Olympics Spectator

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been watching the Olympics when I have a little free time.  I absolutely loved the opening ceremony: literature and caring for children—what could be more significant?  I’ve seen the athletes’ stories unfold as the commentators tell the audience about the struggles and challenges that many athletes have overcome to make it to the Olympics.  I’ve waited for the starting gun, imagining myself on the blocks—I’m sure I’d jump the gun, my impatience palpable as I try to hold back.   And then I have watched the competition unfold, one human striving for excellence pitted against another human also striving for excellence.

As enticed as I have been by the spectacle, I had to take a step back and wonder: Why?  I mean, clearly I have nothing real invested in who wins the gold for diving or the silver in the high jump; as they say, “I have no skin in the game.”  I haven’t spent hours in training or sacrificed time with family and friends or invested my life savings in gym memberships.  Yet I find myself cheering for the winner and commiserating with the underdog.  I watch the movement, precision and focus and the agony and triumph on the athletes’ faces with real empathy.  I love the human drama.  Why is that?

After thinking about it, I decided that what the Olympics show us is the pinnacle of human achievement.  With basically the same biological factors as anybody else, these Olympic athletes surpass what an average person can do.  They strive for the height of athletic perfection.  As human beings, we are all elevated by the achievement; we share in the human moment.  We see the possibilities, even if we ourselves will not reach them.

Most of us strive for excellence in some area where we feel we are endowed with talent.  While it might be athletics, it can also be music or writing or needlepoint or volunteerism.  For most of us, though, our area of excellence is not in the realm of world competition, television, lights, opening ceremonies and medals.  We work because we feel value in what we do and we appreciate the beauty of what we create.  The intrinsic rewards and feeling of self worth keep us working to attain higher and higher achievement in our fields.  But every time we improve, every time we produce something wonderful, every time we move to the next level, we place another gold coin in the treasure chest of human accomplishment.

I feel the same triumph for an accomplished writer when I read his or her work as I do for an accomplished athlete.  It’s easy to perceive the human race as bright and radiant after reading The Bean Trees, or Love Medicine or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  When I read a student’s paper that shows real insight and knowledge, my faith in humanity is renewed.  When I see members of my writers’ group pursuing the perfect sentence or the clear expression of a concept, I know the world is a good place.  It helps me overcome my impatience with the human race.

Here’s to trying to be better and better still!

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Breaking Writer’s Block

You sit at our desk with the blank white page of a Word document open before you.  Your job? Fill the page, and then the one after that, and the one after that.  It seems simple, but there are days when that task becomes so laden with doubt, fear, and apprehension that words just will not come.  We call that writer’s block, and just about every writer has faced it.

Most skilled writers know that the feeling will pass and that the words will come again, even if getting them out onto the page is agonizing.  Less skilled writers take this as the status quo—it will always feel impossible to write.  They let a temporary state define their writing experience.

There are ways to get over writer’s block and get ideas flowing.  Here are several:

  • Take a break and think about something else for a while—though be careful not to let the break extend indefinitely.
  • Go for a walk and think about your writing—movement will increase your brain’s productivity.
  • Talk through your project with someone else.
  • Read what others have done—though you must avoid the temptation to plagiarize.
  • Read over your own work for inspiration.
  • Write everything you can think of about your topic until something strikes you.  Then take that and write about it until great ideas start flowing.
  • Break the task of writing into stages and try to complete just one (such as coming up with a topic, brainstorming ideas, conducting research, writing an outline, or determining a focus or thesis).

Whatever your strategy, the most important thing is that you don’t let writer’s block stop you from enjoying the creative intellectual endeavor of writing.  Once your ideas start flowing and you get into the zone of writing, there’s nothing better.

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The Adventures of Writing

Usually when we travel, my husband Dave and I (and now our kids) have only a vague idea of where we are going.  We book a place to sleep the first night in a country, rent a car and drive in the direction of something we want to see.

