Category Archives: writing

Dreams and Goals for 2011

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Do you have any dreams or goals for the future? The end of one year and beginning of another year is when many people think about these things.

Are some of your goals related to learning English? Make sure that your goals are clear, easy to describe, realistic, and “finishable.”

“Improve my English” or “Get better at speaking English” are not good goals. Just saying “improve” isn’t clear. How will you know when you are better? Is it possible to finish “getting better”? What is “better”? It’s hard to describe.

Here are some better goals: “Read English 20 minutes per day, at least 3 days per week.” “Go to a restaurant and successfully order what I want to eat in English.” “Read 10 full-length English novels by next year.” “Speak to someone in English once a week, even if I just offer them help.” “Find an international volunteer group or a club that I can go to once a month.”

To help you achieve your goals, it’s good to write them down, look at them regularly, and share them with someone. That will keep them in your mind and keep you focused on them. (That’s true for language-learning and other goals.) If you’d like to do that online, there are several ways to do that. You can put your list on a blog.

There are two popular sites in English for keeping your lists of goals and things you’d like to do. You can write down and share your goals for life and language-learning there, if you want. One is http://www.43things.com/. It’s very easy to use. You can see goals posted by other famous and ordinary users. If you like their goals, you can add them to your list!

The other site is http://www.dayzeroproject.com/, usually known as 101 Things in 1001 Days. The site isn’t working right now, but I hope it will be later (updates at @dayzero). If you search for “101 things in 1001 days,” you can still see a lot of people’s lists. Because you have 2 3/4 years to work on your list, you can include big things like international travel.

Anyway, happy new year! If you try any of these sites or write any resolutions for 2011, I hope you’re able to achieve your goals!

Blogging in English follow-up

If you would like English-speaking commenters and readers on your blog, please be careful about the service that you use. (Especially if you would like commenters who don’t speak your language!) I just tried to leave a comment on an English-learner’s blog. The blog is on Livedoor. My comment was rejected (it was not accepted and would not be posted). I was really surprised because I had entered a username and e-mail address. I thought I had done it correctly, but I got an error message in Japanese.

If you got that error message and you couldn’t read Japanese, you would give up, right? I tried to read the message, but it was pretty difficult. Finally, I realized that the blog’s settings automatically rejected any comment that did not have Japanese in it. If you write a comment in English, your comment will not be posted. The blog owner will never see it. Oops! I guess that’s a kind of spam control system. But it doesn’t work if a blogger is writing in English and would like people to answer in English.

There are usually also problems with things like “Comment” “Name: ” “E-mail: ” “Submit” and so on not being in English. That would make it really hard for English-speaking commenters to use.

Some blogging services let you control those settings. In that case, you can change it and it may be OK. Other blogging services don’t even tell you about those settings, so you can’t change them. (That’s too common–I commented on an English teacher’s blog once. His blog had a setting that limited comments to a very short length, so my comment was rejected. He didn’t know about the setting! Finally, he was able to find it and change it. But sometimes you don’t have a choice.)

So that’s why I recommend using Posterous, WordPress, Blogger, WordPress or Movable Type installed on your webhost, etc. You can probably find a guide to the blogging service in your language to help you. (If you have to use the blogging service in English, you’ll learn a lot of useful technology vocabulary.)

Of course, if your blog is basically a journal or diary for yourself, it doesn’t matter. In that case, you don’t even need comments. But many learners discover that they are more motivated, write more often, and write better if they feel like they have readers. (For example, on WordPress.com, even if people don’t have time to comment, you can see that you have readers.)

Again, if you decide to blog a) good luck! and b) tell me about it so I can read it!

Blogging in English

If you’d like to write more in English than you can on Twitter, try blogging.

A great way to have a really simple English blog is to use Posterous. Posterous is so easy that you can even blog just by writing an e-mail! It will be posted to the blog automatically. Yes, even if you attach photos. (It’s amazingly easy!) Posterous is in English, but there are many “how-to” guides in other languages. Just search for “how to use Posterous” in your language. Here’s a guide in Japanese, for example. You can even share a Posterous account with other people, which is really nice. (So several people can write a blog together.)

Using a service like Posterous, WordPress.com, or Blogger may help you get more international readers and commenters. If you use a blogging service that is based only in your language, it may be more difficult to find English-using readers.

It’s fine to write a short blog post. It’s a good idea to decide that you will post at least once a week and choose a day to do it. (It’s easy to forget about it if you don’t!) However, I’m not good at doing that, either… Anyway, if you try to blog every day, you’ll probably get too tired and stop doing it.

Picking a theme makes blogging much easier. Of course, you can always write about your daily life, your language-learning, etc. That’s fine too!

