7 reasons not to swear in blogs

signIt seems to be depressingly more and more likely to find that a blog article which looks promising is peppered with swear words – or one particular swear word that is repeated ad nauseum. I think that writers of such blog posts are making a grave error. Here are my reasons.
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Typewriters? No thanks!

Royal portable typewriterThere is something romantic about an old manual typewriter. The clattering of the keys sounds somewhat industrial, which connotes “industrious”. Bashing away at a typewriter is what real writers do. No spellchecker, no thesaurus, no internet, and no forgiveness if you make a mistake. So typing something that looked reasonable, and which didn’t involve too much correction fluid, gave one a sense of achievement.

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Crowd-sourced reference books? No thanks

writers reference booksLanguage used to evolve slowly. Now it evolves much more quickly. Apart from the fact that new technology – of which there is more and more every week – spawns new terminology, trends are spread with lightning speed across the internet via social media. There is a temptation to rely on crowd-sourced reference works when trying to find out the correct word or correct usage, because they will be bang up-to-date. Unfortunately, in my own experience these are sometimes wrong or contain discussions by people whose expertise in the matter is not obvious.

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DIY: ICT Case Studies: No place for corporate-speak

You can describe what your school does with educational technology ad nauseum, but in my opinion nothing will bring it alive as much as a well-written case study.

The reason that case studies can be so effective is that they take just one aspect of what the school is doing, rather than trying to present the whole lot.

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How To Start Blogging

Get writing!You know when a theme is developing in your life when the same sort of thing keeps cropping up. Well, I don’t know if twice in succession qualifies, but I’m going to go with it anyway. Yesterday I was catching up on my podcasts, and listened to a Grammar Girl episode entitled “How to get started blogging”. Then today I ran my blogarizer spreadsheet and was directed to an article entitled “10 must-use tips for beginning bloggers”. OK, enough already: I can take a hint.

Both articles are pretty good, in a general sense. Mignon Fogarty, the “Grammar Girl”, deals with knowing your audience, finding good, and reliable, information, and how to build your audience. Melissa Tamura, author of the 10 tips post, also talks about knowing your audience and, in essence, how to grow it.

I’d like to come at this from a different angle or, to be more precise, to emphasise different aspects of blogging. Here goes:

  1. Start blogging. That’s right, just start. Stop navel-gazing, second-guessing the universe and playing “what-if?” games. Just start. Creating a new blog in something like Blogger takes all of five minutes. In fact, the most difficult part is thinking of a witty and memorable name.
  2. Definitely define your audience, but start with yourself. What I mean by that is, write the kind of articles that you would find most interesting/enjoyable/useful to read. Then your blog will probably go one of two ways: either extremely eclectic, which stands a good chance of attracting a wide variety of people, or extremely focussed. Those two are not mutually exclusive, by the way. I think that latter possibility warrants a bullet point of its own…
  3. Be extremely focussed. I mean extremely focussed. From time to time I receive comments from people along the lines of they have nothing unique to blog about. That’s plain wrong, because everyone is unique in some way. For example, you might be the only art teacher in your town who takes their class on a virtual art gallery tour every week. How does that work? How does a virtual gallery visit stack up against a real life one? I don’t know from first-hand experience what the answers to these questions are. But you do.
  4. Put your audience first. I think if you’re going to write for an audience, you should at least try to make reading your work a pleasant experience. This is all highly personal and subjective, of course, but for me the two things I really can’t abide is swearing or implied swearing, and writing which is about as interesting as the list of ingredients on a packet of cornflakes. There’s no need for the former, and you can improve on the latter by analysing what it is you like about the writing of the blogs, magazines, newspapers, authors you read on a regular basis.

But the most important one of these, if you’ve decided or almost decided to start your own blog is the first one: just do it!

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How to Write An Online Review: Guiding Your Students

Is writing an online review any different from writing an offline one? Probably the biggest difference is the (usual) restriction on word count. Most good website articles weigh in at around 500 words. Occasionally -- very occasionally -- I expand beyond that, but a good rule of thumb is that anything over 1,000 words or so could probably benefit from being split into two or more posts.

