Monthly Archives: September 2008

Sourdough Writing

Sourdough Writing

9/29/08

Kenneth Burchfiel, WSTFTHS

 

Within every story lies a literary “sweet spot”: a point where the theme clicks, the writing flows and the ideas presented resonate with the reader. In many stories—well-written ones, at least—that center point happens to be the climax or thesis of the piece, exactly where the writer wants it.

Many stories, however, are written off-center. The composer sets out with a given agenda and types out their ideas; and yet, an unimportant, extraneous paragraph turns out to be even more promising than the climatic or pithy ones. The writer might be satisfied with the story as it stands, but the real heart of the piece—that which could form the base of an even better story—goes underutilized and underappreciated.

This situation can be called “Off Center Writing.” To cure it, I prescribe a simple, yet effective writing exercise.

 

“Sourdough Workshopping,” not surprisingly, derives its name from the baking process used for that kind of bread. To make sourdough, one takes a small amount of “mother” yeast—the most flavorful and filling section of the bread—and mixes it in with a new batch. That transplanted yeast spreads to the very end of the loaf and creates a newer, better-tasting bread.

 

When applied to the workshop format, this process can be just as beneficial for compositions with hidden potential as it is for loaves with especially good yeast.

To start, each writer produces a piece—be it fiction or nonfiction. If desired, everyone shares their product with the class. class. The fun begins when every story is traded with another writer.

The recipient of a piece can be considered the “baker.” Their job is to read what they receive and locate that aforementioned center of the story: one paragraph (and only one paragraph) which they find to be the most engaging, thought-provoking, exciting or innovative. All the “editors” do is select that paragraph and hand it back to the writer.

 

This chosen clipping of the story then becomes the “mother yeast” on which the original writer bases a new composition. There are no rules for this second piece, except that the selected passage must form the basis for the piece’s theme and plot. (in other words, it has to be the pith of the story.)

 

The writer, once finished with this second composition, has conquered their initial dilemma: their story is now centered and focused on the very best paragraph they could have picked.

 

There is no limit on the Sourdough Writing process. The writer could give this new piece to another editor, have them pick out the best paragraph from it and generate a third story; or a fourth story; or a tenth story, if they’re really enjoying themselves. The whole point is to build a new story using the best part of an older one.

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10 Myths about Editorial Writing

10 Myths about Editorial Writing

9/28/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

  1. Opinion writing is boring. “Editorialists” get to voice their own opinion and speak out about issues that matter to them. Personal feelings and thoughts are not discouraged, but encouraged. Besides, the topics one gets to discuss are usually relevant and important to them.

 

  1. Editorial writers have it easy. Columnists and opinion writers are under more pressure than just about anyone on the paper. The stronger piece they write, the more criticism they will receive. If just one statistic or fact comes out wrong, people will let them know. In addition, groups negatively singled out by a piece will make sure the writer hears their rebuttal.

 

  1. Columns should be written in five-paragraph form. There is no specific form for writing an editorial, though it’s expected of writers to include some sort of opening, persuasive evidence and a fitting conclusion.

 

  1. Opinion pieces don’t need any facts or quotes. If an editorial piece is to gain notice and be taken seriously, it must include factual evidence, whether in the form of statistics or quotes. Without such a base, the piece is nothing but a rant.

 

  1. Writers shouldn’t mention the opposite position. One of the main points of an editorial is to persuade readers with a difference viewpoint to change their mind. Thus, in order to connect with disagreeing readers, editorialists are expected to acknowledge the viewpoint opposing their own—often in the very beginning of the story.

 

  1. Editorials (should) (should not) use first person tense. It depends. If one is writing a column, they are free to use “I” as often as you want. Regular opinion pieces see the usage less often, though first person tense is certainly not prohibited.

 

  1. Everything important should go in the first paragraph. If a writer tries to fit all of their opinion into a one-sentence lead, their piece will read like an academic essay—if it’s even read at all.

