Archive for ‘Awkward but Useful’

April 9, 2015

The Writing Center as Bike Co-Op

bike co op

“What does a Writing Center do?” It’s a complicated question, and people have come up with a number of metaphors to explain what writing center consultants actually do. The one thing that we’re darn sure we’re not  is a “fix-it shop.” Many articles about writing centers criticize those who consider a writing center a place where students take papers to get them cleaned up and “fixed,” with no real collaboration between the student and the WC consultant. Of course, this is a good message: we want to avoid merely “fixing” a paper for a student like the Best Buy “Geek Squad” fixes computers (or used to, anyway.) The focus is on trying to change a writer’s writing process for the better, not just make one paper look nicer. (“Teach a man to fish…”)


However, I think that perhaps part of the reason that the “fix-it shop” metaphor works so well as a straw man is because it feeds the English major’s (often) inherent mistrust of the mechanical world, of being connected to technological work, working with one’s hands–an area of expertise most of us (definitely me) do not have much experience in. No, ours is a loftier mission. We aren’t a fix-it shop, we’re artists!


But I’ve seen mechanical metaphors for writing work very well. For example, Roy Peter Clark’s writing handbook “Writing Tools” ( pushes against the Romantic ideal of the writer as tortured soul and diviner of spirits, replacing it with a straightforward, mechanical mindset of things that often work and things that definitely don’t. He provides a tool set of 50 well-tested strategies in the book, including writing instruction greatest hits like “The Ladder of Abstraction” (move up it and down it, but don’t stay in the middle!) This mindset is not just for beginning writers. I think it can help clear the head of a more experienced writer desperately trying to reinvent the wheel instead of looking into her trusty set of tools that have worked just fine in many situations.


And to the list of metaphors we’ve heard for the mission of the Writing Center, I’ll add my own, somewhat Truman-specific: “The Center as Bike-Co-op.” I recently took my bike to the co-op for the first time to have a broken spoke replaced. I have very little experience in fixing bikes, and so I like how the co-op gets students to fix the bike themselves while the co-op member tells the student what to do. When it came time to true the wheel, the student helping me first began tightening spokes to show me how to do it. Then suddenly came the terrifying offer: “Now you try!” Terrifying because I hadn’t really been paying attention, thinking he’d do all the work for me. But I quickly figured out the simple process with his guidance and trued the wheel on my own. (By the way, I didn’t know ‘true’ was a verb before that day. Auto/bike shop neologism?)


Might we have something to learn from this model? In many situations, we deal with students with very little prior experience either in one specific aspect of writing or many. They don’t have the tools, and we do. In such cases, it’s best to invite the student to try out the tools themselves. The co-op’s method of providing the tools, showing how something is done, and then having the bike owner do it for themselves clearly works very well in such situations.


I ran into a situation like this the other day. A student used passive voice several times in each paragraph. After explaining the difference between active and passive voice, and the advantage of active voice, I showed an example of how you would go about fixing a sentence with an avoidable passive voice problem. Then I had her fix a couple sentences on her own. First I told her exactly what to do, but then she had to take ownership of the process. And once you learn how to fix a bike…well, hopefully that works the same as learning to ride it.
September 16, 2013

Solving the Oxford Comma Problem: A Platonic Dialogue

One June morning, an Oxford Professor of English, whose lectures had been unattended during the summer term,* was taking a stroll of the grounds when an American journalist crossed his path, taking pictures with her large black camera. They greeted each other wordlessly, the Professor nodding his head sideways and half-smiling, the Journalist raising her eyebrows civilly.

Then the Journalist remembered something.

“Excuse me, sir,” she called after him. “I have a quick question for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” said the Professor readily. “That is to say—I believe I have time for a question, so long as it is, as you say, quick,” he added, though he was secretly delighted by the distraction.

“I am an American journalist here to report on medical research at Oxford, but I love literature, too,” said the Journalist. “And I was afraid I would end up visiting this place without ever getting to ask an Oxford prof about the Oxford comma!”

