Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category


Hurrying the eureka moment: smarter brainstorming

I’ve heard the story of how J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter about a dozen times, and every time it changes.  In some versions, the boy wizard comes to her while sitting in a cafe, and she jots down the essentials on a napkin. Other times, she’s waiting for a train, and she muses over plot for the rest of the rid.

What never changes is the drama of the eureka moment. Rowling recognizes immediately the value of the idea and the direction in which she’ll take it. That moment takes on a mythic quality, a moment that changes the world of literature forever. And like most good myths, I’m confident it has a small germ of truth surrounded by a whole bunch of window dressing.

Screen shot from Steven Johnson's RSA Animated talk. Source:

I’m sure there are some who want to protect the genius of Rowling and sanctity of the myth of Harry Potter’s divine inspiration. They probably take my skepticism as snark. We all like to believe that inspiration might strike at any moment and an idea that will make us richer than the Queen of England will materialize from the ether.

Looking at the history of good ideas tells us a different story though. Behind every good idea is a story that looks quite different from the one where a genius plucks inspiration out of thin air. Instead, good ideas usually come from a combination of musing over a topic and exchanging ideas with other thinkers. That’s good news because it presents a process writers can follow for smarter brainstorming sessions. Continue reading ‘Hurrying the eureka moment: smarter brainstorming’


The courage to screw it up: Made by Hand book review

I can’t say that I’ve ever envisioned myself raising chickens, keeping bees, or building my own guitars, but then neither had Mark Frauenfelder. Then he did it, and wrote a book about it. Frauenfelder is the author of Made by Hand: My Ad

Image source:

ventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself, which floats somewhere between the genres of memoir and how-to. Frauenfelder, one of the co-founders of the blog Boing Boing, recounts how he came to DIY world as part of his job as the editor-in-chief of Make magazine. The book divides into nine chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter recounts a new project Frauenfelder takes on from the beginning stages up through the finished product (or nearly finished project anyways; one of the book’s lessons is that there is always some tinkering and learning that can be done.)

Those lessons partly account for why Made by Hand shows up here on a blog about writing. Writing itself is as much of a DIY process as there is out there. Yes, we are made to believe that we “learn” to write in school, but really we just learn the structures of writing and some specific strategies for putting them into practice. The real work of learning to write is done by the individual him/herself, and it takes years to really develop the craft. Even then, the learning process never stops. With that in mind, there is plenty that Frauenfelder has to offer that can be used by writers, beginning and experts.  Continue reading ‘The courage to screw it up: Made by Hand book review’


Games in the writing classroom: designing and teaching an RPG creative writing class

Anyone who has taught literature has encountered the poetry face. For the uninitiated, the poetry face is somewhere between a pout and a frown and expresses the students displeasure with being asked to read into a poem after the student has already loudly confessed that s/he either “hates poetry” or is “bad at it” or more likely, s/he hates poetry and is bad at it.  Teachers have all sorts of arguments for why the student should learn to like poetry, and occasionally, those work to change the student’s mind. More often than not, the teacher and student reach a sort of detente, and the student suspends animosity for long enough to give the small concession that at least some poetry is not that bad.

A few summers ago, I had a student who refused to even tolerate poetry. I was teaching a three-week creative writing course for gifted middle school students, and whenever any poem came up, this student brought out her poetry face.

By no means was this a student who was incapable of understanding poetry. On the contrary, this was a student who excelled at nearly everything she dedicated herself to, academically and especially athletically. During activity times, she left the rest of her classmates in her wake, outrunning and outstrategizing all of them. In the midst of games, she thrived, her face glowing with joy.

After that summer, I began to wonder if games might be imported into the creative writing classroom to help those students who are adverse to writing and/or reading poetry. Last summer, I gave it a try, designing and implementing a Role Playing Game (RPG) that presented the ultimate quest of becoming a better writer. Continue reading ‘Games in the writing classroom: designing and teaching an RPG creative writing class’


Gamers of the World Unite: ThatCamp Games 2012

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend the ThatCamp Games conference in College Park, Md. I was excited to attend for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to present some of my ideas on the areas where writing overlaps with games (some of which can be found in my post on video games and assignment design.) I came away from the experience with a renewed interest in games and a bunch of ideas on new applications for bringing them into education. Continue reading ‘Gamers of the World Unite: ThatCamp Games 2012’


Overcoming the stress and anxiety of the writing process

January is a popular time for resolving to change their lives. Many of those resolutions will fail. That’s partly because most people make New Year’s resolutions in the same way. They promise themselves to do something they’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t; they make their resolution without treating whatever caused them to procrastinate previously; they forget their resolution before the calendar turns to February.

A lot of writers go through this same cycle. Blind optimism leads to setting unreasonable goals, which leads to disappointment and stress, which leads to procrastination, feelings of failure, disappointment, and a feeling that you should really get around to writing that paper, novel, letter, etc. Before long the to do list is pitched and the project gets tabled only to be taken up again whenever you have the most optimism to face it; say, maybe, next December 31.

