Tag Archives: education

How we teach writing and reading.

Writer First v Academic First

I’m a full-time writer, not a traditional English professor. Thankfully, I’m employed in a wonderful English department that does embrace writing, from academic to mass market.

I do not have APA and MLA formatting memorized. I don’t care if you end a sentence with a preposition as long as readers enjoy the writing. When you write for the mass media, a preposition can be a fine thing to end a sentence with. The primary task of a writer is to retain readers. It turns out, few readers enjoy pretentious lectures.

It is my theory that working as a creative writer does make me a better writing and literature instructor. This is certainly the philosophy of many MFA programs, though they tend to be more literary than mass market in focus. I’m unabashedly about the “massiest market” I can obtain.

My goal as a writer is to have an audience. I don’t care if they remember I wrote something; I care that they remember what I wrote. Most of my blogs, columns, and the books I’ve written don’t include my name. Writing pseudonymously is ideal to me; words are the focus, not me.

Admittedly, I also like getting paid for what I write. There’s nothing wrong with being a “professional” writer, and “literary” authors are every bit the professionals as their mass market peers. I know because I’ve discussed appearance and speaking fees with a few literary authors. When you charge $20,000 or more (a lot more in several cases) to speak somewhere, you’re in business.

If readers don’t enjoy my columns, stories, plays, or other works, I don’t get paid. It’s a simple way to know if I’m writing effectively or not. When people stop wanting to read my works, I’ll stop getting paid. I don’t sit around waiting to be inspired because magazines, websites, and production companies have deadlines.

I love writing. I live to write. I don’t live to please the grammar gods or some academic committee. While I believe writers need to remember their audiences, I also am part of that audience. The best writers I know write what they want to read and read nearly as much as they write. Good writers seek out works they wish they had written. Words are their lives.

If you want teach writing, you should love writing.

Word Counter

One of my favorite writing tools is Word Counter 2.1, from Supermagnus Software.

http://www.supermagnus.com/mac/Word_Counter/

The price? Free. The value? To quote a popular credit card company, “Priceless.”

If you’re like most of my students, you’re asking yourself, “Doesn’t every word processor include a word count function? What’s the big deal?”

Yes, most editing and word processing applications do count words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, I’m more interested in two features that are either incomplete or missing from word processors and layout applications: word frequency counts and readability analyses. Again, most applications provide at least the ability to create these reports, but none of them match the speed or ease of Word Counter.

There are several reason I use Word Counter:

  • Not every text editor I use provides real-time word counts;
  • Word counts are curiously inaccurate within some applications;
  • Macros for Word that provide frequency counts are painfully slow with long documents; and
  • Readability statistics from within programs are limited to one or two methodologies.

The application website explains Word Counter’s basic functions:

About Word Counter

Word Counter is a Macintosh OS X application that performs a word count and a character count, but it can do much more. It can be used independently or in conjunction with other applications such as TextEdit, Microsoft Word, Pages, TextWrangler, and others.

Word Counter can automatically update the count based on a user-defined time interval. It can show the progress achieved towards a set goal for the total number of words and characters. It also can perform bulk counts on multiple files and folders simply by dropping them onto the window. Word Counter can count the number of times a particular word appears in a document. It can even create a sortable summary table of all words in the document, with the number of times each word appears and the length of each word. Word Counter can also calculate estimates for readability statistics using the well known Flesch-Kincaid readability formula and many others.

Word Counter can handle various file types including plain text (txt, text), rich text (rtf, rtfd), Hypertext Markup Language (htm, html), Microsoft Word (doc), Microsoft Word XML (wordml), Apple’s web archive (webarchive), the Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf), and others. This program may be useful for writing a manuscript or an abstract with a strict limit on the number of words or characters allowed.

I do not live in Microsoft Word, though it is one of my primary tools. I write most drafts of documents in Scrivener (see my overview of Scrivener). Scrivener has excellent word count and document length “target” features, far better than those of Word, but I have had some minor issues with its Project > Text Statistics function. Don’t misunderstand, I consider Scrivener to be as close to ideal a writing environment as exists, though the menu structure can be a pain to navigate. Enough about Scrivener. Try it (and buy it) if you don’t already use it.

Since I create documents in Scrivener, Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and a half-dozen other applications, it is great to have a single application to generate word count and readability stats. Most of my documents are eventually “printed” to Adobe PDF files. Word Counter will analyze a PDF or even a folder filled with PDFs in mere seconds. I’ve had Word Counter analyze 45 files, all very long documents, in under a minute.

