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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Winter Solstice!


I hope your holidays have been as enjoyable as mine have been. This December I’ve used my vacation to spend time with family and savor our Christmas traditions more than I have in many years. The presents were less plentiful this year, but I can’t say I missed them.  Good friends and family, happy dogs, and delicious food were all the gifts I needed (or wanted!).

I’m a quiet, introspective person so spending the holidays with my very small immediate family while we cook traditional Peruvian and Romanian dishes and watch Christmas classics on television is my idea of a perfect Christmas. I have friends who are far from loved ones this winter and I feel for everyone who can’t spent this holiday in the comfort of home.  There’s a classic Spanish Christmas song that always brings a tear to my eye when I hear it. If you’re far from the ones you hold dear, then this song is for you.

Ven A Mi Casa Esta Navidad by Alvaro Torres

Tu que estas lejos de tus amigos     You, who are far from your friends,
De tu tierra y de tu hogar     From your country, and your home
Y tienes pena, pena en el alma     And you have sadness, sadness in your soul
Porque no dejas de pensar     Because you can’t stop thinking
Tu que esta noche no puedes, dejar de recordar     You, who this night, can’t stop remembering
Quiero que sepas que aquí en mi mesa    I want you to know that here at my table
para ti tengo un lugar     For you I have a place.
Por eso y muchas cosas más     For that and many more things,
Ven a mi casa esta Navidad     Come to my house this Christmas.
Por eso y muchas cosas más  For that and many more things,
Ven a mi casa esta Navidad     Come to my house this Christmas.
Tu que recuerdas quizá a tu madre     You, who remembers perhaps your mother,
O a un hijo que no esta     Or a son who isn’t here,
Quiero que sepas que en esta noche     I want you to know that this night
él te acompañará     He will accompany you.
No vayas solo por esas calles Don’t go alone through those streets
queriéndote aturdir     Wanting to be in a daze.
Ven con nosotros y a nuestro lado    Come with us, and by our side,
intenta sonreír     Try to smile.
Por eso y muchas cosas más    For that and many more things,
Ven a mi casa esta Navidad      Come to my house this Christmas.
Por eso y muchas cosas más    For that and many more things,
Ven a mi casa esta Navidad     Come to my house this Christmas.

Luis Alguile sings a beautiful version of this Spanish classic. Even if you don’t understand Spanish, the catchy melody and the emotion in his voice cross language barriers.Click here to listen to this song on YouTube.

Here are some recent photos of my dogs to keep you company if you are missing your own pets or are living in a place that doesn’t allow animals. Happy holidays to everyone out in Internet-land!



Editing Your Writing: Removing Pleonasms

Redundant advertising on shampoo bottle

Brevity is one of the characteristics of good writing; it’s also one of the hardest for writers (especially new ones) to achieve. Writers have a tendency to hang on to the words they commit to paper, even when editing them out would result in better prose (a process Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch called “murdering your darlings”). When the writing is your own, you’re often the last person to realize some words, sentences, or even entire paragraphs are superfluous and need to go. It’s best to start desensitizing yourself to the pain of deleting your own writing by editing out redundancies that are easy for even novice writers to spot.

These redundancies are called pleonasms, words that are repetitive and unnecessary to the meaning of a sentence. They usually appear alongside a synonym and are easier to recognize than other forms of verbiage because two adjacent words that have the same meaning tend to call attention to themselves. An easier way to identify pleonasms is to remember they are the opposite of oxymorons, a combination of contradictory terms (e.g., jumpo shrimp).

Examples of Pleonasms

Examples of redundant phrases can be found very easily just driving to the grocery store or the local mall. If you’re not the adventuring type, opening the paper or turning on the television will yield just as many pleonasms. Here are just a few of the more common ones:

  • “Free gift” – Presents, by definition, do not cost you anything.
  • “New [and] improved” – Improvements can only be done to pre-existing items.
  • “Lift/Raise/Climb up” or “Descend/Fall/Lower down” – Each of these verbs already contains directionality.
  • “Unexpected surprise” – Surprises are never expected.

You should start to get the idea what a repetitious phrase looks like now. Sometimes there may be a conjunction like “and” or a comma separating words that are synonymous, as in the phrases “old and ancient ruins” and “frigid, cold depths.” In these cases, one word can still be deleted to make the message more succinct (just remember to also remove the conjunction or comma!). For a very thorough list of English pleonasms, see Pleonasms and Redundant Phrases.  Once you start keeping your eyes peeled for redundancies in writing, you’re going to start seeing pleonasms everywhere!

Great writing doesn’t have to be overflowing with flowery language that spills onto page after page.  Some of the most beloved and impactful novels we have are slim paperbacks that barely break 100 pages. George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 all come to mind.

I cannot tell you that editing your own work is easy, especially when it comes to deleting words you spent long hours coming up with, but what I can assure you is that it gets easier with practice. Removing repetitious phrases from your writing is a simple exercise that is guaranteed to make a noticeable improvement in your work.



Photo credit: George Hatcher’s Flickr Photostream

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Topic Sentences: An Introduction

Screenshot from Nintendo game _Duck Hunt_

For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up during a time when game developers were just beginning to explore the potential of 8-bit graphics, the sight of an NES zapper calls to mind nostalgia. Duck Hunt was the very first first-person shooter I ever played, and it is still the most memorable. While pointing the light gun at anything was fun in the beginning, when I was done fooling around and wanted to actually be successful at the game I had to learn how to aim properly to hit the targets.

In writing, paragraphs have to be aimed towards targets as well. Topic sentences accomplish this task for you by pointing your paragraphs in the direction of the main point you're trying to cover. They also let your reader know where you're heading, clarify your ideas, and organize your points. It's can be fun and productive to just mess around writing anything that comes to mind, but if you want your paper to have any chance of being successful, you need to add topic sentences.

A Topic Sentence Defined

A topic sentence is a sentence that states the main idea of a paragraph. It is usually, but not always, located at the beginning of the paragraph. Additionally, a good topic sentence is concise, taking no more words than are absolutely necessary to state the main idea.

Hopefully this definition sounds familiar to you. If not, take a peek at my post about thesis statements. Getting a feeling of deja vu yet? Topic sentences and thesis statements are so similar to one another because they both serve to focus writing. Whereas a thesis statement states the direction of an entire essay and is located at the end of the introductory paragraph, a topic sentence only states the focus of a single paragraph and is placed at its beginning. Interestingly, when you break a paragraph down to its basic components, it's essentially a miniature essay. However, that's a topic to tackle in another post.

Examples of Topic Sentences

It’s time to see what topic sentences look like in action. In the following examples, I will write the topic sentences in bold for easier identification. Notice how the topic sentence contains the main idea of the paragraph and the remaining sentences are 1) relevant and 2) support and/or expand on the topic sentence.

  • Charismatic people always seem to know the right things to say and when to say them.  They don’t pepper their sentences with ‘uhs’ or desperately search for words.  They are polished and articulate, which creates a commanding and powerful presence.  But this enviable performance is not by chance, it is the result of careful preparation.”

    ~Solovic, Susan W. The Girls' Guide to Power and Success. New York: MJF Books, 2001. 79. Print.
  • "Unlike a disease, which has a specific pathological origin, a syndrome is a condition that exists only as a collection of symptoms. Consider cystic fibrosis, a disease that causes the body to produce an unnaturally large amount of sticky mucous, resulting in long-term deterioration of the lungs, as well as other conditions related to mucous production. The disease is present when a person receives a specific gene from both parents. The genes are the cause, the excess mucous production is the effect, and the lung deterioration and a few other conditions are the symptoms. The symptoms are specific to the disease and lead to the specific diagnosis."

    ~Hammerly, Milton, and Cheryl Kimball. What to Do When the Doctor Says It's PCOS. Massachusetts: Fair Winds Press, 2003. 91. Print.
  • The legal profession is known for its mind-boggling complexities, but also for its clever terminology.  One of my favorite creations from this latter category is the ‘attractive nuisance.’  The phrase seems almost perfectly to summarize the yin and yang of life, with its sweet, naughty temptations.  Sadly, in legal terms, what it more specifically refers to is one’s backyard swimming pool, which looks so inviting to the youth of the neighborhood that they can almost be expected to try and jump in at some point.”

    ~Beneke, Jeff. The Fence Bible. Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 2005. 13. Print.

Who Uses Topic Sentences?

Don't pick up your favorite novel to find examples of topic sentences. In fact, most professional writers whose work is found in bookstores do not use explicit topic sentences in their writing. You definitely won't find many topic sentences in journalism or online; people perusing Internet posts and newspaper articles have short attention spans and will not read large chunks of text, so paragraphs are often no longer than two sentences (if even that long).

However, topic sentences are expected and often required in academic writing, including writing produced in professions that require reports (e.g., medical professionals writing research, lawyers and paralegals working on briefs, and even managers writing productivity reports). If you have any aspirations of making it through your high-school, college, and professional writing responsibilities unscathed, you're going to need to learn start writing topic sentences. But don’t think of topic sentences as a chore; the fact is, writing them will end up saving you time and effort.

