Category Archives: Writing

The Gender Neutral They

What is the gender neutral they and why does it matter?

In English, the most commonly used pronouns are he, she, they, and it. Although English does not have a designated personal pronoun for a gender-neutral or subject of unknown gender, “they” has long been an English speaker’s go-to for many situations. When “they” is used to signal a single person, this usage isn’t always considered “proper” English grammar since “they” is more frequently used as the plural pronoun.

However, as a Writing Center consultant, I am a big advocate for the gender neutral “they.”

For starters, other substitutes can be clunky and awkward in both speech and text. Substitutes such as “he/she” don’t read easily, but also are limiting. Other substitutes, like mixing the use of “she” and “he” throughout the text can cause confusion and require extra thought to balance out the usage. “They,” despite its grammatical origins, works as an easy-to-read substitute.

However, there are other more pressing reasons to use the gender neutral they.

Using “he/she” or arbitrarily assigning a gender to an individual can be limiting and potentially harmful. Not all individuals identify as male or female, and some may even identify as both or neither. Using “he/she” erases nonbinary gender identities, while using “they” is open and inclusive. When in doubt, I always use they as both a default pronoun and to be more inclusive than the traditional “he/she.” (For further information about gender identities, see this interactive booklet). Continue reading

Affect vs. Effect: When to Use Each

Sometimes, the English language is really silly. There are a lot of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and used differently, for virtually no reason. The words “affect” and “effect” are a classic example of two words that simply do not need to be this confusing.

Luckily, I have sat through enough boring grammar classes to understand the difference and hopefully I can help sort it out a little. Let’s dive right in, shall wee?

Affect:

In general, the word affect is used as a verb. A good way to remember this is that affect is an action. If you’re talking about something that someone does, it’s affect.

Example: The book really affected Sally’s opinion; she had never thought about parenting in that way before.

Because the book is acting upon Sally, we are using the word as an action so we say affect.

Effect:

In contrast, effect is used as a noun. The effect of something is the end-result. If you’re talking about an end product or situation, you’re going to want to use effect.

Example: The trial had a negative effect on the small town.

Because the negative feelings are the end product, we are using effect.

Sound good? Great! Because it’s about to get a little bit more complicated. Continue reading

The Writing Process

I know what you’re thinking; you’re wondering what is a writing process and why I am writing about it? A writing process is whatever sequence of events you follow from start to finish when you write something. It’s important to become aware of your own writing process because it can allow you to become a more productive writer.

Now that you know what a writing process is, I want to give you some advice based on my own writing process. I hope I can explain what a writing process can look like and how some introspection about yourself might reveal important information about your owm process.

My writing process: I like to think about what I am going to write and then furiously write everything I can think of down without thought to whether my ideas connect or if there are grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. Then I go through what I have and clean it up grammatically and organize my thoughts into paragraphs or sections; then I brainstorm about each section I have created and add content mostly in the same way as I described before. Rinse and repeat!

I like my writing process because I am a visual learner; after I have word vomited my thoughts onto a page, I am able to visually see everything that I had on my mind, which makes it really simple for me to SEE how everything fits together. In turn, this allows me to keep focus and structure what I’m writing the way I want it to be and “fit the puzzle pieces together.” Continue reading

Bring a Series Narrative Together

Once in a blood red moon, a series will come out where, to the naked eye, the books are not related at all. It’s not until halfway through a series, or occasionally even later in the series, that a ribbon will come along and connect all of the books and make the reader have an “ah ha” or light bulb moment, which looks something like this: tumblr_m8zpiu1gBS1r231xw

This isn’t just something that happens with book series, it happens in video games as well. Sometimes, they (the developers and writers) never write a narrative that connects the games. This isn’t a common plot move in video games, but it is something that happens. Just as with a book, when the narrative is over, the reader/player may feel unsatisfied with the ending and feel that they are left with a huge cliffhanger. Then, something wonderful may happen in the world of video games, the developer will release downloadable content (DLC) for the game that usually adds another portion of the story and even some extra items to play with. This year, this exact thing happened with one of 2013’s best games, Bioshock Infinite; and not only did the DLC add extra story play, but it tied together the most recent game with the very first game of the series.

