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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Plagiarism: Who Cares? (Part Two)

Picture of a judge's gavel.

If you’re just now joining the discussion, you should go back and read my previous post about the personal repercussions of plagiarism.  That said, let’s return to how plagiarism can ruin your current (or future) career. 

Professional Repercussions

When companies hire someone, they’re hiring more than just a resume; they’re hiring a human being, complete with all the beliefs, quirks, and personality traits that compose that individual.  That’s why the hiring process almost always includes an interview phase. 

Looking great on paper is only the first step.  The rest of the work of getting and keeping a job you enjoy is convincing the person(s) who is hiring that you are a hard-working, honest person who would be an asset to the company.  Having a recorded instance of plagiarism on your record automatically labels you as lazy and dishonest.

What’s that, you say? “Plagiarism is only applicable to jobs like being a reporter or an author; in the field I want to work in, my boss isn’t going to be hiring me to write essays all the time.”  That would be a valid argument if plagiarism’s stigma limited itself to the realm of writing.  As it is, being caught for plagiarism makes you appear lazy and dishonest in everything you do. 

Nurses are entrusted to administer dangerous and addictive medications on a daily basis.  As an employer, I’d think twice about giving you the key to the medicine cabinet if you’ve proven yourself to be someone who has no problem with lying. Even cashiers have access to cash drawers! Yes, there are ways for employers to figure out if an employee is skimming a little off the top of each transaction, but it would save a lot of time and trouble for the employer to pass on hiring the person who poses trust issues. 

Is this starting to sound a bit like the discussion about personal repercussions from part one? It should.  Too much emphasis today is placed on academic achievement and not enough on the value of actually learning and on  simply being a good human being.  That’s a whole other can of worms, though.  For now, I just want you to think about the kind of person you want to be and how easily you’d compromise your values. 

When it comes to me, I’d honestly rather fail a class and deal with having an F on my transcript than plagiarize. 


Photo credit: Joe Gratz

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Plagiarism: Who Cares? (Part One)


Well, for starters, I do.  I’m a pretty laid-back person and it takes some work for a person to make me mad.  One way to make me mad with very little effort is to plagiarize in my class.  Unless you’re my student, though, telling you that I’ll be personally insulted if you choose to plagiarize isn’t much of a deterrent. 

So forget about me and my lectures about how cheating actually cheats the cheater out of an opportunity to learn (Judging from the amount of plagiarism I caught this semester, that message doesn’t make much of an impact anyway).  Let’s instead look at what the possible consequences are, both personally and professionally, for plagiarism. 

Personal Repercussions

Remember being asked to make those “top 10 things I look for in a mate/friend” lists? If you’ve never made one, do so now. I’ll even give you a second to do it. If you’ve done it before, now’s a good time to do it again just to see how your expectations have changed over time.  (A variation to this exercise is making a list of the top ten personality traits you wish to be known for/want to develop.)




Done? Good.  Now check that list and see if and where “honesty” lands on your list.  If it doesn’t make an appearance anywhere on your list, you need to think seriously about how satisfying your current relationships are. 

Every self-help book you read or psychotherapist you see will tell you the same thing: healthy relationships are based on trust.  When trust is violated, the relationship is in trouble.  When the breach in trust is severe enough, spouses divorce, friends become enemies, and employees are fired. 

If you’re finding it difficult to wrap your mind around what personal integrity is and how important it is to you, I don’t blame you.  Integrity isn’t as overtly emphasized in this day and age as it was decades ago.  For example, the phrase “a man of his word” sounds antiquated today.  But just because a person’s character isn’t explicitly spoken about in everyday conversation doesn’t mean that it is less important today.  A good way to gauge just how important it is to you is to imagine how you would feel if someone called you a liar. 

Don’t imagine how you would react.  Behavior isn’t always a good indication of feelings.  For example, if someone I didn’t know very well accused me of lying, I could see myself shrugging and saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  You can bet your <insert something witty> that it would bother me, though.

I really, really hope it would bother you too.

To tie this discussion back to plagiarism, every time write your name on and turn in a report that isn’t your own, you’re letting anyone who finds out about it know that you are a liar.  It’s easy to see how getting caught by your boss or professor affects you, but most people forget about the effect their plagiarism has on others who aren’t in a position of authority over them.  Friends and colleagues will respect you less; I’ve had enough conversations with others about this topic to know that this is true.  Sure, peers can’t touch your paycheck, but what they can “touch” is just as important.  How long will your self-esteem survive a work environment where everyone looks at you askance? You can move, of course, and get a fresh start (assuming your reputation doesn’t follow you to your new place of employment)…but how many times can you afford to “start fresh”?

For those of you who are still in school, the stakes for plagiarism are still just as high.  Students who are caught plagiarizing multiple times get a note placed on their permanent records, which means you CANNOT “start fresh”; every professor will view you with suspicion the moment s/he sees your transcript.  You’re not off the hook, either, if you plagiarize but don’t have it noted on your permanent record.  Professors talk to each other and word WILL get around, especially if you’re applying for an exclusive program and the program director needs to speak with your previous instructors to see if you’d make a good fit.  Even if you manage to avoid the spotlight, you will probably need letters of recommendation if you plan on pursuing a graduate degree or applying to an exclusive program (E.g., nursing school) or for a scholarship.  If you plagiarized and were caught, don’t even think about asking the professor who caught you for a letter of recommendation.  You’ll get a letter, all right, but it won’t be one that recommends you.

See the detrimental effects plagiarism can have on your personal life?  If that’s not enough to make you think twice about plagiarizing, the next blog post will be about the professional repercussions plagiarism has.  And let me tell you, they’re not pretty.



Photo credit: Binder of DOOM! by Hello Lovely

The photo for today’s post is a reference to the CHE Forum’s Big Black Binders of Doom!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Plagiarism: Online Resources

When you’re unsure about what something is, looking at examples is a good way to dispel any confusion.  Examples are so successful at making complex things clear that it is now standard to see examples in instruction manuals detailing exactly how to complete each step of whatever process is being explained.  Why should learning about plagiarism be any different?

The internet is teeming with examples of a great many things (e.g., how to eat a lobster, how to draw manga/anime, how to write and speak Klingon) and plagiarism is no exception.  The following links are to videos and documents online that define plagiarism, why it should be avoided, and how to avoid it. 


Avoiding Plagiarism in Paraphrasing This video shows you step by step how to paraphrase the correct way. Remember, paraphrasing too closely to the original source still counts as plagiarism.
Information Literacy: Plagiarism and Citation Styles Dr. Baker lectures on what exactly plagiarism is and how best to avoid it.  The video ends with a brief overview of citation styles.
A Quick Guide to Plagiarism SEA DEVIL TV gives students a quick run-down of the various types of plagiarism. Even if you're well versed in the ins and outs of plagiarism, watch this video just for its entertainment factor.
Plagiarism: Pernicious Plague or Preventable Pest? This video lets you in on why instructors do what they do (hint: it prevents plagiarism!)
A Student's Guide to Recognizing and Avoiding Plagiarism An informative guide (complete with examples) about each type of plagiarism. Work your way through each type and make sure you understand how and why each example constitutes plagiarism.


These links are by no means the only resources online about plagiarism.  These are just the examples that I’ve found (through trial-and-error) work best for illustrating the topic in detail without putting everyone to sleep. 

Until I get around to writing the most comprehensive, captivating guide on plagiarism, use my list of links as a starting point for your own online research about plagiarism.

Photo credit: Daidaros

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Many, many apologies for taking a “break” from blogging.  I had research papers to grade, final exam essays to grade, and grades to calculate and post.  Thankfully, this semester has finally come to an end so I now have more time to devote to blogging.  (I know – I’m a dork.)

While I get to work on the next installment of my “How NOT to Plagiarize” postings, enjoy this absolutely adorable picture of Malachi by Robert Francis I found on Flickr.  (Malachi looks JUST like one of my own doggies!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plagiarism: An Introduction

Recently in class I asked my students to write down the process they use when writing essays.  I told them to be as honest as possible and to not be afraid of disappointing me.  Pages filled with “I freewrite about the essay topic for 5 minutes and then write an outline” would be gratifying, sure, but unless I know what my students are really doing when they write their essays, I won’t know how to help them. 

