Welcome Back: New Updates

Welcome back, SDA!

I wanted to take the time to wish everybody the best of luck in the last few weeks of the semester and to let everyone know about a minor change to the online scheduling system.

First, I’d just like to remind students that although the semester is nearly over, this is still an optimal time for you all to bring up your grades, especially if you’re finishing up any English classes or writing-intensive classes. I know many English teachers who are offering extra credit on assignments for students who visit the Writing Lab, so if your teacher has informed you of this, then don’t hesitate to make an appointment with me in the lab. Even if your teachers don’t offer extra credit, I’d still encourage you to make an appointment. An appointment with me can sometimes mean the difference in a letter grade for your assignments. I have plenty of slots open throughout the week, so I hope you all will utilize my services to your advantage!

Now for the minor change I mentioned earlier: If you go onto our Google Calendar to make an appointment, you might notice the appointment labels look slightly different:

As you can see above, the appointment slots will now reflect the period you are making an appointment for. When you hover over each slot, a small window will appear showing you what time this appointment is for (i.e. 10:00am – 10:30am). Appointments are still 30 min slots, but you can book two slots if necessary.

My purpose in changing this was to make it a little easier for students to see when their appointments would be in regards to their schedule from class period to class period. If it works out, I may keep it this way.

That’s all from me. I hope to see some people in the lab this week. I am here and am always happy to help!

Read. Write. Grow.

-Mr. S. 

Happy Holidays! (oh, and some tips on writing greeting cards)

Image result for bookworm snowman
If I were a snowman… courtesy of pinterest.com

I thought I might have some fun on our last day before break.

The holidays are upon us. Christmas and Kwanzaa are just a few days away and Hanukkah, as of this past Wednesday, has finished. With the holidays comes many festivities, including gift-giving and sometimes even writing greeting cards. This is what I want to discuss today. While greeting cards are still a big seller during the Christmas season, writing greeting cards, much like letter-writing in general,  has become a bit of a lost art. Nonetheless, I make a point to include a nicely written card with any gift I give to family and friends. You don’t have to make anything big or elaborate, as long as they mean something special to whomever you address them to. Gifts are one thing, but some nice words during the holidays can make a difference for some people between a happy holiday and a crummy one.

Thus, I would like to give just a few of my tips on writing greeting cards. If you just so happen to write your own cards to go along with your gifts, I have some advice on picking out cards and what sorts of content you could include.

DISCLAIMER: ALL TIPS GIVEN ARE A MATTER OF PERSONAL OPINION AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH. That said, you may still be questioning my credentials on this, but I assure you I’ve worked at Barnes & Noble and a Hallmark store, both during the holidays, so my greeting card game is pretty strong:

First and foremost, handwritten, homemade cards always trump store-bought cards. Personalized is better.

If you fancy yourself an artistic or creative person, you might already make your own cards. If you don’t, you might consider it this year.

In the past, I’ve found myself frustrated with the types of cards they sell in stores. We will get more into this later, but generally, greeting cards fall into two categories: sentimental or humorous. Depending the person I’m buying a card for, It’s hard to find the right words in a greeting card when working with these two constraining categories. For example, when buying a card for my Dad a few years ago, I couldn’t find any cards that conveyed the right words, finding too many clichés and not enough real sentiment.

Rather than purchase a store-bought card, I opted instead to make my own and craft my own personal message to my father. To this day, I think it’s still one of the better cards I’ve made for family and, what’s more important, my Dad absolutely loved it when he got it. He still keeps it even all these years later.

This goes to show how much impact a homemade card can make. Even if you’re not the most artistic person, these days, there are so many online and desktop publishing programs available that finding a way to make your own card, incorporating complimenting images and words, is a cinch. I use Microsoft Word or Publisher personally because I fins them the easiest programs to navigate. Adobe InDesign is another option if its available to you, but as I said, you can search online for free greeting card design websites that are often comparable to any of these programs.

If you buy store-bought cards, go for humor first, sentimental last.

As I said above, greeting cards generally fall into two categories. You have your humorous cards, usually drawn with cartoons and containing a setup and punchline to make for a good (sometimes cheesy) laugh. On the other end, you have your sentimental cards, usually containing heartwarming messages of love and family togetherness, etc.

Sentimental cards are all well and good, but I tend to go for humor over sentimentality. It’s easier to find a good humorous card and write your own personal message inside. In addition, humor is much more universal in my opinion. If everyone can have a good laugh over a humorous card, it results in much more interaction and togetherness oftentimes.

