes more sense.  Weird, huh?  Chalk it up to English.

A corrected version of that sentence would look something like this:

Dangling from the tree by his suspenders, Billy Bob Joe knew trouble wasn't far off.

Unfortunately, these little devils can get really tricky from time to time.  This is especially prevalent when dealing with understood subjects.  Check out this sentence:

When writing a story, your main character must be a central focus.

At first glance, that sentence doesn't appear particularly malicious.  It doesn't jump out and scream at you.  It's not particularly hard on the eyes.  It's certainly not going to eat your dachshund and wear his fur as a hat.  "The understood subject is the reader," you might astutely point out.  "The sentence is meant to be instructive.  What's wrong with it?"

The brain is great at filling in gaps, and that very strength can sometimes get us into trouble.  Your mind automatically associates the understood subject of the first clause (you) and carries that context into the second.  If you just think about the phrase "your main character must be a central focus," within the context of authorial advice, it does seem to jive pretty well.

But who's the real subject of the second clause as it's currently written?

Those of you playing at home who said "your main character" win 10,000 Happy Fun Time Points.  Yes, the subject in the first clause is understood to be the reader.  Congratulations.  You've officially become the main focus of this first clause.  Isn't that a marvelous feeling?

But when you shift into the beginning of the second clause, the self-referential your can make things ambiguous.  That word provides the illusion of a context that isn't there.  Even when we continue through the sentence and arrive at main character, the first word has put us in a position where we're not likely to question the subject.  It still feels like we, the reader, are the subject.  But as it's currently written, that's not the case.  Your simply describes the real subject: main character.  And we all know your main character doesn't write the story.  You do.  A revised version of the sentence might read something like this:

When writing a story, you must focus on your main character.

The phrase when writing a story is modifying the situation of the subject (you).

Can it get a little bit tricky from time to time?  Absolutely.  Just keep in mind where your subjects are, and it will be hard to go wrong.  Always make sure that these phrases are followed by the subject they are modifying.  No one wants to hear about how your bruise purple hurts.

Wednesday Workshop Series

"Writing with Sources: MLA Style"

February 29th 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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Citation Spotlight: KnAPSAck

Forgive the title. It was the closest I could come to a pun working with "APSA."

You might be wondering what I mean by "APSA." I too am wondering that same thing. Let's explore, shall we?

APSA is the American Political Science Association, presumably not unlike MLA for the language peeps and APA for the psychology folk. Like every discipline, APSA seems to have their own Style Manual, which according to the University of Wisconsin hasn't been updated since 1993. And perhaps for good reason?

APSA citation style might sound a little familiar to some of you fans of APA citation style, whoever you may be. For example, APSA doesn't use a "Works Cited" like MLA but rather a "Reference List." You'll notice that APSA begins to stray away from the APA method in this example of a referenced journal article:
Aldrich, John H. 1980. "A Dynamic Model of Presidential Nomination Campaigns." American Political Science Review 74:651-69.
Wait a second. There are first names listed! You can't do that in APA! How are we supposed to remain gender-neutral if we know what the writers' first names are? How dare the APSA have the audacity to do something like that! Why, you'd think they were doing MLA style or something like that...

Ahem. Sorry about that. I lost my cool there for a second. Anyhoo, in the actual list, it might appear that it takes after MLA rather than APA, at least in terms of punctuation and formatting. Aside from the audacious use of full first names, APSA still capitalizes titles properly and puts quotation marks around the titles of those short works that require it.

But the year is a bit off, making it not quite MLA still. Let's see the same article cited in MLA style:
Aldrich, John H. "A Dynamic Model of Presidential Nomination Campaigns." American Political Science Review 74.1 (1980): 651-69. Print.
Looks slightly different, no? Now truthfully, I don't know if it actually was Issue 1 of the 74th volume of the American Political Science Review, but I added the one just for the sake of showing what MLA does slightly differently. You'll notice also that the year jumped towards the end as well as shielding itself with parentheses. It is said that those who use MLA tend to privilege the timelessness of a text over the modernity that same text might have. You'll also notice that MLA takes care to list that it's a "print" source. I'm not sure how sold I am on that idea, but it's clear that APSA treats it just as APA does by keeping it towards the front unlike MLA. Aside from that, however, the APSA style is remarkably similar to MLA's.

I question the popularity of this system. According to this handy manual, the APSA revised the their style manual in August 2006. As far as I can tell, they've adopted the Chicago Manual of Style (8). Does that mean the APSA found their style to be out of date? Perhaps. But not everyone seems to think so.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Jury of Your Peers...

Ah, Peer Review. How I once hated you. I did too, quite passionately detested you and would roll my eyes whenever a writing professor told the class that we would be, "splitting into groups and doing some peer reviewing." Ugh. It seemed like I never got any constructive criticism back from my peers, and the comments I received were usually about grammatical errors--not much beyond that. I never received comments from my fellow students that were useful or pointed--just vague little "awk", "frag", "rephrase?".

The most important factor of that hatred was my own ignorance (as it so often is with hatred, no?). I didn't feel that my opinion was valid or important. Stupid self esteem. I also never knew what I as a reviewer was supposed to be looking for in the paper other than grammatical errors and awkward phrases. I quickly fell into the peer review comment trap of- frag, awk, rephrase.

