Thursday, April 29, 2010


The Writing Center's director, Carrie Brecke, teaches ENG 222: Writing About Ideas, at Roosevelt. This course employs a tutoring component in which all enrolled students must work in the Writing Center as a tutor three hours each week. It's always great working with the new writing tutors each semester, seeing their own literary development as they tutor. Often, students become staff tutors in the semesters that follow. recently, Carrie asked the students to write haikus about their tutoring experiences. They were so good she asked me to post them here. Enjoy!

-Dustin M. Flickinger

Uh Oh
He just read out loud
What it was on I know not
Man this will be long

The Power
Writing grows as trees
Plant seeds nurture the process
Stand twenty feet tall

Tutoring takes time
Like the fish swimming up stream
There will be success

A bird sings its song
A female bird comes along
Pause, leave, revision

Unbearable Silence
Like a waterfall
The silent session surrounds
My tutoring fails

Tutors and tutees
Require much dialogue
Silent and aloud

A Haiku Void of Nature
And also patience are the
Principal virtues

Please Visit Us
Free tea and coffee
Really comfy couches too
Yet no one comes here

There is no A. C.
Tutoring sessions are long
Write a thesis long

Treading Water
A lake without breeze
Surface like silence
Upon dialogue

Peer Tutoring Dialogue and a Tree
“My paper needs work”
“I won’t tell you what to do”
“We’ll help us learn” tree

Tao This
Writer wants your help
You teach writer by talking
Writer gets self help

To speak with meaning
To communicate strength
There is your success

What is You Us
Equality is
A child’s laughter on paper
Written, spoken, found

Writing can be hard
However, getting help is not.
Go ahead, improve.

Tutoring is good
Tutoring helps others learn
Tutoring helps you

I’m way too confused
I’m not quite sure where to go
Can you help me please?

Off to the Writing Center
The sun shines outside
I look at my blank paper
I put on my shoes

Honesty is the Key for Success
Tutoring for me
Tutoring for you as well
Your paper needs work

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Perfect Punctuation: Our Comrade the Comma (Pt. 3)

Interested readers can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Continuing our extrapolation of OWL's Quick Guide to Commas, we now find ourselves with the final five comma comments:

7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

Pretty much anytime we use an "-ing" verb (a present progressive verb) near the end of a sentence, we should have a comma handy:
Cats love to loathe others, silently ridiculing their owners with spiteful feline thoughts.
Also, when we want to contrast something, a comma helps here too;
Cats tolerate their owners, not the other way around.

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion.

The difference between free and bound modifiers is simple. If we have a clause that pertains to a specific person or noun in a sentence, we need to ensure that modifier stays nearby:
Incorrect: Robert the human glared at Ramble the cat, thinking many distrustful thoughts.
The above sentence relies on readers to guess as to who is having the distrustful thoughts. Our own experience tells us that cats are, by nature, not to be trusted; however, what if Ramble was secretly a human, dressed in a creative cat disguise? Then the situation becomes much more confusing. Instead, let us write it like this:
Robert the human glared at Ramble the cat, who was thinking distrustful thoughts.
Now it is plainly clear that Ramble is thinking the distrustful thoughts.

9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

Tragically, this is where comma guides transform into comma rules. Here are the most important ones:
Sentence City, State, more sentence.

Sentence Street Address, City, State, more sentence.

Name, Title, sentence.

For example: Ramble Cat, MD, was the first housecat to ever receive a medical degree.
10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

This one is easy:
Dr. Ramble Cat glanced at my charts and then, furrowing his fuzzy brow, said, "Meow meow meow meow. Meow."
11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

This last rule encompasses a lot of potential comma situations. Basically, it's important to remember that the comma, like any other piece of punctuation, is meant to help the reader, not trouble them. Commas serve very valuable and helpful purposes, but a writer can survive without them. The life without the comma, however, is full of misinterpretation and ambiguous phrasing.

Remember, the comma is not our enemy; it is our comrade.

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats and is very careful with his commas.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Let's Practice Writing, Right Now

Hey! Look at that! One of our writing tutors recently made an appearence in the Huffington Posts' coverage of a recent Tea Party rally. Look for our collegue, Ramon, peaking riotously from behind his green sign!