 

  1. Editorials have to criticize something. Opinion pieces can be in praise of something, too.

 

  1. It doesn’t take as much work to write a column. On the contrary, developing, organizing, condensing and communicating one’s opinions is one of the hardest things a person can set out an editorial. It’s easy to write a sloppy editorial, but extremely time-consuming to make an opinion piece good.

     

All of the above is correct. This guide is nothing but the opinion of the writer. There is no authoritative guide to writing an opinion piece. In the end, everything is up to the editorialist.

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Embracing Your Inner Statistician

[Disclaimer: I mention a few sites and programs in the course of this article. Rest assured, I’m not trying to advertise any of them, nor do I get any compensation for doing so. They just happen to fit with the subject matter.]

Embracing Your Inner Statistician

9/27/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

    
 

    One of man’s great pursuits is to make the daily grind more interesting. We tune into the radio during the daily commute, hunt out a new place to eat on our lunch break and accessorize our cubicles with whatever accessories seem convenient. If it weren’t for these little touches, we might have keeled over in boredom.

    Family photos and radio stations aside, there is one more way to break the monotony of everyday life: measure it. Keep track of how many miles your employer makes you fly. See how many keystrokes that proposal took. Best of all, record the days where you’re forced to walk to the bus stop in sub-zero temperatures. Logging not only makes the everyday routine a little more interesting, but creates a sense of progress when you see just how far you’ve come.

    The following are just a few ways to make use of your copy of Excel or Numbers. Who knows? You might have been cut out for a career in figures after all.

 

    Track your flights. Frequent flier or not, you might enjoy seeing how many miles you’ve spent in the sky. It doesn’t take a pile of ticket receipts to accomplish this, either.

    A relatively unknown site called “Flightmemory.com” not only helps you keep track of all your flight statistics, but—with the origin and destination you enter into the program—creates a personal flight map showing where you’ve been in the world. Whenever you go on a trip, just enter the details (airports, airline and plane) into your user account to make use of the features the site offers. If you’re really bored, go to your main page and see how much further you have to fly to get to the moon—or the sun.    

    For a simpler approach, just create a spreadsheet with columns for the date, airline, destination and departure and arrival airports. Flightaware, another site made specifically for aviation geeks, will let you see the distance (and time of flight) between two airports. By compiling all this data, you can see how long you’ve had to endure economy class—or, perhaps, how long you’ve been able to enjoy time in business or first. (In the latter case, just ask your secretary or butler to do all this work for you.)

 

    Log your keystrokes. This might be the nerdiest idea on the list, but you’d be surprised at how fast those letter hits can add up. If you spend at least a few hours on the computer each day, try downloading Whatpulse—a free and detailed program—onto your computer’s taskbar. The site not only measures how many clicks and keys you amass over time, but lets you see which keys you hit the most. (Using the “Key Frequencies” feature, I discovered that I’ve hit the “E” key 5,005 times in the last few days, but—in that same span—have only typed 36 Q’s.)

    Of course, if you want to unleash your inner geek along with your inner statistician, try joining or creating a “Typing Team” on the Whatpulse site. This is not a joke. To increase your rank, simply type and click more than the other 7,000 or so registered groups. (You are also assigned an individual rank, which should increase over the lifetime of your keyboard use.)

    If you want to disprove your boss’s allegations that you’re not doing enough work at the computer, try saving your daily statistics to a spreadsheet on your computer. The next time she criticizes your work ethic, tell her, “Really? Why, I’ve logged 375,000 keystrokes this week!”

 

     Follow your footsteps. In the last 20 days, I’ve walked far enough to get from my house to southern Pennsylvania. At least, that’s what my pedometer says.

    It doesn’t take a jogging schedule or a workout regimen for a pedometer to be of interest. By putting a stopwatch-sized device in your pocket and going about your business, you can easily amass thousands—even tens of thousands—of footsteps a day.

