Catherine Ann Lombard, M.A.

Writing Tips and Tricks Blog

Writing

First Step - Know Thyself

If you want to perfect anything in your life, you have to assess your starting position—from the perspective of both your strengths and weaknesses. Imagine yourself as an athlete trying to qualify for the Olympic Games. As a runner or gymnast, you would carefully analyze what abilities you have that you could further develop and master and what areas you need to improve. The same is true for your own writing skills.

This is the first writing assignment I give all my students:

For next week, please write a 500-600 word essay on the following:

Reflect on your own ability as a writer. What are your strengths and weaknesses? If you are not a native-English speaker, how does your native language and way of thinking influence your writing in English?

What obstacles do you face as a writer and how do you hope to overcome them? What expectations to you have and what do you hope to learn?

After completing this assignment, we discuss this topic together as a class. Strengths are written on one side of the board, and weaknesses on the other. It always amazes me how often someone forgets to mentions his or her strengths. Don’t forget you have them! You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.

The strengths on the board usually ends up looking something like this:

Strengths

  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Sentence structure
  • Creative
  • Writing easily flows. I’m not afraid to write something down.
  • Perfectionist
  • Clarity. Conciseness.
  • Long and complicated sentences
  • Aware of my readers
  • Logical thinking
  • Deciding what to convey
  • Use of online dictionary and thesaurus
  • Knowledge of terminology in my field

And the weaknesses, funny enough, almost match the strengths:

Weaknesses

  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Sentence structure
  • Not taking enough time to edit my text
  • Taking too much time to edit my text
  • Wanting my writing to be perfect immediately
  • Clarity. Conciseness.
  • Short and simple sentences
  • Wordiness
  • Use of articles
  • Translating from my native language into English
  • Ability to promote my research/stress the importance of my findings
  • Cohesiveness. Linking ideas and paragraphs
  • Punctuation, especially commas.

As you can see, one writer’s weakness is another writer’s strength. Sometimes the quality, like perfectionism, is both a strength and weakness held by the same individual writer. (My weakness, which inevitably shows up while we do this exercise in class, is I cannot spell on a blackboard.) The second part of the assignment asks the writers to reflect on how they hope to overcome their obstacles and what they want to learn. This reflection helps activate your imagination. In most cases, whether you are a runner of the 100-meter dash, a gymnast or a writer, deep inside, you know what you need to learn, and you know how you learn those things best.

The key issue for you to understand now is this: If you know that your native language is Arabic or Chinese and you have difficulty with the definite and indefinite articles, then you know you need to carefully review their usage in your final editing stage. You know (deep inside you) that you need to do more grammar exercises, read more attentively, listen to more spoken English, and speak more English yourself. You may initially have to ask someone to edit your text, checking for the inclusion or exclusion of “the” and “a” or “an”.  The point I am trying to make is: You already are aware of what you need to do! By focusing your attention on the weakness, you are already starting to improve it. And by deciding to take appropriate and realistic action, you can change it.

The same is true for every weakness listed above. If you know you write long, complicated sentences, then look out for them while revising your text and shorten them! If you know you have a weak vocabulary, then use a dictionary and thesaurus. (By pressing Shift-F7, my word processor software automatically launches a thesaurus and searches synonyms for the word where my cursor is.) If you know you have trouble linking your thoughts together to make a cohesive paper, then put the list of linking words in Appendix A somewhere near your computer and use them.

But you know all this. You’ve already been there 100 times. The trick is in the timing. After all, timing is everything. And that brings us to the next topic.

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Writing Tips and TricksAug 1, 2010

Your Writing Blueprint

Planning is just what it says. You make a plan. Think about how you plan a holiday. Let’s say you’ve already decided that your purpose for going on vacation is to relax and spend time in nature. The next step is to plan how you are going to do that. Planning require you to ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of decisions before the vacation. You may ask yourself: Where do I want to go? How much money and time do I want to spend? Whom do I want to go with? How am I going to get there? Where will I stay once I arrive? Who’s going to take care of my cat? All these questions and their ultimate answers start making you excited about your upcoming trip. You can just see yourself on that white, sandy beach or climbing those mountain peaks.

Writing is like taking a vacation. (Well, not quite, but you know what I’m trying to say.) You need to ask yourself all kinds of questions and make all kinds of decisions before you write. Planning also starts the creative juices flowing. (Just think about all those fantasies you experience before going on vacation!) Basically, you need to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. You also need to be realistic when considering your time, circumstances, and capacities. The ultimate challenge when planning is to not lose sight of your purpose.

