Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Try Sondra Perl's Composing Guidelines

I mention in most of my classes that even excellent writers often struggle through writer's block, labored drafting, and other writing-process problems. Knowing what's going on internally while drafting and having techniques for overcoming composing barriers should prove useful to any writer who has ever run into a creative wall or felt brain drain while facing writing deadlines. Sondra Perl offers excellent advice in these areas.

Perl, a professor at Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York and a founder of the New York City Writing Project (and one of my former teachers), offers Composing Guidelines to, as she aptly puts it, "help you discover more of what is on your mind and almost on your mind." Here are a selected few of her tips:
  • Continue writing, even when you don't know where you're going.
  • Periodically pause and ask, "What's this all about?"
  • Periodically check what you have written against your internal sense of where you're going or what you wanted to say."

Perl revealingly describes what she means by "internal sense" and includes tips for relaxing and getting into a rhythm while writing. She clarifies a complex cognitive process and provides indispensable encouragement for writers of any stripe. You can get more of her practical advice by searching "Sondra Perl's Composing Guidelines" on google.com.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

What Do You Mean What Do I Mean?: Join IGS!

As a member of the Institute of General Semantics (IGS), formerly the International Society for General Semantics, for the past 15 years, I have had the great pleasure of receiving an excellent education on the communicator's ultimate vocabulary. I speak not about the denotative or even connotative meanings of words. We have dictionaries and thesauri for the former, and pop psychologists, spin doctors, and talk show hosts for the latter. Instead I refer to the meanings we assign to language and the things they represent based on the boundaries of our experiences, emotions, relationships, and reactions to the moments in which encounter them.

Sounds complicated? Think twice. IGS possesses a seven-decade history of clarifying the abstractions in our daily interactions--abstractions that lead to conflicts with others as well as well as ourselves. It's not only what we say or even how we say it, but why, when, where, and to whom we say it in contexts which are forever changing and virtually impossible to define with the limited, static terms available to us.

To learn more about the remarkably useful discipline of general semantics, go the IGS website (www.time-binding.org), and browse its Learning Center, Library, or Bookstore for more information. You can easily become a member for the reasonable annual rate of $40, which includes the Institute's eclectic quarterly journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics; the quaterly newsletter Time-Bindings; the annual compendium publication The General Semantics Bulletin; a 20% discount on books, other merchandise; and gift memberships, and discounts on lectures, seminars, and other programs. Becoming a member would be a great step in a an endless voyage of learning.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Welcome, Online Students!

Philip Vassallo welcomes 21 students from the banking industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey to the premiere run of Effective Business Writing, the online course which he designed for the Center for Financial Training Atlantic States (CFTAS).

This course is available to anyone interested in improving his or her writing skills and receiving 3 undergraduate credits at a reasonable cost in the self-paced, convenient environment afforded by distance learning. Students have access not only to the resources and tips mentioned on this website, but other great features as well:
  • a secure course website with interpretive lecture notes to accompany an excellent course textbook
  • a community discussion to help keep students connected with each other and Dr. Vassallo
  • a companion CD loaded with writing advice, practice exercises, review slides, and up-to-date resources
  • in-depth analysis of their written assignments
To sign up for the course, reach CFTAS by phone (860-886-6153) or through the Web (www.cftatlantic.org).

Friday, March 11, 2005

NCTE Publishes Standards on Teaching Writing

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recently posted "NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing," an article about what it considers 11 key principles that should guide writing teachers.

The NCTE, founded in 1911, strives "to advance teaching, research, and student achievement in English language arts at all scholastic levels." The article explains the principles, describes their implications on writers and writing teachers, and establishes standards of excellence by which writing teachers can be measured.

The 11 principles that NCTE published are as follows:

1. Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
2. People learn to write by writing.
3. Writing is a process.
4. Writing is a tool for thinking.
5. Writing grows out of many different purposes.
6. Readers expect writing to conform to language standards.
7. Writing and reading are related.
8. Writing and talking have a complex relationship.
9. Writing occurs in complicated social relationships.
10. Writing occurs through different technologies.
11. Assessment of writing involves complex, informed, human judgment

The article is helpful for aspiring writing teachers, who need to know what excellent writing assessment entails, as well as writing students, who should know what their teachers look for in their documents. The NCTE website is www.ncte.org.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Remember Bacon's Bit

One of my favorite aphorisms—and one to which many of my students immediately relate—is the Sir Francis Bacon gem from Of Studies, his 1597 essay (revised in 1625) :

"Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man."

Many students have interpreted this statement to mean that reading will make us full of knowledge. But knowledge without conferencing will soon be rendered useless, for we need to test what we learned in the world of interactive experience. Finally, when we write, we leave a permanent record which had better represent our ideas because once disseminated, it is subject to a misinterpretation devoid of the context in which we intended it to be read.

Bacon's concise 503-word essay remains worthy of a full reading four centuries later. For instance, early in the precis he notes:

"To spend too much time in study in sloth; to use them to much for ornament is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules is the humor of a scholar."

Bacon's entire lifework seemed a petition to depend on experience before anything else—especially before untested or impractical theory. The quote "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man" is easy to find in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; however, the lesser known, less transparent, less quoted, and more profound sentence following it summarizes the essence of reading, conferencing, and writing with astounding poetic depth:

"And, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. "

For sure! We can ponder the truth of that observation for an eternity. But then, look at all we would not be busy experiencing. So keep involved in a healthy balance of these three vital communication skills.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Style, Part 4: Collaborate Carefully

Writing collaboratively at work could be a daunting task. When management requires lengthy reports, several staff members may be assigned to write various sections. Employees who have written collaboratively have said that they benefited from the camaraderie, learning opportunities, and reduced pressure that come from such situations. On the other hand, they have also complained about problems emerging from conflicting styles, opinions about content and organization, project inefficiencies, and power struggles. Keeping in mind the following tips would be helpful when writing collaboratively.

1. Keep the style uniform. Someone has to manage the overall project to keep the style consistent. An instance of what can go wrong if no one takes charge occurred when two professional writers assigned to writing a book divided the chapter assignments. When they met again with their completed halves of the manuscript to fuse them into one volume, they realized that one wrote mostly active sentences while the other wrote in the passive voice. Much rewriting was necessary.

2. Respect others’ opinions about style. These days, cultural differences—of the national and corporate types—more than age or sex differences have a dramatic impact on a writer’s style. Talking openly about the organization’s objective in relation to the document should help settle matters about which style—not necessarily whose style—would best suit the situation.