Most of my students aspire to being professional writers or designers. Some writers, including me, accept jobs that pay by the word. A good, indisputable word count is important so clients can’t argue with the billing statement. Word Counter is definitely the most accurate counting system I’ve used. For example, is “J.C. Smith” one word, two words, or three? One of my clients would argue it is one word and I can set Word Counter’s preferences for that standard.

In Word Counter’s preferences, I can tell the application to count only words with two or more letters. I can tell it that hyphenated words are one word or that Word Counter should consider each segment as a word. Is an email address one or more words, since there is at least one punctuation mark (the @ sign)? You can even create an “exceptions” list to exclude minor words from counts. Yes, some publishers do not pay you for a, and, an, the, and similar words.

Another tangent. I would rather bill by the hour, since research and document design can take as long as the writing and editing. Friendly advice to writers: avoid per-word payments except for simple assignments with minimal research and design requirements.

Word Frequencies

Counts are great, but my primary reason for using Word Counter is its Word Frequencies function. When we speak and write, most of us have definite patterns of word usage. My writing patterns include several problem words and phrases that I overuse. Examples include any, every, just, and so. I have a long list of adverbs I’d like to remove from my writing. By obtaining a report of how often words appear in a text, I can revise the text to reduce the counts of problem words.

The Supermagnus website explains its frequency function:

Word Frequencies

Word Counter also provides an interesting feature that summarizes the frequency of every word in a document.

To use the frequency option, the document to be summarized must be open in either the main Word Counter window or in the TextEdit window (depending on the current data source for the counts). The Word Frequency window can be accessed from the main menu. Press the Count button to begin the analysis. Once the count is complete, Word Counter will display every word that appears in the document as well as how many times each word appears and how long each word is. Columns can be sorted by clicking on the column name/column header. This can be useful if you want to know how many words longer than 10 characters you are using, or to see if your choice of words may be repetitive.

My students tend to doubt their writings reflect personal patterns. Word Counter enables me to quickly and easily demonstrate to students their patterns. I can generate the Word Counter frequency report and email a copy to the student author of a project. Students are surprised to see how predictable writing patterns are. A student using “however” six times per page in one paper is likely to repeat the pattern in another.

Readability

The final feature of Word Counter I want to highlight is its Readability Statistic reporting. Yes, Word generates some basic readability statistics, but nothing I’ve seen matches what Word Counter reports. The report from Word Counter includes more than 40 statics, including more than a dozen “grade level” calculations. As a writing instructor, this is wonderful.

When writing for some audiences, the text cannot be too complex. When I explain to students that writing at a college level is not always desirable, they are stunned. But, it is logical that some writing needs to be simplified. Legal warnings, for example, must have a high probability of being read and understood by the majority of consumers. Courts have used readability calculations to determine if instructions and warnings were dangerously complex.

The Word Counter website explains its Readability Statistics function:

>> Readability Statistics

Word Counter can provide various statistics to help judge the readability of text.

Many formulas exist to judge readability and caution must be exercised when applying a readability test to a document. Some tests are more appropriate for certain types of documents and it is important to think carefully when choosing a test. Some tests are better for text written at a grade school level, some are better for technical manuals, and some are considered flexible enough to judge the readability of almost any type of text.

Word Counter makes estimates for various elements of the text including the number of syllables and number of sentences. These estimates might deviate from counts done manually. In addition, even though many of the readability scores require a short passage of around 100 words, Word Counter will make its estimates based on the entire text. This should help average out any of the discrepancies in the estimates. In testing Word Counter and comparing the results to other online tools, some of the estimates were found to vary widely, probably because of differing underlying computer algorithms to make the estimates.

Keep in mind that all of the measures are simply standardized ways to judge the readability of text and none are perfect, and their pros and cons have been debated for years. A 1939 article by Irving Lorge in The Elementary English Reviewappropriately states: “It seems reasonable to conclude that reading difficulty is a difficult criterion to define.” If you would like to learn more about readability, there are multiple online references describing these measures and the appropriate uses for them. A very good reference is The Principles of Readability, by William H. DuBay.

Along with Grammarian Pro and Scrivener, Word Counter is a tool I recommend to professional writers, students, and writing instructors. Best of all, it is a free tool (donations accepted).

