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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Free E-Book Resources


Merry Christmas! I hope your Yuletide is as filled with family, feasting, and festivities as mine is.  I didn’t include “presents” (or “favors,” just to keep the alliteration going) in that list because presents aren’t what the holiday is about. That said, I enjoy receiving gifts just as much as the next person and this year was no exception as the gifts I received were thoughtful and heartwarming.

A Kindle 3G was part of my bounty this year and I have to say I love having an e-book reader! I didn’t think I would, what with just how much I enjoy physical books; there’s just something so wonderful about the smell and the feel of a printed book.  Even now when using my Kindle I feel a twinge of guilt, as though I’m betraying my childhood dreams of one day having a personal library as vast as the one Belle finds in the Beast’s castle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Despite my misgivings whenever I pick up the device, I have managed to read no less than three books within the last 72 hours.  I find it easier to read because it’s only ever one page at a time – when I pick up a physical book, I’m wracked with guilt over the time investment the book’s width visually reminds me I will make in reading it.

I have always proselytized the need to read prolifically in order to improve writing skills.  With e-books, doing just that has gotten easier in an increasingly wired world.  The beauty of e-books is that even if you don’t have an e-book reader (After all, they are rather pricey. If mine hadn’t been a gift, I would never have purchased one myself), you can still read e-books on any computer using e-book software. 

Free E-Book Software

E-books come in a variety of different formats (mainly for proprietary and personal preference purposes) and depending on what file type each e-book you download comes in, you may need to also download a software program capable of reading each file type.  The sheer number of different file types can be intimidating, but not to worry, most of these e-book programs support most (if not all) file types, so you’ll only have to download one.

Calibre By far my FAVORITE e-book management software, Calibre supports ALL major file formats, lets you convert from one format to another, is compatible with all eReaders, and is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.  What more could you ask for?
Adobe Digital Editions This software supports PDF and EPUB files, lets you annotate pages, and offers a “library” from which you can download and purchase e-books. 
It has built in support for the Sony Reader and is PC and Mac compatible.
Reader Library Software Sony makes this program and it is fully compatible with all Sony eReaders (of course). It is also PC and Mac compatible.  As far as file type support, the page only mentions the ability to read library books in the software, which means it supports EPUB.
Microsoft Reader Made by Microsoft, this program also has a built in “marketplace” from which you can purchase new e-books.  No information about file type compatibility is provided. It is only PC compatible.
Kindle Reading Apps makes a software program that reads its proprietary file type (.AZW) and .MOBI files. Of course, it allows you to browse for more e-books to purchase and download. PC and Mac compatible.
Borders eReader Apps Supporting the .PDF, .MOBI, and .EPUB file types, this software links you directly to’s marketplace for e-book browsing and purchasing. PC and Mac compatible.
Barnes and Noble Nook Apps Barnes and Noble is also getting in on the action with their eReader. It is PC and Mac compatible and supports .EPUB, .PDB, and .PDF files.


If you have Adobe Reader, .pdf files open by default in that program.  For other file types, I like Calibre because it’s hard to beat its simplicity, but feel free to choose the e-book software that’s right for you.  Run a search in Google for “free ebook readers” for other, more obscure  e-book reading software that I left out of this list.

Free E-Book Sources

Now that you have a program that will let you read e-books, it’s time to download some e-books.  My personal favorite genre of e-book is the free kind so here are a few websites (in order of personal preference) to get your free e-book library started.

Hopefully these links will prove useful to you and help you find some reading material that is kind to your wallet this holiday season.  Remember, you don’t need to own a fancy e-book reader to benefit from the abundance of e-books available online.  

Friday, December 24, 2010

What Happens When Reading and Writing Aren’t Important To You?

What happens when, for one reason or another, a person fails to think writing well is a necessary skill for success in life?  The high school where I work gives me plenty of examples from which to gauge just how critical an intrinsic sense of the worth of writing is for people to become fully literate.  I have students who have never read a book and see no reason to start reading literature.  When these students are asked to write something…  Well,  as you can see, the results aren’t pretty.

There was once a girl names amy. Who like hello kitte. She like hello kitty because Beth liked hello kitty. So the when to the hello kitty store and but every single thing in the store that was hello kitte. When the when home to put every thing in there room. The notice the wore missing the hello kitty shoes. That the but for 236.96$. So The when back to the hello kitty store mad and pissed.  The told the girl that was working there that the wore missing the hello kitty shoes the but.  The lady asked for the receive.  Amy got so mad she stared screaming at the lady.  Beth told her to come down and gave the lady the receive.  She saw that the wore right and she gave them the shoes.  She also said sorry and gave them 2 new hello kitty lap tops.  For Amy and Beth.  Then Amy was like yea she better had gave use this lap tops.  Beth just started laughing.  Beth was happy cause the got the free lap tops The got home and got on them and told all there friends what had happen to them.  The wore like dam…that’s cool.  The wore happy.  With all there new hello kitty stuff.

In Texas, students must pass the TAKS* test to earn their high school diploma and they must earn a 2 out of a possible 4 points on the essay.  As willing as I am to invest the necessary time and energy in Beth that she requires, unless Beth herself wants to improve her writing skills, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell she’ll pass the English portion of the exam.

What can we do?

I’m only a single person and there’s only so much that I can do.  As passionate and excited about writing as I am, I only see my students for 45 minutes a day.  Most of the progress I make in a class session is undone by the interaction my students have with family and friends who don’t value reading or writing.  Fitting in with family and peers is far more important to most teenagers than is pleasing a teacher. There’s always the fear of being labeled a “teacher’s pet” and no kid wants that.

Even though I may  not be able to do much, you can.  You can help ensure the people close to you don’t end up in Beth’s position by being a role model for writing.  I know it sounds dorky, but the attitudes we have towards literacy are more contagious than we know.

So if you have a friend or a family member who is struggling with writing, please don’t tease or belittle him or her.  The damage your comment does could mean the difference between that person ever learning how to write well enough to pass high school.

*Soon the test will be renamed STAAR

Photo credit: Patrick Gage

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ergofiction’s Search Term Challenge!

If November has you in the mood for voting, how about going over to Ergofiction and voting in the second Search Term Challenge?

Those who have been following my blog for a while will know that I am a staunch supporter of web fiction (especially the free variety) and that I try to get the word out about it online and offline any way I can.  Ergofiction is an online blog/magazine that does the same and has yet to let me down with the caliber of its recommendations. 

