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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Importance of Titles

Photo thanks to Vicki

It has been my observation that in academic writing, titles (when a student remembers to include one at all) tend to be afterthoughts, a handful of words haphazardly thrown together and slapped on the page as a finishing touch. These poor, abused headings receive the least amount of effort in their creation by a writer when, in fact, they receive the most amount of attention from a would-be reader.

Titles are the single most important determiners of whether your writing will be read.

We've all been told not to judge a book by its cover, but usually when you walk into a bookstore with rows upon rows of shelves lined with books, scanning book covers for a title that catches your interest is all you have time to do.

I have seen well written titles turn a paper on a topic I have absolutely no interest in reading into a paper that I can't wait to get my hands on. One excellent example is a research paper I received on the benefits of improving the prison education system. What made this paper stand out was its title:
The Pros of Educating Cons
Quite frankly, I'm not all that interested in how good or bad our prisons' education system is. That title, however, not only piqued my interest in the topic, it also made me want to read more from a writer who had the creativity to come up with such a catchy headline (regardless of the topic!).

That's not to say that having an amazing title is all it takes. An attention grabbing title will put your work in someone's hands, but whether or not s/he actually reads it depends on the quality of the writing itself.

Remember that the next time you're putting together a project for work, creating proposals, or writing an e-mail. Putting a little bit of thought into writing the perfect title will go a long way towards how receptive your audience is to your message.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cliché s: A List

In a day and age when innovations are popping up in every field and creativity is a trait to be encouraged and cultivated in one's employees, clichés can be downright fatal to your career if found in your writing. For more on the topic, see this post.

I'd be sorely remiss in my advice if I just told you to avoid using clichés without actually giving you a list of those tired and worn phrases that you should be avoiding like the plague (Ha! I couldn't help myself :).

  • all work and no play
  • apple of one's eye
  • armed to the teeth
  • as luck would have it
  • at first blush
  • barking up the wrong tree
  • beat a dead horse
  • beat around the bush
  • bite the bullet
  • bull in a china shop
  • burn the midnight oil
  • busy as a bee
  • by leaps and bounds
  • calm before the storm
  • can't see the forest for the trees
  • caught red-handed
  • cool as a cucumber
  • dead as a doornail
  • dead giveaway
  • diamond in the rough
  • down in the dumps
  • down on one's luck
  • dressed to the nines
  • easier said than done
  • face the music
  • fate worse than death
  • few and far between
  • fit as a fiddle
  • food for thought
  • free as a bird
  • gentle as a lamb
  • green-eyed monster
  • grind to a halt
  • have an axe to grind
  • head over heels
  • high and dry
  • high as a kite
  • hit the nail on the head
  • in the nick of time
  • in the twinkling of an eye
  • in one fell swoop
  • larger than life
  • last but not least
  • let the cat out of the bag
  • mad as a hornet
  • make a long story short
  • more than meets the eye
  • needle in a haystack
  • neither here nor there
  • on a wild goose chase
  • once in a blue moon
  • pretty as a picture
  • quiet as a mouse
  • rain cats and dogs
  • sight for sore eyes
  • skeleton in one's closet
  • stick out like a sore thumb
  • take the bull by the horns
  • tired as a dog
  • tried and true
  • turn over a new leaf
  • waiting on bated breath
  • wise as an owl
  • wolf in sheep's clothing

Have I missed any? If you know of a cliché that is just SO overused it would spell trouble for any who use it, let me know in the comments or via e-mail and I'll add it to the list!

Photo credit: SunnyUK

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to Get Feedback On Your Writing

Contrary to popular belief, reading alone will not improve your writing.  Sure, your vocabulary will increase (if you take the time to look up the words!) and you will see writing that is well crafted (depending on what it is that you read).

Writing alone isn't enough to help you improve; you need FEEDBACK.

Before you go and say "Wait a minute! I get feedback all the time and it hasn't done me a bit of good," allow me to clarify what exactly I mean by feedback.

What Feedback IS and ISN'T

Feedback, in its most broad sense, is any response to some process or activity. For our purposes, the "process or activity" is writing. Much harder to nail down is what exactly constitutes a "response" to writing that will help a person improve said writing.

NOT helpful:
  • Your parent cooing over his/her child's latest "masterpiece."
  • Your friend giving your paper a quick one-over and saying "Looks fine to me."
  • Comments (from friends, family, strangers, bosses, even teachers!) such as "Good" or "I like it."

MORE helpful:
  • Any comment explaining WHY someone did or did not like your work.
  • Any comment pointing out WHAT about your writing is good or bad.

Surprisingly (or not), the kind of feedback that is most beneficial to writers is the kind of feedback that is most beneficial to non-writers as well.

Why Feedback is Important

Without any input about your output, there is absolutely no reason to believe you would change anything you are doing enough to significantly alter your product.

For example, say you throw some ingredients together into a bowl and two hours later have a vanilla cake. Unfortunately, one of the ingredients that did not make it into that bowl was vanilla extract. Even more unfortunately, you didn't taste your cake before serving it to people eagerly anticipating vanilla flavored cake.

Now let's assume you made enough batter for as many more vanilla cakes as you want to bake. Unless someone tells you that your vanilla cake is lacking in the vanilla department, you won't know to add vanilla extract to the batter. "I don't like your cake" just isn't going to cut it when it comes to helping you improve your recipe.

Online Sites to Get Feedback on Your Writing

Now that you know why you simply cannot mature as a writer without receiving constructive criticism about your writing, here are some sites to help you GET that feedback (listed in no particular order):

Absolute Write -

You can post your academic essays on the forum titled “The Soapbox (P&CE Writing Lab),” or you can look at the essays already posted to get inspiration for research paper topics and/or to see models of essay writing (and what readers look for in essays). This website provides SO much more than just a forum to post your essays. There's a forum for practically every aspect and genre of writing!

Essay Forum -

This forum deals exclusively with academic essays. Since it's free, don't expect to get a reply immediately (scroll through and see how many essays are still waiting for someone to comment). Even though you have to be patient for feedback, it's better than nothing if you have no one else you can turn to for essay writing help.

Writing Forums -

Scroll down to the “Non-Fiction” essay and see the subsection labeled “Essays.” The number of other forums the site has for general writing help is worth noting.

Fiction Press -

Go to the “Essay” section to find the academic essays. Again, be aware of how many essays on the site actually ever get reviewed.

Write, Submit, Get Feedback! -

This young woman is actually offering her FREE tutoring services online for essays. You e-mail her your essay and if she chooses to use it on her blog, she'll e-mail you back and give you in-depth feedback for how to improve your writing assignment. Look through her previous blog posts for great examples of writing that needs improvement and the very useful advice she gives to each writer.

Booksie -

This site is mainly used for writers of fiction works to get feedback on their writing. If you go to the “Non-Fiction” section, though, you'll find subsections for essays and articles.

Critique Circle -

This site is ONLY for non-academic stories. If you enjoyed the creative writing assignment and want to continue to write short stories but cannot or don't want to take a formal class, this site will provide you with the feedback you'll need in order to improve.

Keep in mind that if you post your work online, you must be able to prove YOU are the original author of the work because your writing WILL be found through general search engines (leaving you open to accusations of plagiarism).

Photo credit: Karl Horton