Every Sentence Is a Question

This is a great post that breaks down a really common problem in student writing. It’s written from the perspective of a teacher, but the concepts covered in this post can be helpful for writing tutors and students as well. Check it out! 🙂

The Incompetent Writer

Me, teaching
If you teach Composition, or a general essay-writing class, perhaps you worry that your students don’t always make clear, easy to follow arguments.

Perhaps they hand in essays that often — to put it bluntly — don’t make sense. Their papers may display some interesting ideas; the students may appear to have worked hard and done some real research. Yet when you read those papers, sentence by sentence, you have to stop and scratch your head before you understand the logic of what they are trying to say.

If this is the case, read on: this post is for you.


This is the sixth post in the series: How I Teach College-Level Writing.

The previous posts are here:

  1. The Intro
  2. The Theories
  3. The Diagnosis
  4. Why I Teach Cool
  5. The Essay, The Problem

(Thank you to everyone who has read the posts so far!)


Now, I’d like to…

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“Filthy Language” and whether writers should give a F#@!K

I’m the kind of person who says “fudge muffins!” when something’s not going my way, so it’s not natural for me to swear in print, either. I’ve encountered a few good articles recently about the use of curse words (and authors’ choices to not use them) in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy which have made me think about the pros and cons of including swearing in written pieces.

This article from tor.com has a frank discussion about the trend towards the increased use of this language and I highly recommend checking it out if you are interested in the way the writing landscape has changed over time and don’t mind some salty language used in examples.

If I use profanity in my writing, it is definitely intentional because my first instinct is to find other ways to express that thought. Even as I’m writing about the topic of using curse words in writing, I find myself hesitant to use any language that could be considered offensive, so be prepared for some circumlocution in the following paragraphs 🙂

That said, I do think there are times that using profanity can be the best choice for specific circumstances. How do you figure out when to use it and when to refrain?

Here are some questions I’ve started asking myself:

1. Is it consistent with the characters I’m creating?

If you have a first person narrator, is the speaker the kind of person who curses as part of his or her internal monologue? Does the narrator have pet phrases that act as substitutions for profanity? Is the narrator comfortable repeating  other people’s swearing in scenes with dialogue?

We make assumptions about other people all the time based on the language they use, and use or non-use of profanity is often an important component to this. As an author, your choices in this matter will influence the way readers perceive your characters and communicate different aspects of their personalities without having to state them outright.

For example, in the book An Abundance of Katherines, John Green has two of his characters use the word “fug” (a word created by Norman Mailer to avoid censorship) instead of cursing.  The characters’ use of it tells us that they are the kind of people who are nerdy enough to use the word as a kind of homage to Mailer.

2. Is it the most effective language in this situation? Can I use other words with the same (or greater) effectiveness?

In genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, creating fake curses can allow you to reveal more about that world, including aspects of belief systems. An invented curse that feels satisfying  to say can help add color and depth to a created language.

Alternatively, in a genre such as poetry you want to choose language for the emotional response it creates in the reader. In some cases, a curse word packs the emotional punch you need.  In fiction, if you’ve established a character who doesn’t swear in ordinary situations, having this character drop an f-bomb can show devastation or frustration in a really powerful way.

Profanity can have the power to shock or create a strong emotional response, but it should not be overused, especially in the context of poetry. You’re striving for “the best  words in their best order” (to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge) so you don’t have room for anything superfluous.

3. Is this appropriate for my audience?

If I’m writing a children’s book, I might have a character who swears. Even though many children have been exposed to cursing, I might choose to imply what is happening or describe it in general terms (“The bully swore at me”) rather than spell out the specific words being used.

In an academic context, it’s generally not appropriate to use profanity as am intensifier, even though you might curse for effect if you were having a debate with your friend over the same topic. (“Pseudo” curse words like “crappy” wouldn’t be appropriate in that case, either).

However, if you are quoting a piece of literature or repeating language someone has used in an interview, that’s usually okay. You don’t need to edit it out or use dashes to replace any of the letters. If the passage is pertinent to your topic, go ahead and use it.