The Search Term Competition is just that – a flash fiction competition where authors have to embed at least three phrases out of a list of eight posted on the site.  The first Search Term Competition blew me away with the creativity and imagination present in each story, especially the winning submission “Long Way Home” by Ruzkin.  The quality of the submissions this time around is just as impressive and Ruzkin has submitted a story for this round as well!  Author names are kept hidden until after voting ends on November 5th, though. 

So get thee over to Ergofiction and vote for your top three choices!  Even if you don’t manage to get your votes cast in time, head on over there anyway just to read the entries; I promise you it will be time well spent.

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to Give a Handshake

picture of handshake

My father would do something with me that more fathers need to include in their parenting. Mothers can do it with their children, too. A simple enough act to perform, any parent can easily fit several of these acts into every week. My own father would do this almost every day: he would shake my hand.

Implementing a few handshakes a week is easy to do.  My own father was an incorrigible jokester and used humor to ask for handshakes.  He would come up to me and ask for my name, saying “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”  He’d find me sitting at the kitchen counter or walking through the hall and stop me with “What a pretty lady! Allow me to introduce myself to you, mademoiselle. I am Iuliu Seitan.  To whom do I owe the honor?”  Then, he would shake my hand.

Why is knowing how to give a handshake important?

Even though this blog is about writing, sounding like a confident writer is more easily achieved when you know how to act confident off the page as well.  It may sound hokey, but I guarantee you that if and when you ever need to give someone a handshake, that person is determining your level of self-confidence based on the quality of your shake. 

I can’t stress enough just how important having a strong, “proper” handshake is. According to Vanessa Raymond from,

the significance of a handshake cannot be overstated--if you don't have a passable handshake, you aren't getting the job.

Far too many of my students have horribly limp handshakes and, try as I might, it's incredibly difficult to push aside the judgmental thoughts about their strength of character that come to mind immediately after meeting palms with them. It makes me wonder, though, just how many of them even realize the awful impression they're leaving behind with their handshakes.

I’m certainly no expert on all the subtleties of professional business etiquette, but performing a simple and proper handshake is something that anyone can master given a few straightforward guidelines and a bit of practice.

What is a handshake?

Truth be told, there is no right or wrong way to give a handshake – all it really requires is the meeting of two hands from two individuals.  How to give a good handshake, however, requires that you adhere to a few guidelines.

  • Firm grip
  • Slight up and down movement
  • Let GO
Other web pages exist that present these guidelines in a far more eloquent manner than I, and I highly recommend visiting them if you are even the slightest bit doubtful as to whether or not your handshakes conform to the standard. Those websites are:

There’s really no substitute for practicing.  Giving a proper handshake isn’t something you can just read about and know how to do well.   Family members (especially parents) are wonderful candidates for handshake practice partners. So find someone with whom you are comfortable practicing and get to shaking your palm-palms!


Photo credit: Oooh.Oooh

Saturday, September 4, 2010

7 Techniques That Make Writing Introductions a Piece of Cake

Sign stating start here.

One of the hardest parts of writing an essay (of writing anything, actually) is coming up with an introduction.  That’s due in large part to just how important an introduction is to a paper.  That first paragraph has to be so provocative, so interesting, so utterly riveting that your readers will all but fall over themselves to finish reading the rest of the essay. 

With pressure like that, it’s no wonder introductions are put off by writers until the very end, the last paragraph to grace the page and usually the most disappointing.   That they are less than stellar is also not a surprise considering that by the time you’ve finished writing the rest of the essay, you’re too drained and sick of your paper to be able to come up with something creative for the beginning.

Knowing how to write your introduction would significantly ease the burden on your brain when it does come time to write that last paragraph.  I wish I could claim credit for sitting down and making a list of all the introductory techniques possible when it comes to writing an essay, but that claim to fame belongs to Judy Hilliard from San José State University.  In 2006 Ms. Hilliard wrote and published a brilliant writing handout titled “Completing the Essay.”  However, if you clicked on the link to that handout, you’d see that it is no longer available. 

Luckily for you, when I first ran across the handout I printed it out and to this day I still have the hard copy of it.  I was going to reproduce it here on my blog after requesting permission from Ms. Hilliard, but after running a search on Google for a few choice phrases from the handout, it appears that someone else has already beaten me to the punch. 

Since I’m not greedy when it comes to internet traffic (I don’t care WHERE you get help for your writing, just that you do and that it is quality information), I am going to link to Dr. Hobbs’ reproduction of the handout.  You can find it here on his blog post titled “Composition – Lead Ins that Hook Your Audience.”

Please, please, please take a look at that handout.  It lists a total of 7 different techniques you can use for starting any writing project; it even includes an example of each technique so that you know exactly what each technique looks like in writing.  This handout makes deciding how to begin an essay so easy that, when it comes down to it, you could literally just roll a dice to see which technique you’ll be using for each assignment. 

I will be distributing the hard copy of this handout this year to my students, like I do every year, and I can only hope they’ll recognize its value and hold on to it for years and years to come, the way I have. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Taking It Day By Day

Goodness, it’s been a while since I last posted on this blog.  I haven’t forgotten about it – quite the contrary, actually.  The less time I have for writing blog posts, the more potential entries nag at my mind.  As guilty as I feel for neglecting this web site, it’s not as though my time hasn’t been well spent.  As of today, I am 2/3rds of the way through the alternative certification program I am taking in order to become certified to teach High School English!

For those who are interested, the program I am enrolled in is called ACT.  I love this program.  Every ACT employee  either currently is or has been a practicing educator and knows the realities teachers face working in the classroom.  If you (or someone you know) is interested in obtaining an alternative teaching certification for the state of Texas, ACT has offices in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Hands down, this program has earned my full endorsement– and I haven’t even completed it yet!

As far as this blog is concerned, I have no intentions of ending it.  I have SO much information about writing yet to give that I know my future students, at least, will need.  I don’t intend to place the blog on an official hiatus either.  Instead, I’ll just try to post as often as I can – even if that means updates will be sporadic.  Remember to subscribe to the RSS feed if you haven’t already so that you don’t have to check the webpage for updates; the updates will come to you. 

Here’s hoping my schedule lets up in the next few weeks so I can get some entries posted! Thanks for hanging in there with me through this rough patch – I really do appreciate it and will make it up to you, my loyal fans!

Photo source: funkandjazz

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Online Plagiarism Checkers

Most college students I know are terrified of accidentally plagiarizing a source in their essays – and for good reason. The definition of “plagiarism” doesn’t account for intentionality, so even if the act of plagiarism was purely accidental on the student’s part, s/he still gets a zero on the assignment and the possibility of being labeled a plagiarist on his or her permanent record.  How’s that for scary?

