Tracing the Edges of Clouds: Brainstorming Methods

The tail end of a bumpy cloud passes over Mount Baker as I drive into town and I think I see the shape of a dragon. The cloud moves, shifts, changes, and becomes something else by the time I wait for the light to change. This process—of watching shapes change in clouds—of distinguishing features and lines that seem unrelated to one another—is much like the process I use for brainstorming almost any kind of writing I do. I find the edges of things—of almost anything around me—and I discover a way to relate them to the topic at hand. Traditional forms of brainstorming a topic then, never really worked for me—except for “freewriting” or making lists. Sometimes those methods of brainstorming help me along. However, methods like cubing, clustering/mapping, or using charts or diagrams just seem to lead me to dead ends. If you find that you’re having trouble with traditional forms of brainstorming, you might try some of the following methods:

1) Looking at photographs you’ve posted to Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, or other forms of social media. You could describe these photos systematically in detail—from left to right or from top to bottom or center out. To get the creativity flowing, you might even give yourself a few minutes to come up with “serious” or “funny” captions for each photograph. Then, you could ask yourself, “How might this image or picture apply to my topic?” Answering this question could lead to a list of steps or approaches you might take to move from the description into your topic.

2) Play a board game like Catch Phrase or Pictionary. Sometimes word and board games can lead to interesting ideas and word choices for a topic or for an introduction.

3) Each day, create a list of headlines or stories from the news that catch your attention. In this way, you have several topics on hand if you ever need to come up with an idea for an essay or a project. You could write these ideas down in a “thought diary” and keep them in a notebook or in a file on your computer so that you can access them readily.

4) Take walks through nature or through your neighborhood and ask yourself, “How does what I see relate to my topic?” Or, you could listen to conversations around you and try to write them down. Sometimes, beginning an essay with an interesting piece of dialogue or conversation can catch your readers’ attention and help them anticipate the thesis statement or topic you will present.

5) Draw. If you enjoy drawing or painting, you might try sketching out your topic. Asking the question, “What would this problem or idea look like as a sketch or drawing?” could lead to interesting angles or ideas others might not have thought of before.

When using any of the methods outlined above, you could still follow the “standard rules” for brainstorming: Don’t dismiss any idea that pops into your mind because it may be useful. Upon further reflection, you might catch the edge of a cloud, which could lead to a new discovery.



Bowls of Cereal and Comma Splices

Bright specks of fruit-flavored cereal, in various colors, showed through the plastic containers a marketing researcher lined up on the desk before me. I was in the sixth grade and I was about to take part in a product testing at my school. Thinking I could just dive into the tempting rainbow colors of the cereal, I picked up a spoon, sat down across from the researcher, and reached for a container. She quickly stopped me so that she could tell me the rules first. She explained that the samples should be tasted in a certain order and, between each one I had to take a few sips of water in order to cleanse my palate. In other words, the sips of water would act as a strong break between each variety of cereal, so that I could accurately taste and reflect on each product. In a similar manner, separate thoughts in an essay need strong breaks in between in order for readers to fully understand them. If a sentence contains two or more complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense, a small break, such as a comma, won’t be strong enough to separate them. Using a comma between independent clauses—or complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense—is a called a comma splice. Comma splices can be confusing to readers who have to figure out the different parts of the sentence. Fortunately, there are several ways to fix a comma splice. Here are a few options below:

1) Use a period between the complete thoughts. The easiest way to fix a comma splice is a to use a period between the independent clauses or complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense.

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: The elephant in the room won’t go away, it will remain there until someone does something about it.

In the example above, there are two complete thoughts that could stand alone on their own and still make sense:

A) The elephant in the room won’t go away

B) it will remain there until someone does something about it

Placing periods after each clause will fix the comma splice:

Revised: The elephant in the room won’t go away. It will remain there until someone does something about it.

2) Use a semicolon between the complete thoughts. Using a semicolon is another easy way to fix a comma splice. Semicolons can help show relationships between complete thoughts or independent clauses—as well as provide a strong break.