When I was asked to do a Peer Review in grad school I instantly wanted to roll my eyes, but I fought the urge and appeared excited about the task. Then my instructor did something extremely handy, he told us specific things to look out for, think on, point out, and question while reviewing. He also told us to think of a different title for the paper, and to write at least three good things that the writer had accomplished.

That sold me. I was in like Flynn. I love to sing praises, and I also like direction! I attacked my peer's paper with gusto and in turn fell in love with peer review. And became a more focused and thorough peer reviewer.

Peer review is so useful when your reviewer knows what to look for and how to respond. A colleague of mine in the writing center came up with this acronym to be used while peer reviewing. SQUAT. Snarky, I know...but it's very effective. Check it out!

S - Structure - Does the paper fit the format for the assignment? Are the paragraphs effectively transitioning.

Q - Questions - If you don't understand something in the paper ask a question of the writer. Be specific and pointed perhaps try something like, "Do you think that the poet used this imagery for any other reason that you have listed?" This type of question might help your writer expand on something that was lacking at first.

U - Understanding - Does it make sense? Do you get it? Does the thesis appear clear and relevant to the paper? Even rough drafts should answer these questions.

A - Analysis - If your paper includes facts or data are they analyzed correctly? Does the data fit in with the argument the writer is making? Does the data enhance the paper?

T - Tone/Target - Basically Voice and Audience...but SQUAV doesn't make any sense. This section is asking you can hear the voice of the author and if it is meshing well with the intended audience. I reviewed a paper once that was about bunnies dying in tragic ways, and the writer wrote lots of jokes. I'm sorry...but there isn't a lot of funny in bunny death. This section asks you to make sure that the voice of the author is being used appropriately and the paper is written in the best way for the intended audience.

If you ever have to do Peer Review again, which I hope you do, and you are not given prompts ... remember to SQUAT.

A focused and directed Peer Review can generate wonderful feedback for the author for the paper and you!

Plus, it's pretty great to sing praises. Thank you Stephen Jefferies for the acronym!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Whimsical Whom and Insensible I

Everyone wants to sound smart, right?

"Of course we do, Stephen," you all collectively cry, adjusting your monocles and top-hats.  Well my friends, it's time to address something that frequently arises when people try just a wee bit too hard to sound academic and edumacated.  It's easy to pick up on phrases that float around academia enough, and it's even easier to mess them up and make yourself look like a goober.  Two errors that are frequently over-corrected are the improper use of "whom" and "I".

Me vs. I
(could a sub-title get any more schizophrenic?)
When you were in kindergarten asking your teacher if you and Jim could have a cookie, did you get a finger waggled in your face as the kind teacher explained you always put others first and use I instead of me?  Well, even though sweet old Mrs. Sputzweizer had your best interests at heart, she unfortunately led you astray.  Most of the time you will use "I", but only because we humans are greedy little buggers that like to be the center of attention.

So here's the scoop:  When you and whatever buddy you plan on dragging with you are the subject of a sentence, you follow Mrs. Sputzweizer's advice and use "I".  Here's an example:

Jim and I flew through the air with our new superpowers, looking for villains to vanquish.

However, this isn't always the case.  If you and your buddy end up being the target of someone else's shenanigans (or any other calamity befell you), then you'd no longer hold that illustrious position of subject.  Congratulations.  You're now the object -- the one being acted upon by the verb.  When that happens, ignore Mrs. Sputzweizer and use "me".  Check it:

The radioactive laser-eating dragon beat the ever-living daylights out of Jim and me.

See how that works?  The subject in this sentence isn't me.  Nor is it Jim.  It's the radioactive laser-eating dragon using us as a punching bag.  Since "beat" refers to the action being taken upon Jim and myself, we've become the object of the sentence.  Thus, "me".

Here's a quick and dirty trick to remembering which one to use.  If you eliminate the other party and it still sounds right, you've chosen properly.  For example, you'd never hear anyone talk about "the radioactive dragon that beat the tar out of I."  That's just ... weird.  It's wrong.  Most of us have been around the human language long enough to recognize how odd it sounds when you swap out the subject and object pronoun.  Isolate it and see if it still sounds right.

Who vs. Whom
(which could serve as the headline to a mystery fight)

"Whom owns this book?"

I heard that in the library one day.  I never caught a glimpse of who actually said it, but I imagine they looked very proud for using such a university-friendly word.  Unfortunately, our mystery scholar used this word incorrectly.  Go ahead, read it out loud.  It sounds strange, doesn't it?  While this little sneak is a little harder to identify by ear than "I" and "me", most people can still recognize that such an over-corrected phrase sounds weird.

Fun fact: The who/whom issue is directly related to I/me.  They're both inexorably tied up with subject and object.  Determining whether to use "who" or "whom" in a given sentence comes back to whether you're referring to the subject or object.  Small world, isn't it?

If you're referring to the subject of a sentence, you use "who", like in the example below:

Who wants ice cream?

The subject of this interrogative is the ice-cream-starved men and women in question.  You could just as easily replace "who" with any other subject without ruining the structure of the sentence (though it would no longer be a question):

Bob wants ice cream.
The cat wants ice cream.
The radioactive laser-eating dinosaur wants laser ice cream.

Conversely, when referring to the object of a sentence, you use -- that's right, you guessed it! -- "whom".

Whom does she truly love?