How Topic Sentences Make Writing Easier for You

Getting in the habit of writing topic sentences for each paragraph as you work on an essay will actually make writing your essay faster and easier. You have to know what you're trying to say with each paragraph before you can write the topic sentence, so you're essentially being forced to organize your thoughts as you commit them to paper. As someone who's written more essays than she can count during the span of her still-ongoing academic life, trust me when I say making an outline of your main points before you start writing will make writing topic sentences a piece of cake. Once you know what main point or sub-point you're presenting in a paragraph, all that's left to do is supply the evidence to support the paragraph’s main point.

Why wouldn't you want to make essay writing easier for yourself? A topic sentence is a sentence that writes itself because if you know your main point, you know your topic sentence. It's essentially one less sentence you have struggle over in your essay, letting you focus your energy where you need it most: supporting your arguments.  

Not only do topic sentences help you write papers, being able to identify other writers’ topic sentences has benefits of its own.  Since a topic sentence contains the main idea of a paragraph, it can be used to summarize writing sections easily and efficiently.  Professional tutoring services for the SAT and LSAT frequently teach students to look for topic sentences in paragraphs as a simple, fast “trick” to locate information to answer questions. Apply this technique to textbooks to isolate important points quickly and create an outline of each chapter’s main ideas.

Final Thoughts

Topic sentences are considered one of the basics of good writing and mastering them is not something most people can accomplish without practice.  There is much more to learning how to execute them successfully than what I can contain in a single blog post, so stay tuned for future posts that transform main points in an outline into topic sentences, break down the elements of essay paragraphs, and  include examples of paragraphs missing topic sentences.  I will be writing many more blog posts on this topic because I know just how essential a skill writing topic sentences is for you to be successful in your writing endeavors.

A dog in the game Duck Hunt held up the birds you shot when you aimed well. Readers won't do that to let you know your paragraphs hit the mark so remember to get feedback on your writing before you submit it to a professor or supervisor.


Photo credit: MethodShop

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why _The Man With The Iron Fists_ Is Bad Writing

 Man With Iron Fists Poster

It has always been my belief that movies are descriptive essays come to life. I've taught students to watch film with a critical eye and to notice how closely screenplays follow the same requirements of academic writing. An introduction with an attention-grabbing element that will also appear in the conclusion, solid main points that are relevant and fully developed, transitions to improve the flow from one scene to the next – it’s not hard to see why the hallmark of good cinema is good writing.

When a movie has great writing, why the show was so successful can be difficult to pinpoint because most, if not all, of the elements it needs are well done. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. It’s much easier to identify the flaws in a badly written movie because we take for granted that the basics will be present; when characters are under-developed and multiple plot holes exist, the absence of quality writing comes as a shock.

It can be difficult to find movies so badly done that it’s impossible to not see what part of the writing failed to deliver. Luckily for me, The Man With the Iron Fists is one such example of cinema that failed to live up to its potential. Please be forewarned that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS throughout my review of the movie. If you have yet to see it and would like the plot to be a surprise when you do, consider NOT reading further in this blog post.

The Title Was Inappropriate

The movie is titled after the main character of the story, the Blacksmith. The problem is the focus of the movie is on the other characters for the first half of the film.  The Blacksmith doesn’t make a significant appearance until the second half of the movie. That would be acceptable if the first half of the film paved the way for the Blacksmith’s character to take a starring role, but it didn’t.  When the so-called protagonist of the story finally gets some screen-time, he is still only a secondary character who does not battle the primary villains to avenge Gold Lion, recover the gold, or save the orphans from the Emperor’s gold-recovery team.

In terms of screen-time and the role the blacksmith plays as a character in the story, his being named the main character is simply not warranted. A better title for the movie would have been X-Blade, as Zen Yi is the character who avenges Gold Lion, his father, by journeying to Jungle Village, battling multiple attempts on his life by various hired goons, and ultimately fighting and killing Silver Lion to recover the Emperor’s gold.

The title The Man With the Iron Fists could still work, but the screenplay would have to be rewritten to reflect the more active role the Blacksmith would have to play in the movie to justify his being the title character. Read more about the importance of titles and why weak titles can upset viewers.

There Were Too Many Plot Holes

Plot holes are the result of underdeveloped ideas. There simply isn’t enough detail in the script to explain some person or event in the story and a “hole” is felt by the viewer. These cavities can lead to what are called logical fallacies, errors in reasoning.  You actually need some thread of reasoning before it can become a tangled mess and, alas, The Man With the Iron Fists suffers from much more basic errors in writing.

Examples of the story’s weak writing include:

  • The Poison Dagger: This character uses poisoned darts, not a dagger, to stealthily kill opponents.  As a top advisor to the Emperor, it’s questionable that he would be able to disappear from duty and spend as much time as he does with Silver Lion without his absence being noticed.  Moreover, his raspy voice and shocking head of pure white hair are qualities impossible to keep hidden under a cloak for months on end.  Jack Knife has been searching for the Poison Dagger since his own almost-fatal run-in with the Dagger’s poison; it’s hard to believe that in the many years since their encounter, Jack Knife never heard rumors about the Dagger’s identity.  Jack Knife’s only clue is the blueprints for a dart dispenser and mercury tipped darts.  These clues lead him to the Blacksmith, the only weaponsmith who uses mercury in the area.  However, no mention of the commissioning of this dart gun was mentioned earlier (and there were many opportunities afforded the film to slip it in with the other plans for weapons commissioned by the various clans). 


  •  The Assassination of Gold Lion. Only TWO people in the Lion clan thought Silver Lion’s behavior was odd after the death of Gold Lion? What about those present at the battle where Gold Lion was assassinated by the Poison Dagger? Silver Lion wasn’t exactly subtle about gloating over Gold Lion’s corpse.  Did all the Lions at that particular battle perish so none could be witness to Silver Lion’s betrayal? Finally, and most importantly, why would the clan NOT wait for Zen Yi’s return? As the son of the now-deceased leader and the most capable warrior in the clan, it doesn’t make sense for the clan not to wonder about his continued absence.  Silver Lion’s enthused speech about the Lion clan being strong enough without Zen Yi may have won over the clansmen for the battle against the Hyena clan, but when months pass and Zen Yi still doesn’t return, surely more than two members became concerned. Once Zen Yi was in Jungle Village and the news spread, the Lion clan members STILL remained apathetic to Zen Yi’s lack of arrival at the clan’s headquarters.  Silver Lion never hid the fact that he hired Bronze Body and Brass Body’s fight with Zen Yi was public.


  • Zen Yi’s Escape and Convalescence. After Zen Yi is defeated by Brass Body and is about to receive the death blow, Zen Yi’s dying henchman manages to drop a roof on top of Brass Body. While Brass Body shrugs off the structure, the Blacksmith and his girlfriend whisk Zen Yi away down the alley and up into the Pink Blossom. Zen Yi manages to avoid detection for weeks by lying in bed at the Pink Blossom while the Blacksmith’s girlfriend attends to him. Later, when the Blacksmith is being tortured, Silver Lion reveals that he knows all about the Blacksmith’s prostitute girlfriend. The Blacksmith ultimately loses his arms due to his refusal to give up where Zen Yi is hidden. The question here is: How could Silver Lion NOT know where Zen Yi was? If Silver Lion were desperate to get Zen Yi, as he claims to be, why not storm the Pink Blossom or ask for them to hand Zen Yi over?


I understand some kung-fu action films are meant in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way where entertainment is paramount over logical consistency, and some cheesiness is actually intended. The overly dramatized gore and action were throw-backs to Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, and especially Kill Bill type cinematography, but the intentionally melodramatic, corny acting was inconsistent, making the movie seem confused. At best the movie seemed to suffer from multiple personality disorder, unsure of what genre it was supposed to be.

Main Points Weren’t Developed

While missing main points created plot holes, the main points that were present were severely underdeveloped. I’ve written before about the types of evidence available for writers to use to support their main points and screenplay writing is no different. Flashbacks, dialogue, and cut-scenes are all ways plot and characters can be developed. The Man With the Iron Fists doesn’t take advantage of these techniques and the resulting story and characters are shallow and insincere.

  • Madame Blossom was a fascinating character who’s thirst for power and gold and willingness to use sex and violence to attain it were well developed. We get hints as to her background when she gives an impassioned feminist speech to her brothel girls, but nothing that really indicates what horrible things happened to her as a young woman. Nothing that justifies her turning her back to an enemy and exposing herself to his blade in order to save a child. The act rang very insincere for her character.


  • The Blacksmith. I can’t begin to convey how woefully underdeveloped this character was in the movie. The scenes where he was a negro in America were a start towards developing him as a three-dimensional human being, but nowhere near enough the development needed for a main character. Instead of his life back in Southern America, more attention should have been spent on his time in the monastery after washing ashore in China. DEFINITELY more scenes needed to be shot that depicted his relationship with his girlfriend. There were no emotional scenes between them. For the entirety of two minutes they were together on screen, he gave her the gold he earned for her and she put it into her jewelry box and smiled over it. The scenes depict his "girl" more like a gold digger who was using him. However, her death supposedly provided the Blacksmith the motivation for him to defeat Brass Body. 

Irrelevant Points Were Developed

Writing a thorough, lengthy answer to the wrong question is one of the oldest tricks in a student’s repertoire of desperation when they see an essay question they don’t actually know the answer to. Take-home essays suffer from irrelevancy just as often as in-class essays do, but usually because the student used up all the relevant main points s/he had and needed to reach a set page limit.  RZA could be considered a student as this was his first time directing a movie, but the stakes were much higher for a product like The Man With the Iron Fists than it is for a student trying to get another assignment out of the way.

As beautiful as the character development for Zen Yi was, it was for the WRONG MOVIE. For what it’s worth, his relationship was much more believable than the Blacksmith’s was. Jack Knife’s character was another one that was extremely well developed.  A movie explaining Jack Knife’s past exploits would be thrilling, but he should not have received as much screen time and development as he did in The Man With the Iron Fists. That time would have been better spent flushing out the Blacksmith’s character and filling in the gaping holes in the plot line.

The Acting Was Bad Overall

If the screenplay consists of the main points, then acting consists of the stylistic elements present in writing. How well the paper is formatted, proper use of citation style conventions, and thorough proofreading affect how well received an essay will be by a reader. If the paper is so riddled with grammar and spelling errors that it is frustrating to read, no one will enjoy reading it. The same bad experience is guaranteed viewers of a movie with bad acting.

Suffice it to say that it was quite obvious RZA was not a professional actor just by his handling of the Blacksmith role. Not only was the narration and dialogue delivered in an emotionless, monotone voice, he had only two facial expressions: angry and in pain.

The Final Say

I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t point out that there are things that were exceptionally well done in the movie. For example, the music and costumes were amazing. But the many flaws in the movie overshadowed its good merits. If The Man With the Iron Fists were an academic essay, it would not receive a passing grade. The writing is simply too poor for this movie to be successful. All the errors mentioned above could have and should have been caught at the proofreading stage, if not sooner.  With a screenplay as badly flawed as this one, it’s a wonder the movie ever made it into theaters at all.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012 Kickoff!

NaNoWriMo 2012 Participant

A month brimming over with words is upon us as today marks the commencement of NaNoWriMo 2012! I wish I could be struggling to meet daily word goals with the other 200k+ people taking part in this year's National Novel Writing Month, but studying for tests and filling out graduate school applications takes priority this month. 

If you do have the free time, I plead with you to take part in the writing frenzy.  A talent for weaving pictures out of words is not needed, just a desire to tell a story -any story- however simple.  Some people who have no stories to tell use this month to write blog posts, poetry, or correspondence to family members.

Don't worry about actually meeting word limits if you like to take a slower approach to fabricating your stories.  The story I began in last year's NaNoWriMo is still incomplete and I never met more than a week of word goals, but I had the time of my life reading through all the interesting forum posts and I now have 27k of words of a story that I wouldn't have had without the support and motivation granted me by knowing an army of writers was out there with me sweating to find just the right way to say something.

Signing up for an account is free! Even if you decide not to participate, this month can still be one where you pause and think about the craft of writing just a little longer than you normally would. I know I will be writing more than I usually do this month, even if it’s not 1,665 words a day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Meet Martin!

Stray puppy on campus 

A Fateful Meeting

On my way to a test the other day, I ran across this little guy on the outskirts of campus.  People were walking past him without a second glance while he sat under a tree and wagged his tail.  He looked so lonely, I just had to walk over for a closer look.  My original plan was to give him my lunch, pat him on the head, and continue on my merry way to class. Ha! After he devoured my sandwich, he crawled all over me, positively ecstatic. In between trying to keep him from slobbering too much on my face and putting away my lunch containers, I realized he was just a puppy. I hardened my heart as best I could and started walking away, but when I saw him chase a skateboarder into the busy street and get shooed by university landscapers towards the main road, my well laid plan to feed-and-run was doomed.

Stray puppy in my backseat

The Journey Home

Yes, that is the puppy in the back seat of my car.  He looks completely unremorseful in the photo for the struggle it took to get him across the parking lot and into my vehicle (not to mention for what he DID to my car!).  When I ran out of food with which to lure him, I resorted to picking him up and carrying his wiggly butt the rest of the way.  With the amount of squirming he was doing, it looked like I was dog-napping someone’s pet! Did I mention he was heavy? And I was wearing my backpack and purse, to boot! I have no idea what muscle I pulled in my lower back, but it’s still on the mend today.


The Start of a New Life

As thirsty as he was, I’m surprised he didn’t jump into the pool to cool off! It must have been in the upper 90’s the day I found him.  Doesn’t he look adorable? I made it back to school in time for my exam, thank Goodness! I had two hours to spare, but all it takes is one accident on the freeway and several closed lanes for traffic to slow to a crawl. I doubt “I found a stray dog” would have qualified as an acceptable reason to make up a test for my professor.

After terrorizing Mofi and Hugo, my other dogs, ALL night trying to smell their nether regions, he settled down to a nice meal of one decorative rug, three stuffed dog toys, one tennis ball, and a throw pillow.  Did I forget to say he wasn’t neutered? The house was uncharted, unmarked virgin territory and it was his mission to claim it all.

One sleep-deprived night and a generous donation later, the puppy was safely admitted to a no-kill local shelter.  Everyone who met him on the way fell in love with how happy and soft he was and once at the shelter, he claimed the staff’s hearts by bounding over to the admitting clerk’s desk and trying to crawl into her lap. I left them with the few dog toys that managed to survive the night and last I saw he was inspecting the computer monitor while staff cooed over his cuteness.

I HAD to check on him the next day so I visited the shelter’s website and saw his pretty little face already posted for adoption. I’m not sure if I’d have named him “Martin,” but he certainly doesn’t seem to mind the name they gave him.

Needless to say, my life has been hectic. My last post was back in August! I apologize for neglecting this blog for this long; now that I’ve adjusted to my class schedule and am unhampered by stray dogs (Sad to say, “Martin” wasn’t the first I’d found this past month, but all have happy homes now), I can get back to doing what I love: writing about writing.

Thank you all for hanging in there with me! I won’t let you down!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Happy First Week of Classes!

Sitting in the hallway outside a classroom waiting for my class time, I heard a Statistics professor say the following: “You don’t need to use a formal citation style for your papers. This isn’t a writing class and I don’t care about how fancy your vocabulary is.” There were, of course, cheers and scattered clapping in response to those words. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a non-English teacher make that pronouncement and it wouldn’t be the last; the very next hour my own professor made the same comment.

If you’re attending upper-level high school classes or a university, you need to keep in mind that the emphasis in higher education has focused to content because instructors assume you’ve already mastered the basics of English writing.  The very same Statistics professor who had moments before said what I’m sure students interpreted to mean “Writing isn’t important” said:

That being said, you need to write in complete sentences. I need to see a thesis statement or I won’t have any idea what you’re talking about. If you turn in a page that is one long paragraph, your grade will NOT be good. I need paragraphs with topic sentences. I need to see tolerably good grammar and spelling.

No one expects you to write like an academician who’s published dozens of peer-reviewed professional journal articles.  You’re just expected to write well. The idea of being judged on one’s writing ability makes most students nervous (I have several writing assignments coming up and even I’m nervous) because 1) not everyone is confident in their writing abilities and 2) half of how writing assignments (i.e., their content) are graded is subjective.

The good news is, with some practice, you can master the basics of writing and eliminate half of the stress associated with writing assignments.  I’ll be working on posts that focus on some of the most common difficulties writers face, like when to start a new paragraph and how to write topic sentences. But just because I don’t write too often about spelling and grammar issues doesn’t mean they’re not important enough for you to address. 

Don’t take just my word for it that grammar and spelling are fundamental. Check out this book review published in the Daily Cougar yesterday. The journalist reviewed a book written by a University of Houston alumnus and, goodness, was the review ever critical. If you ever thought spelling and grammar weren’t important, then this sentence from the review should help change your mind:

Any big ideas grasped within the novel feel incomplete due to clunky prose rife with spelling and punctuation errors.

The takeaway message is: Keep working on your spelling and grammar issues, NEVER forget to proofread your work, and seek out help from a competent source if you know you need assistance to find and correct your errors.  

Here’s to a great start to the new semester!

Photo credit: Markrabo

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Facebook Page and Pinterest Account

Facebook Page

Alison T. was nice enough to point out to me this past week that I have yet to join the rest of the online community in making a Facebook Page for Writing Simplified.  I got started right away on the project and managed to hash out a page that I’m mostly happy with. I’m still not exactly sure what I’ll do with the page, but looking at other blogs’ FB pages has given me lots of great ideas.

While I was at it, I went ahead and signed up for a Pinterest account, since that seems to be all the rage these days.  It’s tricky figuring out how to make a photo-based site work for a writing website.  When I come up with boards directly related to this site, I’ll post about it here. In the meantime, I’ve just been having fun pinning things that entertain me.

