Friday, July 30, 2010

Writing Is Therapy for Parents

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Three of my all-time favorite words in the English language are follow my mouth. Just recalling those words transforms any moment into a good one because those three words bring to life a good memory for me.

One afternoon, after pre-school, my daughter let me know that she had learned a new song and wanted to teach it to me. The song had gestures to match the lyrics and a bouncy beat. I recognized the appeal once I had heard her sing the song and witnessed her delight, but we had several moments of frustration before we actually shared the song because my daughter said follow my mouth.

I did not understand her meaning. I had never heard learning a song described that way, but that is the way she experienced it. The teacher spoke words and the children echoed them. In other words, the children followed the teacher’s mouth, and my daughter wanted me to follow hers to learn the song.

I don’t even remember the song today, but I remember my daughter’s excitement. She truly wanted to share and sing the song with me. I also remember how I fumbled the moment. Instead of saying “show me,” I asked her to explain what she meant by follow my mouth. Such an explanation was beyond her age and so she was frustrated, so much so that I almost missed sharing in her delight for this particular song.

Later, when I had a moment, follow my mouth became the heading for a journal entry that was never completed. As all parents with young children know, finding the time for thoughtful reflection is more than many of us can manage. I did, however, record those three magical words, and they not only helped me remember the moment in my daughter’s childhood, but also remember a lesson: explanations are difficult, especially spur-of-the-moment ones and especially if the child is young.

I wish I could tell you that I never fumbled as a parent again. I cannot. I fumbled again and often. Sometimes I even made the exact same mistake: I asked my daughter to explain herself when she truly did not understand yet. (Do I? Do you?) My consolation is that even as I asked for an explanation, I backed down quickly, reminding myself that extemporaneous speaking is terrifying and terribly difficult for most people and speaking about feelings even harder.

So if you wonder what you can write about and you are a parent, then a parenting journal will have great value for you and your children
. Trying to keep up with one, however infrequently, encourages you to be more mindful, more aware of causes and effects, of what works and what does not, of what you will never ever do again and what you will. It will also make deposits into a memory account that you can return to many years later.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

If you make an accurate record of parent-child interaction, surely you will use dialogue to record who said what, to whom, and how. Dialogue is an excellent way to be specific and concrete, to show and not tell. (You may wish to review blog posts for April 18 and 25, 2010; these deal with being specific and concrete and with showing details.)

Here are a few guidelines for dialogue.

1. Several prize-winning modern authors, including Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien, do not use quotation marks each time they write dialogue, but each author insures that readers can follow the conversational chain. For those of us not among the ranks of prize-winning authors, quotation marks are useful.

2. Remember that if you use the first set of quotation marks at the beginning of one speaker’s words, you must use a second set to signal that one speaker’s turn in the conversation has come to an end. In other words, quotation marks always travel in pairs.

3. Sometimes, one speaker is very long-winded, rattling on for a couple of paragraphs. In this case, you may begin a new paragraph with an opening set of quotation marks and leave the closing set of quotation marks off until the speaker finally takes a breath and comes to the end of his remarks. For example:

Speaker 1: “I beg your pardon. What did you say?”

Speaker 2: “I said, and it bears repeating because everything I say carries weight and should be blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

“In fact, I should say that you are a yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada, yada.”

4. Often, writers characterize the way in which a speaker delivers his message or clarifies if the speaker actually speaks out loud by one of the following methods:

“I dare you to say that again,” Billy taunted.

“I don’t think you can hit that ball,” Billy thought, but he said, “You can do it! Knock it out of the park!”

Notice that in each example above, the punctuation appears inside the closing quotation marks.

Reading Challenge:

The list below is in no way comprehensive. So much has been published on this subject. Here are a few thoughtful and occasionally hilarious personal accounts about parenting and one book about preserving memories for generations to come:

1. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish
2. Good Morning, Merry Sunshine by Bob Greene
3. To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford
4. Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing from America’s Favorite Humorist [Erma Bombeck]
5. A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd
6. “My Teenage Son’s Goal in Life Is to Make Me Feel 3,500 Years Old” and Other Thoughts on Parenting from Dave Barry by Dave Barry

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon a day in the life of parenting. Capture one of the joys or frustrations, using dialogue.