The way out of that cycle starts at discovering why you’ve not been writing. Continue reading ‘Overcoming the stress and anxiety of the writing process’


The Five-paragraph Fix – How to write longer essays

So many student writers conceive of how close they are to finishing a paper in terms of how many words or pages they have to write to get the minimum threshhold. If a teacher hands out an assignment without a page length requirement, the first question will likely be, “How many pages does it need to be?” If that teacher wishes to amp up the students’ stress level to eleven, s/he need only respond, “As long as it needs to be.” Students in our Writing Studio routinely describe a paper that is “only two pages” as easy and a paper of ten or more pages as a monumental task.
For more experienced writers with a lot of expertise in their subject area, the reverse is true. Condensing a complex idea into two pages can be much more of a headache than it can be writing ten pages.
Why is writing longer papers so hard for student writers? How does someone get past that fear of the longer paper? Continue reading ‘The Five-paragraph Fix – How to write longer essays’

The value of topic sentences

Everyone has a friend who can’t tell a story. His/her thoughts seem to go everywhere. You can tell s/he has a point, but it takes a long time to get to it and then feels anticlimactic. These stories frustrate us because we generally like to have the general meaning or gist of an idea before we get detailed facts. If we get a bunch of facts without any idea how they fit together, we don’t know what to do with them and are likely to forget them.

The effect is magnified when it appears in analytical papers. When readers encounter evidence without being given the claim you are trying to prove, they feel as confused as you do when your friend tries and fails to tell a story. Even the best evidence in the world will mislead readers unless they know what claim your trying to prove with it first. Some readers may even read your facts and come to conclusions that conflict with those you’re trying to present.

On the other hand, when you present a clear topic sentence, which states your claim, your reader will do part of the work for you. They’ll see your facts and immediately try to connect it to that topic sentence.

Let’s look at an example of how this effect works. Continue reading ‘The value of topic sentences’


The Five-paragraph Fix: Critical thinking essentials

Learning to write analytical essays is one of the harder adjustments most students will have to make in college. A lot of composition teachers blame high school teachers and their commitment to the five-paragraph essay for  students’ struggles, yet that position is a bit reductive. Even after students know and readily acknowledge that they can no longer write the five-paragraph essay, they still have trouble producing essays that demonstrate critical thinking.

Understanding why writers have trouble with critical thinking starts with trying to understand critical thinking. We’ll do that here, and then look at how teachers and students can apply that knowledge. Continue reading ‘The Five-paragraph Fix: Critical thinking essentials’


Can writing be taught?

Summer nears its end, at least for academics. It’s been a busy time for me, which has kept me from writing here as much as I want. Fortunately, some of those events provide for plenty of topics to write about in the weeks to come.

In the late spring, I had the opportunity to kibitz at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s 75th Anniversary Reunion. I have a piece coming out on that sometime later this year to which I’ll link once it’s posted. One of the threads that I pulled on while writing the draft but ended up not including focused on one of the questions that kept popping up in the research on workshops: can writing be taught?

That seems like a good topic to start the year off. Continue reading ‘Can writing be taught?’


Against cynicism in education

Working in academic support, I constantly think of two very different people. The first is a student, smart but sometimes unmotivated. He does his work, mostly gets it in on time, but is sloppy, some might even call him lazy, in his checking for errors. The second is the rhetoric teacher who sees his students make simple mistakes over and over in a stack of papers and feels frustrated at their lack of improvement. These are two people who on the surface look antagonistic to each other.

Both, of course, are past versions of me. I’ve been that “lazy” student, and I’ve been that “frustrated” teacher. So can I tell you that both want the same things. Both want to feel smart and respected. As a student, I wanted to attain some degree of academic success, but I sometimes sabotaged my effort by allowing myself to get overwhelmed by stress. As a teacher, I wanted my students to get better and tried as hard as I could to invent lessons to make that happen. Naturally, I got frustrated, sometimes even feeling like the quality of my teaching was on the line, when it seemed like students weren’t trying.

Eventually, I learned to reconcile the “lazy” student in me with the “frustrated” teacher by understanding that both came about from a cynical attitude. Cynicism about the potential for improvement, often drawn from a fixed mindset of one’s own intelligence or from what is expected by others, causes problems for both the student and the teacher. It’s one of the bigger causes of burnout in both.

Not surprisingly, a lot of this cynicism comes from a frustrated optimism. No student starts out hating learning. Most are thrilled when they learn something new as a young child, but somewhere along the line they change their view of education. Nor do most teacher get into teaching with a cynical attitude towards the profession. The cynicism that exists in education is there because of the way education works (or doesn’t work), and both sides have to fight it to find meaning and value in learning and teaching.

So when I see sites like “Shit my Students Write”, I understand the sentiment behind whoever put it together, but I’m deeply troubled by the cynicism behind it and what it means for education. Continue reading ‘Against cynicism in education’

Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

%d bloggers like this: