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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