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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Outlines: How They Help You Write Your Paper

This might come as a surprise to you, but the hardest part of writing an essay is not the actual writing of it; it’s the coming up with ideas for what you write.  I’ve already discussed ways to generate ideas using freewriting and mindmapping, but I’ve yet to mention my personal favorite method: outlining.

Informal Outlines

I, like many people, suffer from fear of the blank page.  The way I overcome that hurdle is to list as many major points in my paper as I can come up with.  Then I start filling in each main point (adding more as I come up with them).  Not only does it help organize my essay right from the get-go, but it gives me a realistic view of how far along in my work I am.  It helps with goal-setting as well as I assign myself a number of sections each day or week, and make myself accountable for completing them.  If you have a long report to complete, breaking it down into bite-size sections is advice any writer will give you.

John McGie in his article “One Professional’s Steps for Writing a Book” offers up that same advice:

  • Switch to Outline View and type in your headings.
  • Apply Heading 1 to all of them.
  • Now promote/demote/move headings to set the structure for your book.
  • Print the result and have it reviewed.
  • Go back to Word and move around/apply the changes.
  • Switch to Normal View and type your text under each heading.
  • Print this and have it reviewed.
  • For our purposes, “headings” will be your main points.  (If you’re interested in writing a book, stop by McGie’s original article to learn more about how to set up chapters in Word.) What I particularly like about McGie’s advice is he advocates asking for feedback at various points of your project.  Having another set of eyes helping you find errors in your writing is integral to having a final product you can be sure is as error-free as possible.


    Reading about how to accomplish something is all well and good, but (if you’re like me) seeing examples of the finished product can add that extra bit of help you need to fully understand what’s expected of you.  It’s why so many of us like to complete jigsaw puzzles with the cover propped up next to us to guide us.  As a guide to help you understand what I’ve been explaining about informal outlines, I’m including a few of my own from projects I’m working on right now. 

    Note how in each example I have created headings for main points/chapters.  I personally like to skip around and fill in each section as inspiration strikes.  I leave sections half-finished as well; it gives me something to return to later and finish, makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something already, and keeps the page from being too “blank.”

    Click on each image to be taken to a larger version.

    So the next time you have a major writing assignment, consider giving outlining a try.  It’s my method of choice for generating ideas and creating structure and organization in papers, and it takes very little effort.  Whereas if you create a mind-map, you have to translate the ideas in that diagram into an essay.

    As a final note, please do not mistake informal outlines for formal outlines, which are often assigned by teachers.  Formal outlines have specific rules you must follow.  My next post will deal exclusively with the rules of formal outlining, so stay tuned for that.

    Happy writing!

    Photo credit: Dmscvan

    Thursday, June 23, 2011

    FREE Click-to-Donate Online Charities

    My last post highlighted the need everyone has for character development and I thought this would be a great opportunity to call attention to several online charities that allow you to donate to great causes at no cost to you.

    Every night before I go to sleep, I make sure to get my daily click in to the following sites.  It doesn’t cost me anything and I am left with the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from having done something good for someone else.   Add the following websites to your daily routine and you too can start building good karma!

    Click to Give

    This website not only lets you click to provide animal care, feed the poor, stop child abuse, end homelessness, impact kids caner, and sponsor children, it ALSO tracks how many times you've clicked and shows you a graph detailing your cumulative impact on each charity. It really feels good to see those numbers go higher and know you're the reason!

    The Rescue Sites

    The Animal Rescue Site
    This website is similar to the previous one in that the one site hosts various charities. In all, there are the Hunger Site, the Breast Cancer Site, the Animal Rescue Site, the Veterans Site, the Autism Site, the Child Health Site, the Literacy Site, and the Rainforest Site. Don't forget to visit each one through the menu bar at the top of the screen!


    Much like Click-to-Give, Care2 lets you track your "credits" for every action you take on the site. Their click to donate charities include children, the rainforest, big cats, breast cancer, pets, seals, oceans, primates, global warming, violence, and wolves. Definitely add this website to your list of daily stops if clicking a button to donate to charity appeals to you.

    If you're feeling generous and have more time to kill, consider visiting the following websites to click on more charities:

    Happy clicking!

    Photo credit: Your Secret Admiral

    Monday, June 20, 2011

    Personal Character: How It Affects Your Writing

    lady justice

    Teaching at-risk high school students for the past year was a learning experience for me.  Being faced with difficult circumstances (sometimes outright hostile ones) helped me to grow both as a person and as a writing instructor.  While I won’t disclose the particulars of my students and my interactions, I will impart to you one insight about writing of which this past year made me aware:

    Your personal character affects your writing.