Good Morning, Merry Sunshine

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Make Writing a Habit: Travelogues

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

My ancient grandmother—at least she seemed ancient to me then—took my sister and me to California when we were children. As we took our seats aboard the TWA plane, she gave me a small, spiral-bound notebook and instructed me to write in it every day so that I could remember the trip. I had no idea where to start, but she coaxed and coached me, giving me ideas or even telling me what to write. On that first flight, she noticed an athlete, Bo Belinsky, on board. She forced me to leave my seat and ask for his autograph, and I remember thinking her brand of chaperone included cruel and unusual punishment. I was a desperately shy child; I am still a shy adult.

I have often told the story of that notebook and Bo Belinsky whom I thought of as a broad-shouldered football player until recently, when I found that little notebook and googled Mr. Belinsky. Now I know that he was a baseball player, and now I have a new mystery: how did my ancient grandmother from the smallest of small towns in the Heartland know about a California athlete? Perhaps the stewardess—now more properly called flight attendant—told her about the celebrity on board; perhaps she read the sports pages every day. I can’t imagine, but that little travelogue brought back great memories.

Many years later, I had the good fortune to travel to Japan with other teachers from across the nation. My husband, who has the heart of a great adventurer, was not allowed to tag along for the three-week tour so I decided to take him with me by writing about every day and every thought I had. During bus or train rides, after meals, and before bed, I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling an entire bound 6 X 8 inch book. Upon my return, he sat down to read it cover to cover and said, after he finished, that he felt as if he had made the journey himself. I now read the travelogue occasionally and relive the trip in every vivid detail of place names, people, thoughts, and sensations.

A particular type of journal known as a travelogue is essential for every person who longs to know, to discover, and to write well.

As the summer arcs toward its end, record your travels in a journal. Include the five senses as often as possible:

1. What do you see?
2. What do you smell?
3. What do you hear?
4. What do you feel?
5. What do you taste?

Capturing the full sensory experience rather than just listing where you stopped and what you ate will bring the journey to life. After all, a travelogue is not just a map; it is much more. It is the experience of travel, and that includes how the journey challenged and enriched you.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

The advice offered last week holds true for this week as well. Do not fret about correct spellings, complete sentences, or dangling modifiers. Write it all, holding nothing in reserve. You can proofread, edit, and polish later. Now is the time for giving yourself fully to specific, concrete details and images.

But since we are talking about travelogues, dates and places will be part of your narrative so a quick review of the correct punctuation for dates and places is relevant.

1. Separate the day from the year with a comma when presenting a date in the following order: month day, year; e.g., July 23, 2010.
2. Do not use any punctuation for a date listed in the following order: day month year; e.g., 23 July 2010.
3. Separate the city from the state with a comma; e.g., Los Angeles, CA or Chicago, IL.
4. When using postal abbreviations for a state, each letter should be a capital letter as illustrated in item 3 above.

Reading Challenge:

To read some classic travelogues, enjoy one or more of the following:

1. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck: a narrative of the author’s search for America with his dog, Charley, as his companion
2. On the Road with Charles Kuralt by Charles Kuralt: stories about the author’s search for America and what binds us to a place
3. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon: a narrative of his journey across America using only the highways mapped in blue; i. e., the two-lane roads

Writing Challenge:

Write a travelogue. If your big summer trip is behind you or your budget restricts you to a staycation, then capture the short, local day trips that you and your family enjoy: a weekend at the lake, a bike ride through the river park, a day among the crowds at the local amusement park. Remember to include the five senses.

On the Road With Charles Kuralt Set 3

Friday, July 16, 2010

Making Writing a Habit: Gratitude Journals

On February 2, 2010, I wrote:

If I dream of becoming fit and strong, I must begin to eat less and exercise more. If I long to play the piano beautifully, I must begin with scales and devote time to practice day after day, year after year. If I wish to write or need to write, then I must begin.

