How to Write With Humor: Finding Your Voice

909634295_93657919e5_bA writer’s voice is what attracts readers to stay on the page, finish the piece, and return for more. Voice makes writing uniquely the author’s, and it can sink the poem, feature story, or op-ed piece for one reader and elevate it for another. As you’re learning how to write with humor, keep the following things in mind!

Humor is Important to Voice

Humor can be a great part of voice. In fact, some would argue that it is a necessary part. Humor helps the reader:

  • remember key points
  • want to continue reading, even if it’s a mundane topic
  • refocus attention and think creatively

Remember the old adage “Laughter is good for the soul”? It’s true! Psychologists say that laughter boosts mood and creativity. If a reader laughs at humor in a piece, he or she is more likely to remember the topic and act on it — tell another person to read the material, further explore it, or make the two-story birdhouse the author wrote about.

Don’t Worry If You’re Not Naturally Funny

Humor may naturally be part of the author’s voice, or it can be strategically added. There are techniques for how to write humorously, and authors who do not generally ooze funny material can still engage an audience by reworking a piece, adding humor in a second or third draft.

Here are some ways to add humor into your writing:

1. Use an illustrative joke or anecdote, especially employing comparison. Say you are writing an article about becoming a babysitter. Your target audience is young, female, and eager to learn how to deal with children. If you want to convey the notion that bedtime is tough for babysitter and kids, you could add a comparison joke such as “Bedtime is as much fun as getting a pack of coyotes to stop howling at the moon.” You get the idea.

2. Use exaggeration (hyperbole) to make your point. For instance, “My cat flinches at the sight of food not labeled gourmet.” That’s exaggeration. The overblown image illustrates the point that cats can be finicky. Exaggeration helps introduce the topic in an informational piece or human interest feature.

3. Use self-deprecating humor or take little jabs at yourself. The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield built his career on beating himself up. As a writer, you can use his technique in this way. Say you are writing a feature on your recent diet. You might start by poking a fun at yourself: “Yep, I go on diets as often as some people get haircuts.” Or, “What was I thinking when I gained weight by eating 10 of those healthy, 100-calorie oranges?” The jabs draw the reader’s empathy and hopefully, interest, to read through and enjoy the article.

4. Rework some cliches. TV and radio commercials have taglines that are so often repeated they become familiar. For instance, “Where’s the beef?” from the old Wendy’s commercials can become “Where’s the chief?” in an article about absentee bosses. Other cliches are “strong as an ox,” “big as a house” — you get the idea.

Keep in mind these guidelines on how to write with humor work best when they are used in moderation. You still want readers to remember the point of the piece! You are using humor as a tool, not writing a joke book or comedy script. Humor should shine light on what is being said and not detract from it.

Finally, working with a writing tutor can be a huge help if you want a second pair of eyes on your work. Comedians test out their jokes long before stepping on stage at comedy clubs — and as a writer, it’s worth seeing how readers react to your work as well. Good luck, and keep writing!

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6 of the Best Creative Writing Books for Kids

Best Creative Writing Books For KidsDoes your child love to write? Do the words on the paper help your child express a unique point of view, give voice to thoughts and feelings, and make others think differently? Supporting your child’s passion for writing can be as simple as giving them creative writing books that offer kid-focused writing instruction or models of high-quality writing. These books may serve a variety of purposes, such as providing inspiration, modeling how to convey an authentic voice to a reader, and offering examples of unique organizational structures.

Here are some of our favorite creative writing books for kids:

  • Write Your Own Story Book by Louie Stowell. This activity book offers young writers tips, hints, and writing tasks for crafting their own stories. The first part of the book is dedicated to techniques and methods that children can use to create characters, craft story lines, think of story ideas, write from a variety of viewpoints, and detail the story’s setting. The second part of the book offers inspiration and story themes to write about. Each page has plenty of lined space so children can record their inspirations, jot down notes for a future story, or begin the writing process directly in the book.

  • Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Mazer and Potter, both acclaimed children’s book authors, join forces here to offer writing advice for kids. This guidebook walks youngsters through the process of crafting a story, offering tips on a variety of writing topics, including developing characters, finding a voice, making revisions, and overcoming writer’s block. There are plenty of fun prompts that will get children thinking and writing!

Of course, using creative writing books to help your child learn to write isn’t limited to just instructional texts. The world of children’s literature is full of stories that are ideal for teaching specific writing traits. Mentor texts allow children to explore good writing within a specific framework and structure. These concrete examples of quality writing traits can provide inspiration and points of reference for young writers. Our favorite mentor texts include:

  • Come On Rain! by Karen Hesse. This beautiful picture book tells the story of a summer downpour after an oppressive heatwave in the city. Your child can use this picture book as inspiration for outstanding word choice, such as using sensory words, crafting imagery, and repeating powerful words or phrases.

  • Gone Fishing: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger. Young Sam loves to go fishing with his dad, but he is not pleased when his younger sister wants to join the trip. This book of poems tells the story of the fishing trip, details the sibling interaction, and underscores the power of family. Each poetic form is labeled, and the “Poet’s Tackle Box” at the end of the story provides additional opportunities for learning about poetic forms.

  • The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle: And Other Surprising Stories About Inventions by Don L. Wulffson. This collection of true stories details how many common inventions came to be and can serve as a mentor text for children on informational writing. Kids will learn that informational text doesn’t have to be boring but instead can be informative and fun at the same time! These short explanations of unique inventions will keep kids’ interest and provide plenty of inspiration for crafting their own pieces of informational writing.

  • The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey. This story of a young boy and his dog on an early morning paper route serves as a mentor text for focusing a story on a single small moment in time. Instead of telling all about the boy’s job delivering newspapers, Pilkey focuses on a small moment of one morning. This allows him to share specific information and intimate details to craft a beautiful story. Children will learn the power of focusing on one small moment instead of trying to write a story with too big of an idea.

Using creative writing books is a great way to provide examples of different writing traits for your budding writer. Your child will love reading the books, writing stories inspired by the books, and incorporating the traits and techniques into their work.

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7 Fun Writing Prompts for Kids During Winter Break

How To Get Kids To Write During The Holiday Break

Is winter weather and Christmas impatience taking its toll on your kids – and your sanity? Get their holiday-inspired, creative juices flowing – and banish the boredom – with these fun writing prompts for kids with a winter theme…

Channel some Dickens.

Have your child write a poem or a story featuring three different versions of themselves getting a Christmas wish granted: one in the present, one in the past, and one in the future.

Make a parody.

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What’s your child’s favorite Christmas poem, story, or song? Parodies are one of the most fun writing prompts for kids, especially if you let them really get creative when choosing a topic. Perhaps siblings can have a writing duel, casting each other off as the Grinch. Children might also enjoy making a mockery of how their parents handle “the night before Christmas.” And what topics couldn’t be creatively blended with a few “fa la la la la’s”? The possibilities are endless. Just be sure to drop a quick reminder it’s fine to be funny – not mean – and keep it in the spirit of the holiday.

Experience a total transformation.

Write a story from the point of view of someone waking up to find themselves transformed into an elf, a reindeer, or another Christmas character. Want to take it a step further? Consider transformations into inanimate objects for an endless array of fun writing prompts for kids that can really help them delve into perspective. Interesting choices might include the Christmas angel atop the tree, a gingerbread man cookie, or a Santa hat.

Write an acrostic poem.