    I know it may be a hard claim to swallow, but allow me to explain how something so abstract can have a very tangible effect on the words you produce on paper.  In short, writing is made up of an assortment of anecdotes, analogies, comparisons, and examples.   You select their content based on what you know (i.e., your background) and what you value (i.e., your character).

    What You Know

    People write about what they know and so much of the content that you create is based on your personal background.  There’s not much that you can do to control that. Being more aware of what the anecdotes and comparisons you use reveal about your socioeconomic background can empower you, though, to make sure that you

    1. reveal only as much of your personal history as you are comfortable revealing to your audience and
    2. make sure to choose examples that come from your audience’s personal experience, not yours.

    Let’s look at how a comment on the weather can reveal much about your background.  It’s summer time now in Houston and  the heat is in full swing.  Since Houston is relatively close to the coast, it’s not only unbearably hot in the summer, it’s also humid.  If you write

    “The humidity level in Houston makes it feel like one giant laundromat,”
    you’ve revealed to your reader that you are familiar with what the inside of a washateria feels like.  Depending on who the target audience of  your paper is, your reader may not have ever set foot inside a laundromat personally and may or may not be coming to assumptions about your income level based on the fact that you have

    What You Value

    While there is nothing you can do to change your background, you CAN change your character.  Your “character” is the sum of moral or ethical qualities that make you the person you are.  If you haven’t considered how your personal values can seep into your writing, you need to read the following paragraph.

    The essays my students turned in to me this past year revealed more than just their writing ability; they revealed their very moral fibres.  For example, after Christmas break I asked students to write about what they did over the holiday.  One student wrote that she would have gone clubbing with her boyfriend, but she had to stay home and watch her baby.  While that in and of itself didn’t reveal much, the sentence she wrote afterwards did: “My baby cramps my style."  Another girl wrote about how jealous she felt that her baby received more Christmas presents than she did.  When answering an essay prompt asking about how best to spend lottery winnings, only two students wrote that they would give it all to their parents so that they could pay the bills and buy food. 

    While it is obvious what character flaws and strengths my students’ writing revealed about them (at least I hope it’s as obvious to you as it is to me), your writing is equally as telling even if you’re not writing a personal narrative.  The examples you choose to illustrate a hard day’s work convey your work ethic; the comparisons you make in an essay to describe beauty reveal what you value aesthetically.   Yes,  while what makes up a desirable “character” is very subjective, there are certain aspects that are universal.  Make sure that nothing you write indicates to your audience that you would be willing to compromise your integrity. 

    How to Build Your Character

    Building your character is something that you can do yourself.  Characters are developed during childhood, it’s true, but there is nothing that prevents a person from evaluating themselves morally  as an adult and implementing steps to work on areas that need improvement.

    Look at the self-help aisle in your bookstore, subscribe to self-improvement podcasts, attend meditation and/or yoga classes, listen to upbeat music, go to local conferences or seminars, and spend time with people you admire. 

    One poem that deals directly with defining what a good “character” is is “If” by Rudyard Kipling.  My father knew it by heart and would recite parts of it at random to my sister and me.  I have yet to run into another person who has even heard of the poem, much less read it. This poem needs more exposure, especially considering how morally blind society is. Print it out and pin it to your corkboard at work, tape it to your bathroom mirror, or frame it and hang it on the living room wall. 

    “If” by Rudyard Kipling

    If you can keep your head when all about you  
        Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
        But make allowance for their doubting too;  
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
        Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
        And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;  
        If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;  
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
        And treat those two impostors just the same;  
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
        Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
        And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
        And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
        And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
        To serve your turn long after they are gone,  
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
        Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,  
        Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
        If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
        With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,  
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,  
        And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

    Developing one’s moral rectitude isn’t something widely talked about.  All you have to do is turn on the news to see evidence of how lacking we are in ethics as a society.  Hopefully this post will make you stop and reflect on who you are as a person and if you’re happy with yourself.   It’s a reflection we all need to make at various points in our life so we can make adjustments if necessary and keep improving ourselves. I’d like to think that I made my students stop and think about what values they wanted to prioritize in their lives and that they made changes for the better.