Does that sound a little strange?  It might, but it's technically correct.  Even though "whom" comes first in this sentence, the subject of the question is "she".  If you re-worded it using a different pronoun, it would read "Does she truly love him?"  Our mysterious maiden is the subject here.  The poor man who finds himself subject to her fluctuating feelings is the object of the verb "love".

Here's the quick and dirty trick for that one.  Try and use the pronouns "him" and "he" in the sentence.  If you find "he" fits, then you'll most likely be using "who".  If you find "him" a better match, then "whom" is likely the right choice.

Who knows where the chips went?
He knows where the chips went!

For whom should I vote?
I should vote for him!

So now you know the secret key to avoiding these over-corrections.  Keep your subjects and objects straight, and even Mrs. Sputzweizer and her dusty-smelling perfume won't distract you from your course!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wednesday Workshop Series

"Writing on the Spot: Essay Exams"

February 22nd 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.

Citation Spotlight: Turabian Nights

Working in the Writing Center, I don't see much variation in citation styles that students bring in. Usually, a student needs help with either APA or MLA. I've had the occasional student that wants to work on Chicago, and I've even seen citation styles that I can't even remember the names of. The one I haven't seen yet, however, is Turabian.

Named after Kate L. Turabian, the late graduate school dissertation secretary of University of Chicago, the style nowadays is "essentially the same as those presented in The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, with slight modifications for the needs of student writers" (Turabian). Sounds nice, no?

Upon first inspection, I could see several similarities between Turabian and MLA and APA, and for good reason. Turabian is divided into two sub-styles: notes-bibliography style for the literature and history kids, and parenthetical citations-reference list style for the science folk. Take a look at this example on the official online Turabian Citation Guide:
One author
Note: 1. Wendy Doniger, Splitting the Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 65.
Bibliographic: Doniger, Wendy. Splitting the Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Parenthetical: (Doniger 1999, 65)
Reference: Doniger, Wendy. 1999. Splitting the difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The parenthetical in particular reminds me of the MLA and APA style both in that it includes a year following the author's name, but it doesn't have a "p." before the page number to denote that it is the page number. APA style is seen in the reference in terms of the method in which the title of the work is capitalized.

Turabian is a curious style in that it covers nearly the entire spectrum of academic research. Your safest bet is to always go with the style your instructor suggests or requires, but should you find yourself in a class with a bit more leniency given to your chosen citation style, I suggest giving Turabian a try. Regardless of where you're coming from academically, you'll find that the transition to Turabian should be relatively painless.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The End!

No matter how badly you want to end your paper with the ever popular "The End!" I beg you, please reconsider. Also, please refrain from using the following "End is near" signal phrases: In conclusion, To wrap this up, In summation, Let me reiterate, and Finally...

Yeesh, those are incredibly boring to read and also a teeny bit insulting to your reader who probably knows, or at least hopefully knows, that this last paragraph is indeed the end of the paper. Plus, you are super smart and don't need to resort to old cliche to note the end of your work.

What's that you say? You thought that you were always supposed to signal the end of your paper with these key phrases? Well, I reckon at one point in time that is how things were done. Not anymore. Face it: we have gotten fancy.

The conclusion is a form of writing that could be best described as an In and Out Burger Joint: You get in, you get out, you're satisfied. Or in writing terms you re-emphasize your point, again try to be catchy as you were in your introduction, and leave your reader with the feeling that the time they spent reading your paper was worth it and your words were memorable.

Nothin to it! .... You're with me, right?

Here's the thing: I know you aren't. I seem to be one of the few people who adore writing conclusions (intros too! It's the middle part that I struggle with). I have spent some time over the past several weeks working with some students on conclusions, and their most common complaint is that, "I feel like I just said all of this stuff already!" Well, if you wrote a good paper, you did mention all that stuff. So, valid point. BUT remember, really good points are worth repeating. Another frequently used argument is, "I just don't know how to end it." Well, you do. You're just at the end of the project and worn out. Don't fret ... it happens. Take a moment and step away from it--have a soda and then revisit.

If you are still struggling remember the basic definition of a conclusion: Conclusions sum up what you have been writing about in your paper.

I'm going to do a little bit of modeling for you and show you a conclusion that I recently wrote for a paper on Macbeth. (Don't be bored! It will be painless)


A culture that was familiar with the evils of prophecy, possibly Howard and Scot's articles, and the law would be unable to miss the obvious seduction of Macbeth by tempting yet unnatural and unlawful prophetic witches. If Macbeth is viewed through the lens of Scot and Howard and the conversation of the time period, it is impossible not to view Macbeth as a character who falls prey to temptation. A study in Macbeth's psyche could perhaps tell the audience more about his reasons for believing and passionately acting upon the prophecy, but with the limited amount of information we as readers/scholars/viewers are given the idea that Macbeth is a man who strays from the Divine and follows the devil's familiars is impossible to ignore. Macbeth's folly is his desire to know what only God can, but is that not the folly of man?

Whew. Still with me? Did you notice what I did?

First of all I didn't say: In conclusion, etc. I referred back to the culture that I had mentioned in the intro and middle of my paper (I guess you just have to trust me on that), I reiterated some points that I had made in my paper--didn't flat out state them again but instead I changed the way that I had written them before (which of course you don't know, but believe it), and then I ended with a line that reminded my reader of my thesis statement, which was that Macbeth's greatest evil was being tempted by the devil because he wanted to know the future. The ending of my conclusion is also provocative enough to leave my reader thinking and wanting to learn more, argue, or write about the amazing point I made in my paper.

