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15 Ways to Collect and Organize Ideas October 25, 2006

Posted 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:

Collecting Ideas

  • 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.
  • Get one of those mobile digital recorders.
  • Use your phone to leave yourself messages.
  • Use a service like Posticky or Evoca to save your recordings online.
  • 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.

Organizing Ideas

  • 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.

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, 2006

Posted 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, 2006

Posted 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.

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, 2006

Posted 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:

You might also like to see the words category for more useful posts like Improve Your Vocabulary.

Online Style Manuals

I can’t cover every minor detail of the English language. So, here’s a list of free references:

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:

Grammar blogs:

  • Pain in the English – an excellent blog that explores the “gray areas of the English language” and promotes discussion.
  • “Language Rules!” – “directed at the preservation of the correct use of the English language through brief lessons, random thoughts, and occasional rants.”
  • Better at English – “free English lessons for busy people”, including podcasts.

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:

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, 2006

Posted 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.

  • 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.

Accents (Diacritics)

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.


English has a number of conventions governing how numbers should be used in writing.


For more about other miscellaneous symbols, look them up on Wikipedia (also see the list of symbols in the box on the right side of the Punctuation page).

English Punctuation: Dashes, Parentheses, Quotation Marks, and Ellipses September 22, 2006

Posted 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).

Parentheses (Brackets)

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.

Brackets or Square Brackets

Square brackets have more specialized uses, like inserting information into quotes and surrounding parenthetical information inside parentheses.

Quotation Marks

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).


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, 2006

Posted 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:

  • 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:


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 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.

  • 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.

English Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks September 18, 2006

Posted 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.

Question Marks

The question mark ends interrogative sentences, as well as any other sentences or sentence fragments posed as questions.

Exclamation Marks

The exclamation mark or exclamation point ends exclamatory sentences and strong interjections.

English Punctuation: Hyphens, Apostrophes, and Slashes September 16, 2006

Posted 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.


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!

  • Contractions – includes notes on distinguishing contractions from clipped forms and abbreviations.

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.

  • The Slash – another look at its common uses, including examples.

English Punctuation Overview September 14, 2006

Posted 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.)

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