Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Unreliable Narrator

One literary device that teachers refer to, and which students sometimes write essays to analyze, involves the concept of the unreliable narrator, someone reporting the details of the story who is in some way not trustworthy as the sole "explainer" or interpreter of events. The person's version of the situation becomes clear, quickly or gradually, as full of holes.

The narrator can be deemed unreliable as a credible witness and reporter because of various compromising factors--insanity, mental defects, extreme youth and naivete, a moral blind spot, egomania, and various other limitations. Whether the narrator knows or recognizes this in him- or herself is a related question and can be relevant in interpreting the author's point in having chosen this character as speaker.

One short story many have read, in which the narrator clearly cannot be believed, is "The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe. The main character's frequent protestations of his sanity and cleverness show up shockingly against the information he then provides about what he does and why he is doing it. Such discrepancies several times in the story lead the reader to determine that indeed the narrator suffers from a severe delusional disorder and mania.

At times, a reader scratches his or her head when a short story comes to a surprising ending, and it is only then that the narrator's unreliability becomes apparent, if the story is to have any clear meaning or aspects are to be reconciled. It can be argued that the narrator of "Charles," a woman whose son comes home with tales of a beastly new boy in his kindergarten class, does not fully explain matters because she remains oblivious to the reality of the situation until the end, at which point the ironic ending makes this clear.

When an author employs a child to act as reporter, this narrator is almost certain to understand less of what occurs around him or her than the reader will. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer provides an example of this situation.

A narrator who has severe mental limitations, such as Charley Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, brings to life aspects of what occurs around him by expressing puzzlement and confusion about them. This novel works particularly well partly because he becomes a reliable narrator for a time, when he gains more intellectual strengths; later, as his condition deteriorates to even less than what he was capable of before, we see again, this time even more markedly, that he doesn't interpret or understand what goes on around him as fully as we the readers can.

Many consider Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, to be unreliable because he is infatuated with the image that Jay Gatsby projects, to the point that he does not process the novel's events with any moral response. Only as the reader begins to note his lack of outrage, shock, concern for others, or disgust does it become clear that his representation of events surrounding this iconic man is tainted by his adulation for Gatsby.

The uses of the unreliable narrator often connect in some way to theme; discover an underlying statement about human nature that the author seems to be making, and the use of an unreliable narrator will make sense in that context. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about people in the Roaring Twenties who were morally bankrupt, and Nick is no exception, no matter how he holds himself as separate from the others. The fact that he seems to see himself as outside the the group actually verifies that he interprets the situations without objectivity that they all face and therefore cannot be depended on to explain matters fairly.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Discipline and Writing

When it comes to most pursuits at which we want to improve, people understand that incorporating that activity into our regular life is vital. Even more, performing it with a real effort to meet the requirements of that pursuit is something we accept, though children learning to play an instrument, for example, may well resist and resent that discipline.

Without an effort to learn the nuances and work within the stylistic bounds, a student is only banging on the piano, perhaps playing a single song loudly and repeatedly. Everyone has heard this, no doubt. The lack of grace, subtlety, and accuracy in the execution is usually not apparent to the child who is "playing" but, without a doubt, can be heard by the child's audience. Indeed, it is only when the child begins to take on the many skills required--through learning scales, understanding terminology, a growing awareness of a composer's intent with regard to mood, efforts at modulation, so many aspects--that the student can begin to become the pianist he or she has the potential to become. Adhering to these learned expectations is part of the discipline of playing an instrument well.

For effective essay writing, the concept of discipline applies when we consider the value of dedicated, focused effort to make the words and sentences grammatically correct, to choose the right forms of punctuation, to perform several straightforward and consistent tests that help ensure a smooth, undistracting piece of writing.

Many young writers resist the requirements of proofreading because they home in on the content and are far more committed to their ideas than to the technicalities of the way they express them. Effective content is a worthy goal! However, mechanics is equally important, and ignoring or skipping half-heartedly through a check for correctness is doing a disservice to those very ideas.

Taek these section for example When i write stuff with out cheking it for for the teknikalities, the Reader bcomes focussed on the rong thing.

Rather than torture you, here are my four suggestions for the basic proofreading exercises to perform on all formal writing, step by step. Because you are typing your paper using Word or a similar program, familiarize yourself with and use the proofing features of the software to make this go quickly.