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: When I moved the green leaves of the plant aside, I could see bright red strawberries, they were perfect for picking.

Revised: When I moved the green leaves of the plant aside, I could see the bright red strawberries; they were perfect for picking.

In the revised version above, the semicolon separates the two complete thoughts in this sentence. It also helps readers understand that the appearance of the strawberries leads the writer to conclude that they are ripe for picking.

3) Use a conjunction after a comma, if a complete thought follows. A conjunction is a word that can connect the parts of a sentence. Examples of conjunctions are: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. (Many grammar and textbooks use the acronym FANBOYS to help students remember these conjunctions.)

Example of a Comma Splice to Fix: It was raining outside, we went to the movies.

Revised: It was raining outside, so we went to the movies.

In the example above, the combination of the comma and the conjunction (so) helps readers understand the two separate thoughts. Because it was raining, we went to the movies.

The methods for revising comma splices, listed above, are only meant to be used after a draft is completed. Comma splices occur when writers try to get their thoughts down on paper and the ideas start to flow into one another. This stage of the writing process is creative and productive. Interrupting this process to look for grammar issues could lead to a draft that that might be grammatically correct, but that also lacks adequate reflection, analysis, or insight. Instead, writers could first look for opportunities to get a draft done. Later, they can go back to find the places where the breaks between could be stronger—the places where they want their readers to fully note the subtleties of each idea.





Online Tutoring Options

The cat snoozes on the window ledge behind my desk as I quickly type away on my keyboard to return essay comments to students. My “tutoring center” is not a room full of cubicles and desks, but rather just one room and one desk: mine. In this space, I can be just as effective as one in which students might meet with me face-to-face. Online tutoring options, in my opinion, are just as valuable as in-person services. Sometimes, they can be even more efficient because I can compose my thoughts, organize them, and send them back to students without a lot of empty phrases, such as “hmm. . .” or “well . . .” or “let’s see” in between. While many different kinds of online tutoring options may exist, here are a few “low-tech” and “higher tech” options that I like to use:

1) Email submissions, followed up by phone calls/discussions. Email submissions are my “low-tech” option for students who have access to a tablet or laptop or computer with internet/email capabilities—and/or a Smartphone. Students can send me their drafts—and the assignment instructions—and I can mark the drafts up with in-depth comments and suggestions for revision. Typically, I like to spend about an hour with each draft—even if only a paragraph is written. Even with just a paragraph, I can help students brainstorm the rest of their paper and ask questions that might help them think of new ideas. Using the assignment instructions that students also send, I can remind them about techniques and strategies for approaching the kind of paper they are writing. After I return the marked up sample, I can then follow up with a phone call to discuss questions or any other concerns.

2) Video conferencing through free software such as Zoom. Zoom is a product that was introduced to me by a friend and it doesn’t cost anything to download. This program allows me to share my computer screen, documents, and tutoring materials such as videos, audio recordings, and Powerpoints. Students and I can talk to each other and see each other through the use of our webcams on our computers, laptops, tablets, or Smartphones. If students send drafts of essays ahead of time—along with the assignment instructions—we can go over them in “real time” through the video conferencing software. There is even an option that allows me to record the session for students so that they can go back and review if they wish.

With either option above, students still receive personalized feedback in language that’s human, encouraging, and confident. If driving to a tutoring center or an instructor’s office is time-consuming or simply not an option, students can rest-assured that online tutoring can be just as satisfying and helpful. It may even prove to be a better choice for those who prefer to compose their thoughts and reflect in spaces they can call their own.

Summer Writing Practice

In the light of the summer sun, ideas become clearer and inspiration shines in the shimmering blue waters of the local pool. I savored my summers when I was a child—and even now as an adult. They are the perfect time to focus on just one or two projects or goals and slow down just a bit to enjoy a trip to a new place or to sip iced tea on the back porch. Whether poolside or traveling, I always take a notebook and a pen or pencil with me in order to practice writing. Writing then, doesn’t have to take a summer vacation—but it needn’t be painful, either. The following list contains five different activities you could do throughout the week to practice writing skills within a one-hour or thirty minute session five days a week in the summer months:

Day 1: Find a factual article online or in print that introduces an interesting or new idea. Present an argument that tells readers three reasons why this new idea should or should not be embraced.

