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How to Really Be a Better Writer: A Meta-Method of Learning and Playing with Words, Figures of Speech, Rhetoric, and Tropes

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ImageThe author of How To Be Charismatic: The Movie Method of Social Skill Development is back with another gasser of a how-to text. This natty tome is more adroit and mature in its treatment of another topic related to the subject matter of the previous book: writing.

There is no shame in wanting to be a better writer and communicator and acting on that desire, but so many people go about it in ways that are, well… shameful, given the current state of learning technology and methodology.

Dave hopes to provide what you might not be getting out of a traditional English or Humanities curriculum, plain and simple. We are in search of a meta-method of learning and playing with words, figures of speech, rhetoric, and tropes. We’ll talk about flashcards, spaced repetition, and other processes that you can use to supplement such practices.

Learn how to cultivate your literacy and vocabulary using many sources. This book will show you how to take advantage of both pop cultural, web-based, and traditional academic resources get better at what it is you love to do. Just as in the seminal How To Be Charismatic book, this method is like a video game: you can stop and save your progress at any time, switch to a different game, and come back whenever you want.

This method is at once practical, effective, and fun. No gimmicks. While there is an almost seductively concrete plan for daily action laid out in this text, it remains remarkable in its ability to help you construct and internalize a unique character with a body of traits and social skills differentiated from those of everyone else.

Unleash the bard within!

Price = $9.99 USD plus shipping if applicable (obviously… you’re not gonna be shipping an eBook in the traditional sense… but I prolly don’t need to tell a soigné feller like yerself tha’; okay… the pretentious and conceited humor stops now). Prices in other currencies are based on the US price.

Lesson, The Third: Figures of Speech, Rhetorical Devices, and Wordplay

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There is a very good reason to learn and memorize figures of speech and rhetorical devices, and that reason is….you already use them. It’s natural for human beings to use language creatively. The fact is that your day-to-day writing and speech are already replete with rhetorical devices and figures. If you don’t already know them in an academic sense, it’s probably a little difficult for you to envision this in your mind, but once you start learning them and committing these abstract patterns to memory you’ll start to remember particular manifestations of these figures and devices that have stood out to you all on their own in the past while you were reading or watching movies or what have you. The advantage of actually explicitly learning all of these devices is that it really speeds up the natural acquisition process…and kind of takes away that intimidating mysterious quality that well-written texts filled with figures sometimes have. Learning the figures will often transform that je ne sais quoi mystique of a good writer or interlocutor into more of a je sais quoi mystique.

You might not know this…or maybe you do, but every time you turns on the television or cracks open a book, or surfs the Internetz…you are awash in rhetoric, which has to make you want to be aware of the patterns instead of just passively soaking it in all the time. Most likely, even Shakespeare explicitly studied rhetorical devices when he was in grammar school. Once you have these patterns rooted in your memory, it’ll be easier for you to notice them in your reading, and it’ll make those manifestations particular of those figures in your reading more meaningful. Also, it’ll help balance out your writing.

Anyway, avoid thinking of figures of speech and rhetorical devices as things reserved for serious literature like Shakespeare or the dusty old tomes of literature sitting in your local library. You’ll be very surprised by the places you’ll find them. You find them everywhere, from TV advertising to text messages from frenemies (is that trendy enough for you?) to the dialogue in your favorite Super Mario Bros. Game. They’re a way of making language memorable, and so you’ll find that they’ll be very useful in a diverse panoply of domains.

It’s kind of a shame that studying these figures has fallen out of fashion of late. At one time these figures were practically exalted as a gift from God because they allowed you to essentially work out a whole litany of versions of the same content — a useful kind of tool if everything you write on the first try isn’t worth its weight in gold. Of course people have strayed away from that now, whether it’s at school or at work.

Indeed there are rhetorical terms that deal with stylistic excess and annoyances, so it’s not a one-sided thing. My advice is to thoroughly learn the best tricks that both sides have to offer; learn how to spin wacky phrases with the best of them, but also learn how to ruthlessly cut through the schlock and trash that’s present in your drafts. Think of it like war…you don’t want to just learn how all of your allies think. Ya gotta get inside the heads of your worst enemies too!

What I’m thinking of here are texts like the AP or MLA style guides and boox like Strunk and White. Such works are definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from some of the rarer figures of speech, rhetoric, and tropes, but an active acquaintance with them might turn out to be the difference between delightfully figured speech and speech that is malignantly misfigured.