Strange that, when you come to think of it. You'd think that, given what is effectively an infinite amount of space, a website could cope with a few essays now and again.

Of course, the key factor is not the amount of room you have, but the supposed antipathy of readers towards scrolling. "Keep it above the line!", advertisers demand. That is, make sure the viewer doesn't have to scroll down in order to see it. So the same goes, or so the common wisdom has it, for any copy appearing on a computer screen.

In fact, restricting your prose to above the line (or fold, as it's also known) is not only an impossible exercise (how do you know how big your readers' screens will be, or how large they like their text?) but a pointless one. As Jacob Neilsen points out, people are quite happy to scroll down these days, although given people's relatively short attention span when reading text on a screen, it's probably better to err on the short side, given a choice.

Now, the reason that I've gone into some detail on this apparently minor point is that I think it's important to give people reasons for doing something, or not doing it, and this is where I think How to Write an Online Review falls down. It gives short, sharp advice, without really explaining the reasoning behind it, or leaving any room for discussion.

And there is room for discussion. You might want to question not only the scrolling argument, but even the attention span argument. For example, if I invite you to write a review of a software application, which would cost a school several hundred dollars to implement, I'd expect more than a cursory 500 words, unless the product is such a pig that it's not worth wasting any words on it. (I'm reminded of Dorothy Parker's review of a book: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.") More importantly, my readers would want you to go into some depth. After all, if they think it's too long they'll vote with their mice; but you ought to give them that choice.

So the "rule" about keeping the review to "500 words or less" -- it should actually be "fewer": why does a video about writing contain such an error? -- is not a rule at all. It is a point to be discussed with an editor (which may be yourself, if you're writing for your own website or blog), taking into account the nature of your audience.

If you don't know how your readers feel about long articles, then you need to ask them, or find out in some other way. In other words, you need to do research, and act accordingly. Where will you do your research? Well, apart from reading articles on the subject, you could also analyse your web statistics. How long are people spending on your website? How long are they spending on each page, on average? Which posts are the most popular? How are they different from the rest? (Google Analytics is a great tool for answering the quantitative questions.)

Already, we have taken this apparently simple task of writing a review from a kind of painting-by-numbers approach which, frankly, has no, if any value, as far as the ICT curriculum is concerned, to one that starts to address Levels 4 or 5 (audience), and even nudge up to the higher levels (customer feedback). The temptation to use a video like this straight off the bat without really thinking about it is great indeed. But that's like buying something in a supermarket because it's on special offer, not because you will actually use it.

There's another curious bit of advice in the video: use strong verbs and nouns. What's a strong noun? What's a strong verb, come to that? Surely it would be better to use the most appropriate word? I may be wrong, but without having been given an explanation of the word "strong" in this context, how can I know?

One useful piece of advice is to use the active rather than the passive tense. This is always the right thing to do unless you are writing an academic article or your objective is to bore the reader into a stupor. Saying something like, "I drew the picture and then coloured it in using the Fill tool" is much more dynamic, and therefore engaging, than the passive (almost supine) "The picture was drawn by the reviewer ,etc etc".

What about the advice that was left out? For example:

  • Discussing with the website editor or blog owner exactly what his or her requirements are.
  • Should screenshots be included?
  • What rights are you giving away?
  • Must the review be brand new, or is it OK to recycle one you wrote before?
  • If you live in the UK, such are our libel laws that it's probably a good idea to be on the safe side and make sure you include the magic mantra, "In my opinion" in the review if you've decided to pan it.

Incidentally, everything I've written here is only my opinion, which I formed whilst watching and reflecting on the Howcast video (see below).

So am I saying this video is a waste of time and that you shouldn't show it? Not at all. By all means, use it as a starting point for discussion with your class, and use it (or its best points) as an aide-memoir once you've covered the topic.

In fact, once you've decided to not use it straight out of the box, but to encourage discussion and questioning around it, you'll probably conclude that it's not really a bad piece of video at all.

