Author Archives: Steve Aedy

7 Exercises to Improve Your Ability to Write Creatively

cliche

Writers, in general, are a pretty creative bunch. But, since there’s no such thing as being too creative, anyone could benefit from some imagination-boosting exercises.

Whether you’re in a creative slump, and it happens to everyone now and then, or you just want to expand your resources as a writer, there are lots of ways for you to open up your creative channels.

Here are some methods to help inspire you:

1) Make a list of 20 topics

Sometimes your greatest creative block will be coming up with new ideas. So, sit down and make a list of 20 different writing ideas. Of this list of 20, at least one should be workable. Start developing it. A great habit for you to develop would be to keep a list somewhere of story ideas. If you do this, you’ll end up with an incredible cache of topics to use when your inspiration runs dry.

2) Re-write

Take an old story or idea you’ve written and rework it. Make sure it’s not something you’re currently working on. If you’re too close to it, you’ll have trouble seeing it from a new perspective. As you rework it, take a completely different view. If you told a story about a family from the perspective of one of the children, try telling it from the perspective of the mother or from an omniscient perspective. This is an exercise in creating flexibility in your writing. You may go back to the piece from the original perspective, but with new insights about the other characters. Sometimes telling the story you don’t want to tell can help you tell the story you do want to tell.

3) Read

Follow William Faulkner’s advice: “Read, read, read. Read everything- trash, classics, good and bad and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write…” The more you read, the more you’ll be exposed to different writer’s voices and styles. You’ll get a sense for their mastery and their weaknesses. Don’t just read for pleasure. Read to examine different techniques such as transitions, character-building, suspense and dialogue. Then challenge yourself to use those techniques in your own work.

4) Try hand-writing

Martin Amis “I always do my draft in long hand because even the ink is part of the flow.” If you’re used to typing, take yourself out of your comfort zone. Buy a notebook and a pen or pencil and start writing in it. Hand-writing means you have to slow down your thoughts a little, as you can’t write as fast as you type. There’s also no erasing, so if you’re constantly self-editing by erasing your work, hand-writing may be a great way for you to tie up your inner editor and unleash your creative voice.

5) Use your pain

J.P. Donleavy “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.” Everyone has had to face struggle in life. And struggle often makes for the best literature. Recount a moment or experience that was difficult for you. You could turn it into a poem, a story or an essay.

6) Free-write

Free-writing is all about release. If you need to unleash your creativity, try sitting down for 10-15 minutes and write without pausing, correcting or planning. Just write whatever comes to mind without any interruptions of the conscious mind. After you’re finished, go back and read what you wrote. Hopefully, you’ll be able to pick out an interesting concept or theme from your free-write and work it into a piece.

7) Switch genres

Creativity is the result of a flexible mind. If you write only essays or only short stories or only poetry, why not try something different? Choose another genre and see what comes up. It may feel strange and awkward, but by pushing yourself to do something different, you may discover a new source of creative thought. Try it.

Try one or all of these exercises to stimulate your mind’s creativity. It just may help you write better, more imaginative work. Good luck and happy writing!

Passive Voice Evasions and Writing Problems

cliche

Even without meaning to, writers have a way of letting passive voice sneak into their sentences. It can be hard to avoid. It creeps up for several reasons. Sometimes it’s to avoid assigning blame. Other times it’s when we’re trying to avoid committing other grammar mistakes such as using “I” or “we”.

Passive voice is when a sentence starts with the object and not the subject of an action. For example, “Money must be saved for the trip.” Who should be saving the money? The subject is missing.

Good writing is active. Active sentences engage the reader with direct language. They’re also easier to understand: “Carla must save money for the trip.” There, now you understand who is saving money and why.

Here are some common passive voice evasions, how to fix them plus some other common writing errors to avoid:

Using passive voice to avoid using “I” or “we”

Instead of:
It is estimated that over 50% of families will be affected by the change.
Change to:
We estimate that over 50% of families will be affected by the change.

Instead of:
During the expedition, a discovery was made that could change our perception of history.
Change to: During the expedition, we made a discovery that could change our perception of history.

There are lots of other examples of passive voice that don’t include such obvious omissions. In fact, the majority of passive voice sentences have all the information needed, but continue to use passive voice.

For example

Instead of:
Gifts were given by the United Way to the children of the village.
Change to:
The United Way gave gifts to the children of the village.

Instead of:
A masterpiece was painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Change to:
Michelangelo painted a masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Instead of:
Instructions will be sent to you by the hiring manager.
Change to:
The hiring manager will send you instructions.

Instead of:
The ball was thrown to John by Simon.
Change to:
Simon threw the ball to John.

If you happen to be a passive voice fan, be aware that it’s not considered good English. Writers from William Strunk Jr., George Orwell and Stephen King, have warned writers to avoid it.

