Pearson Adult Learning Centre

Beginning January, 2000

Tips for Writers: Archive


Quotes: Good Writers 

In the quote to the right from Hamlet, Shakespeare writes "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Thus, it is how we choose to see something that counts. In writing, be aware of how other people see things, and you will surely improve. (September 3)

HAMLET A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

—Shakespeare, from Hamlet (September 3)

In English, when we "see it with our own eyes" we tend to believe it is true. The eyes are the most powerful sense organ. Appeal to the colour and movement of the world in your writing. Look at the excerpt at the right to see a masterful example by Lorna Crozier. (Aug. 29)

Wind ruffles the grass
the way her hand strokes
the bristles on her mother's brush
until they spark and snap.
A shadow ripples across her face,
something between her body
and the sun. You can't get me,
she wants to whisper. I'm dead.

—Governor General's award winner for poetry, Lorna Crozier, from her poem, "Playing Dead." (Aug. 29)

If we can hear, we can speak. If we use hearing in our work, then others around us can hear it, too, in the imagination. We laugh, all of us; we cry together. Use the sounds you hear to reach out to the reader waiting, ready to listen. (Aug. 21)

Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess we'll just have to make the best of it.

—Alden Nowlan from his poem, "It's Good to Be Here" (Aug. 21)

Taste is a sense very close to our heart. It is the sense we use in a social setting, with other people. Many cultures celebrate special tastes together on festive occasions. Use this sense to bring your writing to life. The quote below is striking because it brings to mind the unique water of artesian wells on the Canadian prairie. (Aug. 15)

I wait at the edge, see the spring below:
Go and drink sulphur sweet water.

—Brad Hyde, from my poem, "Walking the Prairie" (Aug. 15)

Did you know that our skin is the largest organ in our bodies? We are creatures of touch. Use the sense of touch in your writing, then, to reach the reader in a personal way. See how Ondaatje uses touch in the excerpt to the right. (Aug. 6)

This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

—Michael Ondaatje from his poem "Bearhug" (Aug. 6)

Can you remember the smell of your mother's kitchen? Can you imagine the smell of the grass after a spring rain? Yes? Our sense of smell is powerfully connected to our memories. Use smell, then, to make your writing more powerful and smelly! (July 29)

Who that has reason, and his smell,
would not among roses and jasmines dwell,
Rather than all his spirits choke
With exhalations of dirt and smoke?

—Abraham Crowley (July 29)

Especially is an adverb; special is an adjective. For example, "Michael was especially good at playing the piano. Because of this, the school awarded him a special prize. (July 24) In many families no one writes poems,
but when they do, it's seldom just one person.
Sometimes poetry flows in cascades of generations,
which sets up fearsome eddies in family relations.—Wislawa Szymborska from her poem, "In Praise of My Sister" (July 24)
Will you accept my explanation? Yes, except you sometimes don't tell the truth. Be careful with these sound and look alike words. Always recheck the meaning. (July 17)

the years fall
like overripe plums
bursting red flesh
on the dark earth

—Etheridge Knight from "He Sees through Stone". (July 17)

 Use "another" with a single item, and never use it with "the". For example, "One reason I passed was because I studied very hard; another was that I was well rested." Use "other" with single or plural items and use it often with "the". For example, "One of my friends went to the movies. The others went to the beach." (July 10)

Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.

—Charles Simic from "Poem".

(July 10)

In the quote to the right, from Margaret Laurence, sentence rhythm is beautifully handled. The writing flows from medium, long, to short, ending with emphasis on a line of poetry separated from the paragraph. Read the sentences for yourself. What other rhythms do you note? (July 3)

"Some words came into my head, a single line from a poem I had once heard. I knew it referred to a lover who did not want the morning to come, but to me it had another meaning, another relevance.