The answers I received were frightening. 

The majority of students turn to the internet immediately after getting the essay prompt and start researching.  One student wrote “I turn to the internet and look up the topic and read, read, read.”  Another wrote “I look for essays online (since it’s [the topic] been written about before for sure) to see the right way to write my essay.”

Answers like the ones above scare me because jumping straight into the research phase of an essay before thinking about what your own knowledge of and opinions about the topic are is a sure-fire way of setting yourself up to accidentally plagiarize. 

What Plagiarism Is

Every institution of higher learning will have plagiarism defined explicitly in the student handbook.  If you’re currently enrolled in classes and haven’t yet read through what constitutes academic dishonesty in the student handbook, read the policy NOW.  “I didn’t know” is not a valid excuse if you accidentally plagiarize because all students are expected to have read and agreed to the policies laid out in the student handbook before attending classes. 

If you’re not currently enrolled in school, an informal definition of plagiarism is “the representation of someone else’s words or ideas as your own.”  It doesn’t matter whether you committed plagiarism intentionally or unintentionally either.  Plagiarism is plagiarism.

How to Avoid Plagiarizing

The easiest way to avoid plagiarizing is to write down everything you know about the essay topic BEFORE you research it.  That way, you’ll know to cite any and all new information that you acquire as a result of your online or offline research.  You should also write down your ideas, opinions, and arguments for or against the topic before you research so you know which thoughts originated with you. 

Once you start reading other people’s interpretations of the topic, it’s next to impossible NOT to think about their points and arguments when trying to develop your own argument in an essay.  I’ve been there too and I know how difficult it is to figure out whether or not you would have thought up the compelling argument you just read had you not just read it. 

If you absolutely have to look at a sample essay because you want to model your own paper after one that is well written, look for a well written essay that is NOT about the topic you were assigned to write about.  That way, you have an example to follow for how to set up the different sections of an essay appropriately, and you’re not muddying your ideas with someone else’s.

More to Follow

The next few posts will deal primarily with plagiarism and how to cite material properly so you will never be accused of having plagiarized.  If you’re not yet familiar with the difference between summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting, look those terms up! I’ll be writing about each later, but don’t wait for me to get to them before you know the differences.  If you are at all doubtful of whether or not you have plagiarized, intentionally or unintentionally, run a search for “what is plagiarism” in the search engine of your choice.

Remember, ignorance is not an excuse.


Photo credit: MrGluSniffer

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Importance of Taking Notes

For some reason, college students (at least the ones in my class) don’t seem to be taking notes anymore.  I could go on for pages about how self-defeating not taking notes in class is, but I’m more concerned with the reasons for WHY students don’t feel the need to take notes.

Some people, I believe, think they will remember what is being said in class without having to write it down.  I should probably include a discussion one of these days in class about what memory is and how memories are made.  Not many people fully understand that a memory needs to be reinforced in order for it to be stored long-term.

Perhaps students don’t think this skill is directly applicable to “real life” work.  I hate to burst their bubbles, but…

Taking notes is as important out of the classroom as it is in it.


Employers do not want to have to repeat themselves every time you need to do a complex task just because you’re too lazy to write the instructions down.  Taking note of important procedures and routine tasks is a mark of an efficient, hard-working employee.  When I worked as a secretary for a (very) small business, I had to use Quicken to create invoices, enter billing information, and update the inventory – all things I had never done before.  I wrote down step by step instructions for how to do each task and pasted them all on the wall by my desk so that I wouldn’t have to bother my boss for help each time I needed to enter something into the computer.  Not only was he impressed, he said that no previous secretary had ever done that before. 

The very thing that made me look hard-working actually made my job SO much easier.  I completed tasks much faster than when I first started out and had to try to recall the different procedural steps by memory.  Even if you have no desire to appear assiduous, taking notes makes your life easier – something I’m sure you can appreciate.

What? Your job doesn’t require any complex procedures, you say? Take notes at meetings, then.  Not because you’ll be quizzed on the materials, but because you’ll appear attentive and interested.  Getting ahead in the “real world” very often depends on who you know and who you make an impression on.  Being able to discuss meeting points with a supervisor while you’re hanging out by the water cooler is an opportunity to shine that you don’t want to miss. 

Ultimately, I’d like you to take notes not for appearance’s sake, but because you’re honestly interested by points other people make.  If you’ve ever been to a convention (scholarly or not), you’ll have seen people taking careful notes during panel discussions.  Again, there is no test at the end of the convention that all attendees must pass.  They’re taking notes because they have a real interest in the topic of discussion and want to be able to remember things that were said and/or look up resources mentioned on their own. 

Photo credit: HawkExpress

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Research Papers Don’t Have to be Boring

I can’t speak for every teacher, but I’m fairly sure I’m not the only instructor out there who dreads reading research papers.  It’s not the extra time that goes into commenting on and grading research papers that I have a problem with (although that’s certainly a factor). No, what really makes me want to put off looking at those stacks of essays for as long as humanly possible is how mind-numbingly dull most of the paper topics are. 

Somehow we’ve become indoctrinated with the idea that research papers have to be boring.

When did we learn that a dry, un-engaging writing style was a necessary requirement of academic writing?  I’d like to place the blame solely on high school, but I’m afraid that even the professional journals we refer our students to in college perpetuate this misperception of what an academic paper should sound like. 

Looking at my stack of research paper proposals, I have 8 papers on global warming and 5 on illegal immigration to look forward to… in just one of my classes.  Maybe 2 or 3 of those students feel passionately about those topics, but I’m willing to bet that not all 15 students care about (or are even particularly interested in) those issues.  So…

Why do students choose boring topics?

  • They think the topic will guarantee they get a good grade.

Actually, the more interested you are in an issue, the better you will write about that issue.  Interest alone doesn’t guarantee good writing, but it makes the process of researching and writing about a topic much easier and more enjoyable.  Let’s face it – when you couldn’t care less about an essay topic, you’re not going to feel inclined to invest much effort in it. 

While it is true that you could be disinterested in a topic and still craft a beautiful essay about it, the process of writing that paper would probably have been less than enjoyable.  College students in this day and age have so many demands on their time that they have to be selective about how they spend it.  Writing a research paper on a topic that you aren’t passionate about or don’t want to learn more about is painful for both you and your teacher.

We’re all about multitasking in the 21th century;  let your essays do double duty too. 

  • They can’t think of anything else to write about.

When you choose a run-of-the-mill topic just because it’s common (e.g., global warming, health care reform, illegal immigration), you’re actually doing yourself a disservice.  It would be much easier on everyone (including the teacher) if the essay topic were assigned.  The instructor makes you come up with your own, though, for a reason

Employers don’t stand behind you looking over your shoulder while you’re on the job.  They may if you’re in training, but after that period is over, you’re on your own.  You’ll be given a task and told to complete it but very rarely will you be told step-by-step exactly how to go about completing your assignment.  It’s inefficient to have an employee who needs their hand held in order to get anything done. 

As valuable as being a self-starter is to employers, the ability to come up with innovative ideas for improving the company is just as important.  Coming up with a research paper topic is supposed to be challenging because it’s an exercise in intellectual independence. 

How to choose a good topic:

Choose something you’re interested in.  That’s it.  That’s the secret essay topic choosing technique passed down by nerds for centuries.  If you like your paper, your paper will like you back. 

Unless you’re used to filling out those “50 Random Things About Myself” memes all the time, chances are it’s been a while since the last time you sat down and thought about what it is that interests you.  No worries – the way to figure out your interests (for those who have no idea what they like) is to take stock of what you DO. 

When you get together with your friends, what do you usually talk about?  Is there a t.v. show you like watching?  Do you have any hobbies?  Do you (or anyone in your family) have a special ability/quirk  that you could hone in on as a possible paper topic?