Pinterest Account

You’ll find the links to the new pages in the upper right hand corner of this page. Just look for the Facebook and Pinterest icons.

Links Bar

Monday, August 13, 2012

How to Write a Thesis Statement

Toyota steering wheel

Looking over the posts I’ve written throughout the past two years, I realized I have yet to write one about one of the most fundamental requirements of writing an essay.  This post about how to craft thesis statements will rectify that most egregious oversight.

An essay without a thesis statement is like a boat without a rudder, a car without a steering wheel, a watch without hands.  A thesis statement gives you a chance to tell your readers exactly what your paper is about.  Without it, they may mistakenly latch onto an element in your introduction as your main idea and become utterly confused when the rest of your paper takes a different focus.

The thesis statement is as much for you as it is for your readers. Having a single statement that pinpoints the focus of your paper will give you direction and keep your writing focused.

It has taken me so long to write this post because there are already so many very good guides available online for how to write thesis statements. These are the ones I like to refer students to when I introduce the task to students:

Be sure to visit these guides for well-written help regarding thesis statement. However, as academically valuable as these sites are, I’ve found that their guides are a little lacking in differentiating between types of essays and in helping students get from point A to point B. For example, Indiana University’s WTS is one of the few sites that provides examples of thesis statements, but their examples jump from the “bad” thesis statement:

My family is an extended family.

to the “good” thesis statement:

While most American families would view consanguineal marriage as a threat to the nuclear family structure, many Iranian families, like my own, believe that these marriages help reinforce kinship ties in an extended family.

without explaining how the original thesis statement was revised into the final product. The University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center does provide a thorough view of how a thesis statement evolves from draft form into finished product, but their guide combines thesis statement and purpose statements, which may confuse students.

Instead of redefining thesis statements, I will just show you how I introduce the idea to students and also try to fill in the gaps missing in existing guides online. What follows is my contribution to online guides detailing thesis statements.

What IS a thesis statement?

To put it simply, a thesis statement is an essay’s main idea distilled into one or two sentences.  It’s important when starting out, to start out simply. If you try to write a thesis statement that looks like one of the finished examples in the University sites I linked to above, you may feel a little (or a lot!) overwhelmed.

Since your thesis statement will vary according to the type of essay you are writing, it’s important to look at how each essay type affects thesis statements.

Essay Types & Thesis Statements

There are two main types of essays under which all others fall: expository essays and persuasive essays. These types of essays differ drastically and so will their thesis statements.

Expository essays are full of exposition. In other words, they are descriptive in nature and explain a topic in more detail. Narrative essays (personal essays) fall under this category, as do some analytical essays (e.g., book reports, science and historical reports, etc.).  Thesis statements for expository essays are unbiased, factual statements pinpointing what information you will be reporting in your essay.  They do not include value judgments on the nature of  your subject matter.

Persuasive essays try to convince the reader that one point of view is better than another.  These essays are argumentative in nature and work towards changing the reader’s mind about his or her stance on an issue (if it differs from the writer’s).  Thesis statements for persuasive essays are biased and clearly state the writer’s position on a topic. They do include value judgments on the nature of your subject matter.

I give examples of both types of essay thesis statements later on in this blog post. Scroll down if you really have to see them now.

Refining a Thesis Statement

Coming up with a “draft” thesis statement is a piece of cake. All you do is jot down a broad sentence about your general paper topic. The hardest part of writing a thesis statement for higher education is making it specific enough to sufficiently narrow the focus of your essay while still giving you enough material to reach your required page-count.  Further complicating the task is that your thesis statement will change as you write your paper and learn more about your topic.

Since crafting thesis statements tends to be intimidating for many people (frankly, it scared the bejeesus out of most of my students) and most lack the confidence that they even CAN come up with a “smart-sounding” statement worthy of higher education, I like to start at the very basic level and go from there.

Step 1: Identify Your Topic

Like the saying “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” identifying your topic on the broadest of levels will give you a general idea of where to start narrowing your focus.  Don’t try to put it into sentence form yet, just get the overall issue down on paper.

If your paper topic has already been assigned, this step has already been done for you. For example, if you were assigned to write about an issue related to World War II, then your general paper topic will be:

  • World War II

If your paper topic has not been assigned, you have to come up with one on your own.  Since you have to invest energy and time into writing a good essay, make sure it’s a topic that you enjoy. Examples of general paper topics are:

  • Dogs
  • Hospitals
  • Bacteria

These are as general as you can get without losing sight of an issue you can reasonably address in a short paper. For example, “Animals” encompasses far too many species to write abut in sufficient detail in an essay, even one that’s 10 pages long.  If you can get even more specific, by all means, do so! Instead of “dogs,” narrowing your paper down to a specific breed of dog, like “australian shepherd,” or canine behavior, like “agility training,” will make writing a focused thesis statement even easier.  Most of my students can’t pinpoint a topic with that level of specificity at this point in the stage, though, so overly-broad topics are fine at this point.

Step 2: Narrow Down Your Topic

Instructors and students are ever at odds about how narrow their essay topic is.  Students are convinced there’s no way they can come up with enough material to write an essay if their topic is too limited, and it takes a lot to persuade them otherwise.  Take our word for it, if for no other reason than you’ll get a lower grade for tackling a topic that is too broad: You need to limit your topic.

This is what the previously “assigned” topic will look like once it is narrowed down:

  • War crimes committed during World War II

This is what the self-chosen topics will look like narrowed down:

  • Hip dysplasia in dogs
  • Cancellation rates in hospitals
  • Nitrate-reducing bacteria

A note about limiting your topic: If you’re not used to writing higher-level essays, then it’s understandable that you’ll struggle to come up with enough ideas to meet your page limit. Good teachers will take the time to guide you and help you come up with more main points when you think you’ve exhausted your options.  If you’re taking an online class or your teacher isn’t as helpful as you’d like (or, let’s face it,  is too overworked to address your problems), there IS help available elsewhere. Find the tutoring services at your institution (free or for-a-fee) and schedule an appointment, ask for help from a previous instructor you’ve had who was helpful, ask help from your friends and family (if they’re good at writing), or look to online forums and discussion boards for help (and take it with a grain of salt).

Step 3: Narrow Down Your Topic Some More

The key to coming up with a great thesis statement is specificity. The more specific you can make your topic, the more sources you will be able to find that are directly relevant to what you are writing about.

If you’re searching through peer-reviewed journals (through your institution’s library or Google Scholar), you’ll notice that the article names are extremely specific. For example, here’s one from the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery: “Impact of age and anticoagulation: Need for neurosurgical intervention in trauma patients with mild traumatic brain injury.” Notice how the authors didn’t just write about “Trauma” or “Age and anticoagulation”? They limited their article to only the effects of age and anticoagulation on patients with mild traumatic brain surgery who need neurological intervention. That’s pretty darn specific!

If you look at the Wikipedia article on World War II, the number of countries and groups that committed war crimes is so extensive it warrants its own main article.  There’s no way an essay can comprehensively cover every aspect of every country or group that committed crimes. If you want your paper to be more than just “Many people committed war crimes during World War II” and a listing of all the perpetrators, you NEED to limit your topic. Since the Holocaust in Germany has been written about so often, I’m going to focus my attention on a different country.

This is what our previously assigned topic looks like when it’s more specific:

  • Croatian perpetrated war crimes during World War II

Our self-chosen paper topics are no better off than our assigned paper topic was.  Hip dysplasia in dogs is a HUGE topic that spans causes, symptoms, treatment, and even what kind of breeds are more susceptible to developing the disease. Just as broad is the topic of hospital cancellations. Cancellations of what and where? NRB needs to be refined as well since its applications range from medical to industrial.

After some refining, this is what our self-chosen topics can look like:

  • The cause of hip dysplasia in canines
  • Cancellations of elective surgeries in the Day Surgery Unit
  • Corrosion management in oil fields through the use of NRBs

How will you know you’ve limited your topic enough? When you can’t find sources to cite anymore.  If you’re looking for sources to cite about hip dysplasia in pomeranians over the age of 8 and you can’t find anything (or you can only find one article about it), you need to back up a step and broaden your topic.

Step 4: Write a Sentence

Now that our topics are sufficiently limited, it’s time to form a complete sentence out of it. The type of essay you are writing will determine how your sentence will develop. Expository essays are just going to state a fact and persuasive essays will need to judge the value of something (it’s good enough a position that you should adopt it OR it’s a bad position and you should not adopt it).

Let me transform all of our topics into thesis statements for both kinds of essay types so you can see the difference. If your sentences look simpler, THAT IS O.K. Most students aren’t going to be able to come up with more than “Many war crimes were committed by Croatia during World War II” and “Hip dysplasia is a problem caused by different factors in canines” at this stage. Once you start researching your topic, you WILL be able to frame your sentence more elegantly because you’ll know more about your topic and you’ll have seen the vocabulary others use when writing about the topic.

