Friday, April 30, 2010

Writer's Block

Understand that writing is not like mathematics. You won’t be able to sit down, figure the problem out, and move on with your day. It is a process that can take days and even weeks to complete (depending on the class and the assignment). Most importantly, allow yourself plenty of time to spend on writing your paper. Keep track of when it’s due, and begin as early as you possibly can. The more breaks you take, the less likely it is that you will miss a mistake and the better your paper will be. Tackling writer’s block is a skill that is also worth your time and effort. Telling yourself that you still have a week to do it (and ultimately not taking the time to work through your writer’s block) will result in last minute cramming and probably not a very good essay.



1. One of the most common causes of writer’s block is the lack of knowledge about the topic that you have been assigned. The first step to deal with this issue is to do some research! Even if the assignment is not to write a research paper, doing research and reading about the topic that you are writing about will help give you confidence to write a clear and informative essay.

I don’t know much about insects. If I were assigned an essay in my biology class about the life of ants, I would have a major case of writer’s block. It would be necessary for me to learn about them and their everyday activities in order for me to even know what to begin writing. So, if your problem is unfamiliarity of the assigned topic, visit Google (or your preferred search engine) and spend a few minutes learning about it. Take notes while you’re reading, and then use those notes as an outline for your essay. You can then decide what is worth mentioning and what parts of your research are irrelevant to the paper.



2. Read someone else’s paper on the same topic. Sometimes reading the views of someone else will help you understand how you feel about a certain issue (whether you agree or disagree). Talking to a friend or family member can also be a great way to grab ideas for your writing. Sometimes it’s easy to think of things in a conversational form rather than with pen and paper. The most important thing to remember is not to copy anyone else’s work. If you consult another paper for ideas, come up with your own original paper to submit in class. Plagiarism is never tolerable.



3. Another possible cure to writer’s block is to detach your mind from the format of the paper. Sometimes it is best to just begin writing, without worrying about spelling, grammar, and punctuation. After your thoughts are down on paper, you can go back and correct your mistakes. It is much easier to proofread a paper that is too long (because you can omit words or phrases that don’t make sense) than to try to come up with a perfect, logical essay on the first try.

Most likely, when you begin writing, ideas will flow one after another. It is best to write them down as soon as they come to you (even if you are in the middle of sentence) because by the time you finish the sentence you may forget the new idea that you wanted to add.



4. Make short-term goals for yourself to help you get the paper finished, especially if it is on a subject that doesn’t necessarily strike your interest. We, as students, will inevitably be assigned writing assignments that aren’t particularly exciting for us. Of course, you will have to write papers in subjects which interest you, but writer’s block will play more of a role in classes that don’t excite you. Unfortunately, you will still be required to turn something in to be graded.

When boredom is the cause of your writer’s block, setting goals can help you overcome the lack of motivation. We often will set time out of our day to begin writing the paper, and then tell ourselves that we have to do something else before we want to start writing. After making a sandwich, calling a friend, and updating our Facebook statuses, we end up wasting an hour or two and ultimately aren’t productive at all. Instead of immediately becoming distracted, make a personal goal to finish three or four paragraphs (or even one page) of work before you let yourself leave the area. Even if it isn’t the best thing you’ve ever written, at least you will have something accomplished when you return to finish the paper. Basically, you want to limit all possible distractions, so you should reward yourself after you write a certain amount of paragraphs with 30 minutes of doing something that you enjoy.



Writing should be a growing skill for you. There is no right or wrong way to write a paper; there are only guidelines to help you write effectively. It is certainly possible to sit down at your computer, type a paper, and have it finished when you stand up two hours later. However, if you want an essay that makes sense, is free of grammatical mistakes, and will be more likely to get a good grade, then you need to spend more than one sitting on writing it. Try one or more of these techniques the next time you have writer’s block and see if they make the writing process a little easier for you!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Titles

One of the most important parts of any essay is the title. It is generally the first thing an audience will notice about the paper. Therefore, it usually determines whether or not someone will be interested in reading what you have written. Titles do not always have to be catchy. For instance, the main purpose of the title in a research paper is to inform the reader what the paper is about, so that they don’t waste their time reading something that is irrelevant to their research. However, in more informal writing styles, catchy titles can attract a wider audience. This entry will give you tips on how to come up with a good title for the type of paper you’re writing, and hopefully clear up some common questions regarding titles.



Capitalizing Words in a Title

I’ll admit that I’ve often struggled to remember which words to capitalize in a title. Over the years, I’ve come to find that it’s a lot easier than you might think to remember the rules.

1. Always capitalize the first and last words in your title. Regardless of what the rules below say about specific parts of speech that should not be capitalized, capitalize them if they are the first or last words in your title.



2. These parts of speech should always be capitalized in a title.


nouns
pronouns
verbs
adverbs
adjectives


For help on understanding the parts of speech, visit this site.



3. Conjunctions and prepositions are generally never capitalized, unless they are 5 or more letters in length. However, it is completely optional whether or not you want to capitalize them even when they are 5 letters or more, as both ways are accepted. I choose never to capitalize these parts of speech so that I don’t confuse myself.