1. Check for words you should avoid (remove!) Use the edit/find mode to quickly type through this list of words that make writing vague, weak, or casual. As for the fix, note that in some cases, the word merely needs removal. Other times, you will need to say it more formally, change that part of your sentence, or fix a contraction. A few of the No-No's are punctuation forms that are not suited to the essay. Changing them to what is acceptable is usually easy; instead of an exclamation point, use a period. Instead of dashes, use parentheses.

2. Read it aloud to yourself . . . slowly! The value of reading out loud is difficult to convince students of. Yet every single time one of them reads his or her work to a group or to the class, the student must stop and correct mistakes and the value of the step immediately becomes obvious--now the student can "see" a missing word or reversed phrase, a repetitive word choice or lack of punctuation.

Take a deep breath. Read it aloud to yourself slowly. Rather than decode for meaning, as we usually do when we read, instead revert to reading as a young child does, word by word. Only in this way can most of us disengage our brains from the meaning and focus on the execution.

(When it is just not possible or reasonable to read it aloud, I recommend reading it aloud in your head slowly and in a strange accent--robotic, or upper-crust British, or like your grandpa from Kentucky.)

PS: Anyone on Facebook knows how often we type the wrong word or leave out a word and render our posting incomprehensible. If we read it aloud, we could avoid some embarrassment!

3. Follow MLA format. This means 1" margins all around, a running head with your last name and the page number on the upper right, and a heading that needs to be in a specific order. Since all English essays are going to be written in the Modern Language Association's required format, the easiest thing you can do is set up your normal template in the MLA format.

This is possible on Word 2010 (PC) by completing these steps:

File / new (the word "new," not the folder icon) / more templates (folder is at the very bottom) / papers / MLA research. Now choose this template and open it (double click).

With the template doc open on your desktop, now go to the page layout ribbon and click the little arrow in the bottom right of "page setup." When it opens, at the bottom on the left is a "set as default" option; click this and say "yes" when it wants to know if you want this to be your default. Now your baseline document is always in MLA format.

4. Do spell check / grammar check. Spell check is a feature most of us already rely on. Also learn how to use your Autocorrect feature (though with care!) because this tool makes simple, common corrections instantly, such as, your "teh" becomes "the." You can improve Autocorrect by adding to your dictionary carefully when asked during a spell check, especially your name(s) and those of proper nouns you will frequently include in your writing.

Grammar check is another kettle of fish, but here are some fine-tunings you can employ that will help you make grammar check more effective for you, as well as a few helpful hints.
  •  Choose options in grammar check that set the filters at the highest (formal) level. Go to: File / options / proofing / Click on the following boxes:
  • Note that here the setting for "Writing Style" is "Grammar and Style." This means you will be notified of more possible errors.
  •  It's important to understand that Grammar Check is extremely limited in its ability to give your prose correct structure. All it can do in many cases is note that you have used problematic words or phrases, and then it alerts you: "Consider accept" it may say, when you used "except." But the point is to consider switching it. The grammar check doesn't know which is right in this instance and relies on you to verify your choice. A similar message uses the term "Suggestion" but is no more precise about what you should or should not do. In fact, it is not uncommon for a message to imply your writing is incorrect when it most definitely is not.
  •  Thus, when the grammar check message indicates something you doubt, or which you do not understand, you have two choices. First, you can look it up online at a place such as Owl.net to find out what rule to follow or ask someone who's confident at grammar and writes a lot. Or you can ignore it and hope for the best. As I mentioned above, grammar check is often wrong. 
After you reset your grammar filters, try downloading this document and running grammar check (the icon for spell/grammar check in Word 2010 is found on the "Review" ribbon). It will NOT catch many obvious errors, it will helpfully suggest you correct several real errors, and it will indicate that some parts have errors that are in fact correct. For now, use grammar check, but use it very cautiously. (Note: This passage demonstrates that a thorough read-aloud can be as effective in catching errors, if not more so, than running grammar check.)

Though these steps all require familiarizing yourself and doing some background setup work, once you have the routine in place, you can work through the steps rather quickly--in less than five minutes for a timed writing of 45 minutes. As it becomes second nature to you, you gradually use the empty words less often, catch yourself on punctuation mistakes you used to make, and become more aware of the value of reading your work aloud to catch other errors.
So discipline becomes a matter of training yourself to maintain your standards in a given pursuit, with the goal of becoming better and better in your execution of that activity.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Essential Skills for Using Quoted Passages in Your Middle or High School Essay (U.S. Format)

Whenever you write a literary analysis essay, it is assumed that you will use quoted material from the literature you are examining. The way you choose what to include, skillfully include it, and properly take the reader to the next idea determines the effectiveness of the quote in your essay as a whole.