There are some tools online that can help alleviate some of the worry possible plagiarism creates.  They’re called plagiarism checkers  and several of them are available for free!

You need to be aware, though that these plagiarism checkers will not catch all types of plagiarism.  They search only for words taken verbatim from a source catalogued in whatever index they are searching through.  If you have accidentally mirrored a source’s way of organizing certain ideas too closely or used a source’s ideas without giving credit to the source, you are guilty of plagiarism but these checkers will be unable to make you aware of it. 

These tools may not be sophisticated enough to catch more than the most basic forms of plagiarism, but they are better than nothing and can give you a little more piece of mind if you know your paraphrasing skills are lacking.

Photo credit: Abardwell

Monday, May 31, 2010

Happy Memorial Day!


It’s Memorial Day and I want to say a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has ever served in the military.  Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve gotten to know quite a few students who were either planning on joining the military or already enlisted.  They go through experiences I know I could never go through, and they do so willingly! So here’s a great big thanks to all of you!

In honor of Memorial Day, a day when we reflect on past sacrifices, I went back to an old (but important) post about where to go online to ask for and receive feedback on your writing and updated the links to include more sites as well as a short description of each site after its link. 

Although writing essays isn’t a matter of life and death, there are some sacrifices that you need to be willing to make if you are to do a good job.  One of those sacrifices is the willingness to expose yourself to criticism by soliciting feedback on your work.  I know just how hard it is to hear negative comments about your writing (I just wrote a seminar paper for a graduate class and let me tell you, negative comments hurt graduate students just as much as they do undergrads), but it’s a risk you have to take if you want to improve your writing.

You can revisit the post “How to Get Feedback on Your Writing” here. Let me know if there are any other sites I should add to the list!


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Web Fiction Spotlight: Above Ground


Really good web fiction is hard to find (Although, Web Fiction Guide is making the hunt easier), so when I find one that’s so well written I can use it in my college composition classes as an example of writing done right, I want to spread the word about its greatness to as many people as possible.  Above Ground by A. M. Harte is one such web fiction and this blog post is dedicated to its greatness.

Above Ground takes place in the far distant future.  It is a post-apocalyptic tale that sets itself apart from other works in the genre by not describing a future world ravaged by a nuclear war or a zombie plague.  Instead, in the Above Ground world, humans began to inexplicably change, evolving either physically into half animal-half human creatures or mentally into beings capable of overpowering others using nothing more than the power of thought.

The story revolves around Lilith, a girl who has lived her entire life underground.  For her birthday present, her friend Emma buys tickets to a show on the surface world.  What happens at that show sets the stage for the rest of the story and the experiences, both good and bad, that Lilith goes through. 

If you’re a fan of good writing and are looking for a book with a setting, plot, and characters that are full of depth and complexity, Above Ground is the perfect web serial for you.  I would love to go on in great detail how this story exemplifies great writing, but I’m afraid I’d spoil too much of the plot for those who have yet to read it.  Fear not, though! I do plan on writing a couple of posts that will use specific examples from Above Ground and take them apart to reveal the techniques A. M. Harte uses to craft her art. 

This blog post is admittedly too short to do this web serial the justice it deserves, but time constraints keep me from being able to write more.  I plan to make up for my brevity in this post by going all out in future posts that deal with this web fiction.   If you’re craving a slightly more in-depth review of Above Ground, please read the reviews posted on Web Fiction Guide

Check out Above Ground at!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brief Hiatus

This will come as no surprise to those who have been following along with the blog and not seeing any updates in the past couple of weeks but I wanted to make it official:

Writing Simplified is on (a brief) hiatus.


Unfortunately, the demands of work and school have caught up with me and for the past few weeks I’ve been researching and grading papers like crazy.  This next week marks the end of my toil as all my students’ research papers MUST be graded and returned by this Friday and my two seminar essays (about 20 pages each) MUST be written and turned in by Monday.  I will still have creative writing essays to grade as well as final exam essays, but my own schoolwork will be over and I’ll be able to devote time to the blog again. 

On the bright side, I have SO many post ideas saved away that I am just itching to write so once I’m back there will be at least a post a week (probably more).  Thank you for sticking around through the chaos that is my life. I’ll be back soon! 


Photo credit: TheTruthAbout

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Citation Styles: A Primer

Quote by Henry David Thoreau. Photo by Ktylerconk.


There’s something you have to learn if you’re going to write essays for college classes, conduct research for work, write reports for your boss, or even just write blog posts.  That “something” is a citation style. 

What Is a Citation Style?

A citation style is, simply put, the way a writer references in his or her text the source of his or her information.   When you read an article in the newspaper and the journalist writes “According to a statement made by Tiger Woods late last night, he loves his wife,” the writer has just cited his or her source.  Even when a manager says “The employee protocol manual says that tube tops are not an appropriate style of dress for work,” he or she is citing a source for his or her information. 

Citing a source when speaking only requires you identify it as part of your sentence (e.g., “In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘I have a dream.’”).  If you were to write out the specifics of each of the sources you use when writing a research paper, though, your paper would be so cluttered with author names, article titles, journal names, book titles, and publications dates, it would be a struggle just to figure out what claim(s) the paper was trying to support.  Moving each source’s identifying information out of the text and into a set of parentheses and a Works Cited page clears up the clutter so your paper’s assertions can take center stage. 

Because different disciplines prioritize different things, citations styles come in a variety of flavors.  For example, parenthetical citations for APA style include the year in addition to the author’s name: (Smith, 2007).  In MLA style, on the other hand, the page number is included next to the author’s name in parenthetical citations: (Smith 24).  The sciences that use APA style are concerned with how recent research is; new discoveries are always being made and the older an article becomes, the less likely its findings are still accurate.  MLA style is used by the humanities, in contrast, and if you’re studying a work of literature, it’s far more important to know where to find a precise passage than it is to know the year.

Based on the needs of the discipline, citation styles can use parenthetical citations, footnotes, or endnotes.  They may sound different, but once you know how to cite properly in one style, switching to another style is just a matter of figuring out what information to change.  ALL styles ask for the same information; the way they organize that information is the only difference between them.

Now that we’ve figured out what a citation style is, we can move on to why we should use one.

Why Use a Citation Style?

The 7th edition of the  MLA Handbook says the simple reason for using a citation style is because “Every time you write a research paper, you enter into a community of writers and scholars” (xiii), and while that’s all well and good, unless you’re planning on becoming an academic scholar, that’s not a very compelling reason for learning a citation style, especially if you’re unfamiliar with citation styles in general.