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) is one of the two websites I check when I have a writing related question. The other is the Tameri Guide, of course, since Susan and I tend to add content to Tameri based on our experiences writing and teaching. I am a bit envious of the great content on Purdue OWL, though. It is probably the best academic writing site on the Web.

Recently the OWL began adding slide shows, movies, and podcasts for students and teachers. The MLA and APA citation guides were already invaluable, but I’ve started to accept that students want content in digital form.

The podcasts’ content focuses on rhetorical concepts. Because students struggle with ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, any additional explanations are helpful. I’m for anything that helps students sort through the complicated textbook definitions of these concepts.

For a few years the OWL has been adding PowerPoint presentations on a range of writing topics. I’m not a fan of PowerPoint; slides are best used to introduce topics. Slides, by their nature, are superficial and should be accompanied by further reading and discussion. Still, the slides help students focus on key topics and concepts they should remember. The long list of available presentations is impressive and I do encourage teachers and students to browse the OWL library.

The OWL movies focus on visual rhetoric, but they too can be useful for writers. Unless we’re discussing audiobooks, most of our words appear on pages or screens. Design affects the perceptions of texts, including how seriously a reader approaches the words. The OWL movies are a good starting point for discussions of visual rhetoric.

For the basics of academic writing, you won’t find many resources equal to the OWL. Again, the website is:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

Language Users vs The Grammarians

I advise avoiding pronouns when possible because most writers “tangle” the text. Though the writer knows what is intended, the readers end up confused. I’ve wasted too much time as a reader trying to determine what “those” and “these” were replacing in a paragraph.

Other languages can still create their own confusions for any number of reasons. English lacks any formal rules, though we keep trying to apply them to the language. We spoke for more than 400 years without any concept of grammar or “correct” usage. Grammarians did not create the rules — they noticed and documented the structures that had become standardized usage.

Today, we tell students these rules are important. Why? We imagine there were grammarians in Rome? I’ve lectured on the evolution of writing instruction and most of what we do today didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. Many of the “rules” we teach students first appeared in Fowler’s essays and texts. If I recall the history, Fowler added the rule demanding we not end sentences with prepositions, though doing so was common in Shakespeare’s works and every other major English-language writer’s compositions.

Intensive grammar instruction in the 1950s and 60s did not produce a wave of brilliant writers. Grammar is an artifact, to be discovered through observation and then documented. Grammar is not something to be dictated by a few self-elected experts. Until the German educational reforms of the nineteenth century, we understood that grammar was subordinate to effective communication.

I am not arguing each person should create his or her own grammar, but I am arguing that the purists overstate the importance of grammar. I believe, based on my own research and readings, that grammar is somehow inherent in the human brain; we seek to organize and standardize for efficiency and clarity. Languages are constantly and unconsciously revised by a community to meet changing circumstances. Grammarians are the antithesis of change and evolution, assuming the roles of careful moderators to restrain the wild libertines abusing the grammarians’ beloved syntax.

My students should learn grammar and appreciate it. I expect students to learn “standard” English and adhere to it in all academic writing. However, I also remind them that speaking in and insisting on “proper” English is a guaranteed path towards isolation. I’m not about to tell my students “Urban English” (“Ebonics”) is acceptable to the business or academic communities. However, I also remind the students that business English is not the same as academic English. We simply “disguise” our linguistic differences better in the supposed middle- and upper-class professional realms.

I am appalled that “texting” slips into student papers. The reality is that their “new” language will be widely used in a generation, even in business writing. I might not like that, but language will continue to evolve without my consent.

Writing: Organization

There are two types of organization we should address for students struggling with academic writing assignments: process organization and document organization.

Reminder: This blog entry is part of an ongoing series. Writing-related topics I am addressing include: organization, audience analysis, supporting arguments, and mastering genre norms. If you have specific questions be sure to ask and I’ll try to address them.

I am addressing “academic writing” in these posts, though I might discuss “creative writing” later in this series of essays.

Personal Organization

High school teachers tell me that a lack of personal organization is the single greatest challenge for most high school students.

I am not organized. I know my colleagues would disagree, but my natural state is a complete lack of focus. Each day is a struggle to stay on task until something is finished — and too often I end up bouncing from distraction to distraction and not meeting self-imposed deadlines. Because I know I’m “Driven to Distraction” (quoting a well-known book title), I had to develop routines to keep me focused on my writing projects.

Curiously, many of the best writers I know fall into one of two extremes: those with laser-like focus and those, like me, lacking focus. Most students also fall into the “easily distracted” category. Hopefully my tips for organizing help students as well as many others.