Some other common writing errors to watch for:

Subject-verb agreement

  • Within a sentence. Be sure that your verb is in agreement with the subject for your sentence. Check out this guide for the most common subject verb agreement pitfalls.
  • Within a paper. Stick with the same subject throughout the paper. Don’t suddenly switch from third (he, she, they) to second (you) or vice versa.

Cliches

Don’t use them. They can be an eyesore to the professor reading your paper. If you come across a cliché in your paper, go back and find another way to express the same idea. Check this comprehensive list of cliches to make sure your not using them.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments are when a group of words are a dependent clause acting as though they were an independent clause.
For example: Jim thought he had locked the door. But no.
The second sentence “But no” is a sentence fragment and not a full sentence.
Change to: Jim thought he had locked the door, but he hadn’t.

When you finish writing a paper, make editing a priority. A lot of common grammar and writing mistakes can be caught and corrected with careful editing. Good luck and happy writing!

Prewriting Techniques for Your Essay

prewriting

There are different prewriting techniques to help you structure your research before begin to write an essay. Prewriting techniques will make your topic clear and prevent you from getting stuck. Obviously, your professor is expecting to see a well-organized paper, which presents a story or a branch of interesting facts. Prewriting techniques and exercises will help you develop your argument and determine the course of draft.

Creating an outline

An outline will help you structure your essay in the way your audience can understand and follow it easily. You can make it informal: just put down your thesis statement, briefly describe what to begin with, in the introduction, move to the body of your paper and describe what every paragraph will discuss, and finally include what you want to say in the conclusion.
Sometimes professors ask their students to develop a detailed outline with headings and subheadings to show the bonds between facts and ideas in the essay. This one might look as follows:

Introduction

  • Attention grabber
  • Include an interesting fact or statistical data to grab your reader’s attention.

  • Brief background
  • Write a couple of sentences to describe the history of topic/issue.

  • Thesis statement
  • End it with a strong thesis statement which embodies the main argument of the paper.

Body paragraphs

  • Topic sentence
  • Every paragraph should contain a claim that shows what you are going to discuss in it.

  • Supporting argument
  • Explain the claim and don’t forget to support it with quotations from reliable sources.

  • Analysis
  • Explain how your argument supports the claim and essay’s thesis statement.

Conclusion

  • Restate your thesis statement.
  • Offer a solution for a problem if it is possible.
  • What are your ideas about the future analysis of the issue?
  • If your paper requires you to write about specific areas of the topic, include more detailed information about them in your body paragraphs.

Prewriting exercises

  • Question-asking

  • This exercise will help you to determine where to start with your writing. It requires you to write down a list of questions that are relevant to your topic. If something seems to be unclear about the topic, formulate legitimate questions and try to answer them when you begin to read background materials. This will help you clear up the air and get a lot of thoughts and ideas to start with. Also, think about the potential questions your audience may have and force yourself to find the answers. By means of these answers, you will get the general concept for your essay.

  • Brainstorming

  • Give yourself fifteen minutes and write down as many ideas and questions about the topic as you can. For example: What is the most interesting thing about this topic? What can my audience and I learn from this? What are the benefits of learning more about it? Most often these ideas are the main points of the topic.

  • Mindmapping

  • Take a piece of paper and a draw a circle in the center of it and write the subject of your essay in that circle. Below write down the main points you are going to discuss and circle each of them, too. Think of other ideas relevant to the main points, write them down below and connect them with lines. Repeat this process until you run out of ideas. This will help you identify the main points for your paper and discover how they are linked to each other.

  • Freewriting

  • Start with summarizing your topic in one sentence. Then write everything that comes to your mind about without censoring your ideas. Forget about grammar and punctuation, just let your ideas flow. Don’t pressure yourself to make it perfect and just don’t stop writing. If you give it a chance, it might work as a powerful creative tool and take your ideas somewhere extremely productive and unexpected.

Outlining and other prewriting exercises will help you to keep focused on every aspect of your research. It becomes particularly effective at times when you need to go back and clarify all important points not to miss something. Use these planning tips and you will never get lost in your drafting and writing!

How to Use Quotes in a Literary Analysis Essay?

books for quotes

Quotes in literary essays serve as textual evidence used to strengthen your interpretation of the text. When inserted correctly, quotes support your arguments and bring the necessary background to your writing. However, when used incorrectly, quotations can only bring mess in your essay and ruin your arguments. This guide will help you understand how to quote effectively.

When to use quotes

Your tutor has probably told you to back-up your thesis statement with arguments. However, randomly used quotes will hardly strengthen your idea. You should use quotes at selected moments because the major part of your essay should be your own thoughts (it is your essay, isn’t it?). Here are some conditions using quotes:
When you want to include particularly important words from an authoritative source to highlight the credibility of your argument.