Most people use a citation style because the teacher requires it. While the pursuit of a good grade is as good a reason as any,  there are more practical reasons for using a citation style that make it a useful skill to have for anyone, regardless of his or her future aspirations.

1. It can keep you from getting into trouble.

I’ll start with the most persuasive reason for learning how to properly cite sources. The reason you’ll want to learn and use a citation style is because it can keep you from plagiarizing (see these previous posts to learn why plagiarism is something you want to avoid). By citing a source immediately after you paraphrase or quote information taken from that source, you make sure you stay out of academic and legal trouble[1], the consequences of which could be devastating professionally and financially.

2. It can provide evidence and support your claims.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a formal academic paper or trying to persuade your parents to let you go to a friend’s party, citing sources (provided they’re good ones) bolsters your arguments.  Claims that are unsupported aren’t well received by anyone and are generally disregarded.  Even infomercials know the importance of evidence! They throw step-by-step demonstrations of the product at you along with customer testimonials of how much their lives have improved ever since they bought the product.

3. It can give increase your authority in a subject area.

One thing citations are good at is showing just how much research the writer has done.  If the same name keeps appearing in parentheses and there’s only one entry on the Works Cited page, it’s painfully obvious the writer read one article and based all his/her conclusions on it. 

The reason a good research paper has a LOT of sources is because good writers don’t put all of their eggs in one basket.  Citing only one source puts you at risk if that source later becomes discredited.  It’s also much easier for a reader to dismiss one source as biased or inadequate; when someone’s confronted with a slew of strong, credible sources, it’s much more difficult to refute a claim.

Citing sources also proves that you’ve done your research.  You’ve not just someone who read a blog post about the topic and then wrote a paper as though you were an expert.  When you’ve done research well, you have every right to say you know what you’re talking about (and to write that way too).

4. It gives credit where credit is due.

Someone went through a great deal of trouble to create the works of art and/or science you’re using to bolster your claims.  Legal and academic issues aside, giving the original sources credit for all their hard work is just the right thing to do.

5. It lets interested readers follow up on your research.

Believe it or not, some readers are actually interested in how you came to your conclusions and what resources you used.  They might be writing on the same topic and want to use one of the sources you used, or they might be genuinely interested in learning more about the subject. 

I read several science-fiction novels by Peter Watts just the other night and was delighted to find that at the end of them he included some of his research.  I probably spent just as much time digging around through the information and links he gave about inatentional blindness (i.e., humans have a saccadal glitch in their vision that can make objects that are right in front of you, “invisible"), astronomical infrared emitters, radical hemipherectomy, and Chernoff Faces as I did reading the novel itself. [2]

As lonely and solitary an endeavor as writing any paper is, there are people who are interested in your findings and the work you put into creating your own piece of literature.


So, now that you know how important learning a citation style is, which one are you going to learn?


[1] While plagiarism is unethical, it is not always illegal (for example, when a person plagiarizes him/herself).  What IS illegal is copyright infringement.  Since every written work is automatically under copyright the moment it is created, the only time when plagiarism is not illegal is when the person who is being plagiarized gives explicit permission to the plagiarist to use his/her words.  Since most people get quite irate when their work is stolen without their permission, don’t count on that person granting it after you’ve been caught plagiarizing him/her.  Also keep in mind that in academia, plagiarism is an “academic crime” regardless of if you have the original author’s consent. 

[2] If anyone else is interested in Peter Watt’s novels, they’re available for free online and can be found here.  One of his short stories has recently been nominated for a Hugo award and is also available on that page (just scroll down).  It’s a wonderful read and definitely worth a look.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Punctuation Within Dialogue

I recently had a reader write me with a question about writing dialogue.  She had read my post about punctuating titles and wanted to know if titles are still punctuated in creative writing when they occur as part of a character’s dialogue.

The more I searched online for a definitive answer to her question, the more frustrated I became at the lack of information available.  That frustration has led me to post my response to her e-mail online.  I’m not an expert when it comes to creative writing, but maybe the little that I do know will help someone else out there with the same question.  At the very least, it lets other confused writers know that they are not alone in their confusion. 

I know my blog doesn’t have that big of an audience, but my other hope is that someone who IS an expert will stumble upon this post and either confirm my conclusions or correct them.  One little post on an obscure blog doesn’t feel like much, but hopefully it will make a difference for someone.

The Question

Hi Carmen,
I know that I would italicize Grey's Anatomy (TV show) but here's my question---do you italicize it within a quote? I'm wondering if that might look kind of goofy or pretentious or something. Here's the quote:

I’d never been inside a hospital before – well, besides the day I was born.  Looking around, as I waited for surgery, I saw a white board with my name written on it.  “Hey,” I told the orderly. “It’s just like ‘Grey’s Anatomy!’”

I put in quotations within quotations--but maybe that also looks goofy. Let me know what you think--thank you---J. F.

The Answer

Hi J.F.,
Sorry it's taken me two days to get back to you; I've been grading essays and working on homework for my own classes. I thought I'd check this e-mail account to give me a mental break.  Ha! Talk about a difficult question!

All kidding aside, I'm glad you wrote me.  I enjoy challenges and your question definitely presents one.  It turns out there are no set rules regarding how to punctuate words within dialogue.  Dialogue is actually one of the areas where authors have the most freedom in deciding whether or not they want to adhere to the standard rules of grammar; because that freedom is limited to characters' speech, no one questions whether or not the author knows how to use spaces or apostrophes correctly when they see something like "ohmygodohmygodohmygod" or "Imma gunna do ya in, boy!"  You can technically do whatever you like without fear of formal rebuke (one or two readers may be convinced you're "wrong," but the lack of prescribed rules for dialogue makes that an impossible call for anyone to make). 

That said, grammar has always been determined by seeing what the majority of other people are doing and then following their example (at least in English).  An example of that is the serial comma - I was taught in grade school that "I will buy bacon, eggs, and ham" has a comma before "and"; if you check grammar books nowadays, that comma is optional (if they bother to mention it at all).  Soooo.... I ran a search on Google to see if I could see how others were punctuating titles in their dialogue. 

I first searched to see if there were any prescribed rules for punctuating dialogue and found sites like the following:,, and  None of them discuss punctuation as it occurs WITHIN dialogue (especially as it applies to titles), just how to properly indicate that a character has commenced speaking.  The lack of resources should ease your mind a little that you won't be breaking any rules however you choose to punctuate the sentence.

The next search I ran was one that included various television show titles in an open-ended sentence to see if I could find any examples of dialogue in action.  Unfortunately, I didn't get any results that showed how other authors have chosen how to deal with your problem.  What I got were a lot of blog entries and reviews discussing how great such and such a show is (usually punctuated incorrectly). 