The question most often asked by those facing a writing task is how do I begin? My students often hope that I will answer that question with a foolproof strategy. Alas, the answer is neither foolproof nor magical. The answer is simply: begin.

My early advice stands and applies to today’s topic: writing journals. To become a writer, one must write—not just for the heinous documented essay task that some teacher assigns and not just for the occasional job search. One must write every day.

By making writing a habit, you will unlock a never-ending stream of ideas and insights. You will also become better and better at writing.

Gratitude Journals. Some people still like to move pen across paper. I do when I update the gratitude journal that is a small bound notebook filled with unlined, blank pages waiting to be filled. Several nights a week, I reach for this journal on the night table beside me as I sit resting against a mountain of pillows, pen poised above a blank page, replaying my day to select one moment, person, idea, or creature that made a difference in my life that day. I find that I am a more aware and hopeful being when I write in my journal just before unfolding my body under the sheets and letting every muscle stretch taut before yielding to the mattress, the one that seems to know just where my weary bones rest best.

More about Gratitude. One of my favorite writing tasks to assign and one of my students’ favorite writing chores was the Attitude of Gratitude Letter. For the last 18 years of my teaching career, I taught seniors and required them to write a letter to one person who made it possible for them to graduate. I suggested a parent, grandparent, sister, brother, youth minister, friend, or teacher. I invited them to think back to the person who gave them encouragement when they doubted their talents, to the teacher who steered them in a direction such as art or music or science, to the person who provided study time, poster boards, pencils, paper, and notebooks. I also suggested that they write the letter on quality stationery, then roll it like an old-fashioned diploma, tied loosely with ribbon, and give it to the person on the night of graduation. The students warmed to the task, wrote carefully, revised and recopied. The act of saying thank you was a gift to themselves as much as it was a gift to one other person.

Being grateful teaches us humility. Being grateful changes the channel in our minds from dire, dread news to good news. Being grateful helps us grow so consider keeping a gratitude journal or writing a daily letter of gratitude

The Medium. An electronic journal will serve just as well. I find that writing by hand has become more difficult for me. My hands have some arthritis in them so writing by hand for long stretches is not an option any longer. Composing at the computer is easier on my hands and just as effective as writing by hand—except that I tend to delete words and chunks, editing as I go, leaving no trail by which to retrace the development of my ideas. On paper, the crossed out sections are still accessible, but I just do not keep several digital versions alive and well—although it can be done.

Begin to make writing a habit in your life. Write every day. A journal of gratitude is one easy way to begin that habit.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Do not waste time thinking or worrying about GUM for a gratitude journal—or any other type of daily writing, for that matter. Stopping to look up the spelling of a word can constipate the flow of ideas. Continue writing until you have written all the reasons for which you are grateful and until you have provided specific, concrete details to bring the moment, person, idea, or creature to full, three-dimensional life. (For a review of specific, concrete language, return to the posts for April 18 and 25, 2010.)

Reading Challenge:

In the pursuit of the highest quality journals, read one or all of the following:

1. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a nonfiction account of Dillard’s life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
2. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, a nonfiction narrative about Dillard’s childhood
3. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver, a collection of essays wherein she finds and explains reasons to be amazed
4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a memoir about the loss of her husband and the process of grief

Writing Challenge:

Write about the people, ideas, incidents, and creatures in Nature for which you are grateful. Be specific and concrete, but write with abandon—the only audience being you—at least for now.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Essay Exams. Another Academic Task that Requires Research

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Apply everything I have written from May 16 through July 2, 2010 to be successful with essay exams. That says it all. Here, the lesson endeth. See you next week!

Okay, I’m being glib, and you expect me to explain so I will.

A professor or a boss asks you to write and expects you to
1. demonstrate your knowledge
2. demonstrate your reasoning skills
3. demonstrate writing proficiency

Do these purposes sound familiar? I hope so. If they do, you have been paying attention during the long eight-part series about research papers—a dry subject with many tedious details.