    Pedometers aren’t even particularly hard to find; even my cell phone has one. With just a little time spent buying one and keeping track of the results on a spreadsheet, you can boast to your friends that you’ve walked far enough to get to the ocean—or beyond. At the very least, you might find yourself inspired to walk to the grocery store instead of driving there. There’s nothing wrong in inflating your step count.

 

    Keep watch on the weather. Most of the people on your block have a stick or dial thermometer that tells them how warm it is at the moment. You can do better than that.

    One nifty byproduct of the digital revolution has been the digital thermometer. Though more expensive than the convenience store standard, these electronic devices often measure pressure (a vital figure in forecasting the weather) and indoor and outdoor humidity in addition to the temperature. Even better are those that keep track of maximum highs and lows, meaning you don’t have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to see just how cool it got last night. Just remember: the fancier the system, the more difficulty you might encounter setting it up.

    Though you can find thermometers that automatically upload their data to the computer, there’s no reason to break the bank. Just find a device that will keep track of how hot and cold it gets over a resettable period, then enter the statistics into a computer. You could use this strategy to keep track of the day’s highs and lows if you’re that inclined.

    

    Perhaps the above ideas didn’t sound quite as exciting or useful as you hoped. Just don’t be surprised if flight tracking or keystroke logging becomes the next big thing.

 

Kenneth made 16127 keystrokes and 471 clicks in the process of writing and revising this article.

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New take on the “Jesus Is” Shirt

As an aviation geek, I felt compelled to make this. (Click on the blue link below)

jvs

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The National Typing League

The National Typing League

9/20/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

An Overview of the National Typing League

I: Typing Teams

A: Each team will be made up of no less than five competing typists.

B: Each teammate will be seeded against the other members of that team based on their typing ability.

II: Beginning typing competitions

A: Competitions will be held in a location accepted on by both teams.

B: The competition location must be suitable for a typing contest, meaning:

.    1. The location must include a sufficient number of computers and keyboards for each team.

2. The location must be free of auditory and visible distractions.

3. The owners of the location must be willing to comply with the requests of each team.

4. Internet connections must be available to register results.

5: The location must be large enough to accommodate all team members, staff and equipment.

C: Before the competition begins, there will be a twenty-minute period for set up and warmup. Teams may use this time as they please.

D: The coaches, or captains (if no coaches are present) will meet and decide on the following matters:

  1. If the teams have an unequal amount of players, the coaches must decide if they wish to have more than five seeded matches. There may be up to 11 seeded matches.
  2. What order they wish to have matches. If resources permit, all matches may take place at the same time; if time permits, each match may take place separately.
  3. How to manage technological problems.
  4. Where and when to schedule future matches, if desired.

E: The coaches will then greet the match organizer.

E: After meeting, the coaches and captains will then address their team members. The contests then begin.

III: The Typing Competition

A: Both players in a match will greet one another before beginning.

B: Each player will be given a keyboard and a computer. They may request headphones, but only for noise reduction purposes.

C: The match will be officially begun by the match organizer. He will start each match by:

  1. Revealing the text that each player will be typed.
    1. If one player is given the opportunity to see this text beforehand, a different text will be chosen.
    2. Both players will use the same text, but on different computers.
    3. Unless more technology exists and is agreed on by both coaches or captains, the text will assume the form of one or more sheets of paper arranged to the left (first and second pages) and right (additional pages) of the computer.
    4. The text must be legible, and the font must be agreed upon by both coaches.
  2. Beginning the match timer.
    1. Match contests will last three minutes.
    2. Players are required to stop typing at the sound of the timer’s whistle.
    3. The technology available will influence exactly how the match is timed. The game clock will operate by computer if possible; or, the organizer may use a manual timer.

D: During the course of the match, the players will attempt to type the words featured on the pages of text as quickly and as accurately as possible.