Expository essay thesis statements using our topics:

  • One generation later, the war crimes committed by Croatia during World War II remain fresh in victims’ minds.
  • One of the most commonly diagnosed degenerative diseases in dogs, the causes of hip dysplasia in canines remain unclear as experts struggle to categorize it as genetic or environmental.
  • As the health care system continues to make cutting costs a priority, cancellations in the Day Surgery Unit of elective surgeries has come under scrutiny.
  • From the day they are erected, oil platforms are subjected to a number of environmental factors that slowly destroy their structures; nitrate-reducing bacteria is one method used by engineers to fight underwater corrosion.

Persuasive essay thesis statements using our topics:

  • While not as famous as Germany’s Holocaust, Croatia’s war crimes were just as brutal and warranted repercussions from the UN just as severe as those handed out to Germany.
  • While environmental factors may contribute to the severity of osteoarthritis in canines, the principal cause of hip dysplasia in dogs is genetic.
  • If the US health-care system wishes to cut costs, it needs to address the rate of elective surgery cancellations in Day Surgery Units.
  • Nitrate-reducing bacteria, while expensive, should be a preventative measure utilized by all oil platform engineers to combat underwater corrosion.

Step 5: Admire Your Work

Your thesis statement isn’t “done” yet, but you’ve made great headway towards crafting your final product.  The more informed you become about your topic as you search for sources, the more you will want to refine your statement to conform with changes in focus you may want to take. If your statements aren’t as “smartly” worded as mine, don’t be discouraged.  It’s not the wrapping paper that counts, but what’s inside the box.  If your topic idea is no good, no amount of pretty words will make it worth writing about. In the same way, if your topic is good and you limited it well, your reader is going to recognize that even if your thesis statement isn’t full of thesaurus words.

Just remember to go back and revisit your thesis statement periodically as your write your paper to make sure that 1) it still leads you in the direction you want to go and 2) your main points are relevant to the direction you told your reader you were going to go.

Keep Practicing!

I could provide 10 more examples of developing a thesis statement from draft to finished form, but it still wouldn’t be enough to give you a fool-proof guide for crafting your own thesis statements.  Every paper is as unique as the person writing it and no guide can properly account for those differences.  As unpopular as this advice is going to be, I have to say that the only way to get good at writing thesis statements is through practice.

It may sound cheesy, but I honestly believe every single person is capable of writing great thesis statements. Once you let go of your fear of failing and just go for it, you’ll be well on your way to being a thesis statement master.

Photo credit: Lonnon Foster

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Collie Convalescing: Mofi’s Oral Recovery


Mofi saw how much attention Hugo received after his teeth cleaning and decided he wanted some of that loving too! Here he is recovering after having several places on his upper gums cauterized (to prevent bacterial growth). Even though Mofi didn’t have any teeth extracted, he was feeling out-of-sorts enough for Hugo to lend him his favorite squirrel toy to snuggle up with. Now that’s love! I grabbed the camera as soon as I saw him snoozing – the photo above was not staged!

I bought the little guys C.E.T. HEXtra Premium Oral Hygiene Chews with Chlorhexidine (Thanks, Meyerland Animal Clinic, for recommending them!) and that, coupled with a weekly teeth-brushing regimen, these guys should never need oral surgery again.  I’m toying with the idea of adding some additive to the dogs’ water since that seems fairly easy and non-invasive; if anyone has any experience with it or other tooth cleaning products and would like to recommend something, I’m all ears. 

Hugo was a real trooper and kept a close eye on his slightly-traumatized bigger brother the whole day after I brought Mofi home. Here he is (below) giving him a pep talk and letting him bed down in the chihuahua-sized blanket I knit for Hugo. You can’t tell from the picture, but Mofi’s lower half is uncovered.

Now that my furry babies are taken care of, I can get back to updating this blog with more writing-related blog posts. Thanks for being patient with me and sticking with the blog during this hectic time!



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Student Essay Example: The Word Saggin’ Spelled Backwards (Part 2)

 Red pen on paper with corrections

As indicated in this post’s title, this blog post is a continuation of Part 1. If you have not yet read the student essay posted in Part 1, you may want to so that the commentary in this post will be more meaningful.

Overall Grade

Gerard’s essay is in pretty good shape, but is still in need of both revision and editing.  The fact that it needs revision is what makes the paper incapable of earning an A.  Very few essays will be flawless and a grade of “100” does not indicate perfection (although there are some professors who never give a paper higher than a “99” for principle’s sake).  What an A grade does demand are errors on only the editing level: grammar, spelling, and word choice. Revision requires changes in the content and organization of an essay, and are therefore more drastic and costly in terms of grade points.

That said, Gerard’s paper is a solid B to B+ in my book.  I tend to grade more leniently than others, though, as I only count off once for grammar and spelling errors instead of for each and every time a particular error occurs.  I do so to encourage students to tackle more advanced sentence structures and to try and incorporate new vocabulary in their writing, but I understand why other teachers prefer to mark off for every instance.  Because Gerard’s professor was stricter in his grading of errors, Gerard earned a C on this paper.

Revision Errors

Because revision should come before editing in the writing process, I’ll look at this paper’s content errors first.  There aren’t that many issues, but they have a big impact on how focused the essay is.

  • The first paragraph in any piece of writing is the most critical. The introduction has to set the tone and focus for the rest of the essay and, unfortunately, Gerard’s doesn’t.  The reason for this is the lack of a thesis statement.  If you read the introduction in isolation, you’d think the paper were going to be about the “N” word.  That’s clearly not the case.  This paragraph needs one more sentence that tells us that the paper is about how sagging pants and socio-economic status (i.e., low class and ignorance) are linked.
  • The third paragraph includes the sentences, “It’s too bad that they do not realize that they are sending a bad message to the people who have made this trend what it is. These softies from the suburbs do not realize that they are being laughed at by real thugs.”  It’s an interesting direction to take, but not one that fits the scope of the paper.  As the essay discusses how sagging is tied to ignorance, painting the trend in a positive light by linking it to real street-smarts undermines the main point.  Gerard had a wealth of knowledge about the rougher part of city-life and I want him to know that his experiences make him an expert able to write authoritatively on the topic.  What makes a person a real “thug” is just a topic for a different paper, one that would no doubt be fascinating and well-written if Gerard ever wanted to pen it.
  • The use of the word “Thug(s)” diverts the focus of the paper and introduces a potentially confusing new term.  By changing every instance of the word with “Sagger(s),” the paper gains clarity.
  • The 5th paragraph should actually be the 3rd paragraph as it introduces the history and background of the sagging trend.
  • The 4th paragraph should start with “Inner-city and suburban saggers…” and the 6th paragraph should start with “For saggers, regardless of location,…” to make the organization of the main points clearer.
  • The conclusion needs to tie-back to the “N” word, the idea the paper first began with. 

While these changes aren’t severe, they would make a huge difference in how smoothly the paper flows. These errors would all have been spotted easily by outlining the paper. As the person grading it, I outline it myself as I go along to see if I can find the main point of each paragraph and their progression. Outlining doesn’t take long and really makes such a world of difference in keeping an essay focused.

As it stands, the paper starts strong but loses focus after the first page.  That’s not surprising and quite normal, actually, as most high-schoolers have never been asked to write a paper longer than two pages.  I could wax poetic over what a travesty that is (While some teachers are to blame, some aren’t; I was ordered to stop assigning essays when I taught high school because a strong essay wasn’t required to pass the TAKS test), but ultimately it is what it is.

Editing Errors

While I will mark and label every error I see as I grade a paper, I only choose the three most prevalent errors to focus on in my comments.  Fixing a couple of grammar and spelling problems at a time and keeping an eye out for them in the next paper will eventually lead to error-free papers when the next most-encountered errors are addressed, and so on.  In this paper, Gerard has several errors that need addressing.

  • Semicolons join two closely related independent clauses. Examples of misused semicolons in the paper are: “From what I have grown up with in Southwest Houston; black, white, brown, and yellow people…”, “Thugs only have one thing on their minds; being cool”, and “But by this time, unless they come to their senses, and realize that they can still make a change for the better; they pass up on those opportunities.” 
  • Misspelled word: “selling” not “sailing.” When I first read the paper I thought perhaps Gerard knew drug terminology that I wasn’t aware of.  It took my mom pointing out the misspelling for me to realize he had used spellcheck and hit “ok” to all changes without checking that they were the correct ones. 
  • Excessive comma use. Gerard uses commas quite a bit in this paper in places they don’t belong.  For example, after almost every instance of “Although” he inserts a comma, even when the clause isn’t finished yet! Take this sentence for example: “Although, I have noticed a decline in the number of blacks and Hispanics who wear their pants below their waists, this style of stupidity is still going strong.” If you read the sentence out loud, you should feel yourself NOT pausing after “Although” as the phrase isn’t finished until “waists.”
  • Orphaned quotation. While not a repetitively occurring error, dropping a quote into a paper without integrating it into the paragraph is a big no-no.  The quote in this case is “Rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur promoted the style in videos and on CD covers” (Glanton).  Prefacing the quote with “This mimicry has not escaped the eyes of the public as Glanton writes ‘Rappers such as…..’”  would let the reader know why the quote is being used and how it contributes to the paragraph’s main point.
  • Ad-Hominem Fallacies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being passionate about a topic, but name-calling doesn’t belong in academic papers.  Not because it’s “mean” (“honest” would be the word I know many students would use), but because it actually makes your paper less persuasive.  Rhetorically, it’s a bad move.  Sentences like “Since these people are seriously stupid they fail to realize the important things in life…” hurt your case by placing people who either take part in sagging or have friends or relatives who are saggers on the defensive. 


