Write More, Write Now

For all of you aspiring writers out there, take note.  As Joyce Lamb of USA Today reports, November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as “NaNoWriMo.”  According to Lamb, the NaNoWriMo plan encourages aspiring authors to write 1,667 words each day in the month of November.  If participants stick to the plan, they will have written 50,000 words by the end of the month-enough for a novel.  Lamb outlines the basic rules of this plan as follows:

  • You’re not allowed to go back and edit what you’ve already written.
  • You’re not allowed to criticize your work.  You’re just supposed to write, write, write, knowing you can fix your problems later
  • You don’t have to follow any actual writing rules, meaning you can write whatever you want and even change gears halfway through the story.  It’s your book, and the month is about the actual activity of writing and proving to yourself that you can finish a novel.

Lamb encourages would-be authors to give NaNo a try-one of her NaNo books is being published next month. 

You can find more information about this project, or sign up to participate by clicking here.  Good luck to all the aspiring writers out there!

The Development of a Writer: Write Now, Write Away

Here’s Paul Collins over at Slate taking a look at the first ‘How-To’ guide for fiction writing and reminding us that much of today’s advice to aspiring writers bears remarkable similarity to what was dispensed over 100 years ago.  The first known guide offering systematic advice on creative writing  (as contrasted with ancient Greek works on the essential elements of drama) was How to Write Fiction by the 26 year old Sherwin Cody.  There’s nothing all that startling in Cody’s suggestions – at least not by today’s standards – and most of it is by now familiar enough that there’s little need to belabor the details: write what you know, show don’t tell, and, of course, don’t plan on writing full-time.  As an aside, Cody’s Victorian upbringing shines through in his admonishment that art should shy away from controversy or his warning that a good writer does not make the reader uncomfortable with stories about ‘peculiarities’.   Today, Cody’s work strikes us as a bit quaint.  But that’s not entirely fair.  The idioms may reflect today’s culture, but many of the contemporary ‘how-to-write’ guides proffer the same sort of generalities as Cody.

What is useful about Cody’s work, however, – and other ‘how-to’ works, more generally – is what it represents, or, more accurately, what it implies.  Implicit in Cody’s work is the idea that good writing is something that can be improved through effort, that good writers can be developed through hard work and by applying certain principles of practice to their work.   Despite the occasional insistence that great writers are born, not created, there’s nothing inherently strange in the idea of learning how to write.  Expertise in writing, like any human endeavor, is an adaptation acquired through repetition and hard work. 

We’ve written before on the work of Anders Ericson and on what it takes to move novice to expertise.  Ericson found that attaining expertise in a chosen activity required the following attributes:

  • Targeted Practice: practice at a developmentally appropriate level
  • Real-time Corrective Feedback: specific and based on one’s performance
  • Intensive Practice: practice performed on a daily basis (or often)
  • Distributed Practice: practice over a long period of time; allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance
  • Self-Directed Practice: practice in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher

There’s no reason to think that the act of writing is any different, or that writing somehow exists outside the range of other human activities and belongs to a special distinct class of human behaviors.  The qualities of a good writer are no more ineffable than what makes a good reader or a good cook.  If we think of writing as just one more human activity, as on a par with other endeavors, like swimming, mathematics, or chess, then we can dispense with the whole notion of treating writing as an essentially distinct activity and as somehow beyond the influence of practice.  Instead, we have much to gain by treating the practice of writing as one more useful skill that can be trained.

The idea that writing can be improved through practice and that great writers can be trained applies to all forms of writing – even fiction.  In fact, there’s been recent evidence to suggest that creativity – presumably the essential element of a great fiction writer – is a skill like any other, one that, in addition to responding to environmental cues, can be cultivated and learned.

Sites, like Figment, are attempting to do just that by providing a forum where students can read and write fiction.  By providing a social network, Figment allows students to present their writing to a peer community for review and criticism.  Our own work at MetaMetrics has incorporated Ericson’s research into our metrics.  In fact, The Lexile Framework for Writing (and its applications: MyWritingWeb and Oasis) is built around the idea that students have the ability to improve their writing skill through frequent, sustained, and targeted practice; and that writing performance – like reading comprehension and math readiness – may be measured.  Writing is a measurable skill, and by providing an automated platform in which students may practice, it is our hope to facilitate an environment where students may improve their writing ability through sustained and deliberate practice.

Harvesting the Data: What Social Media Sites May Soon Provide

Popular social media and networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have undoubtedly changed the way we communicate. What many don’t realize is that all those status posts and “likes” and “dislikes” are flooding the Internet with data; usable, searchable, baffling data. According to a recent article in Slate, over 500 million users are accessing Facebook and each of those users is creating an average of 90 pieces of content a month. Slate details how others have decided to utilize this data to examine various trends:

Our first stop is Openbook. The site lets you search public Facebook updates and was created to demonstrate how FB’s privacy settings are confusing: People don’t realize how widely they are sharing personal information. And, indeed, when you do a search like “cheated on my wife,” you discover updates that would’ve been better left in the privacy of one’s own mind. Same with “my boss sucks.”

 From a research standpoint, however, this kind of commentary can be tapped for more useful purposes:

It would be helpful for transportation planners to know the places where people complain the most about traffic. Educators could see the data and sentiment analysis around how a community feels about its local schools.

Facebook’s own data team sifts through their own information searching for trends. One trend they’ve already analyzed is the times of year their users seem to be the happiest.  Using the language of their user’s posts, researchers determined that Americans tend to be happiest on Thanksgiving Day – Mother’s day is a distant second.

There’s much more to be gleaned through the analysis of Facebook data; and much of this data will provide a treasure tr to future researchers.  It would be useful, for example, to analyze the writing level of Facebook’s many users utilizing a metric like The Lexile Framework for Writing, to gauge how the semantic and syntactic ability of writers increase over time.  It might also be useful to assess the writing level of students, in a particular region or area, when writing informally as contrasted with their more formal writing attempts.  Whatever we find in the data, it would certainly be interesting to assess student’s dominant mode of writing in non-assessment situations.

Did You Write This?

Make of this story what you will, but it appears to confirm what many educators around the country have shared with us: plagiarism is not only getting worse, but is generally poorly understood by most students.  Universities around the country have reported increasing instances of students turning in work that has clearly been copied from other sources.  Many classroom teachers have reported that many students openly borrow from public sources without even bothering with attribution.

The Times argues that in an age of open information exchange, the line between one’s own work and ‘common knowledge’ may be blurring:

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image. (more…)

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.