4. How much profanity do I need to use to communicate my point?

Dialogue is never a completely accurate depiction of the way people speak. If it was, it would be boring: all fragmented sentences peppered with “um”s and “ah”s. In the same way, if you were to write dialogue that faithfully rendered the number of times some people swear, that could also be distracting and take away from your overall story. In these situations, you want to use enough to indicate what kind of language these characters use and in what circumstances, but you don’t want to be too heavy handed with it just for the sake of realism.

If you do choose to include profanity in your work, always make sure you have a purpose for it, whether it is to provide clues about a character’s personality or state of mind, to give emotional impact, or to illustrate a point. If you don’t feel comfortable using “bad words” in your writing, that’s okay. Profanity is just one of the many tools that writers can use, and there are many cases when purposefully not using it can be extremely effective. In the end, you have to decide what it best for you and your writing.

10 Ways for ADD Authors to Be OOH! SQUIRREL!!!! â€¦Productive

While I’m pretty sure I don’t have ADD, I do tend to be easily distracted (thanks Internet!). I’m going to try to integrate the advice in this post into my writing life, and I wanted to share it 🙂

Kristen Lamb's Blog

WANA, Kristen Lamb, We Are Not Alone, WANA International, how to be successful writer Image via Marie Loughin WANA Commons

Right now I’m teaching a new series about going pro (check it out below this post—recordings and notes included with purchase). One key difference between the amateur and the professional is the professional shows up no matter what. Life will not stop because we have a dream of being a NYTBSA.

In August, I managed to nearly break my ankle (needed X-rays & brace) find out I was highly allergic to peanuts (nearly died…met new doctor & she seems nice), then have said evil peanut allergic reaction give me a spiffy case of FREAKING Shingles (two super fun-filled trips to the ER).

***THIS is what I get for bragging that I haven’t had to go to a doctor in YEARS. *lightning crackles*

Through all of this? No, I wasn’t operating optimally (or heavy equipment), but pain meds can give cool dreams so I kept…

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How to write a professional-sounding email

Writing emails has always intimidated me, but work-related emails are the scariest. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at it over the past year. I spend a good bit of time sending emails for my current job (which is pretty typical for many positions, I think). I’ve discovered some basic techniques that I really wish someone had shared with me sooner, so I’m going to share them with you. Whether your writing to a client, a professor, or a potential interviewer, I hope these tips are as helpful to you as they have been to me!

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One of the keys to writing a professional-sounding email is to maintain the proper tone. How do you know what the proper tone is? Good question. If you are in a work situation, follow any guidelines provided by your company. How does your supervisor sign emails? “Sincerely”? “Best regards”? “Thanks”? If you’re corresponding with someone who is higher in the company than you are (or for a non-work situation, older or in a position of authority such as a teacher) it’s often best to let the other person set the tone of the conversation. It’s generally better to error on the side of formality if you’re in doubt. Remember as well that you will probably use a different tone when asking a coworker a quick question than you would if you were corresponding with a client or the president of the company.

Avoid abbreviations and misspellings, and be cautious about your use of contractions. This will help preserve a more professional tone in your emails. Additionally, don’t start an email off by writing “Hey.” I’ve been  told this is one of the most common mistakes college student make when they are attempting to write professional emails. Depending on the situation, “Hello,” “Good morning [afternoon, etc.],”  and “Dear [full name or Ms./Mr. last name]” can be good choices to start an email. If you are unsure of someone’s gender, it’s safer to use the full name when addressing the person, rather than using “Ms” or “Mrs.” or “Mr.” and being wrong. To conclude, try “Sincerely,” “Best regards” or “Thank you.”

Strive for clarity of wording and clarity of purpose. After the recipient has read your email, will he or she know why you have sent it? If you want the person to take  a specific course of action, say that (politely, of course). In certain situations, it may be helpful to give a time frame for this. Example: “Please respond by Wednesday afternoon so we will be able to make reservations.” You get the idea. Always be polite and keep the other person’s needs in mind.

