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.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Write Powerfully With Verbs!

If you've ever thought that something you needed to read was total drudgery, perhaps it lacked effective verbs*. Verbs constitute, arguably, the most important words in a sentence, and without powerful, precise verb choices, prose feels pallid, wimpy, and dull to read. Use meaningful verbs! Then, construct your sentences using the verbs actively, and you will keep your reader's attention even more completely.

*Or alternatively, perhaps it was Moby Dick. If so, you have my deepest sympathies.

"To be" or not "to be"
As you check the last draft of something to present or turn in for review, take ten minutes to skim it for words such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had. These words originate from two verb infinitives, "to be" and "to have." Though the occasional "is" may be exactly what you need as you make a statement, we tend to overuse it. Similarly over-used, "have" creates the same problems. At times, you need one of these words in a verb phrase as a helping verb, such as "is winning" or "has tried," but if that word stands alone as the verb in that part of the sentence, revise the sentence. It can require you to rearrange the order a bit, but the effort will pay off.

Read the following passage:

I am from Buffalo, and I was sixteen the first time I ever left New York state. We were in the car one day when I had a realization that I will only have one life, and this is it. I was certain that the most important thing I have is the will to improve my options by becoming a college student. Now I am a senior at Podunk University.

Aside from some repetitive language, the main problem with these sentences is their lack of precision and conciseness. Not only "to be" and "to have" forms water it down, but a "verbish" thing, a gerund, "becoming," is also nearly as weak as "to be." So another verb to keep out of your writing as often as possible is "to become." But what do you write instead? you ask.

From Buffalo, I left New York state for the first time at age sixteen. While riding in the car one day, I realized that I only have this one life, and that I wanted to improve my options by going to college. Now I attend Podunk University and will graduate this year.

With the exception of one "have," stronger verbs replace the weak ones. This sentence reads as bolder and more action-oriented. You may wonder about those "verbish" sounding words, actually called "verbals," such as "riding," in this latter version. These are, as mentioned before, not actual verbs, but ones whose form changed to serve in other parts of speech. They are either participial, gerund, or infinitive. When even the verbals come from strong verb sources, this adds additional power to your phrasing.

Active and Passive Voice
The typical sentence pattern in English is Subject followed by Verb, followed by Direct Object or other material; this leads to active voice, in which the subject is easily identified. For some situations, people tend to reverse or otherwise mess with this order to be vague about the identity of the subject. This can lead to passive voice. For example, let's say that Klezmer kicks the dog. His mother comes in after hearing the yelp, and says, "What happened?" If Klezzie answers, "The dog got kicked," he may stay out of trouble.

Realistically, we have incorporated a great deal of passive voice into our cultural language, particularly in the governmental and political realms, and for much the same reason as Klezmer used it. We all recognize the "Mistakes were made" model for avoiding responsibility. Look carefully at this sentence--its order is reversed, and then some.

"Mistakes" is actually the direct object of the verb "were made." AND THERE IS NO SUBJECT IN THE SENTENCE AT ALL! Clearly no one is to blame. The dog situation echoes this. Mom now knows that Buffy received the action of kicking but there is no do-er in the statement to put into a good, long time-out.

A second form of passive voice includes the agent of action (often vaguely described) but puts it after the verb in a "by" construction: "Mistakes were made by my staff." "The dog was kicked by a little boy." Even then, we see demonstrated some effort to cloud perceptions, but--more important for our purposes--stylistically, the sentence galumphs along, and the out-of-order syntax jars the reader.

Admittedly, there are certain occasions when avoiding passive voice renders an idea ridiculous, and when, therefore, using passive voice suffices. Even so, assume that you need to use active voice, S + V + DO (etc.), because you probably do!

*%#! Expletives Lead to Missing Subjects too
In English we use a few constructions called "expletives." These are not words that should be erased from top-secret taped conversations, but rather set-ups that allow general ideas' expression. The two most common are "There is/are" or "It is," and their past tense forms. Here is such a sentence:

There are a number of ways to skin a cat, but the method I use most frequently is much like that for skinning rabbits; moreover, it is important to make sure that the knife is sharp.

