I went to Primary School in NSW in the 1970s (no that's not the shocking bit). During that time the government - in its wisdom - decided to only teach very basic grammar: nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. It was also pretty sparing on punctuation: with attention only to full stops, commas and question marks. That was pretty much it. Luckily I was a voracious reader, and through this ituitively learnt what made for an attractive sentence. But I never understood the rules - I just developed an instinct for what sounded musical and balanced in my head. I'm one of the many people of my generation who will say "I know there's something wrong with the sentence that I've just written - I just have no idea what it is".
Jump forward 40 odd years and I find myself working as a writer, and as an editor, and as a marker of student papers and theses. Often I have to pause and pull out my hefty Oxford Guide to Writing and figure out what on earth a split infinitive is or why my participle might be dangling. So really, much of this content is what I've found helpful as I try to identify and correct what's happening in the mechanics of my writing.
It may help my students along the way.
The best, most effective ways to take notes
I was a terrible undergraduate student; mainly because I had no idea how to take notes. I just used to scribble down everything the lecturer said, writing until my hand cramped and my fingers spasmed, praying that whatever was important would end up on my page. When it came to use my notes I had to wade through pages of illegible notes and try to sort wheat from chaff. If only I had heard of the Cornell note-taking system. See https://theconversation.com/whats-the-best-most-effective-way-to-take-notes-41961
Totally like whatever, you know?
Totally like whatever, you know? By Taylor Mali
In case you hadn't noticed, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you're talking about? Or believe strongly in what you're saying? Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences? Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?
Ever wondered why Microsoft Word grammar checker keeps sticking wriggly red lines under "that" and "which" in your sentences? Often it feels so random and you wonder - does it really matter? Turns out, it actually does make a difference to meaning. One of the easiest explanations I've found is this one from Brian Klems (2012) on "The Writer's Dig". You can go to the original article here, or read below.
"The battle over whether to use which or that is one many people struggle to get right. It’s a popular grammar question and most folks want a quick rule of thumb so they can get it right. Here it is:
If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that. (Pretty easy to remember, isn’t it?) Let me explain with a couple of examples.
Our office, which has two lunchrooms, is located in Cincinnati. Our office that has two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati.
These sentences are not the same. The first sentence tells us that you have just one office, and it’s located in Cincinnati. The clause which has two lunchrooms gives us additional information, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Remove the clause and the location of our one office would still be clear: Our office is located in Cincinnati."
Thank you Brian, So basically the "which" acts as a kind of "by the way...".
Doesn't life feel richer now?
How to improve your writing
There is a useful web publication with some great open access papers about writing which largely seems to be aimed at students. Is is called Writing Spaces: http://writingspaces.org/essays. The papers are very clearly written and aimed at improving writing practice.
The other piece of great advice I've been given comes from writer Anne Lamott. In her bookBird by Bird, she talks about the need to write a “shitty first draft” in order to get to a more polished draft.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft." ~ Anne Lamott
"I used to think that once a caterpillar had grown big enough, it simply grew beautiful wings so it could enjoy the freedom of flying. A magical process. But did you know how gruesome this process is? A caterpillar digests itself, destroying all its tissues before turning into a butterfly. It’s a fascinating, but grisly process. To transform your shitty first draft, you go through a similar process. The key is not to fall into despair, and not to focus on what’s wrong with your draft. Instead, focus on the jewels buried in your words."