Writer's Digest has a section in their "Write Better" tab which offers a variety of writing prompts. Every now and then, I like to peruse the prompts, looking for one that might catch my fancy. Well, this one did:
One week after attending the funeral of a close friend, you receive a postcard in the mail with the words, "I'm not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido's Pizzeria. Tell no one."
The only rule: 750 words or less. So, right now, write now! Take a moment to let your mind explore this topic like an eerie alleyway, and then reread what's written. We don't have to share what we write; we could write a little poem, burn it up, and then eat the ashes. (This will probably make us only stronger, if the ashes don't kill us.) Practice is all that matters.

For kicks and giggles, I've supplied my own version below the jump. Enjoy!

Friday, April 16, 2010


One of the most challenging experiences a tutor will ever have is working with an ESL student. On any given day a student will walk in to the Writing Center and sit down to fill out their tutoring form and wait for their tutor to engage them. The student slides the form over to the tutor who looks down in horror to see the scariest letters in the tutoring world: ESL! If the tutor hasn't run screaming into the night they begin what could be the most difficult tutoring session of their career.

Ok, it's not all that scary. For those who don't know, ESL means "English as a Second Language." These sessions aren't necessarily difficult because of a communication barrier but because of any one of myriad factors that work against the forward motion of a session. I've never had all that much trouble communicating with an ESL student. Even when a student struggles to communicate verbally it's clear what the student wants is to strengthen their own literacy skills in English. Even if all that is accomplished in the session is that the tutor helps the student communicate their issues with writing effectively then the session is a success. ESL sessions are not quick fix sessionsif such a thing even really exists in the Writing Center Universe. 

Often ESL students from foreign countries—and there are plenty that aren't—want to make their papers sound American. This is the challenging part of the session. Their papers won't sound American because they haven't developed their literacy autobiography in an American setting. The references and allusions they reach for will feel different and may even be confusing upon an initial read but they are just as valid as those produced by an American upbringing. When in sessions with ESL students I try my best to help them preserve their unique points of view while still crafting an essay appropriate for their college endeavor. Roosevelt's compositional point of view is grounded in hermeneutics and often ESL students structure their work in dialogic and reflexive ways as a result of their cultural conditioning. However, they feel they need to produce a more rhetorical essay in keeping with what they see as a typical American piece of writing. Unfortunately the hermeneutites (hermeneuphradites?) are in the minority and are often used as positions to be argued against. But, if you're a rhetor then  you've got to argue with something! An ESL student's explorative essay, riddled with rich cultural capital provides an avenue for literary self-actualization—the telos of which I and so many writers dream! 

Another positive aspect of ESL sessions seems to be the lack of worry about grammar. An ESL student will more or less assume the grammatical issues will be addressed throughout the paper. And, I do address them very openly with ESL students! For whatever reason I can work with an ESL student and help them write a grammatically correct sentence and they don't fetishize it and refuse to alter their work. I can simply ask, "is this the best place for this? is this sentence really needed?" And often before I finish speaking they've begun crafting a replacement. At risk of writing a novel on the subject, which I may just do one day, I'll leave off saying that working with ESL is the most challenging and rewarding experience I've had at Roosevelt University's Writing Center.

The kitten and the ducks may seem different... but they can communicate just fine!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Project Gutenberg: Enabling Us to Read Good $#!@

The venerable Mark Twain (source: Wiki Commons).

Writing well is undeniably a product of reading well. Knowing what stuff to read, however, can prove a significant and laborious task on its own. And once we do find some good literature, we have to drop an Andrew Jackson or two for just the soft back edition.

No more. I present Project Gutenberg:
Our books are free in the United States because their copyright has expired.
Free book texts. Free ebooks. Free audio recordings of classics.

Have a hankerin' for some satire and southern accents? Try a little Mark Twain. Wondering what you should call Ishmael? Let someone read the answer to you. Want to find out what was bothering Hamlet? Bill has the answers, and they're free. I dare you to read a little, and then to stop. It is impossible. Bill spun words like a potter:
What art thou, that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee, speak!
Project Gutenberg not only offers books for free, but it offers great books for free. Because they can only upload books with expired copyrights, these tend to be old books (100 years old, at least); and because there are zillions of possible books they could on the site, only the BEST and GREATEST literature tends to make it. In other words, they only carry the good stuff.

Go to Gutenberg and get some smarts.

To write like Alexander Pope -- which is to sing, mock, or accuse like Alexander Pope -- we must read some Alexander Pope:
How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign'd...

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats and enjoys reading anything Mark, Herman, or Bill wrote.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who Just Said That!?

