Monday, November 13, 2017

Writing quizzes. Part I

Most of my freelance work for over a year now has been writing those stupid online Facebook quizzes. Although sometimes it can be enjoyable, in general, I hate it. Now, I could write personality quizzes, but I refuse to stoop to writing "What kind of pizza are you?" I would not be able to respect myself in the morning if I did. I like to think my knowledge quizzes are educational, challenging, and fun, but I must admit my employer (whom will remain anonymous) is new and not the greatest.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to share my experiences. When I first started writing, it was relatively easy. I would write the quiz in a Word document and submit it to my employer. I was paid well per quiz, there was a list of hundreds of topics to choose from, and I could ask obscure questions that made writing the quizzes easier (but taking them very difficult). My only complaint was that most of the quizzes were based on old television shows that could be difficult to find. (And since I am probably one of the few complaining eternal optimists that are in existence for me to find little to complain about says a lot.)

Within a month, there was a change. No additional pay was offered, but we were required to enter the quizzes into the generator ourselves. This was distasteful to me on several levels. First, I found out who I was working for and they had a checkered past- mostly fraught with building websites that contained an overabundance of advertising. But unlike Sporcle (where the quizzes are created by users and not paid for but excessive advertising still exists), they at least paid the content creators for their work. Don't get me wrong, I like Sporcle and have a free account on it, and I will some day create quizzes for them (when I don't feel it will be a conflict of interest), but they have a ton of ads now (as opposed to when I first started taking quizzes there) and the people making the quizzes don't get paid to the best of my knowledge. A little targeted advertising, okay, a ton-bad form in my opinion. 

Anyway, I am working for a quiz website that has a horrible amount of advertising on it. So much that it can interfere with your ability to take the quiz. Why do marketers think this is helpful? It is easy to find in our online society today, but it is not going to improve your sales. First, I think most people are exposed to so much advertising that they are becoming numb to it. Second, most of the advertising is driving by cookies that tell you where I have been. That means if I just bought a Peppa pig playset, I am going to be seeing a ton of ads for one. How silly is that? Do I really need more than one Peppa Pig playsets? No. And I most certainly am not going to encourage my daughter to have more than one either. Lesson: if you are building a website to advertise your book or your whatever, don't overdo it. I think statistically, you should do about 10% of self-promotion and the rest should be interesting, useful content.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


The latest trend in education is to tell middle schoolers and high school students to include a "thesis statement" in their work. This disgusts me every time I see it because (1)a middle school or high school student does not have the writing capability to create a true thesis statement and (2)students are being incorrectly taught that a "main idea" or "topic sentence" is a "thesis statement."

A true thesis statement reflects the highest order of thinking: synthesis and evaluation. This kind of thinking cannot occur until around the second year in college and for some people, they may never be able to achieve it. However, everyone in graduate school should be able to do this.

When we tell 12-year olds they have created a "thesis sentence" simply because it sounds good and advanced, we are lying to them. All they are doing is writing a topic sentence. Consider the following:

I liked reading the book Charlotte's Web because I love animals. (Not a thesis sentence but a good topic sentence. This sentence tells you what this girl or boy will focus on in their report, and that focus is age appropriate- it relates something in the book to something important in their lives. There are NO abstract concepts and judgments about what the book is really saying. The remainder of the paper would have examples that may include some quotations. The quotations should be cited but the examples will probably not be cited at all.)

Charlotte's Web delves deeply into the interpersonal relationships of childhood and how those relationships change as children mature into adults. (Thesis sentence. This sentence not only summarizes abstract concepts in the book but makes a judgement about what the book is really trying to say. The remainder of this person's paper should defend his or her point of view using cited quotations or cited examples from the book and OTHER RESEARCH SOURCES and show that the book really is about interpersonal relationships and the way they change as children mature.)

You show me a 12-year old or even a 16-year old who can write the second one, and I will show you a child who has plagiarized or hired a college student to write their paper for them.