Use an SRS and start making reference lists. Just the fact of you deliberately trying to use the figures in your writing or speech will not make your writing or speech necessarily better. What it will DO, is give you a concrete number of things to try, and that is very useful in going from the first draft to the final. Let’s say you put together some sort of monograph or essay on a particular topic, and over the course of drafting and writing you cast in all 400 sentences using figures of speech, style guides, and rhetoric. Of course, this is a simplistic example, but I’m a simplistic man. So fantastic job, but there’s no guarantee that your final work will make an excellent impression if you just hit the publish button right away. Here’s my proposal: Set your fresh corpus of sentences aside for a period of time, and upon your reunion, take out your editor’s knife and cut away the unnecessary excess, the fat, the adipocere until you are left with the bare bones of value in your work.

This is probably a good place to talk about the empire that has been constructed in our culture by a horrible group of people called the grammar Nazis. Not coincidentally, many of them work for state sponsored institutions. I jest bien sur….typically people fall into one or two camps when it comes to grammar. Either you’re in the camp of people who concentrate strictly on the explicit rules of grammar (I think we can safely dub this the concentration camp!), or you just say “suck it” and pretty much do whatever you want.

Now if you’re a native speaker with a decent handle on the language, it doesn’t matter so much because the important standard patterns of the language are already ingrained in your mind. However, if you’re learning a new language, these figures of speech and rhetoric probably aren’t going to be so useful until you’ve learned the language to near-native fluency.

Let me give you an example. Take the figure called “asyndeton” I’m sure I’m butchering the pronunciation of this really old word. Asyndeton refers to the act of omitting a conjunction. Now there are lots of situations where it would be an interesting move to omit a conjunction, but unless you explicitly know when you’re supposed to have a conjunction, how do you know that you’re even omitting one? So you have to kind of pay homage to and recognize the reliance on prevailing grammatical patterns that these figures have.

When you’re learning these devices, there are several ways that you’ll want to learn them. You’ll want to acquire the ability to spit out the name, mentally or verbally, of a figure of speech when prompted with its definition and/or examples. Here are a few examples:

Front: Figures of Speech: Thou thy *worldy* task hast done, Home art gone, and *ta’en* thy wages.

Back: syncope

In this example, I put asterisks around the segments of the sentence that I wanted to draw attention to, but some flashcard software will allow you to italicize these bits instead. Whatever works for you.

Front: Figures of Speech: direct exposure of an adversary’s faults:

Back: categoria

(anyone who has ever watched the anime Bleach has witnessed this one over and over again!)

You’ll have the option to learn multiple names for these phenomena as many of them have several names, but I typically only learn one name. You’ll also want to acquire the ability to spit out the definition or pattern of the figure of speech when prompted with the name of the figure of speech.

Let me emphasize that knowing the names of these figures is very worthwhile! Don’t write them off as technicalities that aren’t worth your time. Knowing the names of these figures is indeed a part of the foundation of the ability to manipulate them.

A language, in a way, is itself a system of labels. And language itself is perhaps humanity’s most powerful tool through which it has accomplished things, ah w-one of the most powerful tools. We manipulate one another and our environment in ways that our primate cousins haven’t even dreamed of, and language is a big part of that.

There’s some manic anti-memorization phobia that’s caught on in the rhetoric world. “Don’t bother memorizing the names!” Well honestly, if the names aren’t for knowing then what on god’s green girth are they for? This isn’t Diary of a Wimpy Rhetoric Student. Eat your Wheaties and start your reps!

What makes these figures exciting is their relevance not just in classical literature that you might or might not be bored with. These figures are incredibly relevant whether you’re working with the vocabulary of Jane Austen or a businessman in Manhattan. Really, they’re a way to use and make any vocabulary exciting and memorable.

There is a school of thought that says grammar rules are for the most part only useful to know explicitly after you are already fluent in a language. The argument goes that it is futile to try to write an essay in a new language by trying to derive the proper patterns from vocabulary lists and grammar rules, and I can personally attest that this calculating sort of approach to language acquisition is just as unnatural as it is institutionalized I mean popular. Instead, grammatical knowledge is mostly useful after fluency as a way to correct oneself.