  1. Words may not be skipped in the course of the contest. Skipped concept will be counted as mistyped content.
  2. Players are not to distract each other verbally or physically during the course of the concept. Doing so will result in an automatic disqualification.
  3. The word processor that each player will use must:
    1. Have all copying and pasting features disabled.
    2. Must have spell checking or grammar checking software disabled.
    3. Must allow manual (by mouse or keyboard) editing only.

IV: Scoring Individual Matches

A: At the end of the match, both players’ typing will be categorized as correctly spelled and misspelled words.

  1. Only words that match the words on the text page in terms of capitalization, punctuation, spacing and spelling and in the order that they appear on the page will be considered correct words.
  2. Misspelled words will be counted (surprise!) as misspelled words.
  3. Words that lack proper capitalization, or words that feature capitalization in the improper spots, will be considered misspelled.
  4. Words that are skipped on the page will be counted as misspelled.
  5. If a word is typed more than once, the word will count the first time it is written, then be considered misspelled for all consecutive appearances.
  6. Words written that are not seen on the page or pages of text will be counted as misspelled.
  7. Words that cannot be finished by the termination of the test will not be factored into the final score.
  8. Extra spaces between words will make the word preceding them count as misspelled.
  9. Mispunctuated words will count as misspelled.

B: The scoring method is known as “divide, then multiply,” or DTM.

  1. To tabulate the final score, the number of correctly spelled words will be divided by the sum of all correctly spelled and misspelled words. This quotient will then be multiplied by the sum of all correctly spelled words. This product will be rounded up to the nearest integer, and will then count as the final score.
    1. Multiplying the number of correct words typed by the percentage of correct words typed out of all correctly and incorrectly spelled words serves as a means to reward accuracy and deter typists who might otherwise seek to type as fast as possible without any regard for misspelled words.
    2. For example, take the sentence “A dog jumped into a briar patch, but jumped out fairly quickly after that.” A typist who wrote “A dog jumped into a briar patch” in ten seconds would receive a score of seven (7 x 7/7). One who wrote “A dog woked ito a brire patch, but jumped ot fairly quickly affer that” in ten seconds would have written nine correct words in that span of time, but—given the extra time needed to correct his misspellings—he did a worse job than a blind “total correct words” score would reveal. Thus, the DTM system takes his nine words and multiplies them by 9/14 (his correctly spelled words divided by all correctly and incorrectly spelled words), giving him a final score of 6 (considering that scores are rounded up.) In this way, accuracy becomes as important to typing competitors as it would in the real world.

V: Scoring matches as a whole

  1. Each match won counts as a +1 for a team; each match lost counts as +0.
  2. Ties will count as 0.5 for each teams.
  3. If a match could not be finished for a reason out of either team’s control, it will count as +0 for both teams.
  4. Final scores, therefore, will be tabulated an A-B format, with A counting as one team’s points and B counting as the other’s.

VI: Extraneous situations

  1. In case of a situation beyond the teams’ control, any of the above may be amended with the consent of both coaches or captains.

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A quick guide to quick typing

A quick guide to quick typing

9/20/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Throughout our lives, we receive plenty of education on what to type. It is the question of how to type that does not get enough attention.

One could make the argument that how fast one writes does not make much of a difference. After all, if it takes someone an hour just to write a thousand-word paper (an average rate of fourteen to fifteen words a minute), their actual typing ability does not factor into the equation—seeing as they could easily match that typing rate with a pencil.

This argument, however, makes the pretense that typists go at the same rate for hours on end; in truth, writing is better modeled as a series of pauses punctuated by moments of intense—sometimes furious—typing. It’s those moments of fury that require one to be proficient in typing, lest a great thought or a chain of ideas for a paragraph slip away.

 

I invite anyone reading this to look at the keys below their fingers—should they be near a computer. If the top row of keys reads “QWERTYUIOP,” they’ve got a problem they might not even know about.