Day 2: Check out a book of short stories or poems from the library—or treat yourself to buying a book of short stories/poems. Choose one short story or poem and identify the theme. Then, choose three images or literary devices that draw out that theme and explain why they’re important to know.

Day 3: Find an essay or opinion piece online and identify the author’s purpose for writing. Discuss how the author uses rhetorical elements of pathos (emotion), ethos (ethics), or logos (logic) to argue his/her points.

Day 4: Keep a journal of thoughts and ideas and/or feelings/emotions. Writing can be therapeutic as well as a way to argue points and communicate effective messages. This journal could also serve as a place to generate ideas for papers that might crop up during the school year.

Day 5: Find writing prompts online or make up your own in order to create poems, stories, plays, or video game scripts—just for fun.

The activities above don’t have to interfere with your regular schedule. They can be worked into those moments in your day when you’re waiting for an appointment or traveling on a plane or in a car. Or, you could treat yourself to a “coffee shop moment” surrounded by soft music—or in the beauty of nature—collecting your thoughts, writing them down, and gaining confidence in the quiet and more relaxed spaces that summer can bring.

English Composition Student Rights

Pouring water over a metal frame will do nothing to give this substance the frame’s shape. The water simply continues to flow. In a similar manner, compositions are difficult substances to form into rigid structures, but we instructors do it anyway in an attempt to help students develop critical thinking skills and practice rhetorical approaches and analyses. So, we give our students glasses and containers and rules in which to pour their compositions—and then we attempt to grade them—and things get really messy. We use rubrics and peer editing sessions to determine grades and we decide whether or not revisions are allowed. Some instructors don’t allow for any revisions at all, while others allow for multiple revisions and sometimes, students don’t receive any comments back at all from instructors—just a grade on a rubric and maybe an isolated written remark that may seem confusing. What then, should students expect from the moment they draft a composition to the time it is assessed? What assessment measures can be expected? At the very minimum, I believe students deserve the following actions to be taken:

1) An essay/composition grade or assessment should be determined by a professional in the field who has earned the appropriate degree. Some instructors do prefer peer grading (which is different from peer editing), but even with peer grading, instructors themselves often read the paper and determine whether or not the final grade accurately reflects the paper’s content and correspondence to the assignment goals. According to Stanford Teaching Commons, this peer grading method can be used effectively if students are properly trained through multiple sessions and examples before grades are given. Peer grading does not violate FERPA laws, according to the U. S. Supreme Court and some instructors truly believe that peer graders are accurate and hold peers to high standards. However, some practitioners and researchers show that peer graders are not always accurate and that they are not qualified for the job (“Against Peer Grading” by John Warner, 2014 and “The Impact of Self- and Peer-Grading on Student Learning” by Sadler and Good, 2006). In my college level classrooms, I never relied on peer grading because it was difficult enough for me to become confident with my own assessment techniques over several years. How could I expect students, without a degree to become competent in just a few weeks? Grading eight sections of papers per semester—on top of committee and professional development work—was extremely difficult because grading compositions is time-consuming and the demands from administration to take on more students and tasks are never-ending. However, handing this responsibility off to anyone else, could lead to assessment solutions that teachers and students no longer control. One such assessment solution, includes “machine scoring,” which the National Council of Teachers of English is strongly against since “Teachers are the most knowledgeable practitioners and advisors in assessing students’ literacy—their reading, writing, and communication skills” (2016, “National Survey: Teachers know best how to assess students’ literacy, want changes in testing system.”) Composition students then, have a right to be assessed by individuals with specific degrees in the field and not a “smart” past student, a computer, or peer who has only received one or two weeks of training.

