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Sunday, September 6, 2015

NYT: Colson Whitehead's Rules for Writing

The art of writing can be reduced to a few simple rules. I share them with you now.

Rule No. 1: Show and Tell.

Most people say, "Show, don't tell," but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they're like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do. "And what do you have for us today, Marcy?" "A penetrating psychological study of a young med student who receives disturbing news from a former lover." "How marvelous! Timmy, what are you holding there?" "It's a Calvinoesque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo." "Such imagination!”

Show and Tell, followed by a good nap.


Rule No. 2: Don't go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.

You can't rush inspiration. How do you think Capote came to "In Cold Blood"? It was just an ordinary day when he picked up the paper to read his horoscope, and there it was - fate. Whether it's a harrowing account of a multiple homicide, a botched Everest expedition or a colorful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can't force it. Once your subject finds you, it's like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, "Only you understand me." Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He's in your apartment pawing your stuff when you're not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don't be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.


Rule No. 3: Write what you know.

Bellow once said, "Fiction is the higher autobiography." In other words, fiction is payback for those who have wronged you. When people read my books "My Gym Teacher Was an Abusive Bully" and "She Called Them Brussels Sprouts: A Survivor's Tale," they're often surprised when I tell them they contain an autobiographical element. Therein lies the art, I say. How do you make that which is your everyday into the stuff of literature? Listen to your heart. Ask your heart, Is it true? And if it is, let it be. Once the lawyers sign off, you're good to go.


Rule No. 4: Never use three words when one will do.

Be concise. Don't fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to "kill your darlings," as they say. I'm reminded of the famous editor-author interaction between Gordon Lish and Ray Carver when they were working on Carver's celebrated short story "Those Life Preservers Are Just for Show," often considered the high-water mark of so-called dirty realism. You'll recall the climax, when two drunken fishermen try to calm each other after their dinghy springs a leak. In the original last lines of the story, Nat, the salty old part-time insurance agent, reassures his young charge as they cling to the beer cooler: "We'll get help when we hit land. I'm sure of it. No more big waves, no more sharks. We'll be safe once again. We'll be home." If you examine the Lish papers in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, you'll see how, with but a few deft strokes, Lish pared that down to create the now legendary ending: "Help - land shark!" It wasn't what Carver intended, but few could argue that it was not shorter. Learn to kill your darlings, and don't be shy about softening them up in the hostage pit for a few days before you do.


Rule No. 5: Keep a dream diary.


Rule No. 6: What isn't said is as important as what is said.

In many classic short stories, the real action occurs in the silences. Try to keep all the good stuff off the page. Some "real world" practice might help. The next time your partner comes home, ignore his or her existence for 30 minutes, and then blurt out "That's it!" and drive the car onto the neighbor's lawn. When your children approach at bedtime, squeeze their shoulders meaningfully and, if you're a woman, smear your lipstick across your face with the back of your wrist, or, if you're a man, weep violently until they say, "It's O.K., Dad." Drink out of a chipped mug, a souvenir from a family vacation or weekend getaway in better times, one that can trigger a two-paragraph compare/contrast description later on. It's a bit like Method acting. Simply let this thought guide your every word and gesture: "Something is wrong - can you guess what it is?" If you're going for something a little more postmodern, repeat the above, but with fish.


Rule No. 7: Writer's block is a tool - use it.

When asked why you haven't produced anything lately, just say, "I'm blocked." Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters "talk to you" and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don't feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, they forsake you, it's out of your hands and whatnot. Writer's block is like "We couldn't get a baby sitter" or "I ate some bad shrimp," an excuse that always gets you a pass. The electric company nagging you for money, your cell provider harassing you, whatever - just say, "I'm blocked," and you're off the hook. But don't overdo it. In the same way the baby-sitter bit loses credibility when your kids are in grad school, there's an expiration date. After 20 years, you might want to mix it up. Throw in an Ellisonian "My house caught fire and burned up my opus." The specifics don't matter - the important thing is to figure out what works for you.