An acrostic poem features a topic idea running down the left side. Each letter in the topic word begins the line of text, which can be a single word or multiple words. For example, take the word Christmas:

Reunite with family
Santa’s gifts
Turkey’s in the oven
Singing carols

Get a head start…

Is your child not sure where to start when it comes to thinking of fictional story ideas? Try these Christmas story starters:

  • Granny took the last tray of gingerbread men from the oven. Suddenly…
  • “Ho-ho-help!” came a voice from the chimney…
  • All the elves in Santa’s workshop work hard every holiday season… all but one, that is…
  • A loud noise awoke me with a start. Something red was shining through the window. (Gasp!) It’s a reindeer nose! …
  • After searching every store for 100 miles, I discovered there was not a single tree left – real or fake. But then I had an idea…

Ally yourself with alliteration.

An alliteration is the repetition of an initial consonant in two or more neighboring words or syllables. Comic book writers are often fans of alliteration when naming their characters. Peter Parker. Clark Kent. Bruce Banner. Sound familiar? Have your children create a short list of holiday-themed alliterations, then incorporate them into a short holiday story. For example:

Silly snowmen. Ridiculously romping reindeer. Snarky Santa. Grumpy grandma…

Once upon a time, ridiculously romping reindeer crashed into six silly snowmen, resulting in an astonishing avalanche that ruined grumpy grandma’s garden. Snarky Santa sent his regrets.

Create a few “reindeer games.”

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It’s the First Annual North Pole Olympics. What games would your children create for Santa, the elves, and the reindeer to compete in? What might the awards be?

That’s it. Snatch those “smart” devices that are tuning your kids out and turning their brains to jello. Re-introduce them to the here and now. Sharpen their minds and give your kids the gift of inspiration with these fun writing prompts for kids this holiday season… And give yourself the gift of peace of mind!

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5 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Tips On Writing Historical Fiction

Imagine transporting yourself into another time — pretty cool right? This is exactly what readers get to do with the historical fiction genre. If you’re interested in trying your hand at writing historical fiction, here are some tips for creating that immersive experience for your readers.

1. Define Your Time Period

You may have an idea for the general era in which you want your story to take place, but that’s not the same thing as a defined time period. For instance, the Middle Ages encompassed hundreds of years of history that aren’t all the same. A story that takes place in the earliest years of this time period will be extremely different from one that takes place in the late Middle Ages. When writing historical fiction, know exactly when your story takes place or you may end up with a mishmash of ideas that don’t create an accurate look at life in that time.

2. Research, Research, Research

No one wants to read historical fiction filled with error after error. This can take the reader out of the story and make you as a writer less credible. The amount of research that you do when writing historical fiction may not be immediately apparent in your work — you may know exactly what kind of shoes all of your characters are wearing even if you don’t include that in the story. However, that knowledge takes you deeper into the time period and allows you to imagine what the setting looks like accurately. There’s rarely such a thing as too much research when it comes to creating a believable story in a historical setting.

3. Strike a Balance Between Modern Sensibilities and Accurate Ones

The morals and sensibilities of many time periods, particularly those of antiquity, may not strike much of a chord with modern readers. In fact, they can create a host of characters who are unlikeable and unrelatable for the reader. It’s also important not to take a modern person and simply thrust them into a historical setting so that the reader will like them better. What many writers do to solve this problem is to create a balance between modern and historical sensibilities that gives readers characters they can relate to but who are still accurate for the time period. For many books, this create some of the conflict as the characters rally against the unfair practices or beliefs of the day. Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter” is a good example of this. She didn’t like the community shaming her for having a child out of wedlock and refused to allow them to hold her down, though she did live within the conventions of the day and agreed to wear the scarlet letter.

4. Don’t Get Too Bogged Down in Detail

The setting is extremely important in any work of historical fiction. It is much like a main character in the story. However, it isn’t necessary to describe everything. Long descriptions can slow the story, and they don’t always add value. Instead, decide which things are worth describing so that your readers can see the complete setting. Knowing the type of glass that the characters are looking through isn’t as important as what they are seeing through the window. Describing the straw in the floor may do a better job of conveying the feel of the room and the condition of the building as well as the time period the characters are living in.

5. Take Your Time

Historical fiction is one of the more time-consuming types of story to write. The amount of research that you need to do adds extra time to the writing process. Choosing which precise period you want for your story as well as deciding which details need to appear in your work to convey the time period will all take plenty of time when writing historical fiction. Don’t rush your writing, and consider working with a writing tutor to get valuable feedback throughout the writing process — it’ll be worth it when you have a finished product that your readers will love!

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6 Easy Steps to Writing a Book Report

Tips On Writing A Book ReportWhat are the steps to writing a book report that will earn you an “A”? Check out these helpful tips from San Diego tutoNatalie S

Every student will be expected to write a book report at some point or another in his or her scholastic career. This is a great assignment for students who want to hone reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. Book reports often seem scary and overwhelming initially, however, if you follow these steps to writing a book report, you can easily and successfully complete your next report!

1) Pick a book that interests you.

Sometimes your teacher will give you an assigned book and other times, you’ll be allowed to choose the book that you want to write about. You’ll spend a lot of time working with this book, so make sure you pick one that you will really enjoy. Consider the type of genre that you like best. If you don’t know, think about the types of movies that you gravitate toward, and choose a book in that category, or ask your friends who their favorite authors are.

2) Read the whole book.

I know it may be tempting to just do a quick Google search for a summary of your book, but there really is no substitute for reading a book in its entirety. The main purpose of writing a book report is to build your reading comprehension skills; these skills will be important for all of your academic endeavors, so take the time to read the whole book. If you only read the summary, you will miss some of the small but important details that take place in the story. Online summaries should only be used if you’re confused about the plot or some other element of the book. They should be a supplement to the reading, not a replacement.

3) Take notes as you read.

Always read with a pencil in hand, especially when you have to write about the book at a later date. When you are reading, take notes in your notebook. Highlight, underline, and make comments in the margins. Did something significant happen in the plot? Did you notice a recurring theme? Write it down! Jot down anything that you find interesting in the book, and make sure to write down the page number as well. If you take notes as you read, you’ll have less work to do when you sit down to actually write your report, because you won’t have to hunt through the book for information.

4) Write your book report in chunks.

The best way to avoid procrastination is to break down the assignment and do it in three sections. Check out this story map graphic organizer, and use it as a guide for writing your book report. Read the first few chapters, and then stop and write about the beginning of the book. In part one of your book report, include a discussion about your main characters, the main conflict, the setting, and the first one or two most important scenes in the beginning of the book. Go back and read the middle chapters of the book, and then stop to write about the most important scenes leading up to the climax. Complete the rest of the book, and then finish writing about the climax and the resolution. Breaking these steps to writing a book report down will help you manage the assignment more easily.

5) Ask an adult to help you proofread.

After you’ve finished writing your report, make sure to ask someone to look over your work for any spelling or grammatical errors. Look for suggestions on writing style as well as issues with word choice and sentence structure.

6) Start writing your book report early.

You have to read an entire book, so don’t wait until the last minute! It’s too stressful to read and write a report in a few days. If you start when the project is originally assigned, you’ll have weeks to read. Instead of spending hours on it in one day, you can do short, 20-minute chunks every day.

Remember, if you need additional help with these steps to writing a book report, you can always find a TakeLessons tutor to help you successfully work through the process!

Natalie S.Natalie S. tutors English, ESL, History, Phonics, Reading, and test prep in San Diego, as well as through online lessons. She received her BA in English Education at the University of Delaware, and her MA in English Literature at San Diego State University. Learn more about Natalie here!



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8 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Paper

Mistakes To Avoid When Writing A Paper

Writing a paper for class? Lock down an “A” with these helpful tips from San Diego tutoNatalie S

Over the course of your academic career, you will be expected to write multiple papers that will span a number of different subjects and purposes. While there are many ways to write a paper, below are a few of the common mistakes to avoid that are true for all types of papers.

1) Create a strong thesis BEFORE you start writing the paper.

Do not begin the writing process without a thesis statement in place. A thesis is the argument in the introductory paragraph that you prove throughout the entire paper. This statement drives your paper and dictates which subjects, examples, quotations, and statistics you include. Creating your thesis statement is the hardest part of writing a paper, but it’s also the most important. It is the single piece that guides you and your readers. You know you have a strong thesis argument if someone can hear it and say, “No, I disagree with that” and if you can respond back, “No, my statement is correct and here are three reasons why I’m correct.” Learn more about writing a thesis statement here.

2) Create an outline BEFORE you start writing the paper.

Once you write your thesis statement, it becomes much easier to organize the rest of the paper. Now, you can create an outline that will help you even further to organize your paper. The goal is to do a lot of legwork in the beginning, so when you are ready to write the paper, all you have to do is thread together all of your notes into a cohesive essay. In your outline, choose three supporting statements and then two to three supporting examples, quotations, and/or facts from the text to back up each of those statements.

3) Don’t make assumptions about the essay prompt.

Here’s a fun fact that teachers generally do not want their students to know: teachers aren’t perfect, and their assignments aren’t always perfect either. Sometimes, teachers write vague or ambivalent essay prompts. For example, in 2006, the College Board wrote an essay question for the AP English Literature exam that asked for students to write about a novel that “establishes a country setting.” Students interpreted country to mean a nation, but the College Board meant a pastoral setting. Thousands of students wrote on the wrong topic because the question was vaguely worded. When in doubt, ask your teacher to clarify his or her intentions, so you can fulfill those expectations when writing your paper.

4) Stay focused. Remember, the thesis is your guiding statement throughout the paper.

You need to write out your thesis statement clearly, and then you need to support that argument with clear examples, quotations, and facts from the book. Follow your outline to stay focused on your main topic, and avoid rambling on about characters, facts, or your own opinions that do not directly relate to the topic at hand.

5) Don’t just summarize the text.

When you are writing a paper, you are supposed to make inferences and draw conclusions to create an argument that you can prove throughout your paper. Your teacher is not asking you to summarize the text or the story. Stay away from repeating the same points, and refer back to your outline to come up with original ideas. Instead of talking in circles, find new arguments to add to your essay that expand your argument, instead of just repeating it.

6) Don’t forget to use citations.

So many students are unduly suspected of plagiarism because they forget to cite their sources when they write a research paper. Just to be clear on whether to cite or not, always consider whether the fact or piece of information is considered basic or common knowledge. If it isn’t, then you need to cite it.

7) Never play with the spacing.

This is more of a formatting flaw than a writing one, but important to note nonetheless. Sometime students alter the margins, font size, and spacing of their essays to make it look like they wrote more than they did. Teachers look at papers all day, and they can see who altered the margins and who wrote the required amount. Keep the margins at one inch, and organize your thesis statement and your outline thoroughly from the beginning, and you’ll have plenty to write about.

8) Don’t forget to proofread!

Remember, even seasoned adults can make typos or grammatical mistakes, so always check over your work before you submit it. If you’re struggling with clarity, ask an adult to read your paper and tell you what they think your thesis is. Proofread for both grammar and spelling before you turn your work in, and if you need additional assistance, you can always ask a tutor!

What is one of your favorite tips or tricks for writing a paper? Leave a comment to share with us!

Natalie S.Natalie S. tutors English, ESL, History, Phonics, Reading, and test prep in San Diego, as well as through online lessons. She received her BA in English Education at the University of Delaware, and her MA in English Literature at San Diego State University. Learn more about Natalie here!



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Telling Your Story: Why Your Personal Narrative Matters


Although schools may be veering away from it, learning how to write a personal narrative essay can take you far in life. Learn more in this guest post by Chicago, IL tutor Samantha S...