2) Students should be given the time they need to complete assignments, especially if they are on a 504 Plan or Individualized Learning Plan. In-class writing prompts and essays can be an important way for students to learn how to prepare for essay writing on tests or for standardized/national tests for entrance into college, but relying solely on these kinds of methods could lead to superficial writing that lacks reflection (see the article by Paul Thomas, “Teaching Writing as a Journey, Not Destination,” 2017). If in-class writing/essays are crucial to the course content/material though, students on learning plans should be given extra time if their plan states so—and even if students are given several class days to write. Instructors may not be purposely denying students any of the accommodations specified in a plan, but sometimes they forget.  Students may remind their instructors that they do need this kind of accommodation.

3) Rubrics can make expectations clear, but students may also want a few, effective comments. In addition to rubrics, I often summarized my comments in 3-5 sentences. I told students what was working, and three areas that could be improved. Sometimes students took my advice. Sometimes they didn’t, but many said they appreciated the comments because past instructors never made them—and if they did, they were too vague to fully appreciate. A “good” comment is specific and identifies the problem, why it’s a problem, and a possible way to fix it. Comments, in my opinion, remind students that instructors are human beings who are reading their papers and responding as an audience member to their work.

4) Revisions should be encouraged. Some instructors limit revisions to only one major paper in the course, sometimes in an effort to cut down on work load because of the high demands composition teachers and instructors face. These demands are real and teachers/instructors face them valiantly each day, but eliminating chances to revise only hurts students and interferes with the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcome Statements for Composition, which states that students should “be aware that it usually takes multiple drafts to create and complete a successful text.” Allowing students to revise compositions that are assessed helps them learn more about the writing process and their own writing. While the workload does increase somewhat, I found that in my composition classes, if I allowed students to revise their papers once for a higher grade, I could also enforce strict deadlines for the revisions in order to pace the workload. Many students chose not to revise, but the option was there for those who, upon more reflection, wanted to push their compositions in a different direction.

5) Talking/conferencing about writing should also be encouraged. Students may disagree with a comment or grade, but that disagreement can turn into a powerful revision. In my experience, if a student could respectfully argue his/her point effectively during a conference, I told that student to put those precise words down on paper and hand the assignment in again. Sometimes in talking, the answers become clearer.

Even with all of these rights or expectations outlined above, students may still not agree with the final grade on an essay, but they at least deserve the chance to fully participate in the composition process—and help shape the direction in which their writing takes them.



Can Creative Writers Succeed at Academic Writing?

Ink breathes life into characters and fills pages with vivid settings, conflict, and dialogue for the creative writer to push, move, bend, and shape. However, when presented with more rigid guidelines that call for analysis, rather than “creativity,” writers of fiction may find themselves at a loss for words and wonder, “Am I allowed to still be creative?” The answer is, “yes.” Academic writing should not be boring and it doesn’t have to be. Creative writers might have to limit introductions and clever phrases to a few lines sprinkled in here and there throughout an “academic” essay, but there are still plenty of options for using those creative skills in the academic world—especially when writing personal narratives, descriptions/observations, persuasive papers, and literary analysis.

The personal narrative essay and the descriptive/observation essay are great places for creative writers to weave in elements of conflict, setting, climax, and character. The personal narrative for instance, asks writers to focus on one major life event or moment and tell the story in a convincing way—the way a story teller or fiction writer would—with plenty of description, action, and dialogue. Similarly, a descriptive or observation essay asks writers to draw on their abilities to create detailed descriptions, weave in dialogue, and use sensory details to communicate an experience or the life of another person. These kinds of assignments are innovative places where creative writers can start pushing the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.

The persuasive essay on the other hand, which could include rhetorical analysis, evaluation of a movie/book, argumentation, or literary analysis, may be somewhat more challenging for creative writers, but these writers have plenty of tools at their disposal to help them craft effective arguments and drive a point home in a unique way. While some writers might use a direct quote from a source to “hook” their readers in the first line, creative writers might be able to use sensory details or write a striking first sentence that leads directly into the topic at hand and the subsequent analysis. They may be able to subtly sustain an image or metaphor throughout the analysis and then end with one final image or snapshot that ties the piece together.

