750 Words – Private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily

November 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: invention, review 

As NaNoWriMo comes to a close, I’d like to mention a project to keep writers up on their daily wordsmithing practice. For if NaNoWriMo is the marathon of writing achievements, “a little thing called 750 words” (http://750words.com) is the daily training for any distance one might want to conquer.  It’s purpose is to encourage consistent writing behavior.  It meets that goal by making one accountable using a number of interactive features. For instance, one can receive daily email reminders. Yet it’s strongest accountability builds on the e-contract feeling that we need to report in. Many of us check our email, Google Reader, or Facebook account several times a day. This service builds on that tenacity.

The website gives credit to The Artist’s Way and Julia Cameron’s concept of morning pages. This heritage of uninhibited freewriting goes back further than contemporary Zen spiritualism to roots in surrealist automatic writing. But where the surrealist automation was about freeing us from modern mechanization and machine uniformity by knocking us out of our comfort zones, 750 strives for us to be comfortable, and it succeeds in this goal of feeding our writing machines.

The running word count at the page bottom is timed as if one were keeping score in a videogame.  In fact, words translate into a point system if one is interested in measuring writing production in that way. Most successfully in 750 Words, writers acquire badges for maintaining their daily writing streak, and these badges reward the same way as when we loved getting stickers as kids. Furthermore, the fact that the writing may be done anytime during that 24 hours (not a minute before or after), even start and stopped during the day to meet one’s schedule, gives the participant a considerable amount of personal control over what can normally be a burdensome task.  Accomplishing the daily words earns badges that begin with an egg , progress to flighted birds , and extend to mythical incarnations such as the Phoenix, extinct Pterodactyl, and undiscovered Space Bird. Badges claim to be mysterious, and the page on badge taxonomy suggests others might appear at any moment to comment on our writing behaviors and budding abilities for eloquence and fluidity. The promise is that even if one were to achieve the 500 day badge, there’s still more to be gained. The brilliance of this cannot be understated, for this parallels the spontaneity and emergence that freewriting ideally produces.

Another worthwhile feature is the stats provided for the day, month, and eternity.  An algorithm attempts with some success to understand the words we type and to identify our writerly moods and content.  And as one might expect, the website’s designer provides links to a blog, personal settings page, and a patron level, where one has the opportunity to sponsor this free service.  More advanced features include the ability to reviewing one’s past writings according to the day, storing words under secret password protection (the equivalent of a diary lock), searching old entries using a word or phrase that is complete with an export tool, and a monthly challenge that includes a “Wall of Shame.”

Like many Web 2.0 applications, the site provides users the experience of what’s come to be called social presence. That means even solitary writers who like to spend time with their own thoughts and expression are gratified by knowing others elsewhere are doing the same thing. The most individual and isolated among us feel the benefit of finishing with a satisfying visual confirmation, and feel intimately part of something larger when our name appears next to others who just completed their 750 words minutes before or seconds after us. Different time zones add to this global presence when the minutes match those around us but the hours indicate that someone somewhere on the other side of the world put one word and line after another into their own narratives–building talent through the exercise of daily writing muscles.

Any pressure to write bestselling literature is removed.  Sometimes, participation is about nothing more than misspelling words that no one would be able to read even if they were made public.

Personally, I’m going to keep writing using 750 words for as long as I can, or at least until I can earn the 100 day badge. It’s right for me because it supports my writing identity, and the first and last rule to define writers is that they write. It’s a simple dictum, even if it is far from easy to become good at it. But becoming good isn’t the main point of being a writer, and it certainly isn’t the point of participating in 750 Words. The point here is that this 2.0 Web App understands writing is a process of becoming. Or as we say in rhet-comp, “writing is a practice.” And whether writing 1 or 751 words daily, that is the journey that defines our path.

NOTE: this entry was written and revised over three days using 750 Words. 

Awards from the Center for Plain Language

April 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: invention, Professional Writing, rhetoric, WAC 

We shouldn’t defend bad language and writing, and it isn’t productive to blame or complain.  We should do something about it.  The Center for Plain Language, a fairly new nonprofit, is looking to improve how people and companies write for audiences through granting awards to the some of the “best and worst” writing; let me emphasized that the key marker here for granting the award is audience.  CPL explains that “The definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.”  Writing should attend to people’s needs, however.   No doubt, this rubs people the right way because citizens are justifiably frustrated with bureaucratic language.

As I said, we shouldn’t defend unclear writing, but we should understand why it happens before taking action.  It’s not a lack of will.  Often, cloudy writing is an issue of authority.  If a writer or speaker is worried how others will respond (get angry, not accept, and/or penalize the statements made), he or she will become veiled or convoluted in his or her language.  Syntax and diction becomes obscure.  Writing for a boss or teacher who has authority over us then promotes long-noun phrases, nominalization, and/or searching through the thesaurus for a “unique,” if not always “the best,” word.  Politicians and legislators may be especially susceptible because they are sensitive to public or party opinion.  Lawyers use legalese, in part, to distance themselves from their audiences because the distance distinguishes them (and protect themselves) from others, implying status.  Thus, I’d like people to remember the next time they disparage “un”plain language that negotiating authority in writing is at least as important as language control and understanding audience.

