15 Ways to Collect and Organize Ideas October 25, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Wednesdays, Writing, Writing Basics.
Like lightning, ideas tend to strike when least expected (and they can be quite shocking). But you never think of them when you need to! I hate nothing more than to get a good idea only to know that I’ll forget it before I can write it down. So, here are a few tips and tools to capture those bursts of creative energy:
- Get a PDA or Pocket PC.
- Get a notebook or my personal favorite, the free PocketMod. As for a pen, you could buy one of those useful mini-pens made specifically to fit inside your wallet — or you could get a Swiss Army knife that includes a pen.
- As commenter Brad Shorr suggested, keep your notebook next to your bed to keep track of those crazy, late-night ideas.
- Keep a plain text file or other document on your computer just for listing those random ideas.
- Use your phone to send yourself emails or make online sticky notes via text messaging.
- Get one of those mobile digital recorders.
- Use your phone to leave yourself messages.
- If you’re already working at your computer and you have an idea to record, Springdoo and Slawesome let you send audio emails. This works especially well along with Gmail’s built-in audio player.
- Or, if you need to access your notes from any computer, use one of the many online note-taking services out there. See Fifty Ways to Take Notes for a great list of these.
- Add some extra info (like the date or what you were doing at the time) next to your ideas to help yourself remember the whole thought. See Harry Potter: A Great Example of GTD and Idea Capture.
- Keep all of your ideas in separate emails and use Gmail’s labeling feature to organize them. You might even want to create a separate email account just for ideas and notes.
- If you like to list your ideas in a text document, just make one file for each project you have and organize them in folders.
- If you prefer paper, use different colored sticky notes and stick them on larger pieces of paper to group your ideas together. To keep track of everything, keep all the paper in a 3-ring binder and use dividers to separate ideas for different projects.
- Many of the services listed on Fifty Ways to Take Notes allow for easy organizing, like Yahoo! Notepad and Backpack.
I’m currently using an unorganized combination of several of the above methods until I decide which I like best. How do you keep track of your random ideas?
NaNoWriMo and Taking My Own Advice October 10, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in Personal, Writing, Writing Basics.
I found a great list today (50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work), so I added it to my How to Write More Often post. And then it got me thinking: maybe I should listen to my own advice. (Now there’s an idea!) With NaNoWriMo soon approaching, I’ve been meaning to make some time to practice creative writing, but I’ve yet to actually start. I’d like to have some idea of a plot or at least a genre before November 1st. Is that too much to ask of myself?
“No,” says Myself, “That’s not too much to ask! I’ll do that right away — well, after this show. Actually, I have some other stuff to do, too. Maybe tomorrow.”
Then I get frustrated and angry at Myself for procrastinating so much and I wonder why I chose such a lazy person to do my work. Grrr! Looks like I’ll have to do it.
That’s what actually happens, though: I plan to do something, but somehow I act as if I had delegated it to someone else. Why would I let myself get caught up in playing a new video game when I had decided just the other day that I’d set aside more time for writing?
Well, it’s time to take my own advice. I need to designate a certain time of day for creative writing. 9:32? 4:45? Right now?
Eh, maybe later.
How to Write More Often September 30, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Writing, Writing Basics.
If an infinite number of monkeys are typing on an infinite number of typewriters (or keyboards) for an infinite amount of time, they’ll eventually reproduce the entirety of Shakespeare’s work. This is known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem.
Similarly, the Write More Often Theorem states that if you spend enough time writing, you’ll eventually end up with something good. Aim for quantity, and quality will follow.
Step 1: Commit to Your Goal
If you haven’t already, see Nine Ways to Commit to Any Goal. You’ll need to be seriously committed to writing more often, since it’s one of those personal goals that are often superseded by other priorities. Don’t let yourself say, “I’ll get to it later.” You need to hammer it into your routine; once you get over that first hurdle, writing more often will be much easier.
Step 2: Join or Start a Writing Group
Getting involved in a community will make writing practice more fun. So, either join a group or get a writing buddy for one-on-one motivation. I’m one of almost 2,000 people on 43 Things trying to Write More.
