Monthly Archives: July 2012

Ten Tips for Better Emails

Although my area of writing is primarily literary criticism and fiction, I have some experience with technical and business writing as well. This skill set, while completely different, serves me well in terms of handling the business of education and writing. One of my pet peeves is poor email communication skills. In all my courses, I give my students a ten point list of email etiquette in the hope that they will at least take those into the world with them. Here is my adapted guide to email:

  1. Keep your emails concise and to the point. You are more likely to get a response if your emails are no more than a paragraph long. (I am guilty of breaking this rule at times just due to the mass amount of issues I must address in a single email. Still a good rule of thumb though.)
  2. Create a clear subject line. In academics, put the course number and a specific subject in the line. For instance, if you are as student with questions about an assignment, ‘2311 Ethics Project Questions’ is much more appropriate (and helpful to your professor) than ‘Help!’ For other business related correspondence, include the project your email pertains to rather than something vague. It helps someone who receives massive amounts of email prioritize.
  3. Keep the tone of your email formal. Avoid slang, emoticons, and acronyms. You have been blessed with the gift of language. Use it.
  4. Do not overuse the high priority option. If you overuse the high priority or urgent option, it will lose its impact when you really need it. Moreover, even if a mail has high priority, your message will come across as slightly aggressive if you flag it as ‘high priority’.
  5. Use complete sentences and appropriate capitalization and punctuation. Emails are very difficult to read when they are just a string of words. (I had a boss who never used capitalization when he emailed me. It came across that I was not very important in his view, even if that was not his intention.)
  6. On the flip side, do not write in CAPITALS. IF YOU WRITE IN CAPITALS IT SEEMS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING. This can be highly annoying and might trigger an unwanted response in the form of a flame mail. Therefore, try not to send any email text in capitals.
  7. When corresponding with people you do not know, in your first email, always address people by their appropriate title, such as  professors as Professor (insert last name) or Dr. (insert last name). If they don’t have a title, begin with Ms. or Mr. If the person signs their response with just their first name, then you can address them by their first name in the next email.
  8. Sign your email with your first and last name, as well as your title (and company if you are emailing an outside source), phone number, and email. The person may know this information, but sometimes it’s hard to place a name in just an email. It also makes contacting you easier.
  9. Always thank people for their time and help.
  10. Check punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Most email programs contain spell check, so why not take advantage? Remember this email may be their first and/or only impression of you.
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Practical Crafts: Princess Ceiling Canopy

As I mentioned a few weeks back, we’re upgrading my daughter’s room to a big girl room, purchasing some things and making others. One of the easiest, yet most dramatic elements, is the princess canopy.

Retail these items range from $35 to $150 new.

Ours may not be as fancy, but since it was made from stuff around the house, it was free.

How We Did It:

I was planning my wedding around the time our Joann’s Fabric went out of business, so at the time my mom and I bought tons of special occasion fabrics for twenty-five to fifty cents a yard, including the polka dot lace. Although I did use it for an overlay on a skit I wore to my bridal tea, I still had tons left. I wanted lots of length, so I cut two 80 inch panels (which turned out to be basically cutting the fabric in half). This could be done with lace curtains if they were long enough.

Next I took an old light weight basket we had and wove some ribbon through it to spice it up. I anchored a piece of ribbon in two spots on the bottom outside of the basket to make a way to hang it. To attach the actual lace, I wanted something super lightweight that wouldn’t ruin the fabric. So I took paperclips and looped them through the lace (almost like traditional metal drape hooks). I then hooked the paperclips on the inside of the basket. This allowed me to gather the fabric without worrying about the weight and permanence of glue.

Ribbon woven basket hooked with lace.

Overall, I think the effect turned out well without us paying for something she’ll outgrow or break.

Fit for a princess (or in this case, my daughter).



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Ten Thoughts On Writing

One of my great time-wasters is reading what writers think about writing. Essays, blogs, letters, journal entries, books, even poems–I sop up the wisdom of writers and smile like writing is some joked shared between us. Sometimes this diversion is inspiring; sometimes it is only a diversion that prolongs into a distraction. Either way, here are ten fabulous quotes on writing.

  1. It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?  For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.  That is where the writer scores over his fellows:  he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.      –Vita Sackville-West
  2. Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers.  My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.  There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.  –Flannery O’Connor
  3. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.  –Jack London
  4. A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare.  For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure.  –Henry David Thoreau
  5. The road to hell is paved with adverbs.  –Stephen King
  6. Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.  Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.  –Theodore Dreiser
  7. True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
    As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance. –Alexander Pope
  8. One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.  –Hart Crane
  9. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector.  This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.  –Ernest Hemingway
  10. Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible.  –Leo Tolstoy

Wow, I got to ten much faster than I thought I would. This post may need a sequel.

What quotes do you find inspiring, readers?

