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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 clich├ęs 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.