Again, this all depends on the person you are buying the card for. For older relatives, some humor might go over their heads, so a sentimental card might be better for them. It’s all a matter of taking the time to looking for a card that you think will connect with that person the best.

When it comes to writing your own personal message, even in a humorous card, it’s always best to write personally and share some honest sentiment in your writing.

When writing your own message, follow the 3 P’s : Positive, personal and precise.

Like all writing,  a good note or greeting card message takes time to create. I often write a rough draft of my greetings on paper and then re-write them on the card when I’m happy with them. The more time you spend on crafting your messages, the better they will be.

When crafting your words, there are 3 points I like to remember, all conveniently starting with the letter P:

Positive: This should go without saying, but make sure what you write, whether to family or friends, is positive. Focus on what is good about your relationship with the person, and put yourself in that mindset when you’re writing. You’ll avoid any awkwardness and will make everyone feel good about themselves, which is what is most important.

Personal: work to make each card’s message a personal one. It is definitely easy to copy and paste a response in each card, but it won’t connect with your reader as well as a personalized message. Think about who you are writing for: what sorts of things do they like? Is there a special memory you have with them from the past? What do you wish or hope for them in the future? These are sorts of questions you can think about that make for great, personal content in your greetings.

Precise: your messages should be meaningful, but should still be concise, when we’re writing in greeting cards, we have limited space on the page, and we don’t want to run out of room. Therefore, it’s important to write, but not ramble. This is why I always encourage drafting your message on a separate piece of paper before you start writing. Not only will it ensure you are writing precisely, but it will allow you to look at your writing and edit it down to the best content (Yes, I am saying you should edit your greeting cards). It might seem like an unnecessary step, but in the end, it will make the difference between a good greeting card and a great one.

That’s my last bit of advice before I get too deep into analyzing the fine-tuned psychology or greeting card composition. If I had to sum this all up, I’d just say a personal card is better than something impersonal, so keep that in mind as you write to family and friends this year. Finally, to reiterate, giving a gift is all well and good, but the gift of kind and thoughtful words during the holidays can make everyone feel a little brighter.

Hope everyone enjoys their break and has a happy holiday. See you in the new year!


Read. Write. Grow.

– Mr. S.

Writing and the Art of Mindfulness

from https://www.uhs.umich.edu/mindfulness


What I’d like to focus on in this post has less to do with any specific writing or editing techniques, but can still be applied to it. Personally, I’m feeling a bit burnt out when it comes to writing, as I’m sure many of you feel at this point in the year. We’re all just two weeks away from a long-deserved break from school, from work, and from the tedium of daily life. The closer it gets, however, the less focus we tend to put on the most important things occurring in the present moment.

That being said, what I want to focus on today is the idea of “mindfulness.” I’ve heard this word thrown about a lot in recent memory, but I didn’t have a full understanding of what it fully entails until I started reading up about it online this past week. To put it short, living in “mindfulness” is essentially living “in the moment”: acknowledging how you are feeling physically and emotionally and understanding that it is a by-product of living. It represents the notion that one is better off focusing on how they are feeling in the present and not dwelling in the future or past. If one puts their focus on the present moment, on how they feel, and how the external world impacts us, they end up getting much more out of their days and out of their lives in general.

Mindfulness, while an intriguing idea, is sometimes quite difficult to put into practice, especially with seemingly dozens of outside influences that can distract us from the moment, including but not limited to news media and social media. According to those who practice it, living mindfully takes practice until it becomes habitual.

When connected to writing, I think that lack of mindfulness is the key culprit behind the dreaded affliction “writer’s block.” We’ve all experienced the pain and pressure of opening up a Word document and having not a single word to write. Truthfully, it’s exactly how I started out writing this. The analytical side of our brain all but blocks off the creative flow and sees us analyzing our words on what sounds right, what we should edit, etc. We can’t help but focus on the next step because this is how we’ve been trained.

At a certain age, we start spending more time looking forward, thinking about our futures while still focusing on the present moment. It is a lot for a young mind to handle, I know, which is why I felt the need to bring up mindfulness today and suggest some possible techniques to become more present in your writing.

The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Therefore, the first steps you take before writing can make the difference between writing mindfully and suffering another bout of writer’s block. First, try to get yourself into a physical space free of distraction. If possible, working in “a room of one’s own,” as writer Virginia Woolf put it best, is the perfect place to start. Even still, your own personal space can have its share of distractions. Removing these distractions is step number two, starting with putting your phone across the room on silent or in another room completely. If at all possible, you should try to disconnect yourself from the internet as well. This will help you avoid the temptation of spending time on Facebook or YouTube between paragraphs.

