Writing: Getting started

A business English student of mine is getting into writing on his Ning and blog (yeah!), and I sent him these exercises to get him started.

This is an exercise in overcoming writers block and allows you to brainstorm. It’s also a great way to avoid translating or focussing too narrowly on issues of what makes “correct” English.
1. Set aside ten minutes. Switch off the phone. Concentrate completely on this task and don’t let anything interrupt you.
2. Write your topic at the top of the page.
3. Now write without stopping anything that comes to mind. Don’t stop writing! If you don’t know what to write next, write “I don’t know what to write next”. Don’t go back and change anything you have written. Just keep on writing.
4. When you’re done think about the experience.
5. If you like, go through and underline some of the things you wrote. Have a glass of water ;), take a break and then do the next exercise:

Building blocks
This is an exercise in collecting all of the aspects of a topic that are interesting to you and making them into building blocks for an essay. It will take at least an hour. You can do the exercise as a list or using individual post-its, whichever appeals most to you.

Part 1: Creating the building blocks
1. Write your topic at the top (list) or on a big post-it
2. Now brainstorm all of the aspects of the topic you find interesting. Give each idea a new line/ post-it
3. Don’t stop brainstorming until you feel all of the things you find interesting are “out of your system” and you start to “run dry”.

Part 2: Designing the building
4. Group the aspects. What belongs together? Does one aspect belong to several groups? Does it need another name in that other context?
5. Give each group a header.
6. Summarize each group in one sentence.

If you want to take a break, now is the time to do it.

Part 3: Building the building
7. Make your sentences the introductory sentences to the same number of paragraphs. Each paragraph will deal with that aspect of your topic.
8. Fill in the paragraph below your introductory sentence.
9. When you’re done with all of the paragraphs, read it. Do the sentences at the end of the paragraphs lead to the next one? If not, write them in.

Take another break.

Part 4: Putting in the finishing touches
10. Read it though. What do you like about the result? What don’t you like? If you were going to do it again, what would you change?

When you’ve done both exercises, think over what you liked/ didn’t like about them.

My experience with these exercises

When I’ve done these exercises with college students, they’ve typically given me the following feedback:

Freewriting was

  • liberating. I was thinking in English and didn’t have time to look for words, or translate, or think about grammar.
  • exhausting and exciting. I have a cramp in my hand.
  • weird. A waste of time. I know what I want to write, I don’t need this.

Building blocks was

  • good because it made sure everything I want in my essay actually goes in
  • chaotic, doing things backwards. I usually have groups first, and then fill in the details
  • helpful for writing a standard essay, the kind I need to be able to write for FCE etc.
  • too constructed and unnaturally rigid. I don’t like the result.
  • very hard. I’m blocked and confused now. I don’t know where one idea ends and the other begins.

I’ll be sending this particular student plenty of more exercises, like describing a picture, sequencing events, talking about something without naming it, talking about an event in the past as though it were happening at this very moment and all sorts of little creative writing exercises (great prompts here to get you started designing tasks) … but these two basic exercises are a way into talking about the writing process as such, looking through opposite ends of the telescope.

Do you do similar exercises? How do you vary them? Which ones do you find most effective? Which ones do your students like best?

PS: I learned the freewriting exercise from Paula Maier, in her manuscript written for the kommUNIkation teacher training curriculum at the LMU München.

Girl games

Sandy and Anne

Today I’m very honored to be a visiting blogger on Chris Adam’s Bits ‘n Bob’s Show ‘n Tell, as part of his Mirror Posts/ Through the Looking Glass series. A post in his great San Francisco blog about a very surrealistic art show, “Altered Barbie”, leading to an equally surrealistic day, set my imagination off. Like Alice going down that rabbit hole, I found myself remembering playing with Barbie, and the cheapness of her clothes, compared to the richness of my mother’s, which Muff made for herself. And then I went and dug out this picture. Sandy and I are playing dress-up one fine summer’s day, way back then, feeling glamorous and serious and strangely wise beyond our years. Thanks, Chris, for the trip.

Do you have any childhood games you remember? Any pictures to show?

Crying in my coffee

Writing can be a lonely and frustrating business. Writing for online learners of English as I do is particularly tricky: I don’t get much feedback from my readers. As my employers are very busy, asking them to review and edit my work is not always possible. But that means that any errors I make and any nonsense I write is my problem, and it’s out there, and there’s nobody to tell me what’s going on. So when they do, it’s like a gift, like a mantel of love.

Sometimes I get negative feedback from readers, in the form of two stars out of five. (Love notes, Wanted! The crime of the century) That makes me feel about five years old. Seeing those nasty stars makes me cry in my coffee. That helps.

Yesterday I got wonderful, constructive feedback from Gill. And I met the people who will be working with the Moodle stuff I’m writing. That was wind in my sails, I’m on my way with that project.

So back to work.

Question: When does remixing become second-hand living?