As another example, consider academics, who are often accused of producing more jargon than knowledge.  Sure, sometimes, people–academic professionals or otherwise–don’t really have much to say and inflate their words to compensate.  Yet theoretical language and words do have their place. If the same words and grammar are used, judgments and conclusions tend to promote the same ideas and constrain innovation.  Since writing assists how one thinks and understands a subject or advances one’s analysis, theorizing and using new vocabulary is a messy, unclear process in expression.  But again, this happens because writing for one’s own purpose(s) can be important.  In addition, specialized language promotes bonding within a discipline.  If academics can recognize peers researching similar problems, for a time, speaking in specialized “tongues” assists comprehension of the solutions proposed.  We accept specialized tools for getting labor done more easily, and since we know language is a tool, why don’t we see jargon as a disciplinary tool?  Mostly, we are annoyed by it.  And we should be irritated when institutions disable us, not that the language isn’t universally transparent.  Language isn’t telepathy but always requires interpretation.

If you are interested in some “clear” examples of institutions faltering in their “official” words, check out the NPR story on CPL’s awards.

CCCC Report on Writing Majors at a Glance

The NCTE committee charged with compiling information on undergraduate writing majors has completed its report.  In sum, the CCCC article explaining the results observes there are two types of undergraduate writing majors depending on the college: Liberal Arts or Professional/Rhetorical; the former is founded in creative writing and literature, the latter in writing theory and praxis (418).  Nationally, the writing major is growing with 68 degrees at 65 unique schools documented.  Most are housed in English departments and are either quite flexible and/or interdisciplinary degrees.  Candidates are encouraged to double major.  None of this should is a surprise.  What is interesting, however, is where these points coincide in principle with Cayuga’s own writing concentration.  At Cayuga, many liberal students are interested in creative writing, and professional writing courses are linked to other majors such as business, mechanical tech, computer information, or telecommunications.  This difference is recognized by Cayuga students through their desire for personal-literary expression and writing that gets-things-done.

Overall, two curricular recommendations were made:

  1. The Writing Major might include a foundations/ introductory course such as those found in psychology, sociology, etc.
  2. The bachelors degree should have a capstone experience–i.e. a portfolio, internship, or other experience through which students might draw together and/or apply what they’ve learned about writing.

Finally, it was suggested more rhetorical history and research methods instruction be included in undergraduate writing studies.  Cayuga is addressing these concerns in several ways.  An honors English 101 has been offered successfully that focuses on an Introduction to Writing Studies (rhetoric and composition); plans are in process to offer such designated 101’s in the future.  Professional Writing, a new writing concentration course with an experiential component, will be offered Fall 2010.  Several new one-credit English 238 courses are scheduled for Fall 2010, one on Written (Rhetorical) Invention, another a revision workshop that would help a student’s writing portfolio for transfer or prospective interviews.  In total, Cayuga is making several steps toward meeting the recommendations in the CCCC Report on Writing Majors and looks forwards to continuing to offer a very reasonably affordable education for those interested in writing for careers and transfer.

Considering Academia 2.0, Writing, & the Community College

October 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: History, invention, New Media, postprocess, rhetoric 

“It’s not about timing. It’s not about keeping it short. It’s about relevance.”  –Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University

Wesch is right. Information is not scarce. But even in an information age, knowledge making can be. Writing is more than a container for knowledge; it can help processing, development and production of new knowledge. For this reason, writing to learn and examining expression might present an attractive study for college students. Students crave forums for expression; they want to be heard.  Learning information alongside learning to persuade is powerful and rewarding.  Personal purpose and goals make information relevant, but understanding that we have to talk to one another within different social structures is some of what rhetoric and writing provides in its educational long-term.

If we accept the Academic 2.0 argument about the importance of teaching the “how” and not merely the “what” of information, we embrace the importance of writing and rhetorical studies. We can then work to implement communication activities beyond the lecture and can accept communication’s interdisciplinary habits in addition to its residing within the domain of the English department.

That said, community college students often face a wider digital divide than assumed under Web 2.0 arguments. It’s incorrect to assume all students have been naturalized to blogs, wikis, mashups, or mobile networks. This is not to say community colleges give up. The opportunities to write and research with these technologies are likely to accelerate, and ignoring the latest developments because not everyone knows them will only widen the technological divide. However, it is important to acknowledge what many (considering that the majority of students in the country are community college students perhaps I should say “the majority of”) freshmen are not digital natives. And if their professors must immigrate to the digital too, there is a tendency to go with what is most comfortable: chalk and talk, lecture and note take, and read/discuss.

While I see nothing wrong with these classroom approaches in general, academia needs to consider seriously Wesch’s earlier observation that The Machine is Us/ing Us, for our media platforms rewrite how we compose and make language (and therefore knowledge).

Or as one of the comments under the Academia 2.0 video says,

Academia is dead! learning can be done faster and better outside of universities, renting an office space and committing yourself to learning a subject has far less distractions...

Community colleges’ missions center on learning and job training, so I say, Why not put the media machine into the curriculum? It’s influencing how people gather information and make personal, civic, and business decisions. Academica can become more relevant if entry points to the network are practiced in and outside the classroom.

So blog on…

Using Topoi to Write an Essay

September 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: invention, rhetoric 

Got an essay to write? Has freewriting given you nothing?
Don’t know how to fill in your outline? Can’t development a thesis argument?

Try using Aristotle’s Topoi as modernized by Mark Marino, Jack Blum, Kevin Egan at the USC Writing Program.

The Widget works, but the videos above don’t play.
If interested in understanding more about Topoi, watch the youtube copies below.