When that series began, on May 16, I declared that writing well requires knowledge. On May 23 and 30, I added information about reasoning, and on June 25 and July 2, the posts were about style and formatting; i.e., writing skills. These five posts match the three expectations listed above. They are your reader/evaluator’s expectations and the extent to which you meet them separates A-essays from C’s.

To use the current overused expression, with no apologies for doing so, the gorilla in the room is that an essay exam is writing on demand in a short period of time. Students protest that they do not have the luxury of time in which to gather information, take notes, examine the prompt, apply their knowledge, or prepare a draft for revision, but in fact, they do.

Gathering Information. In a classroom, that is your primary task: to gather information by reading assigned books and articles, attending class regularly, listening, and taking notes. Every class period is a period in which you gather information.

Your teacher or professor has earned a degree and (we sincerely hope) given considerable thought to tasks he or she puts before you. The instructor has created a road map leading from Point A—person without knowledge on the subject—to Point B—person with considerable knowledge on the subject. Your job is to travel the route mapped out. Thus, for an essay exam, you gather information during every class and homework hour whereas for a documented essay, you prepare on your own during every block of time you set aside for that purpose.

Taking Notes. For each task—the essay exam and the research paper—you must take notes. As you read homework and listen to lectures or discussions, you record what you read and hear for the same reasons that you take notes while conducting research: writing helps us discover and remember. (I recommend reviewing the blog post for June 6 for a more thorough discussion of note-taking.) Your homework and classroom notes will help you discover major motifs, designs, patterns, and themes in the subject; your notes will help you remember them and the details that prove them. Day by day, note by note, you are gathering information that becomes knowledge that will be demonstrated in an essay exam.

Examining the prompt. Annotate (mark up) the prompt unless you are given specific instructions not to do so. Search for the key verb. Have you been directed to explain, list and explain, defend, compare or contrast? Once you identify that word, circle or underline it, then jot down a tentative thesis: The purpose of this essay is to compare Hamlet and Macbeth, and the areas of consideration will be that each possesses heroic qualities, encounters the supernatural, leading each to question his purpose, and each dies as a result of treachery. (You may wish to refer back to the June 20 post for an organizational plan and thesis for a Hamlet-Macbeth comparison essay.) Re-read the tentative thesis. Ask yourself if it answers the demands of the prompt. If you are satisfied that you are on topic, then quickly list evidence to support each area of consideration. That evidence is you proving your knowledge. The pieces of evidence you select and the order is which you present them prove your reasoning skill.

Preparing a Draft. An essay exam is just that—a draft of an essay that could be longer, more polished, and perfected if given more time. Thus, do not paralyze yourself be thinking matters of style are crucial for success.

Style matters though. The more you practice, the more likely it is that anaphora will appear, even in drafts. The more you know, the more likely it is that you will be able to offer analogies and images. So write, write, write in order to produce first drafts under timed conditions that you can be proud to hand in for evaluation.

Still, you should try to eliminate as many errors as possible. Use your time wisely, leaving three to five minutes to proofread your essay answers. Mouth the words without making any sound (you mustn’t disturb other test-takers). Force your eye and hand to slow down by mouthing the words and thereby noticing when you have omitted a word that needs to be added or misspelled a word that needs to be scratched out and rewritten. Proofreading will reduce the evaluator’s impression that there are numerous distracting errors, allowing him or her to focus upon content, not writing skills.

Tell ‘Em What You’re Gonna Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em and Tell ‘Em Whatcha Told ‘Em. My speech teacher and soon-to-become debate coach as a freshman in college gave me the advice in bold font above. He was right, and his advice holds for essays, too, especially essay exams. Your essay exam reader has many to read. Do him or her a favor while protecting yourself: announce your thesis (tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em), prove your thesis (tell ‘em), and restate your thesis in your conclusion (tell ‘em whatcha told ‘em). Following this advice will insure that your own essay stays on topic. After all, if you write a different point in the conclusion, you know you have shifted course while developing the essay and need to apply patches and fixes during proofreading. Following my coach’s advices will also insure that your reader knows what your point is; he will not have to infer or draw conclusions.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM)

