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With the current pandemic prompting restrictions on public gatherings and onsite classes, we’re all more physically separated from each other.  Devising your own independent study activities can be a reassuring way to engage with the world … and keep your joy-of-learning flame burning.  

Communicating at a distance means that writing is probably playing a more significant role in your life: you may be composing more text messages, emails, and written assignments than ever before.  As your need to write increases, along with enforced time alone, consider refining your writing skills with the help of the best teachers: good writers.

Start from the source: books, stories, articles, and other texts that you find interesting and well-written.  The “you” part here is important: allow your own preferences, feelings, and instincts to guide you.  This is a chance to explore writing that is meaningful to you — NOT what someone else chooses for you or claims you “should” read.  

Notice sentences that make an impression on you.  Did you like one particular part of a piece you just read?  Did the opening page of a novel have a mysterious or magical effect on you?  Did your boss or teacher write something so useful or clear that you’d like to emulate their technique?  

Re-read those sentences carefully.  What did you like so much?  Why do you think so? 

The answers to these questions can lead directly to improving your own writing skills, but you’ll need to exert some energy.  Are you ready?   

If English is your second language, try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity: 

a) Translate several well-written English sentences or paragraphs into your first language.

b) Wait a few days (or longer) so you can forget the details of the original English.

c) Without looking at the original text, translate your translation back into English.  

d) Compare your English translation with the English original, notice the differences … and learn from them!

Back-translation is a simple idea, but doing it takes commitment and effort!  So limit your first attempt to just a few sentences that really interest you: a short excerpt that struck you as useful, meaningful, or beautiful. 

The final step — comparing your back-to-English translation with the original — will show you how you can improve your written English.  You’ll notice differences in word choices, sentence structures, and punctuation & style elements that you can immediately apply to your next writing task.  Pay special attention to aspects of the original that you did NOT include or incorporate fully in your translation: these oversights will show you what you need to learn, as opposed to what you’re already good at.  

One rewarding aspect of this comparative analysis is that you choose the material and you manage the process yourself.  The text itself is the key, the writer is your virtual teacher, and you are in the driver’s seat.  Drive on … and enjoy the journey!

A version of this article will appear soon in NYU’s English Language Institute blog.

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)

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With so much content on the internet to use for refining your English language skills, the choices can seem overwhelming!  One site to include in your listening diet is The Moth (TheMoth.org), a public radio program / website / podcast dedicated to storytelling: people tell true personal stories in front of a live audience.  Like moths drawn to a flame, we humans are powerfully attracted to stories told “around the campfire” (actual or proverbial), so a storytelling-focused site is likely to entertain and enlighten YOU … as you hone your listening skills. 

Here are some tips on using Moth stories for language practice:

-1- Visit TheMoth.org and browse the most recent episode of The Moth Radio Hour (“See This Episode”), which usually includes 3-4 stories: scroll down to see titles, storytellers’ names, and one-sentence summaries.  The length of each story is listed in minutes:seconds (e.g., 12:47).  Browse other links on the site to find additional programs and stories.

-2- Some — but NOT most — stories offer a transcript, which can help you confirm your comprehension and study details like new vocabulary.  When you use a computer and link to a story title, a “Read Transcript” link may appear below, along with the more common links “Listen Now” and “Add to Playlist.”  You can also search the site for the key word “transcript” — a list of stories with transcripts will appear. 

-3- Consider borrowing a “The Moth Presents” transcript book from the library, featuring full scripts of popular stories: the two latest editions are Occasional Magic (2019) and All These Wonders (2017).  You can look over the first part of a transcript to identify a story you like, and then locate the audio at TheMoth.org.  To vary your practice, listen to stories with — and without — the transcript.

-4- Listen to the first 2-3 minutes of a story to discover whether you like the content and speaker’s voice — if you’re not interested within 3 minutes, try a different story.

-5- When you find a story that interests you, listen to all of it … and then listen again for details you missed the first time.  If possible, use a transcript to study new vocabulary in detail.  

-6- When you’re familiar with the content, use the story AGAIN for pronunciation practice by playing it phrase by phrase: PAUSE after each short phrase (a short sentence, or one part of a longer sentence), REPEAT it ALOUD … play the next phrase, PAUSE, and repeat!  

-7- If you like The Moth and want to receive the latest programs and episodes on your smartphone, subscribe to the podcast version.

Although professional performers sometimes appear on The Moth, most storytellers are ordinary people who have compelling stories to tell: their “pitches” are screened by Moth staffers, and if they’re selected to perform, storytellers receive tips and coaching on effective ways to present their stories.  The result for YOU is well-told tales that may make you laugh, cry, or both … and worthwhile content to help you enhance your own English language skills!

This article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on March 18, 2020.

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)
Learn with Lloyd!

You’re not going to magically become a better writer just by reading.  After all, would you expect to become a better speaker just by listening?  If you want to build your writing skills, you have to do one thing: write!  Doing assignments for a class is important, and revising after receiving feedback is especially important.  But if you really want to improve your skills, challenge yourself to write regularly … not for class, but for yourself.  Give yourself writing tasks:

Try a back-translation — a challenging but effective self-directed activity (follow the steps for this process outlined in my blog post “Writing in the Time of Corona”).

Keep a writing journal: Write for 15-30 minutes every day, no matter what.  Write about anything that comes to mind; if nothing comes to mind, write about nothing coming to mind!  It’s good language practice, and writing about “nothing” is still writing; after a few minutes, the very act of writing can stimulate your idea flow.  Journal writing can improve your abilities to organize your thoughts and express yourself precisely, abilities that apply to both writing and speech.

