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Exercise: Writing research

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: June 8, 2003

(Note: as explained below, this exercise will run for the next two weeks.)

A number of exercises we've run in the past deal with the importance of doing research. Whether we write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or whatever, we need to "write what you know", which means drawing upon our own experiences, but also being able to learn new things. Research is thus an invaluable tool for writers.

A number of the exercises also explore various writing rules and principles (such as "write what you know" in the paragraph above.) The truth is that too many of us have a poor understanding of the basic tools of writing: grammar, style, etc.

For grammar: how many of us really know what a gerund is? When should it be used?

Do you know how to parse a complex sentence? What are dependent and independent clauses?

Do you know your verb tenses? What tenses are used in the following bit of dialogue:

   "Doesn't John work at Burger King?"

   "He had been working there, but he found a better job at Pet Village.
   He'll be working on Saturday, if you want to see him."

Why are those different tenses used?

Similar questions come up with style.

What is passive voice, exactly?

What is the value of involving the senses?

There are many sources of information available to help learn about these grammar, style, and other writing topics.

For grammar, something as simple as a school grammar book.

An essential resource for writers is The Elements of Style.

Style guides contain valuable information on style and usage. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style, or in Canada, the Canadian Style. (Style guides are specialized books, so remember what their target audience is when you look at them; nevertheless, they contain much valuable information that will apply to any form of writing. For example, The Canadian Style has the best explanation I've found to date for compound (hyphenated) adjectives.)

Of course, there are also valuable online resources. Part of this exercise will be for you to find some of these resources, but here are a few useful ones:

Remember to use a grain of salt when evaluating any writing resource. There are of course the obvious differences - British versus US spellings, of course, but also different rules for punctuation. Some resources are aimed at academics, some at journalists, some at fiction writers. Some of them are strict, others more permissive.

(For example, the grammar site listed above is aimed at journalists, and its information is a bit dated.)

OK, now the exercise.

Review the resources above, or any other resource you might prefer. Pick *one* rule or concept you'd like to explore further. (This could be one of the questions above; one of the writing "rules" we often see discussed on the Writing list; one of the rules or principles in The Elements of Style; a grammatical point, such as when to use commas, semi-colons, or dashes; and so on.) Research this topic in at least two different resources.

In your submission, tell us which resources you looked at (both in picking a topic, and in researching), with a quick blurb about what that resource is particularly good for. Try to include one resource not listed above. Then write a short essay or discussion of your topic. Include examples - for example, if your topic was passive voice, give examples of passive voice, and how those examples cold be rewritten in active voice. Give exceptions to the rules - in the passive voice example, for example, tell us when passive would be superior to active.

When critiquing, highlight what you found particularly useful (be specific!), and see if you can add anything to the topic. For example, can you clarify a point you thought was not clear enough, or give an example when a rule should be broken? If something seems wrong, tell us why (but remember the caution above about how the "rules" are different based on where you write, and who you write for!)

Remember: it's only a critique if it adds significant information to the submission! If your only comment is "great work, I learned a lot", then send that privately to the author, not to the list. (So think before you hit that send button, and make sure you're sending it to the right place.

I think this is a very rich topic, and one we can all benefit from - no matter what our current knowledge is, we can always learn more, and our writing well be all the better for it.

And as always, remember to have fun - the English language is a wonderful, idiosyncratic, language, rich in possibilities, full of traps. Through this exercise, remember to look not just at dry rules, but how they translate into the richness of the language.

This exercise will run for the next two weeks. You will be allowed to submit once each week, if you wish. For example, if your topic is complex, you could post a preliminary submission the first week, then continue researching (and review the critiques) to resubmit on the same topic the second week. Or you could post a submission on two different topics.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: June 24, 2003

Well, I thought this was going to be a great exercise, and it started out great - informative and interesting submissions on various aspects of writing. Those posts confirmed the goal of the exercise: when it comes to writing, grammar, style, there is no end to learning, and it doesn't need to be boring.

Then, dead silence. Maybe *everybody* got extra busy all at once? Somehow, I doubt it...

For those who did not join in, I wonder why. I can think of the following reasons not to do this exercise:

  • you already know everything you need to know.
  • grammar and style aren't important.
  • grammar and style are too complicated.
  • you had to shampoo your goldfish.

Well, the first three are misconceptions. (As for the goldfish, let it be for a while, it's getting exhausted from all the shampooing...) We all can learn more, grammar and style do matter, and (again), we all can learn more. Remember that a successful research exercise doesn't mean learning everything about a topic; the goal is to learn at least *one* thing (and at the same time, to remind ourselves that we've already learned a lot, and that we'll keep learning - as long as we are ready to make a bit of an effort now and then.)

While some of the submissions were very detailed, and showed extensive knowledge, others explored basics. The second is just as valid as the first - the key is that everyone who submitted now know more than they did (and because they shared with us, we all know a bit more as well.)

We will run this exercise again, so for now, start thinking about these issues, start at least looking at various resources. And when a critique points out a grammar and style problem in your writing, then *look it up*.

To those who did participate - through submissions or by adding value in their critiques - my thanks and congratulations. Obviously, there are a lot of sources out there to help us with this matters!


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.