You’ve probably heard it many times:
“Place a comma wherever you naturally pause.”
While it’s true that commas are meant to help readers know where to pause, and that they often go where you would naturally pause, this rule can make for comma-happy writers.
For example: “In the book, Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, Harry, finds out, on his eleventh birthday, that he is a wizard.”
After removing unnecessary and incorrect commas, we have: “In the book Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard.”
While placing commas where we naturally pause is a great rule to start off with, it is one that is best forgotten as you learn where commas really go. That’s why, for the next few weeks, we will be tackling common comma errors.
The dash is my favorite punctuation mark—it is versatile, visually pleasing, and is a great go-to if you’re ever unsure about which punctuation to use. In fact, it can take the place of colons, parentheses, commas, and semicolons!
- Colons: I bought three kinds of pasta—Alfredo, linguini, and angel hair.
- Parentheses: The taste of fresh strawberries—sweet, tangy, and fresh—is far superior to their taste in the off-season.
- Commas: In her long, wonderful life—she had only one regret.
- Semicolons: James hated the smell of flowers—they reminded him of lost love, dead hopes, and decay.
Note: Today I’m referring to the “em dash”—this really long dash as opposed to a hyphen or a short en dash (–)
Appositives are nouns or noun phrases that rename another noun, and they are usually surrounded by commas. They allow writers to color in the vague outlines of their subjects, giving them depth with shading and detail. Even if you’ve written them before, writing appositives regularly is a great way to train your mind to go deeper with descriptions.
“The dog, a husky Labrador, romped outside.”
“We gathered at Henry’s, an eclectic coffee shop where local bands played.”
“Wendy pulled up her hair, a tangled mess after her trek in the rain, and covered it with a hat.”
“Donna began to look around.”
“I begin to eat cookies.”
“Garry begins waking up.”
The sentences above are examples of passive voice. Passive voice sneaks into writing when writers don’t use strong verbs. It’s like a limp handshake—half-hearted and awkward.
The words “begin/began” automatically slow down action. While whey are only one culprit of passive voice, let’s focus for now on replacing them with active verbs:
“I munched on cookies.”
“Garry yawns and stretches.”
The character’s actions are now more vivid and active.
To summarize, never have a character “begin” something when they should just do it.
If you are following this blog, it’s because you either enjoy writing or because you are being forced to. Either way, we know that writing–in any form–takes time. And time is precious. We have deadlines to meet, classes to attend, friends to see, meals to eat, sleep debt to pay, books to read, papers to write, Netflix to watch, photos to post…
Who has time to read a 650-1000 word blog post on writing when you have to read 200 pages of A Tale of Two Cities and an entire play by Shakespeare–and you have to write a 12 page essay on the use of the Laconian Gaze in No Exit?
Quick Tip Tuesdays!
*Confetti / Balloons / Applause*
Writing tips in 100 words or less to offer you a simple yet powerful way to instantly improve your writing!
I am so excited to start this series because there are so many things I’ve learned as a writer that I wish I knew a long time ago. Let’s get started with something short and sweet since this post is already wasting too much of your precious time.
Alright. Here we go.
Quick Tip #1
Never write “The tree was very tall” when what you mean is “The tree stretched to the sky.”
“Very” and “really” add no meaning and can be replaced with action verbs to make the sentence stronger and more active.
Let’s be honest: for a lot of us, writing just didn’t happen over break. Maybe we signed a few receipts or Christmas cards. Maybe we wrote in our journals or typed a few Instagram posts. But now we’re back in the academic world. We’ve been taking light walks, and now we’re being asked to do squats. We’ve been hauling shopping bags, and now we’re lifting weights. We have to use the same muscles, but in different ways, and that can take some adjustment.
What do you do when you have a big work-out ahead? You warm up. You stretch those muscles and get your blood flowing so you don’t hurt yourself. The same can be true for writing.
