Monday, October 28, 2013

Tips on Preparing for Class Discussions

"Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors."
               —African Proverb

To recap what we discussed during class (and to aid those who are not in my class or missed the session), these are key points for preparing successfully for class discussions:

  • Read the assignment before class and write down any questions you may have about it.
  • Ask questions based on critical thinking skills:
  • How can I use this information?
  • How does this information compare with what I already know about the topic?
  • What ideas, concepts, or points of view from the reading did you not understand?
  • What is the source of the material?
  • Is the material fact or opinion?
  • What is the author’s purpose? Is the author biased?
  • Has relevant and sufficient evidence been provided?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

College Writing Skills: Study Success Tips

"Success is to be measured not so much by the position that people reached in life as by the obstacles that they have overcome."
—Booker T. Washington

To recap what we discussed during class (and to aid those who are not in my class or missed the session), these are key points for successful studying:

• Study in a place that has minimal distractions.
• Stay healthy and relaxed.
• Attend each class.
• Take notes during class and on each assigned reading.
• Reflect upon your habits and routines. Accentuate those habits that will help you be successful in
           college and try to eliminate those habits that will hinder your success.
• Seek help from your professors and/or the learning center when you need it
• Maintain a positive attitude.
• Complete assignments on time and to the best of your ability.
• Develop ways to manage your time well.
• Prioritize your most important projects, assignments, and activities.
• Avoid waiting until the last minute to complete assignments.
• Try to balance your academic work, extracurricular activities, and personal commitments.
• Be organized. Organize your study space, desk, planner, and notebooks and binders.
• Stay focused while studying, during class, and as you are taking exams.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Formal and Informal Communication

This topic invariably comes up in my writing workshops and classes. It doesn't matter the age of the group or whether they are taking the class for personal enrichment/lifelong learning or for college credit. When we communicate---whether verbally or through writing---the outcome is always the same: to convey thoughts. Knowing your purpose and audience determines HOW you will communicate your message.

Informal communication is among friends or people we know personally. We let our guard down, use slang and colloquial phrasing. Because it's informal, we know they'll "get the gist" of our message and that's all we are aiming for. Examples include text messages, phone calls/voicemail, and friendly banter. Informal communication may use non-standard English.
Formal communication on the other hand always follows the rules for standard English. When we are writing for our jobs – creating memos, reports, business letters – we use standard English. Are there times when we might use informal English in a work situation? What are examples of formal writing? What are examples of informal writing?
Whether we communicate formally or informally, the writing process is followed. First we collect our thoughts, then we decide how to share those thoughts, finally, we deliver our message. In formal writing, however, ideas and thoughts are focused before delivery. This ensures our message is clear. This is why correctly using words that are frequently misused is so  important.
Focusing our thoughts.  Planning is the first step in the writing process. It allows us to explore a topic before focusing it. We then consider our purpose and audience before we plan (or outline) and then draft. How many ideas can you generate about the differences between high school and college? Now, brainstorm ideas on this topic: What 3 tips would you give to a new college student?  You will write your first paper to turn in on this topic.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Know Your Learning Style

Thought for the week:
"You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, 
for this thing that we call failure is not the falling down, 
but the staying down."
—Mary Pickford

NOTE: Learning Style Tips gleaned from exercises in our College Writing Skills textbook and (I LOVE that program!) and recapped in the weekly course newsletter. 

Your learning style guides how you study and the best ways for you to learn and retain information. So, it's important to consider these questions:

What kind of learner are you? What strategies can you use in your classes to meet your learning style?
If you are an applied learner, use case studies, examples, and practical applications.
If you are a conceptual learner, organize information into main ideas and examples.
If you are an auditory learner, tape record lectures and form study groups to discuss lecture content.
If you are a visual learner, create visual aids such as maps, charts, and diagrams of course content.
If you are a social learner, take courses involving class discussion and form study groups whenever possible.
If you are an independent learner, take courses that use a traditional lecture –exam or independent study format.
If you are a spatial learner, use outlining, visualization, and mapping techniques.
If you are a verbal learner, discuss steps, processes, and procedures with classmates or instructors.
If you are a creative learner, take courses that involve exploration, experimentation, and discussion.
If you are a pragmatic learner, write out a list of steps, processes, and procedures.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

College Writing Skills: The Writing Process

This is dedicated to my students in the College Writing Skills program at ESC, though any writer--or student--will find it helpful. When I began teaching writing at the local college, I created a weekly sheet to help freshman students learn to manage the syllabus. It evolved into a "newsletter" of sorts complete with articles, study tips, and motivational quotes. I'll now post those on my blog (and use the online course page for updates and homework/assignment due date reminders). 