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Practical Crafts: Bracelet Bonanza

Once upon a time not so long ago, I shared my realization that my daughter, Liliana, is essentially a tiny Cyndi Lauper. That still holds true as evidenced by her love of jewelry. The more, the better, in her opinion. Thus she and I have become upcycling jewelry makers. After finding some inspiration online, we ransacked the house for supplies. The result has been fun, funky, and totally addictive. We’ve done so much that I can’t share it all in single post. Therefore, this week we present a sampling of our bracelet collection (with a ring thrown in). Please keep in mind that we did these with no jewelry making supplies. The only thing that was purchased was the colored elastic cord we found on clearance a Michaels.

From Left to Right:
Gift Card Cuff
Cable Wrap Bracelet
Pop Top Rainbow Bracelet
Cable Wrap Ring

How We Did It

Gift Card Cuff: Inspired by this tutorial, we used two flower gift cards from Target (they will just give you the cards if you ask–they don’t have to have a balance on them). She’s a little fuzzy on the timing in the oven; I found it took about 1 minute and 45 seconds to get the plastic melted. I molded it a bit smaller for Liliana’s wrist, punched holes in the cooled card, and attached it with the purchased elastic. We discussed putting some sparkle on it, but Lili liked it plain. We’ll definitely use this method again because there are so many options.

Cable Wrap Bracelet/ Cable Wrap Ring: Since we got rid of our landline and got Wifi, we’ve had no use for those old cords. So I slit them open with a craft knife and pulled out the colorful wires inside. I used to love making wrapped bracelets when I was a kid. Liliana had a great time doing this project using cable cord wires. We actually didn’t use the leather; we just wrapped the cables around another cable. Instead of a button, we used a plastic star bead from one of Liliana’s school projects. I did the ring in a similar way but used a button to create a closure and ‘pearl’ look.

Pop Top Rainbow Bracelet: This project we came up with on our own and it was super simple. I took a spare piece of ribbon and doubled it so there was a loop at one end, making sure it wrapped around Liliana’s wrist one and a half times. She wove the ribbon through some soda can pop tops and then I knotted it at the end and added a plastic bead similar to the one used in the cable bracelet for a closure. Super simple and cute.

From Left to Right:
Pop Top Cuff
Macrame Bottle Cap and Cable Bracelet
Spiral Cable Bracelet

How We Did It

Pop Top Cuff: The directions on this tutorial are super easy to follow. I sprayed the pop tops with some pale gold paint from another project before I wove them using the purchased elastic.

Macrame Bottle Cap and Cable Bracelet: Macrame is always fun for me, so this bracelet is a personal favorite. I followed this guide, doing three knots and then adding beads from a broken necklace. I centered a bottle cap with punched holes. Instead of doing the sliding closure, I just did a loop and knotted the wires when I was done. Because it’s made of wires, the bracelet molds closed beautifully.

Spiral Cable Bracelet:Made from the internal wires of a phone cord, these instructions are simple to follow and the end result is cool. As with all the macrame stuff I did, I just anchored the top of the bracelet to a piece of cardboard with a binder clip to leave my hands free to work.


What do you think, Cakesters? What things are lying around your house that could have a new life?
Would you like to see more of our mad jewelry-making binge?



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Going All the Way: My Month as a Vegan

Since college I remember people telling me if you want to lose weight and clear up your skin, give up diary. I’ve never been able to even consider it. Cheese is a staple in my diet and I am perhaps one of the few people who really likes the taste of milk. But for June i decided to buckle up and go Vegan, in part just to see what it was like and in part to see if I could do it. The results?

  • I felt much more energized, although I found I had to eat more often.
  • Reading packages became a daily occurrence. It is mind blowing to me what they put dairy in.
  • Going out to eat was complicated at first. We aren’t a jumping hub of vegan activity, so eating at restaurants was tricky until I figured out how to order. Mexican proved the easiest because my favorite places don’t use lard in their refried beans and I could get a burrito with no cheese. When in doubt, ask.
  • Cooking at home became central and exciting. I tried all sorts of recipes from books and online. Most were delicious.
  • My husband is a fantastic sport. He tried everything I cooked and did not bring diary or meat into the house (save an emergency stash of bacon). Twice he asked to go out so he could get some meat for dinner.
  • My kids have grown to love veggies. We were out to dinner with a friend the other night and I asked my daughter what she wanted for her side, chips for veggies. She picked the veggies, much to the surprise of our friend.
  • It was hard at some points, particularly if I was really hungry and there weren’t any vegan options.

Since June I have gone back to a vegetarian diet, but I will say although it is easier to eat, I don’t feel as well. My nose is stuffy again (as is my son’s), I have less energy, and my digestion is cranky. I have always limited the amount of red meat I eat because it doesn’t agree with me. Perhaps that’s true of animal products in general.

The verdict? I am going to be primarily vegan; I don’t say strict vegan because I know I may succumb to the call of goat cheese or other things. Instead, I am going to continue to purchase humane diary products and draw most of my meals from plant based foods. As before, my kids and husband are free to eat what they wish, but if I’m cooking, it’s going to be vegan.