In other words, the examples of academic writing we often see can be dry and lifeless. While they may expertly and logically prove a point, they could do very little to stir the soul. These examples then, often leave creative writers feeling somewhat hopeless as they ask, “Is this what I must now become in order to pass my academic courses?” It’s not. There is room for creative writers in the academic world and, for those of us who read “boring” papers for a living, a thoughtfully crafted piece that blends analysis and art breathes life back into a practice that was never originally meant to be so incredibly colorless, drab, or uninspired.

If you are a creative/fiction writer who is struggling with academic writing, please feel free to contact me. I’m happy to lend a hand:



Why Blog?

Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks is a small corner of cyberspace I get to call my own and I look forward to visiting it often. Blueberry fields and haunted houses have formed the backdrops for DIY posts I get to shape and edit in any way I wish. Through this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to take on new projects, try things I’ve never done before, learn new skills, be as silly as I want, and make over 850 friends who are kind enough to follow me. No—I’ve never made a dime from blogging, but it has given me the chance to develop a voice, share ideas, and make some great friends I’ve never met in person—but I’d know them if I did, just by the tone of their voice and the topics they might choose to talk about. So, if you’ve ever thought about creating a blog (or weblog) of information on virtually any topic you find interesting—or about your daily life—there are plenty of benefits beyond the monetary promises you may have heard are associated with blogging. Here are a few of the benefits I’ve experienced since I started blogging in February of 2017:

1) You don’t need any money to start a blog. Many sites exist free of charge and you can get started right away. If you want to upgrade in order to gain more room for videos or audio, there are plans that can cost between $50-$300 per year. However, you don’t have to upgrade to make or post videos or audio. Sites such as Youtube allow you to create for free and you can place the link in your blog—free of charge as well. For instance, Blogger, Squarespace, WordPress, and Wix are just a few sites that offer free plans and customer service/support for bloggers.

2) If you have a business or side business you could use a blog to help promote your products and tell stories about them. Paypal can even be added to your blog’s website for free and there are no monthly fees or startup fees. However, a small amount is automatically deducted from each transaction for which you receive money from a customer online.

3) Make new friends and follow other blogs to create stimulating, creative, and dynamic interactions.

4) If you are a writer, student, photographer, artist, or athlete/performer, you could showcase your work in a blog online and provide the link to your site for potential patrons, recruiters, and readers.

5) Gain access to restaurant reviews, recipes, reviews of gadgets and kitchen tools and technology, pictures of nature, short stories, and travel writing. Other bloggers write about fascinating subjects and have recommended products I now use. I’ve discovered interesting books, movies, and music/music genres—including K-Pop—all through blogging.

6) You get to control the comments on your blog—or prevent them altogether if you wish.

7) Other bloggers who have visited my site, and who have left comments, have been incredibly kind and supportive. Writers, artists, and people from all walks of life face rejections often, so it’s helpful to find other bloggers who offer encouragement and helpful advice.

8) Blogging is an excellent way to practice or keep up with a foreign language. Blogging draws people together from all over the world. One way I’ve been able to keep up with my Spanish is to follow blogs in Spanish and leave comments in Spanish as well. If you are new to a foreign language, you might not understand every word on a page, but you might be able to get the main idea and learn a few new words. You may even be brave enough to post something in your new language and get a reply. Just resist the urge to hit the “translate” button.

Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks then, is my humble contribution to this “wild, wild west” of space that spins with an abundance of fantastic images, videos, and text. Creating a blog has also helped me adapt to a new place. When I first moved to the Greater Seattle area from Ohio, I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory. Making new friends and joining new groups suddenly seemed intimidating, but reading blogs about my new surroundings spurred me to get out and try new restaurants, visit museums, and explore. Then, I’d return with pictures of forests, beaches, tulip gardens, and mountains, and I’d begin to fill my corner of the world with these images and the new stories I wanted to tell.


Do you want to create a blog? There’s still time to sign up for my blog writing course this summer at the Art Schack in Everett, Washington. To register, click here: Blog Writing.