My best advice would be for you to write different versions of the sentence (one punctuated "correctly" and the other with the title lacking any punctuation) and ask a random assortment of friends which one they would prefer if they came across it in print.  I'm going to go ahead and guess that the majority of people would choose the un-punctuated title - most likely because we don't speak using formal punctuation.

Ultimately, the decision is yours.  I know that's not a very satisfying answer and I wish I could give you something more concrete.  I'm by no means an expert on writing (You actually don't NEED to be an expert - you just need to be famous enough that anything you write is emulated, regardless of how "wrong" it is - but I digress), but if I were trying to write a similar sentence for my own character, I would leave the television show un-punctuated (except for the capital letters in the title).  Italicizing it or putting it in quotation marks, for me, just looks off and, yes, maybe even a little bit like showing off.

For what it's worth, I've asked the question on my Twitter account, but I don't have a large enough following to get a good number of responses from which to draw a definitive conclusion. I'll let you know what answers I get (if any). Oh! And I can ask my students this week! They're barely college-educated (freshmen) community college students (which means their ages range considerably), so hopefully they represent the literary tastes of the majority of Americans (well, Southern ones, at any rate). 

Thanks for the great question! Today began as just another boring day, but now it's filled with grammatical possibilities!

Update on Class “Experiment”

This was a bad week to get results, it turns out, because quite a few students were AWOL (probably having extended Spring Breaks).  I asked the few that did show up to "forget" what we learned in class regarding punctuating titles and to vote on one of two examples of dialogue I put on the projector based on which one they'd prefer to see if reading a novel.  The dialogue was a rather silly example:

Jane said "I love Gray's Anatomy. The doctors are so HOT!"
Julie squealed when she heard Jane's comment. "Ohmygaw! I love that show too!"

The dialogues I put up were identical except for the punctuation of the title of the t.v. show (I italicized it in one).  A total of 31 students said they preferred it without any punctuation (plain text) and 14 voted in favor of the italicized title.  Those numbers look significant, but in one class the votes were split 9 in favor of plain text and 7 in favor of italicization - so I wouldn't put too much stock in the results.

For what it’s worth, I'm going to stick with my initial advice and say that people prefer dialogue to directly reflect speech and to be "plain."

Photo credit: Kris Hoet

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Titles: When to Italicize, Underline, or Use Quotation Marks

Titles are everywhere; we need them in order to be able to refer to any of the countless stories, pictures, blogs, movies, books, songs, and other works of art being created every single day.   Since most writing is about things you’ve experienced- things you’ve read, seen, heard, or touched – chances are very high that you will be including a title of something one day in your writing.

Before that happens, though, you need to know the rules that govern how to correctly write titles.  And when I say “titles,” I’m not referring to forms of addressing people.  Although I’m sure there are specific rules of etiquette that govern when to call someone “Miss” or “Ms.,” the rules I will be describing in this post apply to works of art, like books and music.

When it comes to titles, you can either italicize them or put them in quotation marks.  The 7th edition of the MLA Handbook eliminates underlining (underlining is still acceptable when hand-writing papers). Skip to the end of this post to see a note about underlining titles.  Keeping the rules for italicizing and using quotation marks straight isn’t easy, which is why there are different techniques that make remembering when to do what easier.

Big Things and Little Things

One way of looking at titles is to determine if it belongs to something that is big or something that is little.  A big thing is something that contains little things.  For example, a CD album contains many songs.  A book contains many chapters.  An anthology contains many essays or stories.  A web site contains many web pages.  A TV series contains many episodes. You get the point. 

Once you’ve determined if the title you’re trying to punctuate belongs to a big thing or a little thing, you can punctuate it.  The titles of big things are always italicized, while the titles of little things are placed within quotation marks.  The following are some examples of properly punctuated titles:

  • Words Fail Me is a book with a chapter “Are Your Eggs Ready to Hatch?”
  • The first episode of first season of the British television series Black Books is called “Cooking the Books.”
  • “Head Over Feet” is a song on Alanis Morissette’s third studio album Jagged Little Pill.

As nice as the “big things/little things” trick is for remembering how to punctuate titles, it stops working when it encounters more complex collections of art.  For example, how do you punctuate the titles of the plays you bought in a book called The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare? Are they considered chapters? They are little things inside of a bigger book, after all.  What about Beowulf?  It’s a poem, which is a little thing, but the MLA Handbook says that poems which are “long” need to be italicized.  What exactly does “long” mean and how are you going to remember to include those poems in with big things?

Don’t toss the towel in yet on this whole punctuating titles business – I’ve come up with a different way to remember whether or not to italicize or put a title in quotation marks.

Can You Buy It?

If you can go out and physically buy a copy of whatever title it is you’re trying to punctuate, italicize it.  If you can’t, put it in quotation marks. 

Since you can go to Barnes and Noble and find Beowulf on the shelves, it gets italicized.  The same can be said about each one of Shakespeare’s plays; you can find them in one large collected works book OR you can find them sold individually.  What you can’t do is drop by Blockbuster and try to rent ONLY the one episode of Lost you missedYou have to rent the DVD that has several episodes on it, one of which being the episode you missed.  Therefore, you put episode titles of television series in quotation marks. 

This idea even works for web sites and web pages.  When you buy a domain, you’re buying only up to the first .com or .org or .info (or whatever extension you chose).  So only that much of a web site gets italicized (For example, or Writing Simplified). Anything after the first extension is a sub page on the web site, and gets placed inside of quotation marks (For example, the “About Me” section of my blog or any one of the titles of my individual blog posts). 

Even this trick for remembering how to punctuate titles breaks down, though.  You can buy singles of songs and there are entire works of fiction put online for free all the time.  Taken in conjunction with the “big things/little things” technique, the “Can you buy it?” trick should help you get through punctuating at least 98% of every title you’ll encounter successfully. 

For the other 2% of titles you encounter and don’t know what to do with, well, that’s what I’m here for.  Use your professor! Don’t feel embarrassed about asking when you’re unsure about how to do something.  Chances are, your teacher won’t know the answer off the top of his/her head either and will learn something in the process of looking it up for you. 

Names of Forms, Games, Restaurants, Etc.

Style guides like those published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are great sources to turn to when you need to know how to punctuate something properly for a paper. But if you’re not writing an academic paper or your writing includes topics that aren’t typically found in professional publications, they won’t provide you with the answers you need. For those issues, you have to rely on your own judgment in applying the rules because an official standard hasn’t been set.