  • When you need to include information that is not generally known.
  • When you want to include a passage that is worthy of analysis.
  • When you want to analyze and evaluate a someone’s work.

The third point is especially useful in literary analysis essay.
If you find an argument which is relevant to your topic, but it is not one of those four cases described above, consider:

  • Summarizing: sketch only the key point in the passage;
  • Paraphrasing: convey the information from the passage in your own words.

Depending on what type of paper you are writing, you can also use other types of evidence like statics, paraphrasing, or data. As distinct from the literary essay, scientific writing relies on summarizing more than direct quotes. Obviously, you should consider the discipline and audience for which you are writing. For instance, literary essay or analysis should include direct quotes from the original text you are analyzing while Sociology or Political Science papers may rely on statistics and paraphrasing.

How to incorporate quotes into text

Once you have decided which quotes you need to use, your next step is to incorporate them into your essay. Remember, the words and explanations which you include before and after a quote are as important as the quote itself. Imagine that your quotation is the filling in a pizza: it is tasty, but nobody is going to eat it without a pizza dough. Your comments are going to serve as a “dough”, a necessary part of each pizza. Here are some instructions for inserting and following up quotations:

  • Attribute a quote to the source

Don’t forget to specify who is speaking.

  • Provide context

The quotation does not tell a story on its own. Therefore, you have to provide a clear context that sets when, why or under what circumstances the quote was written.

  • Introduce a quotation

To introduce a quote, explain what it is intended to show.

How to format quotations in MLA style

As a rule, the literary essay or analysis is written in the MLA format. Use these guidelines and examples to format your MLA-quotes correctly.

Short Quotes

Short quotes (no more than four lines of prose text and three lines of poetic text) should be enclosed within quotation marks. Include the author’s name and the page number (for poetry — provide the line numbers).

Long Quotes

If your quote consists of more than four lines of prose or poetry, you have to indent it from the main text, but do not center it. Indenting will show that the text is a quote, so you don’t need to put quotation marks.

Examples

For both short and long quotes, use the following punctuation and formatting:

  • People are described by Kenneth Burke as “symbol-using animals” (3).
  • People are described as “symbol-using animals” (Burke 3).
  • Some describe people as “symbol-using animals” (Burke 3), but the others disagree.

For poetry, use the original formatting and put poetry line numbers:

She spired into a yellow flame,
She flowered in blossoms red,
She flowed into a foaming wave,
She stood Monadnock’s head. (120-124)

Formatting may influence your grade, so use these tips to make sure that you format your quotations correctly!

Writing in English as a Second Language: Tips for Students

writing in English as a second language

As Columbia University Professor William Zissner observed, what’s valued as “good writing” in one language can be vastly different in another language. An ESL student of his from Egypt observed that Arabic writing uses a lot of proverbs, something an English writer can’t do if they want to be taken seriously. Students from Ethiopia were used to writing long, flowing, complex sentences that demonstrated their education and knowledge. The Spanish language with it’s wealth of Latin-based words is a gold mine for poets and writers as it’s naturally expressive. But what’s considered good writing in English is something quite different.

Here are some tips for ESL students who want to write well in English:

Read a lot to improve your writing

Read newspapers, magazines and books. You’ll find answers to subject-verb agreement questions, plurals, adjectives and past tense and past participle conjugation. You’ll learn spelling, vocabulary and idiomatic phrases as well as basic sentence structure. Reading will help reinforce grammar rules you know and teach you ones you didn’t. Also take advantage of blogs for ESL students.

English speakers value clarity

The English language has over a million words. It’s a language that’s full of nuance. For example, look at the subtle difference between the words yell, shout, scream. You wouldn’t necessarily use them in the same context. You could scream from fright, but not yell or shout from it. When there’s a disagreement, depending on the nature of it, you might call it a dispute, argument, debate, quarrel or fight. Exposure to these words via conversations, music, films and books will help you understand which word you can use and when.

Brevity

Modern English is not what linguists would call a “flowery” language. Its most celebrated writers tend to be the ones who write short, punchy sentences. There’s a very popular app for writers called the Hemingway app that evaluates your text for sentences that are too long, too complex or confusing. It has a special function to detect adverbs. Why is there an app called Hemingway instead of Poe or Faulkner? Because Hemingway was the quintessential “lean” writer and that quality of expressing a lot in few words is highly valued in English.

Action verbs

Some languages form sentences that are like mazes. They talk around a subject because being direct is considered rude. In English, being direct is appreciated. Those who can “get to the point” are praised instead of sidelined. The language itself reflects this with its use of action verbs. Don’t put things in the passive tense. Say it straight. For example: “I threw the ball to Jack” is much easier to understand than “The ball was thrown to Jack by me.” Action verbs are an ESL writer’s faithful ally. Fuzzy on what’s an active verb and what’s a passive verb? Check out this site to learn more.