Students, perhaps you have noticed the recent Common Core State Standard trend to veer away from such writing prompts as “What Did You Do On Summer Vacation?” Though nationwide curriculum currently mandates that best-practice instruction focuses on nonfiction, non-narrative writing, here’s why you should keep penning your stories down.

Your Stories Matter

First and foremost, your stories matter. They matter to you, to your family, and to the world. There is no one who can tell your experiences, your thoughts, and your dreams like you. Though as writers we often devalue our own work (believe me, I do it daily!), what seems mundane to us can be a wildly different perspective to an outsider. Someone wants to read your work! Someone needs to! And you probably need to tell the stories that you have. Be proud of who you are, and what you write.

Writing Begets Writing

Although the likelihood of what you will be writing for school probably involves more formal formats, such as essays, learning how to write personal narratives, as well as daily writing of any form will strengthen all writing skills. Think of your writing practice like an athlete who is training to compete. The more time you devote to pen and paper, or typing on the computer, the stronger a writer you will be when the time comes to turn that graded paper in.

Presenting Yourself is Really Important in Life

Thinking of going to college? Guess what? You’ll probably have to submit an essay, which will be focused on who you are. Thinking of getting a job? Same thing. Employers look for people who can write a snappy resume and a concise cover letter to catch their interest. Life is based on writing skills. Think you’ll get very far if your work emails are loaded with grammatical errors and sloppy writing? Think again. Presenting yourself in written word intelligently opens doors.

Writing is Creative

And hence, writing will hopefully be enjoyable in some shape or form. Writing should be an outlet, and an expression of you. Writing has so many avenues, from slam poetry to blogging, that whatever your personal taste, there is a writing modality to satiate. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. It will take you great places — real and imagined — in life.

So next time your teacher tells you to “stay on topic” and cite the text, remind yourself that maybe in that English class, at that time, that’s the writing task at hand. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways and times to express what stories you want to share. As writers, we are often told “we are what we write.” Don’t be afraid to own the experiences that have shaped your voice.

SamanthaASamantha S. teaches writing in Chicago, IL. She has her masters in the art of teaching, and a license to teach elementary education. Learn more about Samantha here!



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5 Simple Ways To Self-Edit Your Writing

steps to writing an essay

Editing your work is one of the most important steps to writing an essay! Create your checklist using these tips from Woburn, MA teacher Belynda C...


Editing is not simply about typos. There are many steps to writing an essay between the initial preparation, research, writing, and finally editing and proofreading your finished work. While proper spelling and grammar are important, there are other aspects to polished prose that need your attention. Some of these items include repetitive words, commonly misused/confused words, missing words, and issues of style and formatting.

Your Personal Top 10 List

Variety is the spice of life; it’s also the spice of engaging essays. Despite this, every writer (including me!) has a list of words that seem to pop up more often than others. Singling out overused words is a great way to make your writing appear more finished. Look through your current essay as well as your past writing. Most writers can identify five to 10 words that appear too often in their work. One good way to spot them is to use the search function in your word processor. If you see an adjective or a verb more than twice while reading, pop it into your search field to see how many times it occurs throughout your document. You can do this for multiple documents, and keep a list of your heavy hitters. That way, you can search for this list of words in any new writing as a first step to your editing process.

Check Against A List Of Common Word Issues

Some grammatical errors just keep turning up. No matter how many times we see humorous posts on Facebook, errors like their/there/they’re and your/you’re continue to plague us. These kinds of mistakes can instantly detract from your essay and ding your credibility. To avoid this issue, build a check system into your editing for common mistakes, and you’ll catch far more than you would by just skimming over the page.

Read Out Loud

To best catch your mistakes, rely on your ears instead of your eyes. Reading your essay out loud is a great way to identify all manner of errors and omissions in your writing. The reason is simple: the human brain was doing auto-correct long before your iPhone made it popular. It achieves this trick by recognizing patterns that commonly occur in written language. It then irons out the kinks as you read. Unfortunately, this means you most likely won’t see the minor errors (or “nits”) in your work—but you will hear them. Reading out loud requires you to analyze and verbalize each word in the sentence—a far slower (but more thorough) process than reading it “in your head.” Some word processing programs will even read documents aloud, so you can truly check your work with fresh ears!