 

 

 

The Bug Force

It's quite obvious that there are forces at work which deny rational explanation -- at least in terms of the laws of nature as we commonly perceive them. This can be seen most readily where any kind of proofreading is required. Is there anything we can do about it?

All joking aside, should we always be encouraging students to produce perfect work? And if not, how many errors are acceptable?

P1030955.JPGNow, I don't want to detain you longer than necessary, so I'll come straight to the point: the short answer is "no". True, you can take a proofreading course, seek advice in a forum, have an extra pair of eyes, and seek advice from the experts. Nothing makes any difference, ultimately, because you're dealing with the unknown. The real  issue is this: how many errors are acceptable? I'll come back to this point shortly.

What proof do I have that proofreading is the playground of a malevolent spirit? Simply this: no matter how many times you proofread a document, there will always be one more error. This is even enshrined in a "law" of computing, albeit in a different context:

Lubarsky's Law of Cybernetic Entomology: There's always one more bug.

You, or someone else, will discover the flaw. Eventually. My research into this phenomenon over many years has led me to the inescapable conclusion that you will discover it in one of the following types of circumstance:

  • When you have printed off 400 copies.

  • When you have just mailed it in response to a job advertisement.

  • When you have just emailed the third version of it to an editor you have never worked with before.

Does this mean that you can never create a perfect copy? Not exactly, but even if you manage to thwart the forces of non-good at the proof-reading stage, the gremlins in the software you use will launch a second wave attack. How else would you explain things like:

  • A document that looks perfect on screen does not retain all the contents of the page when you print it out.

  • Page-numbering develops a mind of its own.

  • Sometimes, if you try to place a caption beneath the picture instead of above it, Word goes berserk. For example, once it caused the two paragraphs under the caption to disappear altogether.

  • Once, a colleague said that her document included a copy of a spreadsheet which looked fine on the screen, but kept printing out with most of the left hand column missing.

Is there anything you can do about it, being serious for a moment? After all, one doesn't like to be completely fatalistic. Well I do three things:

  • Run the spell-check.

  • Read through it one word at a time (and boy, is that tedious!).

  • Cajole someone else to read it.

Ultimately, none of this will make much of a difference (see Lubarsky's Rule, above), but at least you will not need to castigate yourself over it.

So, being realistic, what this really boils down to is: how many errors are acceptable? This is a serious question, and one which I don't think tends to be addressed in schools.

Students are encouraged to produce perfect work for their e-portfolios or coursework. But that is unrealistic. What we ought to be doing is encouraging them to make a judgement about the acceptable number and type of errors given the nature of the piece of work in question, the audience for whom it is intended, and the purpose of the exercise.

There are, I believe, viable alternatives to the proverbial view that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing properly. Consider the following:

  • If you do something perfectly, there may well be an opportunity cost involved, ie the cost expressed in terms of the next best thing foregone. For instance, is it better for me to obtain a grade A in my Art exam and fail everything else, or to obtain a scattering of Bs and Cs across a range of five subjects? The answer will depend on a number of factors, such as whether I want to get into Art college or become a vet.

  • We owe it to our students, in our any time, anywhere  society, to nurture a "good enough" attitude. Don't get me wrong: I am a perfectionist, as no doubt you are too. But there comes a point (three in the morning, perhaps, or the third draft) where we all say:

    "That will have to do, and if they don't like it, they can do it themselves!"

  • In a related way, there is also the Law of Diminishing Returns. After a certain point, the benefits from continuing to work on something are outweighed by the costs in terms of fatigue or opportunity cost (see the first point).

  • Sometimes, imperfection is good. Once, for example, I completely messed up something I was doing whilst demonstrating some software to a class of teachers. They actually found it reassuring, and it gave them confidence. The logic was along the lines of:

    "Well, if an expert like Terry can make a stupid mistake like that, it's ok for me to do so too without beating myself up over it."

I don't know the answer to the question: "How many errors are acceptable?". It's a judgement call. Our job as educators, I suggest, is to help students make that judgement as part and parcel of the skill of writing and presenting for different audiences.

This article was first published on 1st August 2008.

Postscript

I received an email recently from Cate Newton of the SR Education Group. Cate says:

"The Bug Force" is an excellent article for writing, editing, and proofreading.