Whether we are aware of it or not, all writing goes through a series of stages from the initial idea to the completed product. It helps to relate the process of writing to what you know. A process is simply breaking something into steps. Many things we do daily follow a process. Think about the steps used to do daily tasks, enjoy your hobbies, or improve skills such as dance, music, sports, and so on.
Prewriting is the first step in the writing process. It  includes brainstorming ideas, settling on a subject, and selecting a topic. Brainstorming is accomplished in several ways. Making lists, creating a cluster or bubble outline (sometimes called a mind map), or journaling all help in focusing the topic.
  Prewriting also includes planning and organizing. Deciding on audience and purpose takes place during this stage. The method used for brainstorming is then turned into an outline or plan for our writing. When you complete your assignment to poll 12 people to ask whether they use prewriting, note whether they are still students or working adults. Many people who have been in their occupations for awhile and writing emails, business letters, and reports do not realize that they "prewrite" because they plan in their heads what they will say and how they will say it.
Drafting is the next step. The purpose of this stage is to get thoughts onto paper. In elementary and secondary school your teachers may have referred to the “sloppy copy.” This is the messy draft. DO NOT ever try to turn in your draft to a college instructor. They expect your papers to have gone through at least one round of revision and editing. Keep in mind, professional writers will do this many, many times before submitting it to their editors to make it as perfect as possible.
Revision is the rethinking step. At this point you will review your draft for clarity, supporting details, and move and/or cut sections to better express your point. This stage should not be confused with editing. (That is not about rethinking your approach.)
Editing and Proofreading is the final step. The purpose of this stage is to check for flow, grammatical and spelling errors, correct format, and so on.
Keep in mind that the entire process is recursive. (This word will by on your vocabulary quiz!) This means that it is not necessarily a chronological process. At any point you can go back to a previous stage to improve the overall product. Unlike say, baking a cake, in which it would be ineffective to add the forgotten baking soda once the cake is in the oven, in the writing process you can go back to prewriting and add to your plan even as you are drafting.
  Though not part of the writing process, prioritizing is vital for your academic career (and beyond). Prioritizing means setting both goals and the action steps to achieve those goals.
Breaking tasks into smaller steps creates manageable pieces. This helps in prioritizing schedules. Create goals and then set action steps to complete each goal. Remember, we eat an elephant one bite at a time; we write essays one word at a time.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Learning from Published Authors

A version of this entry appeared Jan. 23, 2013 on "Wonderings & Wanderings," my blog about living the writer's life. 

The best way to learn to write well is to note how published authors have applied all the elements of strong prose you’re learning about. Dissect published stories and articles to see how the pros build the writing puzzle. 

Select your favorite short story from an anthology or magazine and read it critically. Consider the following:

Whose perspective is the story from?
How is the conflict introduced? 
How does the main character react to the conflict?
Does the main character solve the problem? How?
How many scenes are included? 
With each scene is a new obstacle presented? If so, how is it resolved?
If only one scene is used, how is the conflict escalated? Or, how do new problems arise as the main character deals with a problem?
What is the length (duration) of the story? (A few hours, a day, several days?)
How is the final problem resolved?
How quickly does the story conclude?

Now, do the same with an article. It’s especially helpful to “outline” the article. (And remember how much easier this is to do after the writing is completed?) Mark the paragraphs defining the topic. How has the writer drawn you into the piece? Underline each main point made in the article and mark the anecdotes or facts used to illustrate each point. 

Review the “notes” on each piece you’ve analyzed. What have you learned? Try to emulate what you’ve discovered in your own writing. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Create a Routine

A version of this entry appeared on January 19, 2013 at "Wonderings & Wanderings," my blog about living the writer's life. 

A regular writing routine sets a career in motion. Finding time is tough at first, so once you've set a schedule, it’s frustrating when life messes with it. It’s okay if the schedule is sporadic from time to time. It will settle back into place when the timing is right. Until then, try to write everyday – for at least 20 minutes. For several years this was the only way I accomplished any writing. I call it "writing in snippets of time." The time adds up. So does the writing. In six days you’ll have 2 hours’ worth of work. You’ll be amazed what you might accomplish. 