The QWERTY layout was developed more than a century ago for typewriter models. With all due respect to the inventor, Christopher Sholes’ layout has since become outdated. It puts some of the most-used keys—E, R, T, I and O—on the top row, meaning the hand must travel an uncomfortable distance to type even the most basic words. Simultaneously, it puts rarely-used letters like “K” and “J” on the middle row where they do not belong. QWERTY keyboard users use the top row, which requires hand travel, much more than they do the “home” or middle row.

At first, this may seem like an unimportant issue. But the more one must move their fingers up and down to type, the more strain they put on the fingers—and the less potential they have when it comes to speed typing.

With all this in mind, I recommend that anyone serious about typing quickly change the layout of their keyboard. (This is the point at which most will stop reading.) Going from QWERTY to a more ergonomic layout, in fact, is easier done than said. Windows and Apple computers both feature alternate layout compatibility, and rearranging the keys is as simple as popping the letters out with a knife and moving them around.

For about three years, I’ve used the “Dvorak” keyboard layout. Switching was as simple as taking a utensil and manually rearranging the keys, then going to the Windows control panel and changing the key layout. Since then, I’ve never looked back. At school, I can use online converters to type quickly; at home, with my keyboard configured for Dvorak typing, I can reach speeds of 100 WPM in regular typing—and 120 or above in typing tests. Best of all, I’ve rarely felt hand or wrist pain from typing at extended lengths.

Dvorak is the leading rival to QWERTY, but users looking to break the mold even further can try out the COLEMAK layout. This one is technically superior to Dvorak, but the achievement gap between the two is miniscule compared to the gap between QWERTY and either.

 

But neither the COLEMAK or Dvorak layout will make a hint of difference unless one learns to “touch type,” or memorize the key layout so that one need not look at the board while typing. With all due respect to the mathematicians of this world, I consider my ability in this field much more important than my skills in trigonometry or calculus.

There are more typing programs than there are sushi bars in Tokyo, but all of them are, more or less, the same: by starting with the most frequently used keys and extending outward, they teach users—letter by letter—to memorize the board. Some programs have elaborate tracking systems, incorporated games and voice narrators. Others, like the 1995 HTML program I used to learn Dvorak, are East German in their appearance but do just as fine a job.

The specific program one chooses, in the end, does not make a difference. What matters is that they use that program to its fullest potential and emerge with the ability to type while looking at the screen.

 

These two measures get one 85 percent of the way to their full typing potential. This final step can be eschewed if one is satisfied with their current keyboard, but important nonetheless.

Most keyboards—and most cars—perform more or less the same at slow speeds. The plastic keyboard that came from your computer and the steel-frame, mechanical-switch, ergonomic-everything product you can buy online will each feel about the same at 30 or 40 words a minute. But for typists capable of hitting 80 WPM or above, the specific keyboard one users begins to make a difference in their final score.

Keyboard styles can be separated by two main categories: keyswitch technology and physical key arrangement. By far, the majority of keyboards use rubber domes to pop depressed keys back up and feature three straight rows of letters. This setup works fine for infrequent typists with a WPM score in the 30-60 range.

A plethora of keyswitch alternatives exist on the market. Take “Buckling Spring” boards, for example. These keyboards use actual springs to recoil keys to their original position. Because springs do their job much quicker than standard rubber domes, the keyboard is more responsive and less susceptible to “mushy” typing, in which one’s fingers sink into the keys and have trouble getting back up. Mechanical boards register strokes using actual switches, not just the wire membrane technology found in most buckling spring and regular keyboards.

Both of these technologies result in faster typing for two reasons: the keys are more responsive to finger input, and the “click” sound resulting from springs and switches helps the typist recognize when they’ve depressed a key. These are just two popular alternatives out of dozens.

My personal keyboard is standard in terms of letter arrangement; like most devices, it has the letters and numbers in four parallel rows. For typists interested in a more ergonomic (and faster, perhaps) experience, there are a number of keyboards available with a V-shaped layout; the letter rows, split in the middle and curved inward, better match the natural hand position of typists. This theme has plenty of variations (search for “vertical keyboard” for an especially wild one), but all serve to make the typing experience more intuitive and easier on the fingers.