Many students enter the collegiate realm with little experience in writing college-level papers. Frankly, most undergraduate papers give their teachers headaches and drinking problems. "Almost 85% of all college professors think their students must learn better writing skills before entering their respective fields." Whoa! Who said that? Where are you?

"I can see you."

WTF?! Get away from me!? Who are you!? "I'm the Quote Phantom! I surprise professors and tutors, and I excel at confusing readers and murdering paragraphs!"

I'll get you yet, Quote Phantom!

*sounds of a struggle*

Hi, my name is Bradley Woodrum. You may remember me from such hits as "Learning to Love the OWL" and my ex-poh-zei on econocats, "Dreams with Cats with Jobs." I have killed many grammar beasts in the past, but the Quote Phantom never seems to die. Maybe it is because teachers ask us to fill quote quotas, or maybe it's because the phantom is technically already dead, but almost every paper that reaches the Writing Center has a quote without explanation.

Instead of just warning the reader, "Hey! This next quote is from Shakespeare," we slap a copy of the line into the paper, squeeze some punctuation around it, and then high-five ourselves for not plagarizing. BUT IT'S WRONG!

"Don't begin paragraphs with quotes, unless you are willing to explain them within that same sentence," Bradley said, loading comma bullets into his shotgun. Bradley also believed that long quotes deserve full sentences before them:
By leading into a long quote with a full sentence, we prep the reader for the coming content. Essentially, we should just summarize the quote.

Some may ask, "Why quote at all then?" Excellent question! Only quote when the author has said something so perfectly, or so authoritatively, that it loses is power if said any other way.
If we are not sure whether our quote is long or not, then we must treat it with caution and use a lead-in sentence anyway. Bradley believes a paper can never have too many colons: "If you are using colons (the two dot things ':'), it means you are explaining stuff. Which is good."


Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats and enjoys watching Ghost Hunters more than he probably should.

Grammar isn't not important!

Ok, grammar matters but it is not all that important in terms of developing your writing. Many students come in to the Writing Center with concerns about their grammar and want to focus solely on correcting their work. A tutoring session does not correct a student’s paper any more than it remedies bad writing. I want to write this blog post because there has been a flood of grammar related topics dominating this forum. Grammatical issues are very difficult to master and the article on this blog provide an excellent resource for refining your papers, but I want to let you all in a secret…grammar is the least of your worries. No really! If all that needs to be done to fine tune your paper is correct the grammar then you have done something that I—a graduate MFA-writing student in his final semester—has never been able to accomplish. You have written a perfect paper! Wait, don’t get excited. Alas, I fear that you may be celebrating prematurely because there is no such thing as a perfect paper. There can always be more and you can always write more.

My background is in film and I had a professor once who told me something about documentary filmmakers. He said, “documentaries don’t end, their directors give up.” I feel the same about academic papers and even short stories and novels. A writer is never truly done with his work when he is invested in it. There is always another connection to be made, another point of view to address, and another conclusion that can be drawn. At the Writing Center we help you find those connections and address those points of view and make those conclusions in order to help you become a better writer. That is the Writing Center’s main focus. We are not here to help produce better papers but better writers. If that was our goal then you would be able to hand us your work and we would rewrite it then hand it back. While this may sound appealing to someone struggling through a composition class, it would be an extreme hindrance to that student’s overall college experience. If you cannot intelligently express yourself through an academic paper you will not be able to excel in your college career. You will be able to coast through but you coasted through high school and now you are here to do something different and reinvent yourself as the student you have always wanted to be.

A typical tutoring session at the Writing Center would proceed thusly: a student comes in for help on his paper. He says he needs help starting and he has only his teacher’s instructions or he says he wants another set of eyes to look over his final draft. He could also say he needs a million other things from us. We sit down with him, just one tutor and one student—unless it is a group project—and we talk about his paper. We ask him about what he is trying to convey and how he could make his point of view stronger. We suggest structural changes and work with him to use our excellent resources such as grammar guides and APA handbooks. In the last ten minutes of the session we go through and discuss grammar-related issues we have noticed throughout his work and make certain that he not only corrects the grammatical problems but that he understands why they are problems so that he will not make the same mistakes again. Think about getting ready in the morning. Let’s say that grammar is like brushing your teeth. It’s more important to take a shower, shave, have coffee—always coffee—get your homework together, feed your cat, get all your belongings that you need for the day and then you brush your teeth and leave. You have to brush your teeth. You don’t want coffee breath…or Spanish omelet breath or whatever. But, if you had to skip something…well, it’s more important to put on your pants than to freshen your breath. Sorry for the extended metaphor…here’s a picture of some cute kittens. And remember, content is everything! (and so is coffee!)