If you’ve always wanted to write a novel, be sure to join NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or the new BlogYoNoMo (Blog Your Novel Month). You might also want to check out Writing.com, one of the largest online writing communities.
Step 3: Make Time for Writing
I read somewhere that there’s no such thing as free time. That’s an excellent piece of advice for those of us who complain about not having enough of it. Instead of looking for nonexistent “free time”, make time. Evaluate and prioritize. Instead of watching TV or browsing through news sites, save a few minutes for writing.
Set a quota, like 30 minutes of writing or two typed pages a day. If writing practice is important to you, you’ll find a way to squeeze it into your schedule. Even if you can only set aside five minutes a day or ten minutes a week, it’s better than not writing at all just because you think you don’t have the time.
Step 4: Incorporate Writing Into Your Routine
Here are a few ideas to make writing a habit:
- Write as soon as you wake up. Work it into your morning routine, along with brushing your teeth and having breakfast.
- Write just before you go to sleep. Wind down and clear your mind by getting your thoughts on paper — this is a great time to do some freewriting!
- Write in small chunks throughout the day, in between your other activities (like before or after meals).
- Always keep a notebook (or PDA or PocketMod) handy so you can write in your free time. If you don’t mind getting stares, you could even write while you’re waiting in line somewhere.
- When writing for an extended period of time, take breaks at regular intervals. The rhythm will help you stay focused and keep track of your progress.
- For more tips and tricks, read 50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work, a great article aimed at professional writers who don’t write as much as they want to.
Step 5: Try Different Writing Activities
Writing practice should be enjoyable — or at least tolerable. Try starting a blog, keeping a personal journal, freewriting, or just exploring different genres and types of writing like poetry, short stories, news articles, and how-to guides. Contribute to wikis like Wikipedia and wikiHow. Get involved in a collaborative story or start your own. Even writing me an email counts for something!
Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar September 26, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Grammar, Language.
Good grammar helps with almost every job and every endeavor. Why the Bad Grammar?, an interesting article in The Washington Times, points out that grammatical errors have become more common, even in published work. So give yourself a pat on the back for wanting to improve; with all the bad writers out there, you’ll stand out even more!
Note: this guide is aimed at native English speakers and advanced ESL learners. There are many helpful websites for those just starting to learn English, like English as a Second Language, EnglishClub.com, and BBC Learning English, just to name a few.
Step 1: Know the Rules
I wrote a number of posts reviewing the basics of English grammar. Here they are in order:
Online Style Manuals
I can’t cover every minor detail of the English language. So, here’s a list of free references:
- The BBC News Styleguide (PDF)
Step 2: Immerse Yourself in the Grammar Community
Aside from all the free reference materials, the internet offers one invaluable tool: community. Yes, there’s even a community based on English grammar. Take advantage of it! You’ll find many helpful people out there who will happily answer your questions. And remember: you can learn a lot just by reading other people’s questions and trying to answer them.
English forums and groups:
- Pain in the English – an excellent blog that explores the “gray areas of the English language” and promotes discussion.
- Celebrity English – Grammar Examples - makes grammar lessons fun by using examples from celebrity news.
- “Language Rules!” – “directed at the preservation of the correct use of the English language through brief lessons, random thoughts, and occasional rants.”
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – covers many grammatical issues, with podcasts for every post.
- Better at English – “free English lessons for busy people”, including podcasts.
- Grammar Hell – all about grammatical errors.
- Literally, a Web Log – dedicated to “tracking abuse of the word ‘literally’”.
You might also like to join me (and about 70 other people) on the Improve My Grammar goal on 43 Things, where you can write about your progress, ask questions, and discuss grammar with other learners.
Step 3: Practice
The rules of grammar are fairly simple, but you need practice and patience to get a feel for all the minor quirks and nuances of the language. The communities and blogs listed above offer great practice, but you should also work on your own:
Get in the habit. Try to use correct grammar in your emails, instant messages, and wherever else you usually slack off. If you use bad grammar in your everyday writing, how can you expect to improve?
Read consciously. Read (a lot!) and pay attention to how others use grammar. Read online articles, blogs, challenging books, magazines — anything with words.