Take me, for example.  My twin and I love watching horror movies.  Good ones, bad ones, high budget ones, low budget ones…we’ve seen them all.  That affinity for horror movies has great potential when it comes to essay topics.  Do good horror movies have anything in common? Do the bad ones share a common denominator as well?  Is there a position I can take about what factors need to be present in a horror movie for it to be good/profitable (or what shouldn’t be included in a horror movie)?  All the evidence I need to back up my claims are at the local Blockbuster and online.

I like comic books too.  They’re a veritable trove when it comes to controversial topics for an essay. Just earlier this year the way Batman was killed off was a mockery of everything that made him Batman! Grrr! I could go on for pages about how wrong his death was… stick a few citations here and there and I’d have a persuasive research paper.  

Try and think about what topics make you stand up on a soapbox.  Not only will you have a better chance of writing well, you’ll also be doing yourself a favor when it comes to essay length.  When you don’t know anything about a topic and don’t want to  know anything about it, it’s awfully difficult to meet those paper length requirements. 


Photo credit: Zen

Monday, October 12, 2009

The 4 Types of Evidence

Evidence is the information that helps in the formation of a conclusion or judgment.  Whether you know it or not, you provide evidence in most of your conversations – they’re all the things you say to try and support your claims.  For example, when you leave a movie theater, turn to your friend, and say “That movie was awesome! Did you see those fight scenes?! Unreal!”, you have just made a claim and backed it up. 

Most people think of “evidence” as numbers and quotes from famous people.  While those are valid types of evidence, there are more to choose from than just statistics and quotes, though.  There are four types, to be exact:

  • Statistical Evidence
  • Testimonial Evidence
  • Anecdotal Evidence
  • Analogical Evidence

1. Statistical Evidence

Statistical evidence is the kind of data people tend to look for first when trying to prove a point.  That’s not surprising when you consider how prevalent it is in today’s society.   Remember those McDonald’s signs that said “Over 1 billion served”? How about those Trident chewing gum commercials that say “4 out of 5 dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum”? Every time you use numbers to support a main point, you’re relying on statistical evidence to carry your argument. 

2. Testimonial Evidence

Testimonial evidence is another type of evidence that is commonly turned to by people trying to prove a point.  Commercials that use spokespersons to testify about the quality of a company’s product, lawyers who rely on eye-witness accounts  to win a case, and students who quote an authority in their essays are all using testimonial evidence. 

3. Anecdotal Evidence

Often dismissed as untrustworthy and meaningless, anecdotal evidence is one of the more underutilized types of evidence.  Anecdotal evidence is evidence that is based on a person’s observations of the world.   It can actually be very useful for disproving generalizations because all you need is one example that contradicts a claim. 

Be careful when using this type of evidence to try and support your claims.  One example of a non-native English speaker who has perfect grammar does NOT prove that ALL non-native English speakers have perfect grammar.  All the anecdote can do is disprove the claim that all immigrants who are non-native English speakers have terrible grammar. 

You CAN use this type of evidence to support claims, though, if you use it in conjunction with other types of evidence.  Personal observations can serve as wonderful examples to introduce a topic and build it up – just make sure you include statistical evidence so the reader of your paper doesn’t question whether your examples are just isolated incidents. 

4. Analogical Evidence

The last type of evidence is called analogical evidence.  It is also underutilized, but this time for a reason.  Analogies are mainly useful when dealing with a topic that is under-researched.  If you are on the cutting edge of an issue, you’re the person breaking new ground.  When you don’t have statistics to refer to or other authorities on the matter to quote, you have to get your evidence from somewhere.  Analogical evidence steps in to save the day.

Take the following example: You work for a company that is considering turning some land into a theme park. On that land there happens to be a river that your bosses think would make a great white-water rafting ride.  They’ve called on you to assess whether or not that ride would be a good idea. 

Since the land in question is as yet undeveloped, you have no casualty reports or statistics to refer to.  In this case, you can look to other rivers with the same general shape to them, altitude, etc.  and see if any white-water rafting casualties have occurred on those rivers.  Although the rivers are different, the similarities between them should be strong enough to give credibility to your research.  Realtors use the same type of analogical evidence when determining the value of a home. 

When you use analogies to support your claims, always remember their power


Photo credit: Billaday

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Power of an Analogy

Analogies can be very powerful things.  They are, after all, one of the four basic types of evidence.  They can provide support for a main point all on their own.  It’s important to keep one thing in mind:

With great power comes great responsibility.


To properly understand how analogies can be abused, we have to look back to the definition of an analogy.  SIL International has the following to say about analogies:

An analogy is a comparison of certain similarities between things which are otherwise unlike.

The important part to remember is that there must be some similarity between the two (or more) things, places, or people you are comparing, or the analogy falls apart.

For example, it’s not uncommon to hear jicama called the apple of Latin America.  That’s because jícama is similar to apples in texture, shape, and taste.  If someone were to call it the banana of Latin America…well, then there’d be a problem with the analogy.  Although a banana and a jícama do have a shared similarity – they both taste like fruit – that’s where the similarities end. 

When you try to link two things that aren’t similar enough to be linked, you’ve done more than just abuse the power of an analogy; you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  This fallacy is called a “weak analogy.”

When it comes to analogies, there is no “right” or “wrong” because, if you search hard enough, some kind of similarity can be found between two things that link them – even if it’s something as remote as “they’re both made of atoms.” 

Analogies are weighed on a scale of weak to strong.  Because of this leeway, analogies can be abused.  One such example of a comparison stretched to its limits comes from Orly Taitz, a staunch supporter of the Birther movement.  In several interviews on and off t.v., she has compared the Obama administration to Nazi Germany.  She even said that “We are getting another Stalin” when commenting on Obama’s presidency.  Here’s a link to the interview she gave on the Colbert Report: Orly Taitz on the Colbert Report

You can either like or dislike Obama, but compare him to a man who organized the deaths of millions of people as he “purged” his country of dissenters?  Wow. 

The following Doonesbury cartoon is an example of what happens when people notice how ridiculously weak your analogies are:

Doonesbury Sep 27 

So next time you think about using an analogy, make sure that the similarities that exist between the two items are strong, otherwise you might end up being made fun of in the Sunday comics. 

Photo credit: RiptheSkull

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grammar Doesn't Have to be Boring

Let's face it: reading about grammar rules is boring.  Not many people pick up a grammar book when they’re feeling bored and looking for some enjoyable light reading.  Even those who purposefully turn to a grammar handbook for help  can find it dull at best, and intimidating at worst. 

If you find it difficult to read a grammar book, the internet can help.  Despite all its downfalls, the world wide web is a great place to find information – and that includes information about grammar.   Not only that, but you can find that information in different formats.  That variety means you can find the format that best caters to your learning style. 

Trial and error has taught me that the majority of my students prefer learning about grammar through videos (especially light-hearted ones where the actors dress up in costumes for no apparent reason). What follows is a selection of websites that host videos that relate in one way or another to English grammar and writing.  For your convenience, each link takes you directly to the most relevant section of the site. 

  • Video Jug : I’ve used a few of these videos in class, actually.  They’re very well done, just remember that the creators are British and therefore don’t adhere to the typesetter’s rule (i.e., their periods and commas fall outside of the quotation marks). 
  • How Stuff Works : These videos aren’t as fun, but they get the point across.  Beware of the “sponsored results” at the top of the page: they’re ads.
  •  eHow : The videos on this site have less to do with grammar and more to do with how to format and write an essay.  You’ll also find some help with citation styles (APA and MLA).
  • YouTube : There are some real gems to find on YouTube…but you have to dig through a lot of mediocre (or outright bad) videos to find them.  If you’re patient and don’t mind spending some time separating the wheat from the chaff, this is the site for you.
  • Grammar Girl : While this isn’t a video site, it IS one of the best sites to go to for grammar help.  GrammarGirl posts audio files of no more than a minute or two in length for your listening pleasure. 