Rhetorical patterns and concepts are very similar to grammar. If you get out a list of them and say you’re going to use xyz figures four times each in a specific order… what you end up with might be really interesting, but there’s a good chance that it won’t be or that it will in entirely the wrong way. An unwaivering dedication to using certain figures in a certain order a specific number of times no matter the collateral damage bore by the ideas in your work, is very much like setting foot in a wood working shop and saying you’re going to use a staple gun, nails, a socket wrench, a hammer, a lathe, a saw, a vice grip, and a screw driver in exactly that order ten times no matter what it takes. If you’re a genius you could end up with an exhibit fit for the Guggenheim! But the chances are great that you’ll end up with a product with no discernible value whatsoever other than firewood or kindling (perhaps we can reserve the latter term for crappy, self-pubbed kindle ebooks? was that hitting a little too close to home?). Figures of speech and rhetoric are tools, and nothing more.

So you do need some higher order governing your work, and a knowledge of real life, of tropes, and of story patterns might aid you in that endeavor. You can think of such a deep and intricate knowledge of life and storytelling as similar to the kind of fluency that lends itself nicely to the usage of grammar as a corrective mechanism.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM

Lesson, The Second: The What, Why, and How of Vocabulary

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In the last lecture we covered the basics of spaced repetition and self-learning, and in this lesson I hope to move on to the very sirius subject of vocabulary and how to tackle it.

First of all, vocabulary is useful in a pure and economic sense. Research seems to show that success and money in our society go hand in hand with great vocabularies. Actually, research suggests that vocabulary is the number one predictor of occupational achievement.

Of course, repeatedly throwing around vocabulary words that nobody in your audience knows is just annoying and distasteful. If you’re pitching to a niche audience, using words the layman doesn’t understand could make sense and even be appreciated, but even in those cases people can sense when you’re trying to use a 10 dollar word more to seem smart and less because it furthers understanding. On the other hand, whatever kind of audience you’re pitching to, occasionally throwing in an appropriately used rareish vocabulary word could be a good move. Learning new words at a reasonable pace might be an interesting, interactive little subplot for even a very broad audience, especially if the words are humorous or culturally useful in some way. Anyway, words are useful tools even in the absence of an audience or interlocutor.

Individual words serve to organize and represent some kind of phenomenon of some degree of complexity. A sentence is made up of a usefully organized series of these individual words, and that also serves to organize some sort of complexity and chaos brought up by the individual words. In short, words tell stories…so do sentences, even if it is a small one. All stories of any length are simply a long string of individual sentences…. shorter stories strung end to end like the beads on an abacus.

Take a good gander at a dictionary, well any good dictionary I should say (you’re looking for 8/10 or better), and what you’ve got is a long, alphabetical list of short stories commonly told in a language. These are useful, fundamental building blocks for larger stories that you can tell. Because words are valuable not just intrinsically but as tools for thought, it makes a large vocabulary useful even for writers who are not trying to impress audiences by using big words.

You need to make love to your dictionary, but not like a cheesy pick-up-artist who just calls every other weekend when he isn’t busy with bigger, better thangs. You need to take your dictionary home every day and marry her and have kids by reproducing with your dictionary through this fancy new midwife service called an SRS and bare with me here..

There are several kinds of vocabulary flashcard babies that you can have by way of your SRS. One important type of flashcard baby is where you start with the definition on the front side of the card and produce the word on the backside of the card. Here’s an example for the word ‘belabor’:

Front: A verb meaning to argue or elaborate (a subject) in sexcessive detail.

Back: belabor

Of course the actual definition of the word doesn’t really have an “s” at the beginning of the word “excessive”, but that was actually a real keystroke error that I made while I was creating that flashcard some time ago. Just a little evidence of the fun you can have with flashcard-making-as-a-hobby (FMAAH; and no, you probably won’t ever see this acronym again).

In good example sentences, there is a certain quality about the rest of the sentence that sort of hints at the redacted vocabulary word, and this is a quality to look for in potential mates… I mean example sentences.

An interesting quirk of making flashcards of example sentences for vocabulary words is that it can become quite a political endeavor. With lots of widely used words this is hardly the case. However, sometimes…words, especially newer ones, are limited enough in use and scope as to make which example sentence or sentences you pick an important decision.

Just remember that a new word is only as useful as the idea behind it. Learning new words is kind of like gambling or investing; statistically, you’re going to make some bad bets, but you’re going to win eventually if you keep playing.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Tally ho!

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM

Lesson, The First: Introduction

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Hello everybody! My name is Dave.