humorous pictures

-Dustin M. Flickinger

PS. The subject of this post is intentionally grammatically incorrect.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Read It Out Loud

Flossing is one of those tasks we all need to do, but most of us fail to do. It is an irrational decision on our part because the benefits (a mouth full of healthy teeth) far outweigh the costs (a little bit of time and maybe some bloody gums). The two main reasons I fail to floss come down to these:

1. I'm convinced I brushed well enough to clean my teeth sufficiently.

2. I'm lazy.

Consider what the late Mitch Hedberg said:
People who smoke cigarettes, they say "You don't know how hard it is to quit smoking." Yes I do. It's as hard as it is it to start flossiling.
Most likely, the majority of people who read the preceding quote will not notice the typos I have inserted. Sure, it's probably easier to noticed that mispelling of the last word, but the extra it? Not likely.

Proofreading is much like flossing (not at all like flossiling, though). It is something we must do, but irrationally decide not to do.

The only way to proofread, and proofread well, is to simply get in a habit of doing it! I have reached a point now where I feel compelled to proofread my text messages, my emails, and my bathroom stall graffiti. Once I started re-reading the small stuff, re-reading the big stuff became easy, if not compulsory!

If we ever want to have our written words demand respect (or, likewise, demand good grades), we MUST proofread. And if we're going to proofread we should do so OUT LOUD!

The above Hedberg quote, even on a second read, proves a tricky proofreading task. If we read it in our head only, we are likely to entirely miss the extra it, though we may notice the misspelling; yet few readers would not notice the extra it when reading aloud!

Unfortunately, reading out loud takes a little bit longer than reading in our head. However, I promise it’s generally worth it because reading aloud is equal to reading internally twice yet takes less time. Therefore:

Proofread! Proofread out loud!

You will be surprised at the changes you need to make.

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats and enjoys wistfully looking at pictures of free cats on Craigslist.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Delicate Balance

In my last groundbreaking article on writing habits, I encounraged writers -- specifically those who struggle writing discernable sentences -- to explain things to our new friend Bunce the bunny.

HOWEVER: This prescription is not always the right one! Some writers fall to the other end of the spectrum, the dreaded...

Write-Like-a-Text-Message Side!

ZOMG! srsly! ur graed may b on teh line!1!!!1!!eleventy!!!

As much as I love lolspeak, I’m sad to say that neither the academic nor business community have accepted that beautiful dialect. Therefore, we must persevere in our own, proper tongue: English!

The Write-Like-a-Text-Message Side of our writing spectrum rarely appears as dramatically as lolspeak, but I have seen definitive incarnations of near-text message style writing in my years as a tutor. Here are some handy rules for those who may write too casually:

No Contractions
This is a pretty sound and universal rule. The only places for contractions (e.g. I’m, wanna, can’t, and won’t) include: dialogue, informal emails, blog posts, and ransom notes. In other words, no contractions in essays, no contractions in reports, no contractions in applications, and no contractions in anything important.*

Controlled Abbreviations
We must resist the urge to write OK instead of okay. We must -- AT ALL COSTS -- avoid writing lol, omg, and even wrt (which means with respect to). Acceptable abbreviations include: titles (e.g. Mr. or Dr.), organizations (e.g. IMF, PETA, or EU), or other well-known acronyms or abbreviations (e.g. USA or i.e. or e.g.). Some writers -- me included – subscribe to the school of thought that a proper paper should not contain Latin abbreviations (which includes e.g. and i.e.).**

Controlled Interjections
Sometimes when I write a paper, you know, I end up putting all these, like, interjections in it, and they only make it kind of like harder to read. The paper sounds HIGHLY conversational and makes the reader/teacher/grader/boss convinced that there is no base of effort or knowledge behind the writing. We must judiciously employ interjections and completely avoid: you know, kind of, sort of, and unnecessary use of like.

No You
There are few grammatical conventions that I hate more the than the second person, the awful you. As a reader, it makes me defensive and confused: At first, I assume the speaker or writer is accusing me of being a certain way (I’ve read papers that started “You never know what to expect when…” and come away thinking -- like I hell I didn’t know what to expect! I knew exactly how this or that was going to be!). The second reaction is likely confusion because -- at some point -- I may notice that I’m not the target audience (Such as papers that have told me “…the best way to take care of your kids.” Well, I’m sorry paper, but unless you count three video game consoles and two computers offspring, then I am childless.)