By the way, these sites have help for more than just English issues.  If college algebra or physics is giving you problems, see if you can find some video tutorials that will shed some light on the subject. 

Photo credit: MiffDesigner

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to Use i.e. and e.g.

For abbreviations that are so commonly used, i.e. and e.g. cause massive problems for both readers and writers.

I.e. stands for id est, which is Latin for “that is.”  You use it wherever you would use the words “that is” in a sentence.   In the following examples, you could replace “i.e.” with “that is” and the sentences would still be correct.

I am the big cheese, i.e., the boss.

I am eating the fruit I like the best, i.e., the avocado.

E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which is Latin for “for the sake of an example.”  You use it wherever you would use the words “for example” in a sentence.  Just as for i.e., you could replace “e.g.” with “for example” in the following sentences and they would still be correct.

I think small dog breeds, e.g., the Chihuahua, are cute and I can’t wait to get one.

Important Japanese buildings, e.g., Tokyo Tower, usually get blown up in post-apocalyptic animes. 

 Brian Klem from The Writer's Digest suggests a couple of clever mnemonics to help you use this troublesome duo correctly.

To burn these definitions into your memory and help remind you which letter-abbreviation pairs with which definition, you can follow this mnemonic device a college friend once taught me: i.e. is "in essence" while e.g. is "eggs sample."

Correctly Punctuating i.e. and e.g.

The periods that are part of i.e. and e.g. tend to mess people up when it comes to punctuation.  The easiest way to remember how to correctly punctuate these abbreviations is to pretend they are the words “that is” and “for example” and then punctuate them accordingly. 

Take these sentences, for example:

Sam drinks hard liquor, e.g.,  whiskey, and therefore has a high alcohol tolerance.

Sam drinks hard liquor, for example, whiskey, and therefore has a high alcohol tolerance.

My favorite opera will always be the one I was named after, i.e., Bizet’s Carmen.

My favorite opera will always be the one I was named after, that is, Bizet’s Carmen.

Notice that i.e. and e.g. are always preceded and followed by a comma when in use.  The only exception to that is when they start a sentence, in which case they’re only followed by a comma.

Here’s a cute video about using i.e. and e.g. correctly, just in case you need more elucidation on the topic.

Punctuation: How To Use i.e. And e.g.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fear of the Blank Page

How many of you have trouble getting started on a writing project?  I certainly do.  The project doesn’t have to be something as hard as an academic essay, either; it could be something as seemingly simple as writing a letter to your grandparent.  The act of creating something out of nothing seems more the province of God, not mortals, but it’s an act we engage in every time we sit down to write with a blank page staring back at us.

Facing all of that whiteness can be intimidating.  If you’re using a computer to write, the blinking cursor doesn’t help any; if anything, it seems impatient for input, like it doesn’t have the time to wait for you to think up something good.  That kind of pressure just makes it all the more difficult to get started.

As if that weren’t bad enough, when you DO manage to get something written, it has to be strong enough to withstand the scrutiny that comes from standing alone.  Even the most solid sentence starts to sound questionable when it’s the only sentence on the page. 

If you (like me) fear the blank page, don’t worry - you’re not alone.  Most of my students find it hard to start writing an essay from scratch, too.  I’d venture to say your reaction is abnormal if you don’t approach a blank page with at least a little bit of trepidation.

Tips for Getting Over the Fear

Most people resign themselves to waging war with the blank page every single time they have to start a new writing project from scratch. There are actually some things that can be done to counteract the fear, though.

For starters, write an outline.    Not only are they great for setting up a well organized paper, but if you start writing your paper INSIDE the outline, you’re not facing a blank page at the onset.   When you finish your paper, just remember to go back and delete the parts of your outline that you wrote around (e.g. “I. Introduction” ).   This is my personal choice when it comes to writing and I use it for everything from writing cover letters to writing short stories. 

Another tactic is to copy and paste “dummy text” into the document to fool yourself into thinking you’ve already made progress and aren’t starting from square one.  I learned about this trick when I was reading a famous author’s blog (I wish I could remember which author it was so I could give him/her credit for the idea).  The author would copy and paste random parts of the U.S. Constitution into a document to get over facing the blank page.  Almost any text will do, really.  Just don’t forget to go back and delete it once you make headway on your paper!

Hopefully these tips will help you spend less time staring at a blank page and more time actually writing.  As always, e-mail me or post a comment if you have a writing tip to share that works for you. 

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blogs as Research Logs

Most people think of blogging as writing a diary entry and then posting it to the internet so everyone else can read it.  The mundane happenings of one’s daily existence aren’t things that most people feel a need to chronicle, much less let complete strangers read about online. 

Blogging has come a long way in the few short years it’s been around and no longer is it just a venue for angst-filled teenagers and bored office drones to vent their frustrations to a public in the hopes that other like-minded people will find their page and empathize.  In fact, blogging doesn’t even have to use words anymore (Search “photo blogs” to see what I mean). 

Instead of using blogs for their “intended” purpose, think of how you can use them to suit your own needs.  Surely they’re useful for more than just being interactive journals.  While I was at Armadillocon, a panelist in the “Blogging and Podcasting” panel I was attending mentioned using blogs as research logs.

Post-it notes and notebooks can get lost.  Blogs can’t, which makes them wonderful candidates for holding information you have a vested interest in accessing later.  I don’t personally have a blog that I use as a research log to show you, but I do follow a person that does.

Dr. David from Teaching College English uses her blog to not only elaborate on issues affecting the college English community, but also to keep track of research she does for her articles.  To see how it’s done, take a look at her “Interrupted…Stockton and Sielke” post.  In it, she keeps track of the sources, relevant quotes from them, and her thoughts about the quotes/source.  You don’t have to go into such detail, though.  Including nothing more than a list of links you want to keep track of so you can go to them later when writing your paper is just as acceptable a way of “logging” your research.  See Dr. Davis’ “Composition Journals” post to see this form of research logging in action.

You might not be doing enough research to warrant using a blog to log it.  If that’s the case, what DO you do that you can do more easily using a blog? 


Photo credit: Claire L. Evan

Friday, August 21, 2009

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest

While I’m on the subject of writing contests, there’s a very famous one set up for amateur writers of short stories or novelettes of science fiction or fantasy that awards prizes every three months.  This contest is called Writers of the Future and it was founded by L. Ron Hubbard

While Hubbard’s religious beliefs might have been questionable, his devotion to and skill at writing were not.  His literary career is composed of more than 260 published novels, novelettes, short stories, and screen plays in every genre

His Writers of the Future contest is restricted to the genres of science fiction and fantasy, however.  If you’ve written stories in these genres (or think you’d like to try your hand at it), please consider submitting your work to this contest. It’s a great opportunity for new and aspiring writers to get their names out through a well respected contest, and potentially win a publishing contract.

The greatest part about this contest is there is NO entry fee.  The competition does have a set of rules that all entries must adhere to, of course, but nothing that is off-putting.  Read the rules for yourself to see if entering the contest is something you’d consider. 

As a last note, L. Ron Hubbard also hosts an Illustrators of the Future contest for amateur science fiction and fantasy artists.  If your writing skills aren’t quite up to par yet, but you’re not too shabby with a paintbrush (or whatever medium you illustrate in), consider entering this contest.


Photo credit: Andrix19

Monday, August 17, 2009

8 Minutes Anthology Writing Contest

I always have my eyes peeled for legitimate sounding writing contests and this past weekend at Armadillocon I ran across one that seems promising.  It’s called the 8 Minutes Anthology Contest.  The theme for the contest is “Something has happened to the Sun.  In 8 minutes, everything changes!”

The website offers up the following information about the anthology:

The Earth is 8 light minutes away from the Sun. Something has happened to the Sun. Maybe it’s gone nova, been transformed, been replaced or stolen or…? But in 8 minutes everything will change for life on Earth.

Restrictions: The story must take place on Earth or on the Moon, or on a human-built satellite, ship or station orbiting the Earth or the Moon. Story must include the 8 minutes between the time the Sun is affected and Earth feels the effects of it. Story may include prior to and subsequent after the 8 minute window.

