In November I will be participating in National Novel Writing Month–or NaNoWriMo–an international contest where I will, once again, write a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days. I participated in 2013 and, with the help of my hometown NaNoWriMo chapter, completed my utterly awful first novel that no one will ever read ever. Continue Reading ›
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Here’s a tip: keep some sheep leather and blue gauls handy…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!