Germany has been rocked by scandal this past week, as Helene Hegemann, the 17-year old writer of an astonishing novel called Axolotl Roadkill, has been shown up by Munich blogger Deef Pirmasens (Gefühlskonserve) to have lifted whole passages of her book from the writings of one Airen, a blogger in Berlin. Her publisher had asked her whether she’d quoted anything, and she’d said “no”. So she made a stupid mistake, and she’s being called a liar and a thief and all sorts of other nice things. The book is hot, sold out, second printing in the works. I only read the first 20 pages at my sister-in-law’s. It’s fast and savvy, a head trip full of adult experiences you’d sleep better knowing a 16 or 17 year old hasn’t had yet. So you really can’t help but be relieved that she actually did copy some of the episodes from an urbane blogger. Anyhow, she’s saying that her whole book is a remix anyway, and a totally legitimate new literary art form at that. Of course she’s right about remixing being a movement and an art form, and she can talk the talk, so she’ll be in the literary supplements for a while to come. Once the copyright issue  is settled in the second edition, a minor issue, and she shares the limelight with Airen, she’ll survive just fine as a writer.

But let’s just go back one step. So her book is pieced together almost completely from second-hand experiences. In music, remixing can create something sophisticated that reflects the artist’s skill and vision. But words are by their very nature unoriginal. Putting them together in a way that makes them your own is a helluva job. Remixing writing to make a novel? Why write one at all if you’re producing a product that just reproduces what other people have written? What’s the point?

This also makes me think of my own work as a teacher. In essay writing I preach: Put yourself into your writing. Make it real. Live, and live to talk about it. That’s especially hard to do in “English as a foreign language”, which is basically a large collection of the handiest, most frequently used phrases, so it’s full of linguistic clichés. It can drive a language lover to drink. So it’s hard enough to help language learners find their own voice. Do they plagiarize? All the time. And I give them hell for it.

Here’s what I think: Plagiarizing is not the same thing as remixing. Plagiarizing isn’t “borrowing” from others.  All it is, is stealing from yourself.

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Question: What new services do we need?

Last week I was getting a class ready to go to “Seven Days in the Life of Simon Labrosse”, a play being presented by the BeMe Theatre. It’s about a guy who has been unemployed and is trying to break back into the market (and into life, really) by inventing new and intriguing services: “emotional stuntman, ender of sentences, ego flatterer, easer of consciences”. Well, I asked my students to invent services they thought there was a market for and to write job advertisements for them. In this week’s podcast I’ll tell you about their ideas — and I’d love to hear yours! Please add yours in the comments below, or blog about the subject and link this post to your blog.


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Asimov deconstructed

What Is Intelligence, Anyway?

by Isaac Asimov

What is intelligence, anyway? When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me. (It didn’t mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP – kitchen police – as my highest duty.)

All my life I’ve been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I’m highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too. Actually, though, don’t such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests – people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was. Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles – and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test. Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I’d prove myself a moron, and I’d be a moron, too. In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly. My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again. He had a habit of telling me jokes whenever he saw me. One time he raised his head from under the automobile hood to say: “Doc, a deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter and made hammering motions with the other hand. The clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted, and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he asked for them?”

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring motions with my first two fingers. Whereupon my auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, “Why, you dumb jerk, he used his voice and asked for them.” Then he said smugly, “I’ve been trying that on all my customers today.” “Did you catch many?” I asked. “Quite a few,” he said, “but I knew for sure I’d catch you.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because you’re so goddamned educated, doc, I knew you couldn’t be very smart.”

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.

I had the pleasure of reading this with my university students last week as an example of a definition essay. As we were working through it, it dawned on me that this little essay may be perfect for the classic TEFL essay in terms of its structure and length, but it also contains the core of the scientific method, from considering the issue in context and explaining its relevance, to venturing a hypothesis (“don’t they simply mean”), introducing the sample (“For instance”), running the experiment (“Well, then, suppose…”), presenting the results (“consider”) and sumarizing the successful outcome (“Because you’re so goddamned educated”). A gem.

Question: What risks do you like, and what’s your survival kit?

I’ve been called a control freak by people who actually call themselves my friends. So what do my enemies call me? I think it’s a teacher thing, wanting to be prepared for all eventualities. Yet I’m fascinated by teachers who “teach barefoot”, taking nothing but a smile and a good night’s sleep. I know that will get you far, and I do it too, quite a lot, actually. But I only do it when I know the terrain, when I figure that I have enough tricks up my sleeve to handle pretty much anything that can happen. So while I hate taking blind risks, I love taking calculated ones.

I always take my survival kit with me. These days it consists of a high tech gadget, my multimedia MacBook Pro hooked up for wifi, which is really worth having made me computer-poor, along with my low tech tools: index cards, empty sheets of paper, colored pens, pins, sticky tape. A key element in my survival kit is my beloved Moleskin diary in red – so I can always find it, even when my desk is a mess – containing not only my appointments, but lists of all kinds: ideas and to dos, completely illegible to anyone but me. I love my Moleskin, and if I lost it, well, I might just take a lengthy holiday to run away from my clients and creditors.

How about you? What risks do you like taking, and what’s your survival kit to get through them?

Tipp: Sie möchten Ihr Hörverständnis verbessern? Zwischen dem Podcast und dem geschriebenen Text gibt es viele kleine Unterschiede. Hören Sie genau hin, um sie zu entdecken.

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