Sometimes writing a professional sounding email is a matter of nuance. A few words can change the tone of an email from helpful and polite to rushed and slightly annoyed. There is a difference between “cannot” and “will not,” for example. Sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do. If someone has asked you to do something you are unable to do, providing an alternate course of  action in your email is probably better than saying you can’t do it. Focus on the positive (what you can/will do) rather than the negative.

If you have any pointers about writing professionally, please share them in the comments!



And now we revise…

Revision is an integral part of the process. I still struggle with this stage, especially when I’ve written a draft that isn’t too terrible but isn’t what I would like. With this kind of writing, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Sometimes I get so accustomed to reading the words the way that I wrote them that I become unwilling to make radical changes, even when they are needed.

Anne Lamott says that much of writing is writing until you get to the idea or phrase or scene that rings true. However, much of the time you have to write several pages of shitty first draft to get to that point. I identify with the idea of writing as a process of discovery. Many times, I start writing not knowing what I want to write, and the process of writing teaches me. Through writing, ideas emerge that I might never have had access to otherwise. The problem then becomes eliminating the sentences, paragraphs, or pages that no longer fit with these new ideas but which I had to write in order to arrive at my final concepts.

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Knowing the difference between the parts of your writing that ring true and the parts that you had to write to get to the writing that works is an important part of revising. Anne Lamott uses the image of a game of pick-up sticks. You start by removing the sticks that seem loose and don’t really touch the others. This applies to your writing as well. You start by cutting the parts of writing that you can easily take out.

Lamott says, “I take out the easy stuff, stuff that obviously doesn’t go there, stuff that I needed to write to get to the stuff that I wanted. It’s a matter of finding the shape of it, and taking out the stuff that isn’t part of the vision.” In this view, revising is like pruning out the unneeded material. Not only does pruning involve cutting off dead branches, it also involves trimming off seemingly healthy ones in order to get the plant to grow in the proper shape or to force the plant to grow back thicker and stronger.

Not only do you want to cut out the words, images, and ideas which are dead, you also need to cut out the material that isn’t working because you are trying too hard to be clever. Anne Lamott notes, “All the stuff that you thought was so fascinating, so interesting, so charming that you love it to pieces—it sticks out like a sore thumb.” Taking out words and phrases that you love can be the most difficult part of revising, but you have to be willing to kill your darlings. I’m not sure who first said this often-quoted piece of advice, but Lamott is among the number of writers who will tell it to you.

Sometimes your work needs major, major revision. It’s not just killing your darlings, it’s taking their bodies and cutting them apart and trying to put them back together in a way that brings life. This sounds like a task reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, but sometimes it needs to be done. In Bird by Bird, Lamott relates her revision process for her second book. After her editor read the complete manuscript, he told her that while the book had wonderful characters, it never got around to really saying anything. It was difficult for Lamott to hear this, but once she was able to look at her manuscript again, she saw the potential in it:

“One morning I took my three-hundred-page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. … There were sections up front that clearly belonged in the middle, there were scenes in the last fifty pages that would be wonderful near the beginning …. Then, when I was sure, I stacked up all the pages in their new order and set about writing a third draft.” (Bird by Bird)

Revision (especially dramatic revision) can’t always be done on a computer screen. Lamott recommends printing everything out. “Send money to the Sierra Club if that makes you feel better,” she says. There is something about seeing your work in front of you in a concrete way that can help you re-conceptualize it. And while the revision process can be painful, it is absolutely necessary to help your writing be the best it can be.

Protip: How to Avoid Plagiarism

Avoiding plagiarism is important whether you’re in high school, college, or writing for work. Most people know that plagiarism is not a good thing, but a lot of times we talk about plagiarism without talking about what it actually takes to avoid it.

Plagiarism occurs when a writer takes credit for work that another person has done. This can involve general ideas, specific facts, or particular phrases. Most instances of plagiarism have their roots in either ignorance, laziness, or carelessness. The best thing you can do to avoid this is to educate yourself about the subject and give yourself plenty of time to complete your writing assignments.

Basically, the only information in your writing that you don’t need to cite is information that is general knowledge, or conclusions that you personally  have made from the information you’ve already cited.

It can be tough to know if a piece of information is general knowledge if you’re writing in a field you’re not familiar with, but a good rule of thumb is when in doubt, cite it. If you’ve encountered the same piece of information in multiple sources, that’s a clue that it might be common knowledge. You can also ask a person who has more knowledge of the topic than you do.

If you are using information that has its source in another author’s work, you must give that person credit in your writing. Different citation styles have different guidelines for how to do that; you can learn more about them in this post. You need to cite this information whether you are quoting the source word for word, paraphrasing it, or summarizing it.

I’ve already talked about the difference between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing here. When you paraphrase, it’s not enough to replace the original author’s words with synonyms: you must rewrite the sentence in your own words, taking care to change the sentence structure. You want the information to be conveyed in your voice.

If you are using a word or phrase that is unique to the original author, you should  still enclose it in quotation marks and treat it as a quotation, because you would not have written those specific words on your own.

Knowing these basic guidelines will help you avoid plagiarizing another writer by accident. If you give yourself enough time to write a paper, you will find it easier to avoid careless mistakes. Another helpful practice to minimize the chance of plagiarism is to make sure that you clearly record the sources for information in your notes. If you are copying and pasting information from a website or other electronic source, make sure to enclose it in quotation marks and include the source information. There’s nothing more annoying that having a great piece of information but no idea where it came from.

Many times, a teacher or professor can tell if a student has plagiarized a source because the voice in a specific paragraph or section is noticeably different. There are also online plagiarism detectors which educators can use to find plagiarism. If you’re worried about your ability to cite material reliably, you may want to try putting your work thorough one of these before you turn it in. Good luck!



Good writers are good readers

To write well, it helps to read well. By reading well, I don’t mean fast reading speeds or good reading comprehension (although those help too). A good reader, in the sense that I mean, reads widely and thoughtfully, taking the time to notice details and make connections between different subjects.

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According to Vladimir Nabokov, “the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.” While Nabokov is famous for the high expectations he had for his readers, these qualities will help you get the most out of your reading, so they are worth cultivating (except perhaps for the dictionary–we have the internet now for that).

You may be surprised how much you get out of reading when you take the time to remember names and other details or when you stop to look up a word you don’t know. Best of all, the same qualities that Nabokov says make a good reader–memory, imagination, a good vocabulary, and an artistic sense–are the same qualities that make a good writer.

It’s not just a matter of helpful traits, though; I find if I’ve been reading a lot of well-written books in the genre I’m currently writing in, my work is better. “Well-written” is key here. When you spend a lot of time with certain friends, you can start to pick up their mannerisms, patterns of speech, and sense of humor; the same is true for books that you spend time with.

So hang out with authors you admire. One of the great things about books is that they allow you to hear the mental workings of some of the smartest, funniest people around. Take advantage of this! If you’re trying to find a poetic voice, read the poets you enjoy. If you’re trying to craft short stories that pack a punch, try reading some Hemingway. (Or Flannery O’Connor. Or Raymond Carver. You get the picture.)

You have access to virtually any writer, so if you want one of them to be your muse, read the things he or she has written, and let that be a jumping off place for you. You don’t need to consciously imitate that author’s writing style unless you want to. Just reading well will allow you to absorb techniques that you might otherwise never have noticed.

Is there a writer who inspires you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Ekphra… WHAT?!?!?

Writing an ekphrastic poem can be a great exercise to get your creative juices flowing. “A what poem?” you ask.

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“Ekphra… WHAT?!?!?” Good question.

Ekphrasis is a term that generally refers to a rhetorical device that attempts to create a piece of art that relates to another piece of art in another medium. A common form of ekphrasis is a piece of writing (often a poem) which is inspired by/attempts to relate with a visual medium such as painting.

Some well known poems are actually a form of ekphrasis. For example, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is an ekphrastic poem, as is Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Keats addressed his poem to an urn he created in his mind, while Auden was writing in response to a painting called “The Fall of Icarus.” Both poems meditate on the relationship between life and art.