Note that the resulting abomination--ah, I mean, creation--also leads to an "is" verb; it is quite wordy too. But alas, another Writing Wizards blogpost will have to address that.

So, to recap, nearly always, your writing will convey your ideas directly and effectively when you start with the actual subject and then use the verb. Use strong verb choices in sentence patterns that include the agent of action before its verb/action. Your writing will improve, and you will find yourself standing just a little taller.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Value of Annotation

Reading a piece of literature without a pen in hand is akin to attending a class but not taking notes. All “reception” and no “processing” (outside the brain, that is) can leave you with no material to refer to later when it’s time to study for an exam or write about the book. In addition, if you annotate, the interactions you have with the text as you absorb it, make sense of it, and question it help to shape your opinion about it, as well as fuel your future assertions about what the piece has to offer.

So read with a pen in your hand. In the most basic method of annotation, you can simply use exclamation points and question marks in the margins. As you become more comfortable with this, think about all the possible literary devices at work in literature and note when you see the author employing a metaphor or expressing irony. Keep a close eye on the plot line as you read a short story so that you can indicate when you see rising action, increasing tension, the climax of the story, and the outer stages of exposition and denouement. Using a simple set of initials works well, with E in the margin as you see exposition being offered, RA for rising action (and perhaps a little ↑ because tension is increasing), a C to denote the last point of tension (the “explosion”), and a D for the tying up of loose ends and details that denouement provides.

Keep a highlighter nearby (depending on the type of paper the literature is printed on) for noting new vocabulary. Put a synonym in the margin near it.

As time passes, you may find that you have questions when you read, and the margin provides room for short phrases such as, “Fishing at night—alone?” or “Why does he need to think before answering—lying?” You may also see connections between aspects of the story, as you delve further into the material, or recognize that a symbolic element is being used again, and why. Note these!

If you are reading a certain genre (type of literature) in a weeks-long unit, you will want to note similarities between elements of this piece and another you have already read. When the assignment involves comparison of aspects of two short stories, you have some ready material to include in your paper.

Remember that your own personal reactions have a place in your annotations. It would be impossible to read The Great Gatsby and not have a reaction to at least one of the characters or his or her actions, for example. And annotation does not require formal language. Perfectly fine notes in the margin for Tom or Daisy Buchanan might include, “Shallow! Pretentious! Brute!” etc. When Nick makes certain statements as narrator, I might write, “Contradicts himself—hypocrite.” A student of mine after reading the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” was so angry that the author didn’t reveal the ending that she wrote a few sentences of her frustration that he had left her hanging, including many exclamation points.

More power to her, and to you, to get emotionally involved when you are reading literature.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why Follow the N2SSWTSW Rule?

N 2 S S W T S W

When you are becoming a more skilled writer in the formal style, following the rule that No 2 Sentences Start With the Same Word in a given paragraph means that your writing will immediately improve. It accomplishes two critical goals of effective writing:

1. You immediately vary your sentence structure since each sentence has to begin with a different word. Realistically you might still end up with sentences that all begin with a subject followed by a verb, but the greater likelihood is that you will rearrange parts of the sentences so that a prepositional phrase begins one, rather than the word "the." A bit further, you may begin a sentence with a one word introductory element, such as "However." The result for any one paragraph is likely to be a much more interesting writing style that doesn't distract your reader.

2. You immediately avoid repetitive wording. Repetition is usually a style detriment, when it comes to formal essays. Sentences that all begin with "I" or "The" or "Then" prevent your reader from focusing on your content, and that is not the goal!

Remember that this rule applies by paragraph. You can start fresh every time you have a new paragraph. And like so many rules of this type, the more capable you become, the more you naturally vary your sentence openers and word choices, the freer you will be to actually allow two sentences to start with the same word in a paragraph, just very far apart!