Here are some things you can write about:

  • Reviews of restaurants in your town
  • Anything else food-related, like grocery stores, bakeries, etc.
  • Photos and comments about how English is used in your area
  • Pet/animal/nature photos and descriptions
  • Photos and information about people’s fashions
  • Your cooking or crafts
  • Interesting places to go in the area near you
  • Reviews and your thoughts about TV shows, movies, music, or video games
  • Reviews and your thoughts about books or comic books/manga
  • Explaining local traditions (festivals and so on)
  • Your outdoor activities such as hiking
  • Cool or funny things from stores
  • etc.!

And yes, it’s really fine to write about things in YOUR town in Japan, Korea, Hungary, or wherever. Many times, there’s not much English information about a place on the internet. If you write about a bakery, temple, hiking spot, etc., and give its name, location information, and so on, people will be happy to read about it. (A friend was very happy to find a blog post about a Korean sewing shop in Seoul once! She was able to go there and buy supplies.) So most people will not mind if your grammar is not perfect. It can be fun to write things that people want to read!

Of course, if your blog is mostly for yourself, it’s OK too.

Remember that your blog is public (on most blog services), so be smart about how much information you give out!

If you start a blog, or if you already have one, please tell me about it! Comment here or tell me on Twitter. Thanks!

Language Exchange Done Right?

Happy New Year! I’m slow to post again. Sorry! I have an important project that I have to finish, so I can’t spend enough time here. Anyway, I hope you had a good new year and will have a good 2009.

Today let me tell you a little about Lang-8. It’s a language exchange website. Usually I don’t link to these websites. Users often get bored or frustrated, because they can’t explain grammar problems, etc. (Yes, a native speaker can tell you “This is wrong.” However, it takes a language teacher to explain why something is wrong.) Or people just write short notes to each other. That’s pretty useful, but any language exchange site is fine for that.

Anyway, Lang-8 is a little different. It focuses on writing correction. You write a short journal entry in English. Native/fluent English speakers use Lang-8 sections to make corrections to your entry. You can see their corrections highlighted in red, marked out, etc. It’s easy to see the changes. (And you can help other people who are learning Korean, Japanese, German, etc.)

Of course, there’s still a problem. If you ask the commenter “Why did you change that?” he or she probably can’t explain very well. As a result, it’s hard for you to understand why you should write differently next time.

So I have a suggestion: If you use Lang-8, use it to practice specific grammar points and sentence patterns. Pick something where you basically understand the rules and write just a couple of sentences practicing that grammar point. Make several journal entries over several days working on that grammar point. Use Lang-8 to “check your homework” (except that the “homework” is your self-study). I think this will help make Lang-8 more useful to you.

Actually, I’m going to try this myself with Japanese! Wish me luck…

Contractions Aren’t Slang: “It’s” is Okay

Do you often use contractions when you speak? Contractions are words like it’s, I’m, they’re, we’ll, couldn’t, etc. (standing for the phrases it is, I am, they are, we will, could not, etc.). You probably quickly learned to use contractions in spoken English.

You may have been told that contractions are slang or informal language. That’s not really true (at least for the USA). If you go to a formal presentation at a conference, the speaker will almost always use contractions. Contractions occur in most forms of writing, too. If you’re writing a blog or e-mail in English, you should use contractions normally. If you’re writing a regular e-mail to your co-worker, professor, or friend, contractions are 100% fine to use. If an e-mail is extremely formal, such as proposing a new contract for a business, you might not use contractions. If you’re writing an essay or paper for school, you will probably not be allowed to use contractions. Here are some examples of e-mails using contractions:

Hi, Naomi–

I haven’t received the report from XYZ company yet, so I won’t be able to send you the data today. I hope that’s all right. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.

– Clarissa

Dear Dr. Lee,

Thanks for sending us the website about the museum exhibition. It sounds like something we shouldn’t miss, so I was wondering if I could e-mail the other students and arrange an informal trip. I’d be willing to drive, since I’ve recently gotten a new minivan. Would that be all right with you?

Thanks again!

– Clarissa

These e-mails are neither formal nor casual, but they use contractions in order to sound natural and friendly.

Caution: “Reduced speech” is different from contractions. You should not use reduced speech in business or school writing. Reduced speech includes words and phrases like gonna, woulda, hafta, ‘em, etc. We frequently use these when we speak, but they are considered too casual for most forms of writing. (It’s OK to use these in e-mail to your close friends, of course, especially if your friends also use reduced speech in writing.)

Tip: If you work for a company where the main language is English, look at some e-mail and memos from the important people at the company. If they use contractions, and you don’t, you should probably start to use contractions. Why? Well, when most people in a group use contractions and one person doesn’t, it makes that person look unfriendly, awkward, and tense. (Unless you’re the boss, of course!)