Submissions will be accepted between July 1st, 2009  through December 31st, 2009 and may not exceed 5,000 words in length.  All entries will be judged by Mike Resnick, an established science-fiction author who has been nominated for numerous literary awards (Which is good because if your hard work is going to be judged, it might as well be by a professional in the field).

As a final note: this writing contest is NOT free. A $15 fee is charged for all entries. 

When entering a contest that requires a fee, keep in mind that there are bad people out there in the world who are trying to scam you out of your hard earned money.  Do your homework and find out everything you can about the company before you decide whether or not to enter their contest. 

This particular contest doesn’t appear to have anything in the fine print that is hazardous to your health, but PLEASE read the terms for yourself here as I am not an expert when it comes to legalese.

Even if you aren’t planning on entering the contest (I’m not, personally.  When you earn as little as I do, every entry fee has to be carefully considered in terms of 1. how lazy I’m feeling and 2. if the potential reward outweighs the cost), you can still use the prompt to fuel your own story idea. 

At any rate, it’s interesting to think about what could possibly happen to the Sun that would change life on Earth as we know it. 


Photo credit: Fr Antunes

Sunday, August 9, 2009

It’s “through,” not “thru”

I have been seeing the word “thru” pop up in quite a few of my students’ essays.  I wasn’t very surprised when I saw it appear in essays written by my ESL students as misspellings are rather abundant in them.  When I saw the word pop up in some of my best native English speaking students’ essays, I was bowled over.

There are many who would like to blame the misspelling on the relatively recent rise in popularity of text messaging (for example, take this article).  If that were truly the case, though, people would misspell more than just “through.”  The word “before” would be written as “b4,” “you’re” would be “ur,” and “know” would be written as “kno” or “no.”  That’s not the case in my students’ essays, however.  The only text speak that shows up in their writing is “thru.”

This anomaly leads me to believe that text messaging is not to blame.  The only other culprit that I can think of that can account for this misspelling being as common as it is is fast food.  In particular, fast food’s drive thrus. 

It’s important to note that spellcheck will not catch this misspelling.  That’s because “thru” is actually a valid dictionary entry.  Just because a word appears in the dictionary does not mean it’s acceptable for use in formal writing.  Because spellcheck can’t make the distinction between a casual note to your roomie and a formal letter to your dean of your college, “thru” is as correct as “through” is to it.  That’s one of the biggest flaws of spellcheckers: they can’t account for context.

As a rule of thumb, spell everything out fully when it comes to academic writing.  For why that is, Mignon Fogarty from Grammar Girl takes the words right out of my mouth in her 10th episode “Threw, Through, Thru”:

My impression is that using the spelling t-h-r-u is kind of equivalent to dotting your i's with little hearts: people will know what you mean, but they'll think you aren't a very serious person.

So unless you’re writing a report on drive thrus or textisms, keep “thru” out of your formal writing.

Photo credit: Donna Grayson

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

One Word + 60 Seconds

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about freewriting.  Although I’m not a huge fan of this form of idea generation, many people are and find it successful for eliminating writer’s block.  In the interest of exposing you to every writing tool that I know of so you can decide for yourself whether or not it works for you, I present to you One Word, a site based on the freewriting method. 


I stumbled across this site almost a year ago and it’s  a testament to its likeability that I still have it bookmarked.  The basic premise of the site is to give you a word and a total of 60 seconds to write everything that comes into your mind when you see the word.  After you finish writing, you can see what other people have written (which is sometimes more fun than actually writing anything yourself).  For added usability, the site changes the word on a daily basis. 

There are plenty of other methods available for transferring ideas from your mind to paper, such as outlining, mind mapping, and list making.  When all is said and done, though, sometimes sitting down and writing anything and everything that pops into your mind is the best way to jumpstart a writing project that just keeps stalling.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Caution: Busy Week Alert

I’m just popping online to say that this weekend will be hectic so updates will be slow for the next week.  I’m still alive and haven’t forgotten about you all – life’s just doing its best to get in the way of blogging again. 

Keep writing and I’ll be back before you notice I was ever gone.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Generating Ideas: Freewriting

Freewriting (also called stream-of-consciousness writing) is the activity of writing everything that pops into your mind when you think about a certain topic.  If you can’t think of anything to write about the topic, then you literally write “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over until you an idea eventually comes to you.  

Sometimes, freewriting is used without any specific topic in mind.  When that’s the case, the purpose of the writing isn’t to generate main points for a topic, but to come up with the topic itself. 

For those who have never seen freewriting and are very confused about what its final result should look like, I present to you the following example.  It is the result of asking  my students to freewrite for one minute about “Dogs”:

Dogs are furry slobby animals that shed alot This is retarded I just cant focus we’re supposed to be wriitng about dogs ok ok they are man’s best friend and stuff and loyal and smell butts and I remember watching the movie all dogs go to heaven when I was little but i actually really prefer cats cuz theyre easier to take care of and leave you alone when you eat and -

If it looks messy and disorganized, that’s because it is.  It’s supposed to be, actually.  This freedom from the constraint of grammar rules allows one’s mind to direct more energy towards coming up with ideas. 

I personally don’t get very much out of this exercise because my innate desire for order recoils at the thought of scribbling random thoughts without first creating an outline.   However, if you’re completely out of ideas and staring Writer’s Block in the face, freewriting is worth trying at least once. 

What doesn’t work for me might just work for you. 


Photo credit: TonyHall

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Organizing Your Thoughts: Mind Mapping

Putting your thoughts down on paper is an activity easier said than done.  I’d like someone to take a peek into my mind and just TRY to get the mess of ideas I have tumbling around in there onto a piece of paper in a coherent, organized fashion. 

If you too have so many ideas bouncing around in your head that you can’t manage to focus on just one, having the right tools at your disposal will make writing that much easier.  One of those tools is called Mind mapping.

Mind Mapping

The motivation behind mind maps is the idea that knowledge is stored in our brains in a non-linear fashion.  The relationships between pieces of information are simply too complex to capture in the traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom note-taking way.

Mind maps instead focus on a single idea (the center of the map) and information is added radially around it.  This avoids the hierarchy that ordering things in a list creates (for example, if I write a to-do list and include “1. fold laundry, 2. grade essays, 3. walk dogs” on it, folding the laundry  seems to take precedence over walking the dogs). 

Mind mapping can be done with pen and paper, but if you prefer something more advanced, there are plenty of programs available for *free* online.

Mind Mapping Programs


FreeMind This is the first mind mapping program I ever used and it's still my favorite. Check out the screenshots to see its awesomeness! There's a little bit of a learning curve required for this program, but it's well worth the effort. This application is hosted online so you don't have to download anything to your computer to use it. Being online also means you can access your mind maps from any computer with an internet connection.


There are many other mind mapping programs and online applications out there (some free, some not free), but these two are the ones I personally prefer over the rest.  If these two just don’t do it for you, you can always run your own search on Google to find one that fits your needs.

Writing well is difficult enough to do without also having to deal with making sense of the jumble of ideas that pop up as part of the writing process.  Take advantage of the tools available to you, whether they be computer programs or pen and paper, and make your task a little bit easier. 


Photo credit: MShades

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It’s All in the Details

It’s not often something I read is so funny it causes me to choke on my drink.   This posting on Craigslist did just that. 

The author could’ve just posted a picture of an opossum, typed the words “Free Kitty,” and called it a day.  It would still be amusing, but it would be nowhere near as funny as it is the way it’s written now. 

So what is it about the posting that makes it so effective at its purpose (making people laugh)?

It’s all in the details.


Sentences like “I moved from NYC a few months ago,” “It has attacked my Chihuahua several times and now my dog is afraid to come out of the room,” and “To be honest I called in sick on Tuesday because it was outside my bedroom door and hissed at me” turn the author into a real, three-dimensional person.  Mentally, you can picture him afraid and cowering behind his bedroom door, waiting for the opossum to walk away. 