“Oh dear me,” said the Professor, preparing himself for a bitter argument. “I fear we will find we have great difference of opinion on this matter.”

“Well, maybe not,” said the Journalist. “We’ll see. You probably know that the Associated Press Stylebook has for years mandated that when you list items in a simple series, you should use commas, but not before the conjunction. In other words, you ought to say, ‘Richard Nixon was a fraud, a liar and a crook,’ no comma before the ‘and.’”

“Just so,” said the Professor. “And you know, of course, that the University of Oxford Press has—since time immemorial—preferred a comma for the final item of the series, before the conjunction. Thus you would have ‘Guy Fawkes was a Jesuit, an Englishman, and a traitor,’” he concluded, saying ‘comma’ aloud punctiliously each time it occurred in his example.

“Yes,” said the Journalist. “And in an American context, we see that comma as unnecessary, and a sort of affected Anglicization. An American using it is trying to put on airs—like spelling ‘gray’ with an ‘e.’

“Well now,” said the Professor.  “You Yanks are always so brutally forthright in your opinions and your series of items, no helpful pauses to allow what has been said already to be digested properly. And what would be so wrong with re-Anglicization, after all?”

“You have to admit, though, that in a simple series, the comma is not necessary for the meaning of the sentence,” said the Journalist.

“Sure, I will grant you that,” said the Professor. “But does precedent and tradition mean nothing to you?”

“Eh,” said the Journalist, squinting her eyes thoughtfully. “It depends what the tradition is, I suppose.”

“However, I am afraid I now have the minority view, even within the school from which the serial comma gets its name,” began the Professor wearily. “The revised University of Oxford Press Styleguide now says, and I quote, ‘As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and.’ See what they have done, those iconoclastic, hair-shirted villains!” he cried rather loudly, frightening a magpie from a nearby branch.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the Journalist kindly.

“Still and all, there are instances when even your cold, utilitarian AP Stylebook admits that the serial comma is absolutely necessary,” said the Professor.

“It’s true,” said the Journalist. “For example, and I quote from the Stylebook: it should be used ‘if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: ‘I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast,’” she said, verbalizing each comma. “Since ‘ham and eggs’ is a set phrase that includes ‘and,’ there has to be a comma before the first ‘and.’”

“Correct,” said the Professor. “But there are even more serious cases in which a comma is non-negotiable—in which grave ambiguities could result from a lack of punctuation!”

“What cases do you have in mind?” asked the Journalist.

“Good gracious, it gives me goose-flesh just to think of them,” said the Professor, shuddering. “But one of the most noxious is the following: ‘This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’”**

“What’s the big deal?” asked the Journalist, taking out her notebook.

“Why, don’t you see?” said the Professor. “Punctuated in that way, the sentence seems to suggest that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God!”

“Holy Deepthroat, Batman!” exclaimed the Journalist, scribbling illegibly. “I see what you mean now.”

“Yes, yes, perhaps now you see why we at Oxford have traditionally chosen careful restraint over incautious assumptions of clarity.”

“Sure, I can. Yet I hope you will agree that there is some merit to our side of the story. In so many contexts, the serial comma is just clutter, an extra stumbling block. For example, in the sentence ‘Duke Ellington composed, arranged, and played jazz music,” that comma just steps on the flow of the sentence, like a false note.”

“Of course, yes. Verily so. It seems we all live just long enough to see ourselves proved the fool,” said the Professor ruefully. “Perhaps, at least, you can learn from my mistake, and prepare yourself for the day when the next generation will be making fun of your most beloved institutions—Twitter, perhaps, or Greek yogurt. Vile stuff, really, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Ha!” laughed the Journalist. “The sun will never set on Greek yogurt’s day. However, thank you very much for your time, sir. Our conversation has been illuminating.”

“And the same to you,” said the Professor. “I always enjoy speaking with our American friends.”

They shook hands and parted ways. For some days afterward, the Journalist hesitated just a moment before plunging her spoon into her Greek yogurt.

*Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue” begins with the same premise—of an unattended Oxford professor with too much time to muse upon a subject.