With two of the larger diversions out of the way, you can spend time de-cluttering your work-space. Clear your desk of other papers or junk or any type and keep the area in your frontal view free of distractions as well. Cutting down on the clutter will help things feel more open and might be beneficial to your mental flow as well. Now that we’ve taken care of the external factors, now let’s focus on the internal.

As you begin to write, acknowledge how you feel inside. Are you nervous? Are you apprehensive to start? Good. These are all natural, common feelings not just for writers, but for anyone. By focusing on these feelings in the present moment, you are making a very important effort to understand both how you feel and how to use those feelings to drive your writing. For example, if you’re feeling nervous, tell yourself, “I’m feeling nervous, and that’s okay.” From there, turn that nervousness energy into positive energy to direct towards your writing. Some quick meditation can help turn this energy into something positive. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, focus on the relationship between your body and your mind, and when you feel you’re ready, then move forward.

Start with the important things, and then fill in the blanks. If the hardest part of writing is starting, then writing the first sentence is definitely the most daunting part. If that’s the case for you, then skip it. In starting your first paragraph, get the most important stuff written first, including your argument/thesis plus any relevant background information. If you’ve started with an outline, this will be an easier step. Once you’ve got all the important things included, see what you can do to fill the spaces in between. A clever, insightful hook or transitions between ideas are all things to add at this point.

The editor is out for today. Give them a little vacation while you’re focusing on your first draft. Now is the time for your inner-Kerouac, your hidden Faulkner (both very stream-of-consciousness-style writers) to shine and write without restraint. Your first draft might feel unfinished or sloppy, but don’t forget that’s why it’s called a “rough” draft. Let it be rough for now; you can always smooth things out later on.

When stuck, stop and re-focus. If you feel yourself getting lost in each sentence, or are letting the editor come back to the office, remember to re-focus yourself back to the present moment when you find yourself over-thinking about your writing. Stop and remind yourself that nothing needs to be perfect, nor should it be at this point. This time is about getting all the thoughts and ideas out of you.

When all is said and done, acknowledge how you feel when you’re finished. You might be feeling relieved, relaxed, or even anxious to get to the revision process. Pump your brakes before you reach for the red pen, however. Give yourself some time, first to once again acknowledge and accept these feelings, and then to take the chance to re-charge and focus on something else besides writing. Try going for a walk or at least going outside for fresh air. If you want, you can turn your internet back or check your phone at this time. This time is your time, so spend it how you want. Nonetheless, try to focus on how this free time makes you feel in the moment.

Congratulations! You’ve just merged the act of writing with the art of mindfulness. Now, there’s only one more question to ask: how do you feel?

For further reading on mindfulness and helpful exercises, consult these resources, articles and more:

What is Mindfulness?


Mindfulness: Getting Started


When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom


Mindfulness Exercises                              


7 Mindfulness Tips To Energize Your Writing



Read. Write. Grow

-Mr. S.

Expanding on Analysis (revisited)

I wanted to write about how important it is to expand your analysis in your essays since I’ve noticed some trends in regards to the essays I’ve recently read for many students’ English classes.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I decided to re-post an entry on analysis by our former Writing Lab tutor, Laura Alguire. I’ve read through it and I think the advice she gives still holds true for me. She gives a lot of helpful advice on how to tailor your analysis, including quotations and evidence, to  fit your argument. Make your evidence work for you and not work for it.

Another important thing she covers is giving context for each piece of evidence for your readers. It’s important to imagine the person reading your essay doesn’t have background knowledge of the book you’re writing about, so it’s always helpful to give the reader some background and context not only about the book as a whole, but of the pieces of evidence and quotes that you include. You should, by no means by summarizing or retelling the entire story, but using context to help explain your quotes and build evidence to prove your thesis. As Alguire says,

“In my experience, it helps to imagine my reader as a computer. They know the events of the book, but then need the emotional and stylistic effects to be explained to them. Most importantly, because they’re a computer that explanation needs to be simple, logical, and clearly stated.”

Aside from this, it is important to include enough information in your analysis to not only connect the evidence back to your thesis, but to draw a connection between your evidence and your thesis. This will increase your argument’s credibility and your own credibility as a writer.

