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Issue for January 2012

Online Grammar Resources

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:35 PM

The best places on the Web to go for grammatical expertise.

By Meredith L. Dias

We all have different house style guidelines, but some grammatical rules are universal. What are the best online resources for brushing up on those rules? This month, we round up some of the most popular grammar websites. Of course, this is just a small sampling of the many websites available. Please feel free to share some of your favorites with us.

Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty, also known as "Grammar Girl," has established herself as one of the leading grammar gurus on the Internet. With updates nearly every day, her website is always offering up a new grammatical topic up for discussion. The extensive archive of past topics makes the site a premier spot for brushing up on restrictive clauses or determining whether or not it's okay to use "impact" as a verb. The website also features frequent podcasts about grammar-related topics. Visit her website here.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

The Purdue OWL website has long been a vital resource to high school and college students, but its value transcends the academic. The website is quite user-friendly, with a links menu on the left of specific grammar topics (with drop-down menus for each topic). You can visit the grammar website here. Purdue OWL has also launched a blog (updated sporadically) to explore current grammatical debates and trends in more depth. You can read the blog here.

About.com Grammar and Composition

About.com's grammar and composition website is a comprehensive grammar resource for writers. Grammar and Composition Guide Richard Nordquist runs the site. Content is organized into four main tabs: grammar and composition, words and sentences, paragraphs and essays, and style and figures of speech. The grammar site features informational articles, blog posts, and writing exercises. Visit it here.

Capital Community College Grammar Guide

This is one of the senior grammar websites online. Don't be fooled by the somewhat outdated website design; this is a top-notch resource for both professional and academic writers. When it comes to grammar-related search terms, the CCC grammar site often pops up in the top five Google results. The website splits topics into multiple levels (similar to About.com's site): word/sentence-level, paragraph-level, and research paper/essay-level. There are also quizzes and Q&A sections. Visit the website: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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Editors and Teachers

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:35 PM

Praise is a potent force.

By Peter P. Jacobi

This is about editing and teaching.

This is about Roger Rosenblatt, Romeo and Juliet, a Liberian mask-carver, Franz Liszt, and a pianist named Andor Foldes.

As teacher of writing courses for journalism students, I am, of course, an editor. Recently, as teacher/editor, I had just returned a set of features with multitudinous scrawls in red plastered over copy. And I had reminded the class about problems that seemed to pervade: failure to carefully consider for whom the story was written, with the result that the approach used to get into the subject seemed faulty; leads that fell short on enticement or that didn't get the story properly underway; lack of a thesis telling potential readers what the forthcoming story was about; flawed structure or no clearly evident sense of direction; the absence of detail, making points far less persuasive or comprehensible than they might have been; poor transitions; verbal and/or informational choppiness; deficient flow of copy resulting from the writer not having read the copy aloud; opinions where there should have been none, and so forth.

Subtle, Graceful Instruction

I had also just read Roger Rosenblatt's just-published re-creation of a writing class, the remembrance in narrative form of a semester spent with a dozen students at Stony Brook University, where he is a distinguished professor of English and writing. Rosenblatt's book is titled Unless It Moves the Human Heart, The Craft and Art of Writing (ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins).

This is a relaxed little volume, comfortably, almost subtly, instructive. One will find in its pages, amidst accounts of class conversations, wisdoms like this: "I believe in spare writing. Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences. Fragmented sentences, sometimes. I enjoy dropping in exotic words from time to time. Either they put off readers or drive them to the dictionary. I do it anyway. "

And wisdoms like this: "Most of my students suffer bouts of throat clearing -- overwriting and hesitating at the beginning of a piece, instead of plunging in. The mistake derives from their not knowing what they mean to say."

I enjoyed the book. You may, too.

Which leads me to say: I may not always offer my own students such advice so gracefully or gently as Professor Rosenblatt, but I do offer it. Just as, I'm sure, you do to those who work with you in creating your publications.

Constructive Criticism

At the same time I returned that set of student papers, I received more, these being reviews of a local production of Shakespeare's glorious tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The assignment, as part of a class in "Reporting the Arts," was to write the review on a two-and-a-half hour deadline. I had at that point not yet read the results carefully but merely glanced at what the students produced under pressure. I noticed the usual flaws. I noticed evidence of rush. I noticed some good ideas and good ideas well phrased.

I also noticed some diatribes voiced against a production that, I admit, had a number of weaknesses but also a here-and-there strength. To give you just one example: "On Sunday night's closing performance of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, the death of the star-crossed lovers could not have come sooner. Never before had I seen the Bard's most noted tragedy bawdier, more bombastic or miscast than the ... Company's rendition." And that was only the start of an expressed opinion which included words like hopeless, disagreeable, and obnoxious.

I told the students that I had skimmed their reviews and, as result, wanted to share with them a quote, that of a Liberian mask-carver expressing an emotion felt on observing his own handiwork: "It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world," noted the mask-carver. "His face is shining. He looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme [spirit] has brought to mind. I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing that I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children."

Then I paused and said, "Why would I have read that quote to you?"

There was silence, for quite a spell. "Why, I ask you?"

There was more silence and, finally, a raised hand. One student ventured, "Maybe we were too negative, too strongly opinionated? Maybe we forgot the hard work that went into the show, even though some of us didn't like the results?"