Writing can be much like driving: If we drive to slow, or write too lackadaisically, we risk trouble just as much as if we drive too fast, or write too “scientifically.” Instead, we must strike a balance between these twin dangers and achieve the delicate balance.

Here's a pitcherr of a cat that the Writing Center shood bai:


*It should be understood that I am not attempting to imply that I do not care about this blog post. I care deeply for anything my favorite writer, me, writes.

**Readers would be wise to note that this blog post is not a proper piece of writing.

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats and enjoys inventing words like "muscley."

Monday, April 5, 2010

That Damned First Line

We’ve all experienced it; you are reading a book that someone – perhaps a teacher or a good friend – has recommended to you, but even before the first paragraph has finished your eyes are already wandering down the page, looking for some line of dialogue to break the mundane description, hoping that the story will eventually get exciting. It doesn’t matter that the novel has discovered the universal truth of all humanity; if the writing is not engaging, if it does not grab your attention from the very beginning, you probably won’t read it.

This occurrence, unfortunately, also applies to our own writing. For anything you could ever write – an essay, a short story, a novel, your grandmother’s eulogy – the first paragraph must do everything in its power to force the reader to keep reading. The first sentence can thus be considered the most important sentence of your entire story, more important even than the final sentence. The first sentence must be engaging, but not overpowering; it must be simple, but not mundane. Ultimately, it must perk the interest of the reader and make them want to know more about your story and characters. By the first line they should be asking what Colonel Aureliano Buendía did to merit a firing squad and what was so significant about the discovering of ice with his father (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)*. Your first line needs to act as the swirling vortex that sucks your readers in and spits them out only after they’ve been imprisoned for a number of hours and the hunger pains have begun to set in (don’t lie; we all know what it is like to be abducted by a good book). Like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, everything else flows from your first sentence.

The trickiest part of this is that while there is so much weighing on the first line, your reader should never know. A common pitfall of many authors is attempting to accomplish too much in the first line, resulting in the reader being overwhelmed by a tactless pummel of information. Instead, the first line should be so smooth that one doesn’t have time to stop and think about what they’ve read; one just keeps reading. The first line doesn’t need to be about anything extraordinary; a casual statement will do just fine so long as the paragraph backs it up. Below is a perfect example of a bad first line that simply says too much:

Thanks to the adrenaline pumping through his veins Thomas couldn’t feel the bullet passing through his skin, though in his heart he knew that without care he would soon bleed out before getting a chance to see his lovely Josaline again, waiting all alone for him to return to the States at the end of his tour.

Just writing that sentence hurt! Don’t over exert yourself; give your story – and your readers – some room to breathe. Most of the time a simple statement will do more for your story than a poor attempt to astound the audience.

Ultimately, your first line should accomplish two things: it ought to grab the attention of your readers, and set the tone for the rest of the story. By tone, I mean the mood that you wish to begin the story with. If your story is about a single mom bathing her child, the mood will probably be more calm and lethargic than quick and suspenseful. Similarly, if you are writing about a funeral, the tone will probably not be the happiest. Think about where you want to go with your story and how your main character is feeling at the beginning of the scene, this will help you to establish the proper mood from the very beginning.  Whether you are writing a short story, a song, a novel, or even a term paper, the mood should be obvious throughout the story; and it all begins with that first line.

Many people fall into the misunderstanding that in order to grab the reader’s attention, they must begin the story with a good action-packed scene. DO NOT DO THIS. If done improperly (and more often than not it will be) it will only confuse the reader, to the point where they may not want to continue reading. Instead, if you have a great character, introduce him to the audience, or if you are confident that you can describe the setting without being a bore, do so. Both of these techniques will not only grab your reader’s attention, but they are also good ways to establish the proper mood. Once you have gotten the reader attached to your well-thought out character, the plot will fall in line behind him.

To recap, the first line must be simple, it must be engaging, and it must establish the mood for the rest of the story.  If you need some help, try to remember some of your favorite books and their first lines. Or, try browsing through this list of 100 best first lines as decided by the American Book Review.

Now, before you begin to agonize about how your first line is not the way you want it, remember that it is only one line, and can always be rewritten.