Another fun trick is to end a conclusion by using a bit of humor (as long as that humor is paper/audience appropriate) or at least try to be entertaining--it's almost like a "thank you" to your reader. Just as you grabbed them with your super fabulous introduction that Doug Urbanski blogged about at the beginning of the week, you want to snag them again with your conclusion. What better way to do that then use a little bit of humor? Is this the time to bust out your best "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke? It depends on the paper topic and your best judgement. And if you're cracking "Chicken Cross the Road" jokes, I think that comedy might not be your forte.

Writing the conclusion does not have to be frustrating. What you write is important so don't be afraid to emphasize your valuable message! When you feel that you can't possibly write anymore--have that soda! If you can add something humorous, something that will make your reader smile. Perhaps revisit a snarky pun you made in your introduction? The End.

Freeing the Flow

One of the most common issues students request help with in the Writing Center is "flow."  People want writing to move smoothly from one point to the next, and in student writing, any speed bumps in that process find themselves slashed with red ink.

The body of your paper can be hard enough when you have a lot of ideas to tackle, and trying to get them all to flow nicely together sometimes feels like an insurmountable task.  The longer the paper, and the more ideas you're trying to work with, the trickier it can get.  Thankfully, it's not too hard to implement a method into your madness.

It's preferable to actually going mad, right?  I mean, seriously, no one wants to see a broken college student shuffling around campus muttering about hamsters and ficus plants to himself (or herself). That'd be sad.

To prevent such tragedies, we've compiled some tips and tricks to help make sure the journey through your paper is as painless as possible, for both you and the reader.

1. Obvious transition devices aren't the Devil.
Don't be afraid to be straightforward when you're moving from one point to another.  There seems to be this fear of overt usage of transition words, as if the key to "flow" isn't showing your reader how your ideas are moving, but was instead the acquisition of some perfectly sublime cipher that subconsciously draws the reader through your words like the Lazy River. 

It's not nearly that difficult.  In fact, if you try too hard to be subtle and tricky with your transitions, you make it more likely that your reader will get lost or frustrated.  Remember, what seems obvious to you may not be obvious to your reader.  You've got all those facts and context smooshed up in your grey matter.  The reader just has what's on your page.

Often, writers use signal phrases, which are just words (or phrases ... surprise) that give the reader a heads-up of something going on in the text.  Transitions are just one place where you can use these kinds of signals to keep your reader following the same road you're on.  (We'd hate for them to zig where they should have zagged and end up at some creepy hotel run by a murderous psychopath and his three pet koalas.) 

There are a plethora of good words and phrases that you can use to transition from one idea into the next, especially if you've already established that you plan on moving through several points.  Here are a few:

Similar Ideas - Also, just as, besides, similarly, likewise, furthermore, moreover
Contrast - However, instead, in contrast, conversely
Sequence/Timing - First, second, third (etc), next, then, finally, before, after, later
Exception - Besides, however, except, nonetheless, excluding, outside of, save, barring
Emphasis - Of course, even, in fact
Additional Evidence - And, also, again, as well, additionally
Cause and Effect - Because, so, therefore, thus, as a result, consequently

2. Utilize topic/closing sentences. 
One of the greatest places to give your reader an idea of where you are going is at the end of a paragraph or the beginning of a new one.  Sometimes the two even get together for tea and share the same goal.  Check out the example below:

In a recent study, koalas who were exposed to rainbows for three hours a day were reported as being much friendlier by their keepers.  They mauled fewer interns and stopped urinating on the wall within seventy-two hours of their exposure.  However, this is just one of the variables that have been known to affect koala behavior.

Recently, this same group of scientists discovered that koalas fed Cocoa Puffs suffered from horrible flatulence, leading to severe irritation.  Blah, blah, blah ...

See how the underlined sentence ties the two together?  (Bonus points for noticing the signal word) 

The transition lets the reader know that we plan on continuing our discussion on koala behavior, but also shows them the upcoming shift in direction.  Look at the ideas being discussed in your paragraph and see how it relates to the paragraphs before and after it.  (If you can't find any connection, you may need to work on organization.  You might find a more fitting spot for it closer to a more similar topic.)  Figure out what's changed.  Is it your point of view?  The approach?  A different side to the debate? 

By nailing down what the differences and similarities are between the two paragraphs, you can forge a transition that will stand the test of time!  ... Or at least your teacher's red pen.

3. Get a second set of eyes. 
Like I've mentioned in my earlier discussion on organization, your brain has ways of tricking you.  Have you ever had a moment where a snippet of conversation reminds you of something, which reminds you of something else (and so on and so forth) until you've made the mental jump from Grandma's favorite cookies to recent serial killer victims?  No?  Well, you haven't lived then.

All cookies and pre-meditated murder aside, it's easy to see the context of your own writing.  You know that subconscious Lazy River effect I mentioned earlier?  That does happen sometimes ... to us writers.  It's easy to leave out little bits and pieces that seem completely obvious without realizing their importance. 

Having someone to look it over like a trusted friend or your Friendly Neighborhood Writing Center (I very much wanted to say Spider Man) can really help you locate those spots where your assumptions leave the reader in the dust.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Too late for introductions, eh?