Don’t overuse Latin-based words

If your first language happens to be a Latin-based one, your tendency will be to make good friends with the Latin-based words in English. And there are many. Depending on which reference you use, anywhere from 40-60% of English words are derived from Latin. Relying on your Latin roots will certainly make it easier for you to express yourself, but will also make your English unbearably formal. Students in American high schools who study Latin generally do so in order to score better on the SATs.

However, if you look at the way English is spoken on the streets, on television, in films or the way it’s sung in music or written in magazines or books, you’ll see that English’s Anglo-Saxon roots are put to use far more often than its Latin ones. So don’t rely on your easy Latin affiliates, and make the effort to delve into the world of Anglo-Saxon based English.

Don’t translate from your native language into English

This is hard for anyone trying to speak a second language. But try thinking in English rather than translating your thoughts from your native language into English. The difference is vast. Thinking in English means you’re also becoming familiar with the logic of the English language, its grammar, nuances and idiomatic phrases.

Trying to translate from your native language into English is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The grammar will be awkward and hard to understand and you won’t be able to capture the meaning of what you’re saying. That’s because English is another another with different forms of expression. Learning them will help you communicate what you mean.

English spelling can be frustrating

A seemingly unending stream of vowel combinations (beauty) and consonant combinations (thought) and some words that are spelled the same but mean different things (the noun tear vs. the verb tear). Check out this spelling guide to help you gain more confidence in your writing.

Write a lot

Taking the above into consideration, it’s time for you to practice writing in English. To improve your English writing, you should write every day. But it’s not enough for you to write every day. Someone needs to be able to tell you when you’re making a mistake…

Get help of an English native speaker

Today, the Internet is a huge resource for ESL learners. Whatever your native language is, you can bet there’s a native English speaker who wants to learn it. While a lot of these language exchanges focus more on speaking, you can certainly request to use the chat function as a way to practice your writing. Ask them to correct your spelling and grammar and offer you tips and explanations.

It’s not the same as having a teacher who has more grammatical knowledge, but your average layperson should be able to spot basic spelling and grammar mistakes for you. Visit these language exchange sites to partner up with a language learning buddy and improve your English writing.

The best way to learn to write well in English is to read a lot and write a lot. Make sure a native speaker corrects your work and practice as often as you can to get better.

Main Pitfalls of Learning a Second Language Writing System

learn second language writing system

Second language systems like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Greek and Russian all have different alphabets. Learning the alphabet is the first step in learning to read and write in these languages.

As if learning a new language weren’t difficult enough, the process is made more complicated by having to learn a new writing system on top of it. Here are some of the main challenges of mastering a new alphabet system:

Understanding phonetics

Of course, there will always be a tendency to try to make things sound like the language you’re most familiar with. But in many alphabets, the sounds you’ll be encountering will be totally different from English sounds. Did you know that the “th” sound is unique to the English language and challenging for people learning English to pronounce? Likewise, many sounds in other languages will be difficult for you to grasp at first. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t get a sound right on the first try. Intonation and accent take time to build. Keep at it and you’ll get better.

Understanding the logic

The English alphabet, also known as the Roman alphabet, is about sounds, not about symbols. The letters are building blocks to create a word and usually have no meaning unto themselves. But not all writing systems have the same logic. In fact, for many other language systems, the letters of the alphabet are symbols that stand for something on their own. By looking at the alphabet as a phonetic building block, you miss the logic of the other language which is to use symbols to build meaning.

In Chinese, which is a language based on symbols, you can’t pronounce a word if you don’t understand its meaning. In English, however, you can sound a word out based on the letters without having any clue what the word means. Don’t try to apply the logic of the Roman alphabet to a different writing system. Learn its logic in order to understand the language.

Identifying different fonts

Just like in English, you’ll have to learn to identify writing in different fonts and styles. Handwriting will be different from printed text and there will be variations of printed text as well. Think about cursive writing, capitalization and the thousands of different printed fonts that any English reader can easily identify. However, a young child who has only just learned to write the alphabet wouldn’t be able to identify a letter written in cursive.

Other languages will offer this same challenge. In addition, some languages have different writing systems. Japanese, for example, has three writing systems which are all distinct from each other. The best way to learn these various writing styles and fonts is to expose yourself to all of the different styles of writing that exist in a language so that you’re not confused when faced with a different style.

Learning to write

Reading is one thing. Writing is another. Everyone remembers that phase when they were learning to write the alphabet. How it was a painstaking process that was much more akin to drawing the letters than to writing them. Over time, it became more natural. Now, you’re in a phase where you’re learning not only what the letters of the new alphabet look like, but how to write them. Some languages, like Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left. If you try to write these languages from left to right, it will hardly be legible.