It is this philosophy of travel that has landed us at an unheated Chinese restaurant somewhere in the middle of Ireland on Good Friday (it was the only open place for over 100 miles and the temperature outside was about 45 degrees).  It has also sent us on an exciting whitewater rafting trip on a Level 5 river in Costa Rica right after a rainstorm that diverted the river through sugar cane fields and over a path that even our guide was surprised by.  And it has led us to the rooftop bar of a beautiful hotel in Sorrento, Italy, sipping Compari, overlooking the Bay of Naples and swaying to the music of a swing band.  We have cross country skied through a blizzard in Canada and driven an hour out of our way to see a “castle” in England—or so the signs said—that ended up to be little more than four cornerstones and some rubble.

These unexpected adventures are sometimes scary, sometimes mundane, sometimes magnificent, but always memorable.  We come back from our vacations with stories to tell—often stories that scare anybody else off from wanting to travel with us.  We don’t mind.  Our adventures make life exciting and interesting. As I like to tell my children, “Always be the person playing in the waves, instead of the person sitting on the beach.”

Writing can be like this.  You follow the path of your words to unexpected places.  The ideas lead, and you aren’t always sure where you are going. You might end up on a wild ride, which is a little scary because of the uncertainty, but it is usually exciting.  New ideas and perspectives emerge out of the words because you leave yourself open to following without a plan. You can play in the waves of your words and create something enchanting and entertaining.

Of course, when you write like this, you have to go back over your words and make them clear, interesting, and detailed.  The stories we tell of our travels have been refined and organized into engaging tales because we have elaborated on the details.  We have peopled them with characters, like the older woman who insisted that she should be the lead on the raft in spite of the guide’s attempt to recruit someone younger and stronger; the crew in the pub in Dover who went from raucous cheer to complete silence at the sight of a woman (that would be me) walking through the door; and the man at the foot of Mount Vesuvius who passed out walking sticks and gave us free lava rocks because he was impressed that I tried to speak Italian, however poorly. When we tell our stories, we try to make a point, pass on some lesson, and leave a lasting impression.  The same things make for good writing.





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What is a Writing Workshop?

The worst thing about writing is the doubt, the questioning, the constant struggle of wondering if there is a way to do it better.  A writer working in isolation has to deal with those issues alone.  That is what makes a writing workshop so wonderful.  It’s an opportunity to build key skills—yes, there’s a way to do some things better, and at a workshop you can try it out.  Sometimes you just need to practice, and the writing workshop offers the opportunity for targeted practice of skills you already have, but which improve with experience. It’s also an opportunity to interact and share experience, ideas and feedback with other people who face the same struggles as you do.

So what is a writing workshop?  It’s a meeting of a group of eight to ten writers who share similar concerns or writing demands.  The workshop is led by a facilitator who gives mini-lectures or presentations of key skills.  The presentations are followed by concentrated activities to practice those skills.  Often you practice skills you already have, or already think you have.  But when you get into the activities, you should find that you are looking at the task in a new way, you are building your skills on a higher level, or you are honing.  The key to better writing is the triad: practice, feedback, revision.  A workshop gives the opportunity for all three.

After the concentrated writing exercises, the workshop group engages in discussion.  Usually different members of the group will read the material produced from the activity.  Then the group, led by the facilitator will break it down, discuss what works, how new skills can be applied, and focus on improving the writing even further.

Ideally in a workshop, students will work independently.  They will take away skills to practice on their own.  The workshop is designed to give foundational work which participants expand on.  Many times skills covered in the workshop, especially if the participant isn’t entirely ready for the skill yet, will blossom later as the participant continues to work independently to practice and enhance skills.

The goal is to build targeted skills, lay a foundation for future independent growth, and foster creativity and engagement in writing.  This is very different from the goals and the procedures in a classroom, and may be challenging at first.  The long-term gains are well worth it, though.

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Three Important Tips for Writing College Application Essays

Each year prospective students anxiously await the mail to see if they got the thin envelope or the thick one, the rejection or acceptance letter.  Which they get is determined largely by their application essay. Writing college application essays is a daunting task for many students.  That’s why it’s a good idea to start planning well in advance, and to write some practice essays.