"Nay," I say. We all know about that almighty trinity of writing a paper: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion, but do we really know Introductions? That's like saying we know Burt Reynolds; sure, we know the hat, the mustache, the Trans Am--but do we really know the man? This week we'll start things off right with Introductions.

There's a time-honored formula that goes into writing an introduction. First, you have your attention getter. This is the hook, how you pull your reader into the paper. There are many ways to start off your introduction with an attention getter, like a rhetorical question, fun fact, or dialogue. But you're not limited to those options. I personally like outrageous statements, like "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." but the key is to write something relevant to continue off of that.

The other vital piece of the paper is what many consider the all-important piece: the thesis. A paper without a thesis is like a car without a steering wheel; if you write without one, you will most likely crash and require medical treatment. The thesis is the one-sentence embodiment of your paper's argument. If you don't have a thesis, you don't have much of an argument. You may have all of these awesome, on-the-money observations throughout your piece but if there's no thesis, your reader might be trying to dig for a thesis throughout. Rather than handing them the spade to start scooping up the dirt, give them the thesis outright. Traditionally, people stick the thesis at the end of the introduction or towards the end. I'm a fan of the end myself. It's like being told everything you need to know how to swim and then getting Spartan-kicked into the deep end. That may seem like a strong metaphor, but babies can swim right off the bat so get over it.

Now the attention grabber and thesis, though important parts of an introduction, are not all you have in a paper. At most from those, you might have two or three sentences. Often, the connection between your thesis and attention grabber may not be so outright obvious to the reader that you need to do some transitional sentences between them in order to make the connection more clear and concrete. Por ejemplo:
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time," says Greedo the Bounty Hunter, sitting across from smuggler Han Solo in the seediest corner of the Mos Eisley Cantina. "Yeah, I'll bet you have," Solo responds. A blast rings out in the cantina and the green bounty hunter goes limp. Solo leaves, but not before throwing a coin to the bartender, saying, "Sorry about the mess." George Lucas made several alterations to the Star Wars series that detrimentally changed the films.
You're probably thinking, That's great and all, but how did get to that point? Well, my sisters and brothers, it's missing some filler. Let's add some!
"I've been looking forward to his for a long time," says Greedo the Bounty Hunter, sitting across from smuggler Han Solo in the seediest corner of the Mos Eisley Cantina. "Yeah, I'll bet you have," Solo responds. A blast rings out in the cantina and the green bounty hunter goes limp. Solo leaves, but not before throwing a coin to the bartender, saying, "Sorry about the mess." This scene is just one of many affected by editing changes since Star Wars: A New Hope first came out in 1977. Creator George Lucas insists that Han never shoots first but rather retaliates against the bounty hunter's attack. Many argue still that Han not only shot first but that him doing so is more accurate to the character's behavior. By editing it to a mere retaliation alters Han Solo as a character and does not fit harmoniously with his actions later in the series. Lucas made several alterations to the Star Wars series that detrimentally changed the films.
You'll see that I added a significant amount of information. It provides a context for my attention getter, which is a brief snippet of the Han-Greedo encounter from A New Hope, and how it relates to my thesis. There is no perfect formula for an introduction, but that's what makes the introduction such a vibrant and unique part of a paper. The introduction is the first thing someone will see of your paper, so the key is to make sure that you're present in the introduction through your style and language.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Semicolons-Which Side Are You On?

What is something that you love to hate? I love to hate spiders. Absolutely love to hate them and frequently dream of ridding the world of them. All you Charlotte lovers out there can just be quiet.

Here's something else I love to hate: semicolons. What did a semicolon ever do to me? Well, first of all it can't decide how it wants to be spelled. Is it semicolon or semi-colon? Pick one, own it, and be it. Why be so two-sided?

Actually the true reason that I hate semicolons is that I have never quite understood how to use them and do so on mad punctuation whims. Not smart. I used one on of of those silly whims in a class last semester--resulting in spectacular failure. My professor, who is most beloved and kind, gently told me, "There are seven people in this country who know how to use semicolons, and you are not one of them." Boo-yah!

I could have chosen to run and hide from this particular semicolonic episode, but instead I have become a teeny bit intrigued about the use and reason for this type of punctuation. I have been doing some sleuthing, talking to professors in the English Department, observing students in the writing center, and have managed to gather a bit of information that I am dying to share with you--and also get off of my chest because this is some serious baggage! Who knew semicolons were so controversial?

It seems that people either love or hate semicolons. There is absolutely no middle ground. Kurt Vonnegut, a famous author, has been noted as saying (rather flagrantly and I'm gonna leave out some words because they're a bit on the risky side), "Do not use semicolons. They are (bleep bleep) representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

On the flip side of that in your face statement is the opinion of the President of EIU Bill Perry. President Perry, in the fourth part of an interview EIU Writes did with him last year, claims that the semicolon is his favorite punctuation mark.

So how exactly does one go about using a semicolon? Here is what the Purdue OWL tells me:

You can use a semi-colon to join two independent clauses. Joining two independent clauses this way implies that the two clauses are related and/or equal, or perhaps that one restates the other (see example below).

•Braveheart was definitely my favorite movie during the 1990s; in fact, it is my favorite movie of all time.

Use semi-colons between items in a list that already involve commas (example shown below).