In the USA, most companies and universities have their own “culture,” and it’s important to pay attention to that culture. When you read a book on American manners or business, you should always remember that your company’s (or school’s) culture is more important than any rule given in the book. I often laugh at books on American manners and behavior, because their advice is sometimes not true for everyone–the writer came from the East Coast, but I live and work on the West Coast (where we do things differently). Sometimes the writer’s advice is old-fashioned.

This is why, even if your books or teachers told you that contractions were bad, you should think about using them more often. Remember, always check what you’ve learned against what you see in the real world. If the real world seems different from the rules you learned, you should ask somebody to explain. If you can’t ask anybody, then it’s up to you to decide which way is right for you.

Next time, we’ll talk about some things that are NOT okay in business or school e-mail. If you have questions, leave me a comment or e-mail me at clarissa ( at ) readableblog ( dot ) com. What do you want to know about?

P. S. Send is a good book on current e-mail etiquette. It’s written at an advanced level, for native speakers, but it’s a very useful book.

Send Your Stuff

Remember the previous entry about PostCrossing? Well, how about sending more than just a postcard? That’s the idea behind Gimme Your Stuff. You put together a small package of interesting things from where you live, and trade it by mail with someone in a faraway country. For example, I might send a small box of Californian stuff to someone in Italy, and the person in Italy would send a small box of Italian stuff to me. Right now, there are over 500 participants from 41 countries. (The website and most of the participants use English to communicate; there are also lots of participants in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.)

In order to participate, you need to have a website or blog page where you can post a description of the kind of thing you’d like to send and receive. Then you’ll add your information to the Gimme Your Stuff site, and choose someone to trade with. (Here’s their How To page of instructions.)

Check out the website for fun photos of some of the “stuff” that has been sent across the world. People send magazines, postcards, jewelry, candy, toys, stickers, yarn, pasta, recipes, handbags, and even things they’ve made themselves. Many of the exchangers seem to have made friends with each other, too. Here’s a great chance for you to make an English-speaking friend somewhere in the world, and share your culture with someone else, too.

(If you don’t currently live in your home country, you can still participate, of course. A mix of local things and whatever you can find that originates in your home country would be great!)

Please share your thoughts with me.

People who teach English writing have learned that it is important for writers to have an audience. In other words, if you just write an essay and give it to your teacher, it’s not too interesting for you. You’re probably going to have more fun and learn more if you know several people will read what you have written. By writing a letter to somebody, publishing a blog, or having an e-mail penpal, your writing becomes real communication. It’s not just pointless homework anymore.

Well, this kind of motivation works on me, too! I want to write here on Readable Blog regularly, but I don’t know if anyone is reading it. I can see that my pages have been viewed, of course, but that doesn’t tell me if you think this blog is useful or interesting. If you do think this blog is useful, especially if you are an English learner, I would really appreciate your feedback!

Comments on entries are very motivating for me. I really love to hear from you, even if you just say “Oh, that’s interesting!” or “I think I’ll try it.” I especially love it if you try something I have posted about and then tell me what you think. (For example, if you read a book that I recommended, come back and tell everyone in a comment. Tell me even if you didn’t like it … then I can do better in the future.)

One other thing you can do for me is to fill out this survey. The questions are for English-language-learners only! If you are studying English, please fill out the poll. It should only take a few minutes. If you have any questions about it, please leave a comment on this post. I’d really appreciate it!

[survey_fly]

Thanks again!

P. S. If you read this blog by e-mail, through RSS, etc., you may need to come to readableblog.com in order to fill out the survey.

Academics: Success with Research Papers/Contacting Professors

Today I found a good article about how to do research for university-level papers. Most undergraduates and nearly all graduate students in American universities will write several long “research papers” before they graduate. These papers are big projects, with two important parts: the research and the writing.

Most students are so worried about the writing part that they don’t think about the research part very much. The research is not original research–you don’t do any experiments, dig up any bones, or run any tests. This is “library research.” Many students don’t do well on this part of the paper, because they don’t know where to start, choose sources that are not high-level, or get lost and spend too much time trying to find sources.

Dustin Wax, at Lifehack.org, has written a good article on “10 Steps Toward Better Research.” He mentions that it’s important to talk to your professor and to librarians to help you with your topic. I would add that it’s really important to talk to your professor at the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out your topic. Discussions by either e-mail or in person are fine, depending on your and your professor’s preferences.

Another article that I read recently said that American students at American universities and international students and American universities talk to their professors differently. American students tended to e-mail their professors specific questions, such as “Do you think the question of (blah blah blah) would be a good paper topic? Or would it be better for me to focus more on (blah blah blah)?” On the other hand, international students asked more general questions such as “What kind of topic should I pick?”