I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

First, I’d like to pontificate a little bit on the word “autodidact.” The word autodidact, or autodidacticism, simply refers to teaching oneself. I’m sure you realize that ultimately the effort and discipline required for any successful educational endeavor really has its origin in yourself. Whatever your method of learning and wherever it’s happening whether it’s in a classroom, the library, or in your bedroom in your pajamas, only you can do it. You can’t passively download knowledge into your brain, and neither can a teacher. If you hope to benefit from this course, it depends on what you put into it. I at least hope to offer you an escape from the bland old flavor of advice you are probably accustomed to hearing.

I’d like to stress that this course/book, no matter how much I try to outright dissuade you right here, will inevitably come across as preachy to some of you. You’re probably going to wonder why I have such an obsession with something called spaced repetition, and, believe me, it is an obsession. Why am I focusing so much on spaced repetition flashcards to the detriment of other methods and processes? What other options am I leaving out or just not exploring?

These are not bad questions. The reason for this obsessive focus, which is in some ways deliberately ignorant of other methods of learning and creativity, is that the other possible methods and processes are already everywhere in vogue. You will have no problem tracking down advice of the traditional flavor on the Internet or in any kind of school or academy. I am not trying to mislead you. I am just trying to give a fair voicing to an intriguing, well-researched method that has not enjoyed so much playtime in institutions or even in individual’s lives. I suppose I should say up front that spaced repetition won’t be the only thing we’ll talk about in this course either; we’re also going to talk about processes above and beyond that particular practice.

You may be skeptical of the notion of teaching and learning how to “play” with words. If it is “play” we are after, then whence cometh the reason for the kinds of discipline and methods we will be speaking about so seriously? If it’s all in fun, then who cares about taking all of this so seriously?

It’s all worth it for the same reason that professional athletes feel it’s worth it to spend all of those looooooong loooooooooooong hours of practice in the name of “playing” their sports. Yes, it is still a sport. Yes, it is still a game. And so there is a non-serious, fun element to the whole charade. However, any game or sport has an element of seriousness where the players are in a sense following a script of sorts. If you love that aspect of it, then it makes all of the deliberate teaching, and coaching, and learning, and practicing worth it in the end.

The basic concept behind this course is derived from that adage ancient: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a really long time.” Or something like that.

Um…basically, I could tell you lots of different things about books that people have really liked over the years, and maybe you would even enjoy my insight. But if I left you without a concrete plan for how to improve your own literacy, I wouldn’t be anything more than a scam artist. In this day and age literacy, even more than the ability to catch your own fish probably, is really a vital life and social skill.

You’ve probably encountered the claim that you shouldn’t bother memorizing things —- just practice, practice, practice. And maybe that advice fits well within an institutional or organizational setting. You know, high output might often be rewarded at school or work with good institutional credit, both in terms of traditional school credit and just in terms of some kind of formal acknowledgment that you’ve done your part. However, not all institutional credit is universally accepted. It’s not the most liquid social asset or ability. The social skills and the actual knowledge and stuff that’s stored in your memory, that is transferable to any institution or group of people you might find yourself within even after your bank account is drained.

Another reason that you should discount the “don’t memorize things just practice, practice, practice” advice is that it’s usually outdated. If you ever hear or read that advice, remember that that advice originated in a medieval and probably primitive and upsetting setting which was or is in some way ignorant of current learning technologies and methods. There was a time when trying to outright memorize a bunch of stuff was a plodding and pathetic waste of time, but that time is most definitely not right now.

We are going to put together a sort of writer’s or artist’s or word smith’s arsenal or toolbox, one that exists not just as a list somewhere on a computer or on paper, but in your memory. Don’t be intimidated by the word memorization either… the memorization methods we’ll be talking about are actually quite easy and fun and effective. In this case, outright knowing the words, rhetorical figures, and tropes that we will discuss will in a sense make you a kind of literary architect.

With that in mind, it is helpful to acknowledge that effective memorization and practice are not antithetical. Actually, they are one and the same! In fact, practicing with some of the memory techniques that we’re about to discuss like mnemonics and spaced repetition flashcard system is more efficient than limiting yourself to only writing essays, for example. I would say that memorization without active practice is really just brainwashing.

And let’s talk about brainwashing in the context of flashcards, which is something we’ll be talking about a lot in this course. Really, that’s all the front side of a flashcard is: a brainwashing device. I have to give credit for this idea in part to the inspirational Khatzumoto, a handsome blogger who writes about learning, Japanese, and spaced repetition. Through repeated exposure to the front side of the card, you are trained to notice those particular patterns of chaos, entropy, disarray, confusion in the real world, and when you notice them, to mentally or verbally produce that bit of insight on the back side of the card. Ideally, that bit of insight will help you better understand the material on the front side.