Like with other optional rules in grammar, the key is to remain consistent. If you capitalize beneath in your first heading, and then leave against lowercase in another heading, your paper will look unorganized and inconsistent.

Example 1:
Heading 1: Mouse Remains Beneath the Table
Heading 2: Bear Leans Against a Tree

Incorrect:
Heading 1: Mouse Remains Beneath the Table
Heading 2: Bear Leans against a Tree



4. Never capitalize articles (the, a, an) unless they are part of a proper noun (or at the beginning or end of your title).

Example: Fans Waited for the Arrival of The Beatles

As you can see, the first article is not capitalized, while the second one is. The Beatles is the name of the band; therefore, the should be capitalized in the title.



5. There is no particular rule about the use of numbers within titles. My recommendation would be to spell out numbers that are less than 20 and capitalize them. It is really only a matter of preference, so remain consistent.



Informal Titles

I’ve talked about informal writing styles in different blog posts. They differ greatly from research papers and formal essays. For that reason, their titles are going to be much different as well. Articles, poems, creative essays and personal narratives should have clever titles that would make someone interested in reading the paper.

Assignment: Write about what you did last Christmas.

Example 1: Family Trip to New York for Christmas

Example 2: Building Snowmen by Skyscrapers: Christmas with the Coles

The first example is an acceptable title, but it doesn’t really grab the attention of the reader. It clarifies what the paper is about, but a good title will do more than that. As shown in the second example, describing one specific event is a good way to grab a reader’s attention.

Instead of making the title broadly about a family trip, it is better to narrow it down to one event that happened on the trip. This event could be funny, sad, and/or meaningful. The main purpose is to have a title that you wouldn’t find on any other paper. You want it to be unique enough that it stands out from the rest. Limit the title to 10 words or less, and don’t make it a complete sentence.

Incorrect: The Cole Family Traveled to New York for Their Christmas Vacation

This title has too many words, and it looks like it could be the first sentence of the paper rather than the title. If you’re having trouble coming up with a catchy title, try thinking of the main point of your paper and come up with words that all start with the same letter. This is called alliteration, and I used it in my example above (snowmen and skyscrapers, Christmas and Coles). There is something about repeating consonant sounds that tends to grab a reader’s attention. This method is just one easy way to come up with a good title.


If I wanted to come up with a title for a paper that I wrote about a magical place called Pandora, I would create a list of related words that either started with a P or had repetitive P sounds.

Example: Pandora


Planet
Possibility
Pretty
Place
Present
Approach
Opportunity



Then, I would come up with different ideas for a title.


Approaching the Planet of Pandora

Pandora: A Place of Many Possibilities

Pandora’s Infinite Opportunities




Generally, it is best to wait until your paper is finished before you try to think of a title. Even though it’s the first thing someone will read about your paper, it should be one of the last things you write. Anytime you have a subtitle, you should also capitalize the first word of it (no matter what part of speech it is).



Format of a Title Page (Formal Writing)

The format of your title or title page will depend on the instructions of your paper. Be consistent with the guidelines given for each paper format. If your professor does not require you to follow a specific format, it is best to center your title and have one space above the first paragraph of your main text.

1. APA title page guidelines can be found here.

2. MLA title page guidelines can be found here.

3. Chicago Manual title page guidelines can be found here.



Formal Titles

These titles will generally be longer than informal paper titles. It is acceptable to go over 10 words, but only do it when it is absolutely necessary in order to get your point across.

The sole purpose of a title for a research paper is to inform the reader about the topic of the essay. These titles do not need to be catchy or unique. Actually, they only need to be clear and concise. Recall that the audience of research papers is probably going to be doing research on that same topic.



For instance, let’s say that I was assigned a research paper to be written on the effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on veterans returning from war. I would start by reading articles that had been written about PTSD and the conclusions about its effects. If I search in a database for articles related to PTSD, I might get a list of titles like the ones below.

(note: These titles are all written in different formats, but don’t let that confuse you. Stick to the format you were given in your instructions.)


  1. An investigation of relations between crystal methamphetamine use and posttraumatic stress disorder
  2. Cognitive-affective characteristics of smokers with and without posttraumatic stress disorder and panic psychopathology
  3. Correlates of Long-term Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Children Following Hurricane Katrina
  4. Fear less
  5. Families’ Perceptions of Veterans’ Distress Due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-Related Symptoms at the End of Life


Given that all of these articles are based on research done on PTSD, it should be easy to understand what each article is about based on the title. The fourth title, Fear less, does not give specific clues to tell me what the article is referencing. In fact, this particular article is about a researcher who came up with treatments for veterans with PTSD, in order to help them cope with the disorder. This would be a great article for me to read for my assignment. However, due to the lack of information in the title, I would be more likely to skip over it because it isn’t clear whether I’d be wasting my time or not.

After reading the other titles in my list, I don’t think the first three would be relevant to my paper, but the fifth one would definitely be worth reading. Next time you write a research paper, remember to make the title very clear about the topic of the paper. Save your creative and catchy titles for informal writing styles.