Imagine if someone tried to write a sentence in English by writing all the words backwards. It would look strange and awkward. All languages have a specific way to write their characters and letters. Learn the order of the pen-strokes and the direction correctly so that your handwriting will be readable.

Attitude is everything

The biggest reason people fail to learn is that they give up too easily. It’s not that the language is too hard or too impossible or too different. Anyone is capable of learning anything as long as they dedicate themselves to it. Get through the slow awkward phase, realize that it’s different than when you were learning to read English as a child and focus on small triumphs. Maybe you could recognize a word written in different fonts or you were able to read a whole sentence out loud without pausing. Celebrate these milestones and keep working at it.

How To Ask For Feedback on Your Writing

ask for feedback on your writing

No one was born a writer. All writers had to go through the process of “becoming a writer” and, if you’ve read as many writer’s biographies as I have, you’ll know that it wasn’t an easy path for anyone.

Maybe you want to ask for advice from a professional writer but you’re afraid they won’t respond. It’s a logical assumption that they won’t. Except for the fact that when they were starting out, many of today’s successful writers had mentors who were experienced and established.

It’s not impossible to get a writer to respond to a cold email requesting their advice. But it is a delicate endeavor and one that requires some finesse. Here are some tips on how to persuade a writer to write you back:

Read their work

First of all, if you’re going to write to a Stephen King or a Joyce Carol Oates and you’ve never read any of their work, you might want to either pick another author whose work you do know or crack open one or two of their books to get to know their writing better. It’s only fair if you’re asking them to read your works that you’ve at least done your homework and read some of theirs first.

Do background research

Read some interviews and biographical information about them. Follow their blog, Facebook Page or Twitter account if they have one. Find out what kind of philosophies they have about writing, how they got their start, what they’re currently working on. Having a feel for this information will help you craft a more personal letter. It will also help you not tread on their toes by accident. For example, if your chosen writer is an adamantly against e-books, you might not include the fact that you’re considering publishing your work as an e-book.

Work on your subject line

As with all writing, when it comes to titles, headlines and email subject lines, it’s all about grabbing their attention. It’s worth the time you put into perfecting your subject line pitch. Otherwise, even if you wrote the outstanding letter, you run the risk of them never even opening it.

Consider sending snail mail

It’s easy to ignore an email. Hardly anybody receives real mail today. There’s something about the effort you had to go through to handwrite a letter, put a stamp on it and send it off in the mailbox. That differentiates you from someone who shot off 100 emails to a bunch of famous authors. It’s the ultimate way to personalize a message. If you do send a letter by snail mail, make sure to include your email in the letter. Don’t expect them to sit down and write you a letter in reply. Make it easy for writers you want to reach out.

Why are you writing to them?

Can you articulate why it is that you’re writing to that authors in particular? Is it because you admire their work or you’re writing a book on a similar subject as one of their books? Is it because of something they said in an interview that captured your attention? Why do you think their advice would be helpful to you? Explaining this to the writers will help them take your request more seriously.

Keep it simple

You’re probably aware that professional writers are busy people. Asking them to take time away from their own projects to help you with yours is a delicate matter, so do them a favor by getting to the point fairly quickly. Professionals will appreciate you keeping your message brief. You might even want to acknowledge that you know they’re busy and you appreciate them taking them time to read and respond to your message.

What are your credentials?

People like to help people who they think are going to succeed. If you’ve published any other works, you should reference them. If you’ve won any awards or have an MFA or worked as an assistant to a famous screenwriter or author, or have worked in editing or publishing, then it would be good to mention those things. Whatever credentials you can (briefly) provide will help them get an idea of who you are and why spending time reading your work wouldn’t be a waste.

Ask them something specific

Try to ask writing experts something specific rather than something general. For example, don’t ask: How do I get published? That’s way too general and an annoying question to most authors. Where to begin? Instead ask a specific question. Make it something that’s relevant to their work or their experience that you think they will be able to give you the best answer about. It’s much easier for someone to reply to a specific question than to reply to a request for “advice” in general.

Do you have anything to offer them?

If you have something special to offer that you think they might appreciate, go ahead and offer it. If the author lives in the same area as you, go ahead and offer to take them to lunch or buy them a coffee. Maybe their next book is set in Brazil and you lived there for three years. Offer to share some of your experiences that might be helpful to them.

Make it easy for them to reach you

Give authors a lot of options for reaching you. Everyone has their preferred form of communication, so give them your phone number, email, and Skype account. Let them know when you’re available to talk and make sure you’re available if they try to contact you.