If there is anything like a requirement for this course, it would be a spaced repetition system of flashcards. Spaced repetition systems are a feat that can be accomplished without software, although software is the most efficient and probably effective way to go about it. In fact, spaced repetition software guarantees a retention rate of about 90-95% for decently formatted material that you put into it – as long as you do your daily reviews. The practice is based on decades of solid research that you can look up on your own time, but I give a better summary in the full version.

Essentially, you can reliably predict when you will forget facts, and that is useful because the ideal time to review a fact is right before you forget it. You save time by only reviewing flashcards when they really need to be reviewed. The advantage of this is that, even after you’ve accumulated thousands upon thousands of flashcards and facts, you’ll still have a manageable chunk of daily reviews.

Personally, I use the open-source spaced repetition system called Anki. It’s free, and so are a lot of other good ones like Mnemosyne, so feel free to experiment. It doesn’t matter so much which one you use. Only that you use one on a regular basis. Here, we’re interested in how to use spaced repetition and the other processes we’ll discuss for going above and beyond average literacy in our dominant language.

There are a few simple rules to keep in mind when using spaced repetition software, many of which originated in the writings of the creator of Supermemo; these are the important ones that I can personally affirm and emphasize based on experience.

1) Use it every day. There’s really no point in using one if you don’t use it everyday, and the discipline will be good for you.

2) Always try to make the back side of the flashcard, the side that you have to produce from memory, as short as possible. This is to make it easier on your memory, and also just to prevent ugly, difficult cards from clogging your reviews.

3) Never add too many cards at one time. I often use a feature in Anki that limits the new cards that I actually learn and put into my review cycle to 15-20 new cards per day; I’m not sure if other spaced repetition software has that kind of functionality, but usually there’s some way to suspend cards I think so that you can control how fast or slow your stock of new cards trickles into your review cycle.

4) Don’t memorize stuff you don’t understand, yet. Plain and simple.

5) Some material just isn’t suited to being memorized in an SRS, so don’t do it. Often, this will be things like lists. Memorizing lists in an SRS is really just a hassle. Instead, you should start to compile a set of lists that you derive from studying to supplement your SRS learning.

I would even, and in fact I do, keep lists of some of the words, rhetorical figures, and tropes that I do memorize with my SRS. That’s because memorizing a figure of speech or rhetoric, their usages, and interesting words will actually make a list of those things way shorter and more useful.

Keep in mind that a part of this course will be me giving you examples for how to format your cards and notes, so don’t sweat it if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed right now (you can sweat that but don’t sweat it!). That’s something I feel is lacking in the spaced repetition community. Spaced repetition community members often share flashcards and flashcard decks, and Anki even has a platform where you can download decks made by other people. But this system in my experience is kind of broken. Downloading other people’s flashcards just kinda sucks. They’re often not formatted well. They’re always way weirder to learn than my own flashcards that I make.

What I hope to do with this course is give you more options for how to build your own flashcard deck without necessarily outsourcing the role of flashcard creation to the community of people who do create decks for download. Since the ultimate source of the material for this course is my own experiences studying, you can pretty much view this entire course as an extended annotation of my own personal flashcard deck.

Thoreau once said that if you see a man approach you trying thoroughly to do you good, you should run for your life. In this case, I am confident that you’ll find this guide useful because, first and foremost, it began as an endeavor to track and develop my own writing and learning skills.

The trajectory of the course is probably going to be as follows. First we’ll talk about vocabulary, or the individual words which are the building blocks of linguistic communication. After that we’ll talk about some figures of speech and rhetorical devices which operate at the level of spelling, words, phrases, and passages. Then we’ll move on to a subject only slightly broader, and that’s style constraints, especially as they pertain to things like nonfiction, fiction, and other things. Lastly, we’ll deal with tropes and plot and character devices which operate at the level of different narratives, stories, and genres. These aren’t exactly wall-of-china-like demarcations either, you understand. These are just very vague guidelines to direct your thinking and studying, and the theme of all of them is buttressing our word-hoards with memory technology so they stand the test of time.

Don’t forget to check out the full version on Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.

Photo Mar 18, 8 48 30 PM