Just a click away
Online writing labs at universities offer free help with grammar,
style, editing and other issues
Published: August 23, 2006
|You're at home writing and come to the part where you need to grab a style and grammar book to double-check a mistake you tend to make repeatedly. After chiding yourself for forgetting whether to use imply or infer, you notice that the stylebook is missing. That's the third time this month, and with a deadline looming, you don't have time to search your house. What to do?|
My solution? Adopt an OWL. Not the feathery kind, but the online kind.
An Online Writing Lab, or OWL, is an offshoot of the walk-in university writing lab and is a free resource available to any writer with Internet access. Your own alma mater probably has one, as do many other colleges and universities. Consider the OWL an electronic version of your favorite grammar or stylebook, and because it's online, it's constantly updated and revised.
Helping people to become better writers is what OWLs are all about, says Clint Gardner, writing center director at Salt Lake Community College and president of the International Writing Centers Association.
But some OWLs are better than others. At worst, they're just a list of links to other OWLs. At best, OWLS are consistent, intuitive online writing guides that go beyond grammar to offer brainstorming and editing self-help. One even has an interactive writing game.
Sherry Tuffin, a Michigan writer, likes what OWLs have to offer. She knows that with a few mouse clicks she can demystify commas or learn how to add hyphens to her work for maximum impact. "With hardly any effort at all, I have learned more than I knew before," says Tuffin, who says she has been writing since she could hold a pencil. "After a little practice, I'm sure you would find one OWL that suited you better than another."
The list of OWLs is overwhelming. Organized by specialty, here are a few of the best to check out.
Jump-start your work
Getting started is the toughest part of the writing process. Roane State Community College's OWL swears by the good old outline as a reliable starting point. Starting with only a rough draft, says its "How to Begin to Write" page, is like taking a trip without a map-you have only a vague idea of where you're going. If you write without your map, you'll probably lose good ideas by forgetting to include them. The college's OWL rejects the formal outline in favor of a loose format that asks questions you can answer before putting pen to paper. It also offers some real examples of how these outlines work. Web: http://www.rscc.cc.tn.us/owl&writingcenter/OWL/owl.html.
Warming up can help you focus on what you do-and don't-want to write. "Prewriting" is the collective term for a number of exercises at Humboldt State University's OWL. Matrixing, cubing, clustering, dramatizing and freewriting are all jump-starts to the writing process. Web: www.humboldt.edu/~tdd2/index.htm.
If you're crippled by procrastination, discover why at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's OWL. One of the best organized and best looking of the OWLs, it debunks some myths about procrastination, including the ever-popular "I work better under pressure" line. Web: www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb.
Grammar help on an OWL is commonplace. Most OWLs cover commas and apostrophes, but Saskatchewan's University of Regina has a page called "Affective Grammar." The focus is on how to "affect your audience" through your writing. Examples include using short sentences that say more than long sentences, plus using detail-rich nonrestrictive clauses. Web: www.uregina.ca/owl.
Grammar help can vary from simple basics to the complexity of sentence diagramming. A good OWL makes the information readable and offers plenty of examples. The University of Illinois' Grammar Handbook lists six helpful tips for correctly placing modifiers, with examples of clear and unclear sentences. While the information seems simplistic, even seasoned writers can benefit from brushing up on these basics. Web: www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/wworkshop/index.htm.
Because most OWLs focus on the college-level thesis paper, tips for creative writing are harder to find. Purdue University's OWL, one of the first established resources of its kind, urges writers to vary their rhythm by alternating short and long sentences. It also stresses variety in sentence openers, offering 15 revisions for the sentence "The biggest coincidence that day happened when David and I ended up sitting next to each other at the Super Bowl." Web: http://owl.english.purdue.edu.
At best, OWLS are consistent, intuitive online writing guides that go beyond grammar.
Fiction writers who tire of using "says" to attribute dialogue will love the University of Texas at Austin's OWL page on attribution verbs. It lists several options, plus those that are better used with caution, like "whines" and "retorts." Web: http://www.projects.uwc.utexas.edu/virgil.
Technical writing and Web writing require specialized skill. Seton Hill University's OWL, the creation of Dennis G. Jerz, associate professor of English, is one of the few OWLs that has in-depth information on doing technical writing, writing effective e-mail and writing for the Internet. For example, it has do's and don'ts for writing effective "blurbs," which are summaries of hypertext-linked Internet documents. Jerz's "Top Five Web Conventions" include leading with your best stuff and writing for eyes that scan the page. Web:
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's OWL has a page called "Reading to Write" that includes tips for incorporating reading into the writing process. This is useful if you're reviewing a book or doing background research for historical fiction.
This page also reminds us that writing is a social activity, says Kimberly Abels, director of the UNC writing center. "Writers sometimes fall into the assumption that writing comes straight out of their heads," she says. "It really comes from a very social context, from conversations, from what you've read, even just from life." Web: www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb.
Edit with focus
There are 12 common editing errors, says the University of Wisconsin's OWL. In a section titled "Stages of the Writing Process," the school offers a great checklist that reminds you to pay attention to unnecessary commas, faulty parallelism and sentence sprawl as you proof and edit your work. Web: www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook.
Cleveland State University's OWL has a page called "Copyediting for Fun and Profit," which suggests starting with parts of your writing that block meaning first, then working your way down. Keeping focused is so important that the OWL suggests writing your main point on your arm. Web: www.csuohio.edu/writingcenter.
Try adopting at least one OWL into your own writing practice. Bookmark your favorites next to your online dictionary and thesaurus and watch your writing soar.
|Write-or else-in the online game world of INK|
Imagine a city where nothing gets done unless a writer writes. Transportation doesn't work, electricity doesn't spark, and water doesn't flow until words are created. That fictional city exists. It's called INK, and it's the work of Michigan State University's online writing lab.
INK is a free public multiplayer online game for writers of all levels. Inside this imaginary city, players can build their own avatar--that's game-speak for "online persona"--then live, work, vote and interact in the city.
The challenge? The city needs writers in order to prosper. Joining Ink will mean drafting fliers, creating constitutions and writing proposals, and everything you write will be evaluated by its ability to get its work done. [writer to provide phrase on just who evaluates the writers' work - RK] You may be writing in genres as diverse as hip-hop lyrics or legal briefs. Succeed in your writing and you'll earn ink to continue. Fail and, as in real life, you'll pick yourself up and try again. You can build status by challenging other players to writing duels and by helping others write clearly.
The text-based game requires reading and writing, and MSU's developers are hoping a rich mix of writers will join in. Ink is available through any Web browser, with no special software necessary. No gaming experience is needed--just a love of writing and a flexible mind.
Ink's objective is to help people use writing as a way of participating in the world, transforming communities and creating relationships, says Dr. Janet Swenson, writing center director at MSU. "We want to help everyone understand that the best writers are the writers who are flexible," she says. "We are so excited about INK. We all want to play." Web: writing.msu.edu/INK.
A freelance writer in Michigan, Claire Charlton has published work in The Detroit Free Press, regional parenting publications and Motion magazine. She stumbled across the OWL of her alma mater, Purdue University, in a frantic search for information on plural possessive apostrophes.