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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  So while students everywhere are still being taught from outdated textbooks (I’m teaching a summer class 6th edition MLA style!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)