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The Complicated Story with Sequels

With sequels, you either love them or hate them. It’s always scary when it comes to making the decision of writing a sequel for a book, movie, or game. There’s a lot of pressure to make the sequel as good as or better than the first. It’s not always successful. Sometimes it flops completely, other times the hype is good but the delivery is awful, and occasionally it comes out perfect. This doesn’t just apply to sequels, but to all games in a series because the pressure keeps building up either for redemption or continual success. Two great book series to talk about sequel success are the Hazelwood High series by Sharon Draper and the Princess series by Jim C. Hines (who is a resident writer). Both of these series are at a young adult reading level, but are definitely great reads for anyone.

The series by Draper starts with the first book Tears of a Tiger which focuses on the life and reaction of a high school basketball player after his best friend is killed in a car accident. While reading this book, you feel what he feels. Everything is from his point of view, so you hear the thoughts that linger in his head, you feel the anxiety and guilt growing in his heart, and you feel the genuine pain from the loss. This book works in every way to bring the reader into the story and connect them with him. Forged by Fire, the second book in the series, is from the point of view of one of the main characters’ best friends from the first book. It is a completely different story line but the enticing works just the same. In this book, you get the home life of this character and his little sister. You also get to see the other things he’s dealing with at the same time as trying to balance school and be a protector for his sister. This book, and the third one in the series Darkness Before Dawn, live up to the greatness that the first book creates. In a way, they build upon one another and you can’t have the full story without the second and third books. This helped prepare the success of the series.

tiger fire dawn

The series by Hines is one of my favorites simply because he breaks and recreates the traditional princess story that Disney creates. He breaks cliches and brings the story of the princesses back to the original fairy tale story that was written. In the first book, The Stepsister Scheme, the author has to build up the knowledge of his readers, so there is a lot more history that has to be explained. Not only is he having to redefine the history that people know about these princesses, but as well as set up his own story line as well. For these reasons, this book is critiqued as being slow and not as “good” as the sequel. In some ways, this prepared the sequel for success. However, for me, I always love the books with back story, it helps me grasp a well rounded history of what I’m reading. The sequel had more action and “drama” so to speak, and was received better than the first. In this case, the sequel built on the foundation of the first book and excelled past it. Continue reading

How to Write A Good Thesis Statement

Thesis statements are hard to write. There, I said it. As an English major people usually assume that I have some sort of internal thesis generator that spits out finely tuned arguments instantly. This is not true. I often spend an embarrassing amount of time wading through poorly drafted theses (yes, that is the plural) before I finally land on something that works.

That being said, your thesis is important and it deserves a lot of time and attention. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what a good thesis looks like, especially because many professors seem to be unable to present a good definition of what a thesis is. Basically, a thesis statement is a sentence (or several sentences) that outlines the argument you will be defending in your paper. This can seem like a bit of a vague definition, but if you break up the goals of your thesis, it becomes a lot more manageable.

A good thesis statement accomplishes three purposes:

  1. It introduces the topic at hand and gives a reader an idea of what to expect out of the paper.
  2. It presents your argument.
  3. It demonstrates the importance of your argument, giving the reader more reason to be invested in your essay.

Let’s look at some examples of possible thesis statements, and see whether or not they accomplish these goals.

  • This is a paper about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.

This thesis accomplishes goal number 1, but it doesn’t accomplish the other two goals. For a thesis to successfully present the argument of your paper, someone needs to be able to disagree with it. Because there is no opposing viewpoint to this statement, it does not function as a successful thesis. Your thesis should be a strong argument, which the reader can choose to agree or disagree with.

  • Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional.

This thesis is better, in that it does present an argument. A potential reader could disagree with the idea that Confessions defined the confessional genre, so this thesis accomplishes both of the first two goals of a successful thesis. However, this thesis does not accomplish the third goal. There should be some sort of importance to your argument; maybe your thesis has implications outside of the specific argument that you’re making, or maybe there is a specific benefit to thinking about the topic in the way that you advocate. In argumentative essays, an easy way to demonstrate the importance of your argument is to provide a “call to action”, in which you ask the reader to do something with your information, such as advocate a change in policy. In literary critiques, it can be helpful to pull your thesis outside of the text and talk about broad implications of your arguments. It is difficult to create a thesis that accomplishes all three of your goals, but it is crucial for having a successful essay.

  • Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional. Because many of these conventions persist within the confessional genre to this day, gaining an understanding of the devices used within Confessions can provide valuable context to contemporary confessional novels.

Although this thesis is a bit wordy, it does accomplish all three of the goals of a successful thesis. The reader knows what you plan to discuss in the paper, what you are going to argue about your topic, and why it is important. Presenting a fully developed thesis, such as this one, will allow you to write a strong essay.

Writing a thesis with this much depth is tricky. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to break through to a thesis that accomplishes more than the first two goals right away.  Something that I have often noticed in my own writing is that I will write an entire paper on what I think is my thesis, only to find that a more in-depth, well-developed thesis appears in for the first time in the conclusion. If you’re having trouble with your thesis, it may be a good idea to begin writing your paper, and only finalize your thesis once you have already started analyzing your topic. Not only does this take the pressure off of you in the beginning, it allows you plenty of time to truly develop your ideas before you draft your actual thesis.

Thesis statements are hard, but they are important, and they are certainly writeable. If you have a good understanding of your topic and its importance, your thesis is in there somewhere. The only real obstacle is teasing it out and refining it so that it best reflects your thoughts. Good luck.

E-mail Etiquette Tips

Looking back, I could never have anticipated how many emails I would write and receive in college. As we’re all aware, e-mail has become an essential part of every college student’s academic life. However, proper email etiquette is something that can be hard to pick up and isn’t always clear.

It was difficult for me to figure out how to properly send e-mails and word them in such a way that I did not feel like a crazy person. I’d like to share some of my tips with you in the hopes that you don’t feel like a crazy person too. Here’s a helpful list of e-mail etiquette guidelines that I have developed over my four years here at MSU.  I hope you find it useful!

  • You should be concise and to the point. This starts with a clear subject line that is straight to the point.
  • If you are sending an e-mail about a class, always make sure to include your full name, class number, and section. Ideally you should include the class number and section in your subject line. This will let your professor immediately know who you are, which can help the conversation flow naturally.
  • Recognize when e-mail might not be the appropriate medium for your conversation. In the same way that you might not want to break up with someone over the phone, there are some things that aren’t appropriate to talk about over e-mail. If this occurs, either scheduling a phone call or a meeting in real life are good solutions.
  • Be sure to pay attention to your tone; make sure you are using a tone that is appropriate for your audience and situation. This can be a tricky thing to determine, especially if you are e-mailing someone for the first time. If you aren’t sure what type of tone to use, assuming a professional tone is a good idea.
  • Do your best to be punctual with your replies. Treat an e-mail like you would a missed telephone call.
  • Keep your audience in mind. For email that means you might need to send an e-mail or a reply to multiple people, cc people, etc. Nothing is worse than sending e-mails to the wrong person and not sending them to the right person.
  • Mention what attachments you have attached and what file format they are. Make sure that the file format you choose is appropriate. For example, PDF is really good for several types of documents because it is almost universally compatible. Also, digital pictures are generally very big files that are too big to be attachments. If this occurs, you can put them on imgur.com (or a similar site) and provide the URL in your e-mail.
  • Also, don’t do this.

Character Development and The Sims

When you write a piece of nonfiction, you don’t necessarily have to worry about developing the character from scratch, but you still need to make sure their actions are intriguing enough to keep the audience’s attention. Let’s say that you’re writing a piece where you aren’t sure how that nonfictional character would react, what do you do? What about fiction writing? When you’re trying to tell the story of a character you created, how do you figure out what their genuine reaction would be?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. In fact, character development is one of the most difficult aspects of writing because the success/failure of a story relies on it. Luckily, there are free writing activities that can help, but there’s also a video game where the entire focus is character development: The Sims.

The Sims is a video game franchise that has been around for years. The video game focuses on a character that you create and customize everything about, and then you put them in a house, get them a job, and control the actions they do, such as: when they eat, what they eat, when they sleep, who they talk to, how they talk to them, and so on. As the game develops further with time, the makers enabled more aspects that the player could customize. The Sims 3 is the most up to date with The Sims 4 being developed now. In the Sims 3, one can customize every aspect of how a person physically looks from how high their cheek bones are to how short/tall their legs are. You can pick their personality, zodiac sign, customize their clothes color, give them piercings and so much more. You can completely make the characters your own. You can also create their partner, or have them flirt with who you choose, give them a car and hobbies, have them get a job and so much more.