“All poems for paintings can be read as commentaries upon the nature of the encounter between the verbal and the visual.” Stephen Cheeke, author of Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis

This statement shows one of the reasons that ekphrastic poetry can be so much fun to write: it allows you to respond to something that moves you or makes you think while simultaneously engaging in a time-honored metaphor.

In his book, Stephen Cheeke says that the word “ekphrasis” is derived from the Greek word for “out” and a Greek word which means “to tell or speak.” This makes sense, because ekphrasis is a kind of speaking which comes out of a visual art object.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, writing an ekphrastic poem can be a great writing exercise. Usually, the aim isn’t to describe a painting so much as it is to capture a mood or ponder a truth which the art also tells. Some ekphrastic poems take one of the figures in a painting as the speaker. (An example of this would be “Eurydice to Orpheus” by Robert Browning.)

Finally, to spark your creative juices, here’s an ekphrastic poem which I wrote last year. It’s inspired by this painting by Rothko:

Painting by Rothko with yellow rectangle at top of canvas and red-orange rectangle at the lower part

My poetry professor had everyone in the class write a poem based on this painting.

Rothko’s Rectangles
Flame-bright blocks of color
confined within boundaries,
vermilion and crimson
burning through their fixed places,
blurring their edges with
the shimmer of heat haze.
See the artist’s tortured rectangles
(the tension either conflict
or curbed desire) swallowed by
the larger canvas-crisp border
of the painting, of the world.
See how they smolder,
long after they have lost
the last chance
of escape, long after
the paint has dried and the artist
relinquished the brush.

Five Posts to Write Right Now

These are some great writing prompts! Also, number two is from Anne Lamott. Win!

The Daily Post

Mired in bloggers’ block? Pshaw — we’ll give you a push! Here are five posts you can publish right now, no matter what topics you usually blog about.

1. The last thing that made you mad.

There are two great things about addressing issues that make you angry: first, the posts tend to be fun to write (not to mention cathartic). Second, the internet loves a good rant.

Think about the last thing that really made your blood boil, and take it from there. You can write about why it was so upsetting, explain how you found a solution, propose changes to keep it from happening again, or freeze-frame your emotions in verse.

(If you’re worried about letting it all hang out, check out our tips for writing rants without sounding like a big jerk.)

2. Your typical childhood lunch.

No really; stay with me.

In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird

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One of the scariest parts of writing (for me at least) is being vulnerable.  There are two dimensions to vulnerability: being vulnerable in your writing and being vulnerable when showing your writing to others.

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It’s so important to be honest when you write, but sometimes writing with this kind of vulnerability feels like you’re peeling your skin off. This is especially true of genres such as memoir and poetry. Even if you’re writing fiction, your writing needs to be honest to human experience.

Vulnerability can also involve taking risks in form, style, or content. When you invite uncertainty in your writing, this allows space for surprise and growth. If you never try anything new or take any risks, your writing may become stale or rigid.

Once you’ve created a finished piece, sharing it with other people involves another type of vulnerability. According to the dictionary, when something is vulnerable it can be wounded or hurt. That’s true of most writers’ feelings when they allow others to read their writing. There is always the possibility of being wounded or hurt when other people don’t understand your writing or reject what you are trying to do.

Submitting work for publication involves an even deeper level of vulnerability. You have to be willing to allow someone else to read your work and judge its suitability, and with this comes rejection. Even the most successful writers experience rejection. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad; it may simply be a poor fit for the place you’ve submitted it.

Knowing all this doesn’t make rejection easy. Anne Lamott says that as writers we need to be willing to expose ourselves, but knowing that we need to be vulnerable is different than actually achieving  this in our writing and in our willingness to share our writing with others. I’ve determined to cultivate this quality in my writing; that’s one of the things that this writing conference has inspired me to do.

There will probably be many more conference-inspired posts in the near future. I feel like I’ve learned so much and been encouraged in so many ways. Keep writing!