Write. This is why you’re improving your grammar in the first place: to communicate better! So, write more often and your grammar will surely improve over time.
Diagram sentences. Many grammarians believe that sentence diagramming helps students better understand the structure of a sentence. I’ve never really studied this, but I found these examples interesting to glance at:
- Sentence Diagramming Guide – explains how to diagram sentences.
- Diagramming Sentences – 50 basic sentence diagrams.
- Diagramming Sentences – sentence diagrams for more complex sentences.
Step 4: Study Another Language
As a buddy from 43 Things pointed out here, learning a new language forces you to think about grammar in a new way, which will help you better understand English grammar, as well. Studying linguistics will also help; I mean, have you ever met a linguist who uses incorrect grammar? I didn’t think so.
English Punctuation: Italics, Capitalization, and Other Odds and Ends September 24, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.
These miscellaneous aspects of writing aren’t technically considered punctuation, but most websites include them with punctuation marks (probably because they don’t know where else to put them). This post covers the following: italics, underlining, boldface, capitalization, accent marks, numbers, and other symbols (like the ampersand and the interrobang).
Italics, Underlining, and Boldface
Both italics and underlining are used to emphasize titles and other words, but italics are used much more often (underlining is used when italics aren’t possible). Boldface is also sometimes used for emphasis, especially for headings and new terms.
- Punctuation Pointers – includes a note on choosing between italics and underlining.
- Using Italics and Underlining – covers the main uses of italics and underlining.
- Armchair Punctuator – another guide to using italics.
- Boldface – covers the main uses of boldface.
Capital letters are used to distinguish proper nouns, to emphasize the beginning of a new sentence, and in some other situations.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation – a list of 14 capitalization rules.
- Capitalization – a good overview, including a quiz at the bottom.
- Economist Style Guide: Capitals – a whole section explaining which words to capitalize
Also called accent marks or diacritical marks, accents are mainly used to clarify the pronunciation of certain letters in words borrowed from other languages.
- Diacritics – explains when to use them and includes a short list of them at the bottom.
- Diacritic – Wikipedia – includes a list of accent marks (with links to separate entries on each one) and information about their usage in many languages.
- List of English Words With Diacritics – also on Wikipedia.
- Typing International Accent Marks and Diacriticals - a very complete guide to producing accent marks on the computer.
English has a number of conventions governing how numbers should be used in writing.
- Numerals, Fractions and Dates – includes notes on American versus British usage.
- Armchair Punctuator – a complete guide to using numbers in general writing.
- Economist Style Guide – Figures – covers some other minor details.
- The Other Marks on Your Keyboard - includes a list of common typgraphical symbols and some notes on their usage.
- Punctuation Pointers - a short note on using the ampersand (&).
- Interrobang – Wikipedia – all about this new, rarely used punctuation mark created to combine the question mark and exclamation mark (for sentences ending in “?!”).
English Punctuation: Dashes, Parentheses, Quotation Marks, and Ellipses September 22, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.
The dash is famous (or infamous) for its informal and flexible use; you can place one just about anywhere.
- The Dash – overview of the dash’s main uses, including the difference between the en dash and the em dash.
- Armchair Punctuator – a longer overview covering several uses
- The King’s English – a lengthy discussion of the use and misuse of dashes (published in 1908).
A type of bracket, the parenthesis is sometimes called a bracket or round bracket. Parentheses surround parenthetical elements just as commas(link) and dashes sometimes do.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation – three simple rules for using parentheses.
- Parentheses – a complete overview with many examples.
Brackets or Square Brackets
Square brackets have more specialized uses, like inserting information into quotes and surrounding parenthetical information inside parentheses.
- Brackets - a short summary.
- Armchair Punctuator - a longer overview of brackets, including examples.
- The Bracket – another overview.
Quotation marks (or speech marks) are used mainly to indicate dialogue. The quotation mark has only a couple simple rules, but many still manage to misuse it (see The Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks for proof).
- Quotation Marks – a complete guide to using other punctuation with quotation marks, including single quotation marks.
- Armchair Punctuator – another complete guide, covering some additional details like block quotes and quoting poetry.