One of the main challenges is that in the essay, a student has to engage in self-promotion, which is counter to our cultural admonition against bragging.  Also, students are often unsure about what will work–what admissions officers are looking for.  There is a lot of advice available, but I would like to focus on three key strategies: creating a match, telling a story and demonstrating excellence.

Creating a Match

Most colleges are looking for students who fit with their culture, mission and academic standards.  For instance, a college that focuses on majors in technology, like MIT, will look for students with strong math and science backgrounds and the drive to enter a competitive field in engineering, etc.  This helps ensure a better experience for students and better retention rates for the college.

If you can show that you are a good match for the college, you stand a better chance of getting accepted.  Do your research.  Get copies of the course catalog, student handbook and other publications.  Go on the website and read the descriptions of campus life and the promotional materials.  Chances are, you’ll see a few key messages repeated all over these documents.  In your essay, use the phrases and ideas the college uses to promote itself.  Give examples to show how you fit these key characteristics.

Telling a Story

Admissions staff read thousands of applications.  They are looking for the ones from students who will likely excel at their institution.  They want to be interested in what they read.  To do this, they must feel like they know something about you.  You can really show them who you are by telling an engaging story about yourself, a story that demonstrates your skills, personal philosophy or insights, and your determination to succeed.

Good stories invite the reader into an experience.  As you write your story, make sure you include details that bring your story to life.  Imagine you are telling the story to a trusted mentor and include information about how you felt and what you learned from your experience.  You may tell one longer story to illustrate your point in an essay, or you might want to include several short examples of your experiences to show what kind of person you are.  Make sure you meet the requirements of the application, though.

Demonstrating Excellence

The content of what you write in your essay should show you as a person who has strong skills in an area relevant to the college you are applying to.  It should show that your past successes are an indication of your future success throughout your education and career.  All of this will show you are a person who strives for excellence.

The way you write your essay will also show your excellence as a student and your attention to detail.  Make sure you address the question asked in the application.  Use excellent language, express ideas clearly, and show your own voice and style.  Be absolutely sure the grammar is correct.


Writing the essay can be scary because so much seems to ride on it.  You can make the process easier and write a better essay by starting early and spending your time crafting an essay that truly reflects your abilities.  For extra help, find the “College Application Essay Planning Table” under student resources at http://thewritersalley.com/student-resource/college-application-essay-planning-table/.

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Not Prepared for College

I just read a disturbing article in The Grand Rapids Press by Ron French of Bridge Magazine.  Here’s the link: http://www.mlive.com/education/index.ssf/2012 /05/in_college_readiness_michigan_1.html.  What is disturbing, along with the low level of academic preparedness and the high drop out rate (27% in the first year), is that it will take eight years before we see students who are more prepared by having gone through K-12 programs under the new curriculum.

In the article, Bridge describes the low level of college readiness among Michigan high school graduates.  The answer, attributed to Mike Flanagan, state School Superintendent, is to fund early childhood education—get students when the brain is developing.  Of course, it’s too late for students who are in school now and have missed this window of opportunity.

I’m sure Flanagan has more than this to offer.  But I have to wonder: what is happening to kids in between—those who will graduate high school and go off to college before the curriculum changes infuse their education?  I’m willing to wait to see the results, but not at the cost of seeing years of students graduate and go to college only to be channeled into remedial courses and eventually drop out.

If we’re going to tell our kids that going to college is the best thing they can do for their futures—and the best thing they can do for their communities—then we have to give them the tools to succeed.   We should be preparing them in their regular classes and offering special programs to help them succeed.  And it’s not just academics—basic knowledge of math, history, literature—many students get to college and find the challenges of critical thinking, writing long research papers, managing multiple demands and understanding the academic culture are bigger challenges than doing the homework.