Slowly, slowly, horses of the night"

—Margaret Laurence. (July 3)

"Cobuild's weekly commentary on current English." Sign up to receive a weekly e-mail. Always interesting discussions on current English usage. Cobuild's WordWatch (June 26) "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York; and all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths; our bruised arms hung up for monuments; our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings, our dreadful marches to delightful measures." —from Richard III by William Shakespeare (June 26)
Find a new word for study every day at Merriam Webster's Word of the Day. Always interesting, and fully explained. Start using the new words you learn right away! (June 19) "To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on." —Anne Lamott from her book, Bird by Bird. (June 19)
Another sure fire way to fail an essay test is to lack preparation. This does not mean vocabulary or grammar preparation, however. To fail, pay no attention to the news, don't read books, and never notice the natural world. If you do, it will be easy to have nothing to say! (June 12) "If freedom is, in part, the ability to act out of one's own self-definition, with some confidence and with compassion, uncompelled by fear or by the authority of others, it is also a celebration of life and of the mystery at life's core."—Margaret Laurence (June 12)
Most essay tests have a required number of words. For example, the GED test requires 200 words. Our Grade 10 certificate requires 300 words. A sure way to fail is to write many fewer words than are required! (June 5) "We are ghosts in that village
i.e. fifty years from now we won't exist
just as what we were then
does not exist now" —Al Purdy from his poem, "Mexican Village". (June 5)
The easiest way of all to fail an essay test is to write off topic. This means that you write a good essay, perhaps, but do not stay on the given topic. For this, you will fail automatically. (May 29) "After many years as a writer, I find myself falling in love with words. Maybe this is strange, like a carpenter suddenly discovering how much he likes wood." —J. Ruth Gendler (May 29)

The PALC Web site has a number of useful resources to help with essay writing. Here is a sample:

bulletEnglish 10 Essay Writing Page
bulletEssay on Writing Process 
bulletTwo Sample Test Essays (May 22)

"Beloved, it frightens me
how all things circle and meet."

—Alden Nowlan from his poem, "Confession". (May 22)

He is "quick"; he is "fast." Are these two the same? Quick can mean, "acting or capable of acting with speed." Fast can mean, "moving or able to move rapidly." Fast applies to motion, quick to action. Thus, he is "quick" may mean he is good at a task and does it in little time. He is "fast" applies more to movement or action. Use you dictionary well and learn more! (May 15)

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources."

—John Berryman from "Dream Song 14". In honour of all of our mothers, today. (May 15)

 Read the dictionary! Write down at least five new words for each letter of the alphabet. Use them! (May 8)

I will sleep my way into death
searching for an instant in dreams
to find that moment again
for that face reconstituted and intact again
with all past ages echoing
from microscopic amoeba to Rilke
culminating in that moment again
on a plastic electronic device
for a rented instant
for a rented instant

—Al Purdy (who left us two weeks ago) from his poem, "In the Rain". Many think he was the best Canadian poet of the 20th Century. I agree. (May 8)

Sentence without detail: The shelves were stacked with many kinds of books. Sentence with detail: The study shelves were stacked with dictionaries, children's picture books, grammar texts, novels, and books of short stories. See what I mean? (May 1)

I show him what he doesn't want
to see — love is a blind man
playing dice in a blizzard.

—Susan Musgrave from her poem, "Forcing the Narcissus" (May 1)

Colons are useful marks. One thing you can do with a colon: emphasize something! We need it also when we make a list. Three good ways we can improve our writing: use the colon, use the semicolon, and use the dash. Remember, always use such marks sparingly. Too many colons is like too much salt. Not very tasty! (April 24) "Storytellers, in their speaking, allow us to see the narrative character of our lives. The stories they tell touch us. What we thought was an accidental sequence of experience suddenly takes the dramatic shape of an unresolved story." —J.P. Carse (April 24)
Recently, I asked my class why we write parallel structures. They knew how but not why. Finally, someone suggested the idea of "patterns". Yes, a parallel structure is a kind of pattern! And if you have listened to poetry or song, you know that patterns help us remember and understand. (April 17)

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

—Robert Browning (April 17)

Many writers use Microsoft's Word for writing. Although it is quite easy to use, there are many tips and tricks to making it easier. To find them, and to sign up for a free newsletter go to WordTips. (April 10)

"Although life is an affair of light and shadow, we never accept it as such. We are always reaching toward the light. From childhood we are given values which correspond only to an ideal world. The shadowy side of real life is ignored. Thus, we are unable to deal with the mixture of light and shadow of which life really consists."

—Miguel Serran (April 10)

Your last step is to check your mechanics. Now is the time to look at your vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. Remember to always do one last check!  (April 3)


The year's at spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his heaven—
All's right with the world!

—Robert Browning (April 3)

Look at your sentences. Count the words in each. Are they of varied length? Are some short, some long? Make sure your writing follows a good rhythm. (Mar. 27)

In my youth, no one spoke of love
where I lived, except I spoke of it,
and then only in the dark. The word was known
like the name of a city on another continent.