**Example taken from Mental Floss article: “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.” They have many other fun examples, and arguments for and against the serial comma:

March 1, 2013

On Verbs: Sink or Swim—or Walk?

Trust your verbs. Always—and if you find that you can’t trust them, fire them and get new ones. You can’t have a sentence without a verb. Verbs are not always the showiest part of a sentence, not always the part of your writing that the reader walks away remembering, but they are the hub around which all the other parts of the sentence turn. To make a comparison to music, verbs are like the chords in a song, the essential foundation that gives just the right tension and shading to the ear-catching melody of nouns and adjectives.

The fundamental importance of verb choice is sometimes hard to see clearly unless you compare the disastrous effects of the wrong verb to the strong but flexible structure given by the right verbs. To see some verbs in action, let’s look at a poem by Billy Collins. He’s one of my favorite poets—the clarity and accessibility of his word choice often stands in sharp contrast to the surprising journeys his images take the reader on.


Walking Across the Atlantic

Billy Collins


I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach

before stepping onto the first wave.


Soon I am walking across the Atlantic

thinking about Spain,

checking for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to imagine what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.


(from Sailing Alone Around the Room)


Lovely little poem, don’t you think? So we can contrast the firm, flexible structure made by good verbs with the chaos, or inflexible, impenetrable wordiness, caused by bad and unhelpful ones, let’s ruin this poem by just changing some of the verbs to similar, but much less effective, ones. With apologies to Collins:


Strolling Across the Atlantic


I stand waiting for the holiday crowd to vacate the beach

before hopping onto the first wave.


Soon I am strolling across the Atlantic

dreaming about Spain,

watching for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water keeping up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will snooze on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to visualize what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet showing up suddenly and vanishing.


Well, yuck, right? It’s not meaningless, but it’s not poetry any more. Everything’s either gone flat, or gone silly. See how “stand waiting” adds an unnecessary word and changes the simple, deft stroke of “wait” to a two-word phrase with a clunky –ing ending? See how “strolling,” which might appeal to us at first as a more interesting action than “walking,” just made things far too silly and egotistical, in contrast to the determined but everyday tone that the original poem had with “walking”? See how “watching” in the second stanza gave the narrator an over-anxious Captain Ahab attitude, in addition to adding a third word beginning with ‘w’ to that line, overwhelming the subtle, wispy alliteration Collins intended with “whales, waterspouts”? See how “to visualize” in the third stanza is so much more wordy and businesslike and less dreamy than “to imagine”?

I could have changed the verbs much more subtly and still spoiled the poem. On the other hand, it could have been worse: I didn’t throw in any nasty passive-voice constructions like “I felt my weight as it was held by the water” that invert the usual clearer order of doer of the action followed by receiver of the action: “I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.” Picking ineffective verbs—too wordy or too extreme—can keep your writing tied to the ground. Or, to stay in the world of this poem, the surface tension created by the verbs that keeps you on top of the water collapses, and you sink into the waves like the rest of humanity, splashing about in a sea of unhelpful language.

Our choices with verbs are more limited than other word choices in English. When choosing a noun or an adjective, we often have dozens of alluring options. But finding the right verb for a situation has a pleasure all its own. While they are sometimes less flashy than the adjectives or the nouns—I’m more likely to remember the “whales” and “waterspouts” than that the narrator was “checking” for them—they set the tone in a way that nouns and adjectives simply cannot. “Checking” is the same thing we do when crossing the street—it’s casual, almost thoughtless. In our mind’s eye, we see the narrator turning his head every now and then to look right and left for a whale’s back or a spout of water, as if for an oncoming car at a crosswalk—just in case. We get the sense that the narrator has done this before. He has walked across the Atlantic so many times that it’s as habitual as crossing a street with light traffic. He has dealt with the fantastic so many times that to him, it’s just an everyday occurrence. This is the essential tension of the poem—the contrast between the supernatural journey taken and the simple, confident word choice of the narrator. It allows this poem to retain its mystery and offer up new pleasures even after many repeated explorations. Verbs can take you across the Atlantic—as long as they’re the right ones.