Rule No. 8: Is secret.


Rule No. 9: Have adventures.

The Hemingway mode was in ascendancy for decades before it was eclipsed by trendy fabulist "exercises." The pendulum is swinging back, though, and it's going to knock these effete eggheads right out of their Aeron chairs. Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It's not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it's worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You'll be glad you did.


Rule No. 10: Revise, revise, revise.

I cannot stress this enough. Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn't. It's like washing the dishes two days later instead of right after you finish eating. Get that draft counter going. Remove a comma and then print out another copy - that's another draft right there. Do this enough times and you can really get those numbers up, which will come in handy if someone challenges you to a draft-off. When the ref blows the whistle and your opponent goes, "26 drafts!," you'll bust out with "216!" and send 'em to the mat.


Rule No. 11: There are no rules.

If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No. There are no rules except the ones you learned during your Show and Tell days. Have fun. If they don't want to be friends with you, they're not worth being friends with. Most of all, just be yourself.

Colson Whitehead's most recent novel is "Zone One.”




- Updated by Vince on Fri 12 Aug 2016
  • I have been a full-time international graduate admissions consultant since 2002
  • Based in Tokyo, Japan, I help clients around the world
  • In 2007, I launched VincePrep because I wanted to help the best candidates aiming for the top schools
  • To share my insights with a talented team, I rejoined Agos as Consulting Director in 2014
  • Now, I lead 10 professionals who deliver Japan’s best graduate admissions results
  • I also serve as Board President of The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC)
  • Given my ongoing professional and personal commitments, I accept very few clients
  • Usually, I refer prospects to one of my highly-experienced and successful colleagues
  • If interested, please complete this intake form
  • Meanwhile, please explore my YouTube channel, and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates
  • Thank you for your interest, and best wishes for your success!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

How can I improve the transitions between my ideas?

TRANSITIONS

What is a transition?
· Transitions indicate the connections and relationships between your ideas and sentences.

Why are transitions important?
· Transitional words and phrases help you write clearly and coherently. Moreover, such transitions help the reader follow the text, stay focused, and understand how your main ideas are related to one another.


Why are transitions dangerous?
· Improper transitions can confuse readers. For instance, the use of the transition "Here, …" (see line 52 on page 2) in the sample is not correct because it indicates direction, but that is not the author's intention. This choice confuses the reader. Better to use a transition that indicates consequence, such as "Therefore,” or “Thus,”.

Which transitions should I use?
· The following list illustrates categories of "relationships" between ideas, followed by words and phrases that can make the connections:

1. Addition: also, again, as well as, besides, furthermore, in addition, likewise, moreover, similarly
2. Consequence: accordingly, as a result, consequently, for this reason, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, subsequently, therefore, thus
3. Contrast and Comparison: conversely, instead, likewise, on one hand/on the other hand, on the contrary, rather, similarly, yet, but, however, still, nevertheless, in contrast
4. Emphasis: above all, chiefly, especially, particularly, singularly
5. Exemplifying: chiefly, especially, for instance, in particular, markedly, namely, particularly, including, specifically, such as
6. Illustration: for example, for instance, as an example, in this case
7. Sequence: at first, first of all, to begin with, in the first place, at the same time, for now, for the time being, the next step, in time, in turn, later on, meanwhile, next, then, soon, the meantime, later, while, earlier, simultaneously, afterward, in conclusion, with this in mind
8. Similarity: comparatively, correspondingly, likewise, moreover
9. Summarizing: after all, all in all, all things considered, briefly, by and large, in any case, in any event, in brief, in conclusion, on the whole, in short, in summary, in the final analysis, in the long run, on balance, to sum up, to summarize, finally

Which transitions should I NOT use?
· Try to avoid “restatement” transitions in formal writing. Rather than writing phrases like “in other words,” “that is to say,” or “to put it differently,” try improving your writing so you can express yourself effectively in the first place.