- Scare Quotes – covers the usage of quotation marks to show disapproval, disownment, irony or sarcasm. See also Air Quotes.
- Talking About Words – covers the usage of quotation marks when discussing words.
- The King’s English – a lengthy discussion of the use and misuse of quotation marks (published in 1908).
- Single vs. Double Quotation Marks: Once Again British and American Usage Differ
The ellipsis (lovingly called “dot-dot-dot”) usually represents words omitted from a quote, but it can also indicate trailing off in speech.
English Punctuation: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons September 20, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
Series index: English Punctuation Overview.
Commas separate words, phrases and clauses to clarify meaning. They often indicate pauses in speech, but not always. This Guide to Using Commas covers the basics, and this guide to The Comma refers to AP style guidelines. Here’s a more detailed look at comma usage:
To join two independent clauses – “I spent all day cooking this dinner, and the family ate it in three seconds.” Always use the comma before the coordinating conjunction (like and), but only use a comma if both clauses are independent. If the second clause doesn’t have its own subject, don’t use a comma (as in “I made dinner and set the table”). See The Joining Comma for more. Note: many find it acceptable to leave out the comma if both independent clauses are short (“I made dinner and they ate it”).
To show omitted words – “I like white chocolate; Bob, dark chocolate.” See The Gapping Comma. This applies to more specific uses as well (see also The Listing Comma), where the comma could be replaced with a word like and or or:
- In a series of three or more – “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate.” The comma stands for an omitted and or or. Many writers prefer not to use a comma before the conjunction: “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate.” This optional comma, often called the serial comma or Oxford comma, has inspired lots of debate. See Wikipedia’s entry on the Serial Comma for more.
- With two coordinate adjectives – “She loves the cute, fuzzy kittens.” When you can’t insert the word and between the adjectives, don’t use a comma (“She is a nice old lady”, not “She is a nice and old lady”). See Commas with Paired Adjectives for more on the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives.
- With contrasting statements – “I like apples, not oranges.” I remember this rule by thinking of the comma as a replacement for and, as in “I like apples and not oranges.”
To set off elements that aren’t part of the main clause – “Of course, I agree.” If you can remove the extra element and still have a complete sentence with a complete meaning, then you should surround the extra words with commas. See Bracketing Commas for an overview. These extra elements include:
- Interrupting Words and Parenthetical Elements – “Commas are important, as you know.” Forms of direct address, weak interjections, disjuncts, conjuncts, and many common expressions are always set off with commas. See Commas and Introductory Words or Phrases.
- Nonrestrictive Elements - “My best friend, who I met at college, moved to England.” Nonrestrictive clauses and nonrestrictive appositives (Bob, my best friend, moved to England) are always set off with commas, just like all parenthetical elements.
- Introductory Phrases – “Somewhere in my messy closet, my old clothes are gathering dust.” With adverbial phrases (like prepositional and infinitive phrases), only use a comma if the phrase begins the sentence; if it follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “My old clothes are gathering dust somewhere in my messy closet.” See Commas After Introductory Phrases for more. Short prepositional phrases (and some other adverbial phrases) don’t require a comma — unless, of course, the meaning would be unclear (see Adding Commas for Clarity).
- Participial and Absolute Phrases – “Happily munching on popcorn, I watched my favorite movie.” When acting as adjectives, adverbs, or disjuncts, these types of phrases always require a comma, even if they follow the independent clause: “I watched my favorite movie, happily munching on popcorn.”
- Dependent Clauses – “If you help me, I’ll help you.” As with introductory phrases, if the dependent clause follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “I’ll help you if you help me.”
Other Conventional Uses – Used for clarity and convenience, commas also appear in names, addresses, numbers, and more:
- Places – “Austin, Texas.” See Commas with Geographical Names.
- Dates – “March 3rd, 2007.” See Commas with Dates.
- Titles – “Martin Luther King, Jr.” See Commas with Titles that Follow Names.
- Addresses – “Post Office Box 555, Austin, Texas 55555.” See Commas in Addresses.
- Greetings and Closings – “Dear President, [...]” See Commas in Letter Writing.