 

This guide is but an introduction to the world of speed typing, but it covers most of the steps interested typists should take to write faster. As for writing better… well, that’s a separate matter.

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Writing in Fourth Person

Writing in 4th Person

9/18/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

It has become more or less assumed, in most circles, that three distinct ways exist to narrate a story: first person, second person (used mainly for direct addresses), and third person. It has always appeared a comprehensive list, more or less, given that there are only three pronouns—I, they, and you—to work from.

There is, however, another way of looking at the question, though I do not presume to be the first to have come up with it. It’s not an entirely new way of narrating a story, but instead a blend of first and third person that creates depth and mystery when done correctly.

For now, we’ll call it fourth person.

 

Third person narrators, by convention, are given no intelligence or thought of their own. They go at great lengths describing scenes and events; omnipresent versions can see inside every portion of the story; yet authors rarely give them a distinct voice of their own. They are nothing more but stock tickers reading the ups and downs of the plot.

There’s some advantages to this convention, of course. Having a bland, thoughtless narrator means nothing gets in the way between the characters and the reader; one can assume that the third-person narrator is an honest, objective fellow who’s simply there to relate the events of a story.

But what if one were to assign the third person narrator a part of their own? What if they were given dreams, thoughts and motives along with the other players in the book? Having a “Fourth Person” narrator, one who is disconnected from the story but conscious and engrossed in it, gives pieces a whole new dimension. The author has all the conveniences of a 3rd person voice and a 1st person narrator at their disposal.

To better explain the concept, I will write two paragraphs dealing with the same event. One of them is written in the orthodox 3rd person sense; the other, narrated in the 4th person. The difference, hopefully, will be easy to recognize.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle with a throng of admirers behind her. She threw the bouquet in the air; but before the roses and daisies could reach the floor, the flowers separated in the air and drifted down in hundreds of pieces. Above them, a bell rang.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle, never bothering to look back at the only person in the church wearing a frown. The bouquet went skyward, coming apart midair, but she only laughed, and announced to the crowd that everyone now had a chance at marriage. Except for one person, one whom she had forgotten before the wedding even began.

 

The first version could easily have been written by a journalist. The narrator watches the bells and listens to the flowers with perfect detachment, offering no opinions or thoughts of his own.

It is the second piece that embodies the idea of fourth person writing. There is no usage of “I” or “You,” no pronoun to give the narrator away; and yet, reading it, there definitely is someone describing the wedding from their own perspective, someone who seems remorseful about an otherwise happy event. It is no great revelation that the narrator is simply the person in the back of the church.

    The second version, in my opinion, has a good deal of potential going for it. The narrator may choose to detail the newlyweds’ life from his ex-boyfriend perspective. Or, he move the story 10 years into the past and lament the days he spent with her. Wherever the author wishes to go with the piece, he has the opportunity to focus both on the characters depicted in the story and the character “writing” the story at the same time.

    There are many other ways to play out the concept. Someone with a poor farmer’s persona could detail a Wall Street board meeting. A compulsive liar could give their own take of a high school chess tournament. A son could give an account of his father’s day; the father, likewise, could give an account of his son’s day.

    It should be repeated that “I,” “We” and “You” are not used in the fourth person concept. Rather, the identity of the narrator is revealed through their use of opinion and allusions to their own life inside the story. (The 4th person narrator in the wedding example, for example, used a depressed tone and references to a sad character to help define the narrator’s identity.) It may be frustrating at times to abstain from using a first person voice, but keeping out direct references to the narrator maintains the mystery and extra depth that fourth-person writing can provide. The concept is all about showing—not directly telling—the audience who the narrator is.

    This is not a novel concept, of course. Plenty of writers have given their narrators powers of emotion and independent thought to match their powers of observation. All I sought to do here was define the concept and introduce it to anyone looking for a new take on the millennia-old 1st, 2nd or 3rd person question.


 

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