It may appear that I’m being very hard on poor Gerard’s paper, but it’s only because I know how much better his work can and should be! This paper is so close to being an A paper and that’s the grade I know he wants and the one I want to give him.  He has to earn it fair and square, though, and by pointing out the errors in his early essays, it’s my hope he’ll fix them for later essays and work his way up to an A grade.

This essay has a great deal going for it. First of all, I LOVE the way he used the fact that “Saggin’” spells “Niggas” backwards to tie ignorant language with disheveled appearance.  His paper does not link Black people or Hispanics only to the trend; rather, it speaks about the type of socio-economic classes most vulnerable to the trend and the life-style that comes with it.  This sentence states the link beautifully: “In much the same way the ‘N’ word is a misrepresentation of the ‘proper’ way of saying the word ‘Negro,’ so is the way adolescent males are currently choosing to wear their pants.”

This paper is and always will be one of my favorites because Gerard reached past the stale, over-used topics his peers were writing about to find a topic that was relevant to himself. To paraphrase a popular saying: He aimed for the moon and fell among the stars.  I wonder how he’s doing these days.  The last time I heard from him was several years ago when he’d e-mailed me to let me know he’d been admitted to Texas A&M University. I forwarded that e-mail to everyone I knew, I was so proud of him!

He was the kind of guy one would call “rough around the edges” but he surprised me with how imaginative and well written his essays were.  I took one look at his silly-looking gigantic sneakers (those big Air Jordan kind that seem to be so popular among kids), baggy basketball jersey (he wore one to every class!), and flashy necklaces that hung to his waist and thought to myself that I was going to have to teach him how to write separate paragraphs in an essay.  I still remember how shocked I was and how embarrassed to have stereotyped him I felt when he turned in his first essay!

He sat in the middle of the front row every class day next to a Hispanic student with a shaggy mop of hair on his head that he was constantly brushing out of his eyes. Believe it or not, that guy’s name was Gerardo.  Ha! Gerard and Gerardo sat front and center side by side every Tuesday and Thursday. Those two made me love coming to class.  I only had them for one semester, but 5 years later I’m still thinking of them and getting teary-eyed.

Photo credit: CellarDoorFilms

Chihuahua Convalescing: Hugo’s Oral Recovery

Hugo Teeth Cleaning Summer 2012 04

Today I am staying home from work to nurse my little chihuahua back to health.  With a face that cute, who wouldn’t call in sick to stay home with the little guy?! Hugo had 6 teeth extracted yesterday during his teeth cleaning at Meyerland Animal Clinic, which, along with the 4 he had removed several years ago, makes him 10 teeth short of a full set of choppers.  That’s not too bad for a 7 year old chihuahua!

Dr. Werner noticed several of his teeth were mobile after we complained about his bad breath (not that dogs normally have minty fresh breath!) and urged us to get his teeth cleaned.  When she called to give me an update during his cleaning and said he had been “difficult” to prep for surgery, I thought to myself, “That’s my Hugo!” He’s not the sweetest dog when it comes to poking and prodding, and clipping his nails is a nightmare.

Now that his teeth are in perfect shape, it’s time to start preventative measures! Now I just have to find a chihuahua-sized toothbrush….

Pictured above is Hugo with his favorite stuffed animal.  The staff at Meyerland Animal Clinic even let him take his squirrel with him to his procedure! Below is Mofi on his walk yesterday. He didn’t even notice his little play-buddy was missing! I asked him where Hugo was and he gave me this “Who’s Hugo?” look! Ha! He was excited when I brought his accomplice-in-mischief back home, though.

Mofi During Hugo Teeth Cleaning Summer 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Student Essay Example: The Word Saggin’ Spelled Backwards (Part 1)

The Flash Fiction story I wrote for this week involved a girl rediscovering old treasured photographs her mother had stored away.  The nostalgia I felt when writing that story inspired me to go through treasures I, too, have stored away.  Instead of photographs, though, I’ve held on to student essays.

The student who wrote this essay holds a special place in my heart; all the kids I taught who were particularly talented do. They were Stephen Kings waiting to happen, they just needed to figure out how to get through academic writing with all of its formulas and restrictions so they could get back to writing what they wanted to write, rules be damned.

As flawed as this essay is, I still consider it one of the best I’ve received.  Gerard, the student who wrote it, excelled at the narrative and descriptive essays I assigned in our Composition I class.  Research papers were more difficult for him and he sent this essay to me after he was assigned it by his Composition II professor.  Others who didn’t teach him will not understand, but every time I read it I see the hours he struggled to write this paper. 

The errors Gerard made in this paper are the errors most often made by his peers and highlighting them here will hopefully provide others with guidance they can apply to their own papers.  More than that, Gerard’s essay is an example of how anyone, if they are willing to work hard, can succeed in subject areas they thought hopeless.

In this first post, I will post Gerard’s essay in its entirety.  It was submitted to TurnItIn’s database when it was first assigned by Gerard'’s Comp II professor.  As a precaution I have submitted it to several other plagiarism detection databases.  Any teacher worth his or her salt will be able to locate this paper online if s/he suspects plagiarism. I routinely Googled random sentences from every essay I received to see if they could be found online and I know other teachers do the same. 

In the second part of this blog post I will provide feedback about the essay.  It should help students in college or those planning on going to college see what kind of expectations their English professors will have of them.  The hardest part of writing papers is not knowing what your teacher expects from you.

On to the paper!

The Word Saggin’ Spelled Backwards

The word saggin’ is street vernacular (slang). The proper terminology is “sagging”. When spelled backwards saggin’ becomes the “N” word (which is properly spelled ending with the syllable ERS). The “N” word has nothing to do with being a dark skinned person. In other words it means low class. Ignorance in the black and Hispanic community has left many to believe that it means friend, or dude. Ironically, the definition of the “N” word is ignorant, and stupid. And we all know that ignorant people come in assorted colors.

The origin of the “N” word accounts for much of the ignorance we see today in society. Kennedy, a leading scholar, targets the slur’s origins when he writes “The linguist Robin Lakoff speculates that nigger became a slur when users of the term became aware that it was a mispronunciation of Negro and decided to continue using the mispronunciation as a signal of contempt – much as individuals sometimes choose to insult others by deliberately mispronouncing their names” (86). In much the same way the “N” word is a misrepresentation of the “proper” way of saying the word “Negro,” so is the way adolescent males are currently choosing to wear their pants. Instead of wearing pants at the waist in the socially acceptable (and arguably “correct” way to wear pants in order to gain a full range of motion from them), teens are wearing them below the waist and purposefully exposing their undergarments. This trend is common amongst inner city teenagers living in ghettos. From what I have grown up with in Southwest Houston; black, white, brown, and yellow people who sag their pants display ignorant behavior. These are the people who are always getting into trouble in school, and with police. They are always fighting, talking unnecessarily loud, getting involved in other people’s business, jealous of someone else who accomplishes something, having babies with random men and women, stealing, joining gangs, sailing drugs, abusing drugs, drinking, abusing their loved ones, and standing on the street corner all day and all night with nothing else to do other than beg for money. This careless trend is notorious in the black and Hispanic community. Although, I have noticed a decline in the number of blacks and Hispanics who wear their pants below their waists’, this style of stupidity is still going strong.

Although, this trend is thought to only be inner city culture, it has spread to the suburbs pretty fast. Not only are suburban children of all colors mimicking this trend that they believe to be cool, they are picking up a more hardcore version of rebellious behavior that comes with it. They find this way of life to be an okay thing. It’s too bad that they do not realize that they are sending a bad message to the people who have made this trend what it is. These softies from the suburbs do not realize that they are being laughed at by real thugs. This just proves that they have gotten caught up in that low class lifestyle.

Thugs only have one thing on their minds; being cool. Since these people are seriously stupid they fail to realize the important things in life such as going to college and getting ahead in life. The only thing that these people want to do is party. They miss out on so many opportunities that so many people give their lives for in order for them to get ahead in life. They take for granted their right to vote, obtain an education, and everything that the United States Constitution says that they have the right to do. This one set back in life causes most of these people to remain in the ghetto, or get trapped in the ghetto because they act like gangsters. A few thugs at a time will gain some intelligence, and wisdom in life, and understand the mistakes that they made by fallowing the wrong crowd (usually after a life altering situation). The thugs who do manage to make this kind of transition are very scarce in the urban ghettos. The average thug cannot figure out why he or she has such a hard time getting anywhere in life. In order for them to earn enough money whether if it is just to get by, or if it is for them to buy a fancy car, and a house in the suburbs (which they obviously do not fit the description of the type of person who typically possesses such property) they’ll do anything from hustling, and pimping women, to sailing drugs, and having sex for money. This lifestyle leads to nothing but constant warrants, searches and seizures by the police, and constant repossession of property that they struggled so hard in the streets to buy, and absolutely no peace of mind. You would expect these people to get tired of living that way, but the fact remains that they are ignorant people. A majority of them know nothing of other than that trifling lifestyle. They see the material things in life, but they do not know the value of it.