"Indeed," I responded. "And thank you. There are opinions and there are opinions. There is negativity and there is negativity. There are ways of saying things and there are ways of saying things. It's not just what you write but how. You must be honest when you share an opinion. You must say what you feel needs to be said. But keep in mind that motivated and hard-working folks are at the other end of your published views. To teach them what you know, do you need to rip and tear?"

Silently, all the while, I reminded myself that as teacher (and as editor), I need to be honest and frank and clear in my reactions to the work of my students, but also I must remember they have feelings and they're still learning and they (most of them most of the time, at least) are doing their best, flawed thought their work might be.

So, I need to avoid diatribes from me to them. And I suggest to you, as editor/teacher, that the overly sharp, the reproachful rather than helpful reaction to what a colleague of yours produces may result in less improvement, less of a solution to the problem, than a clearly stated yet measured edit, with instructive comments added.

Praise Is Potent

And that's where Franz Liszt comes in. In covering my classical music beat for the local paper, I've been listening to more of Liszt's music of late in concert and on CDs; this is the 200th anniversary year of his birth. That and the above-discussed events reminded me of a brief item that ran in the Reader's Digest some years ago, written by the pianist Andor Foldes, who has since passed away. He wrote of a master class he had given for young pianists in Germany. One student, he said he felt, "would do even better if given a pat on the back. I praised him before the whole class for what distinguished his playing. He immediately outdid himself, to his amazement and that of the group."

Foldes recalled a crisis moment in his life when, at 16, he had differences with his music teacher. By chance, he had the opportunity to play for Emil von Sauer, at that time Liszt's last surviving pupil. Sauer listened to the boy play Bach's "Toccata in C Major" and asked for more. Andor Foldes played Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata and, then, Schumann's "Papillons."

"Finally," wrote Foldes, then in his seventies, "von Sauer rose and kissed me on the forehead. 'My son,' he said, 'when I was your age, I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, 'Take good care of this kiss -- it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.' I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it."

Concluded Foldes: "Nothing in my life has meant as much to me as von Sauer's praise. Beethoven's kiss miraculously lifted me out of my crisis and helped me become the pianist I am today. Soon I, in turn, will pass it on to the one who most deserves it. Praise is a potent force, a candle in a dark room."

We need to remember: along with the slaps on the wrist, a once-in-a-while kiss can go a long way.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:35 PM

Assessing the readability of a Time.com excerpt.

This month, we calculate the Fog Index of an article from Time.com ("Four Industries Apple Can Disrupt in the Near Future," by Tim Bajarin).

"Imagine being able to just tell your TV, 'Find Big Bang Theory,' and it goes right to all available versions on broadcast, cable, your digital video recorder or online. Or ask it about a football player you just saw make a touchdown, and on the bottom of the screen it shows you his stats. Or if you want to find out about Yosemite, just ask Siri and it will find all related video and web content available and give you exact answers to your query on the TV. But perhaps its greatest feat will most likely be to instantly decipher the plethora of web-based video content that is online, and neatly show what is available for a given topic right on your TV screen."

--Word count: 124
--Average sentence length: 31 (29, 25, 34, 36)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (13/124 words)
--Fog Index: (31+10)*.4 = 16 (no rounding)

In this case, the clear culprit is sentence length. While only 10 percent of the words in qualify as "long," the average sentence length is a hefty 31 words. Let's see if we can break this down into more manageable parts.

"Imagine telling your TV, 'Find Big Bang Theory,' and having it display all versions on cable, your DVR, or the Internet. Wondering about a football player you just saw make a touchdown? Ask your TV and get his stats at the bottom of your screen. Want to find out about Yosemite? Just ask Siri and it will find all related video and Web content and display the results on the TV. Most importantly, ITV will collect the plethora of online videos and show available content for a given topic right on your screen."

--Word count: 93
--Average sentence length: 16 words (21, 11, 13, 6, 20, 22)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 9 percent (8/93 words)
--Fog Index: (16+9)*.4 = 10 (no rounding)

The original contained unneeded words and consisted of just four sentences. We were able to turn four sentences into six and trim word count to bring our Fog score down by 7 points. Splitting up longer sentences improved not only the Fog score, but also the rhythm of the writing.

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What SOPA Would Mean for Magazines

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:34 PM

In the news: The implications of SOPA for the magazine industry.

In a January 18th Foliomag.com article, TJ Raphael discusses how the original SOPA legislation might have affected magazines. The anti-piracy Internet bill, due for a cloture vote on January 24 but expected to be voted down, sparked widespread Internet protest from individuals and top sites such as Google and Wikipedia. Legislators plan to rework the bill in the coming weeks to address censorship and Internet freedom concerns.

The Association of Magazine Media (MPA) has remained relatively mum on the issue. However, in a recent statement, the association emphasized the threat that pirated content poses to its industry. However, the SOPA bill as originally written might prove detrimental to advertisers who inadvertently did business with "rogue sites" (i.e., sites with pirated content). Also at stake would be online video content, which might become a copyright infringement nightmare if shared or reposted on social media sites.

Read more about SOPA and the magazine industry here.

Also notable

Reuters Magazine?

In a reversal of recent trends, digital news service Reuters is considering a foray into print publishing. In preparation for the upcoming World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Reuters produced over 10,000 copies of a print magazine edition. The sample edition weighs in at a lean 64 pages with virtually no ad content. Read more here.

Weighing Writing Advice

In a January 19 chat session on Poynter.org, writing guru Roy Peter Clark (author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer) discussed the abundance of available writing advice. Chat participants discussed some of the worst writing advice they had ever received. The full transcript is available here.

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