On writing

I’m in the midst of rethinking an academic writing class to include more fun and motivating tasks. It’s a one-week course, and I want to have them do all of their writing, reading and peer feedback in class, with no additional work at home. That means a lot of clicketty click in the computer lab, interspersed with some pen-and-paper work and plenty of group activities. Ideally, at the end the students should not be “all written out,” they should want to go and write volumes. So: “What advice do you give to young people who want to be authors?”

“We all start out with the same alphabet. We are all unique. Talent is not the most important thing — discipline and dedication are. Craft can be learned but desire and longing are innate. Despite the demands of school and just being young, try to write SOMETHING every day — a description, a captured emotion, a simile, a metaphor. Read, for crying out loud! A writer must read the way a ball player must go to the ballfield every day to practice. Everything is possible in this world of ours — and so’s publication.”

Robert Cormier, through http://twitter.com/jerridkruse and http://twitter.com/kdwashburn


Ten great quotes on writing to get a discussion going:

  • Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The best style is the style you don’t notice. ~Somerset Maugham
  • I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard
  • I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head. ~John Updike
  • The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ~Agatha Christie
  • Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~Francis Bacon
  • The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say. ~Mark Twain
  • Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. ~Sholem Asch
  • Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. ~Hannah Arendt
  • To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make. ~Truman Capote

Language work: 13 golden nuggets from William Safire’s “Great Rules of Writing” (full printable version here):

  • Remember to never split an infinitive.
  • The passive voice should never be used.
  • Do not put statements in the negative form.
  • Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
  • A writer must not shift your point of view.
  • And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
  • Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
  • Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
  • Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  • Always pick on the correct idiom.
  • Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

Question: How do two of the things you do compare?

We generally have more than one kind of task to do at work or at college. For instance, we might need to write up our research and then make a presentation, which are two entirely different kettles of fish (“2 versch. Töpfe mit Fischen” = 2 Paar Stiefel). Or we might need to manage a group of people, but also do some highly specialized work ourselves. Each of those elements of work has its own challenges and rewards.

In my case, as a provider of language services I translate, write and teach, and each of those requires very different skills. I have to change my mindset when I go from one to the other. Let me just compare writing and teaching: When I write I’ve got an audience in my head, and need to use my imagination to figure out what the reader will want and need. When I teach, I do some of the same kind of imagining in advance, but I don’t fix things absolutely. Instead, I wait for immediate feedback, and just need to be very awake and aware to respond to what I see and hear. Another difference is that when I write, I can make corrections once I see the whole thing. But as a teacher, once you’re in the situation, it’s live. This is something I really enjoy. And finally, when I write I’m responsible for the content. When I teach, my students and I share that responsibility.

So: I’d like to invite you to think about two such types of work you do:

  • Where are the challenges?
  • Where do the rewards lie?

Essay models for this question

This could be a nice essay question for a 6 paragraph essay: 1 introducing your subject, then 4 dedicated to the challenges and rewards of the first and second type of work, and then your final paragraph summarizing something that your reflections have led you to recognize.

An alternative, 5 paragraph essay could take 3 differences between the two types (as I did in the text above) and devote a paragraph to each, plus the introductory and closing paragraph.

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What’s the story, cupcake?

Sweet Dreams by Kirsten Lepore, Special Jury Award at SXSW 2009

Images and laughter help you learn, says Jo Westcombe, who sent this video and knows a thing or two about story telling. A fun assignment in a writing class could be to write this up in different genres: separate groups write a fairytale, a romance, a newsflash and report, a report in a scientific journal…

So over to you: What’s Cupcake’s story? Start watching, then stop the film. What’s going to happen next? At the end: Did you expect the story to end differently? What decisions does Cupcake make, and why? What’s your favorite scene in this story, and why?

Did you know that you can call someone you love “cupcake”? Here are more terms of endearment for your summer flirt.

How to learn English: Reflective journal

Can keeping a reflective journal help you learn? Yes, but you need focus: good guidelines with a catalogue of questions. Is feedback neccessary? Not really, but it can be motivating – especially feedback from your peers.

At a recent conference on Personal Learning Environments, Marc Graber of the University of Zürich studied the progress that school children made who kept a journal like this. He had four groups: The online jourmal (a blog) with and without guidelines, and a pen and paper journal with and without guidelines. Those writing a blog made about the same progress as those who kept a pen and paper journal. The essential difference was not the medium; it was the method: Those who did not have a structured agenda didn’t make more progress than the control group – students who didn’t keep a journal at all. Writing is not a “Selbstläufer” – that means, it doesn’t do the trick on its own!

I’m convinced – though I don’t have proof – that this can also be applied to the way we adults learn. I’m sure that you can improve your English by writing on your own, but you will do better with an agenda. I’ve noticed that myself: Since I’ve found mentors, I’ve started learning much faster. I also think that we adults profit more from writing online, but (as they say): the proof is in the pudding (das muss ich erst noch testen!)

So you learners of English: I’d like to be your mentor and help you build your agenda. Come join my blog group, and start reflecting on how you use English!

Here are my amateur screenshots of Graber’s presentation:


Question: What do you do alone, by yourself, on your own?

One may be the loneliest number, and no man is an island, but some things are better, or turn out better, when you do them yourself. The process itself may be more effective or rewarding. Or the product may be better or more enjoyable if it’s (mostly) yours. Perhaps you have learned to do something and there is just nobody else who can do it as well, even though you’re banging your head to find someone to delegate it to or share the job with. So you do it yourself.

Let me tell you about the things I find myself doing alone in this week’s podcast. And I’d like to hear from you about what you prefer to do alone. Please post your response as a comment, or as a link in the comment section below. If you want to join this project with a blog of your own but are not sure how to start off, read this, watch this video, or get in touch with me.

Do it yourselfselbst machen: I made this jam myself.
Do it (all) by yourself1. ohne (jegliche) Hilfe; I can’t lift this by myself, it’s too heavy. Wow – she did it all by herself.
2. (völlig) in sich versunken: I was in the garden (all) by myself.

Do it on your ownaus eigenem Antrieb; I’d prefer if you cleaned up on your own. Don’t tell me, let me figure it out on my own.
Do it aloneunbegleitet; “I want to be alone.” (Marlene Dietrich)

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Sex and … grammar?

I’ve got a fun job, writing an exercise a week for learners of English. We think up a topic related to the magazine and a grammar issue that should be addressed, or a set of vocabulary items and an approach to learning them, and then I’m off and running. It’s funny: The more bizarre the task, the more it gets my creative juices flowing. This week I have to write something to accompany the title story “Sex in America”, and it’s going to be in the “grammar” section. So: Sex and grammar?? Hmm… These are some quotes I’ve found quite amusing fishing around the Internet for inspiration:

  • Remember, if you smoke after sex you’re doing it too fast. ~ Woody Allen
  • When a man talks dirty to a woman, it’s sexual harassment. When a woman talks dirty to a man, it’s $3.95 a minute. ~ Author Unknown
  • Men get laid, but women get screwed. ~ Quentin Crisp
  • Tell him I’ve been too fucking busy – or vice versa. ~ Dorothy Parker
  • I’d like to meet the man who invented sex and see what he’s working on now. ~ Author Unknown

Taken from Sex Quotes compiled by Aparna Chatterjee.