I could go on and on here, especially since my own children will be in the group that graduates before these curriculum changes are expected to have a big effect, but it’s time for us to all stop and think—and then to move forward in addressing this issue.

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5 Tips for Writers

The cornerstones of good writing are practice, feedback and revision.  Ideally, writers will practice writing regularly, be open to feedback, and be able to use that feedback to improve their writing.  While each writer has individual goals, everyone can more effectively reach the goal of better writing with a few general practices.

  • Write regularly—making a commitment to practice writing will help all writers improve.  Create a routine and make regular progress.  You can decide if you want to commit to a certain amount of time each week or if you want to reach a certain number of pages.  You may have to fit your writing into small pockets of time.  Ideally, you should write every day, but if you can’t then make sure you meet your weekly goals.
  • Have short- and long-term goals for writing—knowing what you want to achieve will give your writing purpose.  You might want to complete a certain assignment and get a grade.  You might have a general sense that you want to be a better writer.  You might want to be published or complete a novel or short story.  You will be more likely to reach your goals if you have a clear idea of exactly what you want to do, and develop a timeline for achieving it.
  • Ask for the feedback you want—you can control (somewhat) the feedback you get by asking questions about areas you want to work on.  All writers need good readers, people they can count on to give them valuable criticism—not just people who will say everything is great.  When you go to those people, you can get better feedback if you tell them specifically what you need.  For example, you might say, “I feel that the beginning is a little boring.  I want to find ways to make it more exciting.  Any ideas?”  Or you might say, “I had a lot of trouble proving my second point.  As a reader, what would convince you?”
  • Realize that feedback you get is ultimately just opinion—feedback may be contradictory or surprising, but you decide what to take and what to ignore.  If you ask two people to read the same piece of writing, one might say it’s fantastic, while the other says it’s boring.  A reader could give feedback suggesting you change something you absolutely don’t want to change.  You’re the author, though, so you control the final product.You’ll have to trust your instincts and decide what feedback to react to and what feedback to consider and disregard.
  • Study the elements of good writing to use as you compose and to assist you in offering feedback on others’ writing.  Read other writers and see what they do.  How do they start their work to get your attention? How do they structure their ideas?  How do they make you agree with them? How do they make you laugh?  If you read, not just for content but for writing, you’ll learn a lot as a writer.


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The Challenges of Teaching Writing

Rachel Toor, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses a common problem with the teaching of writing in academe:  everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.  You can read her article here:  http://chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Cant-Farm-Out-the/131708/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en.  Professors in departments other than English often feel writing is outside their area of expertise.  Many of us in English departments (I’m generalizing here) feel that students should have gotten rudimentary skills and grammar in high school, so that we can focus on ideas and critical thinking and mastery.

In larger universities, graduate students teach writing, though they seldom are trained in the teaching of writing.  I always felt that writing came easily to me, so it should be easy to teach.  The problem with that is that I, probably like many others, wrote almost automatically, and the task of understanding what I did when I wrote so that I could pass it on to others was difficult.  Figuring out how to teach writing took a metacognitive approach that took me years to develop.

Good writing is the type of thing that most people know when they see it.  Evaluation is also subject to all kinds of personal caprices—“I hate dangling modifiers,”  “It drives me crazy when students don’t know how to designate a title,” “Doesn’t anyone know the difference between further and farther?” The problem is that even when a writer gets all of this perfectly, the text may not be well written.  The ideas may not be insightful or the style may not be engaging, or the argument may not be fully developed—even in a paper with perfect grammar.

Teaching writing is not an impossible task, though. If it were, my entire career would have to be classified as a failure.  It does require a balance of guiding students through the process of writing and helping them to understand and evaluate the products of writing.  It requires that students buy in to the importance of writing—and that means that they have to see writing valued in all classes.

The best thing a Writing Across the Curriculum program can do toward this end is to train professors how to evaluate student writing.  The best thing a teacher of writing can do is spend one-on-one time with students, guiding them and helping them to shape their ideas.  I know that once my students were able to see how rewarding it was to articulate an idea or gain an insight, they became excited about writing and even surprised themselves.  To me, that is what education is all about.