My interest in proofreading and writing for students sparked an article that was just published on our website, Guide to Online Schools, here: http://www.guidetoonlineschools.com/tips-and-tools/proofreading. We are trying to build up useful resources for students of all ages and this is our most recent. We’ve compiled a list of the most useful grammar, proofreading and writing style guides on the internet into one, easy-to-navigate article.

I've looked at the article and I have to say Cate has probably undersold it. It is full of links to writing and grammar guides, and looks immensely useful. The only caveat I would add is that it is mainly (though not exclusively) for a non-British audience. So whilst the processes and general principles of writing and proof-reading no doubt apply everywhere, you should exercise caution when looking at non-UK grammar texts, as there are significant differences.

In this context I should recommend Grammar Girl. This is an excellent podcast full of useful tips, and advice on common errors. And although the podcaster, Mignon Fogarty, is either American or Canadian, she usually gives the British version of grammar and sentence construction -- which is, of course, the correct one ;-).

Does any of this matter? I think so. Just because writing for the web is, arguably, less formal than other writing, and blogs are fine for publishing off-the-cuff thoughts, writing should still be error-free as far and possible, notwithstanding my comments in the article, and pleasant to read.

 

Technology and Writing: Dealing With Ideas

The great thing about technology as far as writing is concerned is that we need never forget a brilliant idea. I sometimes think to myself how much I admire writers (or, indeed, anyone) in centuries past for writing anything at all. I mean, if you're travelling on foot or by horse and carriage in the 18th century and you have a great idea for a story, how do you jot it down? Did Samuel Pepys, for example, carry a quill and an inkwell around with him?

I suppose that most of the time such issues never affected most people. Only a small elite was able to read, and en even smaller elite able to get their work published. But what of the present?

One of the words people use to describe me is 'prolific'. If that's the case, how do I manage to write so much? I think there are three factors.

Firstly, I have lots of ideas for articles. In this respect I don't think I am any different to anyone else.

Secondly, I act on those ideas. I think that probably in this respect I am different from a lot a people. I've met plenty of wannabe writers who bemoan the fact that they have never had anything published, forgetting the inconvenient fact that in order to do so you actually have to write something. Maslow distinguished between primary and secondary creativity. The former is having the ideas and creativity in the first place. The latter is being prepared to go through the agonising process of writing something, tearing it up, and starting again. This, for example, is my second attempt to write an article connecting writing with technology. I spent nearly an hour on the first one before deciding it was a lost cause.

Perhaps this is what Oscar Wilde meant when he said:

This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.

And read Gerald Haigh's comment on my post entitled The Right Writing Style. He says:

Time and again, when I write an article, I go back and cut the whole of the first para. That's because I've sort of used it to get up speed, and it ends up being quite redundant. The general point is that ruthlessness with the virtual scissors is essential for all writers. "Kill your babies" is oft-used saying -- i.e. don't be afraid to cut favourite lines. You may be the only one who thinks they're any good.

Thirdly, how do I ensure that I remember the ideas I have? In my time I have used several kinds of technology to help me:


·    A notebook and pen. You can't beat it for speed, reliability and robustness.
·    A cell phone. I use the notes feature to jot down some points.
·    Alternatively, sometimes I will leave a message for myself on voicemail, so it will remind me when I arrive home.
·    I've sometimes used digital recorders to record my thoughts whilst driving.
·    I'm pretty good at creating visual prompts for myself. I always carry a camera around with me, or there is always my cell phone. A well-chosen photo is often all I need to remind me of what my earth-shattering idea was.
·    I used to have a pocket computer called a Psion Organiser which I always carried around with me. It had a qwerty keyboard and I managed to get quite fast on it. I once even composed an entire issue of my newsletter, Computers in Classrooms, on it. Sadly, the ravages of time have rendered the screen virtually unreadable to me now, but I cannot bring myself to get rid of this wonderful little device.
·    If I am out and about with my netbook and have discovered a nice cafe with a free wi-fi connection, I jot my ideas down in Google Docs, from where I can retrieve them once I get back home.
·    If the nice café does not have wi-fi access, undaunted I will use OpenOffice for my scribblings.
·    Finally, however I have recorded my ideas, I enter them into a Word document I have created called, erm, 'Article Ideas'. That keeps them fairly secure, in case I lose a notebook or my phone or another device gets trashed. I've tried those things which create a wordprocessed document from your handwriting, but my handwriting has become so illegible over the years that I spend more time correcting and spell-checking than I would spend typing it up from scratch!