Sagging was discovered by homosexuals in prison (Glanton). Shortly after, it became a black thing. Soon after that the Hispanics caught on to it, emulating the rap-star role models who publicized the new style. “Rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur promoted the style in videos and on CD covers” (Glanton). As rap music has become popular among more than just the black and Hispanic communities, whites also began to sag their pants. I’ve seen a few Asians sag their pants, but I do not have any idea why they do it. But the few that I have seen sagging live in rough areas of Houston. But nowadays there are kids in the suburbs who sag their pants. Mostly whites followed by a few blacks, but they’re from the suburbs of all places. I figure that this trend reached the suburbs through the hardened inner city children who moved from the ghettos, therefore spreading their rough style of living which is fantasized by suburban children. When it comes down to kids in the suburbs trying to fit in to that so-called cool lifestyle that is glorified in certain genres of rap music, and is influenced through peer pressure; I worry simply because these kids have no streets smarts, often resulting in inner city kids taking advantage of them. They attract the wrong kind of attention when they wear their pants below their waist. Martin, a councilman and African-American activist, states it best when he says “When the police pull you over, you can't say they are profiling you. You've already profiled yourself” (qtd. in Glanton). This ghetto style of dress may also be adolescents’ way of rebelling against their over-protective parents, but for these soft-core teenagers their lives are easily thrown off track. This is the same way that inner city youth get introduced to the thug life, but they grow up knowing almost nothing but trifling ways of living because almost nobody has any faith in them. As a result they are so much tougher than suburban children, and are able to take care of themselves around a rougher crowd of people.

For the suburban teenagers their lives start going downhill when they find acceptance from the wrong crowd. Since they do not have any streets smarts, and they feel acceptance from kids who they view as cool, people take advantage of them. Before long they start ditching school to hang out with the “cool kids.” As a result their grades decline. If they’re lucky they will finish high school. But by this time, unless they come to their senses, and realize that they can still make a change for the better; they pass up those opportunities to go to college and get ahead in life so that they can legally own a flashy sports car, and CONTINUE to live in a nice neighborhood, and have a piece of mind, therefore, actually being cool. By this time it is too late. That low class lifestyle is what they become accustom to.

Since the world is set up the way it is, some people have to be ignorant and low class. I’m just glad that people around the world do not just see black people in that sense. I’m relieved that they see people of all colors that way.

Works Cited

Dahleen Glanton. "Hackles Rise As Jeans Droop." Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL) Sept. 6 2007: n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 31 October 2009.

Kennedy, Randall L. “Who can say ‘Nigger’?...And Other Considerations.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 26 (2000): 86-96. JSTOR. Web. 31 October 2009.


Stay tuned for Part II where I provide feedback on this very deserving essay.

Photo credit: Tobyotter

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fifteen Minutes of Fiction: “The Hike”

My friend over at The Writing Righter has started a series of weekly freewriting prompts called Fifteen Minutes of Fiction.  If you don’t have time for a full blown scene (like the kind required to write a good flash fiction), freewriting for 15 minutes may be just the option you need.

Instead of working over a story for several days, you have to limit yourself to a mere 15 minutes and write as much as you can in one sitting. If traditional freewriting isn’t your cup of tea, you can cheat a little like I do.  My “freewriting” is a little bit more organized than pure stream of consciousness would be, but it’s what I need to do to get through the allotted time still sane. And if you need a little longer than 15 minutes, no one has to know but you.

This week’s prompt was the starter sentence: “If only she had been looking where she was going, none of this would have happened…”

The Hike

If only she had been looking where she was going, none of this would have happened. Reaching down, she gingerly prodded her now swollen ankle. She didn’t think anything felt broken, but she wasn’t exactly a doctor. All she knew was her ankle hurt far too much to be able to bear her weight, much less get her back up and out of the ravine she’d fallen into. She looked around for a branch thick and long enough to use as a crutch.

After half an hour passed by of painfully scooting herself along the ground on her bottom, she gave up the hunt. In the movies, perfectly proportioned tree limbs always appeared within arm’s reach of a fallen hero. She figured she was in more of a Stephen King kind of story. Sure, chances were she’d live, but all manner of unpleasant things would happen to her before she fought her way to safety.

The ants crawling up her legs were evidence enough of that. Swatting at them, she cursed and scooted away as quickly as she could from the ant hill she hadn’t seen earlier. “Just my luck,” she grunted as she used a tree trunk to pull herself up into a standing position.

“O.k., Jasmine. Time to take stock of what you have.” Swinging her backpack off one shoulder and around, she started rooting through it. “Cell-phone that can’t pick up a signal out here in the middle of nowhere? Check. Almost empty water bottle? Check.”


Photo credit: Bruce Denis

Flash Fiction Friday: “The Transfer”

This week’s Flash Fiction Friday prompt is much simpler than previous prompts. In the style of any genre, the story must start with the sentence “We need to talk about Kevin” and be no more than 1,300 words long.  Also different this week, we’ll be voting for which submission is the best.

I can honestly say I will be surprised if I win the contest. I wanted to do something unexpected with the interpretation of the starter sentence, and I think I have.  While“The Transfer” is a good showing for only a couple hours of writing, I’ve already read some of the other entries and they are amazing. Make sure to check them out, too, and vote (even if you didn’t participate!).

I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did coming up with it!

The Transfer

“We need to talk about KEVIN.” Grabbing his arm, Robert made research coordinator Hanwen Huang stop his advancement down the corridor. “There’s something wrong with this project, and you know it.”

Still with his back to his research assistant, Hanwen grunted noncommittally and shook his arm free. Rubbing his bicep where Robert had grabbed him, he said, “We can talk later. I have to compose a response to the Mars transmission we just received.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about! We need to tell them the study volunteers are-“

Fine. The study volunteers are fine, Rob. They transported to the Mars base successfully and they returned successfully. All limbs were intact and accounted for. Their health is unaffected by the transfer and they remain coherent.”

“But what about-,” Robert started, only to be cut off again by Dr. Huang.

“The Kinetic Electron Vehicle Implanted Neurotransmitter project is a success.” Shooting a glare over his shoulder at his assistant, Hanwen whispered harshly, “Don’t you dare mess this up for me, Rob. I’ve worked a long time on this project.”

Robert watched him walk away until he turned at the end of the hallway and disappeared into his dormitory. Dr. Huang was right; the project was a success. Nine months travel time to Mars was inconvenient and problematic. What if an emergency happened to travelers on the shuttle? It was simply not possible to include every type of specialist, both mechanical and medical, on every single flight to and from the planet. Mars had only been made hospitable enough to support human life for a handful of decades. Technological and medical events continued to occur on the Mars base for which the experts stationed there lacked the knowledge and tools to deal with. Radio waves took anywhere from 18 to 30 minutes to send and receive to the planet from Earth, making collaboration with experts on Earth difficult. The wait for needed supplies was another nine months once the laborious conversation finally, if ever, generated a solution.

The KEVIN project was a chance to change that. By implanting a neurotransmitter in the base of subjects’ skulls, the brain would be forced to send signals to all extremities causing electrons to hyper-excite. Those electrons would provide the kinetic energy needed to fuel a transfer of the atomic make-up of the individual via radio waves. Thirty minutes later, give or take depending on the position of the two planets, a copy of the subject was created atom by atom at a holding cell set up with the raw materials needed while the original body remained in stasis on Earth. The project had so far successfully transferred two dozen volunteers to and from the Mars base.

The research team should have been celebrating a victory. And they were, except for one member.

“I know I’m ‘just’ a research assistant,” mumbled Rob as he placed his forefinger in the biometric scanner, “but I have eyes! You’d have to be blind not to see what’s happening to these people.” After several beeps, the door to the lab opened and Rob went to his work station. Switching on the two monitors, he watched the video feeds of subjects in their rooms under post-transfer observation.

All twenty four subjects were confined to their quarters. The first set of twelve traveled last week and the second set traveled just that morning. Robert’s attention was focused on the first twelve video feeds. So intent was he on the feeds, he didn’t realize he’d been leaning in closer until his nose bumped up against the monitor.

Pulling back, he grabbed a tissue to wipe off the smudge he left on the screen. As he was wiping, his eye caught a flash of movement in one of the rooms. Instantly he dropped the tissue, but all subjects remained seated on the edge of their beds, staring at the wall, the way they had been for the past seven days.