My favorite is the author’s use of clichés found in other pet adoption postings. “[It] just needs someone to love it,” and “I work too much to give it the attention it needs” are perfect at poking fun at other ads.

The author keeps hitting you with great content right through to the end.  S/he could have just ended the posting with “I have taken a picture,” but s/he really clinches the piece by tacking on “…I think its a Siamese.” 

Take all the great writing techniques from this posting and use it in your own writing: use details to bring your words to life and finish strong.

I have to point out that the author doesn’t use a single apostrophe throughout the piece.  I didn’t notice it the first time I read the posting because I was laughing too hard.  After I noticed the errors, the more I read the piece, the more it got on my nerves.  You want your writing to be as enjoyable to your reader the tenth time it’s read as it was the first time.  Bad grammar might not be bad enough to  inhibit understanding of your writing, but it will inhibit enjoyment the more obvious the error is. 

Even with its grammatical failings, this posting is a good example of writing that is successful.  It just goes to show you that great writing can be found anywhere – even in the classifieds. 

Photo credit: Florida Blume

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Types of Titles


I’ve written about titles before, but writing a good one is a complex enough task that it merits more discussion.  For example, not many people know that there are different types of titles.

Descriptive Titles

A descriptive title announces the topic of the work clearly and succinctly.  It’s the “obvious” title and generally lacks flair.  Despite its lack of imaginativeness (or perhaps because of), this type of title is always appropriate and is usually expected in academic writing. 


  • The Writing Approaches of University Students
  • What Do People Need to Know About Writing in Order to Write in Their Jobs?
  • Sociolinguistic Implications of Academic Writing
  • How I Became a Famous Novelist

Suggestive Titles

A suggestive title (also known as an implicative title) is almost the exact opposite of a descriptive one.  It merely hints at the topic, whereas a descriptive title boldly declares it.  Creative and catchy, this is the type of title you see most often on bookstore books (the non-academic ones).  Standing on their own, can you figure out what these books are about or even what genre they’re from?


  • A Plague of Secrets
  • Killer Summer
  • Strange Brew
  • The Two Towers

Combination Titles

Just what the name implies, these titles are a combination of both descriptive and suggestive titles.  In essence, you’re coming up with two titles and then stapling them together using a colon (:) or conjunction (and, or). 

If you’re not limited by space restrictions, I recommend using this type of title because it’s the best of both worlds! You satisfy both the person expecting a straightforward title and the person who believes titles should be creative. 


  • Tagmemics: An Introduction for Perl Developers, or “I wouldn’t Know a Tagmeme if it Bit Me on the Parse”*
  • From the Personal to the Public: Conceptions of Creative Writing in Higher Education
  • Utterance Unmoored: The Changing Interpretation of the Act of Writing in the European Middle Ages


Final Thoughts

When deciding on which type of title to give your work, remember the purpose of titles and keep your audience in mind.  Figure out what they’re expecting to see, and then deliver it.

When it comes down to it, though, almost anything is better than “Assignment #3.”


*I found this title in graduate school and loved it so much, I hung onto the paper ever since.  If interested, here’s the link to the full text.

**In order to make this post as authentic as possible, all the titles given as examples are taken from real works.  If any interest you, insert it into Google to find more.

Photo credit: CanonSnapper

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ambiguity: Avoid It

The Houston Chronicle ran this article today in the Business section.  What you won’t see if you read the article online is a subheading that was included in the print version of the paper.  It read:

It depends on whether group is deemed liable for 2004 deaths

Take a minute or two to figure out how that headline could be interpreted.  Yeah, that’s exactly how I read it too when I opened up the paper.  The first thought that crossed my mind was “Holy cow! 2004 people died?” and my eyes were glued to the article as I read on to find out how some corporation killed such a large number of people without my hearing about it earlier.  (If you’ve seen any of the Resident Evil films, “Umbrella Corp” was running through my mind.)

Some might say that the headline was well written because it technically DID do exactly what a good title is supposed to do: it made me want to keep reading.  But you shouldn’t forget that your reader is human, with all the feelings and expectations that being human entails. 

Once I figured out that what the headline meant to say was “for deaths in 2004,” I stopped reading.  Not only had I lost interest in reading the rest of the article, I also felt kind of cheated (lied-to, even!).   

I have no doubt that the author of the article didn’t intend to mislead readers about the subject of the piece.  That doesn’t keep me from feeling put-off by it, though.  Remember to avoid ambiguity at all costs when writing because however innocent a mistake might be, the results are the same as if it were intentional. 

Friday, July 3, 2009

Life and Lost Dogs


Sometimes life gets in the way of blogging and this past week has been no exception.  My mom just had surgery and I’m taking on more of the responsibilities around the house while she recovers.  The real time-sink this past week had nothing to do with my mother, though.

I found a lost dog and boy, was she cute.

Finding her original owner(s) was a task that, unfortunately, never bore fruit.   During the search process,  I learned a great deal about online options available to those who have either lost or found a pet. 

Since the majority of households in the U.S. have at least one pet, I’ve decided to share my findings with you in the hopes that if one of you ever loses a pet, you know exactly where to go to make sure whoever finds your companion can find you.

  • : I heard about this site from my veterinarian and I’m so glad someone had the motivation to create it.  You can post lost and found ads (with pictures too!) and even print posters with your contact information all for free.
  • : Under the “Classifieds” section of the main menu, you’ll find links for the “Lost Pets” and “Found Pets” listings.  I like that you can include a picture, if only the area weren’t so difficult to find on the site.
  • : What online classifieds listing would be complete without Craigslist?  Go to the “Pets” section on the site and post away!  The sheer number of ads can be a little daunting, but don’t let that discourage you.  Even if you end up on the 2nd or 3rd page of listings, the search function makes sure people looking for a specific dog will find your posting.

The puppy I found has been placed in a home with another Australian Shepherd puppy to play with her.  I couldn’t be happier for her :)!  Taking home a lost dog can mean a lot of extra work for you while you nurse it back to health, keep the peace at home (if you have other dogs), and try to find it a home, but the reward of knowing that you saved an innocent, loving animal’s life makes it ALL worth it.  

Please, don’t just keep on going when you find a dog.  One day it could be yours someone drives past. 

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Reminder About MLA Style Editions

A while back, I mentioned that the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook  introduced significant changes to the format of citations.  The change is still relatively new and textbook publishers are still scrambling to catch up. 

Publishing on the internet is instantaneous.  So while students everywhere are still being taught from outdated textbooks (I’m teaching a summer class 6th edition MLA style! I’m crossing my fingers we get new texts this Fall…), citation generators are already generating 7th edition MLA style citations. 

If you are taking classes in which you are learning MLA style (or any citation style, for that matter), CHECK to see that what you are learning is the same as what you are turning in.  

I’ll be the first to defend the internet; I love the vast quantity of resources available (for free!) to anyone with the desire to search for it.  But the disparity in speed between online publishing and paper publishing is never more apparent as when major changes take place. 

Being as up to date as possible is usually a good thing.  Just make sure you’re not more up to date than your teacher ;).  I, for one, will be accepting both 6th edition and 7th edition MLA style citations from students this summer, for various reasons.  Not all instructors share my viewpoint, though, so always check first. 


Photo credit: Size8jeans

Monday, June 22, 2009

The End of a Spelling Rule

Native and non-native English speakers will agree, English is a ridiculously difficult language when it comes to spelling.  Just teaching someone how to properly pronounce words is hard enough.

English learners now have one less rule to help them in their struggle to master this language.  According to the Associated Press, the British government has advised teachers to no longer pass on the “i before e, except after c” rule to students because there are too many exceptions (the article gives “sufficient,” “veil,” and “their” as examples). 

I for one, will be sad to see this rule die.  Whenever I need to spell the words “receive” and “deceive” I stop and mentally recite the rule to make sure I’m correct.  Nostalgia alone doesn’t justify the existence of a rule meant to make learning how to spell correctly easier, though.