  • Names of Forms: It’s rare for someone to cite a blank document (i.e., an unfilled-out form) so examples of this in published peer-reviewed literature are scarce. However, webpages and print documents refer to form titles when indicating that such and such a form needs to be filled out, or explaining the purpose of certain forms. Every single instance that I've seen so far simply capitalizes the first letter of each word in the form title. For example: "Fill out the Motor Vehicle Records Form to request information about a particular vehicle involved in an accident," "If you are employed in the US, you must fill out a W-4 Form," and "Make sure to fill out all shaded areas in Form I-765." Also notice that the word “Form” is in every name.
  • Names of Restaurants: I still remember when it was natural to go to a bookstore to pick up a restaurant guide.  Nowadays, you turn to the Internet for restaurant reviews and suggestions, so finding a print standard for how to punctuate the title is difficult.  As far as the online standard goes, you have the choice to either 1) capitalize the first letter of each word in the restaurant’s name or 2) italicize (or underline!) the restaurant’s name.  You would never put the name in quotation marks, though. As the restaurant is the “big” thing that includes “smaller” things like menu choices, you would put the names of dishes in quotation marks, unless it’s a general food item that’s well known. For example, “Have you been to Chili’s? I love their chicken parmesan,” or “I’ll see you at Hula Hut. Don’t forget to order me the ‘Funky Dunky Onion Strings’.” Both examples show acceptable ways to punctuate.
  • Names of Games: Since the games themselves are the "big" thing that include smaller components, I would italicize their titles.  For example, Magic: the Gathering is a card game similar in playing style to Pokemon Trading Card Game.  I did run a quick search through a research database to see how peer-reviewed journal articles treat game titles as games are a popular topic of education-related journals. The articles I found only capitalized the first letter of each word in the game's name without italicizing or underlining it.  However, no article ever placed the game's name inside quotation marks.  With that evidence, I'd say it's a matter of personal preference whether to italicize the name or leave it unembellished.  I personally prefer the italics since it's what the rule would call for.
  • Etc.: Use your personal judgment in applying the rules or drop me a line (in a comment or an e-mail). I’ll update this list with more troublesome title issues as I’m made aware of them.

A Note About Underlining Titles

Before the advent of computers and word-processing programs, there were only two options available to you when punctuating a title: underlining or quotation marks. When computers starting to become more commonplace, a third option - italicization - was added as an alternative to underlining.

Underlining titles was viewed as necessary only when handwriting titles because it is difficult to italicize one's own handwriting - especially if you're writing in cursive. Many style manuals now omit underlining as an option, stating that computers are accessible to the majority of people living in today's society and underlining is no longer needed.

However, there ARE a couple of situations that still exist where italics is either not supported or redundant:

  • Social Media: Some social applications online (e.g., Facebook) do not support embedded HTML code, which means when adding comments you do not have the option of italicizing your font.
  • Italicized Fonts: If you enjoy using fonts other than the default Times New Roman or Calibri, you may run across lovely fonts that mimic cursive handwriting. Although it is possible to italicize those fonts even more, the difference between regular and italicized versions of the font is often imperceptible and could confuse your reader.

When you find yourself in a situation where italicizing your font is simply not an option, surround the words you want underlined with underline dashes (Shift + the dash key).  For example, I am reworking my father’s book _Dan, A Man Without Youth_ while concurrently working on my own book, tentatively titled _Online Tools for Writers_.

Good luck with your writing endeavors! If you have any questions about how to go about punctuating titles or getting around the character limitations of online programs, send them my way and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Photo credit: Lutrus

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Man From Earth

The Man From Earth

This past week has been full of homework (helping students with theirs and trying to get my own done), grading, and studying – on top of the other routine tasks needed to keep a household running smoothly.  I’m not sure how I’ve made it through every other week, but what I can say helped me make it through this last week, at least, was watching and discussing The Man From Earth in my classes. 

There are precious few movies that are worth spending class time to watch and The Man From Earth is one of them.  It starts out simply enough – just a group of professors gathering to wish a colleague goodbye – but over the span of its 87 minutes, the movie touches upon topics as deep as identity, religion, learning, and death.  What makes this movie so unique, besides its ability to inspire critical thinking, is what went into making it.

The screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, famed writer of several episodes for Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, over a span of 30-some years and finally completed on his death bed in 1998.  Incredibly low budget, the film was shot using only 2 camcorders! It’s a true testament that quality products don’t need fanfare and fancy CG effects to be good.  The power of a dream and the will to make it real are enough to create something astounding. 

Unfortunately, determination alone will not bring publicity.  I’m forever indebted to a dear friend of mine for showing the movie to me when it first came out in 2007.   Without him, I don’t think I would have ever come across the movie.  The Man From Earth did gain quite a bit of internet notoriety when the producer publicly thanked file sharers for sharing pirated versions of the movie, making the film even more successful by an increase in popularity.  But even with all the online buzz surrounding it, I doubt I would have stumbled across this gem.

I use the movie to discuss the different parts of an essay and how they’re mirrored successfully in the movie.  I can see the film being used to study persuasion and teach rhetorical skills (see this blog post by Dosh Dosh for an example) .  In spite of all its pedagogical uses (or perhaps because of), the movie is an entertaining way to spend a little over an hour.  It’s the kind of movie that you’ll still be thinking about hours after seeing it. 

Whatever the reason for watching the movie, DO go out and rent it. You won’t be disappointed.  Don’t believe me? Read the 300+ reviews of it on IMDb.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Literacy Essay

This week’s post will be a little bit different from my usual fare.  Instead of writing about or using other authors’ works as examples of good writing, I’ll be using my own. 

The following essay was an assignment I had to complete for my graduate Composition class.  Despite it being an academic paper, it lacks a thesis statement because it is a narrative essay (one of the only academic essay types informal enough to allow for implicit theses statements).   Unfortunately, narrative essays aren’t standard assignments in most college classrooms.

Rather than using the essay as an example of how to format an academic paper (e.g., clear introduction with thesis statement, topic sentences beginning each paragraph, etc.), use it as an example of clarity of purpose.  If you can give your essay to someone and they can tell you what you were supposed to write about without ever having seen your original essay prompt, then you have succeeded in answering the prompt.  (That doesn’t necessarily mean you FULLY answered the prompt, just that you stayed on topic.)

The essay is also an example of how the writing process is ever ongoing.  I didn’t submit this assignment because I was done writing it; I submitted it because the deadline had come.  There are still quite a few parts of the essay that I’m dissatisfied with, so many changes I’d make if I still had the time.  All these years in college and I’m still learning that the goal is not to be perfect – it’s to do the best you possibly can within the time frame that was given to you.