One of the mistakes that my students make when writing essay exam answers is writing one big lump without paragraphs. Do not make the same mistake. Paragraphing is a sign that you are organized, that you understand how one topic is a subset of a larger point. In other words, paragraphing is proof that you, the writer, possess reasoning skills. So even though your essay answer may be fewer than 1,000 words, do not present it as one large chunk. Indent to begin new paragraphs, and you should have at least three: 1) the introduction wherein the thesis will appear, 2) the proof of your knowledge in one or more body paragraphs that prove or disprove the thesis, and 3) the conclusion wherein your will restate your thesis.

Another mistake that my students make is opening their answers with a fragment. For example:

Essay Prompt: Explain why Michael Shaara developed General Longstreet as a sad, somewhat isolated figure during the final assault on Union forces dug in behind a rock wall at Gettysburg.

Poor Example: Because Longstreet cared more about the soldier than about winning that day at Gettysburg. Lee seemed to believe that manpower was an inexhaustible resource . . . .

The fragment or dependent clause that opens the “poor example” essay does not clearly declare the answer (thesis). Not only has the student made a serious usage error, he or she has not fully answered the demands of the prompt.

Better Example: To emphasize the difference between General Lee’s and General Longstreet’s approaches to battle strategy, Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels, portrays Longstreet as a man on the sidelines in Lee’s staff, one who is deeply saddened by the expected losses at Gettysburg. Lee seemed to believe that manpower was an inexhaustible resource and the cost of war whereas Longstreet believed that . . . .

The better example is a complete answer in one sentence, and the reader has no doubt that the answer clearly links to the prompt. That is the goal. All that remains is for the writer to prove detailed knowledge that will back up the first sentence.

Reading Challenge

If you have not already done so, read the three works used to illustrate thesis statements. These are Hamlet and Macbeth by William Shakespeare and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

Writing Challenge:

If you have done what you should do as a student, you will have an extensive set of notes for the homework you have read and the lectures or discussions you have heard. Go through the notes, highlighting major themes, motifs, patterns, and concepts for the subject. Then, write your own essay exam prompts. By doing so, you are not only reviewing the course material, you are preparing for the next essay exam. Reward yourself with your favorite treat every time you anticipate the exam items correctly.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Research, the Eighth of Eight Parts: Formatting

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Last week, I compared the research paper process to a complicated jigsaw puzzle. This week, a better comparison for the research paper format is the fine print of any legal document. It is never interesting to read, there is more information than you want, and every word is important to you. So prepare to read about detailed rules and requirements.

Stationery. On May 2, 2010, when explaining the résumé, I mentioned the quality of the paper (5th bullet point) as a factor in your success. I offer the same advice for the documented research paper. Stationery sold for manuscripts or résumés is thicker and more textured. It feels heavier, and it will make a great first impression. If you can, spend the extra pennies and invest in quality paper for researched writing tasks.

Margins. Both MLA and APA require one-inch margins on all four edges of the paper. Computer word processing programs are set correctly for this task. As long as your margins are at the default setting, you will not need to do anything about margins.

Spacing. Both MLA and APA styles require double spacing from the first line through the list of resources (entitled Works Cited in MLA and References in APA). Simply change the default line spacing from one or 1.5 to 2, then begin.

Fonts. Both MLA and APA style formats limit the maximum font size to 12. Many software default settings are now 11. This is acceptable, but you should avoid anything smaller. Remember that your reader has many pages before him, usually many pages from many writers, so be kind. Similarly, be thoughtful when choosing the font itself. Times New Roman is most often suggested because it is easy to read, but Cambria, Calibri, and Arial are other options.

Headers. Both MLA and APA require that every page, from 1 through the last, be numbered in the upper right corner. Insert a header and do the following for each style. (As always, refer to the manuals published by each organization or online resources such as for additional help.)