•The sweaters I bought today were purple, blue, and green; yellow, white, and red; and pink, black, and grey.

The EIU Writing Center Webpage has a section entitled resources for writers with all sorts of excellent information. What else is on there?

A Punctuation Pattern Sheet (I really wish it said paper! Punctuation Pattern Paper, sigh I need that alliteration to continue) that gives more examples of semicolon use. If you click on this, Punctuation Pattern Sheet, you will link right to it!

Another of my most favorite professors, to remain nameless because the coolness level is already at 100% and I don't know if it can go any higher, says, "Writers should use semicolons sparingly since a writer's go-to sentence construction should be compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. However, I enjoy the use of a semicolon when a writer connects balanced (in length) independent clauses that work together logically."

In the Writing Center we see all sorts of semicolon usage, and generally the students will tell us that they used it because it might impress their professor. This is when I say, "Don't do it!" A professor is more impressed when you have two strong sentences, not two combined kinda strong sentences.

In my opinion, one should use semicolons sparingly. This could be my experience talking, or it could be that they are unnecessary. Why not instead go with the dash? It's all personal preference and if you prefer the semicolon--make sure you really understand it before you use it. There is nothing worse than trying to appear smart to a professor and instead sinking into semicolon despair.

Love them or hate them the semicolon doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, perhaps it is time that I get over my fear and embrace them. How about you?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Organizing Chaos

Your brain has just spattered a hot mess of information onto the page.  You've managed to defeat the White Screen of Doom and produce a plethora of delicious information for the nearest discourse-starved academic.  But there's a problem.  You're not sure whether it flows together properly.  You've just spent a significant amount of time on it, so your brain reels at the thought of going through it all again.  It makes sense to you, but how can you tell if it will for your reader?  Is your information in the right place?  Does your thought progression make sense?  Do these sentences bounce around your main points too rapidly?

Stop!  Don't tear your hear out!  (It's beautiful, really.  What kind of shampoo are you using?)

There's no need to fear, my caffeine-addled friend.  There are several ways to ensure your organization is up to par, regardless of what stage of the writing process you're in.

Pre-Writing Organization:
Outlines: Yes, I know, I know!  This is probably as obvious as one could get with organization.  But even though they sometimes feel more like a bane than a boon, taking the time to outline your main points will always help you keep things organized.  It forces you to break things down into bite-sized chunks, and if you're someone like me who really enjoys headings, it gives you little visual compartments for your ideas.

Are they annoying?  Do they take some time?  Will they occasionally make you want to injure small, fluffy animals?  Yes, yes, and hopefully not.  But the initial time investment will pay off in the end.  Thirty minutes up front can save you hours of copying, pasting, and revising when you're dealing with a complicated topic

Idea Mapping:  Meet Outlining's smaller, lesser-known, sexier cousin.  Idea mapping is great when you're trying to find ways that various ideas or concepts are connected.  It's pretty simple.  You start with a word or phrase that you plan on discussing.  Then, you write down other words or phrases that are connected to it, drawing lines between the ones that happen to be directly related.  I might start with "poodle" and follow that with "urinates on shoes" and "eats homework".  From there, I may make a new word -- "irritating" -- which could very well have lines drawn to "poodle", "urinates on shoes", and "eats homework".  Voila!  We've got a connection!  I've discovered their tendency to defile my footwear and devour my schoolwork are both elements of frustration.  I'd likely include both of these ideas in my "Poodles are Evil" segment.

While idea mapping is often used as a brainstorming tool as well, strong visual learners may find it more helpful to literally see the ideas spread out before them.  From there, you can start forging connections and establishing which ideas should be clustered together.

Topic Clustering: Sometimes you're completely unsure of what order your ideas should go in, and outlining really isn't doing the job.  Instead of lighting your hair on fire and leaping from the nearest tall window, try topic clustering.  Divide a piece of paper into columns, labeling each column with a single word or phrase that represents one of the main points you're working with.  For example, if you were writing an analytic essay comparing the elements of a book to changes made in its movie interpretation, you might end up with the following topics:  characters, setting, plot.  Now you've got a place to work with when you start thinking about the various changes between the two mediums.  And, naturally, as you continue to group your ideas, you may come up with new topics or subdivide into more specific ones.  This method essentially gives you the seeds for your body paragraphs.

Post-Writing Organization
Already finished with the paper?  Working with a hot mess of disjointed paragraphs?  No biggie.  There are plenty of ways to get those working for you, too.

Topic Sentences:  How many of you had the idea of a topic sentence drilled into your head since you were old enough to write one of those abominable five-paragraph essays?  Now, I'm not here to say that every paragraph should start with a sentence that explicitly says "HEY!  HERE I AM!  LISTEN DUDE, THIS IS WHAT WE'RE GONNA TALK ABOUT, OKAY?"  However, you should be able to go through a paragraph and find a sentence or two that gives a good idea of what's covered.  (If that's an impossible task, you may have too many ideas fighting for your paragraph)  Writing down each of your topic sentence(s) can give you an idea of what your paper's main points are.  Once you have those in front of you without all the other words vying for your attention, finding a reasonable, logical way to order them is much easier.  In some ways, it's kind of like a retroactive outline.  However, you're using words and phrases you've already constructed, so looking for similarities, links, and transitions won't be nearly as difficult.