You may want write a one-page plan to help formulate your ideas around your topic, main ideas, assumptions, other authors (if appropriate) and their responsibilities. A one-page plan, might include answers to the following:

  • What is my topic? Is it novel enough?
  • What do I want to say or “sell” with this paper?
  • What will be its strongest aspects?
  • How am I going to prove my point/hypothesis and will this proof be convincing?
  • Am I writing this paper alone or with other authors? How are we going to work together? Who is responsible for what?
  • Where do I hope to publish this work and in what format?

Your plan is the master blueprint for your writing and will have to feasibly include all the stages of writing we have yet to fully explore. Most importantly, it plants the germ of the idea into your brain and allows the writing to start inside you. Plans (for writing or vacations!) always require a delicate balance between being practical and concrete as well as flexible and open to new inspiration. When you plan your writing (or anything in your life) you need to wear tri-focal glasses. First you need to remember your purpose or goal, second you need to keep an overview of all the stages necessary to achieve that goal, and finally you need to be aware of the next immediate step.

Don’t underestimate the power of planning. Planning requires imagination and imagination brings desired results. There is the story of a five-year-old girl who kept asking her parents for a bicycle. Finally, they bought her the longed for bike and, to their amazement, she immediately climbed onto the seat and expertly pedaled away.  When her parents asked the girl where she learned to ride a bike, she replied, “I didn’t. I just knew how. It was exactly as I imagined it would be.”

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Writing Tips and TricksJul 15, 2010

Writing Heartbeat

I have a confession to make. This blog promises you Tips and Tricks, but, actually, there are no tips or tricks to writing. As Mary Heaton Vorse wrote, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Writing is simply hard work for everyone—whether you are a native English speaker, non-native English speaker, great writer of literature, or lousy letter writer. So the first tip and trick I have to offer you is: Just sit down and write. But, you see, this is hardly a tip or trick. It’s just common sense. After all, how many people do you know can write while standing up?

What?! Is this some kind of hoax? You are busy and want to write your masters thesis or your scientific article or your academic proposal as quickly as possible. You might often find yourself anxiously finishing a piece of writing at 2 a.m., never satisfied with the result. Blank computer screens stare back at you. Nothing ever comes out the way you know it should. You long for perfection and you want it now. There has to be an easier way! You need a few tips, some tricks, one magic wand to make it all perfect, instantly!

Like I said, there are no tips and tricks (and there’s no perfection either, but more on that later). Instead, there is a writing process and techniques and, of course, haunting grammatical rules. But, you see, I knew you would never read a blog with a title like: The Hard, Endless Work Necessary to Writing an Ever-elusive Perfect Academic Paper.  Here’s the thing (referred to as paradox in academic writing). Even though there are no tips and tricks, your first tip and trick is the importance of word choice. I have carefully chosen the words “tips and tricks”  to illustrate the following tip and trick.

Before writing, always analyze your:

  • Purpose
  • Audience

While writing, always think about your:

  • Purpose
  • Audience

Purpose and Audience. They are heartbeat to every single piece of writing you will ever attempt in your life. Say these two words out loud right now and you will hear their beat and breath. Don’t ever forget, neglect, or belittle the importance of either one. Why, look how well I managed to analyze you, my audience (with the gracious help of former students over the past years). Note that audience is a fixed entity. You decide on your audience and that’s it. We will look more closely at how you decide who your audience is later in this book. For the time being, know that during your writing process, the audience should be clearly in your head at all times.

While your audience stays the same, purpose, on the other hand, continually changes. My purpose in writing the blog's title was to entice you to read it. My purpose right now is to capture your attention so you will continue reading, offer you the two essential elements of every piece of writing (Purpose. Audience.), and hopefully make you smile.

One last thing about the word “perfecting” in the subtitle. Everybody knows that as human beings we are imperfect. That’s the definition of being human—

we make mistakes, have foibles, trip over our own feet, and sometimes smell funny. Imperfection is inevitable and NORMAL for human beings. In turn, most of what we create, including our writing, will also reflect our personal strengths and limitations. The key to becoming perfectly imperfect lies in our awareness of our strengths and limitations both as writers and human beings, and to learn from them and continually develop ourselves, our self-expression, and our writing. This takes us to the next euphemistic tip and trick!



Writing Tips and TricksJun 15, 2010

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