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Bound Up in Place

Recently I moved from my large-by-community-college-standards office to my even-larger-by-community-college standards office. Although it was only a move next door, it took me the better part of a day to transport my things, which was somewhat strange considering that I was only moving books and files–the furniture was left for the new occupant.

In this moving process, I found my battered copy of The Eye of the Story by Eudora Welty. A professor of mine had a fixation on Welty (and all Southern Female Writers) and thus I had to speed read the text alongside a bevy of other texts one week when I had too long luxuriated in procrastination. Many of her reviews passed through my head like snatches of cloud. What I do remember, and frequently revisit, is “Place in Fiction.”

Before reading this passage, I generally thought of the “Where?” as one might look at stage directions, a two dimensional setting. Welty, however, remarks in engaging detail on the importance of creating a world for fiction: “Besides furnishing a plausible abode for the novel’s world of feeling, place has a good deal to do with making the characters real, that is, themselves, and keeping them so.”

The idea of this line is simple yet profound. Characters walk through and interact with the world we give them. If we as writers only have a sketch of setting for ourselves, how can our characters ever fully come to life?

I highly encourage a reading of “Place in Fiction” if only to be reminded how lovely writing can be.

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Social Artistry

Image By Nate Williams,

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We Interupt Our Regularly Scheduled Program

I will have to post my Practical Craft at another time. My message instead is much simpler and much more important.

I am Lennox.

And here’s a more famous canine, who looks strangely similar.

I am Lennox.

The first picture is of my pit bull mix, Perdita. Below that is Superman’s dog, Krypto. If you don’t know what the caption means, Google it and find out how human prejudice and cruelty have been enacted.



PS. Lennox, if you run into my Megara in Pit Bull Heaven, tell her I still love the smell of corn chips, just not in the same way.

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Keep Calm and . . .

Recent years seem to have brought an interest in the iconography of Britain’s World War II motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Created in 1939, it fed into what would become the ideal of British Stoicism; stiff upper lip while putting on the kettle. Sociologically, it’s fascinating to watch how that adage is both embraced and rejected by British society. The Queen, a film about the days following the 1997 death of Princess Diana, deals in many ways with that ideal.

The phrase itself can be fond on coffee mugs, t shirts, website titles . . . something about the solid background with it’s crisp all-caps is striking. And now there are tons of derivatives: “Keep Calm and Read Jane Austen,” “Keep Calm and Do Yoga,” “Keep Calm and Play Ultimate Frisbee.” The possibilities are endless.

In my own office, I have a collection given to me by friends, including:

“Keep Calm and Teach On”

“Keep Calm and Read On”

“Keep Calm and Write On”

“Keep Calm and Carry On”

as well as the less literal

“Be Original and Don’t Plagiarize”

“Keep Integrity and Don’t Steal”

“Stay Professional and Be Honest”

“Show Respect and Give Credit”


What is the appeal of these phrases, this specific piece of nostalgic propaganda? Perhaps it is merely the simplicity of it. Two commands linked by the most used coordinating conjunction that tell the viewer, in essence, to keep a cool head and focus on moving forward. Viewed from that perspective, I find it to be a soothing mantra. Don’t wallow, don’t sulk, don’t panic. Use your inner strength to stay focused on the moment and make progress toward the next moment, knowing it will bring you closer to resolution.

Over the next week, instead of freaking out when things go a bit fumble-bumble (perhaps I’m reading too much Dr. Suess these days!), take a breath, steady yourself, and carry on. I’ll do the same.

See you Thursday for more Practical Crafts!



PS. A special thank you to one of my personal heroes, Jodi Chapman of Soulful Journals, for featuring this blog in her newsletter. If you haven’t checked out this website, please do (and look for a post and a quote from yours truly!). The posts are always so inspiring! I will also admit that I have a pretty healthy addiction to their etsy products at This Is It! Creations. Their notepads and journals are some of my favorite gifts for friends, teachers, and (occasionally) myself.

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The Elements of Style: To The Point

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

The Elements of Style

As a composition professor, I find that I am not just a teacher for college writing, but the breaker of bad habits. Somewhere in to world there are still English instructors teaching that the more wordy and complicated sentences are, the more literate. Because of this, intelligent, hardworking writers look crestfallen as I cross out words, phrases, sentences, and sometimes entire paragraphs.

We are all, I believe, guilty of overwriting, being in love with our words more than clarity, and peppering our writing with unnecessary phrases that serve to feed our ego rather than our story.

The Elements of Style is not universally loved in the writing world–I have met and worked with people who loathe it with the passion which I love it. For me, The Elements of Style gets to the point, gives simple rules that, while may not allow for technological advances, generally work in any writing situation. There is a reason it has been around in some form since 1918. I assign the text my creative writing class and the one I beg my students to keep. When people ask me how to become better writers my answer is simple (usually to their chagrin):

“Read everything you can get your hands on and become intimate with The Elements of Style.”

What about you, dear readers? What texts are essential to your writing life?


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