Use A Style Guide

Depending on your subject matter, your essay should adhere to one of several style guides issued by various publishers. These guides cover everything from hyphenation to proper citation of sources. Some of the most common style guides are the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, and the American Psychological Association (APA) Stylebook.

A Fresh Set Of Eyes

When in doubt, hand it out. Find a sharp-eyed peer editor to read over your essay. This could be a writing tutor, or even a friend or family member. Outside readers take in written information more slowly because they are analyzing the material as they read. Thus, they will catch mistakes that you may have missed. The more important the essay, the more “guest editors” you should employ. Find a few people you trust, have them read the work, and ask them to mark up changes or suggestions to incorporate.

In making sure you cover the many steps to writing an essay, you can save a lot of time in revisions—and a lot of frustration by avoiding missed punctuation or skipped words.

Still need help? Find a tutor in your area, or check out these additional resources for improving your writing. Enjoy!

Belyndaelynda C. teaches writing and knitting in Woburn, MA. She earned her Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University. She holds a Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience in writing fiction, literary non-fiction, and freelance writing for clients. Learn more about Belynda here! 


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3 Tips For Structuring Your Creative Nonfiction Piece

how to structure creative non fiction

Curious about writing creative nonfiction? Get started with these pro tips from Woburn, MA tutor Belynda C...


Creative nonfiction is a difficult genre in terms of development and writing, and yet it is one of the fastest-growing segments of the market in recent years. Memoir and personal essay were once limited to the rich and famous. These days, the Internet has made everyone a potential essayist. If you have a fascinating story to tell about your own life, you may feel daunted by the enormity of the task. Surprisingly, one of the best cures for writer’s block (in my experience) is good organization!

When I think about the structure of a manuscript or essay, I often consider the analogy of cleaning house. I’m not talking about a quick dust or vacuum. I’m talking the take-no-prisoners, deep-clean, three-trips-to-Goodwill type of house cleaning. Your work deserves the same treatment as your home—it should be free of clutter, have enough rooms for everyone, and be impeccably decorated. With this analogy in mind, here are three valuable tips to structuring your memoir or essay.

Keep, Throw Out, Donate

Sentimental attachment is tough, whether you’re cleaning up a house or editing a manuscript. You have to be in the right frame of mind to do the needful. With a house, the best approach is often to haul out the big cardboard boxes and decide what goes where, turning a critical eye to each item. The same is true for your writing. You only have so much square footage, and likewise have only so many words or pages to express your story. Pare down your story arc and your word count so that each anecdote, phrase, and plot progression truly moves the story to its ultimate conclusion. Aim to keep your story within the word count guidelines for its form. Be decisive, and you will be successful.

To begin this process, decide what you really want this memoir or personal essay to reflect. Are you writing about a difficult time in your life? A big lesson learned the hard way? Organize your thoughts around a central theme, and from there it becomes easy to determine what stays or goes. Keep the best elements of your story, and weed out the parts that don’t serve the central theme. Also, keep anything you love (but don’t love for this manuscript) in a separate document. You never know when those parts will become useful for your next project!

Only So Much Space for Guests

You wouldn’t try to sleep 15 people in your two-bedroom apartment. Likewise, your story only has room for so many characters. They have to serve the plot in a meaningful way. You might feel inclined to give Aunt Lila some space in your story, but unless she was a real catalyst for change or obstacle to success, she has to go. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how many characters to include in your story. Just be sure those you include are vital to the plot. If you can remove someone without impacting your narrative, they most likely weren’t a key player.