Thank them if they write back

If you do manage to catch their attention and they decide to respond to your message, make sure to thank them. It really is a big deal that well-known writers took the time to reply to you, so the least you can do is acknowledge their effort by letting them know how much you appreciate it. It will also make it easier for them to respond to you should you reach out to them again.

5 Best Ways To Improve Your Critical Reading Skills

how to improve critical reading skills

Critical reading is a crucial skill for anyone seeking in-depth knowledge of a subject or who are aiming to become an expert or thought leader in a certain area. Critical reading means not taking things at face value, but really engaging in a text by asking questions, thinking about possible future research and taking the devil’s advocate role. Being able to read critically is basically the difference between being able to recognize the words written in an article and being able to understand their meaning, context and significance.

Critical reading is an essential part of academic life, and many professional careers require this skill. It will help you get into college and graduate school and help you as you move on in your career after school. Most major standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, LSAT, MCAT and others, have critical reading sections.

Becoming an effective critical reader is a valuable skill, but one that often requires effort to hone. Besides a high score on your SAT, critical reading will allow you to assess opinions presented about important events in the world. It will help you take important decisions about causes you may want to get involved with or political stances to take or not take. In the professional world, critical reading will make it possible for you to understand the big picture of research or activities in your field and allow you to weigh cost/benefits with greater accuracy.

Here are some tips for you to enhance your critical reading skills:

Read it more than once

A single read-through of an article is usually not enough to read it critically. Depending on the complexity and length, it may be necessary for you to read it a few times in order to really understand the arc of the author’s logic. So, take your time, don’t skim, but read slowly and methodically, taking in the text a second or third time to make sure you understand it thoroughly. Each time you read it, you’ll uncover new layers, make new connections and pay attention to new facts that didn’t catch your eye the first time around. The preliminary step to critical reading is giving the text multiple readings.

Take notes

If it’s not on paper, print a paper copy so you can use a highlighter to highlight major points, underline, jot down notes and questions in the margins. Engaging in the text this way allows you to recognize main arguments and important facts such as names and dates. It forces you to pay attention as you read and to read more slowly rather than skimming. It also provides you a springboard from which you can then form your own analysis. Good notes are an important step in critical reading.

Discuss it with others

Engaging others in a discussion about the article is a great way to increase your understanding of it. Maybe the other person will take the devil’s advocate role or maybe you will. In any case, the more thoughts you can gather on the subject, the stronger your comprehension of it will be. Other people will be able to look at angles of the subject you hadn’t considered. In order to be a critical reader, you must also be open-minded. Maintaining a strong bias based on your personal feelings about a subject will inhibit your ability to read critically. Failing to be objective also means you’ll fail to read critically.

If you’re reading an article about the Republican party’s presidential candidates, for example, and you’re a die-hard Democrat, it would be great for you to talk to a Republican to understand the other side of the political coin. Whether it’s a heated or an even-keeled discussion, you’ll get more out of it than if you had just gone along with your pre-formulated opinions.

Write a critical summary

A great way to make sure you really understood the text is to write a summary of the article. Using your notes and highlighted areas, think about the following themes:

  • Who was the article written for?
  • What is the goal of the article?
  • Did it achieve this goal? If not, what kind of information is missing in order for it to be more successful?
  • What are the main points of the article?
  • How could it be improved?
  • What are the possible next issues to be addressed on this particular subject? What does the future hold in this area?
  • Who else is writing about this subject? What do they have to say that’s different from the author’s take?

A useful way to establish your thoughts on the article is to write a classic five paragraph essay that elaborates a thesis, anti-thesis and supporting ideas.

Practice SQ3R

This stands for:

  • Survey. Skim the text in order to get the gist of it, looking out for main points, dates, names and important descriptions.
  • Question. Before you do an in-depth reading, make a list of questions relevant to the subject or assignment you’ve been given based on the skimming you did. Examples of some questions you could ask:
    How does this author’s position on gay marriage differ from author X’s position?
    In what way is this issue relevant to me or to my family/community/school, etc?
    What impact is this article going to have on the way we think about X?
  • Read. Read the article thoroughly, taking notes as you go along.
  • Recall. Write down the main points and arguments that you remember from the text. This is a crucial point in deepening your understanding of it. Without having to look at the text again, recall the essence of the argument and the main points that you can remember. What stood out to you?
  • Review. Go over your recall notes carefully and give the text another reading. Fill in any gaps that are missing in your notes based on your new reading.

Whether you’re a student, a professional or a citizen looking to engage more deeply in public debates, critical reading is a crucial skill that’s worth developing.

How To Organize Your College Essay Properly

how to organize college essay
College freshman may get a rude awakening when they hand in their first college paper. What would have earned them high marks in high school is simply not acceptable anymore. High school papers, namely the five-paragraph essay, were your training wheels for more in-depth writing. Instead of looking at facts and pointing out general themes and concepts, college writing asks you to take a deeper look into logic, reasoning, context and analysis and structure your college essay well.

Ok, fine. But how do you accomplish that exactly? What does it look like? Here are some basic guidelines for how to organize your college essays:

Introduction

Your introduction should accomplish several things:

  • Introduce the topic you will be writing about.
  • Make the reader care about the topic.
  • Give them important information about the topic.
  • Convey your position on the topic in your thesis statement.

You can accomplish these with a few different introduction styles:

  • Offer a compelling example.
  • Quote statistics.
  • Use a knock-out quotation.
  • Tell a relevant anecdote.
  • Pose an intriguing question.

Tips on getting your introduction right:

  • Try writing it last. Sometimes, the introduction is the hardest part to write. After you’ve written your supporting paragraphs, you may have an easier time finding the right way to introduce them
  • Don’t be too broad. The “Since the dawn of time humanity has…” introduction should be eliminated. Give some of the above examples a try. Overly broad introductions are a waste of words. Get to the point.

Thesis statement

Your thesis statement defines your take on the subject you’re writing about. It guides the rest of the paper’s arguments. Ask yourself the following questions about your thesis statement:

  • Is it polemical? Can someone argue for or against this statement? If not, it’s weak and needs to be reworked.
  • Does it answer the question or prompt proposed by the professor?
  • Is it contained in a sentence or does it sprawl? A thesis statement is one sentence long and usually comes at the end of the introduction paragraph. Don’t use the introduction paragraph to write a long sprawling thesis statement. Instead, make it concise, specific and packs a punch.

Body paragraphs

This is where your essay will differ from high school writing the most. Body paragraphs will be developed in order to support your thesis statement, just like in a five-paragraph essay. However, the type of research and analysis you will use will be different. In the five paragraph essay, it was okay to write a paper on MacBeth by providing plot point summaries. But in a college paper, you can skip the summary.

You’re not proving to the professor that you read MacBeth. You’re proving that you did research and have developed an interesting and original analysis of it. Same goes with high school history papers where you basically listed events in your supporting paragraphs to prove your thesis statement. That’s no longer acceptable. Instead, you’ll be analyzing why and how certain events occurred, not affirming that they occurred.

Good body paragraphs should contain the following:

  • Well-researched evidence. Use credible sources from experts in the subject. Don’t quote dubious sources or statistics. Forget Wikipedia or someone’s personal blog (unless it’s a professor’s blog). Look for academic publications from known authorities on the subject.
  • In-depth analysis. This is where you start to develop critical thinking skills. Go beyond “who,what,where,when” and start to answer “why and how.” Consider historical context. If you’re writing about an artist, what was the political era in which his work was produced? What were his influences? How did he come to develop his particular style? Why was it important then and why should we care about it now?
  • Contain counter-arguments. It’s not enough to support your thesis statement. That alone doesn’t make for a strong essay. If you wrote a great thesis statement, that means there should be a strong counter-argument to be considered. Your research should reflect not only why you chose the side you chose, but the scope of your choices. What does the opposition think? Why do they feel that way? What is the basis of their argument? Your essay will be all the more convincing if you show the reader that you’ve considered all sides of the subject, and chose the position presented in your thesis statement.

Conclusion

In high school, your conclusions were a summary of the main points in your essay. College essays require a more elaborate conclusion that goes beyond summary and shows reflection, analysis and synthesis of the ideas presented. Here are some ideas for how to conclude a college paper:

  • If you introduced your essay with an anecdote or example, revisit it at the end to close the circle. How have your arguments shed new light on this story?
  • If you didn’t use a quote in your introduction, consider using one at the end. Especially if it seems to capture the essence of your arguments.
  • Suggest ideas for next steps in this area or further research needed in order to make advances and solve problems.
  • Indicate why this issue is relevant and why people today should care about it.

Edit

After you’ve written your first draft using the guidelines from above, it’s a great practice to do a reverse outline. A reverse outline provides a thorough review of your essay draft by checking for flow and helping you spot gaps in your logic as well as spelling and grammar mistakes.
After you’ve written your draft:

  • Read and take notes on your draft. Does it make sense? Is there a better example you could have used? Have you stayed close to your thesis statement or did you start to stray?
  • Number your paragraphs. Sometimes you may find that reordering your paragraphs will help the essay flow better. Numbering them will make it easier for you to reorganize it later.
  • Make your outline. Dissect your draft by using it to make a basic outline. What are the main points of each section? Then take a look at your outline and analyze which areas need to be reworked for coherence and flow.

10 Must-Read Books for Fall 2015

must-read books fall 2015

Nothing like fall book releases to make you want to run out and buy the latest novels, curl up in an armchair with a cup of tea and settle down as the chill begins to set in.