Although the international students probably thought of their questions as more polite, very general questions are difficult for professors to answer over e-mail. The result was that the American students received their answers quickly, but it took a long time for the international students and the professors to finish their e-mail conversations. Because of this, the American students had more time to work on their papers.

The more general question would be fine for an in-person talk with the professor. However, the international students in the article also had problems setting up a time by e-mail to visit their professor in person. The American students checked the office hours on the syllabus, and then e-mailed the professor to say things like “I can’t come during your office hours, but do you have any free time Tuesday or Thursday afternoons? I could come in any time between 2 PM and 4 PM.” This lets the professor respond with a specific time, such as “How about Thursday at 3 PM?” or suggest an alternate such as “I’m busy then, but we could meet 15 minutes before class on Wednesday.”

The international students again were more general, asking questions such as “When can I go to your office?” Again, this probably seemed more polite to the students than giving a suggestion. The result, though, was that it took many e-mails and more time for the professor and the international student to arrange their meeting.

This is not to say that it’s always better to be more direct. Also, the local way of doing things (American, in this case) is not always the best way to do something. Still, it’s a good idea to be aware of how things like this are done wherever you are, whether it’s the US, Canada, Australia, etc. Even if you feel a little uncomfortable using the local style, it might be able to help you succeed in school.

How to write a postcard in English


Here’s a photo of postcards for sale in Germany, taken by Shawndra and Simon.

Before, I posted about writing a postcard through PostCrossing. Here are some ideas about how to write a polite and friendly postcard in English. It’s easy! There’s not much space on the card, so you can only write a few lines.

If you use PostCrossing, you will be writing a postcard to a stranger. In that case, you could write something like the below example. Of course, the underlined sections are up to you.

Dear Hans Schmidt,

My name is Clarissa Ryan. I am an English teacher and I love to read and surf the web. I live in Fremont, California, USA, which is a medium-sized city near San Francisco. The picture on this postcard is a photo of the San Francisco Bay. I often see the bay when I drive around my town.

Anyway, I would love to hear back from you. My return address is: 123 Fake St., Fremont CA 94538, USA.

Clarissa [Lastname]

Here is another possible PostCrossing example, written for you by my former roommate, Jenn:

Dear Bob O’Reilly,

I found this post card and had to send it to someone. It was much too pretty to keep. I hope that you are well and will send me a postcard back.

Sincerely,

Jenn W.
123 Fake St.
Fremont, CA 94538
USA

(Thanks, Jenn!)

Anyway, I hope you’ll try PostCrossing.

Here’s another postcard example. It’s what I might write to a friend on a San Diego Zoo postcard:

Dear Tora,

I’ve been in San Diego for two days now. The weather is pretty nice and we’ve been having a great time. Yesterday, we went to the zoo. We saw some baby tigers–you would have loved them! Maybe we can go there together someday. Anyway, I hope you’re doing well! Take care!

– Clarissa

A postcard with a photo of a place in California that a Japanese friend liked to visit:

Dear Shu,

How’s everything going? We saw this postcard and thought of you. It would be great if you could come to California again sometime, or if we could go to Japan.
Take care!

– C. & C.

When I looked at postcard back in Google Images, I noticed that a lot of people sent postcard to themselves. These postcards just say “We were here!” and the date. I think I like choosing postcards more than I like writing them! I often buy postcards, but I forget to mail them. It’s a bad habit! So maybe I should send them to myself while I’m traveling.

Other people send very simple postcards to their friends. These just say things like…

Dear Carolyn,
Hi from Hawaii!!!
Love, Clarissa

So as you can see, writing a postcard in English can be VERY easy!

Note: This entry was re-written on January 26, 2010, to make it easier to read and more useful.

Postcrossing: Trade postcards across the world


Postcards Exchange

Postcrossing is a free system for helping strangers exchange postcards. 1. You register with the site. 2. Then you request an address to send a postcard to. 3. The site gives you someone’s address and a postcard ID number. 4. You write and mail the postcard, with the ID number on it. 5. The person who receives the card enters your ID on the website, which is proof that you sent a card. 6. Then your address is given to the next person who requests an address, so you should receive a postcard soon. (Many people privately send a postcard back to the person who sent them one, but the official Postcrossing system keeps things fair.) By trading postcards in English with people from all over the world, you get practice reading and writing. You might even make some friends.

It sounds confusing, but it’s very easy when you register. Just follow the instructions.

Some people have scanned and uploaded the images from the postcards they’ve received on Flickr.

According to the website, there are

  • 214,889 users in 204 countries
  • 29,874 males, 125,506 females; 58,43 prefer not to say
  • 6,214,658 postcards received
  • 210,346 postcards traveling at this moment

It’s free to register, but of course you’ll have to pay for postage. I’ll have to see if I have any international postcard stamps!

Edited to be easier to read, and statistics updated, on January 26, 2010.