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Not Ready for Writing at Work

According to the National Commission on Writing, American corporations spend about $3.1 billion a year on poor writing.  The costs of the poor writing skills of employees include many things, including training programs to teach employees to write, lost goodwill and lost customers due to bad communications, the cost of mistakes due to miscommunication, the cost of recalling and reprinting documents that are written incorrectly, time wasted trying to write.

Yet colleges, at least the ones I have been associated with, put a lot into their writing programs.  Most offer two classes, introductory composition and researching.  All have a tutoring lab to offer additional assistance to students.  Writing Across the Curriculum programs validate the need for writing in all disciplines.

Why isn’t this working?  The reasons are many and complicated, but two are at the forefront for me.

The first is student attitudes.  Most of the students who register for my writing classes—and I’m sure the same is true for the majority of programs—do so only because they are required.  When I take a little poll of my classes, asking who took the class because they love to write or because they really want to learn to write, usually only two or three students raise their hands.

In general, students aren’t convinced that writing will play a major part of their careers.  They also aren’t convinced they can learn to write: some people are born with the talent and some are not, they believe.  These students, when presented with information about how to write better pretty much ignore it and continue to do what they have always done, even if ineffective.

The second reason is students want rules and structure.  It’s also easier to teach writing as a set of rules and structures—that is why the Five-paragraph Theme and grammar instruction are so pervasive, especially in high school.  Students today are trained to learn the right and wrong answers. Writing isn’t like that.  The best writing teachers offer guidelines and teach the process.  What makes good writing depends so much on context, audience, and purpose.  Students hate that kind of ambiguity.

The “rules” of writing taught in college for academic writing don’t transfer to the workplace.  Students need to learn the critical thinking and analytical skills to assess their various writing situations and make decisions about how to communicate effectively.  That is difficult to teach, difficult to learn, and difficult to grade.

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Not Ready for College Writing

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for entry-level college writing.  That figure feels low to me.  Almost all of my colleagues seem to feel that at least some percentage of their students are not adequately prepared to write college papers. Why is this happening?  My experience has been in teaching college students to write for over 15 years at diverse places, including a four-year public university, a four-year private university, a business college with non-traditional students, and a community college.  That experience has led me to a few insights into the shortcomings of our system.

First, high school students are learning different skills to succeed in high school than those they need in college.  In high school, teachers have to contend with many competing demands: discipline, curriculum requirements, testing, content-specific reporting.

Students learn to answer content related questions to show that they know required information and to report facts culled from research.  That is very different from what I would expect of my students in a college class, which may be way the 2010 Deloitte Education Survey states that only 31% of high school teachers think their students are ready for college.

In college, I expect students to be able to apply critical thinking skills to formulate original insights into their topics.  I expect them to synthesize information from their research into well-developed academic arguments.  And I expect them to offer credible evidence for the claims they make.  College students need to offer logically developed and organized papers. These are the standards of college-level work, along with being able to integrate sufficient breadth and depth knowledge on a topic (perhaps the single point of intersection with high school expectations).

The situation seems to be this: high schools tend to focus (largely but not exclusively) on other skills than those colleges expect, and nothing to enhance writing skills happens during the summer between students graduating from high school and beginning college.

What’s the solution?  Additional writing classes in high school? Summer writing workshops to prepare students?  More remedial classes (those these are often portrayed as the road to dropping out)?

I have often thought that even in college, if we truly wanted students to learn to write, instead of offering one or two semesters of writing classes, we would assign each student to a writing workshop and provide each with an individual tutor.  The students would continue in the workshop and with the tutor until they could reach a basic level of competence.  Of course, the expense of this, through student tuition or other means, would be enormous.  I’m hoping that the Writer’s Alley Interactive Writing Tutorial can offer a more cost-effective way of helping students work toward writing competence.

I would love to hear your solutions to this problem.

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