    People are judged by their writing more than society cares to admit.  Nowadays, bad writing, lack of style or imagination, or sloppy content can get you fired or cost you a promotion because it reflects badly on your ability to communicate coherently and appropriately.  While grammar is emphasized in schools, don’t forget that the content of your writing is just as important.res

    Photo credit: vaXzine

    Friday, June 17, 2011

    The Writing Process: A Graph


    Several months ago I saw this graph on BoingBoing and fell in love with how true to life it is.  Created by Ed Yong, a science blogger for Discover magazine, it maps out Mr. Yong’s writing process from article conception to pseudo-end.  You see, no author ever actually finishes  working on a writing project; we just get the piece to a point we’re happy with and force ourselves to stop editing it so it can be published.

    Click here to go to Mr. Yong’s original blog post.  The many comments Mr. Yong has received on his post should reassure you that you are not alone when it comes to struggling with writing assignments.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    How to Write an Essay FAST

    Sandals in the sand.

    Summer is here! Summer’s arrival brings with it beaches, swimsuits, ice-cream, barbeques….and summer school.  Summer school is a great way to get ahead educationally and complete credits you wouldn’t normally have time to take. 

    But as great as summer school is for your transcript, be aware that (at least on the college level) it’s still a grueling month of work where you are given 1/3 the time (or less) that you receive in a regular semester to complete one or more essays…. essays that needs to be as thoughtful and well supported as ones written during a regular semester.

    When you have to write an essay quickly, you need to approach the writing process a little bit differently.  Time is of the essence and you just don’t have the time to fiddle with different approaches to your essay until you find the one you like best.  Here are my tips for writing an essay FAST:

    1. Skip the Introduction

    How many hours have I and others like me spent staring at that blinking cursor waiting for brilliance to strike? So many students have approached me the day before an essay is due and told me “If I could just get started, I’d be fine. I really just need help starting the essay.” Time is a luxury you don’t have, so skip agonizing over the perfect way to begin your essay and get straight to writing the thesis statement

    2. Write Your Main Points

    Now that you have a thesis statement, you can get to the meat and potatoes of your essay: supporting that statement.  Try to come up with at least 3 main points; that’s enough to get you decent coverage.  If you only have 2 main points, they had better be thorough and solid.  Because if one of those two points is weak, then your professor will dock you for having only one main point to carry your entire paper – In other words, you put all your eggs in one basket.

    3. SUPPORT Your Main Points

    If you recall, there are 4 types of evidence.  Choose at least 2 types per main point.  If you’re trying to hit a certain  number of pages: the more types of evidence you have supporting each main point, the longer the essay.

    4. Choose an Intro and Conclusion

    Now that the body of your paper is finished, you can go back and plug in an introduction and conclusion.  If you have the time, you can try to come up with the perfect beginning sentence that will herald brilliance.  Chances are, though, you’re out of time and need something that will introduce your topic and provide filler.  What I suggest is just randomly choosing one of the 7 introductory techniques available.  Each technique will get the job done, so it doesn’t necessarily matter which one you choose.  Sure, some will fit your topic better than others, but at this stage in the game, you simply don’t have the time to try each one on and see which fits best.  Make absolutely sure that whichever technique you use in your introduction you REPEAT it in your conclusion. 

    5. Proofread Your Essay

    I cannot stress the importance of this last step enough.  Most students will consider their work done the moment their essay is written and they will turn it in as is.  Proofreading your paper does NOT take that much time and can be the difference between making a passing and failing grade.  Yes, your paper was written in a rush and may be a tad short of brilliant, but your teacher doesn’t know that.  Present your paper in the proper format and with as few grammatical mistakes as possible so that it LOOKS like an A paper, even if it isn’t.  There’s a very good chance that your teacher has stacks of papers s/he needs to grade and a very limited amount of time to do it.  Summer school isn’t just hard on students; teachers suffer their way through it too.  You don’t want to give away any advantage you have so the little bit of time it takes to make sure your paper is clean-cut and pretty is well worth the potential pay-off if your teacher is running behind on grading.

    Really, the FASTEST way to write an essay is to plagiarize it, but you’ve already seen the reasons that road is a bad one to take.  My proposed method for getting an essay written in a minimal amount of time still requires work – that’s something you just can’t avoid.  Hopefully breaking the steps down for you will cut down on the amount of work you do have to do and help you get through each essay as painlessly as possible.

    Good luck and don’t forget to take some time to hit the beach and catch some sun – it IS summer time, after all :).

    Photo credit: Klearchos