Self-Dictation: Choose an article or story you enjoyed, and record your voice reading it aloud, and then play back the recording as a self-dictation.  Write each sentence, pausing or replaying the recording in the same way a teacher delivers a dictation in class.  Finally, check your spelling and punctuation against the original text.  Regular dictations/self-dictations will improve your writing skills.

Copy good sample paragraphs and entire essays or other documents: Get deeply acquainted with a writer’s word choices and sentence structures.  The text you choose serves as your “tutor” — it demonstrates good writing, and you absorb the lesson well because you’re doing it … not just thinking about it.

As a learning tool, copying is not taboo!  If you consider a particular sentence, paragraph, or essay well written, analyze what makes it well written.  If you want to learn to write like that, copy it!  Copying is a natural way to learn any craft.  Most human skills are acquired largely through imitation: artists copy masters to learn their techniques; musicians practice the works of other musicians and composers; babies learn to speak by imitating adults; second-language learners imitate first-language models.  Unfortunately, the taboo against copying other people’s ideas inhibits many student writers from using copying as a tool for building writing skills.  But this kind of copying is entirely different from plagiarism; private writing practice exercises are not the same as false public presentations of others’ ideas as your own.  Copying is a natural way to boost your writing competence.

Follow Good Examples

Start noticing how writers write.  When you like a piece of writing, examine it closely.  What part did you like the most?  Why?  Did you like certain words/phrases, or the simplicity or complexity of a particular sentence?  What kinds of sentence structures impressed you?

In addition to pieces by professional writers, documents written by your boss, your teachers, your faculty advisor — anyone whose writing you’d like to emulate — are worth considering.  And be sure to examine published articles, brochures, websites, and reports that relate to your field or specialty.  Such documents may serve as excellent models for your own professional writing.  Imitate good models — not just by reading them, but by moving your fingers: respond to them in your writing journal, record and use them for self-dictations, or copy them!

Avoiding Writer’s Block

April 26, 2020

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The Writing Process

Do you suffer from writer’s block — the inability to write when you desperately want or need to write?  If so, you may be mixing your two distinct roles as creator and critic.

Writing requires creative efforts (planning and drafting) and critical efforts (reviewing, refining, checking, and changing).  These two efforts complement each other when applied at different times, but compete with each other when applied at the same time.  Writer’s block often results from trying to create and criticize simultaneously.  It’s as if two parts of our brain were at war with each other!

Creativity is about “What if…” “How about…” “Let’s try…” “Maybe…” “Yes!”  

Criticism is about “That’s awkward.” “Too simple.” “Doesn’t work.” “Not right.” “No!”

For a smoother, more enjoyable writing experience, and to help yourself produce your best writing, separate your creative efforts from your critical efforts.  The next time you’re facing a professional, academic, official, or creative writing task, try this approach:

CREATE
-1- Plan
-2- Draft

Take a break!

CRITIQUE
-3- Refine
-4- Check

Here are some thoughts on each step in the process:

A. CREATE

1. Plan: Think, make notes, sketch, outline, or roughly map out your basic ideas.  Focus on your purpose — why are you writing this particular document?  What do you want the reader to understand?  What is your main message?  What are other key points you want your reader to know?  If you’re stuck, try five minutes of freewriting.*

*Freewriting means writing whatever words and thoughts come into your mind — without editing at all.  Such freestyle writing can be completely off the topic: irrelevant personal thoughts, disorganized sentences, even silly ideas.  Sentences like “Well, I’m supposed to write but I have no idea how to start” are welcome.  This technique helps some writers establish a connection between their natural thoughts and the artificial act of writing.  After a few minutes, more relevant ideas will flow and the paralysis of writer’s block will be broken!

2. Draft.  Focus on your goal and purpose.  Don’t think too much about writing well — it’s too early in the process to worry about being clear, concise, courteous, complete, or correct.  Let your ideas flow into your fingers spontaneously, roughly, awkwardly, messily, and quickly.

* * * STOP.  Take a break.  You need to relax your creative engine and let a calmer, more critical perspective return.  Even a 3-minute break will help you see your rough draft with a fresh eye.  Don’t mix the creative and critical processes. * * *

B. CRITIQUE

3. Refine: Review and revise.  Move sentences, paragraphs, and entire sections.  Take another break and do it again.  Put yourself in your reader’s place and slowly read from the beginning: are the order and flow of your ideas logical and clear?  Are your paragraphs easy to read?  Are your sentences easy to understand? 

If not, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite — several times, if necessary.  Professional writers rewrite extensively, so how can you expect not to rewrite?  Ask another person to review and comment on your revised draft. 

4. Check: Only when you’re sure your latest revision is the best possible one, make final adjustments and edits.  Finally, check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.  Discipline yourself to postpone this final check until the last possible moment.  If you do it too early, you may be wasting your time, as your refining efforts (Step 3) may not be complete, and you may end up rewriting entire sections of your draft. 

*  *  *  *  *

Try to apply this process to your next writing task.  The most profitable part is the first one: planning.  Most people want to get writing tasks done as quickly as possible, so they begin writing what they think will be their final version.  If they’re wise, they begin to realize that what they’re writing is just a first draft, which will need refining and checking.  

Planning allows you to discover, organize, and structure your ideas in advance to save time in drafting, not spend extra time!  Give yourself the gift of planning, and know that your initial “writing” is really drafting — and you’ll immediately become a better writer.