Exception: you might want to use transitions like “in other words” in TOEFL writing, since you might get extra “points” for additional content (longer is better as long as quality is high). Since you are unlikely to have time to edit your TOEFL writing, restating your key ideas using phrases like “in other words” might help your reader / grader understand your main idea. By contrast, when submitting papers for publication (or to your professor), you have to time to proofread and edit. Therefore, take time to produce clear, concise writing when submitting papers for a grade and/or publication.


Exercise

· Find and circle the transitions in your paper.
· Ask yourself, "Do my transitions express the connections between my ideas?"
· Are my transitions misleading in any way?

Homework: Re-write your transitions so that they best express the connections between your ideas.

Make use of transitional words and phrases. They help you write clearly and coherently. Moreover, such transitions help the reader follow the text and stay focused.

Transitions enhance logical organization and understandability and improve the connections between thoughts. They indicate relations, whether within a sentence, paragraph, or paper.

This list illustrates categories of "relationships" between ideas, followed by words and phrases that can make the connections:

  • Addition: also, again, as well as, besides, coupled with, furthermore, in addition, likewise, moreover, similarly
  • Consequence: accordingly, as a result, consequently, for this reason, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, so then, subsequently, therefore, thus, thereupon, wherefore
  • Contrast and Comparison: but, by the same token, conversely, however, in contrast, instead, likewise, nevertheless, on one hand, on the other hand, on the contrary, rather, similarly, still, yet
  • Direction: beyond, nearly, opposite, under, above, to the left, to the right, in the distance, here, there, over there
  • Diversion: by the way, incidentally
  • Emphasis: above all, chiefly, with attention to, especially, particularly, singularly
  • Exception: aside from, barring, beside, except, excepting, excluding, exclusive of, other than, outside of, save
  • Exemplifying: chiefly, especially, for instance, in particular, markedly, namely, particularly, including, specifically, such as
  • Generalizing: as a rule, as usual, for the most part, generally, generally speaking, ordinarily, usually
  • Illustration: for example, for instance, for one thing, as an illustration, illustrated with, as an example, in this case
  • Restatement: in essence, in other words, namely, that is, that is to say, in short, in brief, to put it differently
  • Similarity: comparatively, coupled with, correspondingly, identically, likewise, similar, moreover, together with
  • Sequence: at first, first of all, to begin with, in the first place, at the same time, for now, for the time being, the next step, in the meantime, in time, in turn, later on, meanwhile, next, then, soon, later, while, earlier, simultaneously, afterward, in conclusion, with this in mind,
  • Summarizing: after all, all in all, all things considered, briefly, by and large, in any case, in any event, in brief, in conclusion, on the whole, in short, in summary, in the final analysis, in the long run, on balance, to sum up, to summarize, finally






    - Updated by Vince on Fri 12 Aug 2016
    • I have been a full-time international graduate admissions consultant since 2002
    • Based in Tokyo, Japan, I help clients around the world
    • In 2007, I launched VincePrep because I wanted to help the best candidates aiming for the top schools
    • To share my insights with a talented team, I rejoined Agos as Consulting Director in 2014
    • Now, I lead 10 professionals who deliver Japan’s best graduate admissions results
    • I also serve as Board President of The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC)
    • Given my ongoing professional and personal commitments, I accept very few clients
    • Usually, I refer prospects to one of my highly-experienced and successful colleagues
    • If interested, please complete this intake form
    • Meanwhile, please explore my YouTube channel, and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates
    • Thank you for your interest, and best wishes for your success!

    Saturday, August 1, 2015

    How can I make my writing more concise?



    MY ESSAY IS TOO LONG. HOW DO I CUT WORDS?
    • Read your essay aloud at full volume (doing so forces you to go slow).
    • After each word or phrase, ask yourself, "If I cut this, will my meaning change?"
    • If the answer is "no", then cut it!


    More tips here, including this activity from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which is a fantastic resource for writers.  


    Conciseness

    Summary: This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.
    Contributors: Ryan Weber, Nick Hurm
    Last Edited: 2010-04-17 05:34:19

    The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.