If family interruptions stifle your writing plans, it’s even more important to set a regular writing schedule. Not only will it help your family realize you're serious about your writing (and if you want to receive payment, it is at least a part-time job) but it helps you take your writing seriously. 

One woman I know posted “office hours” to help family get the point. Another made a “mailbox” by taping a file folder to the door. If the kids wanted to ask her something, they wrote it on a slip and put it in the mailbox, which she checked several times a day. Only emergencies warranted interrupting. 

If you have small children, they won’t understand that you’re “working” so you may have to focus on adding up paragraphs instead of minutes. Target writing one paragraph during nap time. They’ll build to a story or article in a few days. Every little bit helps. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Recharging Stalled Writing

I don't often have trouble with writers block. As a big talker it's rare for me to have nothing to say. During deadlines, though, I might freeze; sometimes because I'm working with a new editor and wonder whether I'm on target or not. Sometimes I even get stalled on projects without deadlines, such as my short stories and novel projects. When this happens, I use a variety of techniques to get the words flowing and rev the writing engine. 

1)   Listen to music. I've often used different types of music to get into the "mood" of a project. While writing The New Deal and the Great Depression (Enslow Publishers, 2000), I listened to Swing. When I wrote several Native American biographies for several specialty encyclopedias for The Gale Group, I listened to Native American flute music. I have a variety of favorite artists across a range of musical tastes and select whichever I feel will help me concentrate. 

2)   Journal of use a blank computer document. I'll focus on writing anything that comes to might just to get the thoughts rolling. Even if it's, "I have an article due on Friday and I need to focus on getting it done. I want to write about . . ." I keep typing until the words naturally flow into the begin writing the article, which is usually what happens. I then cut and paste the article or story verbiage into a new document (or my original project file) and continue writing. 

3)   Focus on one part of the project. Try thinking about a character. What is his or her problem? I'll make a list of events that will happen in the story (or points I want to convey in an article). Once I write something on the screen, I usually feel scenes and words coming to mind. Then I switch to a new document and write the story, or turn my list into paragraphs. 

4)   Switch "media." If I'm writing at the computer, I'll grab a legal pad and write longhand until the words flow. If I'm working on fiction, I might switch to nonfiction until those thoughts flow, then switch back. A few times I've focused on writing poetry which tapped into a different creative part of my brain or something. Focusing on the words, their sounds and syllables recharged my thoughts and I was able to return to the original writing task. 

5)   Switch "location." A change of scenery recharges. If I'm working in my office I might head to the lanai or living room. If that doesn't help, I might grab my laptop and head to a coffee shop or cafe. Sometimes I've even taken my digital recorder and "dictated" during a long walk. (Dragon Speak quickly transcribes which saves time.) 

I've been under deadlines on nonfiction projects when nothing was coming to mind and these methods worked. My mind recharged and before I knew it hours had passed and I'd written twice the amount needed. Try a few of these techniques yourself and create your own to recharge stalled writing. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Breaking Writer's Block

So, have your created goals for the year? I encourage my workshop students to, complete with action steps toward achieving them. Many who are in my workshops view the class as an action toward a goal. Perhaps you're doing the same, or perhaps you're reading some books on writing craft. If you're like a few of my workshop students, you may be facing a new problem -- freezing up or struggling to actually write. 

I rarely suffer from writer's block (the inability to write), but I have witnessed my students getting blocked. Often, keeping all the details they're learning about in mind causes new writers to freeze up. Writers block is often caused by fear or anxiety. Do I have what it takes? Am I making sense? Will editors post my manuscript on the “When we need a really good laugh” wall? What am I exposing about myself – either about my (un)creativity or my (lack of) communication skills?  What if my idea is no good? 

First, remember that all the craft details are for guidance. Don't worry about them as you put words onto paper; worry about them as you revise.  Think of your draft as your clay which you'll shape and add detail to later. Second, find a topic to write about that matters to you. Third, have faith in your skills and creativity! 

The following exercises should help you find a topic you are motivated to write about:  

1) Make a list of high points, low points, and turning points in your life. (What’s the best thing that ever happened to you? The worst? What events made a difference in your life?)

2) Think about specific incidents related to each event and assess what you learned from that encounter.

3) How might you turn the truth of each experience into the theme for a story or article? What events will you use to illustrate that theme? How will the main character grow or change by the end of the story (to realize that truth?)

Good ideas, passion for a topic, a desire to share, and faith in your skills are key to breaking the block. In the end, focus on having fun writing!