Wednesday Workshop on a Saturday
One year I volunteered to teach the Introduction and Welcome to University course that I had helped design. It lasted twelve weeks (a single semester) and introduced students to the basic survival skills needed to study Liberal Arts at the university level. These included reading a single book, planning and writing essays on that book, examination techniques and sitting mini-exams, how to set about research, thinking and analytical skills, all that sort of thing.
I chose to read Room with a View by E. M. Forster, partly because the film would allow students to better visualize and understand what they were reading. We read a couple of chapters a week, and every week I held a mini test on the chapters read. The test included (1) give the meaning of five words chosen from the chapter; (2) a commentary on any 2 from 3-5 single sentence extracts from the chapter; and (3) an invitation to point out (a) what was going right with the course, (b) what was going wrong; and (c) an invitation to request a one on one meeting with me. There were initially 36 students in my section of the course and although half of them had never before read a book in its entirety, 34 of them successfully completed the course.
A dictionary was one of the key components. On day one I outlined the syllabus and exhorted the students to “use the dictionary” every class, every day. In response to my request for “any questions” a young lady raised a tentative hand and whispered … “I know it’s a stupid question, sir, but …” I stopped her right there. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” I stated. “Whatever you want to ask, there are probably five other people who also want to ask that question, but who are afraid to raise their hands. You are the brave one. You are the first to ask. Congratulations. Now: what do you want to know?” I cannot remember what her question was, but I do know that many of the students wrote down the answer I gave her.
I followed up this speech with another one. “This is first year university. All of you have questions. Whatever your background, you may feel ignorant and lacking in knowledge. There’s no crime in that. However, if after four years you have never asked a question and you are still ignorant and lacking in knowledge, then shame on you. You have wasted four years of your life.”
The first two tests were dummy runs: no marks, just the answers. Within two weeks you could tell the students from my section of this course: they were the ones with well-thumbed dictionaries in their back-packs. They asked questions, they checked the spelling and meaning of every word, and they got their money’s worth in education.
I want to say the same thing about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. We are bloggers, we are writers, we want to be the best we can be. So: work at it. In the tabs under Review, MSWord has three very useful tools: Spelling and Grammar, Thesaurus, and Language. When I click on Spelling & Grammar, I get a message stating thatmy heading, Gramm’er uh?, is not in the dictionary. Well, surprise, surprise. S&G make several suggestions (none of them useful in this instance) but the tag Check Grammar suggests the direction my heading should be taking. Use this tool. Work with it. It will help you, if you are having difficulties. It may suggest alternatives ways of expressing yourself, one of which may turn out to be useful.
The Thesaurus tool is also very useful. As an active poet and writer I am always looking for different ways to express my thoughts, and synonyms (words of the same meaning) and antonyms (words with the opposite meaning) are most useful since they assist me in my search for better ways to express myself. When I clicked on Thesaurus, better was highlighted and well over fifty different ways of expressing better (and its opposites) were laid out before me. Scanning them rapidly, I thought of various ways in which the sentence that included the word better could be bettered / enhanced / improved / ameliorated / developed / or simply changed for the better.
As for the Language tab, well: I was educated in Wales and England (English UK) but moved to Canada (English Can) and published widely in the USA (English USA). Spelling changes, as do word meanings, and the English I now speak and write just isn’t the English I learned in school. I need to check my spelling across three variants. Auto-correct will do this for me. But I need to be aware of which spelling system I have clicked upon, or all will not be well. MSWord will also auto-correct punctuation for me. I do not like this tool, especially when writing poetry, as I use punctuation for different ends within poetry. However, it does keep an eye on my writing and how I punctuate it. Speaking and writing three languages, English, French, and Spanish can also be a problem, and differentiating between, for example, profesor, professor, and professeur can sometimes be a problem: one –f- or two, one –s- or two? Auto-correct just changed my Spanish into English by adding an extra –s- … not good in a document written in Spanish.
The modern answer to the dictionary in the pocket (hence pocket dictionary, wow!) is Google. Almost anything can be Googled: grammar, punctuation, spelling, doubts, memories, facts. You can check them all out on Google. It takes only a few moments to search for something and, if necessary, to refine that search until you finally get what you are looking for. A word of warning: get your muse-inspired writing down on the page. Only check your words after you have written them. The flow of inspiration is paramount. The second thoughts that come as a result of revision and checking will usually improve your work, but there is no substitute for that initial flow of creativity.
Main message: never surrender. Never give up. We are writers. We are bloggers. We are here to explore language and to get the better of it. We want to make it work for us. There are many ways of doing this. Find the ones that suit you and slowly, bit by bit, inch by inch, turn yourself into the writer you aspire to be. And remember: if you want to break the rules, no problem. But it helps to know them first … then you know what you are breaking and are conscious of the results.