A Life Spent Reading: The Development of One Composition Instructor's Classroom Goals

Some of my earliest memories include my grandfather sitting me on his knee and teaching me how to read Spanish from Coquito1. I still have that book in my bookshelf. Its pages are yellowed and tattered now, the print difficult to read, but the words have lost none of their meaning. My grandfather's visits were few and far between, however. But fortunately for me, he was not the only one in my family who encouraged reading.

My father had me reading the classics as soon as I was able to hold a book in my hands. An intellectual who had served seventeen years in concentration camps during the Bolshevik invasion of Romania, he understood just how powerful and liberating the written word could be. He had me reading Dickens, Hardy, and Dostoyevsky all before I passed the age of 8. Much of what I read was too advanced for my understanding of the world at the time, but I would never call the exercise of reading the works wasteful. Because of my admiration for my father and his high estimation of learning, I wanted to read more, to be more cultured, so I could please him. After a while, I read to please myself.

I devoured literature. Growing up, I read all the time: before school, in between classes, during classes, and after school. I'd often stay up the entire night reading. I remember stuffing towels under my bedroom door to keep the light from giving me away; when the bits of towel poking out from under the door aroused my parents' suspicions, I switched to reading under my comforter with a flashlight. As much as I read, I'm surprised I found the time to do anything else besides homework. Somehow, though, I managed to find the time to write.

I started writing recreationally in 6th grade. My English teacher at the time, Mrs. Graves, would assign a set of vocabulary words that each had to be used in a sentence. Being the overachiever I was, I would spend the class period writing a story that used the vocabulary words instead of discrete sentences. I still remember how proud I was of all the praise I received from Mrs. Graves when I turned in the assignment. I enjoyed the attention so much, I wanted more of it and so every vocabulary assignment thereafter was a new story filled with drama, intrigue, and lexical variety.

I continued to write until I started college. Its demands on my time were such that free time for writing was a luxury I did not have. My life up to that point prepared me so that when I entered college, I entered it secure in the knowledge that I was a literate person, able to take on the reading and writing tasks that would be asked of me. That is not the reality that many people face when entering college, unfortunately. They must take the classes I placed out of to bring their literacy up to the college level. Since I plan on teaching those classes, it behooves me to take a closer look at what literacy is and how it is developed.

Literacy as it relates to the written word involves engaging with the written word on multiple levels. A person must be able to read a string of letters and understand the meaning that particular string creates. This comprehension of meaning is essential to the meaning of literacy; without it, you are left with someone who has learned to do nothing more than parrot the sound associated with each letter. The person has learned only the phonetic meaning of each letter, not its semantic meaning. When I read Japanese, I am an example of such half-accomplished literacy. I can sound out each grapheme2, but I have absolutely no idea what the final product means. I know that ごうじ is pronounced go-u-ji, but as to what it means (if anything), I haven't a clue.

Literacy involves more than just being able to read a string of letters and understand its meaning, however. A literate person must also be able to recreate those letters from memory and string them along in such a way that meaning is conveyed accurately and efficiently. This ability to write is just as essential to the definition of literacy as the ability to read is. Without it, a person's freedom is impinged upon; a person is left exposed to realities created by others without having the ability to refute them, much less the ability to create a new one. A person without the ability to write is nothing more than an answering machine – a receiver of messages without the power to create his own recorded message.

As disparate as the skills are, they are both necessary for the full definition of “literacy” to be realized. Society expects a person who is able to read proficiently to also be able to write proficiently. It is this latter skill that my students believe they need to improve. While they are correct in that regard, almost all my students lack the critical thinking skills required to read a piece of literature and see beyond the surface meaning of the words on the page. My title is “instructor of English composition,” but I really teach students how to write and read.

Just because students enroll in my classes so that I can teach them composition in no way entails that they want to learn the subject. Half of my students have convinced themselves that they are just no good at writing and shouldn't bother trying to be, resigning themselves to a semester of boring essays they'd rather not have to write. The other half is petrified of failing the class, certain they cannot possibly improve their writing skills enough to make a difference. Neither half usually likes reading.

If my childhood experiences with literature have taught me anything, it is that not only is reading a necessary component of writing well, it must also be of literature that is well written. In much the same way my father encouraged me to read the classics, students have to learn to be discerning of the quality of the literature they read in order to reap the greatest benefits from it. I don't yet know how to impart that sense of a work's literary merit to my students, but it is definitely something that I would like to include in my lessons.

Improvement takes longer than a semester to appear and, realistically, is a process that will last the entirety of a student's life. In order for that to happen, though, that student needs to continue to read even after concluding my class. The only realistic way for that to happen is if the student developed a love of literature. I want to pass on my love of reading to students, to help them discover that it can be an enjoyable activity.

In addition to passing on my love of literature, I want to pass on my enjoyment of writing to my students. I want my students to want to write, not to feel forced to do so just to fulfill a course requirement. Each negative experience students have with writing only serves to more deeply ingrain in them their dislike of the activity. I don't expect my students to become recreational writers in their spare time, but I do want them to leave my class having written at least one essay they looked forward to and enjoyed writing.

I am far from being an expert in the field, but what I lack in knowledge I make up for with enthusiasm for my job. Personal experience has taught me that reading and writing can become enjoyable activities to people who are encouraged at every step of the way. I want to be an instructor that my students respect enough to want to please, the way I wanted to please the people in my life who taught me the value of words. Seasoned with that desire and ladling out heaping servings of praise with my criticisms, I want to help my students achieve the full definition of literacy.


1Zapata-Santillana, Everardo. Coquito Clasico: Lectura Inicial. Ediciones Coquito USA.

2 I use “grapheme” instead of “letter” as Japanese does not have a one-to-one phoneme-to-written symbol correspondence with the written form of its language

Photo credit: Wyoming Jackrabbit

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mining Books for “Hidden” Treasures

Most people approach a book the same way: they start at the beginning and read until they reach the end. While that method is certainly an efficient way to barrel through the material, it’s NOT the most productive way to approach a book. It doesn’t take advantage of everything a book potentially has to offer.

If you want to get the most out of a book that you possibly can, you need to start at the back.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating reading the book backwards.  If you did, you’d probably spoil several (if not all) major plot points – if you could understand anything that was happening at all.  No, what I recommend you do the first time you pick up a book is to immediately search for the “extras.”

If a book has “extras,” they will usually come in the form of indices and appendices. An index, when referring to a book,  is a system that makes finding information easier and it is almost always located at the back of a book.  An appendix, when referring to a book, is a document providing supplementary information and is also usually located at the back of a book.  These two sections are invaluable when it comes to understanding the material presented, especially if it’s unfamiliar or densely packed. 