“I saw it. I know I did. It’s going to happen again, I just have to keep watching.” Rob rubbed his eyes and sighed. He adjusted the positioning of the camcorder he’s set up on a tripod on his desk. Leveling it so that both monitors full of video feeds could be seen through its lens, he hit the record button and went to pour himself his fifth cup of coffee for the afternoon.

He knew what he saw, even if the video feeds didn’t corroborate it. There was something wrong with the recordings or someone was altering them post-capture. If he saw it on the monitors in the live feeds, he could capture it on a camcorder not wired into the system. He had to.

“Damnit! We’re out of creamer.” Grumbling, Rob left the lab to restock the coffee supplies. The doors shut behind him as he walked out, cutting him off from the video feeds. Not that Rob was looking at them, his mind focused on obtaining the creamer needed to make the laboratory coffee palatable enough to drink.

If he had been looking at the feeds, he would have seen the first twelve subjects standing in the center of their rooms, staring at each other through the walls.


Photo credit: Onkel_Wart

Monday, June 25, 2012

Marketing Ploys: Do You Really Know What Those Words Mean?

neon sign reading words

The teacher in me loves commercials. They make wonderful teaching material, not just because they illustrate rhetorical topics like ethos and pathos, but because they require savvy viewers to think.

Thinking is a skill that takes practice and advertisements offer plenty of chances to flex your brain. Every commercial you watch on t.v. or hear on the radio is another chance to flex your critical thinking skills and analyze how you're being marketed to. Educated people should never be duped by the tactics advertisements use to try and make a sale.

The following video isn't one of the commercials I've used in my lessons in the past, but you can bet it will be making an appearance in the future. It explains what the terms you think you recognize in the dairy aisle of your grocery store really mean. Linguistically, I like this video because it points out the ambiguity of language and the power that words can have. Educationally, this video is a good endorsement of why critical thinking skills are important outside of the classroom.

For the squeamish among you, this video does not contain any graphic images; there is a shot of a chicken without a beak in the beginning, but it passes quickly and no animal is mutilated during the video. Yes, in addition to educating people about marketing terms, this video has an agenda. I have no problem with its promotion of local, independent farms (just be aware that were this video an essay, it would not only be categorized as "informative" but also "persuasive").


Photo credit: Pierre Metivier

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to Find Main Points for Your Essay

Picture of dots on a street

Several weeks ago, a distraught student left this comment on my blog post “How to Write an Essay FAST”:

How are you meant to come up with the 3 main points? Like, that makes no sense; I can't just pull them out of thin air! How is it meant to be done?! And if no one can tell me (which it seems every teacher just says I need to think about the text more), then it can not be something that can be graded! Sorry for the rant - super confused and effed for my essay!

Unfortunately, I don’t think this blog post came out in time to help that student write his/her essay, but hopefully other people struggling with the same issue will be able to benefit from this post in time for their deadlines.

If you too struggle with coming up with main points for your projects, you are NOT alone.  This is the most frequent issue students will come to me for help with.  Once they know what to write, they can generally handle the question of how to write their essay effectively on their own.   Even professionals face this issue! They’ll be given the topic of their presentation, but they have to come up with the main points themselves.

While I can come up with main points for my students, I dislike doing so.  They  will need to find a way to come up with them on your own so they can function on their own, when I’m not there to help.  Luckily for them (and you!), I’ve developed a series of questions that makes finding main points much easier.

I will present the questions first. It may seem English-oriented, but it will work for all subject areas.  See the examples that follow where I  use it for English, history, and science topics to learn how to apply it to different subjects.

Note that these topics reflect the broad ones normally found in high school and early undergraduate classes. Higher-level undergraduate and graduate classes assign much more content-specific essay topics that pull from the material discussed in class. Usually these higher-level prompts include several questions you must answer as you write your paper, and so guide you in that way towards your finished product.

English: Cyberbullying
History: Michael Jackson
Science: Stem cell research

The Questions

Who are the CHARACTERS
What is the SETTING?
What is the PLOT?

Using just these questions will guarantee you three main points, the standard for most high-school essays. If you're in a college preparatory high-school or in college, you may need more, depending on the length of your project. If that's your case, don't worry; in the following examples, I'll show how you can get several main points from one question.


Who are the CHARACTERS?

While the word “characters” calls to mind literature in many people, it can be applied to non-literary people, places, and things.  The character of an essay is whoever (or whatever) will be the main focus of the paper. You can include points about other “characters” as well, of course, but only if they are connected closely to the main character of your essay AND don’t stray from the essay’s thesis statement.

If you’re still confused about what exactly a “character” in an essay is, the following examples should help you understand the idea more clearly. 

English: Cyberbullying

The main “character” would be cyberbullying, the act.  You definitely need to devote at least a paragraph towards defining and describing the act for readers.  Even if most people are familiar with the term nowadays, defining it and including relevant examples clearly tells readers what YOU mean when you use the term.  If your page limit gives you the room, other characters include the bully and the victim. The terms may seem self-explanatory, but these terms  actually become controversial when the Internet is involved. Google legal cases involving cyberbullying to find out just how much explanation these characters need.

History: Michael Jackson

Obviously, the main character of this essay would be Michael Jackson.  A thorough essay will take the time to describe who this man was for readers who aren’t familiar with the details. If your essay’s thesis statement focuses on Michael’s personal life, additional characters that can be elaborated on are his father, Michael Joseph Jackson, and his now ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley.  However, if your essay deals with the people and events who shaped him into the man he ultimately became, Lisa Marie Presley would NOT be a main point because their 8 year relationship (4 years married and 4 years divorced) took place when he was already an adult. 

Science: Stem cell research

The character for this topic would be stem cell research.  However, that term includes many subtopics that need to be defined.  A more complete list of “characters” would be adult cells, cord cells, and embryonic cells. The type of research also needs to be described. The controversy surrounding this type of research could also be counted as characters (those for stem cell research and those opposed to it), but I will be labeling those as plot elements.

What is the SETTING?

The “setting” of a topic includes not only its physical location, but also its historical context and closely related ideas.

English: Cyberbullying

In the case of cyberbullying, the setting is the Internet. Depending on your thesis statement, you could be writing about how the intangibility of the World Wide Web has created a society in which people can be bullied even within the confines of their home.  If you are looking at the legal angle of cyberbullying, then you could tackle the issue of responsibility (i.e., does the physical location of the computer used to make the attacks determine responsibility).

History: Michael Jackson

The topic of Michael Jackson could cover a number of different settings.  His physical locations, for example (i.e., his birthplace, the schools he attended, the many residences he has called home, and his travels), could be considered a setting, as could the era in which he grew up and lived (i.e., the state of the music industry when he first entered it and how it changed, the evolution of media from vinyl, to compact disc, to mp3). Depending on how biographical your essay is, I would include his contemporaries in this category as well.

Science: Stem cell research

There are quite a few different settings for stem cell research. You could approach the topic by identifying the physical location of research (i.e., where the laboratories are located that pursue this type of research, the equipment and media used in the laboratories for research).  The historical context of stem cell research is also an important setting as an understanding of this research requires knowledge of what technologies were available in the past and are currently at our disposal.

What Is the PLOT?

Traditionally, the plot is a literary term that describes the series of events that make up a story and how they relate to each other.  I like to think of a topic’s plot as what has happened in the past concerning the topic, what is currently happening, and what may happen.  The plot is NOT historical context, however.  Historical context is more descriptive and passive whereas the plot of a topic is active and definitive.  Hopefully the following examples will explain what “plot” is and isn’t better than I have here.

English: Cyberbullying

In the case of cyberbullying, the plot would include the first recorded instance of bullying via the Internet.  It would also include any legal cases that have set legal precedent and case law regarding online bullying.  Most importantly, the plot is made up of the conversation surrounding the topic. Are there contrasting viewpoints over important issues pertinent to this topic? What about proposed laws or practices that have not yet been enacted? If you can figure out what people are arguing over, then you’ll find the meat of this main point.

History: Michael Jackson

Seeing what makes up the plot for an essay on Michael Jackson is a little easier because there are so many significant events that drive this celebrity’s “story.” If you have not yet discussed his childhood as part of the characters or setting points, you can certainly include it under this point. Likewise, his marriage and the birth of his children could have been included under characters or the plot point.  The allegations made against him, his creation of Neverland Ranch, his fame, and ultimately, his death, all fall under this category. The slant you will put on your paper all depends on what your thesis statement says.

Science: Stem cell research

Stem cell research may not be a celebrity like Michael Jackson, but it too had a childhood.  Important milestones in this research would be featured in the plot point, as well as the controversy surrounding it.  Those who are for this research and those who are against it will need to be included here (or at least their views, in the absence of well-known proponents or opponents).  Alternative research paths that show the same promise of stem cell research could be introduced here as well.


As you are coming up with the main points of your essay, keep in mind the prompt you were assigned and your thesis statement.  Using the three questions I introduced in this blog post, you could come up with many main points, but they’ll be worthless if they are irrelevant to the aim of your paper.

My technique is certainly not foolproof, but it’s what I use to help students generate main points for essays. Hopefully you’ll find it of use, too!

Photo credit: Peter Kaminski