Now, someone will say, "Ah, but the first person is making a judgement. That person 'likes' the book." Saying you like something because it appeals to you is NOT a judgment. I can like Wolverine because he is "cool." Making a judgment would be stating whether or not his use of violence is justified. If I like Wolverine because he is "cool" nothing you write or say is going to influence my opinion. You can't make a valid point against me because Wolverine is certainly popular, and "cool" is completely subjective. Even if you don't think he is cool, I do, and therefore, you just saying he isn't cool and perhaps supporting it with some statistics is not going to cause me to rethink my belief. If, on the other hand, I think Wolverine's violence is not justified, you then have to think about the points I made supporting my argument and decide whether or not I am correct. If I am not correct, you can form a rebuttal with your own points. That is what a thesis sentence is about: it is my hypothesis and there is evidence to back it up but you must be able to prove or disprove it. Statements that cannot be proven or disproven, such as "I like toys" are not thesis statements.

What this is really about is people doing work for others. I am a ghostwriter (although I try to stick to editing at this point in my career simply because of economics and the difficulty of screening assignments to ensure they are NOT someone's schoolwork). I get that most people need a scribe to write for them even in this day and age-especially if they want effective writing. I don't know why people in education feel everyone can and should write well. After all, I think it would be useful to be able to perform hernia surgeries, but I don't think everyone should do it.

When we force our children to be perfect or to do things beyond their developmental ability, all we are doing is forcing them to cheat in order to survive. This is commonplace in other countries. It is so bad that children in India, for example, take "communal" tests while ADULTS pass them the answers through the windows. Why? Because they obviously set their standards above what teachers can teach them. These kids haven't achieved and neither have our kids! However, the system says they must do work that is beyond them.

It is important to teach children to write TOPIC SENTENCES. You cannot get to higher levels of writing until you can write simple reports and paragraphs. Both should contain topic sentences. Being able to simply state the main idea of what you are writing about, to not plagiarize, and to create a paragraph with natural transitions is ALL students need to know by the time they graduate high school. If you have an advanced senior writing class, you might touch on developing a thesis statement but make sure that is what it really is.

My children have been asked time and again to write "thesis sentences" in public and private schools. They write "topic sentences" and return with good grades. Either the teacher needs to go back to school and learn what a thesis sentence is, or we need to stop lying to our kids. I tend to think it is the teachers who are confused because they frequently ask questions they want answered in the paper and these are not conducive to creating a true thesis sentence. Many times they involve personal opinions. I can tell you which parts of a book I like or which parts were meaningful to me, but I can't do that in a paper where I am trying to prove a logical point.

If you are a professional writer, you better know the difference, too. At my level, you should be able to spit a thesis sentence out any time you want to write a blog about one. If you are not a professional writer and have kids, look at their homework assignments this year. I challenge you to inform the teacher they are misusing the term "thesis statement" and ask them to change it back to "topic sentence." Refer them here if they don't believe you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lessons in Grammar: Part I the Comma

The biggest problem with commas is that for some reason (usually in grade school) teachers tell children they are used whenever you want a pause in a sentence. This is simply not true. Usually, people end up creating comma splices when they drop commas wherever they feel they need a "pause."

Although there are many rules regarding commas, modern style guides are in the "less is more" mode especially when it comes to commas. There are a few places where it is necessary to use a comma and these should be the only places beginning writers should attempt to use them:

FANBOYS: When you begin a sentence with certain words like "For," "But," "So," etc., you need a comma. When you begin a sentence with a dependent clause, (like this sentence) you also need a comma. What in the world is a dependent clause? One that is not a sentence. I am not an English teacher, so to break it down further than Internet-speak would be rather difficult. The best I can do is give you some examples:

Patricia, what are you doing?
If I go to the store, should I get some milk?
So, you think you want to be a star?

The second place you need commas is when you are using one of those FANBOYS to connect two sentences together:

I wanted to eat out, so I decided to stop at McDonalds.
You shouldn't eat out so much.

The first sentence is actually two sentences. If I removed the comma and the word "so," I could make them two sentences. However, I chose to squish them together. The second sentence is not really two sentences squished together. It is only one sentence, and the word "so" is functioning as an adverb. Therefore, you don't need and shouldn't use a comma.

The trickiest part of grammar comes when some  things can go either way.

I bought a candle, a tablecloth, and some spaghetti.
I bought a candle, a tablecloth and some spaghetti.

Which is correct? Both are. When it comes to serial commas, you are delving into a gray area of grammar. In this case, if you believe the first sentence is better (like me), you are following the APA style guide (among others). If you like the second sentence, you are following Chicago style. The problem is generally not which method you choose, but the biggest problem tends to be consistency. If you choose the first example, you should ALWAYS use the comma before "and." Also, you need to make sure your editor knows you prefer serial commas.