First, choose the example from your source that helps demonstrate, clarify, or exemplify the point you are making in the essay. If your topic is Kay Thompson’s representation of a little girl’s typical behavior, you will want to choose effective references to Eloise’s actions. Here is an example:
as Eloise does. Thompson gives her protagonist, who lives with her parents in a New York City hotel, a conversational tone and the attitudes of a normal child of six: “I am a city child. I live at The Plaza. There is a lobby which is enormously large with marble pillars and ladies in it and a revolving door. . . . I am a nuisance in the lobby. Mr. Salomone said so. He is the manager” (8-11), Eloise explains in a chatty manner. By showing us the world through a small girl’s eyes, with her extremely honest observations on it, Thompson helps the reader remember what it is like to be young; she also blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
When incorporating prose quotations into your paragraph, remember that there are essentially two types, “snippet” quotes of less than a full independent clause, usually included for the vibrant language or phrasing, and “full” quotes that include an entire idea, often more. Full quotes can be introduced with a comma or a colon. As you become a more skilled writer, you will be freer to use quoted material in a few other ways, but for now, you may do any of the following three: snippet; formally introduced quote with a comma; or formally introduced quote with a colon. Here are examples of each:

Snippet: Eloise’s exuberant antics extend through a full day, with the final pages indicating that she is getting ready for bed and that she hopes to “pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute” tomorrow (65).

Note that, when you use snippets, you should punctuate the sentence the same way you would if the snippet were just a regular part of your sentence.
Formal, comma:
reasons for halitosis. In Your Disgusting Head, the authors explain, “Your breath smells bad because you’ve been eating food that smells bad” (10). One co-writer, Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey adds, “When you put your nose to certain foods, they might not initially smell bad . . . . But what causes the apple, once in your mouth, to smell not-so-good?”(10). It is in determining the answer to this latter question that the explanation for this social problem becomes clearer. They write, “The fact is that the bad smell comes from you” (10).

Note that when the quoted passage is an independent clause or more in length, it begins each time with a capitalized letter.
Formal, colon:
See first Eloise example above—there, a colon introduces the quotation.

See: Thompson, Kay. Eloise.

Haggis-on-Whey, Dr. Doris and Mr. Your Disgusting Head.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Literature: Writing about Theme

Discussions of literature nearly always turn to the question, "So what is the author's theme?"

One point worth stopping to consider is that there are usually at least two themes apparent in any work.

Another way to ask this question is, "What does the author seem to be saying about human nature?"

Answers to such questions need careful framing. It's not the same to state a theme as to identify the "moral of the story," since "morals" are provided in fables, not standard fiction. So avoid language that involves "should, must, always" etc. or sounds like it is giving advice to the reader. Instead, here is a method for coming to an understanding of what at least one theme may be, in a given work.

1. Ask yourself what are the conflicts? Who is in battle? In the case of a short story that involves mostly an internal struggle, look at what parts of the character are in opposition.

2. How could each of these combatants be characterized in a concept noun?

3. Who/what wins the conflict?

4. What framing language will help you explain this? "The author indicates that humans . . ." or "The author speaks of . . . " are sometimes useful starters for this part.

5. Often, the easiest way to express the theme involves use of a cliché . If this is the case, it's an intermediate step, but move onto your own language for a rendition of that idea in original language.

Let's try it with "The Sniper," by Liam O'Flaherty.

1. One of the unnamed protagonist's conflicts is his struggle not to die at the hands of his opponent, who is positioned on the roof across the street.

2. Our sniper represents Life and to him, his opponent represents Death.

3. A clichéd version of this: Kill or be killed.

4. "The author speaks of the need in wartime to kill others if one wants to stay alive."

A second conflict he faces is internal and grows from the broader conflict.

1. He must kill another human being, someone he might well know, and this horrifies him.

2. On one hand he is Survival, and the other he is Humaneness (I feel this is different from the idea represented by Humanity).

3. A cliché may not exist for this one. I often point out that a broad theme in literature is "War is hell." That is too broad here though.

4. "The author addresses the inevitable split a soldier feels in a war zone: to protect his own life and yet to preserve all human life in general. In order to live, he must do things to others that would never otherwise be acceptable in his moral code."