Expertly Decorated

Once you know the scope of events and the cast of characters, you must return to the idea that creative nonfiction succeeds by evoking emotion. Memoir is not autobiography. Emotional investment is achieved through great narrative, exquisite prose, and deep, unselfconscious examination of the theme you set out to explore. Those who enjoy memoir and personal essay want to be transported, just as they would when reading a work of fiction. The major difference in creative nonfiction is that your story actually happened.

Once you have worked out your cleaning and organizing, decorate with abandon. Write your heart out, make it beautiful, and take your reader with you on an emotional journey. Use the devices found in fiction writing to create a setting for your real-life experience. Lastly, leave your reader with a sense of longing that stays with them beyond the final page. Like handsome decorations in an ordinary home, transformative prose can turn a humble story into an irresistible escape.

For more help starting (or finishing) your memoir, here are some resources:

BelyndaBelynda C. teaches writing and knitting in Woburn, MA. She earned her Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University. She holds a Bachelor of Science in English from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience in writing fiction, literary non-fiction, and freelance writing for clients. Learn more about Belynda here! 



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How to Analyze an Argument in an Essay | 4 Easy Steps

argument essay

At some point in your academic career, you’ll need to know how to analyze an argument properly. Here, tutor Andrew P. shares his guide to success…


As a college student, you’ll be expected at some point to understand, restate, comment on, or discuss someone’s assertion (strongly stated position).

An argument is a reason(s) for a conclusion.

  • He is dense (reason); therefore, I won’t talk with him (conclusion).
  • I won’t talk with him (conclusion) because he is dense (reason).

When asked to analyze an argument, you are expected to explain how and why something works or does not work.

  • My car will not start. I realize that I left the interior lights on overnight (“you stupid idiot”)—no analysis necessary.
  • My car will not start. The battery is fairly new, and the engine started right up yesterday. So, I open the hood. As soon as I begin probing to search for the reason, I am analyzing (whether or not I find the answer).

To analyze an author’s argument, take it one step at a time:

  • Briefly note the main assertion (what does the writer want me to believe or do?)
  • Make a note of the first reason the author makes to support his/her conclusion
  • Write down every other reason
  • Underline the most important reason

Here’s an example, with the analysis of the argument following:

Reasonable Risk-taking

Part of my philosophy is that a life worth living involves taking reasonable risks, whatever that may mean to a person. Without that openness, responsiveness, a person sees very little possibility for change and can sink into a rut of routines. I have known many who define themselves by their routines–and little else. These are the people an American educator spoke of when he said, “Many people should have written on their tombstones: ‘Died at 30, buried at 60.'” How sad! I think that one of the most horrible feelings a person must have is to be on the deathbed, regretting the many things never tried, and many things done that cannot be undone. I live my life to minimize possibilities of regrets, as I hope you do. Did you ever see the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days? She plays an alcoholic in a destructive relationship with a guy who wants only to have fun. A staff person at the clinic where she is sentenced to spend 28 days for rehab explained: “Insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results.” Maybe more people should watch that movie.  The world may not go out of its way to help you–the world does not owe us fairness–but the world is there with more possibilities than most of us imagine. If we are responsible to ourselves–and response-able, we can continue growing in directions that are good for us. We do not need to understand the future, which, after all, does not exist, has not yet been created.

Main assertion: Worthwhile life = taking reasonable risks


  • Being open to possibilities vs rut of routines
  • Dying with regrets for actions and inactions is horrible
  • Repeating same behaviors will prevent change
  • Ability to respond to new possibilities, including risks, results in growth

You can now summarize the author’s position and, if required, agree or disagree in part or in whole, offering examples from your own experiences.

Complicated, huh? Yes, it is, until you get used to developing such a reaction paper. A writing tutor can be very helpful in guiding you through this process of how to analyze an argument, step by step, until you feel confident working with this important college skill.

AndyCAndrew P. teaches English and writing in Milton, VT, as well as through online lessons. He taught English courses at colleges and universities in five states for 35 years before retiring in 2013. Learn more about Andrew here!



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