- Numbers – “1,000,000 feet” See Commas in Numbers.
- Quotations – “She said, ‘Hello.’” See Commas with Quotations. For more on using punctuation marks with quotations, see Quotation Marks.
The semicolon is sort of like a cross between a comma and a period. Its main function is to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. It also prevents confusion in sentences (especially lists) with lots of commas. These websites explain everything you need to know:
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation – a short list of rules.
- UW-Madison Writing Center - another list of rules, along with some common errors.
- The Semicolon – an excellent overview, complete with lots of examples.
The colon introduces or restates something. Unlike the semicolon, the colon can connect an independent clause to a word or phrase.
- Armchair Punctuator – a complete overview with examples and usage notes.
- The Colon – another great overview.
- Sentence-Level Punctuation – a summary of the four ways a colon makes a restatement.
- The Colon – includes some usage guidelines, a discussion on when to capitalize the independent clause after a colon, and even a powerpoint presentation and a quiz at the bottom.
- Colons in Special Cases - a look at the colon’s minor uses.
English Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks September 18, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
Series index: English Punctuation Overview.
End marks are the punctuation marks used to end sentences, keeping thoughts separate and easy to read. More on using end marks with quotation marks later.
The period, also known as the full stop, ends declarative and imperative sentences. It’s also used in abbreviations and ellipses.
- Using Periods – Everything you need to know.
- Abbreviations – A very complete explanation with examples and usage notes.
The question mark ends interrogative sentences, as well as any other sentences or sentence fragments posed as questions.
English Punctuation: Hyphens, Apostrophes, and Slashes September 16, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.
Word-level punctuation marks clarify the meaning of words themselves. You’d think they’d be simpler than sentence-level punctuation, but even these small details cause controversy and confusion.
Hyphens connect words to avoid confusion, but since their usage varies so much, they can create more confusion than they prevent. Luckily, a number of sites have some guidelines:
- The King’s English – includes a few basic rules and some example errors. I especially like the first rule: “Hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may.” Note: keep in mind that this book is from 1908.
- Economist.com Style Guide – ten rules and a list of single-word compounds.
- Word-Level Punctuation - hyphens in compound words, link modifiers, prefixes, numbers and fractions.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation – hyphens in compound words and prefixes.
- SparkNotes: Ultimate Style – more basic rules, including use with nationalities, numbers, and letters.
- The Elements of Style – Elementary Rules of Usage – this last rule explains where to divide words that are cut off at the end of a line.
Despite being one of the most simple punctuation marks, apostrophes are often misused (like the infamous Greengrocer’s Apostrophes). Do your part: know your apostrophe rules and support The Apostrophe Protection Society!
- OWL: The Apostrophe – covers all the essential rules.
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation – basic rules and a couple minor details.
- Contractions – includes notes on distinguishing contractions from clipped forms and abbreviations.
- Apostrophes with Possessives of More than One Owner - a short note.
Note: single quotation marks look just like apostrophes, but they shouldn’t be called apostrophes. More on single quotation marks later.
The slash isn’t used nearly as often as other punctuation marks, but it can certainly come in handy.
- Dictionary.com FAQ: Slash - a short list of its uses.
- The Slash – another look at its common uses, including examples.
- Armchair Punctuator: Virgule – yet another guide with examples.
English Punctuation Overview September 14, 2006Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Got grammar? See Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar.
Punctuation marks may be nothing but little dots and lines, but those little dots and lines can make a huge difference! We need punctuation to separate our ideas and clarify our meaning. Trivial as they can be, the rules of punctuation are worth knowing.
So, for my own personal reference (and for anyone else who might find it useful), I’m going to review the rules and conventions for every punctuation mark. Later (read “eventually”), I’ll address the nuances of punctuation’s effects on writing style.
By the way, remember to celebrate National Punctuation Day! (Their website has some useful punctuation tips, too.)
Posts in This Series:
- English Punctuation: Hyphens, Apostrophes, and Slashes
- English Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks
- English Punctuation: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons
- English Punctuation: Dashes, Parentheses, Quotation Marks, and Ellipses
- English Punctuation: Italics, Capitalization, and Other Odds and Ends