1. For APA set the page number flush right. Against the left margin, set a shortened version of the paper’s title. These two pieces of information—the shortened title and a page number—appear on every page from page 2 to the last page. The challenge is that on page 1 the title also includes the introductory words, “Running head:” followed by the shortened title that will appear on every other page.
2. MLA requires nothing on the left in the header, but preceding every page number is the last name of the writer of the research; e. g., Last 1, Last 2, Last 3, etc.

First Page. MLA does not require a title page; APA does. Be sure you know what each style format expects of you, and remember one of the most valuable online sources for this information can be found at

1. APA’s title page lists the full title, your name as the author of the researched essay, and the name of the institution for which the essay has been prepared. These are double-spaced and centered on separate lines in the upper half of the first page. You may use two lines for the title, but the title should not exceed two lines.
2. MLA’s first page requires four pieces of information in a double-spaced, four-line heading set flush with the left margin and in the following order: your name, the name of the teacher/professor who required the task, the course for which the paper was written, and the date. Please note that the order of date information is day month year without any punctuation between each item; e. g., 2 July 2010.

Abstract. APA requires an abstract, and it is the second page of the paper. Below the standard required header and centered on the first line of text will appear the word “Abstract.” The abstract is, of course, a detailed summary of your paper—its thesis, its main points, and its inferences or conclusions.

In-Text Citations. The rationale for in-text citations and their connection to the Works Cited list was explained on June 6, 2010 and referenced again on June 11, 2010. Please review these entries for additional information about in-text citations.

What appears below is the most basic information for in-text citations. Before submitting your essay, be sure to read closely the requirements in the manuals for sources with two or more authors, for articles with no author, etc.

1. APA requires the author’s last name, the year of publication, and a page number if quoting directly from the original. Each of these three items, placed inside parentheses, will be separated by a comma, and the page number will be preceded by the abbreviation for page, “p.” If paraphrasing and not quoting directly from the original source, you may omit the page number but APA encourages its use.
2. MLA requires the author’s last name and the page number, separated by a space only, not punctuation, and the page number is not preceded by an abbreviation.

List of Resources Used. Again, I suggest that you review the earlier entries and study the manuals because what follows is basic information.

1. Each list has a title, centered on the first line of text, below the automatic header. For APA, that title is “References.” For MLA, that title is “Works Cited.”
2. Alphabetize the list, using the author’s last name or the first word of the title if there is no author.
3. The first line of each item in the list is set flush with the left margin. If an item requires a second or third line, it begins one tab from the left margin (also known as a hanging indention).
4. Each entry in the list will be double-spaced and the entire list will be double-spaced (in other words, there is no extra spacing between entries).
5. Punctuation requirements differ so you must study MLA’s or APA’s style manuals to be sure that you include all the necessary information, in the right order, and punctuate correctly.
6. Only works cited (quoted, paraphrased or summarized) in the essay will appear on the References or Works Cited pages. For MLA, if you have read extensively and that reading influenced the final paper but you did not cite from that reading, you may create a separate Works Consulted page. Its format is identical to the Works Cited page and it appears as the last page of the entire paper.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Indented quotations for MLA deserve attention. For prose quotations, the text quoted should type into your paper as three or more full lines. When it does, you must return to the beginning of your quotation to reformat it. First, remove the quotation marks. Second, set the quoted text two tabs from the left margin. Every line of the indented text should line up under the one above; i. e., each indented line should be set in two tabs from the left margin. The right margin is the same for the entire paper, including indented quotations; it is set in one inch from the right edge of the paper.

The punctuation to close the indented quotation appears BEFORE the parenthetical citation. Unlike any other in-text (parenthetical) citation, the punctuation appears in front of the opening parentheses for the source citation.

For APA, indent quotations that exceed 40 words, but indent only one tab from the left margin. Omit quotation marks, and double space the quotation. Also, insert punctuation before the parenthetical.

Reading Challenge:

Using Turabian, MLA’s or APA’s style manual, or the online Purdue University site, double-check every in-text citation and Works Cited (or References) entry. Ask your proofreader to scan your essay for format.

Writing Challenge:

Write something fun, something just for you or reflect upon the entire research paper process, using any level of language that comes to mind. This is your opportunity to vent.