Unlike Samuel Pepys, we don't have any excuse for forgetting ideas for articles if you're not within reach of a quill: think tech, and you can't go wrong!

Web 2.0 For Rookies: Creative Writing

One of the big issues of our time seems to concern writing. Or, to be more specific, NOT writing. And to whittle it away even further, boys' writing. Apparently, boys don't like writing. If that's the case, perhaps Web 2.0 can help?

I think the first thing I'd like to say is that if it happens to be true that boys don't like writing, perhaps that's because they're not being asked to write about anything they're interested in. I know that's either a really facile statement or a no-brainer, depending on where you stand on the issue, but it strikes me as pretty obvious that if you ask someone to write about something they have no interest in whatsoever, why would they?

You might say that the same argument applies to girls, and you'd be right. Except that in my experience girls tend to (a) be more compliant than boys and (b) like writing for its own sake anyway.

I recall that in one class I had I could not get one of the boys to settle down for more than ten minutes at a time. Then one day, he was really quiet and engaged for about 25 minutes before I could risk breaking the spell by talking to him.

"I don't understand this.", I said. "Normally you're a complete head-banger, and all of a sudden you're a model pupil. How come?"

He laughed and then gave the brutally honest response, "'Cos usually I don't find it interesting enough to bother."

So what was so interesting that captured his attention for the entire lesson? He was compiling a list of all the games his team had won in the last ten years, from a whole load of football programmes he'd brought in. For me, that would be the most boring thing on earth. For him it was captivating. As my American friends might say: "Who knew?"

But even if you regard this example as an aberration, is even the broad statement about boys and writing true?

I think not, because boys write all the time. Perhaps what is meant is discursive writing, but boys text each other, and send each other games cheats by instant messenger or Facebook, to take a couple of examples.

Well, that's a start for an article like this, because there are several ways in which teachers can take the enthusiasm of boys for writing, which I believe does exist, and the variety of Web 2.0 applications, and harness them together. Here are some suggestions.

  • Get the pupils to take it in turns to act as the class scribe. The scribe writes down the main points covered in the lesson, and writes it up in the class blog. Check out Sue Waters' Using Scribe Posts on Class Blogs for some tips and references about this.
  • Get the youngsters to write film and book reviews, either using a blog, or using something like Blippr. Blippr is a social network which specialises in reviews. It gives you 160 characters -- the same as you get for a text message - in which to have your say. It's possible, and it's fun -- but it's challenging (which is, more than likely, WHY it's fun). Have a look at mine for some examples.
  • If 160 characters strikes you as far too easy, how about 140? You can use Twitter for the same sort of thing, or for writing short (very short!) stories. See, for example, Twitterfiction.
  • If you like the idea of a book review in 160 characters, but not the idea of a social network, try Wallwisher. It's like having post-it notes, and you can type up to 160 characters on each one. You can also include pictures and, a big bonus, everyone can see each others' efforts. Maybe you could even get boys to work together on some writing.
  • Blogs are useful for writing book and film reviews too. There are one or two great examples of this in the forthcoming 'Amazing Web 2.0 Projects' book.
  • Also in the book are some creative uses of Twitter, including its use in getting a class of primary school children to understand what life on the run must have been like from the standpoint of one of the Gunpowder Plotters.

I could go on giving example after example, and don't forget there is also the writing involved in podcast and video scripting - not just the dialogue but 'stage directions' too.

I think that by using a variety of Web 2.0 applications it can't be that hard to get kids -- including boys -- writing.

Of course, finding a topic they're actually interested in -- or making a topic interesting to them -- no doubt helps!