This fall has a wonderful mix of established and new authors offering forth their literary efforts to readers across the continent. Their books will take you around the world, spanning continents and, in some cases, centuries. Some wild adventures, somber mourning, political spoofs and love lost and found again will bring you into fall.

Here are 10 picks for you to look forward to:

1. Purity.

Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated latest novel is a departure from his past works which focused on the American family. This one traces the journey of a political activist from East Germany and his American intern who follows him to Bolivia where they operate a media and government-watch organization.

2. The Japanese Lover.

Isabel Allende’s story that spans the globe from Poland to San Francisco, during WWII, this story tells the tale of political refugee Alma Belasco and her unlikely romance with the son of a Japanese gardener in her aunt and uncle’s house in San Francisco. Ichimei, the gardener’s son, is sent away to a Japanese internment camp and they are never reunited but remain in each other’s thoughts over the course of their lives. Then Alma begins to receive gifts in her nursing home that are suspected to be from Ichimei. A story that interweaves politics, fate and passion.

3. Death by Water.

Nobel Literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe’s new novel is a captivating mixture of Japanese folklore, memoir and meta-fiction. The plot features a celebrated writer whose father had drowned and who’s grieving process included writing a book about it. The book’s first sentence sets up the story beautifully: “The year I went off to university in Tokyo, something fateful happened when I returned home to Shikoku for one in the last in a series of traditional Buddhist services for my father.”

4. The Heart Goes Last.

It is as surreal as any of Margaret Atwood’s previous novels with the plot centering on a social experiment which allows couple Charmaine and Stan to live in a luxurious suburban home in exchange for agreeing to live in a prison cell every two months. While they’re serving their time in prison, another couple lives in their home. Eventually, the connection between the couples leads to feelings of sexual attraction, guilt and paranoia.

5. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

It is author Salman Rushdie’s modern take on Arabian Nights. With figures such as Henry James, Mel Brooks, Mickey Mouse and Aristotle, it’s an eclectic, comical and thoroughly entertaining tale. Weaving the forces of good and evil throughout the ages from 12th century Arabia to modern day New York, Rushdie travels through time and space to bring us this magical twist on a classic story. The first line he delivers sets you up for the ride: “Very little is known, though much has been written, about the true nature of the jinn, the creatures made of smokeless fire.”

6. M Train.

Patti Smith’s follow-up memoir to her celebrated Just Kids, M Train traces the singer’s artistic path through narratives that span 18 subway stations across New York City. In this new memoir, Smith takes us to the cafes where she used to drink black coffee and muses about her thoughts on other artists such as Frida Kahlo, Jean Genet and Sylvia Plath. She recounts the tragic 1994 death of her husband Fred Smith and its long-standing effect on her.

7. Fates and Furies.

Lauren Groff’s third novel is about the twenty year marriage of Lotto and Matthilde. Already garnering raves by Publisher’s Weekly and one of the most popular books on display at BookExpo America, Groff’s novel about marriage, co-habitation, betrayal and heartache follows the arc of a long-term marriage. A comment on the beauty and hope of loving someone, as well as the tragic disappointments that sometimes come along with it.

8. The Story of My Teeth.

National Book Foundation winner “Five Under 35”, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli spins a mighty elaborate story of unparalleled traveling auctioneer Gustavo “Highway” Sanchez Sanchez. Set in Mexico City and following Sanchez Sanchez through more adventures than you could count, as well as racking up unusual talents such as imitating Janis Joplin and standing an egg upright on a table, the book gets its name from the fact that he’s planning to replace his teeth. That and the fact that he happens to be in possession of a pair of dentures he swears belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Fun, wacky and defined by Granta as “delightfully unclassifiable”, reading this novel is an adventure in itself.

9. Numero Zero.

Celebrated Italian writer Umberto Eco offers a fascinating conspiracy theory about Italy’s famous dictator Benito Mussolini. Moving back and forth from 1945 to 1992, the plot revolves around the idea that Mussolini’s death may have been faked. The book features a love story between a ghost writer and a celebrity gossip writer who find a dead body in an alley in Milan. Theories begin to spin including the murder of Pope John Paul I, the Italian secret service and the CIA. The timing is right as 1992 marks the beginning of the truly tragi-comic era in Italian politics.

10. Man Tiger & Beauty is a Wound.

They are written by Eka Kurniawan and translated by Labodalih Sembiring and Annie Tucker respectively. Eka Kurniawan has broken onto the literary stage with stories that evoke the oral traditions of his home village in Indonesia. Man Tiger is the story of Margio, a young man who is also half white tiger. Beauty is a Wound is about a prostitute who rises from the dead as set forth in the first line; “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” Both books have earned enormous critical acclaim for their originality and scope of human suffering and spirit.