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eNotes’ Essay Lab is designed to cater to your every writing need. Search our list of tips to tackle the most common essay hurdles, or ask a question of our educators to receive specific help with your prompt, outline, or latest draft. It’s all explained in depth below!

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For many of you, midterms are approaching, which means so are the essays and term papers. If you struggle with writing it can be hard to get the specific help you need, especially from the comfort of your own home. Tutors are expensive, and teachers are often too busy to offer the one-on-one help you need when writing or proofing essay drafts. But at eNotes we’ve got you covered.

With our new and improved Essay Lab you can browse the most important writing tips for free, plus ask questions tailored to your very own essay using our Homework Help service. Let us walk you through this area of eNotes and show how it can help you to study smarter:

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How to Write Like Jane Austen

Here’s a tip: keep some sheep leather and blue gauls handy…

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Yesterday we brought you the recipes to two authors’ favorite meals, so today I give you the recipe to one authoress’ writing success: a good leather bound book and a batch of homemade ink. For those Austen enthusiasts feeling particularly crafty, here is the exact recipe for the ink Jane Austen used, provided by her sister-in-law:

Take 4 ozs of blue gauls [gallic acid, made from oak apples], 2 ozs of green copperas [iron sulphate], 1 1/2 ozs of gum arabic. Break the gauls. The gum and copperas must be beaten in a mortar and put into a pint of strong stale beer; with a pint of small beer. Put in a little refin’d sugar. It must stand in the chimney corner fourteen days and be shaken two or three times a day.

This iron gall ink would then be applied to the page with an old-fashioned quill. But on the quality of the pages themselves, Austen was quite particular. One of her favorites was “a quarto stationer’s notebook… bound with quarter tanned sheep over boards sided with marbled paper. The edges of the leaves [were] plain cut and sprinkled red.” 

Better find yourself some quarter tanned sheep. No self-respecting Austenite would be caught dead without a sheep leather notebook!

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The Best Laid Plans of Novelists

Ever wondered how some of your favorite authors tackled the crazy job of putting pen to paper and creating those stories you loved to read? Well, we’re here to tell you it’s not all magical. As you can see from these intricate spreadsheets and notes, crafting a novel takes a whole lot of careful planning. Just click on any of the following spreadsheets and scribbles for a closer look to find out.

This first is from none other than J. K. Rowling, who planned out all seven books of her Harry Potter series before she had even started writing the second. Here’s part of her plan for Order of the Phoenix:

In the columns, Rowling separates each chapter by its subplots; she lists, “Prophecy,” “O of P” (Order of the Phoenix), “Cho/Ginny” (the romantic subplot of the novel), “Snape,” and “Hagrid” as different story lines to help her keep track of the plot. For a zoomed in look at the detailed spreadsheet, click here.

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The Writer’s Diet: Is a Trim Essay a Good Essay?

WARNING: your writing may be headed for a coronary.

No, this is not an indictment of your eating habits. (Believe me–these days I can hardly put fingers to keyboard without a sugary coffee and half a bag of Cadbury’s mini eggs in me. I am intimately familiar with the ailment that is “writer’s bum.” Ergo, I am NOT the person to school anyone on the deviousness that occurs between hand and mouth.)

I am, however, qualified to speak on the trimness of your writing itself.

Back when I tutored students for the SAT and ACT writing exams, “eloquence” was a prominent focus of the grading rubric. And while eloquence to me, as a Literature and Creative Writing major in university, harkens back to the masters of language–Dickens, Bronte, Austen–”eloquence” (dubious quotation marks and all) to the standardized testing officials actually means quite the opposite; sentences should be devoid of descriptive words, lean to the point of dullness, about as tasty and filling as a leaf of lettuce. It was soul-crushing to teach, though perhaps a necessity when it comes to teaching high school students how to write effectively.

That’s why I found The Writer’s Diet, a new tool that objectively assesses the “leanness” of a writing sample, so interesting. Could it be a helpful tool for students? A measure of eloquence? To find out, I gave it a whirl with one of the best opening paragraphs in the history of the English novel.

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Oh my dickens! Look at that lovely paragraph splattered with ugly neon highlighter. What’s even more injurious to the eyes? The Writer’s Diet test’s fitness rating, which breaks down on a smug little bar graph the faults of A Tale of Two Cities.

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Alright, so I get it that this test is a totally algorithm-based assessment, and that I chose one of the most flowery writing samples in existence to try it out. But to say that Dickens is beyond flabby is frankly insulting. The only way the WD test could redeem itself now was by casting its harsh neon criticism across the greatest assault to English literature I know of… Fifty Shades of Grey.

So yeah, turns out that the passage about the girl feeling adventurous because she borrowed her boyfriend’s toothbrush is officially “Fit & trim.” Nice one, Writer’s Diet.