    This resource contains general conciseness tips followed by very specific strategies for pruning sentences.

    1. Replace several vague words with more powerful and specific words.

    Often, writers use several small and ambiguous words to express a concept, wasting energy expressing ideas better relayed through fewer specific words. As a general rule, more specific words lead to more concise writing. Because of the variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most things have a closely corresponding description. Brainstorming or searching a thesaurus can lead to the word best suited for a specific instance. Notice that the examples below actually convey more as they drop in word count.



    Wordy: The politician talked about several of the merits of after-school programs in his speech (14 words)
    Concise: The politician touted after-school programs in his speech. (8 words)




    Wordy: Suzie believed but could not confirm that Billy had feelings of affection for her. (14 words)
    Concise: Suzie assumed that Billy adored her. (6 words)




    Wordy: Our website has made available many of the things you can use for making a decision on the best dentist. (20 words)
    Concise: Our website presents criteria for determining the best dentist. (9 words)




    Wordy: Working as a pupil under a someone who develops photos was an experience that really helped me learn a lot. (20 words)
    Concise: Working as a photo technician's apprentice was an educational experience. (10 words)


    2. Interrogate every word in a sentence

    Check every word to make sure that it is providing something important and unique to a sentence. If words are dead weight, they can be deleted or replaced. Other sections in this handout cover this concept more specifically, but there are some general examples below containing sentences with words that could be cut.


    Wordy: The teacher demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class. (22 words)
    Concise: The teacher demonstrated methods for cutting words from my essay. (10 words)


    Wordy: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band of musicians together in 1969, giving it the ironic name of Blind Faith because early speculation that was spreading everywhere about the band suggested that the new musical group would be good enough to rival the earlier bands that both men had been in, Cream and Traffic, which people had really liked and had been very popular. (66 words)
    Concise: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band in 1969, ironically naming it Blind Faith because speculation suggested that the group would rival the musicians’ previous popular bands, Cream and Traffic. (32 words)


    Wordy: Many have made the wise observation that when a stone is in motion rolling down a hill or incline that that moving stone is not as likely to be covered all over with the kind of thick green moss that grows on stationary unmoving things and becomes a nuisance and suggests that those things haven’t moved in a long time and probably won’t move any time soon. (67 words)
    Concise: A rolling stone gathers no moss. (6 words)

     

    3. Combine Sentences.

    Some information does not require a full sentence, and can easily be inserted into another sentence without losing any of its value. To get more strategies for sentence combining, see the handout on Sentence Variety.


    Wordy: Ludwig's castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness. By his death, he had commissioned three castles. (18 words)
    Concise: Ludwig's three castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness. (11 words)


    Wordy: The supposed crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life. This crash is rumored to have occurred in 1947. (24 words)
    Concise: The supposed 1947 crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life. (16 words)


    (found at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/572/01/; accessed 11/2010)




      - Updated by Vince on Fri 12 Aug 2016

      • I have been a full-time international graduate admissions consultant since 2002
      • Based in Tokyo, Japan, I help clients around the world
      • In 2007, I launched VincePrep because I wanted to help the best candidates aiming for the top schools
      • To share my insights with a talented team, I rejoined Agos as Consulting Director in 2014
      • Now, I lead 10 professionals who deliver Japan’s best graduate admissions results
      • I also serve as Board President of The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC)
      • Given my ongoing professional and personal commitments, I accept very few clients
      • Usually, I refer prospects to one of my highly-experienced and successful colleagues
      • If interested, please complete this intake form
      • Meanwhile, please explore my YouTube channel, and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates
      • Thank you for your interest, and best wishes for your success!

      Tuesday, May 5, 2015

      How to do peer review




      What is peer review?