She explains all of this in greater detail down below, so be sure to read the older post as well. I promise to have one more original post by the end of the week, but for now……

Expanding on Analysis

Read. Write. Grow.

Mr. S.

5 Things To Know Before Submitting Your College Essays

I know that for many seniors , the dreaded deadline for some college applications is just days away now. I also know that many of you are still hard at work revising, editing, and possibly even still writing your essays and personal statements.

You are experiencing one of the most exciting and yet one of the most uncertain times of your young lives. Getting into your dream school is what drives you forward, but the thought of getting rejected can also be scary and, as a result, might make some of you second-guess the overall effectiveness of your application essays. I’ve been through it before, each one of your teachers has been through this, and we’ve all been able to overcome this feeling, and so will you.

To help give you some assurance that your essays best represent you as an applicant, I’ve decided to compile the 5 most important tips to remember before you hit the submit button. Even if you have finished your applications, you might find this helpful for any future applications due, and I’ve also included some tips on not stressing about the outcome of your applications. Without further ado, here are things that you should remember about these essays:

1. Write…break…revise…break…

Studies have shown that our brain works best in short spurts and not through long hauls of writing, editing, and revising. Therefore, the best advice I can give you when it comes to time management is to take some time to look away from your writing for a few long minutes, if not longer. It’s important to take this time not only to recharge your brain, but to allow yourself some time for some type of activity to gratify your hard work.

When I write, I have a routine. I will usually spend an hour writing, give or take depending on if I feel like I am at a good place to stop. After a solid chunk of time spent getting my thoughts on paper, I allow myself time to look away from it and do something else for 10-30 minutes.

What you do with this short break period is all up to you.  You may use that time to take a bathroom break,  have a meal,  go for a nice brisk walk or run, do 100 sit-ups, listen to music, or watch a couple of YouTube videos. Whatever you do, make sure that it’s something that will get your energy back up and get the blood flowing to your brain again so that you can write or revise refreshed and ready to go.

Rather than burn yourself out with long writing or study sessions, break up your time for better success with your writing.

2. When you write about yourself, write with purpose

In the past month, I have read many of your college essays, and the one thing I notice about people’s essays is that while they might answer all parts of the prompt, they use overused or clichéd phrases used in nearly every essay that came before it.

Think about your essay from the perspective of a college admissions official: if you had the job of reviewing 300+ applications per day and you were on the last essay of the day, which of the following opening sentence would piqué your interest more as a reader?

“Two summers ago, I had an experience as a camp counselor that would change my life forever. I was a sleep-away camp counselor for the YMCA and learned many important things, including the value of hard work and the importance of having a positive attitude.”


I spent many long days in the sun and sleepless nights on a lumpy mattress as a YMCA sleep-away camp counselor, but looking back to those summers, I wouldn’t trade any of the things I learned or people I met for a day to myself at the beach.”

While both sentences make clear point and contain relatively similar content, I would argue that the second sentence is a better opener. Though the first sentence has more content, it doesn’t convey as much feeling or purpose as it could. The first sentence is one you’ve probably heard in a million college essays, and to say that an experience “changed your life forever” doesn’t really say much about you or about that experience.

What do we learn about this person in the first sentence?

  • We learn what they did and where
  • We learn a couple of the things they learned.

While they did include specific things they learned, it would be better to illustrate that later through specific experiences or instances where you utilized certain skills. Here, plainly stating it works, but it’s not as engaging or purposeful as it could be.

Now compare this to the second sentence. We learn three important details:

  • Life as a counselor is hard yet rewarding.
  • An idea of the working conditions they experienced.
  • This person is grateful for what they learned and the connections they made.

The second sentence, though not as dense, has more purpose in illustrating the author’s points and engages the reader in the author’s story.

In a way, you are telling a story about yourself through these essays. Thus, with such a short word count, it is important for every line to mean something, to carry out the goal of demonstrating who you are in the most accurate and honest ways possible. It is important to remember this as you write your first draft and as you revise as well.

3. If you have something to say, say it in as few words as possible.

This is an important thing to remember in revision. Many of you already know how stressful it is to convey yourself and your experiences properly with such a short word count. As much as you are telling a story about yourself, you are also meeting a quota as well. The admissions people need to get an idea about you in one reading of your essay before moving to the next applicant. As much as your writing has to have purpose, it needs to convey the details in as few words as possible. You have to make calculated decisions on what words or details to keep and which to omit.

The best question to ask yourself in this case is, “Does this detail have purpose in my writing?”