As it turns out, there is no objective assessment for good writing, because no algorithm can calculate style. And what I didn’t mention before is that style is the one factor of the SAT/ACT grading rubric that separates a mediocre essay from a great one. It’s one thing to be able to simply state a message, and another to instill it in your reader. So before you forsake all commas, dependent clauses, adjectives and adverbs, take some time to become a master of the English language. Scratch that–become an apprentice of the English language. Even a small infusion of style will take you further than you think.

After all, would you rather chomp into a low-fat, gluten free cracker or a dripping, succulent guacamole bacon burger?

Yeah, I think I know your answer to that already.


Having a Ball at the MOTH

Last week I caught a live show called “The Moth.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s a little like a live version of This American Life–ordinary people (some aspiring writers and performers, many not) headline a show in which they each have five minutes to tell a true story on a theme. On the night I was lucky to spectate, the theme was simply “The Deep End.” Performer after performer came to the stage to relay their amazing true tales, which could at once be heartwarming, thrilling, bitter, hilarious, somber, you name it. The stories ranged everywhere from a woman’s return from rehab, to a honeymooning couple’s view from a Nepali mountaintop, to a wife’s desperate plea to stop her husband from taking a bullet for the sake of his Native ancestry. There wasn’t a badly told story amongst them, which meant that what I took from this show was the understanding that everybody has a great story to tell. What most of us need is the guts to tell it, of course, but also the right medium through which to tell it.

For you that may be The Moth (which accepts applications to appear on its main stage year-round, by the way) or it may be by leaving a piece of your art out on the street, waiting to be discovered. It may be through Twitter, WordPress, or Instagram. The important thing is that sharing art is as creative an endeavor as making it.

And if you’re studying the arts, that’s an important lesson to take away. Don’t involve yourself merely in the admiration of others’ art. Be involved in the creation of it. You’ll find a whole new respect for the arts that you study.

Check out this calendar for a Moth show in an area near you. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have the guts to get up and tell that story that’s burning inside of you.

And if you’re in LA, I’ll see you at the Moth on the West Side this Tuesday!


Why College Students Today Can’t Write

Today’s post is brought to you by  Braintrack.com, an online resource for university, college, and career searches. You can check out their blog here!

College professors have been bemoaning the lack of solid writing skills in their students for decades (see this article from 1974 for proof), but statistics gathered over the past few years suggest that student writing skills are in an even more dismal state than they were in 1974. Today, 28% of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, even with tuition reaching record rates and many colleges being more selective than ever. These poor writing skills have had serious ramifications not only in higher education but in the business world, as our information-driven society makes it ever more critical for students to develop the ability to communicate through the written word.

While it’s easy to point out the problem, it’s much harder to figure out a solution. A promising first step can be to pinpoint just what is causing students to arrive and leave college without the skills they’ll need to get by in the real world. That’s easier said than done. The decline of writing abilities in students is a multifaceted issue, impacted by teachers, students, and administrators alike and encompassing all elements of writing education from support to motivation. While not comprehensive, this list addresses some of the biggest reasons so many students struggle with writing in colleges today, from freshman year to graduation.

One of the biggest reasons college students can’t write may simply be due to the fact that most college courses and degree programs don’t demand it of them. In the book Academically Adrift most freshmen reported “little academic demand in terms of writing” and half of college seniors reported never having written a paper longer than 20 pages during their last year of college. Students who aren’t being required to submit papers that are academically challenging have little opportunity to learn and grow as writers, which can hold them back academically. In fact, the same study showed that students who took classes with high expectations (those with 40 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more from their courses than their peers in less demanding courses.
Many students enter college with sub-par writing skills because of inadequate writing instruction in their high school courses. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007 found that just 24% of high school seniors could score proficient or better on a writing exam. Things haven’t changed much for the better since then, and many fear that high schools are failing students when it comes to teaching writing. Why is this happening? At some schools, teachers simply don’t have enough time to leave adequate feedback on lengthy student papers when they have 120 or more students in their courses. Another problem that many experts have pointed to is that high schools simply don’t focus on writing instruction. Schools are often so caught up in boosting scores in skills that are tested in state exams like math, science, and reading, that writing simply falls by the wayside. There are schools trying to make improvements, with some making writing a central part of their curricula, but there’s still a long way to go before America’s high school students will graduate with improved writing abilities across the board.
Whether it’s fair to students or not, many college professors don’t want to dedicate class time to teaching students remedial writing skills they should really already know by the time they reach college. Giving increased attention to writing means that not only do professors have less class time to focus on the true subject of the course, they also have to dedicate hours of time outside of class to rigorously correcting student papers in order to make progress in improving student writing. This kind of grading is time-consuming and frustrating, and with many writing-intensive courses no longer being simply English classes, it’s often a distraction from learning other material.