      "As a peer reviewer, your job is not to provide answers. You raise questions; the writer makes the choices. You act as a mirror, showing the writer how the draft looks to you and pointing our areas which need attention." - Sharon Williams

      How to provide helpful feedback

      • Read a draft all the way through before you begin to comment on it.
      • Give yourself enough time to read and respond.
      • Point out the strengths of the draft.
      • When discussing areas that need improvement, be nice. Offer appropriate, constructive comments from a reader's point of view.
      • Make comments text-specific, referring specifically to the writer's draft (NO "rubber stamps" such as "awkward" or "unclear" or "vague," which are too general to be helpful).
      • Avoid turning the writer's paper into YOUR paper. 
      • Don't overwhelm the writer with too much commentary. Stick to the major issues on the feedback form that are problematic.
      • Make sure your suggestions are reasonable (i.e., don't suggest that they totally rewrite the paper because you didn't agree with the author's point of view or didn’t like the topic).
      • If something appears too complicated to write in the commentary, just mention that you have something that you would like to talk to the writer about when you discuss the draft afterward.
      • Before giving your written comments to the author, reread your comments to make sure they are clear and make sense.

      (found at http://mwp01.mwp.hawaii.edu/resources/peer_review.htm; accessed 11/2010)




      What types of comments are constructive and helpful?

      • Be respectful and considerate of the writer's feelings.
      • Use "I" statements.
      • Offer suggestions, not commands.
      • Raise questions from a reader's point of view, points that may not have occurred to the writer.
      • Phrase comments clearly and carefully so that the writer can easily understand what needs to be improved.
      • Make sure comments are constructive and specific (not "This paper is confusing. It keeps saying the same things over and over again" but rather "It sounds like paragraph five makes the same point as paragraphs 2 and 3.").


      (found at http://mwp01.mwp.hawaii.edu/resources/peer_review.htm; accessed 11/2010)









      Form groups of three

      Assign each member a letter (A, B, or C)

      You have 25 mins to review and give comments on paper

      In those 25 minutes, you should

      • Read one paper (A, B, or C - not all three!)
      • Write comments on the peer review sheet
      • Share your comments with the author

      Here are the steps:

      1. Writer 1 gives each peer a copy of her paper (A gives her paper to B and C)
      2. Peer reads the paper twice: first time for content (ideas), second time for style and usage (grammar): approximately 4 mins
      3. Peers write comments on peer review sheet: approximately 2 mins
      4. Peers review comments before sharing them (ensure they are logical, relevant, and easy to understand): approximately 1 min
      5. Peers share comments with writers verbally one-by-one, then give writer their written comments: approximately 8 mins
      6. Writer processes comments by asking peer for clarification and further advice on how to improve her paper: approximately 5 mins 



      PEER REVIEW

      Peer review lesson plan


      • Print and bring four printed copies of your paper to our May 2 class
      • You will exchange papers with your peers from different academic disciplines
      • You will fill out the form below

      Author________________________
      Reviewer______________________

      The goals of peer review are 1) to help improve your classmate's paper by pointing out strengths and weaknesses that may not be apparent to the author, and 2) to help improve editing skills.
      INSTRUCTIONS
      Read the paper(s) assigned to you twice, once to get an overview of the paper, and a second time to provide constructive criticism for the author to use when revising his/her paper. Answer the questions below. 
      STRUCTURE (30%)
      1. Were the introduction, body paragraph, and conclusion adequate? If not, what is missing?

      2. Was the material ordered in a way that was logical, clear, and easy to follow? Why or why not? Explain with details.

      CONTENT (30%)
      3. Did the writer adequately summarize and discuss the topic? Why or why not? Explain with details.

      4. Did the writer merely summarize existing data or publications?  

      WORD CHOICE (20%)
      5. Are the words specific and accurate? Does the writer use strong action verbs whenever possible? Are the adjectives as descriptive as possible? Are the nouns specific, not general? Why or why not? Explain with details.


      GRAMMAR AND STYLE (20%)
      6. Were there grammatical or spelling problems? Did the writer use active and passive voice appropriately?

      7. Was the writer’s writing style clear, appealing, and full of energy? Why or why not? Explain with details.