I wonder what other rules will fade out of usage in the coming years.  With language changing constantly, should we even bother creating rules that will only lose reliability as time passes? 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Primary vs. Secondary Sources


Primary sources include the original data that you are researching.  For example, if you were writing an essay about the symbolism in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, then the actual text of Romeo and Juliet would be your primary source.   If you were writing a paper about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then your primary sources would be eyewitness accounts of the shooting. 

Some examples of primary sources are:

  • Documents: diaries, interviews, letters, speeches, autobiographies
  • Creative Works: poetry, essays, plays, novels, music, art
  • Physical Objects: buildings, clothing, artifacts

Secondary sources include data that comment on or interpret primary sources.  For example, a scholar’s analysis of the symbolism in Romeo and Juliet is a secondary source if you cited it in your paper.  An survey about the psychological effects of JFK’s assassination on the American public would also be a secondary source. 

Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • Published Works: journal articles, textbooks, reviews (book, movie)

Why Is This Important?

It’s important to notice not only how many primary and secondary sources you yourself use in your papers, but also how many of each the scholars you cite use.   The number of primary sources lets you see at a glance how much of the ideas in a report are original.  The number of secondary sources lets you see how many other scholars have done work similar to the article you’re reading and support its findings. 

One type of source isn’t necessarily better than the other, and having more of one or the other isn’t a flaw.  If you’re writing a report about a classical novel, you will have only ONE primary source: the classical novel.  No matter how many more primary sources you wish you had, there will only be the one. 

Remember, though, that it’s just as annoying on paper as it is in person when someone has no ideas of their own.  By all means, use secondary sources to lend credibility to your views, but make sure to include your own opinions in your writing.  Otherwise, the reader might as well just read the original article you’re citing instead of hearing it second hand from you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Example of How to Monetize Your Writing


Students often ask me what practical use creative writing skills serve (and by “practical use” they mean “how can I put food on the table”).  It’s all well and good to be able to write a poem for a loved one, but the only payoff is a warm fuzzy feeling. 

I tell stories about how most (if not all) best-selling authors today didn’t begin their careers as authors.  They all had full time jobs that paid the bills and during the night (or any free time they could get), they’d write their stories and hope for publishing success. 

But not every writer becomes a best-seller.  There are hundreds (if not thousands) of deserving authors still trying to get published.  It’s not very inspiring for students to hear that the stories they’re working so hard on might never make it to a bookshelf.

That’s why the following website had me tickled pink when I ran across it.  While reading Webgrrls I stumbled upon the website Songs To Wear Pants To.  Andrew, the site’s owner, is a writer and composer.  He puts his talent to work writing songs chosen from the requests people leave on his site.

And what requests they are! Here are a few choice examples:

  • a song about a sad toaster made of glass. that walks around the country.
  • robot pirates.
  • Can you write a really Bass guitar filler song about being a fish that is learning everything about the world around him from his tank?

How does he make money doing this?  Well, each song he writes is 99 cents to download and for those people who really want their idea to come to life, they can pay a small commission to make sure he chooses their request. 

He might not be famous enough to appear on Oprah, but I bet he makes a good bit of change off of the site.   Seriously think about what talents you have and how you can put them to use (whether it’s for money or for your own personal satisfaction).  It’s ridiculously easy nowadays to make a website and publicize yourself for free on the internet. 

Don’t forget to make sure your writing skills are up to par first!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fighting for What Is (or Could Be) Yours

College is supposed to usher you into a new understanding of yourself as an individual.  It is supposed to empower you with the knowledge that even though you are only one person in a world filled with billions of people, you are equal in worth to each and every one of those billions of people.  Your thoughts, your dreams, and your desires are just as important as the next person’s. 

College is supposed to give you a voice to express your needs and ideas intelligibly to the world.


Part of being an empowered individual is not taking “no” at face value. 

When we were children, it was enough to know that something was not allowed because mom and dad said so.   Most explanations (if an explanation was given) consisted of “Because I said so,” and that was o.k.  Not many toddlers would understand an explanation of John Locke’s social contract as the reasoning for why it’s unacceptable to hit other kids on the playground.

As adults, you’re mentally capable of understanding the reasoning behind decisions.  As educated adults, you’re capable of working through those decisions with other adults to detect flaws in the reasoning and/or to negotiate a solution that is mutually beneficial. 

I hope you wouldn’t be satisfied with just “no” if you went to the doctor, found out you had a debilitating condition, and asked if there was anything you could do.  There might not be any options available to you, but at the least you should be told why there aren’t.  

When faced with a decision you don’t like, ask for another opinion. Ask to talk to the manager. Ask for explanations, a justification of their policy. But whatever you do, don’t just lie down and take something without first fighting for your very hard earned dollar (or, in the case of college, your grade).

College is no exception.

This past semester, I found the following e-mail from a student  in my inbox:

Ok, I guess I got an F because I did not turn in my research paper because I never received a reply on if I could turn it in late so I took that no reply as a no

To say I was shocked would be putting it mildly. 

When your grade is at stake, FIGHT for it. Even if you’re the one at fault (for example, you forgot to turn it in), beg to be allowed to turn it in, ask for extra credit, offer to take a 50% grade cut on the assignment if you have to (after all, a 50 is better than a 0), but for God’s sake, don’t just slink around in the shadows hoping for the best.  Even if you’re told there’s nothing you can do, write the paper ANYWAY and turn it in for no credit, just to show your instructor that you’re committed to learning.  You never know, she might throw in some points come final grade time.

Instructors are people too and sometimes we get busy.  If you don’t receive a response, try again… and again… and again until you DO get a response. Chances are the first e-mail just got lost among the dozens of other frantic e-mails we receive from students towards the end of the semester. 

Fighting does not mean fighting

When I urge you to fight for every opportunity you can, I mean “fight” in the figurative sense of the word.  There’s a marked difference between belligerence and assertiveness.  If you don’t know the difference, invest some time right now in finding out. 

There are times when “no” means “NO” and no amount of sweet talking or argumentativeness will change that.   Give yourself the satisfaction of knowing that at least you tried.


Photo credit: GenitalsSky

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Importance of Topic Sentences

When you read a paragraph and know exactly what that paragraph will cover, you’ve more likely than not just read a good topic sentence.   It’s such a simple sentence to write, yet so many people leave it out of their writing.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What is a topic sentence?

In short, a topic sentence is a sentence that sums up the main point of the entire paragraph in which it is contained.  It is most often the first sentence of the paragraph, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

Take the following paragraphs from a review I found online about The Day After Tomorrow (warning: beware of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the movie):

Paleoclimatologists are notoriously brave and of course very fit.  Nary a one of us would hesitate to jump a widening crevasse - twice - while wearing arctic gear - to recover some ice cores which would take 2-3 hours to re-drill.  We're watching out for *your* tax dollars.  Score one for the movie.

I bolded the topic sentence of the paragraph to make it easier to see. Notice that the main point of the entire paragraph is to poke fun at the courage of paleoclimatologists. The first sentence introduces that concept and the remaining sentences in the paragraph act as examples to support it.

Here’s another paragraph from the same review. Again, I'm bolding the topic sentence to make it easier to see.

The silliest thing in the movie is probably intentional, and has has nothing to do with science. Our spunky group of survivors (three high school students, a street person and his dog, a librarian, etc) are stuck in the NY public library, their only source of heat an old fireplace. They have to burn something, but what? The camera pans lovingly over long wooden tables, chairs, paneling. But what do they burn? Books, books and only books. And it's a roaring fire. True, they do burn the tax code first.

I chose this paragraph because it demonstrates that you can give a clear indication of what the main point of the paragraph will be in the topic sentence without actually stating what it is. "The silliest thing in the movie" turns out to be the fact that the characters burn books first when other longer lasting  sources of fuel were all around them. By unveiling what what actually burned (books) only after describing in detail all the burnable materials in the library, the author builds the level of sarcasm.