Sims3cover sims screenshot3 sims screenshot2 sims screenshot1

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The Semicolon: Most Feared Punctuation on Earth!

The Oatmeal created one of the greatest posters ever on how to use a semicolon. I sat directly in front of this poster for the entire semester I took WRA 202 (Professional Writing course) and looking at and reading it all semester totally increased my confidence in using the semicolon. I am now a semicolon fanatic! I love the comic style formatting The Oatmeal used to describe appropriate use of “the most feared punctuation on earth”. They documented these rules in a way that is not only interesting to read through, but sticks with the reader in a way they will always remember. So take a look at the poster, and below I’ve highlighted some of the points.

Oatmeal Semicolon

The most common way to utilize the semicolon is to connect two independent clauses. The two statements read aloud with a period have a greater break between them – one would take a breath between the two if this were the case, but would not if the a semicolon was substituted for the period.

  • If you have two independent clauses, meaning each could stand alone as their own sentences, it is then, okay , to use a semicolon.
  • You should use a semicolon when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related to or in contrast with one another.
  • DON’T use a semicolon with conjunctions. (Conjunctions are words like: and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet.) Commas are used in these situations.
  • Pause factor: Comma – brief pause, Semicolon – moderate pause, Period – complete stop.
  • Use a semicolon to connect sentences that contain internal punctuation.
  • Use a semicolon as a super-comma: if you need to make a list of items that are separated with a comma. Often occurs when listing names, dates, and descriptions.

Check out the poster for memorable examples of these key concepts to remember when using the semicolon. The Oatmeal really did a solid job when explaining when to use and not use the semicolon.

How to Write a Good Introduction

Since the dawn of man, writing has been used to communicate ideas. In academic settings, ideas are typically communicated using formal types of writing such as essays. Most academic essays contain an introductory paragraph, which includes a thesis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an introduction as, “A preliminary explanation prefixed to or included in a book or other writing; the part of a book which leads up to the subject treated, or explains the author’s design or purpose. Also, the corresponding part of a speech, lecture, etc.”

Michigan State University student Sally used to have a lot of difficulty writing introductions. Once she had suffered through writing dozens of painful introductions, she decided to look up some tips on how to introduce your essay, and after that she got a lot better.

Introductions can be tricky. Because the introduction is the first portion of your essay that the reader encounters, the stakes are fairly high for your introduction to be successful. A good introduction presents a broad overview of your topic and your thesis, and should convince the reader that it is worth their time to actually read the rest of your essay. Below are some tips that will make writing an introduction a little less daunting, and help us all to write essays that don’t make our professors want to bang their heads against the wall.

  1. Start your introduction broad, but not too broad. When I first started writing formal essays, I didn’t really know how broad to go with my intros. A brief paragraph on Hamlet would suddenly include irrelevant details about Shakespeare’s childhood, then grow out to be a history of Western literature, and then a history of the universe itself. Do not write an introduction like this; this kind of intro is confusing and makes the reader wonder where exactly you’re going with your essay. Your introduction should provide the reader with a sense of what they should expect out of your essay, not to expound upon every piece of knowledge ever developed by man. Go ahead and start relatively broad, then narrow to your thesis, but make sure you’re still on topic.
  2. Provide relevant background, but don’t begin your true argument. It’s fine to give a bit of context to your essay in the introduction, but the real meat of your argument should be located in your body paragraphs. A good test to see if information should go in a body or introductory paragraph is to ask yourself a few questions. Is this providing context or evidence? Does this introduce my argument, or try to prove it?  True evidence or proof deserves a body paragraph. Context and background most likely belong in your introduction.
  3. Provide a thesis. The majority of the time, your thesis, or main argument, should occur somewhere towards the end of your introduction. It is a typical convention to put your thesis as the last sentence of your first paragraph. My personal opinion is that it can sometimes be awkward to shove your thesis in one specific place if it doesn’t necessarily fit, but if your thesis works in that position, that is the best place for it. That being said, if you absolutely can’t include your thesis in that location, go ahead and stick it somewhere else. Continue reading