Try this 4-step process and see if you can then explain an author's theme more clearly. Happy writing!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Effective Quoting Skills: Part II

Quoting significant passages from a source requires that a writer be on top of several requirements and details. In fact it actually includes, to some degree, use of the other two methods for incorporating others' ideas and words, summarizing and paraphrasing. They can, of course, also be used separately at different times, as can a direct snippet quote.

So one needs to understand what is different about these three techniques.

Summarizing means to provide the gist of a piece of writing. It's much shorter than the original and covers the main ideas only. An entire article, story, play, or novel might be summarized, or just a smaller component part of it.

Paraphrasing is a sort of translation into one's own terms what someone else has said. In using sources from earlier eras in the English language, it may well include real translation. It is also restating the information another way.

Summarizing requires restraint and a representation of the big picture. Articles in professional journals begin with an "abstract" that corresponds directly to the summary. It provides readers with just enough information to know whether this particular research report or article provides information relevant to the reader's interests and professional area of expertise.

Paraphrasing requires a responsibility to fairly represent the source material without leaving out anything or confusing the information. It is approximately the same length as the original it restates.

Here is a summary of the short story, "Charles," by Shirley Jackson.

The narrator only slowly grasps that her son, newly started in kindergarten, has been having trouble adjusting to the changes in his life, and that he is dealing with his stress by misbehaving in school. His creation of an imaginary friend, named Charles, provides him with a way to explain what has happened at school so that his parents don't punish him. Various clues along the way show the reader what is happening more clearly than the narrator sees it, and only in the ironic ending does she suddenly realize that Laurie is the child who has been causing so much trouble in his class.

Clearly, this is an overview of the story's thrust and focus. Nearly all the specifics of the narrative are missing, but the main idea has been clearly explained.

Here is a paraphrase of a short passage from the story.

First the original:
"The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.

A paraphrased representation of this passage:
On his first day of school, Laurie refused to wear his formerly typical outfit of corduroy overalls and insisted on denim pants and a belt. He went off happily to school with the girl from next door, and I realized then that his babyhood was over: the little boy who spoke sweetly had become a big kid who insisted on different clothes and acted confident, even a little cocky. He didn't even even stop to wave goodbye to me when he got to the corner.

Note the important differences between the original and the paraphrased version:
1. Nearly all important words--nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs--have been changed.
2. The information is provided in a similar order but the parts of speech are not in the same order. Many students believe that to paraphrase is to pull one word, insert a synonym, repeat a few more times, and that's it. No, the syntax of the sentences must not be the same. That qualifies as plagiarism.
3. The punctuation, the divisions of each sentences, can vary from the original, as long as all the information shows up in the paraphrase.

For more information on summary skills, see this site.

For more on paraphrasing, go here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Effective Quoting Skills: Part I

Everyone knows that quoting from an outside source provides evidence and examples for an effective essay. Quotation serves a vital role in the process, yet its two siblings, summarizing and paraphrasing, play just as important a part. As a writer of essays, you need the ability to do all three, and to know when each is required. This blogpost explains aspects of effective quotation.

The Basics

You will either quote small "snippets" of another source or formally introduced sections of at least an independent clause in length. With snippets, you incorporate them into the framework of your own sentence and use the exact punctuation you would if the words were your own. With formal quotes, you ready the reader for what's coming, providing information and background that makes the quoted material clear.


Snippet quoting (refers to the short story "Charles," by Shirley Jackson):
Jackson, in describing Laurie's actions, mentions that he "yelled all the way up the hill" and that his voice was "raucous" (Jackson 1*)

Formally-introduced major quotation:
Jackson introduces irony when she characterizes the parents' lack of awareness of Laurie's deception. The narrator and Laurie's father discuss their concerns about the negative influences the misbehaving boy may be having on their child: “Do you think kindergarten is too unsettling for Laurie? . . . this Charles boy sounds like such a bad influence,” his mother worries (Jackson 1). Her husband's reply ironically reflects their total obliviousness about what Laurie is actually doing: “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later,” he says (Jackson 1).

*For the purpose of demonstrating quotation skills, I am only listing the citation in a rudimentary way, to avoid complication. The actual page number listed will always depend on what source you use, and repeated references to the same author/page will usually be indicated after the first reference with the term Ibid, which means "in the same place."

The Importance of Leading In and Out of a Quotation
For snippet quoting, your own comments usually provide all the explanation that is needed so that the snippet makes complete sense. However, with a formally introduced quote, you need to both prepare the reader beforehand and move forward to interpretation afterward.