Many of us imagine that we can multitask far better than any research suggests. Most research has found we do more things poorly when multitasking, but we believe we’re doing various tasks well. Doing one major task at a time remains the best way to perform that task. (An exception that I have located in the research: listening to instrumental classical music while working improves focus for many people. Notice, that’s instrumental music, not music videos on VH1 Classic.)

Distraction number one in my life is the Internet. I’m not going to claim that I was more focused before having a constant, high-speed network connection. Then again, I’ve had high-speed network access since 1987; the last time I didn’t have such a distraction was in high school.

- Planning on Paper

To deal with most distractions, I turn to working on paper. Yes, paper. While typewriters, computers, and dictation software have made it easier to write, nothing beats the distraction-free nature of blank paper and a pencil. Could I outline and brainstorm faster on a computer? Maybe, but that also assumes I wouldn’t end up distracted by tangential research.

One of the projects on my to-do list is updating a guide to desktop publishing. I am fascinated by typography, so I ended up on a multi-hour tangent last night researching a set of font designs. The research had nothing at all do to with what I should have been writing. Yes, the information might add interest to an essay, but the research was inessential to the project.

On paper, I would make a note to check a few facts and then keep writing. I wouldn’t find myself lost in a tangled web of research, literally, if I had been writing on paper. Losing focus means losing time, which eventually leads to a panicked last-minute rush to complete projects.

Though it might seem wasteful to many people, I keep the draft notes for each project on its own yellow legal pad. After I transcribe the notes and other scribblings from a pad to the computer, I tear off the pages and file them away, keeping many of the originals. The pad is then free for another project. I have to avoid mixing projects or I never finish a single one.

As a student and teacher, I keep one spiral-bound college-ruled notebook per class. I’ve tried the thicker multiple-subject notebooks under the theory that one notebook would reduce the risk of losing my notes. The real result: I flip through pages, get confused, worry about one class when I’m in another, and generally lose focus. One notebook per class works better for me. From that experience, I learned that one notebook or binder per writing project is also best for me.

- Checklists and Calendars

When I speak to teachers and students, I emphasize the importance of maintaining a schedule. Teachers and parents have to help students.

I use checklists and calendars, both on computer and on paper. Having a visual measure of my progress, as well as what remains to be done, helps me organize myself a little. I’ve written about the need to plan and organize on the Tameri website:

http://www.tameri.com/write/process.html

Note: I will be updating the Tameri page on the writing process as time permits; it is an incomplete discussion of the process.

For an academic paper, I create a schedule that leaves more time for writing than research. I do this because I will lose myself in research. I need to spend more time writing and revising than on research. Other people need to invest the bulk of their time on research. Whatever your personal strengths and weaknesses are, make sure that you schedule time accordingly.

- Writer’s Block

Stress can be its own distraction. When I have anything else on my mind, when something is bothering me, I cannot focus on anything else. Unfortunately, a lack of focus or problems sticking to my schedule causes stress. I believe that’s what many people mean when they talk about writer’s block: stress that halts the writing process.

The best way to avoid stress-related writer’s block is to reduce the possible causes of stress. For me, this means sticking to my schedule. I realize that’s easier said than done, but parents and teachers can help students with scheduling.

Once the writing starts, dealing with stress can involve using proven organizational techniques. In the next section, I’ll explain how following proven structures can help students compose academic papers. Following models is what most academic and professional writing does. Reminding students that relying on models is what even the best writers do can help reduce stress.

Organizing an Academic Paper

Academic writing is highly structured, which can help students as they prepare documents. I remind students that professors and research scientists rely on structured formats, which allows scholars to focus on the content instead of the structure. When someone suggests this isn’t creative, I remind them that various poetic forms are also rigidly structured — and that doesn’t stop poets from being creative.

Parents can help students by asking if the teacher or class textbook provides a model paper or at least an outline of the assignment structure. I’ll be posting some of the standard formats to the Tameri website, but nothing is a substitute for whatever models and guidelines are provided by an instructor.

High school students and incoming college students might want to focus on traditional “five paragraph essay” models. There are models of these based on their purposes in most academic writing textbooks. When a student challenges me on the usefulness of such structures, I can point to the models used to write doctoral dissertations. Men and women completing their doctorates know there is a model even for this “final” academic exercise:

http://www.tameri.com/format/dissertations.html

I plan to post more about writing and academic paper organization in a few days.