It isn’t just professors and employers who’ve taken note of the dwindling writing skills of college students. Students themselves are also well aware that they need a little more help in their writing. In a national study of 30,000 undergraduates, fewer than 50% felt that their writing had improved over the four years they were in school. A similar study reported that just 27.6% of students saw improvement in their writing by graduation. The reason students cited for the lack of progress? Inadequate feedback and support. Eighty percent of students in the study said they felt they would have become better writers if they had received more feedback and direct interaction from professors.
At the majority of American colleges, writing requirements are fulfilled by passing a couple of courses deemed as “writing intensive.” Yet that doesn’t always ensure that students will graduate knowing how to write or be any good at it. Some schools, like Old Dominion University, used to require that students pass a writing test before graduation, but tests like these are being phased out or dropped. Why? Too many students failed them. While they may have represented an outdated model for assessing student abilities, the fact that a significant portion of students couldn’t pass them is troubling to say the least. At most colleges, a C or better in a handful of writing courses is a ticket to graduation, but with grade inflation rampant it’s unclear what degree of writing ability that truly represents. With little motivation to push themselves to learn to improve writing, many students graduate without ever mastering grammar, syntax, or analytical writing.
Grade inflation is a very real phenomenon (today, 43% of all grades are A’s, an increase of 28% since 1960) and one that is slowly starting to take a serious toll on what students actually get out of their educational experiences. Students don’t just hope to earn a good grade, many actually expect it, whether their work warrants it or not. Sadly, a growing number of professors are happy to oblige, as student feedback on faculty ratings can be key to helping them keep jobs, get tenure, and get ahead. This has had a serious impact on the level of writing that many college students produce, as those who don’t feel compelled to do more than the minimum to pass courses are getting by with less than ever before. Harsh, strict grading and evaluation of papers used to be common practice. The lack of this same kind of rigor may just be a contributing factor to why students can’t write as well today.
From the Ivy League to community colleges, read a classroom’s worth of essays and you’re bound to come across a student using “text speak” or overly casual vernacular in their academic writing. While these kinds of abbreviations and words might work in everyday conversation, they’re generally unacceptable in college level writing. The problem is that many students don’t understand that what works in speech or in a casual discussion doesn’t quite cut it in a college essay. Even worse, many are allowed to get by with these language blunders in their courses, both in high school and beyond. It doesn’t bode well for academic standards or for students who want to earn respect in the workplace.
Many colleges have done away with the basic freshman comp courses in lieu of courses in the social sciences that are writing-intensive. While writing intensive courses in the social sciences aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves (and many social science professors are great writers), they aren’t really a substitute for writing-focused courses that are designed to give incoming students rigorous foundation in writing. R.V. Young, a professor at North Carolina State, recalls that in 1970, students at the school were required to take a composition course spanning two semesters. During the course, students had to write 25 papers all of which were graded harshly by professors. These kinds of courses have largely disappeared in colleges nationwide and have been replaced with other hybrid courses, with few containing the same rigorous, focused attention on writing.
Before students can become great writers, they have to learn (at least) two basic things: the rules of good writing and how to think critically and creatively. Yet many education experts have pointed out that schools fail to adequately teach students either of those things in secondary school and beyond. Students are more often taught what to think, not how to think, and as a result often don’t understand how to expand on ideas, apply rules in a broader sense, or even begin to understand what constitutes great writing. Of course, there’s a line to walk between the structure and creativity that sometimes just doesn’t get through to students. One example? Students learn to format writing in forms that are rarely seen in the real world (how often do you see the five-paragraph essay?), causing them to have to unlearn what they’ve learned just to progress to the level of their college peers.
Why does it matter if today’s college grads aren’t great writers? It should matter to college students themselves, as those who enter the working world without writing skills, even those who aren’t working in a writing-centric profession, may find it harder to get a job or to perform the duties their employers require. More seriously, however, poor writing can have a negative effect on the economy. The National Committee on Writing estimates that poor writing costs businesses as much as $3.1 billion annually. If students are pouring tens of thousands into a college education, shouldn’t more than half graduate believing they’ve improved their writing skills? Shouldn’t employers be able to trust that students have basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics if they hold a college degree? While ideally, the answer to both of those questions should be yes, the reality is that neither is a guarantee in today’s world.

What Are You Doing for the Next 30 Days? NaNoWriMo, That’s What

All you fellow writers out there know… tell anyone, anyone at all… the taxi driver, a sales clerk, your grandfather, what you do for a living and 50% of the time you will get  a version of the following: “A writer, huh? You know, I always thought I had a novel in me.” The other 50% of the time, you will get a variation of this response:  “I have always felt my life story would make a great book. I need to write that down soon.”

And who is to say that some of these people DON’T actually have a book inside them? (Well, we are pretty sure the gum-chomping girl at the Abercrombie does not, but then again, this is a real thing in the world.) During the month of November, you can tell those would-be writers, and perhaps yourself, to stop talking about it and really do it.

You will be in good company. NaNoWriMo is the acronym for National Novel Writing Month.  NaNoWriMo is a collaborative effort involving thousands of writers and millions of words.

According to the project’s website, NaNoWriMo is “the world’s largest writing event and nonprofit literary crusade. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30. “There are no judges, no prizes, and entries are deleted from the server before anyone even reads them.”

So what are you waiting for? November 1st is already half over… and you still have 50,000 words to go.


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