Evel Knievel and the Motorcycle Jump**
Stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel was famous for finding longer and longer obstacles to propel himself over, atop his stunt bike. He and his crew set up elaborate ramps before and after the obstacles that would ensure he both crossed completely and landed safely on the other side. When he didn't, and he often didn't, he was injured in the resulting crash. Fortunately, he lived to the ripe old age of 69.

What does all this have to do with quotation incorporation? What Evel did is akin to what a writer does when placing quoted material in an essay. First, build a ramp up that will guide your reader safely across the quoted passage, and then on the other side, build a ramp down that gets the reader back to your main point and on to the next point. Without preparing your reader with context and background, you fail to "ramp up." Without a transition out that interprets the quote's implications, you fail to guide your reader down, and the lack of a ramp results in a terrible crash. Be kind to your readers! Use adequate ramps!

**I owe my colleague, Mark Gelineau, a huge thank-you for introducing me to this metaphor. It works so well!

Next: Paraphrasing and summarizing, and the role each plays in the use of direct quotation, as well as in citing source materials more indirectly.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Aagh! It's a timed essay!

When most people think of timed writings, sometimes also called "day essays" or "in-class essays," their stomach performs strange gymnastic maneuvers. Writing under pressure might be one of the least favored forms of exam known to humankind. However, as always, there are tips and tricks for breaking the process down that can help students feel more prepared and less worried. Here are some of those:

1. If you are typing your essay, ask your instructor if you can also open a timer that helps you keep track of your remaining time. This is available on the gadget at the top right of this blog. Set it for the total number of minutes remaining in your class period, or as your instructor indicates.

2. When you receive the topic/prompt, if you do not have time to think about it overnight, but must begin writing now, read through the question and sketch out a quick idea of structure. Ask the teacher any questions you have about the nature of the question and your plan to write about it, so that you will stay within the bounds of the assignment. Some teachers and all standardized test proctors refuse to answer these questions, but as you are becoming more familiar with the timed writing, you can probably ask your teacher a question or two.

3. Assess how much time you will have for these stages of the writing:

reading prompt and brainstorming, pre-writing, listing ideas, etc.

writing the intro and conclusion paragraphs (unless it is a one-paragraph paper)

writing each body paragraph

carefully re-reading it for grammar and content mistakes

Since you have--by definition--a limited span of time, you need to budget it carefully. Most of it should go to the body paragraphs and proofreading. However, you need to plan adequately and frame the writing with an intro and conclusion for effective results.

So, if your class period is 50 minutes, try to give 5 minutes or so to the reading/planning; 5 minutes to the intro; 15 minutes per body paragraph; 3 minutes to the conclusion; and 5-7 minutes to self-editing for mistakes.

As you can see, this will be tight! Setting up the timer may be the best way to monitor your progress; however, take heart!--you also may find yourself needing less and less planning time as you become accustomed to the type of writing your instructor expects.

Now, a suggestion most of you will not find enticing: Practice this at home. When you have an hour, set yourself up on the computer, use your timer, and begin working on one of these topics:

1. Which is more important, talent or effort?
2. What are the two most important qualities in a friend?
3. What two places should everyone visit?
4. Should PE be a required course?
5. What season is your favorite?
6. What are the benefits of having a pet?
7. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the internet?
8. What are the most important qualities in a leader?
9. To paraphrase, Mark Twain once said that someone who will not read has no advantages over someone who cannot read. Do you agree?
10. Is year-round school preferable to the standard 9-month plan?

When you are practicing timed writings, keep these benefits in mind:
*You will benefit from learning to budget your time.
*You will be better prepared for real writing situations if you are surprised by the topic. Sometimes, ask someone to choose one for you.
*You do not have to stand behind your words as if they were sworn testimony in court. Just write something sensible if you find yourself getting "blocked."

As you finish writing, put a sensible title on the essay. Do not do this first! It's easier when you know what you are summing up.

To effectively proofread, you need to take four steps--correct any repeated first words in a paragraph (N2SSWTSW); spell check and grammar check effectively; use "edit/find" to locate Nasty No-Nos and remove/replace them; slowly read the essay aloud to yourself (or in your head), touching each word as you say it, to verify that you removed edited out words and put in all the words you intended.

Ideally, you will find your stomach feeling less and less queasy on timed writing days as you become more experienced and expert at writing in this high-pressure mode.