If it does, then ask, “How can I say this in fewer words and still make it have purpose?”

Let’s look at an example sentence from a hypothetical college essay for an architectural program:

“I am interested in pursuing architecture as a career because I want to be able to provide homes for people and to help people fulfill possibly the most vital element of their basic needs.”

Now while this sentence has a purpose in conveying why they are pursuing architecture, it contains 34 words and might be too long for an essay with a 250 word count, especially if prior sentences havesimilar length. Just by cutting down or changing some descriptions here and there, we can take the word count for this sentence down substantially:

“I wish to pursue a career in architecture to provide housing to those in need.”

This revised sentence retains some of the same wording and the same overall purpose, but is instead stated in 15 words.  We’ve cut out some of the wordiness of the previous example.  For example, “I wish to” uses one less word than “I am interested in”, so even in these minor places, we can save ourselves words. We’ve also cut the non-essentials, such as describing housing as a “vital element of their basic needs.” We as readers already know that housing as vital, so stating it is unnecessary, and “…provide housing for those in need” conveys the same message in fewer words.

So in half the words, we were able to say the same things. While you are editing, it should be your goal for every sentence to state things in as few words as possible without forgoing your original purpose for that sentence.

4. Before you submit anything, PROOFREAD it once…then again…and maybe once more after that.

Proofreading is one of those stages of the revision process that tends to be undervalued by students, but it is still very important. In order to effectively proofread your work, you want to take your time reviewing your writing as its most basic level. It’s not a matter of skimming your words, but rather focusing on each sentence to figure out if it makes the most sense that it can. If not, then you need to edit it.

When I proofread, I always make sure that I am repeating the words to myself in some way, whether I am reading out loud or mouthing the words to myself (such is the case when I’m in the library or another quiet place). This not only gives you a physical connection to your words on the page, but it also ensures that what you are reading on the paper makes sense to you as you read it out loud. When I’m proofreading, if I get to a place where the wording sounds awkward, I ask myself, “Is this how I would say this phrase if I were saying it to someone else?” If my writing doesn’t fulfill this criterion, I know to edit it so that it does.

As I’ve said, the process of writing is subjective, but when you edit or proofread, it is crucial that you proofread objectively for the sake of the reader. You have to remember that you are writing for others to read, and what’s most important  is that your writing makes sense to your readers and to you as well. Reading out loud is beneficial for me, but whatever way you proofread, make sure you do so actively and attentively.

5. Realize that once you hit submit, everything is out of your hands.

This is a scary idea, I know. But the sooner you comes to terms with the fact that you have no control over your essays or the decisions after you’ve submitted everything.

Therefore, the best thing you can do with the time you have left is to make your writing the best that it can be so that youcan look at it and say, “I worked my hardest and did my best. It’s out of my hands now.”

Everyone has their path in life and their own unique experiences to share, as I have seen demonstrated in many of your essays. No one path is the same and though many of you have an idea of where you want to go, that can always change. No matter what happens, remember that your worth is not determined by the colleges you get into, but by the person you are and the experiences that have shaped you.

I tell you this because while some of you might get into your dream school, others might not, even if you had high test scores, a stellar GPA, and a handful of well-written essays. But that’s okay. You were meant to go somewhere else, meet different people and have your own unique experiences.

When I was seventeen, I wanted so badly to go to UCLA or Berkeley, but didn’t end up getting into either one of those schools when many of my friends did. It was embarrassing and devastating to me at first, but I learned I had to accept it and move on. I ended up committing to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in May 2012, and I don’t regret that decision one bit today. I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences I had, the friends I made, or the people who are now such important parts of my life for a day of classes at UCLA.

Everyone ends up in the place where they belong, and you will, too. You just have to be open to new experiences and, most importantly, learn to move on when things might not go the way you envisioned. It’s all about mentally preparing yourself for the uncertainty ahead. But if you acknowledge this idea now, you’ll have a lot more success in accepting the results later on.

As I said, once your applications are in, you’re admission and/or rejection is at the hands of college admissions, so it’s best not to dwell on what you could have done differently. In the end, you did things the way that YOU and YOU ALONE were supposed to. That goes for your essays, applications, and your overall life.

So don’t worry about whats to come later. In the last days before your deadlines, work on conveying that YOU in the best way possible. Do this and you will have an even greater shot at success. Good luck!

And for goodness sake, please don’t wait until 11:59pm to hit submit!


Read. Write. Grow.

Mr. S.