Don’t think that topic sentences make you “give it all away.”  You’re the author – you control how much information to give your readers.  Topic sentences just give your words a general direction so the reader doesn’t start asking himself “Why are you telling me this?” (Even with topic sentences, there’s no guarantee that he won’t still ask himself that question.  If he does, at least you’ll know it’s not because you don’t have topic sentences.)

An Exercise in Topic Sentences

Read the following paragraph from a student's essay and try and see if you can sense what's wrong with it.  I’ll give you a hint: try and find the topic sentence.

Mallard is a lady with major heart problems.  She is a caring and loving person. She is the main character of the story and is the one who everyone worries about.  Josephine is Mallard's sister; she cares a lot for her sister and loved her.  Josephine was there to help and support Mallard. Richard is the best friend of Mallard's passed husband.  He broke the news to Mallard and was there for support.

At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with this paragraph.  It’s grammatically correct (well, except for a few shifts in tense) and, all in all, a good description of the characters of the story we were discussing.   Reading the paragraph, though, I felt as though something were missing…

If this paragraph were in response to a question I asked, say “Describe the characters in the story,” there wouldn’t be a problem.  I would know immediately what the point of the paragraph was because the question would be right there above it.

In essays, though,  you never just write a single paragraph.  So if a paragraph appears in the middle of a five page paper, you have to let your reader know what it’s doing there.  Add this sentence to that paragraph and see how it suddenly has a purpose:

The characters in the story exist to set into motion the plot’s events. Mallard is a lady with major heart problems…etc.

Topic sentences get more attention when they’re absent than they do when they’re present. 

Photo credit: Aresauburn(TM)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Unnecessary Commas

Every now and then I like to sit back and take stock of what errors are occurring the most frequently for the most number of people in the essays I grade.  Commas end up at the top of the list time and time again.  The creative ways commas are put to unnecessary use in essays are numerous and will no doubt require a series of posts to cover adequately.  This post will concern itself with commas appearing between two (or fewer!) items.

You do NOT need commas to separate items in a list if the list contains only TWO items.

When commas are used to separate items in a list, the list must contain at least three items.  Take the following sentence, for example:

I bought eggs, cheese, and bacon.

When a sentence only contains two items, “and” already separates them; including a comma is just overkill.  The following sentence is an example of this error (i.e., This is what not to do):

I bought eggs, and bacon.

It’s easy to see the error in short simple declarative sentences.  I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t see how unnecessary the comma in the above example is.  In fact, just talking about misusing commas in this way during class generates sighs, much eye-rolling, and a few whispered “duh”s.

Throw in a few extra phrases, though, and suddenly the error is much more difficult to catch. 

The following excerpts come from three different essays about Kate Chopin's short story The Story of an HourAwkward wording aside, look at where the commas appear in each sentence.

The main theme in "The Story of an Hour" is looking into the negative side of the marriage between Louise, and her husband.

Through Louise's actions, and emotions she is clearly joyous about her husband's death. 

Kate Chopin shows this through her choice of words, and actions of Louise.

If you can’t see the errors in the preceding examples, please please please take each sentence apart bit by bit until you do.  The comma is one of the most basic punctuation marks available and a strong understanding of how to use it correctly is taken for granted once you’ve completed high school. 


Photo credit: Debaird(TM)

Monday, May 25, 2009

How Do You Learn to Write?


This is a question I wrestle with every single day.

As the creator of this blog, every time I sit down to write a post I have to believe that the words I put down will make a difference in a reader’s writing.  As a composition instructor, every time I teach class I have to believe that my lessons are useful and will change some of my students’ writing skills for the better. 

I have to believe what I’m doing works; I couldn’t keep doing what I’m doing otherwise. 

You can’t reach excellence, though, unless you’re open to the idea that your way of doing things isn’t the  best way, that somewhere out there is a more effective technique that you just don’t know about yet. 

With that in mind, I’m reading the comments to Rachel Gardner’s post How Do You Learn to Write? and taking notes on what works for some people so I can at least mention them briefly in class, if not incorporate them more fully. 

I encourage you to read her blog post, especially the posted comments.  As informative as the responses are, the 61 comments that are there now make up only a miniscule part of the planet’s population.  If you don’t see your opinion represented in any of the published replies, add your own. 

Only by speaking will you be heard.


Picture credit: Radioflyer007

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Value of Writing Down Memorable Sayings

Ever had a conversation where someone says something that makes you think to yourself “Ooh, I’ve gotta write that down!”?  I just did. 

I was on the phone talking to a good friend about a technologically challenged student he was helping with a project when he said:

She was about as sharp as the corner on a round table.

As soon as our conversation ended, I ran to write that saying down in a little notebook I keep filled with random phrases, ideas, and sayings.  I did so because 1) the sentence amused me, 2) I’d never heard it before and didn’t know if I would come across it again, and 3) I might want to use it in my own writing in the future. 

Hanging on to cute or provocative quotes and sayings is a good habit to get into because you can turn to them for inspiration when you need to kick start a project or even include some in your own writing (with proper attribution, of course).  Take it one step further, though,  and think about the sayings and words of wisdom you hear a little closer to home.  In fact, right IN your home. 

Reared by a Peruvian mother and Romanian father, I didn’t exactly grow up hearing the same adages as my all-American classmates did.  It didn’t hit me until a few years ago what that means.  It means that when I read or hear or see something that that reminds me of an old saying one of my parents would tell my sister and me, I can’t just turn to someone and ask if they know of a saying that starts out “If a river sounds noisy…."

If you don’t yet have a notebook of your own where you jot down memorable sayings, consider getting one.   My twin swears by the Moleskin brand notebooks, but you don’t have to invest in something that expensive.  I myself just carry around one of those small cheapo spiral notebooks that you can pick up from Walgreens.  Don’t feel bound to pen and paper if you prefer keeping all your information on a computer; it doesn’t matter where you keep those sayings you find interesting, thought-provoking, amusing, and memorable, just that you do keep them.

Photo credit: Dvortygirl

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 The Free Microsoft Office Alternative

Last week I was appalled to find out that one of my students has been typing up all of his essays on Windows Notepad at home, then hopping on a school computer to copy and paste his work into Microsoft Word so he could format it.

I wasn’t taken aback at the thought of someone using Notepad to write.  It’s actually quite a useful little fuss-free program that’s lack of formatting options allows you to concentrate completely on the meaning of the words you’re writing, instead of what they look like. 

No, what appalled me was the fact that someone was using it because he thought there were no other options. He was actually planning on doling out the couple hundred bucks it costs to purchase Microsoft Office once he saved up enough for it.

No! No, no, no! Put your money away and save it for more important things.  The internet is full of wonderful, FREE programs that will do everything (and sometimes more!) that any software can that you purchase at Fry’s or Best Buy or Microcenter or CompUSA or … (you get the point). 

Buying an expensive program when a perfectly good free alternative exists is just poor financial decision making, especially when we’re in the middle of an economic recession. 


OpenOffice is a free alternative to the entire Microsoft Office Suite. You can download OpenOffice as a bundle of programs that include:

  • Writer
  • Calc
  • Impress
  • Draw
  • Base

As a composition instructor, I’m mainly interested in getting the word out about Writer, a replacement for Microsoft Word.  OpenOffice includes so much more than just a word processor, though.  Calc is basically a replacement for Excel, Impress for PowerPoint, Draw for Photoshop, and Base for Microsoft Works Database. 

Go to Why for more information about each program. 

If you do decide to use OpenOffice Writer for your word processing needs, I do have a bit of advice for you: save your documents as Microsoft Word compatible files.  Do this by selecting “Save As” when it’s time to save your file, then scrolling through the list of available options until you find “Microsoft Word 2003.” 

By default, OpenOffice saves documents as .odt files, which can only be opened by OpenOffice.  By saving your files as Word compatible files, you’ll be making your life much easier by making it possible to open your files using other word processing programs.  

There are, of course, other alternatives to OpenOffice.  I’ll mention them later in future posts.  In the meantime, happy word processing!


Photo credit: Andrew Abogado