Paragraph Structuring: If each paragraph is a hot mess, it's sometimes useful to set up some kind of a structure or frame to use for your ideas.  Look at the kind of information required and find a consistent way to represent it within your writing.  For instance, in the above example with the analysis between a book and its movie adaptation, let's say you have to compare, contrast, and analyze the elements that changed within the movie.  Your paragraph structure may end up something like this:

  • Element being discussed (i.e. characters)
  • How it was handled in the book
    • Quotation
  • How it was handled in the movie
    • Scene example
  • Was this an effective change?  If so, why/how?
This gives you a consistent approach to each paragraph, ensuring that the reader falls into your rhythm.  This also has the added bonus of making your paper flow much better.  "Flow" is usually a fancy-pants term for readability, and the more familiar constructions your reader runs into, the easier he or she will be able to navigate them.

Think about it.  If you know the kind of information that's coming up, you can anticipate it and subconsciously put yourself in the proper frame of mind.  You don't have to constantly stop, back-track, and pull out your GPS to figure out where the paper is headed next, because the writer has established a comfortable pattern for you.  Obviously, you don't want to write the exact same thing, or your paper is just as likely to be used as a pillow as anything else.  Still, structure within your paper will help both you as the writer and anyone who reads it in the future.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Workshop Series

"Writing with Sources: APA Style"

February 8th 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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

By a Jury of Your Peers

We talk a lot about valuable aspects of writing, the most important (aside from actual writing, of course) being revision, polishing up that rough stone so it glimmers like a diamond. Or something. Bad simile aside, you have to know where to polish the stone. Speaking literally, that's pretty easy--anywhere there's a blemish on the stone it's clear where you need to polish.

Writing is not quite that easy, however. When we first write, we go through the process of proofreading. We go through it once, maybe twice, maybe three times if you're hardcore, but we're sometimes not sure if we've caught everything. The truth is that we likely haven't caught everything. At that point we could use another set of eyes.

Peer review is a way instructors will implement this idea of bringing a fresh pair of eyes to an essay. Another person's going to be coming in with a "clean palette" in a way. They haven't tasted your essay yet, so they'll be able to tell you where your flavor wins and where it loses. Best of all, this is usually before your instructor gets to see it, which means you don't have to worry about him or her going Gordon Ramsay on you about it.

Say we're in class and you hand over your paper to me. You see that glint in my eye--you think that maybe, just maybe, I'm going to tear your paper apart, both figuratively and literally. I might look at it, say it's the worst thing ever written and tell you to quit college and just start working a menial job for the rest of your natural life. Then I might start chomping away at your paper because I didn't have breakfast or lunch yet and it's about two o'clock in the afternoon.

But I won't. Instead this is what I--and what others should do when peer reviewing--will do:
  1. Offer constructive feedback - Doing what I could've done earlier (curse the reader's name then eat his/her paper) does not fall under this category. What you want to do is give them feedback that is going to help them. This does not necessarily mean be solely critical; you should also point out strengths of their paper. Every paper has a strength.
  2. Be respectful - There's that old adage, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say it at all." Obviously, you can't give every paper you read a glowing review, unless of course every paper you read deserves it. It's important to remember that, yes, people have feelings and, no, you shouldn't hurt them.
  3. Be receptive - When being reviewed, it's not only polite but important to listen to all of your peer's critiques, even if most of them might seem undue or the product of poor reading. Your peer will no doubt at least have some comment that will help you out, especially if it's noticing a pattern of error or a poorly worded phrase. You never know, a comment of theirs might end up being a diamond in the rough (ugh, enough with the diamond imagery).
There are many other rules that one should consider when peer reviewing, but these, I feel, are perhaps the most important and helpful. If nothing else, they'll keep a peer review sessions from turning into a cage match.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Fragment Rock!

Do you remember the old TV show Fraggle Rock? I do, with longing and regret. All of my friends were talking about how great that show was and how if you were anyone of importance you were watching it as well. Alas, I lived in the country in the early 80s. I had three channels on my TV.

Three Channels.

In order to get the extremely desired and elusive fourth channel that Fraggle Rock was aired on, I had to stand and wiggle the dial, and my little sister had to stand in front of the TV and shake about as if in a frantic seizure. It was work, but it was worth it because once in awhile we would get little glimmers of Fraggle Rock.

Glimmers enough to know that something cool was going on, but sadly not enough to be able to talk about it at school and appear as one of the “cool” people. You see what we heard were little things like this, “Because the cat” or “After the party." What? We were struck with fragmented Fraggles, and it was a damn shame.

I couldn’t help but think of my sister and I and our frantic fraggle viewing this week when I met with a student who was really struggling with sentence fragments. The simple definition of the sentence fragment is that it’s just an incomplete sentence. The big fancy grammar definition is that a sentence fragment is a piece of a sentence that has become separated from the main clause. I went with the easy definition and then gave her some examples like:

 If he runs.
 When it rains.
 Jump all around.
 After the movie begins.

She was super smart and caught on pretty fast. We worked through some sentences that she had written and revised the heck out of those fragments, and here is an example of our before and after:

Original – I like Hot Tamales. Because they are intense!
Corrected – I like Hot Tamales because they are intense!

Easy, right?