If you read fantasy or science-fiction, you know how weird character and place names can get, and how hard it can be to try to remember where the character has been and where he is going when the author is writing about a different world with different geographical locales.  If you have a story with several storylines occurring concurrently, you might as well just give up.  I know I used to give up when I read books like that; I’d read the whole story through not remembering how one character was related to another or where the adventure had taken the questing company. Sure, I got through story, but I missed out on many of the jokes (“Ohhh, that was funny because those characters are siblings so his mother is her mother”) and subtler plot points (“If I’d had a map I could’ve seen they’ve been traveling in a circle without realizing it”).  It wouldn’t be until I’d get to the end of the book and see the appendices that I’d realize there HAD been a map for me to refer to all along.

If you bother to check the nooks and crannies of the books you read, you might discover some interesting (and useful) things.  Pronunciation guides, maps, genealogical charts, and indices of names and places are just a few of the tidbits you could find in the back of  a book.  Don’t think these guides are limited to physical books, either!

If you read web fiction, poke around the author’s website or the forums (if a forum exists for the story) and see what you can find.  For example, I was pleasantly surprised to find a wiki for the online serial Above Ground when I first read it last weekend.  The wiki made keeping track of all the different races so much easier.  You can even vote in the forum for what content is covered in bonus stories!

I’ve been referring mainly to novels in this blog post, but don’t neglect the value of leafing through the back of a textbook before getting to work on the chapters.  A new school semester is starting and I just know there will be students who read only the pages they are assigned to read for homework.  When you pay so much for a book, it just doesn’t make sense not to get as much value out of it as you can.   

So, from now on, read your books Japanese-style and start from the back!

Photo credit: Ifijay

Monday, January 18, 2010

Free Online Literature: Magician’s Merger

I have quite a collection of free online novels (both serialized and not) and short stories that I’ve accumulated over the years.  I’ve derived so much enjoyment from each work, it’s about time I started to spread the love and let others have a chance to read the little-known treasures I seem to be able to find so easily online.

Part of the reason I want to share my hoard of literature is to (hopefully) encourage people to read more.  Most of my students tell me they don’t like reading because it’s boring and tedious.  That tells me they haven’t been exposed to enough different types of writing to find the genre they like.  This post (and subsequent posts like it) is an attempt to rectify that.

Another part of the reason I am highlighting these online works is because they deserve to be read.  I’m a picky reader and shoddy writing grates on my nerves after a while.  Add a bad plot to the mix and I refuse to keep reading.  The story links I will be posting have all passed my personal taste test so you can rest assured your literary sensibilities won’t be offended when you read them.  

Unfortunately, the publishing industry isn’t kind to those writers without insider connections, and so a great many worthy tales remain unread and uncelebrated in the slush pile.    I don’t know if the Xenophon Hendrix, the author of  Magician's Merger, ever tried to get the novel published, but it’s an enchanting story that would make a wonderful addition to the Young Adult section in any bookstore. 

A note of caution: The first several chapters of this novel are rough, to say the least.  Even the author says in a LiveJournal entry “The first few chapters were utterly horrid. I'm surprised that anyone made it through them to read the rest of the serial.”  The farther along you get in the story, the better the writing gets.  I actually kind of like that about the novel.  The same way you can see a webcomic artist’s art improve over the passage of time, this novel demonstrates quite tangibly the power of practice. 


Photo credit: Sean McGrath

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lolcat Building: An Exercise in Creativity

The majority of documents that are written every day by students and non-students alike are rather dull.  They have to be to fulfill their purpose.  Lab reports, patient records, legal briefs, grant proposals are all essays that are generated using the analytical side of one’s brain.  Creative expression is not welcome in this kind of literature because it can distort the message. 

As a result, a great number of people are walking around on this planet with the mistaken notion that all writing is dry, dull, and tedious to both read and write. 

Innovative thinking, the imagination to approach situations from different angles, creativity are all highly coveted in this century.  But how exactly does an uncreative person become creative?  

Captioning photos is an exercise that develops creativity.

It does so because it requires that you engage your imagination as you evaluate the picture.  You have to ask yourself questions like “What is going on in the photo? What is the context of the situation pictured in the photo? What is included in the picture and what, if anything, is excluded?  Out of everything I have evaluated, what is most important? What phrase or sentence can I use to succinctly and accurately capture the one meaning I wish to focus on in the picture?” 

If you’ve ever tried to caption a photo well (I say “well” because slapping “a tree in a field” under a picture of a tree in a field is not a good faith effort when it comes to creating a meaningful caption that evokes some emotion  in a reader looking at the photo), you’ll know that it’s not easy to do.  Unless you caption pictures in your spare time for fun, this activity should be difficult because it’s so unlike the things we are asked to do on a daily basis.  It forces you to stretch your mind (in a good way). 

How to Create Captions for Photos

For a caption to be a good one, it must adhere to a few simple rules:

  • It must be relevant
  • It must be brief
  • It must evoke emotion

Relevance and brevity are fairly straightforward to understand.  But what does “evoke emotion” mean?  It means , basically, that the words of the caption call to the reader’s mind (if not heart) some feeling.  For example, if you wanted to focus on the isolation depicted in a photo of a single tree in a field, you could caption the photo: ‘The ones looked up to by all are often times the most alone,’ or ‘One is truly the loneliest number.’  It really doesn’t matter what emotion you choose – any is a viable focus for a moving caption. 

I Can Has Cheezburger, home of the famous Lolcats, is a site that focuses almost exclusively on humorous captions.  I love this site because of how much the captions crack me up most of the time.  I like this site so much I usually have it open on the overhead projector as students come in to class because it sets up an enjoyable, fun tone for the rest of the class period.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Demotivators are sarcastic, angst-filled captions that point out many of life’s ironies. 

Don’t think that you have to actually go through with physically captioning whatever picture you’ve chosen for this exercise.  Unless you’re a Photoshop guru, it’s too much trouble to do and unnecessary for reaping the benefits of the exercise.  Just do what I do in class with my students: I choose an uncaptioned photo (usually from the Lol Builder) and ask for suggestions on what to write IF I were going to caption the photo to be funny, sad, etc.

Every time you come across a picture in a magazine or a blog, just take a moment to stop and ask yourself what you’d write as a caption – then move on without actually captioning it.  The more you engage your brain in this kind of thinking, the easier it will be to approach problems and situations from several different view points. 

As to why this exercise is worth doing… Isn’t innovative, multi-angled thinking the kind of thinking that’s valued in today’s marketplace?