—Alden Nowlan from his poem, "Full Circle". (Mar. 27)

Have you included *all* the important details? Should some of these details be expanded on? Is everything relevant to your topic? Check to make sure. (Mar. 20)

Taking Leave of a Friend       

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles
      of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
                 as we are departing.

—from Li Po; translated by Ezra Pound (Mar. 20)

When you look at your writing, remember to check the sequence of ideas. Follow a logical order (beginning to end; first, second, third) and your reader can follow your writing more easily. (Mar. 13)

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Mar. 13)

Have you included your thesis restated in your conclusion? Does the conclusion end effectively with a prediction, solution, or recommendation? (Mar. 6)

I owe a great deal
to those I do not love.

The relief with which I accept
they are dearer to someone else.

The joy that it is not I
who am wolf to their sheep.

—Wislawa Szymborska in her poem, "Gratitude" from Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska. (Mar. 6)

Look at your essay body paragraphs. Does each one have a topic sentence directly related to your thesis? Do your paragraphs include enough detail to be convincing? (Feb. 28) "My epic poem on the ubiquity of beauty will have readers gawking at the wonders of pavement and of clocks, at the subtle crimsons of apples, the fine symmetry of bridges." —Michael Londry in Breathing Fire: Canada's New Poets (Feb. 28)
When you revise, take a good look. Here are some pointers. Ask yourself if your introduction is interesting. Does it give clear background information? Can readers see the plan you will follow? If you answer no, then revise. (Feb. 21) "This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
—Polonious to his son Laertes in the play Hamlet. (Feb. 21)
To revise means "to see again". Often, students rush into a final copy of their work before giving themselves enough time. Put your writing away for a day or even two. Then, take a look with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you see! (Feb. 14) "It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire and many things to fear." —Sir Francis Bacon (Feb. 14)
Ever write about someone walking? When you do, remember all the great verbs in English to describe this activity. Here are a few examples: shuffle, tiptoe, stumble, stride. Each one is a powerful verb. Remember to use verbs like these in your writing. (Feb. 7) "A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness."—William Butler Yeats (Feb. 7)
Ever meet someone from a different culture/country? Most people would answer yes. From this experience (or even from meeting two or three people) you may have decided you know people of this culture or country pretty well. Doing this is called stereotyping. In writing, avoid using stereotypes as they are signs of poor logic. Remember to use factual information to make your generalizations. (Jan. 31)

Let poetry be like a key
Opening a thousand doors.
A leaf falls; something flies by;
Let all the eye sees be created
And the soul of the listener tremble.

—from Ars Poetica by Vicente Huidobro (Jan. 31)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that "metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is of mere words. . . . on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical." One concept we are all familiar with is that "time is money". We say, "How did you spend your time?" or "I lost a lot of time". We treat time and money as being the same. This is how metaphor works and goes to show how our language uses metaphor to express many ideas. (Jan. 24)

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

—from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens

(Jan. 24)

Life is full of experiences, good and bad. The recent death of a friend taught me how everything we experience can be made part of our writing. As I listened to people speak about my friend, I heard about many things. I found the smallest details the most important. For example, my friend always spoke to the janitors at his workplace and never passed them by. From this small detail, I received an important insight. If you want to become a good writer, then remember to notice (and note) the small details of life. They may just be the most important ones to write about after all. (Jan. 17) Do not go gentle into that good night, 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, 
Because their words had forked no lightning they 
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright 
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, 
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, 
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight 
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
And you, my father, there on the sad height, 
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. 
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. —Dylan Thomas (Jan. 17)
Often, as a teacher, I find students try to say too much in too short a time. It is more interesting to give a complete picture of one small thing than it is to sketch something much larger. The single rosebush in the garden is a good small paragraph topic; the garden itself is an essay, or perhaps even a book. Limit your ideas to the space available and watch your writing improve! (Jan. 10) "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great." —Robin Skelton (Jan. 10)
Topic sentences contain "controlling ideas". Such ideas need to be explained, defined, clarified or illustrated by the writer. Thus, a good topic sentence is rarely a simple statement of fact. Not, "There is a vegetable store in my neighbourhood"; instead "One of my neighbourhood stores is the best place to buy vegetables." (Jan. 3, 2000) "Poetry is the algebra of the heart." 
—e. e. cummings (Jan. 3, 2000)

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