It was then that she hit me with a question that made me nervous, “Is it ever ok to use sentence fragments?” I looked at her and said, “Yes, but don’t tell anyone I said that. This conversation doesn’t leave the Writing Center.”

Sentence Fragments are loved or hated; it doesn’t seem as if there is much of a middle ground with them. People who like them use them all of the time. I have already used several in this post!

I find that I write sentence fragments quite frequently but not in the “If he runs” style of fragmenting. In my writing I use fragments to prove a point, be funny, or just emphasize the fact that my mind is in fact in its own fragmented state of thought.

In the article “About Those Sentence Fragments” by C.T. Shades, sentence fragments are joyfully uplifted and defended. Shades says that fragments are ok because, “our thinking almost all occurs by way of the sentence fragment route, and almost never, if ever, by route of a complete sentence” (1223). Shades also writes that “effective writing often contains many sentence fragments…” (1233). So how do you know when to use one? When is it ok? I think the answers to these questions greatly depend on the intended audience and topic of your paper.

I use them when I feel that my point needs a bit of emphasis. Now some scholars will argue that a sentence fragment is a sentence that needs to be developed, and you know that is a point that is hard to argue. However, sometimes three little words is all you need to prove a point. You just have to make sure they are the right ones, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.

Does this mean that you should be out there writing papers with all sorts of incomplete sentences and weird three word phrases? No. That would be sad. So, instead wait until you have mastered writing the “cool” version of a fragment and try to steer clear of them or perhaps instead ease into them.

Still having problems? Here are some ways you can help yourself to catch those sentence fragments:

Read your paper out loud one sentence at a time. After each sentence ask
yourself if the sentence has a subject, verb, and shows a complete thought.

Try starting at the end of the paper and read each sentence in reverse
order. Although this sounds strange, it is a method that really works! This
will help you to focus on each sentence individually and make it easier to
notice if it is missing anything important.

You can also mosey on down to the writing center and ask for some help. We have a handy dandy brown handout that includes some of the information I have listed, and it also goes into greater detail about the sentence fragment.

Don’t be like my sister and me! Don’t leave your professor feeling as if he’s not one of the cool kids when he just can't "get" your incomplete sentences. Save those fragments for perfect moments.

Like this one.

Let's Talk ... To Ourselves!

There's something intrinsically intriguing and reflective about speech. It kept a bunch of old Greek guys in togas busy for the better part of their lives, but that doesn't make it irrelevant to us fancy modern folk. When it comes to formalizing ideas and figuring out exactly what the heck is bouncing around that great big brain cavern of yours, conversation can be one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal. Today we're going too look at just how powerful one particular audience can be.


Yes, that's right. We're going to talk about talking to ourselves, specifically regarding how this will help your writing. Don't give me that look (or your screen, I guess). Hear me out before you dial 1-800-BONKERS. There is a lot of good that can come from listening to yourself. Vocalizing ideas always forces you to refine the abstract into something workable. Ever been in the middle of asking a question and came up with the answer halfway through?

Thought so.

Admittedly, sometimes this involves stumbling around blindly while you grapple in the darkness, totally unaware of what the heck you're really trying to say. Will the first thing you manage to spit out be the best possible way to represent that thought? Probably not. (Ever used this one? “Well, that's not exactly it, but you get what I mean")

Here's the great part, though -- once you find that first little hook, you can follow it. Explore it. Refine it. The further you take that initial little blob, the nicer and prettier it will become. Realizing you've come up with the wrong words can sometimes be just as helpful as coming up with the right ones (even though it's infinitely more frustrating). If you come up with a complete blank, you probably didn't really have a workable thought in the first place. Sometimes we feel things that are truly inexplicable, feelings or flashes of abstract thought that evoke emotion, but not word or form. Thinking this through out loud is one of the best ways to test that.

Besides, talking to yourself really isn't all that crazy. I totally have proof.

The stamp of approval from Leslie Nielson should be all you need.

Goofy as it sounds, I am absolutely serious about this. It's remarkable just how reflective thinking aloud can be, especially in brainstorming phases. There have been countless times in the Writing Center where I saw students scrambling for their pen because they said something that turned out to be pretty darn cool while we were chatting about their topics. Heck, it's happened to me in my own writing. Sure, the exact phrase may not end up in the final piece of writing, but when you manage to capture those little thoughts, you want to get them down on the page before they fade. Personally, I forget more ideas than I ever have in any given day.

That brings me to the second place where listening to yourself can be really beneficial – proofreading. When you're thinking about writing a term paper you don't use the exact same thought process as you do when you're engaged in a simple conversation. It's easy to throw words and phrases into a paper to make it sound more “academic,” but many times those can muddle up your flow. When you take the time to read your work to yourself, there's a good chance you'll be able to find these kinds of errors.

Your brain likes to lie to you. If you skim over your own writing, that lazy ol' blob of gray matter can fill in blanks as you go. Ever gotten a term paper back only to find you left out entire words or made silly typos, even though you would swear on the grave of your loveable family turtle you went over the dumb thing? You've got the stuff between your ears to thank for that.

Reading out loud forces to you pay attention to your work on two levels. Not only are you listening to the way it sounds, which can help with structure and flow, but you are also going to read the actual words on the page much more closely.

Don't let that liar of a brain fool you or confuse you with on-the-fly editing and abstract thoughts. Take control of your paper! Talk to yourself! Look crazy! Write better!