Most likely, you don’t have any large writing assignments due in the next week or two, so you have some time to warm up. Maybe your professors have already given you small writing assignments to start off with. Whatever the case may be, you may find the following ideas useful in re-engaging your writing muscle, both now and before those bigger assignments.
Remember: Warm-ups are not meant to be done just once. If any of these prove helpful to you, try them regularly to keep your writing muscles engaged and ready for those papers!
- Read. This should be easy, since you are in school and readings are assigned regularly. The more you read in the genre that you will be writing, the more naturally writing in that genre will be for you.
- Brainstorm/Research Early. If you have a big paper coming up, give your mind some time to work with your ideas and research. Jot down passing thoughts, ideas, sentences, etc. Spend some time online or in the library exploring your topic. You may find yourself working through problems subconsciously once you’ve started the process.
- Keep a Writer’s Notebook. Even if your major doesn’t seem to be writing-related, keeping a writer’s notebook is an excellent way to make writing a part of your daily life. Again, this is not crunch time. You don’t even have to break a sweat (or write a full sentence, even). In your notebook, you can write down ideas, thoughts, phrases, words, research questions/answers, narratives, or dialogue. You could even doodle, paste pictures or newspaper clippings, or practice your handwriting. Everything goes. Just have fun fiddling with it and remember that writing doesn’t have to be a full-blown work-out all the time; sometimes it’s just playing around.
- Talk it Out. If you are a verbal processor, try talking out your ideas with someone. Find out who helps you process well. Some people are good at asking questions, for instance, while others are good at just listening and affirming, and still others are good at challenging and making you dig deeper. I also find that simply recording myself is helpful. And don’t forget about the Writing Center! We are here to help in ANY stage of the writing process, which means we’ll give you a listening ear even before you have anything on paper!
- Free Write. I can’t stress this one enough. It differs from the writer’s notebook in that it is less about gathering and playing with ideas and more about letting things just flow for a certain amount of time–less like dancing when the mood hits you and more like getting a membership to an interpretive dance group. How do you do it? Simply write until either a set time or word count is up. You can begin with a topic that may or may not relate to a project, paper, or story, or you can simply start off with whatever comes to your mind. But don’t stop writing. No matter what. If you have to write “I don’t know what to say” or “My feet are cold,” then write it. The idea is just to write and not worry about the product. It is the ultimate warm-up, and it never fails to get the creative juices flowing.
Students tend to have the perception that the Writing Center is all about papers and essays, because, well, they’re the primary form of writing that we do in the academy. But while we’re here to help you develop and polish your essays, we can also help you with any writing you’re doing for your final, even if it’s not a formal essay.
Presentations and Speeches
If you’re giving an oral presentation, it may seem like you won’t be doing any writing–but you should. There is a reason that public figures like presidents have speech writers; speeches should be written before they’re given. Writing a script for your oral presentation can help you ensure that you stay on topic, address all of the relevant points and evidence related to your topic, and that you sound prepared, polished, and eloquent. Having a prepared script can help prevent mistakes or misused words and reduce the number of times you say “um” when standing up at the podium. You can bring in your script, just as you would a paper, and our tutors can help you polish your writing so your presentation is the best it can be!
Just because you’re working in a group doesn’t mean you can’t come to the Writing Center. Whether it’s a group paper or presentation (or both), you can schedule an appointment for your group, or just one member of your group to meet with a tutor. With papers and presentations with multiple authors, continuity between the work of different group members can often be an issue. A Writing Center tutor can help check for consistency and cohesiveness in co-written papers and projects, as well as the usual stuff: content, organization, citation, source integration, grammar and syntax, etc.
Need help with that final paper or project? We’re open during exam week! Visit the Writing Center today or set up an appointment online. We’re open from 9 AM to 4 PM in 123 Cherry Hall and 4 PM to 9 PM in the Academic Commons in Cravens, Monday through Thursday (9 AM to 3 PM in 123 Cherry Hall on Fridays).